NA: When I think of Drunken Boat, I think first of Arthur Rimbaud, and second of this wonderful International web-magazine, which just released its 18th issue. I thought maybe we could start with you saying a few words about your online magazine.
RS: Well Rimbaud and Le Bateau Ivre, with its furious lashing of the tides, mystic horrors and future Vigor was in part the inspiration for the inception of the journal in 1999, because of the synesthetic way that the French poet combined the visual and the verbal in his work. Similarly at Drunken Boat, we strive to create a curatorial space where many genres can collide and converse. This year, we will be celebrating our 15th anniversary and it has been tempestuous and fulfilling journey at sea, and I’m always perpetually amazed at how we have attracted such a talented and dedicated staff, and really all of our successes over the years are directly attributable to them, from our genre editors to our readers around the world.
With respect to our mission, we have always striven to publish the best of more traditional forms of representation such as poetry, prose and translation and works of art endemic to the medium of the web, such as hypertext, digital animation, web art, video and sound art. We are excited by the possibilities that publishing online presents, from the egalitarian distribution of the arts to the vast international audience we can and do reach; from the potential for new forms of artworks that incorporate multimedia and interactivity to ways to revivify the extant genres by including, say, audio with a printed poem or hyperlinks with a work of fiction; finally, we are continually invested in creating an exhibition space of cross-pollination and so at our live events, we may have a sound artist, a filmmaker and a poet all performing, or a fiction writer, a hapa haole bricolage artist and a performance artist. Those juxtapositions, and conversations, between genres, between emerging and established writers and artists, are what genuinely excite and motivate us to continue.
NA: What are some of the highlights of editing Drunken Boat?
RS: It’s hard to choose just a few, but I’ll try. First, I should say that working with such extraordinary individuals has always been the highlight; Drunken Boat is a true arts collective and were it not for the shared energy of all the folks who come together in just such an unique and spectacular way, the journal would not be possible. Our new Managing Editor, Erica Mena, Assistant Managing Editor, Emily Vizzo, and Director of Outreach, Mary-Kim Arnold have revitalized our publishing process and Drunken Boat owes great debts of gratitude to everyone who works on the magazine. It would take too long to thank them all individually, but I encourage folks to go check out the Masthead, just to see how many dedicated people, many of them exceptional working artists and writers themselves, work on the journal.
Other highlights include from our appealingly low-fi first issue, published in 2000, the fact that a handful of established writers and artists took a chance on publishing something in an utterly unknown enterprise. These include Alfred Corn, Rachel Hadas, David Humphries and Leslie Scalapino. Here’s a poem from the late Scalapino, whose inclusion in that first issue gave us some of our forward momentum and the direction that our journal would take.
A validation of our entire endeavor happened with the publication of Drunken Boat#3, our issue dedicated to ethnopoetics. The issue, which you can see here, has an alternate map navigation and includes contributors from 20 different countries, establishing us as an international journal of arts. Putting this issue together was fulfilling on a number of levels; first corresponding with and reprinting Jerome Rothenberg, the godfather of Ethnopoetics, was a lot of fun; next, publishing work from Eritrean poet Reesom Haile in an endangered language, Tigrinya, and being able to listen to and read the script of the beautiful, dying language, thereby taking full advantage of our new publishing medium; finally spending time with street poet Donald Green, whom we would often see hanging outside of Washington wearing a sandwich board that proclaimed he would recite poems for money. We hung out with him for a few afternoons, sharing bagels and hearing his stories about how he had been a janitor at Columbia University when Langston Hughes was there and cobbled together an education by reading what had been left behind on professors’ blackboards. We discovered and published him before the The New York Times and The Village Voice did features on him. We also included work from a number of writers who were in the midst of or would go on to spectacular careers, including Alice Fulton, Heather McHugh, Eugene Gloria, Zoe Beloff, Julie Sheehan, Peter Orner and Carole Maso. For all of our hard work on this issue, we were nominated for and named a finalist for a South-by-Southwest Web Award, and got to go out to the famed Austin festival to experience the Interactive portion of the proceedings, admittedly the ugly stepchild to the Film and Music festival back then, but a great honor and thrill nonetheless.
Each issue has its own highlights, from digitizing and publishing biographer Barry Leeds’ conversations with Norman Mailer, which had been languishing on cassette tapes in a closet, to hosting our first (and only!) Panliterary Awards in seven genres with such judges as DJ Spooky and Alexandra Tolstoy (I recommend folks also have a look at Juliet Davis’ “Pieces of Herself,” our Editor’s Choice award winner for best web art, as an autobiography based on interactivity and discontinuous narration, it still seems to me to highlight some of the potential of the nascent genre). Another highlight might be the folio on handmade, homemade, and letterpress chapbooks, one-of-a-kind editions, and broadsides put together by our late Fiction Editor Deborah Poe in the same issue we featured work by Native American Women Poets curated by Layli Long Soldier.
There’s much, much more, of course, but that’s the beauty of Drunken Boat. We desire to create a vast repast with many succulent dishes, a hundred-course tasting menu in each issue that can be dipped into again and again with great gustatory and conceptual pleasure.
NA: What are some of the magazine’s happiest moments?
RS:To start at the beginning, I recall fondly those moments sitting in co-founder Michael Mills’ Crown Heights apartment, surrounded by his drawings and models, peering at his Power Macintosh G-3 at the mountain of submissions that had come in, much to our surprise. We hadn’t advertised or publicized the journal, and so it was jaw-dropping to realize we had gone viral before there was a viral! Those moments hunched over a coffee mug looking at artwork and writing from out of the world was born from a bond of genuine friendship and innocent curiosity and remain some of the happiest times I can remember. Mike remains one of my oldest friends, which is in itself an invaluable commodity, and he is currently a successful architect, graphic designer and commercial photographer in Chapel Hill whom you can reach here.
If as Rumi says, great sorrow prepares you for joy, another one of the happiest moments working on Drunken Boat was getting to know the late American poet William Meredith, whom when I met him was still in intensive physical therapy getting over the stroke that over two decades ago had left him almost completely speechless. Guided by his partner Richard Harteis, William was kindly and demonstrated the kind of fierce courage, I can only dream of possessing. When I invited him to read at CCSU, where I teach, he recited his poems from memory haltingly, but with great strength, and at times it was so difficult for him to enunciate that Richard had to wipe the drool from the corner of his mouth. It was the most heart-breaking and brave readings of which I have ever been part, and I’m so glad that we could do him justice in the retrospective that we published about his life—including drafts of his poems, photographs of him from the Korean War, his correspondence with then New Yorker editor Howard Moss, and videos of the charismatic younger Meredith serving in his capacity as the United States Poet Laureate. We expanded that folio to include work on Aphasia, literal and figurative speechlessness (a feature that received a special commendation from the National Aphasia Association), and in that issue included work by the late American minimalist artist Sol LeWitt, sound sculptures by Abinadi Meza and video from Elizabeth Subrin. It’s one of my favorite older issues and it was a great joy to put together, especially in light of getting to know William Meredith and spending so much time in his archives at Connecticut College looking at this old journals and papers.
Finally two more sublime moments:
First, co-sponsoring the visit of the OULIPO to New York City. Our folio on this highly influential movement of writers, scientists and mathematicians all working under constraint (which at one time included such figures as Marcel Duchamp and Italo Calvino) is still one of the best repositories of both the critical and creative side of the group (which now includes everyone from cooks to cartoonists working with the potentialities of their given expressive medium). Along with the Brooklyn Rail and L’Alliance Française, we helped bring a group of Oulipiens including Marcel Bénabou, Anne F. Garréta, Jacques Jouet, Herve LeTellier, Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, and Jacques Roubaud to the New York City to perform their work at the New School and at the Pierogi Art Gallery in Brooklyn. Our own Contributing Editor Jean-Jacques Poucel arranged the event and to be in the presence of those literary giants from France was a thrill for all involved.
And secondly, my colleague and author of a forthcoming biography of Eugene O’Neill from Yale University Press, Robert M. Dowling arranged a feature entitled “Celtic Twilight: 21st-Century Irish Americans on Eugene O’Neill, in which actor Brian Dennehy, Black 47 front-man Larry Kirwan, and novelists Alice McDermott and T.C. Boyle, among others, speak about the life and work of arguably America’s greatest dramatist. We launched this issue at the American Irish Historical Society, a beautiful five-story Fifth Avenue limestone building with wrought iron grille doors, just across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The energy of the space and the vitality of the performers was a thing to behold, and I believe on that night we resurrected O’Neill’s spirit to commune with us.
NA: Could we have a poem from the current issue?
RS: Absolutely! The new issue is literally swimming in poems, as the sections on Debt and the Ocean, in addition to our normal Poetry section, feature lots and lots of poems, by such fabulous writers as Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Laura McCullough, Eleanor Lerman, L. S. Klatt, Cynthia Cruz and others. But I’d like to highlight a poem by Suzanne Marie Hopcroft, first because she was for a time on the Drunken Boat staff, but also because she’s an emerging poet whose work has a sonic complexity and syntactic confabulation that makes us want to reread her poems. Here’s “And When What We Knew Did Not Devour Us.” You’ll want to keep your eye on her progression:
And When What We Knew Did Not Devour Us
Train conductors everywhere, and
my hair in is ropes.
This word-binder well
enough approaches a stylus,
putters day in and out along
the same bough-arched way
where our mothers liked
to hitch verbs to
nonsense. They, ten and
and arguably morose—yet
the mad libs remain,
What to do when the half-
forgotten apple of our
beyondness is not
is not churning valiantly,
along? I eat sorrow as danger
a new coil of it unfurl
now to let go the crowd
of everyone who will not be
me: warnings run
aground, gasping on
a wide and verdant shore.
NA: What specific event, or series of events, inspired you want to start publishing books?
RS: Well we had often thought about doing something offline, as it were, although if it were according to our druthers, it would have been an audio CD, or DVD. For many years, we would be asked, well, Drunken Boat is really cool, but when are you going to come out with a print edition? That was always deeply misguided in our minds, since so much of what we publish and champion could not exist in print. We have reached nearly a quarter million unique visitors in a given year, which is something we could not do in print. We publish web art and video, sound and hypertext, literary video games and interactive poems, genres that need the technology of a personal computer, smart phone or a tablet to be broadcast on, so we always laughed off the idea of doing books.
However that changed when we were asked by the estate of the late Indian American poet Reetika Vazirani to help edit her last manuscript. The story behind the making of that collection, and the kind of literary forensic science that had to be applied to putting it together, has been told elsewhere, but given the circumstances of her passing, we found it was an impossible project to publish, but even more impossible to pass up on publishing. Radha Says is a searing last book by a crucial poet whose vital dynamisms still resonate; we’re particularly pleased that we included some of the handwritten typescript pages in that book as we found them in her original manuscript.
We decided after that we would publish a title or two, just as the spirit moved us, always as an adjunct to our primary role as a journal, but exceedingly to provide a forum for a few of the many wonderful voices that are looking for a home. We hope our forthcoming book contest, which I discuss elsewhere, will do just that. Our second book is Lisa Russ Spaar’s The Hide and Seek Muse: Annotations of Contemporary Poetry and we are just releasing an e-book version of this in the coming month.
NA: Could you say a few words about Lisa Russ Spaar?
RS: Oh Nin, I could gush all day about Lisa; really she’s one of my poetic mentors and favorite people. I have known Lisa since I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, having promised my parents like any good Indian son I would study aeronautical engineering and then I found myself in Lisa’s poetry workshop. It’s only in retrospect that I realize how special that time at UVA was and how lucky I was to study with such luminaries as Charles Wright, Rita Dove, Greg Orr, Tan Lin and Jon Loomis. But it was really Lisa’s workshop that had the most profound effect on me. She exploded my preconceived notion of what a class could be, she had us leave the classroom and take a walk along the railroad tracks, she introduced us to James Wright and Rainer Maria Rilke, and she assigned exercises that I still use to this very day in the classroom. I never felt so validated and imaginatively empowered as I did in her classroom and so when the chance came to publish her work in return, I leapt at the opportunity.
We actually first published Lisa in Drunken Boat#3 and I have always adored her poetry. I rate her as among our finest poets, up there with Lucie Brock-Broido, Gertrude Schnackenberg and Brigit Pegeen Kelly, all heirs of Emily Dickinson in terms of an intensity of sensual perception that verges on and indeed crosses over into the spiritual, into the realm of pure lyric. I literally shudder when I read her poem, Midas Passional, which opens:
No one has touched me for weeks
yet in this drugged, gilt afternoon, late,
when nothing is safe, I’m paralyzed,
as though so wildly desired—
And as her columns that we collected together in Hide-and-Seek Muse demonstrate, she’s at least as sensitive and erudite a reader as she is a writer. She’s also a wonderful anthologist, as evinced by her previous collections, All That Might Heart: London Poems and Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems. She’s everything that’s right about teaching and literature—passionate, generous, open-minded, and a nurturing spirit. I love Lisa, and I know I’m not alone in that affection.
NA: How many books do you publish per year?
RS: We are planning to publish 1-2 books a year, given the nature of our financial circumstances and the projects with which we are presented. Our next book will be a book contest and while we are still deciding on the particulars of this, we will be certainly be open to traditional, experimental and hybrid poetry manuscripts of all kinds. We will be announcing this contest at AWP and hope to have the book out in time for Spring 2015. We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization completely dependent upon reader support for our projects, so if you are interested in seeing us publish more books, you might consider making a tax-deductible donation to help support our mission in this regard.
NA: How does one become a Drunken Boat author?
RS: By writing the most compelling and innovative work that you can produce. We are particularly open to work that utilizes the medium of the web as part of its compositional strategy so if you are collaborating with other artists, graphic designers, film makers or musicians, you’ll find an especially receptive audience at Drunken Boat. And we are truly interested in work that could not appear elsewhere, conceptual translations, manifestos and rants, parodies and sequences, collaborations and interactive fictions, any kind of work that is on the cutting edge of whatever edge there is to cut. Given our international focus, we also want to encourage translation and work that engages with other parts of the world, with other cultures and texts. Finally, pay close attention to our calls for submissions, when we have open reading periods and we are closed, try to help support the arts online, and become involved by attending our readings, engaging in dialogue with our pieces, on our blog and elsewhere. We love to hear from you.
