With Fake Moon, Alban Fischer explodes our bitter menageries of personality, suspect remnants of a once-touted humanity, dearly holding on to America the beautiful with shrewd self-interest, severed hands. From “Human Arsenal”: “All the statues of this country are homeless / They’ve taken to begging in the streets for change.”
The collection lambasts our everyday junk shoved in drawers, our token worship of the ordinary. Not only are the poems sarcastic and funny, his speakers are keen observers of their environments. The range here is startling for a debut collection, and, honestly, affecting during this showerless quarantine existence, as we navigate days of distance learning and manufacture humdrum memoirs hiding in sweatpants.
Alban is also the founding editor of Trnsfr and Trnsfr Books. I first met Alban through our mutual connections in the small press literary experiment, admiring this self-taught graphic design whiz, and humble poetry genius, from afar—and we once shared the great state of Michigan as our base(s) of operations.
He lives in Grand Rapids and serves as Graphic Designer for YesYes Books and Art Director of Sarabande Books. He has designed more than 350 books, and worked with more than sixty organizations, including 826CHI, Alice James Books, The Believer, Bellevue Literary Press, Coffee House Press, Columbia University Press, Faceout Studio, Turtle Point Press, and Verso. His work has been included in the AUPresses Book, Jacket, and Journal Show, selected for AIGA and Design Observer ’s 50 Books /50 Covers, and has been recognized by The Book Cover Archive, The Casual Optimist, and Spine Magazine.
I caught up with Alban over email hoping to glean further insight from this undersung champion of independent publishing.
The poems offer damning critiques of their subjects—white ladies in “Visitor Era,” city debris in “”Human Arsenal,” and even the author in “Wheat Disco”—with imposing language play peppered in (“febrile,” “wounded,” “big fucking masterpiece” come to mind). The title, Fake Moon, suggests a skepticism working in the poems. Gone is complacency, our blanket compassions for creatures and artists. Why are these important themes for you? How long have you been working on Fake Moon?
Well, I’m not so sure that’s what’s happening in my poems, but then, who am I to argue? They belong to the reader now, after all. Although, perhaps you’re on to something with the skepticism. I don’t think I could argue there. These poems deal with a lot of personal things for me but aren’t mentioned or addressed overtly. Certainly, there’s a political anger at work in some of the poems. The trauma of being queer, too.
The poems in Fake Moon were written over a period of thirteen or fourteen years and are largely drawn from five previously unpublished manuscripts and three unfinished poem sequences, while some were uncollected and not part of any project. A decent portion were written expressly for Fake Moon once the book started to take shape. In terms of assembly and arrangement, I aimed at building a through-line or thematic arc from similar imagery, tropes, or concerns throughout these poems that could link up in a way that felt organic. Some were obviously written with this in mind, while others, being filched from unfinished poem cycles, had this built in.
There is an emphasis on vision in your work, through weather, drawing instructions, or other spectacles, i.e. “parades.” It seems ordinary from our place on the ground, but you make these moments grand, loud marching bands in our mind’s eye. Similarly, I’m intrigued by the narrative hybridization of the text, which seems to create an impressive dimension for readers, more than singularly hoarding verse or stories. This dynamism is something reflected in the book design—titles inverted along the headings of poems, interspersed narratives italicized for effect of receding transmissions, passing headlights. What prompted this eclectic arrangement of your writing?
I hadn’t noticed this emphasis. But I suppose it makes sense considering my line of work. I mean, I’d never considered myself a visual person before I got into design. I think that’s true, though, that my poems are grounded in the quotidian. But it’s always been my way to then just binge on the musicality of the language used to describe the mundane or just load it up with a mess of associations. I grew up in a working-class family, and books and the arts just weren’t a part of the conversation—at least at home. So I think I just had this big world in my head clattering away to keep me from losing it.
But I think I’m really a storyteller at heart. I have a couple of uncompleted novels I’d like to finish one day. They’re always kind of at the back of my mind. I was at one time a big reader of the early modernists, so I’m always to some degree nodding to and playfully interacting with this constellation of influences in my work. And there is also in these prose bits the influence of surrealists like Jacob, Lautréamont, de Chirico’s Hebdomeros, Pinget, and others, whose mischievous, slippery narratives helped me see ways I could fold perception and memory to form new vectors or tell truths sideways. These pieces, actually, are selections from an unfinished sequence prompted by Alberti’s “That Burning Horse in the Lost Forests.” I hope to one day continue this as well. But, yeah, the language of my poems tends to flit between discursive registers, with various phrases and speakers eliding or interrupting one another. Naturally, I suppose, the structure of the book mimics this, offering these occasional wormholes into other realms.
“Barge” strikes me as a rude monologue from a variety of unsolicited speakers. It feels inscrutable yet familiar, like a roaming Twitter horde. The reverberations of the poem are sinister, the little brother who won’t pick up his Legos, a wall of prose docking like a ship into harbor.
With “Barge” I wanted to just let go and try to write one long, unending, torrential sentence (the title of course having a little fun with the poem’s compositional form). I just kept piling on and piling on to see how far I could take it before the whole thing capsized. I had a lot of fun with it, though I had to cut a lot out in the end. I hadn’t considered its “sinister” reverberations, however, and might have been inclined to differ if not for the fact of other readers pointing to these poems’ overall morbidity—which is a cogent observation; I suppose I hadn’t fully recognized this about my work.
Every superhero needs a compelling origin story. How did you come to poetry and book design? Have you always been a reader?
I never expected to become a designer. But, looking back, I can see the ways I’ve been influenced and guided by design without realizing it. I was aware of the work of prominent designers back in the nineties, even, when I was a teenager, but hadn’t the slightest idea that I’d ever be involved in design. I was a big reader from an early age. It’s funny—it’s always seemed to me that I came up in a school system that was very book-centric: it seemed all my teachers read to their classes, there was the excitement of the Scholastic book sales, there were always reading challenges with classrooms getting pizza parties for most books read, there was the young authors program, in which you made your own physical books, and then in middle school, you’d make them for the purpose of reading the completed book to an elementary school student. When I think about this, it’s almost surprising to me that the combined effect of all this didn’t produce an entire generation of writers. It just spoke to something in me, and I only became more book obsessed the older I got. Then, when I was thirty, I started Trnsfr—I didn’t know anyone who could design it, so I taught myself how to use InDesign. At some point along the way, I lost my day job, so I asked some of the writers I’d been in contact with through Trnsfr if they needed typesetting or design help, and so a few things came along and I just continued from there. But it took me about three years to make this my sole source of income. As for poetry, I began writing poetry at fifteen after discovering a poem by Allen Ginsberg in an anthology (I think it may have been “A Supermarket in California”). I didn’t know you could write that way, and it just set me on fire.
What challenges did designing your own book present? From where do you take inspiration for design? I know some designers save images in folders to refer to later. Are there visual artists or catalogs that you return to when assigned to new books?
Oh gosh. Designing my own book was really hard at first! I just didn’t have any ideas. And then I was very indecisive for a long time. Basically, I ended up being right on top of the deadline and just put the design together pretty quickly. Well, maybe not quickly, but it got me to just do it and put my indecision aside. I let it all come together organically; I didn’t really know where I’d end up. But I’m happy with how it turned out. I think it was hard because I didn’t have the remove I ordinarily have when designing a book. I’ll typically take notes as I read, trying to pick up themes, images, metaphors, a tone, whatever. But with my book, it was all so close. So I don’t think these sorts of things stuck out to me as distinctly as with a book other than my own.
You know, I try to do this—saving images for later use or inspiration. It seems prudent, but I always sort of lose the thread, as it were. I forget about a folder of “inspiration” images, and when I come back to it, it often seems the contents don’t work for me in ways they once had. And I suppose this seems rather natural somehow. As far as visual artists, certainly. I collect design books, read design blogs and whatnot, listen to podcasts, visit bookstores or libraries when there’s not a pandemic on. Mostly, I follow other designers whose work I revere—probably too many to name. But the ones that I keep coming back to are the ones whose designs teach me to think or see differently, in ways that wouldn’t naturally occur to me. And I try to remember that.
What is the most rewarding thing about working with other artists in the small press world? What is frustrating about this process? How does your process change from cover design to book interiors? What are some of your favorite books you’ve produced—both from a content and execution critique? Why those books?
With small press books, you’re usually working on an author’s first book, someone who’s relatively unknown—and with a pretty spartan staff. And that alone I think can be liberating—not working with some huge name or some huge publishing house where I imagine there’s a lot more at stake. That, and the putting all you can into something to make it really stand out amongst those bigger titles. It sounds like bull, I know, but it really is rewarding when I can make something that really pleases the client. And working in indie publishing has a kind of insurgent quality, too—that “we’re making these books happen, books we truly believe in, because no one else will,” you know? The process of course is not without its frustrations, sure. I think when you have too many people involved—small as an indie staff might be—that can take the creative energy out of a project. But I’m sure this is the same with any press. I think production values can be a big disappointment. Indies often have minuscule budgets, so particularly with POD, for instance, the quality often isn’t there. I know there are people who’d argue with this, but that’s been my experience. Not that I’m disparaging—a press has make do.
The books I’ve done for Sarabande I feel are some of the best I’ve ever done. I’m really proud of what we’ve done together. The whole team is some of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. And that alone goes a long way in this line of work—the mutual enthusiasm, trust, and love for making a book as exceptional as it can be, from its content to its physicality, is so empowering creatively. I think, too, that I tend to be proudest of the most recent projects. Right now that would be Klaus Modick’s Moss, Guillermo Saccomanno’s The Clerk, Emma Hine’s Stay Safe, Whitney Collins’s Big Bad, Rebecca Fishow’s The Trouble with Language, Kazim Ali’s The Voice of Sheila Chandra, and Rachel Swearingen’s How to Walk on Water, to name a few. All great books. Which also helps a lot, in terms of inspiration. But I suppose a few that stand out are Ed Smith’s Punk Rock Is Cool for the End of the World, Tim Taranto’s Ars Botanica, Nicholas Gulig’s North of Order, and The Monster Gasped, OMG! Sometimes a project from which I learned a lot, or for which I really had to stretch myself creatively or technically comes to maintain a sentimental importance for me. Moss is one of those.
What have I not asked that you would like to answer? Anything to promote or debate? How have you been handling quarantine?
I’m handling quarantine as well as I can, I suppose. I find myself some days relatively unperturbed, just doing what I ordinarily do, and others just paralyzed with anxiety, not knowing how to move forward, or just overwhelmed and feeling like everything’s broken. So I’m handling it, I guess. I don’t know what kind of art is going to come out of all this, but I think the important thing is that the world is resetting itself, allowing us to recognize what’s truly important, or to finally disconnect with the things, behaviors, patterns—or people—that no longer serve us as a society. Or that’s my hope anyway. And then, once we do, I think art broadly will be better for it.