Inside Bitter Oleander
A chat with Paul B. Roth, Editor of Bitter Oleander
Paul B. Roth founded The Bitter Oleander and The Bitter Oleander Press as a young man fresh out of college, eager to make his mark on the literary world. He has nursed his journal and press for over 35 years.
Interview by Andrew Tobia
To begin with, where did the name The Bitter Oleander come from?
In the early 1930s, Federico García Lorca was visiting New York and was in rehearsals for his play, “Blood Wedding.” His producers of that play felt that the title would be an impediment to getting many Americans to the theater. Right then he decided to call it “The Bitter Oleander.” It’s a little known fact, or it was, until you asked me.
What has it been like to watch your journal and press grow from the day you founded them to today?
I like to think that the most important thing is being able to give poets and writers the opportunity to present their wares in the most provocative and powerful atmosphere as possible. The feedback I receive on a day to day basis is usually very positive and it’s always nice to hear that someone picked up a copy of TBO and felt like they found a home.
Backtracking a little, you founded TBO in 1974 - what drove you to start a literary magazine (and press, for that matter)?
After graduating from Goddard College in the early seventies, and because I’d been a poet and writer of various sorts since the age of seven, I’d always spent time exploring various journals considered influential or ground-breaking in libraries and old bookstores. I accepted the fact that these publications represented the attitudes and insights of North American poetry.
Although these journals showcased traditional forms in an exacting manner about which I should be impressed by the magnitude and effort of their expression, I was simply uninspired by their contents. When I was introduced to poets and writers from Latin America, Asia, Western and Eastern Europe, Africa and our own Native American culture, I understood why I was uninspired by most American poetry: it was truly unimaginative and, if at all experimental, was clearly amputating language from its true reality. Not a reality that seeks to make conventional thought unique but instead seeks to dwell in what is unseen among the seen, unknown among the known, especially in the natural world.
The desire to build a press and a journal, was to seek out the most imaginative poetry possible. Poetry written by poets who did not just write poems but lived the lives of serious, thoughtful poets. The human condition was very important to me. I sought it through poetry and through my own life. I mostly found it among those whose work was not necessarily accepted in the regular marketplace nor had any connection to the academic community where acceptance and notoriety are bred and bargained. These poets needed to have as formidable a venue for their work as possible.
In this regard, the founding of the press and the magazine was not as much a reaction to what was firmly in place but a way to help others be on the same playing field within the same arena. Because we also publish a considerable amount of poetry and short fiction in translation, along with features of both domestic and international poets, we’re offering the poetry reading public—both through our books and our biannual journal—access to the contemporary world it wouldn’t ordinarily enjoy.
I was hoping that you could elaborate a little on what, to you, a serious and thoughtful poet is.
The fact that a person sits down to write a poem out of a demanding inner need, immediately makes him or her a serious and thoughtful poet. The freedom of expression drives poets in various ways. All of them are important because they fill a need for every kind of writing.
As an editor, to recognize the singularity of a poet in his or her language, is all I do and all I look for in the thousands of submissions received each year. What I receive mostly in submissions are poems from four distinct categories of poets. The first are novices whose emotions get lost in a very structured and generalized language because that’s all they’ve ever experienced in school.
The second group consists of those who have gone through MFA programs and their rigorous curriculums believing they’ve found the secret to expression but have only learned to be good emulators and not yet necessarily individual creators.
The third group consists of those who’ve been writing for years, have found their niche among other writing groups independent of strict academic circles, but have somehow fallen prey to repeating the same thoughts from long ago dressed up in either a more refined state of expression or an experimentally diluted one in order to project its inaccessibility by simply becoming more inaccessible.
The fourth group is the rarest group of all. From these comes a constant flow of poems opening places in my perception that otherwise would have been left in cold storage. These particular poems come from the deepest of human conditions, dwell on what’s ultimately important in life by either expressing the suffering and injustices that abound our civilization or the rapture of seeing, hearing or feeling something one never knew existed.
That there are particulars to things, deep specifics, which unfold their beauty even from the most unexpected of things in nature and human life becomes very evident in their work and is inspirational. When poets write in this manner, to me, they are serious and thoughtful.
You seem to be giving the serious and thoughtful poet two different definitions. First, it was the "fact that a person sits down to write a poem out of a demanding inner need," that makes one so, but you just said that the poet who writes in the manner of the 4th group that you recognize as an editor is the serious and thoughtful poet. By your first statement, couldn't any poet - depending on their perceptions of themselves - from any of those four groups be considered serious and thoughtful?
