Tuesday, April 12, 2011

#39 - Michelle Bitting

How often had you sent out Good Friday Kiss before it was chosen for the 2007 De Novo Award from C&R Press?

Because it was my first book and I was still struggling to get my poet sea legs even marginally solid, I’d say it made the rounds for about two years—10-15 contests?—before its final incarnation and descent into publication territory.

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

It was called Communion for about a year. That title eventually got tossed along with its eponymous poem. Good Friday Kiss is a much more provocative title. It’s got edge and is much more in keeping with the overall tenor of the collection.

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?

That’s a very good question and one that is ultimately left for the individual poet to decide. Some writers just don’t want to wait an eternity to publish a first book. I think it’s probably a good idea to be as patient as possible because the writing and manuscript will improve and your chances of winning a prize along with it. Much harder to make the PR machinery go when you don’t win a prize, and even then, it takes a lot of publicity work to launch a book, regardless. That said, I know poets who are super talented, smart and excellent lecturers who really needed to have a book in hand in order to make their public reading and lecturing work flourish. So they went the open read/publication route. In general, I think it’s wise to wait and let the book and the poet grow and ripen as long as possible. You want to be really proud of your book when it finally makes it to print.

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

Many versions gone through—oh my—yes! Lots of laying out, page to page across my living room floor.

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

I can’t speak highly enough of my publishers: Chad Prevost and Ryan G. Van Cleave at C & R Press. They were fantastic. Meticulous, thoughtful, interactive, diplomatic. They loved the cover photo I was able to secure. They did a super lovely job. I have heard it does not always go this way with other editors and presses so I feel blessed to have had such a positive experience.

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

Yes! My friend I C Rapoport, a fabulous ex-LIFE magazine photographer had an image I knew would be perfect, and very kindly allowed me to use it.

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?

Again, this is a personal preference thing but I would say, in general, you want to have published a fair number of your poems in reputable magazines or be well on your way in that direction unless you are one of those closet geniuses who emerges from obscurity and sets the literary world on fire first strike.

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 a ton, but there were changes made. Things the eagle editors caught and suggested I change. I may have added and subtracted a poem.

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

A lot of glowing, floaty feelings. A new sense of responsibility and determination. I mean, if your words are going out there for real—make them count!

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

It has helped with securing readings and teaching jobs. For whatever reason, people take you more seriously.

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?”

Very personal stories told with some mystery and musicality about loss, survival, family brokenness, domestic turmoil, salvation, sex, transgression, spiritual longing, justice, parental strife and triumph. How’s that? Wanna read it?

What have you been doing to promote Good Friday Kiss, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I should and would do more but I’m still pretty busy at home, raising my family and attempting to keep the roof from blowing off. I’ve run off to do a number of readings and, of course, these interviews are wonderful and I can sit in my kitchen in my pajamas typing them up while everyone is still asleep!

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

I’m pretty pleased with how it all unfolded for me. I’m really glad I won a contest and extremely happy I had Thomas Lux choose it. I’ve gotten some mileage from that endorsement and I’m a HUGE Lux fan so it means an awful lot.

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

I see and embrace it for what it is, who I was while writing it. It’s my baby and I stand by it, though my work has changed and I’m excited about that, too. I have a new book I’m just beginning to send out. I’ve been teaching a lot and am writing a play. Poetry is the best foundation for every kind of writing.

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

Of course, though we don’t always see it or realize it. This is soul work. Without it, where would we be? Hate to think. I know for a fact: Poetry Saves Lives. I’d buy that bumper sticker, wouldn’t you?


Michelle Bitting has work published or forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Nimrod, Narrative, River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, Passages North, diode, and others. Poems have appeared on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. In 2007, Thomas Lux chose her full-length manuscript, Good Friday Kiss, as the winner of the DeNovo First Book Award and C & R Press published it in 2008. Recently, she was a finalist for the Poets & Writers California Exchange contest and Rona Jaffe Foundation Awards. Michelle has taught poetry in Twin Towers prison with a grant from Poets & Writers Magazine and is proud to be an active California Poet in the Schools. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University, Oregon. Visit her at: www.michellebitting.com