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.