Black Ocean

by Oakley Chad Merideth

If one were to pilot a submarine into the depths of a Black Ocean the experience would be “Scary, No Scary”, according to Carrie Olivia Adams, the poetry editor and cofounder of Black Ocean Press. It would be a “thrill ride” requiring a tight seat belt, one where you’d find a “Deep Sea Pikachu swimming alongside the giant squid.”

Black Ocean started when Carrie Adams met Janaka Stucky at a low residency MFA program at Vermont College:

[our] dreams of a small press were something we would wax idealistic about over whiskey. I was already working in academic publishing at that time, and so I was getting to know the publishing landscape from another angle, while amassing some practical know-how. And about a year or so after we finished the program, Janaka approached me with a solid plan to actually make a go of it as a publishing company. We knew there were poets out there that we could give a supportive home to and bring to an audience that was hungry for something new, and we were willing to learn a lot as we went along.

With a “little bit of magic, a substantial amount of hope, and a non stop supply of dedication”, Black Ocean press lifted off the ground and started to publish their first first books in 2006. For Carrie and Janaka the goal of the press has been to find and cultivate a larger audience for poetry within the general population of readers, an audience beyond the “insular world of other poets”. However, none of this is to suggest that Black Ocean in anyway compromises on quality or seeks to sell out stylistically to the lowest common denominator. If anything, Black Ocean puts a premium on work that is rousing, challenging, confrontational, experimental, and at times downright–but delightfully–repulsive (see Aase Berg’s masterpiece With Deer). Black Ocean’s mission statement makes clear that their commitment is to “promoting artists we firmly believe in” and they have stuck by that promise ever since opening shop.

Because of the emphasis Janaka and Carrie put on finding and publishing poets that conform to their distinct/refined/wild tastes, Black Ocean titles tend to share a palpable aesthetic unique as it is eerie. From their striking yet simplistic covers (that tend to involve no more than three colors) to a frequently shared canon of subject matters (skewed consciousness, bodily distress and destruction, death, violence, otherworldy erotica, dreams, nightmares, regeneration, barbaric delight) there is little mistaking a Black Ocean tome with that of another literary press. Still, the patented Black Ocean poetics is hard to define as it is so totally individualistic:

If you take Janaka, and you take me, and you look at where we overlap, you’ll have Black Ocean. It’s a collective and a collaborative aesthetic. We’ve taken the things that excite each of us and combined them to come up with this challenging third term that is our list.

Hard to define, too, are whatever drawbacks there might be to such a non conformist approach as Black Ocean has remained a successful and vivacious press since its inception, now running its own literary journal (Handsome) while expanding operations to three separate cities (Boston, New York, and Chicago). The only complaint with the latter development is that, according to Carrie, one can work alongside some incredible people without being able to “all get in the same room and share energy together.”

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the still young press is its catalogue which, while average in size, boasts an eclectic array of texts. With only thirty five unique titles Black Ocean has already published two works of nonfiction, one anthology of fiction, another anthology of “Surveillance Poetics” (which includes such names as Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, and Robert Pinsky), two translations, numerous special editions, one extreme multimedia project (Michael Zapruder’s Pink Thunder), and even a posthumous collection of a late Punk vocalist’s unpublished verse. Additional projects and titles are of course on the horizon including new works of translation from Korea and Slovenia. Once again, only by relying on an allegiance to personal aesthetics and tenacity has Black Ocean been able to release titles of such variety and caliber:

As a volunteer-run press, the biggest challenge is always trying to find the time we want and need to devote to our publishing list. We are incredibly hands-on, and we edit very closely, and so we try to vary our list so that it is comprised of projects that need different levels of involvement, so that we’re able to best allocate our time and staff power. We are also always looking to keep our list interesting, so that our readers and subscribers get a little something unusual or unexpected. Many of the more unusual projects—like the translations, the anthology, the music meets poetry project Pink Thunder—came to us as a result of Janaka’s great networking and Black Ocean’s reputation for being very author-centric—our willingness to take risks on more unconventional projects and our willingness to work closely with authors to realize their visions.

A selection of Black Ocean titles. From left to right, starting on bottom: Ordinary Sun , Swamp Isthmus , The Man Suit , The Book of Joshua, The Next Monsters, Butcher Tree, Destroyer of Man , With Deer,  Dark Matter, The Devotional Poems.

Being an author-centric press, Black Ocean maintains a manuscript reading period for poetry every June–from the first to the thirtieth–and continues to seek out new voices to publish and promote. That being said, the contours of the small press are highlighted by some specific poets and, were Black Ocean to “form Like Voltron” (to paraphrase Wu-Tang Clan), Carrie is certain of how the mechanical beast would be arranged:

No doubt Zach Schomburg’s books are the collective head of the Black Ocean machine—they put us out there into the world and into the popular poetry consciousness. Feng Sun Chen’s books with all their slaughtered meat would have to be our stomach. Joe Hall crunches, Rauan Klassnik smashes, and Aase Berg’s blood thunders.

Of course blood is only as good as the heart that pumps it and the organic mass of veins and arteries that coagulate successfully to form the stone-flesh muscle dubbed Black Ocean shows no signs of creative angina.

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