How often had you sent out The Zydeco Tablets before it was accepted for publication by Word Press? Was this a contest or an open reading period?
I had been sending out The Zydeco Tablets for years—long before it was ready. The last version was a revision I worked just before the birth of my first son—instead of the nesting instinct, I had the revision bug.
How did you decide on the order and structure of the book?
You know, it has been so long since I was ordering that book (December 2001) I had to look at the sections. I am not one to fret in an extreme manner over the order poems appear in a book. I mean, I think about it, but I don’t lose sleep over it, one reason being that I almost never read a book of poems in order. Looking back at The Zydeco Tablets, I can say I don’t really know what I was thinking—it seems self conscious to me now, and too many. Maybe my next book will have no sections.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I didn’t pick it up and smell it or feel giddy, as so many authors have described. I was a little afraid of it, and I was grieving the death of my father, who never knew about the book though he informed it in so many ways. Also, I had a nine month old at the time, and was four or five months pregnant, and the idea of finishing a poem again—much less a book, seemed utterly impossible.
(In a footnote to this comment, I’ll add that after the initial elation I felt this grief with Big Muddy as well. It contained everything—I had nothing in reserve. After a few months, though, I was ready to move on to the next project.)
Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices? It’s not often that you see a black and white cover with such a wild design for a book of poetry.
I had a lot of input on the cover image. At the time, Word Press was doing only black and white covers, and I did not want to go the black-and-white-photo-of-Louisiana-cliché route. The book was a lot about music, and I wanted the cover to reflect that, for it to look like a sign you’d see stapled to a light pole advertising a show at Tipitina’s or something. I communicated this to an artist, and this is what she came up with. The ooh la la! was my idea.
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?
Yes, I did expect my life to change! And yes, there is still a small part of me who wishes that the rock star image and lifestyle (you know, dark glasses, a driver, and life in a hotel room) were part of my existence as a poet.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
Externally, my life has not been noticeably different since my book—either book—came out. On the inside, I did feel pretty excited.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
The biggest surprise to me was how hard it was to get the book in stores. At the time my book was published, Word Press went from a traditional print run to POD. This was a move they did to make it easier to get the book into chain book stores, but I found that larger chains were not at all receptive to POD books. I do not know how other Word Press authors have dealt with this. I’ve never seen a copy of The Zydeco Tablets in a big chain store, and with smaller sellers, I mostly sold the books on consignment—my discounted copies sold at the same discount to the seller.
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I sent letters to books stores and libraries, and I believe that Word Press sent out a mailing. I read everywhere I could. I always sell copies after a reading, and I travel with copies of my books in my trunk.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
I wish someone would have told me to hold out until you find what you want. Don’t be in such a rush to get the first book out, especially if you have copies of a chapbook you can sell at readings.
Booze plays a prominent part in your work, yet it’s tastefully amidst everything that’s going on in poems, never becoming a parody or a vice necessarily. Whether it’s Li Po arriving drunk as an inspiring muse, or the narrator having a drink to take the edge of, it’s done without force, and is used both playfully and seriously in the poems, sometimes at once. Is this the real Alison Pelegrin drinking to inspire the muse, or is the poet Alison Pelegrin, and why is there so much alcohol flowing through these poems?
I grew up around drinking—the good, the bad, the ugly. Thanksgiving time is the anniversary of my first drunk—off of watered down port wine snuck to me by my grandfather. I passed out under the table in media meal and experienced tunnel vision. As far as the drinking in the poems, I should say that before I finished Big Muddy River of Stars, the working title of the book was Three Sheets. I am clumsy at discussing such things, but it was meant to be a metaphor for drinking and for the writing process. If you’ve read anything about the ancient Chinese poet Li Po, about whom there are several poems in the second book, you may have read the story of how he (supposedly) would write poems that came to him, and then send the pages floating down the Yangtze River. I would never do that myself, but I liked the idea. Also, I was living on a river myself while I was writing those poems, very much the outsider in Livingston Parish (Once some visitors to the property next door had a cigarette boat named “The Blown Job"), and I felt that Li Po could just rise up out of the mist and watch herons with me on the dock.
I’m struck by the almost tour-de-force third section in Big Muddy River of Stars, where the poems seem to be written post-Katrina. They almost seem to have been written out of necessity, to get through living after the hurricane, to find one’s place in the world again, both as poet and mother looking after her family. In that respect, I want to ask how the book was constructed, as the third section is such a vital part of the book, yet it does seem extremely cohesive and deliberate as a whole.
Thanks. It makes me happy to hear people say they enjoy the third section of the book because it hits so close to home—I have never been so directly personal as in those poems about the aftermath of Katrina. That was such a dark time for me, in so many ways. I accepted food stamps. I lied to find a place to stay. There was one day when I couldn’t get a dinner together for my children. And comparatively, I was one of the lucky ones.
As for cohesive and deliberate—I can’t take credit really. It just happened. I couldn’t put the new poems with the old poems from that book—my world, and the landscape informing the book—was permanently altered. The title Big Muddy River of Stars came to me after a particularly fitful night on the air mattress, and the poems came a few months later.
After Katrina my life was a blur—I was displaced with my family and my mother and brother, and my days were so taken up with technicalities and depression. No comfort food. No zoo to take my kids to. No Christmas lights. I felt no room or desire for poetry in those early months. It wasn’t until May and June of 2006 that I sat down at my kitchen room table while the final repairs that we could afford were going on around me and was I able to put it into some sort of perspective. Even so, when I read those poems now, I don’t know what happened. Or, I guess I could say—I can’t believe those things happened to me.
Do you have any additional advice for first poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?
Learn everything you can about the presses you submit to, and don’t let yourself think about the odds.
Do I believe poetry can change the world?
Yes I do. Sometimes when I get really excited about a poem in front of a class, I catch myself waving the anthology around, and I think I must look like a preacher at the pulpit trying to convert the masses. This is a good metaphor, because poetry feels like my religion. In good or bad times, I am as likely to turn to poetry as to prayer. I think the best prayers are poetry—like the Psalms, which in my Episcopal congregation are sung in unison. Riding my bike on a gorgeous fall day like today, I am just as likely to think “The brain is wider than the sky,” as “My cup runneth over.” Either way, my world is altered.
In addition to Big Muddy River of Stars, Alison Pelegrin is the author of The Zydeco Tablets (Word Press, 2002) as well as three chapbooks. Her poems have been featured on Poetry Daily and The Writer’s Almanac, and in dozens of literary journals such as Poetry, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, and The Southern Review. The recipient of fellowships from the Louisiana Division of the Arts and the NEA, she was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She teaches English at Southeastern Louisiana University and lives in Mandeville, Louisiana with her family.