Friday, July 31, 2009

#22 - Andrew Kozma

How often had you sent out City of Regret before it was chosen in the co-winner (with Leigh Anne Couch) of the Zone 3 First Book Award for Poetry?

I sent the manuscript seventy times in total, including Zone 3 and the four contests I withdrew from as a result of winning that prize. So I suppose the answer (correct!) is sixty-five times over the course of four years.

I know you’ve touched upon this previously in other interviews and such, but what was your feeling when your book was chosen to be published by a press whose first book was going to be yours, essentially making it a kind of guinea pig? And as an extension of this question: with so many micro-presses and presses being started these days, many of them branching out into contests, is it a good thing for poets who are looking to get their first book out to do voracious research on these more unknown presses before they stuff an envelope with their manuscript and a check? Or should they just try and stick with “established” contests?

Rough and mixed. I was excited (excited!) to have won a contest, but it was (and still is) my first book, my first emergence on the published poetry scene (journals are a different sort of beast). The literary journal Zone 3 had published a poem of mine, which is how I knew about the contest, and the experience was good, though the design of their journal was somewhat bland at the time. I was afraid.

But I was also excited because it would be (with Leigh Anne’s Houses Fly Away) the press’s first real foray into the publishing market. They had published a book already (David Till’s Oval) but it was a test run to see if a press would be viable and doable, yet they were still (and still are) at the beginning.

So, in short, the press had no history, so they could either be amazing or horrible, either respected or laughable. But I talked to friends who knew the people involved, talked with the staff at Zone 3 Press, and realized that taking a chance on them had the benefit of carrying me along with their rise. If I had chosen a more well-known contest but associated with a larger press, I may have gotten lost in the shuffle.

As for submitting to contests, I do think that research is helpful, and not only for the small presses. No matter how established or new, you want to make sure that you’ll be happy if they publish your book, and one way to check that out is to look at what they’ve already published – not just in terms of the poetry, but in the book production and design. I’d say apply to both established and new; the worst that happens is that you win a contest, you think it over, and you say no to the offer.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out? Was it essentially your PhD thesis at Houston, or had some or many of the poems been written prior to starting that degree?

The manuscript went through at least three main versions and four different titles (the others being, in order, Disappearances, Debating the Air, and Beneath the Skin). To go back to your first question, each of those titles went out to a season of contests – a year’s worth – except for Disappearances which I only submitted once.

I put the first version of the book together during the summer of 2003 and used my MFA thesis as a base. About half the poems in the book were originally written during my MFA program – only one comes from before I entered grad school (“Acropolis”). It was my first time trying to put a book together; my MFA thesis was around forty pages, but it was simply all the poems I had written during my two years at the University of Florida – those that my advisor approved of. There was no real order.

For City of Regret I struggled the most with order and shape. The first version simply had the poems divided into their basic groups: poems about my father’s death, poems about relationships, and poems about everything else. I had no idea what I was doing, except that the father poems were the book’s anchor. They started in the front, then I moved the section to the back, then, on the advice of Mark Doty, I split them to bookend the manuscript. You can still see that in the finished book.

I still have a lot of problem with individual poem order. I get so frustrated, unable to keep all the poems in mind at once, and end up just shuffling randomly to see what resonances are produced. Fifty-two page pick-up.

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?

I tried to get all my poems published before City of Regret was published, though not really because I thought it would help in getting the manuscript published. I’m not sure that a hefty list of acknowledgements weighs much in your favor; if the first readers don’t like your poems, it doesn’t matter how many others did in the past.

My goal for individual poem publication revolved around the fact that once the book is published, you can’t publish those poems in journals, and part of my drive in publishing is to get my work in front of as many eyes as possible. Also, I look at the poems and the book as different works of art, not just two versions of the same thing. Once poems are put in a book, they are influenced by the poems around them and the book as a whole. In a very real sense, their meaning changes.

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 guess this is a question of galleys and their help and impact in the completion of the final stages.

There are really two different answers here: The first is that I changed only a little in the book… I added two poems and removed one. I changed a few lines, but nothing major. The second is that we went through six or seven different galleys, fine-tuning the font and layout and correcting minor errors that kept slipping in. I think I really annoyed Zone 3 here, but it was my first book and I didn’t want anything to go wrong, especially if it was an aspect I had some control over.

I always find the poet’s choice an interesting one if he or she decides to lead the book off with a poem before the start of the actual sections. It seems dangerous in some way—that it could be misleading, since the assumption is that poem’s supposed to set up some kind of way we’re introduced to the book. Though “Dis” seems very fitting, was this a poem you always knew would serve as that poem, or was it a longer process of discovery?

I definitely didn’t know “Dis” would serve as the poetic introduction to the book. It was only in the last version that it took that place and mostly because it sets up the metaphor of the city. That, and it also establishes the “quest” of the book, the narrative that draws the whole together and, hopefully, makes some sense of it for the reader. Also, the poem acts as a sort of litmus test, warning the reader about what sort of imagery they’re in for.

I can see what you mean about an introductory poem being a dangerous tactic, but if “Dis” fails in that regard for a reader, then the book as a whole is going to fail them.

Richard Jackson, in his introduction, does a fairly thorough reading of the poem, “Agoraphobia.” Because your poems seem so tightly constructed, I wanted to ask 1) What you thought of his reading of the poem, and 2) If that’s one of the reasons you, like many, are drawn to writing and reading poetry: the vast interpretations one can find a legitimate argument for in how they read and study the words.

I think his reading is a perfectly valid one. And now I sound like a professor. What I mean is that his interpretation is supported by the text and makes sense within the poem and in context with the rest of the book. However, that wasn’t what I imagined. For example, in my mind, there are two people at the table, there have to be because the poem is about a relationship. That said, Jackson sees more in the poetic imagery that I ever noticed consciously.

Like you said, I’m drawn to that wealth of interpretation, but I’m drawn to it in all my writing, not just poetry. One reason I love plays is that they can be endlessly redone and each time will be new in blunt or subtle ways. Some writers I’ve heard speak say that what they’re interested in is conveying a specific idea to the reader; I’m interested in conveying a specific idea to the page. The readers will fend for themselves.

One thing I noticed upon a few readings of the book is that not one poem (not counting the few poems with sections, with each section on a different page) is over a page long. This seems to be a testament to the power of the poems—you seem to get away with so much conveyed in so little time, yet the poems feel expansive in their power and meaning. Do you feel you’ll stick to this kind of poem-scribing in the future, or are willing to branch out and see how longer lines and longer poems work out for you?

Thank you for the compliment. I do try and make my poems packed with detail, but that’s also largely the end result of trying to cut out everything that’s extraneous. At least that’s what my poetry writing has turned into. I’ve always written short poems, though over the past few years I’ve been working against that, exploring longer works. Longer lines I don’t like so much… after I’m done writing a draft with long lines I always feel as though they’re clunky, unpleasing. Long poems, on the other hand, I’m still trying to woo. I wrote a poem a few years ago that’s only four pages long, but it’s a single stanza and takes twelve minutes to read. That’s my only triumph so far, though I’ve thought about working on a book completely consisting of long(er) poems.

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

I was stunned, almost in the literal sense of the word. Emotionally, I was excited, but subdued. The day went like any other, except that the book was in my backpack, and when I ran into people I knew, I pulled it out to show them. Closest approximation: It was like being a secret millionaire.

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

Yes, I found the image. My friend Kelly Moore (another fine poet) showed me the work of a former professor of hers. This was after looking for months with a concept in mind but nothing physical to show for it. Zone 3 was really receptive to and eager for my and Leigh Anne’s input. There wasn’t a choice offered because they wanted to work with us, make sure that we were pleased with the finished book, make us proud to show it off.

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 imagine that, though I had no ideas how. Even vague ones. Really, I knew that the main difference – and it’s a big one – is that I’d have a book. People would be reading it (hopefully), people I didn’t even know. My words would exist without me. The strangest thing to come about in this regard is googling myself and finding via MySpace a girl in New England who lists me as one of her favorite poets and I swear I have no idea who she is.

Also, I thought it would be easier to get a teaching job.

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

Well, I don’t have a teaching job. That hasn’t happened (yet).

The largest difference in my life has been the lack of pressure. Oh, there’s still pressure to publish another book (maybe that’ll get me a teaching job), but the pressure is lessened. I have a book already, so I feel, in a way, more free to do what I want with future manuscripts, make them full of odes to cottage cheese, or write them in binary. Those manuscripts have yet to be taken.

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

Mainly, I’ve done readings to promote the book. Luckily, Zone 3 has been able to help out with this, setting up a number of readings for me and providing support – in terms of shipping books – to those that I’ve been fortunate to arrange on my own.

The only bad experiences in this process have been readings as part of a regular series where the featured reader is followed by an open mic. This is because, in my experience, the people who show up are there to read and, because they’re reading after you they’re nervous, tense, and not so focused.

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

Don’t worry so much about it. Writing is what makes you a writer, not publishing (although the latter makes you a writer in the eyes of others). And, in fact, someone did give me this advice: Robert Boswell in a fiction class, though I thought he wrong at the time. The thing is that a book can’t change your life as a writer. The book is static. It’s not going to change, however many copies it sells, however much acclaim it wins for you. The thing is, you still have to write, and the book isn’t going to do your writing for you.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon? You also write plays. What else should we anticipate from you in the future?

It’s made me more aware of books as books. Like I said earlier, poems change when they are put in the context of a book, and so what I’ve found myself doing for my two manuscripts after City of Regret is looking at them, from an early point, as cohesive wholes rather than disparate poems stitched together by a desperate surgeon.

As for new books, there’s nothing forthcoming. I’ve the two poetry manuscripts – though only one’s being sent out at the moment – and a fantasy novel as well as a small collection of plays that I’m just now exposing to the air. I helped start a theater company in Houston – Barefoot Theater – and I’m working with them, which makes writing new plays more immediate at the moment. Lastly, I’m starting on a young adult novel. Sans vampires.

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

Don’t be afraid – after you’ve won a contest or have an offer for publication – to compare and really look in detail at the press who wants to publish your book. Of course you should do this before you submit, but there’s a great deal of difference between a possibility and an actuality. Don’t rush. Don’t be afraid to say no.

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

Yes, though as with most things I believe that important change occurs on a personal level. But change one person at a time and eventually you’ll change the whole world.

Andrew Kozma
received his M.F.A. from the University of Florida and his Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. His poems have appeared in AGNI Online, Zoland Poetry, Smartish Pace, and Subtropics, and his non-fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review. His first book of poems, City of Regret (2007), won the Zone 3 First Book Award, and he has also been the recipient of a Houston Arts Alliance Fellowship and a fellowship to the Sewanee Writers' Conference. He currently lives in Houston.