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INTERVIEW WITH ANTONIO D'ALFONSO OF GUERNICA EDITIONS

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I have just come home from interviewing a young luthier friend, Marcus Dominelli, for Focus Magazine and found this email reply from Antonio D'Alfonso, a publisher, writer, and fimmaker who has soaring and painful insights into the state of Canadian culture.

Q Linda

I think of Guernica as a bridge publisher, introducing anglo, franco, and italo Canadians to one another through their writing. Was that your original vision? How has your mandate changed or evolved over the years?

A Antonio

You have pretty much explained what I wanted to do, and set out to do. After thirty years of publishing, after 450 titles, after publishing more than 800 authors, after dozens and dozens of theses produced across the world written on writers we have discovered and published, Guernica is still not mentioned in books on the history of English Canadian publishing. Our grants are still being cut and our publishing program totally misunderstood by juries. This says much about English Canadian publishing and English Canadian writing.

Honestly, I am sad to say that my initial project was a waste of time and a total failure.

Q Linda

You publish poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Does that make it harder to establish niche markets? Should literary publishers specialize or function as generalists?

A Antonio

It is madness to try to be a generalist in publishing. Guernica publishes and specializes in one kind of literature. The avenues to getting to this literature are varied but ultimately there is a very clear picture that is composed in the end with the books we produce.

Along the way we had to turn down the works of many many writers, which is unfortunate, and has probably worked against us, but we had to, we had no choice. We cannot, for example, publish books for children. I know nothing of this sort of venture.

Or what would Guernica have been if we published all the authors that were published by the dozen by my fellow publishers?

The publisher and the writer form a couple working for the greater aim, something beyond individualism. I am a specialist in the kind of literature we produce, and it is working within these very clearly defined parameters that Guernica has created a name for itself.

Q Linda

What do you look for in a manuscipt you are considering?

A Antonio

Anything that fits our mandate. And that mandate can be found by reading the works we publish.

Writers too often forget that they produce works that can fit one kind of mandate. If you are into selling shoes, we can’t expect your baker to sell them for you.

Q Linda

Does working as an editor sap the creative energy you need as a writer? How do you balance the two?

Without being an editor I would never have been a writer. By working intensively on manuscripts I learn to write. Being a publisher also frees me from certain literary preoccupations.

For instance, I feel no need to deal with, say, Italian immigration. I have published so many books on the topic that I am now free to work at another level altogether.

I see writing, editing and publishing as belonging to a sport team. We can’t all be goaltenders, centerfielders or quarterbacks. Literature and culture is the product of teamwork. Can you see a hockey team, composed of a single player, no matter how good this person, facing a very strong team with many excellent players?

I am not a romantic: writing is about community, not individuality.

Q Linda

If you could write an open letter to Stephen Harper about the state of publishing in this country, what would be your main point?

A Antonio

I would say exactly what I have been saying here. Culture is about community work. It is not about corporations. Culture is about taking risks. Uncalculated risks. To place all your money on the single square is a very dangerous proposition.

The ideology that makes a person think against grants is based on cultural success. However history has proven that cultural success is mostly found by men and women who miss the target.

Again we are dealing with a very different sort of worldview here: individualism versus community.

If staunch believers of individual success cannot understand community-driven workers, they should at least let the others be. By helping communities, one helps the many versus the one. Is this not the principle motor propelling a government?

Q Linda

Do small presses have more or less freedom than the larger foreign-controlled publishing houses?

A Antonio

I do not believe in the term small press. That is a derogatory term used by bureaucrats to undermine workers.

The problem is a serious one, because by belittling neighbours, institutions are fostering foreign control of their own culture.

It is quite incredible that there is no policy in this part of the country that prevents such a thing from happening. How do you expect to have culture, if it is being controlled by foreign firms?

Are we naive enough to think that foreign firms are not smothering our culture? Culture is not only about content (books) but also about the entire machinery that produce books.The saddest aspect of it all is that writers run to these foreign firms and in so doing are recompensed profusely. Jonathan Swift used a very disturbing adjective to describe those kinds of writer. I won’t repeat it here.

Q Linda

What are the criteria for good translation?

A Antonio

Readership. A translation can only work for the readers who receive it. I do not believe in internationalism when it comes to translation. Having sold many works in foreign countries and having purchased many rights from abroad, I have learned that what is fine for this country is not for our neighbours.

Translations are very parochial, it is fine that way. Our cultural imagination is not that of our neighbours. I would be terribly worried if it were.

Q Linda

What has been your greatest satisfaction as a publisher?

A Antonio

The greatest satisfaction: I have made a handful of friends with whom I can spend time with. For the rest, it has been a very difficult experience. An unhappy one too. For a handful of friends means that there have been awful quarrels that have left us badly wounded. The worst of it all is that after all of these years many publishers, nearing the age of retirement, live extremely poorly,and none, except those who worked with foreign firms, have any sort of pension plan. If I were twenty-five today, I would never have started Guernica Editions.

Antonio D’Alfonso
10 November 2008

3 comments

Linda, I absolutely love all your posts and in particular, your interviews. Antonio, you seem so sad and disappointed and angry in this interview. I am so sorry you are so disappointed! You completely regret Guernica??? Really?

There's nothing particularly wrong with the term "small press," just as there's nothing wrong with "small business." Mr. D'Alfonso is incorrect in attributing the term to "bureaucrats," since many authors, editors, and publishers identify themselves with the phrase, if only to distinguish themselves from mass market and corporate publishers. I would have thought the publisher of Guernica would have known this, and I'm also a little taken aback that a publisher of so many translated works would press all the xenophobic buttons (beware the foreign! circle the wagons!).

I don't understand your comments.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Linda Rogers

Linda Rogers is the author of the novels Say My Name (Ekstasis Editions, 2000), Friday Water (Cormorant Books, 2003) and The Empress Letters (Cormorant Books, 2007). She has also published several collections of poetry, including Love in the Rainforest (Exile Editions, 1996), Heaven Cake (Sono Nis Press, 1997), The Saning (Sono Nis Press, 1999) and The Bursting Test (Guernica Editions, 2002).

Go to Linda Rogers’s Author Page