Being and Publishing: Ten Questions

First posed on Very Like a Whale, the blog of Nic Sebastian

1. Describe your publishing trajectory. (Where did it start? Where is it now? How long have you been at it?)

A lovely little magazine accepted my first poem in 1980; fittingly, it was called The Little Magazine and the poem was called Meditation on a Typo. By that time I was 29 and had identified myself as a poet for 10 years. It was something I just was, whether I was writing or not, and in those years there were long periods of blockage.

What impeded me? I lacked what a sage woman once termed inner firmness and clarity of vantage. These things were a long time coming. A simple lack of life experience and wisdom were factors too. There are no prodigies in poetry as there are in math and music. Without life experience and wisdom, one writes dull or silly poems.

After 1980, I continued to submit, though rather sporadically, and published steadily though never with the really major magazines. Loving the heft of a real book, I made a special effort to submit to themed anthologies and appeared in several over the years. I worked in business and wrote when I could, with fertile periods happening around 1986-1989 and 1992-2000, though I don't feel I hit my stride until the year 2000. That year I found Eratosophere, the online poetry community, and began acting as Moderator there, first in the nonmet forum, later in the met. Finally in 2003 my full-length collection came out, Here from Away.  My second book, In Company, publishes in late 2011, and I also have two more full-length manuscripts  written.

2. What would you do differently if you had to start all over again?

Here's what I'm supposed to say: I would have taken workshops, I would have attended readings indefatigably, I would have made contacts, mingling and schmoozing. I would have laid a bundle of money down for an MFA program. I would have hooked up with a movement, the neoformalists, the NYC school, something. But the fact is, I wouldn't change a thing. Don't be influenced by anyone who hasn't been dead for 50 years was advice a college professor taught. I never took it that far but I made it a policy not to be unduly influenced by trends. Of course, whether you no earn a bachelor degree online, or go on for your MFA, networking is always a critical skill.

3. Why did you start seeking publication? Why do you continue?

I've ever and always just wanted to reach people. Poetry is what I have to give; that's why it's so awful when publication doesn't happen and success doesn't come. I've wept over it.

4. Does your relationship with your work change after it is published and if so, how? How does the concept of publication affect your writing in general?

It's a bit shocking when a poem is published. Even when the subject matter isn't particularly personal, I feel exposed, sometimes even ashamed. This may be quirky in the extreme.

My writing isn't affected at all by the likelihood (or the non-likelihood) of publication. For the last four years I've been working on a manuscript, ever worrying that its subject matter and overall gestalt reduce the chances of its being appreciated to nil. This hasn't stopped me from writing these poems or, indeed, from feeling blessed by them.

On the other hand, I write for readers and keep them in mind at all times as I compose and edit. The goal isn't solipsism but communication; even more than that, it's intimate conversation. What turns me off about a lot of poetry, some quite celebrated, is that it comes across as talking at rather than to.

5. Talk about putting a chapbook together. How have you done it in the past, how would you do it differently now? Why are chapbooks a good thing or not a good thing?

I just never got around to that; frankly, the production values didn't seem all that professional. (Having spent many years working in New York City book publishing, I was keen on professionally published books.) But in recent years, quality has improved among some chap publishers and there are more opportunities than ever.

This year I made the decision to pare a full-length manuscript down to chapbook length. I removed the satire and the poems that were thematically less ambitious. The result, I think, is streamlined, stronger, and more readable. Let's face it, most full-length collections contain filler pieces; one great advantage of a chapbook is that it needn't.

6. What's your advice to someone putting together a full-length poetry manuscript for the first time? Share your thoughts on the importance (or not) of narrative arc in poetry manuscripts.

In most cases, I'd recommend grouping poems around themes, which is just common sense. If, within those themes, there is a mixture of short and long poems, then mix them up for readability's sake. Those more savvy than I recommend putting your strongest poems fore and aft because, at the publishers, the first readers tend to read those poems first. I hate that rule because I like the idea of starting with something smaller and very accessible and then building up. First a glimmer of diamond, then the deep ore. I'm not sure that constitutes a narrative arc but it's an arc. I like to end the manuscript, and each themed section too, with a strong sum-up poem, something with a feeling of finality.

From what I've heard, assembling a manuscript is a source of keen anxiety among first-book poets. Don't let it be. This is play! It's also a great way to self-assess. You may find that your book, or a section of your book, feels incomplete and in that case, you will be inspired to fill the gaps with new poems.

7. Do you personally market your publications? If so, why and how, and do you enjoy it? If not, why not?

I don't enjoy marketing. That extroverted mentality is the exact opposite of what I treasure about being a poet. The internet has been a godsend for introverts like me because you can spread the word via a personal blog or home site and have your book duly noted on forums and listservs. With Here from Away, I designed a lovely bookmark and ordered thousands of them for not much money. I post them on community bulletin boards (Free Bookmarks, Take One!) and leave piles around at libraries. I plant them in poetry books at the library and sometimes at bookstores. Guerilla marketing!

8. Complete the following sentences: Big-name poetry publishers are . . .

places like Copper Canyon,Graywolf, Knopf, which publish well and where a poet has the distinction of being on a great list among celebrated poets.  But let us be frank: they publish a lot of mediocre stuff too.

9. Small- and micro-presses are . . .

in it for the pure love of poetry. They're our best allies and our salvation.

10. Describe the ideal relationship with a publisher and the relationship with a publisher from hell.

It's lovely to work with an editor who really reads your book, understands it, offers suggestions, and makes sure that it's copy edited from here to eternity. It's lovely to work with a publisher who knows how to produce a beautiful book, something pleasing to the eye that you can brandish with pride. You'll get royalty statements from this publisher even when no royalties are due, just so you know if and how the book is selling.Make this a truly celestial publisher who won't just print your book but publicize it too, make it someone who will keep in touch even when the book is deep in backlist territory. But such a publisher is hard to find for any genre, let alone poetry. I won't comment on the hellish publisher; there are hellish authors too.

Kate Bernadette Benedict