.page_link a:hover { background: #000000; color: #ffffff; text-decoration: none;


 TEST CENTRE

TALKING TO JEN CALLEJA







In June last year I found out that I hadn’t made it further than the shortlisted stage for a prize for my unpublished first collection of poetry. I had been adding to, editing and condensing this book for a couple of years and to me it was where I wanted it to be, but I privately imagined that this would mean it would be no good to any publisher – I would have to be willing to bend, to retune, to remove, to enhance. I would have to make it thematically watertight, justify how personal it was, legitimise it within a poetry scene that I had always had one toe in while lurking in the shallow end.

The collection charts private friendships and uncomfortable traumas and my family and translation and identity and wrestling and the literary scene and anger and cynicism and is deadpan and at times stubbornly formless. It’s more a mixtape or collection of demos than a honed concept album. It’s basically not an easy or attractive sell, and on top of this I’m pretty unknown. I don’t even think of myself as A Poet – I write short stories just as often as I do poems, I’m currently writing a novella, I play in bands, I translate German literature.

In the days after the prize announcement, I unexpectedly received a couple of messages of support and interest in the book from friends and poetry acquaintances and one of them asked if they could send the manuscript to Test Centre, who I was aware made beautiful, complex books by writers that were hard to pin down.

Test Centre – Jess Chandler and Will Shutes – asked to meet with me and I thought that it was really very nice of them to meet with writers they wanted to encourage but ultimately reject. We started talking about the book, and I thought we were leading up to the point where they would tell me that they could see that the book had potential, but… When either Jess or Will said: ‘We’ll publish it in the spring’. After a few moments I said ‘What, you’re going to publish it?’ and they replied, ‘Oh, did we not mention that in the emails?’

I never imagined – or rather, assumed – that I would ever publish a book, and definitely not in such an unaltered form after an immaculate process with a publisher. I mean these things genuinely. Test Centre have always been communicative and open, and made me feel proud of my work through the tone they discussed it in and how much they handled it with care. They offered me near total control of how the book would appear – both in terms of content and by inviting me to conceptualise and develop the cover with them. I felt that I could trust them completely. Nothing was done lightly. They saw all of my reservations and worries as positives and pluses. It was and is thrilling to have my strange name on a book of my poetry, and one that feels like it’s mine inside and out. Plus how many publishers would support putting on a punk show for your book launch?

I find great satisfaction and joy supporting the independent publishers I have the opportunity to work with through writing and translating, and I like to think of Jess and Will not as ‘my publisher’ but as two new friends who I collaborated with to make a book. I feel proud of them and to be associated with them – when a poet-publisher told me that Test Centre were the publisher they were most inspired by right now at a festival recently I couldn’t wait to tell them.

It’s always great to meet up with them, and we seem to do so exclusively at Café Oto in Dalston. I interviewed them there at the end of September.




Will Shutes & Jess Chandler





Jen Calleja
How did Test Centre start and what were your initial aims and motivations?


Jess Chandler
We were both studying at UCL – we studied the same degree and MA courses – and then both started doing a bit of reviewing work for magazines. Will had also started a magazine at UCL that I wrote for, that’s how we first met. We already had ideas for projects and had some experience of writing for magazines, so we initially thought a magazine was what we would be doing. The ideas really got going while I was living in Oslo, so we started sharing ideas all through correspondence. Those ideas never really took shape actually. For some reason the magazine didn’t really feel like it was needed. Or not that kind of magazine anyway. We came up with this project of doing a series of spoken word records. We wrote letters to five writers we were interested in and got responses from four of them pretty quickly. The first person we met was Iain Sinclair, so it all started from that record, without necessarily much of a plan of what was going to happen next.

Will Shutes
It might have been down to circumstance. One of our tutors had released a book with maybe three of the people we wrote to, and he knew a fourth, so it was a case of connecting them up in some way. But we had excellent plans for a magazine, a very well-wrought, fanatic magazine, or a series of magazines, maybe one day we should do that?

Jess
We’ve got all the plans.

JC
So the themes for the magazine and Test Centre were totally different?


Will
Totally different. They were sort of encyclopaedic in scope, just themed magazines.

Jess
More interdisciplinary. Much more to do with film. Will was about to start a PhD in film, we were both writing for this film magazine, and I think we had more of an interest in that at the time. Well, one of our first writers was a film maker, so there was always an overlap with that I think.

Will
Our MA was interdisciplinary as well, although basically English. But I think we wrote for different magazines for quite a long time after university without any great enthusiasm or success. We won’t name names but I worked for a very long-running, very austere literary journal, which was fine, but it was a case of looking beyond that sort of world.

JC
How do you mean ‘that sort of world’?


Will
Even though at this point it seems like there are a few publishers and magazines who are connected, that hasn’t been the case until very recently. So when we were starting Test Centre it wasn’t a case of ‘who could we approach to work for’, it was more a case of what could we do to start something for ourselves.

Jess
I think at that point we wanted to create an outlet for our own work, which isn’t what it’s become at all. We would never publish ourselves and it’s great to be working with other people, but initially it came from a frustration at it being quite limited and dissatisfying and it seemed like there was very little reward, so we thought, why don’t we do it ourselves and be free to do whatever we want. But it all happened quite organically and I think that in the beginning what was important was the support of a few writers who liked what we were doing and were happy to put us in touch with other people. To be able to start with a project with Iain Sinclair – we were really lucky. He had enough of a reputation that people were interested in what we’d done and that’s how we were able to keep going.

Will
You realise that you look up to these people because of age or status, but actually a lot of them were looking for some kind of outlet that wasn’t the mainstream as well.

Jess
I think it’s not just young or unpublished writers who are looking for these kind of outlets, interestingly it’s also writers who feel that a culture that was once there has been lost but is now coming alive again, in a new way while harking back to a way it used to be done. For someone like Iain who was a publisher himself, I think finding two young publishers coming along interested in similar things that he did was quite refreshing.

Will
We’re quite rare in that we don’t self-publish. There’s nothing wrong with it, but most people I can think of do. Maybe not so much now.

JC
And you say that you would never self-publish now?


Jess
I don’t think so. It’s not something we’ve really talked about that much. I don’t see it happening, do you?

Will
Well no, but we’ve got a long list of things to work on. It certainly won’t happen in the next year. But then we do have other little bits and pieces aside from Test Centre, I guess you could say I self-publish on a very small scale with Pillow Talk and other magazines. Maybe we’d do more of that. But publishing a book by one of us under the imprint seems a bit…fraught.

Jess
Maybe I made it sound like it wasn’t an option and it’s not like that, it just hasn’t happened. Which I realise is slightly strange because at the start it was all about that. But it was perhaps more in a journalistic sense, so we thought that was what we’d be doing. Reviewing and that kind of writing, and actually this has taken us away from that, which isn’t a problem at all, it’s just the way it evolved. And up until Sophie Collins’ book we haven’t published any non-fiction or academic writing.

Will
Things develop quite quickly. The first magazine, if you think about it, it was two people with maybe three pages each, and the next one is maybe twenty plus.

JC
You’ve concentrated on a few genres – mostly poetry and writing that could be broadly labelled psycho-geographic. Was it a case of wanting these to be your focus, or rather that you wanted to work with the writers first and genre came second?

Jess
I would say it was writers first. Initially we were interested in London writing because of practical reasons. We were both interested in London, which is how the psycho-geographical element came about. But I always find it difficult when people ask what kind of poetry we publish because I think we could put out any kind. It’s the same when people are submitting work and they ask what our guidelines are – we don’t really have any. I think maybe the pleasure of doing this is that in a way it’s down to our taste and what we enjoy, if we like it and think it’s good then we get to publish it whatever it is, that’s maybe a privilege of being a small press, there’s no one putting demands on you and it’s really up to us.

Will
I think some publishers are very rigorous in terms of what they publish, I mean, until recently if someone was a publisher of, say, concrete or visual poetry you can only do that because it’s narrow and you can do a thousand publications and they’ll all be a much of a muchness. But I don’t feel it’s up to us to say what the connections are between people, they’re either there or they’re not, if someone reads the magazine and feels like it works or flows then that’s successful. I feel like it would just incidentally because the same two people have picked everything so it’s naturally going to cohere in some way. But we wouldn’t rule anyone out because they’d published with someone else. I do think we publish a diverse range of stuff, but from within you never really know I don’t think.

JC
But do you consider yourselves to be in your own Test Centre ‘bubble’ or part of a wider scene in publishing?


Jess
I wouldn’t like to think of ourselves in a bubble and I hope that over time we have become part of a wider scene. There does feel like there is a community of particularly younger writers who are often publishing each other and there is crossover with other magazines and journals, magazines like clinic, for example. I think everything leads on to other things and I think because of that you become involved in a scene, people pass things on to one another and things spread and that’s the best way of finding new writers – through the other writers we publish. It’s not only our tastes that dictate everything, it’s that our tastes might become known and people might feel like they want to approach us.

Will
I think it’s the case that there’s a bigger bubble with a few people in it and we’re one of them, but I think that’s the nature of the world we’re talking about. But it’s not like we sit down with the people from clinic or Tom Chivers and say ‘OK, which one of us is going to do this and which one of us is going to do that’. I think more and more you notice the connections which I don’t think were there a few years ago. We were just looking through Poetry London and you see all these people who you’re in touch with today. You see how someone we’re publishing soon is in the new clinic. That’s good, it’s positive, it’s not like we’re in a competitive trade. 

JC
You talked about how important London is, would you say you’re a London-centric publisher?
Do you seek anything outside of London actively or do you prefer this organic, interconnected London-based focus?


Will
Well, I’m about to move out of London to Norwich and I don’t think I know any writers in Norwich. I don’t think it matters where you are nowadays. When we set up we both happened to be in London together at the same time and I just think that everyone who we published happened to live in London, three of them in the same block. It was a good theme and it was important then, but now we’ve published someone we’ve never met – might never meet – who lives in Brooklyn and that was a recommendation from someone in Edinburgh.

Jess
We published Robert Herbert McClean having met him once and he was in Belfast, actually more and more we’re publishing people outside of London. The Sophie Collins anthology has got contributors from all over the world, so it’s exciting to find a wider audience, which I hope will lead on to other relationships and interests in the same way it did with our London writers. Often these things are for practical reasons rather than it being a conceptual decision. When you’re starting you have certain limitations which you work within and that just grows and I think that’s growing geographically outwards in a big way now.

JC
Do you receive a large number of submissions?


Jess
Yes, we do. Until very recently we had an open submissions policy, but we’ve recently had to stop that for now –

Will
Or forever –

Jess
Or forever. It was just becoming too difficult. It would open again if we needed to look for new work but at the moment we have things lined up as far ahead as we can plan, so rather than leaving people waiting it seemed more fair to say we just can’t take anything on at the moment. Our magazine is where we have published work from unsolicited submissions. I don’t want to make it sound cliquish, because I don’t think it is, but often we get recommendations. Those have been the texts that have really stood out. Not always, we have received texts from people we respect that just haven’t felt right for us and we have to make difficult decisions about the balance of risk. We published American poet Erik Stinson who is not known at all here and we felt excited enough by his work to go for it even though it’s challenging to sell the book. We’re willing to do that, but we can’t only do that otherwise we won’t be able to sustain things.

JC
How would you describe or define Test Centre?
What makes a release a Test Centre release?


Jess
I think our name was chosen for a reason. I think it’s a place for trying out new things. I hope that our catalogue shows quite a range of work and that there’s an experimental nature to a lot of the publications. I think one of the most important things is the design of the books themselves and the care that goes into what gets produced. We’ve never had a house style, every book is developed along with the writers and the designers. I like to think that that care stands out and is different to some publishers.

Will
I think putting care into the production of something hasn’t been that common for a while, I think it shows that you value something and think it’s important enough to present in a lasting way. I think perhaps in that sense we have an eye on tradition, but at the same time we work on new things with young people – for some people it’s their first book. I think that’s something to feel proud of really.

JC
Do you think that if you didn’t publish some of the writers that you do they would find it difficult to be published elsewhere? And secondly, do you think being a small press of poetry and experimental writing is a certain – even political – statement for complicating what is typically published?

Jess
I feel that all of the writers we publish are extremely talented writers and I’m sure other presses would recognise that. I think most of our writers would find other outlets. Not all of them though. I think that the experience of publishing with us would be different to how it would be publishing with another publishing house. I think for writers there’s a decision to be made about publishing houses that can offer a reputation and everything that comes with that, weighed up against a small press that can offer care, attention and a unique publication. I think both of those things have a place. Answering the next part of your question, I think there’s a place for both kinds of publishing and they interact with each other. For example, we’re publishing something with Sam Riviere next year – he publishes his poetry with Faber but he also wants to do other projects that they wouldn’t take on. It’s the same with Iain. He has his big non-fiction books that come out with Penguin, but he needs another outlet for other kinds of work. I understand the recognition that some poets need from publishing with a well-known publishing house that has all the money and teams behind it to really push things, but I don’t think one is at the expense of the other, I think they both co-exist and offer different things to writers.

Will
Yeah, I’m not really sure about politics. I’m not politically engaged enough to comment. I think it’s more of a question for writers, do people want to be published by a mainstream press with a template design and low production values or the opposite. I can see the benefits in the former but perhaps not as much as the latter. We didn’t set ourselves up against that because I don’t see a great connection between the two types of things. I remember talking to one of the older people we’ve published and we were saying that you go into a book shop in London and you see things and neither he nor I would really recognise as books. Because they’re all of a certain look, size, material, they’re just a different type of thing altogether. What we do, or what, say, clinic do, wouldn’t fit. It’s not saying one’s better or one’s worse. They’re just different disciplines with different benefits and I think, generally speaking, a lot of the people we publish wouldn’t be able to find a mainstream publisher. It depends on the book. Sam Riviere can, but maybe not what we’re doing with him. I can think of one person who we published who would not be able to find a mainstream publisher who is actively trying to be published by a mainstream publisher. One has to adapt.

Jess
Maybe that’s the important function or role that we have, to offer a place to take more risks or to publish something that clearly wouldn’t be taken on by a mainstream. And I do understand, we all have pressures on us, financial pressures, there are reasons why writers would find it hard to say no to an offer from a bigger publishing house, but I don’t think that means that they’ve sold out and that all their work has to become tailored to that style. I like the idea that there’s a place for both and that we offer different things. It doesn’t mean that we have different readers, it means that writers can do different things and their work can have two different outlets.

JC
Have you ever had a writer with greater expectations of what you could offer, more than your capacity?


Jess
I think a little bit. I think that would generally be writers that have experience with larger publishing houses.

Will
One of the people we published, I was talking to him about a difference of opinion we’d had with someone else we publish, and he made the point that some people we publish, even though we’re not a big press, want to publish ‘big books’. Which we do. So although we’re a small press with certain limitations it’s still a big deal for people. It’s still a big book, and we do offer a certain amount of press and a certain amount of a fee. What I’m trying to say is that even though we’re not a big press we do feel like it is a big deal. Maybe in some cases we offer more than what people expect. There is a balancing act. If you’re a publisher you perhaps know better than writers do what the finances of releasing a book really are, what press really achieves. There was one book we lost money on because so many review copies went to America. So even though the press was excellent for that book, the best we’ve ever got, in one sense – only one sense – it was a failure. On the one hand you want to keep people happy, on the other hand you can only do so much to make something successful.

