Interview with August Smith of Cool Skull Press

Today I interviewed August Smith, author of The Mario Kart 64 Poems and founder of Cool Skull Press, which publishes “limited run chapbooks that are funny and that engage with pop culture, video games, glitch art, etc.” August and I worked together at a Writing Center in Michigan a few years ago, and recently, he asked me to be one of the editors of an anthology he’s producing called Goddessmode. In this interview, I ask August about the anthology, his press, his favorite Pokémon, and more. Enjoy!

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– What inspired you to start Cool Skull Press?

I was always equally as interested in creating books as much as I was interested in writing them. My dad owned a photo developing studio for the first half of my life, so as a kid I had access to copy machines, printers, scanners, cameras, etc. I’d make little comics staple-bound in manila folders and try to sell them to people, or I’d print business cards with my occupation listed as “Video Game Player” or something. I think that’s part of the reason why interacting with the book as a printed physical object is important to me.

Over the past four years, as I became more and more involved in contemporary literature, it became apparent that starting a small press was a conceivable undertaking. There was nothing stopping me from buying a URL, building a website, learning InDesign, networking a bit, and focusing my free time into creating a platform and voice for the literary projects I wanted to do. So that’s pretty much what happened. I learned a ton about running a web presence from Steven Michael Holmes and MostlyMidwest.com; that partnership was instrumental in the creation of Cool Skull Press.

I’ve heard it said that we’re living in a “golden age” of indie presses and publications, and though I don’t really have the context to substantiate that claim, it rings true to me. I’m constantly excited and inspired by the books people are putting out these days, and in general I want to participate in that conversation. I think my literary tastes are a little left-of-center—I like bizarre, gimmicky, kitschy, humorous, awkward, digital, and/or confusing literature—so I knew I could pull together these various tastes into a consistent publishing aesthetic. On top of that, I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by talented and inspirational artists who I knew would be more than happy to assist me.

The final piece of the puzzle was finding the first book to publish. In January of 2014, Alec Robbins sent me the early drafts of his “Lost Levels” poems, and I knew that was the one.

– What’s the significance of the press’s name?

I went through many name ideas, pitching them to friends, doodling them variously in my notebooks, etc. and Cool Skull Press just clicked immediately across the board. It’s weird, memorable, and meme-able. It’s fun to say out loud and has nice visual symmetry. It’s easy to design for because I just incorporate skulls into everything. When you hear the name “Cool Skull Press,” you almost know what to expect and what we’re going for. Or maybe you have no idea what to expect, which also works for me.

For what it’s worth, my mom hates the name.

– How much work is it running a press?

This is hard for me to gauge because I don’t know exactly what people consider “a lot of work.” I’m sort of a high-energy high-motivation low-focus individual, so I’m probably not the best metric for how much work a press requires.

I will say this: it’s more work than I thought. I work on it every single day, I spend my own money on it, and I probably think about it every other hour. But it’s really satisfying; there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

– How do you find new authors?

So far, it just kind of happens. My querying process is intentionally vague. The next chapbook we’re publishing came out of a conversation I had in a bar in Chicago a couple of months ago, for example. As I mentioned before, I’m surrounded by supportive and creative people and I basically rely on this ever-expanding network to connect me with the people I need to know. I also try to keep my finger on the pulse of the internet/video games/alternative literature world.

One thing I’ve learned through my work with Cool Skull Press is to never be apprehensive about reaching out to people and artists you admire and want to work with. If you’re sincere about it, people can tell. People will respond.

– What drew you to Mario Kart 64 for your latest chapbook?

From the beginning, I knew I wanted my next book to be about video games in some way. Lately I’ve been ruminating on a question that goes something like this: if we think of video games as small realities, what can we learn about our own reality by exploring these worlds? Or put differently: if I use a certain video game world (for example, Mario Kart’s world) as a large, complex metaphor for our own world, what is revealed? It opens up a wealth of strange questions: if we could reach into a game world, as inconceivable as this is, would we appear as Gods? Is God just someone running a video game-like simulation? Why are video game realities so full of terrifying violence? What does that say about the civilization that creates these games? Are the rules of our universe as arbitrary as those of, say, Pacman? These questions fascinate me and I think they’re pertinent.

Choosing Mario Kart 64 worked with these questions on several levels. It’s a game that a lot of people have nostalgic attachment to, myself included. The Mushroom Kingdom universe is so colorful and has been developed over the course of 30+ years, so that gave me a lot of fun material to work with. And honestly, the idea was just kind of funny. I like the idea of taking a gimmick too far and making it serious. There are questions about life and death and morality and God in this book and I hope that surprised people.

– How do The Mario Kart 64 Poems relate to your previous chapbooks (or stand-alone poems/stories)?

The Mario Kart 64 Poems is probably the best thing I’ve written. It also took the least amount of time to write, and it gave me an escape from the voice I’ve defined for myself in my other poems. I guess it’s only related to my other books by being different from them.

