Wednesday, June 5, 2013

#72 - Johnathon Williams

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 spent about a year sending the book exclusively to contests — probably a dozen or more — with absolutely no luck at all, not even a finalist mention. I was finishing my MFA at the time, and sending to contests was the thing that everybody did. But then the next contest season rolled around, and I couldn’t stomach the expense and absurdity of it anymore. I knew other poets with terrific manuscripts who had been doing the same thing for four or five years, spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars in the process, with no end in sight, biding their time and waiting their turn to be the next recipient of the Backwater Review’s Now You Qualify For A Tenure Track Position Award. I’m not sure what you call the ability do that year after year (patience is perhaps the most generous word), but I knew I didn’t have it.

The problem with the contest system is that it’s a side effect of the academic takeover of contemporary poetry. I’m not hating on MFA programs here, because mine made me a far better writer, but, in an environment where 9 out of 10 poets hope to make a living by teaching, the lockstep relationship between contests and publication and teaching jobs is restrictive and absurd. Too many good books sit around for too long. I make this complaint as a reader as much as a writer – I want to buy and read those books sooner rather than later.

Anyway, I was fortunate in that I already had another way to make a living (I’m a web programmer), so I didn’t have to live and die by the length of my CV. As luck would have it, my friend and teacher Davis McCombs mentioned that Antilever was seeking manuscripts at about the same time I gave up on contests.

I suppose my advice would be to avoid the contest racket if you can. It’s a huge sink of time and money, and the benefits outside of academia are negligible. But anyone who would take my advice about publishing should probably check whether his health insurance covers psychiatric care.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been The Road to Happiness? Did it go through any other changes?

The title was originally Sawdust, which was taken from another poem in the manuscript. Most of my writer friends were lukewarm on that title, so after the book failed to place at five or six contests I changed it. In hindsight I’m glad I did.

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

The book went through two or three minor revisions as I was submitting it, most of which involved substituting newer, stronger poems for some older ones I fell out of love with.

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?

I had no input on the interior design, but I did approve the cover image after my editor suggested it. (I struck out trying to find a cover image on my own.) I’m very happy with the look and feel of the book — the folks at Antilever did a fantastic job.

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 didn’t care about having the majority of the poems published, per se, but I was desperate to see at least some of the poems appear in journals or magazines, especially those poems that were written during my first year or two of grad school (the Arkansas MFA is a four-year program). I’d been writing and publishing prose as a journalist for years, but writing poetry was new to me — most of my first real efforts as a poet were included in my application packet to my MFA program. I needed those first publications in journals and magazines to prove that I wasn’t wasting my time.

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?

My editors at Antilever, particularly Dillon Tracy, gave the book a tremendous amount of attention after accepting it, and we went back and forth on everything from the order of the poems to rewriting stanzas within individual poems to whether certain poems should be included at all. That attention to detail was gratifying and humbling, and the book is better for it.

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

I remember more about the beginning of the day than I do the end of it. My wife and kids were out of town visiting family the day my author’s copies arrived. So I came home after work to find this box sitting on the stoop and no responsibilities claiming my time before the next morning. I picked the box up and carried it, unopened, to my favorite bar, where I ordered a double pour of mid-shelf whiskey and opened the box and began signing books and giving them away to anyone I had ever met or anyone who made the unfortunate decision to ask about the contents of the box. I gave away 19 signed copies that night. I have a vague memory of standing in line at Jimmy John’s around 1 a.m. and asking the register lady to please give me the poet’s discount on my sandwich. I woke up the next morning on my couch with a wretched hangover and the empty box clutched in my arms and my final remaining copy sitting next to an empty bottle of bourbon on the coffee table.
How has your life been different since your book came out?

It hasn’t really, although there have been a few perks. Every now and again a random friend-of-a-friend will mention that he read and enjoyed the book, which is nice. The book’s presence on my shelves is strangely comforting when I wake up in the middle of the night worried that I forget to pay the electric bill. Oh, and every year on my birthday before the book was published I used to get really drunk and lament the fact that I was a year older and still hadn’t joined the author’s club. I suppose this year I’ll have to get drunk and lament something else.

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 awful truth is that I’m terrible at explaining what the book is about. I have a canned paragraph that I send out when people insist, but it isn’t very good. Katrina Vandenberg’s introduction to the book explains it better than I ever could. I don’t know whether Katrina and I share a blood type, but if we do and she ever needs a kidney, I’m committed to giving her one of mine.

What have you been doing to promote The Road to Happiness, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I’ve done a couple of readings, and a Skype appearance for a classroom or two, and this here interview, and… so fucking little. I have no idea how to effectively promote a book of poetry. My only comfort is that no else does either. It’s not that I mind promoting the book — honestly, at this point I’d get naked on television if I thought it would help.

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

Related to the above, I wish someone had told me to have a marketing campaign ready to go as soon as the book was available. Also, I wish the same person had told me what an effective marketing campaign for a book of poetry looks like.

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

I believe that poetry can create change in the individual human heart. And I believe that is enough.

Johnathon Williams is a writer and web developer living in Fayetteville, AR. He publishes the online journal Linebreak. Find more at his website: