How often had you sent out Ghost Gear before it was chosen as a finalist for the 2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize?
Man, I sent it out for a while. I “finished” my first workable draft of Ghost Gear in the winter of 2007/2008, a year and a half after entering the MFA Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. I of course believed it really was finished finished at the time and sent it to fifteen prizes that year and sent to the same fifteen prizes for the next five years until it finally got picked up in the winter of 2012/2013. I revised it every single time it got rejected, and it got better every time. While all the rejection was heartbreaking (the book wasn’t a finalist or honorable mention or anything like that for any of the prizes until the winter it was taken), the process worked. It’s a much better book now than when I first started submitting to prizes, and I am grateful for that. Could it have happened a little sooner? Sure. But that’s life.
I’m now closing in on finishing my second book. I have what I like to call my first “non-shitty” draft, which means it’s not bad but it’s not particularly good. I’m not sure how to proceed. Send it to contests again and revise it every time it gets rejected until, at long last, it gets picked up? Or revise it on my own like crazy for several years and then send it out? The writing and publishing of books is a mysterious craft. I’m excited to see what it teaches me this go-round.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Ghost Gear? Did it go through any other changes?
The backbone of Ghost Gear is five versifications of stories my father told of his childhood (and, in the final two poems, of my childhood and his fatherhood). “Ghost Gear” recounts his near-death by tidal wave while tramell-net fishing in Alaska when he was in college. Ghost gear is a term for dilapidated nets and riggings and other such gear deep-sea fisherman used to discard in the ocean. All that gear drifted down into the ocean and caused all sorts of havoc. It was really big in the news ten years or so ago and the practice was made illegal. This notion of that which we believe we’ve discarded continuing to do its work below us is the controlling metaphor of the book: each poem an artifact of the past and present and future tangled up in the mind and body. I have to give my friend and colleague Curtis Hessel credit for making this connection for me after I told him I had changed the title to The Ever-chamber,” the second father-story poem. That title would work too, but Ghost Gear is infinitely better. I owe him a kiss on the lips for that and a punch in the gut for just about everything else!
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 only sent to contests. Contests I really, really wanted to win. Contests that had published awesome books before me, books that taught me how to write poems. I did this because I felt it would give the book a little something to stand on. Who knows if this makes any difference or not. I didn’t actually win the Miller Williams. I got close but not quite. Luckily, Arkansas publishes the Miller Williams Finalists as well. I haven’t noticed that the contest makes any difference but being able to say I was published by the University of Arkansas Press clearly makes a difference. So here’s what I can offer: send your book to presses who have published books you love. Contests. Open submissions. Whatever it takes, it’s the press that makes the difference. I suppose that if I’d won the National Poetry Series, I might see things a little differently. But there are only a few prizes out there for first books (the Miller Williams is an open prize) anyone really cares about, and Ghost Gear is getting out there because I’m putting the work in and because it was published by an established and beloved press, not because it almost won a prize.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
I just went back in my files. There are 97 drafts of Ghost Gear. I didn’t realize it was that many. Each was completed after the book was rejected, and I often revised more than once between rejections. Sometimes it looks fairly similar; sometimes it looks radically different. The poems themselves “look” more or less the same on the page, but the lines themselves are pretty radically different every five drafts or so, and the order of the poems is all over the place. I started chronological, then played with themes, then put the longest poem at the opening of the book and then moved it back to the end. “Singing” was always the first poem. “Ghost Gear” was always the second, third, or fourth, but everything after that was up for grabs it appears. The greatest amount of revision is in the poems themselves. Boy did they get better over time. I honestly can’t recall what it was like putting the book together that much. I remember swimming in the dark a lot. I sort of did it with a blindfold on. Sure, I had some idea of how the poems worked together, but I don’t think that became clear until two or three years after that initial draft. I had the backbone of the book in the father-story poems, thank goodness, and placed all the other poems around that backbone in an almost infinite shuffle. I also remember having a lot of help from Judy Jordan and from friends at my MFA like Jenna Bazzell, Martin Call, and Alexander Lumans. I owe them more than I can ever repay. I think understanding how to put a book together is probably a life-long pursuit for someone like me. I am at all times perplexed by…virtually everything around me. That’s why I write poems I think, to try to understand this life and the things in it a little better. I think I have a better grasp of how my second book works. Maybe the third will be a little easier, but I don’t put too much pressure on myself in that regard. I trust the process and just stumble forward and backward and in circles from there until things start to make sense. I think the process of assembling Ghost Gear was more the product of rejection than knowing what the hell I was doing and not know, this may sound strange, what I wanted to do. In the end, I settled on a more or less chronological structure. There’s a story told via the arc of the book that isn’t told in the poems themselves and people are catching on to it. But damn it took a long, long time to find that arc.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
I was lucky enough to be given almost 100% control of the cover, which is beyond perfect. If you’ve read the book, you know the cover is exactly what the book is about. It’s an original piece of art I commission from Siolo Thompson, an artist out of Seattle who was a friend of a friend at the time. When I contacted her with the request for the cover, she asked me to send her three poems. I sent “Singing,” “Ghost Gear,” and “The Ever-Chamber,” and the cover, more-or-less as is, was what she sent back. I was just blown away. How someone I didn’t even know could read those poems and come up with that cover seemed impossible, but I think it’s a testament to the words and to her skill as an artist and reader. I couldn’t be happier with it. As for all the other design aspects, I had no input and really didn’t want to interfere with the good folks at Arkansas. It was the right move. They made a beautiful, flawless book.
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?
Nah. I just wanted people to read my shit and sent out like crazy until all the poems were taken. I didn’t feel the need to publish the entire book in order to get it published. That’s the nice thing about prizes: most of that info is omitted from your submission. Some of the prizes do require this information. While I respect the presses that do, that doesn’t make much sense to me.
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 went back and forth with my editor, Enid Shomer, quite a bit on the final poem, “First Catch,” but the rest of the book was pretty easy to finalize. She has a great eye, and most of her suggestions made perfect sense, including cutting a monstrous poem that I wrote for the second book but felt compelled (for reasons I’m not entirely sure of) to include in Ghost Gear. The second she said we should cut it, I agreed, which I think helped ease the rest of the process for both of us. I am so very happy Arkansas actually edits their books. Some presses send off finalists to a judge, the judge selects a winner, and they publish that book without any further editing and even without copy-editing/proofreading. This is obviously a bad idea. I think I probably would have hired an outside editor to look at Ghost Gear if it were selected for a prize sans editor.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
I remember that entire day. It was long as all hell. I knew the book was incoming on a UPS truck but had no idea when it would arrive, so I employed a few friends to distract me, hopping from bar to bar in my current home place of Denver, Colorado. When my designer texted me “Did you see the book yet?” and I texted back, “I’m waiting for it to arrive.” and he replied, “It’s waiting for you at your door,” I left the bar without paying the tab or telling my friends and raced for home.
When I got home, I took my time opening the slim vanilla envelope only to find the book wrapped in paper like a gift. I took even more time opening it from there. When it finally emerged from the packaging, I didn’t cry like I expected. I just held it and thanked it for coming and apologized to it for not making it sooner.
Then I went back out to show it to my friends who were waiting for me at the bar. Then I cried, right there in the middle of an NBA game, and received a lot of pats on the backs and lots of booze from lost of people I didn’t know and a few I did. There are two days in my life I’d go to war for: meeting my wife in a dive bar and meeting Ghost Gear for the first time.
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?”
Ghost Gear is a book about survival. The father-story poems tell the story of my father’s rural survival while the rest of the poems tell the story of my more urban survival. I grew up in a very rough neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ve got matching scars underneath the fur of each eyebrow and countless scars on my knuckles from all the fights I was in as a kid. My dad’s scars include rope burns from the fishing nets in “Ghost Gear” and a burn on his knee from a forest fire he fought with his brother in Oregon. The book is about how we earn such scars and how they make us who we are. It’s a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age book of tall tales that are often true but are more true on an emotional scale than a factual one. Based on actual events but not factual in every little detail. You know…big fish stories. I suppose most first books are like this. But I really don’t care about doing something new; I care about being original in my own right. I wrote Ghost Gear. Not someone else. If it sounds like other books, I wear that as a badge of honor. It is definitely doing things in its own way, and I think there are people out there who see that.
What have you been doing to promote Ghost Gear, and what have those experiences been like for you?
Lord, what haven’t I been doing? I’ve been on a surprisingly large book tour since the book came out. Something like 35 readings in ten states so far. I really didn’t see that coming, but I work cheap, and I’m excited to visit classrooms and work with poets of all shapes and sizes and to share my work with people wherever they’ll have me. I’ve also work with quite a few writers as an editor and publisher and, thus, have relationships with writers all over the place who I think are excited for me and the book.
My first reading from the book was at AWP on the day the book was technically released. Afterward, at the book signing, I gave away buttons with either an image of the cover or an image of a badass unicorn on it. Most people took the unicorn button! It was a joke, of course, and people though it was fun and picked up a copy o the book as well. Who knew?
I also threw a big ass book release party with an open bar at a swanky art gallery where I live in Denver on my own dime and am throwing a release party in my hometown of Nashville in mid July at Parnassus Books, the only independently owned bookstore in Nashville that exclusively sells new books.
If someone asks me to do an interview (thank you, Keith!) or a reading or a radio show or a workshop, I always say yes, but I never try to “sell” or promote the book. I just share my excitement about it and finally having something to show for all this work I’ve been doing since, hell, virtually since puberty.
I’ve been writing poems since I was 13 years old and turned 33 a month after the book came out. It took 20 years to make this thing. 20 years. That’s a lifetime for most species on this planet, and many people never realize their dreams. I get really emotional when I think about that. For a long time there I was terrified I’d never publish a book, and I think I had good reason to fear this. Now that it’s happened, that’s all I really care about: it happened and now I’m having fun with it, which naturally translates into my promoting the book. I have a ton of energy, I love to travel and meet new people, my wife is awesome, and I love, love, love to talk about poetry, be it mine or anyone else’s, so this is really the best time in my life. I’m having a great time.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Honestly I got great advice the entire time. Countless people have been in my ear for years: poets, fiction writers, carpenters, chefs, politicians, family members, people I meet on the light rail, students, friends, voiceovers, Kevin Garnett…the list goes on an on. I believe that anyone doing good work is an artist and actively seek out artists every single second of my waking life, even if I never actually meet these people, even if I just see them in a movie or dunking a basketball. The message is always the same: WORK. Don’t talk. Work. Talk ONLY when you work—not if you work, when you work. If you put the work in, if you’re persistent, if you don’t give up, you will get there.
That said, here’s what I’ll say: Learn to take a break. You have time. Most people don’t just up and die out of nowhere. Statistically, most of us live long lives. I overworked in grad school. I literally wrote every weekday for three years. It was too much. I should have listened to my mentors who said I needed to breathe, that my brain needed oxygen, that my heart and soul needed a vacation every few months. Now that I have a book out and another almost finished (again, whatever the hell that means), I finally feel that I have time to, you know, not write. This is not sacrilege; this is common sense. I get a little tired of writers saying you have to write everyday to be a writer. That’s kind of like fighting fire with a bazooka. The sentiment is fine, but the reality isn’t quite there. Taking time not to write doesn’t mean I’m not writing. Of course not! I have to write to feed my body and soul. I write every other day on average, but I’m learning to stop worrying so much about not working, something I wish I’d known more about when I was working like a dog. Sure, it worked, but I can’t prove the book got published because I worked my fingers to the bone. So work hard but don’t work so hard you hate yourself or start gaining weight or have to do drugs to sleep. Listen to your body. Take a break when it demands one and trust the page will speak to you when you come back.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum’s first book of poems, Ghost Gear, was released in 2014 with the University of Arkansas Press. His anthology, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, was released in 2012; he is series editor of the Floodgate Poetry Series: Three Chapbooks by Three Poets in a Single Volume; and co-editor of Warning! Poems May Be Longer Then They Appear: An Anthology of Long-ish Poems, forthcoming in 2015. Andrew is also a freelance editor, Founder and Managing Editor of PoemoftheWeek.org, Acquisitions Editor for Upper Rubber Boot Books, Contributing Editor for Southern Indiana Review, and teaches college writing in Denver, CO. Andrew's work recently appears or is forthcoming in journals such as The Writer's Chronicle, Blackbird, Glimmer Train, InsideHigherEd.com, and Missouri Review. Read his work at AndrewMK.com.