On any given evening, in the middle of any given week, just off of Fourth Avenue, you might stumble across the editors of Spork Press as they dutifully work on their next set of printings.
They might have music blaring out of the carport in which they work while they press ink onto boards using a half-century-old machine. They might be sipping beers, mixing and transferring music mixes onto cassette tapes. They could be listening to audiobooks, evening out the edges of their work—literally, with a belt sander.
The studio of Spork Press, founded in 2001 by Drew Burk and Richard Siken, sits in the middle of the Iron Horse neighborhood. A small guest house just off of Burk's driveway is home to the defiant little publisher that could, where the editors of Spork Press, drill, sand, sew and glue together each book by hand ... because they can.
"For the most part, it all works fine, but when it's really cold, or raining, or hot, it kind of hampers production," Burk says. Honestly, I'm surprised that the weather is among the biggest problems; there's barely space to stand inside among the clutter. But somehow, the local core of Burk, Siken, editor/designer Andrew Shuta, and fiction editor Joel Smith (poetry editor Jake Levine is currently studying in Korea) build hundreds of books each year sending directly to customers and bookstores across the country. The press sold more than 400 books alone the previous weekend at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Seattle.
Outside the studio's door, a work table and drying racks are surrounded by piles of book dust, the product of hours of sanding down edges for hundreds of books to a flat finish. Inside is a space that couldn't be much bigger than 300 square feet. There, you'll find recording equipment, stacks upon stacks upon stacks of books from around the literary world, and in the center, a 1960s-era letterpress machine. In its off-hours, the machine seems to function as both a table and, judging by the webs inside the machine, possible home to a colony of black widow spiders.
The day we meet, Burk had just arrived from Seattle, a huge success despite the fact Spork didn't have all of the product they were counting on. Namely, cassette tapes, part of Spork's music imprint drawn from shared passions for music, and part of their loose outline of expansion, which looks to include a storefront in the near future, for all their wares. The cassettes seem to complement their line of books, in that both are made of the highest possible quality, and share a similar analog aesthetic—one that seems to be driven by the DIY nature under which Spork was formed.
For Burk, Spork's story began just before he fled California due to a collapsed record deal for a band he was in at the time. He had written a semi-autobiographical novel drawing inspiration from a time when he and a girl stole a car and drove from California to Memphis—where he was arrested for murder.
"I didn't kill anybody," he makes sure to clarify, "but ... it was a really fantastic story. I didn't have any formal training, I just wrote it," he says.
Not long after, the band with whom he had secured a record deal collapsed, sending him reeling for something to do. He was about to settle into a job cutting hair at a salon in La Jolla, when he ran into a touring band from Tucson.
"I asked what was going on there, and they said 'Nothing. Nothing is going on in Tucson.' So I thought that, if I want to go somewhere and explore the things I want to do, without constantly comparing myself to people who are doing similar things, I will go where nothing is happening and figure my shit out. So that's what we did."
Burk moved to Tucson "with a box, and a bag and the book (he) wrote," and eventually caught a job at Grill, where he worked in the kitchen. There, he met his future partner in Spork, Richard Siken.
Following Grill's ownership change, he and Siken went to hang out at Safehouse, where Spork began in earnest. "We were hanging out there, and everyone was writing. And we were writing ... and we were good. So we assumed everyone around us was also good, and said, 'Let's show everyone how awesome this is.' I told Richard that we were going to do this, and that I was going to put his name on it whether or not he decided to participate, so he said 'OK.'"
That was in 2001. From there, Spork put out a call, and got what Siken calls "some of the worst writing we had ever seen." Slightly discouraged, they were able to get in touch with friends in writing residencies who contributed material. "So we had $100. We had canvas, and chipboard from the backs of notepads," he says, which they used to make the original Spork quarterly journal. "We made 10 copies, and sold those, and made 10 more and sold those, and made 20 more and gave them to the contributors. We've been doing that ever since."
That first year, Spork produced three issues; the next, they produced two (while still calling it a quarterly), and moved from there. A nomadic entity, the press produced work in various houses, studios, and warehouses around Tucson until four years ago. That's when Burk and Spork finally settled in Iron Horse; soon after, Shuta, Levine and Smith came aboard.
Smith and Shuta were sucked into the world of Spork about four years ago, both thanks to associations made at the University.
"It was a two-way pull," Shuta says. He was TAing a drawing class at UA that Burk's wife Andrea happened to be in. "I'd put on music I liked, The Cure or whatever, and the kids would say 'Change it, change it!'" Andrea, he said, had his back, and the two hit it off. "She said, 'You might know my husband, Drew Burk. He runs Spork Press,' and I said that I didn't know him, but I had just checked out all of Spork's journals from the UA library, coincidentally." At the same time, Jake Levine invited Shuta to start making things with them. From then, he was hooked.
