Community building was not the foremost concern of Christophe Casamassima, local poet, Towson University adjunct electronic-media and film professor, and founder and publisher of Furniture Press Books. "That was never on my mind," he says. "It was always about publishing and the aesthetic and being an artist.
"Now, I think [Furniture] Press is not just about publishing anymore," he continues. "It's about the readership. Without them, you don't have anything. So my impetus over the next however long I'm alive, that's what I want to do. I want to foster readership and trust in poetry as a critical element in education."
Casamassima moved to Baltimore in 2001 from Queens, New York, and he speaks with a New Yorker's directness. For this interview he grabs a chai and a seat in a Charles Village coffee shop and immediately gives the sense that he is a straight shooter. He's serious about his art but doesn't take himself so seriously that he's humorlessly academic. This is a guy who bikes the roughly 7 miles from his Woodberry home to his Towson University classes, so he doesn't mind taking the less convenient route if the adventure is a key ingredient to existence's daily juice.
He casually discusses his personal revelations with the same no-nonsense attitude that he uses to talk about how he's always responded to language, why poetry shouldn't be taught like science, and why he's taking a bunch of grown-up writers on the road like an indie-rock band for the Furniture Press Books tour.
This year is the 10th anniversary of the small press he founded, and to mark the occasion he's spent the better part of the past 12 months fundraising and coordinating with his many authors to put together their first tour, which starts this week and takes Casamassima and 15 other writers from the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in Manhattan to the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa, covering roughly 3,000 miles in two and a half weeks. It includes this weekend's PRESS > PLAY event, a four-hour small-press fair featuring a smorgasbord of readings, comedians, music, and noshy bits and handcrafted beer at the Peabody Heights Brewery. He's very much looking forward to it and still can't believe it's actually happening.
"I never thought I'd be able to ask all these people who are adults and have jobs and lives to pack up and leave," he says. "These people have families and kids, and their spouses were like, 'Go for it.'"
Get him talking about how he would like to see the press grow, however, and he immediately becomes animated by the past few years of collaborative partnerships. Yes-one of the pragmatic goals of the tour is for the Furniture Press to travel outside of Baltimore and connect with new readers and writers, and yes, Casamassima has a roster of chapbooks and new handmade books in small-print runs, for which the press is known, slated for the coming two years, as well as the press' annual chapbook awards and the 2014 Furniture Press poetry prize, which is being judged by Elizabeth Robinson. But there's a light in his eye when he starts talking about the 13 kids he helped do-it-yourself publish their first book last year through a partnership with the Village Learning Place in Charles Village.
That was the most recent stop in his road from publishing to community building that he started on when he helped found the Towson Arts Collective in 2007. By simply bringing authors into local Towson businesses through the collective, he began to see how the arts provide an interactive crucible that positively affects local communities, and he wanted to do more of it. He partnered with Douglas Mowbray of Twentythree Books in 2011 to form Poetry in Community, through which they "work with kids and adults who are not really interested in poetry or [don't] know much about poetry, and we're using that as an impetus to create or foster community sustainability and creative literacy," Casamassima says. "The whole idea behind it is to see the world with a poetic eye. And they don't teach that in schools. I think a lot of professors and teachers don't understand poetry themselves. They read books and reiterate [what appears in them]. When you have an actual poet in the classroom saying, 'So what do you think?' folks are like, 'What do you mean what do I think?' And that's really important, [asking somebody] 'No, what do you think? In the gut?' That empowers people. Not just as lovers of art but as human beings."
The goal is to empower readers with an interpretive and authorial voice not just when encountering a text but in navigating their creative lives. It's an approach he takes with his film students. On the first day of class, Casamassima gets them talking about how he can individualize their assignments. "If you ask somebody 'How do you see the world?,' that's a really strange thing to ask," he says. "But once you start talking with them, you start to understand what they like, their biases, their filters. So if they like video games or comics or things like that, I say, go in that direction. Change the assignment to fit your need-because in real life that's what they're going to be doing.
"That's what we do with Poetry and Community," he continues. "It's an inalienable right to see the world in a particular way and say, 'This is how I see it,' and not conform to any standard because your boss or your teacher wants you to see it a certain way. And there's a lot of fear in that process, especially when you're young. But I think starting kids off doing something like that-those 13 kids earlier this year, I hope they have a new lease on life. They're published. I don't know how many writers publish a book when they're 13 years old. And they did it by themselves. That's something to brag about and I'm hoping they're bragging about it."
PRESS > PLAY runs 4-8 p.m. at Peabody Heights Brewery (401 E. 30th St.) and features dance performance by Lynne Price, comedy from Mickey Free and Ben O'Brien, the music of Adios Ghost, Barrage Band, pi hole, and publications from Argos Books, Furniture Press, Gazing Grain, Hidden Clearing Books, Ink Press, JMWW, Cottey House Press, Publishing Genius, Infinity's Kitchen, Brick House Books, LitMore, Singing Saw Press, Worms, Abecedarian, Inc., Seltzer, Fact-Simile, Gigantic Sequins, Plork Press/University of Baltimore, and the Baltimore Review. For more information, visit furniturepressbooks.com.