Friday, July 31, 2009

#23 - Anna Journey

You hold an undergraduate degree in art. How has that background influenced your poems?

Well, for one thing, I’m obsessed with the image. I’m obsessed with lots of things, probably (Deadwood, long hikes, guys with beards), but I’m a sucker for imagery. I can’t stop myself. As it happens, I know my way around a potter’s wheel reasonably well, but overall I’m a terrifically untalented visual artist. A misanthropic painting professor once declared, during a critique, that an art project of mine belonged in the home décor section of Target. Ouch! After I considered the fact that although his estimation was probably true, an art professor who took pictures only of pine trees with elliptical holes that resembled vaginas and who kept bird bones in his pockets probably had it worse off than I did.

Anyway, while taking my first college-level creative writing class as an elective during my junior year as an undergraduate art student at VCU, I discovered poets like Charles Wright, Sylvia Plath, James Wright, and W.S. Merwin. I wanted to do what they did with imagery and sound and the lyric that wove in personal elements without sacrificing room for wild invention. I was hooked. I really wanted to propose to Charles Wright, actually. (Ahem, the offer still stands, my man.) So I took another poetry course at VCU—in which Gregory Donovan taught me pretty much everything I know about poetry—and one at George Mason University, and then began the MFA program in creative writing at VCU in the fall of 2004.

How often had you sent out If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting before it was selected for The National Poetry Series?

I’m fortunate to have met with that desirable combination of both timing and luck. During the fall of 2007, I sent my manuscript to six contests and finalized for three of them, one of which resulted in Thomas Lux selecting the book for the National Poetry Series.

Had it always been If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting or had it gone through different titles?

I agonized for a long time over the title. Although I enjoy inventing titles for single poems, I had difficultly drumming up one that spoke for the entire collection. The book went through two different titles. The first title, Carnival Afterlife, lingered for a few months, though it never felt quite right. As I sat in David Wojahn’s office at Virginia Commonwealth University one day, he leaned back in his swivel chair and, in that wily deadpan of his, drawled, “It’s too dactylic.”

Beckian Fritz Goldberg said, “Sure, who doesn’t like Carnival Afterlife? But that’s not your book.” Instead, she pointed to three poems in the manuscript that might make for stronger title poems, including “If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting.” I liked the idea of having a long, quirky title, as well as a mysteriously incomplete “if clause.” Also, there’s a motif that loosely weaves in and out of the poems—images of red hair—so introducing that image in the title felt important.

How many different versions did your book go through as you were sending it out?

The book took approximately three main forms. I began by gathering all of my favorite poems—my “book poems”—into one behemoth, unruly mess, without any section breaks. Trying to sequence the poems while staring at my computer screen drove me crazy! I felt cross-eyed and had trouble picturing the poems as a unified body of work.

The second version of the book came together during my two-week residency at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York (that was May through June, 2007). I slept in a third-floor former servant’s quarters in the gothic Trask mansion on the hill and worked during the day in a sunny, cornflower blue cabin called Meadow at the edge of the woods. I believe escaping my usual habits and forging new rituals helped me look at my work in a much more focused way. (I love my devilish cat, Jellybean, but she has a knack for ambling across my poems, books, and sitting in my special chair.) Each day I’d get a fire going in my woodstove, then blast the Grateful Dead from my laptop for the first half an hour or so while I drank an entire thermos of black coffee. I’d watch for white-tailed deer or squirrels in the lilacs. I’d lounge in the upholstered rocking chair by the stove, reading through some of my favorite poetry collections—particularly ones organized into multiples sections, like Norman Dubie’s Groom Falconer, and Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s Lie Awake Lake and In the Badlands of Desire. I’d also been reading a lot of Sylvia Plath and Larry Levis.

There was a bare single mattress across the room from my wooden desk. I’d spread all of my poems across its quilted surface into four horizontal rows (one row for each of the four sections). Organizing the poems in such a manner helped me see with clarity the entire book—what worked, what didn’t—and encouraged me to physically manipulate the poems, which was an incredibly satisfying experience.

On each poem, I circled its first few lines and last few lines. I did this in order to highlight the manner in which the piece began and ended, sometimes writing a single word next to the circled lines that briefly sketched the image or tone (like “devil” or “sassy”). I used the circling technique to help me fine-tune transitions between the poems. For instance, maybe I’d end with a devil image and then segue into another kind of malevolent figure, like a would-be serial killer, or something. Or, if I’d ended one poem on a note of trash-talking bravura, maybe I’d follow it with a poem that began with a starker, or more vulnerable tone, to provide a kind of counterpoint. All in all, I viewed the challenge of sequencing the book as if I were constructing one long poem.

A few weeks after my stay at Yaddo, I graduated from VCU during the summer and then left Richmond to begin the PhD program in creative writing at literature at the University of Houston. During my first year in Texas, I wrote about ten or so poems that ended up replacing others in the manuscript, which resulted in the third and final shape of the collection. I’d say, though, that I found the soul of my book while I worked in that rare state of solitude at the colony. And what a pampered solitude it was! I remember calling a friend one night to complain about a dinner option that seemed overzealous, even for the most committed of carnivores—some kind of poor little beast stuffed inside another poor little beast (maybe veal stuffed with lamb? Is that even a real dish?). She laughed and told me to shut the hell up.

Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

You know, reaching new readers always excites me, and appearing in literary journals and anthologies that I read and admire is an effective way to do that. I don’t think, though, that I wrung my hands about placing every poem in a journal as if the unpublished ones would spontaneously combust into some sort of shameful obscurity. Talk about pressure! Writers already nourish so many self-loathing ticks and inventively neurotic ways to punish themselves. Do we really need another reason? It’s important to cultivate a healthy and generous attitude toward your own work.

Though I don’t think the quote exists anymore on the website, before Ausable Press merged with Copper Canyon, I was floored by Chase Twitchell basically saying that a thesis is not a publishable book. Do you think those graduating MFAs, with their theses completed, should take heed of that advice? How much did your own thesis develop before it turned into your book?

An MFA thesis is not necessarily a publishable book, but I believe it can be. It really depends on the author: whether you’ve developed a distinct poetic voice, whether you’ve accumulated enough works that speak with confidence and authority, whether your poems are sequenced in such a way that they create rich arcs in emotion or narrative. Each poet’s work evolves at a slightly different pace. My MFA thesis certainly contains some embarrassing poetic attempts (like a lapse into gothic overdrive featuring a guy with glass eyeballs and a train wreck), though the bulk of the work and the sequencing are more or less the same as they appear in my book.

You’ve been a managing editor for Blackbird and a poetry editor for Gulf Coast. I wanted to know what your opinion is on the proliferation of online journals as venues for writers to publish their work. You’ve published in online journals yourself, and they seem to be becoming just as valid a venue for publishing work as print journals these days.

I’m a great believer in online literary and arts journals, and I think most writers are, or at least they should be. Poets & Writers published an essay by Sandra Beasley, “From Page to Pixels: The Evolution of Online Journals” (May/June 2009), for example, and T.R. Hummer writes, in another issue of P & W, that online publications are “an unstoppable force, and one that will do enormous good for the visibility of the art.”

You’d have to be a real dinosaur not to recognize the difference between, say, Grandma Tiffy’s blog posts about sunsets and a reputable literary journal like Blackbird, the latter of which is a university-funded publication and whose senior genre editors are permanent staff members (creative writing professors, presidents of nonprofit arts organizations, etc.) with an editorial policy committed to upholding literary excellence. When I worked at Blackbird, I saw contributors win Pushcarts for poems (Linda Bierds’ “Meriwether and the Magpie” comes to mind, for instance); I saw an entire poetry collection of Norman Dubie’s, The Spirit Tablets at Goa Lake, published serially online; I saw the online publication of “Ennui,” a previously unpublished sonnet by Sylvia Plath. We even scanned and published copies of her original typescripts with doodles, with permission from her estate.

I think there’s a lot you can do online that you can’t get away with in print: Listening to audio files of writers reading their own work, for instance, is an amazing gift. I remember when I first started reading modern and contemporary poetry how often I listened to recordings of Plath’s crisp gutturals, Eliot’s anglophilic warbles, and Ginsberg’s nasal exaltations. I want more! Also, publishing online can increase your presence by making your work available to a wider audience. If people “google” your name, some of your poems will come up. (This, of course, can also backfire should folks send their second or third tier work to online publications; so it’s always smart to be judicious and discerning about where to send your work, but especially since online poems will float around the internet forever. And yes, I do have one early poem I wish I could make go away. It involves a vomiting cat.)

Has being an editor helped shape your own writing in some way?

Oh, yes, very much so. I think being an editor has encouraged me to become a more omnivorous reader. Sometimes I surprise myself by admiring work that’s, say, incredibly elliptical or disjunctive, which differs from the kinds of poems I usually seek out to read or to write myself. Reading and appreciating a variety of work keeps me on my toes.

Editing also allows me to advocate for poets whose work I find exceptional. Supporting poets in the earlier stages of their careers can be especially rewarding, I’ve found. You know, soliciting National Book Award-winners and Pulitzer Prize-toting folk is always a real thrill and a pleasure; but what I consider even more exciting—and necessary—is calling attention to poets who may be less familiar to most readers. Some of my favorite younger poets, for instance, are Sarah Vap, Kara Candito, Joshua Poteat, Sandra Beasley, and Nicky Beer.

Do you have any advice for writers as far as how to get their work published and avoid being another rejection from the slush pile?

Well, I suppose my first piece of advice would be something along the lines of, “Don’t beat yourself up over returned SASEs covered with only your own handwriting.” Rejection happens a lot and it happens to everybody. Rejection from a journal doesn’t automatically mean your work isn’t any good.

I think what makes a poem stand out from the slush pile is a combination of qualities: its distinct poetic voice, inventive turns of phrase, balance of both sound and sense, music and mystery, and surprising images and metaphors. Poems that stand out in the slush pile all exhibit a heightened sensitivity toward language and a willingness to take bold risks with it—with syntax, with enjambments, with varying levels of diction, with unusual yet urgent metaphorical associations—but without imploding under the weight of mannerism, under easy irony, or under the period style: that jumpy American Surrealism Lite. I get bored with poems that are overly ironic, or deadened with theory, or lazy toward language, or play it safe by fracturing themselves into a tedious kind of highfalutin obscurity. Sometimes editing means reading a piece that looks like a poem and sounds like a poem but that has no heart. Sometimes editing means saying, “The emperor has no clothes.”

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

Let’s see, I received a single advanced copy in the mail a few weeks before the motherload arrived. I checked my mail as I rushed toward my car, headed to teach two classes in a row. Recognizing the University of Georgia Press on the return address, I tore into the package, squealed, did a vague sort of jig à la the Lucky Charms elf, ran back upstairs to show my boyfriend the cover, and then carried the book with me to campus, clutching it periodically like the Holy Grail. I showed it off to my students, lest they think I developed some kind of maniacal eye-and-lip-twitch overnight. Oh, and I think I slept with the book perched regally on my bedside table.

Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover?

I’m fortunate to have incredibly generous, encouraging editors at UGA Press who gave me lots of creative control during the whole publishing process. They actively encouraged my participation on all fronts: cover art, font, blurbs, you name it. My first choice for cover art was Les feuilles mortes, a painting by the surrealist Remedios Varo. The painting features a red-haired woman in a floor-length green dress, seated in an eerie, monochromatic grey room, with a decaying, jagged carpet made of grass beneath her. She’s winding a ball of blue yarn from the hollow chest cavity of a stooped, faceless apparition, from which a white bird and a red bird fly. Also, some autumn leaves have blown into the room from an open window. We worked hard to gain permission to reprint the Varo painting, but it turned into a dead end, as the painting is privately owned and the last owner on record, according to the most recent catalogue raisonné, is now dead. For weeks I sent letters and emails to a long-dead French airline heiress! I don’t recommend doing that. It’s a bummer.

The good news, though, is that another favorite surrealist of mine, Leonora Carrington, has an incredible painting, Grandmother Moorehead’s Aromatic Kitchen, housed in the Charles B. Goddard Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Ardmore, Oklahoma. I love the whimsy and the darkness at work in the painting. The warm-toned piece evokes a scene in an alchemist’s red kitchen, with a tottering, bloated, white goose in the foreground. What more could a girl ask for, you know?

How has your life been different since your book came out? Tell me about your recent first review of the book in The LA Times.

Well, I’ve received kind notes from readers and solicitation letters from editors previously unfamiliar to me, which is absolutely wonderful. I’m continually surprised and grateful to hear when people enjoy the poems. Last summer, I had my reservations about joining Facebook, but a good number of these kinds of communications have been facilitated by the social network. Also, I get other surprises, like The LA Times review you’ve mentioned. Besides The New York Times, next to none of the big newspapers review poetry anymore, so it’s especially encouraging to notice when venues other than literary journals pay attention to first books of poetry.

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

I’ve been giving more readings than usual, which has helped me grow less shy and wretchedly muckle-mouthed when I’m behind a podium. I’ve also participated in some interviews. But, really, Regan Huff, my excellent publicist at UGA Press, has been doing the lion’s share of publicity work—booking many of the readings; sending out review copies to literary journals, newspapers (including The LA Times), independent bloggers, and even to students (both graduate students and undergraduates who express an interest in writing about the collection). I’m lucky to work with a university press that advocates so strongly for my work.

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

I don’t know if my crippling, yearlong writer’s block sprouted directly from my comparing new poems to those in the published collection—which is an unfair yet entirely natural thing to do—but giving my new work such a hard time certainly didn’t help me out much. I’d beat myself up about it: “I’m never going to write anything worth a damn ever again!” So dramatic. Then I’d go watch another episode of The Sopranos.

Of course, it also didn’t help that for my first two years in Houston my “office” was technically a large walk-in closet (with a couple of windows that looked out on a tar roof but without vents for A.C. and heat). I resented having to sit in that stagnant box. Go figure.

Since then I’ve moved to a new apartment and have begun work on a second manuscript, although it took me nearly a full year to arrive at a place where I’m writing work that seems like it’s doing different things than I’d done in my previous book—work that excites and invigorates me. I’ve written probably a fourth or so of the new material and a whole pile of false starts and abandoned drafts. I take some comfort knowing that many writers feel a similar sense of post-book ennui and often take a year—or more—to gear up for the next important phase in their writing lives.

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

Only send to places where you’d be thrilled to have your book taken, otherwise you’ll feel deflated and cheated. Wait until the manuscript feels ready and then send to six to ten of your top choices. Want the best for your work—not just for your career, but for those poems that arise from a place of urgency and necessity, and in which you faithfully believe.

