How often had you sent out Sailing to Babylon before it was chosen for publication in 2012 by Able Muse Press?
I was fortunate; I did manage to get eighteen submissions out the door, but to my delight the manuscript was accepted only three months into my submission process. I had planned to send the manuscript to about a hundred presses in the U.S. and Canada over the course of a year. At the time it was a little bewildering because one of the places I submitted it to, Able Muse Press in California, had indicated in its submission guidelines to expect a six-month wait for a response, but in fact they accepted it just twelve days after I sent it to them. It was thrilling, of course, but this was essentially a new press (they’d only published three or four books at the time), and I wondered if I ought to wait to hear from some more established presses first. But I asked around and got some advice—the poet Eric Ormsby’s good word was especially decisive—and ultimately I gladly accepted the offer. Though not before I’d heard back from some other publishers first. The book was a semi-finalist for the Crab Orchard Poetry Series First Book Award. McGill-Queen’s University Press in Montreal was interested, but the editors wanted me to make the manuscript longer by twenty-five pages and submit it again within five months, which didn’t strike me as the right thing for this book. And some presses sent letters of praise that nevertheless didn’t make me an offer, including Graywolf and Etruscan in the U.S. and Gaspereau in Canada. The most whiplash-inducing of these was from someone at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, whose words are forever burned into my memory: “Your verses are lyrical, your images exact and moving, but our small poetry list is booked for the foreseeable future.” Alas! But in the end I’m very happy the book was published by Able Muse, for a variety of reasons. For example, many small presses have trouble with distribution, but that’s not an issue; it’s not hard to get your hands on the book. It’s also in my contract that, as long as the press stays in business, the book will never go out of print. That’s hard to beat. And my editor at Able Muse, Alex Pepple, has been a pleasure to work with.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Sailing to Babylon? Did it go through any other changes?
The working title for many years was Northwest Passage, which is also the title of two of the poems in the book. But when I finished the manuscript it didn’t fit. The phrase lacks the mythic resonance outside of my native Canada that it has there. And on the other hand it’s been so well-used in Canada that, there, it’s almost a cliché, at least for the title of a book. What I wanted was a title that would place the book in the main stream of Western literary tradition, and one with several layers of meaning—in this case, an image of a sea voyage, an ironic or disputative allusion to Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” an allusion to the several Babylons of history, the Bible, and nursery rhyme (“How many miles to Babylon?/ Threescore miles and ten./ Can I get there by candle-light?/ Yes, and back again.”), and so on. I wanted a title that would be inviting to readers at first glance, and resonant with new dimensions of meaning later on: a complex symbol. I myself keep discovering new ways of thinking about it even now, and I like that very much.
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?
Book contests, with their reading fees, are simply a business model many poetry publishers rely on in the U.S. in order to keep publishing books, and they’re a perfectly good one. But there are also plenty of publishers that call for open submissions, and in fact a lot of them, including Able Muse Press, do both. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason to choose one over the other, because just about every manuscript that gets published—as opposed to self-published—is the winner of a competition with other manuscripts, whether it’s called a book contest or not. As for me, among the eighteen presses I sent the manuscript to, six involved contests, though I was planning to enter many more.
And anyway, after a book is published there are also plenty of post-publication book awards, the point of which is to publicize the book, to find readers for it. I’ve entered some myself, and my publisher has entered my book in some too, fifteen altogether. When Sailing to Babylon was named a finalist for the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award in poetry, a major honor in Canada, it gave the book a big boost in visibility. There was a $1000 prize for each finalist, and a finalists’ reading in Montreal which meant a lot to me. The book was named the runner-up for the 2012 Posner Poetry Book Award, in Wisconsin. And now I’ve learned that it’s been shortlisted for the 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize, Canada’s most prestigious poetry award, and the publicity for that has already been extraordinary. Each finalist will be given $10,000 for doing a reading at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto on June 12, 2013. And the winners—one Canadian and one international—will be announced at a gala the next evening, and given another $65,000. I’m overjoyed, as you can imagine, and filled with gratitude.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
I sent it out in one version. It took me about fifteen years to write the poems, but once I had finally written enough good ones for a book, it didn’t take long to put it together—just a few days. I spread the poems out on the floor and read them all, putting the ones that seemed to belong together into piles, then ordering the poems in each section and putting the sections in a natural order. Granted, there are only eighteen poems in the book—the last one is twenty-three pages long—so arranging the poems was probably not as difficult in this case as it might have been otherwise.
The hard part was writing it. I wrote many more poems than made it into the manuscript, and I was ruthless in deciding whether a given poem was good enough. Hence the fifteen years. The last thing I wrote was the long poem, “Quarry Park,” and when it was done I knew for the first time that I had written a book.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
One perk of publishing with a small press is that you have some input on these matters. The book was designed by my editor and publisher, Alex Pepple, and he did a marvelous job. There was plenty of consultation, lots of back-and-forth, but in the end my main design contribution was the color of the cover—blue instead of the original beige. Other than that, my publisher gets all the credit for the design, which I love.
Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?
I suggested several images that involved ships at sea, and Alex chose an image on his own with a similar theme but a more abstract style. It’s a photograph called “Sailing Ships from Heaven,” by a French photographer named Roger-Michael Goerge, and he seems to have done something to the camera lens. I think I read somewhere that he smudged it with petroleum jelly to make the image dream-like.
What about the publication of the poems in journals and magazines prior to the book’s being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have most of the poems published before you sent out your manuscript?
Yes, indeed. I understand that some editors read the acknowledgements page very carefully to get a sense of the caliber of journals the poems have appeared in, especially for a first book. The more prestigious and difficult to get published in, the better. And editors also have a clear sense of which journals tend to publish the kind of thing their presses specialize in. In such cases, where you’ve published affects the editor’s attitude, and perhaps how much time he or she is willing to spend on reading the manuscript. If she hasn’t heard of any of the journals the poems have appeared in, or if they’re just the wrong journals from her point of view, she may well give it short shrift—because editors are nothing if not overworked and short on time.
But the main reason to publish your poems in journals is to test your work against the standards of the editors. It helps you see which of your poems are the best, and which either need more work or just aren’t good enough. And of course, you do it to find readers for your poems. So I spent many years getting the poems published in magazines. In the end, all but two of the poems in Sailing to Babylon were published beforehand, and one of those two was “Quarry Park,” which was just way too long for most journals.
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?
Quite a lot. The process delayed publication for about a year, but I wanted to make sure the book was the best it could be. A few months after the manuscript was accepted, and with the blessing of my editor, I went to the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference where I received some invaluable advice from Joan Houlihan, the poet and critic, and Jeffrey Levine, the editor of Tupelo Press and also a poet. I’d applied and been accepted to the conference before my book was accepted for publication; I had thought my submission process would take longer than it did. But by the time the conference happened, as I say, the manuscript had been accepted by Able Muse Press. I went to the conference anyway because I wanted to make the manuscript better, and I’m glad I did. I ended up removing two or three poems, revising some others, and changing the order of the poems in a few cases. So it added up to a significant improvement.
My editor, Alex Pepple, made some helpful suggestions about a few poems, as well. And a few months later I was very lucky to have the unofficial editorial services of my friend Carmine Starnino, a very fine editor, poet, and critic in Canada, who, I was happy to find, only suggested some judicious cuts to the first three pages of “Quarry Park.” He’s a famously tough editor, so I knew from the scarcity of his suggestions that the book must be getting close to ready to go to print. After I made those changes, my wife, Stormy Stipe, who had been responding to drafts of the poems all along for years, signed off on the manuscript again too.
That just left the proofreaders. I think my editor and publisher, Alex, in his remarkable thoroughness, hired six, some of whom had reputations for being very tough—which is just what you want in a proofreader. They each caught several different things, some of which were debatable and which got resolved according to the press’s house style. But one of these proofreaders—an older man from Europe, I was told—made a suggestion that really helped the ending of a poem called “Weekend in Vienna.” He said something about how everyone knows that a certain kind of doorless elevator in Europe that doesn’t stop at your floor—you have to step onto it while it’s moving—everyone knows it’s called a “paternoster elevator.” Well, I didn’t know that, but what a perfect name! It was just right for the ending of the poem. So, many a thank-you to that anonymous proofreader, whoever he was.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
It was early July, a bright, hot day. I carried the box in from the front porch and set it down on the living room floor, and my son Felix, who was six, kept pushing my hands out of the way and saying he wanted to open it himself. And when we finally managed to get it open with the scissors, my wife picked up a copy and felt the cover and smiled and said it felt like flour, and then she went off to read it. I read some of it to Felix, too, the parts about him, and he was very excited. It was all very domestic and joyful. The book looked beautiful. But I remember thinking, what am I going to do with all these books? There were fifty copies in the box. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of doing several readings, so by now I’m happy to say I’ve sold my way through box number two, and I’m about to order another.
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?”
It’s full of poems about exploration and discovery, from wilderness explorers like Henry Hudson, John Franklin and David Thompson to mental travellers like Northrop Frye and Glenn Gould. And it ends with a long poem about hiking through a wooded park with my two-year-old son in Madison, Wisconsin, and what we find there. On another level, it’s about spiritual journeys, and ultimately about making a home for yourself by engaging imaginatively with the history of the place you find yourself in. It’s an allusive book, written in a clear style, and with much attention to the sounds of words.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
I spend a lot of time now promoting the book, along with my book of essays that was published a few months later (You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada.) Several doors have opened—readings, interviews, invitations from editors and translators and festival directors, and things I’m now eligible to apply for, like fellowships and grants. And I’ve made quite a few new literary friends. It’s like being welcomed into a tribe. But on a deeper level, my long apprenticeship in the art is finally over. I’m filled with confidence, and excited about starting a new book.
What have you been doing to promote Sailing to Babylon, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I’ve been submitting the book to contests, as I say, and applying for fellowships and grants, and scouting out reviewers, and having review copies sent to anyone who’s interested. I’ve been developing and maintaining a Web site, and networking on Facebook and other social media sites—making announcements and responding to people who have contacted me to say how much they like the book, which is always a pleasure. I’ve been doing readings, and getting my book into local bookstores and even a national chain in Canada. And doing interviews, both online and with journalists at newspapers. And so on. It’s like having another job. But it’s been such a pleasure to hear from readers and audiences and reviewers and other poets. So far the response has been wonderful.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
I gathered so much advice from so many sources—including the interviews in this series—that I feel I was pretty well prepared. The best advice I can give is to be ruthless with your book, especially after it’s been accepted by a publisher. Make it the best it can be.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
I published a book of essays a few months later, as I say, and between working on that, and promoting both books, and teaching, and so on, I haven’t written much poetry. But I do have some things I’m working on. I’m also editing a volume of selected poems by Daryl Hine, who just died last year, and writing a review-essay on the poetry of Stephanie Bolster.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Great poetry not only can, but does, yes. All the time. It happens on a much deeper and more enduring level than many other things in the world, and it takes time for it to happen, sometimes a long time. But just think of the influence of Homer, Sappho, Dante and Shakespeare on world culture, and you’ll see what I mean.
I have some things to say about this in the closing paragraphs of You Are Here, which come at the end of a long essay on poetic value. “Truly great poetry,” I say,
is one of the most powerful of all manifestations of language. Its object is ultimately the formation, and transformation, of the human self and community. Its power to do these things is not different in kind from the power of ordinary language to do them; it’s just greater in degree. This is because great poetry is a fusion of reason, emotion, sensuality and imagination, bringing to bear all these powers of the human soul at once, whereas other uses of language are usually more specialized: rational but cold, passionate but stupid, beautiful but shallow, effective but ultimately meaningless.
A lot of people—let’s call them Philistines—say this is all nonsense, that poetry is a marginal and specialized kind of playing with words, a strange kind of niche entertainment, of no interest to serious people, and certainly with no real power to make or transform anything. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” in the words of W. H. Auden, who, while not otherwise a Philistine, was channeling one, I’m afraid, when he wrote these words.
In response, I can only appeal to my own experience as a reader. Great poetry gives me pleasure. It stimulates my intellectual, emotional and imaginative powers. It deepens my understanding of myself and other people, and helps me pay closer attention to my life. It gives me the power to perceive things more clearly, to feel not only more intensely but more subtly and precisely. It resurrects the dead world I live in, and the dead words I use, and makes the sources of strong value in my life resonate again.
I know from experience, however, what it means to be part of a community without a great poetry of its own. Whitman and Dickinson are not quite the central figures in American culture that Shakespeare is in British culture, or Homer in Greek, or Dante in Italian; but as a Canadian I feel exquisitely the lack of such a major poetic figure in my own country. An important part of the community of Canada, and therefore of the self of every Canadian, has not been fully formed. Now, everyone knows achieving that level of poetic power is extremely difficult. But we also know it’s not impossible.
I want our poets to try.
James Pollock is the author of Sailing to Babylon (Able Muse Press, 2012), a current finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize, a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award in poetry, and runner-up for the Posner Poetry Book Award; and You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada (The Porcupine's Quill, 2012), currently shortlisted for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award. His poems have been published in The Paris Review, Poetry Daily, AGNI, and other journals in the U.S. and Canada, and listed in Best Canadian Poetry 2010. His critical essays and reviews have appeared in Contemporary Poetry Review, The New Quarterly, Arc Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere. He earned an Honors B.A. in English literature and creative writing from York University in Toronto, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston, where he held several fellowships in poetry. He was a John Woods Scholar in poetry at the Prague Summer Program at Charles University in Prague, and a work-study scholar in poetry at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. He is an associate professor at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, where he teaches poetry in the creative writing program. He lives with his wife and son in Madison, Wisconsin. You can visit him at his Web site at www.james-pollock.com.