Thursday, December 25, 2008

#12 - Mark Wunderlich

How often had you sent out The Anchorage before it was chosen for publication by The University of Massachusetts Press?

The manuscript was in circulation for about three years. I was very eager to have it published—no surprise there—but that eagerness blinded me to some of the manuscript’s flaws. I had an early version of the book which I had worked on as my MFA thesis at Columbia, and I promptly got that into the mail. The first year out, that manuscript became a finalist for the NPS. There is something particularly cruel about that contest in that finalists are notified of their status months in advance. The next many weeks morph into a looming preoccupation with the tedious business of poetry contests. I remember it as a time of wild fantasy and hope—all of it built on an incredibly teetery foundation. I didn’t win, though I learned one of the judges had chosen it as a runner up, and had gone with the more mature writer, thinking (and this may be apocryphal—I was told this all second-hand) that I would have my chance eventually, and the older writer should have her due. I found bitter comfort in that news, and in the next couple years my manuscript got knocked out of that competition early on, which was discouraging. Ultimately it was for the best. That same year I received a fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and I moved to Cape Cod to spend three seasons writing new poems and making the manuscript sharper, smarter and more substantial. The place and those months changed my work and my life and helped me make The Anchorage a better book..

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

The book found its shape rather early on. I had the bones of it in place while I was in graduate school and had it divided into four sections. Lucie Brock-Broido had just arrived at Columbia, and we spent a couple late nights at her kitchen table, smoking, and making decisions about the order of poems. I kept much of that as it stood.

I very much liked the process of assembling the poems into an order. Making a book is its own discrete task. One reads the poems and begins to shape a kind of narrative that exists somewhere above the individual poems. A new life emerges, somehow—one created by the book itself. I saw a new self emerge from it like a twin that was of me, but not me at all. It’s an odd experience, and one I found very heady and engaging.

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

I wanted the poems to be in journals, and the manuscript to find a publisher. I was tremendously ambitious and organized about the whole matter. I funneled all the anxiety about my invisibility in the world of arts and letters into the administrative details of keeping work in circulation. Publishing individual poems was always exciting—it still is. At this point in my career, I’m a little embarrassed by the ambition I had, and by my desire for recognition. I’m more embarrassed of the feelings of loathing I felt at the success of others whom I deemed less talented or deserving. I think competitiveness is a mainstay of the world of writing, and it tends to live a subterranean and nocturnal life, replaced in the public discourse with pieties about the noble pursuit of art. The reality is more complicated, and more painful for most who write. I try to let my students know that the real pleasure—the enduring pleasure of writing— is the act itself. The other great pleasure is in reading and understanding the work of others. The other stuff just makes your soul smaller. How’s that for piety?

The book is in four sections, but the third section is entirely comprised of prose poems. Was it planned like this, or did you see them fitting as a section of the book later in the process?

The prose poems weren’t written as a group, but were added piece by piece while I worked on other poems. When I began to shape the book, it fell into quarters and it made sense to me to keep the prose poems together as a group. I have always loved reading letters, and the letters of writers are one of my favorite sorts of books to read. I thought of that section as a collection of letters—like a pack of them you’d find in a desk drawer. The prose poems were conceived as letters to the Beloved who was a figment and a conflation and a missing body, all at once.

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

The book was so pretty! It was such a beautiful object! The pages had that excellent library smell! The cover was gorgeous! There was no part of it I did not love. I had one hour of pure, uncomplicated happiness. I thought my elementary school librarian would have been so proud. As the day went on, my mood was punctuated by flickers of doubt, until the reality of the situation came crashing down upon me: What had I done? I was utterly unprepared for the day when I got the one thing I wanted more than anything else. And so I took to my bed. I was in a funk for weeks, feeling both exposed and embarrassed by publication.

Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices?

I had one of those rare experiences in that I got just what I wanted for the cover. The image, a photograph of a Roman bronze sculpture of a soldier, was taken by an Italian photographer named Mimo Jodice. As soon as I saw the photograph, I knew it would be perfect. UMass press encouraged me to contact the photographer directly to ask permission, which I did. A friend of mine who spoke Italian wrote to the photographer in my behalf, and a deal was struck. The press had a small sum of money available to pay for the image. When I found out how much it would cost (too much), I wrote a second letter that aimed to both flatter and beg. The photographer’s wife, who managed these affairs, liked the idea of helping a young poet, and so the price was reduced, a slide was packed up and mailed to Amherst and it became the cover.

Before the day you ripped open that box and saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?

The degree and extent to which I anticipated that moment can hardly be fathomed; that state of anticipation was marked by an extraordinary degree of psychological naïveté. In short, I wanted to be (in the small way poets are) famous. How embarrassing it is write that, but it’s true. Granted, I think that urge may have been somewhat less shallow than that which drives people to become contestants on Temptation Island or Fear Factor or The Amazing Race, but not by much. Anyone who writes and publishes has to believe that they are worthy of being heard by more people than can be reached with a simple phone call. A big part of writing is really a narcissistic urge.

How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

Some really lovely things happened as a result of the book being published. I got letters from people who read it and liked it, and were moved to write to me. I did a book signing at the Grolier Bookstore in Cambridge and when I arrived the window of the store was filled with copies of my book—a huge display. I was invited to take part in an arts festival in San Francisco. For the event I was paired in a reading with Adrienne Rich and, in addition to reading my own work, I was asked to introduce her. She is, of course, a poetry rock star, and there were 500 people at the reading to see her, and as the opening band, they heard me too. It was such an honor to share a stage with her and a bit of an out-of-body experience. Each of those things surprised me. I sometimes marvel at the good fortune of all that.

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

I can’t really think of anything that, had it been said to me, I would have had the sense to listen to. Why give anyone advice? Each publication experience is different. I was particularly lucky in that the book got attention. Most first books of poems don’t get a great deal of attention (actually most poetry books, period). The best advice would be to Lower Your Expectations, but who wants to hear that? Why not let someone anticipate good things and hope for the best?

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

The Anchorage was, for a first book (actually for any book of poems) quite widely reviewed. I know writers who make a point of never reading their reviews lest they read something wounding or debilitating. I am not that person. I poured over my reviews, memorized them, practically. There were a couple very nice ones, more mixed-positive reviews and many more rotten ones than I could fathom. There was a tone in several reviews that seemed bent on bringing me down to size, deposing me from whatever cushy, well-funded clusterfuck they imagined I inhabited. I was just a guy in his 20’s who published a book and didn’t have health insurance and was struggling to work and pay rent and have friends and write poems, and I realized that what I had was coveted and resented in the same way I had periodically resented and envied the achievements of others. Although my first reaction to these bad reviews was defensive, I also knew that much of what they said might be true. Every review has a subtext, a position or world view they support, and then there is the text of the thing itself—the intersection of taste and rhetoric. In some way I internalized those reviews and thought about them as I wrote new poems. Instead of stopping me, they helped me. They certainly made me tougher and more resolved.

Your second book, Voluntary Servitude, was published a few years ago, and I’d like to talk a little bit about that. First of all, there seems to be more utilization of white space, and a more highly compressed style of poetry than The Anchorage. Was this a natural progression in the years after The Anchorage, or was there a conscious effort at this compression of language and style for the book?

After publishing The Anchorage I soon hatched the idea of writing a book of poems around An Idea; I decided that what I needed was a project. I started writing these historical poems, poems based on folk tales, and they were just plain bad. Dead on arrival. Zombie poems dug from the grave of my first book. There was no urgency in them—they read like a project. All Haunt and no House. I printed the manuscript out one night, went to sleep, and when I woke and read it in the sober morning light, I knew it was shite. I took the manuscript, walked it down the hall of my apartment building in the Mission District, and chucked it down the garbage chute.

Voluntary Servitude was born, many months later, on the back of a post card I wrote to myself in Provincetown. I had withdrawn there for a month to read, go to the beach and chase boys and one day while writing a postcard, I penned a line that read to me like a line of a poem. I wrote a few more lines and soon the card was full. I wrote my own address on it and mailed it to San Francisco. Over the next few days I wrote more of these, and when I returned home and opened my mailbox, out fell these cards with the fragmented beginnings of poems. Those became the core poems of VS. I saw in these postcards a terseness, a tighter and more compressed line, and I knew that the more declamatory, self-assured voice of The Anchorage had been exterminated. In my early 30’s I found myself marveling at the self-assurance conveyed by those earlier poems. Voluntary Servitude was partly an effort to put that particular unmediated voice to rest, and, if that weren’t quite possible, I at least wanted to complicate matters. I knew also that I wanted the book to move from beginning to end with no pauses or breaks to enact a single gesture.

One of the reasons I’m glad you decided to do an interview was the fact that I haven’t seen any of your work in recent journals or magazines, and I’d like to know if you could shed some light on that. Are you working on a new book?

I am working on a new book and made good progress on it this last summer. My work slowed down when I got a real job. I teach at Bennington College, and though there are many marvelous things about this job, small colleges also demand a great deal from their faculty members. (The whole point of sending your kid to one of these places is to get them lots of individual attention which means demanding a lot from the faculty). I am just now getting my footing and finding time to get my own work done. Also, my partner and I bought an old, deeply messed-up house a few years ago and have become a gay cliché by pouring our energy into its tasteful restoration. That has often been more compelling to me than sitting with my own thoughts and writing. That being said, I’ve got a manuscript nearing completion I’m pretty excited about.

Why haven’t we seen any of these poems in journals or magazines?

These new poems, although not at all in the confessional mode, seem very personal to me. As a consequence I have been rather protective of them. I was in no hurry to have anyone read these poems, and have instead kept them home, not allowed them to date. Some of the poems meditate on ideas of faith and God and I find even typing that here to be a difficult confession. At some point I had a sense that the poems may actually be bad, though I don’t care anymore if they are. I’m compelled by them and want to keep writing them, and maybe someone will want to read them. I have a small group of coming out in Poetry, and others will, with any luck, be on the way soon.

Do you have any additional advice for poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?

I have been a reader and judge for a number of contests, and I can’t stress enough the need to get the reader’s attention from the get-go. A boring first poem is often enough to get your manuscript tossed. A boring second poem almost certainly will. Be audacious. Surprise the reader and whatever you do, don’t think you know what the judge is looking for based on some notion you might have of their taste, as in, “She would never like my work, so I’m not going to send my manuscript.”

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

That depends how you define change. If you are thinking of change in terms of political policy, or inciting riots, or shaping political movements, the answer is no. And thank goodness. Those ideas of change are real, but also pedestrian, common, worldly and as the Quakers used to say, “of the Creature,”—not the province of the imagination. Political change is basically about hard work. It’s dull, often frustrating, relies on absolutes, and you have to have an appetite for it to do it successfully. If by change you also mean small movements of the spirit, or an expansion in one’s mind which tunes it to the possibilities of language and human yearning, if by change you mean bringing the voices of the dead back to life, or being able to imagine someone else’s world or experiences, if by change you mean making the impossible imaginable by rendering it into language, then yes—poetry creates change. The changes it creates are mostly invisible and impossible to measure but they are, in the end, the kinds of changes that make us more expansive, more tenderly human, more capable of love, less lonely, more generous. Any attempts to belittle those kinds of changes, or dismiss them are typically generated by sad, narrow, rigid, bullying minds. Good poetry resists stupidity.

Mark Wunderlich’s first volume of poetry, The Anchorage, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 1999 and received the Lambda Literary Award. His second volume, Voluntary Servitude, was published by Graywolf Press in 1994. He is the recipient of fellowships from Stanford University, the NEA, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and the Amy Lowell Trust. His work has appeared in journals such as the Paris Review, Yale Review, Slate, Poetry, Ploughshares, among others, and his poems have been widely anthologized. He has taught at Stanford and Barnard College and in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, San Francisco State University and Ohio University. As an arts administrator, he served as the Poetry Director of the Napa Valley Writers Conference, and has worked for the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, Poets & Writers, Inc., the University of Arizona Poetry Center and the Literature Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, where he was an Arts Administration Fellow. He is currently teaches literature and writing at Bennington College in Vermont, and lives in New York’s Hudson River Valley.
  • Buy The Anchorage at Amazon
  • Buy Voluntary Servitude at Amazon

#11 - Brian Brodeur

What was the process like assembling Other Latitudes? How many different versions did it go through before it was chosen as the winner of the 2007 Akron Poetry Prize? Had it always been called Other Latitudes or had it gone through different titles?

For better or worse, I revise endlessly. Over the course of four years, Other Latitudes went through about twenty major transmogrifications before it was finally published. If it hadn’t won the Akron Prize, I’d still be tinkering.

After fifty or so duds, I came up with the current title during a month-long residency at Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT. This sounds very romantic, but I was there in winter. At night you’d walk out of your studio and find the air so cold your nose hairs would freeze to the sides of your nostrils.

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

About half of the poems in the book are previously unpublished. But, yes, I’ve certainly experienced the anxiety that many young poets feel about seeing individual poems appear in reputable journals, anthologies, websites, blogs . . . printed on the sides of hot-air balloons, branded into the flanks of show ponies . . .

As I write and submit new work, that anxiety hasn’t diminished. In fact, it may have intensified. There’s also a new anxiety: trying to outdo myself, write better poems than those in my first book.

How much of the book comprised your MFA thesis at George Mason University? It seems now there are more younger poets publishing books that comprised the majority of their creative thesis. Was this the case for you?

Yes and no. About a third of the poems in the book appeared in my MFA thesis, which I finished in August of 2005. The earliest poem in the book was written in 2003, the latest in 2007.

The book is in three sections, with the middle section comprising one poem, “Figure Drawing,” made up of nine sections. Was “Figure Drawing” always in the middle? How did this become the centerpiece of the book?

The idea to use “Figure Drawing” as the centerpiece came from a friend of mine, Sally Keith. In the fall of 2007, she agreed to read a draft of the manuscript and meet me at a bar to discuss it. At that point I felt I had written all of the poems I needed to form a competent manuscript, something I wouldn’t be ashamed to submit for publication, but I didn’t know how to arrange the poems. When Sally made the suggestion of having three sections with a “proem” at the beginning and an epilogue poem at the end, sticking “Figure Drawing” in the middle seemed the most organic way to go.

I always had a group of “core” poems that survived each drastic gutting of the manuscript, poems I considered to be my strongest. Basically, I built the book around them. In an early manifestation, I ordered the work thematically, placing nature poems beside nature poems, family poems beside family poems. But this seemed too simplistic a way to construct a collection of poetry, dishonest in some way, not at all evocative of how I see the world.

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

Joy. Whiskey. Nothing much after that.

Before the day you ripped open that box and saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?


How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

A few strangers have e-mailed me to say they’ve enjoyed the book, which I’ve found intensely gratifying. A book is worthless until a reader connects with it. As Auden said, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Instead, it’s “a way of happening, a mouth.” Poems live within the minds and bodies of sympathetic readers. Discovering notes in my Inbox from people I’ve never met has enabled me to preserve my illusion that the book is actually being read, that it has taken on a life of its own, a life apart from mine.

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

I’ve been giving public readings to support the book, scheduling events in Akron, OH, Salem, MA, Washington, DC, Blacksburg, VA, Cullowhee, NC, among others. Basically, I’ll read wherever I’m asked.

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

What did Eliot say to the young Donald Hall when he asked for advice on living abroad in Oxford? Wear long underwear.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon?

Well, I’m writing, revising, and submitting new work to journals and magazines, hoping that these poems will somehow cohere into a second manuscript. But I have no idea what shape this manuscript would take.

Do you have any additional advice for poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?

Keep a calendar, pay attention to who’s judging particular contests, submit religiously, and don’t forget to write new poems. I should also say that persistence is half the battle. Even a poet of middling talent can publish a book, as long as she or he keeps at it. Whether you think this is encouraging or discouraging, we see it all the time.

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

If more people read poetry and took it seriously, yes, I believe it could, but only on an individual level. I’m thinking of the famous quote from W.C.W.’s “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” For the poet and reader both, poetry is a private act, written in isolation, read alone. Yet love, death, birth, beauty, injustice, sex—all the human facts of the world that link us as a species through language—are only a few examples of “what is found there.”

We should also remember that “Asphodel” is a love poem to Williams’s wife, Flossy, written towards the end of their lives. Like the asphodel, the flower of hell, love becomes the one human force that triumphs over darkness and rises above death. The best poems, for me, share this ambition.

Brian Brodeur is the author of Other Latitudes (2008), winner of the University of Akron Press’s 2007 Akron Poetry Prize, judged by Stephen Dunn, and So the Night Cannot Go on without Us (2007), which won the Fall 2006 White Eagle Coffee Store Press Poetry Chapbook Award. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gettysburg Review, Margie, The Missouri Review, River Styx, and Verse Daily. Brian lives and works in Fairfax, VA.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

#10 - Suzanne Frischkorn

How often had you sent out Lit Windowpane before it was chosen for publication by Main Street Rag Press?

Main Street Rag was the first press I sent Lit Windowpane to and also the only press I sent it to until the day it was accepted
I had to withdraw it from a contest I had entered that morning. An earlier manuscript went out about 24 times and was named a finalist or semi-finalist many times.

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

Initially I found it overwhelming. I had already published several chapbooks and had a lot of work that had never been collected. I had spent many years writing poems and not working towards a book. I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want a collection made of chapbooks. And I knew I wanted a collection that had an arc, but it was very difficult to sort through all that work and find one.

It took about a year to draft the first manuscript. Once I felt confident that it was complete I began to send it out and I was happy when it started placing in contests. I remember the distinct feeling of closure and felt that I had moved on. I was writing new poems, poems that didn’t belong in the manuscript. Eventually the finalist notes began to lose their charm.

I went back to the manuscript and took it apart. Then I put it back together. Up to this point I hadn’t shared the manuscript with anyone since the early draft stage and the thought of sharing it with anyone besides an anonymous reader made me feel nauseous, still I knew I needed an objective viewpoint so I sent it to a friend. His feedback helped everything fall into place. All the new poems I had been writing, the ones where I had “moved on,” are in Lit Windowpane. Now that I look back it’s a little strange to realize that while I was putting together and submitting what I thought would be my first book I was writing what would become my first book.

As for the poems in the original manuscript some of them went on to become the chapbook, American Flamingo, and the others may make an appearance in my next manuscript.

What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Was there a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript, or was the focus primarily on assembling the manuscript without worrying about previous publication?

Credits weren’t a consideration when arranging the manuscript
the book was the main thing.

Often poetry books, first or not, can feel long. There are 47 total pages of poetry in Lit Windowpane. Most contests and open reading periods call for a 48-page minimum. Was there always such a focus on brevity when you assembled the manuscript?

In manuscript form there were 50 pages and during the layout of the book the page count changed. The book felt complete to me at that length, it wasn’t an intentional focus on brevity. My main focus was not to sacrifice the integrity of the book as a book and perhaps that’s where brevity comes in.

Not only that, but it seems like the majority of the poems in the book are very short, yet they don’t feel short. Who are some of your influences, and do you set out to write shorter poems, or do many of poems naturally seem to turn out that way by the end?

Thank you, what a nice compliment. My poems are definitely not long and are most often referred to as spare. Occasionally I try to write against this inclination and make attempts at a more lush, discursive type of poem, but eventually find myself reverting to the shorter poem.

It’s difficult for me to point to a specific influence because I believe everything you read influences the way you write and I read a tremendous amount. Some of the poets that I return to often are Dickinson, Ammons, Stevens, Bishop, and Auden. I also read a lot of contemporary poetry either in book form or in journals.

The book includes no sections—it starts with the first poem and ends with the last poem continuously—rather than multiple sections like a lot of first books. Was it always this way?

Yes. Once I started to assemble Lit Windowpane I discovered that each poem led to the next and felt sections would stop the momentum.

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

All I remember is finding the box of books on the porch, carrying it in, setting it down, and staring at it a lot longer than a normal person would before I finally opened it. I had already seen galleys, but I wasn’t prepared for how lovely the book looked in person. I loved the cover, the way the poems faced each other, the scent of the book’s pages. I walked around for a week, picking the book up, looking at it, and setting it down, over and over.

Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices?

Scott Douglass at MSRP let me pick out the cover art with the understanding that MSRP had the final say. Once I started looking for cover art I quickly realized I didn’t want something too literal, and that I would prefer an illustration rather than a photograph, or a painting. I found one by the artist Bodhi Hill I really liked, but wasn’t quite sure if it was right for the cover. When Scott sought Hill out he found his website and thought there were others in his portfolio that would suit the cover better. I went over to take a look and fell in love with the illustration we selected for the cover. I am really happy with the way it resonates with the poems.

Before the day you ripped open that box and saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?

No. I knew too many poets with first books who had readily and quickly disabused me of that notion. One of my friends said it best, “You publish your book and nothing happens. You’re still the same person.” In retrospect I’m glad I was prepared for nothing to happen.

How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

There have been some surprises. A lot of people have expressed an interest in reviewing the book and there have already been two generous reviews from people I didn’t even know were planning to review it. Verse Daily featured one of the poems and I’ve had requests for more interviews, and invitations to read.

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

I went all out with online promotion: emails, on my blog, and on Facebook. It felt dirty and necessary at once. As a poet publishing with a small press it was important to promote the book as much as possible. I had to do all I could to help MSRP sell the book. I’ll continue to promote the book through readings.

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

Tom Colicchio, one of the judges on Top Chef, often tells the chefs competing “You need to bring it. This is a competition.” I could have used a little of that attitude, and I encourage anyone else sending out a manuscript to take Colicchio’s advice.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon?

I’m not so sure it’s had a difference, although I do find myself returning to my first love, the essay, maybe that’s a difference or maybe that would have happened anyway. I’m also putting together another collection of poems, and working on the New Haven issue I’m editing for LOCUSPOINT.

Do you have any additional advice for first poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?

Remember that you are more than your poems. Do not allow the submission process to turn you into a mass of dejection.

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


In addition to Lit Windowpane, Suzanne Frischkorn is the author of several chapbooks most recently: American Flamingo (MiPOesias Press, 2008) Spring Tide, (Aldrich Museum, 2005) and Red Paper Flower, (Little Poem Press, 2004). Her poems appear in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Ecotone, Indiana Review, MARGIE, Poet Lore, and Conversation Pieces: Poems that Talk to Other Poems, part of the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poet Series (Knopf, 2007). She is the recipient of the Aldrich Poetry Award, and an Artist Fellowship from the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism.

#9 - Susan Settlemyre Williams

Tell us about the structure of Ashes in Midair.

I tried pretty hard not to over-determine the structure, to tell you the truth. I wanted the first and last poems to be “big” poems and to say something about the overall themes, but otherwise, I was looking mostly for a flow from one poem to the next. As it turned out, there is what I hope is a slightly—and only slightly—chronological progression. The first section has more poems relating to childhood and loss of innocence. Parts three and four deal increasingly with adult, with middle-aged, concerns, and coming-of-age issues didn’t seem to fit there. Part three deals with a fair number of emotional crises, and part four begins to view crisis from a spiritual perspective—something that was a surprise to me. The second part, “Kathryn: A Calling,” stands alone; it’s really a sort of novel in ten poems. Because it’s different from the rest of the collection, I didn’t want “Kathryn” to come either first or last. However, the last poem in the preceding (first) section is about a woman who is caught in a hurricane and finds herself flashing back to beatings by a religious fanatic. “Kathryn,” with its storms and apocalyptic angels, seemed to segue from “Hurricane” very naturally.

Has it always been Ashes in Midair or had it gone through different titles?

That’s always been the title. At the beginning, when the manuscript was essentially my master’s thesis, the title was simply taken from one of the stronger poems in the collection. Once I’d settled on “ashes in midair” for the title, the phrase acquired a life of its own. I found myself using images of temporarily suspended particles—not just ashes, but also soot and dust—in other poems, as a metaphor for mortality and the human condition: We look permanent, but we’re simply held up by forces beyond our control for a very little while. At a later stage, when I was doing a major reorganization of the book, the particles morphed into sparks of light in the last section. Although the poems there are as somber as in the rest of the book, I thought that the images of light allowed the book to end on a more hopeful note.

Many of the poems in Ashes in Midair seem to be autobiographical. How hard is it to keep poetry separate from autobiography? Or is this something that you think should be embraced?

I have to admit that this question surprised me. For a long time, I hardly wrote about myself at all. Many of the poems in Ashes are persona poems or involve situations from myth or folklore, and, while many of the others are about real people I know or knew and have some basis in actual situations, there’s not much about myself in them except as witness and mourner—certainly very little that’s autobiographical in the sense of “confessional.” And, of course, I lie a lot to make the situation more interesting or more compressed.

When I do write about myself, it’s an effort of will, and it’s done with a lot of misgivings, not so much from fear of giving myself away as from concern that my rather dull life won’t be particularly interesting to anyone else. Aside from embroidery on some childhood incidents in two of the poems in the first section (“About Glass” and “Slug Story”), the most autobiographical poem—and the hardest poem I’ve ever tried to write—is “Dementia Diary,” about my mother’s Alzheimer’s. While everything in that poem did happen in one way or another, the process of writing it also involved a huge amount of selection and reordering of events to try to give it shape as a poem rather than a journal entry.

As for the tension between autobiography and poetry, I think every poet has to work that out for herself or himself. For some, autobiography is their natural subject, and the work comes alive when they address it. (The poems in Lowell’s Life Studies are much more vivid and interesting than his earlier work, for instance.) Other poets seem to have to get beyond their own stories before their work really catches fire. Some of the poets I admire most seem to be able to tap into the emotional core of the personal and translate it to the larger sphere. I’m thinking particularly of Jake Adam York here and Steve Gehrke in his most recent book, Michelangelo’s Seizure.

There are many places in the poems throughout the book where there are either other speakers, or snippets of dialogue, conveyed to the reader by use of italics. Tell us about your use of additional dialogue within the poems and why this is important in your book and poems.

Not only through italics. I also use marginal glosses in the long poem, “Tarocchi Appropriati” to something of the same effect. There isn’t just one motivation for using other voices, although I think it always adds texture to a poem. Sometimes, the italics are there simply to identify another speaker or a voice in the head of the central character. In “Hurricane,” the woman is hearing the violence of the hurricane in the dark and flashing on the voice of the man whose violence she experienced earlier. In the “Kathryn” sequence, italics often signal the voice of the angel who gives the speaker orders.

Elsewhere, those other, often italicized, voices are there to cue the reader that different realities are bumping into each other. In “Black Hole,” I alternate between snippets of an actual newspaper story about the astronomical Perseus Cluster and an internal monologue relating to the myth of Perseus and Medusa. There’s a gravitational pull between the two, but no direct, left-brained connection. Instead, they are talking “at” each other.

In “Tarocchi,” the marginalia allowed me to interject information and associations involving the tarot deck into the primary narrative, about the deaths of three friends, without bogging down that narrative and its formal structure.

I like bringing in these different voices, but I have to admit they make it difficult to read those poems aloud. For some future readings, I’m planning to use a friend to supply that second voice.

I believe I read in an author’s note somewhere that you’re now retired from practicing law. Had you always been writing poetry before pursuing your MFA a few years ago? What made you decide to eventually earn an MFA in poetry?

You’re really asking for my entire autobiography with this question. I was an undergraduate English major, with a concentration in creative writing, at UNC-Greensboro in the mid-1960’s. Randall Jarrell was still alive when I started, and I often saw him walking around campus, but he died before I could take a class with him, to my lasting regret. When I graduated in 1968, there were very few MFA programs anywhere. UNC-G had one, but I thought that I needed a change of scene. The change wound up being marriage and moving to Richmond. I don’t regret a minute of that, but without the discipline and community of a writing program, I eventually stopped writing poetry altogether.

Years later, when my son was in elementary school, I decided to go to law school. After all, law is also all about writing. But when I was in practice, working fifty or sixty hours a week, there was no time even to think about writing poetry. I went into real estate law and wound up as senior real estate attorney for a major retailer. Then I developed chronic, incapacitating migraines. It’s really impossible to draft or negotiate an eighty-page lease when your eyes won’t focus. I eventually had to give up my practice.

Initially as a way to cope with the depression that followed losing my career and becoming isolated by illness, I started writing poetry again. Poetry seemed to operate in parts of the brain that weren’t so affected by the migraines. At first it was therapy pure and simple, but then my undergraduate training kicked in: I wanted to write good poetry. I started reading poetry seriously again, educating myself on what had been going on during those years when my reading was focused on legal research and the occasional bit of brain candy. I began to get published in a few very obscure journals.

Eventually—and this took a very long time—I realized that I needed professional guidance if I was ever to write as well as I wanted to. It does take a long time even to consider entering a graduate program when you’re in your mid-fifties. First I took an undergrad CW class to get my feet wet. I got enough encouragement from that class and enough support from my husband that I went ahead and applied to Virginia Commonwealth University. I’m very glad I did—I learned a lot, and I made friends who have continued to be a source of support and feedback. The program also led me to working with Blackbird, the online journal published by VCU and New Virginia Review, Inc., where I’m book review editor and associate literary editor and where I have learned so much about writing and publishing, and to other literary friendships.

I sometimes say I’m on a twenty-year plan: I graduated from high school in 1964, from law school in 1984, and from the MFA program in 2004. But don’t look for me to become an M.D. in 2024.

Did most of the poems in Ashes in Midair comprise your MFA thesis? How was that different from the finished product of the book?

While Ashes in Midair started life as my MFA thesis, it evolved a lot after that. As a thesis, it represented not just a collection of poems but also a record of the best work I had at done at VCU. Those two purposes aren’t necessarily identical. I wrote a lot while I was in the MFA program, and the poems weren’t cohesive—I had several unrelated themes and motifs among them. In particular, there were some poems that pointed toward the eventual direction of Ashes in Midair—a concern with what I’d almost call “eschatology”— and others with markedly feminist focus. The two trends really didn’t speak to each other in a productive way—not that they couldn’t, of course, simply that I couldn’t find a way to marry them. With the rising count of deaths of friends and family members and health problems of my own, the poems about mortality became more in line with my personal concerns, though I regretted having to cut the others. At any rate, eventually more than one-third of the poems in my thesis dropped out. About half were replaced (fortunately, I had a rather fat thesis), and a few others were drastically rewritten. Of course, in the process, there was a fairly substantial re-shuffling of the poems as well.

How often did you revise the poems from journal publication to book publication?

I’m very serious about revision, and most of the poems had been extensively reworked before appearing in journals. Sometimes, even after that, I’d go back and look at a poem again and realize I still hadn’t gotten it right. The edits to individual poems became less frequent as, over time, my focus shifted to the structure of the entire manuscript. At that stage, it became more a matter of looking at the overall organization and themes and interrogating individual poems, not with an eye to revision but for determining whether they were carrying their weight in the manuscript.

Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices?

It was my choice, and I’m thrilled with it. I had deliberately not picked a cover ahead of time, partly because I knew that some publishers prefer to work with a designer, but mainly because I was afraid I’d jinx myself. I had visions of my mother’s unmarried older sister assembling the hope chest that she never got to use.

When my editor raised the subject, I was stumped at first. I had a fleeting thought that I’d like to use a Quattrocento sculpture I’d seen in a museum in Florence. One of the poems is about that piece, but the poem isn’t one of the crucial poems in the book, and the thought of dealing with permissions from a foreign institution was pretty daunting, given the short turn-around I had.

I’m glad I gave up on that idea quickly because I’m much happier with the ultimate result, which came about through the good offices of Mary Flinn, my friend and my senior editor at Blackbird. Mary is very knowledgeable about art and has close connections with the School of the Arts at VCU. I asked her for recommendations, and she suggested that I take a look at David Freed’s website. David is an internationally known printmaker, now retired from teaching at VCU, and I was familiar with his portraits of poets like Larry Levis and Charles Wright. I hadn’t seen many of his recent landscapes, however. He had some breathtaking pictures on his website, of dark clouds and storms, with leaves and rain blown around by the wind—very appropriate for the imagery in Ashes. I noted several that I thought would work for the cover, ran them past my editor, and phoned David to ask if we could get permission to use one. He was incredibly generous and allowed me my choice in exchange for some complimentary copies of the book. He said, bless him, that he knew poets don’t make any money on their books, and that he would be content with an acknowledgment and the copies, which he planned to give as gifts.

I think David was pleased with the way the publisher used the print, “September—Weather from the West.” I was so delighted that I used my prize money to buy a framed original.

It seems like Ashes in Midair came out fairly quickly after it was chosen for publication for the prize. Was it hard for you to make sure you gathered the artwork and copy-edited the book in this short amount of time, or was it a welcome experience? I ask because for some poets it can take years from acceptance to publication, and it seems like many presses are different in that sense.

Ashes must have set a record for speed of publication. I was notified on November 26, 2007—the Monday after Thanksgiving, and the book appeared on February 1, 2008. The time in between was pretty frantic. My editor and I were emailing and telephoning back and forth several times a day for most of that time. Fortunately, in terms of speed, he didn’t offer too many copy-edits—the biggest was the decision to eliminate one poem—and both of us are very good proofreaders, so we made it. In spite of the haste, I’m very pleased with the finished product. The only typo I’ve found is a phrase in one poem that appears in italics but shouldn’t—evidently a problem with formatting that we didn’t catch, but something that no one else will probably notice. Given that I have some OCD tendencies and am a strong Myers-Briggs “J,” it was probably much easier for me to go through a few weeks of craziness than to wait forever for the book to come out.

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

That day stands out very vividly. My editor wanted the book to come out in time for the Associated Writing Programs annual meeting in New York. Given that the book wasn’t selected until late November, and AWP was scheduled very early, beginning in late January, I didn’t think it was possible, but he and I—and his associates and the printer—kept plugging, and the first few copies were delivered to my editor on February 1, while AWP was still going on. He called to tell me they had come in, but there was a panel presentation by Wom-Po, the listserv for women’s poetry, that I desperately wanted to attend first thing that morning. I’d become very active in Wom-Po and had been looking forward to the opportunity to meet some of the other members face to face. Still, it was all I could do not to jump up and announce that I was giving birth. That’s what it felt like—waiting to hold my baby and count her toes. As soon as the panel wrapped up, I flew out of the room and fought my way through the crowds to the book fair and the Many Mountains Moving table. For the rest of the day, I’d find myself stopping virtual strangers and waving my book at them.

How often had you sent out Ashes in Midair before it was chosen as the winner of the 2007 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Book Prize?

I’m not sure of the count of contests, but I’d been submitting versions of Ashes to contests since the spring of 2004—at a time when, I now realize, it wasn’t ready for serious consideration. Even so, it was a finalist in one fairly well-known competition and a semi-finalist in another in that first batch of submissions, and a very slightly revised version was the runner-up in another contest from that fall, so I was encouraged to keep trying.

Before the day you saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?

I’m too old to have expected an event like this to alter my life in any substantial way. I did very much want the book to be accepted for publication, of course. I guess I saw it as a sort of public validation of the work I’d put into it, maybe even a sense of legitimacy, although I know full well that book publication per se doesn’t confer that. Bad books get published, good books languish. On the other hand, the choice to get an MFA and try to get a book published did change my life in many ways.

How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

In some ways I have felt more relaxed, as if getting published isn’t something I need to tie myself into knots about anymore. I’d tried to learn as much as I could about the publishing process during those three-plus years of waiting, and I didn’t expect miracles. I didn’t expect my publisher to send me on a national promotional tour. I knew Oprah wasn’t waiting for me.

The surprises have all been positive. I’ve had several reviews already, all unexpectedly favorable. Reviews are generally rare with a first book, especially one from a very small press. I was particularly surprised that at least two people who bought Ashes (rather than being sent a review copy) read it and liked it enough to review it on their own initiative. Another reader freelanced an interview that will be appearing early in 2009. And a friend, your predecessor in this first-book project, Kate Greenstreet, has lined up readings for me in New York and New Jersey this coming February. I’m really touched by the generosity of these folks.

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

I got off to a rather rocky start with promotion. I already had a few readings lined up during the spring of 2008, primarily group readings to promote Letters to the World, an anthology that came out of the Wom-Po listserv, and I was able to sell copies of Ashes in Midair at those events. I had other readings planned, though, and had to cancel them because I became suddenly ill in April and wasn’t really functioning again for a couple of months. By that time, I had missed out on most fall reading schedules. Still, I’ve done one local reading and one in DC and have several others planned for winter and spring of 2009.

In the meantime, I’ve collaborated with another poet, Sofia Starnes, in an exchange of short letters about each other’s books. We’re hoping to parlay that quasi-review into publication and some reading gigs.

To my own surprise, I really enjoy doing readings, and I’ve been very fortunate in the poets I’ve read with. It’s been a great opportunity to network with poets and organizers and readers, not just around the question of promoting my book but also in a variety of projects.

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

I don’t go in for a lot of hindsight and might-have-beens. I think I came across the best advice in a Poets & Writers interview with a first-book poet while I was still sending my manuscript out. I can’t remember now who the poet was, but she said that she had schooled herself not to get anxious about contests. Instead, she used the deadlines as a prompt to take a fresh look at her manuscript and make any necessary revisions. I found that process very helpful—I stopped spending all my time obsessing over the manuscript, just gave it a long, hard look every six months or so. It gave me enough distance to be pretty detached about my work.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon?

I wish! So far what I’ve written in the last several months doesn’t suggest any overriding themes. I’m really pretty dissatisfied with what I’ve done lately—and with how little of it there’s been. Right now I’m trying to persuade myself that I need both discipline and patience and that something will come out of that combination.

Do you have any additional advice for poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?

Offering advice always makes me feel like a pompous ass, I’m afraid. My instinct is to say, “Question, be ruthless, revise, re-think.” But I know some poets who ought to be encouraged to leave well enough alone. I want to say, “Have faith, keep sending your manuscript out.” But not everyone has the resources to keep shelling out for reading fees and postage year after year. I suppose that poets ought, at least, to determine very honestly how much they want the book, how much they’re prepared to do and how long they’re prepared to wait to get that publication.

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

Not a question for a cynical recovering lawyer! It’s terribly hard to identify what really creates change in the world—although the recent Presidential election restores my hope that it can happen. But poetry? I have trouble taking too seriously the puffery about “unacknowledged legislators of the world” and people dying “miserably every day for lack of what is found” in poems.

I think it’s a bad idea to start writing with the idea that you will change the world—for one thing, you’re unlikely to get to the second line that way; for another, if you do get past the first line, it will probably turn out to be an abysmal poem. You’ll be thinking too much of yourself as a poet and too little of the work that makes a poem, like John Barth’s wonderful hero Ebenezer Cooke in The Sot-Weed Factor, who decides that he’s a poet without having written a word. It’s only after he’s become thoroughly disillusioned that he produces his epic.

On the other hand, we all know of poems that have changed us as readers. They’re not necessarily good poems or even poems we continue to love, but, when we first encounter them, they wake us up to possibilities we never saw.

How’s that for a lawyerly, “it depends” answer?

Susan Settlemyre Williams
is the author of Ashes in Midair, selected by Yusuf Komunyakaa as the winner of the 2007 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Book Contest (Many Mountains Moving Press, 2008), and a chapbook, Possession (Finishing Line Press, 2007). Her poetry has recently appeared in Mississippi Review, 42opus, Shenandoah, Sycamore Review, and diode, among other journals. Her poem “Lighter” won the 2006 Diner Poetry Contest and was selected for Best New Poets 2006. She is book review editor and associate literary editor of Blackbird and lives in Richmond, Virginia.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

#8 - Jon Pineda

How often had you sent out Birthmark before it was chosen as the winner of the 2003 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award?

At least 30 times, if not more.

Had it always been Birthmark or had it gone through different titles?

Yes, it was titled Bread & Wrestling. (I don’t know what I was thinking.)

As someone who also graduated from VCU with an MFA in poetry, I think a lot of us who came in with each other in my class knew that you were someone who eventually published your “thesis” as your first book. And of course what followed was: “Could we actually do this?” First off, can you talk about the changes from turning in your thesis to its publication in book form?

I had left the program after my second year in the MFA program and was working on the bulk of what would become my thesis. I had also started sending out the manuscript, and I was fortunate that it was getting some attention (and even more fortunate that it was getting rejected…it just wasn’t ready). Once I returned to the program, it came time to turn in the thesis. I put together what I believed represented the start of a collection. After finishing the MFA, I felt a great freedom in generating new work beyond what was included in the thesis. I went back into many of the “finished” poems and found different rhythms at work, broke the lines in different ways. There was a certain amount of irreverence with which I approached the “thesis.” I wanted to tear it apart. Other writers and friends helped me see potential structures for what would become the final version. My wife told me all along that the collection needed to be titled Birthmark, and she was right.

Secondly, I wondered if you could comment on something that I’m paraphrasing from Chase Twitchell: “A thesis is not ready to be published as a first book,” which is something I noticed while looking previously at the former Ausable Press site. Clearly there are more and more former students who eventually publish a first book that was their thesis—not to mention students getting published while they’re still enrolled in a program. What are your thoughts on this, and is it a good or a bad thing that students and recently graduated students are trying so “quickly” to get their first books published? Should more time be allowed for the poetry to become something more “mature”?

It depends on the work itself. If it is engaging and, as a whole, indicates various thematic obsessions and such, I’m not sure what the difference really is between a thesis and a “first” book. And all editors have the final word on acceptance, right? If they don’t want the work, they won’t accept it. So there’s always that closing door. As for the notion of sending out work too soon (or waiting for the work to “mature”), I think it really depends on what the poet is hoping to gain with publication. I definitely have published poems I wish never saw the light of day, but I imagine, as with other writers, I’m not alone in those reservations.

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

I remember my wife calling me at work and telling me a package had arrived from SIU Press. We both knew it was the book (Birthmark). I told her to go ahead and open it. I remember feeling this sense of quiet as I listened to her describe the actual copy. It reminded me of what I suspected would always be the case: our books, in many ways, are never ours to begin with. After I got home, I picked up the copy and carried it around with me, like it was football (I did a couple of Heisman Trophy poses), Linus with his blanket, etc.

Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices?

I’d supplied them with sample pieces from an artist whose work I admire. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out on the overall design side, so we went with a back-up, a sample cover that I had created. They modified it slightly on the final, but it’s still what I was hoping for.

Many poets seem to take their cash prize—if one is offered—and use that to buy more copies of their first books instead of taking just the cash. What did you do, and why? And what advice would you offer others faced with this choice?

I took the cash. I was fortunate in that there were also generous author copies provided as well. If faced with the decision again, I’d still take the cash. How often does a poet get paid for publication, right? I used some of the money to buy a 1966 Plymouth Valiant. After a few years of guilt, though, I ended up donating the car to our local NPR station.

Before the day you ripped open that box and saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?

I’d hoped it would.

How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

Yes, I’ve been invited to give readings at literary festivals and universities and the like. Those experiences were and are great. Every now and then I get a note from someone who has read the book (or attended a reading) and has been affected by the poems. It’s for this last part that I am especially thankful. Those have been surprises, to say the least. As for things that didn’t happen that I thought would, I found there were few reviews overall, but that’s fine. I read any and everywhere I could, and I think that helped in getting exposure for the collection. It definitely helped with sales.

Tell me about The Translator’s Diary, which is your recently published Green Rose Series book from New Issues. Was this a book you were working on with Birthmark or was it started after the aforementioned was published? And how did your writing change from the first to the second book?

I started writing what would become The Translator’s Diary in late-2001. I had already vigorously revised Birthmark, was still doing so, and it was nearing the final shape it would take. Alongside the ending of this first manuscript, I started writing these extremely compressed lyric poems. So many, in fact, that I decided to stop thinking about titles altogether. They were a hindrance at the time. I named every one of these new poems “Coma” (stemming from my obsession with my sister’s coma) and went from there. Every poem was “Coma” and, of course, the growing collection was tentatively titled “Coma.” Very original, I know. At any rate, because I’m always revising to gain interest in drafts, I reached a point where I decided to throw everything away. There were upwards of 80 poems that found their way to the garbage can…a few years worth of writing gone. It was depressing. Out of the experience, though, I did manage to salvage one poem. That is the opening poem for what would become The Translator’s Diary.

What have you done to promote both books, and what have those experiences been like for you?

This second time around has been easier. There has been more interest (in part, because of work I did with Birthmark). Lots of contacts from previous readings, and those transitioned into more readings for the new book.

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

If you have the time, set up readings well in advance so that when the final copy comes out, you’re off and running. Make sure you exhaust all avenues for promotion (looking beyond the traditional literary festival/bookstore reading models). Take yourself seriously. This, after all, is your moment.

Recently I saw your third book, Little Anodynes, as a finalist for a recent contest or two. The title is striking. What are you striving for with this book, and how has your writing continued to change and evolved from The Translator’s Diary?

Little Anodynes feels, to some degree, like a tonal synthesis of Birthmark and The Translator’s Diary. The title, of course, is from Dickinson, whose rhythms informed sections of The Translator’s Diary and carried over into this new book. I think of poems as “little anodynes,” respites in many ways from the world we think we know, the life we think we are living.

I believe you’re also getting a memoir published in the near future? Tell me about that project. How long have you been working on it? What’s it going to be about?

I was extremely fortunate to have attended a creative nonfiction seminar by poet and writer Jim McKean. He’s a colleague of mine in the M.F.A. program at Queens University of Charlotte. Jim had expressed that one could use an image (something that held lots of weight) from which to build a nonfiction manuscript. I was fascinated by this concept, how a single image could fuel the generative process. I immediately left the residency and went to work on my memoir. Three months later, I had a first draft. Amy, my wife, was equally influential in diligently editing the manuscript. Without her insight, the book would be completely different, I’m certain. By the fall, I sent out the book proposal to the University of Nebraska Press, and after sending the draft in its entirety (and undergoing their internal/external review process), they told me they wanted to publish it. I’d sent to them because I had read work they had published, and I admired the lyrical styles a great deal. My book, Sleep in Me, spans my life from the moment before my sister’s tragic accident (something I’ve explored in both published poetry collections) to her death. Running parallel to this story is that of my boyhood and how this accident changed our entire family. I especially wanted humanize my sister post-accident (for nearly five years, she was unable to walk or talk). Gulf Coast is publishing an essay from the book in an upcoming 2009 issue, and I’m really excited about that.

Poets often seem to write memoirs, and though they’re not necessarily inseparable, it’s a style that many poets eventually gravitate toward beyond poetry. Why do you think this is?

The allure of memory, the vast landscape that prose offers on the surface, I suppose. I would say, too, my experience writing the memoir was a reaction to having worked with compression in poems for so long.

Do you have any additional advice for first poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?

Send to places where you admire the work they’ve already published, where you’ve seen the finished product. That way, once you’re selected, you’ll have no reservations going into the process of relinquishing the book for production.

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

Yes, and I hope I always will.

Jon Pineda is the author of two poetry collections: The Translator's Diary (New Issues, 2008), winner of the Green Rose Prize, and Birthmark (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), winner of the Crab Orchard Award Series Open Competition. His memoir, Sleep in Me, is forthcoming in 2010 from the University of Nebraska Press . The recipient of a Virginia Commission for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship, he teaches in the M.F.A. program at Queens University o f Charlotte. In 2009, he will also join the faculty at the Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop, held at Hollins University. His website is


#7 - Morgan Lucas Schuldt

How often had you sent out Verge prior to its acceptance by Parlor Press: Free Verse Editions? And was this a contest or an open reading period?

I had extraordinary luck publishing Verge. Like everyone else, I’d heard the horror stories—years of close calls and wasted entry fees. It’s what I was expecting, and what I was prepared to endure. Parlor Press’s new poetry imprint Free Verse Editions—which I discovered soon after the publication of Adam Clay’s The Wash—was soliciting manuscripts as part of an open reading period. I mailed off my manuscript and five months later I received an email congratulating me that it would be published the following fall. Parlor was only the second press I’d mailed the manuscript to. The first was Iowa, but I never heard back from them.

What do you remember about the day you first saw your finished book?

After Parlor accepted Verge, nearly a year passed before the production process ramped up, but it took far less time for the joy I was feeling to turn to restlessness. One reason for this was how I continued to think of my manuscript as incomplete right up to the day I mailed off the final galleys. During the lull between acceptance and publication I continued tweaking individual poems, sometimes writing new ones to replace the few truly awful pieces I still hadn’t purged from the collection, or else re-imagining the placement of particular poems, etc. And that’s fine because once production gets going the work we do as poets quickly transitions into the work of the secretary and the copy-editor. Deciding on font types and sizes; responding to formatting questions; following up on typographical changes; writing promotional copy for the book—some people, I suspect, find the whole process an intimate experience, one more way of relating to the physicality of the book itself, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt more removed from my own work than as I watched my poems assume their final configurations on the page. Which is why by the time the book was in my hands what I felt most was relief. Relief that there was nothing more I could do for the poems. Or to them. It really wasn’t until months later—months of carrying the book around, months of seeing it mixed up among the other books in my bag—that (holy shit!) the awe of what I’d done finally set in.

Did you suggest the cover design? Were you offered choices?

The spareness of the cover—red text set against a slightly off-white background, with minimal typographical flourish, and no art of any kind—that was my idea. But it wasn't my first. David Blakesley—the one-man show over at Parlor, and as cooperative an editor as I can imagine working with—was generous enough to give me near-total control over the cover’s design. That was exciting because for some time I'd had in mind using a cropped portion of Francis Bacon’s triptych of Lucian Freud. It’s a beautiful painting—three panels, each a portrait of Lucian done in deep, meaty reds. In the particular panel I wanted to use there’s a single, conspicuous brush stroke swiping away nearly half the face. There’s something about the rawness of the reds and the willfulness of that brush stroke that really appealed to me. The figurative is literally being de-faced, violated. But as production schedules intersected with the permissions process, it became increasingly clear that for legal reasons I wasn’t going to be able to use that painting. In retrospect, it's just as well. That initial cover, while stark and beautiful and vivid, would have been too on the nose aesthetically. There’s enough violence happening on the level of language in Verge that to try to make the aesthetic conduct of the poems correspond directly with the aesthetics of the book’s exterior would probably have been to over-determine the reader’s experience. Instead, what I tried to do was to come at the cover from the complete opposite direction, from a perspective of severe minimalism, and in a way that—hopefully—allows for a more evocative experience.

Many poets seem to take their cash prize—if one is offered—in their first books instead of the cash. Since yours was chosen in an open reading period, did you have to become more judicious when sending out copies for press and reviews?

Parlor Press was great about review copies. As with most presses, I suspect, prior to the book going to print I was asked to complete a marketing survey and to provide the press with a list of print and online publications where I wanted to see copies of Verge sent for potential review. As for myself, I think I’ve been anything but judicious when it comes to getting the book out there. Once you realize you’ll rarely, if ever, make money selling your poetry, you’ll want to do everything short of giving your book away.

Before you saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it? How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

To answer this question I have to mention a little bit about what else was going on the day the book was accepted, because it has real implications for everything I believe about poetry. The day Parlor accepted Verge I was admitted to the hospital for complications related to Cystic Fibrosis. I’d come down with a pretty bad case of pleurisy, which, if you’re not familiar, is something that happens when the lungs become so infected they become inflamed and swell and rub against the inner walls of the rib cage. Think sandpaper against sandpaper and you have some idea how painful breathing can be under those circumstances. So if you’re asking whether or not I thought a book would change this aspect of my life, no, but it certainly made the weeks of recovery that followed more tolerable. There’s a whole lot of daily, deadening routine involved with taking care of a disease like Cystic Fibrosis, and from the start I’ve always tried to use whatever ambitions I have as a means of distracting myself from that reality. Most, if not all, of Verge was written through a half-dozen hospitalizations, and every poem out of a real fear that I’d enjoy neither the time nor the health to finish the book, let alone see it through to publication. And when, finally, I did publish Verge there was this whole other set of emotions to contend with, including one particular variety of panic that left me convinced that, now that the book was finished, I’d no longer be able to maintain the same level of intensity in subsequent books. Maybe Verge was it, I thought, maybe I’d written all the poems I needed to write. In retrospect, an utterly ridiculous feeling, but one that seemed absolutely plausible at the time.

As for whether publishing a first book has changed my writing life any, no, not in any immediate, tangible way. Journals still reject my poems more often than they accept them, and I still have to shop projects around to potential publishers. Editors aren’t breaking down doors to publish my work, and even if they were, I’m such a slow writer I’m not sure I’d have anything new to give them. Still, I’ve been fortunate (and heartened) to hear from strangers who’ve read Verge and taken the time to write and tell me how much they’ve enjoyed it. I love that, and so I suppose among these people, and the few poet-friends I regularly keep in touch with, there’s a little more credibility and good will circulating out there. However, if there are changes that come with putting out a first book, they’ve got to amount to more than a running up of the number of journals you’re publishing in. When you finally see your book taking up a quarter inch of bookshelf between Scalapino and Schuyler, it’s humbling to realize how high the stakes really are. It’s one thing to obsess a first book into being, but entirely another to repeat the process with even greater intensity and with an awareness of (and resistance to) the contentment that inevitably comes with commanding a particular style. It’s the realization that, for better or for worse, you’re writing yourself into a historical record, so you better damn well make it count. Better figure out how to come at your obsessions from more than one direction, or else in subsequent books risk becoming inimitable even to yourself.

What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you? I know recently you drove across the country for a few readings. What was that trip like, and did you find it worth it in the end once you went back home?

The drive back east in May was more an excuse to do a few readings than it ever was a case of a few strung-together reading dates necessitating a cross-country drive. Ever since making the move from Virginia to Tucson back in 2000, I’d wanted to make that drive again. The trip you’re referring to was one in which, over the course of five days, I read with friends at the University of Cincinnati, at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn, for the i.e. reading series in Baltimore, and at Chop Suey Books in Richmond. To friends and family who asked, I called it a reading tour, but four dates really pales in comparison to the kinds of reading swings that can be put together. The relation of bard to band isn't lost on my generation. Some poets put together week after week of readings, but you have to be comfortable with self-promotion and be willing physically to tolerate the grind of keeping something like that going. Frankly, I’ve never been comfortable in sales, especially when they come at the expense of my health. But even if I were, there’s something about reading too much that, for me at least, takes the joy out of the whole experience. And that’s to my detriment because, ultimately, readings mean exposure, and exposure can translate to book sales, and book sales mean a following of sorts. Reading remains the most personal way for a poet to keep his name in circulation, his books in everyone’s hands, and his work where it should be—in everyone’s ears. Too much exposure, though, and you risk your ambition shrilling into something else, the readings themselves into a kind of self-enthralled stand-up act. Careers in and around Po-biz can thrive on that kind of celebrity, and I suspect some poems can endure that way too, at least in the short run. But I have to believe there’s more to poetry than that. For me, it means cultivating a legacy among friends. It means advocacy on behalf of others. But also reading where and when the opportunities present themselves, getting the book into the hands of as many readers, reviewers and friends as possible, advancing one’s own poetics by writing new poems and, most importantly, I think, reminding one’s self how it’s often the second, the third, the fourth book that sends future readers back in search of the first.

Your poetry is certainly not “narrative.” In a recent reading, you read the poem “Triptych for Francis Bacon,” telling the audience that the poem was probably the most narrative in your book. Have you always been a poet who doesn’t write narrative, or is this something that changed throughout the years?

The Bacon poem is one of only two poems that I didn’t abandon after graduate school; the other is the proem on Keats that opens the collection. Both can be called narrative insofar as the biographical details in each gave me something on which to hang my meditations. The truth is I’ve never been much of an imagist, and I’m not very good at metaphor-making. I have very little patience for digression or association as an aesthetic mode, and I can’t tell a story worth shit. What appeals to me—what has always appealed to me in poetry—are the material conditions of language itself. All the texturizers that work the surface of the poem, from typography down to the aural level of phonemes. Consonance, assonance, rhyme, yes. But also homophones, puns, anagrams, transposition, neologisms, portmanteau—the oddments and extra-intentional sleights-of-hand one can use to complicate words and their meanings. Khlebnikov called his composition process “word-working”; Joyce, in Finnegans Wake, coined the term “verbi-vovo-visual” to circumscribe the kind of hyperlexia he was inventing. It’s in these veins I’d like to think I’m working. But whatever term I might use to analogize what I’m attempting, what interests me is the idea of creative destruction. A recombinant lyricism that works the physical material of language itself, but toward more immediate, emotional ends. A poetry that registers the shock of daily living and that speaks at once both brokenly and reparably of the body, its corporal realities.

I, like many, have an aversion to the word “experimental,” but I think it’s hard to flip through Verge and not come up with the term to describe some of your work. But, as you say, there’s also a playfulness going on, especially with sound, homonyms, and an attention to sonics. How do you find sound playing a part in your writing, and why is it so important?

Robert Frost once likened poetry to taking life by the throat. It’s as fine a point as I can put on it, and it’s what I want for my work—urgency, force, a violent grace. Whether or not that comes across as “experimental” doesn’t interest me as much as writing the poems I want to read. Francis Bacon once remarked how remarkable it was to him how every time he passed a butcher shop he wasn’t there splayed out among the meat. It’s the same kind of corporal stoicism one comes across in Lawrence Durrell’s novel Justine: “After all the work of philosophers on his soul and the doctors on his body, what can we say we really know about man? That he is, when all is said and done, just a passage for liquids and solids, a pipe of flesh.” It’s a grotesque reduction of the human body, a nod to how mere we really are, but it’s also one that makes a whole lot of sense to me. There are days when I feel like the sum of my coughing and everything I’ve brought up that day. Phlegm. Blood, on occasion. And in those circumstances the question becomes: what does the poem sound like that’s written by someone who feels stranded in a body so dysfunctional that too often it feels more like a dumb piece of meat than anything enlightened or desired? The answer, so far as I have one (and so far as it is one), is to leave as much breath and breathlessness on the page as possible. Fill the poem with language that is urgent, concussive, maybe even slightly awkward. Let the density of poems’ sounds be their hyperventilation. And, conversely, the wordplay that spins “meaning” off in multiple directions, let that be their ventilation. All the skirmishing over terms like experimental, quietude, avant, post-avant, third-way, these labels might make for an interesting post-mortem once the poems are written, but they’ve never written my poems. Nor do they seem especially urgent or necessary given the circumstances from which I write.

How does theory, if at all, inform your work?

Again, it all comes back to writing a poetry that takes for its primary subject the frustration and terror of inhabiting a body intent on its own self-destruction. I have real problems with some of her criticism, but Helen Vendler has written eloquently on more than one occasion about Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Skin” as he was known by his friends), and how, in her words, “putting the mimesis psychologically instead of cosmically, one could say that [Hopkins’] spondees represent the impressions of a poet who receives the stimuli of daily life as a series of unforeseeable and unsettling assaults. The regular measure of ordinary verse simply did not seem to Hopkins to represent the felt texture of his experience, which was ‘counter, original, spare, strange.’ And the first duty of any poet is to reconfigure felt experience in an analogical rhythm—prosodic, syntactic, or structural.” While I’d argue realities (and by extension responsibilities) differ poet to poet, the idea of analogizing via language the shocks and concussions (“the assaults”) of daily living—that makes sense to me. For some time now it’s been the vogue to theorize “the body,” what it is, how we mean what we mean when we use the word, and so on. And much of what is written is thoughtful, indispensable even. I’m particularly fond of thinkers like Kristeva and Barthes because, among other things, their thinking on language makes room for the sensual. But for me to think away the violence I live with, or to ironize it, or to distance it via conceptual frameworks, theoretical jargon, discourse sets, or else to feel like I have to apologize for aspiring to write a poetry that is weighted toward the visceral, the emotional, the empathic—that strikes me as incredibly disingenuous, one more way of sanitizing life. Or ignoring it altogether.

In addition to being a writer, you’re also an editor of CUE: A Journal of Prose Poetry. When did you start the journal, and how has being an editor affected your writing? Also, work in CUE has won two pushcart prizes. Talk a little about how you select work for that and how it has affected submissions, if at all.

My friend Mark Horosky and I started the journal back in 2004. What we imagined at the time was an indie magazine, something with high production values, a low cover price, a small but discerning readership, and an aesthetic vision that was wide-ranging and inclusive. Something demonstrably NOT in the tradition of the warehouse journal that would have the reader slog through hundreds of pages of mediocre poetry in order to find the few gems. And though we never stated it explicitly to each other, I think what we were going for was a journal on the order of a long chapbook, something a reader could sit with and finish in one read. Given how fashionable cross-genre writing is now, it’s hard to believe we could have ever really believed that the “prose poem” was a marginalized, put-upon form. But we did, and I’m glad we did. It was motivating. When Mark moved to Brooklyn a year or so later, I assumed full control of the journal and, ever since, CUE for me has become one more way of meeting other writers, an extension of the kind of community-making I mentioned earlier. As to how editing has affected my writing directly, I don’t think it has. Over time there’s the possibility that editing a journal can clarify and reinforce one’s own aesthetic predispositions, and so maybe that has happened. What being an editor has really done for me, though, is confirm what I think anyone who edits a magazine already knows—that there’s a lot of bad writing circulating out there. In fact, over the past four years, there have been numerous moments when, if I had to read one more poem involving talking animals in the absurdist, fabulist, parable mode, I’d have scrapped the magazine altogether. What I did instead was move to an invitation-only submission policy. As for the Pushcart Prizes, winning those was as shocking to me as it was, I’m sure, to the writers who received them. No secret, really, as to how that process works. All I did was submit my favorite poems from that year’s publications and hope for the best. Speaking strictly as an editor, I’ve always thought of the prizes more as free advertising for the journal than anything else.

You recently moved from a print journal to an online journal. Why was this? How has the dynamic of CUE changed because of this switch?

Well, we haven’t made the move just yet, but we’re going to. Soon. In the next couple of months, I hope. It’s a necessary shift. Even with the grant money (which isn’t much in a state as conservative as Arizona) we’ve received over the years, CUE has become too expensive to mail, let alone publish. The plan, instead, is to make the move to online, open up the magazine to more than just prose poetry, and redirect whatever personal resources we were spending on the journal in the direction of a new chapbook series, CUE Editions. The goal, ideally, is to put out three to four chapbooks a year to start, but we’ll see how things go after we publish the first—Mark Horosky’s Let It Be Nearby.

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

Well, it’s nothing I was personally cautioned against, but it’s something I’ve witnessed. It’s the phenomenon of rating one’s own book(s) on websites like Goodreads. Or, worse, reviewing one’s own book on Amazon. It’s the kind of shameless self-promotion that would be laughable if it weren’t so tacky. Don’t be that person.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon?

I don’t know yet. My gut tells me I’m working to extend the vision I began in Verge, but we’ll see. I’ve got a new full-length manuscript, erros, in the works, as well an untitled chapbook I’ve recently put together from work culled from erros. I’m as slow a writer as they come, but I’m getting there.

Do you have any additional advice for first poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?

Contests are a means, not an end. Be patient. Be generous. Take chances. And if you’re ever in the position to advocate on behalf of someone else, and you believe in the work, do it.

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

I have to.

Morgan Lucas Schuldt is the author of Verge (Parlor Press: Free Verse Editions, 2007) and Otherhow (Kitchen Press, 2007), a chapbook. His poems have appeared in Fence, Verse, and LIT; online at Shampoo, Coconut, and DIAGRAM; and in the anthologies Prose Poetry / Flash Fiction: An Anthology (2006), The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel, Second Floor (2007) and Best New Poets 2007. A brief essay on the poet Larry Levis appears in A Condition of the Spirit: The Life and Work of Larry Levis (Eastern Washington University Press, 2004), and an interview with Charles Wright is forthcoming in Charles Wright in Conversation: Fifteen Interviews. A graduate from the University of Arizona’s MFA program, Morgan lives in Tucson where he edits the literary magazine CUE and the new chapbook series, CUE Editions.