I am asked this question often, and I never really know how to respond, because my own experience was very unusual. The T. S. Eliot Prize was one of the first contests I entered. I began what I assumed would be a lengthy process by sending out the manuscript to two contests that had an October 31 deadline—the Hollis Summers Prize and the T. S. Eliot Prize. Of course, throughout November and December of that year I submitted the manuscript to other contests—a couple of which I became a finalist for but most others, it would appear, I didn’t even make the first cut.
When I found out in February that Claudia Keelan had selected Works & Days for the Eliot Prize I was beyond stunned. I actually thought it might be a mistake.
I had, though, been working on the book on and off for about ten years. So, it wasn’t like the book materialized overnight. More like overdecade.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Works & Days? Did it go through any other changes?
As it happens, a few others were in the running. The contenders were
· I Still Wear Galoshes
· You Are My Tulip
· Catt Butt
· There’s No Me In Poem
In truth, as a book ready to be sent out into the world, it was always Works & Days. Early on, when I was thinking about assembling poems, I was tinkering around with something like One and Others, but because there are some poems about Hesiod, poems about the concept of work, and an entire section of poems written on or about my birthday, Works & Days provided an organizing structure for the book.
Also, and perhaps more importantly, I wanted the title to be an homage to poetry. Many of the poems sample other poets, reference other poems, and enter into conversation with other poetic texts—I wanted the title to reflect that conversation, that intertext.
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?
The reality is that you generally have to win a contest if you want your first book published by a university press or a major independent publisher. I didn’t really care if my book won a contest, just as long as it was published by a good press. I did send out the manuscript to one or two open reading periods, but I had to withdraw it almost immediately.
When Poets & Writers did a piece on this topic a few months back, they asked me if I had any advice for folks submitting to contests, particularly if the identity of the judge is public. Some people think it can be useful to be familiar with a judge’s poetry or, if the poet has been a judge for a previous contest, to see what kind of book won. But, like many contests, in order to prevent targeted submissions, the Eliot Prize does not announce their judge until after the contest is over. I had no idea Claudia Keelan was going to be the judge the year I applied. I was thrilled because I love her work. But, the reality is, a different judge probably would have picked a different manuscript. I was like fifty leagues beyond fortunate.
If the judge does not rotate, if the press’s editor and staff picks the winner every year, then, obviously it is super important to know what kinds of books that press likes to publish.
My own experience is that the judge has a really, really impossible job, and they just go with their gut about the most interesting, exiting book. That said, I do think that right now, judges tend to pick books that have a theme or a thread rather than a random collection of poems.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
Somewhere near the end of 2008, I realized I had enough poems for a book, and perhaps even an organizing principle for a book. So, I spent most of 2009 writing poems, revising poems, and thinking about the manuscript as a cohesive unit. In early October of 2009 I was selected for this great faculty retreat sponsored on the Sonoma Coast by the University of San Francisco, where I teach. Almost as soon as I got to my room, I pushed the bed to the far wall and laid out every poem on the floor. I wanted to be able to see every poem at once. That was incredibly helpful because with all the poems visible in one space, it became like a map. I was a hermit for the next two days, slowly stitching the book together poem by poem. I sent it off to those first two contests almost immediately after that.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
One of the many great things about the T. S. Eliot Prize, Truman State University Press, and the wonderful editor Nancy Rediger, is the autonomy you get. I got to pick out the font for the titles of the poems as well as the font for the poems themselves. I also had total freedom with the cover, which my wife designed. I had a couple of email exchanges with the press’s poetry editor, Jim Barnes, about the order of the poems, which was helpful. They were really amazing to work with.
One of the best features of the prize is that the Press holds a spot in the publication queue for the Eliot winner. So, I found out in February of 2010 that I had won. I had to have a final clean copy of the manuscript to them by April. And the book came out—in both hardback and paperback—in November of that same year. It was an astonishing turnaround.
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 had a small fear that the book might not be taken seriously if the poems in it had not been vetted in some objective way. Most of the poems had been published—I’d say 80% of them—and a couple had won prizes. But, it wasn’t like my work was appearing in The New Yorker or anything.
I always had in mind that I was writing poems to go in a book, but really, I was just trying to write one good poem at a time. I did that for over a decade, I think, sending out the poems for publication when I thought they were ready.
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?
That’s a smart question.
A lot. I really went back through the book and honed the poems, changed a few titles, combined a couple of poems into one. Wrote a couple of new ones. Took out some that appeared in the original manuscript. I resisted the urge to replace all of my work with little known poems by Wallace Stevens and Terrance Hayes . . .
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
Actually, I remember a lot more about events surrounding the publication of the book. The day I found out I won the award is particularly clear. I received the news that I’d won the T. S. Eliot Prize and that I had a pretty bad case of pneumonia within a couple of hours of each other. I also remember the day my editor called to tell me that the paperback edition had sold out and was going into a second printing. I was in the bathroom at my in-law's house. To me, that news was even more improbable than getting the book published.
The day or moment I first saw the books is a bit of a blur. They were shipped to my office at USF and arrived a day before I was to leave on a mini book tour. So, I was relieved as much as anything. I do remember immediately thumbing through the book wishing I’d edited this line or that stanza. What sticks out most is how astonishingly excited I was that the book came out in hardback. I still am. The hardback version with the dust jacket is really beautiful, though I think it’s only sold like 7 copies. Mostly to me.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
You mean aside from the offers to appear on Leno?
My first response is: not much. But, I don’t think that’s quite true. I have this other career as a scholar and a columnist, so I didn’t need the book to get a job or to get tenure (although I was up for full professor when I got the news I had won the award). But, publishing the book and winning the Eliot award credentialed me as a poet to a population of people who didn’t know I existed. I have also been extremely fortunate that the book has been reviewed in a number of different venues. Scholarly works are not reviewed in the same way, so having my work closely scrutinized on different levels from different writers and reviewers has been both awesome and anxiety-making.
I always thought of myself as a poet, and I have been teaching poetry, and writing about poetry for years, but publishing the book has enabled me to be seen first and foremost—by a lot of people—as a poet. And that’s something new.
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 has actually happened on a couple of occasions, though the most recent was in an airport bar. I tell them (and anyone else who asks) that I grew up in a farm town in Oklahoma, that my grandparents lived through the Dust Bowl, and that we still had the original family farm up until a few years ago. The poems are about how those experiences and the experiences of interacting with the landscape of various works (poems, paintings, philosophies, films) can create a kind of map of a person’s life. In so doing, the poems engage both high and popular culture; they are both traditional and experimental; both serious and funny. Lastly, I always tell people that I want the book to love the reader.
What have you been doing to promote Works & Days, and what have those experiences been like for you?
San Francisco is a great place to live as a poet. I’ve been doing a lot of readings here and elsewhere. I’ve done a few interviews and visited quite a few campuses and classes and read at a number of book festivals. Some of the most fun I’ve had has been on extended visits to campuses as part of their reading series. I usually get to visit classes, run workshops, give readings, meet students, work with graduate students, and hang out with faculty.
I’m not sure this falls under the official rubric of “promotion,” but an unexpected treat has been the response of students who have read my book in their classes. Students have written responses to my poems, composed centos from the poems of Works & Days, and some have even done Rader parodies. A graduate student from Northwestern emailed me recently to tell me that a friend was going to read one of my Frog and Toad poems at his wedding. It really just doesn’t get any better than that.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Perhaps worry less about how “good” people (including me) might think the book is and enjoy what having a book of poems out in the world means to me and others.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
Well, I get solicited for poems more often now than in the past, so that is a pleasant surprise, as is being compared to Paris Hilton. That just never really happened to me before . . .
As for how it affected my writing, the book did slow down new poems. The intense process of bringing a book to press is aesthetically exhausting. I was tired of my voice for a while and wasn’t particularly interested in writing anything but criticism, reviews, and columns. I was also a tad worried that my best poetic work was behind me. That stuck with me for a while.
Thankfully, I’m very into what I’m working on now, which is a chapbook of poems that turn on how the language and ideas of art and poetry overlap—line, plane, form, figuration.
I’m also supposed to be writing a book on poetic craft, but I am embarrassed to admit how far behind I am on that . . .
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Wait . . . I thought it already did . . .Dean Rader’s debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize, was a finalist for the 2010 Bush Memorial First Book Prize, and won the 2010 Writer’s League of Texas Book Award. He has been nominated for two pushcart prizes and will appear in the 2012 edition of Best American Poetry. He is the author of three other books and dozens of articles and essays. He reviews poetry for The Rumpus and The San Francisco Chronicle, he writes columns for The San Francisco Chronicle and The Huffington Post. He recently curated the blog 99 Poems for the 99 Percent. He is a professor at the University of San Francisco where he won the university’s 2011 Distinguished Research Award. You can read reviews, columns, essays, and poems at http://www.deanrader.com.