DD: Walter Benjamin tells us that all great literature either dissolves a genre or invents one. Your own poetry, Carrie, and much of the poetry in the Black Ocean catalogue, either dissolves a genre or occurs in the interstices of genre. What draws you to these spaces? What is the value of being aesthetically in-between (prose and poetry, high and low, clinical and colloquial, et cetera)?
COA: I often think I’m a poet by accident, rather than by intention. I’m someone who always wants to be someone else, or at least is very curious about the idea of being someone else. Why not a filmmaker? A diplomat? Spy? Why not be all those things at once? Life’s a lot more compelling when it’s unlimited. And so is poetry, literature, art. The space in between is where all the energy is. The freedom. The play. The frisson. The experimentation. It’s where everything can rub up against each other. Choosing one path or another, immediately negates. But when you start out thinking about a poem, without thinking about how poet or poem should think, it opens the world. No form is off limits. No language is off limits. And then the poem can truly represent life and the life of the mind. It can be a living, organic thing. Isn’t that the most value of all?
DD: Black Ocean Press celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Congratulations on a successful first decade! In the past ten years, you have published 36 poetry collections, including one anthology. Although the authors that you publish cross continents and range from Julie Doxsee to Michael Zapruder, your catalogue presents a remarkably unified poetic vision. What makes a Black Ocean book?
COA: We definitely take pride in the idea that you immediately know a Black Ocean book when you see it. There’s a design sense and style you can’t help but recognize. And I feel the same way about the poems inside those awesome packages. When I’m reading submissions, I know I’ve found a book that will be a Black Ocean book when it changes how I think or how I see the world. It suddenly offers me a vision of something overlooked or something I never knew had a name. The poems give words to sensations or ideas that I’ve always wanted to describe or never realized needed describing. It fondles an itch in the mind. It wakes me up. It has to feel essential and purposeful. Not in a manipulative way, but in that the poems have a reason and now you can’t imagine a world in which you did not have that phrase.
DD: You met Black Ocean’s founder, Janaka Stucky, in a workshop as part of the M.F.A. Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Can you tell us about him and explain how the press came into being?
DD: Janaka, Black Ocean Press recently published, Justice, a posthumous collection by Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun (1941-2014). The book is translated by Michael Thomas Taren; the translator’s note on the dust jacket of Justice reads like something out of Jorge Luis Borges’ imagination—it’s worth buying this book for the note alone. Justice is the first in a series of Šalamun translations slated to appear from your press. Can you tell us a little bit about this series and explain some of the distinctive features of Tomaž Šalamun’s work?
JS: I first met Tomaž while working as a graduate assistant at Vermont College; he was a visiting poet. He was instantly warm with me, almost paternal--but not in a patronizing way, which I understand to be the experience of many young poets who encountered him. This was in 2007, our second year of operating Black Ocean. After he arrived home in Slovenia, I was astounded to receive an email from him--following up on some conversations we had in the U.S. Over the years he became an avid supporter of the press, submitting poems to our literary journal (Handsome), and even blurbing a book for us. Then, a few years ago, I was equally astounded to see a submission of Justice sent in during our open reading period. Tomaž Šalamun wanted us to publish him!? Of course we accepted, and when I offered to waive right of first refusal he countered, saying he would in fact love for Black Ocean to be his home in the U.S., in perpetuity. When he became ill, I reassured him that we would honor his wishes to have future books published eve posthumously. We were fortunate enough to have him direct the order and scheduling of Justice, plus three more books forthcoming, even from his hospice care. Justice isn’t the first posthumous collection we’ve published by a poet, but these books mean a tremendous deal to me. It’s an honor to publish the work of any great poet, but it’s also an incredible responsibility to be trusted with that duty by a great poet when he knows he’s putting his posterity in your hands.
DD: Black Ocean has also published three other books in translation: Aase Berg’s With Deer and Dark Matter (both translated by Johannes Göransson) and Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World (translated by Jake Levine). Would you tell us about these collections? Also, how does editing a book of poetry in translation differ from your traditional editorial work?
COA: I’ll leave it to Janaka to talk about the acquisition of the translations, which is an effort that he has been wonderfully spearheading. As for the editing, I approach these works with the same close attention I bring to all our books, but with a different sort of eye. For our traditional English-language books, where I’m working more directly with the author, I approach editing as much more of a conversation--suggestions about the structure of the book or of individual poems become a dialogue between me and and the author.. It varies from line edits to larger questions of textual architecture. But for translations, I assume a level of finality with the work and focus more on style and consistency. I work by day for the University of Chicago Press, and so I am, by profession, well-experienced with the Chicago Manual of Style, and I approach translations mainly with CMOS in mind, thinking as a copyeditor.
JS: I was introduced to Aase Berg’s work by another Black Ocean author, Rauan Klassnik. I already knew Johannes Göransson as a colleague at Action Books, but I hadn’t read his translations of Berg—which floored me when I read them. Johannes was in the middle of translating With Deer when Rauan suggested I solicit the manuscript from him. That book has made a great impression on a number of people, and went into its second printing around the time we published her next book, Dark Matter. Those books were both originally written in Swedish quite a while ago, but we’ve just acquired a new Göransson/Berg translation of more recent collection, called Hackers, which will come out next year. As for Kim Kyung Ju, I was approached by his translator Jake Levine--whom I had a sort of second-degree-of-separation with from his work on Spork Press. There are a few Korean poets who are enjoying a fair amount of popularity in the states right now, but what’s interesting is that few people here know of Kim Kyung Ju, who’s first book has sold over 10,000 copies in Korea. He’s kind of a rockstar over there, and starting to become a notable figure in the New York theatre scene as a playwright, so I’m excited to see how this book is received in the States.
DD: Carrie, in a New York Times interview, you noted that editing Rauan Klassnik’s Holy Land was a challenging experience because it forced you to reconsider your comfort zone in poetry and to truly articulate how you “thought effective poems worked and how to best structure a book for the reader’s experience.” What was/is your comfort zone in poetry? How do effective poems work?
COA: The discomfort I had to confront in Holy Land was a question of content. There is no way to overlook the fact that it is a very violent and brutal book, often sexually brutal. And it assaults the reader. Many of the poems read like scenes from films during which you’d want to cover your eyes. And so I had to ask myself--what is this in service of? My goal when editing any book is to get up close to the poems and try to figure out the logic of the poems themselves--what is the internal order driving each book? And once I determine my sense of this, I try to find a way to make sure that the poems teach the reader how to read them as the book goes along. Every book can have its own rules, but once it sets the rules for its world, it needs to stick with them. And if it breaks with those rules along the way, it has to be intentional, it has to serve a purpose in order to maintain the reader’s trust.
DD: In what other ways has your work as an editor influenced your life as a writer? In what ways has your writing life, in turn, influenced your editorial work?
COA: I think I’ve always written my poems with an editor’s brain, for better or for worse. I have cultivated a great sense of detachment from my own work once it’s on the page. No matter how much I may love a line or an image or an idea, no matter how connected to me as a person it feels, if it doesn’t feel like it truly works in the piece, I am unsentimental about deleting it. I admire precision above all else; every word, every punctuation has to earn its place. I’ve become more vigilant about this over the years, the more time I spend trying to convince others to let go of their attachment. Poems have to be left to go live a life on their own. Because I spend so much time either editing books in production or reading manuscripts that are submitted, I don’t have a lot of time for reading other contemporary poets or poetry journals. So I learn so much and am exposed to so much through the work of the hundreds of submissions we receive. This broad exposure is invaluable to me and my own thinking about poetry.
DD: The question of “a reader’s experience” is central to your own work and to the work of the authors you publish at Black Ocean. The question at the center (literally and figuratively) of your fine book, Intervening Absence, is: “what becomes of intention?” Questions of intentionality, authorship, authenticity, and reader response form the vertebrae of your body of work. In The 8th House, Feng Sun Chen echoes these concerns when she directly addresses her readers: “With such illiteracy/ I hope to reach the dead within you.” Can you discuss the relationship between reader, text, author, and editor?
COA: Beyond what I’ve already mentioned about the actual practical details of editing and maintaining the reader’s trust, I think the idea of intention is an interesting one, and you’ve hit upon it precisely in your quote from Feng’s book. That intention—to reach—is the only reason I write. It’s to call out into the dark, the void, the abyss, the black ocean. It is to reach with the hope of grasping skin, connecting fingers, sharing breath. When I talk to people who are intimidated by poetry, I try to assure them that poetry--despite what they may have heard in school--is not a riddle. It is a not a puzzle to be paraphrased. If you don’t see the scene I saw when I wrote that poem; if you don’t struggle with the same questions I was struggling with when I wrote it—that’s fine to me. When you read it, does it make you feel? Do you for a moment feel your humanity? That would be my great hope, my only intention. For a moment, you are not alone.
