Monday, November 1, 2010

#32 - Mari L'Esperance

How often had you sent out The Darkened Temple before it was chosen for the 2007 Prairie Schooner Book Prize?

I began sending the manuscript out in late 2006. By the time Prairie Schooner Editor in Chief Hilda Raz called me in June of 2007 to tell me that she'd selected my manuscript for the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, I'd sent it out to 15-20 contests and presses with open reading periods.

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

The title is a fragment from one of the poems in my book (“Grief Is Deep Green”) and evokes much for me—aesthetically, symbolically, culturally, and personally. I played with a few variations, eventually settling on The Darkened Temple.

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?

My primary concern was getting my manuscript published. Although contests are certainly a common avenue by which many first books of poetry are published, my thinking is that it's wise to also submit to open reading periods, as contests can be (are!) a shot in the dark and submission fees can be prohibitive for many. Whether one submits via contest, open reading period, or both, poets should consider the quality of the books published by a particular press and take note of the kind of pre- and post-publication marketing and promotion the press does on behalf of its books and authors. It's also important to consider the press's aesthetic leanings and whether or not they align with your own.

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

I put the manuscript together in the Fall of 2006, a process that transpired organically and intuitively. The manuscript stayed essentially the same during the submission process, which extended for about six months. Once the manuscript had been accepted and I was working with Hilda on finalizing it for publication, some minor edits were incorporated, a poem was removed, and three new poems were added.

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

I was not involved much at all. The University of Nebraska Press oversaw most of the production and design, including the cover selection.

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

UNP sent me the cover image they were considering, I responded with my impressions, and the press made their final selection—a painting by David Lewis-Baker titled Composition in Orange and Black (Homage to Rothko). My initial reaction was that the image was too overpowering for the book's content and I wanted instead to use a painting by my friend Suzanne Onodera. But Lewis-Baker's painting has since grown on me and now I quite like it—it has a powerful, alchemical quality that seems fitting for my book. It makes me think of a favorite quote by Brenda Hillman: “Below the furnace, the ash.” I've also received many compliments on the cover, so UNP clearly knew what it was doing, despite my early ambivalence.

What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Many of the poems have been previously published, and there are many that appear in an earlier chapbook, Begin Here. Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

Early on, I sent out individual poems to journals long before I had any thought of a cohesive manuscript. I was simply writing poem to poem, although the idea of an eventual manuscript existed in my mind as a shadowy possibility. So, no, I did not concern myself much with having the majority of the poems published in journals prior to sending out my manuscript.

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?

For the most part, the poems were fairly publication-ready at the time of acceptance and I didn't do much pre-production editing. Hilda and I had a couple of intensive phone conversations where we considered possible edits to the manuscript, most of them minor—some of which I incorporated, others of which I did not. I appreciated Hilda's sensitivity, sharp editorial eye, and willingness to allow me final say in most of these decisions. As a first-book poet, I feel fortunate to have been able to work with such a skilled and experienced editor.

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

I came home to a box waiting for me outside my front door. After surmising that it was from my press, I brought it inside and promptly ignored it for several hours. When I finally got around to opening it, I was first struck by the intense colors and glossiness of the cover. I didn't read it, but did scan the dedication page, acknowledgments, notes, and blurbs and flipped through the pages. I remember feeling grateful to have a book. Then I probably went out to dinner with my husband.

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

My life hasn’t changed much at all. The prize and subsequent publication gave me encouragement and validation at a critical juncture in my personal and poetic development. People seem to take notice a bit more when they learn that my book won a prize. That, admittedly, feels good; I’m trying to learn how to enjoy my accomplishments! So far the book hasn't been a factor in securing a job, but that's not why I wrote the book. Although I haven't taught in a number of years (and currently work in another field), I have thought about returning to teaching in some form, as I miss interacting with students. Meanwhile, there's poetry and a life to live.

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 don't typically tell people that I'm a poet, but if we're speaking hypothetically... I'd say something about the central theme being one of loss and the integration of loss and would suggest that the questioner seek the book out and decide for her/himself what it's about.

What have you been doing to promote The Darkened Temple, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I’ve given several readings since the book was published, an experience which has been gratifying, and have met lots of people and made some good connections with poets. I've often been moved by emails and notes that I've received from readers who have been touched somehow by my poems. I’ve also been generously invited to visit classes and participate in interviews such as yours. Aside from readings and interviews, I belatedly (and with much ambivalence) put up a web site this past May, which has turned out to be a useful tool for organizing and presenting information. I have Allison Benis White to thank for encouraging me to do this, as I was quite resistant to the whole idea for a long time. Love it or hate it, Facebook has been a helpful networking tool and I've used it to play “catch-up” with the poetry world. Finally, I approached several book reviewers, which garnered me some reviews and new perspectives on my work.

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

Before my book was published I wish I'd familiarized myself more with the publishing/promotional landscape for first books of poetry. I'd been only peripherally connected to the poetry world for some years when my book came out and, as a result, missed some opportunities to get the word out in a timely fashion. In retrospect, I'd say: solicit reviews and send review copies out early—before the book is available, if possible; don't just count on your press to do the legwork. Use your contacts. Plan a local book launch party/reading and publicize it widely. If you have an MFA (and even if you don't), ask your graduate program or alma mater to host a reading/visit. The entire experience has been a huge learning curve for me and I will be better prepared the next time around.

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

It's been an enormous relief to have my book published—I'd been living with some of the poems for so long—and it's also been a source of tremendous anxiety. I sunk into a post-book trough for a while, feeling anxious and directionless and unsure of next steps. In recent months, I've been mulling, reading, gathering material, and writing what I've called “transitional” poems, which may at some point become part of a second manuscript. I'm also a very slow writer. My core themes continue to inhabit new poems—how can they not?—but I sense an internal loosening that's reflected in these newer poems, which seem more lyrically associative and intuitively shaped than my previous work.

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

That's a tall order. What I do believe is that the best poetry can reveal to us how to live more fully and deeply as conscious, feeling beings sharing life on a fragile, imperiled planet. If this is change, count me in.


Born in Kobe, Japan, Mari L’Esperance is a Hapa poet whose first full-length collection The Darkened Temple was awarded the 2007 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and published by the University of Nebraska Press in September 2008. An earlier collection Begin Here was awarded a Sarasota Poetry Theatre Press Chapbook Prize. L'Esperance's poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Many Mountains Moving, Poetry Kanto, Salamander, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Creative Writing Program at New York University, former New York Times Company Foundation Creative Writing Fellow, and recipient of residency fellowships from Hedgebrook and Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, L'Esperance lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area.