The version of the manuscript selected by Dream Horse Press went to exactly 5 places, and DHP was the first to respond of those five. However, well before that—for the previous two years or so—I'd sent various incarnations of the manuscript to 57 contests and open reading periods. I only know the number by heart because I often sit at my desk and mourn the hundreds of dollars I threw away by sending the manuscript out way before it was ready. I basically started by sending out my MFA thesis manuscript, which, for some people, might be a good idea, but for me it was a terrible idea. I did, however, gather 10 different finalists and semi-finalists nods in that time, so those were certainly encouraging, but I've learned my lesson about sending out a manuscript too early.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been American Amen? Did it go through any other changes?
The title changed often. My MFA thesis is/was titled Young Teeth, a title I still really like, but the book simply outgrew what that title meant to/for me. From there, it was called A Poem about My Father Will Always Begin My Father and Salt Swells. As the book started to evolve past concerns of fathers to envelope other obsessions, none of those titles captured the overall thematic concerns of the manuscript, so I started over.
I was, one day in the spring of 2009, chatting with poet Amy Newman on good ole Facebook Chat about my troubles with titling the collection. She asked me why I didn't try to find a line or phrase from one of the poems that could stand as a title. I immediately thought of the repetition of the word “Amen” in the poem “Notes from a Sleepwalker.” But that wasn't enough on its own, so Amy suggested “American Amen,” and I couldn't—still can't—explain the visceral reaction I had to the suggestion. I just knew that that was it. That was the title.
As for other changes, of course the manuscript went through numerous reorderings. I couldn't, even if I desperately wanted to, outline all of them. A lot of those changes happened organically as I wrote new poems that fit into the scheme of American Amen. The manuscript had, at one time or another, as many as 6 sections and as few as one (which is how it was published), so it was in flux a lot as I shaped it.
Sticking with the title: what, in your mind, makes this book distinctly American?
I've anticipated this question from you for months, Keith, because I knew you'd ask it based on the fact that we've talked about it before. Here's the thing: part of me isn't so sure there's anything more American about my book than any other, but there's another part of me that thinks the title is simply a call to tradition. Whitman told us to “contain multitudes,” to sing ourselves because “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” and I certainly wanted to speak to that tradition, to that cosmic consciousness, but I didn't set out to do so on any large scale. I simply wanted to recreate the America of my youth as I remember it: fishing with my father, watching birds and squirrels run around the pine forests of northern Wisconsin, trying to understand divorce and the emotional upheaval of father and son relationships. I didn't want to write an American book, per se, but I did want to represent, imagistically and metaphorically, the landscape, both physical and spiritual, that surrounded me as a child. So in that way, the book is incredibly American. But in another way, America is subjective in the book, too. It's a personal America and not a cultural or societal one. Dickinson wrote in one of her letters, “Nature is a haunted house—but Art—a house that tries to be haunted.” In American Amen, America is a haunted house, but the poems are simply trying to be haunted by its presence.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews that fatherhood is a big part of this book, which anyone who has read it certainly knows. How many poems were written and included in the manuscript after your son was born? And because of your son, did the book keep changing a lot? In what ways?
The seed poems of the book, the ones that helped me know that fathers/sons would be its major theme, were written back in 2006 during my MFA program, a couple years before I became a father for the first time, but the poems dealing with my own experiences of fatherhood certainly, and obviously, came after Auden was born in late 2008. The poems about fatherhood are stylistically different, are mimetic of the lifestyle that fatherhood thrust on me. Taking care of Auden during the first few months when he suffered off and on with colic forced me to find little pockets of time to write rather than the long, sit-down sessions I was used to. The poems written during that time take on a more fragmentary quality, a more associative and disjunctive mode. Even the lines are staggered and tired; they fall away from themselves, drop-step and droop like a Charles Wright line. So the whole book became saturated with these new poems and it gave it a new life, one both simultaneously tired and rejuvenated.
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 was concerned about bringing the manuscript into the world so as to gain readers and participate in the tradition and conversation of contemporary poetry. That's it. Of course winning a contest entered my mind: the prestige, the cool tag line in my bio, the small—though probably insignificant—advantage it might give me in an already stupidly tough job market. But in all honesty, I just wanted the book to come out on a press I respected and admired. Somehow or another I was able to win a contest, but I'd have been just as happy if I'd placed the book through an open reading period.
The only advice I can proffer regarding sending out to contests versus open reading periods is this: only send your manuscript to presses on which you'd be thrilled to appear. If you aren't positive that you'd flip your lid and hoot and holler if/when you get that magical email/phone call, then don't send there.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
As I mentioned above, the book went through so many changes that I can't possibly detail them all, but basically the book just changed shape as I wrote new poems that fit its mold, its themes and concerns. I tried to assemble the book as if I were an outside reader: what kind of poem would I want to read after this poem about fishing with a father? What kind of poem should precede this one about birds bursting through this speaker's wife's chest? That kind of thing. Over time, the book took myriad different shapes, but eventually the frame-work of organizing it around the “Aubade” poems happened and from there things, somehow, magically fell into place.
In addition to being the co-editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry, you also have a good number of prose poems in American Amen. Was it your intention to have prose poems in the manuscript from the beginning? How do you decide what needs to be written in lines and what becomes a prose poem?
When I think back to the writing of the poems that I knew would be the essential building-blocks of American Amen—again, in or around 2006—the first two poems that really stand out are “Notes from a Sleepwalker” and “Tricycle,” both prose poems. So in a way, yes, I initially wanted to have a variety of free-verse forms in American Amen, but I never, for that manuscript or any other, set out to write a particular form. It may sound mystical and cheesy, but I honestly do believe in the notion of organic form: the forms choose me as much I as choose them. At that time—during the last weeks of my first year at BGSU's MFA program—I was experimenting with the prose poem form as much to irritate my professor who said they weren't poetry at all (that's a long story) as I was to find a way to make the oxymoronic thing itself work. Then, of course, that silly motivation of pissing off an instructor wore off and I started working in the form in earnest. I loved its freedom, its inclusiveness, its visual shape.
As far as deciding which poems beg for lines and which don't, I think it has something to do with the velocity of the voice. A lot of times poems will come to me in this dynamically narrative, fantastical, parabolic, almost fairy-tale-like voice, and most of the time those beg for the prose form. And there's also the bizarre mock-confessional voice of “Notes from a Sleepwalker.” Those poems also—though there aren't many in American Amen—usually demand the prose form.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
J.P. Dancing Bear, the editor and head-honcho over at Dream Horse Press, asked me if I had any preferences about font. I told him I did. He then picked out a font that fit my descriptions and never once did I doubt him. He did an incredible job with the internal layout of the book. The book is, in my opinion, beautiful, inside and out. I'll address the cover in the next question...
Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?
Yes! And boy did I get lucky. I had, earlier in 2009, fallen in love with the cover image of F. Daniel Rzicznek's Divination Machine (which, beyond the cover, is an incredibly vibrant and imaginative book...an incredible poet, that Rzciznek). I emailed Dan to ask who had designed it. Dan put me in touch with Frank Cucciarre, owner of Blink Concept & Design, Inc. After I got approval from Bear to consult an outside designer, I asked Frank if he might be willing to create some original art for the cover of American Amen. To my astonishment, he said yes! From there I sent Frank some representative work from the manuscript and he did the rest. In short, I'm incredibly grateful for Frank's vision and for Bear's permission to use an outside designer.
What about the publication of the actual poems 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 wouldn't say there was a concern to publish them, but I was certainly aware that previously publishing the poems added both a sense of credibility to them and aided in attracting a potential audience for the book's eventual, hopeful, publication. I still believe, perhaps naively, that having at least half a manuscript's poems published prior to sending it out does send the message to the press that you're interested in getting your work out into the world, to gathering readers, to participating in the contemporary conversation...but maybe that's just boohickey. I don't know.
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?
Just a little. Like I said earlier, it took so long to finally arrive at American Amen's final shape that once I did, I sort of left it alone. I did some line-editing, of course, and a little tinkering with some of the newest poems in the manuscript, but I didn't do any reordering or cutting or adding of poems. From what I hear, this isn't the norm, but it worked for me this time around. Perhaps next time it'll be different? Hell, I just hope there is a next time.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I remember sitting in the car on a very late summer—or very early fall, depending on how you view mid-September—afternoon just staring at the first advance copy that Bear sent along. I was in awe of how Frank's vision had come to life. The book was just so damn pretty. The cover had the great mixture of color and sense of line that I'd always imagined it'd have. And I felt a deep bit of gratitude to Bear and Dream Horse Press for choosing the book in the first place as winner of the Orphic Prize.
But that day pales in comparison to the day I received my first box of books from the publisher: it was the day of my daughter's birth! Traci Brimhall, poet and baby-sitter extraordinaire, was at our house watching my two-year old while we were at the hospital, and she texted me as I held Jorie Elizabeth for the first time to tell me that the box had arrived and that I was now the proud father of two very important firsts. It was an incredible moment.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
It hasn't really. And yet it has. I'm now officially on the job-market, which is terrifying. I just finished taking my comprehensive exams and am trying to finish up my Ph.D. at Western Michigan University. I'm also trying to book some readings to promote the release of American Amen, so that's exciting, but all in all, I'm just happy to be writing two new manuscripts while simultaneously enjoying my family.
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 be the a-hole who would want to tell them that poetry isn't about any one thing, that poetry is more interested in the how and why of language and its relationship to our perceptions and dreams and sense of wonderment. But I wouldn't actually do that. I would probably tell them that it's about childhood wonder, about fathers and sons and fatherhood, about fishing, about nature and Nature, about fear and its inevitability. In reality though, I'm not sure exactly what it's about. I think I'm just so damn close to it still. I'd love to revisit this question in a few years...and I think I will.
What have you been doing to promote American Amen, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I've done only one reading so far, at my alma mater, Northern Illinois University, but I've got readings scheduled (or half-scheduled anyway) for Cincinnati, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Chicago, Milwaukee, and other mid-western locales for this coming winter and spring, so I'm trying to do my best to get the book out there that way. I love reading. I adore interacting with folks who are interested in the work. It's the best feeling a poet can have in the public world, me thinks: to be received, to be cheered-on, to be wanted. I hope all of these readings come through, because I'd love to keep that feeling going for as long as I can.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Don't expect to sell a lot of books unless you put in the effort to sell them yourself. You've got to do readings, appearances, interviews (which are awesome but hard to come by, which is why this thing you're doing, Keith—and Kate before you—is so damn important), and whatever else you can to get the word out. I guess I sort of already knew that, and I guess people did tell me that before the book came out, but it's the best piece of advice I've been given and the one that seems most important going forward.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing?
It's freed me. I no longer feel restricted by subject matter or theme or style. I'm all over the place. I wrote the childhood/father/son book that I knew I'd have to write simply because of my obsessions and my prior life experiences, but now I'm free. I'm writing two different manuscripts now and both of them are wildly different from American Amen. It's been damn fun.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
No. But I do believe that people can change the world. It's up to us to do it though. We simply have to. We must. Both Rilke and James Wright can't be wrong. Right?
Gary L. McDowell is the author of American Amen (Dream Horse Press, 2010), winner of the 2009 Orphic Prize, and the chapbooks They Speak of Fruit (Cooper Dillon Books, 2009) and The Blueprint (Pudding House, 2005), and he's also the co-editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry (Rose Metal Press, 2010). His poems have won recent awards from The National Poetry Review and Minnetonka Review and have appeared in recent issues of Bellingham Review, diode, Indiana Review, New England Review, Quarterly West, and others. He lives in Portage, MI with his wife and two kids. He can be found online at http://www.garylmcdowell.com