DD: Speaking of Intervening Absence, your poetry owes a great debt to cinema and is in constant dialogue with film. Your poetry shares much in common with the films of Michael Haneke—atmospherically, and in terms of your command of silences. Your collection, Forty-One Jane Doe’s, comes with a companion DVD, which translates some of your poetry back into film. What is the future of the videopoem? Can you discuss the conversation between cinema and poetry?
COA: For me, making films was a way to deal with my struggles with visualization and holding pictures in my mind. It was also part of my hope of reaching out to an audience beyond poets--something that Black Ocean has always been committed to doing as well, through such projects like Pink Thunder, which set poems to music. I would love for more people to stop being weary of poetry and embrace it, as a condensed and powerful communication our soundbite culture needs. And so, I keep looking for ways to go beyond the page; and right now, I’m actually working with a choreographer and a musician to turn my book Operating Theater into a modern dance piece. I want to move the poem now from screen to stage, where it can be truly embodied in person.
Whether it’s a film or a painting or a dance composition or a musical piece, it’s all about an act of translation. They are all languages. And of course to translate the words of a poem into another discipline, one still has to use words. That’s the meta-meta crux. The poem makes you feel X, the camera pans to express X as a scene of Y. The feeling of Y the dancer expresses as gesture Z. It’s the companionship of the arts and senses that interests me, how they overlap, how they interrogate each other, how they complement and strengthen.
DD: What are the top five films you would recommend every poet should watch?
COA: Meshes of the Afternoon, Maya Deren; La Jetee, Chris Marker; Through a Glass Darkly, Ingmar Bergman; L’Avventurra, Michelangelo Antonioni; and The Graduate, Mike Nichols, it was the film that made me want to make films when I was a teenager. I studied it shot by shot, obsessed with the corners and the angles and the shadows.
DD: I just mentioned Feng Sun Chen’s The 8th House. Will you say a few words about this remarkable book?
COA: What immediately attracted me to Feng’s incredible first book, Butcher’s Tree, when I read the manuscript during our open reading period was that it was so much unlike anything else I’d read--and particularly so much unlike my own style. And yet, I felt a companionship with her mind. This continues for me in The 8th House. It’s visceral, it’s messy, it’s fleshy, it’s wholly alive and organic and fecund and feral. Feng writes sprawling projects, and the challenge with her books is to find the through-line, the way to structure the most powerful whole from everything she creates. It’s all so intense and rich, it can be overwhelming.
JS: For a long time, as both a writer and a reader of poetry, I considered poetry an inherently political act by virtue of its radical approach to language. Language is the fundamental tool we use to construct our realities, and so it’s also the fundamental tool of oppression—and in that way breaking the language is an act of defiance: against oppression, against the systems built into language and out of language, against the prisons we build for ourselves. For that reason, despite coming from a family lineage of activists and spending my youth affiliated with a few direct-action anarchist collectives, I eschewed overtly political poetry—which read more like propaganda than a questioning of propaganda. Lately, however, I’ve started to see poets becoming lazy with the radical mandate, or even using it to perpetuate the systems I thought we would be inherently questioning. Ridker’s collection appeals to me because he’s selected a lot of work that addresses surveillance and the “techno-political crisis” you mention obliquely. Poets in the anthology are ruminating not just on the Patriot Act and drones, but also on what it means to be observed and how observing others affects us on a visceral level. When I write, is not some part of me observing myself? The creative act itself is, in a way, a document of surveillance.
DD: Carrie, Black Ocean Press has published several collections of prose poetry, including Zachary Schomburg’s Fjords vol. I. Can you say a few words about the prose poem? What features do the prose poems published by Black Ocean Press share?
COA: As you mention in the first question, so much of what we publish--and what I write as well--exists outside the boundaries and definitions of prose or poem. A lover of grey spaces, I’ve never been one to want to adhere to strict form or strict distinctions; and I honestly couldn’t tell you how to determine what’s a prose poem from what might be called flash fiction or tiny essays or meditations. To some extent it feels to me so subjective that it’s like the differences between what locals call a neighborhood’s boundaries and where a real estate agent might define them to make a property look more saleable. These names feel like a form of marketing to me. But a prose poem as opposed to a more conventional poem, in its essence, refuses the line. I am—as a writer and an editor—extremely deliberate about line breaks and phrasing when writing a poem that is structurally based on the line/stanza. It’s architectural, it’s visual, but it’s most importantly about syntax, emphasis, movement. So, I think most often what you’ll see among the Black Ocean prose poems is a particular urgency—either of a story that must be told or of a thought that is so big, so overwhelming it can’t be halted. The prose paragraph has an energy and an immediacy—it cannot be slowed down, it cannot catch its breath. It must speak and speak everything at once.
DD: Many of the books in the Black Ocean catalogue are smaller in size, reminiscent of the City Lights pocket editions and the New Directions bibelots. There’s something youthful and subversive about a book of poetry small enough to fit snugly in a jacket pocket. Please tell us about the design of Black Ocean books. Who are the artists behind such beautiful books?
JS: Carrie mentioned the publishing acumen that she brought to the table when we started Black Ocean; aside from my enthusiasm I also brought with me a background in graphic design and visual art. I’ve probably designed about half of the book covers myself, but when I have a vision for a cover beyond my skills--or when I’m just totally stumped--I bring in some incredibly talented illustrators and designers to work with me on them. The three people I most frequently collaborate with are: Denny Schmickle (who’s designed all of Zachary Schomburg’s books, as well as the covers for Handsome), Josh Wallis (who is an old friend, a gifted tattoo artist & illustrator, and someone who can draw just about anything we throw at him), and Abby Haddican (a graphic designer whose cutting room floor designs are still better than anything I’ve ever done). We also have on staff Nikkita Cohoon, who at this point has taken over the majority of the interior book layout, not to mention our website design.
DD: I just finished reading S. Whitney Holmes’ collection, Room Where I Get What I Want. The book is divided into two sections. The second section, “The Method of Loci” is quite different structurally and tonally, but the abrupt shift works as coda and commentary on the collection as a whole. Can you talk about this book—its form, its strengths as a collection?
COA: Whitney and I share a common interest in architecture and the domestication of architecture and its relationship to femininity and the idea of being a woman. In extension, we are curious about the house as a body, and the house as the symbolic structure of the role of woman. The idea of creating a space for the self, a room, that is constantly shifting and being rebuilt is central to what I think the book is doing. It’s interesting that “Method of Loci” as a concept is sometimes called “Memory Palace” or “the Mind’s Palace.” That closing section definitely has the feel of the memory of a relationship or relationships and the spaces that intimacy made and unmade. It enacts the desires, the failures of expectation, and the inadequacies of intent.
DD: Carrie, in Intervening Absence, you provide a great definition of the surreal: “Surreal does not mean too real. It is the real that we cannot hold,/ cannot see. Without plucking our eyes.” The legacy of Dadaism and Surrealism ghosts through the work you edit and write. What is the value of surrealism in contemporary American poetry?
COA: I wrote that line in the wake of 9/11 when everyone kept calling the destruction and fear surreal. And nothing about it felt surreal to me; it felt very, very real. And that’s why everyone was so afraid and so shocked. In contrast, to be surreal is not to terrorize; instead, it’s a positive destruction, a new way of seeing. It is a seeming randomness or disorder that actually carries its own logic, which is what the best poems do well, and what we try to emphasize when editing--to bring out the poem’s logic. It’s about bringing a layer to life, like lenses that turn lights into shapes, these poems take the world around you and make it fantastic or phantasmic.
DD: What is the most encouraging experience you have had as an editor?
COA: It’s always when an author wants to publish with us again, particularly because of the close attention we give the work.
DD: What is one thing that American poetry needs more of, in your opinion?
COA: Readers! Fearless readers.
DD: If you could publish any dead American poet at Black Ocean Press, who would it be and why?
COA: I want to say Emily Dickinson, but what I really want to say is someone else like her. I am sure she’s not alone. There are dead women poets who must have died with notebooks full of verse, but they told no one. Or their families didn’t recognize it as poetry or know its value. Perhaps they wrote just for themselves and had no idea that what they were writing was unique, powerful, moving, creative, perceptive. Surely there are poetry parallels to the photographer Vivian Maier with stockpiles in a storage facility somewhere. There aren’t enough dead women poets that we know.
DD: What is your personal definition of poetry?
COA: The human condition, held in your hand.
DD: If you could recommend one book to start with from the Black Ocean Press catalogue, what would it be?
COA: I think Zachary Schomburg’s The Man Suit is our best-known book and for good reason. It embodies both the unconventional spirit of our catalog as well as our mission and hope to bring poetry beyond an audience of poets. It’s a book that connects with all kinds of readers. Its whimsy, its mystery, its spirit captures that early moment when the press was just starting to grow. It was the first book by a stranger we ever acquired--we both took risks on each other, and here we are.
