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I Can't Not Do This: Heart to Heart with Ashley Obscura

I first heard of Metatron Press when Ashley Obscura, its founder and managing editor, came to Buffalo in 2015 to do a reading at Sugar City. I had been living abroad, where all of my experiences with poetry and publishing communities were mostly mediated digitally, and learned about the event when then-friend, future-Peach cofounder Matthew Bookin posted photos on Facebook afterward. And thank god he did: Metatron soon opened me up to a whole new style of literary community, a whole world of fun, interesting, and clever young artists writing about the kinds of things I wanted to read about.

I began following and reading Metatron’s ÖMËGÄ blog religiously, and every payday I ordered a new selection of books from its catalog until my collection was complete. Known for her edgy designs and alternative subject matter, I was charmed initially by Ashley’s remarkable ability to marry visual with written aesthetic in all of her productions; I know a Metatron book or event when I see one, and I know a Metatron author when I read one. In her seven-year tenure as managing editor, she’s published nearly three dozen debut books by North American poets and writers, created two magazines, initiated countless publishing and spotlighting opportunities on social media, organized dozens of readings—including a Peach Goth Tour stop in 2017 for me, Matthew Bookin, Lucy K Shaw, and Oscar d’Artois at Gamma, an industrial space in Montréal where she had been curating literary events—and so much more.

Ashley’s not only renowned in the literary community for her leadership through Metatron Press, but she’s also a kickass poet. She’s the author of two poetry collections, Ambient Technology (2018) and I Am Here (2014), and has screenwritten several experimental video games, including Oceanarium (Apocabliss Studios, 2020), Songs of the Lost (Manchester International Festival, 2019), and Museum of Symmetry (National Film Board of Canada, 2018). She was recently included in an anthology of the most influential female poets in Quebec over the past twenty years (Anthologie de la poésie contemporaine des femmes au Québec, Éditions du remue-ménage). I had the privilege of publishing two of her poems during Season 3 of Peach, which we later republished in our Season 3 Yearbook.

After years of following Ashley, my respect for her has extended from admiration of her poetry and artistic vision to a reverence for her openness to change, willingness to be vulnerable and transparent with her community, and eagerness to take risks and forge new ways of doing things—to give us new examples of how things can be done. I caught up with her over Zoom to talk about the significance of mentorship for emerging editors and publishers, how artists evolve alongside the projects they create, the lifespans of literary journals, and more. –Rachelle Toarmino


RT: [...] But anyway, how are you? Let's start there.

AO: I always have a hard time answering that question! I want to say I'm good—I'm healthy, I'm cared for—but it's been a really challenging year, individually and collectively.

That said, I'm feeling inspired right now. I organized a digital reading with Metatron in late March [check out the recordings: Saturday, Sunday], and just being able to share space with these amazing writers and to hear and experience each other reading was so powerful and meaningful. It means even more than it did before the pandemic, it’s that much more precious. I think it just reminded all of us of what we've been missing for the past year, this sense of true connection with one another. Of heart-to-heart transmission.

RT: It’s been so easy to just get used to it. And, for me at least, it's not until the moments I connect with someone that I remember what I’m missing. Like now. I feel like I’ve been a frog in boiling water.

AO: Yeah, and also just having to relearn how to interact with people post-pandemic. It's a whole new set of social relations you have to keep in mind, and being super conscious all the time, which is so important, but I find it incredibly exhausting interfacing with the world these days. There's no relaxation in public life these days.

RT: There's no release. There's so much pent-up emotion and I don't think we’ve even begun to realize how much needs to be released. I just want to hug someone.

AO: Yeah, it feels that way, and I also—I feel like it's been a really tough year for people who write. Most people I know are just not writing right now. It's hard to be productive in a creative way right now.

RT: Yeah, I especially think of how much—at least of my writing—of what begins as a poem is something surprising that I either overhear or see out in the world. Which is hard to imitate when you're trapped in your room all day.

AO: That essence of spontaneity that's so important—for poets, especially—just isn’t there. We've been living monotonous lives the past year. There has been little to no spontaneity—in a real way. Like, you can be spontaneous on the internet, but that's not what we're talking about.

RT: It's not the same. It suffices, but it's not the same. There's also that very real sense of joy that poets get when they perform, and—you know because you're a fantastic reader and performer—that sense of just looking people in the eyes, or feeling a whole room focusing its energy in one direction. It’s electric. It's hard to work up the energy to write knowing that there's no venue to share the writing right now in that way.

AO: It's so true. For me, urgency is really important to my work—I feel like I write and read better and that I’m understood more when the poem is coming from a place of urgency. I actually like to use public readings as a deadline for writing new work. I think readings, in this way, can be an important marker in that it holds writers—not accountable, but that they inspire writers to create.

RT: Yeah, it's so exciting to read a brand-new poem to a group of people who you like, and to get feedback and share in that energy and excitement of having this leftover souvenir from your brain. Like, “Y'all I just experienced this in my brain and I want to share it with all of you. What do you think?” It's like coming home from a trip.

AO: One of my friends came to listen live to my digital reading last month, and she came up to me at the end of the reading with tears in her eyes and we just held each other. She's in my bubble, so we hugged each other and cried together about all that we had been through this year. Poetry occupies this heart-felt space that is often hard for us to talk about in a casual way, and I think that's why I love poetry so much. It can open up this really deep emotional gateway that allows for people to connect on a deeper level.

RT: Absolutely. I'm reminded of the Diana di Prima reading and when Marcela [Huerta] started crying and then we all started crying.

AO: It was so powerful!

RT: There was something so cumulative about that, that collective sharing. But also absurd, right? Because you're crying with a hundred people on a computer screen that's like this big and alone in your room. And still to be so moved by it.

AO: And otherwise if that had been live you would have been crying secretly in your chair and no one would have really noticed, but the Zoom era is just so confrontational and there's nowhere to hide on your screen.

RT: I hadn't even thought of that. Being in a room of people you're usually looking at the backs of people's heads and maybe there's one person you keep accidentally locking eyes with across the room. But now we get to just see everyone and their reactions.

AO: I’ve been thinking a lot about the feedback you were mentioning earlier on. As a reader the feedback that you get from the audience, like laughing or other reactive sounds, that allows for you to pick up on the energy of the room—read the room, if you know what I mean. But with Zoom readings there's no way to really know. It’s just like static.

Actually, though, the chat is really cool in online readings. I love that you can interact with the poet and audience live in an unobtrusive way. It’s been interesting experiencing digital readings. I was really opposed to doing them, but now I think I'm starting to feel like they can add another dimension to the history of readings and public sharing of writing.

RT: For me it took getting over the initial disappointment of online readings being so different, like it took me a minute to accept that this isn't going to be the same. And now, I can recognize it does have disappointments but it has its own affordances, too. I’m trying to go into it just keeping in mind it’s a new form, and I try not to have the same expectations, and then I can at least find joy in some of the aspects of it. Like, for instance, I'm talking to you right now. And you're in Montréal!

AO: I love the potential for accessibility with digital readings, too. With some platforms, you can get a live transcript like the one we're using today for free. Or maybe it’s more ideal for people who aren't physically able to show up for readings or sit through them. I think that aspect of it is amazing. And in the future, as we eventually cycle back into a more physical way of being with one another, I would love to keep doing a digital portion of readings. It's so important that we focus on accessibility and also work to connect writers and listeners to each other with the help of digital networks.

RT: I've been thinking about that, too. For our reading series, we’re getting so much positive feedback because people who don't live in Buffalo now suddenly have access to it. It’s very exciting. Buffalo's the second biggest city in New York, and we have some real powerhouses of institutions like University at Buffalo and Just Buffalo Literary Center that bring in amazing writers every year. But for the most part, the big readings are in New York City or Toronto, and sometimes people will pass through Buffalo on their way to New York from Toronto if they're on tour, or vice versa. So it's been nice for people who are geographically stranded or who maybe don't have people in their community whose writing really inspires them.

AO: Totally, and that also ties into financial access. I know, in the past, when I haven't had access to disposable income, even though I had invitations to go travel somewhere to read, I wasn't financially able to go, and I know I'm not the only person in that situation. So there's some exciting steps being made in terms of access.

Though, to be fair, access to technology and computers are also a barrier. It's a complex issue, but I think there's a lot of potential there.

RT: Yeah no, I agree. Like with anything it's going to have its own set of advantages and disadvantages and its own kinds of accessibility issues.

I want to ask you some questions about Metatron. You know I adore you! I’ve admired you for years and years and years. Like, if you had told me back in like 2014 that we would one day be talking on Zoom about organizing readings and participating in the indie lit community together, I would have thought you were crazy. So it’s exciting to know you on this level, and to just be able to be in conversation with someone I’ve admired for so long.

AO: I admire you so much too! I’m constantly amazed with the work that you’ve done, Rachelle, and continue to do. I’m always inspired by you and I feel so lucky that we have contact with each other and that we know each other.