5+ Questions with Janaka Stucky of Black Ocean
“5 Questions With” is a new series in which we learn more about Mass Poetry’s partners throughout the region. In this interview, we spoke with Janaka Stucky, Publisher at Black Ocean.
Tell us a bit about your organization’s engagement with poets and poetry, and why a relationship with Mass Poetry makes sense.
To begin with, Black Ocean is an award-winning independent publisher based out of Boston, with satellites in Detroit and Chicago. From early silent films to early punk rock, we bring together a spectrum of influences to produce books of exceptional quality and content. In conjunction with our book releases we manifest our aesthetic in celebrations around the country. Toward that end, from the beginning Black Ocean has not only focused on finding exceptional voices—both new & established—and producing physical books of exceptional design and quality to match, but also celebrating our capacity for transcendent experiences through the arts in social, physical happenings. Given our focus on public engagement beyond simple book publishing, a partnership with Mass Poetry seemed like a natural extension of our mission.
How did Black Ocean start, and what is the vision of the press?
It’s important to understand how we view poetry’s potential and how that guides our engagement with it. We believe in the fissures art can create in consciousness when, even if just for a moment, we experience a more vital way of operating in the world—and through that moment then seek out more extreme and enlightened modes of existence. We believe in the freedom we find through enlightened modes of existence, and we are committed to promoting artists we firmly believe in by sharing our enthusiasm for their work with a global audience.
I came up in the New England DIY / punk / anarchist scene, and got involved with a national zine culture at an early age. At the same time, I was intensely immersed in reading & writing poetry, and so by the time I was 18 I was already dreaming about starting my own press. Fast forward a number of years and two degrees later, and at the age of 26 I was trying to determine what my next move in life would be. The two paths ahead seemed to be either returning to school for a PhD, or starting that press I had been dreaming about for almost 10 years … I chose the latter.
At the time, poetry publishing was not an especially exciting world in the U.S. The larger, established publishers often treated new poetry as backlist titles out of the gate—with little attention to publicity and marketing. Meanwhile independent publishers, beyond a handful of newer houses, were mostly producing fairly ugly books from a design and production perspective. I wanted to create a press that would bring the attention of a major publishing house to quality and design, and treat poetry as a genre with frontlist potential.
I partnered with two other friends from grad school, and together we launched Black Ocean in 2004. This was right before the economic crash so I was able to secure a small business loan against my personal credit and use that money to buy a new desktop computer, some design software, and print our first four books in 2006. I was literally eating rice & beans, sharing a 4 -bedroom apartment in Jackson Square with 7 other people, and launching a new publishing company! When most poetry titles sell maybe 200 copies in the U.S. from the beginning we were doing print runs of 2,000. We also set out with a strong, simple visual identity and attention to detail. I think our belief and commitment in the work, and a little luck, helped us quickly build an enthusiastic and dedicated readership. As a press that focuses the majority of our catalog on publishing new voices, many people simply seek out “the next Black Ocean book.” It’s incredible that people trust us to help them discover their next favorite poetry title. To this day we have some titles that go through second, third and even fourth printings. Selling 8,000 copies of a poetry title is remarkable.
In December we published our 50th title, launching a new essay imprint called Black Ocean :: Undercurrents, with Elisa Gabbert’s “The Word Pretty.” The book has taken off, with multiple reviews in the NYT, the LARB, among other big venues—and the first printing sold out in 60 days! Just yesterday, we announced that Black Ocean was acquiring the Seattle-based poetry publisher, Gramma Press, with their nine titles, since they lost their philanthropic funding. We’ve come a long way since 2004 and in some ways we’re still the same. I had rice & beans for dinner I think three times this week!
Black Ocean is based out of Boston, but has satellites in Chicago and Detroit. What is the value in being a publisher with multiple locations?
It’s mostly about finding the right people to work on the press than anything else. We are all-volunteer (including myself), pouring all revenue back into the press. It takes a special person who has the skill set to do this kind of work, and is also willing to do it for free. Those of us who have been doing it longest are now located in those three cities.
What is your personal relationship to poetry? Are you a reader, writer, educator?
Well I am of course a reader, and I’m also a writer. In 2009 the now-defunct local publisher, Brave Men Press made a truly gorgeous handmade edition of my chapbook, “Your Name Is The Only Freedom.” Then in 2012 I won the Ahshata Press Chapbook Prize for my collection, “The World Will deny It For You.” In 2015, Jack White’s Third Man Records & Books selected my full-length collection, “The Truth Is We Are Perfect,” as their first single-author book for publication. I ended up touring in over 30 cities for that book, including overseas in the UK and Lithuania.
