An Interview with Carrie Olivia Adams
Carrie Olivia Adams lives in Chicago, where she works in publishing and serves as the poetry editor for Black Ocean. She is the author of Operating Theater (Noctuary Press, 2015), Forty-One Jane Doe’s (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).
Kevin Thomason: How did you get into the publishing world?
Carrie Olivia Adams: I actually started in the publishing while I was in college. It’s my twenty-first or twentieth year in publishing. I started actually at the Georgia Review. I was an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, and then while interning at the Georgia Review I became interested and I kept seeing these ads for the University of Georgia Press and for all of their books, and I ended up becoming an intern at the University of Georgia Press. It’s a great place to start because it’s a fairly small university press, so it’s only about thirty or so people. I got to work with each of the different departments and learn how they all fit together and just how the entire process happened. Right before I was graduating from college, the advertising manager left the press and I ended up becoming the interim advertising manager and catalogue manager for the University of Georgia Press, between undergrad and grad school. That kind of solidified for me what my path was going to be eventually: no matter what, I was going to end up back in publishing. So I moved to Chicago about a year after that, and knew at that point that I wanted to stay in academic publishing. I was doing a low residency MFA through Vermont College of Fine Arts, so it allowed me to still work and go to grad school at the same time. When I moved to Chicago, I ended up getting a part time job in the journals division doing marketing at the University of Chicago Press, and then parleyed that into a full-time job and just have been here ever since. So this is my fifteenth year the at the University of Chicago Press where I am now the Promotions and Marketing Communications director. I oversee a staff of about fourteen, I have eight full-time book publicists that report to me as well as a publicity assistant, advertising manager, exhibits, and marketing design, all that, but everything that kind of rolls up under the promotional plan of a book is referred to me. So it’s been great. I love academic publishing. It’s been a wonderful start, and I just kind of stayed in it.
Karlie Herndon: How does working with Black Ocean coincide with your work at Chicago UP?
Carrie: They’re somewhat distinct, which is really nice. Janaka and I met in grad school at Vermont College, and at that point, it kind of just felt like this school, you know, pipe dream. You know this was almost fourteen years ago or so, and so there wasn’t the explosion of small indie presses that there is now, like when you go to AWP, and you just see this huge book fair full of all of these small presses, it wasn’t really that kind of landscape back then. But it was one of those things where I had been working in publishing for a few years at that point so I kind of knew the logistical side of it and how everything kind of fits together and Janaka had the crazy charisma to figure out how to pay for it make it happen. And so we just decided to go for it, and now we’ve been publishing for almost thirteen, fourteen years now. It’s amazing that something that was just something we sat around and thought, “wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had our own little press and we could publish just what we wanted,” but it turned out to be real. So it’s a nice sort of balance because in my regular day job, I don’t get to actually acquire any books and I don’t make any sort of editorial decisions in that way, so it’s nice to have a place where I can enact that kind of vision. So I get to live on every side of the book, which is fun.
Kevin: Could you talk a little bit about your writing life, particularly since your day job is also creative in a sense too? Could you talk a little bit about your life as a writer, as a publisher too?
Carrie: Yeah, it’s a hard balance. I feel very lucky having done a low residency MFA. I think that was part of the benefit was that I had to do my graduate school work while working full time. And so that taught me at that point how to discipline myself and I learned how I like to work and what kind of structures that I need. For the most part, I’m a very slow writer, and I benefit just from taking a lot of notes and spending a lot of time thinking about things. It’s one of those things where not every day do I get to write. I’m not one of those writers who is able to say, “all right, these hours are my writing hours,” because there are days when I will get home from this job and I will just be spent and there is just no way I can sit down and really make myself do it. But I am constantly kind of thinking about it, so I find that when I do make time in my evenings my weekends to sit down and actually focus on a project, it’s all been brewing up there for a while. Also, it helps that I like to work from sort of found texts and from source materials, and working in academic publishing often means that I come across fun and strange things that I want to explore more. When I was working on my first book and I was working in the journals division, at that point we were still publishing the journal of astrophysics for these really really high-end scientists. And so when I was bored at work I would read the journal of astrophysics, which I couldn’t quite understand, but I would get enough ideas and processes and language out it, so I’m always trying to mine my environment for things that I can take back and play with and work on. Even though it’s sometimes exhausting and I feel drained and I don’t feel like I can actually produce anything right away, I feel like I’ve at least been in an environment when I’m picking up ideas all the time.
