Twenty years before she died, Kathryn Rantala’s sister wrote 20 pages covering the history of her life.
• “I became a Christian and moved away from home. My roommate was so neurotic I couldn’t stand it, so I moved back home.”
• “After the divorce, I played a nun in a commercial for Church’s Fried Chicken. It turned out really well.”
It was a depressing read by the time you got to the end, said Rantala, who runs the small, independent Ravenna Press in Spokane. But she saw something in it worthy of an audience. “A Diary of My Entire Life,” by Linda E. Curtis, is No. 9 in the press’s Artefakta Pamphlet Series.
Along with less-known writers like Curtis, a cartoonist born in Cathlamet, Wash., the series publishes short, sometimes-uncategorizable work by better-known writers including Dawn Raffel, whose memoir “The Secret Life of Objects” appeared on Oprah’s 2012 Summer Reading List; fiction writer Brian Evenson; and poets Norman Lock and John Burgess. The series launched in January.
Now more often a format for refrigerator directions or marketing, the pamphlet has also served as an important tool of political protest. Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” an argument for the American Revolution, was a best-seller, with 200,000 copies in circulation within months of its publication in January 1776. Starting in the 1960s and ’70s, Rantala said, they saw a resurgence as mimeograph machines became common and small presses sprang up.
For Ravenna Press, which publishes mostly literary fiction and poetry, they’re a step down, sizewise, from a chapbook – a vehicle for work that doesn’t quite fit elsewhere.
Rantala calls the pamphlets “collectable ephemera.” Some are serious, some fanciful. They’re inexpensive and meant to be read quickly.
“They’re little bursts of creativity that wouldn’t necessarily go to a magazine or become a book. They may, but sometimes inspiration is fragmentary, and these are meant to be the fragments,” Rantala said. “They’re things that wouldn’t necessarily benefit from enlargement, or explanation.”
Rantala’s sister wrote the story of an ordinary life as complicated as anyone’s, distilled to short paragraphs, honest analysis applied to the facts. The editors incorporated illustrations by the author to make it less depressing.
Raffel’s pamphlet, “Photos from the Lost City,” is a series of black-and-white pictures she took as a Midwesterner new to New York, wandering lower Manhattan in 1979 and 1980 with her beginner’s Nikon in search of “found stories.” A woman leans on a man on a delapidated pier, laundry hangs on lines between tenements.
“In a way it was the beginning of being a writer, in a different way,” Raffel said. “I had saved these photographs, and when I looked at them I thought they’re such an interesting record of a city that just isn’t there anymore.”
Evenson’s pamphlet is a collection of things he overheard on the bus in 1990 in Denver.
“Put together – some of them working against each other, and some of them repeating themes – it turned out to be kind of interesting,” Rantala said. “But where would he publish that, except in a pamphlet?”
In an email interview, Lock, the poet, said he also sees value in preserving artistic “ephemera,” but he considers neither of his pamphlets ephemeral: “I suspect that most of what Artefakta will commemorate will be worthy of perpetuating.”
His collection of brief texts called “Impossible Objects” – a literary equivalent, he said, of M.C. Escher’s graphic inventions – might have been published in a more “substantial” form. But it seemed suited to a pamphlet, which “traditionally has been a provocative, radical form.” Publishing is a lot of work, Rantala said, and marketing unsatisfying. With the rise of self-publishing, there may be more people working to get their words into print than there are readers, she said.
“We just wanted to step back and say, ‘To all you people beating your head trying to get into either an agent’s office or publish your own thing or get into a magazine: Here’s some just nice things that are simply creative, almost for their own sake.’ ”
It all has to do with joy, she said – “the joy of creation, and the joy on the reader’s side of finding something rare.”