How often had you sent out Paper Anniversary before it was chosen for the 2009 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize?
Many, many times, Keith. The book had been short-listed for just about everything. The university where I teach rewards research and writing, but it’s not a “publish or perish” institution, so I had the luxury of time. I kept working on the book until I felt a degree of comfort that it was ready. I also had the luxury of being selective in where I sent it, which may have been a factor in its taking so long to find a publisher. I submitted the manuscript to the same contests and presses year after year, and it was a finalist so many times that I was beginning to think the book had what in baseball is known derisively as “warning track power”—that it sounded good off the bat and carried a long ways but didn’t have enough pop to leave the yard. I never gave up on the book, though, and kept trying to make each iteration a little stronger, a little more cohesive, hoping it would find a sympathetic reader. Maybe the wind was blowing out that day.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Paper Anniversary? Did it go through any other changes?
The book’s had about as many titles as it has poems. Ed Ochester, who directs the Pitt Poetry Series, picked Paper Anniversary after the book had been accepted. It’s from the title of a poem that’s at the center of the collection. Ironically, I suppose, the poem deals with the difficulty of naming things.
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 mostly interested in finding the book a good home. The prize was just gravy. Being in the Pitt Poetry Series with all those poets I hold in the highest regard—Larry Levis, Ted Kooser, Cathy Song, Kate Daniels, Greg Orr, it just goes on and on—that’s the real prize. The advice I would give is envision your book on the backlist of whatever publishing house you send to—it’ll be there soon enough—and ask yourself, “Is this good company to be in?” Not a hard question to answer with Pitt.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
Paper Anniversary went through many versions, many orderings. Even though it’s just a collection of poems and not a “concept album” type of book, I still was deeply concerned that the poems progress in some coherent way. The book doesn’t have to be read sequentially at all, but that’s the way most people read a book of poems, so I wanted each poem to not be disruptive of the poems around it. It took some doing.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
Pitt has an excellent designer, Ann Walston. She listened very patiently to my, um, generous amounts of input. My long line is hard to manage in a standard book format and I had definite ideas about how I wanted the pages to be set up. Despite all my input, the book looks great. She did a beautiful job.
Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?
Again, Pitt was a pleasure to work with. The image I chose, Bookshelf With Sunbeams by Memphis artist Burton Callicott, is from the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. I’ve loved that painting for a long time. And in ways I can’t fully articulate, I believe Mr. Callicott’s project in his painting is related to what I’m trying to do on the page. It hangs on the second floor of the museum, a few blocks from my house. These are Memphis poems, written in Memphis even when they aren’t explicitly about Memphis, so it is fitting that a Memphis artist is on the book.
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?
A good editor like Ed Ochester is capable of reading a book and making a judgment as to its worth without consulting the Acknowledgments page to see what journals have put their imprimatur on the individual poems. (The world needs more good editors—can’t have too many of ’em.) But I think a book’s journal credits do have a story to tell about the tastes of the poet, and maybe a little to say about the savor of the poems themselves. My work tends to get published in places like Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, the Southern Review, Southern Humanities Review, Southwest Review, any journal with some version of “South” in its name. Sou’wester.
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?
Though none was required, I did make a couple of changes after the book was accepted. Actually sending the thing off to press and being confronted by the absolute ending of its evolution somehow casts a manuscript in an even harsher, clearer light. It’s the book’s date with the gallows, so to speak, and the thinking of the poet becomes wonderfully clarified. I was happy that the collection stood up well in those conditions.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
We went to dinner at Café Society, a neighborhood restaurant. I had the filet.
How has your life been different since your book came out? Did it become a factor in getting a future job for you?
I’m thrilled at the prospects of the book becoming a factor in helping me keep the job I’ve got. I’ve been teaching at Union University for 22 years. It’s a great job.
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?”
That’s a tough one. I try to stay out of conversations on public conveyances. And “What’s the book about?” is a difficult question for even the best book of poetry. What’s Harmonium about? Or Geography III? (I’m pretty sure it’s about more than geography.) I’d say Paper Anniversary is one man’s attempt to make sense of the stories his life has churned up, and that by reading such a thing, I’d hope the reader’s own world might begin to register a little more sharply on the retina.
What have you been doing to promote Paper Anniversary, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I like to read poems out loud and talk about craft. The book has provided me with a more pressing reason for doing that. I’ve given readings at The Southern Festival of Books and our local independent bookstore, Davis Kidd Booksellers. It’s been a busy spring, with events already at the AWP Convention in Washington, D.C. and Vanderbilt University, and I’ll be reading shortly at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and UNC Greensboro. But I have many open dates in fall 2011 and spring 2012!
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
People who take up the art of poetry and pursue it long enough to complete a book have already demonstrated an imperviousness to even the most reasonable advice from family, clergy, and loved ones. I’ve disregarded miles and miles of wise counsel. To my detriment. It probably wouldn’t do me any good to wish for more.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
I’m writing poems. Same as always. They say some boxers fight tentatively as they’re rising through the ranks, and then, when they’ve had success and finally win a belt, they are transformed and start to fight like champions. Poetry isn’t exactly the same as prize fighting, but it’s not a bad thing to hope for.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
This is a common question and a thought-provoking one, but I think these days it is largely a question about celebrity: Why aren’t poets bigger deals in our culture? Why aren’t poets consulted by presidents? Why don’t they do American Express commercials and lip sync their poems during halftime of the Super Bowl? The thing is, poetry does create change. I don’t believe it; it does. We read Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and we come out transformed on the other side. All art changes us. We look at a painting, it moves us, it stops us in our tracks and we are changed. We listen to a piece of music and the world seems less barbarous for a few notes, the world is less barbarous for a measure or two. That will have to be enough. My poetry has never gotten me a better table in a restaurant, it’s had no discernible impact on our nation’s foreign policy, it’s never made my children’s schools any better—the only thing in my immediate power that does is when I show up myself and volunteer for something, maybe I’m reading in my daughter’s third-grade class, not my poems but someone else’s writing, and the kids go quiet as I bend open the book, waiting for me to find where I left off the week before, and then we begin to listen to every word Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a long time ago, during the Great Depression, and for a few minutes all of us are changed.
Bobby C. Rogers grew up in McKenzie, Tennessee and was educated at Union University, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and the University of Virginia. His book Paper Anniversary won the 2009 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in fall 2010. He has been three times nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and he won the Greensboro Review Literary Prize in Poetry for 2002. His poems have appeared in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Image, Epoch, Puerto del Sol, The Iron Horse Literary Review, Southwest Review, Sou’wester, Nimrod, Cimarron Review, Southern Humanities Review, Washington Square, Meridian, Grist, and many other magazines. New work is due out shortly in Shenandoah Online, Southwest Review, and Image. Currently, he is Professor of English and Writer-in-Residence at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He lives in Memphis with his wife and son and daughter.