Poetry on Vinyl: An Interview with Jeff Alessandrelli of Fonograf Editions
I suspect I know what you’re thinking, dear readers. “Poetry and vinyl records?” you exclaim. “That’s a recipe for commercial disaster!”
To this hypothetical remark I would point out that interest in vinyl records is the highest it’s been in decades. While streaming remains the dominant way we listen to music, vinyl sales have outpaced CD sales for the first time in 34 years. Selling and listening to vinyl is no longer a niche interest for sad, middle-aged men trying to recover a mythical past; it’s for sad people of all ages!
One of the most interesting developments in the poetry on vinyl universe: Fonograf Editions, a bona fide literary record label that was founded in 2016 and has put out a steady run of superb poetry on wax, from Rae Armantrout’s Conflation to Nathaniel Mackey and Susan Howe’s Stray: A Graphic Tone, and has recently branched out into print books such as Lovability by Emily Kendall Frey. There’s just so much to praise and cover in the Fonograf Editions universe, so I reached out to Jeff Alessandrelli, one of their editors. Over email, we talked about records as objects, “verily hustling,” an upcoming John Ashbery release, and branching out into books.
Fonograf has been around for a couple years now, and its backlist is really impressive. Can you tell me a bit about the receptions among the vinyl and poetry communities?
Being at quite a few writing conferences and book fairs in the past few years has made clear that people are always really excited to see literary vinyl in the world — even if they don’t have a record player or really listen to records. All of our vinyl releases also come with a download card and poem/liner notes insert, so there have definitely been people who have bought our albums simply for the album-as-artifact (coupled with the electronic listening option).
I do appreciate your whole packaging and pricing credo. You’re not going for the bespoke and often overpriced vinyl packages we see now during the vinyl renaissance, but at the same time these are quality records with inserts and the recordings are always high quality.
Whether it’s a book or record or t-shirt, the actual Fonograf Ed. object is supremely important to us. The goal with our albums is for them to be part of the owner’s collection for the long term. Meaning that I have a lot of literary vinyl records — from Gertrude Stein to Marianne Moore to Albert Camus to Langston Hughes — and I don’t listen to them every day. I sometimes go years without listening to them. But in my opinion the point of a literary album isn’t to constantly be putting it on your turntable; it’s instead to capture a specific time and place by a writer you really like or love. Our first three albums by Eileen Myles, Rae Armantrout and Alice Notley were all, to a certain degree at least, recorded live, and that exact experience will never be recreated, except in listening to the actual album. I like that concept/notion.
Where are your records physically made? Records are so much in demand that I have heard of actual shortages.
We’ve used a variety of different record pressing plants and suppliers over the years. One of the tricks is that most record pressing plants don’t also make album jackets/inserts, so what has often happened is that things are manufactured at different times and then it’s a process of coalescing everything together. That said, we’ve been lucky in that we haven’t had any major delays or anything of that sort…it’s been a learning process, though. It takes a lot of work (and $) to put a vinyl album out, 100%.
Were there any specific record labels or publishers, past or present, that inspired you to do what you do?
Caedmon Records was a big influence — a few years back I wrote a bit about Caedmon over here on the website TheFanzine.
OK, as they say in business meetings, blue sky thinking: what’s your dream record project? Any wish-list for releases, or is it a more organic process?
Next year we’re putting out an archival John Ashbery LP, from a reading he gave in 76 — that’s something we’ve wanted to do for a while. Our last LP release — Fodder by Douglas Kearney and Val Jeanty — is one that took a while to come together and we’re super happy with how it turned out. It was recorded live in Portland in the summer of 2019 and seems to supremely speak to our present moment. As for other LP releases — moving forward we’re looking to move more into actual music, albeit music that still has a literary bent. In November we’re releasing an album of original music by the poet/musician Brian Laidlaw that takes its album concept and (translated) lyrics from the 19th century French-Canadian poet Emile Nelligan. So we’re very excited about that.
What’s coming up next — any releases you’d like to plug, or photos of your headquarters you can share?
In the future we’re actually going to be as much a book press as a record label. In the last year we’ve released full length collections by the writers Dao Strom (which included a musical album component), Mark Leidner, Charles Valle and Emily Kendal Frey, with two forthcoming debut poetry collections by Brandi Katherine Herrera and Jan Verberkmoes. Next year we have the Ashbery LP, a magazine, a chapbook by Matvei Yankelevich, a poetry collection by Krystal Languell, and an essay collection by Hilary Plum. And in Winter 2023 we’re releasing two volumes by Alice Notley — one a 600-page collection (comprised of 6 books) of new work called The Speak Angel Series and the other a volume (tentatively) entitled The First Four Books of Poems, one that collects all of Notley’s now out of print early collections in one solidified book. So we have a lot in store and are verily hustling.
This originally appeared on the Best American Poetry Blog.