Anna Journey is the author of the collection, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (University of Georgia Press, 2009), selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. Her poems are published in a number of journals, including American Poetry Review, FIELD, and Kenyon Review, and her essays appear in Blackbird, Notes on Contemporary Literature, and Parnassus. She’s currently a PhD candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Houston. In 2006, Journey discovered the unpublished status of Sylvia Plath’s early sonnet “Ennui” and the influence of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on it.
  • Buy If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting from Amazon
  • Read three poems in 42opus
  • Read six poems in Blackbird

#22 - Andrew Kozma

How often had you sent out City of Regret before it was chosen in the co-winner (with Leigh Anne Couch) of the Zone 3 First Book Award for Poetry?

I sent the manuscript seventy times in total, including Zone 3 and the four contests I withdrew from as a result of winning that prize. So I suppose the answer (correct!) is sixty-five times over the course of four years.

I know you’ve touched upon this previously in other interviews and such, but what was your feeling when your book was chosen to be published by a press whose first book was going to be yours, essentially making it a kind of guinea pig? And as an extension of this question: with so many micro-presses and presses being started these days, many of them branching out into contests, is it a good thing for poets who are looking to get their first book out to do voracious research on these more unknown presses before they stuff an envelope with their manuscript and a check? Or should they just try and stick with “established” contests?

Rough and mixed. I was excited (excited!) to have won a contest, but it was (and still is) my first book, my first emergence on the published poetry scene (journals are a different sort of beast). The literary journal Zone 3 had published a poem of mine, which is how I knew about the contest, and the experience was good, though the design of their journal was somewhat bland at the time. I was afraid.

But I was also excited because it would be (with Leigh Anne’s Houses Fly Away) the press’s first real foray into the publishing market. They had published a book already (David Till’s Oval) but it was a test run to see if a press would be viable and doable, yet they were still (and still are) at the beginning.

So, in short, the press had no history, so they could either be amazing or horrible, either respected or laughable. But I talked to friends who knew the people involved, talked with the staff at Zone 3 Press, and realized that taking a chance on them had the benefit of carrying me along with their rise. If I had chosen a more well-known contest but associated with a larger press, I may have gotten lost in the shuffle.

As for submitting to contests, I do think that research is helpful, and not only for the small presses. No matter how established or new, you want to make sure that you’ll be happy if they publish your book, and one way to check that out is to look at what they’ve already published – not just in terms of the poetry, but in the book production and design. I’d say apply to both established and new; the worst that happens is that you win a contest, you think it over, and you say no to the offer.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out? Was it essentially your PhD thesis at Houston, or had some or many of the poems been written prior to starting that degree?

The manuscript went through at least three main versions and four different titles (the others being, in order, Disappearances, Debating the Air, and Beneath the Skin). To go back to your first question, each of those titles went out to a season of contests – a year’s worth – except for Disappearances which I only submitted once.

I put the first version of the book together during the summer of 2003 and used my MFA thesis as a base. About half the poems in the book were originally written during my MFA program – only one comes from before I entered grad school (“Acropolis”). It was my first time trying to put a book together; my MFA thesis was around forty pages, but it was simply all the poems I had written during my two years at the University of Florida – those that my advisor approved of. There was no real order.

For City of Regret I struggled the most with order and shape. The first version simply had the poems divided into their basic groups: poems about my father’s death, poems about relationships, and poems about everything else. I had no idea what I was doing, except that the father poems were the book’s anchor. They started in the front, then I moved the section to the back, then, on the advice of Mark Doty, I split them to bookend the manuscript. You can still see that in the finished book.

I still have a lot of problem with individual poem order. I get so frustrated, unable to keep all the poems in mind at once, and end up just shuffling randomly to see what resonances are produced. Fifty-two page pick-up.

What about the publication of the actual poems 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 tried to get all my poems published before City of Regret was published, though not really because I thought it would help in getting the manuscript published. I’m not sure that a hefty list of acknowledgements weighs much in your favor; if the first readers don’t like your poems, it doesn’t matter how many others did in the past.

My goal for individual poem publication revolved around the fact that once the book is published, you can’t publish those poems in journals, and part of my drive in publishing is to get my work in front of as many eyes as possible. Also, I look at the poems and the book as different works of art, not just two versions of the same thing. Once poems are put in a book, they are influenced by the poems around them and the book as a whole. In a very real sense, their meaning changes.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book won to the day the book was in its final proofing stage? I guess this is a question of galleys and their help and impact in the completion of the final stages.

There are really two different answers here: The first is that I changed only a little in the book… I added two poems and removed one. I changed a few lines, but nothing major. The second is that we went through six or seven different galleys, fine-tuning the font and layout and correcting minor errors that kept slipping in. I think I really annoyed Zone 3 here, but it was my first book and I didn’t want anything to go wrong, especially if it was an aspect I had some control over.

I always find the poet’s choice an interesting one if he or she decides to lead the book off with a poem before the start of the actual sections. It seems dangerous in some way—that it could be misleading, since the assumption is that poem’s supposed to set up some kind of way we’re introduced to the book. Though “Dis” seems very fitting, was this a poem you always knew would serve as that poem, or was it a longer process of discovery?

I definitely didn’t know “Dis” would serve as the poetic introduction to the book. It was only in the last version that it took that place and mostly because it sets up the metaphor of the city. That, and it also establishes the “quest” of the book, the narrative that draws the whole together and, hopefully, makes some sense of it for the reader. Also, the poem acts as a sort of litmus test, warning the reader about what sort of imagery they’re in for.

I can see what you mean about an introductory poem being a dangerous tactic, but if “Dis” fails in that regard for a reader, then the book as a whole is going to fail them.

Richard Jackson, in his introduction, does a fairly thorough reading of the poem, “Agoraphobia.” Because your poems seem so tightly constructed, I wanted to ask 1) What you thought of his reading of the poem, and 2) If that’s one of the reasons you, like many, are drawn to writing and reading poetry: the vast interpretations one can find a legitimate argument for in how they read and study the words.

I think his reading is a perfectly valid one. And now I sound like a professor. What I mean is that his interpretation is supported by the text and makes sense within the poem and in context with the rest of the book. However, that wasn’t what I imagined. For example, in my mind, there are two people at the table, there have to be because the poem is about a relationship. That said, Jackson sees more in the poetic imagery that I ever noticed consciously.

Like you said, I’m drawn to that wealth of interpretation, but I’m drawn to it in all my writing, not just poetry. One reason I love plays is that they can be endlessly redone and each time will be new in blunt or subtle ways. Some writers I’ve heard speak say that what they’re interested in is conveying a specific idea to the reader; I’m interested in conveying a specific idea to the page. The readers will fend for themselves.

One thing I noticed upon a few readings of the book is that not one poem (not counting the few poems with sections, with each section on a different page) is over a page long. This seems to be a testament to the power of the poems—you seem to get away with so much conveyed in so little time, yet the poems feel expansive in their power and meaning. Do you feel you’ll stick to this kind of poem-scribing in the future, or are willing to branch out and see how longer lines and longer poems work out for you?

Thank you for the compliment. I do try and make my poems packed with detail, but that’s also largely the end result of trying to cut out everything that’s extraneous. At least that’s what my poetry writing has turned into. I’ve always written short poems, though over the past few years I’ve been working against that, exploring longer works. Longer lines I don’t like so much… after I’m done writing a draft with long lines I always feel as though they’re clunky, unpleasing. Long poems, on the other hand, I’m still trying to woo. I wrote a poem a few years ago that’s only four pages long, but it’s a single stanza and takes twelve minutes to read. That’s my only triumph so far, though I’ve thought about working on a book completely consisting of long(er) poems.

