Interview Saira Viola, Portrait by Joey Feldman, Book cover art courtesy of Josh Gaines and Thoughtcrime Press
Josh Gaines – Poet, Publisher, Editor, Provocateur, and Founder and Captain of ThoughtCrime Press – has orchestrated a world-wide grassroots artistic revolt against tweeter-in-chief and present incumbent of the White House, 45th President of the USA Donald Trump. Gaines ditched a promising military career to write books, run a profitless press, and build blanket forts with his daughter, earning a writing MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His fiction has been published in Two Cities Review, Nebula Rift, and in London’s, Dark Mountain. His poetry appears in numerous anthologies and journals – most recently in Blue Monday Review, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, and Yellow Chair Review – and in his own books of poetry and flash fiction: Cigarette Sonatas, and little bones. He was a 2016 and 2017 Fiction Writer in Residence at Art Farm Nebraska, and talks exclusively to Gonzo Today about the perils and pitfalls of being a rebel ink slinger in Trump’s USA. The Anthology Not My President will be posted to every member of congress and all profits from sales of the book donated to charitable causes.
S.V. Josh what prompted you to create this anthology?
J.G. One thing that stands out amid marches and protests I’ve attended is a frustrating desire to be heard by those in power. I want to help elevate the voices of dissent of those around me in any way I can. Some people have a large social media platform. Others have a booming voice. I run a press. I want to push unacknowledged voices directly under the noses of government officials making decisions counter to the will of the people. I also wanted to capture this historic moment for the future so that wherever we end up after this point there will be one more record of dissent. One more piece of proof that we weren’t silent when the world once again turned against those most vulnerable.
Not My President cover art by Molly Crabbapple
S.V.Tell me about the title of the Anthology ‘Not My President?’
J.G. The title I re purposed from right-wing rallies I observed protesting the election of Barack Obama in 2008 . To explain what the title means to me I need to explain what the presidency means to me. We elect a president to act as the chosen public servant , paid employee and representative of the people. All of the people. In the USA, no one has more bosses than the president because the president is our servant – beholden to every voter and to the Constitution of the United States of America. When I chose Not My President, I didn’t mean to imply that as my representative and as my employee, Donald Trump fails. He is not my public servant as he does not represent my beliefs. Moreover, Trump does not represent our national values enumerated in our Constitution, nor does he defend the inalienable rights from our Declaration of Independence. Instead, he represents the deafening minority of MONEY interests and an equally cacophonous minority of voters. He truly is not my president nor the president of anyone featured in this anthology.
S.V. What obstacles did you and are you facing realizing this project?
J.G. I received lots of hate mail from Trump supporters and just recently there was a reading that initially was cancelled by a library that hosted a series in San Diego. The library cancelled the reading and even tried to ban the book saying they wouldn’t carry it even before it was released!
S.V. How did you deal with that potential issue of censorship?
J.G. I was asked to send a completely unedited not even fully arranged PDF of the book so the library director and ‘others’ could see the type of work that was contained in it. I duly complied and they still refused to carry the book. Kit -Bacon Gressit who runs the reading series then filed a complaint with the ACLU and the ACLU responded with a fairly direct letter to the library system. The library responded by unbanning the book allowing the reading and giving Kit -Bacon a nice chat with the director. The full link to the brouhaha is here at Publisher’s Weekly https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/columns-and-blogs/soapbox/article/74849-can-we-talk-about-banned-trump-books.html A few months later Kit -Bacon and I did an interview for the San Diego Union Tribune and on it’s way to publication it was crushed from on high. The newspaper refused to run something even mentioning the book. Nothing came of that. As I’m pretty sure a paper has the right to control it’s content.
S.V. The mood is definitely one of dissension especially in the U.S. The Anthology is expressly, unrepentantly anti-Trump addressing some of the pivotal issues of his administration .Do you think an Anthology like this can really initiate change?
J.G . Social change is a hard thing to predict. We know it will happen but what we don’t know is what form it will take and what will be the proverbial straw that breaks a person’s / country’s complacency. When it comes to Not My President, I think it is as much a reaction to change already happening. There is a massive tide of social change we are witnessing from Black Lives Matter to the #MeToo movement the largest protest in the nation’s history Colin Kaepernick taking a knee. Public reaction to the Fire and Fury book just published. The very rich and the very poor are now speaking out loudly and often. I definitely believe this anthology is fuel to the bonfire. And excited to see what happens next .
S.V. The anthology profiles a wonderfully diverse and talented group of writers. And I understand you had to sift through thousands of entries but wanted to give space to as many divergent voices as possible can you tell us a little about the creative process?
J.G. There is not a single piece in this book that I wish I hadn’t put in. They are all worthy in their own right and they all belong in conversation with each other. Making sure I didn’t miss a voice because maybe the writing wasn’t as polished or whatever was very important to me. There were a couple of pieces written by teens who aren’t likely to have the literary poise of those with established literary careers. And while I worked with them more than others to make sure they were happy with the presentation of their work. I wouldn’t want their voices to sound like anything but themselves. The goal was always to have an anthology of dissent and not necessarily an anthology of ivy league literature.
S.V. So how does a promising Air Force Officer go from soaring skies to a non-profit printing press?
J.G. My military career was promising in that as an Air Force Officer I was making more money than I ever had and could have continued to do so. It was semi antithetical to who I am as an artist and a human being. I had originally joined soon after we went to war with Iraq. I had marched in numerous anti-war protests in Ithaca, New York, written letters to congress, the president /VP and their wives, and told them from the perspective of a newly graduated anthropology major who ‘d taken several classes on Middle Eastern studies why going to a war with a people with memories that span generations is a bad idea. In retrospect my predictions all turned out to be correct , but ended up even worse. Anyway, despite my protests we still went to war.
S.V. What do you remember most about this time in your life?
J.G. I had friends joining who were excited to “blow stuff up and kill things,” a fairly common phrase I heard time and time again in the military. I felt like I needed to do more. One problem with an all volunteer military is that you end up filling it with people who have very similar opinions about the world. I am not advocating for mandatory military service, but a mono culture isn’t good enough when deciding whether or not to kill human beings.
S.V. What did you decide to do?
J.G. I decided that as my voice wasn’t being heard on the outside, that I would join the Air Force and try to wield a positive influence on the culture from the inside. I joined via OTS a 3 month training session down in Montgomery Alabama and entered training to become an Air Battle Manager (ABM).
S.V. What’s an ABM?
J.G. Basically someone who helps pilots target and direct a large picture battle from a ground radar or AWACS (airborne radar). My opinions were often unwelcome. At squadron meetings they’d try to get us all excited at 4am by showing us videos of bombs. Blowing up targets to rock music, buildings, people, no details. Just what they called ‘heat signatures.’ I would mention that the ‘heat signature’ who just got obliterated has a mom. Totally killing the mood.
S.V. And how did your views sit with the hierarchy?
J.G. Not very well. At one point a LT. Colonel called me into his office and said ‘technically you’re right. And it’s something we should keep in mind. You don’t have to say it everyday though.’ And I pretty much stopped calling these things out, outside of one on one conversations. It got me nowhere and it was exhausting being that guy.
S.V. You suffered acute depression and malaise after 18 months training and after requesting a transfer hoping to escape the ‘toxic culture,’ of the ABM you ran four fitness centers on Tinker Air Base in Oklahoma and started writing and performing poetry. Tell us about that transition?
J.G . At first I wanted to get over my fear of public speaking by embarrassing myself every week. But gradually I came to appreciate the writers I was meeting and by the end of my first year I was hooked .
S.V. So you turned down the offer of Intelligence Officer to pursue your writing?
J.G. Yes the Air force offered me a job as intelligence officer but with my depression getting worse when I was away from writing. I decided I needed a shift in my life and turned the chance down. When I left , I enrolled in grad school , completed my MFA in Chicago and five years ago started ThoughtCrime Press with a small grant from my writing department and here we are!
S.V. Finally Josh who inspires you and what next for this rebel press?
J.G. Who inspires me? Big question. My daughter. It’s hard being a 3rd grader. Anyone still contributing and acting kindly towards others while dealing with chronic depression. Writers inspire me. Artists: Molly Crabapple who did our cover art. Shepherd Fairey. Publishers like Derrick Brown and KMA Sullivan inspire me aesthetically for ThoughtCrime Press. Sarah Silverman responding to hate with love on Twitter was inspirational. People have it in them to be incredible and I see it all the time – inspiring me to be better too.
ThoughtCrime Press has two double chapbooks coming out. Four new authors. And a reissue of an out of print title. We give our authors all we make off books going for a constant break even or lose just a little point as neither of us want to make money off anyone else’s work. The Not My President Anthology was funded by Kickstarter and at no monetary profit to ourselves. We will be donating excess funds to charitable organisations harmed by the policies of the current administration so Ben Clark my partner at ThoughtCrime Press and I are going to focus inward the rest of the year and do what we do best – write.