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.