In this month’s Dear Poetry Editor, we introduce you to Carrie Olivia Adams who lives in Chicago, where she is the poetry editor for Black Ocean. She is the author of Operating Theater (Noctuary Press 2015), Forty-One Jane Doe’s (book and companion DVD, Ahsahta 2013) and Intervening Absence (Ahsahta 2009) as well as the chapbooks “Grapple” (above/ground press 2017), “Overture in the Key of F” (above/ground press 2013), and “A Useless Window” (Black Ocean 2006).
On Perspectives of Poetry
Unfortunately, many people who are not poets, even many who are writers in other genres, assume that poetry is too difficult for them—it’s too much work or it’s a riddle that can only be penetrated by the initiated. I want to say: poetry is not a secret language for poets only.
And yet, these are people who might go to an art museum and stand in front of a Rothko or a Twombly, and while they might not be comfortable offering a critique, they are often content to offer a statement of preference—to like or dislike. Or, to offer a statement of mood—what they feel when they look at the piece. The same might be true if they encounter a piece of music or film or dance. What is it that makes us comfortable with abstract ideas in other genres, but shy away when we’re not sure whether to take language literally or figuratively? And yet, words are the medium we all share.
It can be simple. Poems don’t ask too much. Poems ask first and foremost that you encounter them. And then, now that you have that poem within your hands, understand that there is no right or wrong way to engage with a poem—just engage. What do you feel or see in your mind’s eye? What might it remind you of? Or how does it feel when you speak it aloud? Is it for a rainy day or the dark burrow of winter? Is it a solicitation, a push, a pull, a long thought, or a journey?
Remember, the poem doesn’t keep secrets. It tells secrets.
I am a lonely reader. Poetry is a companion for me. And, I want the kind of companion that challenges the everyday and offers an invitation to encounter the overlooked, to make a new world out of the material at hand, the same material I have dismissed as tired, worn out, and dull.
Poetry is humanity. It is a connection. It’s about listening—which we all, myself included, need to do more of. Let’s step outside the self-obsessed curation of the details of our own solipsistic stories, and listen. Sometimes poetry is a complement—a way to make sense of an experience that scratches up against us but we don’t yet have the words to explain. Sometimes poetry is our opposition—it shakes us out of ourselves and insists we refocus our eyes.
I want to live in a world with all of these poems—where they whisper to me, hum to me, squawk and squeal to me, shout to me in so many voices. Then, the world feels full, as it is meant to be.
Since it was founded in 2006, Black Ocean has been known for poems that take risks. They can be brash, aggressive, or assault. Yet, they can be cerebral, restrained, and haunting. They can be funny. They can be nerdy and rhetorical. They can be lyrical and stun with simple beauty. The joy is that there has not been one book that is the definitive Black Ocean title. Publishing on average four books a year has meant there are spaces and opportunities for diverse ways of approaching the questions of style and content in poetry, which is also a motivating reason why we try to include translations, such as Slovenian, Swedish, and Korean, on our list frequently. Our readers come to us to be surprised—to discover the many ways that poetry can speak and from the many perspectives that can bring it to life.
From the surrealism and absurdity of Zachary Schomburg to the dark sci-fi vibes of Aase Berg to the carnal and visceral images of Feng Sun Chen to the smart humor of Elisa Gabbert, Black Ocean’s books disrupt and remake. They think with you.
We’re also known for the visibility of our poets, and the fact that they can often be found in unusual places. Our poets travel actively to promote their work, and many of our long-time readers find us as a result of these events—be they traditional readings or multi-disciplinary adaptations—Black Ocean poems have become shadow-puppet shows, songs, plays, films—and inspired many, many tattoos.
In twelve years of publishing books, no doubt our tastes have evolved. And during this evolution, we’ve seen thematic and stylistic fixations of poetry come and go. Yet, I am very proud to say that every book we’ve published, we believed to be the best possible book at the time. We have never charged for a contest or an open reading, so our accessibility means that we receive an enormous cross-section of the poetry world in our submissions. This gives us the fantastic freedom to choose only those books that we truly love and want to live with through the process. We do all that we can to ensure that our books represent the spirit of Black Ocean and our commitment to shaking up what poetry can be and what it can do and the shapes it can take and the audience it can find. We believe that there are poetry readers out there who do not yet know they are poetry fans, it just takes the right book or the right poet in the right place at the right time. And we continue to find them.
Ruben Quesada is a poet and translator. His chapbook of poetry and translations, Revelations, is available from Sibling Rivalry Press. He teaches poetry for UCLA Writers' Program and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He currently serves as the Executive Director of Arte Américas, one of the largest Latino cultural centers in California.