How often had you sent out Fuse before it was chosen for publication in 2011 by Black Lawrence Press?
Looking back at my submissions table, a quick count tells me that I sent out the manuscript to around 90 places over the course of four years. In that time, it was a semi-finalist or finalist for about 20 contests or reading periods. In fact, when Diane Goettel over at Black Lawrence Press emailed me to ask if they could publish it (it had been a finalist for both of their full-length collection prizes), I was right on the edge of retiring it and moving ahead with other manuscripts I had been working on. The last year I sent it out, I sent it out to as many places as I could; it wasn’t a total carpet-bombing of contests and open reading periods, but it felt close.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Fuse? Did it go through any other changes?
I first put the manuscript together over the course of doing my MFA at the University of Houston, and the original, working title was How To Stitch Flame. This is the title of one of the poems in the first section (though who knows what part of the book it was in then). I loved the hopeless absurdity of that notion, it seemed like a great aesthetic signal flare. Later, though, I had my mind changed. After meeting with Michael Dumanis over coffee to talk manuscripts, he convinced me that whatever the merits that title had in terms of the aesthetics at play in the collection, it might not be the most inviting one I could think of. Eventually, I came up with the title “Fuse” after a serendipitous encounter with the word in a dictionary my late maternal grandfather gave me. Two of the definitions for that word struck me as being true to my original understanding of the “How To…” title, and these definitions found their way into the fulcrum poem of the book, “Serpentine Fuselage.” The first definition describes fuse in the verb form as “to stitch by applying heat or pressure” and the second describes the noun form as “a continuous train of combustible substance enclosed in a cable.” That choice did a lot to animate my attempts to order the book and make it cohere.
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?
To start with, I’m proof that you don’t need to win a contest to publish your first book. I’ve seen no little contention over the contest system (systems?) over the last decade or so (i.e., when I started paying attention), as we all have. My humble take is that it might not be ideal, but it is a mechanism that helps support, if not totally sustains, a number of small presses. As such, I have a hard time calling it out. I was primarily concerned with getting my book published. It would have been lovely and validating to win a contest, of course, but my experience has been that having a book diminishes that concern. If you’re lucky to have anyone think about your book beyond the year or two when it comes out, it seems beside the point and damaging to boot to imagine that they would identify it primarily as a “contest winner,” rather than on its own terms. Or this is one of the lullabies I let pet me to sleep.
Whatever the case may actually be, my advice to poets sending their book out now (and forevermore) is to make their main concern the catalogue and reputation of the presses to which they offer up their work. Once you’ve figured out those you respect and admire, send to them unceasingly, or at least as regularly as is largely painless to you and to those presses. In the end, sending over and over again to those presses, whether they had open reading periods or contests (especially those in which the presses were interested in publishing a finalist or two) worked out for me in a really satisfying way. It took a while, but I’m very happy with the end result.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
The process of assembly was a long, semi-quixotic ramble. I first started putting Fuse together while I was in Houston, and it eventually served as my MFA thesis. I didn’t start sending it out as a collection regularly for a couple of years, and over that time it underwent about three significant revisions. No, I’m not going to tell you about all the semi-quixotic parts except to say some are in the book or I’m liable to explain them at length should you buy me a drink or four. Anyway, to me, “significant,” means largely that there were poems dropped and added, order changes, and large and small revisions for individual poems. From the time I started sending it out to the time it was picked up, I revised it as a manuscript about seven times, though each time the revisions were more tunings with slight shifts of poem order and little tweaks on individual poems. It took me what felt like forever to get the order to feel organic to me, but by the Black Lawrence took it, I really felt like I had carried it as close to being finished as I ever would.
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 didn’t have much say in the interiors, but then when I got the soft proof, I didn’t have too much to say: I loved it. The font and layout felt really inviting, which was important to me since so many of the poems were long, and could have been challenging to sort out had the font and layout been more dense.
When it came to the cover design, I was actually given quite a bit of input. I was allowed to discover an image for myself, which can be a wracking process, since I didn’t really have anything in mind. I sorted through some images searching for something that might represent the sensibility of the book, but I never really came across anything that was perfect. Then my wife saw some paintings by Rob Funderburk, an old acquaintance of hers from Chicago, posted on a mutual friend’s Facebook page. She thought they looked perfect, so she pointed me in the direction of Rob’s pieces, and when I saw them I instantly knew that I’d found what I was looking for. I mean, do yourself a favor and visit his website. He works in a wide spectrum and it’s all a wonder to behold. Once I had gotten Rob’s permission to use an image of his painting, we looked at ideas from Black Lawrence’s design guy, Steven Seighman, and then Rob, my wife and I fiddled with how we thought the cover should look. I decided I wanted the image to be of the whole painting, rather than just a detail, and that it would look good wrapped around the front and back, with the blurbs filling the leftover white space. We sent back a mockup to Steven, and he put together a gorgeous cover, which to this day gives me a trill of excitement.
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 didn’t have it in mind as a goal that all the poems in the manuscript should be taken. When I started reading contemporary books of poetry, something I figured out pretty quickly was that in addition to being magnificent vehicles for collections of poems, they were also wonderful references for figuring out how poetry communities arrange and indicate themselves and their aesthetics. I learned a lot by paying attention to the front and back matter (and I’m glad I did, as otherwise it would have taken me a long time to see the amazing colophon in Josh Bell’s No Planet Strike). As I was figuring out how to submit poems and learning what journals supported the work I was trying to do, I was already subconsciously forming a goal for what an acknowledgments page would be able to tell someone who might pick up the book in a bookstore or a library. In the end it was more important to me that I believed the poems in the book belonged there. Since it took a while for my book to get picked up, I had plenty of time to send its poems around, and many of them got taken thanks to the generous and supportive editors I’ve come across. There were a few that didn’t, however, and one in particular—“Serpentine Fuselage”—is central to the book. Of course, that poem in the book is like 14 pages long and scattered; I never expected it to be taken. But I would never for an instant have thought to leave it out of the book just because it hadn’t been pedigreed by publication. It was just too important to what I understood the book to be.
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?
I think I probably went through about two close readings that resulted in a few little tweaks here or there. I had spent so much time with it that I was largely satisfied, or at least, finished. The knowledge that it would actually be published changed the editing process, but not as much as I would have imagined. I lived with these poems for a really long time. I’ve read almost all of them at readings at one time or another. The work I had left was basically straightening ties, brushing dirt off shoulders, making sure they had their lunches, and sending them off, trying not to worry too much and finally let them be. I hope they aren’t getting into knife fights or voting Republican.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
It actually came at night. I was walking to a bar in downtown Columbia to have a few drinks with my friend Thomas when my wife called and told me that my book had arrived. The bizarre thing is that at first, I felt like I’d just have a look at it when I got home—I was already most of the way to the bar, after all, and I am a ridiculous person. Then, of course, the wise Camellia said, “Are you crazy? You’re not going to come look at your book?” It is approximately at this moment that I started walking back home. Opening the box is a blur. Looking at the cover and opening the book for the first time is a blur. My wife’s smile watching me be happy is one of the clearest images of that night. I’d had a chapbook published by New Michigan Press a couple of years earlier, which I thought would prepare me for this. It didn’t, really. I could say I carried it down to the bar or I could say it floated with me between my hand and my eye as I went down to the bar and I couldn’t tell you which is truer or more accurate. There’s nothing quite like having a supportive and enthusiastic partner calling you home to the lovely product of over a decade of labor, there’s nothing like having a similarly enthusiastic friend who’s also a poet posted up in your favorite bar to make an experience like seeing your book for the first time become realized and elevated: I’m saturated with gratitude. Even today, if you see me walk down the street, you can detect a slight limp. That’s from gratitude.
How has your life been different since your book came out? What have you been doing to promote Fuse, and what have those experiences been like for you?
It’s different in degrees. The book itself offers you a legitimacy of sorts in our niche community, however putative or imaginary that legitimacy might be in terms of our larger culture, so having published a book feels… a little different. On the other hand, at this stage in American poetry culture, having a first book doesn’t do too much to quantifiably change your life unless it’s one of those collections that manages to receive a great deal of attention. As a poet whose collection has been acknowledged very kindly here and there, but not on a scale that could be called massive by most metrics, I feel like I can only hope that this is the beginning of building a change in my life—a hot air balloonic rise into the lower middle class, perhaps. It has definitely played a role in broadening and diversifying my set of literary friends and acquaintances, which I love, and this is where I talk about how I promote the book, which means I talk about readings and give a casual nod to social media:
Readings. Putting together readings that I’ve been invited to or invited myself into or have otherwise just utterly lucked into has been my biggest contribution to promoting Fuse, beyond Facebook (which has, of course, facilitated or helped facilitate many of the readings in question). The readings have been pretty uniformly great, and each of them has been very different. Over the past year I did a few readings in Columbia, including an insanely fun book co-launch with my friend Melissa, and then readings in St. Louis, Chicago, Houston, Austin, Brooklyn, Lawrence, and Akron, all with dear friends or acquaintances who are now friends. All of those readings were good times for different reasons. One of the things I was thankful for was the level of engagement at each venue, no matter what the size of the crowd was. I hope that I’m right, and that engagement tells me just how hungry pockets of us are in the culture to chase meaning and significance. I’m not claiming that my poems provide this, or are significant socially or historically or spiritually, or whatever, but it is what I would like to do… and when I see people at readings who talk to me afterward and ask me about the work or mention something they thought was cool or weird, I feel not alone. For example, before the reading in Akron, I got to spend like an hour and a half with the other writers I was reading with, a close friend who made the drive up with me, and the awesome guys who put the whole reading series together basically having one of the most hilarious, riff-filled conversations of my life, and something like this happened at each reading. I laughed a lot. Short version: Huge, shadow-punishing gifts, that’s been my experience.
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?”
If I was in possession of my faculties plus two drinks, I’d probably say that the book is about a speaker trying to find a way to stitch as much of the vanishing, mutable world of experience and imagination together into bursts and blurts of musical talk that act for a reader/listener like batteries for empathy and excitement.
Actually, now that I’m saying this, I have actually had this experience. My wife and I were waiting for a flight to New York (for a poetry reading, as it happens) and trying to get something to eat in a crowded airport bar. Eventually, we were seated at the same four-top as a guy who, it turned out, was doing oversight for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as they were struggling to recover from the housing crash and the financial crisis. At least, I think that’s what he was doing. He was pretty cagey about it, though in a perfectly nice way. At any rate, he asked me what kinds of poems were in the book. I might have tried to explain for about five minutes, but it felt like thirty, and I could just feel any interest just drain away like watching time lapse photography of a campfire die down and disappear. I should probably just say it has fire engines in it, and when there are no fire engines there is just fire. Also, one of the poems is about a salad, but not in the way that you think.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
It’s advice I’m giving myself and still failing to take: if you’ve got time and means in the year or two before your first book comes out, be aggressive in finding places to read and finding ways to get your book into the hands of those angels that write about books in venues big and small. We are all limited by time, money, circumstance, what-have-you, but find a way to get out on the road, find a way to read your work out loud to people who don’t know you.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
Part of the happy influence Fuse’s publication has had on my subsequent writing is that I was encouraged to send more work to Black Lawrence Press, and they decided to publish my second full-length manuscript. Bewilderness is scheduled for publication in early 2014, and I’ve spent a good part of the summer revising that and seeking blurbers, and looking once more for covers, which is a not-entirely-terrible kind of harrowing. The other way that it’s influenced my subsequent writing is interesting: on the one hand, it gives me more confidence in the second manuscript I completed, Bewilderness, and also in the third manuscript I have, Consolationeer. I tend to see these books as a loose kind of trilogy, so the publication of the first (and the imminent publication of the second) has given me the confidence that the third will be taken as well. Having those projects largely finished, gives me the terrifying and good impetus to try to do something different, or at least to jump further out and get past my comfort zone. It’s tough, as I adore being comfortable.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Yep. I feel like poetry, at its best, can make nothing actually happen, if I may recklessly misread the famous Auden quote. It can hold fast to that which might otherwise slip from our attention, our memory, our consciousness, our capacity to contain multitudes. It can intensify our relationship to the small and large things that make up this life and which might otherwise be consigned to oblivion. Enough will be consigned to oblivion, and certainly some of it should be, but if we don’t manage to end humanity in the next hundred years, some kid may stumble onto a poem, or a book of poems, that tethers her to the world and sets her flying in a way she might only have feebly sensed before. How does she pivot back into life with this new awareness? How does life change because she has? Look, poetry can’t save the world. I don’t even know if people can, but if the world gets saved, it’s going to be by the people who see and hear things in different ways, who see something where everyone else saw nothing and who can make that something vivid and real. Poetry can be anything, and anything can happen, and maybe it will.
Marc McKee received his MFA from the University of Houston and his PhD from the University of Missouri in Columbia, where he lives with his wife, Camellia Cosgray. Recent work appears in Sixth Finch, Jet Fuel Review, H_NGM_N, and Forklift, Ohio. New work is forthcoming in Lumberyard and Barn Owl Review. He is the author of What Apocalypse? (New Michigan Press, 2008), Fuse (Black Lawrence Press, 2011) and Bewilderness (forthcoming, Black Lawrence Press, 2014).