Thursday, May 16, 2013

#71 - John Estes

How often had you sent out Kingdom Come before it was chosen for publication in 2011 by C&R Press?

I would not even want to go back and count. Some version of the book had been making the rounds for a year or so; it had been a finalist in several contests and had received a few of those rejections that helps you believe in a book more than disbelieve in it. But I did a major revision in the summer of 2009, and shortly after that it was picked up. There are aspects of the older manuscript I miss in the published version, particularly its less overtly narrative structure and that it was, as Schlegel might have called it, a book of “mixed means.” Insofar as one wants a first book to declare one’s intentions and range as an artist, I think the previous version did that more comprehensively, more forcefully. But it did become a tightly coherent book, and readers have responded to that.

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

The title prior to that revision was Sufficient Wildness, which is a phrase of Thoreau’s from “Walking” and also a poem in the book. I was attempting to capture some essence of the compromises at the heart of the book. On one hand, the personal compromises involved in marriage and family, the site—or presumed site—of many of the poems. And on the other hand, the aesthetic compromise at the heart of the book, between my typical language-centered mode the shift—part chosen, part innate brought on by the threshold I was crossing—toward biographical narrative. The poetics were attempting to track with a deeper immersion in and acceptance of my own material existence, a thing unavoidable when one founds a household. It’s something like when James Gatz first kisses Daisy: he feels that love draw him irrevocably into his humanity such that “his mind will never again romp like God’s.” (As if). It may also be the inevitable discovery getting older that the mind of God—a figure for freedom—is not opposed to but rather dependent upon being sunk into the midst of one’s life, which becomes possible in new ways once others are bound to you. Poetry is one means of navigating those attachments.

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?

Considering that honor is the coin of our mostly-coinless realm, yes, I had hoped to win a contest. One reason is purely pragmatic: as you know, the majority of avenues for first-book publishing are through contests, and many publishers, even if they end up publishing some finalists, still don’t consider other books outside their contests. We must enter then, even though it can become quite expensive (and heartbreaking). Also, considering the near non-existent marketing budgets of small presses, the exposure that comes from winning a contest—people do notice—is difficult to replicate. And I don’t think wanting to win an entirely selfish desire, either; we all know we’re not entirely the authors of our poems. Any worthy poem comes in part as a gift in whose fashioning we are fortunate enough to participate, and the same can be said of our books. So the hope of seeing that work honored is a natural hope. One merely needs to keep it all in perspective.

But this wish was not without its flip-side; one knows contests are something of a racket, something of a crapshoot, and come (usually) without any commitment beyond that book. Most contest publishers publish a book a judge chose and not necessarily a book they would have selected, and so it’s no surprise that they feel no longterm investment in the work or career of that poet. This is a pretty odd situation if you think about it, and just the kind of transaction money is good at instituting. I am romantic enough that even as I pursued this end I would often say that I’d much prefer to have the book picked up by a publisher who believed in the work and wanted to see it exist in the world, and that’s what happened.

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

As I said, the book evolved over a couple years, but at its kernel was a chapbook, called Swerve, that had won a Chapbook Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America. That little book traced in a brief arc my movement from an ascetically-minded artist to a husband and father struggling to keep hold of my artistic-practice-as-I-understood-it in the midst of those new conditions. But I wanted to build on that, and had more poems in that vein, so the book was an exercise in expansion (some have said too much expansion) into an arc that now spans five sections. I gave the sections somewhat jokey titles (structured after the chapters in A.A. Milne’s books), which I have some mind to revise in a future edition, but they do serve one primary end—to remove all doubt about the narrative structure. One chooses the work one wants a reader to do, and I realized that trying to unearth a buried narrative was not the thing I wanted readers attending to. So I try in each section to trouble what might initially feel like excessive clarity as much as possible, which I’m sure attentive (or patient, whichever) readers notice.

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

Somewhat by accident I was more intimately involved than is anywhere near normal. The press’ book designer was out of the country for an extended trip when it came time to start assembling the book, and since I have experience in design they allowed me to get the process started and I just kept going. So my influence on the book’s look and feel was complete. I’m happy with how it turned out; people pick it up and call it a beautiful book, which is gratifying and about all I could hope for.

Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?

The cover image—these are always a treasure-hunt, aren’t they—was discovered on an airplane back from an AWP conference, when I happened to be sitting next to a photographer who was organizing photos on his laptop. We fell into conversation, he sent me some pictures, and I chose the aspen stand which wraps it front to back, which I felt was not only striking but significant enough.

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?

This was, and I suppose remains, an obsessive concern, yes.

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?

The unique design situation meant that I had control of the poems far longer than is typical and I took advantage of it, revising poems up until it went to press. One long poem that serves as the book’s climax remained to be written (or it occurred to me needed to be written) after the book’s acceptance, but the others kept shifting—largely in response to each other—and I felt truly satisfied by time of publication that I’d taken every poem as far as I could take it. It was an especially instructive exercise in the assembly of a book, to see just how deeply one can or even must get to know one’s own work, which helped me to discover and solve problems I didn’t even know existed with some of the poems. If it hadn’t been for that year and a half of revision that took place during the design process (a process delayed, too, by a major move from Missouri to Ohio and the start of a new job) it would be a different book, maybe a less complete figure. But again, there is always something to be said for the unfinished quality of everything, which I hope it retains.

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

You hear so many stories about the thrill of that unboxing, but I was terrified to open the box for fear of finding a problem and didn’t do so immediately. Well, as befits my karma and my intuitive expectation, there was a printing error with that first press run and that moment I’d worked toward for almost 10 years was much more disappointment and grief than pride, relief, joy or whatever at that moment. Fortunately we got all that fixed and the finsihed book finally arrived, but you just can’t recreate a first time.
How has your life been different since your book came out?

One thing I was not prepared for was the sensation that having a book can be a kind of burden. It has an independent existence and it can—if you let it—exert (or extract) certain demands. I made a choice in the summer after the book came out to try and promote and sell the book rather than, as I really wanted, to start work on the next one. This meant putting together a tour, finding ways to promote it, etc. I enjoy doing readings—even the ones done for just a few people—and it’s always gratifying to find readers (and they must be searched down). While more reviews and sales are always to be hoped for, I have felt that in some small measure the world registered my offering. The book is a gentle tyrant by and large, and we co-exist peaceably.

But having a book published does impose changes, at least insofar as ratifying your identity as a poet or writer; here is proof, beyond the fantasies of your imagination and a hope in a distant event, that you are what you say you are. At least for now. It makes getting work possible, and it relieves a lot of psychic tension bound up in those uncertainties. One hopes that it’s a good book, and that it encourages more, even better, work. In my case, the choice not to dive into the second book right away—coupled with a busy job, a young family, everything in between—has meant two years passing before I had another manuscript ready. I try to trust that the delay, which has not been without its pain, has been a good investment all around. We’ll see.

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?”

Funny, since as I told you above that actually happened to me and I got a cover photo out of it. This is a question I duck as much as possible; it’s impossible not to be reductive and I wouldn’t want to be guilty of confirming anyone’s worst assumptions about potery. But because of the way I’ve structured it and the presence of those domestic concerns, the book is about something. There is an attempt to speak to various common experience—marriage, child-birth, art, ambivalence about these things—and it was for that reason I worked as hard as I did to find an audience for it. Nonetheless it is poetry, and so my success at finding those readers has been mixed at best. But the good thing about a book of poetry is there is no hurry; poems wait around for a reader to find them.

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

More than any advice what I could have used was pretty practical information: a more efficient means of getting the book disseminated to people and places that might be willing to buy or stock it or host readings. The library system is a black box, and the independent booksellers are geared almost entirely toward fiction and non-fiction. One is left to a lot of email writing, a lot of guesswork, trial and error. Even after being pretty industrious about all that, I’m pretty willing to let the marketing department take over.

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

I have a new book in manuscript, called Stop Motion Still Life that is starting to be sent out, another one in development. I started a film project last summer, which may or may not amount to anything. I can’t claim that the book has influenced later writing, except insofar as it let me deal squarely with some matters that I don’t feel the need to address again any time soon, at least not so dead on. Life keeps going. There is that phenomenon called The Empty Attic of Achievment, which is good to see filling up again with the next thing. Maybe that’s about as good as one can say about finishing a book, is that it gets out of the way so that the next one can emerge. And so forth.

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

I think poetry changes poets, and that kind of certainty is enough for me. I’m suspicious of mass movements, and probably wouldn’t like a world created by poetry anymore than I like the world created by all the non-poetic forces at work on it. And certainly individuals are transformed, or at least informed, by reading, and the world would be a better place if more people read better things (including me). So my ambitions are fairly modest; if a poem were to instigate even one reader to tilt her head at even a slightly new or different angle to the universe, then it has done a lot, maybe all that it can do.

John Estes is director of the creative writing program at Malone University in Canton, Ohio. Recent poems and prose have appeared in Tin House, New Orleans Review, Southern Review, Crazyhorse, AGNI, and other places. He is author of one book of poems, Kingdom Come (C&R Press, 2011) and two chapbooks: Breakfast with Blake at the Laoco├Ân (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and Swerve, which won a 2008 National Chapbook Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America. Fine more at his website: