Interview with Paul Cunningham, Editor
How did Radioactive Moat Press start?
Radioactive Moat Press began as an online lit mag called Radioactive Moat. In 2011, I decided I finally wanted to branch out and try my hand at producing and distributing a print chapbook. Around that time, I’d already distributed an e-chapbook—a collaborative art/writing collection by Brett Gallagher and Elizabeth Arnold called Loop Loop Endogenous Nightscape. Originally, I wanted to do a print run of Loop Loop, but I didn’t have the financial means at the time. I was simultaneously spending a couple nights a week learning how to do screen printing at a studio in Pittsburgh called AIR (Artists Image Resource). They would charge a modest fee for exposures, but I didn’t mind at all because access to everything else was free—inks, screens, squeegees, pressure hoses. I spent a number of weeks watching, then many more weeks doing prints of my own. Eventually I saved up enough money to attempt my first run of a print chapbook. I hosted a free open reading period for a couple months and selected a manuscript by Feng Sun Chen called Ugly Fish. There was nothing else like it. I could only afford to print 60 copies, but I wanted to do everything possible to share her work with others. Ugly Fish sold out rapidly and received immediate praise from authors like Johannes Göransson.
The success of Ugly Fish was a moment of realization for me: I can actually do this. I used the money from the first chapbook sales to purchase screen printing supplies of my own. That’s when I officially decided that Radioactive Moat would become Radioactive Moat Press. I hosted another free open reading period and in 2012 I published Ji Yoon Lee’s IMMA, Lucas de Lima’s Ghostlines, and Lonely Christopher’s Crush Dream—all in the same summer! Before the reading period, I stated that I would choose one manuscript. By the end of the reading period, I chose three. I had to! I have this delightful problem where I always go beyond my means. For three months I was one person working feverishly in their parents’ basement. Slinging inks by night, shipping freshly assembled chapbooks by day.
What do you think it was that led to such success for Ugly Fish?
Maybe it was because her writing was so unlike what anyone else was doing in 2011 or 2012. There were a lot of reflexive, melancholic Tao Lin imitators around that time, but Feng and I still managed to publish our writing in “Alt Lit”-type zines without really toning down our own fondness for the grotesque or the abject. It’s not like either of us were trying to write the next Shoplifting From American Apparel or anything. I think that’s actually what separated Feng from those types of writers—her grotesqueness. Her own distinctly coded, confessional grotesqueness:
This is a diary/diarrhea because I can’t write in a diary without being ashamed.
I can’t write for myself. I have to put on the hat of poetry
even if it’s the only thing I’m wearing.
She was the first writer I met who seemed as blissfully lost in the “plague ground” as I was. Unsurprisingly, her uniqueness resulted in a subsequent string of publications: blud (Spork Press, 2011); Arcane Carnal Knowledge (Mortal Steaks, 2012) Butcher’s Tree (Black Ocean, 2012); and, most recently, The 8th House (Black Ocean, 2015). In our private conversations she would refer to herself as an “ugly fish” and, at that time, it was nice to feel so similarly and aesthetically lost with someone else. We were both equally suspicious of wearing the “hat of poetry” and we increasingly scrutinized what that word meant to other people. We both seemed to feel as though one language and one poetry and one school of thought just wasn’t enough when it comes to the battlefield that is American poetry:
When I speak Chinese, I speak as a two or three year old. I am always an infant. When I speak in English, I speak through a machine that grinds it so that only chunks are understood, and usually these chunks are parts filtered in order to fulfill a narrative or purpose that Mother already has… The combination does not go both ways. I cannot translate essential terms to Mandarin. On my side, language only disappears.
Tell us a bit about Radioactive Moat. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
I’m interested in whatever fascinates, but simultaneously repels. When Radioactive Moat debuted I originally stated that our values included reactivity, corrosivity, ignitability and toxicity. I think that’s still true today. I also find there is both value in what people consider low art and what people consider high art. As an editor, you could say I’m tasteless in the way I choose to resist a dichotomy that just doesn’t work. Why put a limit on what you can take seriously or think critically about?! Personally, I’m interested in a relationship between the Anthropocene and the decadent ideology of the 19th century—so I’d definitely be thrilled to see new work exploring that! I also appreciate writers currently engaged in theories of translation, psychoanalysis, decolonization, ecopoetics, crypto-anarchism, posthumanism, witchy feminism, grotesquery, Gurlesquery, abjection, and queerness. I have a profound appreciation for artists like Aase Berg, Phillip K. Dick, Raúl Zurita, Hiromi Itō, J.K. Huysmans, Hannah Weiner, James Merrill, Georges Bataille, Vasko Popa, Pierre Guyotat, Kobo Abe, Kathy Acker, Jean Genet, Hilda Hilst, Aimé Césaire, William Gaddis, ASCO, Alfred Starr Hamilton, Kim Hyesoon, David Altmejd, Kara Walker, Alexander McQueen, Matthew Barney, David Lynch, Harmony Korine, John Waters, Kenneth Anger, Hélio Oiticica—to name a few! I’m most interested in artists who are ultra—as in ultrabaroque! Whether the work takes the shape of a prose poem or flash fiction—doesn’t matter! That whole “what makes a poem a poem” argument is so tired anyway.
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?
The sixth issue of Deluge just launched this past March and it featured new work from Marty Cain, Sam Corfman, Carolyn DeCarlo, Emily Gigler, Cathy Guo, Steve Halle, Christopher Higgs, Meghan Lamb, Chris Muravez, Jackson Nieuwland, Emily Present, Jayme Russell, Ama Sel, Michael Martin Shea, Sarah Sgro, Robert Yerachmiel Snyderman, Joshua Young, Zareen Zahra Zeero, and w.a. zimbala.
There’s currently no open call for manuscripts, but I have this feeling that the next project from Radioactive Moat Press will possibly involve Robert Yerachmiel Snyderman. You can read his recent poetry in Deluge.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
Well, I see less and less resistance to publishing books-in-translation. Every. Year. And I find that very exciting. I feel the number of small presses making efforts to publish and distribute translations is, thankfully, steadily increasing. I also feel like more writers are beginning to write across languages. One language is no longer enough for writers. And I think that’s fantastic! Aase Berg’s With Deer, Raúl Zurita’s Songs For His Disappeared Love and Hiromi Itō’s Killing Kanoko were three of the first books of translated poetry I’d ever purchased in America. The first book—With Deer—was published by Black Ocean and they’ve since published recent translations of Tomaž Šalamun and Kim Kyung Ju. Aase Berg led me to Johannes Göransson and Göransson led me to the press he co-manages with Joyelle McSweeney: Action Books—the publisher of Songs For His Disappeared Love and Killing Kanoko. Action Books and its (now retired) bloggy counterpart, Montevidayo, became my refuge. I followed Action Books for a number of years because of their tireless commitment to poetries of resistance and their never-ending support for translators.
An academic once told me that I had no business translating Swedish because I’ve never actually been to Sweden. Uh, OK? Mind you, this same academic did not speak or translate Swedish. Thankfully I met Johannes Göransson. He was one of the first writers I’ve met in America who didn’t discourage me from translating. That’s why I applied to Notre Dame’s M.F.A. program—I wanted to work with Johannes and study theories of translation. Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney have done so much to convince backwards American lit folk that they need to rid themselves of their western imperialism and pick up a book of poetry-in-translation every once in a while. I think Action Books has really made an undeniable impact on American poetry. I probably wouldn’t know who Raúl Zurita was—now, one of my favorite writers—if it wasn’t for Action Books. I saw him read at AWP in D.C. in 2011. It was the first time I ever cried during a poetry reading.
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 Radioactive Moat Press?
I’ve never charged a submission fee, but lit mags and small presses need help sometimes. I won’t pretend like I’m some morally superior person because I’ve never charged a submission fee. There might come a day when RM Press needs some financial help to produce that special first print book that’s not handmade. Small presses also need you to actually purchase their books sometimes. Small presses sometimes need to pay the members of a very hardworking staff. Sometimes when you pay a $20 submission fee, you receive a book from the catalog in return. That’s very cool. Sometimes you don’t receive a book. Not as cool, but understandable. Money is a disgusting dilemma for everyone. I also cannot forget about some of my talented poet-friends who are also single parents. There are talented people who can’t always afford to pay $20 or $27?! to shop around their manuscripts. I wish there was a way for lit mags and presses to be more conscious of those who might be struggling financially. All I’ll say is, for the time being, the money to support RM Press will continue to come out of my own pocket.