Wednesday, March 2, 2011

#36 - Leslie Harrison

How often had you sent out Displacement before it was chosen for the 2008 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize?

I sent it, mostly out of curiosity, to a couple of contests, even though it didn’t feel finished, yet. I’d heard how awfully hard it is to get a first book taken, and I was worried about that, so I wanted to test the waters. Then, a few months later, I’d had a breakthrough concerning structure, and it felt finished, so I sent it out to five places—all on the same day. One of those places was the Bakeless. So, maybe seven in all, but I ended up withdrawing it from three of those places after it won.

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

I have a vivid memory of sitting in Michael Ryan’s office at Irvine as I was finishing up my MFA. I had given him two piles of poems. I was trying to prepare my thesis, and I think I was hoping he would wave a magic wand and tell me how the two piles fit together into a single project. Instead, he confirmed my suspicion, that they were two projects. He told me he thought I should lay the other one aside for awhile, since it felt less urgent to him. Then, with the poems that would eventually become part of Displacement sitting on his desk, he handed me a couple of sheets of paper. It was the OED entry for the word displacement. He made me read the entire entry aloud. By the end, I was practically in tears because it did seem clear that this one word was at the center of everything I was writing.

So in a way the title formed the book. It gave me a center, a sun to orbit around, an illumination. I wrote for a couple of years after that, but knowing in some fundamental way, that this idea, this word was what I was writing “about.”

Now, as I work at putting the second book together, I wish I had Michael or someone else to read it and step back from it to help me find the center.

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 wouldn’t dream of giving advice to poets seeking a first book publisher about whether or not to participate in the contest system and/or the open reading system. Obviously the contest system worked for me, but I understand other people’s reluctance and frustration. So I would say that everybody should follow their hearts and instincts. Which presses are putting out the most exciting work? Who is publishing books you love?

You want a press that wants your work, that believes in your book and that will support it and you. Some presses have more resources than others, but really, my advice is to do the research, figure out who is publishing stuff you love and how that stuff is getting to them, and go from there.

I don’t think you have to submit only to contests, or only to open reading periods. I don’t think you have to go for commercial, academic, independent, or POD presses. I think everybody’s path to publication is different, and how you approach it should have to do with what you want and what is realistically possible. For example, FSG lets anyone query with a couple of poems. But I don’t know when, if ever, a slush-pile query resulted in a contract for a completely unknown poet. But FSG does publish first books occasionally, so you don’t lose anything by trying if, and only if, you can honestly see your book fitting with their list.

For me, open reading periods felt like they might have worse odds than the first book contests. Open reading periods don’t read blind, are rarely limited to first books, and are not obligated to publish anything. So I focused on the contests as my first choice. I never submitted to an open reading period, but it all happened fairly quickly for me. I probably would have, if my book hadn’t been taken almost right away.

Among my close friends who have books, one won a small-press contest, one submitted to a commercial press, one submitted to an academic press, two won larger contests. So I guess my advice is this: Honor your hard work and talent by being honest about where it fits in the larger poetic conversation and then have faith that it will find a good home.

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

I think I said earlier that there were two versions—one that I knew was not done, and one that did feel done. The difference between those two was huge, but did not encompass a huge number of revisions or new poems coming into the manuscript. It was more about me doing the hard, critical work of understanding what the book was insisting on being. We sometimes try to impose an order or an idea about what the book “should” be, because we don’t want to be writing about that, whatever that is. I didn’t want to be writing “about” the disintegration of my marriage, and I had to stop getting in the way of what the book was. Once I did get myself out of the way, I read the book again and again and again and it taught me its shape and arc and order. I also had a very, very smart reader in my friend Sasha West, who had read all the poems, and earlier drafts of the book, and who remains the most thoughtful, insightful reader I’ve ever had. She made some critical late-stage observations about the final section and again made me step back and consider it from a new angle.

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

I am a book designer by trade. So of course I was very concerned with how the book would look. I actually sent 5 cover comps—sample covers—as ideas for the designers before they really started. In the end, they didn’t use any of the suggestions, but all their sample covers had the same overall design concept—full bleed photo, very simple, clean text. They gave me back five comps too, and the one I loved the most is the one they went with. They did a great job. I love the cover and interior of my book. This is the great blessing of working with a large commercial house—they have extraordinary designers on staff, access to every font imaginable, and people who know what is available for images.

They sent one interior sample, and I loved the font and the small decorative elements they’d chosen. I think they made my book a really striking, beautiful physical object, and I’m incredibly grateful.

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

No. They sent the five comps, and their favorite comp was a very summer-feeling image—very green and with pond lilies. I felt like it didn’t suit as well as the image I preferred, and they agreed and went with the one I liked the best.

What about the publication of the actual poems in journals and magazines 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 have always been a terrible submitter. I hate the process. And I have always had three or four jobs and have had to write in the interstices of a busy, complicated life, so the submission process was pretty far down on my priority list. I did send poems out, and I had had several taken for publication, but when the book won, there really were only a handful published in journals.

Houghton Mifflin never seemed to care how many were published. In fact, if anything, I’d say they had a slight bias against publishing a lot of the poems in journals. My concern, prior to the book coming out but after it was taken, was that I had published exactly zero poems online, and I wanted people to be able to Google me and find poems. So I made a real effort to find online journals I liked, like Memorious and diode, and submit to them.

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?

Relatively little, I think. I remember working on one poem that I had never been satisfied with, but which seemed necessary to the narrative arc of the book. After that, I had a brilliant manuscript editor who made sure the styles of various things were consistent, and she queried some titling and other structures that existed to clarify things in my mind, but didn’t clarify anything for a reader, but that was about it.

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

I freaked completely out. I don’t know what I expected to feel, but when the box came, I opened it, confirmed what it was, and then I dropped it and had to rush out of the house. It was cold. Really, really cold. And the box of books was inside. And I couldn’t share the house with the books. I was standing in my yard in the cold freaking out. So I went in, grabbed the box and hid it in the car. After a couple of days, I brought the box in, but hid it under the coffee table, where I could not see it.

I still don’t understand my reaction. But it seems to me that I am really focused on the writing of poems, the ways they fit together, the next poem, the one after that. It is an extraordinary pleasure to write. And it happens here, in my little house, on my couch, with the dogs and the laptop. And my experience had been that very few people commented on or critiqued poems in journals. So getting a poem published in a journal was like dropping a pebble into a lake, or tucking a poem into the rafters. I could pretend my poems did not have a public life, or if they did, it was remarkably discreet.

I think I wanted a book because that is what we are supposed to want. It seemed, before it actually happened, like some official stamp of approval saying, yes, you are a poet. And it seemed like the next step to take—first we write, then we get an education in writing, however that happens. Then we start to publish in journals. Then a book.

And as the book was coming together, I was taking the same pleasure in the work that I do in writing poems. The book seemed like a long, intricate poem. But the idea of having a book was, for me, somehow completely distinct from the actual physical object that arrived on my doorstep.

Then, suddenly, it existed in a way it never had before—totally separate from me. And everybody could read it, and everybody could have an opinion. It also seemed like the most gross hubris to have dared to believe I could create a book, hubris that my work would appear —literally on the same shelf—as the work of my heroes.

I think I’ve made my peace with the public aspect of being a poet, at least to some extent. After all, we all write to be read, to find an audience, to communicate. I want, always, the next poem. I publish because that is the way to earn the chance to write the next one. And the one after that. I put books together because I love books and because I love the challenge of assembling a book of poems. And I hope someone notices, someone cares.

And maybe, when the next book comes along, I’ll handle it with a little more grace.

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

I do want to teach, so I suspect it might become a factor—having a book seems to be one of the credentials that opens the academic door. But that has not happened yet. In other ways, though, it did change my life. The book helped me get a scholarship to one writing conference, and of course it came with an invitation for a fellowship to Bread Loaf. Both of those things brought some of my best friends into my life. I am grateful, every single day, for the amazing friends and colleagues who came through the door the book helped open. Before the book, because I did not work in academia and did not go to AWP or write a ton of reviews or in other ways seem to be a part of the po-biz, I didn’t know a lot of poets beyond my friends from grad school.

After the book, I have a lovely, amazing group of friends who are toilers on the same path. That, I think, is the best thing the book did—it brought wonderful people into my life and, to a lesser extent, brought me a little bit more into the public aspect of poetry in this country. And, as I give readings, and continue to meet other poets, it continues to bring talented, kind, remarkable people into my life.

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?”

Oh, this is funny. First of all, for whatever reason, I am not someone who gets chatted up on airplanes. Ever. Mostly, when I admit I write poems, people cough politely and pretend an urgent need to be elsewhere. So I’ve never gotten this question, especially not in this venue.

I think I’d say the book is about the ways we think of ourselves as belonging in certain specific places —not just geographic, but also places like the inside of relationships, in certain states of mind, in myth and literature. For me, it really is about being displaced—moved out of a place you thought you belonged.

And if I made it this far, the person on the airplane would have nodded off or found a different seat long since. See? I really am not the sort who gets chatted up on planes.

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

I’m even less good at promotion than I am at submitting. When asked, I do readings. I let the press know when I’m doing a festival, working with school children, giving a reading or panel, or doing something else interesting. I have no idea what they do with that information.

I’m not comfortable at all with the more public aspects of being a writer. I lead a very quiet, very private life. I give readings and do panels and other things because I feel like I owe it to the work and to the press to spread the word as much as I can, but I am really uncomfortable putting myself forward like that. This year (2011) I’m going to AWP for the first time, and I’ll probably spend the entire time with my name-tag on backwards or hiding in my room watching TV.

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

I don’t know. I think one thing that might have been helpful, would have been a crash course in promoting your book. Does such a thing exist? I don’t know, given my personality and economic circumstances, how much I would have done differently, but I would have liked to know something about getting the word out.

What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?

I don’t think Displacement had any influence on my subsequent writing beyond the enormous freedom and gratitude I felt that it was done and in good hands and I was free to move into another project. It cleared the decks.

So yes, I’m working on a second book. Which is to say I have a large stack of poems and I still am not sure how they go together. But I’m really excited about them, and about the poems still to come.

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

Absolutely. How could I believe anything else?


Leslie Harrison’s debut book of poems, Displacement, won the 2008 Bakeless prize in poetry and was published by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New poems will appear in upcoming issues of Antioch Review, Kenyon Review Online, and FIELD. She was the 2010 Philip Roth Resident in Poetry at Bucknell University and, when not at Bucknell, resides in a small town in rural western Massachusetts. On the web, you can find her at