This past semester, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Shearer about the origins of BOAAT Press and the online literary magazine, as well as the various insights and explorations of what BOAAT offers poets in terms of publishing, inspiration, and tactile discovery. BOAAT Press began with a chapbook poetry prize; from there, BOAAT has grown to produce books of poems that are hand-made, textured, and wondrously elegant in design. Sean Shearer continues to envision a home for “the passion of the poetry community.”
KELSEY SCHURER: Give us your origins story for both BOATT the online journal and BOATT the press. How did this idea of “poems and paper […] honored together” come about?
Sean Shearer: I grew up making paper with my mom in New Jersey around the age of five. We’d have little sessions in our backyard where I’d collect wild flowers from her garden and rip the petals into the vat of pulp. I loved everything about the process—the smell of the cotton linters—the goopy texture I’d run my fingers through. Unbeknownst to me, I had no idea I would take this skill and start a publishing press that specialized in handmade books.
BOAAT Press began while at Hampshire College. I took a poetry chapbook workshop and my professor, Heather Madden, would share these tiny letterpress chapbooks with really intricate bindings and different styles of design—accordion, raised letterpresses, etcetera. I thought, I could totally do something like this! In the summer of 2014 I began trying out a few different styles of books and settled on the handmade seaweed/banana peel cover and the asa-no-ha-toji stitch for the binding. I started a contest for out first chapbook publication and BOAAT was born. From there it grew into an online journal, a book prize, and the BOAAT Writer’s Retreat.
Tell me about the BOAAT Book Prize. Who came up with that idea and how did it come to fruition? You have a lot of incredible past judges. How do you come up with what poets you want to judge as well as how do you get them “on board?” Are these books offered in print and/or online form?
We were known for our handmade chapbooks, but as I started working full time before graduate school I was unable to keep up with the handmade book orders. I started the BOAAT Book Prize, because first book prizes are the most important to emerging poets and I wanted to move into the next phase of print books. All of the judges that have contributed to this prize so far are literally some of my favorite poets walking this planet! You’d be amazed by how much these renowned judges are eager to help out small presses. I’m not saying any names, but we’ve had judges actually return the money I offered them because they wanted the money to go back into BOAAT! Again, that just loops back into the passion of the poetry community.
The books for the BOAAT Book Prize are only offered in print, though our Chapbook Prize is another story, which goes into your next question…
Tell me about the BOAAT Chapbook prize and how it differs from the Book Prize. Why have both prizes?
The BOAAT Chapbook Prize was actually the first thing that started BOAAT Press! It came before the journal, which a lot of people don’t know. As I mentioned previously, right after I took that chapbook workshop I began BOAAT Press and had our first contest in the summer of 2014. I reached out to some of my favorite poets to judge and that really grew our social media presence and got the ball rolling for BOAAT Press.
The Chapbook Prize differs from the BOAAT Book Prize by accessibility. All of our chapbooks are available online, for free, in a PDF Digital Download. Chapbooks for emerging poets are extremely important because it allows readers and editors to read a brief sample of the poet’s work. I know poets who have received book deals just from their first chapbook. So to offer both prizes is to shine a spotlight on emerging poets who are writing some inimitable books.
What is the origins story of the BOAAT Writer’s Retreat?
In the summer of 2014 I attended the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. It was absolutely fantastic, but it was literally non-stop attend this, attend that, eat, workshop, attend this, eat, attend that, etcetera. I remember after each workshop at Tin House I just wanted to go back to my dorm and write, but I was unable to because they had so many seminars and lectures we had to attend. So I literally wanted to create my dream writing retreat that was up in the mountaintops with a renowned workshop leader, where people could pitch in to cook meals each night, where the threshold of community and isolation met. The BOAAT Writer’s Retreat functions as both a residency and workshop. The only thing that’s mandatory is to attend is the 2-hour workshop and the rest of the time is for writing/reading/geeking out about poetry. It’s truly a magical week.
How are you able to fund all of your many facets of BOAAT Press (Prizes, Retreats, Publications, Prints, etc.)?
Submission for prizes brings in most of the funding but I do have to dip into my own pocket as well. I actually lose money each year on the BOAAT Writer’s Retreat but I think of it as my little poetry vacation. It’s worth every penny, nickel, and dime I save.
You have an amazing masthead. What is your process for selecting your masthead and getting such a knock-out group of writers to read submissions?
Thanks! I mean, poetry is such a passionate art that it’s not hard to find people who want to contribute to the poetry world. I feel very fortunate to have such gifted poets help run the “behind the scenes” of BOAAT/BOAAT Press. For the selection process I usually just ask past contributors if they’re interested in joining the BOAAT/BOAAT Press family or post any openings we have through social media.
Even at its inception, BOAAT seems to publish highly lyrical, almost surreal poems, such as Stephen Danos’ “Badge of Accomplishment” in BOAAT Issue One, all the way to the August 2017 Issue of BOAAT with Isabella Borgeson’s “On Forgetting.” What would you say the “aesthetic” of BOAAT’s poetry is? What kind of poems surprises you? For the general submission process, what is your “slush pile” like? Do you solicit? How do you handle diversity in your submissions?
Oh thank you! sam sax and the BOAAT Team would have to answer this one. I’m actually not involved with the submission process at all. I do, however, put together each online issue, but it’s hard to pin down a certain aesthetic because each issue is tonally different from the next.
To give you some behind-the-scenes context our selection process goes through three stages. The Readers pass their favorite poems onto our Associate Editors, and our Associate Editors pass their favorite poems onto sam sax, our Poetry Editor. We rarely solicit and try to be inclusive in diversity as much as possible.
What intrigues you or inspires you right now in the publishing industry? What other presses or publications have caught your eye?
I’m absolutely floored with any book McSweeney’s publishes. Their design aesthetic is something I hope to achieve for BOAAT’s future.
What is the future of BOAAT? Where do you see BOAAT in twenty years?
Oh we’ll still be around! In the next five years we’ll have open-reading periods for full-length poetry manuscripts to go beyond putting out first books. In the next twenty years I’m hoping to have a tiny BOAAT commune where I could host writing retreats for entire summers, but that’s just a dream right now.
For more information about BOAAT, check out their website at boaatpress.com.
Sean Shearer is the Editor-In-Chief and Book Designer of BOAAT Press and online literary journal. From the BOAAT website, he is also a Poe-Faulkner fellow at the MFA Program in Poetry at the University of Virginia. Recent poems appear in New England Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Yemassee. He’s currently focusing on his first collection of poems.
Kelsey Schurer is an editor at the minnesota review, a literary and critical journal. She studies Fiction in the MFA Program at Virginia Tech.