Almost counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and this question, so let’s say I sent the book out about twenty times. I sent it out to its first contest in the fall of 2011, and I heard back from the University of Akron Press in the summer of 2012. It received a few finalist nods elsewhere and was, after I withdrew it, under serious consideration with another press. But I found the right editor, Mary Biddinger, at the right time, and I’m pleased as a possum in a trash bin to be with the Akron Poetry Series.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Signaletics? Did it go through any other changes?
For a little while the manuscript was titled Latent Print after a sequence by the same name, but it soon became Signaletics. The only time I really doubted the title was when a Famous-Poet-Not-to-Be-Named upon hearing my title said, “Are you actually smart? Or are you just trying to sound that way?” What a blow! Fortunately, after a few nights of pacing and self-doubt, I had some reassurance from a mentor, and I have no regrets about it now. I do have to explain the title at readings often, but that just gives me a lead-off talking point.
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?
Money’s certainly nice, and that’s one reason one should certainly enter contests. (In addition to the fact that prizes often have tenured acclaim and publicity.) But I think landing a book with a press you respect for their other titles, their design, distribution, and marketing is more important. So, if you land with an editor you love outside of a contest, be grateful!
Occasionally, I’ll hear a poet who second guesses a decision to go with a press or not, especially after the new-car-smell of the book wears off. If you can find a great editor, hell, that beats the candy in the contest piñata.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
It’s difficult for me to locate what’s a draft versus what’s an iteration of a draft. The book didn’t come together in stages, as the term draft implies. I was always tinkering with it, from the smallest things to the biggest. Occasionally, I would swell up with an idea for a poem and have to write it down. Some of the collection’s poems were drafted as early as autumn 2009. The last was written in late spring 2012. I continue to tinker with the book until the final draft was due in early 2013. The biggest changes were with ordering. I’d say the book went through about four or five arrangements before it was picked up, two after. One of my peer reviewers suggested that the book was a little cold, lacking in emotion. At first I was defeated by this comment, but then I later realized that a reordering of the collection could help reveal the stakes of the poems. At that point, I shifted toward the front a few poems that contained the narratives or situations that make the emotional implications more clear. That’s when I knew the book was right.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
I was very involved. My designer’s name is Amy Freels; she works for both University of Akron and Cleveland State University Press. She’s incredible. I sent her countless images of things I was considering, and she was very patient with me through the whole process. We finally settled on a historical photograph—a mug shot—from Sydney, Australia. We were granted usage rights for a small fee. From there, Amy composed the cover. After that, she wrote to me one day and said that she had an idea for section breaks, a small illustration from an antique book about public speaking gestures. It was exactly what I wanted.
Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?
As I mentioned before, yes. I found the image in a historical trust’s online archives. Fortunately, my designer loved it!
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 wanted a majority taken by journals I admire before it went into the contest circuit. Once it was taken, I wanted all the poems to come out in journals before the book was published. I had about four or five left over, so I sent those out and placed them quickly. All the poems were published prior to the book’s publication.
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?
First of all, once the book was accepted, I asked Mary if I could add two poems. I sent her the manuscripts including the additions and she approved. The book next went out to two peer reviewers who both provided me with some excellent feedback. I’d say it went through two more rounds of reordering, a round of nitpicking, and a round of copyediting. Then it went into a draft with the interior design.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
I was at Bread Loaf. The official release date for the book was September 1, 2013, but I had been accepted as a fellow to the conference, and in order to go as a fellow, my book had to be out. Akron rushed the printing of the books and got them out on August 11, 2013, the day before the conference started. The first time I saw the book was in the Bread Loaf bookstore where it was being bought by poets I respect and admire. Incredible!
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 usually avoid this conversation because it leads to “I read a poem at my mother’s funeral and it helped me grieve” at best or, at worst, “People still write poetry?” So, when someone asks me what my book is about, I say something like “Well, they’re poems, so you can imagine that they can be about pretty much everything.” Of course, some people have the notion that poems can only be difficult abstract representations of love, nature, and death. If I’m feeling like I don’t want to evangelize them about how amazing poetry can be, what it can contain and be about, I say something like “forensics, my father, and anxiety.” If they pry any further, I’d say, “Wanna see a copy? I have one right here in my carry-on, and one in my check bag, and one in the seat pocket in front of me, and my agent and assistant have copies in the row behind us, and…” just to freak them out.
What have you been doing to promote Signaletics, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I’ve done a lot of readings in the last year, some at my own expense. It’s not easy out there to book readings that pay, but I saved a little moolah to hit the road a couple times this last year. I have to say that, if you’re running a reading series, the least you should do is buy a visiting writer supper and let them crash on your floor. Oh, and make sure that at least a couple of copies are purchased. (A book raffle? Signed copies to donate to the library?) That’s all I want when I get out there. If there’s more, well, that’s gravy.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Take a clonazepam, and chill out. I think I got everything covered as best I could, but I obsessed over everything and caused a great deal of anxiety for myself. Perhaps I won’t do those sorts of things with the next book.
Are there any new writing projects in the works?
Earlier this summer I sent off my finalized second manuscript titled Groundspeed to Mary Biddinger at Akron. It will go to the board for final approval in September. Also, since my return from working at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, I’ve written seven poems! How has that happened, especially since I said I would work exclusively on essays for a while . . .? Bad poet, bad!
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
For some people, and many of them already have that gravitational pull rocking their tides, and then there’s some that can be reborn in poetry, and then there will be some people that will never have their world changed by poetry, and we shouldn’t be sad about that. Earlier this year, a good friend of mine cried in front of a Pollack painting at the Art Institute of Chicago while I stood beside him, a little sleepy and sugar-doped from the dessert we had just before. Sometimes poetry can’t even change my world. I was recently listening to Joy Katz on the Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry Off the Shelf” podcast talk about how, after her mother died, she couldn’t find poems that could help her deal with that grief. There have been times when poems were the last things I wanted to read, and why? Because maybe right then I needed music. Or time with friends. Not poems. And this is healthy. It’s like not drinking for a while and then having one nice Hendrick’s and tonic and realizing that it all goes to your head much faster those days, and you feel giddy for it. That’s what I need some times, to be a lightweight with poetry, to not grow cynical. And maybe I’m not answering your question head on; maybe I’m talking more about how poetry can change people and how a person can change people by how much time they devote to poems. But, of course, a change in enough people changes what we call the “world,” the human world. Now ask me if poetry can terraform, and we can talk figuratively.
Emilia Phillips is a poet. She is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013) Groundspeed (University of Akron Press, 2016) and three chapbooks including Bestiary of Gall (Sundress Publications, 2013) and Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, forthcoming in 2014). Her poetry appears in Agni, Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. She’s the recipient of the 2013–2014 Emerging Writer Lectureship at Gettysburg; 2012 Poetry Prize from The Journal; 2nd Place in Narrative’s 2012 30 Below Contest; and fellowships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, U.S. Poets in Mexico, and Vermont Studio Center. She serves as the prose editor for 32 Poems, a staff member at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference; and an adjunct instructor of English and creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.