How often had you sent out Clamor before it was chosen for the 2009 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize?
Clamor was two years old in contest years when Doug Powell chose it for publication. I think I was pretty lucky in that regard—I’d probably sent in out to ten places, all told.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Clamor? Did it go through any other changes?
Even before it was a manuscript, it was definitely ‘Clamor’. ‘Clamor’ as ruckus and noise, clamor as protest, clamor as silence.
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’m pretty sure I’ve contributed to that misconception—and I’m hoping it is, indeed, a misconception. I admit, I wanted to win a contest, sure, but more than that, I wanted those poems out in the world. In hindsight, I’d probably focus on open reading periods, but I was much less aware of them at the time. In fact, I’m still pretty ignorant on the subject.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
The process involved a lot of sweeping. Literally. I would spread the pages out on my floor so I could see the physical progression, catch the imagistic echoes and cross-poem rhymes, see the general landscape of white space and typography amassed before me. I began to view the collection as its own poem, so I was insistent on trying to get all the breaks right, to allow a breath here or there, but to—hopefully—enact and maintain a harrowing momentum for the reader. But I had a pretty dirty floor: hence, the sweeping.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
Pretty minorly. One sticking point for me was that I wanted the final poem, “Roll Call,” to be a kind of hidden track, with a few blank pages of breath and space separating it from the previous poem. I was told that it might not be possible, but then the designer, Amy Freels, came up with a simple, gorgeous solution—that abstracted static image that appears as a section break throughout the book.
Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?
While my input was limited, I’m pleased with the results.
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?
Oh, no! Was I supposed to have the majority published? I thought I was lucky to have published a good handful... But I also thought that the poems belonged together, so I was hesitant to orphan them. Plus, I just wasn’t that focused on publication. I mean, I was, but I wasn’t organized or nearly diligent enough about it.
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. Cleveland State sent me some minor editing suggestions, and we back-and-forthed for a few rounds. It was all very civilized.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
The day I got the phone call from Michael Dumanis saying that Doug Powell had chosen my book was two days after I’d discovered that I was pregnant. So there was a general sense of giddiness and unreality that presided over my life at the time anyway. And, honestly? The news of the book just seemed that much more, well, hard-earned and noteworthy... But I guess I’m lucky that way.
The first day I saw the book I was at the AWP book fair in Denver, which happened to be the first time I’d been apart from my then ten-week-old daughter. At the time, standing alone in a public place without a burp cloth over my shoulder was pretty remarkable. The thrill, then, of holding my baby—er, book– in my hands was relatively unspeakable.
How has your life been different since your book came out? Did it become a factor in getting a future job for you?
Well, I begrudgingly joined Facebook on the suggestion of my press, and I’ll admit to many frittered-away hours as a result.
But what’s really changed my writing life was winning the Dylan Thomas Prize last December, which came with a purse hefty enough to buy a modest yacht. (Maybe.) I don’t know which is more incredible: the prospect of a few years of childcare or the sudden crazy bump in readership the prize—and the media in the wake of the prize-- has sparked. But if you had told me a few months ago that I’d be featured on All Things Considered—the theme music of which still takes me back to dinner preparations from my childhood-- and that strangers would be emailing me from New Delhi (ok, only one from India) to tell me how much my work resonated with them, no way would I have believed you. But there it is, and it’s been amazing.
As for future jobs? Well, I’m looking, ahem, to teach in Portland, Oregon beginning in fall 2011. Big ellipsis there.
What have you been doing to promote Clamor, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I scheduled a very small handful of readings in places where I had friends or family, which have ranged from, um, intimate, to raucous (and attended by my first grade teacher!). And my husband engineered a website that bears no marks of my own luddite leanings, which has at least given me something to point people toward.
But when Clamor came out, I was teaching and being a befuddled new mother and moving cross-country and trying to steal whatever sleep I could, and I really wasn’t in a position to travel, or spend time on promotional stuff. As it turns out, the little that I did do—which also included nagging my press about submitting the book to other first book contests— panned out huge with the Dylan Thomas Prize. And though it’s been a few months now since it was announced, I’m still reeling.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
To have a few pithy, interview-ready quotes for moments like this.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
I think it’s easy to feel overshadowed by The First Book. As if you’ll never write another poem worthy of publication again. To combat that potentially paralyzing fear, I just try to write as much and as often as I can—which is really a pitiably amount at the moment-- and to banish thoughts of future submission periods. Of course, that’s easier said than done. But, yes, there are poems in the works.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Yep. Just not, maybe, the kind of ‘change’ we talk about when we talk about ‘change’. I mean, that feeling when you come away from a poem wanting to see more-- or less or better-- to love more—or less or better—or to be less—or more—brutal...? That’s perception-changing, vision-changing, mood-changing stuff. And since you asked if poetry could create change in the world, and not change the world, I’m sticking to that initial affirmative.
Elyse Fenton is the author of the poetry collection, Clamor, which won the 2010 University of Wales’ Dylan Thomas Prize and Cleveland State University Press’s First Book Award. She has published poetry and nonfiction in The New York Times, Best New Poets, The Massachusetts Review, Pleiades, Verse Daily and elsewhere. She received a BA from Reed College and an MFA from the University of Oregon and has worked in the woods, on farms and in schools in the Pacific Northwest, New Hampshire, Mongolia and Texas. Though West Philly has recently claimed her as a resident, she is moving with her family to Portland, Oregon, in 2011. Find more at her website - http://www.elysefenton.com