Tuesday, April 21, 2015

the writing life: book manuscripts, the down and dirty

Sandy Marchetti culs some good advice on pulling together a manuscript and it got me to thinking about the different ways in which my own projects have come together over the years. the fever almanac, perhaps because it was the first, was probably the most challenging.  I began pulling the poems together in late 2003 and this version, which was titled simply almanac, had a lot of chaffe that later got trimmed off, most noticeably the structure, four parts, one for each season (yawn.)  The poems were what I had been working on since 99/00' when good things first began happening in my poems.  I had already landed a chapbook acceptance from a small, local, feminist press., but I felt like I finally had enough decent work to attempt something more ambitious that fall (we won't even talk about my actual first manuscript before that, Taurus,  finished in 1999 and mostly scrapped and only sent to one contest, mostly because I felt like I needed to have a manuscript done by the time I was 25. It was terrible.)  I started sending what would become the fever almanac off that fall to a couple contests, one of which it was actually a finalist, even in that rough, early version.  Meanwhile, I was starting my MFA and writing  a lot of work that was going toward what I thought would be a second book which I had tenatively started calling the fever poems.

Those were the years I had a sort of ridiculous first book mania, something which seemed like it was going to take forever to happen. I joked that it was my version of baby-fever.  I had just turned 30.  I'd been writing for over 10 years.  I was publishing quite regularly in journals and winning prizes here and there.  I felt like I should have a book by now, shouldn't I?  I wasn't getting any younger.  All my friends were doing it.  I'd spend hours quite regularly caressing the spines in Borders.  I didn't have a lot of money to enter contests, but I managed a few , maybe 10, not only with almanac, but also with that second mss. which I finished in mid-2004.  But I was getting a whole lot of nothing.  Those two years felt like a decade.  In early 2005, since I was already working on a new book with an entirely different feel (what would become in the bird museum) I decided maybe I should do some cutting and trim those two manuscripts into one.  I called it the megascript, and at first had no idea on a title.  I cut things.  I revised a few things. I pulled the whole squirming morass together and started another round of submitting.  That summer I was named a finalist in the Crab Orchard Prize and undertook another round of re-organization, this time, spending hours with each poem making notes on the pages and thinking how it fit into the narrative structure of the book and how I could stem some of the chaos I felt was happening there and holding the book back.  I delineated three sections.  I resubmitted it, this time after querying Ghost road Press out of the blue,  a small Denver press that had just published another po-blogger (Steve Mueske) first collection.  Yes, they would look at it.  And two months later, they called to say they were accepting it.    I walked around for days with the surreal feeeling like the top of my head was coming off.

My main struggle with that manuscript was the challenge of pulling together a dispirate number of poems on all sorts of things into a cohesive whole.  How could I successfully wrangle poems that were all over the place, poems about family, about relationships, about travel, and voice, and the limitations of language? How could I make them make sense together, especially since they all seemed to vary in terms of point-of-view, tone? There seemed to be more variances among them than similarities.  I really think that threading of somewhat of a narrative structure (even if it wasn't perfect) went a long way towards making the book work, even if it was skeletal, it was something to hold onto.

I've since gone on to write books in very different ways--as either larger whole  projects (girl show and the shared properties of water and stars) or linked smaller ones that form a larger whole (in the bird museum, major characters..., salvage.)  These books sort of order and organize themselves for the most part, so there is a lot less hair pulling than that first manuscript.  I've had amazing luck as well in getting those other books into good homes without having to hit the contest route again.   Dusie Press, who I cold- queried Susana Gardner with in the bird museum based on our our love of victoriana.  Kristina Marie Darling who solicited the shared properties... serendipitously right as I was  finishing it. major characters in minor films, which I sent to Sundress initially because they published the James Franco poems as a chapbook, and they wanted to publish the entirety.  The only bumps in the road were with  girl show, which Ghost Road accepted in 2007, but which was left unpublished when they went under in 2010. I then sent it out to BLP, who was on my radar not only for making gorgeous books, but publishing authors who shared my aesthetic. They luckily accepted it in the fall of 2011, and now, the forthcoming book in spring 2016, which I submitted during their open reading period last fall.  Even though I've had more luck placing manuscripts than any one author should expect to have, there is always the next book. The anxiousness.  Will someone love it enough to make it happen.  It's something that never goes away.