DD: What new books can we look forward to from Black Ocean Press in the coming years?
COA: We are very excited about our growing translation list. We are now the English-language home for Tomaz Salamun’s works in the United States, and you can expect at least three more to come soon. We’ll also be publishing another translation by Aase Berg, who absolutely destroys me every time I read her work.
JS: Since its inception I envisioned Black Ocean as a multi-genre press, but I knew we needed to develop a core audience first--and since we trusted ourselves the most with poetry that’s where we started. But I think we’re ready to start branching out again, and toward that end we’ve acquired a forthcoming collection of essays & interviews by Anais Duplan, which explores Afrofuturism in the age of the internet. I’m looking forward to acquiring more cultural studies books, maybe some fiction, and even a few children’s books. We are also hoping to attract more writers of color. While we’ve relied on open readings in the past to build our catalog, it clearly isn’t cultivating a representation of Black and Latin@ writers for us. A few years ago we saw a dearth of female writers, and so we stepped outside of the submission model to more actively solicit female poets. Consequently we published more women, and now we see a lot more submissions from female writers coming in through the open reading period. So now we’ve started stepping outside the open reading period again to seek out the vital talent from writers who may not have considered us a potential home before. We do this work not to abstractly promote “gender equality” or “diversity,” but because it is an absolutely necessary and healthy correction, critical to enriching our aesthetic.
DD: I’d like to end our conversation with a poem called “Other Ways to Say Heart” from Paula Cisewski’s 2006 collection, Upon Arrival. Could you introduce this poem and say a few words about the Upon Arrival.
JS: This was our very first poetry acquisition. Carrie and I knew Paula from our graduate program, and had admired her poems in workshop. At the time Paula already had a few chapbooks out, and when I heard she had a full-length manuscript ready I eagerly, albeit nervously, approached her about it. It was a great act of faith for Paula to trust Carrie and I with her first book--we had nothing to show her at that time, just a promise that we would do our best. Mary Ruefle was also kind enough to blurb the book for us--another act of faith. These are just the first examples of countless acts of goodwill toward Black Ocean over the years. It takes a tremendous amount of hardwork and sacrifice to be successful, but it also requires people to believe in what you’re doing and to support you. I’m still very proud of this book, and the poem you’ve selected is one of my favorites from it.
OTHER WAYS TO SAY HEART
~ Private Jukebox
~ Conductor of Dumb Waiters
~ To Kingdom the Human
~ Body’s Epigram
~ One Shoe in the Road
~ The Real
Midwest of the Person
~ Cause of Yawning
~ Vehicle Driven / By Internal
~ Answering Machine
~ Emporium of One Way Streets
~ Occupied Land
~ Little Pet Who Will Not Always Eat From My Palm
~ One Hundred Sparrows Perch In a Diseased Elm
~ Condignity’s Railroad
~ Sound Like
a Pouch of Marbles Dropped
Down Wood Steps
~ Canopy Covering a Lost House Key
of the Ceaselessly
~ Open Palm
~ A Book of Matches
Goes Off in her Shirt
Carrie Olivia Adams lives in Chicago, where she is a book publicist for the University of Chicago Press and the poetry editor for Black Ocean. She is the author of Operating Theater (Noctuary Press 2015), Forty-One Jane Doe’s (book and companion DVD, Ahsahta 2013) and Intervening Absence (Ahsahta 2009) as well as the chapbooks Overture in the Key of F (above/ground press 2013) and A Useless Window (Black Ocean 2006).
Janaka Stucky is the author of The Truth Is We Are Perfect and the Publisher of Black Ocean as well as the annual poetry journal, Handsome. He is also the author of two chapbooks: Your Name Is The Only Freedom and The World Will Deny It For You. His poems have appeared in such journals as Denver Quarterly, Fence and North American Review, and his articles have been published by The Huffington Post and The Poetry Foundation. He is a two-time National Haiku Champion and in 2010 he was voted “Boston’s Best Poet” in the Boston Phoenix.
Dante Di Stefano's first collection of poetry, Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His poetry and essays have appeared in The Writer's Chronicle, Obsidian, Shenandoah, Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, and elsewhere. He has won the Thayer Fellowship in the Arts, The Red Hen Press Poetry Award, The Crab Orchard Review's Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry, and The Ruth Stone Poetry Prize. He earned his PhD in Poetry from Binghamton University and he makes his living as a high school English teacher in Endicott, New York.