JC
What are your aims for how the press will grow or be maintained?
Is your goal to remain steady, or to grow year on year?
What do you deem to be a successful year?


Jess
It’s quite a timely question because we’ve been discussing our plans quite a lot recently. I don’t think we’ll be growing in terms of increasingly the amount of publications. I think with two people it’s not really possible, we’ve reached our capacity, maybe even overstretched it. I think our focus going forward will be maintaining the quality of the publications. Maybe fewer, but things we really care about and can put a lot of time into, and to be able to keep up that quality of design and quality of content – to be selective. I think those are the priorities and also the realities of how things need to work to be sustainable – both financially and trying to live! I think that is an important point to make about running a small press: the challenges of making a living. There’s a lot of love that goes into it, that drives it and sustains it. Against sense sometimes. It’s not just a job that makes you a living. It’s something that it would often be easier to give up on in a way, you have to really care about it.

JC
What are the biggest challenges and rewards?


Will
Challenges are slowness of manufacturers. Inability to keep to schedule, despite your own best efforts. Cost of manufacturing. These sound like complaints but they’re just facts. There’s not a great distribution network for the kinds of things we do in the UK, it’s better in America. Shops are dead on their feet in England. Is that fair?

Jess
With a few exceptions.

Will
With a few exceptions. We always have to work out how to adapt, to move forward or backwards. How do people buy books now? Mostly they go on Amazon which is why shops suffer. But how do people hear about things, what makes them spend money. It’s quite timely to be running a small press.

Jess
I think it’s incredibly rewarding to know how much it means to some of the writers you publish, you feel like it really matters a lot, and to be able to have offered that to someone who you admire and respect is a real privilege. I think it’s being able to do that for people which they might not get elsewhere. We were at the Poetry Book Fair, and having people come up to you who you haven’t met before who have lovely things to say about your books… When these people appear and you hear that people know about what you’re doing it’s very satisfying. It’s quite solitary work really and it’s hard to know where the people are, whether anyone knows what you’re doing, and being reminded of that makes it worthwhile.

Will
I think publishing is more of a creative act than people think. Certainly some of the most rewarding releases we have are when we’re working with someone on a book and they realise that we’re not just the ones who pay for things – we’re all invested in it emotionally. And I think most of the launches are the time when the rewards are most obvious. Not in a financial sense but in the sense of you’ve done the work and you can just spend time and actually just see people, I think we’ve had a good history of launches.

JC
Touching on the editorial side,
you do everything to do with the book, do you feel like you get enough time with the book itself, or that you could do with another month or six months sometimes?


Jess
I feel like we get enough time with the manuscripts, but sometimes run out of time in terms of production. It’s out of our hands a lot of the time. We don’t edit things that closely, we rarely go line by line through people’s work and ask for changes. Some people might think that’s negligent, but I think we feel that we like trusting the writer’s decisions, letting the works live as they were originally conceived.

Will
I do know publishers who edit ad nauseumand they’re not popular for it. I find it weird that anyone does that. One can always make helpful suggestions and enter into a discussion. If we like it when we receive it then we’re not going to just change it, though there might be things to discuss. I think one reason we might find ourselves publishing slightly less, or at least not more, is so that we can spend more time with things. I also think you’re always honing what you do and we have had a few cases where there have been a lot of changes right up to the wire which is something we try to avoid, because sometimes when you publish something it can be quite different to what you thought you were publishing. It’s still good, it’s still essentially the same thing. As I said, publishing does feel like a creative act and if you have the text in front of you and you feel that you’re the ones turning that into a book I think that’s more enjoyable than just keeping up because then you’re just facilitating.

JC
Could you talk about why you’re interested in other formats?
Do you think other publishers should explore them?
Is it to do with the interdisciplinary background you both have?


Will
I wouldn’t recommend other publishers do it, given the delays with pressing plants.

Jess
Warning – pressing plants are overworked. I think being able to come to people’s work through different mediums is the most interesting way to understand what they do. With Iain – I guess I’m just referring to him as his was the first record we did – I think the way we recorded his record was the perfect way to capture his interests, his approach to writing, his subjects – it just felt like a natural form to come to a different understanding of his work. We wouldn’t suggest doing a record for anyone that it didn’t have a relevance for. With Iain it was a walk as much as it was a spoken word recording, it was a journey. With Chris Petit it was much more cinematic, with Stewart Holmes is was about performance which is important in his work. With Jonathan Meades, he makes films, he’s a presenter, so I think it’s whether it suits that writer or artist, I think it’s interesting to explore the work in that way.

Will
The whole culture of recording people just as a matter of course has gone from this area, which is weird considering the opportunities afforded by different media. But moving away from records and looking at formats generally, one thing we might do in the future is produce small, incidental, almost promotional things just as a creative act. That might involve cassettes or single sheets of things, just to keep our hand in as it were, and do something different. Ultimately when you look back on what you’ve done you want to feel like you created a lot, and I think we’re doing that.

Jess
I think what you said about it not just being a matter of keeping up, like creating time to feel like you have a chance to be a bit more creative – it can move away from that almost without your realising, it can become a bit of a slog and that’s not why we started this at all. If you lose the enjoyment you’ll lose quality too. We don’t want to be business people.

Will
A lot of publishers are also printers and have done things as and when. It would be nice if we were designers and printers so we could just churn things out but we’re not so we have to think of ways to be involved in the act more than we were if we were just paying the bills and ordering people about.

JC
Could you tell us a little bit about the other wing of Test Centre?
And finally, what have you got coming out next?

Will
The other wing of Test Centre is a mostly silent dealership that kind of works hand in hand in that I buy and sell things sort of relevant to the things we explore. I do two catalogues a year, some of the people who buy from it are regular customers. The second hand book market is very different to the new book market which is quite interesting to watch, but maybe that’s quite a long-winded story.

Jess
We’ve just published Currently and Emotion with Sophie Collins and we’ll have a couple of events tied to that in London and Edinburgh. It’s taken two years to make, it’s a really interesting piece of work from poets from all over the world. As well as being a book about approaches to translation it’s just a great collection of poetry. I hope it gets the readership that it deserves. Our next release is our most interdisciplinary thing so far. It’s a record with Holly Pester with a booklet. It’s a 10” gatefold record with seven tracks all recorded with different artists on the theme of lullabies, which she’s been exploring as part of a project at the Wellcome Trust. That will be out in November, it’s called Common Rest, we’re really excited about that. Then we’ll have the next issue of our magazine – Test Centre 7 – and next year we have books lined up with Sam Riviere, Rachael Allen and Laura Elliott, plus another big project that Will can tell you about.

Will
We’ll be publishing a collected The Magic Door with Chris Torrance which has been going since 1970. Chris lives in very rural Wales, just in the southern part of the Brecon Beacons where he’s lived for 46 years. His books are very difficult to find. We’re collecting them with him which is a challenge because none are digitalised in any way, he doesn’t have a copy of one of them, and so it’s a bit of an act of discovery. I think it’s perfect for what we’re doing at present because what with the anthology we’ve just done – a very big, elaborate and attractive book – I think that’s the way things are going.





Test Centre is an independent publishing house and record label with an interest in the spoken and written word. Based in Hackney, East London, it was established in 2011 by Will Shutes and Jess Chandler.





Jen Calleja is a writer and translator based in London. Her debut poetry collection Serious Justice was published by Test Centre and she is working on her debut novella. Her poetry and short fiction have been published or are forthcoming with 3:AM magazine, Ambit and The Quietus and she is currently translating a novella by Kerstin Hensel for Peirene Press and essays by Wim Wenders for Faber.



2016.