I spent a solid three years sending out the manuscript. In that time, I was continually revising and reshaping the manuscript, cutting out poems, adding poems in, and rearranging the order. Several of my writer friends read it and offered me all kinds of advice on it. Particularly, Al Maginnes and Justin Evans gave me some feedback that helped me re-see the manuscript.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Brackish? Did it go through any other changes?
The original title of the manuscript was Where Brackish Water Flows, a reference to the landscape I’m writing about: North Florida. I shortened it to Brackish after a while. I like how that word sounds. I love that it has a hard “k” right in the center but ends with a soft “sh.” Of course, for me, the word is also a metaphor: fresh and salt, life-giving and life-taking, sacred and profane—just like the places I write about in the book. I like to think my poetry as brackish, too, one the one hand firmly lyrical, musical poems and on the other hand firmly narrative and grounded in a particular place.
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 that contests give you name recognition. And I don’t say that to put contest down. Rather, I think that winning, say, the Miller Williams Prize, gives your book some legs that help it on its journey. I entered several contests: the Miller Williams Contest, the Backwaters Press contest, the Crab Orchard Review contest. At first, I really wanted to win one. I thought that I had to in order to get the book out. I thought that no one would read it otherwise.
But then, I started looking at alternatives, particularly presses that had open reading periods. Aldrich Press is a small press, and when I sent to them, I had no idea that Karen Kelsay would pick the book; and when she accepted it, I was a little nervous at first. Alrich is a print-on-demand press (like Dream Horse and many others), and I worried that it might be vanity publishing. After doing some research, I found that although it is small, Aldrich is a widely-respected publisher whose books have been reviewed in many journals. I am more than pleased with Aldrich. They’ve been amazing. I was involved with every aspect of the publishing process, right down to the font choice for the manuscript (it’s Goudy Old Style, by the way).
My advice? Read the market. Know the market. Send to places that publish books you like. I think that some poets have this idea that a contest is the only route. Contests are great (and lucrative, sometimes), but they’re not the only route by any stretch of the imagination. I’d keep an eye on open reading periods of small presses. Broaden your net; send to several places. Understand that winning a contest is a route to accolades, but not the only route to publication.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
I really struggled with the architecture of Brackish. I didn’t know how I wanted the book to look. I knew that the book was about a place—a specific place—but I didn’t want it to be limited by its geography. Instead, I wanted the geography to enhance it. Two books really helped me to see the structure of Brackish: Richard Hugo’s The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir and Jake Adam York’s A Murmuration of Starlings. Hugo’s poetry has a profound influence upon my own, and his book taught me that geography is in a large sense a psychic landscape. Charles Wright once said that “All forms of landscape are autobiographical,” and I agree wholly. So, the geography of Brackish is very much the geography of both the literal place (North Florida) and my mind (my conception of the place). The book begins with “How to Come of Age in a Mill Town” and ends with the image of a drowned boy in a riverbed. The journey is from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to experience. In that way, the landscape is secondary (but certainly not incidental).
Jake Adam York’s A Murmuration of Starlings includes a longish poems about Sun Ra. Jake had organized that long sequence so that each section of the poem had its own page, its own breathing room, and its own white space. The concluding poem in Brackish is a long poem entitled “North Florida: An Autobiography.” I broke the poem into un-numbered sections and put them on separate pages in an attempt to capture the breathing white space that gives so much life to Jake’s poem, “At Sun Ra’s Grave.”
An aside: I still miss Jake, an amazing poet whose work and presence gave life to the world. I still can’t believe he’s gone.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
I was very involved with the design of Brackish. I had an idea in my head about what I wanted the book to look like. I’d originally laid the book out in Cambria font, but I didn’t like how that looked. Then, I switched it to Garamond and then to Perpetua. Finally, I settled on Goudy Old Style. Karen Kelsay indulged me on every change.
I chose the cover image. It’s by a South Georgia-based photographer, Steve Robinson. Though the cover looks like a painting, it’s actually a filtered photograph of a beach scene in Apalachicola, Florida. Steve is amazing. You can find more his work here.
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?
A great many of the poems in Brackish were published in journals. Early on, I worried that if I didn’t have enough of the poems published, no press would consider the book. I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that some publishers look at the little magazine market as a proving ground. So, in a sense, I did continue to send the poems out, even as I was shopping the manuscript—that is, even as I was submitting to contests and open reading periods. I didn’t worry about the majority of the poems being published as much as I wanted them published.
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?
Karen and I worked together on the manuscript. She did the layout, emailed a PDF proof to me, and I sent her back corrections. Since she lives in California and I live in Georgia, I worried that this kind of back and forth would get tedious. It didn’t. Karen is a consummate professional. She made any changes very quickly. I was quick to read my proofs, as well.
I did edit some of the poems, but overall, the book looks exactly as it did the day I sent Karen the manuscript. I didn’t want to drop a wholesale rewrite on the book after she’d accepted it. In fact, the contract for Aldrich Press asks that poets not completely rewrite the book. I think the only major change I made was to drop one of the poems (a very weak poem) from the second section of the manuscript.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
Aldrich shipped my author’s copies, but they were slow in freight. The book appeared on Amazon and at Kelsay Books’ website before I actually had a copy. A writing student of mine got a copy before I did, and he posted a picture of the book to Facebook. I remember sitting in my office, staring at my book on my Facebook wall, and thinking that this had to be the most surreal moment of my writer’s life.
Unbeknownst to me, my wife had actually ordered a copy of Brackish from Amazon. She brought it to me later that same day. So, I purchased a copy of my own book before I even saw my author’s copies. It was an amazing experience. In many ways, I’ve been writing Brackish my whole life. To see the book in print finally was very much a cathartic experience.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
Honestly, not much different. I’m still teaching, still writing, still fighting the good fight. I do feel that the book have given me a measure of credibility in the writing world. The Gulf Coast writers I call friends are a wonderful group, however, and never dismissed me before the book. It feels good, though, knowing that I’ve carved out my place.
I do find myself working hard to promote the book. I’m constantly emailing people and constantly calling folks trying to arrange readings. I update my website much more than I used to. I think that one thing the publication of Brackish taught me is that it’s definitely up to me to ensure that the book finds an audience. I work very hard at getting the work into the hands of appreciative readers.
What have you been doing to promote Brackish, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I have my website, and I’ve asked several people to review the book. The Florida Book Review and Apalachee Review have published reviews of the book, both favorable. Several friends (both writer friends and non-writer friends) reviewed the book on Amazon.com. I’m active on the conference scene in the Southeast. I serve as the president of the Gulf Coast Association of Creative Writing Teachers, and at our conference in March of this year, I read from the book and sold several copies of it.
In addition, the town where I live—Tifton, Georgia—has an active farmer’s market. This past December, I was invited to sell and sign books at the annual holiday market sponsored by the Wiregrass Farmers Market. It may sound odd for a poet to be selling books at a farmer’s market, but let me tell you: I sold a lot of books. People of all stripes were very kind, asking me questions about my writing and my past. These weren’t academics, mind you. These were people from all walks of life. Wiregrass Farmers Market draws in a wide variety of folks, from older country-type to young hipsters interested in sustainable living. Since my writing is concerned with natural environment, I think that selling books at a farmers market is incredibly appropriate.
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?”
That’s an interesting question. On the one hand, the book’s about my past. I make no apologies for writing autobiographical poetry. On the other hand, the book is about the environment of North Florida. Furthermore, in an oblique way, the book is also about music—the music I grew up with (classic rock and blues) as well as the music of the landscape, those syllable-twisting town-names in North Florida: Apalachicola, Wewahitchka, Sopchoppy, names like that.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Take it slow and take it easy. Don’t be in a hurry to publish. Some young poets see publication as a route to a job. I find this a very troubling view of writing poetry.
Back when I was a PhD student at the University of Georgia in Athens, I was struggling to put together my dissertation, which wound up being a very early draft of Brackish. I remember asking my mentor and advisor, the poet Ed Pavlić, how I should go about writing a book of poetry. How, I wondered, does one put together an entire book? His answer still resonates: “Line by line, man. Line by line.” Sage advice indeed.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
The big news is that Snake Nation Press will be publishing an anthology that the poet Brent House and I are coediting, The Gulf Stream: Poems of the Gulf Coast. The book should appear sometime this summer. I’m excited about the anthology. I’ve long wanted to edit a collection about the place that’s given me such inspiration over the years. Brent’s a wonderful co-editor, too. He has a keen editorial eye and a deep understanding of contemporary poetics.
I’ve continued to write new poems, as well, and I’m building a body of new work. My new poetry isn’t as autobiographical or place-focused as the writing I did before, so I’m interested to see what a new manuscript will look like.
I’m actually working on a novel now, tentatively titled A Stairway to the Sea. Since I teach a heavy 5/5 load of courses, I don’t have the energy to devote to a novel during the semesters, so I work on the book during the summertime, when I teach only one course. I’m probably 45,000 or so words into the book now, though I’m not sure how much of that is actually usable prose. I hope to finish a solid draft in summer 2013.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I’m going to quote a better poet than I’ll ever be. I think that poetry is a way of happening, a mouth.