How often had you sent out Sudden Anthem before it was chosen as the winner of the 2007 American Poetry Journal Book Prize? How long was this book in the making?
I sent the book out a couple dozen times a year for 7 years. Every time it got rejected I got depressed and frantically revised. Added new poems; dropped older ones; rewrote others. (I was trying everything and anything in the rewrites, including—I’m not kidding—writing poems in the voice of Eugene Levy). Somewhere around year 4 I got so frustrated I just threw the manuscript in the air one night—it was something like 80 pages long—reassembled it at random, and sent that version off to other contests. That version of Sudden Anthem (called Lonesome Des Moines) was the first to be a semi-finalist…
How did you set up the book as far as order and structure? Unlike many first books I see, most with at least three definitive sections, yours isn’t broken up into sections. How did you come to that kind of order and structure, and how do you think that lends itself to reading the poems?
The book’s first coherent structure is owed to David Dodd Lee. He suggested two sections—the first a kind of traditional narrative; the second more experimental and fragmented. That order gave me a bass line for the rest of the book’s structural edits. The person who configured the book pretty much as it is now was Mike Theune. (Check out his Structure & Surprise.) He coaxed from the manuscript a single, uninterrupted, arc—by turns, narrative, experimental, lyrical. I was blown away. Honestly, his order for the poems was so much smarter than I was. I almost felt like I didn’t write the book.
One of the things that impresses me most about this book is the range, and not only the range but also how that really works throughout, whereas most first books like this probably would be too dissonant or too chaotic. In Sudden Anthem, there may be a sonnet and then a poem about the lost episodes of “Silver Spoons.” There can be a prose poem next to seemingly blank pages with fake footnote numbers, whereupon the reader realizes the poem is actually below in the footnotes below. Considering such a range, was it hard to figure out what poems to include and what poems to leave out as you were constructing the book?
When Sudden Anthem was Lonesome Des Moines, the poems were related by a mostly singular, narrative voice. But I worked on the book for 7 years—in that time my style changed (as did my life, drastically—I moved twice, got married, found a job I truly loved after working a job I truly loathed, started a family). Those changes brought on voices that I wanted more of in the manuscript. I had to start dropping older poems for newer ones, to stay interested. I think that accounts for the range.
Your Poem “Acknowledgments”—which occurs before the real acknowledgments—seems to be both an homage to sending out work for publication and a vessel to poke fun at such a thing. Am I right about that? I admit I was one of the readers who said, “Wait a minute…” upon reading the poem. Was that your goal for writing it?
Not sure I have a conscious goal for any poem when I start writing other than to entertain myself and small audience of friends. “Acknowledgments” is actually sampled from a much longer list of fake poems in fake journals that I started in graduate school with some officemates. At one point, we had the whole blackboard crammed full of ridiculous fake journals…this was way before my first rejection slip. Over the years that list took on a life of its own, becoming an outlet for my frustration with poetry’s cult of personality.
Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices?
Dream Horse Press sent me a couple dozen images to pick from…
Many poets now seem to take their cash prize—if one is offered—in their first books instead of the cash. What did you do, and why? And what advice would you offer others faced with this choice?
Robert McDowell published an article, “Necessary Angles”, in Poets & Writers, about how poets should work a first book. I followed his advice to the letter and took my advance in books. It’s not a bad deal. A press typically discounts books to the author. When I sold all my copies (125 books) I made more than $1000 in prize money.
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 thought it might open up more professional opportunities, which remains to be seen.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
People ask me to do readings, which I love.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
An opium den of lust…I was banking on that.
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I do readings whenever I can. Those have gone well. And really, it’s the best way to sell books. I told Dream Horse Press I’d read to a family of raccoons in the woods if I thought it would help. That might sound like desperation, but it’s not. I just really like raccoons.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
I wish I had a stronger sense of how the poetry network works. Readings have been great—but they’re hard to come by if you’re not someone’s flavor of the month.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon?
Things I’m writing now are different from Sudden Anthem; the book is partly responsible for that, it gave me the confidence to pursue riskier (for me) poems and forms. I’m piecing together a second manuscript now. I hope to start shopping it around by next summer.
Do you have any additional advice for first poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?
The publishing biz is a monster, and it can be monstrously unfair—just check out what happened to Stacey Lynn Brown at Cider House Press…
An amazing poet I know had her first book rejected over 30 times before it got published. Another amazing poet I know seems to win everything he enters. There’s no accounting for the difference. You may as well pin it on the barometric pressure. So that process of sending out a manuscript, don’t let it wear you down, don’t feel like what happens—or not—is necessarily a statement on your worth as an artist.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
On the one hand: Picture George Bush. Now picture George Bush reading Wallace Stevens. Would that world be different? One can hope…
On the other hand: If you believe poetry can meaningfully change one’s life, and if you believe one life can meaningfully change the world—and I think history has given us enough evidence of both—then you have to believe poetry can change at least some small corner of the world. For me, that’s enough.
Matthew Guenette's first book, Sudden Anthem, won the 2007 American Poetry Journal Book Prize from Dream Horse Press. He works and lives in .