Q&A with Shaun Slifer - "So Much to Be Angry About: Appalachian Movement Press and Radical DIY Publishing, 1969-1979"

April 15th, 2021

"The day Shaun Slifer’s research about Appalachian Movement Press first went live in 2017 (in a blog piece that would go on to become his tremendous article in Signal), it felt like half of Appalachia sent me the link. This was the good stuff—a detective story, an activist story, a story about books and publishing. Plus, everything looked so cool. Shaun and I exchanged emails and didn’t, at first, connect on turning his essay into a book. But I met him in person not long afterward, at an event for our edition of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead hosted by White Whale Books near Shaun’s home in Pittsburgh, and good things—as they often do, when they’re based on conversations at bookstores—sprung into being. I’m so glad Shaun trusted us to publish this book, and I hope we’ve done it in a way that would make our predecessors at Appalachian Movement Press proud." –Derek Krissoff, Director, West Virginia University Press

      When did you first learn about Don West and the Appalachian Movement Press?

I had heard a little about Don West, but I found out about Appalachian Movement Press pretty much by accident a couple years back. I was attending a wedding at the Appalachian South Folklife Center that Don and his wife Connie founded in the 60s, and there I saw a small poetry chapbook by Don West called A Time For Anger. It had the unique little AMP pickaxe logo on the back, and that really sparked my curiosity. It took quite a while to figure out who they actually were and the scope of what they had been doing. AMP hadn't left much trail and nobody had pulled their history and work together before. 

Cover of A Time for Anger, a poetry compilation chapbook by Appalachian labor organizer and activist, Communist, and preacher Don West which AMP kept in publication for years.

      Can you describe the process of creating So Much to Be Angry About? Did you always think the research would become a book?

Originally, I spent time finding and reading the AMP publications that were kept in archives and libraries, and I found a couple of men to interview who had been involved, including the founder, Tom Woodruff. This work was for an article in a really unique publication called Signal: A Journal of International Political Graphics and Culture (PM Press). Initially, when WVU Press got in touch, I wasn’t sure that I could draw out the AMP story into a full book, but at WVU they were really enthusiastic about the idea of including reproductions of some of the original AMP publications, and they worked really hard to turn the book into a fascinating and well-designed publication. So, I got to the research work again and eventually I was able to find over a dozen more people to interview about AMP, and I collected loads of their work. From there, I started weaving together the narrative, and the story really expanded. It was hard not to go on too many tangents, because there was so much inspiring action happening in Appalachia at that time!

      How did you choose the five AMP publications that are reproduced in the book?

These works each give voice to Appalachian activists working in their time, and I wanted to show the diversity of output that AMP was producing. There's a children's book about strip mining, a really rare labor organizing song book by Don West, and three other powerful and rarely-seen writings. When people read those reproductions in the book, I want them to have the sense of holding the original paper, blemishes and aging intact. In this way, readers can situate the work in the era in which it was written, and also relate that important work to the struggles for justice that we're still fighting.

One of the unique publications conceived of and produced in the AMP printshop was MAW: Magazine of Appalachian Women, likely the first feminist magazine produced in the central Appalachian region.

      Aside from being the only movement press in the Appalachian region, what do you think set AMP apart from other hundreds of similar presses active at the time?

Most movement presses that I know of were centered in urban areas. AMP were focused on liberation and justice in rural Appalachia, uplifting and giving voice to working class people throughout the region. They worked to promote unions and collective histories, and they didn't think people could be free if they didn't know their own history and didn't see that their voices mattered. Their mission was to change this. It was Appalachian liberation from an Internationalist Left perspective. Maybe it will surprise readers in other parts of the continent that an active Left movement worked and continues to work in Appalachia, and I hope this book helps dissolve some of the narrow thinking about this region and the people who call it home.

      What kind of obstacles or dead ends did you encounter while doing research? What was your experience of sorting through the materials in the buildings and basements of the Appalachian South Folklife Center (ASFC)? How complete was the collection of what you found?

Mostly my obstacles were the result of Appalachian Movement Press having not been that concerned with themselves as authors. To this point, that they even left an archived footprint or had a logo almost feels like an accident! Workhorse organizations like print shops aren’t usually glamorized; they almost have to write their own histories for people to even realize that they exist. For the most part, publishing was really just one facet of the activism of the AMP operators. Printing and distribution was a toolbox that they owned and shared with other regional movement organizations, and this made it hard to find the work they did for other Appalachian organizations, like Miners for Democracy or the many anti strip mining and black lung groups. And when it comes to localized publications like Free Forum, the renegade student newspaper at Marshall University that AMP took over for a time, there’s almost no record of it left at all. So of course, every time I found something in my research, I was finding a rare treasure!

This building in Huntington, West Virginia was the third and final home for the AMP operations, from around 1974-1979 (photo by Roger May).

The basement at ASFC, and what I found there, was really an inflection point early on in my research. When I talk about this, I fear that it sounds like I’m blaming ASFC for not taking an active role in preserving this history, but honestly, I think it’s just normal. Most people involved in movement work don’t think so much about preserving what they are doing in their moment, they are focused on their work (this is why we need librarians and archivists).  So, when I was at ASFC, I was told I ought to “check in the chapel basement”, and there I found piles of old AMP publications, many of them unbound or unfinished, sitting in milk crates and plastic bins over in a back corner. I believe it to be the remains of the AMP operation when the presses were given to Don and Connie West in 1979, which they restarted for a very short time as Mountain Freedom Press. Anything that Don West had published on AMP had been picked out, and I think at some point there were just probably enough AMP publications floating around the place that all these extras didn’t seem important, and they migrated to that chapel basement because there was a lot of other work to focus on at ASFC. I’d still love to go back and sort through to rescue the paper that isn’t too moldy.

      You had to address certain ideas in the publications from the movement that don’t hold up well in modern times. Were you prepared for this and how did that storyline evolve?

I was prepared to try to contextualize the work, but that doesn’t mean I had an easy time at it.  I think it’s important to try to explain the past in language that we understand today, as justice movements have evolved, without dismissing them when some of their rhetoric or style seems sour or tone-deaf to us now. It would have been dishonest for me to ignore some of the problems I could see as an outsider researching this group, but it would have been disingenuous for me to write them off. There’s a lot to learn from how other people were talking about liberation and justice and what those visions were, and how that work has evolved. That’s what drew me to history in the first place. 

Don West’s work on compiling the abolitionist history of Appalachia is a good example. Some of his writing really plays into “Holy Appalachia” narratives of regional white absolution (from both slavery and settler colonialism), and we just can’t take it at face value in 2021. But the fact that he worked hard to pull these biographies and stories together, which was a project of his for a long time, is really valuable. He was a people’s historian working from an anti-racist footing in his time.

      Can you talk about your process for interviews and weaving together recollections? Were there key figures that you couldn’t get a hold of?

When I talk about “weaving”, what I mean is that rather than just interpreting the archival record, I was listening to the original AMP operators and leading a kind of reconstruction effort through piecing together their stories. So, I would spend a long time trying to find individuals once I had a name (although in a couple of cases I just stumbled on them). I’d call or email them and, if they responded, ask if we could talk on record about their time at the press. I had some basic questions but I tried to leave space for people to just speak about their memories. Keep in mind I was showing up out of nowhere asking them about something they’d been up to nearly 50 years ago! Nobody else had ever asked them about what they were doing in a print shop souther West Virginia in the 1970s, at least not in a very long time. Recollections and reconstructions left a lot of gaps, I filled those in where I could and left some things alone where I felt it most appropriate to. A couple of very key figures have passed away, people I would have loved to speak with.

An early version of the AMP logo, c.1970

      Are there any presses today following in AMP’s mission and vision?

Owning and operating a printing press means something different in this era. There's a huge underground of zine makers, small publishers, record labels and studios, and other creative hubs of collective and community production and distribution which work from the kind of ethos that AMP was working from. Appalachian Movement Press understood the need to work in cooperation, and to share resources with other groups. AMP wasn’t one individual with a printing press making a name for themselves, it was a ten-year rotating cast of people with different ideas and priorities and a lot of common goals. Some of what we’ve been doing in the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative is similarly collectivist and adaptive, and worker-owned print shops like Community Printers in Santa Cruz or Radix Media in Brooklyn carry forward the tradition of AMP perhaps more explicitly. A lot of people are beginning to learn more about unions, collective ownership, mutual aid, and other cooperative models in recent years, so I think we may see a resurgence in this kind of shared work. It might not be that many more people start operating loud clanking offset presses, but we’ll be adapting tools to what our movements need now.

Shaun Slifer is an artist, writer, and museum professional based in Pittsburgh. He is the creative director at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum and a founding member of the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative.