How often had you sent out Slouching in the Path of a Comet before it was chosen for publication in 2007 by Sage Hill Press?
Between 2002 and 2006 I sent out the manuscript (to contests) probably 80 times, about 20 times a year for four years. Multiply that by an average of $15 a pop, and I spent over a grand, not counting postage. If I had ended up winning one of them, I might have broken even.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Slouching in the Path of a Comet? Did it go through any other changes?
The title changed many times, as did the overall content of the book. What is now Slouching is essentially a dramatic evolution of my UMASS MFA thesis. Even after defending my thesis, I knew that I had a lot of work to do. When I moved to Atlanta, I was lucky to have been writing (and publishing) many new poems, and so these gradually got added to the mix. A key moment in the evolution of the book was the result of a blast e-mail I sent out, around 2004, to several poet-friends. Ethan Paquin, a former UMASS compadre, replied tersely but beautifully spot-on: he said, “Lose the crap. End of story.” This comment was a lifesaver. After that, I took the best from my thesis, and added the best from the newer work, and in the meantime got rid of the crap. After this process (see below), the manuscript didn’t see many major changes, and was picked up by Sage Hill Press soon after. As for the specific title, one of them that I really liked was Splitting the Atom for Dummies (after a poem that has since been cut). I thought this title captured the irony inherent in my work. I found the current title while scanning the book for titles and also key lines. The first line of “Dangling” is “The Earth slouches in the path of a comet,” and I remember writing that down and thinking that it (well, its variation) would end up being the title, and I’m glad for that.
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 very much wanted to win a contest, though I don’t recall anyone telling me that this was a necessity. Most of the contests I sent to were those for a first book, and I knew the competition would be keen. In the year and a half or so before Thom accepted my book at Sage Hill, I was a finalist or semi-finalist several times, so I had confidence that the manuscript would be accepted in the near future, though I have no way of proving this. Since then, I have not been concerned with contests at all. Perhaps I’ve grown a little cynical. But there are many small independent presses out there who publish books of poetry without the stress, pressure and cost of a contest. In the last couple years since I have refined my second manuscript, I have sent it to only a couple of contests. Sometimes the press has had a reading fee, but that fee been far cheaper than the average contest fee. My conclusion is that young poets absolutely do not need to win a contest. This is not to say that they shouldn’t enter them – but the poets should remove such unnecessary pressure.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
As I said, there was a long evolution. But what I did several times was something I call the “floor effect.” I would spread out the poems individually on the floor, and at first out them in pairs. These pairs might be based on theme or form (etc.) but I wanted the poems to speak to each other as a reader progressed through the book. In the final stages of the floor effect, the process got easier: for example, there are five double-abecedarians in Slouching, and I knew that these would go into a single (and short) section of the book. I used the advice of a former mentor, Judith Kitchen, to alternate these poems A-Z-A-Z-A. But the floor effect worked really well in other ways, too – it enabled me to see each poem all at once, something that a computer could not have managed. As for submissions, yes, various editors would have seen various incarnations of the book until about 2004, after which I had finalized what is now Slouching.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
I had no involvement in the overall design. However, when I had met Thom Caraway in 2006 at AWP Austin, I commented on Sage Hill’s first book: I told Thom that I admired the relatively small type, and how the titles were in caps. For some reason, this is aesthetically pleasing to me. When my book came out, I was happy to see that Thom had used those same typographical aesthetics. I did not have any say in the cover design, but Mike Fetsch did a great job, and I like how not only is the tree quite bizarre, but it’s set at 90 degrees to the right. I think the image seems to parallel the book’s overall level of surrealism.
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?
I had heard that if 75% of the poems had been previously published, that this was a good number to strive for. I had been lucky with magazine publications, so after a while I stopped worrying about such numbers. But I do think that a solid acknowledgments page can influence not only potential publishers but readers as well. Ethos, I suppose. In any case, I do think that poets should publish in magazines as much as they can, and not merely rely on book publication for gathering an 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?
Very little, but only because I had already spent so much time and energy on revision, not just on the overall selection of poems, but on each poem itself. Not only that, Thom didn’t have many revisions to make either, so when the book got accepted, very few changes were made, and those changes that were made were very minor issues of line-editing or word choice.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
The box of books arrived just in time for AWP Atlanta in 2007. I literally took the box down to the conference hotel. The initial print run was 100, and we sold about 85 in just a couple days at AWP. I barely had time, when the box had arrived, to bask in any kind of glory, and the whole thing was a whirlwind. We then did the main print run of 500 that September. In any case, I do recall of course a feeling of pride in seeing the book as a real book, and not just a manuscript being constantly sent off to contests. The real vs. the abstract felt like a huge victory.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
It would be easy to say that I’m respected as a poet just because I have a book out. But lots of poets have a book (or multiple books) out, and perhaps those poets cannot truly stand behind those books. Years ago at UMASS, James Tate told our workshop group that we could all publish books, but could we stand behind them? I always had that in the back of my mind when sending out the manuscript, and Tate’s advice along with Ethan’s both led to my insistence upon getting rid of the crap. So, I’m more proud of having what I (and others) consider a good book than of simply having a book out. In a strictly practical sense, many potential employers are looking for a candidate who had published a book, and I’m happy to be one such candidate.
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?”
You say “on an airplane,” but this happens more often in bars. This is one of the most frustrating conversations with “non-poetry” people I’ve ever had. I suppose it’s fair to say that the “average person” is not a poet. But why does the average person insist that a book has to be about something? And, why does this aboutness have to be at the center of their universe? Even if I say my book is about science, for example, that is a poor answer, and my questioner will no doubt be dissatisfied. I often answer, “It’s not really about anything.” But then my genius questioner will ask if it’s “about nothing, like Seinfeld,” at which point I just want to run far away from this person. To this day, I just suffer through such questions and do my best to not get arrested for manslaughter.
What have you been doing to promote Slouching in the Path of a Comet, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I have done as much self-promotion as possible, though I never learned how to effectively self-promote. When I stopped using MySpace, I simply left a picture of my book cover as my profile pic. I did this because I found that when I googled myself (guilty as charged), my MySpace page came up at the top. So I figured, why not use that? I’m a big fan of doing live readings, and I’ve been lucky to have several colleagues teach my book in their classes. I like this method because it introduces my book to young writers, and not just already-established ones. But I can be pretty shameless. For example, right here and right now. Buy my book. Why? Well, it has sold almost 850 copies, and that’s not bad for a first book from a small independent press.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
I don’t have any particular regrets. But I would make sure to be in touch with your publisher about how many copies would comprise the first print run, and how long those copies were intended to last. While I didn’t have any problems with this, or with my publisher, I have to say that both Thom and I were surprised that we moved so many copies all at once at the 2007 AWP. The result was that the main print run didn’t come out until several months later, after we had sold out all the copies. This is a “good problem,” I know – but it still left a gap of several months where we had no copies even to give away if we wanted to. Then again, you can’t anticipate these things. I’d also advise poets to do as much self-promotion as they can, or are able to. Publishers are terrific, but it’s a two-way street. Poets should not rely only on them, just as publishers should expect their poets to do some of the work, and this work can be fun and rewarding.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
The publication of Slouching itself has not directly influenced subsequent writing, but when you publish a book, it’s like a monkey off your back, pardon the cliché. As I said, I sent Slouching off for years, but I also had a new project brewing early on, since 2004, and this is the second manuscript which I’m hoping to publish soon. But when Slouching got accepted, I felt a stronger push to keep working on these “new” poems. When you let something go, it’s beautiful. Even more beautiful, I let Slouching go, only to see it a few months later as a published book. So I didn’t really let it go at all – I just let go the pressure and stress of trying to find it a home. My new project is a collection (I like to think of it a poem-cycle) of epistolary poems, initially inspired by Richard Hugo’s. My title is even a direct reference to his individual titles: Letter to So-and-So from Wherever. Of the 21 (many are long) poems in the collection, about 18 have seen magazine publication, both in print and online, and I’m confident that the collection will be picked up at some point, though you never know. But meantime I do want to let this one go, too, so that I can really focus on other projects.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
That’s a great question. When I think of literature changing the world, I think of those great world-changing novels like Huck Finn or The Jungle or The Grapes of Wrath. It’s hard to think of a single collection of poetry that effected some kind of concrete social change. Pablo Neruda? Tomaz Salamun? I was very lucky to have taken a semester-long workshop with Tomaz at UMASS in 2001 when he was a Visiting Poet. One day he told a story that left us breathless, and it goes something like this: When Tomaz was a young poet in Slovenia, he lived in a basement apartment next door to a “rival” poet. For a while, the rival poet had what you might call writers’ block. But Tomaz next door was typing away, night and day. The rival got so upset that one day he and his goons called Tomaz outside, and they proceeded to jump up an down on his chest. Apparently, they were not trying to actually harm Tomaz, but to stomp out the spirit in him that made him write so profusely, and so that maybe this spirit would leap inside the rival poet so that he could get some writing done. I might have mangled some details here, but this is like the coolest story about poetry that I’ve ever heard. It tells us that we should take poetry seriously, that it’s even possible to take poetry seriously, and that all of us poets have a huge responsibility beyond merely sketching images and metaphors and such. Granted, I know that Slouching will never “change the world,” but when I think of Tomaz’s story, I think that it maybe could. Lastly, I think of that terrific quote from William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Amen.
Mike Dockins was born in 1972 and grew up in Yonkers NY. After almost a decade of upstate NY college-hopping and insufferable stockboy jobs (which he now, ironically, misses), he graduated from SUNY Brockport (’99) with a BS in creative writing, and an almost-minor in geology. He holds an MFA from UMASS (’02) and a Ph.D. from GA State University (’10). He currently lives in Decatur GA where he teaches full-time at GA Perimeter College. His poems have appeared in Crazyhorse, The Gettysburg Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Quarterly West, Willow Springs, and elsewhere, and they have been reprinted on Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, and in the 2007 edition of The Best American Poetry. His first book, Slouching in the Path of a Comet (Sage Hill Press, 2007) is currently enjoying a second print run and is closely approaching a third. Mike is also a singer-songwriter. Fame for Zoe, the latest album (2005) from his acoustic-pop band Clop, is available in iTunes and elsewhere.