Interview by Sue Visakowitz
Poet Stacy Szymaszek announced on her website in November 2021 that she had a “poem in Castle Grayskull but I can’t tell you where to find it.” And that sums up what kind of publication Castle Grayskull is—off-the-grid, old school, kept like a secret (if not intentionally so).
The full-size, side-stapled journal started to appear in people’s mailboxes this past fall with no warning, no contact or ordering information, and a “Published by S. Keletor” attribution. A Google search returns only Szymaszek’s brief mention and a slightly more detailed description of the journal’s contents by Rob McLennan. While an editorial included in the issue did shed some light on the motivations of its editors, poets Garrett Caples and Micah Ballard, we knew there might be more to this story. After all, Castle Grayskull is overflowing with the work of some well-loved writers, from Clark Coolidge and Gregory Corso to Eileen Myles and Diane di Prima, and its charmingly lo-fi approach stands in rather stark contrast to the “vast wasteland of online nothingness, very often just a PDF” that constitutes many a contemporary poetry journal—as is blisteringly noted in the aforementioned editorial.
So, we dropped Ballard and Caples a line by email in hopes of learning a bit more about the origins of Castle Grayskull and what might be coming next. They kindly indulged us, and the intrigue remains high. What follows is the result of our exchange, in full, edited ever so slightly for clarity:
Boog City: Tell me a little bit about the beginnings of Castle Grayskull. How did y’all decide to get it going and what did it entail to get the first issue put together and out into the world?
Castle Grayskull: Every time we hang out, faux magazine titles pop up and this one decided to stick around. Almost as if one stumbled upon a Guided by Voices setlist and the marker bled harder with this title then couldn’t finish off the rest of the words for the same song. We’re thinking of worlds: meaning friends and continuing community without forgetting the super recent older forms of communication—you know, making and holding things passed off through hands, placed in the mail and paying for it, or stickers on the bus, something encrypted and not convenient, which means everything. Passing along a little missive of sorts without anyone knowing you’re doing it. Saying hi on the street.
Holding up this idea of poetic community against the undesigned online PDF, which has become the default mode of poetry magazine. An element of protest, or insistence that making an object is part of the bargain.
So far there’s quite a bit of mystery around this endeavor. Will there definitely be more issues? Do you imagine having a website at some point, or is the mystery part of the offering in your minds?
There’s no mystery; poets have always made their own zines. Sometimes only once, sometimes a bunch run. It’s all pieced together, collaged into what it wants. Score here, pay there, free copies (limited), paper cutter, got one? See you there. You got a space for collating? Thanks, Julien, let’s have a party in your driveway! Does anyone still have fax machines? The heat transfers are super sick.
Castle Grayskull took effort, but it wasn’t difficult. The point was to do it as simply as possible. And to make it a fully offline endeavor. Intended as a one-off but there is a supplement in the works (see below).
How many copies of the first issue did you make? Where did you distribute it? How did you get word out about its existence, or did you just let readers’ word of mouth do the work?
Three hundred copies printed. Three to each poet, so they’d lay two on two other poets. Twenty or so copies sold at poetry friendly bookstores. Otherwise, no attempt to get the word out. Everything was handed off or mailed. It’s just a hang out, as it always is. There’s no predetermined thing, you arrive and banter, you write poems, or you don’t, you skateboard, you do this or that, have a drink or a smoke. Pass this along, let’s connect in whatever way.
This is our way—not knowing where this object is going, and who cares. Not having the ability to have everything at one’s fingertips, but to actually be between the fingers. Actual touch, you know, when you had to move somewhere and be physically present to be noticed. Paper feels the same way. It’s an occasion and you’re there and they’re there.
Can you tell me more about Castle Grayskull’s “aesthetic”? How did you land on the writing/writers you decided to include? (Many of them are well known of course, and I imagine many are also friends. I’d love to know more about how you approached collecting material.) Also, do you have a particular “mission” you’d say you’re pursuing in doing this?