I have a new collection coming out in April this year with Third Man Books, titled “Ascend Ascend,” which is a pretty big departure for me. It was written over the course of twenty days, coming in and out of trance states brought on by intermittent fasting and somatic rituals while secluded in the tower of a 100-year-old church up in New Hampshire. It’s rooted in the Jewish mystical tradition of Hekhalot literature, which chronicles an ascent up the Kabbalistic Tree of Life to witness the Merkabah, or “chariot of God.” The whole book is one long poem documenting the ecstatic destruction of the self through its union with the divine. My publisher describes it as “equal parts Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ and Funkadelic’s ‘Maggot Brain,’ which I get a kick out of! Keeping in theme with straddling the line between music and poetry, the book has blurbs from Anne Waldman and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. It also includes a foreword by Pam Grossman, host of The Witch Wave podcast and author of the forthcoming “Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power.” I’m excited to tour behind this book too, and curious to see how it will be received.
Can you share some details about a few of Black Ocean’s forthcoming publications?
Yes, we have some really exciting stuff in the works! The third title in our posthumous publication series for Tomaz Salamun just came out in February. Tomaz was always very supportive of Black Ocean, and before he died we worked with him on scheduling publication of three new translations of his work. Each volume in the series is beautifully produced as a gold-foil stamped clothbound hardcover book, with a linen dust jacket. The visual identity for the series was created in collaboration with award-winning designer, Abby Haddican, who also created a custom “Tomaz Salamun font” for the books. We also have a new book coming out in April by our best-selling author, Zachary Schomburg. Zach’s first book, The Man Suit, came out with us in 2007—and was chosen that year by the New York Public Library was one of the best books of 2007. The Man Suit now has 8,000 copies in print, and his subsequent titles with us have all seen multiple printings. This new book, Pulver Maar, will be his 5th book with us. Lastly, we have a debut author, Kristin George Bagdanov, releasing her first book, Fossils in the Making. We discovered Kristin’s work through our open reading period and were blown away by it. The book is incredible and I think it’s going to generate a lot of buzz.
How has your relationship with poetry changed because of your involvement with your organization and/or Mass Poetry?
Being an editor / publisher of poetry while also engaging with contemporary poetry as a poet, and simply as a reader, is often times pretty difficult. Figuring out how to divide a limited resource like time between my own work, the work of the poets I publish (or might publish), and everyone else’s work is an ever-evolving experience. At times being the publisher of Black Ocean makes me feel very engaged with contemporary poetry, and at other times I feel like I’m only in the silo of our own catalog and not plugged-in to the rest of what’s new and interesting.
Mass Poetry is a great way for me to at least keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going in with poetry locally. I’m rarely able to make it out to events that Black Ocean isn’t involved in, but it’s still great to keep track of other happenings. Sometimes I have a feeling of missing out, but it’s also just nice to see a scene that continues to flow around me.
Who and what are you inspired by? (Poetic or not!)
The majority of my recreational reading over the past few years has been either in mystical texts, non-fiction social sciences, and speculative fiction. I’m a habitual “future thinker,” which means at any given moment of the day I’m probably thinking 7 weeks to 3 years out … This can be problematic during things like conversations or business meetings, but I find those genres of books related to human consciousness and possibility energizing and inspiring. They are fuel to the fire of my future-thoughts. To balance all that, I also have a daily meditation practice which is essential for finding my way back into the moment.
Beyond books though, I listen to a lot of doom metal, Indian classical, jazz, and experimental drone—I think for similar reasons. Those musical genres promote a kind of suppression of the default mode network in my brain, and the deterioration of that ego consciousness makes for a more transcendent musical experience.
Do you have any big programs or events coming up that you would like to promote?
Elisa Gabbert, whose book I mentioned already entered its second-printing weeks after publication, is coming to Boston to read at the newly-renovated Trident Booksellers on April 13th. While “The Word Pretty” is a book of essays, Elisa’s previous three books are all poetry and she brings a poet’s sensibility to her work. She’ll be joined by novelist Laura van den Berg, and poet Christ Tonelli. I’m sure more Black Ocean authors will be touring through Boston in the spring, and I’ll be setting up a book launch event for my own collection. People can join our mailing list to stay on top of the latest happenings, as well as announcements about our open reading periods.
Visit Black Ocean’s website to learn more.