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.
by Rebecca Kallemeyn
The cult known as Tarpaulin Sky is headquartered in sleepy Grafton, Vermont, just shy of 700 residents as of 2010. The Rituals of the Tarpaulin include “resurrecting” fiction and poetry and exhibiting “hybrid monstrosities.” Publishers Weekly calls their work “hallucinatory…trance-inducing,” and The Nation calls it “warped from one world to another.” Christian Peet, the founder of the press, “now divides his time between the office, the woodshed, the garden, and the temple, as well as various locations in the astral matrix somewhere between 15th-century Germany and Litchfield County, Connecticut.”
Once a tiny online site dedicated to heretical works of literary transmogrification, Tarpaulin Sky has grown into a propaganda machine conglomerate, disseminating its anti-genre agenda online and in print in a variety of forms. Tarpaulin Sky Literary Journal has run online since 2002 and in print since 2007. Peet founded the press itself in 2006, initially to spread the Tarpaulin word in book as well as pamphlet/chapbook form. Peet went to Borough Hall in Brooklyn to obtain the press’ business license, then to the newsstand across the street to get the documents notarized. “The newsstand guy is also a notary public for all of Kings County,” Peet told WordRiot. “Go figure.”
The first manuscripts, sent in by Initiates Jenny Boully and Max Winter, were edited on MS Word. Soon Peet wanted his message to reach a larger, more diverse, more persuadable audience, and so began Tarpaulin’s open initiations for those whose literary work also worships monstrosities and seeks to wreak havoc on the mainstream literary global congregation.
Membership in the Family of the Published Tarpaulin has swelled to include Joyelle McSweeney, Johannes Göransson, Joanna Ruocco, and Noah Eli Gordon, to name a few. Influence of the Family has reached VICE, NPR Books, HuffPo, The Rumpus, Publishers Weekly, and Bookslut.
Like most small religions, Tarpaulin Sky doesn’t take out ads, except for swap ads and possibly blurbs announcing initiation periods. “When’s the last time you bought a book because you saw a quarter-page ad in The Chronicle or in Poets & Writers?” asks Peet.
Peet has since allegedly retired his official cultmaster duties, but mail to the press still goes to a P.O. Box in Grafton. Resh Daily, which seems to be a pseudonym, is credited as managing editor, but Peet, the website cautions, is still “behind the curtain.”
“Lovely monstrous hybrid texts, Amen.”
For educational purposes, excerpts of material are included below. Many gods are named. Excerpts are brief, to guard against induced trance states.
Excerpts from the online ritual prayers and chants, as of December 2014:
From “Atrophies,” by j/j hastain:
I vow to always eat my atrophies as a way to make more ground in me in which to lay prostrate, in which to lay me down as seed.”
From “DEUS EX MACHINA/Gertrude”, by Jennifer Pilch:
“Chorus: There was a child who died.
She takes what is no longer given then takes what is no longer given then takes what is
no longer given then takes what is no longer there.”
From “Pleasure Objects” by Steven Teref:
Panty Sniffing13 10
Pedal Pumping 16
Plump Teen (18/19) 50
Excerpts from literature circulated at large:
From Haute Surveillance, by Johannes Göransson:
“I write this for the mute actress and the dead girls and the Virgin Father who speaks in this mausoleum and Mother Machine Gun who carries my body through the tumultuous crowds.”
From Nylund, The Sarcographer, by Joyelle McSweeney:
“Zeus here designed as golden hair. A wax clad easter egg in easter ed. A dividing district. How it is dividing into units and doubling in force. The yolk exerts itself outwards: becomes a gold egg. Parthenogenesis.”
by Sarah Thompson
In the 6 years that Canarium Books has been publishing poetry they have published 16 books (with four more forthcoming), each of which has expanded the realm of contemporary poetry through the distinctiveness of its poetic voice. Canarium’s editorial setup contributes to its innovative presence in poetry. Rather than run annual contests, Canarium’s four editors (Joshua Edwards, Robyn Shiff, Nick Twemlow and Lynn Xu) solicit manuscripts from poets they admire as well as cull manuscripts from their yearly open reading period. This process seems conducive to the organic formation of an aesthetic – an aesthetic which is less a unifying force and more an attempt to incorporate a diversity of voices. The result is a body of work of impressive quality.
For such a small press, Canarium authors have garnered high accolades. Among these are John Beer’s The Waste Land and Other Poems (2010) which won the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America and Suzanne Buffam’s The Irrantionalist which was shortlist for the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize (Canada’s prestigious poetry award). John Edwards, who also designs Canarium’s gorgeous books, spoke with me about the press, about small-press culture and about the value of poetry.
ST: Would you tell me a bit about how Canarium began, under what circumstances and with what vision? How has that vision evolved into what Canarium is today?
