How often had you sent out The Luckless Age before it was chosen for the 2009 Benjamin Saltman Award from Red Hen Press?
The version that was published had only been sent out twice. But other versions and other books had been floating around for a while. Like since 2000 or so.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been The Luckless Age? Did it go through any other changes?
I’d always hoped that my first book would be called World’s Tallest Disaster, after a painting by Roger Brown that I’d seen in the National Musuem of American Art in DC, but then Cate Marvin published her book, and hers was so thrilling that I felt like she’d really earned the title in a way that my manuscript hadn’t. Later, when I began to write more expansive poems, I found that they didn’t fit at all with the earlier ones I’d published in magazines. There are a few poems in The Luckless Age that I think have titles that could have merited being the name of the whole volume, particularly “Wild Gift” and “Places That Are Gone.” But those titles came from music, from an album by X and a song by Tommy Keene respectively, and I didn’t want to leave the impression that this was solely a rock-and-roll book. It’s a book in my mind about an era, roughly from the John Kennedy assassination to the end of the Cold War, and what better name for that whole window of time than The Luckless Age?
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?
My advice to poets is to read poetry. From being a voracious reader of contemporary poetry, I had a hunch about presses that would be naturally inclined to my manuscript. I thought my book would fit nicely at the University of Akron Press, where it ended up being a finalist; I felt the same way about Steve Mueske’s Three Candles Press, because he’s almost evangelical about poets with a distinct voice; and finally, I felt like Red Hen would be a good fit because the last few books from them that I’d read had a similar blend of lyric and narrative. And I was lucky enough to win Red Hen’s contest. Of course, those decisions were nothing more than a sort of informed supposition on my part, but I think that you can learn a lot about the aesthetics of a press by reading from their backlist. Even though the judges change from year to year, often times the screeners do not. So I think if you go the contest route, you have an obligation to be familiar with a press. It’s a waste of the poet’s money and the screener’s time if you’re sending a highly experimental manuscript to a press proud of its neoformalist catalog. At the time I was putting together this manuscript, I was finishing my doctorate at Florida State, and I bought all the books I could afford, and read the rest through that great service known as interlibrary loan.
I’m troubled by some contests, as I think most poets are, because there are still a few places that refuse to be transparent about their methodology. I don’t necessarily think that blind readings are the best way to go, but I do think a press has an obligation to disclose how the 700 manuscripts they might receive in a contest get whittled down to the 10 to 20 that go to a well-known judge. But ultimately, good work rises to the top.
So many excellent poets sabotage themselves by not sending out what I know to be very good work. So I guess my only piece of advice is to submit everywhere that you can, as long as you know that the press or the journal is a logical home for your work. And since I’ve read for contests and screened manuscripts myself, I’ll add this caveat: read the guidelines and follow them to the letter. A few years ago, I guest-edited a nonfiction section of the great indie journal Barrelhouse on dive bars, and you’d be surprised at how many submissions came in that weren’t nonfiction.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
I’d say that there were really three versions of the book, including one that had a long poem at its center. It was a poem called “The Rosenstiel Cycle” that had won the Writers at Work Fellowship in poetry, and though I am awfully fond of that poem, it didn’t at all fit with the rest of the book. And because that poem had a certain measure of recognition already, I felt obligated for a long time to include it in whatever manuscript I was sending out. I’ve just started sending around a second book recently, and that poem isn’t in there either, so maybe it’s just an orphan.
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 convinced Red Hen to let me present them with a finished cover, and that cover was the work of a talented designer named Barbara Neely Bourgoyne. Barbara read the manuscript and came back to me with a design that was almost finished. We tinkered a bit with the fonts, but in every real aspect, the concept and execution was all hers. A Red Hen staffer, Leila Benoun, did the typesetting, and Mark Cull, the publisher of Red Hen, collaborated on little ideas that really brought the concept together, such as repeating the motif of dice inside the book in its table of contents. But Barbara came up with the idea of the dice hanging from the rear view; it was my idea to make the dice show snake eyes.
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?
It’s a different process for me, as I tend to write poems in batches, and the thematic connections between them don’t necessarily announce themselves until much later in the process. So I write, and I revise, and I submit in an almost continuous loop. Said another way, I don’t sit down with the conscious project of writing a collection of poetry. I’m constantly writing in a way that attempts to strip away the artifice I might put on in the classroom or in conversation and find out what it is that I feel at the deepest possible level. So whether a poem has appeared in a journal or not has little to do with whether it goes in the book. My litmus test has more to do with whether or not the poem feels emotionally open to me. One of the things I tell my students is that writing and publishing are two different things, which seems obvious. But I’m just as guilty of being the poet who obsessively checks his email or mailbox when there is work under submission.
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?
The only changes were as a result of copy-editing. I have a bad habit of writing these syntactically challenging sentences riddled with subordinate clauses, both in poetry and apparently in this interview. I tried to cut out a few of those in the editing process.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
I’d been traveling that week, and so Red Hen shipped the books to my office at Millsaps College, and when I got home from my trip, I had all these messages from friends and editors who’d gotten their review copies already, and I hadn’t even seen the real thing. And it was a weekend, so the post office at Millsaps was closed. So I had to wait an extra couple of days, which seemed cruel and unusual at the time. So I saw the books for the first time on a Monday, and my wife and I toasted its arrival, and then I had that moment of writerly dread where I realized that I had to write another one. And then we opened some champagne, because it felt like the thing to do.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
I’m guilty of making the same mistake that most writers without a book do, which was to think of publication as a panacea, but it’s not. One of my classmates from Iowa, Tom McAllister, wrote a really lovely memoir about fathers and sons and sports called Bury Me In My Jersey, and we compared stories about the things that happen to you when you promote a first book, like giving readings to an audience of three. Our inside joke is that we were going to write an essay about the experience called “No One Gives A Damn About Your First Book.” That’s not to say that the experience isn’t positive, but I think a lot of writers delude themselves into thinking that a book solves all of their problems. I know many talented writers from grad school who have two or even three books and who, for various and sundried reasons, still don’t have a tenure-track job, or the recognition that their work deserves.
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?”
The literal answer is probably that the book tries to dissect some of the more obvious myths of the 1970s and 1980s. I remember reading an essay by Stewart O’Nan. In it, he called Richard Yates the signature writer of the Age of Anxiety. I tend to associate that phrase age of anxiety with the height of the Cold War, that sort of black and white paranoia that evokes Rod Serling and Joe McCarthy in equal measure. My book argues that the 1970s and 1980s—far from being the benign era of kitsch that the mass media would have you believe—are the beginning of the end of the American dream.
It’s the low point for nearly every artistic medium except perhaps cinema, and it’s the period of our history wherein we abandoned the idea that we were all in it together. That communitarian ideal—believing in the kind of shared sacrifice that meant victory gardens and war bonds and a draft based on true random selection—has disappeared from American society, replaced with a sense of grandiose entitlement that I find really off-putting. There are probably a hundred other answers I could give to that question, but the easiest one is this; I want you to reconsider nearly every single value that you hold dear.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Every thing you do is a chance to market the book. Every thing. When people ask you for help, or to come read, or to talk to their nephew who wants to be a writer, say yes as often as you can.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
I just finished a manuscript called Little Black Daydream. In many ways, it’s kind of the alternative universe version of The Luckless Age, except in this alternative universe, Spock doesn’t have a beard. I wanted to create a sort of post-apocalyptic book. When I was in high school, President Reagan made that famous joke about how he’d signed legislation that outlawed Russia forever. Little Black Daydream takes place in a world where we actually did begin bombing in five minutes.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I have to.
Steve Kistulentz is the author of The Luckless Age (Red Hen Press, 2011) selected by Nick Flynn from nearly 700 manuscripts as winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award. His second book, Little Black Daydream, will be published by the University of Akron Press in 2012. His work in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction has appeared widely in literary magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets and The Helen Burns Anthology: New Voices from the Academy of American Poets. He lives in Jackson, Mississippi, where he teaches English and creative writing at Millsaps College.