Tuesday, April 2, 2013

#68 - Joshua Robbins

How often had you sent out Praise Nothing before it was chosen for publication as a finalist for the 2012 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize?

The manuscript submissions process was, for me, as I’m sure it is for many, an anxiety-filled labor of love. I obsessed over it: compulsively checking email, refreshing my browser in hopes of even the tiniest update on press websites. I found that the only way I could cope with waiting was to fashion my submissions neuroses into an online spreadsheet. Consequently, I can answer your question with precise numbers.

I submitted Praise Nothing sixty-two times between September, 2010, and February, 2012. I withdrew the manuscript from ten presses after I received “the call” from Enid Shomer, the Poetry Series Editor at the University of Arkansas Press. I won’t divulge how much money I spent on supplies, postage, and reading fees, though that’s part of my spreadsheet. I’m also not going to count all the times I stripped the manuscript for parts and submitted those parts as chapbooks. I will say that no matter how I crunch the numbers, I feel fortunate to have been able to work with all the talented and kind people at the University of Arkansas Press.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Praise Nothing? Did it go through any other changes?

The manuscript had a few other titles—“Collateral,” “Against Forgiveness,” “Field Guide to the Second Coming,” among others—but those were really just placeholders and a way for me to explore different organizational strategies. I only ever sent it out with the title Praise Nothing.

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 main concern was placing the manuscript with a press I admired, a press that had published poets I admired. The University of Arkansas Press’s Miller Williams Prize was among the dream contests at the top of that list. Most presses offer contests and so I entered them, but I also submitted to open reading periods.

My only bit of advice is to not fall prey to the temptation of settling for a press that you think might publish your manuscript just because you feel the urgent need to get the book out. That said, I was privileged to be in a position where I could send my manuscript to what I thought were the best places, the best fits, and not settle. My wife provided me support and had a steady income, I had some job security as a graduate fellow at the University of Tennessee, and I had manuscript submission money set aside from some earlier prize winnings. I had it pretty good. And still do. Even now, and especially after publishing my first book, I struggle to make sense of the crapshoot that is manuscript submissions. There are so many deserving poets out there.

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

I finally arrived at the closest approximation to the book’s current form when I had the chance to leave Tennessee and return to Lawrence, Kansas, for a period of concentrated work on the manuscript during the summer of 2010. Before moving to Knoxville, I lived and worked in Kansas for a few years and I yearned to get back to the Sunflower State.

For two weeks: just me, the stack of poems, a tiny loaner cottage, and the Kansas summer heat. Getting to the final order took a process of spreading all the poems out on the living room’s dusty hardwood floor, assembling a draft, and then reading and rereading. Wash, rinse, repeat. And repeat and repeat.

In many ways, the assemblage process was similar to my poem revision process: making pass after pass over the draft, tinkering with the count and measure, culling superfluous lines, improvising and moving the puzzle pieces around until I finally recognize the picture. I was also fortunate to have a few poets read the manuscript and offer their affirmations that I was heading in the right direction.

A few months after “the call,” I had several thoughtful conversations about the manuscript with Enid Shomer. She is such a careful reader and she encouraged me to be certain I could justify everything about the book: the title, the section breaks and order, every poem, every line, every figure. I ended up taking out three poems and slightly revising a few.

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

As for design, I didn’t have any significant involvement with the interior. I trusted the talents and experience of the design staff at the University of Arkansas Press. They did an amazing job.

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

I was given the opportunity to suggest an image for the cover, which ultimately came down to two options. The first was an image from what is now known as the Heidelberger Totentanz, the first book in which the dance of death was portrayed, published in 1488. The second was a piece by Andrew B. Myers I’d seen in the journal Sixth Finch that summer I was in Kansas. After talking with Larry Malley, Director of the University of Arkansas Press, I did a gut check of what I really wanted and confirmed that the Myers piece was right. But picking the cover art is only one step and so I am deeply grateful to Liz Lester for her care and talents in designing the perfect cover.

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?

Like everyone else, I want my work to be read. Poetry ought to be written for the public sphere. I can’t say I felt like I had to publish the individual poems before publishing the whole manuscript. That wasn’t part of my strategy, but it did work out that way.

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

I remember my wife said I looked like I’d just had a baby: tired, overwhelmed, deliriously happy. I just remember a feeling of profound gratitude.
How has your life been different since your book came out?

There was a deep satisfaction that settled on my heart once I held the book in my hands, but I can’t say my life is any different. I think the publication line on my CV is helpful in terms of the job market, but my main concern is working on the new poems. Arthur Smith gave me some advice shortly after the release of Praise Nothing: “Enjoy the moment, then get back to work.”

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?”

This actually happened to me last year. I was flying to a funeral in California and was seated next to a woman from Arizona who was traveling to examine some beachfront property she’d recently purchased. She told me she’d just been informed by her doctors that her breast cancer had gone into remission and that she’d decided to build an artist’s retreat near Long Beach where she could pursue her printmaking. We had an intense conversation about how grief and faith translate into art. When the conversation turned to my work, I described my book as being about faith and doubt, about the Problem of Evil, and about interrogating the differences between what is and what should be. She later mailed me a print and I sent her a book.

What have you been doing to promote Praise Nothing, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I created a new website and try to reach as many people as possible via social media. I’ve sent out many review copies and copies to contests. I’ve got some regional bookstore and university readings lined up and I’m working on scheduling more. Hoping to get back to Kansas for some readings. Also hoping to head back to the West Coast where I grew up and to do some readings in the San Francisco Bay Area, L.A., and the Pacific Northwest. There’s also a signing at AWP in Boston.

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

This is a tough question because I received so much great advice from friends and mentors who’d been through the publishing crucible before me. I don’t think I was sufficiently prepared for the emotional ups and downs of transitioning from those first book poems into the new work. I guess I wish someone had told me something like, “Once your book’s out, you may feel compelled to pursue an altogether new direction in your new work. This is good. Don’t worry about the old poems. They can take care of themselves.”

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

I still get up at 4:30 most mornings and write. I am trying, though, to push myself, to break away from the formal constraints I place on my drafts, to free myself up to wander and be more Negatively Capable. My poem “Exchange,” published in a recent issueof Anti-, is a good example of what I’m trying to do now. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake off suburbia or my Christian background, nor would I want to. But I’m more aggressively pursuing, both creatively and critically, the connection between lyric poetry and theodicy.

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

I don’t know about “change,” but maybe “resistance.” In her book Suffering, liberation theologian Dorothee Soelle offers a theodicy that does not attempt to explain the acceptance of some suffering for the sake of some good. Instead, she argues that Christ’s passion provides a model for how suffering and doubt can be experienced in solidarity with others. Suffering and doubt are not redemptive, but are forces that must be resisted. I believe the lyric poem is a tool of such resistance.

Joshua Robbins is the author of Praise Nothing (University of Arkansas Press, 2013). His recognitions include the James Wright Poetry Award, the New South Prize, selection for the Best New Poets anthology, and several Pushcart Prize nominations. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon, and a PhD in English from the University of Tennessee. He is currently a Lecturer in English at the University of Tennessee, where he teaches literature and poetry writing. Find more information at his website and blog. ******************************************************************************************