NA: Do you have any new and exciting projects for 2014?
RS: Indeed we do. 2014 will mark our 15th year in existence so we have two more issues planned for this year. Drunken Boat#19 (with a tentative pub date of May 2014) will include folios on Flash Funny for which we are accepting submissions now, Greek Poetry and the China Statement, a visual art folio curated by David Horton Harrison. Drunken Boat#20 (est. pub. date of September 2014) will include Poetry Comix, the Affrilachian Arts and MUPS, an online sonic mashup engine, and we plan to highlight that release with fabulous launch parties around the world. At least metaphorically, if not literally.
NA: Will you have a table at AWP in Seattle? A reading?
RS: Yes we will. We will be sharing table space with our Managing Editor Erica Mena’s press Anomalous at the AWP Book Fair and we are co-hosting an off-site reading with Ugly Duckling Presse, Ahsahta and Les Figues Press on Friday, February 28th, at the Alibi Room from 7 PM to 10 PM, just a few blocks from the conference hotel (85 Pike St #410 (in Post Alley) - Seattle, WA 98101). All our welcome to attend and we’re psyched to be collaborating with such awesome presses, so we hope to see you there.
NA: I thought I’d ask Lisa Russ Spaar a few questions here as well.
Lisa, How did this book come about?
LRS: I must thank Ravi most of all, and also the designers and assistant editors and development staff associated with Drunken Boat, for the existence of this book. For two years (2010 – 2012), I wrote a weekly commentary about an unpublished poem by a diverse range of poets for the Chronicle of Higher Education Arts & Academe and Brainstorm blogs. Over time, the weekly feature attracted a devoted following, but Ravi was an early and steadfast reader of these weekly postings. I was so gratified one week, for example, when he responded to one of the commentaries (I think it was my presentation and remarks on work by Hank Lazer) by saying something like, “receiving these poems and your responses each week reminds me of what it was like to wait for and then watch the latest episode of Twin Peaks). I consider this a high compliment!
It was Ravi who, when the Chronicle blog ended, suggested that the commentaries and my occasional essays about contemporary poetry that I was also publishing with the Chronicle should be collected in a book that would be accessible to readers interested in poetry but who might not necessarily be poets, and also serve as an anthology that brought into concert an aesthetically and diverse range of early 21st-century poets (the poets included are amazing). Nick Flynn provided a terrific introduction, the designers of the cover and interiors embodied the book beautifully, and I feel that the book has been enjoying a vital life with individual readers but also in the classroom and with book clubs (the latter of which often shy away from poems), something that will be even more possible now that SPB is bringing the book out in an electronic edition.
Drunken Boat has been a pioneer and an innovative presence for literature on the Web, and now in book publishing, and I’m so grateful to be part of their continually refreshed and intrepid community.
NA: Could we have an excerpt from Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations of Contemporary Poetry?
RS: Absolutely. Here’s a link to the title essay.
And Drunken Boat#17 had a feature on the book where we include some of the poets that are included and the audio of them reading. You can read and/or listen to such poets as Edward Hirsch, Laura Kasischke, Claudia Emerson, Brenda Hillman and David Baker, as well as read excerpts from the book here. We think it is a wonderful book for the poet and non-poet alike, and a wonderful tool to teach poetry on every level:
RAVI SHANKAR is founding editor and Executive Director of Drunken Boat, one of the world’s oldest electronic journals of the arts. He has published or edited eight books/chapbooks of poetry, including the 2010 National Poetry Review Prize winner, “Deepening Groove,” called the work of “one of America’s finest younger poets” by Connecticut Poet Laureate Dick Allen. Along with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, he coedited W.W. Norton’s “Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond". He has won a Pushcart Prize, been featured in The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, appeared as a commentator on the BBC, NPR and the Jim Lehrer News Hour, and has performed his work around the world. He is currently Chairman of the Connecticut Young Writers Trust, on the faculty of the first international MFA Program at City University of Hong Kong and an Associate Professor of English at CCSU. Follow him on Twitter @empurpler.
LISA RUSS SPAAR is the author and editor of eight collections of poetry, most recently Vanitas, Rough: Poems (Persea, 2012) and The Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations of Contemporary Poetry (Drunken Boat, 2013). Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Award, the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize, and the Library of Virginia Award for Poetry. Her essays, reviews, and commentaries about poetry have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.
Nin Andrews received her BA from Hamilton College and her MFA from Vermont College. The recipient of two Ohio Arts Council grants, she is the author of several books including The Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum. She also edited Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet, Henri Michaux. Her book, Southern Comfort was published by CavanKerry Press in 2010. Follow Nin's blog here. Follow Nin on Twitter here.