Wednesday, March 4, 2009

#17 - Randall Mann

How often had you sent out Complaint in the Garden before it won the 2003 Kenyon Review Prize in Poetry?

I sent the manuscript out for six years, 1997 through 2003.

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

Oh, it went through endless versions the first few years. Early on it was just my MFA thesis plus whatever was lying around, yikes. But I wrote the last poem in the book in 2000, and after that the book stabilized.

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 publications?

I was very concerned about publishing as many poems as possible, and in good places, if possible; I was concerned about “building an audience,” which is maybe a touch na├»ve, maybe not. I think all but one of the poems were published in a magazine first.

Zoo Press no longer exists, but it seems like the book is readily available and still in print. Had you known that Zoo Press wouldn’t be around soon after the book was published, would you have opted to keep sending it out to find a different home for it?

Complaint in the Garden is technically out of print, though Orchises Press kindly adopted it and continues to make it available in its catalogue and on Amazon and such. I think I would have gone ahead and let Zoo publish the thing, even knowing what I know now; it was, is, such an honor to be selected by David Baker and have the book associated with The Kenyon Review.

One of the things that a reader may encounter upon first reading the poems in Complaint in the Garden is the many poems in traditional forms: sonnets, villanelles, heroic couplets, etc. The impressive thing about the poems is often you can’t recognize this unless you’re looking for it, which is a good sign the poem is successful. Was there a necessity to write in forms, or is this something you had been doing for a while? I ask because forms like sestinas and villanelles are often written out of not only obsession, but obsession for a certain repetition that only traditional forms can really satisfy.

I have always loved the gamesmanship of formal poems, the challenge and demand of constraint. I had a subject—for example, the selling of my dead grandmother’s belongings at a yard sale in the poem “Yard Sale”—and so I thought, in this case, the turning and returning not only to her stuff but to the past and to her death made a case for trying a villanelle.

Who are some of your influences, and who were your influences especially when writing Complaint in the Garden?

When writing Complaint in the Garden, some essential ones were Hardy, Auden, Stevens, Moore, Lowell, Bishop, Justice, Hecht, Larkin, Walcott, Ashbery. And always, always Frost.

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? Was this a conscious choice as you were constructing it?

Layout was always an afterthought to composition; I tried two sections and three sections but I settled on no sections I think because some of the main themes of the book—queer love, Florida landscape and history, disaffection—surfaced and overlapped in so many of the poems.

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

It was late March 2004, and I was sitting at my desk at work, and I opened the box and pulled out this beautiful thing that seemed to mean everything.

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

I suggested several collages by Debora Greger; this was one of them; Zoo was kind enough to send me several mock-ups of covers with her collages, and I liked this best.

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, but not so grand, really; I imagined it would change because writers have books and if I had a book, well, the world might see me as a real writer.

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

I made sure it was sent to every possible magazine and newspaper that might take a look or give it ink; I sent to the gay press, which was very receptive. The Zoo publicity engine-that-could fell off the tracks fairly early on, so I took control, but it was difficult, and Complaint probably didn’t get considered for awards and such the way it should have been. But that’s the small-press life. I was determined, after almost a decade of writing it and six years of sending it out, that it would not go unnoticed.

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

Other than feeling good about being a writer, none.

Your second book of poems, Breakfast with Thom Gunn, will be coming out in the Spring of 2009. Tell us about the book. How long have you been working on it? What can readers expect from it?

As I have grown more ragged and unsure, so have my poems. The poems are mostly set in San Francisco. There is a queer, I hope unforgiving, anxiety, and a harsher take on love and loss and landscape. I worked on the book for nine years.

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

In its secret secret way, yes.

Randall Mann
is the author of two poetry collections, Breakfast with Thom Gunn (University of Chicago 2009), and Complaint in the Garden (Zoo/Orchises 2004), winner of the 2003 Kenyon Review Prize; and co-author of the textbook Writing Poems (Pearson Longman 2007). His poems, reviews, and essays have appeared have appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, Pleaides, The Kenyon Review, Salmugundi, and Contemporary Poetry Review. He works as an editor and lives in San Francisco.