This is the twenty-first in Entropy’s small press interview series, where we ask editors about their origins, their mission, and what it’s like to run a press. Find the other interviews from this series in our Small Press Database here and under the Resources tab at the top of the page.
Interview with Zachary Schomburg, Editor
How did Octopus Books start?
In 2003, I started Octopus Magazine, an online poetry magazine, with another poet, Tony Tost. Tony and I knew each other from going to college together as undergraduates in the mid-1990’s. A few years later, in the fall of 2005, I was running Octopus Magazine by myself when I met Mathias Svalina at the University of Nebraska, where we shared a T.A. office. I think Octopus Books started within days of our meeting each other. We put out a call for chapbooks in celebration of the online magazine’s eighth issue, then printed a set of 8 of those chapbooks. It was fun, so we made a number of other chapbooks by hand for a year or so until we printed our first full-length, Julie Doxsee’s Undersleep. That was about 24 full length books ago now. Now Octopus Books is a slightly bigger operation. Mathias and I are now joined by Drew Swenhaugen, who designs the covers and layout, and editors Hajara Quinn and Alisa Heinzman. Hajara edits books, ships them, and manages much of our correspondence. And Alisa edits, and is heading up our new translation series of books.
Tell us a bit about Octopus Books. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
We’re influenced and inspired by our peers, other small presses like Canarium, Flood Editions, Wave Books, Letter Machine, Ugly Duckling, Black Ocean, Factory Hollow, Fence, and always have been. And we’re also influenced by our smaller local communities of poets, musicians, and artists here in Portland, where our home is—presses like Yes Yes Books, Tavern Books, and Poor Claudia. We see ourselves as a little corner of the conversation, as a place to forward innovative, smart, new poetry into the hands of readers. We only exist because we feel like we have a way of contributing, to make richer the things we’re already influenced by. We also have a reading series here in Portland called Bad Blood where our authors, and other touring poets, read to some of the best audiences in the country. We make books, and then we read them.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
This summer, we were very proud to publish Wong May’s Picasso’s Tears. It is a 328 page cloth-bound collection of her poetry from the past 36 years. It is her fourth book of poems, but first since 1978. It is our biggest book to date, and we are happy to be the press who gets to re-introduce Wong May’s poetry to the world. We also have brand new collections by Cecily Iddings, Marisol Limon Martinez, and Dan Hoy which are recently published, or very soon to be published. And we’re about to print our second books by Christopher DeWeese and Amy Lawless. Also, we’re starting a new annual series of translation which should begin this fall. Our first title will be Noontimes Won by Tristan Tzara, translated by Heather Green.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
This question is pretty difficult to answer. Can I skip it?
Sure you can skip it! Why’s it so difficult?
I just didn’t have a good answer for it, you know? It is like asking what is so bright about the sun. Small press is pretty alive right now, and for the same reasons, I think, that eating locally is becoming more and more important to people. It is in balance with what isn’t being offered by corporate/funded/businessy presses. It’s important, and vital, reactionary and symptomatic. That’s a bit about why it is good, but not so much about WHAT is good. Lots is good. I suppose you can use that as answer of sorts. Yeah?
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Octopus Books?
I won’t share any opinions on how other presses handle their money, or lack of money, but one of the reasons I enjoy publishing poetry books is precisely why some others complain about it: because there is no real possibility of making any money.