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

I was stunned, almost in the literal sense of the word. Emotionally, I was excited, but subdued. The day went like any other, except that the book was in my backpack, and when I ran into people I knew, I pulled it out to show them. Closest approximation: It was like being a secret millionaire.

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

Yes, I found the image. My friend Kelly Moore (another fine poet) showed me the work of a former professor of hers. This was after looking for months with a concept in mind but nothing physical to show for it. Zone 3 was really receptive to and eager for my and Leigh Anne’s input. There wasn’t a choice offered because they wanted to work with us, make sure that we were pleased with the finished book, make us proud to show it off.

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?

Yes, I did imagine that, though I had no ideas how. Even vague ones. Really, I knew that the main difference – and it’s a big one – is that I’d have a book. People would be reading it (hopefully), people I didn’t even know. My words would exist without me. The strangest thing to come about in this regard is googling myself and finding via MySpace a girl in New England who lists me as one of her favorite poets and I swear I have no idea who she is.

Also, I thought it would be easier to get a teaching job.

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

Well, I don’t have a teaching job. That hasn’t happened (yet).

The largest difference in my life has been the lack of pressure. Oh, there’s still pressure to publish another book (maybe that’ll get me a teaching job), but the pressure is lessened. I have a book already, so I feel, in a way, more free to do what I want with future manuscripts, make them full of odes to cottage cheese, or write them in binary. Those manuscripts have yet to be taken.

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

Mainly, I’ve done readings to promote the book. Luckily, Zone 3 has been able to help out with this, setting up a number of readings for me and providing support – in terms of shipping books – to those that I’ve been fortunate to arrange on my own.

The only bad experiences in this process have been readings as part of a regular series where the featured reader is followed by an open mic. This is because, in my experience, the people who show up are there to read and, because they’re reading after you they’re nervous, tense, and not so focused.

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

Don’t worry so much about it. Writing is what makes you a writer, not publishing (although the latter makes you a writer in the eyes of others). And, in fact, someone did give me this advice: Robert Boswell in a fiction class, though I thought he wrong at the time. The thing is that a book can’t change your life as a writer. The book is static. It’s not going to change, however many copies it sells, however much acclaim it wins for you. The thing is, you still have to write, and the book isn’t going to do your writing for you.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon? You also write plays. What else should we anticipate from you in the future?

It’s made me more aware of books as books. Like I said earlier, poems change when they are put in the context of a book, and so what I’ve found myself doing for my two manuscripts after City of Regret is looking at them, from an early point, as cohesive wholes rather than disparate poems stitched together by a desperate surgeon.

As for new books, there’s nothing forthcoming. I’ve the two poetry manuscripts – though only one’s being sent out at the moment – and a fantasy novel as well as a small collection of plays that I’m just now exposing to the air. I helped start a theater company in Houston – Barefoot Theater – and I’m working with them, which makes writing new plays more immediate at the moment. Lastly, I’m starting on a young adult novel. Sans vampires.

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

Don’t be afraid – after you’ve won a contest or have an offer for publication – to compare and really look in detail at the press who wants to publish your book. Of course you should do this before you submit, but there’s a great deal of difference between a possibility and an actuality. Don’t rush. Don’t be afraid to say no.

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

Yes, though as with most things I believe that important change occurs on a personal level. But change one person at a time and eventually you’ll change the whole world.

Andrew Kozma
received his M.F.A. from the University of Florida and his Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. His poems have appeared in AGNI Online, Zoland Poetry, Smartish Pace, and Subtropics, and his non-fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review. His first book of poems, City of Regret (2007), won the Zone 3 First Book Award, and he has also been the recipient of a Houston Arts Alliance Fellowship and a fellowship to the Sewanee Writers' Conference. He currently lives in Houston.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

#21 - Rauan Klassnik

How often had you sent out Holy Land before it was chosen for publication by Black Ocean? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

In the summer of 2007 I saw open reading periods for a couple of presses. But all they asked for was 10 sample poems. If they liked what they saw they’d ask for more. So I sent them 10 poems and, well, they didn’t like what they saw.

At that point I didn’t have a manuscript together but I had what I considered to be quite a few good poems and figured I could with some work and motivation put together a full manuscript.

I was lazy but hungry, and I liked this idea of sending out 10 sample poems and, asked for or not, I sent the same lot out to a few other small presses. It was like kissing baby turtles before you drop them into the sea and, almost certainly, quick death. But Black Ocean was interested. Said they’d like to see a full manuscript.

So I sent them something—about a month later. Another month later they gave me a “maybe.” They weren’t willing to publish it as-is but they did like the energy and feel of it. They gave me a lot of useful feedback and we began to work together. The back and forth went on for about 6 months and covered 4 or 5 drafts.

I was lucky Black Ocean was willing to work with me. And lucky that they’re such good editors. Janaka and Carrie’s suggestions helped me take the manuscript in completely new directions and we ended up with a book that’s completely different (and much, much better) than the first one draft I sent them.

Timing is vital and the timing with Black Ocean was right. Now they’re further along in their development and probably don’t have the time for a “project” that my book was. But there must be other young versions of Black Ocean out there.

What about the publication of the actual poems 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?

When I first contacted Black Ocean they were a bit concerned that I didn’t have enough credits yet. But at that time I was sending out a lot of submissions and new acceptances were trickling in. So that issue worked itself out fairly quickly. And it was nice, as the poems got accepted, to let Black Ocean know.

That being said, a lot of my published poems didn’t make it into Holy Land, and the acknowledgement section of the book was looking a bit meager. So I decided to have two sets of acknowledgements. One for poems in Holy Land and another for other published poems. I had, for example, three poems accepted in The Mississippi Review’s prose poem issue. But for some reason or other they just didn’t make it into the final draft of Holy Land. Just didn’t fit. But The Mississippi Review gets a nod in the acknowledgements. As do all the other places that published poems that weren’t included in Holy Land.

Also, as I was working on the book I kept sending out poems, indicating they were from sequences in Holy Land. And a few of these got accepted (and published) prior to the book’s release. So that was nice.

The fact that some of these poems are only a few sentences long and still have great depth to them seem, to me, a great advantage of the prose poem. That said, do you feel that prose poems have to be even more tightly constructed than poems written in verse? How much editing has been done on these poems, from initial drafts, to publication in journals, to the final proofing of the last stage of the galleys?

I don’t feel that prose poems have to be “even more tightly constructed than poems written in verse.” But I do think they should be just as tightly constructed. I think all published work should be just right. So, yes, I edit a lot. These poems, individually, were worked and reworked, etc, etc. And then again as I worked on the manuscript. Some poems were finished on their own but when they went into the sequences that make up Holy Land they needed to change. Some of this took a long time. Sometimes it was easy. Sometimes not. You can certainly get into an over-editing rut (Dylan Thomas said something like “an hour to put a comma in. An hour to take it out.”) but you do have to revise. A lot.

What draws you to writing in the form of the prose poem more than actual verse? Or am I wrong about this assessment?

Verse was limiting for me. Everything seemed to narrow down, intensify, accelerate. Jean Follain’s verse poems are kind of like that. His prose poems on the other hand are much more relaxed, expansive. In a way like sepia photos.

When I started writing prose poems I soon found that I was able to do more than I had been able to in verse. And down the line, as I went along, I found I could also capture, in addition to slowness and breadth, some of the same sorts of hard accelerations and energy build up and dissipation that I’d been achieving (though more monotonously) in verse.

And, frankly, I just wasn’t very verse proficient. Maybe I’m not so prose proficient either. But with prose I feel comfortable. Feel as though, for better or for worse, I can bend the language and rules to my will. Feel as though I can capture and/or create a variety of energies.

This is a fairly short book, in terms of most poetry books, and it’s also more of a square than a rectangle in its shape. The poems, however, are centered toward the top of each page, leaving most of the page below them as strictly white space. Was this a choice of design by you or Black Ocean? Why not the middle of the page? Or why not make the text larger so there’s less white space? I ask mainly because the poems, though they’re fairly short, as stated before, seem to travel great spans of time, sometimes in just a few pages, and I wonder about the decision of that “openness” on each page.

Janaka chose the size of the book and the page layouts. I think I chose the font. And, all in all, I’m really pleased with how Holy Land looks. Lots of people have complimented me on its looks. And it was one of Cold Front Magzine’s nominees for “the artifact itself” in its best of 2008 year in review awards. It feels good to have a good-looking book!

I’m not too fond of poems in the middle of the page. I’m old fashioned I guess. I think they should go on top.

And, I like to write in books so all the white space works for me. In fact I love to write in books. Sometimes a lot. The only book I haven’t written in is the Bible my dad gave me for my Bar Mitzvah. When I was thirty years old (and going through tough times) I opened it. In it was an inscription to my father on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah. It was evident he’d never opened it. Smart man my dad. My mom too. (Hi Mom! Hi Dad!)

One thing that’s refreshing about this book is that violence is sometimes used in a less glorified and starker way than how we often see it in poetry. Yet there’s also a tenderness that seems to come through, mostly in poems where there’s a man and a woman in some kind of personal interaction. Was there a lot of purpose both within the sections and poems side-by-side in how each was juxtaposed with the other? How did you go about organizing the book?

Yes there’s certainly a lot of violence in Holy Land. I don’t think it’s gratuitous though. And, yes, there’s also a lot of tenderness. Perhaps some of the tenderness is gratuitous. But I’m quite sentimental and as much as I guard against it does come through in the poems sometimes. I’ll cry over just about anything. Over a raindrop. The latest Star Trek movie. An old man in a doorway.

“There’s a man and a woman in some kind of personal interaction.”—This, for me, is an important part of how I think Holy Land works. I think it depends and relies (is there a difference in those two words here?) on the dramatic interaction of man and woman. Sometimes woman is universe. Or death. Or the void. Or time. Etc. Or just an ordinary wondrous flesh-and-blood woman.

The challenge for me was to take these strange and diverse links (individual poems) and string them together in ways that captured a kind of dramatic continuity. To make sequences that embodied, beyond the individual poems, ebbs and flows and explosions of energy. This was difficult. And exhausting. I am such a reluctant applicant.

Another challenge (or difficulty) was in organizing sections. I juggled them up quite a few times.

As the book started to gravitate more towards its final form, though, I had in mind mainly the following two things.

1. How Catullus organized poems, phrases and books even.

2. The shape of a storm (the title also of the book’s 3rd section.) My mind in a way was reverting at times (usually in bed) to the strange sort of atomic visions that used to play through me as I sat in Latin class (and other places) when I was twenty-one and coming apart, brightly, at college. If nothing else, I fantasized—the sound and shape of the rain would heal me.

Perhaps the most powerful poem for me in the book reads as follows, on page 66: “Two girls are carrying a cage full of kittens down the river. Don’t be afraid! This is the world’s beauty. Look!—with the cage between them still they’re stepping carefully from rock to rock.” I keep thinking of the phrase “This is the world’s beauty,” as it seems, before the last sentence, that this image is some snapshot of innocence. Yet it also seems that imminently the girls are going to drown the kittens as they put the cage into the water. I feel like many of the poems can be read this way—as if the reader should be wary of the narrator’s intentions, and that we, as readers, shouldn’t trust that what we’re presented with is exactly as it seems.

A writer should be aware of how a reader’s going to process what you write. Or at least have a good idea of how the reader might do so. And part of the job, then, of course, is to work around and interact with how you feel the poem’s going to go down.

In looking at this poem of kittens in a cage between two girls it seems to me, now, that the speaker and the addressee are different parts of the same self. Parts talking to each other. Part of the self is afraid. While another part is reassuring, wiser, wider-viewing. (Wider but not as deep)

I think when I worked on this poem I was experience a strange unfolding mix of fear and awe. The terrible and the beautiful. A dangerous, fragile beauty. For a moment, perhaps, things resolve.

Things form and hang in me and sometimes detonate. Sometimes dissipate. If I can get a reasonable version of that to happen again in a reader other than myself (I have a bad memory, so my poems tend to work on me as a kind of a stranger. I sometimes joke that I have a kind of Alzheimer’s. And that’s ridiculous, of course, but at the same time it’s true too), then I am succeeding.

I see nothing wrong with the reader being wary and a bit on edge. Or a lot, really. It would be silly I think for readers to come to poetry only for affirmation, safety, comfort, etc. Some do though. Good luck to them.

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

The book came out just in time for AWP (NYC, 2008). I walked into the book fair and went to Black Ocean’s table. And there it was. I picked it up. Looked at it. It felt good. The entire universe pulsed inside me for a moment. Then I slipped back into wait-and-see mode. But that moment’s glow was nice.

The thing that all writers fear is that their work is going to be ignored. Just slip immediately into oblivion. So now I had to wait and see if anyone cared about what I’d written. If the energy I’d taken out of myself and recreated in small and sequenced language systems could transfer into others as they experienced them.

I was also worried about the off-site reading I was scheduled to do in Brooklyn the next evening. I get really nervous before readings. And this time I was particularly keyed-up. But sometimes with readings, as with other things, that “edge” helps. Like playing ping-pong.

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

I told Janaka that I thought a Dome of the Rock image would look good on the cover. He said he’d been thinking the same thing.

Then when he sent me a copy of the artwork (Ryan Sawyer) he asked me if I wanted the dome to show a bit more damage. I liked the way it looked but I definitely thought it would work even better if it was a little, at least, beat up. And so Ryan cracked it up some.

And I’m really happy with how it worked out. I think it’s great.

How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises? What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?

One thing that’s changed is that I don’t feel the same pressure to get poems published. And that in a way is a relief. Because that’s a lot of work. And ego-management. (Rejection sucks especially when you’re unproven and wanting to make thing happens). But, on the other hand, sending out poems is good motivation. To working on poems. Working on them properly and seriously.

I’ve done a lot of readings since the book released and that’s great because I’ve met a lot of really interesting people. People I’ve stayed in touch with. People with similar concerns and interests. And readings get the book into more people’s hands. People who otherwise might not even know about it at all. And preparing for and doing readings gets me to try out new poems and new sequences. And that’s all good practice.

I started a blog. And that’s been good and bad. Good because it engages the phrase-making mind (and the self also of course) in different ways. But bad because it can be a real energy suck. Sometimes I’m all ga-ga about blogging. And then other times I’m like “Fuck this shit.” So, I go back and forth. But I do all-in-all like blogging. And it’s nice (how many times have I used the word “nice” in this interview?—but I’ve used it honestly) that I have a readership. A small readership. But a readership anyways.

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

Nothing really. I was pretty realistic. I knew I’d have to do readings and promote through blogging, etc.

I had, all in all, little to no expectations. Everyone wants to be successful but tons of poetry books come out every year and many of them don’t do well at all. So I knew this could happen to me. But luckily the voice and energies I was able to capture and manufacture in Holy Land appealed to some people. Not huge numbers of people. But enough to make me happy.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? I keep seeing more and more of your new poems in journals as the weeks and months go on. Are any new books or other projects on the horizon?

Initially I didn’t know what to write. Then I thought: I know how to put together a book now and I’ve got plenty of other material.

So, I took a shot at a second full-length manuscript. This happened a few times. But the energy just wasn’t there. Nor the quality. So I just decided to write new poems for a while. And then some of those poems seemed sometimes, and more and more so, to be clustering together in my mind. So I thought why not a chapbook or two.

At the end of February (2009) Kitchen Press put out an on-line chapbook of mine entitled Ringing. Some people have really liked it. And some people think it’s garbage—gratuitous sex and violence. What can I say? (I have to thank Justin Marks, of Kitchen Press, here. He didn’t make many editing suggestions but the ones he did were vital. He urged me to not be shy. To drop some of the flatter poems. And, generally, to “amp” things up. So I did.)

I’m currently finishing up another e-chapbook entitled Dreaming, through Scantily Clad Press (Andrew Lundwall). And I’m really excited about how this chapbook’s been shaping up. The last couple weeks I’ve been going to sleep each night, and some afternoons even, hoping to dream something that can make its way into the manuscript. Especially when I’ve had a gap to fill. So that’s been an interesting approach to composition and revision! I tell my wife: “Honey I’m going to work now.” And then I turn to my side of the bed thinking dream dream dream dream dream dream

I’m also in the middle of a long project that I hope will eventually be my second full-length book. For about two months or so I spent 3-5 hours a day generating and revising about 200 drafts of poems that are what I’ve sometimes called “imperfect erasures.” I’ve used Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers and James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake as source texts. And what I made are kind of erasures. Kind of only because I’ve taken liberties. Changing or adding words. I almost always kept original sequence though.

A while back I believed the book that (I hope) comes from all this work will be titled The Holocaust. Now I’m not so sure. Not sure because I haven’t gotten down to sequencing and organizing and revising seriously yet. So, we’ll see. But it certainly could be The Holocaust.

When I get back at it I’m going to use those same texts (Miller-Joyce-Genet) to generate a whole bunch more poem drafts. But using a different method. Perhaps using my IPod Shuffle. That’s something I’ve had success with in the past. I’m in the middle of a break to finish up Dreaming but I’m looking to get back on the Miller-Genet-Joyce horse. Itching to do so really. And we’ll see where it takes me. I can feel it under me already.

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

Don’t give up. And try other routes. There’s no easy way but don’t limit yourself to contests. “Ordeal” is just one word that describes the contest angle.

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

In small ways, sure.

Rauan Klassnik was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. He spent most of his life in Dallas, Texas and now lives mainly in Mexico with his wife Edith and lots of animals: dogs, birds, turtles. His first book, Holy Land, was released in April 2008 from Black Ocean. An e-chapbook, Ringing, was released March 2009 from Kitchen Press, and another chapbook, Dreaming, is due out this summer from Scantily Clad Press. Rauan needs sunshine, water, and an occasional sprinkling of fertilizer.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

#20 - Jennifer Chang

How often had you sent out The History of Anonymity before it was chosen as a selection for the VQR Poetry Series?

I had been sending it out from 2002 to 2006, though it had only been in its final and current form for the last two years. I never sent to more than a handful of contests (Whitman, Bakeless, Yale, Sarabande, Alice James, and occasionally others if the judge was “appropriate”) and I sent it directly to a few publishers (Graywolf, Wesleyan, California). I think it’s worth it to be both picky and patient: I wanted the best publisher for my book, I wanted to see the book in bookstores, and I didn’t want to rush myself or my poems. (All these wishes, I’m happy to say, came true.) When Ted Genoways, the series editor, contacted me in spring 2007, he told me that it could take several years for the book to come out. I told him that I was in no hurry—what was another three or four years? I’m still shocked and extremely honored that The History of Anonymity was among the books chosen to inaugurate the series.

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

The book was originally dominated by the lyric sequence "A Move to Unction," which had also been the original title. This poem overwhelmed the manuscript and the shorter lyrics somehow couldn’t meet its psychological challenges; they didn’t quite match its tenor or tone. So I struggled through many versions (and writing many more poems) trying to balance “A Move to Unction” and the shorter lyrics.

I’d always thought that the lyric sequence “The History of Anonymity” would be for a second book, but Phillis Levin pointed out to me that it would balance the manuscript out and that it would open all the poems to more a metaphysical inquiry. She was absolutely right. Now “The History of Anonymity” opens (and titles) the book and the short lyrics section act as a fulcrum between it and “A Move to Unction,” which concludes the book.

I left out—threw out!—nearly thirty poems in the process of assembling the book. Many of these exist only in my MFA thesis or are hiding in an “RIP” folder on my hard drive, and I doubt they’ll ever find second lives in any future manuscripts.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book was accepted for publication to the day the book was in its final proofing stage?

I struggled about deciding whether or not to include the poem, “Obedience, or A Lying Tale,” which I’ll discuss in more detail on Brian Brodeur’s wonderful site How a Poem Happens. Ultimately, I kept this poem. I also revised “those who speak most say nothing.” into quatrains; it had been in stanzas of irregular lengths. I thought about leaving this poem out, too. I’ll be first to admit that it doesn’t quite fit—it’s the oldest poem in the book and it’s the only one in the book that I wrote while still in the MFA workshop at UVA. But I kept it in for private, sentimental reasons. I kept it for myself and I’ve never read it in public.

You mentioned a few weeks ago that sometimes it takes you months to write just one poem. Was this the case for most of the book, or just the longer poems and sequences? And are there poems that are written surprisingly quickly after working so hard on certain others?

My poems often emerge from a question that I cannot answer, a question that troubles me into artistic activity. If I write or think slowly, it’s because I’m working through a process of inquiry and discovery takes time. The poems don’t represent resolution or solution, but a measure of time and thought, a meditation in language and music. All this takes time and time is an especially scarce commodity for poets, who can’t make a living from their craft but must work and live in a too-often unpoetic world.

The title poem took years. I was living in San Francisco and I was keeping a journal more assiduously than usual. I was having trouble writing complete poems, so I was gathering ideas, observations, fragments of poetry, found quotations, and questions. That was nearly two years of gathering. Then my husband and I moved to Brooklyn; soon after I was awarded a residency at Djerassi, an artists’ colony in northern California. During my first week in residence, I was able to piece together the fragments into “The History of Anonymity.” I think it helped to leave and then return to that landscape, which had inspired the fragments in the first place. I had known that many of them had been of a piece, but I hadn’t known how to construct them into a coherent poem, though the poem ultimately resists coherence.

Drafts of the short lyrics generally do take less time, but I can be a very obsessive reviser. For example, I wrote “Pastoral” very quickly for a workshop at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, but then spent months revising and refining it to its final form. Granted, I don’t revise a poem day after day—I need to let the draft rest, to allow myself distance from it—so I’d come back to it whenever I was between poems or particularly troubled by a draft’s unfinishedness. More important, even though I love and need to write, it’s not always easy for me to write, so I’m also writing against inevitable obstacles (self-doubt; conceptual, linguistic, and emotional difficulties; life’s ten thousand distractions; etc.) that make me not want to write. Nothing makes me want to write less than a bad writing day. Oddly enough, “Apologia pro Vita Sua,” though a longer poem than “Pastoral,” took a morning and afternoon to write because I was, in a sense, ripe for that poem. I needed to get through that line of inquiry quickly: I needed to understand a specific loss, which at that time felt too strong to ignore. That’s a sad poem, but it was a good writing day.

