How often had you sent out The Even Years of Marriage before it was chosen for the 2012 Orphic Prize from Dream Horse Press?
Tell me about the title. Had it always been The Even Years of Marriage? Did it go through any other changes?
The manuscript went through a bunch of different titles. Originally, it was called gravityANTIgravity, but that was when the book contained some poems that I ultimately yanked. Corey Marks at the University of North Texas really worked with me and taught me how to view the manuscript as a book and not just a collection of poems. He suggested that I comb the manuscript for phrases that jumped out as potential titles. I poured over the poems in a coffee shop in Denton, Texas, and that phrase seemed to work as a frame for the book.
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?
At first, I just wanted my book to come out; I didn't care how. But then winning a contest became important because I'd been told a contest win was helpful on the job market. Since I was preparing to go on the market around that time, the contest route seemed the way to go. But these days, I'd be inclined to tell poets to be less concerned about contests and more focused on finding a quality press. Do a lot of research and find out which presses are publishing books that they'd feel honored to have their work sit beside.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
I won't lie: assembling the book was very difficult. For months my partner would come home to a living room covered with manuscript pages I'd lain out on the floor. She'd find me on my knees, reading the poems aloud to find the poems that resonated against each other. After I'd shuffled and reshuffled the pages about 10,000 times, I enlisted the help of poets Sandy Longhorn and Anthony Robinson, both of whom made useful suggestions about the order and structure.
When I'd been an MFA student at the University of Arkansas, I'd studied under Geoffrey Brock. One day we'd gotten into a discussion about the impulse to arrange books of poems in a way that gave them a narrative arc. I can't speak for Brock now, but at the time, we were both heavily against this.
When I went to the University of North Texas to complete my doctorate, Corey Marks let me see that the way I'd been ordering my poems was hurting my chances of getting the book into print. He convinced me to approach the book's structure in a much different way, and I honestly believe that without his direction, the manuscript would still be sitting on my computer. His input was invaluable to me. He taught me a lot.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.? 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 wasn't involved in that aspect of the book—thankfully. I don't really have the patience for that kind of work. As for editing, J.P. Dancing Bear sent the galleys to me, and those went back and forth a few times. I shuffled the order of a few poems but nothing major. We did drop one poem, as I recall, and replaced it with another. But other than that, we mostly looked at spacing and such. I don't think I touched the poems at all.
Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?
Dream Horse Press makes beautiful books, which was one of the reasons I submitted my manuscript to them. When it came time to pick art work, Bear had a strong vision for the book. He has a lot more experience designing books, so I deferred to him. I've had loads of people tell me how much they love the cover.
Earlier you asked what advice I'd give to other poets, and I'd advise them to try to negotiate some control over the cover art. This might be something a poet might not even think about in the excitement of a press saying it wants to put your work out, but this is something that will certainly come up later. I personally know someone who ruined her relationship with a great press because of disagreements over the cover art for her 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?
I once read an interview with Cleopatra Mathis where she said she didn't really send poems out much anymore because she knew the poems would eventually come out in a book. I suppose that I just don't have that kind of confidence. I wouldn't even consider sending out a manuscript until the poems had been field tested through journal publication (though one of my favorite poems in my book was never able to find a home). Having an acknowledgments page that shows publication in good venues doesn't seem like it would hurt a manuscript when an editor looks at it.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
Not much, to be honest. But I'm not really one to sanctify such moments. Plus, by the time the book arrived, it'd been close to a year since I'd won the contest. I was already deep into a second manuscript, so the book in many ways was like a relic, almost like it was someone else's book. But don't get me wrong: I was doing cartwheels on the day that I learned that I had won the book contest. I opened a 20-year-old bottle of scotch that I'd been saving for the occasion.
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?”
Honestly, that would never happen. Aside from my wife and my kids, my family doesn't even know that I have a book, so mentioning to a stranger on a plane that I have a book is hard for me to imagine. But I think I would describe the book as one of loss and regret. There are some moments of levity, but I resisted catharsis. I don't think there is catharsis in real life, which suddenly strikes me as something The Misfit might say in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
What have you been doing to promote The Even Years of Marriage, and what have those experiences been like for you?
All of my Facebook friends are tired of hearing about the book. I suppose I'm doing the usual things people with first books do. I'm getting book reviews lined up. I've scheduled readings. But I'm looking for new ways to pimp the book. I had some ideas that involved multimedia, but I'm still fleshing out those ideas. So not much, I suppose. Or not as much as some. I did just start a Tumblr page, ashbowenpoems, to help promote my work.
The experience has been very positive. I was invited to read as part of the Kraken Reading Series, a fantastic series run by the great Kyle McCord and equally great Trista Edwards. Though I had a terrible cold, I had a great time at that reading. I've also been invited to read at a college back home and I'm reading at the Arkansas Literary Festival.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Probably not to expect too much; that the book isn't really going to change your life all that much.
Are there any new writing projects in the works?
I'm pretty close to having a second manuscript completed. The new poems are different than the poems in The Even Years of Marriage. Two poems in The Baltimore Review are representative of what I'm doing now. I had a burst of creative energy last April when a friend of mine and I agreed to do the poem-a-day challenge. We swapped poems every day to keep each other honest, and I ended up with 30 solid drafts at the end of the month. Many of those drafts fell together into finished poems pretty quickly, so I was fortunate. I've been writing steadily ever since, but the drafts have taken longer to get to a usable state. One new poem went through 70+ drafts.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Absolutely, or at least your own part of the world. I remember reading Norman Dubie's poem, “The Pennacesse Leper Colony for Women, Cape Cod: 1922,” for the intro creative writing class I took as a sophomore. A feeling came over me that I've never forgotten. I tried to express the impact the poem had on me to my professor, but I couldn't translate the feeling into words. The world changed that day, for me anyway.
Ash Bowen lives with his partner and step-children in Alabama where he teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. His work has appeared in New England Review, Blackbird, Best New Poets, Quarterly West, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere in print and online.