Tuesday, March 15, 2011

#37 - Sandy Longhorn

How often had you sent out Blood Almanac before it was chosen for the 2005 Anhinga Prize for Poetry?

I sent the manuscript out to around 50 presses/contests before hearing from Anhinga.

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

Blood Almanac comes from a line in “Labor Day on the Bremer Blacktop”: “three decades now out of our hands, / out of the almanac in our blood.” It was originally suggested as a section title by my then thesis advisor, Davis McCombs, at the University of Arkansas. I loved it so much, I made it the title of the book.

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?

Winning a contest was very much talked about in my MFA program, and while I did send the book out to some non-contest presses during open reading periods, I sent to many more contests. It seemed harder to find news of open reading periods than it did to find news of contests. I was definitely more concerned with getting the book published than winning a contest; the contest road was just more heavily publicized.

As for advice, I’d say only submit to contests or open reading periods from presses you admire and with whom you feel a kinship. I sent to far too many contests that I never stood a chance of winning because my work didn’t fit the style of the press. That was wasted time and money. With contests, you want to be sure you’re willing to donate the entry fee to the press. I don’t mind sending in entry fees for contests because I know that they go to support the press and poetry; however, it’s money that I have to spend, and I’m not going into debt doing this.

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

The first version of Blood Almanac was assembled as my master’s thesis at the University of Arkansas. That program is four years, which was a huge selling point for me during my application process. I’m a slow learner in all things, and I didn’t find my voice until my third year. In that year, I realized that one of my obsessions was the landscape of the Midwest, where I’d been raised and had come of age. Those poems fit neatly together in the first section. The middle section is a series of twelve self-portraits that I wrote over one year, one per month, in an attempt to explore the self-portrait as a poetry form, taking my cue from visual artists. The third section was a bit of a mess when I left Fayetteville, and I spent the next six months or so ripping it up and reconstructing it.

Of course, it took another year and a half to find a home for the book, and the week before I heard from Anhinga, I had actually torn the manuscript to shreds and removed half of the poems. The doubt does sink in from time to time; luckily, both Rick Campbell and Lynne Knight of Anhinga reassured me that the book was wonderful and worthwhile as it was.

How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?

I had always been told not to expect much involvement with design, so I was caught off guard by Anhinga and specifically, Lynne Knight, who designed the book. I had a hand in every detail from choosing the font, page design, and the cover. However, I have to credit Lynne’s wonderful eye for the overall design, which I think is beautiful.

Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?

Yes, the photograph on the cover is by the same photographer who took my author photo for the back of the book, George Byron Griffiths. Geordie is an old friend from my undergrad days, and it was a delight to be able to work with him on the book. He’s from Minnesota, but the photo on the cover is from his family’s farm in Iowa (my home state), so it fit perfectly.

What about the publication of the actual poems in journals and magazines 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?

In the MFA program at Arkansas, we were told that we needed to publish individual poems in national journals and that this would lead to publishing the book. I don’t think this is as cut-and-dried as it might have once been. However, I’ve always written for an audience, always wanted the publications for affirmation but also because I knew I was writing for more than myself and my family/friends. So, the “business” of publishing fit right in with my detail-oriented, spreadsheet-keeping self and my sense of competition.

I do remember someone remarking that I had over ten poems published from my thesis collection, so surely it would get published. If only it were as easy as that!

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?

Again, the folks at Anhinga were wonderful about this. I think they asked me to remove two poems and add four newer pieces to the book. Then, I received a copy of the manuscript with both Lynne Knight and Rick Campbell’s editorial comments. I’d say there were marks on about ¾ of the manuscript, usually a question of word choice, line break, or grammar.

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

The book came out in June of 2006, the month I married my husband, so the two events are linked in my memory. I received my box of books at the end of May or early June, and I remember being bummed because Chuck, my then husband-to-be, was still at work when I came home and saw the box on the porch. Still, I couldn’t wait, so I rushed to slash it open, and then I just stood there looking at the copies for the longest time. There was an initial rush of joy and then a “what’s next?” I admit that I was surprised by how quickly the rush from seeing the books wore off.

How has your life been different since your book came out? Did it become a factor in getting a future job for you?