Kevin: The exposure to the kind of language like that sounds particularly interesting and useful if you’re a writer.
Carrie: Very much so. I mean what I enjoy about my job, especially as a publicist, is that I work on so many different kinds of books, and so I end up being a little bit of an expert in everything, for at least 6 months until I get a new batch of books and then I kind of replace whatever little factoids I have but whether I’m learning about politics or weird facts about sea horses or jellyfish, like I get a kind of broad spectrum and that’s fun.
Karlie: We saw that you were the artist in residence for the international museum of surgical science. Was that somehow related to seeing the journal of astrophysics?
Carrie: I didn’t encounter the medical science at the office at that point, but it shows my constant interest in doing things that are outside my traditional discipline, but because I often work from found objects and found texts, when I was working on starting to think about my third book, I was in an antique store in Chicago, and I found these boxes of anatomical teaching slides that they would use for helping people diagnose diseases and cancers, and it had bisections of brains and lungs, and you could see where the different deposits were and that kind of thing. They were so fascinating to me, and I had just finished my second book where I was making films to go with my poems, so I was still thinking about things in a visual way, and the slides were something that was just sort of an initial impulse. They led me down this road of reading Victorian surgical and anatomical manuals, and so I was using some of that language in my work. Back in the Victorian era before there were really hospitals, most surgeries were performed at home on your dining room table, because that was the cleanest place to do something. Like you could put down a rain coat and just go for it. You’ve got good overhead lighting I guess! So, I was really intrigued by this use of the domestic space as a medical space, and also playing with the interior and exterior of the body in this way. It ended up being this super fun sort of brain experiment to play with all these medical books, and when I finished that project and published the book, I about that time discovered this museum in Chicago that…it’s…if you’re ever here, I totally recommend it. It’s very quirky, it’s very weird. It’s in an old mansion on the Gold Coast that the original owner had it built to look like one of Marie Antoinette’s buildings at Versailles. (Kevin: That’s fictional!) The time right around World War I it was bought by the international college of surgeons, when it had fallen into disrepair, and one of the surgeons had this weird desire to collect trepanning instruments from Peru and from South America, on top of also collecting like…from the beginning the museum has always been about the intersection of science and art. There’s one whole room full of murals but they were murals of surgical procedures and things like that, so it was very weird. There were big sculptures of famous scientists but then there were all these cases of weird ancient surgical materials either from ancient Peru or up through Civil War saws and things like that. Because it’s about the intersection of art and science, they actually have an artist in residency program, one of the few ones I’ve seen that’s actually open to writers rather than just visual artists. Having already kind of dabbled in surgery I think they felt like I was a natural fit for them. I spent a little over six months working in their archives, putting together a project on early women in medicine. It was a lot of fun.
Kevin: That’s awesome!
Carrie: You’d never know it exists! You’ve got to get out there and start digging around, if your town has its own sort of esoteric museum.
Kevin: I was hoping you could talk a little about what you think is the hardest part of publishing, particularly as the poetry editor.
Carrie: The hardest part…ugh!
Kevin: Or just a challenge.
Carrie: I think there are two things. One is it’s hard to not have enough resources when you’re running a small press and especially know that you can only do so many books a year and also that you only have so much time that you can devote to those books, so that means that you are limited in the amount of books that you can publish. And so I think having to turn away strong manuscripts, or people whose work I’m really fond of but isn’t exactly the best fit for the press, I think is one of the hardest decisions I have to make. And I think as a poet myself, I know what it’s like to hear that “no” from someone else, so I always try to always be very cognizant of that when I’m declining something. But I think on the one hand that’s one of the hardest things I have to do, and on the other I think, as a poet, not just the poetry landscape but the publicity landscape has changed so much in the 20 years that I’ve been in publishing that it’s just so competitive out there to try to make space for review coverage and for book coverage in general. There are so many more books published today than there were even 5 years ago. The amount of ISBNs that are assigned each year keeps going up by 10 to 20 percent which means that there are just so many books competing for the same limited amount of attention. And so just trying to break through all of that noise to find…there’s so many great books out there but nobody knows about them, so trying to get the word out and find your own little tunnel through all the different books that are competing for the same space.
Karlie: What helps you decide? Is there something you specifically look for or something your press looks for?
Carrie: It’s interesting because Janaka and I have always kind of run it together, and so I feel like we’re always looking for something that is in the Venn diagram of our tastes. We’re both very similar but very different kinds of poets. This new book that’s coming out is really sort of mystical and he wrote it after fasting for 12 days, this sort of weird trip, you know. So I feel like we’re both doing very unique bits, but we have a same relationship to form and to structure I think, and I am very interested in books that are architectural wholes, that are sort of project books, and every single piece is meant to be there and goes to together in some sort of shape. I’m always looking for things that speak to something larger. I feel like there’s an increasing tendency that we all get a little bit solipsistic in telling our story, but trying to make that story connect more broadly is the big challenge, and when someone does that well, that’s when I start to get excited about a book.
Kevin: That’s really interesting. You use the phrase whether or not the book was a good fit for the press. That is interesting. Do you think that’s important for a press to have, maybe not a style necessarily, but a vision, kind of what you’re talking about? The kind of books we have or that we offer?
Carrie: Yeah, I think especially when you only publish so many books a year, and we don’t publish more than six, it’s a matter of…I like people to know what to expect from us. What little niche we’re carving out. But I also don’t want every book from us to sound like it’s the same book. That’s also why we branch out into doing a lot of different translations. We have a big Korean series that’s been growing, plus our Slovenian work, and our Swedish work, and so I feel like we try to bring in a diversity of voices, but that are all playing with a similar experimental structure, it kind of gives us a cohesiveness while giving us some broader pieces to pull from. But if you look at Black Ocean’s book covers, they all seem to be a part of the same thing. Part of the branding of the press is also in how you choose your authors. You also ideally want our authors to tour together and do events together, so you want things that feel like they can be in conversation with each other.
Karlie: Do you only ever publish one book from one author, and then you want to give someone else a chance, or do you do series with certain authors?
Carrie: I like being able to provide my authors a consistent home and I like for readers to know that if you want the next book from Zach Schomburg, then it’s probably going to come out from Black Ocean. We do have first right of refusal in all of our contracts, which means that once you do publish a book with us, then we ask to at least get the chance to say yes or no to your next book of poetry. As much as I like bringing in new voices, I also know how frustrating it is to get your book published by someone and then know that you have to go and find a new editor. That’s really hard. Part of what I enjoy as an editor is building those long-term relationships with my authors and that they come to trust my editing of their work and want my early reading and appreciate being a part of that process from the beginning.
Kevin: You mention how the landscape of small publishing has changed even in just 10 or 15 years, where do you think it’s going now? What’s it look like as there are more and more books published and more and more small presses?
Carrie: I wish I had a really good vision, because I think it’s going to continue this way. The ease of printing a book has gotten a lot easier. Even short run digital printing, they’re now making books that you can hardly tell that they’re not off-set. So it’s very easy for lots of people to send their books off to Lightening Source or through Amazon to be made. So I feel like right now we’re going to see this explosion continue, I don’t see it going away anytime soon, because I do feel there’s such a human impulse to write a book and to tell your story and to share that way, and I don’t see that changing. I don’t know in the end how we’re going to be able to curate that for readers, that you can find books that are actually of real interest to you or be compelling to you, beyond word of mouth. For years, we thought, “is publishing going to die?” and it sort of goes through the ups and downs, but I think it’s definitely here to stay, and I think it’s here to grow for quite a while.
Karlie: Yay! (Laughter) Do you see any specific changes happening with Black Ocean? Are there any new directions you’re going to take with your press?
Carrie: I think we’re going to continue on the translation angle, I think that’s been really rich for us and there are thankfully a lot of countries out there that are actually offering grants for translating work and that has helped make publication of those books possible. I also see us continuing in the literary essay vein like we did with Elisa Gabbert’s book that came out this past winter and reviewed in the New York Times. Playing with more things that aren’t traditionally poetry but things that are commenting on poetry or in slightly more lyrical essay form that come back to reflect on the work. I think there’s some space there for some really smart writers to provide a great dialogue on what’s going on in literature today.