ARTS & CULTURE
By Pamir Kiciman
Alex Benedict is an undergrad at UNC-CH majoring in English and Comparative Literature. He is also the founder of betweenthehighway press, which mostly publishes poetry.
Benedict’s press is a passion project sparked by his time working as a clerk and stocker at Han-Dee Hugo’s Exxon gas station in Carrboro.
According to his website, it was during this time that he engaged with “the evicted, exploited, and ignored” who came into the store, as well as those he met and observed along North Carolina Highway 54.
Because Benedict is focused on people facing food insecurity, the press also has a social mission. After production costs, one-half of the proceeds go toward buying food, maintaining food drives, and redistributing food locally.
“Why are people so desperate in this country that they beg between our highways? How could we ignore that?” asked Benedict in an email exchange with The Local Reporter. “Driving past someone is easy enough, but walking the highway forces encounters.”
Early on, Benedict took the initiative to spray paint “some file cabinets and placed them at a couple of bus stops in Carrboro: marking the top for food and the bottom for literature.”
These are still in place and a few more have been added.
“Placing those community pantries, I felt the need to fill them, so I began producing the first receipts and tried to raise money to buy food,” Benedict explained.
“I launched betweenthehighway in November 2021, publishing three receipts on the 26th, but it had been brewing since late 2019,” Benedict said.
The betweenthehighway press publishes poetry books in a highly original format.
Benedict uses receipt paper to make “receipt books.” This is the same paper receipt that you get after every purchase in stores.
In addition, betweenthehighway press is a paying market for authors. One-half of the proceeds after publication expenses goes to authors, and one-half is used to support Carrboro’s own TABLE, which has been feeding local children since 2008, and the local efforts of Food Not Bombs.
Hailing from Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley where he plans to return when he graduates–with perhaps some time traveling and living around North America–Benedict said, “I will continue the press as long as I am able. Although publishing is a labor of love, I aim for it to be financially stable; that’s close to happening for the current publishing cycle.”
Benedict is also minoring in German, and his major includes a concentration in editing and digital publishing. However, he said, “Unofficially, I say I’m studying poetry.”
“I’m mainly interested in poetry, but only because it is associated with opening up the possibilities of language,” Benedict said and referenced Hölderin, a German poet and philosopher.
“In many workshops I’ve been a part of there is this idea of the poem as isolated from the writer and the reader. To me, communication requires an encounter,” he added. “I want the receipts to be encounters where the writer freely shares their writing with the reader and one where the reader can do anything with what the writer shares.”
The receipt books are printed thermally, which is a heat transfer method that doesn’t require ink. For this, a Brother TD-2120N label printer is used to print what Benedict designs, along with the Brother P-touch Editor software.
The software is free. Receipt paper is cheap. Once printed in long receipt folds, the whole book is placed in what is known as a “cash control drop envelope” used by gas stations to drop money in their safes. These are also inexpensive.
“Receipts are easily damaged, destroyed, or transformed. For example, the paper can be torn, faded from excessive light, accidentally folded, or made damp,” Benedict said. “The noticeable impermanence of the receipts speaks to how all art is ultimately impermanent.”
Benedict has chosen Cleveland, Ohio, poet and counterculture icon d.a.levy as the subject of his undergraduate thesis.
“I will be researching how d.a.levy engaged with Buddhist practice in his poetry. Reading d.a.levy spurred me to develop my Buddhist practice and engage my writing with that practice,” Benedict said.
“Beyond d.a.levy’s writing, his publishing practices, and community engagement push me to question how I operate betweenthehighway and interact with our community.”
In the last two years, Benedict has become a practitioner of Jodo Shu Buddhism, “which emphasizes the practice of the Nembutsu: A Buddha-remembrance in the form of contemplation and utterance of the Buddha of infinite light and life, Amida.”
Benedict also tutors at UNC’s Writing Center. “I like to help people communicate,” he said. “I’m grateful for being able to work at UNC’s Writing Center. There, I’ve learned to engage writers as complete, rather than correcting their writing according to certain values.”
Having an ethos of service informed by his Buddhist practice, Benedict hopes to “build trust in our community and give people the conditions to enact freedom.”
He admits that he can’t always stock the community pantries he installed. “I’ve had many neighbors contribute both food and books,” Benedict said. “When I get large donations from neighbors or finish a publishing cycle with some profit, I then share food.”
Operating on a shoestring budget and with self-funded start-up costs, betweenthehighway press is made possible only by Benedict’s substantial efforts. He is the sole editor because he cannot pay another. Over the summer he spent six hours a day developing the resourceful website which includes a growing WIKI as a resource for artists and publishers. Looking at next June and a new publishing cycle, he anticipates 50 hours working with each author, editing, word processing the works, and printing new receipt books.
“So far, I’ve personally funded the press materials, technology, and community cabinets. In total, I think I spent about $500 over the course of a year for the first publishing cycle,” Benedict said.
Although he did not meet production costs in the first cycle, authors were still paid and Benedict made food donations.
“One of the receipt authors, Alexandre Ferrere, told me he saw my project as a continuation of d.a.levy’s publishing,” Benedict noted. “Someone I consider a mentor, cris cheek, told me he believed in my grit. Those two comments keep me going.”
He has also received compliments about printing with receipts, positive feedback about the range of writing, and encouragement to continue the publisher directory.
“What I’m doing is limited, but maybe I can reach a handful of people and connect a few other people,” Benedict concluded. He draws encouragement from seeing that the community cabinets are emptied and refilled, someone writes a note about how they were able to eat, or TABLE notes how many kids they were able to feed every week.
Pamir Kiciman is a writer/poet, artist/artisan, photographer, healer, and meditation teacher. To learn more, visit https://liinks.co/reiki.wordsmith or contact him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.