1. Describe your publishing trajectory. Where did it start? Where is it now? How long have you been at it?
I just spoke about this a few days ago to some Marist College undergrads, it’s a tale of ups and downs, some unexpected “successes” and plenty of rejection. I started writing poetry in college during the early 90’s and published a couple poems in undergraduate publications at Carnegie Mellon. But aside from that, I didn’t place a poem in a magazine until 2000 when Ed Ochester accepted one for 5AM. I sent my work out for years, feeling daunted and hopeless. Of course, the way I went about it was why. I sent my poems to all the wrong magazines; places that didn’t publish work in the same vein as mine — or places I wasn’t familiar, never read. That’s a recipe for failure and I cooked with that pretty much my entire 20s. Some people have to learn the hard way. I’m one of those people. Now I send poems out only to places I read and admire and sometimes to places that solicit work. My poems have appeared in a few “biggish” places like Best American Poetry and American Poetry Review, some kinda-well known online and print magazines and a slew of not-so well known places. I still get rejections (most recently last week) and probably always will. That’s just the way it is. Four-plus years of editing my own online magazine, No Tell Motel, taught me not to take any of it personally. As for books, the Whole Coconut Books Chapbook Series published my first title, Pterodactyls Soar Again, as an online chapbook in 2006 and that same year, my micropress, No Tell Books published a collaborative chapbook I wrote with Ravi Shankar, Wanton Textiles. Along with Molly Arden, I edited two anthologies for the The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel series. My first what they call “full-length” poetry collection, Your Ten Favorite Words, came out very recently from Coconut Books. Currently I’m in the midst of creating a manuscript called God Damsel. The further along I get into it, the further from finished it becomes. Coconut Books expressed interested in publishing that too, so that’s likely where it’ll end up, when it’s ready. If for some unexpected reason Coconut doesn’t take it, I’ll publish it myself with No Tell Books. I no longer feel beholden to other publishers’ whims and circumstances. I know how to put together a book. There’s no reason I should spend hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars in contests and reading fees for something I can do myself.
2. What would you do differently if you had to start all over again?
I would save my money and not send to any book contests whatsoever. Bye bye $1500. What do I have to show for it? A handful of the “winning” books, most of which I don’t even care for. I could have published two books for that amount. Also, as I mentioned above, I would be more selective and knowledgeable where I send my work in general. Bye bye hundreds of hours of my life.
3. Why did you start seeking publication? Why do you continue?
I wanted readers for my poems. I continue because I still want my poems to be read. That’s pretty much it. I don’t teach. I have little interest in teaching, so I don’t have a CV to worry about. It’s freeing because I can publish wherever I want, including self- publishing (which I believe more poets should consider, not as defeat, but as taking control of one’s work, how it’s presented and distributed).
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 so much, I’ll stop revising a poem when I think it’s ready to send to magazine, but later down the road it’s fair game again. When it’s time to put together a book, the poems (whether published or not) are each examined for editing, changing and scraping. I’m an obsessive reviser.
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?
Pterodactyls Soar Again is a pared-down, tighter version of an unpublished longer manuscript, Home-Schooled by a Cackling Jackal. Once the chapbook came out, I had no urge to continue searching for a home for Cackling Jackal. The fact that it’s online and free meant it got (and still gets) a lot of readers. That pleases me very much. Ravi and I collaboratively wrote Wanton Textiles on and off via e-mail for over two years. It’s a print-chapbook and sadly hasn’t sold particularly well, in fact it’s No Tell Books’ most dismal seller, by far. On the bright side, I probably gave away 100+ copies and it’s received a few good reviews. In the end it was a way to get the work out there, although definitely not the most cost-effective yet it didn’t exactly break my bank either. That’s the beauty of ch(e)apbooks. I guess I don’t really understand the question of whether or not chapbooks are good or bad. Some books are good things, others not so much. I don’t see how length, distribution or the production process has any determining factor in that. Unless the pages are made from the skins of kittens.
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.
Put together the book you believe needs to be put together. If that book needs a narrative arc, super, if not, why bother worrying about it? To fit some trend? If you’re worried about trends, fashion or popularity, for God’s sake, don’t waste your time with poetry. If a poem belongs, include it, if not, don’t. Don’t feel beholden to include poems that were published in “biggish” places just for the sake of your Acknowledgments page. Several people asked why I didn’t include “That’s Not Butter” in Your Ten Favorite Words. I’d tell them because it didn’t fit with the collection, it’s from Pterodactyls Soar Again. They’d look exasperated, like I was the silliest idiot in the world blowing my big “chance.” I don’t follow that logic. That particular poem reached more readers than I ever imagined. If somebody read that poem and wanted to read more of my poems, I don’t see how not including it would in any way be discouraging. Even if that was the case in some freaky poetry reader dimension, a couple sales is not enough motivation to clunk-up my book with something that doesn’t belong. I suppose that all leads up this advice: don’t treat your poetry like it’s a commodity. You’ll be selling it short (hah!). Poems aren’t commodities. Poems don’t make anyone money. So when you’re creating your book, listen to your inner artist, not your inner capitalist. If your inner capitalist knew what he was talking about, he’d be telling you to write a self-help book or something for Penthouse Forum.
7. Do you personally market your publications? If so, why and how, and do you enjoy it? If not, why not?
If you mean do I do readings, speak on panels, link to my books from my websites, try to cajole people into reviewing my books, send out e- mails asking friends and family to buy them, agree to participate in interviews such as this one — then yes, most certainly. I do it because I want people to buy my books. I want people to read them. I also want my publisher and my own press to recoup the costs of producing the books. I do enjoy giving readings and participating on panels, usually, but I find it to be psychically draining and often must take breaks.
8. Complete the following sentences: Big-name poetry publishers are… not necessarily evil although usually irrelevant and not particularly interesting. Big-name poetry publishers tend to be interested in the bottom-line since they’re all owned by massive corporations. They’d sooner publish a terrible book by a pop star than take a chance publishing a fantastic collection by an “unknown” or what I really mean to say is an “extra-unknown” because even well-known poets are pretty much unknown. I don’t pay too much attention to big-name publishers because as a busy mom I don’t find much of what they’re doing to be worth my time. Besides, how many poetry books are these “big-name” poetry publishers even putting out in a year? Less than a hundred, I think. Why do they keep coming up in conversation? They’re barely applicable.
9. Small- and micro-presses are… the publishers of poetry. Small and micro-presses publish the overwhelming majority of poetry in the U.S. They’re run by people who care about poetry and who find ways to finance and publish it whether it’s from acquiring grants, getting support from universities and institutions and often, out of their own pockets. Some small presses finance their operations with book contests. I’m not so crazy about that, but don’t begrudge them. It’s hard out there being a poetry publisher.
10. Describe the ideal relationship with a publisher and the relationship with a publisher from hell.
An ideal relationship with a publisher would be like a happy marriage: nurturing, harmoniously working together to bring and raise that baby in the cruel cruel world. Having a publisher from hell would be like an unhappy marriage where your partner doesn’t hold up his end, is absent more than he’s around, is a control freak or gives his sweet sweet love to everyone but you.
Reb Livingston lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and son. She’s the author of Your Ten Favorite Words and co-editor of The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel anthology series. Also she edits and publishes No Tell Motel and No Tell Books.
Previously on Ten Questions:
13. Ron Silliman, May 8
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