Kevin Sampsell -- author, zine/small press guy at Powell's Books in Portland and creator of Future Tense Publishing --has Spokane roots. Sampsell lived in Spokane for a period in the late '80s and early '90s while attending broadcasting school. During that time, he started sending out his work to magazines and making chapbooks (small, self-published, d.i.y. books) of his work.
He began going to the monthly open-mic nights that the Auntie's Bookstore was then having, saying that he was most often the only person there under 30 and that he remembers feeling a little out of place among the other writers and readers. So he took matters into his own hands and started up his own spoken-word shows at places like the Big Dipper and Henry's Pub. He'd often attract about 20 people to his readings and sell his chapbooks there: "I was the only person doing it at that time," he says. "I always hoped there would be more people coming out to do their own thing. There were definitely people interested in doing experimental kinds of art and performance, but it wasn't many."
While in Spokane, he also started Future Tense Publishing, with his first few chapbooks as the imprint's first titles. When Sampsell moved to Portland, he started to find other writers who were out there reading, doing interesting and original things, and publishing their work. Unlike Spokane at the time, Portland offered a community that was conducive to -- and very interested in -- small, independent publishing and diverse artistic voices.
Soon after, he started publishing primarily other people's work. Future Tense has grown greatly in the years since he started it, but he says that now, although he does get submissions from all over the world, "it's still pretty low-budget. I put out three or four books a year, and I just started doing this thing with Manic D Press in San Francisco where they'll publish a full-length book of my choosing once a year. It's called, simply enough, the Future Tense series."
Yet despite the growth of Future Tense, Sampsell says that the focus and goals have stayed the same. He publishes fiction more than poetry because of his personal preference for fiction, saying that "I get excited by stuff that is smart, well-crafted, funny, sexy, and experimental. I like writers who read a lot and know what they're doing. I'd say that's my only complaint about writers coming up today: They don't read enough, or they don't think they have to. I'm more impressed with someone who reads a lot than someone who has gone to a bunch of writing programs."
Sampsell's own writing fits these criteria well. He's currently touring in support of two books. The Insomniac Reader is the first book in the Manic D/Future Tense series. "It's an anthology I edited with a lot of my favorite writers and all the stories take place at, or are about, the night time," he says. The second book is a collection of his short stories called Beautiful Blemish, which is soon to be published by Word Riot Press. "It collects a bunch of my odd little flash-fiction pieces with a few longer stories. My girlfriend was reading it recently and she was saying, 'Wow, this is pretty dirty.' So, um, I guess it is." The stories are short, intense, painful, sensual, and often beautifully filthy ruminations on small, frequently overlooked aspects of life.
Sampsell stresses the need for small, independent presses: "Small presses are great for finding and promoting those renegade voices and publishing books for niche audiences. All the big places might not be interested in putting out something that only 1,000 people will read, but a small press can do it, stay in their budget, and give people something that is really unique and special. For example, there are zines about alternative parenting, alternative country music, alternative politics, and a bunch of other alternative ways of thinking. They're not trying to please a general readership. They have an aim and a vision. Some of these publications don't have huge circulations and they may not be able to support their publishers but they're heroes to the people who read them. It would be sad if there was a group of people who felt like nobody wrote or published for them. That's another thing I try to do as a publisher -- present something new and surprising with each release. And I want to give these writers that I've published -- whether it be Zoe Trope, Brandon Freels, Mike Topp, Sarah Grace McCandless or whoever -- a chance to get discovered by readers, one way or another."
Kevin Sampsell is a thrillingly talented author and a champion of independent, diverse, exciting, and risk-taking authors in a culture that often values the profitable over the vital. He's a champion of unheard and commonly ignored work. Thank goodness for that.