Thursday, September 16, 2010

#29 - Jehanne Dubrow

How often had you sent out The Hardship Post before it was chosen as the winner of the 2008 Three Candles Book Award?

I would like to be coy and say that I have no idea how many times I sent out The Hardship Post before it was accepted but, unfortunately, I keep really excellent submission records. So, I have a very clear chronicle of that demoralizing time: nearly 40 submissions to contests and open reading periods over the space of approximately two years. What misery that was.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been The Hardship Post? Did it go through any other changes?

The Hardship Post came pretty late. First, I spent several years cycling through a series of extremely abstract titles that made the book’s project sound too gauzy, too gentle. No, worse than that, precious. Finally, I hit upon The Hardship Post, which is a term used by the U.S. Foreign Service to describe overseas postings that involve physical or economic hardship. Since the manuscript examines my experiences as an American Jew through the lens of my upbringing as a “diplobrat,” focusing on the post-Holocaust landscape of Poland where I spent nearly seven years of my childhood and adolescence, the concept of a “hardship post” felt apropos.

It seems like there’s a possible misconception among some poets who are trying to get their first book published: that they must win a contest. Were you concerned about winning a contest at any point? What advice would you give to poets sending their book out now regarding contests versus open reading periods?

At some point, I decided there was no way that The Hardship Post was going to win a contest (it was too quiet a book, too ethnic, too formal, and definitely too uncool). I then let go of the idea that my first book needed to receive some kind of award in order to satisfy me. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the book had won a contest.

The best advice I ever received about first books came from my mentor and former teacher, Hilda Raz, who said, “Don’t worry too much about where your first book is accepted, just get the manuscript published so that you can move on to the next project.” She was right. I know too many people who feel frozen as long as the first book is unable to find a home. As a result, they stop writing new poems. Then, once the first book finally finds a publisher, many of these poets have so lost the habit of writing that they have no idea what’s next. I know one poet who has been revising a first collection for 15+ years. This poet can’t move on to something new, because the first book remains a looming and oppressive presence.

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

I love reading first books of poetry and thinking about the meta-narrative that each collection constructs. The first poet I ever read deeply was Charles Baudelaire, and there’s no question that the poems in Les Fleurs du mal tell a story. People who complain that too many contemporary poetry collections focus on being “book projects” rather than compilations of really good poems, need to remember that the meta-narrative is not a new thing. Just ask Baudelaire. Or Whitman.

In putting together The Hardship Post, I always concentrated on shaping the story that I wanted the book to tell, even as I revised individual poems, moved them around, or cut them altogether. I really struggled with how to tell the story, working through at least 100 drafts, because I didn’t want the book to open with the dark hole of Auschwitz. Eventually, I ordered the manuscript so that it begins with the personal mythos of “the diplomat’s daughter” and slowly moves toward issues of cultural translation, religious identity, and at last the Shoah. Above all, the book’s order needed to make clear that I wasn’t a tourist, that my attempt to represent trauma was the result of having spent many years in Poland, and that I myself was a scholar of Holocaust studies.

How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?

Steve Mueske, the founder and editor of Three Candles, let me have a ton of input about the book’s appearance. As a poet himself, Steve is very sensitive to the significance of a poem’s shape on the page. I never had to explain to him why a certain line break should be preserved or a particular word italicized, because we already spoke the same language.

Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?

I found the close-up image of a Polish train station board and sent it to Steve. I loved the way the schedule board evoked my nomadic childhood but also gestured at the important Holocaust trope of train stations. But, as much as I liked the image, I knew it was going to be difficult to design around. How would we incorporate an image filled with names—of Polish towns like Warszawa and Krak√≥w—in a way that wouldn’t interfere with the necessary bits of text on the cover, such as the book’s title? I think Steve’s solution was both elegant and appropriate to the quiet tone of the collection.

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

I wasn’t too worried. Having administered a major book prize for two years, I understood that poetry manuscripts need to demonstrate the ways in which they’re part of the discourse of contemporary literary publication. Having a solid acknowledgements page is one way to prove a collection’s viability and engagement with the current literature.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?

The finalized manuscript barely resembled the manuscript I initially submitted to Three Candles. By the time the book won the contest, I had already reordered the middle sections of the book and cut an entire grouping of poems. Fortunately, Steve agreed with the re-envisioned manuscript, and we only made a few more changes to the text in the months leading up to the final proofs.

