How often had you sent out Galley of the Beloved in Torment before it was chosen as the winner of the 2008 Orphic Prize for Poetry from Dream Horse Press?
I sent some version of the book out for about two years. The second year, I decided I would just fully invest in my own work, so I sent the manuscript to a huge array of places. I felt (and still feel) like my work balances between a few traditions in a way that makes it tricky to publish. So, even though it was expensive, I think a wide range of contests was the best choice.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Galley of the Beloved in Torment? Did it go through any other changes?
I came up with the title poem first. I actually wrote the poem as part of an emulation of a Lisa Jarnot piece, though, as often happens, the poem boiled out to be completely different from anything in Ring of Fire.
I suppose the truest test of a title is how you feel about it after the book comes out and is in the world for a bit, and I’m still very happy with the title. The book went through a phase where it was called A Nesting Doll, but the title didn’t offer much shape to the manuscript. As I began to imagine these poems as undeliverable monologues written by a lost beloved to another, it gave the book an identity.
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?
Winning contests is great. But (the inevitable but) I would say it’s much more important to have a press that’s a good vehicle for you and your work. If a press runs a free open reading period like Graywolf or Black Ocean and you think your book is a good fit, ship it over! Some contests can propel a writer into some level of prominence, but being on a press you love from the get-go, especially if they option future work, can be at least as good a deal.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful to Dream Horse, no question. The extra prestige and money has been wonderful. I do guarantee that plenty of folks who do not win contests will have books that are still incredibly visible and well-distributed. Winning a contest is a nice plus, but it’s much more of an icing-on-the-cake situation than people make it out to be.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
There is a part of me that still doesn’t feel like a manuscript is complete until I’ve laid out each page on the floor to form a crazy grid that I can walk around. It’s some part of me that still believes there is always one mystical, perfect arrangement just waiting to be called into being.
The book went through two major permutations—the A Nesting Doll stage and its final form. The sections were relatively clear to me from the beginning, but I did have this moment of epiphany when I realized that the then second section needed to be first.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.? Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?
I didn’t have a ton of input on the interior of the book, but I doubt that’s uncommon with first books. I’m a Garamond fan (though lately I’ve begun to admire Perpetua), and my publisher had a font in mind that looked similar to Garamond.
The cover was a different story though. J.P. Dancing Bear, the editor at Dream Horse, selected thirteen paintings from an Australian surrealist collective and sent them to me to pick what I thought was best. After hounding friends for opinions, I narrowed it down to two wildly different designs: the current design and a painting that looked like a Hieronymus Bosch piece. I eventually concluded that the second, though wonderful, was a little too instructive in terms of what the book was going to be about.
If I had any advice for folks who are publishing a first book, I would say that it’s imperative to have some say in a book’s cover. I read a huge range of first books, and a beautiful, or conversely, not so stellar cover can really color a reading. Be sure to check out the design work of a publisher when you’re considering submission. If you really don’t dig a publisher’s previous designs, it’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to be happy with the look and feel of your book. It’s a worthwhile consideration!
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 really got my start as an intern at the Beloit Poetry Journal, so I’ve always seen journal publication as an imperative part of interacting in the poetry community. I had been placing poems for about a year before I got serious about sending out the book. I found homes for about a third of the poems.
I don’t know that I would send out a book until I’d at least seen how the individual poems had done in the realm of journal submission. It gives a person insight into what sort of audience might be most receptive. Sometimes, it’s not who you’d expect, which is great to know!
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?
Commas. Oh man, let me tell you about commas. The book went through five galleys (Galley of the Galley... funny, I know) and nearly all of the edits were comma-related. I didn’t have the same sense of grammar during the three years I worked on the book, so when I sat down to consider consistency, I had to make some extensive choices in regards to appearance and meaning.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
Maybe this is what everyone says, but I don’t think anyone can understand what a wonderful moment it is when you see your work out in the world for the first time. I remember that during my MFA at UMass the program hosted a first book festival that included panels by folks whose first books had just been released. I remember Ethan Paquin from Slope was on a panel where he talked about sending two manuscripts out for two consecutive years and dropping thousands of dollars on the process. He gave a grim, but not necessarily unrealistic picture of how tough it was and is, and I took that seriously.
That was somewhere in the recesses of my mind when I opened the package and saw my book for the first time. It was sort of staggering and emotional all at once. Mostly, I would just say that I felt grateful.
How has your life been different since your book came out? What have you been doing to promote Galley of the Beloved in Torment, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I think there’s also a misconception that publishing a book is the end of process, but the truth is that it’s more of a midpoint. Releasing a book opens some doors, but it also makes demands on you as a writer. It can mean setting up readings, promoting the work online, and a slew of other time-consuming projects, even on the most active presses.
For me, it opened some doors that allowed me to go on tour with another poet on Dream Horse—Keith Montesano. It was the tour that changed my life more than anything. The tour lasted a little short of three weeks. Since then, I have felt more willing to be reckless in my work. I think a book release lends the author some legitimacy in the world of poetry and that legitimacy is so critical in a job where it’s easy to go unacknowledged.
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 often find myself telling the story where an audience member approached Robert Frost and asked what one of his poems was about. Frost responded to the question by politely rereading the poem verbatim. Anyone who has taken an intro to poetry workshop probably knows that what a poem is about may not be the best place to start. However, it’s still a question we’re responsible for as writers.
So, I would probably tell my curious fellow passenger that it’s a book of surrealist poetry that explores contemporary life and religious language mostly through the form of parables. I suspect this might be met with a long stare, at which point I might jokingly add, “it’s got animals in it too.”
I was just at Salvador Dali’s museum in Figueres, Spain, and I can tell you people love Dali even though it’s probably not in the public vocabulary to explain the significance of a dead horse blanketed with melting clocks. So, to say that surrealism is at a disadvantage in terms of audience reception just because it can’t always point to a singular subject as a focus, well, I’m just not sure that’s true.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
This is sort of tough, but I do wish that I’d understood earlier that the best supporters of poetry are poets themselves. It’s a lesson that became clear to me while Keith and I were on tour. I think a big part of marketing a book of poetry is knowing how to present the book to other poets as well as the general populace. Audience is such a huge question that I don’t know that anyone can really start grappling with until they’re standing at the front of an auditorium or bookstore after a reading waiting for someone to buy a book. It just gives you such a totally different insight on the nature and purpose of art.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
I just had a new book of co-written epistolary poems come out from Gold Wake Press. The book is called Informal Invitations to a Traveler. My co-writer, Jeannie Hoag, and I had just finished writing and revising that manuscript when my first book came out. I think my third manuscript is probably more of a reaction to some of the things I learned from Galley. I wanted to try making an extremely accessible, I-driven book while maintaining the imaginative capability that is central in my work. It’s just a different style of book.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
One SAT question a few years ago asked students “Is there such a thing as the modern day hero?” I’m not so vain to suggest that poets fill that role, but I would say this is indicative of the fact that one thing the world seems to suffer from at the moment is a dearth of belief in heroism. And maybe there is some basis to feel so distrustful, but I still believe we desperately need prophets, which is one of the roles of poets.
I don’t believe truly great poetry can ever flourish from nihilism, and I fear that sort of cynicism that obliges no action is becoming so prevalent any more. I think poetry, by its very nature, resists this sort of hopelessness. The wonderful thing about Whitman’s America is that it’s so much more than any of us could live up to, but by its utterance, in a way, it is real and what it asks of us is even more real. So, I think poetry has a lot to offer to the world, and maybe more now than in the past, the role poetry can and should play is so crucial. Hope requires imagination, and as poets, we have responsibility to protect and cultivate imagination in ourselves and the world around us.
Kyle McCord is the author of two books of poetry. His first book, Galley of the Beloved in Torment, was the winner of the 2008 Orphic Prize. His second book is a co-written book of epistolary poems entitled Informal Invitations to a Traveler from Gold Wake Press. He has work forthcoming or featured in Boston Review, Columbia Poetry Journal, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, Volt and elsewhere. He lives in Des Moines where he teaches co-edits iO: A Journal of New American Poetry. Find more information at his website: http://kylemccord.com/