How often had you sent out Constituents of Matter before it was chosen as the winner of 2006 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize?
Yikes, embarrassingly often and for a long time! Actually, that’s not true at all.
I had sent out an earlier version of the manuscript for a couple of years. That manuscript had been a finalist, but I took it out of circulation for more than a year, during which I had an especially intense summer of revision. I came up with the new title, Constituents of Matter, which led to a re-seeing. The Wick Poetry Prize was in the first batch of a half-dozen competitions to which I sent Constituents of Matter. So, it seemed to take ages to find a publisher, but it actually was picked up quickly once I had figured out how to think about the concept of book.
Tell me more about the title. It hadn’t always been Constituents of Matter. Did it go through any other changes?
The earlier manuscript was called Moments from Their Causes, which is part of a line from the poem that opens Constituents of Matter and a phrase Stanley Plumly had suggested would make a good title someday. The new title refers to the fundamental particles that make up all matter, the smallest parts of absolutely everything around us—that compose us. The title sounds less Romantic and made sense to me because the autobiographical poems attempt to make sense of events and images in my life, especially my father’s illness and death, as fundamental particles of who I have become.
Your question compelled me to go poking around in my old files, and I’m newly surprised at how much that title change then changed the whole manuscript. There had been four sections where there are now three, with different arrangements within sections. I deleted poems (at least a half-dozen), added new poems, re-titled poems (used “theory” in numerous titles), and revised some poems into this undercurrent theme. That may sound like a trick, or some kind of ploy, but it didn’t feel like that one bit. It reinvigorated my writing and helped me discover connections within and across poems. The revision was significant enough that I probably shouldn’t talk as if these manuscripts are versions—the book really was a new manuscript.
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?
When I was sending my book out, I didn’t really think about winning a contest—the important thing to me was to find a publisher. My sense is that there are more contests than there are open reading periods, and open reading fees often cost as much as contest fees. From my perspective as a submitter, it really all seemed the same.
That said, for those of us who teach in a college or university, these issues cross our minds. I knew that publishing a full-length collection could make me marketable (yikes, what a word for a poet to apply to herself!) in a different way. I’d like to say I’m above all this so-called po-biz, and I hope that I am when I’m writing. But I would not have my current position at Chapman University if Constituents of Matter weren’t published. I’ve heard, too—and this surprised me—that a contest win matters a great deal to some search committees faced with a stack of published poets.
My advice is to look at the opportunities and send to presses—contests or open reading periods—where you’d like to see your work. My friend Nancy Kuhl had been published by Kent State University Press, so I knew the Wick Poetry Center and the press were good people doing interesting things. I’m glad my book landed there.
What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Many of the poems have been previously published. Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?
I was happy to have every journal publication, and the chapbooks, too. “At My Father’s Funeral” was published in Alaska Quarterly Review in 1995, more than a decade before the book came out. Each context creates a different way of reading the poem. Each venue is a different party the poem is invited to attend, a different conversation about poetry in which it gets to say something. The book changes, in some ways, how the individual poem is read—there are connections to be made across poems, there’s an arc I’ve created, and so on.
I know this issue is already a bigger one for writers of story and essay collections, but I haven’t heard much fretting by poets about that. In fact, until recently, I heard poets advocating for publishing as many individual poems as possible from a manuscript. Not many of my published poems were available online, so that might matter more and more these days. I’d hate to think we’d have to hold back poems for a book. Seeing which poems were picked up by journals helped me understand what might be working well in certain poems and not in others, and a piece in a journal or anthology puts a poet in the company of others. That’s a great opportunity.
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?
Very little. I think I changed a few lines, and I agreed with Maggie Anderson, the Wick director at the time (it’s David Hassler now), that two poems (airplane poems that are in my chapbook Turns about a Point) could be cut. By the time I sent out the manuscript, years of writing and revision had made it as strong a collection as I could manage.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.? Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?
I saw page proofs, and made formatting corrections, especially with what I call my squared sonnets in the “Recurring Dream” sequence. But I didn’t discuss much interior design.
Maggie Anderson suggested some editorial changes, and my book’s editor suggested small edits. One I remember was the change from Stryofoam to polystyrene. The editor caught it because it was a brand name, and I sort of laughed that that mattered in a poem. But immediately, I recognized it as a good diction change for the project, because polystyrene emphasizes the chemical and molecular nature of the thing. It was an aesthetic change even more than an editorial one.
Kent State University Press asked me for cover art suggestions. Just then, Lylie Fisher had an exhibit at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near where I lived. Her images are hand-painted on raw images of Bubble Chamber experiments from the 1960s; she worked to ensure that the art didn’t overtake the science, so you can see the particle tracks that guided her reinterpretation. After seeing her exhibit—and picking out the image I really wanted—I attended her lecture at Fermilab and lingered afterward to ask whether we could use “In Search of Meaning (#1)” on the cover of Constituents of Matter. She liked the idea, and granted permission in exchange for two copies of the book. I used part of the book prize award to purchase a print of the cover image, in part because it’s such a good fit with what I try to do with language.
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 hate that question, but it’s an important one to be able to answer. Emerging poets are sometimes not great at talking about their work. I’ve heard that criticism of us particularly from colleagues who’ve been on search committees. Before something is published, it feels as if talking about the work could jinx the poem or manuscript. After, there’s less pressure to articulate what it’s about because it should be able to speak for itself—and you’re onto new poems and projects anyway.
The blogging and Facebook culture is probably making us more comfortable with being public, with articulating ourselves and what we’re up to as poets. In my graduate workshops, I do an exercise in which students walk down the hall in pairs and “pitch” their chapbooks to each other. It’s something fiction writers have long done. Saying aloud what the project is about makes it real and helps focus revision, as well as being a good career skill.
When asked, I probably skirt around the question, as I’ve just done, then say something like, As the title Constituents of Matter suggests, I draw ideas and language from science. The book is divided into three sections, each named for a different pair of quarks. The poems are largely autobiographical, dealing in part with the death of my father from cancer when he was 53. I said something like that at a dinner party recently, and a woman—not a scientist—started naming the quarks. I really got that book title right on many levels.
This is a, for lack of a better word, extremely varied book in regard to forms of poem to poem. Was this a conscious decision for you as you were writing these poems, or do you believe that eventually each poem lets you know what the final form will be for it?
I read Beth Ann Fennelly’s “The Winnowing of Wildness” as I was in the process of revamping my manuscript. I had long experimented with a variety of forms—the villanelle form; my squared, unrhymed sonnet-like poems; regular stanzas; single-sentence poems; poems broken up all over the page; and so on. Starting with my hamburger haiku in fourth grade, I’ve always played with fixed forms, as well as free verse, which isn’t willy-nilly itself. But Beth Ann’s article made me wonder whether I needed to have a narrower range in my collection. She herself admits to reigning in her first book’s manuscript. I wanted to buck that presumption. My so-called theme—the science—allowed me to rationalize that a thematic or topical (autobiographical material) coherence compensated for what otherwise might be too much formal variety.
Because of my own habits and interests, I continue to be flummoxed that this—too much variety in form—is an issue, but it keeps coming up. I know many poets find their form—or their aesthetic stance or their subject matter—and vary within that. That’s well and good. I actually don’t think of my work as exceptionally varied, until someone points it out. Jon Tribble, from Southern Illinois University Press, held an AWP panel a couple of years ago that really helped me think about disparate and cohesive collections. I try to do something distinctive with each poem, so I expect variety in form from myself. I’m sure I get into other ruts, which sometimes might be turned into cohesiveness, but form keeps pushing me in many directions.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
That’s pretty exciting! I expected it to be a relief—because it took about a year between acceptance and publication—but really, it was encouragement to keep at this poetry-writing thing. The book in my hand for the first time was the giddy, inarticulate, Wow, look what I did! It was also the question, Now what?
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?
Promotion is part of the package, isn’t it? And that’s okay, because promotion is about readers, about celebrating poetry with other people.
The Wick Poetry Center hosted me, along with judge Alberto Ríos, for a week of events, which was amazing. I set up readings, wherever was relatively convenient, like Homecoming at Knox College. At a friend’s suggestion, I ordered postcards with the image of my book cover on the front. That’s a handy thing to distribute, though there’s no telling whether a postcard leads to a purchase. Kent State University Press is great about getting copies into libraries.
Friends and family are promoters, too. My aunt sold copies to her poker buddies, and my mother gave copies to people who had known my father, since many of the poems are about him. The poems probably matter in a different way to people who know me.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
It’s not advice exactly, but I wish I had known that a lull in one’s poetry writing is common, either after the acceptance or in the wake of the publication. Once I had a book—once someone else said I had a book!—I felt pressure to compose the next book, instead of the next poem. Thinking about a poetry project can work really well, but at that time, it was daunting to me. I’m not someone who writes a poem a day and has a manuscript in a few months, but I inadvertently took a break from writing poetry, instead collaborating with art historian Debora Rindge on critical articles and writing pedagogy essays. I ended up going back to older poems before I could move forward with new work, in part because I was unable to start from scratch poem by poem.
I think it’s important that we share our experiences as writers. While each of us has an individual experience, commonalities or similarities exist among us. That’s one reason I spearheaded a conversation essay among Nicole Cooley, Kate Greenstreet, Nancy Kuhl, and myself on the emerging poet (it appears in Bookslut.) Talking about what we do as poets is a good thing for the larger endeavor.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? Are you currently working on a second collection?
I have circulated a second collection, entitled Among Virgins and Harlots, which is less autobiographical, instead seeking less overt connections between my experiences and those of other women. The first collection taught me about developing a coherent collection, and I find a certain energy in seeing groups of poems work together. In this new manuscript, I have a section of poems about women saints, many of which have been published. I’m also experimenting with the persona poem, an approach with which I became fascinated as a graduate student reading nineteenth-century British poetry. One section of the manuscript is in a version of the voice of Lizzie Siddal, D. G. Rosetti’s wife and a popular model for painters of the day; “On Sketching Pippa Passes the Loose Women (1855)” was recently accepted for inclusion the forthcoming anthology A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, so I feel as if that was an external indication that I’m on to something.
But I’ve stopped sending this manuscript out very much. Over the course of last year, the manuscript was a finalist in several competitions, so I’m not really discouraged. Still, I think it needs reworking. That’s what happened with the first full-length book. The problem, of course, is that I now have written new poems that don’t fit. In the last two years, I’ve started revising a novel, drafting memoir essays, and directing Tabula Poetica, and also launched Lofty Ambitions Blog with Doug Dechow, my longtime collaborator in scholarship and life. I may have mentally or artistically moved into other projects, even as I’m still very interested in these virgins and harlots. And now that your questions have led me to look closely again at my earlier experience, I see how drastic a manuscript revision might need to be. It’s something I very much want to do, probably in the spring when I’ve been awarded a one-course release for research and writing. I’d like to get to it sooner, but this interview has made me more realistic about my process.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
The world is always in flux, so create change seems an odd way for me to think about poetry’s relationship to or role in the world. Maybe I just don’t want the pressure to create change as a poet—it’s really about language on the page, when I think of myself as a writer. Certainly, poetry can witness and shape change—it’s about that, at least in part, when I think of myself as a reader. I’d say that poetry creates meaning of and in the world.
Human beings are metaphorical thinkers and users of complex language, so poetry stands among the most human of endeavors. To me, poetry seems a deeply human expression of and response to the world in which we live, and it invites divergent thinking and unexpected connections in the poet and the reader. Other tasks employ these human skills, but poetry does it in a particular way—with language, with words, syntax, musicality, visual form—that allows the personal and universal to collide, to meld, to create meaning together. I surmise that’s why I drew heavily and purposefully from metaphors and terminologies of science in Constituents of Matter, but ended up with largely autobiographical poems.
Poetic expression shapes—creates shape, expresses the shape of, changes the shape of—the writer, the reader, and the world around us.
Anna Leahy’s book Constituents of Matter won the Wick Poetry Prize, and she has published two chapbooks. Recent poems appear in Crab Orchard Review, Cream City Review, The Laurel Review, Margie, and other literary journals, as well as in the anthologies The Next of Us Is About to Be Born and On the Wing. She edited Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom, which launched the New Writing Viewpoints series, and continues to publish widely in the area of creative writing pedagogy. Leahy teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University and directs Tabula Poetica, which hosts an annual poetry series and other projects. With Douglas Dechow, she writes Lofty Ambitions Blog.