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Black Ocean: An Interview with Poetry Editor, Carrie Olivia Adams

2011 July 6
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by Wren

After researching Black Ocean for my blog post on the newly-released poetry collection Ordinary Sun by Matthew Henriksen, I was intrigued by its mission. Black Ocean seems to be successfully sticking true to the literary ideals it was founded on while publishing great work. Naturally, I wanted to talk to the people behind it. And so I did. Here’s our interview with the lovely Black Ocean Poetry Editor, Carrie Olivia Adams, on all things publishing, writing, and editing related.


Hazel & Wren: What does your title entail and how did you come into this role?

Carrie Olivia Adams: As poetry editor, I read each and every submission that is sent to Black Ocean—both the manuscripts sent during our open reading month and other work that we solicit throughout the year. Though the final decision of whether to publish a book falls to the founder of the press, Janaka Stucky, I am the initial reader, and we tend to make most decisions together, reading and commenting back and forth. As well, once a book is chosen for publication, Black Ocean has a unique process for editing. Unlike many poetry presses that often publish manuscripts as-is, with little editing beyond proofreading, we take pride in working closely with each author to help shape each manuscript into the best possible final product. Though we don’t accept a manuscript that we don’t believe in, we do often accept manuscripts that we think haven’t reached their fullest potential yet. I take the lead on working with each author to bring out the best in their poems—this often involves reordering or restructuring the manuscript and offering suggestions for line edits and breaks.

H&W: How did Black Ocean start? What were its beginning days and inspirations like?

COA: I have been with Black Ocean since the beginning, always serving as the poetry editor. Janaka and I met in graduate school, when we were both MFA students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was already working in publishing at that time, and Janaka had founded the Guerilla Poets while he was a student at Emerson and had a lot of experience promoting poetry in unconventional ways and taking poetry on tour, like a band. I think it’s the dream of many writers to start their own press in order to support and encourage other artists who are doing interesting things, but because I had the professional experience and Janaka had the charisma, we actually saw a way to make it work.

H&W: Do you think Black Ocean today is similar to what it started as? Has it progressed or grown in unexpected ways?

COA: I think we’re really pleased and excited by how quickly Black Ocean has grown within the poetry community. We may have hoped for it, but could never have expected for it to happen so profusely. We owe a lot to the enthusiasm of our readers, who have spread the word, and to the tireless touring and promotions by our authors. The rapid success of books like Zachary Schomburg’s The Man Suit propelled us forward. We suddenly found our books being taught in a lot of writing classes, and reaching a new and ravenous poetry audience.

H&W: How do your poets fit into the mission of Black Ocean? Writers in general?

COA: Black Ocean was born with the hope of bringing publishing and promotion together—believing that the best marketing tool for a book is often the poet themselves—and the poets who have published with us have embraced this, eagerly setting up readings and often touring together. Black Ocean is run by poets and the poets we publish are essential to what we do. We also have a great love of fiction, artists’ books, and other genres, and we do hope to broaden our publishing plan in the future.

H&W: What are you looking for when perusing for poetry to publish?

COA: I want to read something new—something that asks me to reconsider how I’ve looked at the world or myself or language—but it must ask me sincerely and not just as a ploy for my attention. I want to read something that challenges me. It must be well-crafted. It must embody a particular attention to detail—in form or syntax or word choice. A lot of young writers are inspired by the books we have published already—which is fantastic. But we are looking for books that fit into the tone and style of our list, without mimicking it.

H&W: Are most of the published collections of poetry solicited or unsolicited?

COA: It’s about half and half right now. We try to publish at least one manuscript from our open reading each year—something unsolicited and perhaps from someone we’ve never encountered before. There’s a certain pleasure in the hidden gem. But we also solicit work from writers we admire, and we are dedicated to the poets we have already published. If they have a new manuscript, we always like to consider it and keep them as a part of the Black Ocean family if we can.

H&W: What are the most important things for a writer to remember when submitting their work?

COA: The standard advice is still the truest advice—don’t expect to have your books published by a publisher whose books you haven’t read. Always be familiar with a publisher’s list; it’s the only way to know whether your poems might fit into their publishing aesthetic. Also, do send your work out for publication in journals. Previous publication credits don’t determine whether or not we’ll publish a manuscript, but it may help you to gauge whether your manuscript is ready for publication. I feel like so many people have great potential but they are just not ready—don’t send out your manuscript just to say you’re participating in the process—spend some time living with the manuscript, living with the poems, and making sure they are exactly how you want them before you release them into the world. Finally, do not resend a manuscript that was declined in the past unless its nearly unrecognizable—it’s a waste of everyone’s time, especially at Black Ocean, which does not have changing judges.

H&W: Your website says Black Ocean does a lot of shows, celebrations, parties, etc, in conjunction with the release of a book. What happens at these events? Do you cater them to the specific title that is being released?

COA: The events run the gamut from traditional bookstore readings to living room salons with homemade biscuits and beer to crowded bars and darkened stages. Our biggest event every year is hosted during the annual meeting of the Associated Writing Programs—it’s always off-site and always lively. We time the release of many of our books for AWP; it is the biggest gathering of poets and readers, and the key audience for our books. This February in Chicago during AWP, the experimental video and shadow puppet troupe, Manual Cinema, will be interpreting some of Zachary Schomburg’s poems and the Chicago Q Ensemble quartet will accompany them, so you just never know what a Black Ocean event will be like. We are always interested in more of these partnerships with local artists, musicians, and performers—and we’d love to hear from anyone who is interested in similar ways to bring poetry to life.

H&W: Are there challenges and/or advantages to working in different cities than your fellow colleagues? How do you make sure you communicate effectively and maintain the Black Ocean voice?

COA: If we were in an age of passenger pigeons and telegraphs, it might be more difficult to run a business in this way. But thankfully, communication technology is the easiest part. All the tools we need to maintain a dialogue about our projects are there; and so far, we haven’t had a problem with consensus. The difficulty is time management. We’re a volunteer organization, and I work full-time as a book publicist, so trying to find the time to conference and catch-up can be a challenge.

H&W: What recently published or upcoming title(s) are you most excited about?

COA: In 2012, we will be publishing Hunger Transit by Feng Sun Chen, Fjords by Zachary Schomburg, Dark Matter by Aase Berg and translated by Johannes Göransson, and The Moon’s Jaw by Rauan Klassnik, as well as the fourth volume of our journal Handsome. Three out of the four books on our list for the next year are by established Black Ocean authors, so there will be much for our long-time fans to devour and for new readers to discover. And for the first time, we are offering a subscription. You get all four books and Handsome for $50 (30% off cover price) and in addition, subscriptions ordered before July 1st received a signed, limited edition hardcover copy of Fjords. More details are on our blog.


What We’re Reading: Ordinary Sun

2011 June 9

Ordinary Sun is an earthly curious collection of poetry by Matthew Henriksen, published by Black Ocean.

The collection is teeming with imagistic poems. “Copse,” the first section, repeats images in smaller untitled poems, recreating a journey through images of bees, jars, a woman figure standing above the speaker, and ravines. Henricksen writes under the influence of the Deep Imagists school of poetry, letting the tactile and direct images (in this case, mostly natural and organic images) create individual meaning for the reader. Henriksen is bitter and jaded in some of the poems (in the poem “Prison Record” he says it all: “My mind tastes bitter this morning”); yet he’s searching for something real in all the muck that is this world, and attempting to find a way to be happy with that through his images. “What we don’t know is our only law” he writes in “Copse.” This is the governing theme throughout, exploring the unknown. The poems resonate with an honest, unflinching beauty. They border on disturbing, tragic, and even violent in places, yet they are full of natural grace and most of all, acceptance.

Henriksen is a co-founder of Typo, the online magazine. And for kicks, here’s a connection you’ll appreciate: Henricksen’s college buddy Tony Tost started Octopus with Zachary Schomburg, who wrote the collaborative poetry collection Feelings Using Wolves, which I reviewed a while back (additional interview with Schomburg and co-author Emily Kendal Frey here).