Tuesday, March 19, 2013

#67 - Jeff Simpson

How often had you sent out Vertical Hold before it was chosen for publication in 2011 by Steel Toe Books?

I was extremely lucky. Steel Toe picked it up in the first round of contests I entered.

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

At one point I was going to call the book Crybaby, but Vertical Hold was actually the first title I came up with. Growing up we had this old TV set that had been struck by lightning a couple of times, and you really had to fiddle with the v-hold dial to get the picture right. I always loved the sound of those words together and how the act of image stabilization is a perfect metaphor for writing poems: You put language in vertically running columns and try to assemble this flood of images into something steady and meaningful. Plus, I make a lot of movie references in the book. For me, it’s a perfect title even if no one younger than 30 knows what the hell “vertical hold” means.

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 agree it’s a misconception. There are a dozen or more ways to get a book published, and I think you have to consider them all and weigh them against your expectations. As much as we want to believe publishing is this romantic enterprise in which the best work gets noticed and supported, it’s just not the case. Like anything, publishing is a game, and every avenue of publication has its own set of rules and practices and competing sets of outcomes.

I was very concerned about contests before sending the book out because that’s how most poetry titles are published. I love independent presses, and the open reading model that many of them use feels less dirty than the contest model. Still, most small presses can’t offer advance money or marketing support, whereas a contest can, on reputation alone, help market the book on top of providing a few dollars in prize money that can be spent on shit like book tours, etc. It’s all about looking at the pros and cons and choosing which route best fits your goals. 

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

At least a dozen or more. Besides editing on the screen, I spent three days looking at the page-by-page layout on my living room floor trying to decide if poem A should come before poem B or where to put the section breaks. I agonized over the smallest details, trying to create these complex patterns that would work like a concerto, knowing all the while that most readers wouldn’t notice the arrangements (or give a shit if they did). Ordering is essentially an arbitrary thing, but when you think of your book itself as a large poem assembled from its individual parts, you can drive yourself crazy trying to create this intricate design. Having gone through the process, I think I now know how to approach the next one without wanting to kill myself. It’s like what they tell novelists about learning to write a novel by first writing a failed novel. It’s the same thing. You have to put together 37 bad versions of your book before you figure out the right order…or at least the order you settle on.

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

I was heavily involved. Steel Toe was super great about letting me have a say about the design. They were fine with me choosing the cover image so long as the photographer didn’t charge a fortune for the rights. After I picked the cover image, the designer, Molly McCaffrey, sent me design proofs of the covers, interior design, etc., which she nailed. Steel Toe has treated me unbelievably well, and the best part of working with them was how open they were to letting me have a voice on the design and editorial changes.

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?

There was a time when I was really concerned about publishing as many poems in journals as I could, but that was largely due to worrying about building a CV for future academic employment. I think it’s important to publish early in your career in order to make a name for yourself and start building an audience. Besides that, I don’t think poets need to worry about publishing 80 or even 50% of the poems in journal form prior to publication. There’s something to be said for creating an expectation with your work in journals so you can exceed those expectations with the quality of your book. There are a handful of poems I purposefully left out of print prior to the book release so they’d stand out and offer something new to the poems that had already been read. You want to create movements and rhythms and moments of surprise within the book, and it’s tough to do that if all poems are archived on the Internet.

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 ton. Another great thing about working with Steel Toe was that my editor/publisher, Tom C. Hunley, had me go through six or seven proofreading drafts, which gave us lots of time to fine-tune and catch typos. I also wrote three new poems (about 10 pages) that were not in the original manuscript, so there was a lot of writing and editing happening before the final proof. I’m obsessive-compulsive about editing anyway, so the drafting process felt right at home. And it’s great to have an editor who’ll work so hard to make sure everything is as close to perfect as possible before going to print.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
I remember how surreal it felt to open a box with 20 copies of my book inside. It took a good month or two before the idea of having a book felt real.

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

I have a slightly bigger audience, and I get to say, “I have a book” at parties and social events. Everything else is pretty much the same.

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 a tough one because the book is about so many things. I grew up in rural southwest Oklahoma surrounded by farming and ranching, and Vertical Hold is broadly about growing up in a particular time and place with a particular kind of family. I had one foot planted in this western, blue-collar world of combines and cattle shoots and the other submerged in books, music, video games, and HBO. I find the tension between high and low forms of culture—physical labor and questions of ontology—and the ways in which these things intersect our personal histories, endlessly fascinating. But my wife said it best in her introduction for the book launch party: “Vertical Hold sings not only of what we might have lost in this postmodern, media world of our own creation, but what we’ve found, offering a space to move forward, taking Bruce Willis by one hand and Barry Switzer by the other.”

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

I try to read as much as I can to expose new audiences to Vertical Hold and the poems I’m writing now. Besides readings, I have a website and use Twitter and Facebook like every other writer I know. I love giving readings, but I wish we still lived in the heydays when presses took care of the marketing side of things. Even though social media is a profound tool for communicating with readers and friends, most days I wish it were never invented. I’m a little sick of the endless marketeering writers feel they have to be engaged with to get noticed and sell books. I know it’s just how things are, but I’m careful about not letting book promotion steal too much time from the actual ass-in-chair writing I’m supposed to be doing. The poet Todd Boss co-ran a book promotion blog called Squad365 for awhile that I think is now defunct. He argued that book promotion should be a year-long event in which you’re always reading, posting, and showcasing audio and video recordings of yourself. 365 days is excessive and a little too Ringling Bros. for my taste, but I’d also say it’s damn effective.   

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

Start the promotion 4-6 months before the book comes out. I wish I had lined up more reviews of the book prior to its release, but I didn’t. No one sensible wants to be a ham about having a new book out, but you also don’t want to treat it like a secret and wait until it’s on shelves to start promoting.

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

You always want the second book to be different than the first. Most of the poems in Vertical Hold are longer, narrative-driven pieces, which I guess is sort of my shtick. And while it feels comfortable having the “Jeff Simpson formula” down pat, I want to push my work into new territory. Even though I’m still writing longer poems, some of them narratives, I’m trying to work my way out of the habits I’ve created…within reason.

I have two manuscripts I’m currently working on: One’s a typical poetry manuscript, and the other is a giant, book-length poem that’s unruly and strange. It’s one of those projects I’m not sure I’ll finish, but anymore I don’t get too excited about writing unless the degree of difficulty or risk of collapse is pretty fucking high.

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

I believe poetry can create change in an individual—change that may move someone to do good in the world. But can poetry single-handedly change the world? Probably not. I’ve always seen poetry as more a means than a means to an end—a way to communicate about the things we don’t talk about socially. I don’t expect anyone to be fundamentally changed by my work. I just hope readers get what I’m saying and enjoy the ride.

Jeff Simpson grew up in southwest Oklahoma. He is the author of Vertical Hold (Steel Toe Books, 2011), which was a finalist for The National Poetry Series. His poems have recently appeared in Forklift, OhioNo News Today, Prairie SchoonerCimarron Review, and others. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, where he works for Poets & Writers Magazine and edits The Fiddleback, an online arts & literature magazine. Visit him at jeffsimpson.org