Thursday, December 25, 2008

#12 - Mark Wunderlich

How often had you sent out The Anchorage before it was chosen for publication by The University of Massachusetts Press?

The manuscript was in circulation for about three years. I was very eager to have it published—no surprise there—but that eagerness blinded me to some of the manuscript’s flaws. I had an early version of the book which I had worked on as my MFA thesis at Columbia, and I promptly got that into the mail. The first year out, that manuscript became a finalist for the NPS. There is something particularly cruel about that contest in that finalists are notified of their status months in advance. The next many weeks morph into a looming preoccupation with the tedious business of poetry contests. I remember it as a time of wild fantasy and hope—all of it built on an incredibly teetery foundation. I didn’t win, though I learned one of the judges had chosen it as a runner up, and had gone with the more mature writer, thinking (and this may be apocryphal—I was told this all second-hand) that I would have my chance eventually, and the older writer should have her due. I found bitter comfort in that news, and in the next couple years my manuscript got knocked out of that competition early on, which was discouraging. Ultimately it was for the best. That same year I received a fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and I moved to Cape Cod to spend three seasons writing new poems and making the manuscript sharper, smarter and more substantial. The place and those months changed my work and my life and helped me make The Anchorage a better book..

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

The book found its shape rather early on. I had the bones of it in place while I was in graduate school and had it divided into four sections. Lucie Brock-Broido had just arrived at Columbia, and we spent a couple late nights at her kitchen table, smoking, and making decisions about the order of poems. I kept much of that as it stood.

I very much liked the process of assembling the poems into an order. Making a book is its own discrete task. One reads the poems and begins to shape a kind of narrative that exists somewhere above the individual poems. A new life emerges, somehow—one created by the book itself. I saw a new self emerge from it like a twin that was of me, but not me at all. It’s an odd experience, and one I found very heady and engaging.

What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Was there a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

I wanted the poems to be in journals, and the manuscript to find a publisher. I was tremendously ambitious and organized about the whole matter. I funneled all the anxiety about my invisibility in the world of arts and letters into the administrative details of keeping work in circulation. Publishing individual poems was always exciting—it still is. At this point in my career, I’m a little embarrassed by the ambition I had, and by my desire for recognition. I’m more embarrassed of the feelings of loathing I felt at the success of others whom I deemed less talented or deserving. I think competitiveness is a mainstay of the world of writing, and it tends to live a subterranean and nocturnal life, replaced in the public discourse with pieties about the noble pursuit of art. The reality is more complicated, and more painful for most who write. I try to let my students know that the real pleasure—the enduring pleasure of writing— is the act itself. The other great pleasure is in reading and understanding the work of others. The other stuff just makes your soul smaller. How’s that for piety?

The book is in four sections, but the third section is entirely comprised of prose poems. Was it planned like this, or did you see them fitting as a section of the book later in the process?

The prose poems weren’t written as a group, but were added piece by piece while I worked on other poems. When I began to shape the book, it fell into quarters and it made sense to me to keep the prose poems together as a group. I have always loved reading letters, and the letters of writers are one of my favorite sorts of books to read. I thought of that section as a collection of letters—like a pack of them you’d find in a desk drawer. The prose poems were conceived as letters to the Beloved who was a figment and a conflation and a missing body, all at once.

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

The book was so pretty! It was such a beautiful object! The pages had that excellent library smell! The cover was gorgeous! There was no part of it I did not love. I had one hour of pure, uncomplicated happiness. I thought my elementary school librarian would have been so proud. As the day went on, my mood was punctuated by flickers of doubt, until the reality of the situation came crashing down upon me: What had I done? I was utterly unprepared for the day when I got the one thing I wanted more than anything else. And so I took to my bed. I was in a funk for weeks, feeling both exposed and embarrassed by publication.

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

I had one of those rare experiences in that I got just what I wanted for the cover. The image, a photograph of a Roman bronze sculpture of a soldier, was taken by an Italian photographer named Mimo Jodice. As soon as I saw the photograph, I knew it would be perfect. UMass press encouraged me to contact the photographer directly to ask permission, which I did. A friend of mine who spoke Italian wrote to the photographer in my behalf, and a deal was struck. The press had a small sum of money available to pay for the image. When I found out how much it would cost (too much), I wrote a second letter that aimed to both flatter and beg. The photographer’s wife, who managed these affairs, liked the idea of helping a young poet, and so the price was reduced, a slide was packed up and mailed to Amherst and it became the cover.

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?

The degree and extent to which I anticipated that moment can hardly be fathomed; that state of anticipation was marked by an extraordinary degree of psychological naïveté. In short, I wanted to be (in the small way poets are) famous. How embarrassing it is write that, but it’s true. Granted, I think that urge may have been somewhat less shallow than that which drives people to become contestants on Temptation Island or Fear Factor or The Amazing Race, but not by much. Anyone who writes and publishes has to believe that they are worthy of being heard by more people than can be reached with a simple phone call. A big part of writing is really a narcissistic urge.

