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.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

#6 - Theodore Worozbyt

How often had you sent out The Dauber Wings before it was chosen as the winner of the 2006 American Poetry Journal Book Prize?

Under that title the book was submitted twenty-one times before it was accepted. But under other titles, and in different versions, my first book went out over three hundred times, having been a finalist at more competitions than I can say.

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

I remember being surprised at how muted my feelings initially were. I opened the box, admired the cover and design, thumbed through it, put it on an end table, and didn’t look at it for hours. As the day went by I felt its reality arrive, and by sundown the celebration had begun.

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

The artist, Cheryl McClure, was suggested to me as a possibility by J.P. Dancing Bear, the editor of Dream Horse Press, and when I saw her work I was immediately convinced. I chose the canvas from her virtual gallery. She is also the cover artist for my second book, Letters of Transit, and I am grateful for her generosity. Her strokes are very powerful and dimensional and her colors deep and vibrant. There is often in her work a chimera of bodily representation, something both there and not there all at once. She is brilliant.

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?

That’s exactly what I did. If you can afford it, buy the books. You’ll sell them at readings or you won’t, but you’ll make sure you have copies for grant and job applications and all kinds of other things.

What changed in your life when your first book came out?

Well, a lot of things changed for the good, but the best thing was discovering I had readers. And very kind ones at that.

Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

I’m a little surprised that the book remains, as far as I know, unreviewed. All the poems appeared first in magazines and journals, a lot of them in Poetry. But so many books come out every year, that’s the way it goes.

Your second book, Letters of Transit, won the 2007 Juniper Prize. And this is a book entirely comprised of prose poems. Can you talk a bit about the prose poem?

The prose poem seems to me very portable and capacious, and it is very possibly a form that is undaunting to the average, that is to say non-poetry reader, who might just think when presented with one, Hey, that’s just a paragraph, I can deal with that. That same reader might look at a villanelle and head for the nearest exit. I mean, unless you are Alexander Pope you don’t converse in heroic couplets, so how can anyone read “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night” without having some idea of what that form is and what structures and histories and languages and limitations underlie it and why Thomas uses it? That requires specialized training, or the love of the autodidact for the subject. Even free verse confronts the reader before the reading with formal questions to wrestle with: Why does this have line breaks? What do line breaks mean? And so on. In a hypervisual, hypermediated world, poems are transgressive. Anything that even looks like a poem presents itself unforgivably as artifice. And contingent artifice at that. The prose poem has a chance to be more intimate (and more counter subversive) precisely because no such formal considerations present themselves immediately to the reader’s eye; it’s poetry in the shape of a computer screen, and the reader doesn’t have to achieve any mastery of the formal aspects of prose poetry to apprehend its radical gestures. Why doesn’t this have line breaks? is not a question likely to occur to many readers.

Letters of Transit was released soon after The Dauber Wings. Had you been working simultaneously on both manuscripts, or had one been constructed over a longer period?

Letters of Transit was written after The Dauber Wings. It took me six months of daily work to finish what became the final poem of The Dauber Wings, and then I felt at a dead end. I didn’t write anything for six more months. My editor said try writing some prose poems.

What can a prose poem do for the writer’s sensibility that verse—be it traditional forms or free verse—cannot?

I can speak only for myself, but I have always tended to think of writing poems as a kind of linear descent. The poems in my first book tend toward strong closure, and have distinct beginnings, middles, and ends. When I write prose poems, I think of them as developing from a center outward, and that center is often not a premise or even the beginning of a narrative, it is simply a discrete thought, often simply an arresting image, which then comes into collision with another, and the thing starts stitching itself together, or it doesn’t. And for me there was a very powerful feeling of freedom at leaving behind the verse line and the stanza. The sentence in a prose poem is a virtually limitless space.

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

I think the prose poems have had a strong influence over my verse, which is now much less vectored and more linguistically adventurous. I have a just-finished manuscript of verse called Tuesday Marriage Death that is in the mails, and I have a new collection of prose poems called Echo’s Recipe that I am still working on.

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

The best advice is to persevere. If you have a good book it will eventually get picked up.

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

Absolutely. Over history poetry has been the engine of profound change in the world. In fact, poetry for millennia was a vehicle for the transmission of culture from one generation to the next. Think of the poetry of the great religious texts. Contemporary poets like Wislawa Szymborska are agents of real political and social change. Even in the United States, where it is the most marginal of the arts, poetry does its work. It’s just on a smaller, more individual scale. I mean, it changed us, right?

Theodore Worozbyt has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alabama and Georgia Arts Councils. His work appears widely, in such publications as Poetry, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, The Southern Review and The Best American Poetry 2007. His first book is The Dauber Wings (Dream Horse Press, 2006). His second, Letters of Transit, won the 2007 Juniper Prize, and was published by The University of Massachusetts Press in 2008.

#5 - Jason Bredle

How often had you sent out Standing in Line for the Beast before it was chosen as the winner of the 2006 New Issues Poetry Prize?

I sent it out for seven years. For the first five I sent it to every contest it was qualified for. When I began sending out a second manuscript in 2005, I trimmed the list down to only those who’d reacted to it in previous years or those who were being judged by someone I thought might like it. I thought it had a chance because Barbara Hamby was the judge, but honestly I was really surprised it made it into her hands. I think the first year I began sending it to the New Issues contest was the year C.D. Wright judged, so it’d already been around their office a few times.

Had it always been Standing in Line for the Beast or had it gone through different titles?

It had always been Standing in Line for the Beast.

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 have much of an opinion about this at all. I think it’s fine if someone wants to start sending out his or her manuscript before it’s done. I was grateful for the opportunity to revise my manuscript after it was selected because I hadn’t even looked at it for three years. I revised it pretty extensively - reordering everything, cutting poems and cutting a lot of text from poems. My acceptance to publication experience was positive. Everyone I’ve met and worked with from New Issues has been really great.

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

I remember it was a sunny spring day. New Issues sent me 10% of the press run, which arrived at my office. I shut my office door, opened the box, held one of the books and cried. I nursed it a little and it spit up on me, then I changed it. At the time, it’d really become closure to a journey that lasted ten years. It was the spring of 2007. The oldest poem in the book I’d written in the spring of 1997.

I remember the day I received the call from Marianne telling me I’d been selected a little better. It was also a sunny spring day, around 3:00 in the afternoon. When my phone rang I recognized the area code and thought, either this is New Issues or my ex-girlfriend, so essentially this call is either going to make my day or ruin it. I remember going for a walk afterwards and crying. I probably cry more than most in private. Once I collected myself I called my mom and girlfriend and emailed my close friends. I don’t remember this, but apparently the subject of my email was “Holy fucking shit!”

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

I didn’t have any input on the cover. The first time I saw it was on Amazon. I knew, however, that this was the deal with New Issues when I submitted, and while I was a bit worried about not having input on the book’s presentation, ultimately I think it worked out really well. The designer created a cover that captured a lot of sentiments within the book in a way I never would have imagined, which I love. I also love that it’s orange.

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?

I don’t think I had this choice and I didn’t even know this could be an option unless I’ve completely forgotten. As I mentioned, I received 10% of the press run as part of my contract, so it wouldn’t have made much sense for me. I still have like 40 copies. I guess my advice to others would be to take the money, because you can use money in your day to day life to buy things, and you can always use money to buy your books at a discounted price if you decide later you’d like books instead.

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?

I didn’t imagine my life would change. I don’t think it really has either, but I’ve met a lot of amazing people who I wouldn’t know if it weren’t for the book. Some of them I’ve met at readings or during class visits and some have emailed me and we’ve become friends. It feels really good, and in that sense I think my life is happier than it once was.

Really, all of my experiences after publication have been better than I could’ve ever wished. I expected my parents and friends would read it and then it would disappear completely. But it’s somehow gotten into the hands of people I don’t even know, and those people are engaged with it. It feels awesome.

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

At first I tried to proactively get readings for myself but that venture was met with such disinterest or indifference that I gave up. Basically I contacted a lot of people who run reading series and they either told me they’d get back to me and never did or they never answered my query. What was most frustrating about this was that some of them were running series in Chicago at the time. After that, I decided to just let it ride and see what happens, and that approach proved more effective. Now, when I’m fortunate enough to be asked to give a reading, I try to give the reading. I’ve done a few and so far those experiences have been terrific. I love giving readings and many of the readings I’ve done have sold out of the book.

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

I don’t know if really I needed advice. More than anything, I might have benefited from reassurance that I wasn’t a complete failure during the years I was sending it out, because I tend to take each rejection personally even though I know I shouldn’t, and going through that process for so many years became emotionally taxing, especially given other things I was going through in my life at the time.

Your second book, Pain Fantasy, was released last year from Red Morning Press. How did that happen? I know they’re a relatively new press that has open reading periods rather than contests.

The first book they published was Bad with Faces by my friend Sean Norton, so I met them through him. They asked me to send them something around the time I learned I was a finalist for the New Issues prize. I had a second manuscript and I waited out the New Issues results so I could decide which manuscript to send them. The day I learned Standing in Line for the Beast had been selected by New Issues, I sent Pain Fantasy to Red Morning Press.

Have you done anything differently this time around to promote Pain Fantasy?

They were released only six months apart so I’ve just promoted them together.

Many of your poems don’t necessarily deal solely with pop culture, but there are references to pop culture throughout your work. Often I think that leads people to categorize you as a “funny” poet. What do you think of that term, and how do you find pop culture playing a part in your poems?

I don’t mind the categorization, though I’d like to think my idiom isn’t limited to only funny. I wonder if the categorization would cause people to dismiss me too readily. At the same time, though, just being categorized and readily dismissed at all is an amazing feeling.

In general, I think funny can be a complicated distinction. It’s subjective and oftentimes particular to only one culture. I really try not to think about it too much and do my best to let what’s inside me tumble out and let others react however they see fit. If someone finds it funny, that’s great, and if someone finds it sad, that’s great too.

I don’t think pop culture and funny necessarily go together, but I do find certain elements of pop culture playing a role in what I write, and humor is probably my favorite genre to watch or read, so those interests tend to merge in my head and influence how I’m thinking, how I’m writing, and how I’m thinking about writing. There’s really no easy way to explain how I think they find their way into my poems, though, because there are so many different routes they can take. When I was younger, I intentionally tried to put different pop culture elements into what I was writing. I’d experience something and think, I have to write this into a poem. It was especially fun to do when I was writing list poems. Now, things just work their way in more naturally. That’s more indicative of the evolution of my writing process, though. I never sit down and think, I’m going to write this into a poem. It either happens or it doesn’t.

What influences have the publication of both books had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon?

More than anything, I think I’m writing with confidence and a rejuvenated love for writing again. Right now I’m just writing a lot of poems, many of which will probably make it into another manuscript.

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

Mostly just don’t give up, no matter how bleak things might seem. Sooner or later, you’ll find a way to turn this experience into something positive for you, either through book publication or something better. I mean, I guess I just want you to know that you shouldn’t lose hope that something meaningful will emerge from your experience.

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

I do believe it’s possible, but I also believe other outlets like volunteering, writing fiction, non-fiction, filmmaking, traveling or playing music are creating more change than poetry right now. I wonder if, in the US, poetry will someday have a larger readership. It would be nice. I’m not sure how it’d ever come about though.

Jason Bredle is the author of Pain Fantasy, from Red Morning Press, Standing in Line for the Beast, winner of the 2006 News Issues Poetry Prize, and A Twelve Step Guide, winner of the 2004 New Michigan Press chapbook contest. He lives in Chicago.