Etsii hehkuunsa kirjoja, jotka ansaitsevat lisää huomiota
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The fugitive crosses his tracks, or the legacy of ntamo

Leevi Lehto, 25.7.2016

Early last April, almost exactly nine years after I'd founded my on-demand publishing house ntamo, I was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

A diagnosis can be made when the patient starts to present with motor dysfunction of the limbs (often either side at first), and yes, as I write this I’m finding it difficult to type Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V –  what I once called the formula for revolution –  with just my leftie. Still, this is just a part of the clinical presentation and I’m aware that I am in the 30th percentile of patients whose primary symptom is a sort of existential fatigue coupled with bouts of anxiety. It’s thought that such signs can be triggered up to a decade before the appearance of physical symptoms. The disease comes if it is to come, life choices hardly factor in. Therefore ntamo can’t be the cause – but I’ve had to ask myself, now that my awareness of an ”incurable, advancing” disease is prompting me to leave ntamo behind: what about the other way around? What if it was the disease that caused the publishing shenanigans?

You can be a prophet elsewhere, but you can only properly provoke among your own kin.

My own idea of the future, at least, was radically different around 2006-7. I had positioned myself – or my poet-self: not the same thing – in global contexts above all. I saw myself (and others saw me) in the vanguard of American avant garde, and I had started to network in other directions, too: the Nordics, Central Europe, Latin America, China… I considered my ”Finnishness” to be an asset in this: someone coming from a small, secluded language area could approach questions and initiate critiques that would have been impossible for almost anyone else. And vice versa: the global context allowed me to see Finnishness differently. I was aware of the similarities between my cultural orientation and Joyce’s self-imposed exile or fugitive position – now I can also see a difference: some 60s (perhaps partly 70s) sensibility in me prevented me from raising my own artistic work up as intrisically first and foremost. At least up until the Parkinson’s diagnosis all of my actions – and please note I don’t mean anything as conventional as ”political poetry” – were being guided by the attitude of the final line in a rare poem from my early middle age: ”And I wouldn’t wish for the world to be as it is” (in Parnasso 4/1982).

The fact that ntamo eventually became a distinctly domestic project – and that I never ended up continuing my global networking or my ”own” artistic activities – may seem like a ”patriotic” choice, but I saw things differently then. Finland as a home base just felt like the most opportune field for the M.O. that I developed in the early 2000s, which was characterized by a certain recklessness, (an occasionally acted-out) daring – and facing the world through provocations. I targeted it at Finland consciously, from the point of view of an ”internal exile”. Even today most people will remember ntamo for some of my early slogans (”Never to a book fair.” ”More poetry collections than all the others combined”). The key word here is provocation: you can be a prophet elsewhere, but you can only properly provoke among your own kin.

Yet I’m now inclined to assess the development of ntamo against the backdrop of Parkinson’s, as well. Among the mental effects of my illness is the weakening of the ability to manage complex circumstances. So even though I learned to quickly pound out new books into the world at a pace that many were amazed at, I was no longer quite the literary ”multi-talent” in, say, 2009, as which people used to know me. The panic and anxiety I mentioned began to interfere with my communication with authors and other collaborators, and soon I was as hard to reach as the late great Jarkko Laine during his time as the editor of Parnasso magazine. (At the time I also saw acute ”psychic” reasons for this: now I understand, to my relief, that it was all ”just” because of the gradual but inevitable destruction of dopamine-producing cells in the substantia nigra of my brain).

So I did what I was able to (and in 2010-12 I managed to finish my Ulysses project as well). There’s definitely some irony in the fact that focusing on producing books and to an extent neglecting to promote them echoes the spirit and meaning of the original provocation – and I believe that my illness has made me do things and make choices that work better as responses to a changing operating environment than anything I could have come up with if I were completely healthy.

Indeed, when some of ntamo’s books from the early years received some media recognition despite my passivity (for instance, Lassi Hyvärinen’s and Olli-Pekka Tennilä’s poetry collections were shortlisted for the Helsingin Sanomat literary prize), it started to show somewhat in sales turnover. Since then such an effect has been harder to observe, even with books for the so-called broader populace, such as an ntamo book on opera singer Taru Valjakka, written by Marja Ahonala. It was impressively featured in dailies and morning television, and also garnered a long, gushing, and sales-boosting critique in the main newspaper that now essentially boycots ntamo, yet failed to sell much more than any of the collections of poetry. It’s enough to make you take it personally, but after talking with colleagues from bigger and smaller publishers I’ve understood that the blame is not with ”me” or even with ntamo, but with the changed logic of distribution. A book is no longer propelled to success by its quality or lack thereof, its deviance or scandalousness, no matter how much chatter it causes – these days a certain complicated system has to define it as best-sellable beforehand. It’s like a colleague put it: ”There have always been these pre-sold books, but why does it have to be the only kind now?”

A book is no longer propelled to success by its quality or lack thereof, its deviance or scandalousness, no matter how much chatter it causes.

I understand enough about economic processes to not be able to quite write about this in a mournful way. Development is performed by a system or ”machinery”, but not one whose functions can be influenced. The individual agents of marketing and distribution are even less to blame – which I understood in 2013 at latest, when the influential Academic Bookstore turned to me to discuss what should be done after they were unable to take on any more of ntamo’s books – whose sales they assumed to be low – due to certain changes to the discount policies of the wholesale game. Of course I was of no use: the market had spontaneously brought about the premise of early ntamo, which was that books don’t need to be marketed at all because it wouldn’t make a lick of difference. It’s all well and good that I was already hard at work on the next batch of books.

And yet it also isn’t correct to say that publishers were once able to publish more varied and independent literature because it somehow sold better back then. Based on several sources, I have a hunch that the now-mythical conception of the supposedly perpetual 200-300-copy sales for poetry collections is exaggerated. I rather believe that at the time when the massive Finnish houses WSOY and Otava published dozens of poetry books a year, their sales were lower than today. The production conditions were just different in a way that publishers could suffer severe losses without batting an eye.

I notice that by production conditions here I mean the preconditions under which books can be published – and written (or otherwise created: there are other ways). So I will have to slightly revisit perhaps the most popular of the early ntamo catchphrases, where I posited that ”nothing that initially interests more than seven people can ever alter the consciousness of the masses”. Despite the multiple ironic undertones here, I still seem to indicate that the final goal of literature is to be read – by ”masses”, whatsmore, and bought by same. I no longer think that way. My view is – and both ntamo and my illness have taught me – that it is enough for literature to be written, and that in the end the only significant readers of any book are the ones through whom it creates new writing. Everyone else – and regardless of how much joy and what experiences they glean from books – are the benign parasites of literature. In this spirit I venture to suspect that the work of the likes of Paavo Haavikko has never reached so many as seven readers, while I happily admit that fewer would do (and perhaps that I would gladly see myself as that seventh reader…).

I believe that even at the cost of all that pain and frustration that I’ve caused by not answering the phone, forgetting to send book copies to competitions and magazines, or simply neglecting PR and release party details, I’ve still conferred to my 200-odd authors the singular favor of making their books exist. I also believe it is better that there are some 400 titles in my stable (not counting facsimiles) than any less. And finally, I also believe that if I had been allowed to continue to nurture book production, quantity would – for once – have transformed into (marketable) quality with time and ntamo itself would have been advertisement enough.

I’m not able to complain about the change in production conditions – even as it has been a boon for ntamo. I probably realized this in 2010, when Otava published Harry Salmenniemi’s excellent Texas, sakset collection – in itself a fine example of the breaktrough of the aims associated with experimental literature and the avant garde championed by me, ntamo, and others, but funnily combined with the weakening of the production conditions of poetry and other low-circulation literature in general. Even Otava was curtailing its poetry book publication list, and I believe at least one of the titles they scrapped ended up on my table. I’d long been noticing that one of the ntamo dimensions had to do simply with exploring all the things that are left unpublished in the country; now I realized that ntamo could, and should, and it would almost be enough for it to publish everything considered surplus by others for production reasons, seeing that, with print-on-demand, the minimum production costs of a new book are still no more than 10 euros + VAT.

This may put ntamo – yes – in the position of a parasite: a surrogate, shadow, or ghost publisher, but in a way that could potentially hold far-reaching cultural significance. Thus it has been great to be able to publish poets from the sticks, for whom the yellow brick road to the capital’s publishing houses has been blocked by sheer geographical distance. It has been rewarding as well to act against the ageism also proliferating in literature, and in time many more maestros of past decades probably could have moved over to ntamo with Jyrki Pellinen and Kari Aronpuro, or like Hannu Mäkelä started to publish their more challenging oeuvre here – with heretofore unseen freedom. Plays… A genre likely thought dead and buried does well printed on demand and is profitable without trouble. Jakke Holvas, Jussi Kotkavirta, Juhani Pallasmaa, Liisa Enwald, Esko Karppinen, Paavo Heininen, Pertti Julkunen, Juri Nummelin, Raila Knuuttila, and Jan Blomstedt are examples of essayists – another endangered species – for whom ntamo has been a natural choice, even the only one.

The only significant readers of any book are the ones through whom it creates new writing.

It might almost look like this venture, born an internal exile and a provocation factory, was becoming a national institution. But that was still only because the provocation has retained its original strength (definition: poetry is provocation that stays provocation). One might also say that where early ntamoan ambitions were limited to bringing a piquant avant garde flavor to a literature otherwise considered complete, the (mole’s) work now being interrupted concerns the very keystones of our culture. And yes, as part of this I would’ve also liked to revolutionize the history of our literature by producing more facsimiles of older books – a production line passed on to me by the Kirja kerrallaan publisher –  with a sharpening focus on exhibiting various ”forgotten” traditions: parasitic publishing and cultural work par excellence. In case I’m starting to sound megalomaniacal, I’ll throw in a few production figures. ntamo’s title amounts have been 96 in 2013; 80 in 2014; and 55 in 2015. The overall sales in that same time: 10,592 books in 2013; 11,934 books in 2014; and 7,935 books in 2015. And the corresponding gross profits (the value of sales minus production costs and royalties): 77,000 euros in 2013; 89,000 euros in 2014; and 68,000 euros in 2015. It would have been great to go on from here, and I don’t think I would have been able to refuse.

In summary: I believe the publishing activities of all the large and most mid-sized publishers will come to move towards the diminishing direction of pre-sold books I’ve described. The vacuum they leave behind can be filled by smaller publishers also working with a more traditional model, whose strength will increasingly consist of specialization: the construction of each individual scene. But – precisely because it is in the nature of a scene to saturate its field – they cannot exhaust the entire publishing trade. In this way there is room for a third model, for which ntamo strove. It is indeed related to the general publishing houses of old – with the one difference that the ideal of publishing ”everything” may now be profitable in itself. I would have liked to put that into effect. I don’t know if someone else can. I’m open to discussions of continuing ntamo’s efforts with other resources. If such a prospect does not present itself, I will keep the already published books on sale, finish a few unfinished publications – and perhaps settle in future for bringing more facsimiles to the market, with a light hand, just to add a little to my pension.

So how am I doing? (I’m not sure if anyone asked). Well, I’m getting to grips with a new life. It is no longer possible to hope that ”the world wouldn’t be as it is” – since it presents itself to me through a process at work in my own nervous system over which I know I have no control. On the contrary, I need to get used to receiving what is given (no liturgical undertone intended). I have to learn to avoid commitments – and this is probably the last commissioned document I’ll write for a deadline (no pun intended). After years of proactivity this is challenging, but also interesting: perhaps I’ll finally get to know where pure spontaneity – if there is such a thing – will take me. I’ve been joking for years that perhaps I still have time to get to work on my actual life’s work. Who knows – perhaps. Perhaps it was for the best that I got sick.

Perhaps the fugitive will cross his tracks once more.

 

Leevi Lehto

Translated into English by Kasper Salonen