Monday, August 1, 2011

#45 - Luke Johnson

How often had you sent out After the Ark before it was chosen for publication in 2011 by NYQ Books?

I sent the manuscript to sixteen places, mostly first book contests, before it was taken by NYQ. About half of these publishers saw an early draft of the manuscript, one that looked much closer to my graduate thesis than does the final product. That version was selected as a semi-finalist for one of the big first book prizes, but by the time I’d found this out, I had already overhauled the manuscript. I probably sent the revised version to 7 or 8 places before I was invited to submit by Raymond Hammond at NYQ Books, who responded within a few weeks letting me know he wanted to publish the dang thing.

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

In my second year of grad-school, I was thinking about thesis titles and trying to identify my obsessions (if you’re not looking at your own writing, these are called ‘themes’). I snatched out line fragments, scoured quotes from the canon, Wordle-d my manuscript and looked at the most-used pieces of language—searching anywhere for something to call what was then my thesis. One of my professors used to talk about the continuum of titles available to a writer: from the concrete situational title that gives the reader a firm narrative foundation on which to begin (i.e. “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”) all the way to the more abstract or ambiguous title (“Signs”) that does a different sort of cognitive work in forcing the reader to reconcile it with the content of the poem. Certainly, they both have their spot in the toolbox. But, in thinking about this, I realized that my favorite titles, both of individual poems (“Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”) and of collections (The Wild Iris), seemed to fall somewhere between the poles. I worry when I feel as though a title is stage-directing, dictating (or, limiting) the unraveling of a poem, so I look for a balance of story and metaphor. For me, a good title should have or imply both.

Back to the question: the book deals heavily with my parents’ ministries, their divorce, and my mother’s death. I wanted the book’s title to do situational work: establish the religious backdrop and affect a sense of loss and absence, but also of renewal. I was writing a great deal at this point—my second year of grad-school—spouting and pruning about 2 poems a week for workshops at Hollins. Whenever I wasn’t sure where to start, I’d sit down with a field guide, pick an animal and try to write my way in. So I had lots of these animal poems. They featured animals, but probably weren’t ‘about’ animals any more than Wilbur’s gorgeous poem linked above is ‘about’ laundry. Anyway, it was around then (’08), that I floated (bad pun) the idea of calling it just Ark. You know, because it was filled with animals. That seemed a bit too broad and inessential, but it did have the Biblical connotation I was looking for. I was intrigued by the idea of an aftermath, a survival of what seems then apocalyptic. After a bit of gnashing, I came up with After the Ark. A few weeks later, I wrote the title poem, the longest in the book, with the idea that it would be the last poem in the collection. The book has been called After the Ark ever since.

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 think it’s important to separate the book from the job. When it comes to the book itself, I was never that concerned with the ‘contest-winner’ label. I just wanted a book of which I could be proud, one that would be aesthetically pleasing and widely available to readers. I had worked with Raymond before and knew that he was a great editor, someone who would take good care with the poems.

When it comes to getting a job teaching creative writing, it’s certainly not a bad thing to have won one of the prestigious contests. If one’s main concern is a job teaching creative writing, then it’s only reasonable to worry about winning one of those big contests (and be willing to wait for it, potentially). We’re fortunate to live in a time in which there are multitudinous ways to publish a beautiful book. There are many more fine presses than there are tenure-track teaching jobs. My advice to poets would be to send your poems to presses you think publish beautiful books—some of them will be contests, some of them won’t be. In the end, it’s about finding a curator for your work you believe in, one that in turn believes in your work. Fame and fortune will come later, or not at all, or cease to seem so important.

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

It came together, for the first time, as my MFA thesis in the spring of 2009. I had little to no idea where to start, but was fortunate to have a great support system at Hollins and an amazing advisor in Cathryn Hankla. Eventually, my manuscript settled into three sections. This version went out to all the major first-book contests and a couple of open reading periods. Christmas of 2009, I had a breakthrough with the structure of the collection. A friend had kindly and generously lent his eyes to my manuscript and he suggested I separate three triolets I had in a sequence titled “Chemotherapy Triolets.” Each triolet took place in a different season, and I tried setting them as frontispieces for the three sections of the book. Somehow, it was only then that it clicked with me that the structure could be something as basic and straightforward as a seasonal arrangement. After realizing this, I merely set the poems according to their season. Simplifying things in this way made it much easier for me. I felt as though I was over-thinking before, searching for minute tangential connections to provide the book’s sinew. The seasonal arrangement gave me bones. This skeleton took the indecision out and made the collection’s structure appear (at least to me) much more logical.

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

I felt intimately involved in the process of putting together the book. Raymond kept me in the loop throughout. He did everything with the interior design, and asked me to select an image for the cover. He stressed the idea that we were building a book together, an idea which was extremely meaningful to me. I imagine if I ever had any issues with layout, etc., he would have been amenable to changes, but I was thrilled with how everything looked from the first galley I saw.

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

After I found NYQ wanted to publish the book, I emailed a copy of the manuscript to an old friend who I knew to be a hugely talented graphic designer, Patrick Howard. He read the poems and we discussed a few concepts. Later, Pat sent me a draft. It was basically the same image as the one we ended up using for the cover, only where there is now a willow tree, there was an Ark. I loved the feel of a watercolor, and really dug the depth, texture, and range of the colors Pat used, but I worried an actual ark might be heavy-handed, so I searched through the poems again looking for images that repeat. I noticed willows recur and suggested maybe a willow could replace the Ark. He sent me another draft, and it would go on to become the cover. It felt perfect. I remain immensely grateful that I was so involved in this part of the process, and feel very lucky to have worked with a friend and artist as talented as Pat.

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 definitely think that having published individual poems in magazines lends your manuscript confidence. It also gives you confidence, something that’s important in a pursuit that can be mostly angst. Previous publications certainly won’t win you a contest or an editor’s support, but they can possibly gain a keener eye from a first or second reader. I would never include a poem in a collection just because it’s been published in a good place—it has to fit in more transcendental and thematic ways—but, I don’t think it hurts to establish some level of professionalism, some proof that the writer is actively participating in the literary community.

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?

By the time I found out NYQ wanted to publish the book, I was happy with most of the poems. So there weren’t many changes, though there were three that I decided to cut and one new piece that I added—we also shifted the order slightly in a few cases so as to have all the two-page poems on facing pages.

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

I know one of the first things I did was sniff it—and then I let my dog sniff it, as if to confirm that it was, in fact, a real thing. There had never been a smell before—books have smells, computer files on the desktop don’t. I remember alphabetizing the spine on my shelf between Heaney and Joyce, and immediately feeling ridiculous. I remember I slept with the book under my pillow. I remember not being able to sleep and knowing why.

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

I currently work full-time at an excellent pet store in Seattle. I don’t think the book had much to do with me getting hired there. Every other month-or-so, I’ll teach an online composition class as an adjunct. Neither employer seems too interested in the book’s publication, which is fine and makes me feel more accountable when it’s time to actually write poems.

Occasionally, I’ll feel self-sorry and wish I could bring my love of poetry more completely to the center of my occupational attention, but at those times I comfort myself by thinking of Faulkner working at the electrical company while writing As I Lay Dying. It reminds me that writing successfully is about nothing more than getting the words on the page, however and wherever you can.

I hope, sometime before I die, to teach reading and writing. If the book helps get me there, that’d be great. For now, new writing happens before sunrise and has very little to-do with the jobs that bring home the bacon.

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?”

Faith and grief, and the ways in which we navigate them.

What have you been doing to promote After the Ark, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I’ve done a few readings, including one at my alma mater, Elon University, and one at AWP in celebration of my graduate program’s 50th anniversary. Both were surreal, and for both I’m extremely grateful. It was so heartening to share the finished product with the same folks who were so insightful and encouraging during the book’s conception. The strangest was when I visited classes at Elon and all the students had copies of After the Ark. I would read a poem from the book and they would turn to the page it was on. I couldn’t get over the strangeness of it. Seeing one or two copies had up to that point seemed normal, but having them there en masse struck me as all-of-a-sudden real. It was terrifying and incredible.

Most of my active promotion has been web-based. It’s simply the most inexpensive and extensive way to spread the word. I’ve maintained a blog since 2007, one which I hope is about much more than self-promotion (though, a fair bit of that slips through). I’ve found a wonderful sense of community in the blogosphere and have been floored by the generosity of these folks, some of whom I know only by their links, fragments, and poems. The cultivation of a generous and dynamic community, whether virtual or otherwise, will have a much longer (and larger) impact than moving a few copies on Amazon. That said, it’s been hard to gauge if blog-promotion has led to book sales, but I try to think a little bit more about the long haul. I don’t want to force the book down people’s throats, but I do want them do know how to get it if they’re so inclined, so I added a PayPal button to the blog and started a group for the book on Facebook.

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

Make sure the poems look good on the page, make sure you believe in every single one of them, and then let them go.

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

I like to think that the book’s publication has freed my synapses to things heretofore unexplored. I’m about twenty poems into a new project, one which at this point is almost entirely composed of near-rhyming couplets. I have little idea where it’s going, but I’m excited to find out.

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

The right poem read at the right time can turn an individual’s world on its head and, certainly, change it. But this can only happen if that poem finds its way into that person’s hands. It’s important to drag poetry around in the daylight, not just through institutions and outreach programs (though, these are excellent and important things, too), but in day-to-day interactions: talk to people at the pet store about Seamus Heaney, tell the girl from Pittsburgh about Jack Gilbert’s heartbreaking poems, memorize snatches of Bishop’s letters, leave a copy of 32 Poems on the lunch-table. I get annoyed when I encounter folks who are ironic or detached when they talk about their passions, something which seems to happen all too often in poetry. Poems can remind us of the things we didn’t know we knew. They can call us to a larger sense of attention, a clarity of thought and expression mostly absent from day-to-day discourse, but they can only do these wonderful things if poets help to make it happen.


Luke Johnson was born in Ithaca, New York. He is the author of After the Ark (NYQ Books, 2011). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets, New England Review, Southwest Review, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington, where he’s working on a new collection of poems. Find his blog at