How often had you sent out The Real Warnings before it was chosen as the winner of the 2008 Anhinga Prize for Poetry?
I entered the manuscript that evolved into The Real Warnings in over 50 contests or open reading periods over the course of six years. I sent it out too soon and am glad it took that long for it to find its home. It changed significantly over those years and became a different book. About three years into the journey, it started being named a finalist in many contests, honorable mention or runner-up in several more. I became more selective at that point about where I sent it, seeking out my favorite presses and entering a smaller number of contests each year. At one point, though, I almost gave up. I had come close to winning six or seven times, and I thought maybe this book would be forever second-best. Maybe I should just stop sending it out. Luckily, my husband wouldn’t let me. Soon after that, I attended a poetry workshop with Roger Weingarten, who thinks about line in a different way than I do. That workshop gave me a new perspective, and as a result I was able to go back to the manuscript with fresh eyes and give it a major overhaul until it felt ready, all the wrinkles I’d been worrying over for years ironed out. That’s when I picked my top 5 presses, one of which was Anhinga, and sent it out.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been The Real Warnings? Did it go through any other changes?
Its first title was From the Glass Cage which became The Glass Cage. In 2008, a wonderful poet named Gail Peck, whom I’d met through Cave Wall, offered to read my manuscript and give me some notes. Among her helpful advice was the suggestion of The Real Warnings as a title and that seemed to me to better express what the book is about.
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?
For me, the process was never about winning a contest. It was about trying to find the right publisher for the book. My advice to poets is to keep a list of presses whose books you admire, both for the quality of the poetry and the beauty of the actual book. Send to those presses, whether it’s through a contest or open reading period. The important thing is to match your manuscript to a press that publishes the kind of books you want your book to be.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
It went through at least six or seven different versions over the course of those five years. The opening poem remained the same, but almost everything else changed. Each year I’d cut some poems and add some new ones, shift the order of the poems. The most dramatic changes were on the individual poem level. I’ll work on most poems for years, decades even, before I feel they are ready to go out into the world. I continued to tinker with the poems in the manuscript every year, and some of them—some of the book’s strongest—started out as the weakest and needed five years to pass before I figured out what those poems really wanted to say.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc. Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?
One of the great things about Rick Campbell and Lynne Knight at Anhinga is that they want their authors to be involved in every aspect of the book-making process. Rick told me early on that when an Anhinga author opens her box of books that first time, he wants her to feel 100% happy with what she sees. Lynne Knight is a gifted book designer and wanted a list of my favorite fonts, any ideas I might have for cover art, etc. The painting we used on the cover is called I Stopped in at the Farmhouse and is by a good friend of ours, an amazing artist named Dan Rhett. The first time I saw that painting I fell in love. When Lynne asked if I had any art ideas for the cover, it’s the first thing I thought of: the colors, the movement of these dark figures toward the light, the eerie but hopeful mood—that’s the mood I want the book to invoke, as well.
What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Many 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 didn’t worry too much about it. I just tried to send the poems to journals that published work I admired. The majority of those journal publications happened in those last few years of sending out the manuscript, when the poems were becoming more polished, making the book more polished as well. I don’t think it’s necessary for the majority of poems in a manuscript to be taken before the poet sends it out. I think if you’ve had at least 10 of the poems published by good journals, that’s enough to make a strong first impression. When it comes to getting published—individual poems or a manuscript—there’s no magic formula to it, and you have to remember that there are many fantastic poems and manuscripts out there circulating in the same places yours are. It’s a waste of energy to sweat over it. It’s also a waste to do big mass mailings, sending a poem out to twenty journals at once or a book out to thirty contests in one fell swoop. I’m lucky that I figured this out fairly early on in the submission process, so I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying. I just read a lot, chose journals and presses I loved, and sent there and then tried to let go of expectation.
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?
I had been revising and fine-tuning the manuscript for years before its acceptance at Anhinga, so most of its big changes had already been incorporated. The biggest change after acceptance was the addition of what I feel is one of the most important poems in the book—important, that is, to the book’s themes and vital to the sequence of poems, “Rescuing Princess Zelda,” that forms the center of the book. One of those poems, “The End of the Hour,” wasn’t in the manuscript that was accepted at Anhinga. It’s a poem I’d been working on for several years. I knew the series needed it but couldn’t get it quite right. One afternoon, finally and almost magically, it came together. About an hour later, I got the news that I had won the Anhinga Prize. The editor, Rick Campbell, was kind enough to allow me to add that final poem. The other changes were smaller. Lynne Knight is the book designer and copyeditor/proofreader. She went through my manuscript with what was obviously a loving attention and returned it with several queries, most of which were small items of grammar or places she noted where a line might lack clarity or the rhythm was awkward. She made sure I knew that the final decisions on these questions were up to me and whatever I wanted was fine. I took many of her suggestions and was grateful for the chance to look at those poems from a different perspective. One thing I love about Anhinga is the care they take with each aspect of the publication, the energy and time they pour into each book.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
Mostly I remember this great wash of joy and disbelief, with an odd, brief wave of sorrow mixed in. I came home from lunch and there was a big box at the door with an Anhinga return address. I pulled it inside, sat down on the stairs, whipped out my pocketknife, and opened it. And there it was: The Real Warnings, my book. Did I really write a book? A real book? It was beautiful. I hugged it and smelled it, and then I just sat there and cried. I don’t know where the sadness came from—maybe just the feeling that something was over, something I’d worked on for over a decade now finished, a journey ending. But that sadness lasted about thirty seconds before being replaced by uncontainable joy and excitement. I think I screamed and was jumping around the house. The cats were afraid. I didn’t know what to do. I got in the car and drove straight to my husband’s office to show him. Then I drove around town and tried to find some of my friends who might be home so I could show them. I’ve never felt anything quite like that feeling: an almost crazed thrill brimming over.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
The main change is the reading opportunities that have come my way, the chances to travel to different cities and universities and talk about poetry. I’ve had some wonderful experiences, gotten to connect with many new friends I might not have met otherwise. I love talking to students, especially, and getting to read with poets I admire. And a recent opportunity has come about because of the book: I’ve been invited to be a visiting writer at Lenoir-Rhyne University next spring. I’ll be teaching an undergraduate poetry workshop, and I can’t wait.
You’ve been editor of the print journal, Cave Wall, for over three years now. Why did you start Cave Wall? Has being an editor helped shape your own writing in some way?
Cave Wall has become one of the greatest blessings of my life, for many reasons. I think it’s made me a better person by increasing my gratitude. I love to celebrate poems that move me. Always I’ve been the kind of person who, upon reading a poem I love, gets so excited about it that I just want to grab a megaphone and share it with the world. And Cave Wall lets me do that. Even though it is a lot of work and demands time and energy that could have been spent on my own writing, what it gives back to me is worth it. I’ve learned to balance it with my writing time in a way that works for me. While I have less writing time now, I come to it more inspired and with a better attitude than I did before Cave Wall. I feel more connected to the world of poetry and am less demanding of myself as a writer. I guess I feel like even if I never write another decent poem again, I’m still contributing to and engaged in the world of poetry in a valuable way. That feeling lets me take some pressure off myself, and the more pressure I step out from under, the more I tend to write—or at least, the more I enjoy what I do write.
Do you have any advice for others who want to start their own journals?
Well, for one thing, I’d say make sure you’re starting a journal for the right reasons, not as self-promotion, not to make money. Most likely, you will spend far more of your savings on the journal than it will ever make in profit. But if you love to read and love to celebrate and share with others the writing that excites you, then you should research, plan, and go for it. Publishing a literary journal is more work than you can imagine so be sure that it’s something you’ll love spending your time and energy on. Talk to other editors and plan with care first. And once you start, once submissions come rolling in, just try to cultivate a grateful attitude and approach each aspect of the work that way. When it gets frustrating and exhausting, when the submission stack gets overwhelming, just remember how lucky you are to be in a position where people send you their writing. Treat each piece of writing that comes your way with gentleness, care, and gratitude.
What have you been doing to promote The Real Warnings, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I mentioned the many opportunities to give readings and talk to students. I’ve done several interviews, as well. It takes a lot more work than I ever knew to promote a book. I wasn’t quite prepared for that, and it’s taken me almost a year to find a new balance between book promotion, Cave Wall, and working on my own new writing. It’s the latter that got lost in the chaos (happy chaos) for awhile. But I have at last found that balance again, I think. It’s been about a year since The Real Warnings came out, and it was a wonderful, exciting year that still sometimes doesn’t feel real to me. Some of the best experiences have been getting to read and discuss poetry with people who aren’t that familiar with it: My first reading was at a book party my dentist threw for me, at her office, with the hygienists in charge of refreshments; later, I read to a group of 200 eighth graders (that was the scariest reading but it went well); next year, I’ll be reading to my mom’s garden club.
I wrote those poems alone, in a very safe solitude, and I’ve found that reading them aloud, connecting with a live audience, adds something new to the way I experience my own poems. I like to give readings. I used to want to be an actress so I enjoy being up there in front of an audience. Sometimes I worry that I enjoy it too much. But I know when I’m in the audience hearing a writer share his/her work in her own voice, it feels like such a gift, a moment of profundity and beauty that takes me out of my daily routine and out of myself and sort of plugs me into the world, into life, in a new way. And so I think it’s okay for me to enjoy giving readings and to feel good about sharing my poems because a reading is less about me than it is about that connection with other people; whatever side of the microphone I’m on, a reading is a moment when whatever’s being read belongs to everyone in the room, connects me to everyone, makes me disappear a little out of myself and into the world. Gone are the thoughts that I don’t deserve any of this or the fears that I’m telling too many of my secrets or worries that my poems aren’t good enough. For those minutes in an audience or onstage, it stops being about me, nor is it even about the poems themselves; it’s about the fact that we’re all in this life together, trying to live well and love well and be well.
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?”
I have yet to figure out a good way to answer that question. I guess the best I can do is say that it’s a collection of poems about many different subjects—from superheroes to falling in and out of love to mental illness to family—and I hope the message that comes through the book is that no matter how difficult and dangerous it is to love, love is always worth the risk.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Not to be in too much of a rush to get a book out. Once I had over fifty pages of poetry, I thought I had a book. I now realize a certain number of poems don’t make a book. I’m not saying all the poems need to be connected or anything, but there does need to be an overarching idea or two or three that can weave through the poems and create the feel of a lot of parts that can stand on their own but also, when brought together, make a whole that is more than the sum of those parts.
Also, perhaps most importantly, I wish someone had told me to be selective in seeking a publisher. This goes for getting work published in journals, too. As soon as I started paying more careful attention to the journals and presses where I was sending my work, I started getting published more. Seek out those places that are putting out work that you want to read and that are making journals/books with care, with attention to the details. Those are the places you should send your work.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? Are you currently working on a second collection?
I’m working on poems, not thinking about a collection yet. Having a book published hasn’t changed too much about the way that I write. I guess that’s because when I’m writing a poem, I’m not thinking about anything but the poem—not thinking about The Real Warnings or where this new poem might end up. It’s just me and the poem and everything else disappears for awhile—which is maybe one reason I come to the page in the first place.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Sure it can, although that change will be mostly on the personal level. But it’s people who change the world, collectively and individually. I know poems wake me up to the world in new ways every day, make me think about life and people and our world from different perspectives, fill me with compassion and hope and gratitude. If that happens over and over to enough people, the world will change, from the inside out. Poetry alone can’t make the biggest, most necessary changes, but it can get us moving in the right direction. I know that poetry changes me and makes me a better person—to myself, to others, and I hope to the world, as well.
Rhett Iseman Trull's first book of poetry, The Real Warnings (Anhinga Press, 2009), received the 2008 Anhinga Prize for Poetry, 2010 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award, 2010 Brockman-Campbell Book Award, and 2010 Oscar Arnold Young Award. Her poems and essays have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Best New Poets 2008, Iron Horse Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, storySouth, Waccamaw, What Doesn’t Kill You (Press 53, 2010) and other journals/anthologies. Her awards include prizes from the Academy of American Poets and the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation. She received her B.A. from Duke University and her M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where she was a Randall Jarrell Fellow. She and her husband publish Cave Wall in Greensboro, North Carolina.