An Interview with Orison Books’ Luke Hankins–Brent Short

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Every now and then something comes along that catches your eye and you just have a really good feeling about it. That’s how I felt when I first found out about Orison Books (a small book publisher based in Asheville, NC). Started in 2014, with their first book released in 2015, not only do they publish fiction and poetry and non-fiction, but they publish their own The Orison Anthology as well, which picks up where the highly regarded Best American Spiritual Writing series left off (it has now ceased publication). This may be a small press, but they have an impressive stated mission and track record that emphasizes high quality and spiritual depth, as well as a spirit of inclusiveness.

Luke Hankins, a poet and editor in his own right (Weak Devotions, his book of poetry, and Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets, which he edited) is Orison’s founder and editor. With an all-volunteer staff, Orison Books can truly be said to be a labor of love. The spirit behind Orison, I think is evident when you see the work they’ve selected to release. As a book lover and librarian (I know, bit of a redundant statement), it was a real pleasure interviewing Luke Hankins about Orison’s select titles and their approach, and the challenges and rewards involved in their particular literary labor of love.

What’s the story behind Orison Books, and what do you see as its ongoing mission?

I’ve worked as an editor at literary magazines for many years, and while I love the work of producing a magazine, periodicals have an inherently ephemeral aspect. The vast majority of people, if they even read a literary magazine (and let’s be honest, very few Americans do), browse through it once or twice and probably never crack its cover again. For whatever reason, we as a culture treat single-author books differently. They have the potential to remain on our shelves for a lifetime and to be returned to again and again, as a treasured artifact. I longed to present beautiful literary work to the world in the more durable form of the book. While I continue to work as an editor at a literary magazine (Asheville Poetry Review), it’s very gratifying to now be running a publishing press and to see how our books have already begun to impact readers.

I have a longstanding interest in theology and spirituality, so when I considered what the mission of the literary press I might be it was natural for me to incorporate that interest. I also sensed a strong divide in the literary world between “secular” and “religious/spiritual” work. I wanted an approach to the intersections of literature and spirituality that would address this gap by focusing on the life of the spirit from a truly broad and inclusive range of perspectives—one that didn’t represent a particular ideology to a narrow swathe of like-minded people, but one that would include work from any and all perspectives and would appeal to readers interested in exploring the human spiritual impulse, whatever form it might take.

You’ve stated that the American Public Media radio program “On Being” served as a model for how you wanted to pursue your interests at Orison Books. What stood out to you about their approach?

I love how “On Being” seems founded on limitless curiosity about the human spiritual impulse. The standpoint of curiosity and wonder is so much more beautiful and fruitful, in my opinion, than the standpoint of ideology and certainty. Krista Tippett, the host of “On Being,” interviews everyone—religious thinkers, scientists, writers, dancers—you name it. Her open and expansive approach has been an inspiration for me.

What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of being a small press publisher and what have you found most rewarding?

The hardest aspects are without a doubt money and time—in that order! Publishing books is expensive and, if you’re doing it right, time-intensive. Unfortunately, neither I nor my staff are able to do the Orison Books work full time, but make our livings doing other work. Orison Books is completely a labor of love!

We’ve been fortunate, however, to receive support from people around the country who believe in our mission. As a volunteer-run nonprofit with no institutional affiliation, we depend on the ongoing support of donors in order to continue our important work.

The most rewarding aspects of running the press have been ushering powerful work into print that might otherwise have gone unpublished at a mainstream press, and experiencing the gratitude of our authors and readers alike. It fills me with a sense of renewed purpose every time I get a note from someone who has been impacted by one of our books.

Was there anything that stood out to you about Melville as a person or as a writer as you investigated his letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne for The Divine Magnet? Any surprises?

I was definitely surprised at how funny and effusive Melville could be, and how, in his letters to Hawthorne, he so frequently combined humor and good cheer simultaneously with metaphysical yearning. These letters are truly remarkable in that sense. I was also surprised at the depth of feeling that is evident on Melville’s part toward Hawthorne. Perhaps this was merely an intense friendship, but I also sense romantic or erotic passion. Whether this was one-sided or was ever reciprocated is impossible to say, especially since Hawthorne’s side of the correspondence has been lost, and only some of his journal entries on Melville are extant.

Something that stood out to me in reading these letters, and the review Melville wrote about Hawthorne’s work, was the dark depth (much like his own) that he recognized in Hawthorne. That mutual recognition and kinship seemed to be of great encouragement to Melville especially when he declared that Hawthorne had rightly understood the “great whale” story he had showed him, which Melville himself described as a “wicked book”. This strikes me as a perfect capturing of a significant and sustaining moment in the creation of what came to be Moby-Dick.

Imagine how solitary the writer’s life must have been in those days, especially for someone living in a rural area, as Melville did. Most of us have never labored in such solitude, and in fact are on social media multiple times a day, connected to hundreds of fellow writers! Melville’s sense of connection with Hawthorne was undoubtedly intensified by his relative isolation, not to mention the kinship he saw between their work. It does warm the heart to see how much Hawthorne’s appreciation of Moby-Dick meant to Melville, as if Hawthorne were the only person in the world whose opinion really mattered to him.

Could you tell me a little bit about another one of your most recent publications, Two Worlds Exist?

Two Worlds Exist, a poetry collection by Chassidic poet Yehoshua November, has been our most successful to date. It was released at the beginning of November, 2016 and was already our best-selling title when we heard that it was named a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in Poetry. We’ve already gone into a second printing, in fact. A poem from the book was also recently featured in The New York Times Magazine—which for a young literary press like Orison Books is a pretty big deal! Here’s one of my favorite poems from the book:

The Soul in a Body

is like an old Russian immigrant
looking out his apartment’s only window.
Yes, yes, he says.
The landlord printed my name in block letters
on the lobby directory
decades ago.
All correspondence
has been forwarded to this address.
But I am not from here. I am not
from here at all.

In Two Worlds Exist there’s a persistent sense of the spiritual being drawn down into the physical world. November’s writing is very elegant, while the imagery itself is quite simple, often about the people in his life, his own family and religious community. The poems seem driven or moved along by a sense of struggle and a passion to break through the mysteries of his life—the mystery of himself and others, of God and the world, and also of love. There’s a real sweetness and charm there, maybe not what you might first assume when you hear the description “Chassidic poet.”

One of the beautiful things about Chassidic teaching is that it views the lowest state as the very place the soul was intended to enter, created in order to sanctify the physical realm. Consequently, Yehoshua has great regard for those who are less fortunate than he or who are suffering—even in ways with which we might instinctively assume an Orthodox Jew wouldn’t be able to empathize. In a poem about visiting prisoners with fellow rabbinical students, Yehoshua writes:

In our black hats and coats we entered
the lobby of the medium-security compound
and took our place in the check-in line behind a woman
not dressed at all like the rabbinical-school secretary—
the only other female we had seen in weeks.
[ . . . ]
“We can’t let you past the checkpoint dressed like that,”
the crew-cut officer behind the front desk said
to the woman, probably in her thirties, standing, ashamed now,
beside her two small sons. She had
more sensible clothes in her bag, she said.

The rabbinical students proceed to conduct a Chanukah ceremony with the Jewish inmates:

And then we tried to explain
the great Chassidic paradox
as our Rebbe had taught it to us—
how, despite its loftiness, the soul was created
only to sanctify the body,
to lift up the lowest realm.

As they’re leaving the prison parking lot, they see the woman again:

As we pulled out, we could see the woman,
now dressed in a puffy coat and plain winter hat,
packing her two sons into the backseat
of her beat-up sedan.
I imagined her dressing in her bathroom that morning,
applying makeup in the mirror above a sink
spotted with children’s toothpaste,

thinking not at all of the sexual act
but of how to give her husband or boyfriend
something to look forward to.

She must have inhaled deeply
and then squeezed her body into the tight black dress.

This poem moves me every time I read it. I love how the woman dressing in an outfit that would be sinful for an Orthodox Jewish woman to wear becomes an emblem of the soul, squeezing itself into the constraints of the body, the lower realm, and thereby undertaking a heroic spiritual quest. You can really sense the poet’s admiration for this woman, and his belief in the nobility of her soul. This poem is something I—mistakenly—never expected to see from a Chassidic poet, and I was so thrilled when I first read it in the manuscript. This is one of many glorious moments in Two Worlds Exist.

J. Scott Brownlee’s Requiem for Used Ignition Cap is infused by Texas landscape, with its vast sun-bleached horizon—stark but filled with natural beauty. The poems paint a picture of small town working class life intermixed with violence and religion. The reader is soon taken into a world that is both very American, and yet very distinct—Texas being a country unto itself. There’s both a lyricism along with a great spirit of erasure at work in these poems that make this book a singular read. A lament that pulls in a lot of local history, along with its own particular embodiment of grief and loss, it struck me as the work of a masterful poet of place. Is there anything in particular that strikes you about the book?

You’ve done such a wonderful job describing this book, I don’t have much more to add! Scott cares deeply about the place he was raised and the people there, and his empathy for the land and the people constantly shines through these poems. He also finds transcendence in the natural world, even the arid landscape of Llano, Texas.

from “Wildflower Suite”

II. Indian Blankets
The legend claims we were designed
by a dying artist—master
weaver of cloth who desired
to knit burial blankets from us.
And when that artist died, the well-told
story goes, the Great Spirit spread us
to remember his gift and pay deference to it.
But the truth is the orange, red, yellow
of us blistered from the blind land: rising
out of nothing. Why insist repetition
like ours has a cause? We desire to be
and in each ditch blossom. Believe,
gazer, what we are about to tell you:
The world so loved the world it gave itself
to itself, suddenly, in a fit of passion. It took
a hundred trillion years—no star-lit field yet
in which to grow it—for that love to flower.

What are you looking for as far as the work you publish in The Orison Anthology?

The concept of the anthology series is to reprint the finest spiritually engaged writing that appeared in periodicals during the preceding year—similar to the Best American Spiritual Writing series, which ceased publication some years ago. Part of our impulse here is to highlight the array of spiritual writing being produced today, and also—relating to what I said earlier about the ephemerality of periodicals—to try to give this work a chance of being read and treasured more widely.

The inaugural volume of The Orison Anthology contains work by a host of wonderful writers, including Jane Hirshfield, Vandana Khanna, Christian Wiman, Alison Gopnik, Carl Phillips, Franz Wright, Kaveh Akbar, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Molly Reid, and many others.

Ideally, as a publisher, what type of qualities are you looking to establish in your working relationship with authors?

I believe in the editor’s role of collaborating with the author to actually edit the manuscript before publication. There are a lot of editors who simply curate—say yes or no, publish or don’t publish. But I want Orison Books to invest in its authors and in the lasting quality of its books. It’s hard for me to imagine receiving a book manuscript and simply saying, “Ok, it’s perfect! Off to the printers!” I, or one of the Orison genre editors, have spent months working with the authors on each of the books we’ve brought out so far. I see this—as I hope our authors do—as an indication of our belief in their work and the importance we place upon it.

Are there upcoming titles you would like to mention?

In the spring and summer, respectively, we’ll be releasing the winner of our second annual Orison Poetry Prize, Ghost Child of the Atalanta Bloom by Rebecca Aronson, selected by Hadara Bar-Nadav, and the winner of our inaugural Orison Fiction Prize, the novel Miss Portland by David Ebenbach, selected by Peter Orner. It will be especially exciting to release our very first novel!

Later in 2017 will bring another first for us—the release of our first essay collection, The Long Weeping by Jessie van Eerden, which explores the lives of historical women, including Simone Weil and the Beguines, as well as the author’s own religious heritage and upbringing in West Virginia.

Thanks very much for this interview, Brent. It’s been a pleasure!

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