On Aug. 4, Chax Press will celebrate its 25th anniversary. In 1984, Charles Alexander drove into Tucson from Madison, Wis., with his Vandercook Proof Press and started the nonprofit press that specializes in handmade books and avant-garde literature. Today, Chax publishes eight to 10 books a year, most in paperback, that are distributed throughout the United States and beyond. Alexander, a published poet, runs the press from the North Seventh Avenue studio he shares with his wife, artist Cynthia Miller. For more information, visit chax.org.
What's the history of Chax Press?
When I was working on a Ph.D. in English in Madison, I had an opportunity to go to a conference dedicated to the American poet Charles Olson. ... For the first time, I saw a couple of press (organizations) setting type and making books by hand. ... I went back to the University of Wisconsin and said, "I have to do this."
How did you find yourself in Tucson?
I had explored the Southwest a little bit and arrived in Tucson in part because a) I liked it, and b) I knew one person here, the poet and novelist Leslie Marmon Silko. ... Also, I could find very inexpensive studio space, and I could just go to work. No distractions—I just wanted to work. But people begin to find you, and after a year of that, I met my wife, Cynthia Miller, ... (who) immediately brought me into the visual arts and artists' studio community. And gradually, I had a chance to begin doing some things with the (UA) Poetry Center.
You've always shared the same studio with your wife?
The only time we haven't shared space was for three years when we lived in Minneapolis when I was director of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts in the mid-1990s. ... I didn't stay there, because I had to be a full-time art administrator there. I wanted to make books, so we moved back here in 1996. And interestingly, after that history, it was still almost like starting all over again.
What studio space did you find then?
David Aguirre was great; we had helped him get into the Steinfeld Warehouse, and he made us a place to come back. ... We got dislocated with everyone else the summer of 2007. Now we're in about a 1,700-square-foot space in a building owned by Small Planet Bakery. We love it.
Because of the economy, has your mission had to change?
No. We've remained accessible to writers (and have been able) to use our own vision to find the writers we really want to work with, (and) to find the visual artists, because we do visual arts books, too. ... We don't feel we have to compromise or that we have to sell a certain number of books. We can still take risks. I'm just not interested in publishing any book that we're not 100 percent behind, and the sales have not been an issue. We have some books that did not sell well, and we've had books that have been written up in The New York Times Book Review.
Do you look at yourself as a Tucson press or an international press?
I look at that in a couple of different ways. We're here, and Tucson means a lot to me, and we're very involved in the community. ... We have published books by people who live in Tucson, but it's not our mission to publish books by Tucson writers. It's more our mission to publish books that are more innovative and avant-garde, wherever we might find (them), particularly in poetry. Right now, we have an author from Australia (and) one in the United Kingdom, as well as two in Tucson, and one in Los Angeles, and another in Oakland. That work includes poetry, two collections of plays and a collection of prose poetry. I am not very interested in being labeled as a press. On the other hand, if you want to use big labels, I guess we're more experimental than a number of presses. No one would call us mainstream.
How has this work contributed to your quality of life?
I get to go into a studio and make things. I get to go into a studio and see what paintings my wife is making. Her sense of color is absolutely inspiring to me. I get to set my own schedule, although I have deadlines, so that's not entirely true. It's a creative atmosphere, and at this point in my life, I say, "What else can I do?" And I can't imagine another life. I am a poet in the world, and I take that as an engagement of great responsibility and great pleasure.