Tuesday, October 16, 2012

#57 - Nick Courtright

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

I worried at first that the book wasn’t “funny” enough to merit such a title, but now that I know the book better I do realize the humor in it, an optimistic but dark sort of humor.  The title Punchline had actually been the title for a short series of poems I wrote which were based off of the ends (the “punchlines”) of famous or notable quotes.  Then, when I wrote the manuscript that was to become the book, and I was looking for titles, these two distinct projects sort of ran into each other.  I feel pretty good about the collision, especially since it made me really think about what my book was about: the hilarity and absurdity of our awesome confounding existence here on this planet.

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 honestly don’t think it makes much of a difference, as long as your ego can withstand not being a “contest winner.”  I’ve known people who had good experiences with contests, and people who didn’t, and people who had good experiences with open readings, and people who didn’t.  When I first started, though, I did put a lot of extra emphasis on winning a contest, but I just realized later that it’s more about just finding a situation that’s going to work for you and your book, with the right amount of control and support that you want.  Being with Gold Wake, I’ve never once felt bad about not winning a contest.

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

I was very lucky in that this project wasn’t a patchwork job—I wrote it all in one fell swoop, 30,000 words in one month, then edited it down, and I think that compressed composition led to the work having an inherent but spontaneous narrative to it.  So, unlike with the frustrations I had at times with an earlier manuscript of “collected” poems, its flow was pretty natural and I didn’t have to constantly tinker with the arrangement of poems within it.  Of course, there were some adjustments, but the fact that I didn’t just have a bunch of discrete lyric poems to stitch together made for a much more organic organization.  The big challenge, though, was whittling that 30,000 words down to the roughly 6,000 that actually made it into the book.

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?

Gold Wake Press gave me a great deal of liberty, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.  Jared Michael Wahlgren, the publisher, basically suggested that I could control the design elements that I wanted to control, and anything I didn’t want to worry about, he’d take care of.  So I was very involved in the interior layout, and, after several months of banging my head into the wall before admitting that I don’t know a damn thing about design, I asked Justin Runge, who runs Blue Hour Press, to do the design for me.  I know many (most?) other presses don’t lend such liberty, and I’m sure Jared would have stopped me if my ideas were horrible, but very I’m glad I got the chance to be such a big part of the design side of things.

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 love this question, because it’s another thing where my attitude on it changed a lot over the last few years.  I used to think you had to have all the poems, or at least a lot of them, published, and during that era I placed dozens of poems in good literary journals.  I think this actually might have hurt me, though, when it comes to writing an actual “book”: I was obsessed with making great individual poems, but was less concerned with making sure they all went together, or crafted a sensible narrative in the sense of an idea evolving over the course of the text.  And I lost that one-time viewpoint on accident, since I had all these published poems that I had stuck together in failing manuscripts, but then, ironically enough, Punchline was accepted for publication without a single poem in it being published.  This ended up providing an interesting opportunity, since it then let me semi-serialized the poems after the book was accepted for the explicit intent of previewing the book.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
I still couldn’t believe it.  When I got my proof copy, I just stared at it.  And the real shock was when I opened my front door one day, and there, on the front stoop, was a cardboard box.  I knew it was full of books, and I was almost afraid to open it—its existence was something I had been waiting for for so long that by the time it happened, I was almost in denial; it also seemed like I had an awful lot of work ahead of me.  But it was a good feeling, and it was a very good feeling when I found my book in a bookstore for the first time.  The order on the shelf was Billy Collins, Eduardo C. Corral, Nick Courtright, e.e. cummings…

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?”

Ah, the old elevator pitch.  I fretted about this immensely when the book was first accepted, mostly because I suppose I didn’t quite know yet what my book was about.  But I think I’ve figured it out, and I even have a one-sentence explanation: “The book is about the uncertainty in the world, and how we can find happiness and beauty even in the unknown.”  If the person on the plane asks about the title, I’ll say it’s about how all of us humans are part of the cosmic joke, and how the fact that we’re here, sitting down in a metal tube in the sky, traveling above clouds at hundreds of miles an hour, is pretty damn hilarious.

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

I’ve done a bunch of readings, a bunch of interviews, been on the radio a few times, did a public tv show recording…it’s been good.  It is a lot of emailing, though, since most poets have to do much of the legwork arranging this sort of stuff themselves—unless you do win one of those huge prizes, the really huge ones, no one’s going to be banging down your down to promote your book for you.  So I’ve tried to make myself available when opportunities come up, and always try to make people glad they had me around.  After the last five months of trying to promote this book, though, I’m pretty glad that I can start relaxing a bit now, at least for a few minutes…

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

There are so many elements of publishing I could mention, but I think the biggest thing I wish I would have known years ago would be related to the idea that you should write a book, not just a collection of poems.  Like with a really excellent album of music, you want it to all be part of one grand statement or idea, not just a cobbled-together bunch of random singles.  That’s why greatest hits albums often suck, even though the songs were ones we loved in the context of a time period or an album.  After all, novels have to have everything fit together and not be piecemeal, so why not a book of poems?  I would give someone that advice as a means of thinking big picture, and I’d also say: have faith.  You have to have that, because it can be a long slog from drafting to publication.

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

Having Punchline published did vastly change my way of looking at things, mostly in terms of trying to learn from any shortcomings that book has, while also trying to recapture any of the magic I did stumble upon with it.  I also learned that poems in a book are fundamentally different than poems on an 8.5” x 11” piece of paper or word processor screen, leading me to ditch that unnatural size in my editing process.  And yes, I have a new project, and I’m pretty excited about it; it’s a kind of philosophical/scientific/religious manifesto defining “poetry,” so it’s a little insane and full of big claims. Punchline felt like a risky book, but this one’s shaping up to be even riskier, so I’m excited to keep working on it.

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

Yes, I do.  It may not be a wave of eye-opening crashing through the cities of this earth, but I see it time and time again: a person being changed by a poem, even if the epiphany is only momentary.  Poetry is still one of the, if not the, most challenging and beautiful of arts, capable of the greatest profundity, and it can access the fusion of the emotional and the rational, the sensible and the intangible, better than anything else we in our language, language being our widest avenue for complex awareness, have at our beckoning.  Rather than get mad about millions of people not reading poetry, I’d rather be happy with the few new ones everyday who, as Moore says, “discover in it, after all, a place for the genuine.”

Nick Courtright is the author of Punchline, a National Poetry Series finalist published in 2012 by Gold Wake Press. His work has appeared in journals such as The Southern Review, Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Iowa Review, and many others, and a chapbook, Elegy for the Builder’s Wife, is available from Blue Hour Press. He’s Interviews Editor of the Austinist, an arts and culture website based in Austin, Texas, where he teaches English, Humanities, and Philosophy, and lives with his wife, Michelle, and son, William.  Feel free to find him at nickcourtright.com.