It’s time to fearlessly exploit the wisdom of others again. We’ve been waffling inconclusively to ourselves on this blog about the whys and wherefores of publication for quite a while now and are finally taking the discussion to those with more experience. We’ll be using a Ten Questions mechanism to seek responses to ten questions on publication-related issues from a group of up to ten poets and publish them weekly. The full list of questions is here.
We ran a Ten Questions series on more general poetry questions last year, to which we still have recourse today (as do others, judging by the fact that it gets more hits than any other section on this blog).
Here’s to the start of another repository. And it’s a flying start because our first
victim volunteer is Kristy Bowen! Believe it, people. We’re still pinching ourselves over the fact that she’s here at all. Thanks, Kristy!
Ten Answers: Kristy Bowen
1. Describe your publishing trajectory. Where did it start? Where is it now? How long have you been at it?
Besides that unfortunate incident at 16 with the National Library of Poetry (now known and reviled as Poetry.Com), I think I started sending out work my first year of college—awful, awful poems out to all the places listed in Writer’s Digest (my only access to the writer’s world in the pre-internet days), and even those mostly vanity presses of some kind I discovered. Now that I think about it, even as a literature major, I was so ridiculously isolated from any idea of what contemporary poetry was, or how one “became a poet” or circulated work, it’s hilarious. I’m guessing young aspiring poets these days are a bit more savvy with all the info one could need at their fingertips—and with a lot of young poets I meet, their work shows a certain sophistication. At a tiny Midwestern liberal arts school, I didn’t exactly see that among my peers at that age. We had all sorts of knowledge about the Romantics and Shakespeare and Milton, but basically my familiarity with contemporary poetry ended at Plath. I didn’t even take a poetry workshop til my final year as an undergrad. I imagine I was getting better very slowly, winning some college prizes, publishing in the college litmag, still submitting, now to places in Poets and Writers at least, but still very green.
I moved to Chicago in 1997 to study literature as a grad student and only then did I start reading more contemporary women poets like Louise Gluck, Rita Dove, Sharon Olds, mostly outside of what I was reading for school, which was a lot of prose and drama, and only a little poetry. At some point I think I finally “got it” or maybe I’m still “getting it” whatever “it” is, but I started to suck a little less anyway. By then I was submitting all the usual places young poets send their work to – Poetry Magazine, The New Yorker, all those chimeras on the horizon – not really knowing there was this whole other world of magazines out there. I published a few poems in tiny, staplebound publications with very generous editors.
All of this is really before I found my footing a year or two later in online journals. I was (still am) working a day job that put me in front of computer for long periods of time, so I started reading poems online in places like Stirring, perihelion, The Melic Review, and others. Started sending my work out to these places and other like them. Started publishing quite a lot in them. I’m definitely one of those poets who responds well to affirmation, so the more I published, the more I wrote. Then I started wicked alice to publish others. I’m still a bit fonder of online publications than I am of print, since the distribution possibilities and immediacy are much better. There are print journals I like very much, of course, and even still have a couple gold rings I’d like to get into, but I publish much more online than in print.
Around this time, my first chapbook was accepted by a small, local feminist publisher….then a couple more self-published volumes followed as I getting my little press, dancing girl, off the ground. Finally, the full-length book after what seemed like forever but was really only a couple a years. In the meantime, I was getting my MFA at Columbia, finishing another couple of books, devoting a lot of energy to the press.
Now I’ve actually sort of been sitting on new work a bit longer before I send it out than I ever did before, and am just now starting to send a lot of the last year or so’s stuff out, so we’ll see where that ends up. I think I’m a weird limbo stage right now, trying to figure out where the writing will take me next. There are lots of projects, some closer to completion than others.
2. What would you do differently if you had to start all over again?
I wished someone had told me earlier on that there wasn’t just this one way of ‘being of poet” about 10 years ago. You know, get the MFA, publish in all the big journals, win the book prize, win tenure, win big prizes and grants, yadda, yadda, yadda. The alternative to that, or at least it seemed to me at that age, that the alternative was being, well, …a failed poet, a hack , wannabe poet. It all felt so absolutely unattainable for someone like me I wish someone had clued me in on more underground literary scenes, on how it’s okay to self-publish, or how you didn’t have to fit into this cookie-cutter “poet” ideal. There would have been much less frustration for a few years.
Even now, I look back at the assumptions I made about “legitimacy even three or so years ago and think they’re bullshit. Granted a lot of people still buy into the bullshit.
3. Why did you start seeking publication? Why do you continue?
It’s always been mostly about having some sort of readership – what point are poems – any writing—if there is no one to read it? Of course, there’s also a very narcissistic side to my personality which says maybe it’s a little bit about recognition…we all want people to think we’re awesome–but I try not to let that side guide me…
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?
Not really. I’m one of those people who constantly revise, even after publication, so it’s all still grist for the mill most days. Poems are re-written, ripped apart, put back together. As I revised my first book, I kept aiming for a true definitive finality to the poems, and it never came. It’s always work in progress, though I refrain from making my editors crazy by constantly changing things. Still, I imagine out there in the universe there is a perfection to which each poems aspires. Sometimes it gets there, other times I’m willing to settle for slightly less than perfect. I’ve learned though to let go of it after a while. I have periods where I hate certain poems, or entire series, only to fall back in love again later.
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?
Lately, the chapbooks I’ve written have been a sort of targeted series rather than a pulling together of things. While with my first couple of manuscripts I had to look for that which bound the poems together and deal with accordingly, now I’m much more likely to write a focused series that winds up as a chapbook. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other way, but I tend to write with a purpose in mind, a thematic or narrative arc. It’s the Taurus in me.
I can’t really think of anything bad about chapbooks. They’re an immediate way to get a small amount of focused work out there in the world. Cheap to buy, and can be read in one sitting. All good things.
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.
With my first book, I kept working so hard for that arc, but with later collections it’s not even an issue. I think every manuscript needs something to bind it together, be it narrative, setting, mood, whatever. In my second book, it’s theme and social issue . In the third, setting and mood. Not to say there’s no narrative threading, but it’s not the focal point. I guess it depends on whether you write more toward any one of these things. As I was working on my MFA thesis with a whole group of other grad students last year, there were like 10 of us, each with 10 different ways of our manuscripts making sense. It just needs to make sense somehow, why these poems are all together.
7. Do you personally market your publications? If so, why and how, and do you enjoy it? If not, why not?
I probably spend more time marketing dgp books than anything of my own, but I do do things like schedule readings, send out review copies, promote them on my blog, foist copies into upon people whether they want them or not. I think publication in journals and online goes a long way toward spreading your name and work around and garnering interest. It makes me feel self-conscious at times, but it’s a necessary evil.
8. Complete the following sentences: Big-name poetry publishers are…..not the end all be all..
9. Small- and micro-presses are…where to look for interesting and dynamic work..
10. Describe the ideal relationship with a publisher and the relationship with a publisher from hell.
I’ve pretty much only had good relationships in regard to my own work. My first chap was held up by a serious backlog , but I knew that going in and just had to be patient. Ghost Road was a seamless dream to publish with, as was New Michigan Press. Since Dusie, my next publisher, is a one-woman operation, I’m helping Susana out with editing and layout, so of course that’s a good dynamic. I guess a bad publisher for me would be the controlling ego maniac type, who also happened to be incompetent…
Kristy Bowen is the author of the fever almanac (Ghost Road Press, 2006) as well as several chapbook projects, including feign (NMP, 2007) and at the hotel andromeda, a collaborative book arts project inspired by Joseph Cornell. Her second collection, in the bird museum is forthcoming from Dusie Books early this year. Another, girl show, will be published by Ghost Road Press in 2009. She edits the online litzine wicked alice and runs dancing girl press, dedicated to publishing poetry chapbooks by women. She recently opened atelier women writers studio, which hosts both work space for the press, as well as readings, retreats and workshops.