How often had you sent out Holy Land before it was chosen for publication by Black Ocean? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
In the summer of 2007 I saw open reading periods for a couple of presses. But all they asked for was 10 sample poems. If they liked what they saw they’d ask for more. So I sent them 10 poems and, well, they didn’t like what they saw.
At that point I didn’t have a manuscript together but I had what I considered to be quite a few good poems and figured I could with some work and motivation put together a full manuscript.
I was lazy but hungry, and I liked this idea of sending out 10 sample poems and, asked for or not, I sent the same lot out to a few other small presses. It was like kissing baby turtles before you drop them into the sea and, almost certainly, quick death. But Black Ocean was interested. Said they’d like to see a full manuscript.
So I sent them something—about a month later. Another month later they gave me a “maybe.” They weren’t willing to publish it as-is but they did like the energy and feel of it. They gave me a lot of useful feedback and we began to work together. The back and forth went on for about 6 months and covered 4 or 5 drafts.
I was lucky Black Ocean was willing to work with me. And lucky that they’re such good editors. Janaka and Carrie’s suggestions helped me take the manuscript in completely new directions and we ended up with a book that’s completely different (and much, much better) than the first one draft I sent them.
Timing is vital and the timing with Black Ocean was right. Now they’re further along in their development and probably don’t have the time for a “project” that my book was. But there must be other young versions of Black Ocean out there.
What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?
When I first contacted Black Ocean they were a bit concerned that I didn’t have enough credits yet. But at that time I was sending out a lot of submissions and new acceptances were trickling in. So that issue worked itself out fairly quickly. And it was nice, as the poems got accepted, to let Black Ocean know.
That being said, a lot of my published poems didn’t make it into Holy Land, and the acknowledgement section of the book was looking a bit meager. So I decided to have two sets of acknowledgements. One for poems in Holy Land and another for other published poems. I had, for example, three poems accepted in The Mississippi Review’s prose poem issue. But for some reason or other they just didn’t make it into the final draft of Holy Land. Just didn’t fit. But The Mississippi Review gets a nod in the acknowledgements. As do all the other places that published poems that weren’t included in Holy Land.
Also, as I was working on the book I kept sending out poems, indicating they were from sequences in Holy Land. And a few of these got accepted (and published) prior to the book’s release. So that was nice.
The fact that some of these poems are only a few sentences long and still have great depth to them seem, to me, a great advantage of the prose poem. That said, do you feel that prose poems have to be even more tightly constructed than poems written in verse? How much editing has been done on these poems, from initial drafts, to publication in journals, to the final proofing of the last stage of the galleys?
I don’t feel that prose poems have to be “even more tightly constructed than poems written in verse.” But I do think they should be just as tightly constructed. I think all published work should be just right. So, yes, I edit a lot. These poems, individually, were worked and reworked, etc, etc. And then again as I worked on the manuscript. Some poems were finished on their own but when they went into the sequences that make up Holy Land they needed to change. Some of this took a long time. Sometimes it was easy. Sometimes not. You can certainly get into an over-editing rut (Dylan Thomas said something like “an hour to put a comma in. An hour to take it out.”) but you do have to revise. A lot.
What draws you to writing in the form of the prose poem more than actual verse? Or am I wrong about this assessment?
Verse was limiting for me. Everything seemed to narrow down, intensify, accelerate. Jean Follain’s verse poems are kind of like that. His prose poems on the other hand are much more relaxed, expansive. In a way like sepia photos.
When I started writing prose poems I soon found that I was able to do more than I had been able to in verse. And down the line, as I went along, I found I could also capture, in addition to slowness and breadth, some of the same sorts of hard accelerations and energy build up and dissipation that I’d been achieving (though more monotonously) in verse.
And, frankly, I just wasn’t very verse proficient. Maybe I’m not so prose proficient either. But with prose I feel comfortable. Feel as though, for better or for worse, I can bend the language and rules to my will. Feel as though I can capture and/or create a variety of energies.
This is a fairly short book, in terms of most poetry books, and it’s also more of a square than a rectangle in its shape. The poems, however, are centered toward the top of each page, leaving most of the page below them as strictly white space. Was this a choice of design by you or Black Ocean? Why not the middle of the page? Or why not make the text larger so there’s less white space? I ask mainly because the poems, though they’re fairly short, as stated before, seem to travel great spans of time, sometimes in just a few pages, and I wonder about the decision of that “openness” on each page.
Janaka chose the size of the book and the page layouts. I think I chose the font. And, all in all, I’m really pleased with how Holy Land looks. Lots of people have complimented me on its looks. And it was one of Cold Front Magzine’s nominees for “the artifact itself” in its best of 2008 year in review awards. It feels good to have a good-looking book!
I’m not too fond of poems in the middle of the page. I’m old fashioned I guess. I think they should go on top.
And, I like to write in books so all the white space works for me. In fact I love to write in books. Sometimes a lot. The only book I haven’t written in is the Bible my dad gave me for my Bar Mitzvah. When I was thirty years old (and going through tough times) I opened it. In it was an inscription to my father on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah. It was evident he’d never opened it. Smart man my dad. My mom too. (Hi Mom! Hi Dad!)
One thing that’s refreshing about this book is that violence is sometimes used in a less glorified and starker way than how we often see it in poetry. Yet there’s also a tenderness that seems to come through, mostly in poems where there’s a man and a woman in some kind of personal interaction. Was there a lot of purpose both within the sections and poems side-by-side in how each was juxtaposed with the other? How did you go about organizing the book?
Yes there’s certainly a lot of violence in Holy Land. I don’t think it’s gratuitous though. And, yes, there’s also a lot of tenderness. Perhaps some of the tenderness is gratuitous. But I’m quite sentimental and as much as I guard against it does come through in the poems sometimes. I’ll cry over just about anything. Over a raindrop. The latest Star Trek movie. An old man in a doorway.
“There’s a man and a woman in some kind of personal interaction.”—This, for me, is an important part of how I think Holy Land works. I think it depends and relies (is there a difference in those two words here?) on the dramatic interaction of man and woman. Sometimes woman is universe. Or death. Or the void. Or time. Etc. Or just an ordinary wondrous flesh-and-blood woman.
The challenge for me was to take these strange and diverse links (individual poems) and string them together in ways that captured a kind of dramatic continuity. To make sequences that embodied, beyond the individual poems, ebbs and flows and explosions of energy. This was difficult. And exhausting. I am such a reluctant applicant.
Another challenge (or difficulty) was in organizing sections. I juggled them up quite a few times.
As the book started to gravitate more towards its final form, though, I had in mind mainly the following two things.
1. How Catullus organized poems, phrases and books even.
2. The shape of a storm (the title also of the book’s 3rd section.) My mind in a way was reverting at times (usually in bed) to the strange sort of atomic visions that used to play through me as I sat in Latin class (and other places) when I was twenty-one and coming apart, brightly, at college. If nothing else, I fantasized—the sound and shape of the rain would heal me.
Perhaps the most powerful poem for me in the book reads as follows, on page 66: “Two girls are carrying a cage full of kittens down the river. Don’t be afraid! This is the world’s beauty. Look!—with the cage between them still they’re stepping carefully from rock to rock.” I keep thinking of the phrase “This is the world’s beauty,” as it seems, before the last sentence, that this image is some snapshot of innocence. Yet it also seems that imminently the girls are going to drown the kittens as they put the cage into the water. I feel like many of the poems can be read this way—as if the reader should be wary of the narrator’s intentions, and that we, as readers, shouldn’t trust that what we’re presented with is exactly as it seems.
A writer should be aware of how a reader’s going to process what you write. Or at least have a good idea of how the reader might do so. And part of the job, then, of course, is to work around and interact with how you feel the poem’s going to go down.
In looking at this poem of kittens in a cage between two girls it seems to me, now, that the speaker and the addressee are different parts of the same self. Parts talking to each other. Part of the self is afraid. While another part is reassuring, wiser, wider-viewing. (Wider but not as deep)
I think when I worked on this poem I was experience a strange unfolding mix of fear and awe. The terrible and the beautiful. A dangerous, fragile beauty. For a moment, perhaps, things resolve.
Things form and hang in me and sometimes detonate. Sometimes dissipate. If I can get a reasonable version of that to happen again in a reader other than myself (I have a bad memory, so my poems tend to work on me as a kind of a stranger. I sometimes joke that I have a kind of Alzheimer’s. And that’s ridiculous, of course, but at the same time it’s true too), then I am succeeding.
I see nothing wrong with the reader being wary and a bit on edge. Or a lot, really. It would be silly I think for readers to come to poetry only for affirmation, safety, comfort, etc. Some do though. Good luck to them.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
The book came out just in time for AWP (NYC, 2008). I walked into the book fair and went to Black Ocean’s table. And there it was. I picked it up. Looked at it. It felt good. The entire universe pulsed inside me for a moment. Then I slipped back into wait-and-see mode. But that moment’s glow was nice.
The thing that all writers fear is that their work is going to be ignored. Just slip immediately into oblivion. So now I had to wait and see if anyone cared about what I’d written. If the energy I’d taken out of myself and recreated in small and sequenced language systems could transfer into others as they experienced them.
I was also worried about the off-site reading I was scheduled to do in Brooklyn the next evening. I get really nervous before readings. And this time I was particularly keyed-up. But sometimes with readings, as with other things, that “edge” helps. Like playing ping-pong.
Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices?
I told Janaka that I thought a Dome of the Rock image would look good on the cover. He said he’d been thinking the same thing.
Then when he sent me a copy of the artwork (Ryan Sawyer) he asked me if I wanted the dome to show a bit more damage. I liked the way it looked but I definitely thought it would work even better if it was a little, at least, beat up. And so Ryan cracked it up some.
And I’m really happy with how it worked out. I think it’s great.
How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises? What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?
One thing that’s changed is that I don’t feel the same pressure to get poems published. And that in a way is a relief. Because that’s a lot of work. And ego-management. (Rejection sucks especially when you’re unproven and wanting to make thing happens). But, on the other hand, sending out poems is good motivation. To working on poems. Working on them properly and seriously.
I’ve done a lot of readings since the book released and that’s great because I’ve met a lot of really interesting people. People I’ve stayed in touch with. People with similar concerns and interests. And readings get the book into more people’s hands. People who otherwise might not even know about it at all. And preparing for and doing readings gets me to try out new poems and new sequences. And that’s all good practice.
I started a blog. And that’s been good and bad. Good because it engages the phrase-making mind (and the self also of course) in different ways. But bad because it can be a real energy suck. Sometimes I’m all ga-ga about blogging. And then other times I’m like “Fuck this shit.” So, I go back and forth. But I do all-in-all like blogging. And it’s nice (how many times have I used the word “nice” in this interview?—but I’ve used it honestly) that I have a readership. A small readership. But a readership anyways.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Nothing really. I was pretty realistic. I knew I’d have to do readings and promote through blogging, etc.
I had, all in all, little to no expectations. Everyone wants to be successful but tons of poetry books come out every year and many of them don’t do well at all. So I knew this could happen to me. But luckily the voice and energies I was able to capture and manufacture in Holy Land appealed to some people. Not huge numbers of people. But enough to make me happy.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? I keep seeing more and more of your new poems in journals as the weeks and months go on. Are any new books or other projects on the horizon?
Initially I didn’t know what to write. Then I thought: I know how to put together a book now and I’ve got plenty of other material.
So, I took a shot at a second full-length manuscript. This happened a few times. But the energy just wasn’t there. Nor the quality. So I just decided to write new poems for a while. And then some of those poems seemed sometimes, and more and more so, to be clustering together in my mind. So I thought why not a chapbook or two.
At the end of February (2009) Kitchen Press put out an on-line chapbook of mine entitled Ringing. Some people have really liked it. And some people think it’s garbage—gratuitous sex and violence. What can I say? (I have to thank Justin Marks, of Kitchen Press, here. He didn’t make many editing suggestions but the ones he did were vital. He urged me to not be shy. To drop some of the flatter poems. And, generally, to “amp” things up. So I did.)
I’m currently finishing up another e-chapbook entitled Dreaming, through Scantily Clad Press (Andrew Lundwall). And I’m really excited about how this chapbook’s been shaping up. The last couple weeks I’ve been going to sleep each night, and some afternoons even, hoping to dream something that can make its way into the manuscript. Especially when I’ve had a gap to fill. So that’s been an interesting approach to composition and revision! I tell my wife: “Honey I’m going to work now.” And then I turn to my side of the bed thinking dream dream dream dream dream dream…
I’m also in the middle of a long project that I hope will eventually be my second full-length book. For about two months or so I spent 3-5 hours a day generating and revising about 200 drafts of poems that are what I’ve sometimes called “imperfect erasures.” I’ve used Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers and James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake as source texts. And what I made are kind of erasures. Kind of only because I’ve taken liberties. Changing or adding words. I almost always kept original sequence though.
A while back I believed the book that (I hope) comes from all this work will be titled The Holocaust. Now I’m not so sure. Not sure because I haven’t gotten down to sequencing and organizing and revising seriously yet. So, we’ll see. But it certainly could be The Holocaust.
When I get back at it I’m going to use those same texts (Miller-Joyce-Genet) to generate a whole bunch more poem drafts. But using a different method. Perhaps using my IPod Shuffle. That’s something I’ve had success with in the past. I’m in the middle of a break to finish up Dreaming but I’m looking to get back on the Miller-Genet-Joyce horse. Itching to do so really. And we’ll see where it takes me. I can feel it under me already.
Do you have any additional advice for poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?
Don’t give up. And try other routes. There’s no easy way but don’t limit yourself to contests. “Ordeal” is just one word that describes the contest angle.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
In small ways, sure.
Rauan Klassnik was born in . He spent most of his life in Dallas, Texas and now lives mainly in Mexico with his wife Edith and lots of animals: dogs, birds, turtles. His first book, Holy Land, was released in April 2008 from Black Ocean. An e-chapbook, Ringing, was released March 2009 from Kitchen Press, and another chapbook, Dreaming, is due out this summer from Scantily Clad Press. Rauan needs sunshine, water, and an occasional sprinkling of fertilizer.