Tuesday, September 18, 2012

#55 - Jeff Alessandrelli

How often had you sent out Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound before it was chosen for publication in 2011 by Ravenna Press?

I sent Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound as a chapbook—it morphed into what I call a “little book” after it was accepted for publication at Ravenna—for probably about 5 or 6 months to a multitude of different publishers. Actually I take that back—as a little book I also sent it to open reading periods at Black Ocean and SpringGun Press, and it was a finalist at SpringGun.     

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound? Did it go through any other changes?

It was always Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound. Initially all of the poems in the book were also entitled “Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound” but as I put together different iterations of the manuscript that changed rather quickly.  

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’d try both, for sure. Contests can be tough, but if you have a manuscript that you think is solid I think you owe it to yourself to save up some $ and send to contests/presses that you think might be interested. Who the judges are matters, of course, as does a knowledge of the work the press has previously published. A well-written query letter can also go a long way. But I think it really depends on what you want to do with your life—if you want to teach at a university I think winning a book prize contest can potentially be a big deal. But if you just want people to read your stuff I’m not sure that’s always the case—there’s so many contests out there that it’s difficult sometimes to differentiate them/ keep them straight. But I think it’s always good to support presses you like via submitting to their book prize contest(s), without question.      

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

It went through 3 or 4 different versions. I mean, Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound is loosely based around the life/work of the weird avant-garde French composer Erik Satie, whose music/life I became obsessed with a few years back. I was initially kind of scared of writing/working on an entire manuscript devoted to one person, especially because, although Satie is a well-known musician, he’s not Beethoven or Bach or someone on a scale like that. People often don’t know who he is. But I kind of (I hope) got around that in the manuscript via making Satie more of a character in some of the poems rather than a strictly historical figure. All the quotes I used of his in the book are entirely accurate—but I played around with his persona sometimes. In Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound Erik Satie is not always just Erik Satie, to be obtuse about it.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?

I was pretty much given free rein by Kathryn Rantala, Ravenna’s chief editor. My sister’s a graphic designer and she came up with the front/back covers/ overall outer design concept and every interior decision—font, layout, etc.—I had input on and the final decision over. 

Musical notation also makes its presence known in the book. Why did you decide to include this, and what do you hope readers take from this accompaniment?

I thought it was fitting. The “sheet music” poems in the manuscript—there are six of them—were inspired by and composed while listening to the actual piece of music that the poems are superimposed on. So I wanted to highlight the fact that while I was writing certain poems in the manuscript I was also listening to certain Satie pieces of music—namely all six of his haunting Gnossienne compositions.      

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

Yes. The cover is an image of the discombobulated head of Erik Satie with an open umbrella hovering above it. After Satie’s death dozens and dozens of umbrellas, unopened, still encased in their wrapping, were found in Satie’s apartment. During his lifetime Satie was infamous for walking in the rain without an umbrella, writing songs in his head whilst getting absolutely drenched. The fact that after his death so many perfectly good and unused umbrellas were found in his apartment is telling and I thought having an open umbrella above Satie’s head on the cover was funny/ironic/somewhat morbid in the same way Satie as a person and musician was funny/ironic/somewhat morbid.       

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?

No, not really. I think a little less than half of the poems were first published in journals that I really like and respect— Denver Quarterly, Free Verse, Hotel Amerika, Western Humanities Review, Peaches and Bats, and Laurel Review, to name just a few. I’m not sure if a lot of the poems—or all of the poems—are published in your manuscript it necessarily makes it a “manuscript.” Journal publications or not, I think it’s really a matter of putting together something that’s cohesive as a collection—and that can be tough to do; as someone who often writes disparate, non-project-oriented poems, I’m certainly no master at it.        

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?

A lot changed. I essentially expanded the book from a chapbook to a mini full-length/ “little book” and I thus added a lot of poems and cut a few too. I reordered things, I added new opening and ending poems, etc. The initial version of Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound that was accepted at Ravenna bears little to no resemblance to the version that’s out in the world today.    

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

I was psyched. I thought it looked great. I took my dog Beckett Long Snout on a walk and I took myself out to dinner.
How has your life been different since your book came out?

I mean, not much has changed really. I sent out review copies to a lot of different authors/magazines/presses, and was lucky enough to get some good reviews (by Gina Myers at NewPages, Weston Cutter at Corduroy Books and Joshua Ware at HTML Giant). A couple of journals solicited my work and made mention of the book. I did some readings some places. But at the end of the day things are 98% still the same. Which is a good thing.    

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 would say it’s a collection of poetry loosely based on/around the 19th and 20th century French avant-garde composer Erik Satie. I would say that Satie was one of John Cage’s favorite composers, that he invented “furniture music” (nowadays known as ambient music), and that he was also known for his composition “Vexations” that, complete with its 840 repetitions, can take up to 18+ hours to play. That it’s loosely based on/around the life and work of a guy that claimed to only eat foods that were colored white and refused to wash his hands with soap and only slept with one woman his entire life. That you don’t need to know anything about Erik Satie’s life or music to enjoy or “get” the book.

What have you been doing to promote Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I’ve given a decent amount of readings—in Georgia, in Utah, in Nevada, in Omaha—and they were, on the whole, great. I hope to give a few more in the future. And as mentioned above, I sent out the book a lot and that yielded response as well.

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

To quote the immortal Yogi Berra, “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.” Meaning publishing a book is important but it’s the writing that’s more important and always should be.

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

Although it came out less than a year ago, in November 2011—it’s still new to a certain extent— I write a lot and moved on pretty quickly. In April I started sending out another manuscript, one that’s a lot less “project-oriented” as compared to Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound. We’ll see what happens with that. Fingers crossed.   

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

Poetry is made of language and, on a second-by-second, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day basis, language definitely creates change in the world. So yes.

Jeff Alessandrelli is the author of the little book Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound (Ravenna Press, 2011) and the chapbook Don’t Let Me Forget To Feed the Sharks (Poor Claudia, 2012). He currently lives in Lincoln, NE, where he co-curates TheClean Part Reading Series. Recent work by him appears or will appear in Gulf Coast, Salt Hill, Redivider and Boston Review.