That first book was the hardest in more ways than one, but my only advice is find that thread that ties everything together and then build from there. Also, consider other ways of getting (particularly the first and most difficult book) into the hands of publishers.  Contests are nice and have the money bonus, but sometimes good stuff slips through the cracks in the contest system, so don't be afraid to query and approach presses one on one.  Follow guidelines, submit during open reading periods. Investigate the presses that are putting out the books you love, the books you would love to have written. The worst thing they can say is "no thanks".

{all this NAPOWRIMO month I will be blogging about poetry-related things --inspiration, publication, other verse-related randomness-- so stay tuned for more...}

Sunday, April 12, 2015

So I did not (could not) go to AWP, but I did get quite a bit done on other writerly things this weekend, including updates & cobweb clearing on the website front, some work on a new series of poems,  some plans finalized for the next Aesthetics of Research installation.  I watched and listened from afar while dgp author rocked their readings, successfully peddled their books, and Sundress apparently sold clean out of major characters in  minor films at the book fair. Meanwhile, since I had the whole week off before my travel plans were canceled, I stayed in RockfordI drank too many margaritas. I hid in the basement from a frightfully destructive and unnervingly nearby tornado. I colored my hair a deeper more caramel-ey blonde.  I hit up the craft store and a couple more thrift shops. I ordered my birthday dress for the end of the monthI went to lunch and mall-wandering with my mom & aunts. Drank a really good root beer float in the depressing flourescent light of the food court.

Tomorrow,  I am back to the city and back in the studio and back to work. Back to the chaos for a few short days before I am back here for a cousin's wedding shower next weekend. Four days in which I intend to finish up my taxes, get the new Aesthetics stuff up, get some author copies out the door, and maybe launch a couple of chaps that are just about ready. I'm working, mostly in my head, on some more poetry-related posts for this space, including one on place and poetry, on putting together manuscripts, maybe one on narrative & form.

Friday, April 10, 2015

the writing life: notes on the mfa experience

On this weekend of AWP happening up north, the mothership of academic poetry, it somehow feels fitting to be talking about MFA programs and the benefits and drawbacks.  When I enrolled in the fall of 2003 in Columbia's inaugural year of the Poetry-MFA, there were two defining factors.  A)  I already worked for the college library and was on campus all the time anyway, so why not? and B)  I got a 6 for the price of 3 credit hour deal as part of my employment benefits.  By then I already had an MA in Literature I'd gotten fresh out of undergrad when I was still intending to teach, so prior to that, I hadn't even really considered an additional grad degree as an option until they announced they would be starting one the next fall.  I quickly applied in an unusual flurry of ambition, pulled together recommendations letters from an editor I'd worked with and one of my MA faculty members, and somehow got a spot in the first class.

At that point, I had already been submitting and publishing pretty widely, had already been editing  wicked alice for  a couple years, had already had landed a chapbook acceptance from a small, local feminist press. Logistical reasons above aside, there were other, murkier, factors at play--a desire to gain some perceived professional credibility as an artist that an MFA provides, a chance to actually interact with other writers (I was beginning to do this a bit locally, but I could count on one hand the poets I actually knew in real life), a chance to test the waters and get some feedback before the poems went out in submission.That fall, I felt a little out of my element since most the of the other students were more at the beginnings of their careers or writing pursuits. (this actually changed as more students came into the program with a bit more experience under their belts.)  One one hand I loved that the courses, particularly the craft seminars pushed my work in different ways and generated projects that otherwise might not have happened without them--the Cornell project, errrata, my Resurrection Mary series. And  I had some really great experiences with some the visiting faculty in those classes--most notably Karen Volkman and Stephanie Strickland.

