I sent it to quite a few contests. It was finalist a dozen or so times, and it was even picked up for publication in 2009. It was supposed to go into production within a year, but at the end of the second year with no publication date in sight, I decided to withdraw my manuscript. It was a trying experience, and I came very close to giving up on the book at that point. However, in this instance, being incredibly stubborn was a good thing because I decided to revise it one more time and send it out for one more round of contests. It won the Accents Publishing International Poetry Book Contest, and it was clear from the minute I started working with Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, and the Accents team, that The Sounding Machine was exactly where it was meant to be. I couldn’t ask for a more passionate, enthusiastic, and generous editor, than Katerina—she is truly a force of nature—and I wouldn’t change a thing about the publication path The Sounding Machine took.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been The Sounding Machine? Did it go through any other changes?
The original title was Oracle Bones, but I discovered that Peter Hessler wrote a non-fiction book called Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China. I recommend it; it’s a wonderful book. It wasn’t hard to give up the title, I never felt it was quite right even before I discovered Hessler’s book.
I found a sounding machine in an antique shop, and though I didn’t know what it was at the time, I bought it. I just liked the look and the heft of the thing. It has a marquise shaped base with a handle, much like a flat iron. It’s made of brass, and it has a numbered dial on the base. I discovered that a sounding machine is a pre-sonar nautical device that drops a line to measure water depth. I liked the idea of plumbing the depths, sending a weighted pianoforte wire into the unknown to bring back something substantial, something knowable. It seemed an apt metaphor for a book of poems, and perhaps this book in particular since it delves into some dark places.
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 think this is something every poet has to decide for her or himself. I entered many contests, and I also submitted to open reading periods. I didn’t see much difference between the contest model and the open reading model. My main concern was that I submitted to presses I respected.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
Assembling the book was actually quite easy. The poems as a whole tell an overarching story, so the poems are arranged more or less chronologically. There is information in some poems that the reader needs to fully understand other poems, and that also influenced the ordering of the poems. The main structure of the book didn’t change very much. As I revised, I added poems, and took out weaker poems, but overall, there weren’t major changes.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
I was very fortunate that Katerina let me chose the cover image. I spent a long time searching for the right image, and when I saw The Annunciation, Pigeon Triptich by Tjaarke Maas I instantly fell in love with it and knew it was the cover. Maas was an artist from the Netherlands who was born in 1974. In pursuit of finding a personal god through art, she retreated into a cave in the forest surrounding the Hermit Monastery of San Francis. In 2004, her body was discovered near the cave, her death the result of a fall.
It’s difficult to articulate why this image grabbed me. There is something chaotic about it, but from chaos recognition of the pigeons emerge. From chaos, beauty emerges. The tilt of a head, curve of a back, a sense of motion, the individual and the collective reveals itself to the viewer. There is energy in the bold lines, and one senses an urgency to capture the pigeons, their essence, not just their likeness.
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 that most of the poems have appeared in journals, mostly I think because this was my first full-length collection, and though I wanted to publish a full-length collection of poems, I was working poem by poem. I don’t know if that makes sense, but now I have a second manuscript complete, and a third almost finished, and I thought of them both more as books right from the start. I’ve sent out a handful of poems from the second manuscript, and none from the third, yet. I’ll send out poems from each, but not nearly as many as I did from The Sounding Machine.
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 didn’t have to do a great deal of final editing. There was a great deal of editing along the way, but fortunately when it was selected for publication by Accents it didn’t need any major work.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
It was unreal in the best possible way. I was quite moved, and emotional about seeing it. As I mentioned earlier, I had almost abandoned the book. I decided to send it out to one more round of contests—just one—if it didn’t get published, I was going to start sending out my second manuscript and tuck The Sounding Machine in a drawer.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
My writing life has changed. There’s a sense of relief of having published a book, but I also feel like I needed to get those poems out so I could move onto other obsessions. The poems in The Sounding Machine were the poems that demanded to be written. I needed to write them in order to be able to move past them both personally, and as a writer.
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 live in Qatar so I spend a lot of time on planes. I try not to strike up conversations because it’s very difficult to sustain, and awkward to get out of, on a 14 hour flight, and truth be told, I’m trying to get out of answering this question.
I suppose it’s about everything, and not about everything. It’s about something, and it’s definitely not about nothing, except sometimes when it is about nothing. It’s about my life, but it is absolutely not about my life. It’s about the truth if the truth were made wholly and partially out of lies.
What have you been doing to promote The Sounding Machine, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I’ve been using social media probably to an annoying degree to promote The Sounding Machine. In my defense, since I live so far from the US, it’s harder for me to do readings so I have to do what I can. When I’m in the US, I participate in readings, and I’ve read on this side of the world too. I pester people to review the book, I set up a website, I send postcards, in short, anything I can.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
I had wonderful teachers and peers in the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University, so I don’t wish for any advice. The best advice I got in general all along the way was to revise ruthlessly, write fearlessly, and persist, persist, persist.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
I think there’s a sense of relief that the first book is out there, but a writer still has to stare down the blank page whether he or she has published one book or twenty. I have two manuscripts under construction. One is ready to submit, the other is close to completion. I’m currently working with two colleagues Michael Hersrud and Jesse Ulmer on the final edits of The Donkey Lady and Other Tales from the Arabian Gulf. It’s a book of folk tales illustrated by VCU Qatar students. They did incredible work, and I’m excited that it’s coming out from Berkshire Academic Press in early 2013. I’m reading for the 6th anniversary issue of diode poetry journal, and I recently launched Diode Editions which is currently running a chapbook contest.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Yes, through the individual lives and minds that were changed by poetry.
Patty Paine is the author of The Sounding Machine (Accents Publishing), Feral (Imaginary Friend Press), Elegy & Collapse (Finishing Line Press), and co-editor of Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Arabian Gulf Poetry (Garnet Publishing & Ithaca Press) and The Donkey Lady and Other Tales from the Arabian Gulf (Berkshire Academic Press). Her poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Blackbird, Verse Daily, The Atlanta Review, Gulf Stream, The Journal and other publications. She is the founding editor of diode poetry journal and Diode Editions. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar where she teaches writing and literature, and serves as Assistant Director of Liberal Arts & Sciences.