How often had you sent out Undertow before it was chosen for the 2007 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize?
I had been sending the book out for about three years, editing and revising as I went along. After each round of contests, I would pull the poems I thought were weaker and replace them with new ones I thought were stronger. I also re-organized the manuscript a number of times.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Undertow? Did it go through any other changes?
The title went through at least four changes, and there were many other titles I contemplated. The book began as Enumeration and won the contest with the title Ignis Fatuus. My editor, Gabe Fried, suggested Undertow as an alternative and I agreed. The new title still seemed to capture the essence of what I was getting at. It also fit with all of the watery poems in the book. Poets aren’t always the best at titling. It isn’t something we learn formally. I’ve been making a study of titles and titling for a number of years now. I think I’m finally starting to get the hang of it.
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 absolutely worried about winning a book contest, although I also sent to open reading periods. The concern is that the manuscript will get lost in the noise if it does not win. In some ways this is justified. However, there seem to be more and more venues for poetry publications all the time. I was just reading about the model of nano-publishing, where one editor who is an established poet picks a book to edit for a younger poet. They create a press that publishes that one book and that’s it. I think there are more and more creative models for getting work out there, not to mention selfmade chaps. It all depends on what you want for the book you are working on, who you hope will see it and why.
To a poet who has just begun sending out work, I would say that the most important issue is matching your work to the aesthetic of the press you are sending to. It took me a long time to familiarize myself with who was doing what. I would also recommend looking into alternative models of publication, especially if your work is doing something unusual that is difficult to place. However, I’d continue to send to both contests and open reading periods where you think they might be open to your work. You never know who is looking and with what set of eyes.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
Ordering the book was a huge issue. I really feel that this is a separate skill from sitting down and writing; it’s something like writing a huge new poem using the poems you already have. The book went through at least four iterations and orders. I really wanted to place the childhood poems first, but a friend suggested putting the more experimental work first and I followed his advice. It turned out to be a good call.
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?
Persea was great about letting me have a say in all aspects of the book design. Soon after the book was accepted for publication, they sent me several mock-ups of possible page layouts and fonts. Gabe also asked me if I had any ideas for cover art, and I looked up and saw one of my favorite paintings by my partner, Alane Spinney, hanging on the wall of our bedroom. It pictures a maelstrom of purple waves. The first time I ever saw that painting, I said, “There’s nowhere to stand!” and that seemed perfect for Undertow. I was immensely pleased to be able to use it. I was also able to change the color of the surrounding cover from grey to blue, and to have input on the font that was used. I feel very fortunate to have been able to have so much to say about the final look of the work. As someone trying to make a complete work, I feel it’s important. The cover art and design have received many compliments.
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 wasn’t concerned about having the majority of the poems published, but I was concerned about placing some of the best ones in good journals. I also spent a lot of time looking at the publication credits of other poets putting out first books. It seemed clear that some folks had well-established publication records and others didn’t at all. I took the impressive acknowledgements lists as a sign that those writers had either been busy building their publication records, or had been writing a long time without (for whatever reason) publishing a book, or both. In my opinion, for a first book it’s more than about the quality of the work than about the volume of published poems going in.
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?
Most of the fine-tuning on the poems had already been done, so the edits were minimal. Gabe Fried suggested a few changes to individual poems; we also took out a few. However, he let me keep those I really felt strongly about and didn’t exercise too much editorial privilege as far as changing individual poems went. All of the changes he suggested turned out to be good ones.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
It was the first day of AWP in New York. Everyone was milling around the book fair and I searched out the Persea table. Gabe smiled a huge smile and said, “Have you seen it yet??” And there was a stack of my books sitting on the table. Later they sold out of the copies they’d brought. Friends I hadn’t seen in ages were coming by and buying it. It was amazing.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
It’s been very different. I got a teaching job, for one thing, and I’m sure the book helped. I’ve also been able to build a much better publication record. I think the biggest changes has just been in terms of legitimacy. When you don’t have the book, it’s easy to feel like the over-eager little sister or brother of folks who do. Once you have a book, there’s a sense of being able to take part in a different kind of conversation. It’s a little strange, because chances are that your style, aesthetic, and the head you have on are the same ones as before.
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 hate that question: “What kind of poetry do you write?” Or worse: “You don’t write sad poems, do you?” I never know how to answer, because poetry is about exploring experiences that aren’t easily classifiable. I think there are themes running through my book: the power and influence of language, the problem of dealing with loss in a world that continues to amaze. But I wouldn’t say that to the person on the plane. At this point, I think I’d say, “ It’s about water. And birds. And being human. You should read it.”
What have you been doing to promote Undertow, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I’ve started a website, put myself on Goodreads and other social networks, sent review copies, scheduled readings for myself. But it’s hard—at least, I’ve found it hard—to break through the noise. Because of my teaching position, I wasn’t able to do a book tour, so the book didn’t get as much exposure as it might have. The best experiences have been readings, where I was able to connect with other poets and students and meet really great people I wouldn’t have otherwise. On the whole, these experiences have been a bit frustrating, but very much worthwhile in terms of contacts I’ve made.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
I wish I’d been more savvy about self-promotion, and particularly about lining up a reading tour for myself. I realized the press wouldn’t be able to do much, but I could have done a better job with networking. I think you have to be really aggressive in promoting a book of poetry, and even then, there’s no guarantee it will take off.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
I think the biggest benefit has been the experience of putting a book together. With the second book (Shatter & Thrust, which is forthcoming on Persea), I had to think a whole lot less about structure and order. I just kind of plugged my ears against the thought that I was writing a book and wrote poems, scads of them. Only when the folder on my computer really started to fill up did I think about order, and then it was fairly straightforward. But I was cognizant as I was writing that the work was a bit different from the kind of poem I was writing in Undertow—I did a lot of stripping the poems of their earlier lyricism. I don’t think I deliberately wrote against my own style, because I find that very difficult to do, but I was aware that the work was moving in a different direction and I tried to let it do so. I don’t know exactly where the third book will go. I’m currently studying visual art—I’m sure this will have an effect on my writing. I already sense myself using language more materially. The next big project might be very fragmentary, or not be a book in the traditional sense but rather a series of interactive installations. We’ll see.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I’ve struggled with that question a lot. What is the value of poetry? I think that poetry, at its most crucial, helps us cope with our lives and experiences. It doesn’t so much gloss them for us as provide an act of recognition of the complexity of our lives. I think that’s important—the choice toward the complex. I think of it as a kind of handrail along the mountain—it lets the reader know that the human experience is not a wasteland—someone has been there before. I wish I believed that poetry could change the world politically, but in our current cultural climate where poetry is so devalued, I don’t see it. That’s ok—poetry survives because, like insects, poetry is both small and powerful. It can hide in the cracks. In a sense, it survives precisely because it is small and underfunded. That gives it a kind of integrity that one doesn’t see in the larger commercial world.
Anne Shaw is the author of Undertow, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Poetry Prize, and Shatter and Thrust, forthcoming from Persea Books. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Harvard Review, Denver Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, Copper Nickel, Drunken Boat, and New American Writing. Her extended experimental poetry project can be found on Twitter and at her website, http://www.anneshaw.org. She is currently a student of the visual arts at the school of the Art Institute in Chicago.