Thursday, November 1, 2012

#58 - Christopher Hennessey

How often had you sent out Love-In-Idleness before it was chosen for publication in 2011 by Brooklyn Arts Press?

I’m guessing I sent the manuscript out to about twenty contests and a few other publishers who had open submissions. (I was a semi-finalist for two contests and a finalist for the Four Way Books first book prize. That was all so encouraging but was a two-sided coin. It kept me sending out the book. And on the other hand, it kept me sending out the book, which also meant more contest fees.) And I recall telling myself to set a limit on the number of contests. Of course, I don’t know that I had a plan B if I went past that number.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Love-In-Idlesness? Did it go through any other changes?

One of the earlier titles I considered was “The Cicada Lessons,” which is also the section title for my first section of poems about growing up in Michigan. The “lessons” in the title didn’t seem right; it seemed to give the whole collection a pedantic quality when used as an overarching title. It also seemed a little pat. (It works as a section, I think, because it allows the poem called “The Cicada, And Other Lessons” to become a kind of heart for the other poems to revolve around.)
The title is one of the many common names for the pansy, or Viola tricolor. The pansy, of course, is an epithet for gay men. I chose it as a title because I think many of my poems straddle the two worlds the term calls to mind, the worlds of a gay subjectivity and of ‘living in the dirt’. And I chose it to point toward what I hope is central to my book, the ideas of naming—even those used to hurt us, like pansy, fag, homo—and identity.

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 don’t honestly have a sense of what a contest gets you (besides more cash) that a good publisher might not also get you. I think it can be a stepping-stone, but I’ve also seen plenty of poets who win a contest and then struggle to get their sophomore effort published.

I did send out to many contests, and it’s thrilling to know your work is making the rounds of the contests and being viewed highly if you get a finalist nod. That can be important in keeping you going, as I said earlier.

Of course all that being said, who doesn’t want to have that “Winner of the…” attached to their book. But I came to the conclusion for me personally that it was more important to have the book published and to have someone who cared about the work, than to insist on sending it out until a prize materializes. That kind of thinking can be problematic, because as dedicated as one might be, there’s never a guarantee. When Brooklyn Arts Press (BAP) offered me a contract, I was so grateful.

I’m afraid I can’t give advice because it’s such a personal decision. I just know I’ve never once, not for a second, looked back. BAP has been a true gift to me as a poet. If you can find that, take it!  It’s worth so much more than cash. Okay, so apparently I can give some advice.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

The book had always had the three sections it currently has (poems about growing up gay in the Midwest; poems re-telling myth and other stories; and poems exploring desire and sex and an adult relationship and its conflicts and joys). There’s an arc that I saw there from the moment I had the poems spread out on my living room floor. My closest friend, who is also a poet (his name is Eric Schramm), helped me in the early stages, and throughout really, to get a sense of how I could order the poems within those sections. He was great at showing me what poems could resonate with other poems and how to make space for that interaction. My friend RJ Gibson, also a poet, suggested roughing up the order that I had (which at an early point in the process was a little too "neat") and that also helped in an important way.

Some poems moved from the third to the first or vice versa.  The biggest change was paring out poems that simply weren’t ready or that didn’t belong in some sense. Joe Pan, my editor at BAP, was key to that process and has such an amazing eye at knowing what poems can be rehabilitated and what simply needed to go.  In more than one case, he asked me to push a poem beyond where I had ended it. I did. Those poems now end with lines that are some of the most successful lines (if I can say that!) in the book.  “Anaphora” is an example.  “A Man Standing” is another. Joe made that possible. He’s a gifted editor.

The book went through a serious and sustained and rigorous editing process. Joe and I were communicating via email intensely over at least a month of back and forth edits. Poets: don’t fear this process and indeed embrace it. If you’re editor cares for you work even half as much as Joe cared for mine, your book will made so much better by it.

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 got to see two versions of the cover. I liked both and gave my input. But I really wanted BAP to take the lead. I don’t have a great aesthetic sense about these things. I was thrilled with how the book came out, and I can’t tell you how many people have commented on what a great job BAP did and how amazing the cover is.

There’s actually a great story about the cover. Can I share this from an interview Joe did with the Best American Poetry blog?

“A truly memorable experience came about when I was shopping for a cover artist for Christopher Hennessy’s Love-In-Idleness. On a lark, I googled “Best Cover Design Awards” and found the artist David Drummond’s name on several websites as one of the best in the business. (He’d just designed many of the new Richard Stark reprints). I knew I couldn’t afford him but I was curious about his rates. We’d never paid for a cover before, but all our artists were busy, and I was having trouble thinking up a design. So I emailed him, praising his work, which is truly amazing, and told him about BAP. I included a copy of Christopher’s manuscript so he could read it. When he emailed back, saying he’d love to do the cover and could work within our budget, I couldn’t believe it. We discussed budget. What was my budget? I sent him an email with a number, and an explanation of why it might seem low, as we were a small press with limited funds, and that I understood his time and skills were very valuable and passing on us would be, of course, understandable. He emailed me back with a mind-blower, agreeing to do the cover for the price of a single copy of the printed book. It was a considerably gracious gesture.”

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 think it’s important to have ‘earned your stripes’ in a sense. To that end, I did want to show I had a fair number of publications in journals. But it was also important that I could show my poems had appeared in places that I felt were respected by poets I respected. I think it’s important to not just ‘rack up’ a list of names but to really publish in the journals you respect.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?

There was tremendous excitement (glasses of champagne, little dances, calling the parents, etc.), of course. But also there was fear: What would my family think? My partner? Would they understand that poems don’t always portray an autobiographical reality? But mostly there was an overwhelming sense of gratitude and feeling…well, blessed. I don’t think people realize how hard it can be to get a book of poetry published--- what it entails, the long road of it, how many of us are out there trying for so few spots, etc. If you know all of that (and who in the poetry world doesn’t?), then in my opinion you should be proud, sure, but you should also be grateful it happened to you. To pretend there’s not some element of luck or other factors is to be dangerously naïve.

How has your life been different since your book came out?

I’ve become closer to other friends who are or were trying to publish their first book. And I’ve been thinking intensely about how my first book can be part of a journey that leads to more!

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’d say: “Language, image, desire, sound, desire, the imagination, desire---or in other words living, being alive, my life and how to express those things.” And even though that’s a “true” answer to that question, I’d totally understand if they thought I was a jerk and asked to be seated somewhere else. We as poets all know that that question is simplifying and in some ways a trap, but when it comes down to it there’s nothing wrong with telling a prospective reader something true about theme, story, etc.  Some books do resist that kind of description, but even the most experimental poetry can be described with words like “Desire” or “Alienation” or any number of things readers can feel grounded by.  We shouldn’t necessarily fear answering that question. I think people somehow think if they’re able to answer that question they will somehow be seen as passé and even confessional. Nonsense. Talk about over-simplifying things!

Honestly, I would probably read them my publisher’s description. It works!

What have you been doing to promote Love-In-Idleness, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I’ve done a lot with social media and my blog. I’ve tried to do conferences, readings, as much as my schedule allows (I’m a Ph.D. candidate so that’s not always been easy.)  I was so thankful for the Thom Gunn finalist nod; I hoped that might help spread the word. BAP was wonderful in many ways, not the least of which has been keeping up an amazing website and having a table at the AWP book fair. That was huge!

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

I wish someone had really pushed me to write about the process at it was happening, to share what I was learning on my blog, for example. I think that would have been so much fun, would have been a great way to record the experience, and would have connected me with readers, even. I learned so much, but it would be nice to be able to go back and experience it all over again.  I wish more people would blog or tweet about the process; I think it’s something we could use. Maybe they’re out there and I just don’t know it.

What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works? 

I am trying something completely different in terms of how I put together my first book. Instead of writing poem by poem, I’m trying to write poems circling a single concept (the idea of “belonging”).  So far it’s been very productive. I like having an umbrella under which I’m writing. Having a “project” can be motivating. And it’s allowing me to think about new ways of approaching form, narrative, persona and more.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

I wrote a poem about the killing of a young gay boy. (He was killed because he was gay. That’s important to know.) A young woman emailed me telling me she’d found the poem online and read it a vigil in his honor. I can’t think of a higher honor than that. And it was something that changed me forever. I can’t really be cynical any longer about that question. It would be a pose, and one I’m not willing to consider.

Here’s what I mean: With our ability to put poems out into the world whenever we please, and the possibility that someone who needs that poem will find it, what we have is a world where we can make connection. Connection is everything; it’s the beginning and the end. By someone hearing a poem and experiencing the most minute shift in their imagination, their ability to empathize with others, that can begin change. It might not be a direct line between a poem and the ending of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, but it can begin the process of connection. I firmly believe that.

Christopher Hennessy is the author of Love-In-Idleness (Brooklyn Arts Press), which was a finalist for the Thom Gunn Award.  He is also the author of Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets (University of Michigan Press). He earned an MFA from Emerson College and currently is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He was included in Ploughshares' special "Emerging Writers" edition, and his poetry, interviews, and book reviews have appeared in American Poetry Review, Verse, Cimarron Review, The Writer's Chronicle, The Bloomsbury Review, Court Green, OCHO, Crab Orchard Review, Natural Bridge, Wisconsin Review, Brooklyn Review, Memorious, and elsewhere. Hennessy is a longtime associate editor for The Gay & Lesbian Review-Worldwide. For more information on the book, visit