Yes, I agree that it is important not to differentiate thoughtful, serious poetry as regards the level of expertise in doing so. Having been through all those levels, my first poem at age 11 was just as intense an experience to write as was the last one I wrote last evening. I think, however, that the degree of seriousness and thoughtfulness about the most important human conditions is greater among the more open and experienced poets.
That is, of course, if none of them have been completely destroyed by an educational system in this country which has no real interest in anything but teaching our young how to be the best slaves they can be to the billionaires who control the corporations which, in turn, control the government we as citizens supposedly elect fair and square.
I’ve collected that the goal of founding TBO was to provide more imaginative/unique/adventurous writers with a platform that rivals the more mainstream. Looking back from today, would you say you've achieved that goal?
It’s been said more often than not that if you were to rid all the magazines who publish poetry in this country of their identity and subsequently took a poll by independent poets as to which magazine was which by their contents, the results might say they are pretty much the same; a flat-line.
Here, our intent was to have a place where highly imaginative poetry could express itself. It’s important to understand that we’re not talking about fantasy when we say imaginative. What we mean by imaginative is the ability of an individual to express his or her own uniqueness through a very specialized language…Do I think I’ve achieved this as a goal? Probably not. But have I achieved the ability to pursue my intention? I like to think so.
Do you hold the same standards and expectations of fiction writers as you do poets?
The [fiction] should have a great sense of mystery where things are not always solved but rather act as springboards to the imagination. Even in poetry, I tend to shy away from poems that seek conclusions, that try to tell truths. I’d rather be confronted with the unknown and then allowed to find my own way. I really want the writer to build a reality for me to live in without any preconceived rules, that way I’m always surprised, delighted and inspired.
You only accept stories under 2,500 words. Why the limitation? Is it merely a space concern, or is there something about shorter fiction (a resemblance to poetry, perhaps) that you are drawn to?
If [a story is] longer and really a great piece of work, then I’ll accept it, but we like to keep at the 2,500 word level as consistently as possible. From my own experience as a writer and reader, short fiction really needs to get to the point right away. It needs to explode on the page within the first 100 to 150 words or I’m going to get bored or feel I’ve been there a million times before. I want to be pulled in by the writing.
I don’t want to have to fight my way through it, looking for silver linings where there’s no precedent for any. I want to be taken on a ride that lasts as long as my imagination will carry it. Flash fiction is another excellent way to get things across succinctly.
Who are some of your favorite writers, either whom you've published or simply love reading?
Every once in a while I’ll read a story that causes me to fall out of my chair or a poem that throws me back against the wall and cracks my skull. As for my favorite poets, I am always going back and reading the work of William Blake, John Keats, Edmond Jabés, Pablo Neruda, Nelly Sachs, Yves Bonnefoy, Federico García Lorca, Yannis Ritsos, Benjamin Peret, Miguel Hernandez, Jacques Dupin, as well as Americans such as W.S. Merwin, Duane Locke, Silvia Scheibli, Anthony Seidman, Shawn Fawson, Rob Cook, Alan Britt, Carol Dine, Robert Pesich and Christine Boyka Kluge.
I noticed that in Volume 15; Number 1, all works in translation were from Spanish speaking countries. Accidental or intentional?
Purely accidental. Most issues carry translations from many different countries. In fact, our upcoming issue, Volume 16; Number 1 features the French poet Pierre-Albert Jourdan, and works of poetry from Greece, Romania, Poland, China, and yes Mexico as well as a wonderful piece of short fiction by the Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin.
How do you pick features for each issue?
We have featured a great many people from many different countries, backgrounds and cultures. Poets from Sweden, France, Mexico, Romania, Chile, and China, to name just a few, were all the result of my developing relationships with these people as well as a deep respect for their work. Some I knew well enough to approach early on because I already admired their work, had developed a relationship with them and yet wanted to know more about their writing process.
Others who have been featured were also developed over a much longer period of time by again reading a lot of their work, a lot about them, corresponding with them, and getting a one-to-one feel for their intensity as a poet. After numerous submissions and acceptances, you know who’s of interest and who may be just on the horizon working their way closer to us.
Your two most recent features, Elizabeth McLagan and Patrick Lawler, seem to be complete opposites, both in the form of their poems, and even their personality, temperament, and thought processes (as based on their interviews with you). Clearly, though, there’s some kind of connection between them, or else they both wouldn’t be features in TBO, and especially not in the same year. Just what is that connection?
The connection hearkens back to my thoughts on the serious, thoughtful poet. In this case, you are correct, both are very opposite, but they both bring a passion to their art that is unequaled and I respect their intensity to get as deeply inward with themselves as possible. Neither write about surface things, trivia, commonplace topics or conventional attitudes.
You can see that both have serious perceptions about life in general and specifically carry their expression right through to their language which, as you’ve pointed out, is completely different from each other.
Volume 15; Number 2 has an essay in it, which I know doesn’t happen often. Do you solicit essays, or find them submitted the same as any other piece?
I solicit nothing, including essays. The one on education to which you refer in that issue was written by the most published poet in the U.S., Duane Locke. He sent it to me and I loved its forthrightness and correctness.
Volume 15; Number 1 carries an overall sense of pain, loneliness, hopelessness, and 'the unknown,' among other things. Do you ever have a theme in mind for an issue, or do you find that the issues coalesce themselves into themes, regardless of your intentions?
No, the themes of any issue are not preconceived nor do they reveal themselves, if at all, until I’ve laid the whole issue out. I will admit that my own deep subjectivity found in work that at the time of my reading it seems most appealing to me may very well have a lot to do with what I select. It’s not at all conscious and I do not try to control it.
What advice would you give to the writer who seeks to tap into the potential of the cultures of the world, to help them expand their perceptions?
It seems to be a matter of being interested, to seek out everything that’s going on in every culture you can. To be a real citizen of the world, you have to, by necessity, understand so many other cultures as you’re able to, and what better way than through its poetry, its literature?
The undeniable trend is that journals are migrating online, either in their entirety or in terms of counter-parts/supplementals. Where do you stand on the growing print-to-online trend?
I will always like the physicality of holding a book of poems or a journal in my hand. I’m not concerned so much with trends as I am with reaching people who want to be serious about poetry and find a place and an editor where they can dialogue and feel free to drop the pretenses the usual submission process dictates.
The little experience I’ve had with reading many on-line journals is that I prefer reading hard copy rather than endless hours focused on a monitor and so have to print things out if I’m interested in reading them. Seems like an extra step to get back to where things were in the first place. I also believe that there is still a greater sense of pride for an author to have a physical book or contributions to journals and show it off to those he knows.
E-books and e-zines are another step in the process of being published and recognized and they also add to the outlets creative people have to exhibit their work, but to me, it’s not the same as holding your own book, the journal in which your poems are included and especially that smell of benzene off the newness of the freshly printed pages.
Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but I still do receive a whole lot of submissions every month and by e-mail from overseas as well, so someone out there still thinks it’s important to be in actual print.
TBO can be rather difficult to find, sometimes. Why isn't it more widely available in stores or online?
It’s available on-line through our web-site, of course, but why not in particular areas, I cannot say. My distributor and I have gone around this many times: that university bookstores and the large city B&N’s are the best points of sale for TBO. They have their own marketing plan, I suppose, which unfortunately doesn’t always follow any clear logic. They rarely if ever ask my opinion.
If you were to inquire from those bookstores you frequent to have our magazine placed there, they will usually ask Ingram Periodicals to do just that. That helps a lot if interest swells, even a little. It’s a lousy system but beats me having to travel around the country placing books out there on consignment and then trying to control the impossible record-keeping aspect involved with each and every transaction. Half go out of business after five years or less anyway. Even our book distributor, Small Press Distribution, would rather carry our books than our journal. That’s just the way it is.
I’ve noticed certain authors coming up over and over again, both in the journal and the press, such as Kalamaras, Cook, Seidman, Lawler, Kluge, Britt, and others. What is it like, both as an editor and as a human, to develop that kind of consistent literary relationship? Would you say, in any way, that these particular writers have become ‘the’ or ‘a’ core of the journal/press?
Some of these writers I’ve known for many, many years, some not quite as long. Over time, you build up a rapport with many writers and poets and some are always eager to be a part of The Bitter Oleander’s issues. I would like to say that they are my core poets, but that would infer that I always hold places for them in each issue which is not true.
I do not solicit their work, but rather, they submit regularly. Critics in the past have said that perhaps there’s an incestuous type of relationship going on here, but I cannot ask anyone NOT to send me their work just because I’ve published them before. I’m honored to publish them anytime. Each of these people you’ve mentioned has become close with us and I correspond on a very regular basis with each one of them.
This has been an excellent interview. I’ll leave you with this last, simple question: do you have any sort of staff, or are the TBO and TBO Press a one-man job?
I am a staff of one. I do it all. Read submissions, write acceptance and rejection notes, invoicing, copyrighting, print order quotations, send out orders, talk to customers and suppliers, update my web-site and in general take care of all correspondences. I consider it all an honor to do this for all these great writers and poets we publish. After all, it’s for them!
Andrew Tobia is a recent graduate of Suffolk University.