I started null pointer press in November 2020 and it’s
impossible not to talk about the pandemic. I was going out once a week for
groceries. I spent the days working in a dark basement office. The days folded
into each other, and it was hard to tell one from the next. My dog had died a
couple weeks earlier and I was feeling the potent combination of dullness and
restlessness. I remember being tired of reading perfect, polished, bloodless
poems. I logged on to Twitter to tweet:
I got responses. I got a lot of responses. And the replies surprised me. Me too! ; I have dozens of these ; If you are interested in including translations, I may have something for you! I looked at these lighting up my phone and figured, well done Julian, now you’ve got a decision to make. Posting is easy. If I didn’t follow through with this, it would become just another hypothetical project floated online. God knows there’s enough of those. I felt a jolt of something. I decided to do it.
Shortly after, I put out a call, received a number of submissions, and solicited quite a few others. Most of the poets I solicited replied, though only maybe half of them were interested and sent work. I included a few longshots (nationally/internationally lauded, many-award-winning types). Most didn’t reply, but one sent work, to this nobody’s first project out of Winnipeg. I was staggered at the trust. I remember thinking, you are not allowed to fuck this up.
In one of our emails while I was asking around the possibility of work, rob mclennan asked me: have you a pressname? Very cheeky, knowing exactly what he was doing, making me think about plans and permanence and what I want to do next, and definitely making me consider this as something more than a one-off. So I googled a few names, and surprisingly, they were all taken, either now or at some point in the past. Reaching past geography (I remember my first choice being three pines, based on the three huge pines that grew at my old house in St. Vital), I decided to go with something more technological, knowing it was unlikely to be taken.
null pointer press is a nod to my technical life, pointers being concepts you have to deal with in systems programming languages such as C. The name was a reference to the illegitimacy I felt declaring a small press with literally zero experience – in programming languages, null pointers don’t point to valid objects. I didn’t fully understand at the time just how many small presses are solo operations, a single person with access to a printer or photocopier, a stapler or needle and thread, making something meaningful and beautiful in the time they can find. That there is room for all types.
In the months between, as I received work and started thinking about its potential orderings, I registered my press name with Library & Archives Canada so I could get myself an ISBN. I figured out how to lay out a chapbook, making a little pamphlet from one of my long poems. Figured out the value of test prints as I fidgeted with margins and font and layout. Came to a solid, repeatable process.
In late February of 2021, I released Odd Poems 2021, a one off (maybe?) anthology of work by Canadian, American, Israeli, and Nigerian poets. I sent out contributor copies. I advertised on Twitter and sold some more copies. Suddenly, it was all very real: I had a small press, and I had copies going out across the world.
But then with this done, I started thinking about what I wanted to do next. At the time I was working on a couple of long poems, and not seeing that sort of work represented in the magazines and venues I was reading. Twitter favours the short and snappy (the bots that tweet Basho, or Sappho fragments; the people who tweet a small poem or excerpt every few days). Most Canadian lit mags contain short stories, poems, creative nonfiction, a few pages of reviews at the end. Given the space allocated for poetry, the desire of most magazines seems to be to maximize the number of people or poems published. Sometimes you’ll see a short sequence, but typically the poems are a page or less. Very rare to see a single poem that takes up a few pages. There’s the odd opportunity for long poems, such as the Malahat’s biennial contest, but that’s, well, biennial. I mostly write shorter poems. But I have several longer, largely finished pieces. I remember thinking: this has got to be representative. People have to be sitting on longer work.
I knew I wanted to keep making physical things. I like picking up books, reading for a while, bookmarking them, putting them down. Ironically, given what I do for a living, I’ve never really enjoyed electronic editions all that much, except maybe for the convenience. I’m always concerned about longevity. Will this be available in twenty-five years? Things are better today with cloud storage, but that’s only around as long as the company is. Will we still have PDFs in two decades? Will the format be readable, or superseded? Will Google close down Drive, like so many of its other services? How much gets lost when our computers crash, when online lit mags shutter, when we switch providers, lose passwords?
I decided to make a long poems journal. I decided it needed to be print, and biannual. And after bouncing some potential names off friends, I landed on +doc, liking the snappy feel, its suggestion of longer work.
I put out a call and I got a surprising number of responses. The first issue featured work by rob mclennan, Tom Snarsky, and melanie brannagan frederiksen; the second, Grant Wilkins and Amanda Earl. Since then I haven’t had as many submissions, but I also don’t put out calls on Twitter, just on my website (which I suspect gets very few visitors). Word of mouth seems to attract great work: Robert Hogg heard about it during an online chat with Grant and Chris Turnbull. I’ve only solicited one poem of the nine published so far, and I haven’t had to turn down work since the first couple issues were set, which makes me happy. If I’m offered good, interesting work, I’ll want to publish it, though I’m often a bit regretful of the long publishing cycle. I typically plan two issues at a time: for +doc.4, there was more than a year between accepting Jake Byrne’s “No. 21 THE WORLD” and sending it out.
