Thursday, May 2, 2013

#70 - Joanna Pearson

How often had you sent out Oldest Mortal Myth before it was chosen for the 2012 Donald Justice Poetry Prize?

It’s hard to say because I never had a very programmatic plan for trying to publish a book of poetry.  I had impulsively sent a [haphazard] bunch of poems to one or two book contests a couple years before, but never with the thought that I actually stood a chance.  (In fact, I was always a little appalled at the jumble of poems I’d sent off immediately afterwards.) For a long time, I had individual poems I liked, but I didn’t feel like I had enough to pull together a full manuscript.  It wasn’t until 2010 that I really thought I had something that seemed like a book, and then I entered this one book contest I really admired (because I had a prophetically good feeling about it).  My manuscript didn’t win (proving my powers of prophecy to be faulty), but I was a finalist, which gave me hope.  So then the next fall, with  significantly more thought, revision, and consideration, I found a handful of book contests I liked, including the Donald Justice Prize, and sent out my manuscript. 

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

In one very different, earlier incarnation, I called it Animal Afterlives, which is the title of one of the poems included.  As a book title, it had very little to do with the overall manuscript—other than the fact that I liked it and thought it sounded kind of cool  Once I decided on Oldest Mortal Myth, though, I knew it fit the book, in a lot of ways.

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?

It’s very likely I was one of those poets operating under that misconception! In truth, I hesitate to give advice because I feel like I was ill-informed about the process of publishing a book of poetry.  It didn’t really occur to me to submit to open reading periods.  In retrospect, I think sure, yes, do all of the above—send your manuscript to contests and open reading periods, send it wherever, as long as you sense there’s some kinship between your work and that published through that contest or press. 

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

It reminds me a little bit of the good old art of mixtape-making.  I think by the time I was actually ready to assemble a book, it mostly fell together in an intuitive way.  By then, I’d written enough poems that certain themes and connections were apparent.  The toughest part for me was plucking out the poems that didn’t belong because I felt sorry for them.  I have this tendency to overinclude.  I want to cram everything in, even my most terrible poems, those poor little stray dogs.  In the end, though, (hopefully) I was appropriately selective.

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

I got to choose the cover image, a photo taken by my brother-in-law, who is a young yet absurdly talented artist.  (His name is Daniel Alexander Smith, and you should check out his website.  Look out for this guy!)  I was really happy with how the book turned out.  All credit and thanks to Jamie Smith and Kim Bridgford and  the family of Iris N. Spencer and everyone else at the West Chester University Poetry Center!

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?

It was never really a concern, but I had published a number of the poems in magazines or journals already.  I’ve always really loved reading around in various small magazines and journals, so it was always exciting for me also to send work out and feel like I was part, even in a very small way, of that dialogue.  It’s wonderful to discover a gem of a poem by someone whose work you don’t yet know! So, yeah, I’d been submitting  individual poems for a while and reading journals, but not with any thought towards how that would or would not affect assembling a book-length manuscript. 

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?

I did make some changes here and there, and I got some helpful editing/proofreading from the kind people at the WCU Poetry Center.  But on the whole, once I feel an individual poem is “finished” I usually leave it alone.  I tend not to want to revisit older poems and tinker with them.  I have the gift or curse of not being overly fastidious.  So mostly I was proofreading and making the final keep-or-cut decisions about poems.
How has your life been different since your book came out?

It hasn’t really been.  I’m so happy the book exists, and I feel lucky and grateful, and it’s a very nice thing, a thing I always wanted (a poetry book! a real, live book!), but the book came out just as I was entering into one of the busiest stints ever in my work.  I’m a psychiatry resident, and I was heading into this period of working these month-long stints of 12-hour shifts in the emergency room, and half of them were night shifts.  It was pretty grueling.  There weren’t a lot of poetry-related thoughts in my mind, as a result.  But maybe that’s a good thing, in a way?  There’s nothing better to reframe one’s appreciation for the time and opportunity to read and write poetry than spending every waking hour in the emergency room of a large, urban hospital....

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?”

Carnival freaks and Greek mythology and ghosts and religious doubt and kidnappers and gunshot testicles and visual disorders and metamorphoses and the human body.

What have you been doing to promote Oldest Mortal Myth, and what have those experiences been like for you?

So far I haven’t done very much, but I’m looking forward to participating in a couple readings coming up.

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

I would still like that advice, if someone would like to give it to me.

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

Only recently has my schedule eased up a bit so that I can start writing some again.  I’ve had a few little bursts of poems here and there, but the main thing I’d like to try first is another YA novel.  That’s what I’m working on at the moment. 

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

Maybe so.

Joanna Pearson's first book of poetry, Oldest Mortal Myth, was selected by Marilyn Nelson for the 2012 Donald Justice Poetry Prize.  She is also the author of a novel for young adults, The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills. She currently lives in Baltimore where she works as a resident physician at Johns Hopkins.  Her website is