The latest issue of African Poetry, published by the Centre for African Poetry (CAP) focuses on Gary Cummiskey’s Dye Hard Press, as part of a planned regular feature highlighting the work of book traders, agencies, educational institutions, publishers and bloggers with a notable commitment to African poetry. Since 1994 Dye Hard Press in South Africa has published not just Cummiskey’s own books but also work from such significant recent poets as Gail Dendy, Kobus Moolman, Gus Ferguson, Arja Salafranca, Alan Finlay, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Khulile Nxumalo and Phillip Zhuwao.

Gary Cummiskey (c) Dye Hard Press

Gary Cummiskey (c) Dye Hard Press

Centre for African Poetry: Independent publishing seems to be the way of most poetry publishing all over the world, and even in a historical sense many of those we came to know as major poets had a lot of their books published for the first time by small presses, some of which, like Faber, later grew to become major publishers. Your Dye Hard Press is in good company then. Talk to us about why you do what you do there, and how the work has developed over the years.

Cummiskey: There is quite a long story behind how Dye Hard Press has developed; it has been in various phases. This is explained in detail in the accompanying overview of Dye Hard Press. Briefly, however, what happened was that in the early 1990s when I had my first poems published, there were only four main literary journals in South Africa –New Contrast, New Coin, Staffrider and Sesame. The last two were on their last legs and were gone by about 1994. This state of affairs made it very difficult for poets – whether established or new – to get their work published. About this time I became aware of a sort of informal, maverick poetry journal run by Gus Ferguson in Cape Town, called Slug News. Gus would put the publication together at his desk during lunch hours and weekends, photocopy the pages, staple them and then distribute the journal for free. This made me realise that poetry publishing – or any publishing – did not have to be an expensive, glossy affair, with expensive printing and paper etc.  And so, to cut a long story short, Dye Hard Press’s first title, a collection of my poems called The Secret Hour, was produced back in 1994. It was typed up on my computer at work and then photocopied and stapled when the boss wasn’t looking. I produced 100 copies which were distributed for free around Joburg.

Why do I continue with Dye Hard Press? Because, despite the many obstacles that small publishers face – particularly when it comes to poetry publishing – I feel it is essential that these works get out there and find readers. The big publishers won’t publish poetry and so readers would otherwise not be exposed to it. Mass market productions such as chic-lit or crime writing will find publishers with relative ease, but for poetry, or any kind of “marginalised” form, it is a different matter. Dye Hard Press is there to publish these voices.

CAP:  Is there a definite plan or even aspiration for expansion into the rest of Africa, or elsewhere in the world, or is your focus essentially South African like most of the local independent publishers in the country? Would you do business outside your country only on behalf of the essentially South African catalogue you already have, or also consider publishing non South African poets and other writers, possibly even in translation?

Cummiskey:  I would certainly consider – and like to – publish work by writers from outside South Africa. I have been approached by poets from the US and India. The main problems are logistics and costs, particularly distribution costs. Many writers, I am sure, would want their books distributed and promoted in their own countries. For others it might not be a issue. For instance I had a chapbook, Sky Dreaming, published by Graffiti Kolkata in India. It was not formally distributed here in South Africa, but that did not bother me.

Dye Hard PressA few years back, at the Poetry Africa festival in Durban, there was a discussion about pan-African publishing, and many of us looked back with admiration at the Heinemann African Writers Series, which did so much to promote African writing not only within the continent itself but also overseas. But again the problem of logistics raised its head.

There were discussions again years ago at a workshop prior to the first Jozi Book Fair, that focused on the possibility of informal distribution throughout the continent – of using a network of small publishers to do so – but I don’t think it came to anything. So the exclusion is due to practicalities. And of course Dye Hard Press is only a part-time venture. I do have a full-time job which takes up a lot of time, commitment and energy.So one tends to go for what is also easiest. Incidentally, Philip Zhuwao, the co-author of The Red Laughter of Guns in Green Summer Rain, was Zimbabwean, but Zhuwao had died a few years before and I dealt with his collaborator, Alan Finlay, who is in Johannesburg.  Also one of the contributors to The Edge of Things, Beatrice Lamwaka, is Ugandan.

CAP:  Do you think that more can be achieved with greater cooperation and collaboration between small presses and independent publishers in South Africa and beyond? Is there any movement in that direction, or are independent publishers also necessarily self-reliant?

Cummiskey:  Small publishers in themselves, whether within one country or cross-border, could benefit from working together. I have mentioned how the possibility of informal distribution in Africa has been discussed. But small publishers within a country could also pool resources and work on joint publications. Last year, BLeKSEM, Botsotso and Dye Hard Press pooled resources to publish the anthologydonga, and early next year Cape Town-based women’s imprint Modjaji Books and Dye Hard Press will be publishing Arja Salafranca’s latest collection Indigo Streets. A lot more could be done in this respect, I think. However, when it comes to small presses – which are independent publishers, anyway – working together with slightly bigger independent publishers – there I am not sure.

Obviously the bigger a publisher gets, the more costs are involved – especially if it is a fulltime business – and so profit becomes more vital to business survival, plus shareholders need to be rewarded. But in the case of small publishers, often the reward is not financial. So I am not too sure how it would work there. Would the bigger independent publisher see the small press as trying to piggy-back a ride off them, and would they be resentful? I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that too much.

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