Thursday, April 2, 2009

#19 - Dan Albergotti

In a recent section in Poets & Writers, Debut Poets, you are one of the featured poets. I’m going to try and ask some questions dealing with some answers from that article. How often had you sent out The Boatloads before it was chosen as the winner of the A. Poulin Poetry Prize? It says you spent eight years writing the book. Was this the last eight years, or had you been writing the book before that without knowing it? I could also ask: Did any of The Boatloads come from your MFA thesis?

It was pretty much the last eight years, at least in terms of writing the actual poems that appear in The Boatloads. But from another perspective, you could say that I’d been “writing the book” for much, much longer. I’m sure I’ve been obsessively thinking about the ideas and themes of these poems for more than half my life. A lot of the poems in the book did appear in my MFA thesis, but that collection has, as you might expect, a much less unified vision.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

I would tinker with small things here and there each year, but it went through a major overhaul only once: in the fall of 2004. The previous summer, I was a scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and one of that year’s fellows, Sarah Manguso, very generously offered to read my manuscript and give me feedback. I remember being shocked when she mailed back the manuscript with some nice comments, but also with the recommendation that I cut over one-third of its poems. It was a little like cold water in the face, but I needed that kind of jolt to see that I had become complacent, not thoroughly scrutinizing the collection as a whole and leaving some older poems in as “filler.” I took Sarah’s advice and completely overhauled the manuscript. And you know, I’m not sure that I ever thanked enough for her suggestions, and I haven’t seen her in years. So thank you, Sarah Manguso, wherever you are.

What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Many, if not all, have been previously published. Was there a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

I can understand where the question comes from, but really, I was never concerned about that at all. The sad truth is that poems published in literary journals reach very few eyes. From the writer’s perspective, you might think that you’ve already given all the poems in the book to the world. But once you get past your own ego, you have to acknowledge that the world wasn’t paying very much attention when those poems first appeared! It’s kind of funny to me when I hear people talk about poems in the book as if they’re new discoveries when those poems have appeared in literary journals with fairly broad distributions (and sometimes reprinted on websites with much wider reaches). I feel like those poems have already been out there, but “out there” is a very small stage, indeed.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book won to the day the book was in its final proofing stage?

I was incredibly lucky to be able to publish my book with BOA Editions. The people there are just the best. When I won the prize, I thought the book was finished, that there would be very little editing left to do. But a couple of months later, I got a long list of queries from BOA’s Peter Conners. His questions were challenging and revealed that he had read the manuscript with extraordinary care. They forced me to reexamine some poems that I had considered “finished” and led to some fine polishing that made a great deal of difference in the end. I should note, also, that Peter’s query letter ended with a reassurance that I had the absolute final say on any changes, so there was no undue pressure applied from the publisher. It was just an incredibly helpful, and necessary, gesture on BOA’s part. In the end, I didn’t make all of the suggested changes, but those that I did make were very, very important, and I’m grateful every day that my book wasn’t ferried into the world by a publishing house that takes an extremely casual approach to manuscript queries.

The notion of God is one of the themes running through many of these poems in very different ways. And what I admire about many of these poems is the different way the looming presence of God can become comic, serious, playful, and take on so many different guises, sometimes all at once. Was this an idea you had from the beginning when writing the book, or was there a need for this variation as it developed over the years?

The varieties of treatment are not anything I’ve ever thought about consciously. I’ve been wrestling with the idea of God since at least the age of 12. It’s something that’s so deeply embedded in who I am that my thoughts on it arise to consciousness imperceptibly. Keats says that “if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” That’s how this theme comes to my poems—it’s just an organic part of me and my work.

I look at poems like “Song 246” and “The Safe World” and how they’re balanced with poems like “Among the Things He Does Not Deserve” and “A Prayer for My Daughter, Who Does Not Exist.” There seems to be a great concern for the celebration of life and safety, and the blessings of what we have this moment, but there also seems to be warnings of possible tragedy, sometimes imminent, present within some of these poems and how they’re put together in each section. Was this something you strived for while putting these poems together?

You know, the Romans said, “Memento mori” not as a recipe for dying, but as a guide for living. When we constantly acknowledge the fleeting nature of life, we live it better. This can get reduced to a cliché—a “carpe diem” t-shirt. But poetry, I think, can bring it to a deeper level, make it an elemental reminder. When I remember my mortality, I love this world more and demand more from it, and my favorite poems remind me of my mortality again and again.

I always find it fascinating to see where a poet puts the title poem, if one is present in the collection. “The Boatloads” is the very last poem in the book. What were your reasons for ending with the book with title poem?

It’s funny—in my chapbook, Charon’s Manifest, which appeared in 2005, “The Boatloads” is the initial poem. It seemed right for that smaller collection, but for the longer manuscript, it seemed that it could only appear as the last poem. A friend once paid me a huge compliment when, in an email about her reading of The Boatloads, she said that she feels like Charon’s bony finger was pointing straight off the page at her when she reached the end, that she had been challenged to confront her own mortality and her complacency in the face of horrors like those of “Song 246.” I want my readers to feel challenged like that, and I hope that the title poem works that way for many of them.

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

It was a close call. I had a debut reading scheduled at my MFA alma mater, UNC Greensboro, and we’d planned it for a little earlier than the book’s official release date, knowing that the books would actually be printed 2-3 weeks earlier and that I’d be able to bring some of my author copies to the reading if the university’s book store could not get their shipment in time. I’ll cut this story short—the books arrived at my door in Conway, South Carolina the day before I left for Greensboro. A lot of worry leading up to that day!

Two things that I remember most about the day the books arrived:

1. Opening the box and seeing that beautiful cover with my name on it, as well as the text of my poems on that off-white, textured paper. It seemed like such a different thing from the advance uncorrected proofs that I’d seen before. It was finally a real book.

2. My dear friend Terry Kennedy, assistant director of the UNC Greensboro program, calling me just after the books arrived to tell me, “Jack’s going to be at your reading tomorrow night.” My response was, “Jack? Jack who?” He was referring to my poetic idol, Jack Gilbert, whom I had never before met in person. How it all came about is too long a story to tell, but Jack Gilbert and Linda Gregg were in the audience for my debut reading from the book, and we all went to dinner afterward. It was a pretty perfect night.

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

This is just one more reason why BOA Editions is so wonderful. They have a library of art that they’ve acquired, and when I won the Poulin Prize, I was given a password to a secure website where I could peruse the amazing work of about two dozen artists. When I came across Anne Havens’s “Chairs,” I knew I’d found my cover. Then the design by Geri McCormick for that work’s incorporation into the cover was just brilliant, I think. The fading of the top and bottom panels of the original work helps to enhance its visual ambiguity. I could not be happier with the cover of my book.

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?

A bit. And in a way, it has. In other ways, it’s made absolutely no difference. How’s that for a vague, wishy-washy answer? I don’t want to downplay the value of publication—it’s great. But I also don’t want to overvalue it. People who become obsessed with publication credits and external validation risk compromising their art. It’s great to have a book of poems published, but I was the same poet the day after publication as the day before. And if I allowed myself to believe that I was somehow different because of it, I’d be on dangerous ground, I fear.

How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

I’ve learned that it’s work to promote a book. Often fun work, but work—time-consuming work—just the same.

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

I’ve given readings at universities and at a few book festivals. In addition to this one, I’ve done interviews with Town Creek Poetry and Southern Spaces, as well as for Brian Brodeur’s “How a Poem Happens” blog (forthcoming). I’ve been very lucky to have requests for such interviews and also to have my work selected from the book for feature on Verse Daily and on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. All of these experiences have been great, but as I said before, it’s also work, and I must say that I look forward to the day when it all dies down a little and I can catch my breath and focus more energy on my poems again.

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

I really can’t imagine getting better advice than what I did get. I was fortunate to have good people giving me good counsel for a long while.

I remember two things one of my teachers used to say:

1. “The only thing worse than not being published is being published.”

2. “Never submit your manuscript to a contest that you wouldn’t be thrilled to win.”

When you’re starting out, it’s all too easy to get overwhelmed by a sense of urgency and try to rush your book into print by any means at all. But there’s usually not the need to rush things that there seems to be. I’m glad someone impressed that upon me early.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon? In the aforementioned Poets & Writers article, you mention you’ve begun working on a second collection? Is this finished? Or almost finished?

I hope to finish a “draft” by the end of this summer, but even achieving that, the manuscript could be another year or two from being ready. In keeping with the advice I mentioned above, I don’t want to rush my second book. Most of my favorite poets have been the slow-working, non-prolific sort: Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Jack Gilbert. Those are the poets I’d like to emulate. I’m lucky, too, because I just received tenure at my university, so there’s not the immediate pressure to publish the second book as soon as possible. I have the luxury of making sure it’s really done.

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

Persistence is omnipotent. You have to believe in your work enough to weather the inevitable disappointment. Never look at your book’s failure to win a contest as an accurate evaluation of the work’s merit. It was just a contest you didn’t win; the next one might be the one you do.

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

Hell yes. But we all have different ideas on what it means to “change the world.” I think some pretty small moments can have some pretty large effects. I know that John Keats virtually saved my soul. And I, for one, don’t think that’s a small matter.

Dan Albergotti is the author of The Boatloads (BOA Editions, 2008), selected by Edward Hirsch as the winner of the 2007 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals, as well as in Pushcart Prize XXXIII: Best of the Small Presses. A graduate of the MFA program at UNC Greensboro and former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review, Albergotti currently teaches creative writing and literature courses and edits the online journal Waccamaw at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC.