Many thanks to Reginald Shepherd for agreeing to participate in this Ten Questions series on publication. As someone who has learned and continues to learn a great deal from Reginald’s blog and his writings on poetry in general, I feel hugely honored to have him here on Very Like A Whale. These are his responses:
1. Describe your publishing trajectory. (Where did it start? Where is it now? How long have you been at it?)
I first sent out poems in high school in the late Nineteen-Seventies (it was an independent study project, to research literary journals and submit work to them—a useful exercise), and then desultorily did so while I was a college dropout working menial jobs in Boston in the Nineteen-Eighties. I started submitting seriously after my belated college graduation in 1988. I sent out about three hundred individual submission packets of four to six poems before I had my first poem accepted in 1991. (I am nothing if not persistent, not to say stubborn.) I’ve been working at it steadily ever since, and have now published over four hundred poems, mostly in leading journals, as well as five books of my own poetry (after submitting versions of it to contests and publishers for five years, my first book, Some Are Drowning, won the 1993 AWP Award), two poetry anthologies, and a book of essays. But for most of my publishing career I have been rejected far more often than I’ve been accepted, even after publishing several books. But I am, as I said, very persistent.
2. What would you do differently if you had to start all over again?
I spent a lot of time and energy in graduate school arguing with my professors (see above, re: stubbornness). If I were to do it over again, I would work harder to ingratiate myself with them or at least not to alienate them. I’ve seen from other cases what having the patronage or at least the support of a teacher or a former teacher can do for one’s career, whereas I’ve had to do everything completely on my own (see above, re: persistence). On the other hand, I don’t owe anyone anything either.
3. Why did you start seeking publication? Why do you continue?
I wanted to be published because I wrote poems that I wanted to be read. I wanted my work to exist in the world, not just as my personal hobby, like stamp collecting. Like Pinocchio, I wanted to be a real boy. And I felt that my work was at least as good as the work that was out there, so why shouldn’t I be there too? I would like my work to exist in the larger world, but I would also like to exist in the world, to have a sense that I matter if only a little bit. After all I’ve published, I still delight in seeing my name in print, in knowing that some part of me is out there in the world.
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?
I don’t think that my relationship with my work changes after it’s published, unless looking at my first book and occasionally being surprised by a poem I’d forgotten that I’d written counts. The concept of publication affects my work in the sense that I am aware of a potential audience. It forces me to try to see my work through others’ eyes, to get outside of my head and my intentions and imagine the work as an independent entity that must make its way through the world without me. In the years during which I received three hundred rejections, I tried to take each rejection as an occasion to go over the work I’d submitted and make sure I’d given the editors no reason to reject it: rejection was often an occasion for revision.
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 have done three chapbooks. Two were basically excerpts from forthcoming books—another venue to get those poems seen. One, This History of His Body, included poems that ended up in my third book, Wrong, but also included poems I liked but didn’t fit into any of my books, and yet seemed to work together.
Chapbooks can be lovely objects, but unfortunately they tend not to be well distributed or to be carried even by bookstores that carry poetry. They’re labors of love that don’t do much to get the work to readers, sadly enough.
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.
My advice on putting together a full-length manuscript is to concern yourself with the poems first. Do you really have a book’s worth of strong poems, each of which can stand on its own as well as contribute to a larger whole? A lot of new poets worry about whether their manuscript is sufficiently unified, or even whether it’s a project (a very popular concept these days). I say, worry about whether all of the poems in it (all of the poems) are good and hold up to repeated readings. That’s the most important thing. Everyone has their obsessions and their preoccupations, and that’s usually more than enough to unify a book of poems.
I suppose it’s important to give your book some kind of structure (I obsessed over this when revising my first book for publication, though probably only I noticed all the little strategies of which I was so proud), but I don’t think that structure need be narrative. It can be conceptual, imagistic, or verbal, or some combination.
7. Do you personally market your publications? If so, why and how, and do you enjoy it? If not, why not?
I used to not be so good at publicizing and marketing my work, both being a bit shy and thinking it a bit vulgar. But now I realize that it’s just a matter of trying to get readers, which especially in the huge and varied world of poetry is difficult: as David Wojahn has written, publishing a book of poems is like dropping a flower petal down the Grand Canyon. So one has to work to get one’s work noticed. I do that through many means, including my blog, which has done wonders to raise my profile after many, many years of publishing, and has also provided a forum for me to produce and test out ideas about poetry.
I try to take advantage of every opportunity to publicize my work (I was even once on a local public television station in upstate New York). I enjoy giving readings, doing talks, talking up my work whenever I can, and even putting together mailing lists and handing out cards at AWP. It’s all part of the process of sharing the work with the world, which is one thing writing is about. If one didn’t want to be read, why would one write?
8. Complete the following sentences: Big-name poetry publishers are…..
Big-name poetry publishers are big-name poetry publishers. If you’re referring to trade publishers, they tend to be hard to break into, to rely very heavily on connections, and they don’t keep books in print. On the other hand, it’s nice to be published by one if you want to be reviewed in The New York Times or to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
9. Small- and micro-presses are…
Micro-presses are even smaller than small presses. I don’t know much about micro-presses, but I think that they suffer the same distribution and exposure problems that chapbooks do, unless they have a built-in coterie of people (unified usually by region or by a particular aesthetic/ideological allegiance) who will automatically buy whatever they put out.
I will include university presses and small presses together and say that, though they obviously can’t ignore financial exigencies, especially in these difficult times for the publishing world in general, they tend to have a strong commitment to the work, and to support their authors much more than trade publishers do, for whom poetry is usually an afterthought, and not a well thought-of or well thought-out afterthought.
10. Describe the ideal relationship with a publisher and the relationship with a publisher from hell.
I feel that I have the ideal relationship with my publisher, the University of Pittsburgh Press. They have consistently supported my work through five books, even though my first book, Some Are Drowning, was published by them due to their contract with AWP: I was not their initial pick, but Ed Ochester, my wonderful editor, who has done so much for the poetry world, saw something in my work that he valued, and has stuck with it through many changes and permutations that other editors might well have been put off by.
The Pitt Poetry Series has both a long and distinguished history and a high profile as a poetry series. Furthermore, Pitt produces beautiful books (and gives me input into the designs—a friend did the cover image for my second book), works hard to market, publicize, and distribute them (including nominating them for any prizes for which they are eligible), and keeps them in print. They are very receptive to my concerns and my input, and are just generally very nice people to work with.
I suppose the relationship from hell would be one that some friends of mine have had with publishers who make clear that they have no commitment to the current book, let alone future books, who don’t market or promote or properly distribute the books, who produce physically shoddy books or wholly inappropriate designs without allowing the author any input, who bristle at any attempt by the author to offer an opinion, viewpoint, or suggestion, or who are simply incompetent at doing what needs to be done to get a book out into the world.
Previously on Ten Questions:
1. Kristy Bowen
3. Carolyn Guinzio, Feb 21
4. Nate Pritts, Feb 28
5. Neil Aitken, March 13
6. Edward Byrne, March 27
7. Rachel Bunting, April 3
8. Brent Fisk, April 10
9. Ivy Alvarez, April 17
10. Michaela Gabriel, April 24
11. Ron Silliman, May 8