Friday, January 4, 2013

#62 - Megan Harlan

How often had you sent out Mapmaking before it was chosen for the 2009 John Ciardi Poetry Prize from BkMk Press?

I’d sent it out about a dozen times, over about eight months. To be honest, I’d been bracing myself for it to take years. I picked contests given by university presses and literary presses based on the editorial staff and the publication track record. But I took a sporting view of any judges whose names were announced during the submission period -- I really fought any instinct to think, “There is no way so-and-so would ever pick my manuscript!” I just took that issue out of the equation, and focused on the presses themselves.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Mapmaking? Did it go through any other changes?

When Ben Furnish, the Managing Editor at BkMk Press, called to tell me I’d won -- “You’ve taken the prize,” was his memorable way of putting it -- as soon as we hung up, the first thing I did was run to my laptop to see which title I’d used for that contest. The other, earlier title was Farsickness, the title of a poem in my book. It’s an idea that I love, that of course German has a word for, fernweh. But my problem with Farsickness was that I was never thrilled with a book title connoting illness (even of a subtle sort). Mapmaking better captures what I think the book actually explores -- landscapes depicted through language, memory, and imagination.

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 experience is very particular to my goal, which was -- in fact -- to win a contest. It’s been many years since I attended NYU’s graduate program in creative writing, and even though I have a good track record publishing my poems in journals, I felt my collection would really benefit from winning a contest by an established literary press. It seemed to me that the term “award-winning” in front of “first poetry book” may inspire reviewers to take a closer look, and librarians to consider buying it for their collections. Those sorts of elements came to mind when I was writing those contest entrance fee checks. But each book has its own path, and I’ve admired many books that have taken very different routes.

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

The process was excruciating at the time -- which of course means it’s now my favorite part of the whole book publication experience. My son was an infant during that period, and while he napped, I would take the printed poems and shuffle them, sometimes moving them around the floor like a big jigsaw puzzle. I tried all kinds of methods. The only thing I knew for sure was how I wanted to manuscript to end (with the poem, “Living Cloisters”). But the opening poem -- that gave me head-aches. I also had an instinct to divide the book into four sections, partially to evoke the cardinal points on a map, but really more because then each section would have about a dozen poems, which feels to me like a natural size for a grouping. As far as developing “themes” to each section, the more logical that got, the worse I felt the manuscript flowed.

What finally worked was almost ridiculously obvious: I packed many of the strongest poems into the first section and saw where that left me. Those poems started “talking” to each other -- and I was able to pull some out to anchor other sections. Then I wrote a number of new poems.

Something almost chemical happened along the way, and the order, the sections, started to make sense to me -- at least, in that “poetry” meaning of sense. I think about poems as visual, visceral pieces of language -- somehow the sounds of the words create heights, textures, colors, almost akin to relief maps. I know a poem is finished when I can picture its particular body of texture/color/object-ness. The breakthrough for me was when this sense of “order” and physicality finally attached itself to the book. Now how I picture the order is, in rough terms, like this: The first section is city and kaleidoscope. The second contains slippery or treacherous landscapes, graveyards, wastelands. The third has water, and lots of sky, a sense of expansiveness. And the final section takes place inside different sanctums -- a diary, a bed, a chapel.

This realization evolved very gradually, and now seems like it should have been obvious to begin with. Months of my son’s nap-times transpired. He grew, and the book grew. It finally came together into this whole.

How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?

Not very. BkMk Press commissioned students from the Kansas City Art Institute to work on the cover design, for example, and they did a marvelous job. As a font person (and what poet isn’t?), I was thrilled that the book designers chose for the type-set one of my favorite fonts for poetry, Garamond. Ben Furnish did ask if there was any design element that would, essentially, make me cry if I saw it. My one request: “No cursive, anywhere, please.” That was honored, I’m happy to say.

Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?

I did send along some of my favorite old map images. Not being a book cover designer, I couldn’t imagine a book called Mapmaking with anything other than a map on it. The cover image instead is original artwork by Michael Smith (then a KCAI student): it’s an abstract, very finely rendered pen-and-ink drawing of an object like an intricate nest, or perhaps a landscape blurred from a distance. Path-like tracks cross the cover, and the title text was sketched and colored by hand. The cover evokes a hand-drawn field map -- it has that intimate sense of place. I think it looks especially striking in person.

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 wasn’t concerned about this particular issue, because I’d been publishing the poems in journals on a regular basis. I don’t write a lot of poems in any given year, but those I do I really work over, hammering them out until they feel done. Then I send them out to journals, and tend not to take any “no” to feel ultimate. (Meaning, I’ve had my share of bridesmaid poems that have finally enjoyed their big day in print, sometimes years later.) My publication pace has been pretty steady.

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?

There wasn’t a lot of editing work done on the manuscript. At one point, I had a good talk with Michelle Boisseau (the Associate Editor at BkMk Press) about the book as a whole, and I remember her saying that the manuscript was polished, that there wasn’t a lot to do to it. She tweaked the order of some poems in the second section, for example, and I still feel fortunate for her insight about that. But to me, it didn’t feel like much editing.

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

Two things: I pulled out a copy after cutting open the box, started stroking the matte cover and the thick-stock paper, and I just remember thinking, My book is real! As I was admiring it, my then-toddler son started pulling copies out of the box and throwing them all around the living room. It was literally poetry in motion.

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

In the fundamental way -- that I no longer have to worry about if/when/how my first book of poems is coming out. That, I’ll just say, is a relief. A related, and no doubt more profound difference, is that having the first book out releases you towards all the other books you now get to write. The road ahead seems more real, somehow. Not easier, but more tangible.

And of course, there’s the paparazzi...

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 book’s title really helps to answer that question. When I’ve been asked this (more times than I would have ever guessed), Mapmaking gives some helpful context to my very short answer, which is that it depicts my responses to place through travel, memory, and emotion. Often I’ll mention my fascination with maps -- the only thing I collect. Along the way, I’ve met many people who share my interest in maps, and I love to hear about their favorite maps. True story: I once sold a copy of my book to a cab-driver after having this sort of conversation.

What have you been doing to promote Mapmaking, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I’ve done readings and other events at some wonderful venues in California and New York. I also did a book-signing at AWP in Washington, D.C., and was asked to read a poem for the PBS Newshour website. My first reading for Mapmaking was also my first poetry reading in something like fifteen years -- and it was filmed for Youtube posterity, as many poetry events are these days. That felt like going from 0 to 60, public performance-wise -- terrifying, but thrilling too. I’ve loved every reading I’ve been fortunate enough to give. It’s always a great joy in the end.

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

Since I have no dire mishap to warn against, I’ll instead give my best advice to any poet looking to publish their first book: Figure out what is important to you, and you alone, about having your book published -- the explicit parameters of what you actually value. Then be true to that vision.

I’ll also add this. Though I said in the first question that I did not factor in  the identity of the contest judges, now that the book is out, I have learned: The judge is so important! Not the least because your name and theirs are tied together forever on the cover of your book. That Sidney Wade was the judge of the contest -- announced after I’d won it -- has been the source of such lasting gratitude for me. I know other contest winners who’ve said similar things about their ongoing amazement at having a poet whom you deeply admire -- and who doesn’t even know you -- select your manuscript. So, perhaps a word to the wise there.

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

I am working on a second collection of poems, much as I worked on Mapmaking -- at random intervals of sprint-like bursts broken up by long hiatuses. I tend to write in clusters of four to six poems, then I take a break from poetry for however many months, write another cluster, take another hiatus -- years go by this way. My long-form fiction-writing, on the other hand, is an almost daily affair, and requires waging this carefully planned campaign of productivity. So my two book projects are useful in that they could not be more different. I use one to take a real break from the other.

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

Yes. Like any art form, poetry can make sense of the world, do our paraphrase-defying experience of it some justice -- if only for the length of a page. That, for me, is change on the order of a miracle.

Megan Harlan lived in seventeen homes across four continents by the time she graduated from high school, and now lives in Berkeley, CA. She is the author of Mapmaking, winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry (selected by Sidney Wade) and published by BkMk Press/University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2010. Her poems have been featured on Poetry Daily, PBS Newshour’s Poetry Series, and Verse Daily, and in journals that include American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, AGNI Online, and Arts & Letters. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such publications as Alaska Quarterly Review, The New York Times, and Cimarron Review. For more, visit her website,