Tuesday, September 4, 2012

#54 - Karen Rigby

How often had you sent out Chinoiserie before it was chosen for the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize from Ahsahta Press?

I had sent the manuscript in an earlier form for years before it was selected in its current form.

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

The manuscript had been titled everything from Field Circuitry to The Leopard Photographer’s Wife, Bathing in the Burned House to Maps We Have Produced in Technicolour. Each title shaped a different identity for the book, and none of them felt right. At times, these earlier titles were drawn from poems that I ended up removing. It did not turn into Chinoiserie until several months before I sent the work to Ahsahta. It comes from a phrase in the poem “Nightingale & Firebird.”

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’m very grateful that Chinoiserie won, but I wasn’t seeking contests exclusively. I had submitted to a variety of presses with open reading periods as well as contests. I wouldn’t wish to offer advice other than that poets consider several routes – without compromising on what is most important to them. At the end of the day, whether a book resulted from a prize or not, in the best of circumstances, one would have a working relationship with the publisher for the life of the book. It should be a publisher that one respects.

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

As mentioned earlier, there were other versions. I write poems very slowly. I’m one of those chiselers. Writing for me is like waiting for mountains to erode. With the book manuscript, I assembled one section at a time – adding and removing poems, rearranging – before moving on to the next section.

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?

Once the book had been selected, the publisher asked for suggestions regarding the cover. At the time, there was no particular photo or painting that I had my heart set on. I knew I preferred something that would be graphic, but beyond the color (red is mentioned a few times in certain poems) and the possibility of basing it on red transferware (one of the poems is entitled “Red Transferware”), I didn’t have firm ideas. By this point, I was aware that Jeff Clark at Quemadura designs many of the covers. I had already seen some of his previous work, and felt that the book would rest in excellent hands. I’m delighted with the result. The interior of the book was designed by Janet Holmes, director of Ahsahta.

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?

This wasn’t a concern. As it turned out, since the process of submitting took several years, by the time the manuscript did find a home, most of the poems had already appeared elsewhere. I’ve heard writers (and editors) mention that it helps to appear in journals, but there are presses and contests that ask for the acknowledgments page to be removed when the manuscript is submitted, and there have been debuts that did seem to spring out of the blue. It seems more important to think of the work as a whole than to worry about whether or not the individual pieces have been recognized. There are unpublished poems that are fabulous, and published poems that ultimately don’t end up in books.

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?

Almost none. Ahsahta takes a lighter approach in this regard, trusting in the authors’ intentions and instincts. A few smaller edits were suggested. After that, once I received proofs and realized how the poems would be paginated, I made a few changes to the order so that most of the two-page poems could land on facing pages.

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

I had already received an advance, uncorrected review copy early in September, so I had seen a preliminary version (which is never the same – different paper weight, different feeling). I first saw the real book on December 15, 2011. FedEx left a box on the doorstep. My then-three-month-old son had just awoken from a nap; truthfully, the feeling was more of exhaustion and being rushed than excitement – it wasn’t until later in the day that I managed to settle down and look through the book.

How has your life been different since your book came out?

This could be framed as the difference between being unpublished and published – which is not much, apart from the new, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes welcome pressure of considering “what next?” and knowing the work is now out of my hands.

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?”

This is hypothetical. I’ve never begun a conversation like this. It is also a tough question: how do you encapsulate a book with a one-sentence pitch in a way that is pinpointed, honest, and intriguing enough to make someone else want to dig further? I’d describe the book as a sensory journey, experiences borrowed and new.

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

The funny part about all of this – in the way that life is often “funny” – my husband and I had already discovered we’d be expecting our firstborn by the time I received news that the book had been accepted. Suddenly I was going to have a son (September 2011) and a book (January 2012) within months of each other. How was that going to work? How does one combine writing and parenthood?

I felt a certain responsibility about laying as much groundwork as I could before my son’s birth, knowing that the next several months might pass in a haze. That summer I sent out several queries for reviews and interviews, and touched base with other sources that I knew might be interested in hearing about the book. I’ve limited traveling any great distance since my son is an infant.

I've also contacted dozens and dozens of public libraries. Many have prepared guidelines for authors who are submitting books to be considered for inclusion in their collections. Others are open to acquisitions suggestions from the general public. Those that strongly prefer receiving suggestions from card-holding, local patrons I respect, and don't approach. It has gone fairly well so far. Librarians can be the kindest people! Sometimes one just has to ask.

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

I’m beginning the next book, though it is far too soon to call it one. It will take a different shape than the first. There’s a freedom that comes with no longer being under the shadow of those earlier poems.

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

I’m not sure I’d go so far as saying the world; it can spark changes within individuals.

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

That it won’t be the last. That its reception is unknowable, variable, and not crucial – what one person may like, another will dislike (sometims for the exact same reason!) The readership that really connects with the work will find its way there.

Karen Rigby is the author of Chinoiserie (Ahsahta Press, 2012). A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, she has published poems in Meridian, Quarterly West, failbetter.com and other journals. She is currently a co-editor of Cerise Press, and lives in Arizona. Her website is www.karenrigby.com