How often had you sent out What Other Choice before it was chosen as the winner of the 2010 Exquisite Disarray First Book Poetry Contest?
I didn’t keep perfect records, but from what I can tell from those I did keep, I sent out earlier versions of the manuscript at least 17 times, primarily to other first book contests, nine times in 2008, seven times in 2009, and one time in 2010. One of those earlier, less-polished versions of what eventually became What Other Choice, a manuscript entitled “Hardly Planet Yet,” was a finalist for one of the earlier contests I entered: the inaugural (2009) White Crane / James White Poetry Prize (a biennial poetry prize established by the White Crane Institute in collaboration with Phil Willkie to honor gay male poetry), judged by Mark Doty. That finalist status gave me the encouragement to continue sending out revised versions of the manuscript until it was eventually picked up.
During the years I sent out my full-length manuscript, I also sent out various chapbook manuscripts, comprised mainly of poems that ended up in the full-length manuscript. In 2007, I entered 11 chapbook contests and placed second in the Frank O’Hara Award, judged by Jim Elledge; my manuscript was also a semifinalist for the Gertrude Press Poetry Chapbook Contest that year. The next year I entered just one chapbook contest and didn’t place, but in 2009 I entered a few contests and my manuscript was a semifinalist for the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize (Seven Kitchens Press). In 2010, my manuscript was a runner-up for the same prize, judged that year by Eloise Klein Healy, and was offered publication, which I unfortunately had to decline as by that time my full-length collection, which contained most of the poems in the chapbook manuscript, had already been accepted and was scheduled to appear before the chapbook would.
A strange thing happened in early 2010 that I haven’t shared publicly before. A small-press publisher (who shall remain nameless and whose books I very much admire) asked to take a look at my manuscript; not too long after sending it to that publisher, I also submitted it to the Exquisite Disarray First Book Poetry Contest (and notified the other publisher that I was doing so but that I would withdraw the manuscript from the contest immediately if the other publisher wanted it). Shortly thereafter, I received an acceptance email from that other publisher. I immediately emailed Exquisite Disarray to withdraw the manuscript from consideration for the contest, but apparently they never received the email. To my great surprise several months later, I received an email from Exquisite Disarray notifying me that judge Kathleen Flenniken (author of Famous, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize) had selected What Other Choice as winner of the contest. I was stunned and didn’t know what to do. First, I emailed Exquisite Disarray and told them what happened, that I had withdrawn the manuscript and that I was planning to stick with my current publisher. Then I had second thoughts: Exquisite Disarray was offering me more control over the production of the book and a larger print run. As they are a local press (based in Tacoma, which is not far from Seattle, where I live) I felt I would perhaps get more local publicity and have an easier time getting readings, etc. Furthermore, they were going to print the book on recycled paper and were going to use a local printer, both things that were quite appealing to me. That said, they were a new press, unlike the other publisher, and didn’t have a distributor. It was one of the more difficult decisions of my life; I consulted with a few close friends and former professors and with the other publisher, who graciously offered to release the manuscript, and finally decided to go with Exquisite Disarray.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been What Other Choice? Did it go through any other changes?
The first title for the earliest version of the manuscript was “Position,” which is also the title of one its poems; I decided I didn’t want that poem to be the focal point of the book, so I changed the manuscript title to “Hardly Planet Yet,” which is plucked from a line of another poem in the manuscript, a love poem called “Buggering You Under an Apple Tree.” I liked the way “Hardly Planet Yet” sounded, and I also liked that its meaning was a bit baffling without the context of the poem it came from. Ultimately, although I considered another title or two (including “Some Queer Poison,” which I felt was a bit more attention-grabbing and flashy), I decided on What Other Choice (which was plucked from a line of “Or,” another poem in the book) as I felt it was perhaps the most flexible, layered, and thematically relevant title I came up with and because it fit so ideally with the cover art I chose.
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?
A book is a manifestation of a possibility or a set of possibilities. For such a possibility or such possibilities to be made manifest, one doesn’t need to win a contest, one needs to write.
I certainly don’t think poets need to win a first-book contest or any other contest, for that matter, but I think it’s often easier (although not necessarily less expensive) to send out to contests in the U.S. (I don’t know whether the contest model is used widely in other countries, particularly in countries where English is not the first language, and hope that it is not) than to send to open reading periods, in that the contests are often more widely advertised and thus easier to find. I happened to find myself in the rare position of actually having a choice between going with a contest publisher or another publisher, as I said earlier. It was a really difficult choice; so many variables to consider and so many unknowns. I won’t say that winning a contest wasn’t something I considered while making that choice, but it wasn’t the only consideration by any means. (Frankly, I wish the contest model wasn’t the primary means for promoting and funding first books in the U.S., but for now economic concerns seem to require that. I should mention that the Exquisite Disarray First Book Poetry Contest did not have an entry fee, unlike many other first-book contests.)
