Wednesday, July 2, 2014

#83 - Lynn Melnick

How often had you sent out If I Should Say I Have Hope before YesYes Books chose it for publication in 2012?

I think I sent it out kind of occasionally for a few years. It was never anything I focused on or thought enough about so I don’t remember exactly. I was lucky that YesYes asked to see my manuscript, because I suck at this kind of stuff.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been If I Should Say I Have Hope? Did it go through any other changes?

It was for a while When California Arrives It Lasts All Year, which I still love, but the title was one of the few things my editor, Katherine Sullivan at YesYes, wanted to change about the book, and I get it. If I Should Say I Have Hope encompasses more of what the book is.

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?

Those contests are a crapshoot, it seems. There are a hundred billion poets in the United States! I would advise poets to send to presses whose books they admire. I think one nice thing about going directly with a press is that you have more of chance that they’ll publish your second book, should there be one. A lot of contests are a one-off.

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

Oh gosh, I don’t know. I’m a slow-as-fuck writer and obsessive reviser of each poem. So it’s not like I had to choose which poem would go in a manuscript. They pretty much all did.

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

I’m a terribly un-visual person. My editor said to me, when we were first discussing the book, something like “I’m sure you’ve been thinking for years what your book cover would look like.” And I was embarrassed because I hadn’t at all. But YesYes’ designer, Alban Fischer, is a freaking wizard of book design and he made my book an astonishing beauty.

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

Yes. I decided I wanted an image of Los Angeles, of a certain kind of Los Angeles, but I just didn’t know what image exactly. I crowd-sourced my LA and art-world friends and I got so many amazing suggestions. My friend Merrill Feitell, who is a fiction writer, went to school with someone who is friends with the artist Zoe Crosher, and that’s how I came across her work. When I saw her photo series “Out the Window (LAX),” I stopped breathing. The image I finally went with “The LAX Best Western Suites, 2003” is exactly where my book lives, where my mind lives. I’m eternally grateful to Zoe Crosher for allowing us to use her work on 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?

Ha, no, that would be so nerve-wracking for me, to think so methodically about publication strategy, although it’s impressive, those who do. I was also very fortunate that most of the poems had been taken by journals over the years before YesYes got in touch with me, so I guess I didn’t have to think about it, really. Then again, it took me about a decade and a half to finish my book and let it go, so there’s that.

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?

I changed the title, as I mentioned, and I cut one poem that Katherine didn’t care for. I was only keeping it in there because it had hot pants in it. So I wrote another poem with hot pants in it, along with two other poems for the last section. Katherine felt I should get a little more hopeful toward the end of the book, and I tried. I also got the courage to remove a poem that I loved that just wasn’t right for the book. It was an elegy. The poem still exists online though.

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

It was also the day of my book party and so suddenly I was in a room with my book and over 100 people, which was a mindfuck in so many ways.
   
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?”

Someone would have to strike up a conversation with me, I’m kind of shy. If I were to answer that question I guess I would say “love, sex, violence, death, and California.”

What have you been doing to promote If I Should Say I Have Hope, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I’ve been doing my best. I didn’t post on social media when my book was accepted for publication or came out for sale, and I suppose I should have but I was bashful. But I’ve gotten several nice reviews in nice places and I did a shit ton of readings in NY and also California and a few other places and I’ve been getting slowly better at advocating for myself and my work.

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

“You will open yourself up to more personal scrutiny than you thought possible.” I think maybe it’s because of my subject matter, but I get a lot of trolls who get turned on by my book and/or seriously angry about it. Also people feel like they can ask you personal questions during Q&As, like they want to know why you look so sweet but you write about fucking and drugs so much. But, you know, this other weird thing happened, sort of the opposite. I was always so worried about feeling exposed, and I certainly feel raw and anxious about being public in any way, but then I realized that the sky didn’t fall in when my book came out, that I can write about certain things and put them out there and keep going. So my new poems are even more dark and explicit, I think.

Are there any new writing projects in the works?

I’ve been writing a lot of poems, as well as essays and book reviews, and I’m also in the process of revising a novel. Also, a book I co-edited with the poet Brett Fletcher Lauer (whose terrific first book of poems, A Hotel in Belgium, came out last March) called Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation is coming out next spring with Viking.

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

“If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?” – Alice Walker

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Lynn Melnick is the author of If I Should Say I Have Hope, named a Top 40 Poetry Book of 2012 by Coldfront Magazine. She is co-editor, with Brett Fletcher Lauer, of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation (Viking, 2015). Recent poems have appeared in The New Republic and A Public Space. She teaches poetry at the 92nd Street Y and works with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. She grew up in Los Angeles and currently lives in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter @LynnMelnick
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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

#82 - Wendy Xu

How often had you sent out You Are Not Dead before it was chosen for publication by Cleveland State University Press as a finalist for the first book competition in 2013?

Unbelievably, CSU Poetry Center was one of the two places I ever sent my book. The other was Wave Books. I dropped those two manuscripts in the mail at the same time, fully prepared for the long road ahead of many more trips to the post office. I got so very lucky.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been You Are Not Dead? Did it go through any other changes?

It went through so many title changes, all of which I kept in chronological order in a word document that I am looking at now. Some funny (very real) highlights are:

STAR VERSUS SIDEWALK
SEVEN HORSES AND THE OCEAN
IN LIEU OF A STUTTERING LOVE LETTER
YELLOW PORCH POEMS
WE ARE BOTH SURE TO DIE

The few weeks before I sent off the manuscript, I would run downstairs almost every day, to knock on my friend Lech's door who lived in the apartment below me, trying out new titles on him. He vetoed so many bad ones, and talked me through other possibilities. Though it is only a matter of time I believe, waiting for a book's correct title to reveal itself to its author. I like to say I had no hand in it. Like letting your kids name themselves.

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 guess I was concerned with the possibility of winning a contest, seeing as how I sent to one. The other place I sent was an open reading period. But mostly, no, I don't feel that any aspect of the first-book publication process should be prioritized over giving editors and presses you deeply believe in the opportunity to read your book. Your relationship with the contest ends when the contest ends. Your relationship with that press and publisher/editor is only beginning. When I look in any direction in my apartment, I see Cleveland State University Poetry Center Books. I have loved and admired them for so long. If I could, I would have driven to Cleveland and put my manuscript in Michael Dumanis' trash can, if it meant he might read it. The delivery method shouldn't matter, what matters is the dignity and love with which you're assured your book will be treated.

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

Many versions, many evenings of collapsing in and among its pages on my living room floor. Kind eyes of friends. Reminding myself to think less, intuit inter-poem relationships more.

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

I was given the opportunity to be as involved or uninvolved as I wanted, which immediately made me feel super comfortable. I do a tiny bit of book arts stuff myself for iO Books, the chapbook micro-press I publish, so I wanted to stay in the loop, but mostly my role was choosing between impossibly beautiful font pairings that Amy Freels (CSU's designer) sent me over email. They made me feel so taken care of, and they let me suggest tweaks and tiny revisions to things that were so-close-to-perfect.

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

CSU generously allowed me to entirely choose the cover image, which is a collage by the wonderful Belgian artist Jelle Martens.

A secret is that it also appears on the cover of this beautiful contemporary collage book, Cutting Edges.

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 mostly told myself I would begin sending out the book when it felt like a unit. A good number of the poems did end up finding homes in journals before that time, but, it was something I (surprisingly) did not overthink.

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 book went through two full cycles of editing, once for substantive edits, once for grammar. I learned that I have almost never spelled a hyphenated word correctly. I spent a lot of time on the phone with Frank Giampietro, CSU's interim director, pulling the book through the long process. It was amazing. We explored possibilities for almost every single poem, a better word here, a different line break here. The level of detail and attention was unbelievable. In the end, I chose to change or not change things based entirely on my own preference, and being given that kind of agency was really heartening.

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

When the proof arrived in the mail, I cried and touched it a lot. When they handed me a final copy at AWP Boston, I made a series of absurd faces and I remember someone took my picture. It's the worst photo I've ever taken. I was too happy to remember how to smile.
   
How has your life been different since your book came out?

Oof, this question! For a while after it came out, I couldn't write any poems. Then I gave up trying. Then I stopped reading poetry altogether and just read novels for a while. The poems came back though, as they always do. The plainer answer is that I've had the opportunity to give more readings, meet more poets, and just generally "do more poetry things." Publishing a book has also revealed to me a desire to write slower. I feel calm, I feel like plodding along at a different pace.

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?”

This happened to me a few months ago, on my way to Cleveland to read. I said "feelings." Then I felt a little embarrassed, and offered something about "what happened to me when I became displaced and moved somewhere new." They were very satisfied with this second answer.

What have you been doing to promote You Are Not Dead, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I made my best effort to do a lot of readings since the book came out, and make it to things whenever I could. Also the book was taught in a few classes last year at U. of Minnesota, Florida State University, and UMass-Amherst. But that had nothing to do with my efforts, it was all the kindness of other poets and writers. The experience of being tied to a literature-object in the world has been humbling. I won't ever get used to it.

In March I'm finally going on a reading tour, basically a full year after the book was published. It's "promotion" for the book, but it's also my best excuse for getting in a car with my friends Brian Foley and Luke Bloomfield, whose respective books will be out too, and driving around the country seeing faces.

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

I wish more people would have forced me to relax about aspects of the book coming out. It's amazing more people didn't hang up on me during that time.

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

My language and my poems have been changing, and I'm working on some poems now that might eventually become a thing. They haven't quite taken on thing-ness yet, but, I'm excited about them.

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

Yes, always, yes.

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Wendy Xu is the author of You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013) and two chapbooks: The Hero Poems (H_NGM_N) and I Was Not Even Born (Coconut Books), a collaboration with Nick Sturm. Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry, Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, The Volta, Columbia Poetry Review, and widely elsewhere. She co-edits and publishes iO: A Journal of New American Poetry / iO Books, and teaches writing at UMass-Amherst. Find more at http://extrahumanarchitecture.tumblr.com
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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

#81 - Natalie Giarratano

How often had you sent out Leaving Clean before it was chosen for the 2013 Liam Rector First Book Award from Briery Creek Press?

I sent out a first version of Leaving Clean for about a year and a half—to over 30 contests and open submission periods—but didn’t receive so much as a nibble. I knew there was work to be done on the manuscript, so I spent the following year or so revising, reordering and cutting and adding new poems. That later version started to get some attention (three finalist nods) and after another round of 20 or so contests, Leaving Clean won the Liam Rector First Book Prize for Poetry in 2013.

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

The title has been through a couple of changes. Dancing near the Surface was first and, though it is a line from a pretty dark poem in the manuscript, I ultimately decided it sounded too light-hearted on its own for the subject matter of the book and for me. I also imagined some editors rolling their eyes after reading that title and never getting to the actual poems. This made me cringe.

I also sent the manuscript out with a bit gloomier title, Almost Washout, which is what the title was when it won the contest. However, the insightful editor at Briery Creek Press, Mary Carroll-Hackett, requested a new title and gave me options from which to choose. I thought Leaving Clean, with that gerund always in action and, therefore, the leaving always and never happening, was the way to go.

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 definitely sent out to more contests than open reading periods, but mainly, honestly, because of my ignorance of open reading periods. Any manuscript needs to be sent where it might potentially belong. But my best advice is to admit, to know, that it’s all a crapshoot. Good work or no, it takes that one or handful of readers that dig your work to get your book published. No matter how much work you do in learning presses and others’ work, you can’t absolutely know their evolving architecture and how yours might fit with it.

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

Leaving Clean went through three versions before it was selected for publication. It began, essentially, as my MFA thesis and included many short poems that dealt with the grand “I” with which many first books deal. In many ways the final version does deal with what the original did but, I hope, in more complex ways. I think by the final version I had cut ten shorter poems, added two new poems—one of which is eight pages long—and edited the remaining poems and poem order, the latter pretty drastically. This is when it is great to have other writers and/or editors to see what you’re too close to see. My very good friend, Beth Marzoni, helped me put together this final version and was bold enough to suggest cutting so many poems and to suggest which newer poems to add. Without that other set of unflinching eyes, I might not have done what I needed to in order for someone to want to publish this manuscript.

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?

The interior design of the book is all Briery Creek Press, but I was totally on board based on the design of previous Liam Rector winners’ books that I had read.

As for the cover, when I signed my contract with the press, I knew I would have a choice of a handful of photographs taken by the students that help run the press. Having worked for a small press while in graduate school, I knew what beautiful work students could do. I ultimately went with the photo that is the cover because it was a bit more abstract and weirder than the other choices yet still works well with the poems.

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?

Well, I sent out to all kinds of journals, as I’m sure most poets do. I’d say maybe half of the poems had been published prior to Leaving Clean being accepted for publication, but I never felt pressure to have most or all published. I think for most emerging writers working today that is a rare feat. Maybe some folks just work more diligently at the submission process than I do, though.

