Ferno House & The Emergency Response Unit: Where books are made the slow way and Dinosaurs are sexy

Since I first laid my hands on their initial release in 2009, baffled by the logistics of perfect binding books by hand, I've been intrigued by the spirit of the Ferno House micro-press. Comprised of Spencer Gordon, Matt (The Door) Laporte and Arnaud Brassard, Ferno House is a fledgling press in Toronto that has taken the art of bookmaking personally. Editing, designing, and producing all of their books in-house (literally in their house, where the three are roommates), Ferno House has created a niche for itself that borrows from the DIY aspect of chapbook presses, but packs the zeal for quality and design more often associated with larger publishers.

Ferno House & The Emergency Response Unit | Steel Bananas | February 2010 | A couple of shots by Matthew FilipowichTheir second and latest release - edited and produced in collaboration with Leigh Nash and Andrew Faulkner of the Toronto chapbook press The Emergency Response Unit1 - is an anthology of poetry and prose focused on a very curious theme. Apparently one of the co-founders was enamoured with a certain outré2 novelty porn flick which inspired a story, subsequently bearing the anthology through collaborative hard work and home-made production. This isn't some typical literary erotica, either, considering this particular video depicted a ridiculously costumed dinosaur having gratituitous and seemingly very serious sex with two human women. It's Dinosaur Porn. Oddly, the video itself is not even remarkably explicit; all the common liberal porn tropes find their way into the perplexing celluloid without suggesting in the slightest that any of the bodies involved view their situation as absurd in the least. It's actually so awesomely ridiculous it's nearly impossible to find it any way sexually explicit, aside from the nudity and bizarre spirited sexual sincerity. Nevertheless, the concept found quite a bit of favour and momentum in creating the refreshingly absurd humour of the anthology, under which the press itself jovially mirrors the peculiar fetish in its marginal earnestness3.

The diverse selection of poetry and prose in Dinosaur Porn covers ground from the Toronto sex-culture radio-kitten Lousie Bak, to the dynamic voice of Gary Barwin, to the fresh voices of Corrigan Hammond and Christine McNair, among others. Encompassing a wide breadth of madcap variations on the theme, the anthology's combination of brevity, humour, and genuine home-made aura - wrapped into a couple hundred painstakingly produced packages - really made a thoughtful and interesting contribution to Toronto's contemporary literary playground. In times when we utter fear about the death of the book, we can be sure that projects like these maintain the  joie de vivre in the small press scene.

I sat down with the talented and remarkably modest Ferno House and ERU at Zoots Cafe to chat about the book and things. This group has been friends with one another for years, so it was my pleasure to sit over a coffee with them for a good laugh about their recent endeavour. Here's a taste:


Karen: So you use a special press for the covers, right?

Arnaud: Yeah, a Vandercook.

Spencer: It's like, 100 years old.

Karen: Where did you acquire that?

Arnaud: A secret cave. We go to a secret lair and do our printing. We try to avoid the dragon that lives there, but most times its safe.

Karen: Figures. You hear about books being made by hand and then you see these beautiful perfect bound things and wonder...

Andrew: Yeah, like what kind of hands do they have?! (Laughter).

Spencer: For the last book, the cover was done in a similar way, but the binding of it was actually by hand - like it was glued. It was clamped and then white glued, then we put the cover on, and then clamped again.

Arnaud: With a brush and shitty bulldog clips. Bulldog. We actually invested in a perfect binding machine, which makes the job a little quicker but more toxic I think. I'm not sure it's toxic but it smells really...

Matt: I get headaches and sick. (Laughter).

Spencer: Yeah I came home the other day and it smelled. It smelled so bad.

Karen: So what's the process for a single book?

Spencer: It would have been nice to do it with everyone, but the tasks for putting a book together are really one on one intensive. It's really a one man job; a one person job. You can't really divvy up tasks so well. It's sequential, too, so it would have been nice if it was just like a conveyor belt, it could have been done in a quarter of the time, but it's just this labour intensive, single activity. Andrew, Leigh, and I edited it. We took in selections, which was fun, and then they did a good copy edit on our almost good copy edit (Laughs). Then Arnaud designed it...

Arnaud: ...and typeset it...

Spencer: ...and it was corrected, then interiors were printed. Meanwhile the covers were being designed and printed, and then matched up with the interiors, then stacked together, cut, glued, and then finishing touches of brushing out bits...

Arnaud: I think that's the best part, where I ask Spencer to grab a brush and to brush off the dust. Well, not dust but the little chunks of paper that collect at the spine from the perfect binding machine. I'm like "Spencer when you number these, can you brush out all of the little paper bits?"

Spencer: It took forever.

Arnaud: We all share the workload, but I think it's just funny that we would go that far to... make a book (Laughs).

Karen: Just for the perfection of it?

Arnaud: Yeah.

Spencer: Anything that you make, that you put time and effort into it, makes a difference. That's just logical.

Arnaud: The new Penguin books have that kind of style, too: The deboss, two colour jobs. So it's kinda hard for people to really acknowledge how much work that went into them.

Spencer: It can never look really professional. Like it can't look all: "Wow that's perfect. Slick."

Karen: You guys don't think these are slick? (Picks up pretty slick copy of Dinosaur Porn.)

Spencer: Well, we have to charge a certain amount, like fifteen bucks, just to cover the labour, right. But I mean, going out to the store and picking up a mass produced book that's designed really well will probably last longer, ostensibly. (Laughs). So all the time going in is really aimed to match that, but done the slow way.

