I had sent the manuscript out in 2008, I think, to just one contest, The Crab Orchard Series First Book Award. Nothing came of that, and I didn’t send it out again until late fall 2010. That year I sent it to a bunch of book contests.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Rousing the Machinery? Did it go through any other changes?
The manuscript went out with the title Leda at Work in the World, but once Arkansas took it, the series editor Enid Shomer and I went back and forth about other possible titles, including Sleeping House, Morning Sky; Blue Strobe; Offshore; and The Signs for Fire, Ocean, Air. I still like all of those titles, but Rousing the Machinery is the best choice for the book. I think it's a one-of-a-kind, too. There are no other books out there with that title as far as I can tell.
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?
Was I worried about winning a contest? No, not worried. My feelings might be better described as resigned. I knew that once I started sending out the manuscript, I would be competing with many talented and original writers, all of us trying to find our way to print. I also knew that this was a serendipitous and unpredictable process that probably wouldn’t lead to publication right away, if ever. There’s so much poetry out there! I felt like I was standing around the crowded gym at a high school dance hoping to be noticed. Not a particularly pleasant feeling.
I am now a beneficiary of the contest system, but the challenges of the contest system are obvious; for example, it’s expensive both financially and spiritually. Yet winning a contest equals publication, attention, a payday. I think an ethically run contest is good for poets and readers because it makes public work that might otherwise remain mostly unknown. So if you can afford the fees and the wear and tear on your spirit, you should enter contests.
As for open reading periods, I didn’t send my manuscript to any of those, but I would have if the manuscript hadn’t found a publisher that year. My advice for those who are sending manuscripts out to contests or open reading periods is to choose the venue carefully and vet your work ahead of time with honest, savvy readers whose judgment you respect. Then let the process run its course and don’t obsess. It’s out of your hands.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
The first version I sent out back in 2008 was basically my MFA thesis with all the typos corrected. Although I had begun to teach composition full-time by then—and there’s nothing like turbid undergraduate prose to clog the pipes—I wrote new poems and continued to tweak older poems. I kept the revision process going right up until I submitted the manuscript to contests in fall 2010, and even after that.
Also, in 2009 I published a chapbook, How to Leave Home, that includes many poems from Rousing the Machinery. Ordering the chapbook contents allowed me to develop a structure for the full-length manuscript. Good readers and friends such as poets Kathy Davis, Claudia Emerson, and Leslie Shiel read the full-length manuscript and helped me figure out how to make it better. So, basically, there was really only one version of the book, but I’d been hammering away on it for a while.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
Graphic designer Liz Lester handled the project, inside and out, which made sense to me since I’m not a designer. I saw proofs at each stage and had opportunities to comment.
Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?
Yes, I had a lot of influence on this aspect of the book’s design. The painting on the cover, George Tooker’s Bird Watchers, is one I brought to the press’s attention and they obtained permission to use it from the museum that owns it. I’ve loved Tooker and this painting for a long time, and I hope it conveys some sense of the book’s concerns and its aesthetic.
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 think maybe a third of the poems had been published prior to the book’s publication. Frankly, I’m terrible at sending out poems. Once a poem feels finished, I sort of lose interest in it, and this means I’m not thinking about it any more or sending it out to journals. The engaging work is figuring out the poem, not placing it somewhere. (I know this is not a good business practice.)
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?
A month or so after the book was accepted for publication, I had two long conversations with series editor Enid Shomer. She felt that the manuscript was well ordered, so that didn't change, and we agreed to eliminate two poems from the original manuscript. The editing process with Enid was both affirming and helpful, and the manuscript benefitted from her attention and experience.
Further along in the production process the astute copy editor at Arkansas, Brian King, asked great questions that led to simple but significant revision on a couple of other poems, including the change of a single word in the title poem. Then, during a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I polished some of the newest poems a bit more and researched possible cover art, before sending everything off for production. Working with the press was a great experience from start to finish.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
You know, I don’t remember feeling any special thrill in seeing it or holding it for the first time. I was glad it was done; I thought it looked great. However, because I was so involved with the production of the book—seeing two sets of page proofs and several images of the cover—I knew it well long before I held a physical copy. Plus, it’s a long process from the first poem to a published book, and I’d moved past those poems in many ways.
Now getting the news that the book won the Miller Williams/Arkansas Poetry Prize was exciting. On Valentine’s Day 2011 I got an email from the University of Arkansas telling me that my manuscript was one of four selected for publication, and that poetry series editor Enid Shomer would be phoning all four finalists later that day to inform the winner of the of $5,000 prize. Needless to say, I was stunned to learn I had won the prize. For a few days afterwards, I was afraid that I had misunderstood the conversation.
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?”
Although the question hasn’t been asked of me on a plane, I have answered this question in other settings, though never very well, I’m afraid. Rousing the Machinery is about men and women, work and class, resiliency, and more broadly, history and inheritance.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
No different in the day-to-day, but knowing the poems are out there is at once unnerving and satisfying. I’m married to a librarian and I love libraries, so I especially like to imagine the book on library shelves. WorldCat is wonderful on-line tool to see where the book has landed in the world.
One of the best things to come out of winning the contest is that I was able to use some of the prize money to go to Italy. I’d never been out of the United States before, three weeks in Florence and Milan, thanks in part to the poems, felt very good.
What have you been doing to promote Rousing the Machinery, and what have those experiences been like for you?
Promoting poetry is very humbling. Audiences are small and the external rewards are few. I’ve done the usual readings and talked about the book with other writers who are studying poetry. It’s especially fun to talk with students who are beginning to write poems. Their responses to the book are sometimes surprising and give me insight into how a poem is received by a reader who has no prior knowledge of my life or me or even, sometimes, poetry. These conversations remind me to write as well as I can, to do my part in the conversation as well as I can.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
For me, the process was without serious bumps, and I suspect that the best advice comes from people who have had a harder road than me. My advice is to take from the experience what will help you move on to the next poems. Try thinking of it as just one very interesting thing among many that will happen to you.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
I don’t think the publication has affected my new work too much, though it may have improved my work ethic a bit since intense revision appears to have paid off.
These days I am working on a couple of things. One is a poetry manuscript tentatively titled The Unkept House. I’ve been reading Edith Wharton’s early nonfiction about home and garden design as well as writing by contemporary geographers such as Doreen Massey who think about how space and place shape us. Other people’s housekeeping habits and domestic travails enter into many of these new poems. I’m not really a project-centric poet, but these are the poems I’m writing now.
I am also writing a nonfiction piece about work I did as a guardian ad litem (an advocate for abused and neglected children). I’m messing around with a possible fictional treatment of this subject, too.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I can’t go so far as to say it can change the world, but poetry has certainly deeply engaged and changed me. As a reader I go to poetry for music, form, and content conveying precisely and urgently something of another person’s singular experience. When a poem delivers that, it’s a quite remarkable thing. Though some argue that the culture has moved on, leaving poetry behind, I think there will always be an audience. For the reader who is open to it, reading the right poem at the right time can be, in that moment at least, transformative.
Catherine MacDonald is the winner of the 2012 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize for her collection Rousing the Machinery (University of Arkansas Press). Her work has been published in Washington Square, Crab Orchard Review, Blackbird, Cortland Review, Louisville Review, and other journals. She has also received scholarships and fellowships to the Sewanee Writers' Conference, Ropewalk, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She teaches writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.