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?

I did some light editing myself—commas turned into semi-colons, a dash added here or there—but most of the manuscript is in the same shape as it was when I sent it to the contest. The editor did not ask for any changes to the poems or poem order as we went through the editing process, just a new title. I don’t know if this is usual for the press, but it made me feel much better about all of the edits I’d completed for the manuscript over the years.

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

It was unbelievable to see this thing that I’d been working on for, more or less, eight years finally in front of me. Something I had begun to think would not happen at all. I got to share that day with my husband, who knows those eight years well. Even the dog crazy-danced in the kitchen with us.
   
How has your life been different since your book came out?

Oh, you know, I get to pal around and talk shop with James Franco. So there’s that. Which is to say I lie more.

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?”

My initial reaction would probably be “you should read the book,” since what one person gets out of a book is not always what others do, which is one of the things I love most about the reading and writing life. I’m not going to make a lot of friends with that, though, so I might follow up with: often when we fight off the person we don’t want to become, we’re also fighting culture, religion, family, and landscape—all of which can come gunning for you as soon as you turn your back to them.

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

Don’t beat yourself up over what you have so little control. Dance. Be willing to let poems or a manuscript go or to work a lot more on them/it. And then dance some more.

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

If anything, the publication of Leaving Clean makes me dare to think that perhaps my singular voice might be important to this world and, so, makes me want to keep writing and publishing because it might just matter. I’ve a near-ready-to-send-around second manuscript and have been thinking about a third that might have to do with cities of music during the Civil Rights Movement—a broad idea I had after visiting the National Civil Rights Museum and the STAX Museum on the same day while briefly in Memphis.

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

Yes, if even for just a few seconds at a time, yes.

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Originally from small-town Southeast Texas, Natalie Giarratano received her MFA and PhD in creative writing from Western Michigan University. Her first collection of poems, Leaving Clean, won the 2013 Liam Rector First Book Prize in Poetry and was published in June 2013 by Briery Creek Press. Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in Gulf Stream: Poems of the Gulf Coast, Isthmus Review, American Literary Review, Laurel Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among others. D.A. Powell selected her work for inclusion in the 2011 edition of Best New Poets, and she won the 2011 Ann Stanford Poetry Prize from Southern California Review. She co-edits Pilot Light, an online journal of 21st century poetics and criticism, teaches writing at American University, and lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, Zach Green, and their pup, Miles. Find more at
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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

#80 - Mark Neely


How often had you sent out Beasts of the Hill before it was chosen for the 2011 FIELD Poetry Prize?

I began sending out a version years before it was published—it was a finalist for a contest as early as 2004. But the manuscript has changed drastically since them, and I think it was fortunate that earlier version wasn’t picked up by anyone—I’m much happier with what it became. In its final form, Beasts of the Hill circulated for about two years before it was chosen for the FIELD Prize.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Beasts of the Hill? Did it go through any other changes?

The earlier version was called Dogs of Indiana, which was also the title of one of the poems. I abandoned it when I cut that poem from the manuscript. Beasts of the Hill comes from a poem I love, Theodore Roethke’s “In a Dark Time”: “I live between the heron and the wren / Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.”

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?

When I started thinking about publishing a book, it seemed like contests were virtually the only to get a first book published. Even now, a lot of publishers still won’t look at first books. But I sent to open reading periods when it was an option. My rule was, will I be proud to see my name on a book from that press. If the answer was yes, I sent to them, regardless of the editorial system.

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

This book began as my MFA thesis, but only about three poems from the thesis remain. Over the years I took out poems I thought were weak, or ones that didn’t fit thematically or stylistically with the rest of the book. Sometimes I think I would have been better off burning the thesis—I see now it was apprentice work—and starting over. But I’m happy with the result. It just took a long time.

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

My father-in-law is a painter and the image on the cover is his. I showed it to Oberlin and they liked it. Their book designer designed the final cover and did all the interior design, which was tricky because of the weird formatting of some of the poems (four square blocks of prose arranged in a larger square, like a crossroads, or a four-pane window).

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 think it helps to have a solid-looking acknowledgements page—it let’s first readers know
the poems have been appreciated by magazine editors, but no one’s going to publish a book based on the tastes of other editors. I’ve seen excellent books published with very short acknowledgements pages. Since this book took a while to find a home, quite a few of the poems were published in magazines before it came out. I don’t know if had any influences on the editors at Oberlin or not.

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?

Actually very little. My editors had some suggestions, which I took, and there were some minor things I changed, but I’d already been over the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb by that point, so most of it stayed pretty much the same.

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

Joy. I ripped open that box of books and just stared for a while. Also relief that it actually happened.
   
How has your life been different since your book came out?

I’m better able to take genuine pleasure from other people’s successes, which is good. Resenting other people’s achievements isn’t healthy, and in a small group like the poetry community, it’s deadly. Oscar Wilde summed up this attitude when he said, “It’s not enough that I succeed; my friends must also fail.” For a while there I felt like I was the last writer I knew without a published book and that was a frustrating feeling.

I also have an easier time imagining people actually reading the poems I’m writing now, which makes it harder to write in a way, but also gives me a greater sense of urgency.

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’d peek at whatever they were reading, then say the book was about a) the zombie apocalypse, b) a band of child warriors forced to fight for their freedom, or c) the American Civil War, depending on the book they were holding.

Or I’d say it was about love and death, and let my seatmate turn gracefully back to fiddling with his or her electronic device.

What have you been doing to promote Beasts of the Hill, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I’m not much of a social media person, which I know is how you’re supposed to promote your work these days. Instead I did a lot of readings the year after the book came out. I met lots of cool people, caught up with old friends, and generally had a blast. It was amazing and encouraging to see enthusiastic audiences for poetry in so many far-flung places.

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

I’ve heard (and given) all the advice, and all of it is true and none of it means anything. If writing matters to you, write. Don’t worry too much about the rest. Of course it probably would take a lifetime of Buddhist training to not worry about the rest, but try. For a lengthier explanation of my thoughts on this, see here.

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

I’m just finishing up another poetry manuscript, and I have a nonfiction project in the works. I’m not sure having the book published has affected my writing much, but working on it all those years certainly has.

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

Yes and no. 

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Mark Neely’s first book, Beasts of the Hill, won the FIELD Poetry Prize. He is also the author of a chapbook, Four of a Kind, from Concrete Wolf Press. His poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Barrow Street, Boulevard, and elsewhere. You can find out more about him at www.markneely.com 
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Monday, February 17, 2014

#79 - Ash Bowen


How often had you sent out The Even Years of Marriage before it was chosen for the 2012 Orphic Prize from Dream Horse Press?

I'm not sure. I've suffered two laptop implosions since 2012, so my records from that time are gone. I completed my MFA in the summer of 2008, and I know that I sent out that version of the manuscript a few times, but that was a very different manuscript that bears little-to-no resemblance to the book you see today. I got serious about revising the manuscript in 2012, and I sent out the revised version in late summer and autumn to three or four contests and three presses. The manuscript was a semi-finalist in one contest and a near-miss at one of the presses. I won the Orphic Prize at the end of December. 

Tell me about the title. Had it always been The Even Years of Marriage? Did it go through any other changes? 

The manuscript went through a bunch of different titles. Originally, it was called gravityANTIgravity, but that was when the book contained some poems that  I ultimately yanked. Corey Marks at the University of North Texas really worked with me and taught me how to view the manuscript as a book and not just a collection of poems. He suggested that I comb the manuscript for phrases that jumped out as potential titles. I poured over the poems in a coffee shop in Denton, Texas, and that phrase seemed to work as a frame for the book.  

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?

At first, I just wanted my book to come out; I didn't care how. But then winning a contest became important because I'd been told a contest win was helpful on the job market. Since I was preparing to go on the market around that time, the contest route seemed the way to go. But these days, I'd be inclined to tell poets to be less concerned about contests and more focused on finding a quality press. Do a lot of research and find out which presses are publishing books that they'd feel honored to have their work sit beside.

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

I won't lie: assembling the book was very difficult. For months my partner would come home to a living room covered with manuscript pages I'd lain out on the floor. She'd find me on my knees, reading the poems aloud to find the poems that resonated against each other. After I'd shuffled and reshuffled the pages about 10,000 times, I enlisted the help of poets Sandy Longhorn and Anthony Robinson, both of whom made useful suggestions about the order and structure.

When I'd been an MFA student at the University of Arkansas, I'd studied under Geoffrey Brock. One day we'd gotten into a discussion about the impulse to arrange books of poems in a way that gave them a narrative arc. I can't speak for Brock now, but at the time, we were both heavily against this.

When I went to the University of North Texas to complete my doctorate, Corey Marks let me see that the way I'd been ordering my poems was hurting my chances of getting the book into print. He convinced me to approach the book's structure in a much different way, and I honestly believe that without his direction, the manuscript would still be sitting on my computer. His input was invaluable to me. He taught me a lot.

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

I wasn't involved in that aspect of the book—thankfully. I don't really have the patience for that kind of work.  As for editing, J.P. Dancing Bear sent the galleys to me, and those went back and forth a few times. I shuffled the order of a few poems but nothing major. We did drop one poem, as I recall, and replaced it with another. But other than that, we mostly looked at spacing and such. I don't think I touched the poems at all.

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

Dream Horse Press makes beautiful books, which was one of the reasons I submitted my manuscript to them. When it came time to pick art work, Bear had a strong vision for the book.  He has a lot more experience designing books, so I deferred to him. I've had loads of people tell me how much they love the cover.

Earlier you asked what advice I'd give to other poets, and I'd advise them to try to negotiate some control over the cover art. This might be something a poet might not even think about in the excitement of a press saying it wants to put your work out, but this is something that will certainly come up later. I personally know someone who ruined her relationship with a great press because of disagreements over the cover art for her book.

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 once read an interview with Cleopatra Mathis where she said she didn't really send poems out much anymore because she knew the poems would eventually come out in a book.  I suppose that I just don't have that kind of confidence.  I wouldn't even consider sending out a manuscript until the poems had been field tested through journal publication (though one of my favorite poems in my book was never able to find a home). Having an acknowledgments page that shows publication in good venues doesn't seem like it would hurt a manuscript when an editor looks at it.

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

Not much, to be honest.  But I'm not really one to sanctify such moments. Plus, by the time the book arrived, it'd been close to a year since I'd won the contest. I was already deep into a second manuscript, so the book in many ways was like a relic, almost like it was someone else's book.  But don't get me wrong:  I was doing cartwheels on the day that I learned that I had won the book contest. I opened a 20-year-old bottle of scotch that I'd been saving for the occasion. 

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?”

Honestly, that would never happen.  Aside from my wife and my kids, my family doesn't even know that I have a book, so mentioning to a stranger on a plane that I have a book is hard for me to imagine. But I think I would describe the book as one of loss and regret. There are some moments of levity, but I resisted catharsis. I don't think there is catharsis in real life, which suddenly strikes me as something The Misfit might say in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

What have you been doing to promote The Even Years of Marriage, and what have those experiences been like for you?

All of my Facebook friends are tired of hearing about the book. I suppose I'm doing the usual things people with first books do. I'm getting book reviews lined up. I've scheduled readings. But I'm looking for new ways to pimp the book. I had some ideas that involved multimedia, but I'm still fleshing out those ideas. So not much, I suppose. Or not as much as some. I did just start a Tumblr page, ashbowenpoems, to help promote my work. 

The experience has been very positive. I was invited to read as part of the Kraken Reading Series, a fantastic series run by the great Kyle McCord and equally great Trista Edwards. Though I had a terrible cold, I had a great time at that reading. I've also been invited to read at a college back home and I'm reading at the Arkansas Literary Festival. 

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

Probably not to expect too much; that the book isn't really going to change your life all that much.

Are there any new writing projects in the works?

I'm pretty close to having a second manuscript completed. The new poems are different than the poems in The Even Years of Marriage. Two poems in The Baltimore Review are representative of what I'm doing now.  I had a burst of creative energy last April when a friend of mine and I agreed to do the poem-a-day challenge. We swapped poems every day to keep each other honest, and I ended up with 30 solid drafts at the end of the month. Many of those drafts fell together into finished poems pretty quickly, so I was fortunate. I've been writing steadily ever since, but the drafts have taken longer to get to a usable state. One new poem went through 70+ drafts. 

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

Absolutely, or at least your own part of the world. I remember reading Norman Dubie's poem, “The Pennacesse Leper Colony for Women, Cape Cod: 1922,” for the intro creative writing class I took as a sophomore.  A feeling came over me that I've never forgotten.  I tried to express the impact  the poem had on me to my professor, but I couldn't translate the feeling into words. The world changed that day, for me anyway.

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Ash Bowen lives with his partner and step-children in Alabama where he teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. His work has appeared in New England Review, Blackbird, Best New Poets, Quarterly West, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere in print and online.  
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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. 

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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
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