Video games have appeared in my work before—I reference Counter Strike 1.6 in my first chapbook, I have a poem about Ecco the Dolphin in the second one, and I talk about Super Mario 64 in my third one—but they’ve never figured as largely as they do in this book.

– You’ve written a lot of hilarious literature (“Waka Flocka Flame & I,” “Depressed Obama,” etc.). Can you tell us a little bit about what inspires you to write funny stuff?

It’s just what comes easiest to me. I think humor can be partly about coping, like I’m trying to make serious or confusing or complex things funny and absurd in order to understand them. Another reason I focus on humor is because when I really started taking poetry seriously, I was doing a lot of poetry readings and open mics, and I was always gunning for those Big Laughs. I like being a crowd pleaser!!!!!

– What are your hopes for Goddessmode?

I’m in a good place mentally right now because I’m no longer hoping that we get submissions. We got submissions and they’re great, and I know there are more on the way because submissions are open until March 25. Now, the main hope is that the project raises some money and support for Feminist Frequency and Girls Who Code. I also hope that in the future we can do Goddessmode: Level 2 or an online supplement called Goddessmode: Unlimited Ammo or something like that.

– What’s the significance of the anthology’s title?

It’s a play off “godmode,” which is a video game trope, usually a cheat or a power up that grants invincibility. So the name, to me, conjures ideas of power and unstoppability in the face of overwhelming adversity. The video game community at large has never been really all that warm and welcoming to anyone not male (literally just play as a female character in an online game and you’ll get a taste of this), and now that video games are really developing as a cultural force, that tendency is rearing its head more often. Goddessmode is a push against that. Death threats are not okay, and feminist/gender-related critiques are absolutely necessary for any developing artistic discourse. To try and silence that is an act of censorship.

– Is there anything you’d especially like to see in Goddessmode submissions?

Nothing specific. I’m basically just excited to see what the end product is. I’m leaving all the selection considerations up to the editors.

– You’ve released two awesome chapbooks and will soon release an anthology. What’s next for Cool Skull Press?

We have three chapbooks already lined up as future releases that I can’t really talk about yet. We’re going to start buying ISBN numbers, which is important, kind of, maybe. I want to establish a reading series here in Somerville, but who knows? Splitting my time between Cool Skull Press and my jobs and my graduate program leaves little time for making concrete future plans. But I have ideas. I have tons of ideas.

– Have you ever cosplayed? If you were going to, who would you dress up as and why?

Well, last Halloween, my partner and I dressed up as Dr. Venture and Molotov Cocktease from The Venture Bros. I don’t know if that counts as cosplay because it was for the holiday, but the costumes turned out amazing. I could see myself doing that again. Only four people recognized our costumes the whole weekend, but it was worth it. Unfortunately, I took a nasty inebriated fall over a short stone wall while wearing the costume and now my mad scientist speed-suit is stained with blood, which is a very Dr. Venture thing to happen, I guess.

– Do you have a favorite Pokémon?

I have two favorite Pokémon, because you can’t reasonably expect me to pick just one.

First, I love Sudowoodos. Sudowoodos are goofy, they have strange abilities like Mimic and Copycat and Hammer Arm, and they look like trees even though they’re rock type. They have weird circular hands and a really dumb grinning face that I love. I also have an affinity for Pokémon with no evolutions, like Heracross and Mawile (unfortunately, the new games have added evolutions for all these Pokémon, but at least Sudowoodo’s baby form Bonsley is adorable).

My other favorite Pokémon is Kabutops. As a kid, I played Gold Version for what probably amounted to hundreds of hours, and my very high level Kabutops was always my trump card. I used PP Up items so that he could use Ancient Power like fifteen times or something, thus making him basically unstoppable. On top of that, Kabutops is rock/water type, which allows for very few weaknesses. Plus he’s the Poké-equivalent of an ancient dinosaur. Plus he has swords for arms. What thirteen year-old wouldn’t want that as a pet?

– If you were one of the Avengers, who would you be?

I don’t exactly think of myself as similar to the Hulk per se, but I find him to be the most fascinating one. He’s all about self-control and the ability within everyone to do destructive things, which I think anyone can identify with.

I’m no expert on the subject but a lot of storylines involving the Hulk seem to be about him trying to escape the US Government while trying to escape or fight some other deadly threat, and you get the feeling that he just wants to be left alone. He didn’t build his superpowers or hone them out of a sense of duty or anything; it was all thrust upon him and so he lives with it. He tries his best to be good.

I would probably be a weaker version of the Hulk. An orange, lanky Hulk that writes angry slam poems. I don’t think I would be invited to join the Avengers.

– Anything else you’d like to share?

Catherine, you’re an absolute gem and I can’t wait to see what cool things come out of this venture!

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Thanks, August! And best of luck with all your future work!

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