Wednesday, November 5, 2014

#87 - Robert Ostrom

How often had you sent out The Youngest Butcher in Illinois before YesYes Books chose it for publication in 2012?

I lost count. I remember that, for over a year, I spent a lot of money on contests. Broke and dejected, for nearly another year, I sent to contests occasionally. In the end, I got really lucky. I was just about to overhaul the whole schmear when Justin Boening, who was the acquisitions editor at YesYes, wrote to ask if I had a manuscript in the works. 

Tell me about the title. Had it always been The Youngest Butcher in Illinois? Did it go through any other changes? 

Titling the book was maybe the hardest part for me. Several years ago, I was listening to a This American Life episode entitled 24 Hours at the Golden Apple. The producer interviewed a man named John Zervas who, in 1979 at 8 years old, was the youngest butcher in Illinois. I knew I’d be lifting that for a title, although the poem has little else in common with Mr. Zervas. The Youngest Butcher in Illinois felt like the best title for the book, but I wondered if the title poem could shoulder the book. I made long lists of titles and sent them to friends who almost always chose YBI. In the end, it felt inevitable and right.

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?

The contest system is a costly gamble. Advice? There’s something to be said for ushering your work into the world with reverence. After all, it’s cost you time and blood and tears and any number of other fluids, vitreous and cardinal. Don’t send to contests that haven’t published books you like. If you know who the judge is, don’t send to that contest if you know she or he won’t be into your work. Don’t waste your money. It’s helpful to get individual poems out into the world. Some people (who are not me) are really good at networking; that’s of use apparently. If you feel strongly that your book would be at home with a certain press, get your manuscript to them. 

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

Out of the four chapters that make up the book, two sections constitute a long poem, To Show the Living, which had been published as a chapbook. In some ways, having this long poem made things more difficult for me— I was worried it dominated the book or that it was of its own world. I contemplated (and still consider) turning it into a book-length poem. However, I wanted the book to have formal variety with the poems still being sectarian or at least accomplices— I imagined many of the poems were just different trails through the same quagmire—so I had to ax quite a few sweethearts. On the same token, the need for unity produced its own poems. This is something Linda Gregg told me— that as she nears the end of writing a book, the book itself writes poems. In short, assembling the book had to do with arranging the long poem, cutting poems of different lineage and writing bridge poems. 

How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?

The mastermind and captain of YesYes Books, KMA Sullivan, told me to list artists whose work I felt was kindred to the book. This was both gracious and daunting. I’m pretty sure Dan Estabrook was the first person on my list. She liked him too. We looked at all of his work and chose some favorites. KMA took over from there: she chose the art and designed the book. Still, she involved me every step of the way. It was important to me that the paper wasn’t super white, and she honored that. Maybe because it makes my eye floaters go crazy, I really hate white paper. 

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?

Initially, I didn’t really care if I had an extensive list of journals in my acknowledgements page, but before the book was coming out, it did occur to me that this could be a good thing— a stamp of approval. And since YesYes was a very new press, maybe it’d be good for them too. I don’t know how these things work. And, like I said, the long poem had been published as a chapbook which meant half of the book had been published all at once. 

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 don’t feel like I edited the poems too much, but I recently found a very early draft and was shocked to see how much had changed. By the time KMA and Justin got their hands on it, the poems were pretty much as they are now. We did play around with sections. Also, YesYes asked me to cut two sections from the book, and I think it was the right choice. Those sections have been published as a chapbook and a pamphlet. One, Nether and Qualms, is available from Projective Industries. If you ask YesYes nicely, they might send you a copy of the pamphlet A Happy Idea. 

What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?

I remember everything. I met KMA at the Myrtle-Wycoff stop, and we took the L train together. I’d been warned by her and others that it can be a bizarre experience. And sure enough, it was. I’m such an anxious person; the only thing I could do was worry about everything. Out of all the feelings I remember from that day, I believe the strangest was the sense that it was done. All that working and dreaming and rejection was over. I’m not sure why, but when I think back to that, I hear Hart Crane, “Is the silence strong enough/ To carry back the music to its source/ And back to you again…” It was strange to go through these emotions and to see my book for the first time in the presence of someone else. KMA and I rode the train together for a while, then I had to go to work with my first book in my bag. I was teaching an undergraduate workshop at Columbia that day, and though the book was all I could think about, I told no one.

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’m on an airplane right now. If I wasn’t so sheepish, I’d give it a try. I don’t love attempting to say what it’s about. In fact, I probably wouldn’t answer that question seriously ever. I’d half-joke that it’s about my mom and my ex(es). There are themes of family and displacement that run through the book. The can of worms if the worms are my obsessions. I think the guy sitting next to me hates me. 

What have you been doing to promote The Youngest Butcher in Illinois, and what have those experiences been like for you?

Again, I’m really fortunate to have been published by YesYes books. KMA and her people really believe in their writers and work hard to promote their work. They set up readings, including a West Coast tour, and sent the book to a variety of contests and reviewers. I’m terrible at self-promotion. 

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

I can’t think of anything I wish someone had told me. I had such tremendous support. Maybe this: Don’t make any last-minute changes to poems.

Are there any new writing projects in the works?

I’m finishing up a second book, but that could take forever. 

Robert Ostrom is the author of The Youngest Butcher in Illinois (YesYes Books). He lives in Queens and teaches at the New York City College of Technology and Columbia University.