By Liz Blood
We're in Atlanta at the Letters Festival with some excellent company. I spoke with Black Ocean, Grey Book Press, and Calamari Archive about aesthetic, independent publishing, and diversity. Here's what they had to say.
Tell me a little bit about your press. Where do your interests lie, what kind of work do you publish, what is your aesthetic?
Black Ocean: We publish mostly poetry and a little bit of fiction and nonfiction. Our catalogue trends a little dark and occasionally surreal. There’s often a sense of dread and awe at the core of our books that is inherently radical without often being overtly political.
Grey Book Press: We started in 1996 because we were drawn to the beauty and simplicity of the chapbook. That’s what we were centered around. Now we do single-author chapbooks and contests, and are trying to do a book a year. I do it all myself. We’ve formalized to doing open readings in the fall, picking a handful of chapbooks, and that is our series for the year. I don’t get too heavy into the editing and accept work that is 95% there. If I pick an experimental poet from the contest to publish, then I follow that with a more conventional book. We don't do much formal work, especially oppressive or obvious forms, and I try to publish a balance or range based off of what I pick first.
Calamari Archive: We don’t have a manifesto or anything. There tends to be a history of language-driven, hybrid stuff that falls between storytelling and poetry. There’s also a lot of hybrid text-image work. I think of text as art and am attracted to anyone who uses languages in a way that is artful without pretense. I’ve been around for 12 years and refer to this as an archive. I think of it as books that I like that I keep in print. "Press" seemed aggressive to me. I don’t physically make books, I use digital printers, so I’m not the press. I keep books in print and print new books, but I think of us as a collective for stuff that slips through the cracks.
What is the biggest challenge that faces either your press or the independent publishing industry?
Black Ocean: The biggest challenge for an independent press is how to stay economically viable while remaining true to your passion and aesthetic intentions. Black Ocean doesn’t charge reading fees, is not a non-profit, and has no university affiliation. We are entirely funded by sales and our staff is entirely volunteer. By doing this, we can pour all profits back into publishing books and it gives us the freedom to publish books that we are really excited about.
Grey Book Press: Keeping up with the way the market changes and is changing is a challenge, especially when your focus is chapbooks. How is the medium of the chapbook going to change? Is it going to stay hardcopy or go all electric? I see some presses do limited edition runs of chapbooks. I’m thinking of doing that, and then when they run out, the chapbook will be available in PDF. I’m thinking about how to navigating the evolution of the market. And, of course, keeping up with technology.
Calamari Archive: Promotion and marketing. How not promote yourself in this world that’s is super saturated and not commodify yourself or turn a book into a commodity rather than a piece of art. The loudest people in marketing usually stand out. It’s hard to be silent, but it's hard to compete with that. How do you bring attention to these books? I feel responsible as a publisher for making people aware of what we print, but how do you do that successfully when everyone’s yelling at the same time?
Part of our mission at Awst Press is promoting diversity, whether that be in genre, race, geographic location, et al. How does diversity play a role in your press?
Black Ocean: We aren’t as focused on aesthetic diversity because we have a particular aesthetic, but several years ago we found ourselves in a position where we had a predominantly male catalogue even though our staff was almost entirely female. So, we chose not to accept any more male authors until we had a better balance of female authors in our catalogue. The result was that after achieving that balance, it became effortless to maintain it. Now we are figuring out how to make that same effort with racial diversity, because we have a predominantly white catalogue. We have some representation by writers of color, but very little. We’re taking a step back from our open reading period to figure out how to spend more time soliciting and querying writers of color. One of the peculiarities of Black Ocean is that we work to maintain long term relationships with our authors and end up publishing several books from the same author. That means our catalogue can be self-perpetuating. So, initiatives like balancing gender and now creating more racial diversity become necessary to break out of the self-perpetuating catalogue.
Grey Book Press: I would love to print more writers of color. I get what is submitted to our press and work from that. I publish a lot of female authors, and if I pick predominantly male writers from the open reading period, I actively balance it out with other female writers. There are only a few chapbooks that I’ve solicited. I would also love to get a well-written book of haiku to publish and am very interesting in Asian forms of poetry.
Calamari Archive: I’ve been thinking this past year of going after more diverse writers. Within that diversity, they must have a unique voice. There are lots of ways of being diverse and it's a matter of not just what people think typically of diversity, but also diversity in lifestyles, like choosing to not have children or being an atheist. I wouldn’t accept work just based on diversity, it needs to fit the aesthetic.