The Daily Heller: Esopus is a River of Ingenuity

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Esopus is a town in Ulster County, NY (population 9,041). Named after the local indigenous tribe, it means “small river” in English (from which Esopus Creek gets its name). But this geography lesson is secondary to the matter at hand. From indie visual culture magazine to groundbreaking venue for new and unknown writing, Tod Lippy, founder and maestro behind Esopus, keeps innovation flowing as he draws from many tributaries.

Whenever I think Lippy’s conquered new territory, he finds another. Just the other day I got this in the mail from him: “Recently, I was asked by MUSICdise, my music licensing company, to curate a Spotify playlist with some of my favorites in this genre. The more Philip Warbasse, MUSICdise’s founder, and I talked, the more we thought it made sense to open up the playlist to everybody. And since Valentine’s Day is approaching, it seemed only appropriate to give contributors the option of dedicating the track they add to their, you know, special someone.”

Today I report on another project: The Esopus Reader. Enjoy the interview below.

Your trajectory with Esopus as cultural entity/institution/hot house is incredible. First the magazine (totally ad-free), then music, performance, a visual book, and now this writing anthology. Did you have any idea that you’d take the venture this far?
Well, first of all, thank you! I feel like it’s easy to blame COVID for all sorts of logistical disruptions, and in some ways that’s valid: We had planned major events around the release of Modern Artifacts (Spring 2020)—including a launch party at MoMA—but obviously they all had to be canceled. We also had to jettison plans for an educational initiative with NYC public schools we had just begun gearing up on right around then. But that said, we are a very lean organization (just me and the Esopus Foundation administrator, Keriann Kohler, who works only 18 hours a week), so I think in retrospect the extra programming initiative was probably over-ambitious. But I definitely want to continue to publish under the Esopus Books imprint—there is so much material, much of it from sold-out issues, that deserves to find new audiences. And hopefully once the pandemic situation changes, we’ll be able to continue to do readings, concerts, exhibitions, launch parties and the like. We have built a super solid (and super loyal) community of readers, colleagues and supporters, and I feel it’s important to keep that community engaged. So I guess to answer your question in a more direct way, I always felt that the venture had “legs,” and I hoped it would last for as long as it has, but I am kind of amazed that we’re still kicking after nearly 20 years.

You’ve also admirably stuck to your vision. That’s rare for an independent artist/publisher. Have you always been optimistic this would work?
I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think I could stick with my vision for Esopus. The Foundation was fortunate to receive public and private funding that allowed me to do that, but if that hadn’t happened, I would have just shut down the enterprise, because the mission statement is quite clear about what boundaries (advertising, commercial interference, etc.) we won’t cross.

How do you distribute your wares? And, for that matter, where do you warehouse all this printed matter?
In the past we have used distributors like Ingram, Distributed Art Periodicals (DAP) and Central Books in London to make sure Esopus was on newsstands and in bookstores around the world. DAP also distributed Modern Artifacts, and The Esopus Reader will be handled by BCH (which works with Ingram and Baker & Taylor).

How do you keep your creative energy so fresh?
You know, I think you just have to love what you’re doing and respect and admire the people you’re working with. Everything else kind of falls into place. 

What’s next on the Esopus horizon?
I’m hoping our next project will be a collection of all of the “Guarded Opinions” installments from Esopus. This was a wonderful series, edited by Paul VanDeCarr, in which we asked museum guards to write about the work they oversee. 

What a great idea. I wish I had thought of that