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



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


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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.


RT: It’s like, when I think of my North Stars in terms of the people who have been so inspiring to me and what I have wanted to do with Peach I immediately go to you and Lucy [K Shaw]. So it's very exciting to have had the opportunity to talk to Lucy and, now, you, and I just want to have that on the record somewhere.


So let’s talk about Metatron. One of the things I love so much about Metatron is how open you are to evolving and reflecting the way the world is changing around you. I feel like you're always the first person to try something new, and then it’ll catch on—you know, for lack of a better term, Metatron is very much a trendsetter in indie lit. Even this year with all of the digital readings that you're putting together that are so exciting and different, or the video poems or #MicroMeta poems you’re publishing on Metatron’s Instagram.


AO: I never really had a super specific vision of what Metatron would be, or perhaps that vision is always expanding, so it's always just been a practice in dedication to improvisation. I never had a model press in mind of what I was trying to strive for, so I think inherently it’s very much its own.


I feel like a lot of my work as a publisher is simply just listening. It's fun to experiment, and I personally get bored when I do the same thing over and over again. I admire people who have such consistency in what they do, but I think I'm kind of an inconsistent person—or like, I'm reliable, but I really can only put my energy into what I truly believe in. I like to have the freedom to be intuitive in my work.


I’m always trying to find the thing that people aren't representing and go there. If you trace it back to the beginning with This Is Happening Whether You Like It or Not, the reading series, at the time we were just trying to make poetry cool. There was such a stigma around poetry readings being all formal and we really just wanted it to be a party and have fun. That was the first thing, and then the books were a response to the lack of publishing opportunities that me and my friends were experiencing. Over time, that's evolved to include a lot of other people that are outside of Montréal.


And then there is #MicroMeta, our micro poetry collection on Instagram. I just love the idea of poetry infiltrating people's lives on the daily on Insta, like poetry not just being something that poets read in poetry books, but something that people experience on a day to day level, even if they're not writers.


I think a lot about access to poetry. And I think the reason so many don’t read poetry is because the format is inaccessible to them for whatever reason. So actively thinking around these issues of form and format... And it’s the same thing with the new video poems—I think that there are so many different ways that poets and creative people are trying to express themselves, and it's inspiring to try and create a platform that can host as many poetic creative endeavors as possible.


RT: It feels extremely form-follows-function. It's like you have this sense of some hole you want to fill through Metatron and it just keeps taking on these new and evolving forms as the situation or technology evolves.


AO: Totally. But with that said, one of my regrets is not being able to keep ÖMËGÄ going, or ALPHA updated or keep the Metatron Prize going year to year. You know, I'm only one person pretty much running the press. And it’s so much work to do this. I do have collaborators, but sometimes things happen in my life that really take over and it's really hard for me to actually give Metatron the energy that it’s asking of me. So it's very much a battle to try and keep it going and keep it consistent and then also do all the other things that I do in my life.


RT: My feeling is that much of that is the norm for small poetry presses—usually volunteer-run, people doing things on a shoestring budget, a constant revolving door of volunteers and collaborators and that totally changes what your capacity is.


AO: Yeah, it's really, really hard to run a small press. You know this. It’s not just managing submissions and finances and all the small things no one sees, it’s also managing the relationships of people, keeping it a safe space. There's been many, many times I’ve literally just wanted to give up—thinking it's too much or it's not giving me back enough. But then as soon as I get to that point it's just a very spiritual experience for me where I realize I can't not do this. It’s my contribution to this world. I think it's incredibly important work, and I'm not convinced that enough people are working on the back end of things like publishing. So I really just feel constantly humbled by this ebb and flow of my love-hate relationship with it. It always draws me back.


RT: I really get that. One of the things that I love so much about you and having gotten to know you through Metatron is your willingness to be vulnerable and transparent—whether it’s about your precarious funding situation, or just the real labor that goes into running something like this. And not just labor as in time and resources, but the mental, emotional, and social costs—the interpersonal costs. For many of us in indie lit, professional and personal boundaries are often blurred. It can be really complicated to run something that involves friends and acquaintances.


AO: It’s a lot, especially for women. I feel like it's something that we need to talk about more because I think that people have these grandiose ideas of what indie publishing houses are like. We need to destigmatize what's going on so everyone is on the same page. It's an interesting industry, but it's hard and it’s complex. With everything that's going on in the world, all of the collective missions we’re all on to create an equitable and more just world, it often comes down to the decisions that individual people are making. I don't take my role lightly. I treat it with so much responsibility that sometimes I feel debilitated by it. It's really important that we set new examples for what a intersectional feminist publishing industry can look like, and you know, hopefully we can be successful and make it easier for others in the future.


I’m really interested in mentorship now. I never had a mentor in publishing. I just pretty much taught myself everything. And I think I would have saved a lot of time and energy if I’d had access to a mentor. So I'm really starting to feel this pull to share my knowledge with the next generation of editors.


RT: That's really interesting. Not to make a sweeping generalization but in my experience many of the kinds of people who usually get into this kind of thing are often students, or fresh out of college and unsure what to do next, or who miss the face to face ritualistic space of education, or just people who want to make their own artistic community. So I love that idea. It could be so huge for someone who's ten years younger than you and wants to do a similar thing but just doesn't know where to start.


AO: Yeah, and sharing resources. I think it’s something that is really important to both of us.


RT: What are some of the things that you would focus on in a mentorship space? What are some of the things that you wish you knew when you started?


AO: Definitely finances—how much it costs to start a press, very basic, like how to do it with such limited resources. And definitely community care—how to manage a diverse group of people and create safe space. And just sharing the logistics—how to access grants, how to get an ISBN, how to start an online store, metadata, SEO, for instance. The really basic things that took me so long to figure out, I want to give people access to that information so they don’t need to waste their time flailing around like I did and have had to do.


I'm not sure what it's like in the States, but I just feel like there aren't enough indie literary presses in Canada. I’m really passionate about the idea of there being more. Even if they only last for like a year or two… The hardest part is keeping something alive for a long time.


RT: Yeah, the endurance it requires. That's why whenever lit mags or small presses announce that they’re retiring I always try to put my sadness aside and just celebrate that this was a thing that had to exist for a certain period of time for a specific group of people. Sometimes these projects serve their purposes or run their course and it's okay to let them go. And I think holding the creators to an unrealistic standard that they have to keep it up forever or pass it on—you know, I’m thinking about how jubilat recently announced that it’s retiring, and now I’m hearing about all of these creatives ideas from people in the UMass Amherst MFA who want to start their own thing and create their own projects and platforms and imagine their own space in publishing, and how these ideas have come from this momentum and open space made possible by the absence of jubilat. It’s so exciting.


AO: That's so inspiring. Sometimes these staples in our industry take up so much space, even creative space, that writers imagine themselves in these spaces and then write with these publications in mind. I'm wondering how that affects people's writing and what could happen if people were given access to spaces where they can just be themselves and write whatever they're interested in. Without gatekeepers. That, to me, is something to aspire for. It’s why I originally fell in love with the Alt Lit community. Building things together, envisioning new things together, new systems. I'm so into that. Like, none of us like the old systems that we inherited, and we can complain about them and call them out and cancel them, but I think simultaneously we really need to take action, and actively create those spaces that are missing, and hopefully access the resources and community support we need to help us achieve those goals.


RT: I think that's why your idea for a mentorship program could be really necessary because it's about helping people imagine new ways and worlds and systems—and helping them achieve their own visions. Like, the difference between teaching people to imagine new space versus running an existing space. I think about this a lot—what I’m going to do the day I realize that Peach has done for me what I needed it to when I needed it. Or for the community. Am I going to be able to call it? And maybe it would just look like me taking more of a backseat role as publisher instead of editor in chief, and I’d just oversee the magazine’s funding and taxes and other logistics, and someone else who is younger and has their own ideas and energy can take over the artistic direction and week-to-week management. But what if I don't find someone who wants to fulfill that role, especially since it’s a volunteer one—what if I don’t find someone who I trust both to continue and grow my original vision. Trust is so huge.


AO: For sure. And especially for us, I mean you know me and I know you, but we've had our trust broken by people in big ways and that's hard to recover from. I really struggle with trust within Metatron. I know we've talked about this before and I won't go into details, but it's hard to trust people after something like that happens. And, to be fair, it’s hard for authors to trust editors as well. So how do we overcome that? How do we rebuild trust into our platforms? How can we build trust digitally?


I think you have really great techniques that I admire. You really shout out your community all the time and keep on top of what contributors have accomplished recently and share that with your audience. You truly bask in your contributors' success, and I love that. You really care for the people that you've published and people feel that. It's really meaningful stuff. So shout out to you!


RT: I appreciate that. It was so much easier during the first couple of seasons when we only had one or two hundred contributors, but we’re getting up toward the five hundred mark and it's—it's a lot of work. Especially because everything is so algorithm-based now compared to when we started. It can become an echo chamber. I sometimes find myself boosting the same person or group of people too often, and I have to be mindful of that.


AO: It takes so much careful labor. From an outside perspective I don't think anyone has any idea how hard people are working behind the scenes to run these things. And also with the emotional stress of a larger platform, you start to feel like you're saying no to too many people. And that weighs on me. I got into this because I wanted to create space for people who didn't have opportunities to publish elsewhere, or who were writing in a new style that didn't fit in anywhere, and now I worry constantly that I'm not doing enough, that not enough people feel let in.


RT: It's so hard. You know, selection—editorial selection—is gatekeeping. It just is, there’s no way around it. And while that means that we can fulfill our own editorial and artistic vision it doesn't make it easier to say no to people. When we first started, we were getting maybe fifty submissions per open reading period, and now we're getting hundreds. And we only have twenty spots available, you know, we're still only publishing twice a week. And we can't handle doing more than that, it's hard enough to keep up on top of it as it is. We’ve added editors to compensate for that increase, but then that means, at least for the poetry team, that five people with very different work lives and personal lives and schedules have to coordinate meetings to talk about fifty to seventy-five submissions per meeting. It’s a lot of work.


For me, as the person behind the Peach social media, this growth has also affected the way we post and engage with people publicly. I used to feel like every time I’d post I was talking to a group of friends—and it does still feel like that most of the time—but now, because we have a bigger following we sometimes get weird notifications from people who don't follow us or know us. Or like, it seems like maybe they’ve just discovered us and think we're this institutional thing instead of a group of volunteers. And they'll reply to our tweets like we’re some kind of brand account with a communications or customer service department. And it's just like—it's me behind the social media! Sometimes I’m not checking my phone! So it changes the way I interact with our community. When people are mean it bothers me forever.


AO: Oh me too. I'm so sensitive.


RT: When it’s deserved I get so disappointed in myself. But like, I don’t know, sometimes it’s not fair—like someone expects a quicker response or got a rejection or something. And it feels bad because I know how hard my team works to be good people, good editors—they're the smartest and kindest people I know. So when something happens it really bothers me. Something gets lost when a thing gets too big.


AO: Being a sensitive editor is challenging, but I think it works to the community's benefit when they have someone who is willing to listen and change. Anyone who knows me knows I've been called in/out many times by people from my community. As organizers, you really can’t think of everything, you just can't. And you can’t take it too personally if you fucked up and someone is upset with you. I've been lucky to have people in my community explain to me what I've done wrong, explain what harm I may have caused, and what I can do to make it better. And while it's always stressful—because I hate letting people down—in the end I know I’m lucky to have a community that cares for me enough to give me the chance to grow and learn. I think that's what's missing in some of our institutions—this lack of accountability to readers and lack of sensitivity to human beings. If you let the judgment in, it really does help everyone learn and grow.


RT: The openness that you have to have to hearing feedback is so crucial, especially when you run something. It’s turned me into a better person and editor, I think. So that’s the flipside of it. It requires so much not to take it personally or center your feelings—because you know firsthand how much thought you had already put into it. So it's like this combination of disappointment in ourselves and frustration—


AO: Care, embarrass