Smith was recruited by Siken directly, after a reading of his work at the UA Poetry Center. Later, he found himself on Fourth Avenue, with Siken and Burk when the subject turned to, of all things, comic books. "We ended up riffing on Batman for an hour and a half," Smith says. "That was his sort of Drew's entrance exam for Spork. We just started talking, and here I am, years later. They weren't able to scare me away."
In talking with them, two things become evident: First, Spork is an anarchic collective where the editors, with enough strength of will, can push through a project if they champion it enough. The only counter story to that involves the recently published book Saturn, which casts musician David Bowie as a central figure. Smith brought that book forward, which Burk (a huge Bowie fan) supported ... to a point. "I was reading it, very excited, until it came to a point when it became obvious that the author wasn't aware that Bowie had released a new album (2013's The Next Day)," Burk says. "I rejected the book—it had to be fixed."
That informs the second thought: That Burk is the driving force behind the chaotic, rebellious nature of Spork. He's responsible for the Wikipedia page, which only recently seems to have gotten in trouble for its lack of sourcing and its beard hierarchy. He's also the webmaster of SporkPress.com, which became "some kind of angry and vindictive art project," a place where original iterations of the site from years ago can still be found as they were originally created, and where the news page is gleefully unorganized, unformated, undated and unsigned.
It's all part of the challenge of reading work from Spork, which is what Burk strives for in all things writing-related. "I like it to be more like life, in that you can't understand everything and engage with everything. Maybe you figure it out or don't, but you have more of an experience than a story that's told to you and handed to you that follows conventions."
That sense of reality seems to be why Spork Press is so passionate about their construction and their work. "We like handmade best," Burk says. "We love the work that much and that's how we show it. Our books are stronger, and better and cost less. We have a very sturdy, burly book that's made to be used. They're cheap enough that you can use it, destroy it, hand it off, and buy another."
While we talk, Joel proposes that I take a crack at becoming part of the Spork process, asking if I'd like to help them press ink onto the covers of Saturn.
Looking at the 1960s era letterpress machine, I hesitate; the exposed gears and giant roller make me fear, momentarily, that my digits might themselves become a part of Spork's bookmaking process.
They laugh, telling me that I shouldn't be afraid. "We've built in a system of checks and balances" to the process," Shuta says. "Plus, we've minimalized cutting fingers off by getting better equipment." For years, he tells me, everything was cut using utility knives, which made an earlier claim of putting "blood, sweat and tears" into their work less a metaphor than a guarantee.
I watch as Shuta transfers a coat of black ink to a polymer plate, featuring the cover of Saturn. While the book's innards center around the man behind Ziggy Stardust, the cover casts Bowie in the role of a Roman Titan, taking inspiration from Francisco Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son.
"We're doing this 'ghettopress' style tonight," Shuta tells me. Smith and Shuta work in tandem; the former places boards atop the plate while the latter cranks the roller, stamping the image onto the board. They settle into their roles with ease, saying that, "If we had some mixtapes blaring and some beers cracked open, this would be like any other work night."
Eventually, I take a turn at both positions, crookedly placing boards and underestimating the torque it takes to advance the roller. For their part, the two members of Spork support me, embracing my mistakes; that's the nature of making everything by hand, they say.
Shuta reaches into a box, showing me their copies of Colin Winnette's Animal Collection, that no two covers look alike, and that those imperfections occasionally drive sales. One of their recent festival customers bought their copy because it was a misprint, lacking the title from the cover. "They like the 'special editions,' as we call them," Shuta tells me.
While Burk and I talk, he and I step out of the studio to buy cigarettes at Empire Market, down the street. Thinking about Smith's pre-Spork interview, I ask "Why Batman?"
"Why not Batman? He goes into every encounter, every fight as if it's the last fight, that he'll die right here, and he'll give it his all," he says. "He's not a super hero; he's supermonied, but the money is never the reason why he was able to do things. It just allows him to do things. He traveled the world and mastered everything, and it was always about bringing everything of himself to every situation and trying to do right, even in the face of the everything going wrong."
That seems an unusually passionate position to take with a comic book character, until you consider that Burk followed a similar path.
Unlike his Spork cohorts, Burk didn't go beyond a high school education; he tells me that everything he's learned, from writing, to website design, to book binding, came from reading, and passionately diving into his interests until he felt he was comfortable enough.
That spirit, as much as anything, seems to drive both Spork and Burk: an ultimate sense of self-sufficiency.
"It's why we've never been a nonprofit," Burk says. "We're trying to show that you don't have to have funding, you don't have to have Kickstarter to do your product. What were you doing with your pirated software before that? You just figured that shit out, and now people don't just do anymore."
"Here we are, 14 years in with just $100 and our effort, and it's working and branching and growing, and doing more of what we want. Hopefully someone will look at us and see the example that we are trying to set, and they won't affiliate themselves with some foundation or funding, that they'll figure out a way to do what they want to do, and improve upon that."