Everyone is a friend or a friend of a friend. It’s embroidery to the fullest, almost accidentally, so we can all hang out on the same stoop together. Lots of ingredients in the gumbo. Think of Wallace Berman and Semina, Ted Berrigan with C, Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh with Angel Hair, Kevin Opstedal with Blue Press, too many to name.
Some of the mission was to put lesser-known poets alongside the well-known. Michael Slosek, who’s done more for more poets than anyone knows, or Jim Dunn, who’s one of the best poets in America but keeps it to himself. People we can put next to Eileen Myles or Clark Coolidge.
Castle Grayskull is its own poem. We stayed out of the way so it could make its way and do what it wanted. Poems write themselves and use what’s around them. Same with zines. One tiny/big tent of sharing sleeping bags and you get to watch things correspond. It’s how we communicate—anything printed on one’s own and distributed however necessary.
There’s a certain Sgt. Pepper element at play, with the idea that this is Skeletor’s magazine, rather than our own. It takes the edge off. The poetry is serious but the zine is fun.
Any particular inspirations you want to acknowledge? I know that exploring fonts was something you were thinking about. What’s some cool stuff that was in the back of your mind when approaching this endeavor?
Pamp’s Red Zone: (716) 674-7100. Ask for Teela.
What is coming next? What would you like the future of Castle Grayskull to be? If there’s a new issue already in the works, can you tell us anything about it/give us a preview?
There’s no plan behind Castle Grayskull so we really don’t know. One thing that is happening, however, is a supplement; Rob McLennan up in Canada asked us to guest edit an issue of his guest-edited zine Guest so we’re using the opportunity to tap people we wanted for Grayskull but ran out of room to include. It won’t be as lush an affair as Grayskull, as Guest has its own format, but it’s already shaping up in a very Grayskull fashion.
Anything I missed? Anything extra you want to share?
We love Bernadette Mayer and Edgar Allan Poe.
MICAH BALLARD was born in Baton Rouge, La., and earned an M.A. and M.F.A. from the New College of California. He studied with poet Joanne Kyger and has written about John Wieners. The influence of the San Francisco Renaissance poets can be seen in Ballard’s work. He is the author of the full-length collections Parish Krewes (Bootstrap Productions), Waifs and Strays (City Lights Books) nominated for the California Book Award, Afterlives (Bootstrap Productions), The Michaux Notebook (FMSBW), and Selected Prose 2008-2019 (Blue Press). He has also published a number of chapbooks, including Absinthian Journal (Old Gold), Bettina Coffin (Red Ant Press), In the Kindness of Night (Blue Press), Evangeline Downs (Ugly Duckling Presse), and Poems from the New Winter Palace (arrow as aarow). Ballard is the administrative director of the M.F.A. program at the University of San Francisco. Image by Lorca Ballard.
GARRETT CAPLES is the author of Lovers of Today and Power Ballads (both Wave Books); Complications (Meritage Books); The Garrett Caples Reader (Angle Press/Black Square Editions), a collection of outtakes; The Rise & Fall of Johnny Volume (FMSBW); and a bilingual selection, Noches Apátridas (Unstated Nights). He’s also written a book of essays, Retrievals, and a pamphlet, Quintessence of the Minor, both from Wave. He’s the editor of Philip Lamantia’s Preserving Fire: Selected Prose (Wave), Samuel Greenberg’s Poems from the Greenberg MSS (New Directions), and Michael McClure’s Mule Kick Blues and Last Poems (City Light Books), as well as the co-editor of The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia (University of California Press), Particulars of Place (Omnidawn Publishing) by Richard O. Moore, and Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New and Selected Poems by Frank Lima and Arcana: A Stephen Jonas Reader (both City Lights Books). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight Poetry Series. He has a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and lives in San Francisco.
SUE VISAKOWITZ (https://www.instagram.com/exiting_in/?hl=en) is a poet and painter who loves to tell the stories of fellow creative types. She got her start reporting on music for various small blogs and eventually publications like Billboard magazine. She is focused on a new series of art projects under the name Exiting In.