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

I was tired. Very tired. I had just come home from a long day of teaching. Hours of ungraded English 101 papers stretched out in front of me. I had no idea what to make for dinner. And, besides, my refrigerator contained little more than a bottle of stuffed olives, a near empty container of soy milk, and some rotten zucchinis that just weren’t going to be edible, no matter how much I trimmed their edges. The box of books was waiting at my front door. I carried it in, dumped it beside the couch, and didn’t open the carton until a few hours later. Then, I laid one copy of The Hardship Post on the coffee table and spent the rest of the evening picking it up and putting it down again.

How has your life been different since your book came out? Did it become a factor in getting a future job for you?

Initially, having a book made me feel more vulnerable. I felt like an easier target for the snarky reader, the MFA student who still believes in his own entitlement and grand literary destiny. Having a first book changed me; I became more empathetic, more inclined to suspend or temper my judgment when reading a poetry collection that didn’t please me. Now, when I read a book of poems that I don’t love, I’m much likelier to say, “writing a collection is an important achievement in itself.” I guess what all this means is that I began to hope others would treat my work with this same kindness and understanding.

I’m sure that having a book (and then, later on, books) was a huge factor in my landing a position as assistant professor. The market is such a shark tank—it’s not enough to have an MFA and a PhD. One has to have significant publications as well. That means fancy-schmancy journals and books with pretty covers.

If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”

Here’s what I used to say in my cover letters for academic jobs: The Hardship Post uses personal experience to meditate on the slipperiness of Jewish identity.” Thrilling, no? On an airplane, I would answer, “The Hardship Post describes my childhood as a diplobrat growing up in countries like Poland, Belgium, Yugoslavia, and Zaire.” Then, the insurance agent sitting next to me would probably leap from his seat, run screaming down the aisle, and fling himself out of the airlock. No one wants to make small talk with poets.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? I know two more books of poetry have been published since The Hardship Post. Tell us about these books. How are they different from The Hardship Post? And how have you remained so prolific over the last few years?

On the surface, my second book—From the Fever-World—appears to have a lot in common with The Hardship Post. It’s very Jewish, it’s set in Poland, and it’s shadowed by the Shoah. But, the book is written entirely in the persona of an imaginary poet, Ida Lewin. The collection is a series of linked fragments “translated” from the Yiddish. For this project, I really tried to leave behind received forms, which sets it apart from the “high formalism” and iambic lines of The Hardship Post.

Stateside, my third book, examines my experiences as a “milspouse,” looking at the Before, During, and After of a deployment. The poems in Stateside often play with traditional, fixed forms, but there’s a good amount of free verse in the collection too. A few of the poems are quite rigid in their handling of form, but that rigidity is mimetic of the strictness of military life.

I guess I’m prolific because I keep myself on a very strict writing schedule. I also love book projects, which allow me to stay focused from poem to poem, maintaining momentum and immersing myself in a series of interesting, provocative obsessions.

What have you been doing to promote The Hardship Post (along with your other books), and what have those experiences been like for you?

I had no idea how to promote The Hardship Post. But, by the time Northwestern University Press published Stateside, I had come to appreciate the power of the niche market. With this current book, I’ve made a point of reaching out to the “milspouse” blogging community, contacting literary journals that focus on the relationship between war and literature, and seeking out the advice of other military wife authors. I’m also very lucky that my mother decided to adopt Stateside as her first project in the world of poetry promotion. For instance, it was my mother who landed me a gig on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. Not too shabby for a first-time press agent.

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

This is a tough one: be prepared for changes—sometimes difficult and painful ones—in your friendships with other writers. The publication of a first book may not alter the landscape. But, not everyone will be thrilled when Book #2 and Book #3 arrive. Work hard to preserve these friendships, even when some of your friends’ reactions disappoint you.

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

I spent a large portion of my childhood in the Eastern Bloc. If there’s anything that the Polish poets teach, it’s that an artist must believe in the power of art to change the world. Even if such belief is quixotically misguided, it remains necessary. Otherwise, we end up writing bloodless poetry: cold exercises in music and image.


Jehanne Dubrow is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Stateside (Northwestern UP 2010). Her work has appeared in The New Republic Poetry, Ploughshares, New England Review, and Prairie Schooner. She is an assistant professor of creative writing and literature at Washington College, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.