RSS Feed

Rich Soos and Cholla Needles Press Interview by John Brantingham

Rich Soos and Cholla Needles Press Interview by John Brantingham

Just outside Joshua Tree National Park is the city of Joshua Tree, which has drawn artists and writers to itself forming a community of creative people in the Mojave Desert. Within this community is Rich Soos and Cholla Needles Arts & Literary Library, which have created a space for these folks to share their creativity. He publishes a monthly literary magazine and hosts readings to celebrate each new issue. He also makes sure Cholla Needles is involved with other local events including the Big Read put on each year by the Arts Connection of San Bernardino County.  In 2021 the Big Read featured the U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo.

       What I find particularly fascinating however, is Cholla Needles’ publishing project. Soos publishes a wide range of work, but his series of books of poets who are also visual artists is stunning. These are often about forty pages and include full color art. They often feature desert themes and capture the spirit of the Joshua Tree’s arts community well with authors and artists like Kendall Johnson, Cynthia Anderson, Susan Abbott, Zara Kand, and Cindy Rinne, serious writers who take their art just as seriously. The effect is a body of work that is the best of what ekphrasis does, where the art and words work in unison to make new connections, to create new ideas, that the art or words alone could not do. These are not just exceptional books. This is an exceptional series.

      I wanted to understand the collaborative process between him and his writer/artists, so I talked to him about the project.

John:   Would it be fair to say that you are deeply involved in a collaborative process that is not just you printing the work, but helping the artists/writers to draw out ideas that they might not have necessarily found on their own?

Rich:   Well, a lot depends on the author. I am always involved in the collaborations, obviously. How deeply depends on the other parties involved. There are some poets/artists that I spend lots and lots of time with attempting to craft a final product that works. There are others who are excellent at self-editing, and describing their vision well, so I’m largely the old guy in the background making sure the technology matches their vision. 

John:   Did you self-consciously decide to develop this art/poetry project? Do you even see it as a project or is it just something that naturally built itself?

Rich:   I walked into pie for the people in Joshua Tree for some pizza and saw artwork on the walls that knocked me over. I discovered an artist who had placed my deepest dreams and poetry onto canvas and was fascinated. I found my heart pouring out words that had been waiting for these images and created two proofs – one called Interiors, and one called Exteriors. I created the proofs before talking to the artist because I did not have the language to explain the vision I had for these publications. The cover of both was the same, the titles were different. When I took the proofs to the artist we immediately bonded and collaborated to help make the vision I had a mutual vision. This experience started the series of art/poetry books and is solely the fault of Zara Kand. Without her art speaking directly to me this would never have started. I’m not sure the word “project” is the correct term, I just know it was something I had to do to satisfy my own need to see poetry and art that moved my soul become a single unit. I do like your description, “naturally built itself”.

     Many of these art books have come together the same way. A vision in my head that I can only express through the printing process. As an example, Cindy Rinne submitted a book of poetry that she wanted me to publish Called Moon of Many Pebbles. I loved the words, and was willing to publish them in the same way as most of our books – black words on white paper. As I read through the words I kept seeing her art, so using the same format, I decided to try the art/poetry approach to add a vivid dimension to the reading experience. Again, I was unable to use words to explain the vision, so I made up a proof version and shared it with Cindy. She was very happy with the presentation, and from that first proof we were able to collaborate to make the vision a mutual one.

      Now, of course, folks have seen quite a few of these books and are able to send me material to create these art/poetry books using their vision. For example here, I had published work by Cynthia Anderson and Susan Abbott. Cynthia saw Susan’s work and wanted to have her words enhanced by including full color pieces with her words. And that beautiful collaboration became Now Voyager. We have over 25 of these books by many folks available now, and I am proud of the series. Each book is unique, and meets a specific creative desire within me. I love the technical challenge of turning the vision in my head into a work of art others want to hold in their hands. 

John:   Would it be fair to say that you are deeply involved in a collaborative process that is not just you printing the work, but helping the artists/writers to draw out ideas that they might not have necessarily found on their own?

Rich:   Well, a lot depends on the author. I am always involved in the collaborations, obviously. How deeply depends on the other parties involved. There are some poets/artists that I spend lots and lots of time with attempting to craft a final product that works. There are others who are excellent at self-editing, and describing their vision well, so I’m largely the old guy in the background making sure the technology matches their vision. 

John:   I’m wondering about your placement in the Mojave desert and if that’s influenced the way you’ve developed as a press.

Rich:   My “placement” in the Mojave desert was simply a result of the big real estate crash of 2008. I had always wanted to move here since my first visit in 1972, and by 2008 I was very close to “retirement”.  We had honestly given up on ever being able to return to California to live because of the ridiculous costs of homes. In 2008 real estate prices were slashed to 25% of what they were in previous years, and we immediately bought our retirement home because we knew that was a once every 20-30 years opportunity. The entire country has experienced the doubling and tripling of real estate prices in the past few years, so I made a good decision. There’s no way we could afford to move here now.

We had come to Joshua Tree every summer and I can’t deny it’s influenced me as a writer and artist – and probably as an editor. I have a deep love for work that is sparse and carries deep meaning below the surface, and I’m sure that comes from my walks in the desert. Also, our motto here at Cholla Needles is from a poem I wrote 40 years ago when I learned the hard way the strength of those little needles. The motto basically says that I look for work that slices through the surface, and leaves a healthy scar long afterwards. Poetry should bear repeated readings, and stay deep within us long after we’ve turned the page.

The development of the Cholla Needles phenomena happened quickly once we started. My initial desire was simply to have a monthly magazine. I started receiving full length manuscripts almost immediately, and when I’m presented with work I know others should be reading, I can’t help but desire to print it. In five years we’ve published 60 monthly issues and over 120 books.   

John:   Speaking of the monthly magazine, you’ve told me that you draw many of the people you publish from Cholla Needles Magazine. This involves both art and writing as well. Was one of your impulses for book publishing to get a more complete vision of individual artists?

Rich:   Cholla Needles magazine is presented as what I call 10 mini-chapbooks between two covers. This was on purpose – to give readers a real good flavor of each writer and artist. And you are correct, this mini-chapbook is a mere taste of what they are capable of, and the books offer much more depth into the authors. I did plan that specific requirement – that an author or artist appear in Cholla Needles prior to being considered for a book – for a reason. My sanity. I always feel obligated to read material that comes across my threshold. I’m sure no one would be surprised how many people have book manuscripts ready to be read. Any editor will tell you – it is very easy to become overwhelmed. By making sure authors/artists first appear in the magazine before I read their full book manuscript, I save a lot of time. I do believe the best books come from mutual respect and a willingness to work together. If we can work together to get their work prepared for the mini-chapbook, we have a much better chance of some real success with a 120 page book. 

John:   Do you have any plans or dreams for the future of the press or do you plan for it just to develop organically?

Rich:   Oh yes, we have dreams, big dreams! However, our plan at this point is simple – to survive the pandemic, and to build back to where we were pre-pandemic. 

            Understandably people’s financial situations have been in havoc the past sixteen months and their ability and desire to support magazines like ours has almost disappeared.

            Our three dreams remain the same, the same dreams we have included in our non-profit by-laws. 

            First, we’d love to pay our authors and artists. Our plan pre-pandemic was to change from a single copy to several copies as payment starting 2022, with the continued dream of being able to pay in greenbacks as we grow. 

            The second dream is to move our library from the garage into a site that would double as a poetry bookstore/art gallery. The dream is to sell new poetry from around the world, and maintain our library for the classic books of poetry that are no longer available for sale. We have several thousand books in the library already, and it continues to grow. Many writers donate their own books to the library, as well as books they’ve collected that they no longer have room for. 

            And finally, the biggest dream was practical pre-pandemic, but since real estate prices have tripled in the past 16 months it feels impractical. That said, a dream can still be a dream, and we want to have a Cholla Needles retreat where poets can reserve a place to come from anywhere in the world to be inspired by our beautiful landscape to either start a new book, or find the peace to complete a project they are working on. The dream is to have this space available to writers at no cost and underwritten by donations from patrons of the arts. There are folks who still do that and we simply wait for the right ones who love Cholla Needles and love our area and love writers. The perfect trifecta.

            In the meantime, as these dreams continue to motivate and inspire our board members we will continue to develop organically. Last year for example, a single board member pointed out since I was answering emails 10-12 hours a day seven days a week that I didn’t have time for my own writing. I hadn’t stopped to consider that, but it was true, so I asked the simple question – how do we change that? She suggested “guest editors.” Such a simple, organic solution, and yes, we have had four issues by guest editors in the past year, and it’s been so successful we will continue to keep that new tradition alive.

    We’ve been blessed to be able to continue publishing during these days when folks are more focused on survival than poetry. Maintaining our schedule has proven to be inspirational to our readers, and their monthly notes of thanks and praise help us tremendously. Mutual love and respect. Good times!!!

John Brantingham 10th September 2021

One response »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: