Wednesday, September 29, 2010

#30 - Alison Stine

How often had you sent out Ohio Violence before it was chosen as the winner of the 2008 Vassar Miller Prize?

I started sending out the book that would become Ohio Violence when I finished school. It took five years for the book to be accepted.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Ohio Violence? Did it go through any other changes?

The book had one previous title for most of the years I worked on it. Then, I was standing in the kitchen of our apartment in New York, making dinner with my husband, and I just thought of the phrase, Ohio Violence.

I wanted the title to catch you by surprise, but I also wanted to counter the idea of a tame Ohio. I had been thinking a lot about the difference between NYC and the Midwest, where I grew up: how poverty, which is a kind of violence, is treated. There was always a real sense in Ohio that people are aware of violence and are taking precautions against it, whereas in other places, NYC say, people are too broken or jaded or just plain tired out to do anything but stare—or worse, look away.

I had already been working on the piece that would become the title poem. As soon as I renamed the book, all the old poems seemed to fall in line. I realized a lot more clearly which ones fit and which didn’t. The first time I sent the book out with the new title Ohio Violence, it hit. I had found my backbone.

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?

I was just concerned with getting my book published. Getting someone to actually look at your work is hard enough, I don’t think it matters what route you go, as long as the publisher is reputable. Contests cost money to enter, but so do most so-called “open” reading periods. The advantage of a contest is that the judge changes, so you might find someone who understands your music better, or is more open to new things, than the regular series editor. The first round of a contest is often judged by students. That can be a great thing. I don’t really understand all this pandering to the old guard of poetry. The old guard dies off—and soon those young students will be in charge.

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

I went through a lot of drafts, but I mainly changed order. The poems mostly remained the same, though I would add in some new work over the years, and I did take a lot out. My books get thinner and thinner. I’m more slash and burn than let a bad thing be.

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 was very involved with the cover. One of my oldest friends, Brad Daugherty, an artist in Columbus, designed it. I knew how it should look on some level, but Brad crystallized exactly what I wanted it to be, in part because he understands my writing so well. I knew it had to be fall. This is a fall book. I knew there should be a storm coming.

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?

Most of the poems in the book were previously published in magazines, if for no other reason than they were so darn old! Some of the poems in Ohio Violence were written when I was a teen: “Fields Beyond Fields,” “Fall Burning.” They had time to find a place. Although I’m suspicious when I open a book and very few of the poems or stories have been previously published, you shouldn’t worry about getting all of them into magazines, or wait for that. If the book comes out, that work will find its audience.

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?

I did a lot of work. I didn’t think the book was done when it was first accepted. I felt the same way with my second book. Once you know publication is imminent, looming, that really crystallizes things. It helps you make hard decisions fast.

Both my first and second books I put together, finally, in the same place: at the Reynolds Young Writers’ Workshop in Granville, Ohio, a creative writing summer workshop for high school students where I’ve taught for the past ten years. I’m very inspired and motivated by children and teens, and being around my students in that setting helps me see things better. I can hear their voices and I know what to say, how to say it better for them. Because it is for them. I’m also motivated a great deal by the teaching assistants at the workshop, many of whom are former high school students of mine, and all of whom have become good friends.

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

Well, I made a video about it. They delivered the box of books to the wrong address. I was leaving to go to a conference the next morning, so I had to drive three hours to fetch it in the pouring rain. The book was shiner than I would have thought. I loved, and still love, Brad’s cover. I studied the cover and flipped through a bit, but I didn’t read it. I didn’t read it at all until one night, about a year later, when I couldn’t sleep. I got out of bed and read the whole thing, straight through, cover to cover. Then I could sleep.

How has your life been different since your book came out?

I realized that my readers were those I had always hoped for, those I was actually writing for all along: teenagers and young adults. That’s not a change so much as a realization, an awareness on my own part. I knew that, I wanted that, and now I don’t have to pretend anymore that I care what contemporary poets or professors think. Because I could care less. I only care what your kids think. That’s all that matters. Saying that aloud—that’s a change for me.

I’ve stopped pretending to be or to want anything else, to fight for a place in world I despise. I think I write for a different world. I write for people who are still growing up—that’s who I am. And I know that now. And I expect my life and my husband’s life will change much more, in deeper ways, soon: this winter, I will be giving birth to my first child.

What have you been doing to promote Ohio Violence, and what have those experiences been like for you?

Every event is different, and you can’t predict what’s going to happen. The University of Scranton gave me the chance to connect with the son of my late teacher and friend, the fiction writer Richard Kraus. Nearly everywhere I’ve read has given me the chance to have a meaningful interaction with at least one younger person, which is why I do readings. I mostly read at colleges, but would love to do more at high schools. My background is with bands and with theatre. I was very involved with the music scene when I lived in Washington DC, and pretty much all my ideas about touring and promotion come from those experiences. Have a set list. Bring snacks and your own water. Be on time. Be professional. Use lip liner.

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?”

Well... I wouldn’t tell them that! I avoid telling people I write. It seems pretentious, and it brings up questions that are difficult. I’m a teacher. That’s what I was trained to do, what I’ve done since I was fourteen, when I got my first job, helping at a performing arts school. Teaching is my job, and I love my job.

I was on a plane once where a flight attendant figured it out. She asked me if I had published a book, and then she wanted to know the answer to your question. I told her the truth: my book is about a young girl in a small town who gets in big trouble. I didn’t tell her it was poetry. If I’ve done my other job, my job of telling a good story, that shouldn’t matter. They’re just stories. If you’re interested in the story I’m telling, you won’t mind the form in which I tell it.

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

I don’t have a mentor. I’ve learned my own instincts are correct, but following them is sometimes hard. I told myself: do something else now. And I did.

What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Your second book has also won a prize and is going to be released next year. Tell us about that book. Were you completing it when you were constructing Ohio Violence? What’s different about your new book when compared to Ohio Violence?

I hope the teen readers who liked my first book will stick around. They’re a little older now, in college or maybe grad school, and this book is older too. It’s darker, rougher, more black magic. It’s about that last year before you find your way, when you’re still very deep in the woods—and you’re not alone out there. Except for the first poem and a few near the end, the stories are all set before I married my husband, when I should have waited for him. And didn’t.

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


I believe that stories can create influence in the world. Genre has nothing to do with it. Helping someone feel not alone; giving someone, especially a young person, hope for her life—that’s the only reason. And that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, to tell those stories.

Alison Stine was first published in The Kenyon Review and Hanging Loose when she was a teenager. Her work has since appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, Tin House, and many others. Her awards include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Ohio Violence, her first book, was published in 2009. Her second book, Wait, winner of the Brittingham Prize, will be published by the University of Wisconsin Press in early 2011. Formerly the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College, she has taught at Fordham University and Grand Valley State University, and presently teaches at Ohio University, where she is a PhD Candidate. She is married to poet and critic Jordan Davis.