Tim Wright: Firstly, congratulations on ten years of Otoliths. I’m interested to know how much time the magazine takes up, and also how connected it is (or has become) with your own writing. I recall Tranter once saying in an interview that he’d lost about fifty poems to the time it took editing Jacket — is the magazine a distraction from your own writing such a way, or more integrated with it?
Mark Young: Hard to tell precisely how much time it takes up because I’ve never worn the temporal equivalent of a Fitbit. But thinking about it, on the basis of a 9 to 5 thing, probably three to four weeks of work in total for each quarterly issue, spread across the quarter.
With the journal, I’m working loosely within a time frame which is something that I don’t have with my own writing, but I don’t get up in the morning & follow a timetable. If I feel like writing I do; if I feel like spending time on Otoliths I do. Neither one suffers because of the other. They exist in harmony. As for “lost poems” . . .
Wright: A general question about editing. One of the things I admire about Otoliths is its breadth — the variety of types of writing that appear in each issue: there’s always something to be surprised by. There’s clearly a leaning towards the experimental, and towards visual poetry, but it isn’t restricted to these, and there also seems to be a mix of regulars and new contributors in each issue. Could you say something about your approach to editing, how you envisioned the magazine when you started it, and whether (and how) your approach has changed as you’ve gone along?
Young: The idea of editing a magazine has always appealed to me. I’d dabbled in them before, but had put those I hadn’t inherited aside because I felt there wasn’t the feedstock of writers that I liked, or who worked in similar areas to me, available. That was 45 to 55 years ago.
Midway through the first decade of this century I realized that that I was now in contact with a large number of like-minded people through either participation in a group blog called As/Is that was very active at the time or through the various journals that I had published in. I decided the time might be ripe for another try at magazining, so sent out emails to about 60 people inviting them to contribute. Three-quarters of them responded positively, & the journal was underway.
I’ve written in another interview: “I don’t know if I had any goals at the beginning beyond getting the first issue out with as broad a range of contributors as possible & making it as good I could. I think you approach the first issue of a journal as if it were equal parts anthology & mousetrap, but both parts driven by the same motivators—quality that lasts, quality that attracts.”
I had found with the then-current crop of journals that they tended to be narrow-focused. That meant that if I wanted to see this type of prose or that type of poetry or a variety of visuals I had to visit different places. My tastes are eclectic: I wanted to produce something that reflected that.
Which I think I’ve done. My basic approach has remained very much the same as it was in the beginning; variety & quality. Add to that a determination to show people’s work in the way they want it to be seen.
I’ve a mailing list of just under 1000, of whom all but very few are contributors. The usual issue of Otoliths these days has about 90-100 people in it. 25% of them would be in every issue; 50% would be regular contributors; & the remainder are new contributors.
Wright: So would you say there’s a cumulative logic to your editorial approach to the magazine then, as some of those new contributors go on to become regulars, while the core group remains – and that it will continue to expand in this way?
Also, staying on the topic of contributors, there’s obviously an internationalist – I’m tempted to say non-nationalist – spirit to Otoliths. You’re ‘based’ in Australia, but the majority of the contributors have always been from the U.S. My (very) rough estimate is that Australian contributors make up on average about 5% of the total in each issue, though there have been regulars/core group members from early on, like Martin Edmond and Jill Jones. New Zealand and Australian contributors might be closer to 10%. Otoliths also regularly publishes writers from non-Western and/or non-anglophone countries, such as Turkey, Mexico, Japan, Hungary, Brazil, Italy, and Finland. I’m interested, then, in the degree to which the internationalism or non-nationalism the magazine now represents has been conscious on your part? Has Otoliths’ openness towards visual poetry, perhaps, had something to do with this movement beyond the anglophone world?
Young: I think the contributor base, & the core group, will continue to expand. Plus, there’s a regular drop-off—”I’ve got my publishing credit in Otoliths. Now let’s leverage that into acceptance elsewhere.” So, in that sense, Otoliths is no longer the only place where someone can find a home. Additionally, there’s the perception of Otoliths as (a) a place to send experimental work, (b) a place where it will be presented as intended & (c) a place where newcomers learn how to approach other journals, what formats & criteria & conditions should be adhered to.
That leads into part of the last part of your second question. Otoliths’ acceptance of visual poetry as a core part of poetry has provoked other journals to incorporate vispo as a regular thing, not as some sort of special supplement every few years. This means, again, wider opportunities to publish; to regard vispo as an outlet for one’s creativity, even if it hadn’t been before.
I’m internationalist, therefore anything I engage in will probably have an internationalist flavor. Of the last 50 places I’ve published, one was in Australia & one in New Zealand. Those proportions have probably held for the last two decades. I openly admit I dislike a lot of Australian & New Zealand poetry because it is place-focused & written for an Antipodean audience. When it reaches beyond Oceania it is often either Anglophile or, if U.S. directed, aimed at what Ron Silliman referred to as the “School of Quietude.” I also dislike those directions, & the style of writing they’re aiming for.
You’re right that the proportion of ANZ contributors is around 10%. It may have increased slightly, but bear in mind that the number of contributors per issue has grown from 40 to around 100. That proportion is not, has never been, a deliberate act. I started off with writers I knew & communicated with, some of whom were local but the majority of whom were from Europe or North America. That state still exists, though I now have contributors from the other inhabited continents. Part of that is because of, as you correctly note, the vispo aspect. But it is also because, in the non-visual world, the world of text & song, English is the lingua franca. Amongst the most recent acceptances for the next issue are an Iranian Kurd, an Italian, a Finn, a Japanese, & a Dane, all writing in English.
Wright: Alongside the Web magazine, issues of Otoliths are also available in print, through the print-on-demand service Lulu. I can’t think of another poetry magazine that publishes in this dual way. Would you care to comment about your reasons for making Otoliths available in both forms, and the differences between the two? I’m also interested in the work that’s involved – e.g., does it require you to essentially layout the same magazine twice?
And as a second part to the question, I want to ask you about the Otoliths imprint. By my count, looking on your Lulu page, you published eighty books, mostly poetry collections, in around seven years – an extraordinary achievement. It seems fairly obvious why you decided to stop, given this publishing rate, but could you perhaps say something generally about the Otoliths books, and the way they related to the magazine?
Young: Previously it used to be print journals that maintained an online presence with truncated versions of the original issue, but there now are a growing number of journals that bring out both print & online issues, primarily due to the availability of print on demand (POD). Some anthologize: e.g. four quarterly issues as an annual print edition. Because a number of ezines now use PDF forms such as Scribd or Issuu, it then becomes reasonably easy to translate to print. Some convert an entire issue produced as html — though, obviously, originally in Word or jpegs — across to a print version, but again POD. I split the print version of the journal into two parts: one with the b&w online components, & one with the color contributions. The reason I do it that way is because even if I had only a single page of color, the entire issue would be charged at the color rate of printing, about 10 times greater than b&w, & the cost of that single issue would be at least twice the combined cost of the separate parts.
I suppose I do it in both hard & online versions because I still like the feel of print. I’m comfortable with the online medium, both as a reader & an editor, but somewhere in my heart there’s a little voice that says it’s not complete until it can be put on a shelf. Also, because there’s no standard for web browsers, & an ever-growing number of viewing platforms, the way one person physically sees a page is not necessarily the same as another person sees it. With print there’s no variation.
At the beginning, I wanted to be able to provide contributor copies. That first issue, where I gave both parts to all contributors, cost me in the vicinity of $US1500. For the next few issues I only gave out the part people were in, but even that cost around $750 per issue to do. So I stopped the gratis copies, but continued to do print so that if a person wished to obtain a hardcopy, they were able to do so.
&, yes, it does involve laying out the same magazine twice, mainly because of formatting & size differences. A web page is malleable. The way Otoliths is set up online gives it a great deal of width & an infinite depth. You can’t do that with a printed page. So there is a minimal amount of re-laying of lines. Plus, no animation, no hyperlinks.
The book side of things grew from some simple chapbooks extracted from the early issues through to stand alone works separate to the journal. The driver was almost exactly the same as I’ve mentioned above for starting the journal — the availability of a catchment of people whose work I admired.
I do regret stopping doing new books, but am proud of what I did manage to bring out. There are some substantial things in the catalog. Plus I still do the occasional Part Three of an issue of Otoliths which is essentially a sole author book.
Reading the paper you gave at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference made me realize that there’s another, external, reason that validates the print version—the pattern of visits. I’ve noticed that many visitors only stay for a single page view, perhaps a link they’ve found on Facebook or a tweet; or, even if they enter via the contents page, they ignore the “next” link at the bottom, return to the contents page & from there move to another page. There’s little scrolling from cover to cover. Unlike print.
Wright: I’ve found it interesting that you stick with that word magazine (or e-zine); it’s not a journal or a review, or an anthology. Since you’ve read the paper, I wonder if the connections I was trying to sketch there between Otoliths and an internationalist little magazine tradition resonated with you, and if so are there are particular examples that you’d name of magazines that have been important? (Origin? Which I think of because you mentioned in another interview the importance of a comment Olson made to Cid Corman about the form of a magazine). The other side to this question might be whether it is contemporary web journals that Otoliths is more in conversation with; could you perhaps name some that you see the magazine as having influenced or being influenced by?
Young: Magazine, journal, review. There may be etymological differences between the words, but I use them interchangeably. Zine is an abbreviation, e-zine a variant of that. Don’t read anything into my usage. You started this interview with magazine; I started with journal & tend to come back to that though we’ve used the various terms interchangeably throughout the interview.
Many of the journals I think of as precursors / predecessors I have never seen, only who & what came out of them. I have never seen Origin, or Black Mountain Review, or Beatitude, or Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts, or Yugen, or The Floating Bear or . . .
But during the sixties I had subscriptions to Evergreen Review, to City Lights Journal, & to New Directions, all out of the U.S., &, on a more international front, The Paris Review & Botteghe Oscure. They are the journals I have tried to emulate—substantial, wide-ranging, familial in nature, encompassing. They are the construct I follow.
Contemporary web journals influence me only in what I read there. There are a number I admire greatly, mainly because they have standards they adhere to; but there’s more shit than good stuff around. I will put no names in either camp.
Will also add another reason for the print edition. The issues then exist as tangible archive. There have been a number of good e-zines that I have seen disappear over the past decade due to the wasting disease that Bruce Sterling called linkrot.
& I do have a favorite web journal, sans influence either way. Michael Rothenberg’s Big Bridge.
Wright: You’ve mentioned that Otoliths emerged out of a loose grouping of poet-bloggers, and so, from the beginning, many or most of its contributors had their own blogs and were engaged with the internet and related aesthetics. Since then, the Web has obviously changed significantly, blogging has morphed and accelerated into microblogging, and we have poets like (for example) Geof Huth and Karri Kokko who will sometimes distribute their work via Twitter; you also continue to publish a poem or visual work daily on your blog.
So, while Otoliths has this continuing connection with the blog and blogging, it seems to have kept a distance from the newer social media platforms – there’s no link to an Otoliths Facebook or Twitter page, for example. Has it been a conscious decision to avoid the newer platforms, and to keep to lower tech methods like the email list, and if so why?
Young: Twitter, like most forms of texting, is a tool to keep conversation at bay, or to prevent it by overkill. Once we’ve lost the ability to use language, Twitter, too, will pass. Maybe people will send punctuation to one another. Oh, that’s right! It’s atrophied because nobody sees the need to use it any more. Ah well, there’s always grunting.
& Facebook? Oh, look at me! Actually, there’s no need for a unique Otoliths FB account, since probably a couple of hundred contributors have accounts, each of which have numbers of friends / followers, each of which . . .
Plus, my junk mail box seems to be regularly in receipt of emails from people’s accounts hacked through social media.
As you say, blogging has morphed. & much of what has replaced it, displaced it, diminishes the world we inhabit. One of the Jenner / Kardashian clan gets $100,000 for every Instagram post she makes: Hillary Clinton &, probably, @realDonald Trump have official tweet writers. Monkeys in a room with typewriters. Bring back the genuine court jesters, I say.
Wright: I suppose what I was getting at is that—as an editor and as a poet—you require that international reach that the internet allows (or rather, that it makes far easier than when stamps and envelopes prevailed), as well as something of its aesthetic (your own work often draws from the absurdities of internet news media), however as a publication Otoliths remains very much in ‘print time’. In other words it’s in and among ‘the internet’, while simultaneously standing back from it with a critical eye. A contrast here might be something like ΠO’s magazine Unusual Work; ΠO would, I think, agree with your points about the diminishing effect of the newer platforms, but his solution is to disavow internet media entirely.
On a different topic: I’m interested in the degree to which Otoliths seems to represent a community. One of the things that suggests this is the collaboration that occurs between contributors. In each issue there’s usually a number of pieces by two or more authors (e.g. Andrew Topel, John Bennett, and so on). As I understand it, Otoliths also had a role in the development, by a number of poets, of the hay(na)ku form. Could you say something about the collaborations that Otoliths has helped to foster? And, as far as you can tell, are people still making contact with each other, to collaborate, through the magazine?
Young: In an earlier answer, I noted that one of the reasons I started Otoliths was because I had access to a catchment of creators whose work moved me. Much of that came through the web. I had a platform to put it up on, & that was totally web-dependant. As a poet, with a few exceptions, I appreciate the quicker & easier response times to submissions that the internet provides; &, as an editor, I try to provide the same courtesies.
Otoliths, per se, doesn’t have a critical eye on the internet—why bite the hand that feeds you? Rather, I enjoy the ease of being able to incorporate visuals without economic cost, or videos, or animated gifs, or the ability to have long pieces able to be accessed on a single “page.” But I admit that, format-wise, it exists, as you say, in “print time.”
Many of the collaborative partnerships appearing in Otoliths have existed since long before the journal started. There’s been a community of vispo practitioners & mail-artists who have worked together for decades now, & that also applies to some text work as well.
Nor can Otoliths claim credit for the development of the hay(na)ku, but the reverse holds some validity. The form was there way before the journal, & more than a quarter of the participants in the initial issue of Otoliths had appeared in The First Hay(na)ku Anthology that I co-edited with Jean Vengua, & which Eileen Tabios published, a year earlier.
Wright: Thanks Mark. I’ll avoid the conventional ‘What does the future hold for Otoliths?’ final question, but if there’s anything you’d like to add here, please do.
Young: I’ll be 75 years old at the end of October, a couple of days before issue #43 of Otoliths will go live. In the emailout for issue #31, I wrote: “I turned 72 on Wednesday. Thursday / Friday, depending on what timezone you inhabit, out comes issue #31 of Otoliths. In twelve years time I’ll be 84 but Otoliths will only be up to issue #79—if that, since I’ll probably be infirm & unable to bring out more than two issues a year. It’s improbable that the number of issues of Otoliths will ever catch up to my age. As the tortoise once said to the hare, “Read your Zeno, Dude, & eat my dust.”
Let me amend that statement. The way I’m feeling at present, I might just see that conjunction of age & issue. The journal as pacemaker.