TWENTY YEARS AGO, Portland-based writer Kevin Sampsell started Future Tense Books—predating the era of desktop publishing, long before the existence of online writers' networks. Armed with a mailing list and countless trips to the local photocopier, Sampsell began publishing works by himself and writers he liked, and over the past two decades, Future Tense has amassed a catalog of over 50 publications (Sampsell isn't sure of the exact number)—short stories, poetry, flash fiction, and more. The micro-press celebrates its 20th birthday at Disjecta this Friday, September 24, with a free event featuring readings from over a dozen Future Tense authors, including Chelsea Martin, Emily Kendal Frey, Zachary Schomburg, Richard Meltzer, and more. Sampsell, whose A Common Pornography memoir was published by Harper Perennial earlier this year, also curates the small-press section at Powell's and contributes writing to publications including the Mercury. Over a rainy afternoon drink, we talked about DIY publishing, the ever-growing network of underground writers, and the importance of a good stapler (Sampsell swears by PaperPro).
MERCURY: What was the first Future Tense publication?
KEVIN SAMPSELL: The first chapbook I did was something called Words of Eternal Chaos [laughs], and the second one was called Con. I think the first four things were just my little books when I was living in Spokane that I would sell at open mics. Then I moved to Arkansas and did some pamphlets. It was just my stuff for the first couple years. It wasn't until I moved to Portland [in 1992] that I started to publish other people. I was really influenced by the K Records catalogs, the little one-sheet of paper that they would mail out that would have descriptions of stuff. I don't think I intended Future Tense to be a publishing house or business or anything; it was just something to put on my books, to fool others into thinking that it was from another publisher.
Was there a point when you were like, "I'm going to keep doing this no matter what"?
Yeah. I think I realized that pretty quickly after coming here, and working with and really liking some of the writers I had met. And also, just liking Portland as a city and as a literary community. It's really supportive. We have places like Powell's and Reading Frenzy and other stores that are totally willing to support stuff like this. I knew it was something I wanted to do because I really enjoyed putting stuff out by other people.
How do you find writers to publish?
Basically, just being around writers and knowing a lot of writers for the past 20 years. I discover some people from seeing their stuff online or in magazines. A lot of them are people who haven't published a collection yet, so that's really exciting, while some of them are people who have published a collection and I want to publish their next one.
Is there a house "style," or a certain kind of writing you look for?
I try not to have a really predictable style in what I put out. I want each book to be a little bit different from the last, or to be surprising in some way. I don't have super-wide tastes in literature myself, but I think I'm able to spot qualities I really like. I would say there's not a definable thread through all the different releases, but I do really like dark comedy, I like sexual stuff, I like things that are ridiculously funny, and I like gritty, real stuff about humans... basically, just stuff about humans!
So, no talking animals.
Well, talking animals are okay sometimes.