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“…they don’t want to eat us, they just want us to hold them until they die.”: An Interview with Zach Schomburg

By Harriet Staff

Zach Schomburg, four of the tentacles in Octopus Books and Magazine (the other four, Mathias Svalina, are Tweeting for Harriet as we speak), takes part in an interview in the first installment of Tin House‘s “Small Press Beat”, a monthly column that features interviews with small press publishers, helmed by Poor Claudia‘s own Drew Scott Swenhaugen.

Swenhaugen begins with a brief introduction:

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.

And here’s a little taste from the interview:

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: 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.

Read the rest over at Tin House, and keep an eye on this column.

Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, September 16th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.