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Small Press Beat: Octopus Books
We are pleased to roll out the first of what will be a monthly feature highlighting the world of Small Presses, dispatched by Poor Claudia co-founder and Bad Blood reading series curator, Drew Scott Swenhaugen.
I’m not sure who can keep an updated eye on the world of small press poetry. Presses and journals pop up like restaurants do — with hopes of staying alive, innovating, offering a new vision, and becoming a destination with regular patrons. But many cannot, either for financial reasons or an inability to find the content they seek. Without a university or benefactor to maintain cash-flow, distribution, and readership, creating a publishing outfit is extremely hard work. Yet they still keep popping up! — many with editors who are hard-working writers who have careers and families, expecting zero profit, only to maintain and offer something new and to stay small. And the good ones keep their doors open. They last. Their offices are dinner tables, back patios, and basements.
As a lasting defense, I open up Lionel Trilling’s essay “The Liberal Imagination“, published in 1950 by The Partisan Review. Little … such a powerful and important use of capitalization, isn’t simply titular. Trilling defends the plurality of publishing, the “superabundance” of how literature is published, and why. “[S]nickered at and snubbed at times,” Trilling writes, “they keep a countercurrent moving which perhaps no one will be fully aware of until it ceases to move.”
Some sixty years later, thankfully, there is no sign of ceasing.
Beginning as on online journal started by Zachary Schomburg and Tony Tost, Octopus Books has grown into a major destination for poets since being founded by Schomburg and Mathias Svalina in 2006. Octopus continually puts outs attractive and vital chapbooks and full-length titles, with each publication garnering the kind of recognition that publishing houses twice their size can only dream about.
Case in point: Since Heather Christle’s book The Tree The Trees was released in July, it has remained number one on the Small Press Distribution best-seller list. [Ed.note–Heather Christle’s poetry will appear in the forthcoming Beauty issue of Tin House]
Octopus’s newest chapbook, At Me, is by Brandon Downing, an amazing collagist-poet-film guru. At Me is Downing’s latest since his collage masterpiece Lake Antiquity published by Fence Books in 2009. He’s the only poet I know that can talk about Doom 4 in a sonnet, or make my brain stir with a line like “all up in my doo.” The man is special. His chapbook will be the same.
A few weeks ago, I was able to sit down with Octopus editor Zachary Schomburg to talk about the new books and latest successes of his publishing house. I tried to make our chat at a SE Portland bar professional; I gave Schomburg a detailed set of questions about Octopus, and about Octopus’s publishing agenda – many of which were answered in earnest. Largely what came out of our discussion was a dialogue about the state of poetry today. About the idea of a post-avant. About the geographic decentralization of the poetry community. And about the energy Octopus possess right now. It was awesome.
DS: Can you describe for me the aesthetics of Octopus Books? What do you look for in terms of style, form and content? You’ve published such an array of poets throughout your existence. I first read D.A. Powell, Ben Lerner, Matthea Harvey, Matthew Zapruder [Ed. Note-Matthew appears in the latest issue of Tin House], and Aase Berg, among so many more, in Octopus. That’s amazing! Their styles are all so very different. Go.
ZS: From the very beginning, Tony Tost and I made an attempt to keep Octopus from developing any particular recognizable aesthetic, and Mathias and I do the best we can to keep in line with that goal. We’re not interested in Octopus poetry, whatever that might mean. We love too many specific things too much. We’ve published a Ronald Johnson issue, an issue of poets who’ve never published before, a long poem issue, a new sincerity issue (just kidding). I guess what we look for, primarily, are poems that surprise us, that make us feel something, understand something difficult about ourselves or poetry – poems where the floor drops out on us and there are starved tigers at the bottom of the pit, but they don’t want to eat us, they just want us to hold them until they die.
DS: It’s hard keeping a readership, isn’t it? So many things to read from so many different publishers. Yours seems to keep getting larger. Octopus has a pretty good subscription deal. Does that help?
ZS: The longer we publish the magazine and the books, the more people are involved, and when more people have a relationship with us, the readership is healthy. We like to publish poets we’ve published before as a way of establishing a relationship that both they and the reader can watch develop. I suppose, also, through consistency. Through Octopus Books, our readers expect us to publish about two books a year, and we publish at least two each year. We offer two year subscriptions. And we do a good job of giving away things for free. If someone buys a book through our website, they’ll often get an extra book and a few trinkets. When that happens, its more likely that they’ll return to us to buy the next book down the line.
DS: So where does the name “Octopus” come from? Are you into them? Mathias and you do stuff that are divisible by eight. Like Jack White loves the number three, right?
ZS: It’s just a way of organizing our magazine. Each issue of the magazine has a number of contributors divisible by eight. We read manuscripts in the eighth month of the year. It’s just a fun little thing. It has little to do with the animal other than that.
DS: I know so many people who love Octopus. Poet friends, but also non-poetry loving friends. What do you say to someone who’s looking to get published by Octopus?
ZS: I try to avoid the dichotomy of publisher as the holder of power and arbiter of taste, and the poet as submissive to that arbitration. I mean, we’re all in this together. We’re almost all poets and publishers in some way or another. I am. So, I guess I would ask that the poet (when I have my publisher hat on) see it the same way. The poet should have their own relationship with the press beyond what the press can do for them. A relationship that would have very little to do with me. The poet should get something from Octopus beyond publication. With that said, I’d tell him/her to submit poems consistently, and reviews too, and essays and interviews, to get involved, and to love it, beyond themselves, slightly more than food.
DS: In Heather’s new book, I found a few lines that I think sum you guys up: if I silently praise my enemy / give him everything ever he wanted / give him room / then I will be king / an earthworm / making things happen. Isn’t that good?
ZS: It’s perfect.
Upcoming Octopus Events:
Oct 8 : Heather Christle will be reading w/ Ben Lerner and Ed Skoog at the Bad Blood Reading Series, 8pm at ADX.
Oct 9 : Heather Christle will be reading w/ Zachary Schomburg at Nationale, 8pm
Oct 20 : Brandon Downing will be reading with Nick Demske, Matt Hart and Megan Kaminsky at Nationale, 8pm.