Matt O’Donnell: An Interview with the From the Fishouse Creator

January 16, 2012

I (Deborah) had the pleasure of interviewing Matt O’Donnell via email about the From the Fishouse website. I’ve always admired people who started unique web projects related to poetry— No Tell Motel, Anti-, Verse Daily, CellPoems, etc.

1. What led you to start

Fishouse started entirely by accident. It started as a way for me to memorize poems on my commute to work. I asked my friend Camille Dungy if she’d record for me. Honestly, at this point, I forget exactly how we came to it, but we decided it’d be cool to get a couple of recorders and send them around to other poets to do the same thing. Then we thought, well, other people will want to hear these recordings, too, so let’s post them on a website. That was 2004, and it was still a little unusual to have online recordings of poets, especially poets early in their careers.

The idea went from a personal project to public one pretty quickly. In just a couple of months, I was filling out IRS applications to set up a non-profit so that we’d be eligible for donations and grants to fund the project, and we were putting together by-laws and a board of directors.

From the start, the purpose of the Fishouse has been two-fold: to give poets early in their careers—“emerging” poets-—a platform for their work; and to give poetry fans and teachers and students the opportunity to hear poets reading their own work.

We needed a way to limit the overwhelming number of poets to choose to record, and we figured that more established poets have more outlets for their work. We had to come up with a definition of “emerging,” and Camille and I settled on poets with fewer than two books at the time of submission to Fishouse. As time has passed, of course, poets we recorded as “emerging” have now “emerged,” and so Fishouse serves as an archive in this way. Also, there are special “bonus” poets on the site, poets well outside the “emerging” definition, who I record and post when a chance arises.

2. What past experience (work or otherwise) helped you in creating the website? What did you need to learn?

If it weren’t for my day job at Bowdoin College (in the Office of Communications), I’m not sure I would have been able to get Fishouse going or maintain it if I did. Not to mention that our original web designer was a Bowdoin colleague, and without him, I don’t know who’d have created the first version of the site into a decent website (although, we have that problem now, as that volunteer designer left and we’re trying to figure out how to fund a full site redesign). The basic HTML I learned from working on the Bowdoin magazine website helped enormously. Additionally, a Bowdoin alum, who was at the time an editor at the tech site CNET and had recently written a book about digital audio, recommended the original FH recording devices to me. And, lately, there’s a big crossover in the use of social media with my day job and Fishouse’s.

3. For those who might not be familiar with the Fishouse, could you include a selection of poets you feel are representative of your editorial taste? I know this is a hard question to answer.

Well, one of the greatest things about Fishouse—and a key to its success—is that it’s not simply my editorial taste. I’ll answer in a bit more detail below about how the selection process works. In short, I don’t make all the selections, so the site isn’t limited by my aesthetic. I definitely have personal favorites, but so many favorites I can’t name them. One poem we often hold up as an example is “To Whoever Set my Truck on Fire” by Steve Scafidi. And, if you take a look at the Fishouse printed anthology, the poems we collected there are all ones that we felt represented Fishouse in its mission to highlight the connection between the poem in the air and the poem on the page and in a wide range of styles (culled just from our first two years).

4. What are your recommendations for others who may want to start an online poetry project?


But, if you must, you should treat it as a business. Come up with a business plan, a workflow plan, and know your goals, short and long-term. Know what else is out there doing what you might want to do, the “competition,” and figure out a way to distinguish yourself.

With so much poetry available online, I think new online projects need to be niche, need to have a well-defined focus. Fishouse concentrates on audio from poets early in their careers—“emerging poets,” who we define as poets with fewer than two published collections at the time of submission. The focus on audio from emerging poets sets Fishouse apart enough to give our brand, if you will, meaning.

One of the things I wish I’d done better is plan for the long-term future of Fishouse. Nearly eight years down the road, we don’t have a firm plan for my successor. As far as I’m concerned, Fishouse won’t truly be successful until it lives beyond me, beyond my daily involvement, and I’ve been spending a lot of my time lately working on those plans.

5. Creating book trailers and audio is becoming more commonplace. Do you have technical tips for poets, or others, who would like to create a video or record themselves reading?

I’m sure the common computer user has as much technical skill, if not more, than I do—my nine-year-old daughter seems hardwired for it. The first time she picked up a touch screen at age five, she knew exactly how to navigate it.

I’d love to learn how really edit audio at a high level. I know the basics. Just enough to get a relatively clean track. But, in order to keep posting new material on the site, keep the admin going, I haven’t had the time to study more complex audio editing. Well, that’s to say, I haven’t made the time. Because it’s just spoken word, there’s not much more I need to do to the audio than clean up some background noise, so I figure it’s better to get more voices up on the site than to spend my limited time on audio methods that aren’t absolutely necessary. Given a do-over, though, I’d learn as much as I could right from the start, when I was spending time on setting up Fishouse.

The most basic element of getting a good recording at home is to find a quiet place with little background noise and to be wary of things that make noise while you’re reading—the computer, a squeaky chair, pages turning. Sometimes, background noise provides ambiance and context, and I like it in a recording—an urban poet with the street noise in the background; Steve Scafidi’s chickens because the quietest place he could find to record was his hen house—but I find that loud floor creaks, door slams, paper rustlings, and electronic clicks are distracting.

The only other thing I’d offer for advice is to practice with the recording device to determine what settings give you the best sound, and at what distance from the microphone.

6. What is the selection process for inclusion in the Fishouse?

This is a question I’m often asked, especially because Fishouse is closed to unsolicited submissions.

The selection process began organically and grew into a system with benefits that we’d never imagined, and that process is largely responsible for our success. We ask each poet we publish to recommend two additional (emerging) poets whose work they’d like to see on Fishouse. While this method seems ripe for nepotism, it’s worked in just the opposite fashion, giving Fishouse a much wider scope and range of work than it would otherwise enjoy. We’ve published more than 200 poets, so we effectively have around 100 editors, and growing.

Fishouse doesn’t simply feature my aesthetic as editor, it features work by poets across a broad spectrum and, in this way, really represents the contemporary landscape. Because of this, we draw a wide range of listeners. It is in large part what makes Fishouse work.

From a practical standpoint, I simply don’t have time to wade through unsolicited submissions. I can barely keep up with our current system. But, even if I did have time (or say, a staff), at this point, I’m not sure I’d change anything. It’s turned out to work so well this way.

I think that poets hold Fishouse to high standards and recommend other poets who’s work they feel deserves (for lack of a better word) space on the site. If Rigoberto González feels strongly enough about a poet’s work to recommend him or her to me, I trust his judgment. He’s the editor in that case.

When choosing a group of poets to send recorders, I go through the list of recommended poets chronologically and try to pick and choose a balanced lineup of male and female writers from a variety of recommending poets, so that we get a good mix of work with each round of postings.

7. What is your advice for balancing Fishouse, your day work, and your writing?

It’s almost never in balance. I really only have early mornings to work on Fishouse, with the odd weekend day. I’m either working on Fishouse almost exclusively every morning, or not working on it at all.

And, when working on Fishouse, I’m either doing editorial or administrative work. If I’m posting new poems, I’m not giving the Board direction, not working on fundraising, or site redesign, not answering emails or communicating with constituents. Because my time is so limited, when I’m doing one of those things, I’m not doing any of the others, and it takes all of them together to make Fishouse successful. That I can’t really keep up speaks greatly to the work that we feature on the site—it remains popular, and continues to grow, even though I can’t cultivate it as it truly needs, because the strength of the material continues to draw visitors.

I basically stopped writing—no, I did stop writing—my own poems as Fishouse grew. Immersed in so much good poetry, I’ve never been more inspired to write, but I’ve never had so little time. That’s it with writers, right? Those who succeed simply make time and those who don’t use it as an excuse. That’s certainly some of my problem. After being away from it for so long, I’m afraid to face a blank page again. And, on top of that, it’s intimidating to be so close to so much good work. I’ve concluded, at this point, that it’s more important for me to work on Fishouse than it is to write my own poems. There’s enough good poetry out there, and there’s enough bad poetry already, too. Maybe one day I’ll feel a burning desire again, but right now, I’d rather spend that time on Fishouse.

However, just doing that is becoming increasingly difficult. As my daily job at Bowdoin includes more and more social media work, it becomes less 9:00-5:00 and more around the clock, seven days a week. I lose many mornings now to day job duties that I didn’t have even just a year or so ago.

So Fishouse and the day job, on top of family life, and outside pursuits, definitely make it a juggling act. But, it’s not juggling chainsaws, and I try to keep that in perspective.

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