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

I’m a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Virginia. I remember coming home from a stressful day at school—I was doing coursework and teaching—and finding a small package on my doormat. I had no idea what it was. I opened it: it was a single copy of my book. It was mid-January. The book wasn’t supposed to come out until April and I hadn’t heard from the publisher since turning in my final proofs. I was not expecting the book at all. I was so stressed out from school—I was working on a monstrous essay on Yeats that was overdue and that I couldn’t finish—and seeing the book somehow stressed me out more. I felt utterly nauseous. I slipped it into a stack of papers in my office. This sounds crazy unless you understand how frantic balancing coursework and teaching can be, but I kept forgetting about the book and then I’d stumbled upon it in that stack of papers and I’d feel nauseous all over again. Of course, I was very happy about the book, but at the time I was more terrified that I’d never finish that Yeats essay. (I finally did two months later.)

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

I had suggested the spring painting from Cy Twombly’s Quattro Stagione (Four Seasons). I wanted an abstract representation of nature. They did a version of Primavera, but it didn’t look right. We didn’t even discuss it—I think we all knew it wasn’t right—and days later they gave me three new cover choices. All of them were marvelous and demonstrated how sensitively the designers had read the book. I hadn’t expected this. It was humbling and, at the same time, deeply satisfying—to be read and “seen” as I’d hoped to be. It further affirmed the rightness of the VQR Poetry Series for The History of Anonymity. I love the cover. I think it perfectly captures the mythical and philosophical inflections of the poems. And I love that it’s an actual place. It’s a photograph of a beach in Iceland. My husband found this out after some Internet sleuthing.

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 mostly hoped it wouldn’t give me a big head or embarrass me or my family.

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

I have a lot more Facebook friends. (Like you!)

Poets whom I admire have told me they admired my book. That was a big surprise. I got a really thoughtful review by Shara Lessley in Gulf Coast and another one by Kristina Marie Darling in Boston Review, both of these surprised me. I don’t know either of these women, but it means a lot to me to have such intelligent and insightful readers and, as an occasional reviewer, I know how much work can go into even the shortest review, making their particular attention all the more meaningful.

I didn’t expect anything to happen, so any attention has been lovely and surprising.

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

I lucked out. I did very little on my own, but many opportunities opened up and many generous friends helped out or invited me to read and I said “yes” to all that I could fit into my schedule. University of Georgia Press and VQR organized a book signing at AWP in NYC and readings in NYC and VA. Joseph Legaspi, whose first book Imago came out a few months before mine, asked me, and other Asian American poets with recent books, to read with him at NYU. Matthew Ohlzmann asked Gaby Calvocoressi to read at the Inside Out Literary Arts Project in Detroit and she asked him if I could read with her. The excellent Ed Skoog invited me and my friend and series mate, Cecily Parks, to read at Idyllwild Arts Academy in southern California, and then her friends Lytton Smith and Tom Haushalter helped us arrange a mini-tour from LA to SF. That was fun—we rented a hybrid SUV and Cecily drove up some steep cliffs as I held my breath. My husband, Aaron Baker, whose book Mission Work was published at the same time, was asked to read at Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville, NC and he suggested me as a co-reader. (I don’t mean to name-drop; I’m just trying to give credit to instrumental generosities.) As I said, I lucked out, mostly because many friends, with whom I’d agonized over manuscripts and lost contests for years, got their books taken around the same time as mine. It was a year of celebration, of visits and travels with friends I’d grown up with in poetry. I had at least one reading a month in 2008, the year my book came out, and nearly every reading derived from one of these friendships. Nearly every reading began as an opportunity to meet up with a good friend. This made the readings especially happy occasions.

What advice did you get before your first book came out?

The best advice I got was from Timothy Donnelly. I knew him through writing for Boston Review, though I had never really met or talked to him in person. A couple months after my book was taken, I ran into him in New York and he told me to enjoy the time before the book came out. He said it very eloquently and poignantly, which I can’t approximate though I remember being startled into attentiveness. He said that to be “about to be a first-book poet” was ephemeral and precious and that it was an excitement for the unknown that I wouldn’t experience again. He advised me to be mindful. I’ve butchered what he said, but it made a profound impression on me. He was right. That was a great time, and following his advice, I’d often pause and reflect on the moment and become filled with gratitude and excitement for what I did not yet have or know. If I hadn’t gotten that advice I would’ve wasted a lot of time stressing out about unwritten essays and unpaid bills.

But before I knew the book would ever come out, the advice that I gave myself, the advice I give to everyone, is to be patient. No one likes to hear this—often I didn’t/don’t like to hear this—but art takes time, poems take time, and nothing matters as much as the work itself. I realize that everyone knows this, but it can be so excruciatingly hard to be patient in the face of rejection and in the brouhaha that is “po-biz.” All that stuff is nerve-racking, but it’s also entirely circumstantial. One’s first book of poems should be worthy of one’s love of poetry, and, in my opinion, that can’t be rushed.

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


Jennifer Chang, author of The History of Anonymity, has published poems in A Public Space, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and Poetry Daily. Her book reviews have appeared in The Believer, Boston Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review, and she’s received recent fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and Virginia Commission for the Arts. A Ph.D. candidate in English at UVA, she is writing a dissertation on race and the modernist pastoral.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

#19 - Dan Albergotti

In a recent section in Poets & Writers, Debut Poets, you are one of the featured poets. I’m going to try and ask some questions dealing with some answers from that article. How often had you sent out The Boatloads before it was chosen as the winner of the A. Poulin Poetry Prize? It says you spent eight years writing the book. Was this the last eight years, or had you been writing the book before that without knowing it? I could also ask: Did any of The Boatloads come from your MFA thesis?

It was pretty much the last eight years, at least in terms of writing the actual poems that appear in The Boatloads. But from another perspective, you could say that I’d been “writing the book” for much, much longer. I’m sure I’ve been obsessively thinking about the ideas and themes of these poems for more than half my life. A lot of the poems in the book did appear in my MFA thesis, but that collection has, as you might expect, a much less unified vision.

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

I would tinker with small things here and there each year, but it went through a major overhaul only once: in the fall of 2004. The previous summer, I was a scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and one of that year’s fellows, Sarah Manguso, very generously offered to read my manuscript and give me feedback. I remember being shocked when she mailed back the manuscript with some nice comments, but also with the recommendation that I cut over one-third of its poems. It was a little like cold water in the face, but I needed that kind of jolt to see that I had become complacent, not thoroughly scrutinizing the collection as a whole and leaving some older poems in as “filler.” I took Sarah’s advice and completely overhauled the manuscript. And you know, I’m not sure that I ever thanked enough for her suggestions, and I haven’t seen her in years. So thank you, Sarah Manguso, wherever you are.

What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Many, if not all, have been previously published. Was there a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

I can understand where the question comes from, but really, I was never concerned about that at all. The sad truth is that poems published in literary journals reach very few eyes. From the writer’s perspective, you might think that you’ve already given all the poems in the book to the world. But once you get past your own ego, you have to acknowledge that the world wasn’t paying very much attention when those poems first appeared! It’s kind of funny to me when I hear people talk about poems in the book as if they’re new discoveries when those poems have appeared in literary journals with fairly broad distributions (and sometimes reprinted on websites with much wider reaches). I feel like those poems have already been out there, but “out there” is a very small stage, indeed.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book won to the day the book was in its final proofing stage?

I was incredibly lucky to be able to publish my book with BOA Editions. The people there are just the best. When I won the prize, I thought the book was finished, that there would be very little editing left to do. But a couple of months later, I got a long list of queries from BOA’s Peter Conners. His questions were challenging and revealed that he had read the manuscript with extraordinary care. They forced me to reexamine some poems that I had considered “finished” and led to some fine polishing that made a great deal of difference in the end. I should note, also, that Peter’s query letter ended with a reassurance that I had the absolute final say on any changes, so there was no undue pressure applied from the publisher. It was just an incredibly helpful, and necessary, gesture on BOA’s part. In the end, I didn’t make all of the suggested changes, but those that I did make were very, very important, and I’m grateful every day that my book wasn’t ferried into the world by a publishing house that takes an extremely casual approach to manuscript queries.

The notion of God is one of the themes running through many of these poems in very different ways. And what I admire about many of these poems is the different way the looming presence of God can become comic, serious, playful, and take on so many different guises, sometimes all at once. Was this an idea you had from the beginning when writing the book, or was there a need for this variation as it developed over the years?

The varieties of treatment are not anything I’ve ever thought about consciously. I’ve been wrestling with the idea of God since at least the age of 12. It’s something that’s so deeply embedded in who I am that my thoughts on it arise to consciousness imperceptibly. Keats says that “if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” That’s how this theme comes to my poems—it’s just an organic part of me and my work.

I look at poems like “Song 246” and “The Safe World” and how they’re balanced with poems like “Among the Things He Does Not Deserve” and “A Prayer for My Daughter, Who Does Not Exist.” There seems to be a great concern for the celebration of life and safety, and the blessings of what we have this moment, but there also seems to be warnings of possible tragedy, sometimes imminent, present within some of these poems and how they’re put together in each section. Was this something you strived for while putting these poems together?

You know, the Romans said, “Memento mori” not as a recipe for dying, but as a guide for living. When we constantly acknowledge the fleeting nature of life, we live it better. This can get reduced to a cliché—a “carpe diem” t-shirt. But poetry, I think, can bring it to a deeper level, make it an elemental reminder. When I remember my mortality, I love this world more and demand more from it, and my favorite poems remind me of my mortality again and again.

I always find it fascinating to see where a poet puts the title poem, if one is present in the collection. “The Boatloads” is the very last poem in the book. What were your reasons for ending with the book with title poem?

It’s funny—in my chapbook, Charon’s Manifest, which appeared in 2005, “The Boatloads” is the initial poem. It seemed right for that smaller collection, but for the longer manuscript, it seemed that it could only appear as the last poem. A friend once paid me a huge compliment when, in an email about her reading of The Boatloads, she said that she feels like Charon’s bony finger was pointing straight off the page at her when she reached the end, that she had been challenged to confront her own mortality and her complacency in the face of horrors like those of “Song 246.” I want my readers to feel challenged like that, and I hope that the title poem works that way for many of them.

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

It was a close call. I had a debut reading scheduled at my MFA alma mater, UNC Greensboro, and we’d planned it for a little earlier than the book’s official release date, knowing that the books would actually be printed 2-3 weeks earlier and that I’d be able to bring some of my author copies to the reading if the university’s book store could not get their shipment in time. I’ll cut this story short—the books arrived at my door in Conway, South Carolina the day before I left for Greensboro. A lot of worry leading up to that day!

Two things that I remember most about the day the books arrived:

1. Opening the box and seeing that beautiful cover with my name on it, as well as the text of my poems on that off-white, textured paper. It seemed like such a different thing from the advance uncorrected proofs that I’d seen before. It was finally a real book.

2. My dear friend Terry Kennedy, assistant director of the UNC Greensboro program, calling me just after the books arrived to tell me, “Jack’s going to be at your reading tomorrow night.” My response was, “Jack? Jack who?” He was referring to my poetic idol, Jack Gilbert, whom I had never before met in person. How it all came about is too long a story to tell, but Jack Gilbert and Linda Gregg were in the audience for my debut reading from the book, and we all went to dinner afterward. It was a pretty perfect night.

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

This is just one more reason why BOA Editions is so wonderful. They have a library of art that they’ve acquired, and when I won the Poulin Prize, I was given a password to a secure website where I could peruse the amazing work of about two dozen artists. When I came across Anne Havens’s “Chairs,” I knew I’d found my cover. Then the design by Geri McCormick for that work’s incorporation into the cover was just brilliant, I think. The fading of the top and bottom panels of the original work helps to enhance its visual ambiguity. I could not be happier with the cover of my book.

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?

A bit. And in a way, it has. In other ways, it’s made absolutely no difference. How’s that for a vague, wishy-washy answer? I don’t want to downplay the value of publication—it’s great. But I also don’t want to overvalue it. People who become obsessed with publication credits and external validation risk compromising their art. It’s great to have a book of poems published, but I was the same poet the day after publication as the day before. And if I allowed myself to believe that I was somehow different because of it, I’d be on dangerous ground, I fear.

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

I’ve learned that it’s work to promote a book. Often fun work, but work—time-consuming work—just the same.

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

I’ve given readings at universities and at a few book festivals. In addition to this one, I’ve done interviews with Town Creek Poetry and Southern Spaces, as well as for Brian Brodeur’s “How a Poem Happens” blog (forthcoming). I’ve been very lucky to have requests for such interviews and also to have my work selected from the book for feature on Verse Daily and on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. All of these experiences have been great, but as I said before, it’s also work, and I must say that I look forward to the day when it all dies down a little and I can catch my breath and focus more energy on my poems again.

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

I really can’t imagine getting better advice than what I did get. I was fortunate to have good people giving me good counsel for a long while.

I remember two things one of my teachers used to say:

1. “The only thing worse than not being published is being published.”

2. “Never submit your manuscript to a contest that you wouldn’t be thrilled to win.”

When you’re starting out, it’s all too easy to get overwhelmed by a sense of urgency and try to rush your book into print by any means at all. But there’s usually not the need to rush things that there seems to be. I’m glad someone impressed that upon me early.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon? In the aforementioned Poets & Writers article, you mention you’ve begun working on a second collection? Is this finished? Or almost finished?

I hope to finish a “draft” by the end of this summer, but even achieving that, the manuscript could be another year or two from being ready. In keeping with the advice I mentioned above, I don’t want to rush my second book. Most of my favorite poets have been the slow-working, non-prolific sort: Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Jack Gilbert. Those are the poets I’d like to emulate. I’m lucky, too, because I just received tenure at my university, so there’s not the immediate pressure to publish the second book as soon as possible. I have the luxury of making sure it’s really done.

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

Persistence is omnipotent. You have to believe in your work enough to weather the inevitable disappointment. Never look at your book’s failure to win a contest as an accurate evaluation of the work’s merit. It was just a contest you didn’t win; the next one might be the one you do.

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

Hell yes. But we all have different ideas on what it means to “change the world.” I think some pretty small moments can have some pretty large effects. I know that John Keats virtually saved my soul. And I, for one, don’t think that’s a small matter.

Dan Albergotti is the author of The Boatloads (BOA Editions, 2008), selected by Edward Hirsch as the winner of the 2007 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals, as well as in Pushcart Prize XXXIII: Best of the Small Presses. A graduate of the MFA program at UNC Greensboro and former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review, Albergotti currently teaches creative writing and literature courses and edits the online journal Waccamaw at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC.