Thursday, April 18, 2013

#69 - Rebecca Hazelton

How often had you sent out Fair Copy before it was chosen for the 2011 Ohio State Press / The Journal Poetry Award?

According to my spreadsheet, I sent Fair Copy out one hundred and eighteen times to various contests or open reading periods from 2009 to the first month of 2012. I was a finalist ten times, a runner-up three times, and a semi-finalist five times. Looking at those numbers really brings back the feelings I had during those years, that I was yelling into the wind. Also, that I had no money.

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

It’s always been Fair Copy.

I would say that Fair Copy is a conceptual book. Can you explain what that means to you, and what the challenges are of creating a book? Do you think things like format, structure, and arc change significantly with a conceptual book versus one that’s not?

The book is conceptual in that there is a formal element uniting the poems, but it happened almost by accident – one day I wrote an acrostic off a line of Emily Dickinson’s, and then thought to keep going, choosing every 29th poem in my Collected Emily Dickinson. I knew doing so would provide me with a book length amount of material, but I didn’t for a moment really think I’d do it. But if I consider the book in terms of the subject matter, the book is less conceptual. Many of the poems in Fair Copy have different voices or speakers, with different agendas and concerns; if the formal framework weren’t there the book would be a more jagged affair. I think of conceptual books as more unified in subject matter, like American Busboy by Matthew Guenette, where all the poems center around a restaurant and its wait staff, or almost any book by Jenny Boully, a poet who really unites the concept and the conceit. But that may just be me thinking of “conceptual” in a limited way, like an album (do we call cds albums anymore? Do we even call them cds?) – Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or Joanna Newsom’s Ys.

You also have your second book, Vow, being published in 2013 by CSU Press, only a few months after Fair Copy. Though this is rare for poets, it does happen. Tell us about trying to write two collections at the same time—if that was the case of course. Which do you consider your real “first book”? And what are the advantages and disadvantages, do you think, of having two collections coming out within months of each other? 

I didn’t write them at the same time; I’m not that good of a multi-tasker. Fair Copy was completed by the time I was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a year as the Jay C. and Ruth Hall Poetry Fellow. During my year there, I wrote Vow in around nine months. I wouldn’t consider either to be my real “first book.” I wrote a manuscript for my MFA thesis called Hinx Minx; that was my first book. It was not, however, good. I sent it out to a few contests, and then realized when it placed in one that I really didn’t want it out in the world. So I shelved it.

Having both books come out at almost the same time is very strange. I feel like I haven’t had a lot of time to get used to Fair Copy being my first book, because the demands of the second book are very much present – editing, cover questions, marketing, etc. I have readings scheduled, and don’t know whether I should just read one book at a reading, or try to read parts from both books at a reading –how does it work?

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 submitted both to contests and to open reading periods. Fair Copy won Ohio State University Press’s contest, and Vow didn’t win Cleveland State’s contest but was selected by Michael Dumanis. I had good feedback from open reading periods, but no success. I would certainly suggest poets try both, but my experience was just that there weren’t a lot of open readings available compared to the number of contests. Passing through the screenings of a book contest is a matter not just of skill – you get the right preliminary screener, and not the one who has a chip on his/her shoulder against your aesthetic. You get the right second round screeners. You get the right final judge. You get lucky, in other words, but you get to be in that lucky position because you have skills as well. I assume these things apply to open reading periods and well, though I haven’t been on the other side of those as I have for contests.

The contest system is problematic, but it’s hard to know the way out. Contests help support small presses and journals, and whenever I wrote a check I told myself that’s what I was doing (sweetened a little when the contest actually included a subscription or copy of the winning book). I just told myself it was a donation. But knowing that the money helped support things I cared about still didn’t make the system any less expensive, and there were definitely other things I wanted that money for, like car maintenance and repair, or living in a less terrible apartment. The only way I made back (most of) the money I spent on contests over the years sending it out was that I won a book contest with a slightly larger than average prize. The fact remains that these contests are most accessible to people with some cash to burn – so how many voices are we not hearing because of that?

Friends of mine suggested that I try and pick the judges I thought would appreciate my aesthetic, and there were times I placed in contests where I thought that was the case – and just as many where my dream judge passed me by. Really, you’re just hoping that your judge is someone who can see past his or her own preferences, and there’s no way of knowing if he or she has that kind of breadth.

For what it is worth, my advice is to only pick the presses you would be proud to be a part of. There’s so little compensation for poets, monetarily or otherwise, and we are continually doing work for free – books reviews, interviews (thank you again!), untold hours at journals and presses that are labors of love. We do these things because we love them, and because we believe in poetry, but we shouldn’t then think that our work has no value. We at least need to realize that our own work deserves a proper setting, among other poets you respect.

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

Ordering poems in a manuscript is not my strength. Everyone has different methods, and after a while, I felt as if I’d tried them all. The initial order was simply how I’d written them – every 29th Emily Dickinson poem – but that was terrible. I tried ordering via narrative – one of a child growing into womanhood (ala Satan Says), or a relationship taking a downward trajectory – but it felt forced. I tried ordering by linking words from poem to poem, so that a poem ending on one word might match up via word or them to the following poem, but that was overly precious. I tried ordering by mood, and no surprise, I’d reorder it drastically whenever I was in a bad one. I tried thinking of it like a mixed tape. I finally returned to the narrative angle, but it is a fairly buried one.

The book went through many revisions, but because of the formal constraints the revisions could only be so radical and maintain the form. There are lines that changed drastically, and some poems I almost entirely rewrote, which was often a better, though exhausting, tactic to take rather than jimmying with one stuck line. Mostly, the style of the book changed a lot from the initial draft to its final incarnation – when I started I was very interested in jamming in as much as possible – I kept telling people I wanted the poems to be rococo! – and over the years a lot of that playful excess got stripped out, as fun as it was, because it was distracting. So weirdly, as time went on, the book gained a more Dickinsonian spareness than less.

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?

Ohio State asked me to send them several possible images for the cover, but it wasn’t guaranteed they’d choose one of my suggestions. I sent in a number of Victorian and late nineteenth century illustrations. I actually didn’t know they’d chosen the Kay Nielsen illustration I’d suggested until they sent me a preliminary proof, so it was a good surprise! I wasn’t involved in any of the other design aspects for the book, but they did an amazing job – I love the cover’s font.

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 never thought about it. If I had, I suppose I would have sent the poems out more often. I certainly had some publications, and some journals, like Field and Pleiades, seemed to really respond to these odd poems, and I am so grateful for that support. I’ve had more poems taken from Vow, but I also sent out more from Vow, and more often. It’s only in the last two years that I’ve started submitting more regularly, basically because friends of mine said I needed to do so.

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?

With Fair Copy, the changes were minimal. The book had been through a lot of revisions by the time it was taken.

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

That it felt so strange! I felt as though I were watching myself. For my entire adult life –even when I was a teenager – I’d imagined being a published author. So to have that dream come true felt both amazing and surreal. When the box arrived, my husband and I opened it together, and he took a picture of me. The expression on my face looks a little like a kid whose had too much sugar at the fair: happy, but also possibly about to barf.
How has your life been different since your book came out?

I feel a little more exposed to the world, which isn’t a bad thing, but is uncomfortable. A lot of poets, myself included, have a drive to be noticed and to be read, but also a deep discomfort with public scrutiny. You toil away for so long as a poet, generally, and are so used to being unnoticed, that to have someone suddenly take a look at you can feel really alarming. After the book was published, I was more aware that other people really could read the things I write. I don’t know why individual poem publications didn’t trigger that for me, but they didn’t. It’s a good thing my subsequent book as taken so quickly and unexpectedly – I think if it hadn’t, I could have second-guessed the work in that book to death.

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?”

That would be a pretty self-punishing thing for me to do – I’m actually talking to a stranger in this scenario? We’re breathing each other’s re-circulated breaths? Terrifying! Well, assuming the braver, less flight phobic me is in this situation, I would probably tell them it’s about domesticity and desire, and the difficult of understanding the truth of either. Then I would quickly pick up the Skymall catalogue and become very interested in mobile stairs for arthritic dogs.

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

I’ve got a number of readings scheduled in the next few months, and the experience has been awesome so far, although I’ve just gotten started. I got to read in the Kraken Series in Denton TX, and back at my alma mater, Davidson College. I’ve been impressed by the strength of reading series in cities across the country.

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

I actually think I got all the good advice! Several of my friends warned me that the experience of having the book published was in some ways anti-climatic. So I was prepared that I might not feel as excited as I felt I should feel. I was also warned that publishing a book wouldn’t change my life, so I managed not to wake up the next day expecting unicorns. All this sounds a little bleak –it’s not, I promise! I only mean that it’s easy to think, “I just need to get this book published and then…” – and to fill in that blank with whatever secret desire you have about your life. But the publication of the first book is not a panacea for your anxieties. That first book is just a first step if you want to keep writing poetry and to keep publishing it. So my advice is to celebrate – break out the champagne! – then figure out what’s next for you the following day.

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

Before the book was taken, I felt conscious of it as not finished – for me, finished was to finally be in print. I had moved on to different work, but every couple of months, had to look at Fair Copy again, polish it further, send it out again, etc. I wanted very much to be done with it and completely free to do something new, but I continually had to try and dip into the book again and again, editing it while trying to be true to the book’s beginnings. It was hard to maintain those very different ways of thinking: my previous aesthetic and the work I was trying to create.

As for new projects, Vow is coming out, which is quite different from Fair Copy. No formal constraint to speak of, a number of series with implicit narratives, a lot more frank in terms of subject matter. I’m also working on a series of ekphrastic poems based off the works of contemporary female artists’ self-portraits: Cindy Sherman, Terri Frame, and Julie Heffernan, some of which are included in Tender Trapper, a digital chapbook from Floating Wolf Quarterly, and some of which will appear in Bad Star, forthcoming from Yes Yes Book’s Vinyl 45 chapbook series. I’m also working on a series of poems called “Homewreckers,” which look at disruptions to the home, both literally and figuratively, and which have been surprisingly fun to write. It’s fun to bring down buildings. It’s fun to break plates.

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

It depends on the world. I’m unlikely to write a poem that makes the entire planet take notice – why would it? I write out of a very particular set of circumstances and privileges, and I’m fooling myself if I think my poems might fulfill some universal human need. There are poets that have come to mean a lot to particular countries – I think of Inger Christensen, or Pablo Neruda, but that’s rare, and often breaks down under closer scrutiny. But. But. If we think of the world as a smaller thing, if we think about the worlds we carry within ourselves – absolutely. There are poems I can honestly say changed the way I thought about my life and my place in it.

Rebecca Hazelton is the author of Fair Copy (Ohio State University Press, 2012), winner of the 2011 Ohio State University Press / The Journal Award in Poetry, and Vow, from Cleveland State University Press. She was the 2010-11 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison Creative Writing Institute and winner of the “Discovery” / Boston Review 2012 Poetry Contest. Her poems have appeared in AGNI, The Southern Review, Boston Review, Best New Poets 2011, and Best American Poetry 2013. Find more at