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.