Ten Questions (2): Ivy Alvarez

Today Ivy Alvarez, author of Mortal, responds to the ten questions on publication we have been asking. Much to enjoy and mull over in her responses indeed. We were particularly struck by her description of how her internet presence has been evolving along with her publishing trajectory. Thanks so much for participating, Ivy!

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

My poems and short stories first started appearing in my high school yearbooks and even once in the local paper. That was fun. It’s always been fun to see my words in print.

I had a really inspiring high school teacher, Mr Grudzien. He could tell when I lost interest in the middle of my short story and was coasting on it. Even now I can see his dreaded red pen marks all over my English assignments, but there was also the encouraging one that I still remember: ‘Don’t give up!’

When I started winning prizes during matriculation college for my poems, well, I guess I began to pay attention to what this might mean. I think I started taking poetry and poetry publication only seriously during my first year at university. It was still a lark but I wanted to see how far I could go with it.

I learnt as I went along how to get published in journals. No-one ever told me how to go about doing this, so I was pretty clueless. I remember reading one journal and looking at its guidelines. Under ‘Payment’, it had this amount. Well, I thought that was the amount I had to pay the journal to get my poems published. Being a student at the time, I’m glad I didn’t have the means to embarrass myself back then. I wonder what the editor would’ve thought if I’d sent in the money. Just given me a subscription, I suppose.

From the start, the lack of funds was a hindrance to getting my work out there, so I employed a scattershot approach and sent my work to random poetry journals. I remember being so crushed by the first batch ever returned to me, but when I told a poet friend about it, she pointed out that the accompanying note was actually quite encouraging. I guess I only saw the ‘no’.

Afterwards, I got better at judging which journals were more likely to accept my work, by actually finding copies in libraries and reading the poetry inside. That helped me on my way to getting my work in journals and my poems read.

Publishing Mortal (Red Morning Press, 2006), my first book of poems, felt like the long-awaited culmination of so many of my writerly dreams and desires. Even though waiting for it to be accepted for publication had been torture, I’m glad things worked out the way it did.

At the moment, I’m working on my second manuscript. I’m actually away at a writing residency in Spain for April 2008 to do this, so there’s more hard work ahead of me.

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

Initiate more conversations with poets I meet face-to-face. They’re the logical people to ask about good journals. Ask more questions. Give in to my curiosity.

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

My reasons for wanting publication from the start remains true even now: I want my poems out there, to be read by others, to engage the reader and for my work to make a connection.

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?

Once a poem is published, I become detached from it. It’s still mine, of course, but it then becomes something for a reader to get to know, engage with and put forward ideas of what it might mean to them.

Publication does not affect my process of writing a poem. When I write, there is no Greek chorus of editors at my right shoulder questioning my word choices. It’s just me in the room and the poem at my hands.

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 love chapbooks. They are my absolute favourite thing in poetry. I think it comes from my love of comic books when I was younger, then zines and other such handmade printed objects. I love the fold and the staple, the ink and the words. It’s as much the physical aspect of the chapbook as the poetry, I think.

A chapbook manuscript is a much more punchier, concentrated form than a full-length manuscript. For my first chapbook, ‘Food for Humans’, I put together what I thought were my best poems at the time. With ‘catalogue: life as tableware’, I must confess there wasn’t really a thread tying all the poems together. By comparison, ‘what’s wrong’ has a definite narrative running through it and remains my favourite. I have a fourth manuscript under consideration, which is organised under the theme of distance in a relationship. I’m looking forward to when that one is finally accepted.

I think chapbooks are a very good thing. They offer much more of an insight into a poet’s current obsessions because they are more immediate than a full-length manuscript, which often takes years to put together and see print. They are so much more accessible and not as daunting, either. Sometimes a full-length feels more of a commitment, while a chapbook is really very approachable. I can see no downsides to a chapbook, especially when they are beautifully made and a lot of care and attention is given to their creation.

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.

I don’t think there’s any prescription for a poetry manuscript. The only thing one must be faithful to is the work itself. If the work dictates a need for a narrative arc, so it must follow. If not, then one must find another way to pull it all together. A book of poetry is a piece of artwork, as valid in its form as a painting or a sculpture, expressing the thought of its creator in the only way possible.

As it happens, Mortal does have a narrative arc, but one should be able to skip around and still get something from the book, I think.

My advice to this unknown someone: Every word, every line, every poem must be necessary to the book. Pare down as much as possible so that only the essential remains. Be prepared to wait but if you believe in your work, don’t give up. You only need one person to say yes.

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

When I first started my blog, I thought it was a way of thinking about poetry and writing out loud, as well as celebrating acceptances of individual poems when they happened. As the need to have my manuscript published into a book became more irresistible, it then became a record of my progress as it went along, from the mis-steps to the day of acceptance. One could view my blog cynically I suppose, as a marketing tool, but when it began, it was more for my benefit, puzzling out how I felt about being a writer, the process of publication, while enjoying the small yeses along the way.

To more clearly demarcate my private thoughts and process from the public persona, I recently launched my author website, which I update with news and upcoming events associated with my book, Mortal. I don’t know if people follow that. Sometimes I think even that is more for me but I guess we’ll see about its usefulness.

I announce publications and important notices on the listservs of which I am a member and which have space for that. I take part in festivals and readings when I can: these I enjoy. I’ve given workshops to share what I know about writing and publication. I help promote my readings by telling my networks about it.

Why do I do it? I think if somebody invests their time in inviting you to participate in a festival, lead a workshop, or give a poetry reading, includes your work in a journal, or publishes your book, it makes sense to help get the word out about it. Otherwise, who will know about it? Nobody else will do it for you. Ultimately, I want my poems to find its readers and so I do what I can.

And I must admit, there’s a part of me that does enjoy doing it.

8. Complete the following sentences: Big-name poetry publishers are…fine and dandy. I like reading books from Faber, Bloodaxe, Cape Poetry, Carcanet in the UK, a great number of US publishers, and so on. Poetry should come from as many quarters as possible.

9. Small- and micro-presses are… the bees’ knees. I have a real affection for these presses. They are the ones who take the real risks because they often fund their publications out of their own pockets. They are also more likely to publish the real bolts of lightning, those incredible voices that come from the ground and arc out into the air, white-hot. I love reading the work of poets I can learn from and be continually stunned by their words.

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

An ideal relationship: a press that communicates with their authors consistently, working with them from start to finish.

A relationship from hell: a press that doesn’t respond to communications, or drops the author if they don’t sell enough books to make back an advance, or does not publish the book as agreed or at all, or does not include the author in important decision-making, or is unyielding on matters of contract, or does not help in promoting the book in any way. Thankfully, none of this has happened to me, though I’ve heard stories. I think if one is in a bad relationship, bow out as gracefully as possible, do your research and seek a new press.

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Ivy Alvarez is the author of Mortal (Washington, DC: Red Morning Press, 2006). Her poetry is published in literary journals and anthologies worldwide and online. A MacDowell and Hawthornden Fellow, both the Australia Council for the Arts and the Welsh Academi awarded her grants to write poems for her second book.

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Previously on Ten Questions:

1. Kristy Bowen
2. Reginald Shepherd
3. Carolyn Guinzio
4. Nate Pritts
5. Sam Byfield
6. Neil Aitken
7. Edward Byrne
8. Rachel Bunting
9. Brent Fisk

Coming up:

11. Michaela Gabriel, April 24
12. Reb Livingston, May 1
13. Ron Silliman, May 8

Answers posted by others to their own blogs:

Rik Roots
Rob Mackenzie
Steve Schroeder
Cheryl Snell
Kate Benedict

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One thought on “Ten Questions (2): Ivy Alvarez

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