Thursday, December 31, 2015

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Ravi Shankar on Drunken Boat

Drunken Boat, an international online journal of the arts, is one of the world’s oldest electronic journals of the arts. It publishes works of art endemic to the medium of the web, such as video, sound, hypertext, digital animation, web art, and multimedia/cross-genre works of art and letters, alongside innovative works of prose, poetry, translation, reviews, interviews, and photography. We focus on work that stretches form, irrespective of aesthetics. We include special folios on such subjects as Native American Women’s Poetry, Aphasia, and the Black Mountain School, among many others.

Drunken Boat has published established artists and writers such as DJ Spooky, Norman Mailer, Franz Wright, Kay Ryan and Sol LeWitt as well as emerging artists and writers. We are also very invested in international art and literature and have a large worldwide readership. In addition to the magazine, we have published three books, including Collier Nogues’ The Ground I Stand on Is Not My Ground and Lisa Russ Spaar's Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations of Contemporary Poetry.

Ravi Shankar (1975-) is the founding editor and Executive Director of Drunken Boat, one of the world’s oldest electronic journals of the arts. He has published or edited ten books and chapbooks of poetry, including What Else Could it Be (2015), the 2010 National Poetry Review Prize winner, Deepening Groove, called the work of one of America’s finest younger poets by CT Poet Laureate Dick Allen, finalist for the Connecticut Book Award Instrumentality (2004) and Autobiography of a Goddess a forthcoming collection of translations of Andal, the 8th century Tamil poet/saint, co-edited with Priya Sarukkai Chabria. Along with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, he edited W.W. Norton’s Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond, called “a beautiful achievement for world literature” by Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. He has won a Pushcart Prize, been featured in The New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education, appeared as a commentator on the BBC, the PBS Newshour and NPR, received fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, and has performed his work around the world. He is currently Chairman of the Connecticut Young Writers Trust, on the faculty of the first international MFA Program at City University of Hong Kong and a Professor of English at Central Connecticut State University.

1 – When did Drunken Boat first start? How have your original goals as a publisher shifted since you started, if at all? And what have you learned through the process?
The conception for Drunken Boat began in 1999 and we published our first issue in 2000 and the quantum leap that our incipient vision took from where we began to where we are now would have been inconceivable to me then and still remains remarkable to me now. We began as a kind of one-off side project between two old friends, the architect Mike Mills and myself, and we thought we’d showcase the work of those writers and artists we admired who we thought weren’t being widely seen, just for our own pleasure. Little could we have anticipated what publishing online would mean, for soon after the launch of our first issue, we began receiving work from places as far-flung as Australia and China. Now Drunken Boat has a staff of over thirty individuals worldwide and we now publish books. So we could not have foreseen what we would become and our original goals have certainly shifted in time. Fifteen years in, it’s time to become self-sustaining and my own real prerogative is to insure that Drunken Boat has a life well into the future. What I’ve learned through the process of creating the journal is too immense to distill briefly, but primarily I’ve learned about managing different personalities and how to sustain a long running art endeavor on a shoestring budget, all of the splendor and frustration it entails. Clearly the former outweighs the latter or I wouldn’t still be doing it.  

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
A frustration with what I was seeing published, for one, where the most innovative and challenging works of art were being ignored, but also a sense of the consanguinity of the arts. Artists in different media share a curatorial space with writers too infrequently, so we hoped to change that by creating a garden for true cross-pollination. Having started Drunken Boat with a visual artist, I really hoped that we might try to use the magazine as a forum for those kinds of works that couldn’t exist in print. Because our ethos has always been publishing works of art endemic to the medium of the web, we wanted to publish multimedia work, work that used the digital as part of its compositional strategy and we were never interested in replicating the paradigm of the page. Really we still aren’t. However in 2010, we were brought an interesting project, which was the posthumous poems of Reetika Vazirani and that was the kind of project we just couldn’t turn down. That led us down the path of publishing more books and we plan to do a title or two a year from here on out.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
Small press publishing is vital to our overall health as a culture. I see an analogy in the role of microorganisms in the human body. Of course we are always concerned about those larger vital organs, the liver and the heart and the spleen, but the body is not an island; instead it’s a complex ecosystem where bacterial cells outnumber human cells nearly 10-to-1. Microbes, the flora of the body, are vitally important in everything from our immune system to our respiratory system, even though you can’t really see them working. Similarly small press publishing lies under the surface of our culture, nowhere nearly as vast and recognized as the machinations of mass media, and yet the work that is done there is vital to creating the environment necessary to complicate those homogenous, stereotype-reinforcing romantic comedies and party anthems that pass for shared culture. I think small press publishing gives voice to the voiceless, allows for experimentation outside the marketplace and ultimately evolves thinking in a way hard to quantify but impossible to deny.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
Since its inception, Drunken Boat has always pushed on the boundaries of the status quo, and so I feel like we have always wanted to collapse the distinctions of genre, of aesthetic school, of self-replicating vision. Drunken Boat was among the first journals to combine literary arts with multimedia expression, and I still believe we are one of the few venues where web art, sound art, video, hypertext, interactivity, photo, translation, reviews, poetry, nonfiction, fiction, and design all converge. We are constantly looking for those works of art that exist in the interstices between what we might consider normal literature, for those works of art that either transcend the printed page or ask difficult questions of the reader/viewer/participant in the meaning making process. I also believe that our dedication to global literature is unique; we’ve published writers from Korea, Eritrea, Australia, India and from various Native American tribes. We also have focused on issues such as aphasia and exploration that have not found an outlet in other literary venues. Finally we are dedicated to the egalitarian distribution of the arts, which includes publishing the work of outsider artists, spoken word poets, true mongrels of the spirit, alongside Pulitzer Prize winners.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new chapbooks out into the world?
We haven’t published chapbooks, but full-length collections and I think the best way to get these out in the world is to use technologies like print-on-demand and also ask that our authors do their best in promoting their collections, giving readings, helping send out review copies, etc. We also love to foster synchronicity between platforms, so for instance when we published Lisa Russ Spaar’s The Hide and Seek Muse, a collection of her incisive columns from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Arts-and-Academe blog, we also published a folio dedicated to the collection that included audio of the poets she was reviewing reading their work and some of the essays from the collection: Our most recent book by Collier Nogues, The Ground I Stand On is Not My Ground has its own dedicated website where you can peruse the source texts that Nogues used to make her erasures: We think that kind of back-and-forth helps the books to have a vigorous life inside and outside of print.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
Again it depends; sometimes if we see something that has a lot of promise but doesn’t quite work, we will work closely with the author to make it resonate better. Our genre editors are terrific at doing this kind of work. In those case, we might suggest not just line edits but also a different ending, a place to elaborate or excise, or a new direction to pursue. Other times, we are very light and just fix typos or lineation issues, but always in consultation with the author.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
We used Small Press Distribution and though it depends, we do print runs from 500-1000 copies and are always willing to reprint.

8 – How many other people are involved with editing or production? Do you work with other editors, and if so, how effective do you find it? What are the benefits, drawbacks?
We have a fairly large staff of about 30 individuals from around the world and we often work with outside Contributing Editors. We love doing this because we can tap into their expertise which often varies from our own. So for instance, Kristin Prevallet edited our Trance Poetics folio in one of my favorite issues; Jean Jacques Poucel put together the OULIPO compendium, which still stands as a monumental look back at the past and future of creating under constraint; and Kalela Williams put together a folio on the Affrilchan Arts for us Without the influence of those outside editors, we never would have had those rich, diverse folios. The only drawback is that we have a very specific editorial and design process, and often times it is difficult to get them acclimated to our process. Sometimes having outside editors creates a lot of extra work for our staff but we are getting better at streamlining it.

9– How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
I have internalized my critical eye and I am constantly amazed by the variety of what is being published. And so if I wasn’t an editor/publisher, I think I might have been more content to settle into a comfortable groove doing the same kinds of things over and over again, writing some version of a familiar lyric poem, but because I’m constantly being confronted with such a welter of unexpected approaches to writing that challenge by own preconceptions, I find that I am forced to evolve in response.

10– How do you approach the idea of publishing your own writing? Some, such as Gary Geddes when he still ran Cormorant, refused such, yet various Coach House Press’ editors had titles during their tenures as editors for the press, including Victor Coleman and bpNichol. What do you think of the arguments for or against, or do you see the whole question as irrelevant?
Well I have always written the Editor’s Message to each issue of Drunken Boat, but that’s the extent of it, save for exceptions like when I translated Hervé Le Tellier and Jacques Bens with Laurence Petit for the OULIPO folio I don’t think taking back the means of production is bad thing and indeed there’s a long history of pamphleteering that’s currently making a comeback with small presses and blogs, but just personally, I prefer having the quality of my work judged by someone other than myself and like Epictetus, I believe we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.

11– How do you see Drunken Boat evolving?
After having run the magazine for 15 years, I’m thinking stepping back to concentrate on Development and let an energetic new Executive Director take over. We need to become self-sustaining and concretize what we have laid the roots for over so many years. Doing book is new for us and we’ve also had conversations about releasing a sound arts primer with recordings from our live events from around the world. Perhaps we’ll release this digitally….and on cassette tape. In all seriousness, the magazine has moved to Drupal and we have a consistent design team for the first time ever and that will allow us to concentrate on providing a forum for those works of art that explore the frontiers of form.

12– What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you think people have overlooked about your publications? What is your biggest frustration?
To have started on a whim an endeavor that has persisted for so long is of great pride to me. Much of that is owed to all of the amazing people I have worked with over the years, each who had their own style and sensibility which is reflected in the pages. In some ways, our magazine traces our own collective digital lineage from the infancy of those early lo-fi artworks, those pieces created in Shockwave and Story Space, to more sophistication. I think what may be overlooked about Drunken Boat is how much we’ve accomplished on so small a budget and how much more we could accomplish with a bigger budget. We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and we depend upon reader support to survive. Not having consistent funding has been a source of frustration.

13– Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
There simply weren’t any so we just made it up as we went along. Once we realized that we were actually not just a one-off project but an actual online literary journal we looked around and realized there were others of us—Alt-X, Eclectica, The Cortland Review, Big Bridge, Failbetter, and soon after us, Tarpaulin Sky, Blackbird and wordforword, Softblow and QLRS from Singapore, Jacket from Australia. So we began to be aware that others were doing something similar to us. My own editorial experience was certainly shaped from being a reader at the Paris Review when it was in the basement of George Plimpton’s Eastside brownstone and I has influenced by the seminal work, particularly with writers interviews, that the journal was doing. But otherwise we discovered where to go by going.

14– How does Drunken Boat work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Drunken Boat in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
Drunken Boat is part of a large network of interlaced literary and artistic production. We share an affinity with those early online publications such as La Petite Zine, Exquisite Corpse, Blackbird, Memorious, Failbetter, and Jacket, who importantly offered us in a model similar to our own with respect to international and innovative poetics. We see affinity with BOMB, for their work crossing over into the visual art world; Aesthetica Magazine, for their work with sound art; Tuesday for what they do make materiality happen; and our new Executive Director’s production Anomalous, for their investment in translation and experimental literature. We dig the work in A Public Space, Canary, Lana Turner is Dead, The Iowa Review, Harper’s, Subtropics, Tin House, A Brooklyn Rail…the list is endless but the important thing is that we feel those connections deeply. We have co-hosted events with Ugly Duckling, Les Figues, Rattapallax, The Dalkey Archives, Midway, and hosted performances in arts spaces, outdoor parks, and people’s homes. One event, “Recharging the Sensorium” was hosted at the New Britain Museum of American Art and Torp Theater, drawing nearly 1,000 people over the course of a weekend. We hope to expand the idea of literary community can be, speaking both to the neophyte and acolyte alike. 

15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
Think I just answered that, but I will add that we do try to have launch events and try to represent at book fairs and festivals. We have recordings of sound artist Cary Peppermint at Pete’s Candy Store doing some improvisational avant bubble gum pop he deemed somewhere on the spectrum between Brittany Spears and John Cage and photographs of members of the Oulipo convening for dinner in Brooklyn. These are testament to the sense we have of art and literature being a living organism.

16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
This one is self-evident, no? Digitally born and bred to spread new forms: Drunken Boat.

17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
 Yes we do. We are currently on an editorial hiatus as we transition our staff but have a number of exciting folios coming up including on the OuTransPo, Sardinian culture and the Glass House Shelter Project, a remarkable program bringing college accredited classes to homeless shelters. We are open to almost everything that is quality, well-conceived and executed, regardless of aesthetic bent or school of ideation, but we don’t want un-ironic cowboy or Jesus, unreconstructed pap, overwrought and un-transfigured confession, or arbitrary experiment that could be just as arbitrarily reordered. Do send us things we are not expecting: interviews, collaborations, mixed media, archival projects, global and transnational lyricism, and much more. 

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
This one is easy because we only have three titles published so far. Our first book Radha Says are the posthumous poems of the remarkable and tragic figure, Reetika Vazirani, a manuscript meticulously reconstructed through an act of literary forensics. Our second, Lisa Russ Spaar’s Hide-and-Seek Muse collects the best of her columns from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Arts-and-Academe blog on contemporary poetry. Pithy, wise, and insightful, Spaar’s essays take on everyone from Charles Wright to Brenda Hillman. Our most recent book won our inaugural first book prize and was chosen by Forrest Gander. The title is Collier Nogues’ The Ground I Stand on Is Not My Ground and is a provoking collection of erasures with an interactive website to accompany it. Our fourth collection will be out this fall and it is “Union,” the best of 15 years of Drunken Boat and 50 years of Singaporean literature and it will be co-published by Ethos Press. We hope to continue doing a few titles a year in addition to putting out a magazine that explores and exhibits the best contemporary art and literature.

No comments: