I sent out a first version of Leaving Clean for about a year and a half—to over 30 contests and open submission periods—but didn’t receive so much as a nibble. I knew there was work to be done on the manuscript, so I spent the following year or so revising, reordering and cutting and adding new poems. That later version started to get some attention (three finalist nods) and after another round of 20 or so contests, Leaving Clean won the Liam Rector First Book Prize for Poetry in 2013.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Leaving Clean? Did it go through any other changes?
The title has been through a couple of changes. Dancing near the Surface was first and, though it is a line from a pretty dark poem in the manuscript, I ultimately decided it sounded too light-hearted on its own for the subject matter of the book and for me. I also imagined some editors rolling their eyes after reading that title and never getting to the actual poems. This made me cringe.
I also sent the manuscript out with a bit gloomier title, Almost Washout, which is what the title was when it won the contest. However, the insightful editor at Briery Creek Press, Mary Carroll-Hackett, requested a new title and gave me options from which to choose. I thought Leaving Clean, with that gerund always in action and, therefore, the leaving always and never happening, was the way to go.
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 definitely sent out to more contests than open reading periods, but mainly, honestly, because of my ignorance of open reading periods. Any manuscript needs to be sent where it might potentially belong. But my best advice is to admit, to know, that it’s all a crapshoot. Good work or no, it takes that one or handful of readers that dig your work to get your book published. No matter how much work you do in learning presses and others’ work, you can’t absolutely know their evolving architecture and how yours might fit with it.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
Leaving Clean went through three versions before it was selected for publication. It began, essentially, as my MFA thesis and included many short poems that dealt with the grand “I” with which many first books deal. In many ways the final version does deal with what the original did but, I hope, in more complex ways. I think by the final version I had cut ten shorter poems, added two new poems—one of which is eight pages long—and edited the remaining poems and poem order, the latter pretty drastically. This is when it is great to have other writers and/or editors to see what you’re too close to see. My very good friend, Beth Marzoni, helped me put together this final version and was bold enough to suggest cutting so many poems and to suggest which newer poems to add. Without that other set of unflinching eyes, I might not have done what I needed to in order for someone to want to publish this manuscript.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.? Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?
The interior design of the book is all Briery Creek Press, but I was totally on board based on the design of previous Liam Rector winners’ books that I had read.
As for the cover, when I signed my contract with the press, I knew I would have a choice of a handful of photographs taken by the students that help run the press. Having worked for a small press while in graduate school, I knew what beautiful work students could do. I ultimately went with the photo that is the cover because it was a bit more abstract and weirder than the other choices yet still works well with the poems.
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?
Well, I sent out to all kinds of journals, as I’m sure most poets do. I’d say maybe half of the poems had been published prior to Leaving Clean being accepted for publication, but I never felt pressure to have most or all published. I think for most emerging writers working today that is a rare feat. Maybe some folks just work more diligently at the submission process than I do, though.
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 did some light editing myself—commas turned into semi-colons, a dash added here or there—but most of the manuscript is in the same shape as it was when I sent it to the contest. The editor did not ask for any changes to the poems or poem order as we went through the editing process, just a new title. I don’t know if this is usual for the press, but it made me feel much better about all of the edits I’d completed for the manuscript over the years.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
It was unbelievable to see this thing that I’d been working on for, more or less, eight years finally in front of me. Something I had begun to think would not happen at all. I got to share that day with my husband, who knows those eight years well. Even the dog crazy-danced in the kitchen with us.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
Oh, you know, I get to pal around and talk shop with James Franco. So there’s that. Which is to say I lie more.
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?”
My initial reaction would probably be “you should read the book,” since what one person gets out of a book is not always what others do, which is one of the things I love most about the reading and writing life. I’m not going to make a lot of friends with that, though, so I might follow up with: often when we fight off the person we don’t want to become, we’re also fighting culture, religion, family, and landscape—all of which can come gunning for you as soon as you turn your back to them.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Don’t beat yourself up over what you have so little control. Dance. Be willing to let poems or a manuscript go or to work a lot more on them/it. And then dance some more.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
If anything, the publication of Leaving Clean makes me dare to think that perhaps my singular voice might be important to this world and, so, makes me want to keep writing and publishing because it might just matter. I’ve a near-ready-to-send-around second manuscript and have been thinking about a third that might have to do with cities of music during the Civil Rights Movement—a broad idea I had after visiting the National Civil Rights Museum and the STAX Museum on the same day while briefly in Memphis.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Yes, if even for just a few seconds at a time, yes.