Tuesday, February 4, 2014

#78 - TJ Jarrett

How often had you sent out Ain’t No Grave before it was chosen for publication by New Issues Poetry and Prose in 2012?

I’m happier not knowing how many places I sent my manuscript when I carpet-bombed the universe. It’s generally depressing. Let’s settle with ‘I sent it out lots’ and be done with it.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Ain’t No Grave? Did it go through any other changes?

In the book’s first incarnation, I called it The Moon Looks Down and Laughs after the Billie Holiday song, but as I was working through it, I thought that the title wasn’t really reflecting the direction of the book. A friend of mine is a musician here in Nashville and invited me to see a show. I protested, but when I got there, I saw Mike Farris & the Roseland Revue sing ‘Ain’t No Grave’—a cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I heard the first few bars, remembered the song and I knew right then that it was the title. Sort of like falling in love.

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?

First: Charlie Sheen has ruined the word ‘winning’ for years to come. Fo’ sho.

I hear it’s completely possible to get a book published without being in a contest. But on the nature of ‘winning’: It feels so good to say that you ‘won’ something that it’s completely understandable that we fall into the trap that a contest is worth winning.  We stop thinking about what kind of press and what kind of books they produce and have the all-consuming quest for ‘a’ book rather than focusing on either writing our best book or finding a press who best matches our needs and will produce their best book as well. So there’s that. There’s also the fact that there are several open reading periods that will also pick up a first manuscript and these shouldn’t be discounted.

But I’ve been lucky: I was runner up (see: not winning) for the New Issues Prize in 2012 and won one of the Crab Orchard Open Poetry Prize slots in 2013. Winning is not the point. Getting the work out at a press you admire and is a good fit for you is. I’ve heard tell of manuscripts that have a push/pull with editors. I’ve not had that at all and have had the most enlightening and constructive interactions with my publishers. If you want, you can call that winning.

I did a lot of complaining while I was writing the book—that it wasn’t picked up fast enough (which means instantaneously in my limbic brain) and that it wasn’t being written fast enough (which is crazy because it came together in about 18 months)—but if I had any real regrets, it’s that when I finally turned it over to my editor, it seemed too fast. I wanted more time.  I always do.

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

Oh, I must have written and rewritten into it at least 3 or 4 times. Not to mention little things here and there that make the book hold together. There were edits into poems that directly spoke to other poems because it could fit into that specific place. That’s the most fun part of the whole damned thing. I wrote both of my books in a bar, so I would just go in there, get all that ambient sound around me and get to work. I still can’t really write a poem without that sound.

NB. I’m trying to write without a bar because I’d like to keep my liver. Even though sometimes I wouldn’t even drink at the bar, I’d still want to be able to write without smelling of smoke and bad decisions. Let’s see how long that lasts. I always seem to crawl back to the bar when I want to get ‘real’ work done.

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?

New Issues has a design department, so I gave general thoughts on what I wanted and they gave me two covers and I picked one. I said that I wanted the moon in the trees and I got that. Maybe I’m low maintenance about it, but I think they did an incredible job with the cover and within their style guides. Also, Marni Ludwig (the winner of the contest and a production cycle before me) won the war with getting a serif font, so I ended up getting all that I wanted.

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?

In the sense that I think that having publications get you closer to writing better poems toward a book, I think publication is a means to get you on your way. I also think that’s the best way toward building public anticipation for a book. I never really thought of publication of poems per se as the measure of a good book. I’m fairly suspicious about using the fact that a poem is published as the only yardstick for whether it belongs to a 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?

William Olsen told me when we first met about the book that first books are often over edited. He was fairly adamant that I leave the order almost exactly as it was. I did some small tuning of line and a few word choice changes I’d had in my notes, but besides that, I let it roll as I sent it to them initially. Besides copy edits, I wasn’t all that hands on with the text after it was picked up. My second book was the exact opposite. The text that won is considerably different than the text that I sent in for publication. I’d just done an overhaul of the book when they called me. I shipped the book up to Jon Tribble and he was quite gracious about the changes in direction of the book. I think Zion (my second book) is a better book for those changes.

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

I’d like to say that I had this overwhelming sense of accomplishment, but I just sat at my kitchen table and cried. Because I’m a poet like that and too sensitive to be alive.
How has your life been different since your book came out?

I wish I could say it was completely different. I think my book sold me to my (admittedly awesome) new roommate. But really, I still buy my own groceries. I do my own laundry. I mop my own floors. Sometimes I take time off work to do a reading and I get a free meal. But then I’m back to my really dull, murder mystery BBC-a-thon that is my life.

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?”

I rarely bring it up, because every sonofabitch has a book in them and they all want to talk about it. I’m quite cagey about it, like when I used to go to bars and claim I was an airline stewardess because it was easier than admitting that I’m a software engineer. But when cornered, the synopsis is usually: This is a book about the nadir of race relations between 1880 and 1930 and what a southern black family does to resist and embrace the weight of history. But you know, in verse. The synopsis is true, and maybe the book is about a lot more than that, like death, malice between men, and the burden of the living and memory. But most (if not all) books are about that on some level, no?

What have you been doing to promote Ain’t No Grave, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I am travelling to places where I’ve been invited and doing readings and selling books. I want to do more, but I can’t because well, I have a corporate job and they have needs too. But I do like the fact that my boss and coworkers are always intrigued about the places I go and what I ate and we can chit chat about it. I’ve worked at places where I have to be a Fight Club character about my writing. In contrast, my current life is quite nice.

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

Dear pre-book Tanya:

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Run your own race, your own best time. Spend time with your words and enjoy them. This is your only first book. Don’t be an asshole; listening to the theme song to 8 Mile won’t make it go any faster. You’re not going to want it to go any faster in the long run. Writing a book isn’t about proving anything to anyone. Say what you need to say—no more, no less. There are so many things that are more important than this. Spend more time with your friends. Love them. The words will always be there. Get more sleep. Take care of yourself. Rest. Rest. Rest. Live fully, drink a little less, laugh a little more. Work is work and your overdeveloped sense of responsibility needs to understand limits.

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

I think I get a little bolder with each book I write. I don’t write from the ‘I wonder if I can write a book’ but from the ‘What is the most important thing for me to say’ place. That’s liberating.

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

Poetry rocks MY world. I think there are people to be reached and hearts to be touched and moved by words. 

TJ Jarrett is a writer and software developer in Nashville, Tennessee. Her recent work has been published or is forthcoming in African American Review, Boston Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Boxcar Poetry Review, Callaloo, DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, Linebreak, Rattle, Southern Poetry Anthology, Third Coast, West Branch and others. She has earned scholarships  from Colrain Manuscript Conference, Sewanee Writer’s Conference and Vermont Studio Center; a fellowship from the Summer Literary Seminars 2012; a runner up for the 2012 Marsh Hawk Poetry Prize and 2012 New Issues Poetry Prize; and her collection The Moon Looks Down and Laughs was selected as a finalist for the 2010 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry.  Her debut collection Ain’t No Grave was published with New Issues Press in the fall of 2013.  Her second collection Zion  (winner of the Crab Orchard Open Competition 2013)  will be published by Southern Illinois University Press in the fall of 2014. Find more at http://www.tjjarrett.com