Interview With Octopus Magazine

Picture of Octopus Magazine Logo

Author: Joseph Mains

What makes Octopus Magazine a unique part of the publishing community?

Octopus is unique in the sense that we are in conversations that exist outside of what maybe used to be called Official Verse Culture and now is maybe called small press culture. But these conversations aren’t unique to us: the poets we publish are having them, and so are lots of other small presses like Ugly Duckling, Letter Machine, Canarium, Noemi, Black Ocean, Factory Hollow, and others. I think that the small press community is motivated by a set of ethics, a sense of empowerment that isn’t asking the permission of big presses or Really Famous Authors to write and publish work that we love. Although Poetry is a relatively small world, there is still a lot of excellent work that isn’t represented by larger, more long-established venues in publishing. Poetry is one of the least-moneyed arts in the US. This takes some pressure off publishing: if you know and are ok with not making any money publishing books, you’re free to publish what you love and what you want to share with the world. Publishing becomes more of an ethical and aesthetic choice than one tied to a balance sheet or (at least for now), a marketing campaign. I think that a lot of small presses see this, and make things happen without all the budgets and boards.

What sort of qualities do you look for in a manuscript or piece of work that you are considering for publication?

Shine. Smarts. Poems that feel like animals we wish existed in the physical world and are named after all our future friends.

Do you have a specific aesthetic preference? How would you describe that aesthetic?

We tend to prefer the beautiful, except for when not-beautiful is even better. As with humans, poems with individuality of voice make the world more interesting and fun.

What is the readership like for Octopus? What do you imagine your typical reader is like?

The same as small press poetry in general: middle or upper-middle class by birth and underemployed professionally, college educated, under sixty-five, and most often probably in their 20s-40s. I wish that this weren’t the case, but it is. One big disadvantage of small press poetry being unmoneyed is that most of the work being done is of the unpaid variety, so if you’re from a less privileged background or have serious financial responsibilities, you’ve got to do work that pays the bills. What this means is people who are able to make and do really wonderful things in the small press world—and to be sure, they are doing wonderful things—often are the ones that can afford to do them, because they have time. It’s a complicated little secret that I think many people are uncomfortable with, which is why it doesn’t get brought up. And it’s not the fault of small presses. These people also don’t tend to have a lot of money, but they maybe have access and a familial or network safety net that they can tap if things don’t pan out. I think this is one reason why we see non-white and white people from working class and poor backgrounds largely absent from the small press world. It’s not exclusionary so much as it is the case that many times they can’t afford to risk going outside of the big contests and academic prizes, which to my mind is very slippery and complicated. I don’t have it figured out myself. But it’s a systemic injustice that is much larger than small presses. While it can sometimes be uncomfortable to talk about, I think that it’s important to have those conversations and take that DIY ethic we’ve brought to publishing and use it to take on the things that makes poetry so vital: examining power, honesty, truth and beauty in all its various forms, in order to make opportunity accessible to everyone. Online magazines are one huge step to giving more people access to publishing and being published, and in that way I’m really excited to be a part of this conversation so many poets and readers are having. Most libraries don’t stock literary journals or much in the way of contemporary poetry, but they do tend to have an internet connection, so even folks in small towns or places that tend to be less influenced by high art or avant-garde culture can read magazines for free, listen to Pennsound or watch poem-films and be a part of what’s happening in a way that fifteen years ago would seem shocking.

What is the next exciting thing happening at Octopus Magazine?

We’re really excited about what’s happening at Octopus: new books by Ben Mirov and Patricia Lockwood are coming out this fall. Poor Claudia has joined Octopus Magazine and Octopus Books as a chapbook imprint, as well as bringing on Bad Blood, a reading series in Portland, Ore., that is curated by Drew Swenhaugen, Zachary Schomburg, and myself. Octopus 16 is coming out in spring 2013, which is also our 10th anniversary. Like our other important anniversary, Octopus 8, 16 will have a very special, limited edition print component in addition to the online magazine. We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. It’s getting hot. There’s so much we want to show you.