On the other hand, the workshops were sort of frustrating. I'd been writing on my own for long enough that I had some definite ideas on what worked and what didn't and listening to other people, most of whom I did not share a similar aesthetic in any way, seemed counterproductive.  I was also older, on the verge of 30, and not much younger than my instructors, so I never really had any yoda-like mentor-me inclinations.  Those first couple of semesters, I wasn't sure we could all agree on what constituted a successful poem, let alone give each other advice on how to construct one.  I've also never been much for revision, at least on the draft level, most of the revision happening as the poem was written, so by the time I showed it to anyone, outside of some tweaks in tenses or rhythm, it was pretty much done.  The first couple of years were rough. I nearly quit several times--out of boredom or apathy or anger. Luckily, the longer I stayed in the program (I was doing it part-time, so four years) the more poets came in with similar aesthetics and whose work I found interesting, the more people filtered in who were able to offer useful input (well, something beyond "Please write a different poem." or" This is too easy.")

I was working full-time, 40 hours a week and just starting dgp, so there were probably many more instances of the desire to flee. but eventually I actually settled in to the routine of balancing classes and work and the press.  Once I'd met the workshop requirements, I even sort of started to love my lit and craft seminars.(yes even the Chaucer one I nearly slept through due to a battle with mono.)   I was producing a lot of work during those 4 years , the tail end of the fever almanac, (which was published my final year in the program) the entirety of in the bird museum and, of course, girl show, which was my thesis manuscript.  I'm convinced that while I may have written one book in that time without being in a program, I probably wouldn't have written two and a half (and actually a few pieces that wound up in major characters in minor films now that I think about it)

I also sometimes feel like the program itself was still finding its feet, and while I felt lucky that CC in general seemed to be a department that leaned toward innovative work as a whole (and thus broadened my reading in ways that wouldn't have happened as much on my own) it was also still very much sodden with status quo attitudes re: po-biz in general, ie. poo-poo-ing indie startups and self-publishing. worshipping at the same old gods & institutions, passing off occasionally moribound advice as mentoring--publish here, not here.This contest, not that one.  People talk about the networking prospects of grad study, and while I can't say I felt like doors were opening that I couldn't just open myself, I did meet a lot of cool people who went on to do really cool things later , people who I like the idea of having studied elbow to elbow with at one time. (Also, I managed to wrangle a number of the ladies into letting me publish their work through dgp..lol..)

The strangest phenomenon was actually what happened AFTER I graduated. Granted I was moving full-steam on the press/shop and moving into the studio space and most my creative efforts were pointed in that direction, but there were about 3 years where I was writing very little.  Things were happening in those years on the surface-- my second book coming out, finding a new publisher for #3 after Ghost Road collapsed,  collaborative projects, lots of readings, but only a few new poems generated & submitted, only a couple publications. It was almost like I couldn't get the strange sensation of all those eyes looking over my shoulder as I wrote. All those fingers in my poems.  The freedom was suddenly exhilarating and terrifying. I anxiously read articles that talked about post-MFA lags, about the overwhelming number of people who graduate and move completely away from writing altogether.  I fretted.  I published other people's books and made lots of art and crafty things, but the words were hard to find.   When people asked me how the writing was going, I got even more anxious and self-conscious about it.   I  would occasionally get something down (and many of these loose pieces are in the new book), but I was sort of treading water in the poem-world.  For a while I was working sort of half-heartedly on what became beautiful, sinister, but couldn't finish it.  Funnily enough, it took the James Franco pieces (which I kept telling myself were completely a lark and not even "poetry") to get things really flowing again...

