Wednesday, April 2, 2014

#82 - Wendy Xu

How often had you sent out You Are Not Dead before it was chosen for publication by Cleveland State University Press as a finalist for the first book competition in 2013?

Unbelievably, CSU Poetry Center was one of the two places I ever sent my book. The other was Wave Books. I dropped those two manuscripts in the mail at the same time, fully prepared for the long road ahead of many more trips to the post office. I got so very lucky.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been You Are Not Dead? Did it go through any other changes?

It went through so many title changes, all of which I kept in chronological order in a word document that I am looking at now. Some funny (very real) highlights are:


The few weeks before I sent off the manuscript, I would run downstairs almost every day, to knock on my friend Lech's door who lived in the apartment below me, trying out new titles on him. He vetoed so many bad ones, and talked me through other possibilities. Though it is only a matter of time I believe, waiting for a book's correct title to reveal itself to its author. I like to say I had no hand in it. Like letting your kids name themselves.

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 guess I was concerned with the possibility of winning a contest, seeing as how I sent to one. The other place I sent was an open reading period. But mostly, no, I don't feel that any aspect of the first-book publication process should be prioritized over giving editors and presses you deeply believe in the opportunity to read your book. Your relationship with the contest ends when the contest ends. Your relationship with that press and publisher/editor is only beginning. When I look in any direction in my apartment, I see Cleveland State University Poetry Center Books. I have loved and admired them for so long. If I could, I would have driven to Cleveland and put my manuscript in Michael Dumanis' trash can, if it meant he might read it. The delivery method shouldn't matter, what matters is the dignity and love with which you're assured your book will be treated.

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

Many versions, many evenings of collapsing in and among its pages on my living room floor. Kind eyes of friends. Reminding myself to think less, intuit inter-poem relationships more.

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

I was given the opportunity to be as involved or uninvolved as I wanted, which immediately made me feel super comfortable. I do a tiny bit of book arts stuff myself for iO Books, the chapbook micro-press I publish, so I wanted to stay in the loop, but mostly my role was choosing between impossibly beautiful font pairings that Amy Freels (CSU's designer) sent me over email. They made me feel so taken care of, and they let me suggest tweaks and tiny revisions to things that were so-close-to-perfect.

Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?

CSU generously allowed me to entirely choose the cover image, which is a collage by the wonderful Belgian artist Jelle Martens.

A secret is that it also appears on the cover of this beautiful contemporary collage book, Cutting Edges.

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 mostly told myself I would begin sending out the book when it felt like a unit. A good number of the poems did end up finding homes in journals before that time, but, it was something I (surprisingly) did not overthink.

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?

The book went through two full cycles of editing, once for substantive edits, once for grammar. I learned that I have almost never spelled a hyphenated word correctly. I spent a lot of time on the phone with Frank Giampietro, CSU's interim director, pulling the book through the long process. It was amazing. We explored possibilities for almost every single poem, a better word here, a different line break here. The level of detail and attention was unbelievable. In the end, I chose to change or not change things based entirely on my own preference, and being given that kind of agency was really heartening.

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

When the proof arrived in the mail, I cried and touched it a lot. When they handed me a final copy at AWP Boston, I made a series of absurd faces and I remember someone took my picture. It's the worst photo I've ever taken. I was too happy to remember how to smile.
How has your life been different since your book came out?

Oof, this question! For a while after it came out, I couldn't write any poems. Then I gave up trying. Then I stopped reading poetry altogether and just read novels for a while. The poems came back though, as they always do. The plainer answer is that I've had the opportunity to give more readings, meet more poets, and just generally "do more poetry things." Publishing a book has also revealed to me a desire to write slower. I feel calm, I feel like plodding along at a different pace.

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?”

This happened to me a few months ago, on my way to Cleveland to read. I said "feelings." Then I felt a little embarrassed, and offered something about "what happened to me when I became displaced and moved somewhere new." They were very satisfied with this second answer.

What have you been doing to promote You Are Not Dead, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I made my best effort to do a lot of readings since the book came out, and make it to things whenever I could. Also the book was taught in a few classes last year at U. of Minnesota, Florida State University, and UMass-Amherst. But that had nothing to do with my efforts, it was all the kindness of other poets and writers. The experience of being tied to a literature-object in the world has been humbling. I won't ever get used to it.

In March I'm finally going on a reading tour, basically a full year after the book was published. It's "promotion" for the book, but it's also my best excuse for getting in a car with my friends Brian Foley and Luke Bloomfield, whose respective books will be out too, and driving around the country seeing faces.

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

I wish more people would have forced me to relax about aspects of the book coming out. It's amazing more people didn't hang up on me during that time.

What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?

My language and my poems have been changing, and I'm working on some poems now that might eventually become a thing. They haven't quite taken on thing-ness yet, but, I'm excited about them.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

Yes, always, yes.

Wendy Xu is the author of You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013) and two chapbooks: The Hero Poems (H_NGM_N) and I Was Not Even Born (Coconut Books), a collaboration with Nick Sturm. Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry, Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, The Volta, Columbia Poetry Review, and widely elsewhere. She co-edits and publishes iO: A Journal of New American Poetry / iO Books, and teaches writing at UMass-Amherst. Find more at