Wednesday, November 26, 2008

#8 - Jon Pineda

How often had you sent out Birthmark before it was chosen as the winner of the 2003 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award?

At least 30 times, if not more.

Had it always been Birthmark or had it gone through different titles?

Yes, it was titled Bread & Wrestling. (I don’t know what I was thinking.)

As someone who also graduated from VCU with an MFA in poetry, I think a lot of us who came in with each other in my class knew that you were someone who eventually published your “thesis” as your first book. And of course what followed was: “Could we actually do this?” First off, can you talk about the changes from turning in your thesis to its publication in book form?

I had left the program after my second year in the MFA program and was working on the bulk of what would become my thesis. I had also started sending out the manuscript, and I was fortunate that it was getting some attention (and even more fortunate that it was getting rejected…it just wasn’t ready). Once I returned to the program, it came time to turn in the thesis. I put together what I believed represented the start of a collection. After finishing the MFA, I felt a great freedom in generating new work beyond what was included in the thesis. I went back into many of the “finished” poems and found different rhythms at work, broke the lines in different ways. There was a certain amount of irreverence with which I approached the “thesis.” I wanted to tear it apart. Other writers and friends helped me see potential structures for what would become the final version. My wife told me all along that the collection needed to be titled Birthmark, and she was right.

Secondly, I wondered if you could comment on something that I’m paraphrasing from Chase Twitchell: “A thesis is not ready to be published as a first book,” which is something I noticed while looking previously at the former Ausable Press site. Clearly there are more and more former students who eventually publish a first book that was their thesis—not to mention students getting published while they’re still enrolled in a program. What are your thoughts on this, and is it a good or a bad thing that students and recently graduated students are trying so “quickly” to get their first books published? Should more time be allowed for the poetry to become something more “mature”?

It depends on the work itself. If it is engaging and, as a whole, indicates various thematic obsessions and such, I’m not sure what the difference really is between a thesis and a “first” book. And all editors have the final word on acceptance, right? If they don’t want the work, they won’t accept it. So there’s always that closing door. As for the notion of sending out work too soon (or waiting for the work to “mature”), I think it really depends on what the poet is hoping to gain with publication. I definitely have published poems I wish never saw the light of day, but I imagine, as with other writers, I’m not alone in those reservations.

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

I remember my wife calling me at work and telling me a package had arrived from SIU Press. We both knew it was the book (Birthmark). I told her to go ahead and open it. I remember feeling this sense of quiet as I listened to her describe the actual copy. It reminded me of what I suspected would always be the case: our books, in many ways, are never ours to begin with. After I got home, I picked up the copy and carried it around with me, like it was football (I did a couple of Heisman Trophy poses), Linus with his blanket, etc.

Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices?

I’d supplied them with sample pieces from an artist whose work I admire. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out on the overall design side, so we went with a back-up, a sample cover that I had created. They modified it slightly on the final, but it’s still what I was hoping for.

Many poets seem to take their cash prize—if one is offered—and use that to buy more copies of their first books instead of taking just the cash. What did you do, and why? And what advice would you offer others faced with this choice?

I took the cash. I was fortunate in that there were also generous author copies provided as well. If faced with the decision again, I’d still take the cash. How often does a poet get paid for publication, right? I used some of the money to buy a 1966 Plymouth Valiant. After a few years of guilt, though, I ended up donating the car to our local NPR station.

Before the day you ripped open that box and saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?

I’d hoped it would.

How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

Yes, I’ve been invited to give readings at literary festivals and universities and the like. Those experiences were and are great. Every now and then I get a note from someone who has read the book (or attended a reading) and has been affected by the poems. It’s for this last part that I am especially thankful. Those have been surprises, to say the least. As for things that didn’t happen that I thought would, I found there were few reviews overall, but that’s fine. I read any and everywhere I could, and I think that helped in getting exposure for the collection. It definitely helped with sales.

Tell me about The Translator’s Diary, which is your recently published Green Rose Series book from New Issues. Was this a book you were working on with Birthmark or was it started after the aforementioned was published? And how did your writing change from the first to the second book?