Karen: Well I'm sure that's all for you guys, right? For the love of it? Well, maybe not always - when you're covered in glue and such.

Spencer: [To Leigh and Andrew] Do you guys physically enjoy making books?

Leigh: Sometimes. Some days its fun, but other days its like a chore. Like those books (points at latest chapbook helping from the ERU) we have to make outside because we're using spray adhesive for the covers, so right now its hell to make them.

Andrew: We make them in 5 or 10 batches, but the pages are so weighty and wet, we have to set up a tarp over half of our backyard and huddle underneath it spraying and I'm trying not to get the glue in my hair. I go inside and stick to everything.

Matt: Well, in the end it's worth it, I'd say. The fact that you go through that...

Spencer: All the spraying...

Andrew: Well, I save on hair gel. (Laughter).

Matt: What I really like about the process is that feeling of time going by without noticing it. That's really rare, and probably the best part about making books like this.

Spencer: [To Andrew] It's interesting to see you make books, just because of your artistic abilities...

Andrew: Yeah, how I failed grade-school art?

Matt: So you're like, vindicating yourself.

Andrew: Yeah. But even the design for our stuff is all really natural. I mostly just kinda glue and fold. In the end you're right: we love it. Otherwise, we wouldn't keep coming back. There are moments where - while you're in the process of it - it's just like Why am I doing this... And then afterwards you're like Holy fuck this is awesome.

Karen: How do you think Ferno House fits into what's happening in Toronto right now? What kind of niche are you guys aspiring to fill?

Spencer: Hmm, what do you guys think about the niche that Dinosaur Porn fills in Toronto?

Andrew: I don't think we set out to fill a particular spot.

Karen: So you're making a spot?

Arnaud: Yeah, we're establishing it.

Andrew: I really like that on the call for submissions Spencer had the tagline "Just another Canlit anthology."

Spencer: Did I write that?

Andrew: So many anthologies have come out recently and I think a lot of it was that we wanted to be able to see how high quality of a thing we could make that was ostensibly so ridiculous. And we did end up getting tons of really excellent submissions; lots of things that stand alone, outside of the limits of an anthology called Dinosaur Porn. And the book quality is stepping up...

Matt: Well, you have to make stuff. And if you make it, make it good.

Spencer: In the recent radio interview I did, she was asking a similar question in terms of niche, but instead of Toronto she asked about Ottawa, because we're from there. It was framed in terms of chapbooks, and I was like: Well, this isn't really a chapbook.

Karen: Seems like a full-fledged book to me.

Spencer: Yeah, compared to the chapbook presses that stay in a place like Ottawa, it doesn't take the same kind of approach, I suppose. It's aspiring for something a bit more. Not in terms of content -  like take nothing away from anything being produced there in terms of literary merit, but in terms of production, they seem to be going the other way, with bows or really natural looking mulch paper. Really really intentionally hand-made. Still, that's definitely great, but we're just trying to go the other way.

Andrew: I know with Leigh and I, our chapbooks, and you guys with Ferno House, I think we're trying to make a package that stands up to the value of the work. I mean, we want to have a book that kinda shows off how good it is, as opposed to just being like: Well, the work will speak for itself. Why not also give it a really really awesome frame? I don't want to see really good work just being thrown together and stapled.

Spencer: Imagine we just took everyone's submissions for this thing, stacked them up, and stapled them together like that.

Matt: People would be like, "Whaaat?"

Arnaud: Yeah, like a staple in one corner, like an essay. (Laughter).

Karen: So when putting this together, what was your selection process like? I mean, it seems pretty diverse.

Spencer: We had no mandate. The only mandate was that it had to address the theme directly.

Leigh: We got things that were just porn, and just dinosaurs, and we got things with neither. (Laughter).

Spencer: And some of those things were really good, but not the porn. The pure porn stuff was - oh my god.

Karen: Pure porn stuff?

Spencer: One was a rambling paragraph, no breaks, called i like to wite porn. We thought it was a joke.

Karen: I like to write porn?

Spencer: Wite porn. Everything was messed up. It was so dirty. It wasn't just like an attempt at eroticism, it was so horrifying and awful and just went on and on with everything spelled wrong. Mattress was spelled m-a-t-r-i-c-e. That was my favourite. And then we had this group of guys from the States who are - I think it's herpetophilia - sexually attracted to snakes and lizards. They exploded over the site.

Leigh: Like "Rajasaurus".

Spencer: "Rajasaurus" and "Dilophosaurus" and all these guys. They're this little blogging community in Texas and they all talk to each other and are like: I just heard about this thing in friggin Canada, is this a joke? No? Well here's my story...

Leigh: They couldn't believe it. They were so excited.

Spencer: They actually went too far for us (Laughs). It was like a laboratory technician making love to a pack of raptors. It was dripping with detail, with all of the correct terms about their folds and how they get aroused.

Karen: Real, heavily researched Dino porn?

Spencer: Yeah, but it just didn't have that kind of be experimental with the theme thing. It was like: Hmm, Dinosaur Porn. What could that be? Oh. Someone having sex with a ton of dinosaurs. (Laughter).

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1 The Emergency Response Unit has been around since 2007, and has made 11 beautiful chapbooks so far. They have a launch for their most recent selection coming up on February the 22nd at The Magpie in Toronto, so you should head on out - it's sure to be a blast.
2 If you really want to see the bizarre Dinosaur porno video, click here. I warn you, this is straight-up porn.
3 Don't believe me? Just check out the book teaser trailer. Yes, that is a member of the Ferno House sucking an egg. These people are serious.