Black Ocean, An Interview with Janaka Stucky and Carrie Adams

Continuing my quest to learn about interesting small presses, I had the opportunity to interview Black Ocean editors, Janaka Stucky and Carrie Adams.  Black Ocean has generated a fair amount of buzz around their small press and I was curious to learn more about them and what they’re working on.

-Why did you start Black Ocean?

COA: Janaka and I met when were both in the low-residency MFA Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. By that time, I had already been working in scholarly publishing for a few years, which while providing a great foundation in the principles of publishing, also allowed me a chance to see some of its flaws and gaps. Poetry is treated very differently by a publisher that publishes significantly in other genres than by a publisher who focuses exclusively or nearly exclusively on poetry. This may seem obvious, but the differences can be great.  I wanted to be part of a publishing environment that took poetry seriously–that not only believed in its aesthetic value, but believed that poetry could actually be sustainable financially –that it had a real audience and readership that other publishers weren’t making the effort to reach. Janaka and I realized we not only shared a lot of the same publishing ideals, but we also shared an overlapping aesthetic. At first, it just seemed like a graduate student pipe dream, and when I look back on what it’s become I’m always a bit surprised but also extremely proud.

JS: When the idea to start Black Ocean came up, I had two ambitions in mind. The first was to publish out-of-print works by two of my favorite poets: Bill Knott and Frank Stanford. For various reasons that aren’t worth getting into, I have yet to realize those dreams. The second ambition was to create an independent publisher that made beautiful and exciting books. Black Ocean began in 2004, and back then there weren’t nearly as many indie poetry publishers as there are now. Aside from Verse (which is now Wave) and Fence, and a couple of others, there weren’t many people doing what we do in the world of poetry. It’s worth mentioning we did start off by publishing in three genres: poetry, fiction and nonfiction. We immediately scaled back to just poetry, but we plan to begin publishing prose again in 2014.

-Black Ocean combines print, concerts, exhibitions, and other events.  I read that you love putting on “shows” and that your hope is to subtly connect some of the people with your books by producing events that are exciting, stimulating, and challenging.  I love that.  Can you describe to me a typical “show” and how the audiences have responded?

JS: Well, there are no typical shows. A recent example though might be the event we did for the 2012 AWP Conference in Chicago, at a little bar and music venue called The Hideout. Aside from the usual lineup of readers, we had a shadow puppetry troupe perform, accompanied by a live string quartet, and we closed the night dancing with a DJ team spinning soul music. The club held 175 and there was a mob of people waiting to get in as many were turned away due to capacity. I guess that must mean people are hungry for a complete experience. The shadow puppetry show was actually based on one of our latest books, Fjords vol.1 by Zachary Schomburg. That show was co-produced by Black Ocean and made its debut at The Poetry Foundation in Chicago earlier in February. There were six performances in a room that held 100 people, and all six performances sold out. So I guess people respond well to the mixed-media approach. I love poetry; I’ve devoted my life to it, but I still have trouble sitting through long readings that often lack energy.

-How do you view Black Ocean in the world of poetry publishing today?

COA: Within the world of small press poetry publishing, I think our reputation is formidable and still growing. As the recent reprintings of Zachary Schomburg’s books attest—over 12,000 of his books are in print—we have proven to be a force worth reckoning with. At a time when very established university presses and other poetry publishers consider themselves incredibly lucky to sell-through a poetry print run of five hundred copies, Black Ocean’s success is not only rare, but it is a quantifiable testament to Black Ocean’s commitment to beautiful books and unique promotion. With standard print runs at 2,000 copies, recent books by Matthew Henriksen, Brandon Shimoda, Joe Hall, Julie Doxsee—and translations of the Swedish poet Aase Berg by Johannes Göransson—all speak to the triumph of Black Ocean’s ideal. For those who say it can’t be done, that publishing poetry is a fool’s gamble, evidence of our recent successes are proving them wrong. And, we owe a lot to the enthusiasm of our readers, who have spread the word, and to the tireless touring and promotions by our authors.

JS: I’d like to start off by saying how frequently I’m inspired by Carrie’s tireless enthusiasm… As for my own view, we’re rapidly growing so my view of it changes rapidly as well. After an informal poll last year we discovered that our catalog has been taught in over 20 different MFA programs around the country. Every year it seems one of our books wins an award or receives a high form of recognition. We’ve been very fortunate in many ways. At the same time, our audience trends toward mid-20’s to mid-30’s, so we’re not on the radar of many older poets and critics. Because major prizes, academic departments, and funding sources tend to be controlled by an older generation who is not as aware of our presence, growth remains a challenge in some ways.

-How would you describe Black Ocean’s aesthetic if you have one or believe in an aesthetic?

COA: I think if you look at all of our books together, you’ll see some red threads that connect them, whether the poems themselves are more surreal, more cerebral, or more direct and graphic. Overall, I look for poems that offer me something new—something that asks me to reconsider how I’ve looked at the world or myself or language—but it must ask me sincerely and not just be a ploy for my attention. I want to read something that challenges me. Poems that are well-crafted, that embody a particular attention to detail—in form or syntax or word choice. A lot of young writers are inspired by the books we have published already—which is fantastic. But we are looking for books that fit into the tone and style of our list, without mimicking it. Janaka and I have distinct, but overlapping tastes. What we publish tends to fit in the Venn diagram of our personal obsessions. We’ll take a chance on anything we believe in.

JS: I like the idea your question poses, of ‘not believing in an aesthetic.’ I’m not sure if it’s possible, but I’m going to sit with that for a while. What would an aesthetic-less press look like? Perhaps it is the face of poetry publishing in its entirety… Black Ocean gets its name from recurring dreams I’ve had since I was a child, of impossibly deep bodies of water. Sometimes I’m consumed by them, or sometimes I’ll be observing them from a precipice. Often they contain monumental sharks, prehistoric creatures, and cephalopods of Lovecraftian proportions. In the presence of these black oceans I am simultaneously filled with dread and awe. I suppose that’s my aesthetic.

-How does your press select books for publication?  How many manuscripts do you get through your open submissions?  Do you ever publish books out of the slush pile?

COA: We have an open reading during June of each year, and I read each and every manuscript that comes in (usually between two and three hundred submissions). We try to publish at least one manuscript from our open reading each year—something unsolicited and perhaps from someone we’ve never encountered before. There’s a certain pleasure in the hidden gem. But we also solicit work from writers we admire, and we are dedicated to the poets we have already published. If they have a new manuscript we always like to consider it and keep them as a part of the Black Ocean family if we can.

-How many books do you publish a year and do you plan on expanding that?

JS: This year we are publishing four full-length, single author collections of poetry–as well as an album by the musician Michael Zapruder, with lyrics written by poets such as Mary Ruefle, D.A. Powell, and Dorothea Lasky. We also publish an annual literary journal called Handsome. Next year we’re planning on publishing six books of poetry, but until we can afford to get Carrie to quit her day job we’re capping poetry at six per year. That said, in 2014 I do plan on adding a 7th book, of prose–and an additional prose title each successive year until we’re publishing six titles in each genre annually. My hope is that, without diluting the care with which we curate acquisitions, this output will allow is to stay committed to publishing our existing authors while considering new voices for our catalog.

-I’ve read that some of your books, especially those by Zachary Schomburg sell really well for poetry.  Why do you think that is?  What is special about his work?  (I loved Fjords, vol 1, by the way).

COA: Zach’s at once a poet’s poet and a people’s poet, and he has found a way to tap into a particular idiom, to create images (startling, unique, sometimes whimsical) that resonate on many levels. His work is both imaginative and genuine, and some audiences seize on the humor and others on the pathos. As a result, his work has found new and unexpected readers—many outside the typical readership for poetry–and inspired everything from tattoos to full-scale theatrical adaptations with shadow puppets.

-How does Black Ocean get its funding?  And is this something you plan on doing for a long time?

JS: Black Ocean is not a 501(c)3, so it gets its funding through good old-fashioned book sales. When we launched in 2004, the economy was strong and I managed to wrangle a small business loan out of a bank to publish our first four books. Since then, funding has always been a struggle; at one point I was personally $20,000 in credit card debt, almost entirely due to Black Ocean. But I’m happy to say that debt is gone, and our loan entirely paid off. So now we are funded through book sales, and that’s enough to maintain production but not much else. We did receive our first grant this year, from the Swedish Arts Council, which was exciting. I’m currently looking for a school that would be interested in housing Black Ocean, which would be a pretty sweet deal for them. We don’t need any funding–I just need a desk and a modest salary for the time being. In exchange, that school would get exclusive access to internships, and affiliation with a successful and widely read indie publisher. I’ve been looking for about a year now, but despite the fact that our titles are very popular among grad students and adjuncts, deans and department heads seem to remain largely unaware of our presence.

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