How often had you sent out Mormon Boy before it was chosen for publication as a winner of the Elixir Press 11th Annual Poetry Awards?
This collection went through a couple of incarnations (and titles) before it made it into the current form, so I have to guess that it was out there for about three years total. The first year, I sent it out to about ten contests, and didn’t get any responses from the publishers. I gave the manuscript a global revision, restructured, basically started from the ground up, sent it to fifteen or so contests, and was a finalist in seven of them. Man, I was over the moon! I gave it another tightening revision, made sure it was perfect, and sent it to twenty more contests, and… crickets. I remember being a bit down about it, to say the least, and on the very day that I was laid off from a dreadful job in sales by a computer auto-call, I got a call from Dana Curtis from Elixir with the great news. It was a terrific day. Who needs a job, right?
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Mormon Boy? Did it go through any other changes?
Honestly, the title changed a couple of times during the submission process—. It started out as “Mormon Boy, then went back and forth between that and “We Deserve the Gods We Ask For.” Actually, that was the title of the manuscript when it won the Elixir Prize, and before we went press I settled once again on Mormon Boy. For some reason, WDTGWAF seemed too, what, academic? And, I thought that Mormon Boy told a better story of the book and the tenuous narrative thread meant to exist between the poems. By that time, I was also close to finishing my second collection (which is currently a finalist in a couple contests), and the title of WDTGWAF was growing on me for that new manuscript.
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 not sure I have any real advice in this regard. For me, the choice for submitting to contests was a professional one. Most of my academic peers recommended winning a contest with a manuscript as a way to shore up a CV. I will say this: I’m seeing less and less open reading periods from major and minor presses, and many more contests from those same presses, so it may be the progress of the business model that makes that decision for some poets. Ultimately, it’s just about getting your book published, because it is one of the hardest things a poet will ever do! Keep working, keep writing, and someday the world will notice.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
I spoke a little to this point earlier, but this is the most important aspect of getting a book published, in my opinion—if you are a real writer, someone who studies craft, someone who feels that writing is essential, my guess is that the poems are already there. So, when it comes down to it, how do you assemble them into something that feels like a book? The answer, for me, was through trial and error. I had wonderful and generous readers like Jane Springer (read her books), Matt Bondurant (read his books), and Toni Lefton (someone needs to publish her book!), who all saw the fifteen or twenty renderings of this book. I shuffled, I rearranged, I spread it on the floor, I hacked it up, reassembled it from spare body parts, hit it with electricity, everything. And maybe that’s a good metaphor for the process? Maybe it should feel like creating Frankenstein’s monster-the love, the hate, the isolation, the wild abandon, all stapled together and smudged and blood smeared and reeking of amniotic fluid? My only hope was that it wouldn’t have to hide under floorboards, be chased by villagers with pitchforks and torches, all to die, alone and forgotten, in some frigid expanse. Holy shit. That analogy got away from me. Readers of poetry: don’t let my book end its days drifting away on arctic waters!
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
Thankfully, I didn’t have much required of me in this regard—-I did revise the whole manuscript again, which Dana Curtis was happy to allow me to do, but once everything was in order, Dana and I simply sent it on to Joel Bass, who did all the heavy lifting for the design. Personally, I think the book is beautiful, and the quality of the paper and cover is exactly what I hoped for—I couldn’t be happier.
Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?
Again, credit Dana with her confidence in her authors—she asked me if I had any ideas, and as soon as I sent her a pdf of the artwork from a number of my favorite artists, she latched onto Glenn Brown’s “Shallow Deaths.” I had stumbled upon Browns work while living and teaching in London in 2000, and I had a print of the painting in my office. I never imagined that Glenn would agree to let me use it (especially considering there was no way we could pay for the artwork), but I knew I had to try. The hardest part was finding him—it took me about six months to track down his agent from the dozens of places all over the world that his work was being hung, and then deal with the language barrier. Mr. Brown is from the UK, but his representatives are most often not! Ultimately, he couldn’t have been nicer, once I did track him down—-he was happy to support a small press and a new author with his work. He even had a representative send a lovely, inscribed book of his work that currently sits on my coffee table.
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 think it helps to have a good representative portion of a book already published in good journals. Many contests allow for an acknowledgements page, which I suspect gets flipped to in the early stages of selection—editors like to have their tastes confirmed, is my guess, so some proof you are a serious writer helps move you along, perhaps? Either way, it wont hurt a manuscripts chances—I think maybe 50-60% of the poems from Mormon Boy were already published, and I was happy to have a chance to thank all those editors who gave my work a chance as I was making my way in the poetry world.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
I remember thinking, I hope what is inside the book is as good as the outside of the book! I couldn’t believe it was finally there in the flesh-all the hard work and love and despair and fear and doubt bundled up and packaged for a real audience. I suspect most first books feel this way to their authors—will readers see what I was trying to do? Will they like it? Where is my Pulitzer? Or, alternatively, will these books molder in some back room at Elixir Press, until one day, they are all accidently thrown out on the curb for recycling? My wife is always the voice of reason, however, and she carefully laid out my author copies on our kitchen table, popped a bottle of Nicolas Feuillatte champagne, and we sat there sipping wine and staring at the books, marveling, proud, relieved. Then, when I woke up the next day, I started thinking about the many ways I would revise it, if given a chance. The process truly never ends, if you love the work.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
I don’t feel like much has changed, to be honest. I did start wearing a velvet robe around the house, and I took up smoking a pipe, and I now call my students “minions” and my peers at the University of Colorado seem ok with the fact that I address them as My Dear Fellow/My Dear Lady. I tend to stare off into space thoughtfully when asked direct questions. I fill my lovely and profound soliloquies to minions and subordinates with long pauses. And then there’s the collection of boaters, trilbies, and pork pie hats, and the bowties. I discuss my oeuvre, and refer to myself in the third person. That was cute, Seth.
Anyway. I do get asked to do readings now, which I used to have to pursue on my own, and I have been fortunate to be asked to get involved with some inmate literacy projects and veterans affairs workshops, and I suppose it has given my teaching some legitimacy. Personally, though, it has given my writing a bit of confidence and momentum that may have been lacking—since Mormon Boy was published I have finished a second collection of poetry, finished a short story collection, and abandoned one disastrous time-suck of a novel for a creative memoir that feels promising. Validation can be a great motivator.
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?”
The answer to this question all depends on whether I want to be an asshole or not. If I want to be an asshole, I would tell them it’s a teleological treatise on the solipsism of the anti-book, spoken through the dissonant voice of cultural ennui. In other words, I’d make up something to make them regret ever asking the question, and settle back into my seat with the knowledge that they would very likely not care to speak to me again. My great mentor and friend Mark Winegardner once told me that if he didn’t feel like talking about his book, he would simply tell them it was a love story, and that would be the end of it. And maybe that is a bit closer to the truth, if I’m giving an honest answer—the narrative voice within Mormon Boy is meant to resonate with Mormon dogma and Mormon guilt, but it isn’t supposed to be about Mormonism in any real way. This is a book about a narrator who learns to forgive himself by finding love (sometimes in all the wrong places). Like all great books, it endeavors to be a love story in some way, even if it fails. In this sense, it is a series of poems devoted to the tragic and the comic aspects of self-love, a journey through war and loss and loneliness, ending with a cease-fire that I hope feels like forgiveness. Rather than tell interested parties that it is a love story, like Mark does, maybe I will just provide the short answer that it is a book about learning to forgive oneself. Either way, I doubt they will be interested in the longer discussion regarding whether a poetry book can be “about” anything.
What have you been doing to promote Mormon Boy, and what have those experiences been like for you?
It has been a lot of fun doing readings around Colorado, and it has taken me a bit to get used to the fact that people actually want me to sign a copy of my book. I had to develop a signature! My handwriting looks like a five year old (with palsy) scribbling with a crayon, so I had to figure out a signature that looked like something authentic. Otherwise, I think I have had the traditional experience of doing poetry readings that most (I hope) poets have—I’ve shown up to read for large audiences one week, then I’ve read for an audience of three (counting my wife) the next. Thankfully, poetry readers are gracious and kind. I am also learning to be a proponent of my own work (a requirement for poets given the lack of marketing money for the genre), especially online (thanks again). I’ve built a website and an author facebook page and a twitter account I won’t bother linking because I still don’t understand why the hell I would ever need to tweet something.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
I was lucky to have great writers in my corner who also happened to be wonderful, generous, and kind-David Kirby, Mark Winegardner, Julianna Baggott, Jane Springer, Toni Lefton, Matt Bondurant, Roger Reeves, innumerable more, who all gave me great advice on what to expect, how to prepare the book, etc. The only thing I wish I would have been better about had to do with marketing myself—I thought that it would be premature to start a marketing campaign before the book came out, but I now know that is when the bulk of it needs to be done. I didn’t know, for instance, that you can send galleys to journals and magazines for pre-publication reviews, which would have saved me a number of headaches.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
I believe I am a better, more confident writer. I believe in my writing like I never have before. Again, validation is a great motivator. I hope that’s a good thing? Either way, I have been more prolific than ever before, even while I devote huge amounts of time to teaching and service projects, so I’m therefore as happy with being a writer as I’ve ever been. My new collection is a finalist for the Philip Levine Prize, and my fiction was a finalist for the Jeff Sharlet award from the Iowa Review, so I am hopeful that there will be continued success. But as always, I am waiting for the other shoe to drop—depraved Fortuna has had a good time finding ways to teach me humility whenever I start thinking too much of myself!
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
It can and does. It changed my world, anyway, in a shallow foxhole in an observation post on the border of Iraq. A tattered copy of William Carlos Williams Selected Poems open next to my M-60, and the next morning I started writing stories and poems and haven’t stopped. I love telling my students that poetry is the most important thing in the world, even when it isn’t. Where our poetry fails, however, is when it alienates and obfuscates. I can’t stand poetry that cares nothing for its audience. Thomas Lux once said that, “poetry should entertain.” I don’t know if this is always the case, but I do believe that the poet should give a shit about the reader, and should endeavor to enrich the world rather than outsmart it. I often tell my writing students that it is easy to write poems and stories about you that are yours. The difficult task is to write poems about us that are ours. There is a ton of poetry out there that confirms for the occasional reader their prejudice that poetry is, as Jane Springer has said, a “festival of [and for] the dead.” I believe that those writers who write with an eye on what is at stake for themselves, as well as what should be at stake for the reader, are changing the world every day, a lonely character at a time.
Seth Brady Tucker is a poet and fiction writer originally from Lander, Wyoming, and served as an Army 82nd Airborne Paratrooper in the Persian Gulf. His first book, Mormon Boy, won the 2011 Elixir Press Editor’s Poetry Prize, and was released in 2012. His writing has been nominated for a number of Pushcart Prizes, as well as the Jeff Sharlet Award, and is forthcoming or has appeared in the Antioch Review, Verse Daily, Connecticut Review, Chautauqua, River Styx, Indiana Review, Rosebud, Iowa Review, Witness, Rhino, Crab Orchard Review, and many other fine journals and anthologies. Seth has degrees in Creative Writing and Literature from San Francisco State University, Northern Arizona University, and Florida State University (PhD). Currently, he splits his time teaching veterans at the Light House Writer’s Workshop in Denver, and at the University of Colorado at Boulder.******************************************************************************************