I already had my current job when the book came out, so it hasn’t been a factor in that sense. It has changed my writing life, made me feel a bit more legit, although I still suffer from an inferiority complex when I’m around people with more books. I’m not sure I’ll ever shed that feeling of climbing a ladder in terms of number of publications and number of books. Perhaps that is my own failing.

With the book, I’ve been able to travel and do readings (mostly on my own dime & time). One of my favorite things to do is to visit with undergraduate students about poetry, and the book has allowed me to do that.

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?”

Blood Almanac is about landscapes both exterior and interior. On the one hand, there are poems about the Midwestern landscape and the quiet people who inhabit it; on the other hand, there are poems about the interior landscapes of a speaker in search of herself and her place in the world. It’s very much a coming-of-age book, although it wasn’t published until I reached my early thirties.

What have you been doing to promote Blood Almanac, and what have those experiences been like for you?

At first, all of my promotion activities were centered around giving readings and visiting schools. In the fall of 2006, Anhinga hosted me on a mini-reading tour in Florida, which was a delightful way to launch the book. I also contacted my former undergrad mentor and was able to visit and read there, where the book was adopted for a class in contemporary American lit. I’ve worked to meet folks in Arkansas and really anywhere within a six or seven hour drive and have read or guest lectured at quite a few schools, colleges, and universities. I offer to come and visit a class/school for free if the book is adopted, if I can drive there and find a couch to crash on. If there is an honorarium to be had, well that’s just icing on the cake.

It was only two years after the book came out that I established a “web presence” with my blog, Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty, and a profile on Facebook. It’s something I knew I needed to do, but I dragged my feet. I have to say, once I figured out what I wanted from the blog, it’s become as important as the physical contacts I’ve made. I have discovered a supportive and caring community of writers, many of whom are not associated with a major writing program, as I’m not. The web allows us to form our own networking structures in the absence of being surrounded by established faculty peers and visiting writers.

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

Honestly, I received great advice and read every article I could find about launching a book, even before there was an inkling of hope that the book would find a publisher. I just wish I’d listened more.

Getting “the book” will not change your life, but it will be a milestone. Once the book is accepted, the work of getting it into the hands of readers begins, and that work will fall, mostly, on the poet. Some poets are good at this naturally; others are not. Know yourself and set realistic expectations. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

I heard all of this and have only come to understand it over time.

What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?

Since Blood Almanac came out in 2006, I’ve finished a second manuscript, tentatively titled, In a World Made of Such Weather as This. It’s been making the rounds for a year and a half and has gotten some good responses so far, although no contract as yet. The experience of publishing Blood Almanac is helpful in this, as I remind myself that it takes time and a bit of luck to find the right fit, the right pair of eyes.

Lately though, I’ve been foundering a bit as I’ve been seeking whatever comes next. I don’t write around a book-sized project or topic, so it usually takes some time to get my bearings. I have been working on a series of fairy tales about a girl from the Midwest who has trouble with boundaries and there may be something gathering force there.

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

Yes. I’ve seen it happen. I teach at a community college, and while some of my students have had a decent exposure to poetry and prose in the past, many are blank slates. Despite their background, many of them begin by doubting the worth of literature for whatever reason. Each semester, though, I see a poem or a short story change at least one student, usually more. I’ve seen Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain a formal feeling comes” allow a student to give voice to her grief for the infant she lost. I’ve seen poems by Ai allow students to discuss domestic violence and open the eyes of their classmates. I’ve seen veterans from the Vietnam era debate veterans from our current wars when we’ve read Komunyakaa, sometimes speaking about experiences they haven’t even told their families about. These are not earth-shattering changes, but those students, and myself, are changed just the same, in some small way. All those small changes, those cracks that let the light in, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, eventually add up.


Sandy Longhorn is the author of Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press, 2006), which won the 2005 Anhinga Prize for Poetry. New poems are forthcoming or have appeared recently in Anti-, The Dirty Napkin, Lake Effect, New Madrid, Redivider, Spillway, and elsewhere. Longhorn holds an MFA from the University of Arkansas, lives in Little Rock, AR, is an Arkansas Arts Council fellow, and blogs at Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty.