Wednesday, October 1, 2014

#86 - Tanya Olson

How often had you sent out Boyishly before it was chosen for publication by YesYes Books in 2013?

I sent that version probably 5 places before it found its home at YesYes. It was a finalist with the National Poetry Series and with Arktoi at Red Hen when YesYes asked to see it; I was thrilled that YesYes wanted to give it a home.

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

It had always been Boyishly, but when I sent it to YesYes, I had changed the title. Their first question was about the title, so it went right back to Boyishly. They were right. The book had been close enough that I felt like some small changes might be the thing needed to get it published. The title wasn’t the thing that needed to change though.

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?

Contests have certainly become the most common way to a book, which seems mostly unfortunate. I feel lucky that I didn’t have to follow that path, even though I did enter some contests, mostly because I felt like I had to. YesYes asked to see the manuscript because one of their editors knew my work. That struck me as a healthier relationship, like they were interested in me as a poet with a whole career instead of just picking a blind manuscript that was their favorite in the stack.

I don’t say any of that to be critical of contest winners or entrants though. I don’t think my poetry path should be prescriptive; I would say that there are other paths to a poetry career besides MFA programs, journals, residencies, and contests. If that’s the path you take, that’s great, but I don’t like the myth that those things are the only way a person can build a career as a poet.

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

I started writing in 2000, never thinking about a book. I just liked writing poems and I never thought about them in relationship to each other. In 2010, I started thinking about a book and started looking at all the poems I had, trying to figure out what they had in common, what questions ran through them. That was very hard. Once I had a stack together, I started to play with order and groups; I would put poems in as I wrote new ones that I thought worked and pull old ones out that lost relevance or no longer fit. The order shifted a lot; I physically spread the poems out and walked from one to the other to decide what followed what. Once I had a rough order I would spread them out on the conference table at work and shift them around. The first poem is the only poem I wrote specifically for the book; late in the game I decided I wanted an invocation to begin the text.

With the new book I am working on, I’ve been thinking of it as a book from the start and I’ve been aware of the main idea the book is playing with from the start. In many ways, this seems much easier, but I do worry that this method might be too artificial in some way, that the poems will be too stilted together.

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

I appreciated that KMA Sullivan, YesYes’s publisher, said from the beginning that she wanted my input, but her job was to make final decisions. That took a lot of pressure off; I felt free to say what I liked and what I didn’t, but I didn’t have to make any final decisions. Alban Fisher was the designer and I loved the fonts and designs he used. They were perfect.

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

KMA sent me some artists links to check out. Eleanor Bennett was one of those and I fell in love with her photographs immediately. KMA contacted her (Eleanor is 17 and lives in England) and sent her some poems; Eleanor graciously offered to take a few pictures for us to look at as possible covers. Kids With Guns (the cover photo) was one of those and both KMA and I thought it was exactly right.. KMA and Alban figured out how to spread it across the cover and how to include the blurbs so the picture could be clean. I had asked about having a textural, non-smooth cover and they made that happen as well.

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’m not a big sender-out of poems. If people ask, I’m happy to submit stuff when I have it, but it doesn’t really do much for me. I’m interested in books and in readings much more than being in journals. That’s what helps me write and what helps me revise, know what’s working and what isn’t.

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?

Justin Boening was the lead editor for the book and KMA Sullivan also worked a ton with the manuscript. They definitely made it better. We pulled 2 poems out, moved  a couple, and did some line edits. It didn’t feel like too much work but I felt like it made the book much, much better.

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

The book arrived a couple of hours before the launch. There had been a fatal car accident at the head of my road and I was convinced that the FedEx guy wouldn’t be able to get through as the road was closed. Somehow though, he pulled up with the big box that afternoon. It was absolutely a beautiful moment to see them all there. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to see the real object; it was as emotional and as satisfying as I had hoped. My favorite thing is having a book to read from at events. It makes me happy every time.
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 have a couple answers.. Sometimes I say it’s a collection of American voices that aren’t typically heard; other times I say it’s about alternative masculinities. They are both true. I always say it is a very American book.

What have you been doing to promote Boyishly, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I’ve been lucky enough to do a fair number of readings. YesYes has been very generous with putting together tours and sponsoring readings. We had a launch in Durham, NC, where I lived at the time, at the Pinhook, a great local music venue. It featured all kinds of local artists- Jim Haverkamp showed his amazing film, When Walt Whitman Was A Little Girl, poet Chris Vitiello gave a reading while dressed as the Pope, the local slam team performed, and shirlette ammons tore the house down; we even had a house band to play all the artists on and off the stage. It was a great way to welcome the book into its Durham community. 

Since then, I’ve done 2 YesYes tours, the first with Ocean Vuong and Keith Leonard in Portland OR, the second with Matt Hart, Phillip B Williams, and Roger Reeves in Oakland and San Francisco. For both, we lived and read together each night for about a week. Both were beautiful experiences. It’s so special to get to hear the same poets several nights in a row, especially when you are spending a lot of time together otherwise. I’ve done lots of other readings in support of the book; one of my favorites was at Dorothea Lasky’s Multifarious Array at Pete’s Candy Store.

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

I suppose I knew it already, but books are a slow process. Oprah doesn’t call on Day 2 and even though the thing you have worked on forever and somehow miraculously made exists, the world does not stop to notice. You have to show up and read and bring books and be a professional. Write poems because you love to write poems, not because you think poems will make you famous or popular or loved.

Are there any new writing projects in the works?

I’m working on a new book, right now called Stay. It explores what it feels like when the world and its people seem to be moving further apart. That’s what interests me about America right now: the way way drones and fear and Guantanamo and inequalities make us drift apart, make us feel more alone, less connected. It currently consists of 2 long poems with 10-20 short poems sandwiched in the middle and isn’t nearly as didactic as that description makes it sound.

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

Absolutely. I think poets and poetry have real work to do in the world; when that work isn’t done, I think our world gets worse. I’ve never understood why poets aren’t invited on CNN to talk about things like the housing crisis and the World Cup and Flight 103 and drone strikes and everything else that captures our attention.. Our job as poets (I think) is to look into, travel into ideas and report back what we see. If I was Poet Laureate, I’d work on trying to restore the public job of poets; this is also why we need poets that do other things besides teach other poets.

Tanya Olson lives in Silver Spring, Maryland and is a Lecturer in English at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Her first book, Boyishly, was published by YesYes Books in 2013 and was awarded a 2014 American Book Award. She has always won the Discovery/Boston Review Prize and was named a Lambda Emerging Writers Fellow by the Lambda Literary Foundation.