Interview with Carrie Olivia Adams, Poetry Editor
How did Black Ocean start?
Black Ocean co-founder Janaka Stucky and I met as students in the low-residency MFA Program at Vermont College. This was almost twenty years ago, when there were only a few small, start-up presses trying to actively make a name for poetry in the larger literary world. It was before the AWP bookfair became multiple rooms and floors and nearly endless rows of crowded tables all populated with writers who were equally committed to publishing. Janaka and I have always believed there was a hungry audience for poetry—even if they didn’t know what they were hungry for yet. And we’ve also believed that there is a larger audience for poetry than just poets alone, and we have been determined to find it. It was something we spent a lot of time talking earnestly about over whiskey and then increasingly became more and more convinced we could actually do it. I was already working in academic publishing (as I am today), so I had some foundational knowledge while Janaka had the charisma and, most importantly, the courage to take the business risk.
Tell us a bit about Black Ocean. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
From early silent films to early punk rock, Black Ocean brings together a spectrum of influences to produce books of exceptional quality and content. In conjunction with our book releases we manifest our aesthetic in celebrations around the country. We believe in the fissures art can create in consciousness when, even if just for a moment, we experience a more vital way of operating in the world—and through that moment then seek out more extreme and enlightened modes of existence. We believe in the freedom we find through enlightened modes of existence, and we are committed to promoting artists we firmly believe in by sharing our enthusiasm for their work with a global audience.
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?
We are incredibly excited about our new poetry-in-translation series, Moon Country, which is edited by Jake Levine. The Moon Country Korean Poetry Series publishes new English translations of contemporary Korean poetry by both mid-career and up-and-coming poets who debuted after the IMF crisis. By introducing work which comes out of our shared milieu, this series not only aims to widen the field of contemporary Korean poetry available in English translation, but also to challenge orientalist, neo-colonial, and national literature discourses. Our hope is that readers will inhabit these books as bodies of experience rather than view them as objects of knowledge, that they will allow themselves to be altered by them. We just published the second collection by Kim Kyung Ju, and books by Kim Min Jeong, Lim Solah, Moon Bo Young, and Lee Young Ju are forthcoming. We are also looking forward to new collections by Nathan Hoks (his first with Black Ocean) and new works by Black Ocean authors Kelly Schirmann and Brian Foley.
We used to ask, “What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?” We’re still interested in the answer to that, but we’re even more interested to know what you think needs to change.
Man, it’s so hard to answer a question about what needs to change while in the middle of a pandemic, which has left the whole world, not just the book world, in crazy uncertainty. As a book publicist by day and a publisher by night, I feel incredible compassion for everyone who is trying to launch a book in this climate, and I am so sad and worried for our friends and colleagues at indie bookshops, distributors like Small Press Distribution, and at publishing houses big and small. No one knows what the landscape is going to look like when this is “over.” We know we have a strong, supportive literary community, but will it be enough? Is it enough to overcome the finances and the debt? I want to live in a world where bookshops are not in danger, where readings can flourish, and we’re not reliant on a cold and massive corporate monster to get books into the hands of the readers who need them.
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 Black Ocean?
For a long time, Black Ocean very proudly did not charge a reading fee. But with the rising costs of even maintaining an online submission manager, we had no choice but to charge a modest fee, in exchange for a book, as part of our last open reading. We didn’t want to do it, but folks were understanding. This year, we’re turning completely away from the submission period and moving to a model of year-round queries–part cost-savings, part time-savings. What has not changed is our commitment to making high-quality, beautiful books. We don’t cut corners when it comes to the object—we want the package to be as enticing as the poems that are between the covers. We think—and hope—that our fans respect and value this, and it’s part of why they seek out our books.