This week we have with us Brent Fisk, whose work has appeared in over 200 magazines the last few years including recent issues of Rattle, Southern Poetry Review, Southeast Review, and Prairie Schooner. He is finishing up his first manuscript, Accidental Body of Knowledge and will begin the slow process of finding a publisher sometime late this spring. Many thanks for participating, Brent!
1. Describe your publishing trajectory. (Where did it start? Where is it now? How long have you been at it?)
I started in earnest about four years ago and have stuck with it ever since. Putting together packets, fooling with the post office, keeping track of the submissions—all that stuff can be a grind. But editors rarely call you up and say, “Hey, send us a bunch of work so we can publish it.” Well, maybe they do that if you’re Louise Gluck or Donald Hall, but the rest of us have to work it.
One of my first acceptances was with Prairie Schooner who accepted my entire packet. I got some ink from editors at both well-known and obscure magazines, started getting work taken pretty regularly, and just kept plugging away. You don’t want to carpet bomb editors with submissions, but you can’t be shy either. I’m well past having a creative writing teacher looking over my shoulder, and I belong to two solid workshops, one virtual, one a bit less phantom. Those voices help shape the work and I think I send out less material that isn’t quite ready for public consumption.
The next step for me is a chapbook and book. I’ve tried a few contests for single poems or groups of poems. A book seems more daunting. How do you decide what goes in, what stays out? How much of a thematic arc should it have? Should most of the poems be published in journals before going into a book? Where do you send it? That’s ten seconds worth of questions right there and I’ve barely scratched the surface. The idea of a book can be a bit paralyzing, but I’m working on it.
2. What would you do differently if you had to start all over again?
I’d have started earlier. I’m just shy of forty, so I lost a few years to work, the pursuit of a degree, running a head shop, that sort of thing. There are so many good poets writing and getting published today, and that’s not even counting all the bad ones that are doing the exact same thing. I think if I had those idle years back more of my work would be out in the public eye.
3. Why did you start seeking publication? Why do you continue?
I think there are some writers who genuinely don’t care about publication—it can sometimes feel like you’re a dog chasing its tail. But I like the feel of holding a journal in my hands, finding a home for a poem. I see the names of writers from my workshops and I know how much work they’ve put into that piece so I get a little glow, a little buzz from reading their work. Lately, James Doyle seems to be in about every journal that comes my way, so when you see those names again and again, there’s a sense of warmth—the warmth of doing work. I like that source of heat, that relationship that develops between writer, editor and reader. No one wants to see failure—not the writer, not the editor, and definitely not the reader.
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?
When you are a young writer, and by young I mean new to writing, you love every thing you write. Once you realize publication is just one variable in a very long equation, what becomes most important is getting the best possible poem in the best possible magazines. It may not be a name magazine either. I read great stuff in little magazines all the time, and while I still find interesting work in Poetry, mostly I read it for the bitchy carping that goes on it their letters and commentary section.
As far as how your relationship changes with the work, once it’s in a magazine, it has a sense of finality to it. It’s like someone taking a picture of you while you’re scratching your ass. You may only scratch your ass once every ten years, but now there’s this snapshot of it, so people think you do it all the time (For the record, I never scratch my ass). If you get a little excited and send a good poem out, but maybe it’s got some flaws, an editor still might publish it and then you’ve got it out there for everyone to see with no way to make any edits. I think the concept of publication eventually makes you take a much harder, colder look at the work you send out. Still, there’ll be times when a less than stellar poems slips through the cracks and you just have to groan. Groan, and maybe scratch your ass.
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?
Chapbooks are a great idea. Their brief nature lets you fully explore a theme without wearing out your welcome. I’ve got lists of poems on my refrigerator with various titles for the chaps. Any poem that fits in more than one book has an asterisk beside it. Eventually I’ll actually print these poems out in some sort of brilliant order, paginated with an acknowledgements page and a table of contents and Voila! I’ll be even more famous.
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 think this is even trickier than a chapbook or getting published in a literary journal. Because of the longer form, 60-120 pages, you really need to think about how it holds together. Narrative arc may be one thing that makes the whole cohesive, but you have to worry about tone, whether to break the book into sections, do you title each section. Should you have blurbs from famous writers on the back cover? Do you know any famous writers? Do you know any famous writers you can blackmail into reading your book? Where are those photographs of Ted Kooser scratching his ass? Does Louise Gluck scratch her ass? Can you even get close to Sharon Olds with a camera? A full-length manuscript is a chapbook on growth hormones. We really sweat this out, which is kind of funny because so few people read poetry, even fewer buy poetry, and the whole thing will probably be out of print in a matter of years. Even Pulitzer Prize winners have books out of print. I think you just have to put something together and get it out there. (This is advice I’m giving but not taking, mind you) Take any comments you get and begin the shifting and sifting and editing that’s required. If you think single poems are a headache, just wait.
7. Do you personally market your publications? If so, why and how, and do you enjoy it? If not, why not?
I let people know where I’ve been published and when I give readings I read from those magazines. I think most publishing houses expect the poets to do some serious legwork. There’s very little profit in the process, so the more sales they have, the more the publishers can do. I think readings are a great way to get a sense of how well your poems work. What kind of turnout do you have—what’s the body language? Do the members of the audience respond to the lines you think they should respond to? If you like the publisher and your own work, you kind of owe it to the process to promote your work.
8. Complete the following sentences: Big-name poetry publishers are… able to promote your work. They have a stable of name writers, generally, and fair or not, they have a network they can use to push material.
9. Small- and micro-presses are… full of energy and excitement. It’s probably why so many of them fold in just a few years. They have those little rabbit hearts that beat about a thousand times a minute, and they have one too many coffees up against a deadline and poof, that’s all she wrote.
10. Describe the ideal relationship with a publisher and the relationship with a publisher from hell.
Ideal would be somebody that loves your work but will also use their experience to help you shape the book and then will do what they can to promote the book long after its publication.
Hell would be the complete lack of communication and vision. They accept your work and then they stop talking to you, to others, to each other. Maybe they put a picture of a daisy on the cover and a blurb from Wink Martindale on the back cover. Or they find that picture of you scratching your ass—the one your mother promised she put through the shredder.
Brent Fisk is a writer from Bowling Green, Kentucky. His work has appeared in over 200 magazines the last few years including recent issues of Rattle, Southern Poetry Review, Southeast Review, and Prairie Schooner. In 2007 he won the Willow Award from Willow Review, the Sam Ragan Prize from Crucible, and honorable mention in Boulevard’s Emerging Poets Contest. He has received four Pushcart nominations, but is still waiting for the oversized check, the flowers and balloons. He is finishing up his first manuscript, Accidental Body of Knowledge and will begin the slow process of finding a publisher sometime late this spring.
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