The goal from the beginning has been to put out more long poems. The happy side effect has been being trusted to read lots of long poems in a variety of styles. To figure out which might work together, and when. How to order them. I’ve always been fascinated by the ways that submitted work can unknowingly play off other accepted pieces. For Odd Poems 2021, Jordan Abel’s piece was the last to arrive, and seemed in some ways to bind things together, working in interesting ways off the language in Susan Gillis’ and Eduardo C. Corral’s poems. In +doc.1, I loved the juxtaposition of outside-inside-outside between the three poems. And so on.
Since the first issue of +doc, the magazine has been physically large. Two of the poems from that first issue (rob mclennan’s “What they write in the snow” and melanie brannagan frederiksen’s “the third season”) were naturally long-lined, and fitting this in something based on folded letter paper would either require miniscule typography, or compromise. So I decided to work with folded legal paper, which allowed those longer lines to breathe, gave more blank space on the page, and, I hope, allowed the intended flow. Interestingly, many of the poems I’ve accepted have been long-lined: only a couple (Amanda Earl’s “BLOOMS, PAIN, STRATEGIES” in +doc.2, and Robert Hogg’s “John Charley—Stacking Hay—Successful Indian Farmer”, +doc.3) have had shorter lines. I was surprised, and if you had asked me what my expectations were before I started, I would’ve guessed the opposite, that what I saw in published shorter poems would be representative of longer ones as well.
Despite the explosion in literary magazines in the last ten years, with WordPress and other options making it pretty painless to stand up something that looks good, it would be easy to say there is too much poetry. And yet, people are sending me these incredible longer poems, that should’ve been published elsewhere, but haven’t. Long poems fascinate me because of the potential that comes from using more space, in a number of senses. Once you jettison the idea that a poem has to be around a page in length, or resolve itself neatly, or any of the many implicit ideas that seem to steer selection at traditional literary magazines, then the possibilities really open up. Even if (especially if?) the finished product is closer to a zine, made on a black and white laser printer and bound with staples.
I’m not sure I’m comfortable talking about artistic statements, but I want the things I make to look a little more handmade, a little less perfect. I want to pay people a little, and I want to offer what I produce for very little money. I basically ask for the cost of postage. If you find me in person with copies, you can have one for free. I absorb toner and paper and all the little things myself. I don’t have any funding other than what I set aside, and I like it that way. My costs are relatively low. I probably spend more money paying poets than I do on supplies, which is great. A typical year sees me buying a few packages of legal paper, maybe some toner, covers at the copy shop. I feed and print and staple and fold a hundred copies or so for a pair of issues.
Ryan Fitzpatrick talks about 50 copies as being a magic number for him. It seems to be a good number for me, too. After contributor copies, I sell some copies after announcing on my blog and social media (though probably it’s all from Twitter, let’s be honest). I normally don’t sell out, although I eventually have, twice. But I like having extras on hand, because the odd order does come in between. Or the opportunity for trades. It’s nice to have the copies available.
Given all this, I see null pointer press as a small success – I’m putting new poetry into people’s hands, paying poets a little, and every so often I get a, wow this poem is good from someone online (yeah!) – though I try to stop myself to keep from thinking in those terms, success and failure. Better to think in terms of objectives: I’ve published a couple dozen poets, and I want to publish more long poems. I also want to think about sustainable possibilities that’ll let me balance everything else in my life. A journal of very small poems? Do I ever want to think about doing traditional chapbooks? What’s my upper limit, here?
I don’t know how long this will all hold up, if null pointer press will be long-lived or not. Most small presses and lit mags seem to have a run of a few years or so, the ones surviving longer being outliers. Here I am at year two-and-a-bit. I’ve got a process in place, a loose schedule. I’ve tried to set myself up for the long term: two issues per year is sustainable in terms of effort and costs and the understanding that there are a lot fewer longer poems than short.
Submissions are sporadic, which is fine. I should probably advertise more widely, but I hate turning down good work. Last year I got a submission literally on January 1st, and this year there’s been nothing so far (though someone I’ve poked in the past has mentioned sending work in the last few weeks, so, we’ll see!). I think the key thing for me is to keep the press at a level where I’m not overworked and I’m not worried about funding. I can keep going in the months of silence, in the face of radio static. I’ve always been amazed by how these things find their audience, and so as long as I’m selling some copies, as long as people are sending in work, I’ll try to keep going. Who knows what the years ahead will bring. But hopefully a lot more poetry.
Julian Day is a poet and software developer living in Winnipeg, where he operates null pointer press. His debut chapbook is Late Summer Flowers (Anstruther Press, 2021).