Wednesday, October 1, 2014

#86 - Tanya Olson

How often had you sent out Boyishly before it was chosen for publication by YesYes Books in 2013?

I sent that version probably 5 places before it found its home at YesYes. It was a finalist with the National Poetry Series and with Arktoi at Red Hen when YesYes asked to see it; I was thrilled that YesYes wanted to give it a home.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Boyishly? Did it go through any other changes?

It had always been Boyishly, but when I sent it to YesYes, I had changed the title. Their first question was about the title, so it went right back to Boyishly. They were right. The book had been close enough that I felt like some small changes might be the thing needed to get it published. The title wasn’t the thing that needed to change though.

It seems like there’s a possible misconception among some poets who are trying to get their first book published: that they must win a contest. Were you concerned about winning a contest at any point? What advice would you give to poets sending their book out now regarding contests versus open reading periods?

Contests have certainly become the most common way to a book, which seems mostly unfortunate. I feel lucky that I didn’t have to follow that path, even though I did enter some contests, mostly because I felt like I had to. YesYes asked to see the manuscript because one of their editors knew my work. That struck me as a healthier relationship, like they were interested in me as a poet with a whole career instead of just picking a blind manuscript that was their favorite in the stack.

I don’t say any of that to be critical of contest winners or entrants though. I don’t think my poetry path should be prescriptive; I would say that there are other paths to a poetry career besides MFA programs, journals, residencies, and contests. If that’s the path you take, that’s great, but I don’t like the myth that those things are the only way a person can build a career as a poet.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

I started writing in 2000, never thinking about a book. I just liked writing poems and I never thought about them in relationship to each other. In 2010, I started thinking about a book and started looking at all the poems I had, trying to figure out what they had in common, what questions ran through them. That was very hard. Once I had a stack together, I started to play with order and groups; I would put poems in as I wrote new ones that I thought worked and pull old ones out that lost relevance or no longer fit. The order shifted a lot; I physically spread the poems out and walked from one to the other to decide what followed what. Once I had a rough order I would spread them out on the conference table at work and shift them around. The first poem is the only poem I wrote specifically for the book; late in the game I decided I wanted an invocation to begin the text.

With the new book I am working on, I’ve been thinking of it as a book from the start and I’ve been aware of the main idea the book is playing with from the start. In many ways, this seems much easier, but I do worry that this method might be too artificial in some way, that the poems will be too stilted together.

How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?

I appreciated that KMA Sullivan, YesYes’s publisher, said from the beginning that she wanted my input, but her job was to make final decisions. That took a lot of pressure off; I felt free to say what I liked and what I didn’t, but I didn’t have to make any final decisions. Alban Fisher was the designer and I loved the fonts and designs he used. They were perfect.

Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?

KMA sent me some artists links to check out. Eleanor Bennett was one of those and I fell in love with her photographs immediately. KMA contacted her (Eleanor is 17 and lives in England) and sent her some poems; Eleanor graciously offered to take a few pictures for us to look at as possible covers. Kids With Guns (the cover photo) was one of those and both KMA and I thought it was exactly right.. KMA and Alban figured out how to spread it across the cover and how to include the blurbs so the picture could be clean. I had asked about having a textural, non-smooth cover and they made that happen as well.

What about the publication of the actual poems in journals and magazines prior to the book being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

I’m not a big sender-out of poems. If people ask, I’m happy to submit stuff when I have it, but it doesn’t really do much for me. I’m interested in books and in readings much more than being in journals. That’s what helps me write and what helps me revise, know what’s working and what isn’t.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?

Justin Boening was the lead editor for the book and KMA Sullivan also worked a ton with the manuscript. They definitely made it better. We pulled 2 poems out, moved  a couple, and did some line edits. It didn’t feel like too much work but I felt like it made the book much, much better.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?

The book arrived a couple of hours before the launch. There had been a fatal car accident at the head of my road and I was convinced that the FedEx guy wouldn’t be able to get through as the road was closed. Somehow though, he pulled up with the big box that afternoon. It was absolutely a beautiful moment to see them all there. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to see the real object; it was as emotional and as satisfying as I had hoped. My favorite thing is having a book to read from at events. It makes me happy every time.
   
If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”

I have a couple answers.. Sometimes I say it’s a collection of American voices that aren’t typically heard; other times I say it’s about alternative masculinities. They are both true. I always say it is a very American book.

What have you been doing to promote Boyishly, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I’ve been lucky enough to do a fair number of readings. YesYes has been very generous with putting together tours and sponsoring readings. We had a launch in Durham, NC, where I lived at the time, at the Pinhook, a great local music venue. It featured all kinds of local artists- Jim Haverkamp showed his amazing film, When Walt Whitman Was A Little Girl, poet Chris Vitiello gave a reading while dressed as the Pope, the local slam team performed, and shirlette ammons tore the house down; we even had a house band to play all the artists on and off the stage. It was a great way to welcome the book into its Durham community. 

Since then, I’ve done 2 YesYes tours, the first with Ocean Vuong and Keith Leonard in Portland OR, the second with Matt Hart, Phillip B Williams, and Roger Reeves in Oakland and San Francisco. For both, we lived and read together each night for about a week. Both were beautiful experiences. It’s so special to get to hear the same poets several nights in a row, especially when you are spending a lot of time together otherwise. I’ve done lots of other readings in support of the book; one of my favorites was at Dorothea Lasky’s Multifarious Array at Pete’s Candy Store.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

I suppose I knew it already, but books are a slow process. Oprah doesn’t call on Day 2 and even though the thing you have worked on forever and somehow miraculously made exists, the world does not stop to notice. You have to show up and read and bring books and be a professional. Write poems because you love to write poems, not because you think poems will make you famous or popular or loved.

Are there any new writing projects in the works?

I’m working on a new book, right now called Stay. It explores what it feels like when the world and its people seem to be moving further apart. That’s what interests me about America right now: the way way drones and fear and Guantanamo and inequalities make us drift apart, make us feel more alone, less connected. It currently consists of 2 long poems with 10-20 short poems sandwiched in the middle and isn’t nearly as didactic as that description makes it sound.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world? 

Absolutely. I think poets and poetry have real work to do in the world; when that work isn’t done, I think our world gets worse. I’ve never understood why poets aren’t invited on CNN to talk about things like the housing crisis and the World Cup and Flight 103 and drone strikes and everything else that captures our attention.. Our job as poets (I think) is to look into, travel into ideas and report back what we see. If I was Poet Laureate, I’d work on trying to restore the public job of poets; this is also why we need poets that do other things besides teach other poets.

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Tanya Olson lives in Silver Spring, Maryland and is a Lecturer in English at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Her first book, Boyishly, was published by YesYes Books in 2013 and was awarded a 2014 American Book Award. She has always won the Discovery/Boston Review Prize and was named a Lambda Emerging Writers Fellow by the Lambda Literary Foundation.  
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Friday, August 1, 2014

#85 - Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum


How often had you sent out Ghost Gear before it was chosen as a finalist for the 2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize?

Man, I sent it out for a while. I “finished” my first workable draft of Ghost Gear in the winter of 2007/2008, a year and a half after entering the MFA Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. I of course believed it really was finished finished at the time and sent it to fifteen prizes that year and sent to the same fifteen prizes for the next five years until it finally got picked up in the winter of 2012/2013. I revised it every single time it got rejected, and it got better every time. While all the rejection was heartbreaking (the book wasn’t a finalist or honorable mention or anything like that for any of the prizes until the winter it was taken), the process worked. It’s a much better book now than when I first started submitting to prizes, and I am grateful for that. Could it have happened a little sooner? Sure. But that’s life.

I’m now closing in on finishing my second book. I have what I like to call my first “non-shitty” draft, which means it’s not bad but it’s not particularly good. I’m not sure how to proceed. Send it to contests again and revise it every time it gets rejected until, at long last, it gets picked up? Or revise it on my own like crazy for several years and then send it out? The writing and publishing of books is a mysterious craft. I’m excited to see what it teaches me this go-round.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Ghost Gear? Did it go through any other changes?

The backbone of Ghost Gear is five versifications of stories my father told of his childhood (and, in the final two poems, of my childhood and his fatherhood). “Ghost Gear” recounts his near-death by tidal wave while tramell-net fishing in Alaska when he was in college. Ghost gear is a term for dilapidated nets and riggings and other such gear deep-sea fisherman used to discard in the ocean. All that gear drifted down into the ocean and caused all sorts of havoc. It was really big in the news ten years or so ago and the practice was made illegal. This notion of that which we believe we’ve discarded continuing to do its work below us is the controlling metaphor of the book: each poem an artifact of the past and present and future tangled up in the mind and body. I have to give my friend and colleague Curtis Hessel credit for making this connection for me after I told him I had changed the title to The Ever-chamber,” the second father-story poem. That title would work too, but Ghost Gear is infinitely better. I owe him a kiss on the lips for that and a punch in the gut for just about everything else!

It seems like there’s a possible misconception among some poets who are trying to get their first book published: that they must win a contest. Were you concerned about winning a contest at any point? What advice would you give to poets sending their book out now regarding contests versus open reading periods?

I only sent to contests. Contests I really, really wanted to win. Contests that had published awesome books before me, books that taught me how to write poems. I did this because I felt it would give the book a little something to stand on. Who knows if this makes any difference or not. I didn’t actually win the Miller Williams. I got close but not quite. Luckily, Arkansas publishes the Miller Williams Finalists as well. I haven’t noticed that the contest makes any difference but being able to say I was published by the University of Arkansas Press clearly makes a difference. So here’s what I can offer: send your book to presses who have published books you love. Contests. Open submissions. Whatever it takes, it’s the press that makes the difference. I suppose that if I’d won the National Poetry Series, I might see things a little differently. But there are only a few prizes out there for first books (the Miller Williams is an open prize) anyone really cares about, and Ghost Gear is getting out there because I’m putting the work in and because it was published by an established and beloved press, not because it almost won a prize.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

I just went back in my files. There are 97 drafts of Ghost Gear. I didn’t realize it was that many. Each was completed after the book was rejected, and I often revised more than once between rejections. Sometimes it looks fairly similar; sometimes it looks radically different. The poems themselves “look” more or less the same on the page, but the lines themselves are pretty radically different every five drafts or so, and the order of the poems is all over the place. I started chronological, then played with themes, then put the longest poem at the opening of the book and then moved it back to the end. “Singing” was always the first poem. “Ghost Gear” was always the second, third, or fourth, but everything after that was up for grabs it appears. The greatest amount of revision is in the poems themselves. Boy did they get better over time. I honestly can’t recall what it was like putting the book together that much. I remember swimming in the dark a lot. I sort of did it with a blindfold on. Sure, I had some idea of how the poems worked together, but I don’t think that became clear until two or three years after that initial draft. I had the backbone of the book in the father-story poems, thank goodness, and placed all the other poems around that backbone in an almost infinite shuffle. I also remember having a lot of help from Judy Jordan and from friends at my MFA like Jenna Bazzell, Martin Call, and Alexander Lumans. I owe them more than I can ever repay. I think understanding how to put a book together is probably a life-long pursuit for someone like me. I am at all times perplexed by…virtually everything around me. That’s why I write poems I think, to try to understand this life and the things in it a little better. I think I have a better grasp of how my second book works. Maybe the third will be a little easier, but I don’t put too much pressure on myself in that regard. I trust the process and just stumble forward and backward and in circles from there until things start to make sense. I think the process of assembling Ghost Gear was more the product of rejection than knowing what the hell I was doing and not know, this may sound strange, what I wanted to do. In the end, I settled on a more or less chronological structure. There’s a story told via the arc of the book that isn’t told in the poems themselves and people are catching on to it. But damn it took a long, long time to find that arc.

How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?

I was lucky enough to be given almost 100% control of the cover, which is beyond perfect. If you’ve read the book, you know the cover is exactly what the book is about. It’s an original piece of art I commission from Siolo Thompson, an artist out of Seattle who was a friend of a friend at the time. When I contacted her with the request for the cover, she asked me to send her three poems. I sent “Singing,” “Ghost Gear,” and “The Ever-Chamber,” and the cover, more-or-less as is, was what she sent back. I was just blown away. How someone I didn’t even know could read those poems and come up with that cover seemed impossible, but I think it’s a testament to the words and to her skill as an artist and reader. I couldn’t be happier with it. As for all the other design aspects, I had no input and really didn’t want to interfere with the good folks at Arkansas. It was the right move. They made a beautiful, flawless book.

What about the publication of the actual poems in journals and magazines prior to the book being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

Nah. I just wanted people to read my shit and sent out like crazy until all the poems were taken. I didn’t feel the need to publish the entire book in order to get it published. That’s the nice thing about prizes: most of that info is omitted from your submission. Some of the prizes do require this information. While I respect the presses that do, that doesn’t make much sense to me.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?

I went back and forth with my editor, Enid Shomer, quite a bit on the final poem, “First Catch,” but the rest of the book was pretty easy to finalize. She has a great eye, and most of her suggestions made perfect sense, including cutting a monstrous poem that I wrote for the second book but felt compelled (for reasons I’m not entirely sure of) to include in Ghost Gear. The second she said we should cut it, I agreed, which I think helped ease the rest of the process for both of us. I am so very happy Arkansas actually edits their books. Some presses send off finalists to a judge, the judge selects a winner, and they publish that book without any further editing and even without copy-editing/proofreading. This is obviously a bad idea. I think I probably would have hired an outside editor to look at Ghost Gear if it were selected for a prize sans editor.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?

I remember that entire day. It was long as all hell. I knew the book was incoming on a UPS truck but had no idea when it would arrive, so I employed a few friends to distract me, hopping from bar to bar in my current home place of Denver, Colorado. When my designer texted me “Did you see the book yet?” and I texted back, “I’m waiting for it to arrive.” and he replied, “It’s waiting for you at your door,” I left the bar without paying the tab or telling my friends and raced for home.

When I got home, I took my time opening the slim vanilla envelope only to find the book wrapped in paper like a gift. I took even more time opening it from there. When it finally emerged from the packaging, I didn’t cry like I expected. I just held it and thanked it for coming and apologized to it for not making it sooner.

Then I went back out to show it to my friends who were waiting for me at the bar. Then I cried, right there in the middle of an NBA game, and received a lot of pats on the backs and lots of booze from lost of people I didn’t know and a few I did. There are two days in my life I’d go to war for: meeting my wife in a dive bar and meeting Ghost Gear for the first time.
   
If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”

Ghost Gear is a book about survival. The father-story poems tell the story of my father’s rural survival while the rest of the poems tell the story of my more urban survival. I grew up in a very rough neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ve got matching scars underneath the fur of each eyebrow and countless scars on my knuckles from all the fights I was in as a kid. My dad’s scars include rope burns from the fishing nets in “Ghost Gear” and a burn on his knee from a forest fire he fought with his brother in Oregon. The book is about how we earn such scars and how they make us who we are. It’s a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age book of tall tales that are often true but are more true on an emotional scale than a factual one. Based on actual events but not factual in every little detail. You know…big fish stories. I suppose most first books are like this. But I really don’t care about doing something new; I care about being original in my own right. I wrote Ghost Gear. Not someone else. If it sounds like other books, I wear that as a badge of honor. It is definitely doing things in its own way, and I think there are people out there who see that.

What have you been doing to promote Ghost Gear, and what have those experiences been like for you?

Lord, what haven’t I been doing? I’ve been on a surprisingly large book tour since the book came out. Something like 35 readings in ten states so far. I really didn’t see that coming, but I work cheap, and I’m excited to visit classrooms and work with poets of all shapes and sizes and to share my work with people wherever they’ll have me. I’ve also work with quite a few writers as an editor and publisher and, thus, have relationships with writers all over the place who I think are excited for me and the book.

My first reading from the book was at AWP on the day the book was technically released. Afterward, at the book signing, I gave away buttons with either an image of the cover or an image of a badass unicorn on it. Most people took the unicorn button! It was a joke, of course, and people though it was fun and picked up a copy o the book as well. Who knew?

I also threw a big ass book release party with an open bar at a swanky art gallery where I live in Denver on my own dime and am throwing a release party in my hometown of Nashville in mid July at Parnassus Books, the only independently owned bookstore in Nashville that exclusively sells new books.

If someone asks me to do an interview (thank you, Keith!) or a reading or a radio show or a workshop, I always say yes, but I never try to “sell” or promote the book. I just share my excitement about it and finally having something to show for all this work I’ve been doing since, hell, virtually since puberty.

I’ve been writing poems since I was 13 years old and turned 33 a month after the book came out. It took 20 years to make this thing. 20 years. That’s a lifetime for most species on this planet, and many people never realize their dreams. I get really emotional when I think about that. For a long time there I was terrified I’d never publish a book, and I think I had good reason to fear this. Now that it’s happened, that’s all I really care about: it happened and now I’m having fun with it, which naturally translates into my promoting the book. I have a ton of energy, I love to travel and meet new people, my wife is awesome, and I love, love, love to talk about poetry, be it mine or anyone else’s, so this is really the best time in my life. I’m having a great time.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

Honestly I got great advice the entire time. Countless people have been in my ear for years: poets, fiction writers, carpenters, chefs, politicians, family members, people I meet on the light rail, students, friends, voiceovers, Kevin Garnett…the list goes on an on. I believe that anyone doing good work is an artist and actively seek out artists every single second of my waking life, even if I never actually meet these people, even if I just see them in a movie or dunking a basketball. The message is always the same: WORK. Don’t talk. Work. Talk ONLY when you work—not if you work, when you work. If you put the work in, if you’re persistent, if you don’t give up, you will get there.

That said, here’s what I’ll say: Learn to take a break. You have time. Most people don’t just up and die out of nowhere. Statistically, most of us live long lives. I overworked in grad school. I literally wrote every weekday for three years. It was too much. I should have listened to my mentors who said I needed to breathe, that my brain needed oxygen, that my heart and soul needed a vacation every few months. Now that I have a book out and another almost finished (again, whatever the hell that means), I finally feel that I have time to, you know, not write. This is not sacrilege; this is common sense. I get a little tired of writers saying you have to write everyday to be a writer. That’s kind of like fighting fire with a bazooka. The sentiment is fine, but the reality isn’t quite there. Taking time not to write doesn’t mean I’m not writing. Of course not! I have to write to feed my body and soul. I write every other day on average, but I’m learning to stop worrying so much about not working, something I wish I’d known more about when I was working like a dog. Sure, it worked, but I can’t prove the book got published because I worked my fingers to the bone. So work hard but don’t work so hard you hate yourself or start gaining weight or have to do drugs to sleep. Listen to your body. Take a break when it demands one and trust the page will speak to you when you come back.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

Anything can.

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Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum’s first book of poems, Ghost Gear, was released in 2014 with the University of Arkansas Press. His anthology, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, was released in 2012; he is series editor of the Floodgate Poetry Series: Three Chapbooks by Three Poets in a Single Volume; and co-editor of Warning! Poems May Be Longer Then They Appear: An Anthology of Long-ish Poems, forthcoming in 2015. Andrew is also a freelance editor, Founder and Managing Editor of PoemoftheWeek.org, Acquisitions Editor for Upper Rubber Boot Books, Contributing Editor for Southern Indiana Review, and teaches college writing in Denver, CO. Andrew's work recently appears or is forthcoming in journals such as The Writer's Chronicle, Blackbird, Glimmer Train, InsideHigherEd.com, and Missouri Review. Read his work at AndrewMK.com.
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#84 - Tyler Mills

How often had you sent out Tongue Lyre before it was chosen for the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award from Southern Illinois University Press?

I sent the manuscript to a few presses and contests each year after I completed my MFA in 2008. The manuscript wasn’t ready to be a book that first year, or even the second, but increasing its readership in this way helped me think about what it meant for the individual poems to become a book as I continued to revise them. I gradually cut and added poems, clarified the language, and re-ordered areas of the manuscript between 2008 and 2011.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Tongue Lyre? Did it go through any other changes?

Initially, the manuscript was called Tongue. Jon Tribble suggested that I might think about adding a second word to the title: we were phone conferencing about edits and brainstorming possibilities, and “lyre” was the winner. (One of the poems in the book is called “Cleaning Out the Lyre.”)

It seems like there’s a possible misconception among some poets who are trying to get their first book published: that they must win a contest. Were you concerned about winning a contest at any point? What advice would you give to poets sending their book out now regarding contests versus open reading periods?

When I first began sending out the manuscript that became Tongue Lyre, I didn’t know all that much about the publishing industry for poetry. I sent individual poems out to journals that my university library had in their periodicals room, and I read calls for submissions in the Writer’s Chronicle for contests. I learned as I read, and I researched presses that published books I enjoyed spending time with. But I wasn’t as hooked into “the scene” as many MFA students seem to be now. I didn’t know about many other ways of having a first manuscript picked up other than through a prize, since most of the publisher’s calls for first books that I was seeing at the time were linked with first-book contests.

What advice would I give poets sending out their book now?

I’ve recently screened poetry manuscripts for a national prize, and it has been interesting being on the other side of the table. It made me think of the post-MFA me, and the manuscript I was circulating a bit too early at the time. I suppose on the one hand, I want to tell poets to send their book to as many places as possible. But on the other hand, I would also advise poets to ask themselves: “Is this manuscript really ready to be a book, or do I just really want it to be one?” Many of the manuscripts I screened were interesting and demonstrated a lot of skill, but as a whole, they weren’t coming together as a book quite yet. There is no prescription for when a book “is finished”: each book is different. But I would advise poets not to spend money on the contest fee unless they absolutely, honestly believe the manuscript is ready to be a book. That means making sure that on your end you have done all you can to make the manuscript read as a finished whole. I would also say that while Facebook can be a great way to connect with people and learn about news, I would warn poets not to let it trap them into rushing their work. Social networks can be great, but they can also exert a pressure to produce, as though you have to keep up. It’s important to look inward not get swept up in it.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

Countless, obsessive revisions. I mean that. I lost count. Tongue Lyre builds off the structure of the Odyssey, which is a frame narrative. It drove me crazy—a good kind of crazy—figuring out how to incorporate that structure into the arc of my book. I re-arranged the poems many, many times. And the individual poems? Some have been through 40 revisions. Some many more. I have boxes of old notebooks and papers, and I recycled some of the preliminary hard copies of the manuscript recently because I just can’t hold onto all of that paper anymore.

How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?

The press did a beautiful job with the book. I suggested some cover images, and some were suggested to me, and the designer did an amazing thing with the image we decided on.

What about the publication of the actual poems in journals and magazines prior to the book being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

Poets should stop worrying about this. It seems like there’s a mentality that once all the poems are taken, the book is “done.” Even if every single poem in a manuscript is published, that does not mean that a poet’s book is finished—no matter where all these poems have been taken. Think of a book like a giant poem. Ask yourself, “What does my giant poem want to be? How is it holding together, as a giant poem?”

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?

My first inclination after Tongue Lyre was taken was to re-do the whole thing. I actually ripped the manuscript apart and spent an entire weekend rewriting it. The result? A terrible, terrible draft. I never sent that version to the press (I doubt they would have accepted it). I think that because I felt like a younger artist-“me” was behind the earliest drafts of some of the poems, I thought I had to make the project match the artist-“me” that answered the phone the day Jon called me with the wonderful news. But both “me’s” are not all that different, I’ve come to realize.

I ended up tweaking minor things in the manuscript before sending it to Jon, and then Jon and I talked about a range of edits to the poems that made a huge difference, but that were akin to taking a tiny brush to a painting to clean off the surface rather than soaking a rag in turpentine and wiping the canvas down with it.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
  
It was surreal. And amazing. I was very happy: I couldn’t believe it existed. But it was also a little weird, seeing a box of reproductions of the thing that I felt like I made only one of.

If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”

I would say it is a book-length sequence that gives voice to the myth of Philomela, whose tongue was cut from her mouth after she was raped. But it is also a book about representation in art and music that was deeply influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses. (An Odyssey series of poems threads throughout the book.) 

What have you been doing to promote Tongue Lyre, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I’ve been reading from it a fair bit, in Chicago where I live (at Danny’s and the Dollhouse, for instance) and also in other cities and towns (the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD; the AWP Bookfair in Boston, MA; the Stadler Center in Lewisburg, PA; Bates College in Lewiston, ME; the Monsters of Poetry Reading Series in Madison, WI; the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, TN; the Women Write Resistance AWP Off-Site in Seattle, WA; the Split This Rock festival in Washington, DC, among others). Each reading is very different. The audience brings its own energy to the space. It doesn’t matter if two people show up or if the room is full: I try to think about how I can make the poems come to life for the people in the room each time I read.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

Not to worry so much before giving a reading. I can get pretty anxious about it the day of. And also that things like this—this interview—take time. Once the book is in the world, a lot more of your time will be dedicated to talking about it in a public way. It’s energizing, and an honor. But it does take time.

Are there any new writing projects in the works?

I’m working on my next manuscript right now. I don’t want to say anything more about it at the moment and risk jinxing it. The manuscript is similar to Tongue Lyre in some ways, but in others it is very, very different.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

Yes. When I’m 85, I might be able to start answering this question... 

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Tyler Mills is the author of Tongue Lyre, winner of the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award (SIU Press 2013). Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, The Believer, Poetry, and Boston Review, and her essays have appeared or is forthcoming in The Robert Frost Review and The Writer's Chronicle. She has been the recipeient of work-study scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the Vermont Studio Center, and she is editor-in-chief of The Account: A Journal of Poetry, Prose, and Thought. She lives in Chicago, where she is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

#83 - Lynn Melnick

How often had you sent out If I Should Say I Have Hope before YesYes Books chose it for publication in 2012?

I think I sent it out kind of occasionally for a few years. It was never anything I focused on or thought enough about so I don’t remember exactly. I was lucky that YesYes asked to see my manuscript, because I suck at this kind of stuff.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been If I Should Say I Have Hope? Did it go through any other changes?

It was for a while When California Arrives It Lasts All Year, which I still love, but the title was one of the few things my editor, Katherine Sullivan at YesYes, wanted to change about the book, and I get it. If I Should Say I Have Hope encompasses more of what the book is.

It seems like there’s a possible misconception among some poets who are trying to get their first book published: that they must win a contest. Were you concerned about winning a contest at any point? What advice would you give to poets sending their book out now regarding contests versus open reading periods?

Those contests are a crapshoot, it seems. There are a hundred billion poets in the United States! I would advise poets to send to presses whose books they admire. I think one nice thing about going directly with a press is that you have more of chance that they’ll publish your second book, should there be one. A lot of contests are a one-off.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

Oh gosh, I don’t know. I’m a slow-as-fuck writer and obsessive reviser of each poem. So it’s not like I had to choose which poem would go in a manuscript. They pretty much all did.

How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?

I’m a terribly un-visual person. My editor said to me, when we were first discussing the book, something like “I’m sure you’ve been thinking for years what your book cover would look like.” And I was embarrassed because I hadn’t at all. But YesYes’ designer, Alban Fischer, is a freaking wizard of book design and he made my book an astonishing beauty.

Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?

Yes. I decided I wanted an image of Los Angeles, of a certain kind of Los Angeles, but I just didn’t know what image exactly. I crowd-sourced my LA and art-world friends and I got so many amazing suggestions. My friend Merrill Feitell, who is a fiction writer, went to school with someone who is friends with the artist Zoe Crosher, and that’s how I came across her work. When I saw her photo series “Out the Window (LAX),” I stopped breathing. The image I finally went with “The LAX Best Western Suites, 2003” is exactly where my book lives, where my mind lives. I’m eternally grateful to Zoe Crosher for allowing us to use her work on the cover.

What about the publication of the actual poems in journals and magazines prior to the book being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

Ha, no, that would be so nerve-wracking for me, to think so methodically about publication strategy, although it’s impressive, those who do. I was also very fortunate that most of the poems had been taken by journals over the years before YesYes got in touch with me, so I guess I didn’t have to think about it, really. Then again, it took me about a decade and a half to finish my book and let it go, so there’s that.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?

I changed the title, as I mentioned, and I cut one poem that Katherine didn’t care for. I was only keeping it in there because it had hot pants in it. So I wrote another poem with hot pants in it, along with two other poems for the last section. Katherine felt I should get a little more hopeful toward the end of the book, and I tried. I also got the courage to remove a poem that I loved that just wasn’t right for the book. It was an elegy. The poem still exists online though.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?

It was also the day of my book party and so suddenly I was in a room with my book and over 100 people, which was a mindfuck in so many ways.
   
If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”

Someone would have to strike up a conversation with me, I’m kind of shy. If I were to answer that question I guess I would say “love, sex, violence, death, and California.”

What have you been doing to promote If I Should Say I Have Hope, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I’ve been doing my best. I didn’t post on social media when my book was accepted for publication or came out for sale, and I suppose I should have but I was bashful. But I’ve gotten several nice reviews in nice places and I did a shit ton of readings in NY and also California and a few other places and I’ve been getting slowly better at advocating for myself and my work.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

“You will open yourself up to more personal scrutiny than you thought possible.” I think maybe it’s because of my subject matter, but I get a lot of trolls who get turned on by my book and/or seriously angry about it. Also people feel like they can ask you personal questions during Q&As, like they want to know why you look so sweet but you write about fucking and drugs so much. But, you know, this other weird thing happened, sort of the opposite. I was always so worried about feeling exposed, and I certainly feel raw and anxious about being public in any way, but then I realized that the sky didn’t fall in when my book came out, that I can write about certain things and put them out there and keep going. So my new poems are even more dark and explicit, I think.

Are there any new writing projects in the works?

I’ve been writing a lot of poems, as well as essays and book reviews, and I’m also in the process of revising a novel. Also, a book I co-edited with the poet Brett Fletcher Lauer (whose terrific first book of poems, A Hotel in Belgium, came out last March) called Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation is coming out next spring with Viking.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

“If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?” – Alice Walker

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Lynn Melnick is the author of If I Should Say I Have Hope, named a Top 40 Poetry Book of 2012 by Coldfront Magazine. She is co-editor, with Brett Fletcher Lauer, of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation (Viking, 2015). Recent poems have appeared in The New Republic and A Public Space. She teaches poetry at the 92nd Street Y and works with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. She grew up in Los Angeles and currently lives in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter @LynnMelnick
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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

#82 - Wendy Xu

How often had you sent out You Are Not Dead before it was chosen for publication by Cleveland State University Press as a finalist for the first book competition in 2013?

Unbelievably, CSU Poetry Center was one of the two places I ever sent my book. The other was Wave Books. I dropped those two manuscripts in the mail at the same time, fully prepared for the long road ahead of many more trips to the post office. I got so very lucky.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been You Are Not Dead? Did it go through any other changes?

It went through so many title changes, all of which I kept in chronological order in a word document that I am looking at now. Some funny (very real) highlights are:

STAR VERSUS SIDEWALK
SEVEN HORSES AND THE OCEAN
IN LIEU OF A STUTTERING LOVE LETTER
YELLOW PORCH POEMS
WE ARE BOTH SURE TO DIE

The few weeks before I sent off the manuscript, I would run downstairs almost every day, to knock on my friend Lech's door who lived in the apartment below me, trying out new titles on him. He vetoed so many bad ones, and talked me through other possibilities. Though it is only a matter of time I believe, waiting for a book's correct title to reveal itself to its author. I like to say I had no hand in it. Like letting your kids name themselves.

It seems like there’s a possible misconception among some poets who are trying to get their first book published: that they must win a contest. Were you concerned about winning a contest at any point? What advice would you give to poets sending their book out now regarding contests versus open reading periods?

I guess I was concerned with the possibility of winning a contest, seeing as how I sent to one. The other place I sent was an open reading period. But mostly, no, I don't feel that any aspect of the first-book publication process should be prioritized over giving editors and presses you deeply believe in the opportunity to read your book. Your relationship with the contest ends when the contest ends. Your relationship with that press and publisher/editor is only beginning. When I look in any direction in my apartment, I see Cleveland State University Poetry Center Books. I have loved and admired them for so long. If I could, I would have driven to Cleveland and put my manuscript in Michael Dumanis' trash can, if it meant he might read it. The delivery method shouldn't matter, what matters is the dignity and love with which you're assured your book will be treated.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

Many versions, many evenings of collapsing in and among its pages on my living room floor. Kind eyes of friends. Reminding myself to think less, intuit inter-poem relationships more.

How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?

I was given the opportunity to be as involved or uninvolved as I wanted, which immediately made me feel super comfortable. I do a tiny bit of book arts stuff myself for iO Books, the chapbook micro-press I publish, so I wanted to stay in the loop, but mostly my role was choosing between impossibly beautiful font pairings that Amy Freels (CSU's designer) sent me over email. They made me feel so taken care of, and they let me suggest tweaks and tiny revisions to things that were so-close-to-perfect.

Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?

CSU generously allowed me to entirely choose the cover image, which is a collage by the wonderful Belgian artist Jelle Martens.

A secret is that it also appears on the cover of this beautiful contemporary collage book, Cutting Edges.

What about the publication of the actual poems in journals and magazines prior to the book being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

I mostly told myself I would begin sending out the book when it felt like a unit. A good number of the poems did end up finding homes in journals before that time, but, it was something I (surprisingly) did not overthink.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?

The book went through two full cycles of editing, once for substantive edits, once for grammar. I learned that I have almost never spelled a hyphenated word correctly. I spent a lot of time on the phone with Frank Giampietro, CSU's interim director, pulling the book through the long process. It was amazing. We explored possibilities for almost every single poem, a better word here, a different line break here. The level of detail and attention was unbelievable. In the end, I chose to change or not change things based entirely on my own preference, and being given that kind of agency was really heartening.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?

When the proof arrived in the mail, I cried and touched it a lot. When they handed me a final copy at AWP Boston, I made a series of absurd faces and I remember someone took my picture. It's the worst photo I've ever taken. I was too happy to remember how to smile.
   
How has your life been different since your book came out?

Oof, this question! For a while after it came out, I couldn't write any poems. Then I gave up trying. Then I stopped reading poetry altogether and just read novels for a while. The poems came back though, as they always do. The plainer answer is that I've had the opportunity to give more readings, meet more poets, and just generally "do more poetry things." Publishing a book has also revealed to me a desire to write slower. I feel calm, I feel like plodding along at a different pace.

If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”

This happened to me a few months ago, on my way to Cleveland to read. I said "feelings." Then I felt a little embarrassed, and offered something about "what happened to me when I became displaced and moved somewhere new." They were very satisfied with this second answer.

What have you been doing to promote You Are Not Dead, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I made my best effort to do a lot of readings since the book came out, and make it to things whenever I could. Also the book was taught in a few classes last year at U. of Minnesota, Florida State University, and UMass-Amherst. But that had nothing to do with my efforts, it was all the kindness of other poets and writers. The experience of being tied to a literature-object in the world has been humbling. I won't ever get used to it.

In March I'm finally going on a reading tour, basically a full year after the book was published. It's "promotion" for the book, but it's also my best excuse for getting in a car with my friends Brian Foley and Luke Bloomfield, whose respective books will be out too, and driving around the country seeing faces.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

I wish more people would have forced me to relax about aspects of the book coming out. It's amazing more people didn't hang up on me during that time.

What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?

My language and my poems have been changing, and I'm working on some poems now that might eventually become a thing. They haven't quite taken on thing-ness yet, but, I'm excited about them.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

Yes, always, yes.

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Wendy Xu is the author of You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013) and two chapbooks: The Hero Poems (H_NGM_N) and I Was Not Even Born (Coconut Books), a collaboration with Nick Sturm. Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry, Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, The Volta, Columbia Poetry Review, and widely elsewhere. She co-edits and publishes iO: A Journal of New American Poetry / iO Books, and teaches writing at UMass-Amherst. Find more at http://extrahumanarchitecture.tumblr.com
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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

#81 - Natalie Giarratano

How often had you sent out Leaving Clean before it was chosen for the 2013 Liam Rector First Book Award from Briery Creek Press?

I sent out a first version of Leaving Clean for about a year and a half—to over 30 contests and open submission periods—but didn’t receive so much as a nibble. I knew there was work to be done on the manuscript, so I spent the following year or so revising, reordering and cutting and adding new poems. That later version started to get some attention (three finalist nods) and after another round of 20 or so contests, Leaving Clean won the Liam Rector First Book Prize for Poetry in 2013.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Leaving Clean? Did it go through any other changes?

The title has been through a couple of changes. Dancing near the Surface was first and, though it is a line from a pretty dark poem in the manuscript, I ultimately decided it sounded too light-hearted on its own for the subject matter of the book and for me. I also imagined some editors rolling their eyes after reading that title and never getting to the actual poems. This made me cringe.

I also sent the manuscript out with a bit gloomier title, Almost Washout, which is what the title was when it won the contest. However, the insightful editor at Briery Creek Press, Mary Carroll-Hackett, requested a new title and gave me options from which to choose. I thought Leaving Clean, with that gerund always in action and, therefore, the leaving always and never happening, was the way to go.

It seems like there’s a possible misconception among some poets who are trying to get their first book published: that they must win a contest. Were you concerned about winning a contest at any point? What advice would you give to poets sending their book out now regarding contests versus open reading periods?

I definitely sent out to more contests than open reading periods, but mainly, honestly, because of my ignorance of open reading periods. Any manuscript needs to be sent where it might potentially belong. But my best advice is to admit, to know, that it’s all a crapshoot. Good work or no, it takes that one or handful of readers that dig your work to get your book published. No matter how much work you do in learning presses and others’ work, you can’t absolutely know their evolving architecture and how yours might fit with it.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

Leaving Clean went through three versions before it was selected for publication. It began, essentially, as my MFA thesis and included many short poems that dealt with the grand “I” with which many first books deal. In many ways the final version does deal with what the original did but, I hope, in more complex ways. I think by the final version I had cut ten shorter poems, added two new poems—one of which is eight pages long—and edited the remaining poems and poem order, the latter pretty drastically. This is when it is great to have other writers and/or editors to see what you’re too close to see. My very good friend, Beth Marzoni, helped me put together this final version and was bold enough to suggest cutting so many poems and to suggest which newer poems to add. Without that other set of unflinching eyes, I might not have done what I needed to in order for someone to want to publish this manuscript.

How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.? Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?

The interior design of the book is all Briery Creek Press, but I was totally on board based on the design of previous Liam Rector winners’ books that I had read.

As for the cover, when I signed my contract with the press, I knew I would have a choice of a handful of photographs taken by the students that help run the press. Having worked for a small press while in graduate school, I knew what beautiful work students could do. I ultimately went with the photo that is the cover because it was a bit more abstract and weirder than the other choices yet still works well with the poems.

What about the publication of the actual poems in journals and magazines prior to the book being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

Well, I sent out to all kinds of journals, as I’m sure most poets do. I’d say maybe half of the poems had been published prior to Leaving Clean being accepted for publication, but I never felt pressure to have most or all published. I think for most emerging writers working today that is a rare feat. Maybe some folks just work more diligently at the submission process than I do, though.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?

I did some light editing myself—commas turned into semi-colons, a dash added here or there—but most of the manuscript is in the same shape as it was when I sent it to the contest. The editor did not ask for any changes to the poems or poem order as we went through the editing process, just a new title. I don’t know if this is usual for the press, but it made me feel much better about all of the edits I’d completed for the manuscript over the years.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?

It was unbelievable to see this thing that I’d been working on for, more or less, eight years finally in front of me. Something I had begun to think would not happen at all. I got to share that day with my husband, who knows those eight years well. Even the dog crazy-danced in the kitchen with us.
   
How has your life been different since your book came out?

Oh, you know, I get to pal around and talk shop with James Franco. So there’s that. Which is to say I lie more.

If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”

My initial reaction would probably be “you should read the book,” since what one person gets out of a book is not always what others do, which is one of the things I love most about the reading and writing life. I’m not going to make a lot of friends with that, though, so I might follow up with: often when we fight off the person we don’t want to become, we’re also fighting culture, religion, family, and landscape—all of which can come gunning for you as soon as you turn your back to them.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

Don’t beat yourself up over what you have so little control. Dance. Be willing to let poems or a manuscript go or to work a lot more on them/it. And then dance some more.

What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?

If anything, the publication of Leaving Clean makes me dare to think that perhaps my singular voice might be important to this world and, so, makes me want to keep writing and publishing because it might just matter. I’ve a near-ready-to-send-around second manuscript and have been thinking about a third that might have to do with cities of music during the Civil Rights Movement—a broad idea I had after visiting the National Civil Rights Museum and the STAX Museum on the same day while briefly in Memphis.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

Yes, if even for just a few seconds at a time, yes.

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Originally from small-town Southeast Texas, Natalie Giarratano received her MFA and PhD in creative writing from Western Michigan University. Her first collection of poems, Leaving Clean, won the 2013 Liam Rector First Book Prize in Poetry and was published in June 2013 by Briery Creek Press. Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in Gulf Stream: Poems of the Gulf Coast, Isthmus Review, American Literary Review, Laurel Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among others. D.A. Powell selected her work for inclusion in the 2011 edition of Best New Poets, and she won the 2011 Ann Stanford Poetry Prize from Southern California Review. She co-edits Pilot Light, an online journal of 21st century poetics and criticism, teaches writing at American University, and lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, Zach Green, and their pup, Miles. Find more at
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