JE: Canarium developed out of a yearly journal, The Canary, which I edited with Anthony Robinson, Robyn Schiff, and Nick Twemlow. The journal lasted six issues–all really fun to work on, but they took up a lot of time and were difficult to finance. Publishing books seemed an interesting next project, and we were all very keen on working with authors one at a time to make books. It magically came together when the University of Michigan, where I was doing an MFA, offered to help fund a press. Nick, Robyn, and I were joined by Lynn Xu shortly after that, and we published our first two collections, by Ish Klein and Tod Marshall, in spring 2009. We’ve basically just tried to find interesting voices since we began, and the vision evolves as we add more books to our list and the thing changes shape.
ST: How do you see Canarium’s place in small press culture and in the larger realm of poetry? Any thoughts on small press culture in general and its function in the poetry world?
JE: I’m not really sure about Canarium’s place in small press culture, but I do know that our authors are writing incredible poems that are important contributions to the conversation. As for small press culture in general, seems to me it’s the most vibrant realm of poetry in the U.S.. Small presses generate most of the community’s energy, publish the majority of books that move the art into its future, and create realms for discussion about so many things. As for the poetry world, every year I believe less and less that it exists as such, but small press culture takes center stage in the lives of many, many people, and can foster alternative value systems that are important for the world at large.
ST: What excites you in/about poetry? What do you find important and vital in the work that you publish? How does this contribute to Canarium’s aesthetic?
JE: What interests me most about poetry is how it reveals that language can be more powerful than thought. I’m also drawn to voice, and Canarium’s aesthetic is very much tied up in the distinctiveness of its authors’ voices and to its authors’ relationships to their lines of inquiry. In some ways our aesthetic is very open, but there does seem to be a common intensity or focus to the work we publish.
ST: I love that Canarium seeks to get more translated work out into the world. Can you tell me about why/how this came to be part of Canarium’s project? What do translations add to what you have said about small press publishing- that it generates energy, creates realms for discussion and can foster alternative value systems?
JE: Translation has of course always been essential to the life of poetry, introducing forms and ideas from one tradition to another. By publishing translations, we get to participate in the excitement of new possibilities.
ST: Could you say a little more about this statement that ‘language can be more powerful than thought’ as relates to poetry? This strikes a chord with me as what I consider a compelling reason to read poetry.
JE: The poetry that I like most foregrounds the mystery of language. Language is the engine at its core or the force that carries it along. As Rosmarie Waldrop wrote: “I don’t even have thoughts, I have methods that make language think, take over and me by the hand.”
Poet Ish Klein has two books out with Canarium and will soon release her third poetry collection, Consolation and Mirth, with the press. I spoke with Ish about her experience working with Canarium as a writer.
ST: How did you come to find a home at Canarium?
IK: Nick Twemlow and I had one year of overlap at the Iowa Writers Workshop. (My years are 95-97 and he’s 96-98). That is how we know each other. Before Canarium Press was a press it was a journal called The Canary.
Josh Edwards started that with Nick and Anthony Robinson, I think, in Oregon. I guess they sent out a call to the poets who they know and like. Nick asked if I would contribute some poems and I did. This would be in 2004 or thereabouts.
Around this time Josh Edwards was living in Philadelphia (I lived in Philadephia 2001-2010). I met him at a reading in the Italian Market. We became friends having the shared interest in Poetry. After a while Josh said that they are thinking of publishing books, could I give them a manuscript and I said yes and that is how it happened. He said there were no promises and I accepted that but I was very happy when they published my first book Union! in 2009.
ST: Are there certain values or a certain vision (aesthetic and otherwise) within Canarium that you find cohesive with what you are doing with your work?
IK: The overwhelming quality that I think of when I think of Canarium is that of generosity and a willingness to participate in the experiments of thought/emotion into language. There seems to be an effort to include as many distinct voices as possible. This does inspire me and my work.
ST: What has the process of working with Canarium editors on publishing your books been like? How has the process influenced/effected you as a writer and your work?
IK: It’s been an excellent process. There is the problem solving element. We have to work within a budget. For example, with the first book (Union!) I wanted it to open at the top like a legal pad or be continuous like a scroll. But that is not possible because it’s expensive and unwieldy. We decided to make it center justified to convey the words reaching the writer/reader starting in the middle and expanding both directions which going down the page. It still conveys the ideas of many simultaneous directions.
Another way I’ve been influenced by the editing process is that it has made me much more attentive to punctuation. Which I must admit, I do not always use in the grammatical sense. I find in poems I am likely to use it more in the sense of musical rests and notation. Anyway, when they bring it to your attention you really have to figure out what you are doing. So that was eye opening: to recodify punctuation to myself.
What Josh has brought to the process is the progression of the poem. We typically have a back and forth as to how the order should be and I end up agreeing with him. Among his gifts are the meaningful sense of progression as well as a beautiful sense of design.
This process has affected my writing by reminding me to consider these things like punctuation, order and detail. And when you are giving work to colleagues you deeply respect, I think it makes you write better. Just because you encompass the response and from there you want to go a little further.
Hear Ish read a poem from Moving Day here.
Check Out Canarium’s Most Recent Releases:
And Forthcoming Titles:
Check out these videos of Canarium authors:
Finally, check out Canarium’s lovely website.