I started writing what would become The Translator’s Diary in late-2001. I had already vigorously revised Birthmark, was still doing so, and it was nearing the final shape it would take. Alongside the ending of this first manuscript, I started writing these extremely compressed lyric poems. So many, in fact, that I decided to stop thinking about titles altogether. They were a hindrance at the time. I named every one of these new poems “Coma” (stemming from my obsession with my sister’s coma) and went from there. Every poem was “Coma” and, of course, the growing collection was tentatively titled “Coma.” Very original, I know. At any rate, because I’m always revising to gain interest in drafts, I reached a point where I decided to throw everything away. There were upwards of 80 poems that found their way to the garbage can…a few years worth of writing gone. It was depressing. Out of the experience, though, I did manage to salvage one poem. That is the opening poem for what would become The Translator’s Diary.

What have you done to promote both books, and what have those experiences been like for you?

This second time around has been easier. There has been more interest (in part, because of work I did with Birthmark). Lots of contacts from previous readings, and those transitioned into more readings for the new book.

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

If you have the time, set up readings well in advance so that when the final copy comes out, you’re off and running. Make sure you exhaust all avenues for promotion (looking beyond the traditional literary festival/bookstore reading models). Take yourself seriously. This, after all, is your moment.

Recently I saw your third book, Little Anodynes, as a finalist for a recent contest or two. The title is striking. What are you striving for with this book, and how has your writing continued to change and evolved from The Translator’s Diary?

Little Anodynes feels, to some degree, like a tonal synthesis of Birthmark and The Translator’s Diary. The title, of course, is from Dickinson, whose rhythms informed sections of The Translator’s Diary and carried over into this new book. I think of poems as “little anodynes,” respites in many ways from the world we think we know, the life we think we are living.

I believe you’re also getting a memoir published in the near future? Tell me about that project. How long have you been working on it? What’s it going to be about?

I was extremely fortunate to have attended a creative nonfiction seminar by poet and writer Jim McKean. He’s a colleague of mine in the M.F.A. program at Queens University of Charlotte. Jim had expressed that one could use an image (something that held lots of weight) from which to build a nonfiction manuscript. I was fascinated by this concept, how a single image could fuel the generative process. I immediately left the residency and went to work on my memoir. Three months later, I had a first draft. Amy, my wife, was equally influential in diligently editing the manuscript. Without her insight, the book would be completely different, I’m certain. By the fall, I sent out the book proposal to the University of Nebraska Press, and after sending the draft in its entirety (and undergoing their internal/external review process), they told me they wanted to publish it. I’d sent to them because I had read work they had published, and I admired the lyrical styles a great deal. My book, Sleep in Me, spans my life from the moment before my sister’s tragic accident (something I’ve explored in both published poetry collections) to her death. Running parallel to this story is that of my boyhood and how this accident changed our entire family. I especially wanted humanize my sister post-accident (for nearly five years, she was unable to walk or talk). Gulf Coast is publishing an essay from the book in an upcoming 2009 issue, and I’m really excited about that.

Poets often seem to write memoirs, and though they’re not necessarily inseparable, it’s a style that many poets eventually gravitate toward beyond poetry. Why do you think this is?

The allure of memory, the vast landscape that prose offers on the surface, I suppose. I would say, too, my experience writing the memoir was a reaction to having worked with compression in poems for so long.

Do you have any additional advice for first poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?

Send to places where you admire the work they’ve already published, where you’ve seen the finished product. That way, once you’re selected, you’ll have no reservations going into the process of relinquishing the book for production.

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

Yes, and I hope I always will.

Jon Pineda is the author of two poetry collections: The Translator's Diary (New Issues, 2008), winner of the Green Rose Prize, and Birthmark (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), winner of the Crab Orchard Award Series Open Competition. His memoir, Sleep in Me, is forthcoming in 2010 from the University of Nebraska Press . The recipient of a Virginia Commission for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship, he teaches in the M.F.A. program at Queens University o f Charlotte. In 2009, he will also join the faculty at the Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop, held at Hollins University. His website is