How often had you sent out Mule before it was chosen for publication in 2010 by Cleveland State University Press?
I’m not exactly sure, exactly—probably, I had sent it out fewer than 10 times. Although I think the contest-based publication model makes a lot of sense in a lot of ways, I just couldn’t afford to submit Mule that often. But I would have submitted it to more contests if I could have afforded it.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Mule? Did it go through any other changes?
Mule had every worst title any book ever had—figuring out a title for the whole thing gave me a lot of trouble. Early on, the manuscript was half rueful, kind of yuck poems left over from my MFA years, and half whatever it is now. And I think this disunity made the manuscript basically unnamable. Eventually, I put a poem called “Mulatto” at the front of the manuscript, and then wrote a few other poems also called “Mulatto,” and, thinking I had a theme going, decided to call it Mule. It wasn’t until the book had been taken by Cleveland State that I recalled a friend of mine, Kara Andrade, had written a memoir called Mule years before, and I’ve felt a bit weird about the title ever since. Sorry Kara!
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?
Well, I would have liked to win a contest—that seems like it would be a neat thing—but I didn’t really think I was gonna win a contest since I’m not the book contest winning sort. Like I said, I think the contest model makes a lot of sense, but it’s also problematic—in part because it facilitates this notion that the only way to get a first book published is to win a contest. And that just isn’t true. If a publisher likes a manuscript enough, and if he or she can find the money, etc. to do it, he or she will publish that manuscript. I was very fortunate that Michael Dumanis liked Mule enough to publish it even thought it didn’t win Cleveland State’s first book contest.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
The oldest poem in Mule dates back to 2005; it was written a few weeks after I had drastically changed the way I wrote poems. Because of this, the first versions of Mule were hybrids of pre-change poems and post-change poems. It was an unpleasant mess, really, but Jorie Graham took pity on me—I was workshopping with her at the time—and gave the manuscript its first sensible order. I reordered it many times after that, but if she hadn’t shown me how to order it in the first place, I don’t know that I ever would have sorted it out.
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 had some notions of what I wanted on the cover and strong feeling that I didn’t want any of the lines to overlap, but really it was Amy Freels at Cleveland State who designed the book. She was very patient with me, and endured my notions. And yes, I stumbled across the wonderful painting on the cover—it’s called Passing and it was painted by Michael Dixon—and sent it to Amy, and she made it work.
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 years before Mule got picked up, I was sending poems out constantly—I wanted to be part of the writing community, to be part of the dialogue between writers in whatever small way I could, and publication in journals seemed like one way I could make that happen. But I wasn’t particularly worried about placing the poems with regard to submitting the manuscript.
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?
Huh. A lot? I think I did a lot of work, but it’s hard to say. Just before the final proofing stage, I compared the final version of the manuscript to the version that Cleveland State had taken, and the differences weren’t that many—I had cut out a few poems, and maybe added a few as well. Most of the changes were cuts. But it felt like I went through dozens of versions of the manuscript, so maybe I did? Inexcusably, every time I made a tiny change, I sent the revised version of the manuscript to Katie Ford. She was then, and is now, a saint.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
I remember thinking that I needed to take a picture of the open box of books right away so I could post in on Facebook—and to maintain the purity of the moment, or whatever it was I was thinking, I had to take this picture before I had actually touched any of the books. Sigh. I don’t know why I do the things I do.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
I’ve felt blessed mostly every day, even on difficult days, because I wrote this thing and some people maybe like it. For most of my life, I’ve wanted to be a part of the poetry community (communities, I know), whatever it is, and I’ve felt closer to becoming a part of that community since Mule came out. And I get to do things like this interview, which is, at this very moment, blowing my mind—I’ve loved the first book interview project since way back when Kate Greenstreet was doing them. Basically, it is my favorite interview series ever. So yeah, blessed.
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?”
Ha! I can’t image ever doing that! But if somehow it got out that I had written a book, I would probably say, lamely, that it was about stuff that had happened in my life, because I would feel presumptuous saying that the poems were actually about what I tried to write them about. Like, I wrote a bunch of poems about God, for example, but how could I say such a thing? And if I said instead that those poems were about me trying to write poems about God, well, then that would just be me being a jerk. I would be very bad at this conversation.
What have you been doing to promote Mule, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I worry that I haven’t done enough—I’ve done some readings, quite a few of them (or an amount that I think of as being “quite a few”), and I always love doing readings and I honestly wish I could do them every day forever. And I’ve done a few interviews, and I’ve had a lot of fun doing those. But I feel like I should be standing atop parking garages all over the country with a megaphone, shouting, “Hey! You should buy this book because I don’t want Cleveland State to get screwed on this deal!” I worry a lot about the people who have been kind enough, unbelievably kind, to publish the books I’ve written.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Actually, I think I got the advice I needed from reading first book interviews. I learned that my life wouldn’t change all that much, for one thing, and I learned not to expect the book to be reviewed right away or at all. I learned not to expect anything especially good, beyond the publication of the book itself, to happen. When your book is published it is a moment both for rejoicing and for making peace with whatever comes next.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
Since Mule was published, I’ve felt a bit freer, I think—rather, I’ve noticed a bit of a falling away of self-imposed constraints I hadn’t known I had. But I’ve also felt a bit of self-imposed pressure to prove that the first book wasn’t a fluke, which I imagine is a common feeling to feel. And I can say happily that I have a second manuscript now called Blood—it took me about two years to write it; I started writing it right after Mule was taken. And I don’t know what the next thing will be, but right now I’m OK with that.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
It can, yes—it has. Much of the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures is poetry; the Qur’an is such an awe-inspiring text in part because it is very much like poetry, absolutely bursting with beautiful sounds. These texts in large measure made the world Westerners recognize as their own (and I don’t mean to prioritize the Western world at all, or to suggest that it ought to be prioritized; it’s just the one I know best), and the Homeric epics made the world before this one. And the Western world as it is today would also be unimaginable without Shakespeare. Beyond that, each person is a world, and I know people are changed as individuals by poems, and they then take their changed selves out into the world, and consequentially that initial change ripples outward.
Shane McCrae is the author of Mule (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011), and two chapbooks, One Neither One (Octopus Books, 2009) and In Canaan (Rescue Press, 2010). His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Best American Poetry 2010, The American Poetry Review, Fence, jubilat, Gulf Coast, Denver Quarterly, and others. Currently, he is studying for a PhD in English at the University of Iowa.