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

Some really lovely things happened as a result of the book being published. I got letters from people who read it and liked it, and were moved to write to me. I did a book signing at the Grolier Bookstore in Cambridge and when I arrived the window of the store was filled with copies of my book—a huge display. I was invited to take part in an arts festival in San Francisco. For the event I was paired in a reading with Adrienne Rich and, in addition to reading my own work, I was asked to introduce her. She is, of course, a poetry rock star, and there were 500 people at the reading to see her, and as the opening band, they heard me too. It was such an honor to share a stage with her and a bit of an out-of-body experience. Each of those things surprised me. I sometimes marvel at the good fortune of all that.

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

I can’t really think of anything that, had it been said to me, I would have had the sense to listen to. Why give anyone advice? Each publication experience is different. I was particularly lucky in that the book got attention. Most first books of poems don’t get a great deal of attention (actually most poetry books, period). The best advice would be to Lower Your Expectations, but who wants to hear that? Why not let someone anticipate good things and hope for the best?

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

The Anchorage was, for a first book (actually for any book of poems) quite widely reviewed. I know writers who make a point of never reading their reviews lest they read something wounding or debilitating. I am not that person. I poured over my reviews, memorized them, practically. There were a couple very nice ones, more mixed-positive reviews and many more rotten ones than I could fathom. There was a tone in several reviews that seemed bent on bringing me down to size, deposing me from whatever cushy, well-funded clusterfuck they imagined I inhabited. I was just a guy in his 20’s who published a book and didn’t have health insurance and was struggling to work and pay rent and have friends and write poems, and I realized that what I had was coveted and resented in the same way I had periodically resented and envied the achievements of others. Although my first reaction to these bad reviews was defensive, I also knew that much of what they said might be true. Every review has a subtext, a position or world view they support, and then there is the text of the thing itself—the intersection of taste and rhetoric. In some way I internalized those reviews and thought about them as I wrote new poems. Instead of stopping me, they helped me. They certainly made me tougher and more resolved.

Your second book, Voluntary Servitude, was published a few years ago, and I’d like to talk a little bit about that. First of all, there seems to be more utilization of white space, and a more highly compressed style of poetry than The Anchorage. Was this a natural progression in the years after The Anchorage, or was there a conscious effort at this compression of language and style for the book?

After publishing The Anchorage I soon hatched the idea of writing a book of poems around An Idea; I decided that what I needed was a project. I started writing these historical poems, poems based on folk tales, and they were just plain bad. Dead on arrival. Zombie poems dug from the grave of my first book. There was no urgency in them—they read like a project. All Haunt and no House. I printed the manuscript out one night, went to sleep, and when I woke and read it in the sober morning light, I knew it was shite. I took the manuscript, walked it down the hall of my apartment building in the Mission District, and chucked it down the garbage chute.

Voluntary Servitude was born, many months later, on the back of a post card I wrote to myself in Provincetown. I had withdrawn there for a month to read, go to the beach and chase boys and one day while writing a postcard, I penned a line that read to me like a line of a poem. I wrote a few more lines and soon the card was full. I wrote my own address on it and mailed it to San Francisco. Over the next few days I wrote more of these, and when I returned home and opened my mailbox, out fell these cards with the fragmented beginnings of poems. Those became the core poems of VS. I saw in these postcards a terseness, a tighter and more compressed line, and I knew that the more declamatory, self-assured voice of The Anchorage had been exterminated. In my early 30’s I found myself marveling at the self-assurance conveyed by those earlier poems. Voluntary Servitude was partly an effort to put that particular unmediated voice to rest, and, if that weren’t quite possible, I at least wanted to complicate matters. I knew also that I wanted the book to move from beginning to end with no pauses or breaks to enact a single gesture.

One of the reasons I’m glad you decided to do an interview was the fact that I haven’t seen any of your work in recent journals or magazines, and I’d like to know if you could shed some light on that. Are you working on a new book?

I am working on a new book and made good progress on it this last summer. My work slowed down when I got a real job. I teach at Bennington College, and though there are many marvelous things about this job, small colleges also demand a great deal from their faculty members. (The whole point of sending your kid to one of these places is to get them lots of individual attention which means demanding a lot from the faculty). I am just now getting my footing and finding time to get my own work done. Also, my partner and I bought an old, deeply messed-up house a few years ago and have become a gay cliché by pouring our energy into its tasteful restoration. That has often been more compelling to me than sitting with my own thoughts and writing. That being said, I’ve got a manuscript nearing completion I’m pretty excited about.

Why haven’t we seen any of these poems in journals or magazines?

These new poems, although not at all in the confessional mode, seem very personal to me. As a consequence I have been rather protective of them. I was in no hurry to have anyone read these poems, and have instead kept them home, not allowed them to date. Some of the poems meditate on ideas of faith and God and I find even typing that here to be a difficult confession. At some point I had a sense that the poems may actually be bad, though I don’t care anymore if they are. I’m compelled by them and want to keep writing them, and maybe someone will want to read them. I have a small group of coming out in Poetry, and others will, with any luck, be on the way soon.