{all this NAPOWRIMO month I will be blogging about poetry-related things --inspiration, publication, other verse-related randomness-- so stay tuned for more...}

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

some writing news, some thrifty goodness

Yesterday, while idly paging though facebook and a bit glum about missing out on all the social fun of AWP, I got the amazing news that BLP wants to publish salvage (aka the mermaid-ish book I finished in the fall of last year.)  It's my 6th full-length project and my second book with BLP, who did a beautiful job with girl show, so I'm very excited.  It's looking like it will be due out next May, so there will be all sorts of preparations for the end of this year to get ready for that.

I had a couple extra days at home after Easter since my travels plans were canceled, so I've spent some of it hitting the thrift stores (I missed out both previous trips to Rockford because of my leg/back issue.)  So far, I've only uncovered one scarlet cardigan in the clothes arena, but did find some bowl matches to a floral yellow vintage plate  I adore (above), as well as a couple other robins egg blue bowls.  Spring always makes me for nest-like and wanting to buy things and do projects on the homefront than at any other time of year.  Soon I'll be throwing the windows wide and airing out the cobwebs, both physically and metaphorically.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

the writing life: releases and readings and signings, oh my...

Friday night I had the pleasure of reading at Quimby's Bookstore to celebrate the release of major characters in minor films, and it's always one of my favorite places in the city.  I was sort of inspired to start dgp way back in the day one day while perusing their zine and chap selections, which are still pretty awesome.  I don't get over there nearly enough since it's a public transportation morass to get from Edgewater to Wicker Park on any regular basis, but it's still hands down the best bookstore anywhere if you're looking for indie press goods.

Readings always make me anxious (will anyone actually come?  will I freak out beforehand?  Will I read too fast, too long, not enough?  In other settings, will I drink too much?  To little?)  Add in some social anxiety that I suffer from pretty much all the time, and pretty much the day or so leading up to the event and I'm a mess.  Once I'm actually up there, it's usually okay and I relax a bit.  It's still a far cry from the state I was in for my first reading in 2002 for the Poetry Center (I had placed 3rd in their Juried Reading a couple years before I actually won it.)  We had a sort of trial run @ the Evanston Library before the big event at Harold Washington, and I was pretty much freaking out for both.  I started reading at a few open-mic things after that and got more comfortable on the stage in the next few years, read on the radio, in bars, galleries, bookstores,.  My favorite during this time was the year I threw my hat in the ring at the Guild Complex's annual Gwendolyn Brooks open-mic, where I really had no chance of winning amidst so many awesome performance oriented poets, but where there was still this amazing energy in the audience I've never encountered elsewhere.  In 2004, after winning the Juried Prize I read in the very grand and intimidating SAIC ballroom where I felt like I didn't really belong with my self-stapled Bloody Mary chaps, but people were so damn nice, I got over it when the audience wanted to not only buy them, but for me to SIGN them.  It was one of my first "real poet" moments and it was exhilarating,  Other highlights over the years :  drinking too many beers before an ACM release at the Hideout and almost falling off the stage.  All the readings amidst gorgeous art at WomanMade and DVA gallery.  Amid the shelves at  bookstores like Woodland Pattern, Myopic, The Book Cellar, Uncharted. Feeling like a bluesy songstress reading in front of the piano at the the Revolving Door Series.  Traveling all the way to Georgia State University to give a reading and conduct a workshop.

My favorite part is also guaging reponses to new work and I usually try to end with a handful new poems no matter what else I'm reading. This time it was some pieces from my strange machine series (which incidently has some poems in the newest Split Lip Magazine issue.)   In the chaos of the past couple of years, I wasn't able to do release readings for book #3 and #4 due to timing of when they came out, so I am glad I got to do this one.

{all this NAPOWRIMO month I will be blogging about poetry-related things --inspiration, publication, other verse-related randomness-- so stay tuned for more...}

Thursday, April 02, 2015

the writing life: dissevering the soul

I was 14 or 15 when I first encountered Poe's Annabel Lee and I was smitten.  It's my curse..a fascination with dead girls..Call it one too many horror movies.  Call it  general fascination with ghosts (who anyone will tell you are overwhelmingly  & predominantly vengeful or wronged females.)  It's an obsession I oddly share with many female poets, (see here and here and here) and we won't even get started on the number of male poets, like Poe, who incorporate the trope, though sometimes in some weird patriarchal romanticized way.  I've written about it before and considered writing my MFA  thesis on it. There's a quote about a dead woman being the most beautiful and tragic subject of art..(which of course I can't find at the moment), but I've no doubt used it a lot myself, maybe not in my first book (though there are alot of "missing" or "lost" women in the fever almanac--mothers, sisters, grandmothers.) 

But in the bird museum is full of them--most noticeably my Resurrection Mary poems.  Considering the book pulls  a rope tight between danger and enlightenment, between transgression and knowledge, this isn't surprising.  The women of  in the bird museum are always on the verge of peril (mind you I wrote the book in response to a period of time when I had to stop watching the news because of the constant stories of rape, and mutilation, and murder.) There is a vein of it running through girl show, a darkness and sense of danger.  I tried to exorcize that particular demon in the poem "no girls were harmed in the making of this poem" in major characters..., but it pretty much didn't take considering the in-progress Postcards from the Blue Swallow Motel is about a murder.  In my defense, I also have a short series of girl zombie poems which sort of attempt to turn the dead girl trope on its head that are coming along nicely.  It's complicated.  On one hand, the dead girl in much of western and heck, even eastern art,  is beautiful mostly because she is still and perfect and silent --Ophelia floating in the water.  Annabel Lee. Laura Palmer. She becomes object, symbol, catalyst.  She mostly has no agency (even if she did once have it).  Except when she does.  When she does, she can seriously fuck you up (as any horror movie will attest.).  

{all this NAPOWRIMO month I will be blogging about poetry-related things --inspiration, publication, other verse-related randomness-- so stay tuned for more...}

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

the writing life: origins...

Because things have been rather whirly and chaotic, this space has been a bit quieter than I like, so I'm thinking perhaps that in honor of National Poetry Month, I might spend a little time every day talking about poetry things here--inspiration, writing spaces, publication, putting together a mss, editing for dgp, etc.  Since my usual attempts at daily poems falter and implode at about day 5, maybe this will be a little easier to make happen. So today, I start at the beginning.

I'd probably like to say I was a precocious writing youngster who was penning perfect odes at age 14, but it was a bit more rocky than that.  I WAS a reader though, mostly horror novels and genre fiction--romances, YA love stories.  (I've talked about the early book fetish days here a bit., so it started young) When I was coming of age, it was the mid-late  eighties, pre-internet, and outside of watching television or movies on VHS, all there really was to DO was read, so I did alot of it. Nothing at all precocious.  I loved Christopher Pike. I loved VC Andrews.  A bit of Stephen King and all the imitators. I'd spend long weekends sprawled on my bed, clutching a paperback   I was fueled in my addiction by a couple of people.  An aunt who monthly surrendered up her horror and mystery novel purchases.  My father, a voracious reader himself even still, who hauled me and my sister to the Cherry Valley library weekly (while my mother, solely  a magazine reader, waited an hour or more in the car for us.)  Poetry however, at that time, seemed like something strange and archaic and not really something anyone was doing anymore.

When I was 9 or so, I'd inherited a beautiful encyclopaedia set that included a volume of plays and poems for children, which sported gorgeous engraved covers and slick pages, and which I spent many hours enjoying, though I barely remember how.  In school, we studied the usual Poe, Shakespeare, maybe some Emily Dickinson, but all of it seemed so much historical artifact.  I couldn't related any of it to the things I was reading in the present. In my high school freshman English class, we were challenged to write a poem and I remember writing one about a flamingo that rhymed perfectly, much to the enthusiasm of my teacher (or so I liked to think) But it seemed like a ruse, a clever game of moving words on the page.  I was getting the impression  that poetry was supposed to be dark, and deep, and profound, but I persisted in filling a  smallish blue lock diary with 8 line poems about crushes and kittens.  I remember having this creepy dream about a dead seagull and sitting straight up in bed and grabbing a pen and TRYING to be deep, dark, and profound.  it was terrible.  I still have it.  There was a poem here, a poem there, but while I was interested in being a a "person who writes" at some point, reality told me there was really no hope in such an endeavor.  That I really ought to choose a more practical career (I was considering all sorts of things then as possible career paths --law, journalism, teaching, interior design, marine biology.)

Under the thrall of a charismatic bio teacher and with a best friend all about enviroemental science, I set off my first semester for the Atlantic coast and a career in  the latter. (Forgetting momentarily that to succeed in science, you need good math abilities most often.)  But I was still writing --sometimes in journals, sometimes on the electric typewriter that was my graduation gift--not poems then, but short stories, the beginnings of play scripts (I'd been bitten by the theatre bug my senior year).  I spent time between classes poring over lit journals in the UNCW library.  There were a lot of beginnings but not much finished.  By the time I headed back the midwest a few months later, I was certain I was not a scientist after all, but was still pretty unsure of what exactly I was.    I liked writing, liked reading, but again, these weren't really options in my world.  I wound up enrolling in some lit classes at a community college to stay in school, and all that spring and summer wrote a series of rather spare imagistic poems that I started sending out to places I'd found in the back of Writer's Digest (I'd yet to discover Poets & Writers and WD was the only mag I had access to.)--many of them vanity operations, but less egregious ones than the National Library of Poetry. I had a box I carried around my parents house of typed poems and clipped out calls for submissions.  With envelopes and a stash of postage earned from helping my mom with housework. 

I eventually settled on majoring in English and minoring in Theatre, but I went a couple years writing little and what I did write was fiction for a workshop.  By early 1996, I'd started up the poems again and they were these darkish Dickinsonesque rhyming creatures that I thought were the shit.  There were quite a few years of this (well, the rhyming stopped) but more horribleness, more unsuccessful submitting.   I kept telling myself it was just for fun.  I was planning on teaching when I enrolled in my MA in Lit, , but at some point circa 1998, things changed.  I like to think a seminar in TS Eliot made things click. And suddenly, it was all about the poems.  Like it was all I wanted to do.  No teaching.  No other career plans.  It was the closest I've ever come to creative frenzy and it was wonderful and horrible all at the same time. The closest I came to feeeling like I had found my "voice" whatever that means (as if voice is this static thing and not this constantly shifting stream) I finished my MA exams, got my degree and then spent the next few months trying to get some sort of stable, quasi-literary job that would allow me the mental energy to still write. 

Eventually I landed my first library job and found that space.  Found the space to be able to create and still make a living doing something else .Publications started happening.  The poems got better.  Chapbooks, then a full-length book.  Then four more of them (and another out there in the world seeking a home as we speak.  At least two others still forming somewhere in the miasma. ) Somewhere in there I took a few years to get my MFA in Poetry.  I got better.  Or worse. Or different.  More sure/less sure of myself.  I ceased caring about a lot of things.  I started to care more about other things.  I started a lit mag.  I started a press.  Poetry, the thing that seemed like some petulant old anachronism suddenly became the center of all things. The thing which seemed an impossible dalliance, that slightly victorian hobby horse, became very much the way I live my life.  I tried other genres--more lucrative genres with more easily viewed markers of success.  Genre fiction.  Literary fiction. I lack endurance.  I lack interest.While I occasionally cheat on verse with prose in short installments, the poem is always the thing. Line breaks or no, it's always a poem, sometimes even when it's not.  Sometimes it's a collage or a painting, but it's still very much a poem.

{all this NAPOWRIMO month I will be blogging about poetry-related things --inspiration, publication, other verse-related randomness-- so stay tuned for more...}