Everyone takes a different path to publication; what’s most important is that the work be strong; if it is, odds are it will eventually find a publisher, although it may take many years. My advice to poets sending out their first manuscript is: send it to both contests and to open reading periods. If you can afford to submit to several at a time, do so. And try to be patient; although I admit the wait isn’t easy, it’s worth it: it will allow you to continue to revise and strengthen the manuscript. I’m very glad that it took as long as it did for my book to be published; had an earlier version been published, I would be a bit embarrassed by it, I think.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
It went through many versions; I saved a new version every time I made changes, whether minor or major, and I have more than 100 versions saved on my computer. The process was a mixture of pain and pleasure. I very much enjoy revising individual poems, but deciding which poems belonged together in the book and in what order was difficult. Luckily, I had some readers of various versions of the manuscript give helpful suggestions about that. Nathan Whiting (one of my favorite poets and author of, among many other books of poems, the fabulous This Slave Dreads Her Work as if She Were a Lamb Commanded to Be a Musician) was kind enough to put the poems in a completely new order for me, which was extremely helpful and served as a guide as I continued to revise the manuscript and move poems around.
Many friends, some who are poets and some who aren’t, provided very helpful feedback on individual poems and on the manuscript as a whole, and I’m ever so grateful.
I continued to revise poems in the book (and to ask for and receive feedback on those revisions from a few very generous friends—including Elizabeth Colen, Greg Laynor, Dana Guthrie Martin, and Katherine Stribling—and my ever-patient sister, Anne) until the night before the final version was sent to the printer; I was so afraid I was going to overlook something. I read the book over and over during the month before it was published, and made many changes, some fairly major (including cutting a poem or two, adding an epigraph, and changing some poem titles), during that time.
Let me show you an example of what I did to one poem, titled “Position,” the day before the final version of the book was sent to the printer (it was risky, I think to make such radical changes so late in the game, but I’m glad I did). Here’s the version of the poem prior to the final version that appears in the book:
Perhaps I was dreaming airplanes
and in my dream I lived in an age before airplanes,
an age in which birds ruled the air with wing and with song,
so that, in my dream, I was daydreaming nonexistent things
and was therefore surprised when I woke in an unfamiliar field,
my anus bleeding into dry grass, an airplane passing above me
like the ride last night from the bar to this far, unfamiliar field
and what happened here, in this space covered now by an airplane’s
small shadow, that can neither be remembered nor forgotten.
And here’s the final version that appears in the book:
Perhaps I’d been dreaming airplanes in an age before airplanes
in which birds ruled the air with wing and song
and was therefore surprised when I woke in an unfamiliar field,
my anus bleeding into dry grass, an airplane passing above
like the ride from the bar to that ordinary field
and what happened there—in that space shadowed briefly
by the airplane—that can neither be remembered nor forgotten.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
I was quite involved with the design of the book, in an advisory role; luckily for me, Exquisite Disarray let me have my talented sister, Anne, do all the design, so I worked closely with her on it, which isn’t to say that I did much of the work on it myself; she designed it all; she gave me choices and her professional opinion, and I gave her my approval and feedback. I trust her judgment over mine when it comes to design/layout (we’ve worked together on design projects for several years, as she’s designed each issue to date of Knockout Literary Magazine, which I’ve coedited with Brett Ortler since 2007). I’m thrilled with the work she did. I can’t imagine a more fitting or beautiful cover or interior design.
Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?
I found the image. The moment I saw it I knew it had to be the cover image (I don’t think I would have settled for anything else), and happily for me, Bill Kupinse, the president of Exquisite Disarray, agreed with me that it was the perfect fit for the 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 certainly wanted to have a majority of the poems published before the book was published, but not necessarily before I started sending out earlier versions of the manuscript back in 2008. I started sending a number of the book’s poems out in 2006, before I even conceived that they would be part of a manuscript. Once I received the offer from the publisher who originally offered to publish What Other Choice, I immediately started sending out the poems that hadn’t appeared in periodicals to as many magazines as I could find that had an issue coming out before the book’s planned publication date, partly because I thought it would be good and free publicity for the forthcoming book. Unfortunately, it turned out that there wasn’t time for more than a few of them to be picked up in time for that, so I needlessly spent a lot of energy and paper and time on that. Several of those poems did end up being accepted by some good magazines that I’d been trying to place work at for some time, only for it to turn out that they weren’t going to publish their next issue before Exquisite Disarray was going to publish my book, so I had to withdraw those poems from those magazines.
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 don’t think a day went by from the time I signed the contract with Exquisite Disarray until the day the final version was sent to the printer that I didn’t do some editing of the poems. I was extremely critical of the poems. Among other things, I sharpened the syntax, heightened the diction, changed line breaks, and worked a great deal on the rhythm and music of the lines.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
I first saw a copy of my published book at the Richard Hugo House here in Seattle at a release reading of a new poetry anthology. I remember having a hard time restraining myself from flipping through my book during the reading. It was fun to hold it. I was amazed when I finally looked through it all at how well it had turned out, especially considering that it was printed only about two months after I heard that it had won the contest. An enormous amount of effort on my part, on my sister’s part, and on Exquisite Disarray’s part went into getting it to print so quickly, and I was relieved to see that it paid off.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
I do more poetry readings and interviews, and occasionally editors of literary magazines solicit poems from me now. Oh, and I get to read reviews of my book (including this recent one), which has really been fun.
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?”
Well, I generally read on airplanes and avoid speaking to anyone other than the flight attendants, so I probably wouldn’t, but in the off chance I did, I’d probably say it was about questions of fate and free will, love, sex, identity, power, violence, and death, but not necessarily in that order, and I’d probably only be scratching the surface. I don’t think books of poetry can be easily (or at least fully or honestly) categorized. It’s hard enough to try to categorize a single poem, let alone a whole passel of them. There are too many aspects to poems; poems branch out in so many ways and cover so much territory with so few words that it’s really breathtaking. A successful poem can sometimes take the reader or listener out of time, to a level of nearly pure consciousness, transcendence over the ego. But that’s not exactly what you asked. I think you meant more whether a book of poems can be summarized, not categorized. The thing about poetry is that it really can’t be summarized; so much is lost in attempts at doing so: the delivery and texture of the language itself, the layering of suggestion and possibility, the collapsibility of time, repetition and variation, etc. I don’t think one can say what a poem means, either; one can perhaps sense it, but when one tries to define it, it slips away. Can anyone say what a river means, or what wind means, or what sexual intercourse means? Neither can one say what a poem means. A poem, like a river, like wind, is a force, however, to be reckoned with.
What have you been doing to promote What Other Choice, and what have those experiences been like for you?
Well, it’s a lot of work to promote a book, especially a first book of poems. I’ve done a number of readings and interviews, including an extended two-part filmed interview with Elliot Trotter that can be seen here. I’ve used my Facebook status more times than I care to recall. I’ve done lots of research about reviewers and sent out review copies. I’ve submitted the book (and Exquisite Disarray did as well) to a number of book awards. There are more things I should do, certainly, like setting up an author’s website, but of course there is a limit to what one can do. It can all be a bit daunting and exhausting at times, but sometimes it’s a lot of fun. Doing readings and doing interviews, such as this one, are the most fun types of book promotion, I think. One thing I’d like to do is have a preview of my book filmed and put on YouTube or Vimeo, something I’ve noticed more poets are doing with their books now, including Steven Reigns, whose book Inheritance has a haunting preview film.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
I can’t think of anything; if someone missed something important, I still haven’t figured out what.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
The book’s publication freed me to focus on other work and gave me a confidence boost. I am currently working on several new books that are in different stages of completion. One is a book-length erasure poem. Another is a book of short linked poems. Still another is a book of poems based on the title character of poet CAConrad’s fantastic The Book of Frank. Yet another is a book of prose poems. And the last is rather amorphous at present. Wish me luck!
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I don’t think the world needs to change. I think that people need to change. And I do believe that poetry can change people, those who listen to it and read it and those who write it and perform it.
Jeremy Halinen co-edits Knockout Literary Magazine. What Other Choice, his first full-length collection of poems, won the 2010 Exquisite Disarray First Book Poetry Contest and is available at alibris.com. His poems have also appeared in Best Gay Poetry 2008, Crab Creek Review, the Los Angeles Review, Poet Lore, Sentence, and elsewhere. He resides in Seattle.******************************************************************************************