Thursday, August 1, 2013

#76 - Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers

How often had you sent out Chord Box before it was chosen for publication by The University of Arkansas Press as Finalist for the Miller Williams Prize in 2013?

The book was picked up pretty quickly—within the first six months of submitting it—but by the time I got the call from the University of Arkansas, it had already been rejected by 16 different contests or open reading periods.  I had been a semi-finalist for a couple of contests, and a finalist once, which was enough hope for me to keep trying.  I admit that I didn’t have a great sense of where my manuscript might fit in the publishing landscape—it’s a hard thing to predict, even if you’re reading a lot—so I blanketed the market, sending to as many places as I could manage.   It was expensive to do this, and emotionally taxing to get the rejections, but I’m glad I invested.

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

Chord Box was always my title.  Alice Fulton, who served as my thesis committee chair in graduate school, suggested it.  It comes from two lines in my poem “Echo”: “Lungs lift against the chord/box, stir its twin folds.”  Because the book is primary about music and sound—with the guitar and the human voice being two of its major subjects—Alice’s suggestion hit home.  The title, to me, seemed to suggest both the physical body of a guitar, as well as the voice box, or larynx, which houses the vocal chords.

Alice Fulton also gave me another helpful piece of publishing advice: it’s good to avoid having a title poem for your collection.  A title poem puts a lot of pressure on that one small piece of the manuscript, and, if the judge or editor isn’t crazy about the poem, it could hurt your chances of getting published.

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’d suggest sending to both contests and open reading periods.  My book was picked up, along with Joshua Robbins’s and Elton Glaser’s, out of the submissions to the Miller Williams Prize.  Sometimes a contest judge or editor will feel passionately enough about your manuscript to publish it, even if it’s not the contest winner.

When you feel that your manuscript is ready to send out, I’d suggest that you send it to as many open reading periods and contests as you can afford.  It feels terrible, and like a huge waste of money, but most of us have to reach a critical mass with manuscript submissions before our books will be picked up.  I was lucky enough to have the book taken pretty early in the process, but I think that this was due to, at least in part, the fact that I was so diligent about sending our the manuscript from the very beginning.  Because I initially didn’t have much extra money to write the contest checks, I moved into a cheaper apartment and took on a roommate for a year, thus cutting down on my monthly expenses. It was worth it.

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

Chord Box is essentially the same as my MFA thesis, though I added and subtracted some poems.  The sections have remained mostly the same as they were for my thesis. The first section of the book is a long narrative sequence, and I knew all of those poems had to be in a section together in order for the story to make sense.  The sequence is a very charged and morally ambiguous coming-of-age narrative, and while it initially felt like a real risk to have it come first in the book, my editor said that it was this section that really grabbed her attention.  The middle section of the book was more assorted in its subjects and forms, and I played around with the order of these poems quite a bit.  

The last section of the book is about living in China.  The inclusion of some Chinese words, and characters is a challenge for some readers, and so I tried to arrange that section so that the first poem “teaches” you how to read the poems that follow it.  I wanted to ease the reader into the more experimental/less transparent aspects of the book.  When you’re submitting your manuscript, anything you can do to make it more user-friendly is good. Contest readers and editors will likely be tired by the time they start reading your manuscript.

For a while, I was worried that the last section of the book, because of its more experimental poetics, might be the start of second book, rather than the conclusion of this first one.  However, what I learned is that it’s fine to have the last section veer off in a slightly different direction, so long as there are some resonances with poems earlier in the collection.

One thing I wish I’d known: the manuscript was much too long in its original form.  I think it’s better to include fewer poems when you’re trying to get your manuscript published. Less can be more.

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

University of Arkansas Press gave me a lot of freedom around how the book was designed, especially when it came to the cover.  My friend Monica Burke, whose primary artistic field is lamp-making, designed the cover of Chord Box.   We had a number of conversations and trial designs before coming up with our final pick.  A lot of book covers are really drab, and I wanted something that was slightly outrageous.  (My book cover reminds me of a paperback from the 1970’s.)  I’m grateful that the press went with Monica’s idea, and kept an open mind, even if my book looks different than most of the books in their series.

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

As I described, my friend Monica Burke was responsible for almost all aspects of the cover.

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?

Yes, a fair number of the poems had been published in journals, especially in the middle and last section of the book.   Publishing these poems was a way of testing the waters, seeing if my writing was resonating with editors and readers.  I’m glad I did this. It gave me enough confidence to start sending out my book-length manuscript.

But the first section of the book, as I’ve described, is a long sequence, and so most of those poems did not place in journals, mostly because one really needs to read all of them together to make sense of the narrative.  I’d published the opening poem of that sequence in a magazine, but that was the only poem.

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 editor, Enid Shomer, was a very thorough reader.  We had two very long phone calls and went through each poem together, and from there I made occasional line edits, word adjustments, or omissions.   I took most of her suggestions, though she left the final choices up to me. The best suggestion Enid gave me was to cut a number of poems from the manuscript.  I was shocked to discover that, even after I’d cut a number of poems, the final manuscript is close to 100 pages.  That’s very long for a first book of poetry. 

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

Oh man.  I currently live in a very small town in rural Ohio, and no one gets mail delivery at their home; you have to go to the post office.   When I went to look for the box, it wasn’t there.  Because Kenyon College is a small community, I finally found the box at the office of The Kenyon Review, where I work.  I opened the box immediately, and, yes, took a picture of the books!   A mentor, Janet McAdams, instructed me to sleep with the book under my pillow that first night, for good luck.  (I did.)
How has your life been different since your book came out?

It’s nice to know that those poems are officially “done,” and I’ll never revise them again!  I also think that having published a book, for better or worse, affords some people’s respect, and can, at least on good days, affirm your choice to live a creative life.  It’s also been nice to share my work with a larger group of people; so much of writing feels like talking to the wall.  In theory, the book now means I’m “qualified” for a number of academic jobs, but it’s a very competitive world out there, so I have my doubts.   I have a fellowship at the moment, so I haven’t entered the larger job market just yet.

It’s important to remember that everyone is on their own timeline when it comes to writing and publishing.   Many people have to wait for years before their first book is published, but by the time that first book is taken, they have another fantastic manuscript completed, or they’re deeply immersed in a second project, and they’ve got a strong sense of identity as a writer.  I was only 26 years old when Chord Box was picked up for publication, and not quite 28 years old when it was published.  I’m grateful to have gotten this relatively early start, but it also means that my next project feels pretty nascent, and I still lack confidence about my ability to write meaningfully and artfully.  I’ve felt a little bit unmoored for these past two years, often worrying about whether or not I’ll publish another book, and when it might happen.  I suppose this is a common experience.

For the most part, my life is the same as before the book.  However, it’s been fun to do some readings, and to have the book to share with new and old friends.  I’m grateful.

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 hard to talk about your own work, but I think Chord Box a buildungsroman in every sense of the word.  It’s also a book about music, identity, and geography.  Martha Collins, who was good enough to write me a blurb, says the book is about “the language of sound, and the sounds of language.” That is pretty astute, I think!

What have you been doing to promote Chord Box, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I’ve done a string of readings—mostly places where I’ve lived or know people—and that has been fun. I’ve also promoted the book, to some extent, through Facebook.  I haven’t had much luck getting reviews for the book, which is a bit of a disappointment, but it’s still early; Chord Box has only been out since February.   Reviews are hard to come by for your first book, or so I’ve heard.  In general, I think I’m not so good at self-promotion, but I’m working on it. It takes a lot of energy, and it’s not very conducive to writing itself.

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

As I mentioned before, I’ve really struggled with confidence around my work, and, unlike some of the thicker-skinned among us, I don’t deal with rejection very well.  Luckily, someone did give me the important advice: just focus on the work.  Write what you need to write, even if it isn’t as hip or clever as what your peers are writing.  And if you really want your book published, you’ve got to keep sending it out.   If it gets rejected many times, this doesn’t mean anything in particular; it’s common, and the chances of getting published are always slim, even if you’ve got a strong manuscript.  The more you send out, the better your chances will be.

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

After writing so much about music, sound is now the primary sensory operation in most of my poems.  It’s more important than the visual, even, which is usually the dominant sense in writing.  But in regards to most of the poems in Chord Box: it was a different era of my life, and I can never write like that again.  The new poems are more global and political in their scope, and are less about identity or history than the ones in Chord Box.   They are also formally different from my old poems; my sense of the line continues to evolve, and I find that the ultra-terse, tightly-wound lines that I used to write don’t seem to be serving my words any longer.  Form is holy to me, so the old habits have been hard to break.

In some ways, the new poems are more ambitious, which means they often fail or don’t quite live up to their potential. Writing is really hard! Every time I sit down to work, I feel like I’m trying to reinvent the wheel.  But I’m still at it.   I’ve had a writing fellowship for this past year, which has been great, and has given me time and space to think and try new ways of writing.  Some experiments fail; others produce interesting results.  And, in addition to poems, I’ve also begun to experiment with a new form altogether: essays.

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

I hope so?  As Whitman would say,  “Great or small, your furnish your parts towards the soul.”

Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers
is the author of Chord Box (University of Arkansas Press, 2013).  Her poems appear in The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, FIELD, Crab Orchard Review, AGNI Online, POOL, and other journals.  Born and raised in North Carolina, she is a graduate of Oberlin College and the MFA program at Cornell University, and also spent several years teaching in rural China.  She is currently a poetry fellow at The Kenyon Review, and lives in Gambier, Ohio.  You can read more about her poetry on her website: