How often had you sent out The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World before it was chosen in as the winner of the 2002 New Issues Prize? And what was that experience like?
My memory is somewhat unsure of this, but I believe I sent it out 17 times in all. I was really lucky. And grateful. Good friends have had to work much harder than I did. Still, the process, for all its up and downs, was something I enjoyed. I think you have to find a certain pleasure in the mechanics; otherwise, you’ll just be miserable. As for how I felt, it was strange, other-worldly; I didn’t quite feel it. Or absorb it for a long time. To this day, there is a strangeness to it all that feels, if not surreal, unreal.
What's your opinion on most presses saying, "The winner will be allowed to revise their manuscript before publication"? Does it end up giving poets who aren't necessarily ready to send their first book out a false sense of incentive? Should one be completely finished -- as much poetic stock as the term "finished" holds -- before sending it out? And what was your experience like from acceptance to publication?
I don’t see any harm in it. I know I changed at least a third of my first book between acceptance and publication. New poems went in; older ones came out. I wish I’d gone further.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
The first time I saw my first book was in Baltimore, during a blizzard. Record snow fell, dulling the outside sound. It was at AWP, the conference, and I walked up to the New Issues table. There it was, displayed. They gave me a copy. Years later my mother would accidentally run over it in the driveway.
Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices?
Nope. In fact, I didn’t even know what the cover was until I saw the actual book.
Many poets 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?
With my first book, I was offered both, so I had no choice to make. Again, I was lucky.
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 never imagined my life would change, except in the sense that it might help get me a job. Which isn’t a particularly romantic idea, maybe, but it’s what I needed.
Your second book, Notes for My Body Double, was originally slated to come out with Black Lawrence Press. How did it then become winner of the Prairie Schooner Prize for Poetry? What happened with Black Lawrence Press?
It was a communication breakdown. I don’t have anything bad to say about them. It was the right thing for my book and I felt like I had to protect my book. It turned out to be the best thing.
What were you doing to promote your second book versus your first, and what were those experiences like for you?
Some more readings, I guess. Which I enjoy. And I keep a blog, which seems to help build a readership.
You’ve had a whirlwind of a year recently. First you won a Whiting Award. Then you signed with Ecco Books, and not only your third book of poems, My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge, is being released very soon, but also your memoir, One More Theory About Happiness. First tell us about the Whiting Award and your third book. How did all of this happen, and what was the experience like?
All of it was completely unexpected. I found out about the Whiting just before going in to teach my first class of the day on a Monday. I stammered my way through half the class then let them go. Again, it took a long time to sink in. It was an amazing experience. I can’t say that enough. If anything was life changing in some sense, the Whiting was. It caused me to be noticed by my agent, who is wonderful, and directly led to my signing with Ecco. As for my third book, it was written very quickly, in long, sustained bursts. I often felt like I couldn’t keep up.
And how did the memoir come to be published? Had you been working on it, or was it something that had always been just a seed of an idea?
I’d spent the summer of 2006 working on it, then left it untouched on my hard drive for a year. After the Whiting, an agent contacted me, having loved my first book, and wanted to know if I’d written any prose. I sent her the memoir’s file on a whim.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Know the presses and know which ones are suitable for your manuscript.
What influence did your first book's publication have on your subsequent writing? How did things change from your first book to your third and the memoir?
It’s all a conversation: every choice influences the next, and every poem, and every book, and so forth.
Do you have any additional advice for first poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Not really. It can enrich lives, maybe, which might be a way of changing the world, I guess. But poetry doesn’t have to change the world and shouldn’t have to in order to be worth our time and attention. Most poets are lucky if they’re able to change their pants. And that’s fine, in my book. The world is better for it.
Paul Guest's first book, The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World, won the 2002 New Issues Prize in Poetry. His second book, Notes for My Body Double, won the 2006 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. In 2009, Ecco Books will publish his memoir, One More Theory About Happiness, and his third collection of poems, My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge. He is a visiting professor of English at the University of West Georgia.