How often had you sent out Town for the Trees before it was chosen for publication in 2011 by Foothills Publishing?
I must have sent it out about twenty times, but only three or four of those submissions were contests. I find it difficult to send out my work to places with which I have no connection. For that reason, I would spend a considerable amount of time researching presses, and there were quite a few which were shut down or who had suspended reading periods until further notice I wanted to have read my manuscript.
Those twenty times represent about three years of my manuscript's life because one press in particular that showed interest actually took me off the market for an entire year because I was so hopeful to submit it the next year. The editor chose not to publish poetry the next year, and when I re-submitted, she had selected a poet with whom she had worked with in the past. It was very disheartening, but not nearly as crushing as when the book had been accepted (to the point of a contract being signed) only to have it dropped. The editor and I were hopeful about the book in the future, but I ended up backing out of the agreement, in part because I was not interested in an on-line only publishing option.
It was about four months after the book was dropped I decided to send it along to Michael Czarnecki at Foothills because he had published two of my previous chapbooks. He loved it and almost immediately got back to me and said he wanted to put the book out. A few people had asked me why I didn't just send him the book in the first place. The truth is I didn't want to send it to him because I didn't want him to think I was trying to capitalize on our previous work.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Town for the Trees? Did it go through any other changes?
No. I had actually made a change. It used to be called Springville, after the very real town most of the poems are set. Town for the Trees came to me as an appropriate play on the idea of 'forest for the trees' at some point and I never varied from that choice. Choosing titles for me is a lot of fun. I will invariably go through several ideas, and a manuscript may have three or four different working titles, but by the time I get serious about sending it out, I have decided on a title, and I don't change my mind often after that point.
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 have only won one contest in all of my writing and publishing experience, and that was for my first chapbook. I entered contests for the experience of entering contests, and I will probably continue to enter them as I see ones I am interested in entering. For the most part, however, I do not see myself as the contest type. In fact I just wrote about this on my blog. I really don't see my poetry, specifically my manuscripts, as the type which fits in line with contests. What I wrote about in Town for the Trees was fine one or two poems at a time, but as a manuscript it just never seemed to fit my perceptions of what a contest winning manuscript looks/reads like.
What I would like to see happen is poets entering contests at presses with which they can see themselves creating a real working relationship. I think poets should find other ways to support the small press than rationalizing their contest reading fee as support. Poets should support presses without the ulterior motive of submitting to them. We all should buy more books just to buy and read them. More presses would survive that way. I think poets should seek out presses more actively and take the time to learn about them. Because of Facebook, I rarely go a week without looking at some new press and exploring their mission. Do I submit to every press I come across? No. I query, I ask myself questions, and I weigh my options. But having heard of presses I can suggest them to poets I know, and I hope other poets might do the same for me.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
The poems in this manuscript were quite easy to order. I had narrative arc in mind, and it was simply a matter of finding the most entertaining/best way to express that arc with the poems which I had for the book. I am a big believer in over writing, and I had a lot of poems initially, and when I had what I thought was a pretty good start, I sent my book off to a friend of a friend whose work I admired. He got back to me with more cuts to make, and I made most of those and ended up with something which was pretty close to the final manuscript. I wanted to do a few specific things and I set about doing them. On such thing was the placement of two haibun poems and a few advent poems at specific points in the manuscript. One choice made early on was to not have sections. I had tried several variations of the book with sections, and every time the book felt wholly unnatural. By the time I was sending the book out regularly, it was pretty much set.
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 involved a lot more than I was really comfortable with as a rule. I know it's my book of poems, but the last thing I want anyone to come away with is the idea that I am the alpha and omega of my poetry universe. I'm not. However, Michael Czarnecki publishes quite a few books each year and it is a very small operation. This means he really doesn't have the time to do a lot of cover art, so he asks for photographs and cover design suggestions. I sent a couple of pictures I had taken and he mocked up a few covers. My wife and I immediately chose the cover choice he made for my proof copy. I will say the cover photo is of the Springville City Cemetery. The interior presentation and font was all Michael. I have known his work for years and trusted his eye, so there weren't any complaints there. As for any future books, I hope to have as little involvement as possible because I don't believe it's correct for me to be involved with that part of the process. It's where I am supposed to trust my editor.
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?
