Monday, December 3, 2012

#60 - Erica Wright

How often had you sent out Instructions for Killing the Jackal before it was chosen for publication in 2011 by Black Lawrence Press?

I checked my records, and I sent out the manuscript thirty-five times. That’s weird actually because I thought it would be at least a hundred. It felt like I was getting rejection notices every week.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Instructions for Killing the Jackal? Did it go through any other changes?

For a while, it was called Throwing Matches Around, which is from the Patty Griffin song “Icicles”: “There's always someone throwing matches around / Waving the shiny new knife.” I’m still attached to that title, but I wasn’t sure of the copyright laws. Plus, I wanted something that was my own. The violence in the Griffin lyric suits the type of violence in my poems—more resigned than shocking. But Instructions for Killing the Jackal feels right now. It gestures toward the mythological content that weaves its way into my work even when I don’t mean for it to. I can’t imagine the collection being called anything else. 

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?

My advice is send to as many open submissions as possible. I absolutely don’t resent presses from charging reading or contest entry fees. I always thought of them as donations to organizations that I admire. At the same time, you shouldn’t have to choose between buying groceries and sending your book out.

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

Oh, loads. For many years, I used sections, but they always felt arbitrary. Why does the wolf poem go in the “folklore” section and not the “animal” section? Where do the political ones belong? When I took out the sections, I felt a rush of relief. The book worked much better without the dividers.

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

The editors at Black Lawrence Press are the loveliest. They let me have input on all the choices. The book designer at Dzanc, Steven Seighman, does exceptional work, so I would have felt comfortable letting him make the decisions. I picked the artwork, though. It’s a collage by Alexis Anne Mackenzie.

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?

More than I anticipated. I really thought the book was finished, but when it was accepted, I hadn’t reviewed the material in over a year. There were a few poems that were so glaringly wrong that I’m not sure how I missed them. So they were cut or replaced.

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

The books arrived just in the nick of time for my release party. In fact, I was losing hope that UPS would deliver them when my dad thought to check the shipping log. My super had signed for them in the morning. When I couldn’t find my super, I opened his storage closet, which I’m sure is against the building rules, but I needed those books! And there they were. I carted the box upstairs where my family was waiting, and my mom snapped pictures as I ripped open the package. I look dazed in the photos, and that seems about right.
How has your life been different since your book came out?

I figure when I die, my obituary will now say “author of Instructions for Killing the Jackal,” and that’s nice.

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 actually don’t mind this question as much as some of my friends do. It’s a way for someone to show interest in you or your work. It’s a polite albeit impossible question. I usually just list a few things. Alligators and small towns. Tractors and shipwrecks. Ghosts and gods.

What have you been doing to promote Instructions for Killing the Jackal, and what have those experiences been like for you?

My promotional skills are woefully lacking, but I’ve done a lot of readings. I’ve had many warm welcomings, the warmest being from Malaprop’s in Asheville, North Carolina. If you are nearby (lucky you), I suggest visiting for a coffee or a book, preferably both. Preferably, buy all the coffees and all the books. I have also reached out to editors about reviews, which feels like asking strangers to help you change a tire. In spite of my awkwardness, Jackal has received some really thoughtful responses. 

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

I’m working on a new collection tentatively titled All the Bayou Stories End with “Drowned.” While it is not drastically different in tone from my first collection, I do try to avoid writing poems that are obviously Jackal poems. Sometimes I don’t want to give them up, but it’s time to move forward.

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

It seems like we are living in particularly mendacious times. Poetry needn’t be beautiful, but it should be truthful. And people telling the truth about the world—whether their pursuits are artistic or otherwise—are the ones who can create change. The Afghan Women’s Writing Project reinforces this idea. The non-profit allows us to hear the voices of women silenced by their birthplace. Women risk their lives to write about their lives. Why would they do that if words weren’t important? Why would we listen? 

Erica Wright is the author of Instructions for Killing the Jackal (Black Lawrence Press, 2011) and the chapbook Silt (Dancing Girl Press, 2009). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Crazyhorse, From the Fishouse, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere. She is the poetry editor at Guernica Magazine. Find more at