Briar DeHaven is a poet, writer, and tech head who hails from the South Dakotan prairie. She is Digital Marketing Executive for the Asheville Citizen-Times, assistant editor for...
Launching Orison Books
Recently I sat down with editor and poet Luke Hankins to discuss the launch of his new literary press, Orison Books. Founded by Hankins to fill a gap in literary publishing, Orison Books will publish work that focuses on the life of the spirit from a non-ideological standpoint. As explained from the website:
Orison [awr-uh-zuhn] is an archaic word that means “prayer.” We at Orison Books believe that the best spiritual art and literature call us to meditate and contemplate, rather than asking us to adopt any ideology or set of propositions. This type of art evokes the human experience of transcendence and explores the mysteries of being, and in so doing opens our minds and hearts to the divine and the possibility of becoming the fullest humans we can be.
I’ve known Luke since I moved to Asheville two years ago, and I have time and again sat in awe at his passion for the life of literature. He seeks, above all else, to read, write, and promote work worthy of mention and subsists on a quest for the ineffable. His is a model to note: one of determination to enliven the half-sleeping world with works of startling beauty.
Interview with Luke Hankins
What is a literary press, and why are you starting one?
The term “literary press” may be unfamiliar or confusing to those outside the world of writers and publishers. A literary press is a particular type of book publishing company, one that is interested in producing books for their literary value, rather than for their commercial marketability. For this reason, literary presses are usually much smaller than commercial publishers (such as the New York publishing houses), and depend on the support of the community in order to do the important work of publishing excellent writers and bringing literature to readers who will treasure it. The word “press,” originating from the printing press machine, might evoke images of heavy equipment stamping ink onto pages. But literary presses don’t always do the physical book production themselves, but rather outsource it to a printing company who can produce the books far more efficiently and cheaply than could be done on a small scale. So, as a literary press, Orison Books will select books for publication based on their literary merit, will edit and design them, and will hire a third party company to print and distribute them. This is a standard practice in the field of literary publishing.
The reason I’m starting Orison Books is that I’ve long been interested in literature that engages spiritual ideas from an exploratory standpoint, not attempting to advocate for a particular ideological viewpoint, but rather attempting to convey the momentary experiences of transcendence that characterize the spiritual life. There are a lot of publishers out there these days, but very few, if any, focus on the life of the spirit, without sacrificing literary quality.
Orison Books is based in Asheville, but will publish authors from all over the country, and distribute its books nationally. What will be its connection to Asheville, and how will it benefit the local community?
The mission of Orison Books is to publish spiritually engaged poetry, fiction, and non-fiction books of exceptional literary merit, and to promote cultural conversation around the intersections of spirituality and literature. Our mission doesn’t involve an intentional effort to publish authors from the Asheville area—and I think that’s a good thing for the Asheville literary community for a couple reasons. First, it will allow us to publish the highest quality work available, rather than being restricted by a geographical focus. Another big benefit is that we will bring talented writers from across the country to town for public events. We plan to host events in the Asheville area each year, such as readings, panel discussions, workshops, and symposia, in order to engage the local community in discussions around spirituality and literature. That being said, the literary community in Asheville is diverse and strong, so it’s very likely that Orison Books will publish authors from this area in addition to authors from elsewhere.
There has been a lot of debate lately on a national level about the role or purpose of poetry in our society, such as in an article in the New York Times a few days ago. Orison Books will publish books in all genres—poetry, fiction, and non-fiction—but its first book is a poetry collection, and you serve as Senior Editor at the literary magazine Asheville Poetry Review, so the issue seems relevant. Does poetry matter, and why is it important?
I find that these kinds of articles are usually designed to provoke emotional responses—and high website traffic—rather than to pursue a sincere inquiry. Poetry matters every day to a multitude of people. It doesn’t matter to everyone, of course, nor should we expect or hope for it to. Opera doesn’t matter to everyone, nor glass blowing, nor abstract painting. And yet these are activities that many of our fellow humans dedicate great time, energy, and talent to, and care passionately about. The same is true of poetry. Art, in all its variety, is central to what being human means. We are makers, and in the act of making or of appreciating something someone else has made, perhaps that’s one of the times we come closest to fully apprehending the value of each individual and of the world we inhabit, and therefore becoming more empathetic beings. I’m reminded of something wonderful that the poet Christian Wiman said: “Let us remember . . . that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”
How will Orison define work that reaches toward the spirit? Couldn’t one argue that all art and literature, in some sense, seek to question or understand, to find meaning in the world, and to reach toward something higher than one’s self—in other words, the spirit?
I admit that this is a difficult question, one which the staff members at Orison Books have discussed amongst ourselves, without reaching many definite conclusions. The term “spiritual” itself is problematic, as it has different connotations for different people. But what we do know is that we are interested in people’s various notions of what constitutes spirituality and spiritual literature, and we hope to encourage cultural conversation around the very question you’re asking me. In other words, we are more interested in your question than in coming to a conclusion about it. And isn’t this, after all, the function of the best art—not to give us answers, but to provoke contemplation, to spur us to ask complex and important questions, and to help us learn to listen to one another?
One might argue, as you suggest, that all works of art and literature seek a means of transcending our ordinary ways of being—but I’d say this is certainly a matter of degree. There is a whole lot of art in the world that can easily be viewed as having a more mundane or pragmatic purpose, such as songs that are primarily intended as political statements, or paintings that are pleasant to look at but which don’t contain the complexity of idea or execution that would elevate them above the status of the decorative, or page-turner novels that are exciting and action-packed but lack a deep consideration of the human condition, or poems that are clever or technically impressive but which don’t seem likely to profoundly affect the way we think of the world and the ways we act in it.
While it would be impossible to describe every kind of writing that would strike us at Orison Books as “spiritual,” we can say with certainty that our concept of spiritual writing is not limited to the religious realm, although it does include it as well. Spirituality is a broad category for us, and some of our writers will come from religious traditions, while others will come from perspectives outside of religion.
In the end, the term “spiritual” is indeed vague, and what one person considers spiritual art, another may not. We at Orison Books like the freedom this gives us to define spiritual literature subjectively—curatorially—as we receive manuscripts and discuss with one another what best fits our instincts about spiritual art. For us, spiritual literature is more about the effect it has on the reader than it is about subject matter, so we are open to books on any and all subjects. We believe that the best literature has the power to transform us from the inside out, and those are the kind of books we want to publish.
Orison Books Indiegogo Campaign
To launch this non-profit book press, contributions are needed. If you believe, as we believe, writing that meditates on the spirit of our existence is vital, consider giving a donation. Every dollar makes a difference.
Luke Hankins is the founder and Editor of Orison Books. He is the author of a collection of poems, Weak Devotions, and the editor of Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets (both from Wipf & Stock). His newest book, The Work of Creation: Selected Prose, is forthcoming from Wipf & Stock in 2015. Hankins is a graduate of the Indiana University M.F.A. program, where he held the Yusef Komunyakaa Fellowship in Poetry. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous publications, including American Literary Review, Contemporary Poetry Review, Image, New England Review, Poetry East, and The Writer’s Chronicle, as well as on the American Public Media national radio program “On Being.” He serves as Senior Editor at Asheville Poetry Review.
Briar DeHaven is a poet and writer living in Asheville, NC. She is a Reader for Asheville Poetry Review and Orison Books. Her poetry has appeared in The Freeman, for which she was nominated for a Push Cart Prize, and her fiction has appeared in Underbelly.