Most of the poems had been accepted for publication and had been published years ago. Of course, it's important to remember that many of the poems are a decade old or even older. Any poems not published from the manuscript were not published as a conscious decision. I have never thought that it was key to have a majority of the poems published because most of them were already published as a part of their natural life. In the end it is the poem that matters, and the manuscript as a whole when it comes to book publication. Is the poem well written? Is the poem essential to the manuscript? I think publication is important on some level, but I know when I have written a poem essential to a manuscript which will never be sent out for publication on its own. I think it is important for a poet to know the difference but also understand editors often look to publication to gauge how well the poems have been received.
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?
None. The poems had already been so far down that road, by the time the book was coming out there simply were no changes to make. I was pretty fortunate in that category. The only thing I needed to do was proof for my own typos and mistakes.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
I had been waiting for a few days since I got word from Foothills that my books were on their way. I had to go pick them up because where I live there is no home delivery. I was out and about doing errands, so I had to drive around with my box of books for about twenty minutes or so before I could come home and open the box. When I opened the box, I found my books were wrapped in butcher paper in smaller bundles. It was like Christmas. I tore into them and took a picture or two with my wife's camera. They were so pristine. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Foothills, their books are hand-stitched and really are works of art in and of themselves. It was a rush to say the least. I still have a few wrapped bundles of my book up in my closet.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
I can breathe easier. I mean that. I can stand up and be a little more relaxed than I used to be. Of course I still have to work to get the word out about my poetry, I still teach high school to pay the bills, and I still have my poetry rejected on a regular basis, but I must say I really do feel more at ease with myself as a poet. What's more, when I see my book, I feel better about the path I have had to travel in order to get where I am.
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?”
I would begin by saying my book is part landscape meditation and part elegy for the places we no longer have. I would follow that up by saying it is an acknowledgement that we carry the places we have known for our entire lives and that is worthy of reflection. I would talk about how important Springville is, and was to my formation as a poet and a person, and how important "place" is for me.
What have you been doing to promote Town for the Trees, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I have been giving away a lot of copies in the hope people will review it and get the word out. I have started the process of setting up readings wherever and whenever I can. I have been doing scads of interviews and offering trades of my book for other people's books. I live 120 miles away from a Wal-Mart, and as pleasant as that reality is on many levels, it also means I don't have an in-person writer community/network to help promote my book. If anyone out there is interested in one or more of the options I have mentioned, please get hold of me.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Well, first off, I have read just about every first book interview in this series, and I have really enjoyed learning all of the little tidbits of advice everyone gives. The biggest piece of advice I needed was to start much earlier on book promotion. I should have been building my network much earlier, sending e-mails and sample poems much sooner. Asking for help from day one. People get tired of hearing from you, but you know what? It works.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
I'm more methodical. The process of ordering a manuscript, looking through proofs, and going back and forth with what should be included has made me more conscious of the process of writing poems with a manuscript specifically in mind. I'm also more confident in the choices I make as I work towards the completion of newer projects. I have a second manuscript completed which is radically different from Town for the Trees, and I have started a third book length manuscript about the history of my home town.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Yes, but it's like what Gandhi offered: Be the change in the world you want to see. The change that poetry offers is in the individual, not in some measurable shift with the outside world. Don't just tell people about poetry. If you want poetry to make a difference, then write a poem which changes yourself, and help others to do the same.
Justin Evans is the author of Town for the Trees (Foothills Publishing, 2011), and three earlier chapbooks of poetry. He is also the author of a chapbook of political humor, which took the form of letters written to Karl Rove in late 2004 and early 2005, titled, Dear Mr. Rove: 32 Letters to Karl Rove (Imbecile Press, 2008). Justin was born and raised in Utah at the base of the Wasatch Rockies. After graduating from high school in 1987 and finding nothing better to do in the following year, he joined the United States Army in 1988, where he served in various domestic and foreign locations. After leaving the military in 1992 Justin completed his undergraduate studies in History and English Education at Southern Utah University. After, he and his family relocated to rural Nevada where he began teaching in a Junior/Senior high school. In 2004, Justin completed a Master's Degree in Literacy Studies at University of Nevada, Reno. He is married to Becky Lee Evans, and together they have three sons. Find more information at his blog: http://justinevanspoetry.blogspot.com/