I sent out the manuscript for about three years before it was chosen for the Cleveland prize.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Self-Portrait with Crayon? Did it go through any other changes?
Originally the manuscript was called “Curtainfall,” which is the title of the second to last poem in the book, and the title of a Degas painting that depicts the end of a ballet. I think “Curtainfall” was a good title because it captures something key in the book—in that it’s a way of saying “the end,” and a way of acknowledging the book is a performance of the end.
After the second year of sending out the manuscript to contests, as I became more aware of the need to earn readers’ attention, I changed the title to “Self-Portrait with Crayon,” the title of another poem—and Degas painting—in the book, because I thought it was a little more modern, a little more arresting and immediately visual. And I think it captures the speaker’s main conflict concerning disappearing and appearing (after the mother leaves).
It seems like there’s a possible misconception among some poets who are trying to get their first book published: that they must win a contest. Were you concerned about winning a contest at any point? What advice would you give to poets sending their book out now regarding contests versus open reading periods?
It didn’t really occur to me for a long time to send to open reading periods. I don’t know why. Maybe I just thought that it was so unlikely that a press would choose my manuscript when they weren’t required to choose anyone’s, whereas by entering a contest, there was a guarantee that someone’s manuscript would be published—they had to pick someone. I felt I was paying for that chance in the contest system. But now that I’m starting to send out a second manuscript, I’m sending to both contests and open reading periods. Of course winning a contest gives a book some instant promotion, and sometimes some clout (depending on the contest)—that’s the obvious benefit of the contest system. But really it’s a privilege and a miracle to have a book published by whatever means, and having a press one admires agree to do this, regardless of how this happens, is the goal.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
Organizing the book was difficult for me, to put it mildly. It was like working out a giant math problem, and I suck at math. The only way I could do it was to read the first poem, then the second poem, and listen for the third. And then read poem one, two and three, and listen for the fourth, etc. I thought I was going to go insane, but once I got the order right, I didn’t mess around too much with it (well, once, in the third year of sending it out, I panicked and rearranged the first section, but I went back to the original structure pretty quickly).
The prose poem is a form that seems to always be constantly discussed, debated, shunned, embraced, etc. What draws you to the form?
Initially I was attracted to prose poems because I fell in love with Killarney Clary’s Who Whispered Near Me, as well as some of Maxine Chernoff and Rosemarie Waldrop’s prose poems. At that time, I was bored with what I was writing, and I had fallen into some bad habits, so at first I tried writing prose poems just to shake free of those tics. Eventually, writing in prose helped to create Self-Portrait with Crayon because it gave me a sense of space and it worked against some of my impulses to rush toward lyric conclusions. So much of the book comes from a place of waiting and emptiness, and somehow the prose form helped me enter that world more completely. It’s all pretty mysterious really, how form and content and music conspire to create a way into the material.
When you were putting together Self-Portrait with Crayon, did you know it would be comprised solely of prose poems? Why did you come to this decision?
When I stared writing prose poems that meditated on Degas’ artwork, I didn’t know I was writing a book. In fact, I wrote the first one as a random exercise in response to a postcard of Degas’ “Combing the Hair” I brought home from London—and in responding to that painting, I found, to my surprise, that I could write about my mother’s disappearance in a way I never could before. So I tried it again, with Degas’ “Dancers in Blue,” and it worked again. So I kept going. I had found a way in. I thought that maybe, if I ever had a book, these prose poems might be a section of that book. So the consistent focus and form of these poems was a conscious choice—I was just surprised that there were enough layers to create an entire book of them.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
Cleveland State University Poetry Center was very considerate throughout the entire publication process. They consulted me about the decisions they made about font, margins, etc., and sought my input—I felt involved, but also indoctrinated into the process of letting those with experience do their job.
Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?
The press allowed me a lot of creative control over the cover. I knew I wanted to use a detail of a Degas sketch, something becoming an image of a woman. So the image on the cover is one of Degas’ portrait sketches, but the press ultimately had a hard time securing permission to use it from the museum in France—they agreed, and then claimed it was in a private collection. Eventually, artist Sara Deckman, my cousin, made a sketch of the Degas’ sketch, and that was the basis for the cover.
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?
No, I never really thought that far ahead. I just sent out work to journals while I was writing the manuscript, hoping to have individual pieces published. I think it’s nice to have the work out there prior to a book publication, of course, and having several of the pieces taken by journals I admired was encouraging. I felt like maybe the work had value, and maybe the collection would have value.
How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?
There was very little editing that went on after the book was slated for publication. Just little tweaks with punctuation—there was one sentence in “The Ballet of Robert the Devil” that I rearranged at the suggestion of the press. That manuscript had been pretty obsessively fine-tuned before I ever sent it out.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I first saw the book at AWP last year. The press had published it just in time for the conference—so I remember seeing it from afar as I spotted Cleveland’s booth. It was pretty exciting, and the book was beautiful, but of course then I felt sick because I had to “see” it. Having the idea of a book is much more comfortable than seeing the actual object, for me anyway. I got over the shock and nausea by the end of AWP though. I just kept stacking my book with all the other books I bought at the book fair, which kind of neutralized it.
What have you been doing to promote Self-Portrait with Crayon, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I’ve been doing a lot of readings. At first, this was challenging because I’m not that comfortable being on-stage and reading my work, but I understood that this was vital for the book, and I wanted the book to live, so I decided I would feel terrified and read often and try to read well anyway. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I enjoy reading now, but I’m much closer to feeling present at readings, and to reading my poems like a normal human being.
If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”
I would probably say “It’s a book of meditations on Degas’ artwork, rooted in my mother’s abandonment of me,” and then I would feel really awkward and ashamed. Or I would just say, “It’s a book of mediations on Degas’ artwork,” and feel really pretentious. Or I could just say, “It’s about my mom.” That would be a good, vague, platonic answer, especially considering that I’m on a plane and I don’t really want to get too into it with a stranger.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
I think I was given so much good advice over the years, and I had witnessed a number of people get published for the first time, so thankfully I don’t feel that I missed something key. In practical terms, before the book came out, Michael Dumanis, from CSU Poetry Center, gave me some great advice about how to promote my book, as far as getting a website going and soliciting particular reading series, etc. He was very clear with me about the author’s role in getting her book out there. Other people over the years repeatedly clarified that there was no such thing as “arriving”.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing?
I now have the consciousness, with my current work, that I am writing what might actually be another book. I mean, I’m conscious of the concept of the public object now—about readers, reviews, readings, book sales. I feel a little more exposed, a little more in the world.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I believe that poetry, reading it and writing it, changed me. So yes, fundamentally, I believe poetry (and any art form that elicits empathy) can create change in a person, in people, and by extension, “in the world”.
Allison Benis White is the author of Self-Portrait with Crayon, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, and Pleiades. Her honors include the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, the Bernice Slote Award from Prairie Schooner, and a Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She recently completed a second manuscript, “Small Porcelain Head,” which received the James D. Phelan award for a work-in-progress from the San Francisco Foundation. She teaches at the University of California, Irvine.