Tuesday, January 25, 2011

#34 - Traci Brimhall

How often had you sent out Rookery before it was chosen for the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award?

I checked my Excel spreadsheet and it was rejected sixteen times before it won the Crab Orchard prize.

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

My MFA thesis was titled The Rookery and contained many of the poems that are found in the book. When I started to send it out, I changed the title to Asleep in the Rookery, thinking the manuscript needed a heftier title. It was actually the contest judge, Michelle Boisseau, who suggested I cut the excess and just keep Rookery.

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?

I don’t know that I felt I had to win a contest, but I am really grateful that I did. It also seemed to be the main way most other poets were getting their work out. I certainly would have been open to sending to open reading periods, but I was less aware of them as an option at the time.

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

I suppose the first version of the book was actually my MFA thesis. It wasn’t close to a published manuscript at that point, but the sense of organization stuck, and while some poems came and some went, the thematic premise for the sections remained. Although I don’t believe the MFA will ever remove the requirement of a thesis, I think it was too early to conceive of my poems as a book. On the other hand, it’s probably great, guided practice in ordering for many people, but I ended up unable to imagine my poems in a different format.

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

Shortly after the book was accepted, I was sent several links to image galleries and got to look around and send images I thought would work. They also asked what covers of other poetry books I liked and what tone I would like the cover to convey. It was many months later before I saw several cover mock up options for me to choose from. They were all beautiful (as SIU Press books always are), but I cast my vote for the one they ended up using. I liked its ominousness, and I liked how one of the birds ended up on the spine.

What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

I don’t know if concern is the right word, but I definitely wanted to see my work appear elsewhere before the book was published. I really enjoy the submission process. Perhaps that makes me sound like a masochist, but rejections don’t usually bring me down, and I like the sense of possibility I feel when I send out my work.

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?

Not really that much. Jon Tribble gave me a few line by line edits in terms of punctuation and formatting, but other than deciding whether or not to cut or include some poems in the 11th hour, I felt ready to let go of the work.

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

When I got the call that the book was accepted I was on a road trip crossing the country. I’d been living in my car for four months at that point, and I was driving from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe. I finished my drive, bought myself a ridiculously expensive dinner in Tahoe and slept in my car in a grocery store parking lot.

When the book showed up, I didn’t even get it back to my apartment from the manager’s office before I cut open the box. It was lovely and surreal but also strange to encounter my poems in a different format. I knew it was my work, but the poems had become strangers to me somehow, or at least no longer wholly mine.

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

I’m not on the job market yet; I’m currently working on my PhD. I guess the only difference is that I feel like my poetry energies have to go eight directions instead of one. Now I have to send out press packets, book readings, follow-up on interviews, find people who will review the book, etc. rather than just writing poems.

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 feel like the question I most often get from people is “What kind of poetry do you write?” as if I said post-confessional lyric narratives that often border on the surreal would satisfy their curiosity. I think it’s more of a polite question than a real question, so I often say “the kind of poems that don’t rhyme” in order to avoid really answering it. I’m kind of intimidated by it actually. Fortunately, there is an answer. The SIU Press catalog copy says:

“Fraught with madness, brutality, and ecstasy, Traci Brimhall’s Rookery delves into the darkest and most remote corners of the human experience. From the graveyards and battlefields of the Civil War to the ancient forests of Brazil, from desire to despair, landscapes both literal and emotional are traversed in this unforgettable collection of poems. Brimhall guides readers through ever-winding mazes of heartbreak and treachery, and the euphoric dreams of missionaries. The end of days, the intoxication of religion that at times borders on terror, and the post- evangelical experience intertwine with the haunting redemptions and metamorphoses found in violence. These tender yet ruthless poems, brimming with danger and longing, lure readers to “a place where everyone is transformed by suffering.”

So if I could memorize that, I’d be set.

What have you been doing to promote Rookery and what have those experiences been like for you?

Promoting a book has been a really mixed bag of experiences but mostly positive. I really don’t like a lot of aspects of self-promotion, but I also don’t want to bury my books in the back yard and pretend it never happened. I’ve only done a few readings so far, but people have been incredibly receptive and kind. It’s been nice to go to cities I might not visit otherwise and meet new people. I’ve also really appreciated all the amazing emails and texts I’ve received from friends and strangers who’ve read the book and have nice things to say about it. People I haven’t seen in years have found me again, and it’s been great to restart those friendships.

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

Two words: Marketing Questionnaire. I wish someone had even whispered this to me before I had a book. The day after I got the call that my book had been accepted, I received the marketing questionnaire in an email. It may sound terribly clueless, but I had no idea how to go about getting my work reviewed, who would be interested in reading it, or how I would sum it up. I wasn’t aware of a lot of the basics of promoting a book of poetry, and I didn’t feel prepared to weigh in on where I’d like copies of my book sent.

The other thing I wish I knew before my book was accepted is that sometimes it’s a very emotionally complicated thing. I thought I was supposed to be elated and proud, and while I was initially, I spent a lot of time in doubt. I think I expected to feel satisfied or successful somehow, but I didn’t. Although I haven’t been able to pin down a single source of my disillusionment about the book, the chief culprit seems to be that I’m not sure I wanted it or was ready. To be very clear, this has absolutely nothing to do with SIU Press. They have been amazing to work with and really helped me at every stage of the book and I am extremely grateful to them, however shortly after it was accepted I asked myself why I wanted a book. Silly, perhaps, but I’d never asked myself that question before. The only answer I had was that I thought I was supposed to want a book. Since realizing this I’ve asked myself the question: What do I want from poetry? And the only answer I can come up with is that I want to write more poems. The book didn’t make me feel satisfied or successful, but writing poems has often made me feel both of those things. I want to write more poems and be a part of a community of writers. Beyond that, I want to be grateful for any and all opportunities or publications that this allows, and to remember to continually ask myself what I want in case the answer changes.

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

Unfortunately, it means that I haven’t been writing lately. I’ve tried to put my energy into school and doing what I can to promote the book. However, the book had a decent gestation period (a little over a year between the acceptance call and the box of books on my doorstep), and I was able nearly finish a second manuscript which I’ve slowly started submitting. I’m actually glad to have the silence right now. Most silences in the past have made me really anxious, but this one feels comfortable. I know that silence needs to do its work and when I return to the desk something new and unexpected will happen.

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

There’s a really lovely line in Jennifer K. Sweeney’s poem “Poetry Lessons” that says: “poetry…only saved you for a little while.” I don’t think poetry can change the world the way the Industrial Revolution or Columbus changed the world, but I do think that poetry can save us for a little while, and perhaps that’s exactly the kind of change we need.


Traci Brimhall is the author of Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Slate, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. She was the 2008-09 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and currently teaches at Western Michigan University, where she is a doctoral associate and Kings/Chavez/Parks Fellow.