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

I have been a reader and judge for a number of contests, and I can’t stress enough the need to get the reader’s attention from the get-go. A boring first poem is often enough to get your manuscript tossed. A boring second poem almost certainly will. Be audacious. Surprise the reader and whatever you do, don’t think you know what the judge is looking for based on some notion you might have of their taste, as in, “She would never like my work, so I’m not going to send my manuscript.”

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

That depends how you define change. If you are thinking of change in terms of political policy, or inciting riots, or shaping political movements, the answer is no. And thank goodness. Those ideas of change are real, but also pedestrian, common, worldly and as the Quakers used to say, “of the Creature,”—not the province of the imagination. Political change is basically about hard work. It’s dull, often frustrating, relies on absolutes, and you have to have an appetite for it to do it successfully. If by change you also mean small movements of the spirit, or an expansion in one’s mind which tunes it to the possibilities of language and human yearning, if by change you mean bringing the voices of the dead back to life, or being able to imagine someone else’s world or experiences, if by change you mean making the impossible imaginable by rendering it into language, then yes—poetry creates change. The changes it creates are mostly invisible and impossible to measure but they are, in the end, the kinds of changes that make us more expansive, more tenderly human, more capable of love, less lonely, more generous. Any attempts to belittle those kinds of changes, or dismiss them are typically generated by sad, narrow, rigid, bullying minds. Good poetry resists stupidity.

Mark Wunderlich’s first volume of poetry, The Anchorage, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 1999 and received the Lambda Literary Award. His second volume, Voluntary Servitude, was published by Graywolf Press in 1994. He is the recipient of fellowships from Stanford University, the NEA, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and the Amy Lowell Trust. His work has appeared in journals such as the Paris Review, Yale Review, Slate, Poetry, Ploughshares, among others, and his poems have been widely anthologized. He has taught at Stanford and Barnard College and in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, San Francisco State University and Ohio University. As an arts administrator, he served as the Poetry Director of the Napa Valley Writers Conference, and has worked for the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, Poets & Writers, Inc., the University of Arizona Poetry Center and the Literature Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, where he was an Arts Administration Fellow. He is currently teaches literature and writing at Bennington College in Vermont, and lives in New York’s Hudson River Valley.
  • Buy The Anchorage at Amazon
  • Buy Voluntary Servitude at Amazon

#11 - Brian Brodeur

What was the process like assembling Other Latitudes? How many different versions did it go through before it was chosen as the winner of the 2007 Akron Poetry Prize? Had it always been called Other Latitudes or had it gone through different titles?

For better or worse, I revise endlessly. Over the course of four years, Other Latitudes went through about twenty major transmogrifications before it was finally published. If it hadn’t won the Akron Prize, I’d still be tinkering.

After fifty or so duds, I came up with the current title during a month-long residency at Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT. This sounds very romantic, but I was there in winter. At night you’d walk out of your studio and find the air so cold your nose hairs would freeze to the sides of your nostrils.

What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Was there a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

About half of the poems in the book are previously unpublished. But, yes, I’ve certainly experienced the anxiety that many young poets feel about seeing individual poems appear in reputable journals, anthologies, websites, blogs . . . printed on the sides of hot-air balloons, branded into the flanks of show ponies . . .

As I write and submit new work, that anxiety hasn’t diminished. In fact, it may have intensified. There’s also a new anxiety: trying to outdo myself, write better poems than those in my first book.

How much of the book comprised your MFA thesis at George Mason University? It seems now there are more younger poets publishing books that comprised the majority of their creative thesis. Was this the case for you?

Yes and no. About a third of the poems in the book appeared in my MFA thesis, which I finished in August of 2005. The earliest poem in the book was written in 2003, the latest in 2007.

The book is in three sections, with the middle section comprising one poem, “Figure Drawing,” made up of nine sections. Was “Figure Drawing” always in the middle? How did this become the centerpiece of the book?

The idea to use “Figure Drawing” as the centerpiece came from a friend of mine, Sally Keith. In the fall of 2007, she agreed to read a draft of the manuscript and meet me at a bar to discuss it. At that point I felt I had written all of the poems I needed to form a competent manuscript, something I wouldn’t be ashamed to submit for publication, but I didn’t know how to arrange the poems. When Sally made the suggestion of having three sections with a “proem” at the beginning and an epilogue poem at the end, sticking “Figure Drawing” in the middle seemed the most organic way to go.

I always had a group of “core” poems that survived each drastic gutting of the manuscript, poems I considered to be my strongest. Basically, I built the book around them. In an early manifestation, I ordered the work thematically, placing nature poems beside nature poems, family poems beside family poems. But this seemed too simplistic a way to construct a collection of poetry, dishonest in some way, not at all evocative of how I see the world.

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

Joy. Whiskey. Nothing much after that.

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?


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

A few strangers have e-mailed me to say they’ve enjoyed the book, which I’ve found intensely gratifying. A book is worthless until a reader connects with it. As Auden said, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Instead, it’s “a way of happening, a mouth.” Poems live within the minds and bodies of sympathetic readers. Discovering notes in my Inbox from people I’ve never met has enabled me to preserve my illusion that the book is actually being read, that it has taken on a life of its own, a life apart from mine.

What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I’ve been giving public readings to support the book, scheduling events in Akron, OH, Salem, MA, Washington, DC, Blacksburg, VA, Cullowhee, NC, among others. Basically, I’ll read wherever I’m asked.

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

What did Eliot say to the young Donald Hall when he asked for advice on living abroad in Oxford? Wear long underwear.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon?

Well, I’m writing, revising, and submitting new work to journals and magazines, hoping that these poems will somehow cohere into a second manuscript. But I have no idea what shape this manuscript would take.

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

Keep a calendar, pay attention to who’s judging particular contests, submit religiously, and don’t forget to write new poems. I should also say that persistence is half the battle. Even a poet of middling talent can publish a book, as long as she or he keeps at it. Whether you think this is encouraging or discouraging, we see it all the time.

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

If more people read poetry and took it seriously, yes, I believe it could, but only on an individual level. I’m thinking of the famous quote from W.C.W.’s “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” For the poet and reader both, poetry is a private act, written in isolation, read alone. Yet love, death, birth, beauty, injustice, sex—all the human facts of the world that link us as a species through language—are only a few examples of “what is found there.”

We should also remember that “Asphodel” is a love poem to Williams’s wife, Flossy, written towards the end of their lives. Like the asphodel, the flower of hell, love becomes the one human force that triumphs over darkness and rises above death. The best poems, for me, share this ambition.

Brian Brodeur is the author of Other Latitudes (2008), winner of the University of Akron Press’s 2007 Akron Poetry Prize, judged by Stephen Dunn, and So the Night Cannot Go on without Us (2007), which won the Fall 2006 White Eagle Coffee Store Press Poetry Chapbook Award. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gettysburg Review, Margie, The Missouri Review, River Styx, and Verse Daily. Brian lives and works in Fairfax, VA.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

#10 - Suzanne Frischkorn

How often had you sent out Lit Windowpane before it was chosen for publication by Main Street Rag Press?

Main Street Rag was the first press I sent Lit Windowpane to and also the only press I sent it to until the day it was accepted
I had to withdraw it from a contest I had entered that morning. An earlier manuscript went out about 24 times and was named a finalist or semi-finalist many times.

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

Initially I found it overwhelming. I had already published several chapbooks and had a lot of work that had never been collected. I had spent many years writing poems and not working towards a book. I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want a collection made of chapbooks. And I knew I wanted a collection that had an arc, but it was very difficult to sort through all that work and find one.

It took about a year to draft the first manuscript. Once I felt confident that it was complete I began to send it out and I was happy when it started placing in contests. I remember the distinct feeling of closure and felt that I had moved on. I was writing new poems, poems that didn’t belong in the manuscript. Eventually the finalist notes began to lose their charm.

I went back to the manuscript and took it apart. Then I put it back together. Up to this point I hadn’t shared the manuscript with anyone since the early draft stage and the thought of sharing it with anyone besides an anonymous reader made me feel nauseous, still I knew I needed an objective viewpoint so I sent it to a friend. His feedback helped everything fall into place. All the new poems I had been writing, the ones where I had “moved on,” are in Lit Windowpane. Now that I look back it’s a little strange to realize that while I was putting together and submitting what I thought would be my first book I was writing what would become my first book.

As for the poems in the original manuscript some of them went on to become the chapbook, American Flamingo, and the others may make an appearance in my next manuscript.

What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Was there a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript, or was the focus primarily on assembling the manuscript without worrying about previous publication?

Credits weren’t a consideration when arranging the manuscript
the book was the main thing.

Often poetry books, first or not, can feel long. There are 47 total pages of poetry in Lit Windowpane. Most contests and open reading periods call for a 48-page minimum. Was there always such a focus on brevity when you assembled the manuscript?

In manuscript form there were 50 pages and during the layout of the book the page count changed. The book felt complete to me at that length, it wasn’t an intentional focus on brevity. My main focus was not to sacrifice the integrity of the book as a book and perhaps that’s where brevity comes in.

Not only that, but it seems like the majority of the poems in the book are very short, yet they don’t feel short. Who are some of your influences, and do you set out to write shorter poems, or do many of poems naturally seem to turn out that way by the end?

Thank you, what a nice compliment. My poems are definitely not long and are most often referred to as spare. Occasionally I try to write against this inclination and make attempts at a more lush, discursive type of poem, but eventually find myself reverting to the shorter poem.

It’s difficult for me to point to a specific influence because I believe everything you read influences the way you write and I read a tremendous amount. Some of the poets that I return to often are Dickinson, Ammons, Stevens, Bishop, and Auden. I also read a lot of contemporary poetry either in book form or in journals.

The book includes no sections—it starts with the first poem and ends with the last poem continuously—rather than multiple sections like a lot of first books. Was it always this way?

Yes. Once I started to assemble Lit Windowpane I discovered that each poem led to the next and felt sections would stop the momentum.

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

All I remember is finding the box of books on the porch, carrying it in, setting it down, and staring at it a lot longer than a normal person would before I finally opened it. I had already seen galleys, but I wasn’t prepared for how lovely the book looked in person. I loved the cover, the way the poems faced each other, the scent of the book’s pages. I walked around for a week, picking the book up, looking at it, and setting it down, over and over.

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

Scott Douglass at MSRP let me pick out the cover art with the understanding that MSRP had the final say. Once I started looking for cover art I quickly realized I didn’t want something too literal, and that I would prefer an illustration rather than a photograph, or a painting. I found one by the artist Bodhi Hill I really liked, but wasn’t quite sure if it was right for the cover. When Scott sought Hill out he found his website and thought there were others in his portfolio that would suit the cover better. I went over to take a look and fell in love with the illustration we selected for the cover. I am really happy with the way it resonates with the poems.

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?

No. I knew too many poets with first books who had readily and quickly disabused me of that notion. One of my friends said it best, “You publish your book and nothing happens. You’re still the same person.” In retrospect I’m glad I was prepared for nothing to happen.

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

There have been some surprises. A lot of people have expressed an interest in reviewing the book and there have already been two generous reviews from people I didn’t even know were planning to review it. Verse Daily featured one of the poems and I’ve had requests for more interviews, and invitations to read.

What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I went all out with online promotion: emails, on my blog, and on Facebook. It felt dirty and necessary at once. As a poet publishing with a small press it was important to promote the book as much as possible. I had to do all I could to help MSRP sell the book. I’ll continue to promote the book through readings.

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

Tom Colicchio, one of the judges on Top Chef, often tells the chefs competing “You need to bring it. This is a competition.” I could have used a little of that attitude, and I encourage anyone else sending out a manuscript to take Colicchio’s advice.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon?

I’m not so sure it’s had a difference, although I do find myself returning to my first love, the essay, maybe that’s a difference or maybe that would have happened anyway. I’m also putting together another collection of poems, and working on the New Haven issue I’m editing for LOCUSPOINT.

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

Remember that you are more than your poems. Do not allow the submission process to turn you into a mass of dejection.

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


In addition to Lit Windowpane, Suzanne Frischkorn is the author of several chapbooks most recently: American Flamingo (MiPOesias Press, 2008) Spring Tide, (Aldrich Museum, 2005) and Red Paper Flower, (Little Poem Press, 2004). Her poems appear in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Ecotone, Indiana Review, MARGIE, Poet Lore, and Conversation Pieces: Poems that Talk to Other Poems, part of the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poet Series (Knopf, 2007). She is the recipient of the Aldrich Poetry Award, and an Artist Fellowship from the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism.

#9 - Susan Settlemyre Williams

Tell us about the structure of Ashes in Midair.

I tried pretty hard not to over-determine the structure, to tell you the truth. I wanted the first and last poems to be “big” poems and to say something about the overall themes, but otherwise, I was looking mostly for a flow from one poem to the next. As it turned out, there is what I hope is a slightly—and only slightly—chronological progression. The first section has more poems relating to childhood and loss of innocence. Parts three and four deal increasingly with adult, with middle-aged, concerns, and coming-of-age issues didn’t seem to fit there. Part three deals with a fair number of emotional crises, and part four begins to view crisis from a spiritual perspective—something that was a surprise to me. The second part, “Kathryn: A Calling,” stands alone; it’s really a sort of novel in ten poems. Because it’s different from the rest of the collection, I didn’t want “Kathryn” to come either first or last. However, the last poem in the preceding (first) section is about a woman who is caught in a hurricane and finds herself flashing back to beatings by a religious fanatic. “Kathryn,” with its storms and apocalyptic angels, seemed to segue from “Hurricane” very naturally.

Has it always been Ashes in Midair or had it gone through different titles?

That’s always been the title. At the beginning, when the manuscript was essentially my master’s thesis, the title was simply taken from one of the stronger poems in the collection. Once I’d settled on “ashes in midair” for the title, the phrase acquired a life of its own. I found myself using images of temporarily suspended particles—not just ashes, but also soot and dust—in other poems, as a metaphor for mortality and the human condition: We look permanent, but we’re simply held up by forces beyond our control for a very little while. At a later stage, when I was doing a major reorganization of the book, the particles morphed into sparks of light in the last section. Although the poems there are as somber as in the rest of the book, I thought that the images of light allowed the book to end on a more hopeful note.

Many of the poems in Ashes in Midair seem to be autobiographical. How hard is it to keep poetry separate from autobiography? Or is this something that you think should be embraced?

I have to admit that this question surprised me. For a long time, I hardly wrote about myself at all. Many of the poems in Ashes are persona poems or involve situations from myth or folklore, and, while many of the others are about real people I know or knew and have some basis in actual situations, there’s not much about myself in them except as witness and mourner—certainly very little that’s autobiographical in the sense of “confessional.” And, of course, I lie a lot to make the situation more interesting or more compressed.

When I do write about myself, it’s an effort of will, and it’s done with a lot of misgivings, not so much from fear of giving myself away as from concern that my rather dull life won’t be particularly interesting to anyone else. Aside from embroidery on some childhood incidents in two of the poems in the first section (“About Glass” and “Slug Story”), the most autobiographical poem—and the hardest poem I’ve ever tried to write—is “Dementia Diary,” about my mother’s Alzheimer’s. While everything in that poem did happen in one way or another, the process of writing it also involved a huge amount of selection and reordering of events to try to give it shape as a poem rather than a journal entry.

As for the tension between autobiography and poetry, I think every poet has to work that out for herself or himself. For some, autobiography is their natural subject, and the work comes alive when they address it. (The poems in Lowell’s Life Studies are much more vivid and interesting than his earlier work, for instance.) Other poets seem to have to get beyond their own stories before their work really catches fire. Some of the poets I admire most seem to be able to tap into the emotional core of the personal and translate it to the larger sphere. I’m thinking particularly of Jake Adam York here and Steve Gehrke in his most recent book, Michelangelo’s Seizure.

There are many places in the poems throughout the book where there are either other speakers, or snippets of dialogue, conveyed to the reader by use of italics. Tell us about your use of additional dialogue within the poems and why this is important in your book and poems.

Not only through italics. I also use marginal glosses in the long poem, “Tarocchi Appropriati” to something of the same effect. There isn’t just one motivation for using other voices, although I think it always adds texture to a poem. Sometimes, the italics are there simply to identify another speaker or a voice in the head of the central character. In “Hurricane,” the woman is hearing the violence of the hurricane in the dark and flashing on the voice of the man whose violence she experienced earlier. In the “Kathryn” sequence, italics often signal the voice of the angel who gives the speaker orders.

Elsewhere, those other, often italicized, voices are there to cue the reader that different realities are bumping into each other. In “Black Hole,” I alternate between snippets of an actual newspaper story about the astronomical Perseus Cluster and an internal monologue relating to the myth of Perseus and Medusa. There’s a gravitational pull between the two, but no direct, left-brained connection. Instead, they are talking “at” each other.

In “Tarocchi,” the marginalia allowed me to interject information and associations involving the tarot deck into the primary narrative, about the deaths of three friends, without bogging down that narrative and its formal structure.

I like bringing in these different voices, but I have to admit they make it difficult to read those poems aloud. For some future readings, I’m planning to use a friend to supply that second voice.

I believe I read in an author’s note somewhere that you’re now retired from practicing law. Had you always been writing poetry before pursuing your MFA a few years ago? What made you decide to eventually earn an MFA in poetry?

You’re really asking for my entire autobiography with this question. I was an undergraduate English major, with a concentration in creative writing, at UNC-Greensboro in the mid-1960’s. Randall Jarrell was still alive when I started, and I often saw him walking around campus, but he died before I could take a class with him, to my lasting regret. When I graduated in 1968, there were very few MFA programs anywhere. UNC-G had one, but I thought that I needed a change of scene. The change wound up being marriage and moving to Richmond. I don’t regret a minute of that, but without the discipline and community of a writing program, I eventually stopped writing poetry altogether.

Years later, when my son was in elementary school, I decided to go to law school. After all, law is also all about writing. But when I was in practice, working fifty or sixty hours a week, there was no time even to think about writing poetry. I went into real estate law and wound up as senior real estate attorney for a major retailer. Then I developed chronic, incapacitating migraines. It’s really impossible to draft or negotiate an eighty-page lease when your eyes won’t focus. I eventually had to give up my practice.

Initially as a way to cope with the depression that followed losing my career and becoming isolated by illness, I started writing poetry again. Poetry seemed to operate in parts of the brain that weren’t so affected by the migraines. At first it was therapy pure and simple, but then my undergraduate training kicked in: I wanted to write good poetry. I started reading poetry seriously again, educating myself on what had been going on during those years when my reading was focused on legal research and the occasional bit of brain candy. I began to get published in a few very obscure journals.

Eventually—and this took a very long time—I realized that I needed professional guidance if I was ever to write as well as I wanted to. It does take a long time even to consider entering a graduate program when you’re in your mid-fifties. First I took an undergrad CW class to get my feet wet. I got enough encouragement from that class and enough support from my husband that I went ahead and applied to Virginia Commonwealth University. I’m very glad I did—I learned a lot, and I made friends who have continued to be a source of support and feedback. The program also led me to working with Blackbird, the online journal published by VCU and New Virginia Review, Inc., where I’m book review editor and associate literary editor and where I have learned so much about writing and publishing, and to other literary friendships.

I sometimes say I’m on a twenty-year plan: I graduated from high school in 1964, from law school in 1984, and from the MFA program in 2004. But don’t look for me to become an M.D. in 2024.

Did most of the poems in Ashes in Midair comprise your MFA thesis? How was that different from the finished product of the book?

While Ashes in Midair started life as my MFA thesis, it evolved a lot after that. As a thesis, it represented not just a collection of poems but also a record of the best work I had at done at VCU. Those two purposes aren’t necessarily identical. I wrote a lot while I was in the MFA program, and the poems weren’t cohesive—I had several unrelated themes and motifs among them. In particular, there were some poems that pointed toward the eventual direction of Ashes in Midair—a concern with what I’d almost call “eschatology”— and others with markedly feminist focus. The two trends really didn’t speak to each other in a productive way—not that they couldn’t, of course, simply that I couldn’t find a way to marry them. With the rising count of deaths of friends and family members and health problems of my own, the poems about mortality became more in line with my personal concerns, though I regretted having to cut the others. At any rate, eventually more than one-third of the poems in my thesis dropped out. About half were replaced (fortunately, I had a rather fat thesis), and a few others were drastically rewritten. Of course, in the process, there was a fairly substantial re-shuffling of the poems as well.

How often did you revise the poems from journal publication to book publication?

I’m very serious about revision, and most of the poems had been extensively reworked before appearing in journals. Sometimes, even after that, I’d go back and look at a poem again and realize I still hadn’t gotten it right. The edits to individual poems became less frequent as, over time, my focus shifted to the structure of the entire manuscript. At that stage, it became more a matter of looking at the overall organization and themes and interrogating individual poems, not with an eye to revision but for determining whether they were carrying their weight in the manuscript.

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

It was my choice, and I’m thrilled with it. I had deliberately not picked a cover ahead of time, partly because I knew that some publishers prefer to work with a designer, but mainly because I was afraid I’d jinx myself. I had visions of my mother’s unmarried older sister assembling the hope chest that she never got to use.

When my editor raised the subject, I was stumped at first. I had a fleeting thought that I’d like to use a Quattrocento sculpture I’d seen in a museum in Florence. One of the poems is about that piece, but the poem isn’t one of the crucial poems in the book, and the thought of dealing with permissions from a foreign institution was pretty daunting, given the short turn-around I had.

I’m glad I gave up on that idea quickly because I’m much happier with the ultimate result, which came about through the good offices of Mary Flinn, my friend and my senior editor at Blackbird. Mary is very knowledgeable about art and has close connections with the School of the Arts at VCU. I asked her for recommendations, and she suggested that I take a look at David Freed’s website. David is an internationally known printmaker, now retired from teaching at VCU, and I was familiar with his portraits of poets like Larry Levis and Charles Wright. I hadn’t seen many of his recent landscapes, however. He had some breathtaking pictures on his website, of dark clouds and storms, with leaves and rain blown around by the wind—very appropriate for the imagery in Ashes. I noted several that I thought would work for the cover, ran them past my editor, and phoned David to ask if we could get permission to use one. He was incredibly generous and allowed me my choice in exchange for some complimentary copies of the book. He said, bless him, that he knew poets don’t make any money on their books, and that he would be content with an acknowledgment and the copies, which he planned to give as gifts.

I think David was pleased with the way the publisher used the print, “September—Weather from the West.” I was so delighted that I used my prize money to buy a framed original.

It seems like Ashes in Midair came out fairly quickly after it was chosen for publication for the prize. Was it hard for you to make sure you gathered the artwork and copy-edited the book in this short amount of time, or was it a welcome experience? I ask because for some poets it can take years from acceptance to publication, and it seems like many presses are different in that sense.

Ashes must have set a record for speed of publication. I was notified on November 26, 2007—the Monday after Thanksgiving, and the book appeared on February 1, 2008. The time in between was pretty frantic. My editor and I were emailing and telephoning back and forth several times a day for most of that time. Fortunately, in terms of speed, he didn’t offer too many copy-edits—the biggest was the decision to eliminate one poem—and both of us are very good proofreaders, so we made it. In spite of the haste, I’m very pleased with the finished product. The only typo I’ve found is a phrase in one poem that appears in italics but shouldn’t—evidently a problem with formatting that we didn’t catch, but something that no one else will probably notice. Given that I have some OCD tendencies and am a strong Myers-Briggs “J,” it was probably much easier for me to go through a few weeks of craziness than to wait forever for the book to come out.

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

That day stands out very vividly. My editor wanted the book to come out in time for the Associated Writing Programs annual meeting in New York. Given that the book wasn’t selected until late November, and AWP was scheduled very early, beginning in late January, I didn’t think it was possible, but he and I—and his associates and the printer—kept plugging, and the first few copies were delivered to my editor on February 1, while AWP was still going on. He called to tell me they had come in, but there was a panel presentation by Wom-Po, the listserv for women’s poetry, that I desperately wanted to attend first thing that morning. I’d become very active in Wom-Po and had been looking forward to the opportunity to meet some of the other members face to face. Still, it was all I could do not to jump up and announce that I was giving birth. That’s what it felt like—waiting to hold my baby and count her toes. As soon as the panel wrapped up, I flew out of the room and fought my way through the crowds to the book fair and the Many Mountains Moving table. For the rest of the day, I’d find myself stopping virtual strangers and waving my book at them.

How often had you sent out Ashes in Midair before it was chosen as the winner of the 2007 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Book Prize?

I’m not sure of the count of contests, but I’d been submitting versions of Ashes to contests since the spring of 2004—at a time when, I now realize, it wasn’t ready for serious consideration. Even so, it was a finalist in one fairly well-known competition and a semi-finalist in another in that first batch of submissions, and a very slightly revised version was the runner-up in another contest from that fall, so I was encouraged to keep trying.

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

I’m too old to have expected an event like this to alter my life in any substantial way. I did very much want the book to be accepted for publication, of course. I guess I saw it as a sort of public validation of the work I’d put into it, maybe even a sense of legitimacy, although I know full well that book publication per se doesn’t confer that. Bad books get published, good books languish. On the other hand, the choice to get an MFA and try to get a book published did change my life in many ways.

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

In some ways I have felt more relaxed, as if getting published isn’t something I need to tie myself into knots about anymore. I’d tried to learn as much as I could about the publishing process during those three-plus years of waiting, and I didn’t expect miracles. I didn’t expect my publisher to send me on a national promotional tour. I knew Oprah wasn’t waiting for me.

The surprises have all been positive. I’ve had several reviews already, all unexpectedly favorable. Reviews are generally rare with a first book, especially one from a very small press. I was particularly surprised that at least two people who bought Ashes (rather than being sent a review copy) read it and liked it enough to review it on their own initiative. Another reader freelanced an interview that will be appearing early in 2009. And a friend, your predecessor in this first-book project, Kate Greenstreet, has lined up readings for me in New York and New Jersey this coming February. I’m really touched by the generosity of these folks.

What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I got off to a rather rocky start with promotion. I already had a few readings lined up during the spring of 2008, primarily group readings to promote Letters to the World, an anthology that came out of the Wom-Po listserv, and I was able to sell copies of Ashes in Midair at those events. I had other readings planned, though, and had to cancel them because I became suddenly ill in April and wasn’t really functioning again for a couple of months. By that time, I had missed out on most fall reading schedules. Still, I’ve done one local reading and one in DC and have several others planned for winter and spring of 2009.

In the meantime, I’ve collaborated with another poet, Sofia Starnes, in an exchange of short letters about each other’s books. We’re hoping to parlay that quasi-review into publication and some reading gigs.

To my own surprise, I really enjoy doing readings, and I’ve been very fortunate in the poets I’ve read with. It’s been a great opportunity to network with poets and organizers and readers, not just around the question of promoting my book but also in a variety of projects.

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

I don’t go in for a lot of hindsight and might-have-beens. I think I came across the best advice in a Poets & Writers interview with a first-book poet while I was still sending my manuscript out. I can’t remember now who the poet was, but she said that she had schooled herself not to get anxious about contests. Instead, she used the deadlines as a prompt to take a fresh look at her manuscript and make any necessary revisions. I found that process very helpful—I stopped spending all my time obsessing over the manuscript, just gave it a long, hard look every six months or so. It gave me enough distance to be pretty detached about my work.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon?

I wish! So far what I’ve written in the last several months doesn’t suggest any overriding themes. I’m really pretty dissatisfied with what I’ve done lately—and with how little of it there’s been. Right now I’m trying to persuade myself that I need both discipline and patience and that something will come out of that combination.

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

Offering advice always makes me feel like a pompous ass, I’m afraid. My instinct is to say, “Question, be ruthless, revise, re-think.” But I know some poets who ought to be encouraged to leave well enough alone. I want to say, “Have faith, keep sending your manuscript out.” But not everyone has the resources to keep shelling out for reading fees and postage year after year. I suppose that poets ought, at least, to determine very honestly how much they want the book, how much they’re prepared to do and how long they’re prepared to wait to get that publication.

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

Not a question for a cynical recovering lawyer! It’s terribly hard to identify what really creates change in the world—although the recent Presidential election restores my hope that it can happen. But poetry? I have trouble taking too seriously the puffery about “unacknowledged legislators of the world” and people dying “miserably every day for lack of what is found” in poems.

I think it’s a bad idea to start writing with the idea that you will change the world—for one thing, you’re unlikely to get to the second line that way; for another, if you do get past the first line, it will probably turn out to be an abysmal poem. You’ll be thinking too much of yourself as a poet and too little of the work that makes a poem, like John Barth’s wonderful hero Ebenezer Cooke in The Sot-Weed Factor, who decides that he’s a poet without having written a word. It’s only after he’s become thoroughly disillusioned that he produces his epic.

On the other hand, we all know of poems that have changed us as readers. They’re not necessarily good poems or even poems we continue to love, but, when we first encounter them, they wake us up to possibilities we never saw.

How’s that for a lawyerly, “it depends” answer?

Susan Settlemyre Williams
is the author of Ashes in Midair, selected by Yusuf Komunyakaa as the winner of the 2007 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Book Contest (Many Mountains Moving Press, 2008), and a chapbook, Possession (Finishing Line Press, 2007). Her poetry has recently appeared in Mississippi Review, 42opus, Shenandoah, Sycamore Review, and diode, among other journals. Her poem “Lighter” won the 2006 Diner Poetry Contest and was selected for Best New Poets 2006. She is book review editor and associate literary editor of Blackbird and lives in Richmond, Virginia.