How has your first book changed your life?
15. Simmons B. Buntin
That evening, I read through the entire book--my book--the culmination not only of years of writing poems, but nearly as many years waiting for the book to be published. All of the waiting now was worth it, as I knew it would be.
How did you happen to be publishing with Salmon? I thought they only published Irish authors.
Salmon Publishing is based in County Clare, Ireland, and is one of Ireland's foremost publishers of poetry, especially poetry by Irish women. But it also has a rich history of publishing American poets like R.T. Smith and Adrienne Rich. Jessie Lendennie, the publisher, is herself American, hailing from Arkansas before moving to Ireland in the early 1980s.
Jessie contacted me after she saw some of my work in Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. She learned about Terrain.org, which I edit and publish, because we had requested a Salmon book to review for a forthcoming issue.
I was surprised and obviously delighted when she requested that I send her a manuscript, as I didn't have a manuscript together and was not considering book publication at all. In fact, when she contacted me in 1999 I had not been seriously writing poetry for four years, as I was in graduate school studying urban and regional planning. Revising and periodically sending out poems, yes, but not writing new poetry.
Initially I sent a joint collection of poetry and prose, which Salmon accepted about a month later. Yet after three years, after Salmon lost funding post-9/11, and after a series of missed publication dates, we mutually agreed that it would be best for me to withdraw the manuscript and try to find another publisher.
I was devastated. But I took the opportunity to tighten up the collection, starting with removing the prose pieces. By this time, I had been writing just a bit more poetry, so reworked the manuscript before sending it out to a handful of stateside book competitions.
About a year later, with no momentum in the contests, I had nearly given up altogether when Jessie sent an email asking if I had any luck finding another publisher. When I replied no, she said, "Then we better take it back." I was cautiously optimistic, letting her know I'd still be delighted for Salmon to publish the book, but that beyond the contract there had to be a real commitment and real publication date from the get-go. Jessie agreed, we set a publication date for spring/summer 2005, and Riverfall officially published in May 2005.
Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it?
How has your life been different since?
In a more general--let's say neighborhood--context, being the "author of a book," and apparently any book by a respectable publisher, whatever that may be, has certainly piqued the interest of my neighbors, friends, and co-workers. It's another topic for conversation, certainly. A lot of that has to do with how I've marketed the book (see below), since I'm blatant but not obnoxious about promoting Riverfall.
I'm not sure that Billy Collins, for example, would give a hoot (even though as a poetry whore I did slip him a copy of my book at a reading some months ago), but I did receive a friendly email from Brendan Galvin, following a favorable review in Shenandoah recently. Galvin is mentioned in a poem in the book, and has always been a poet whose work I've both admired and aspired to.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I thought it might be easier to place the book for reviews. I was naïve in that capacity, which I admit is surprising because I'm an editor and realize that Terrain.org can only review perhaps 10 percent of the books we receive. And yet, I've been pleasantly surprised by the venues that have reviewed or at least mentioned the book, like Shenandoah and Books Ireland. Still, I'd like to see more reviews (favorable or not, frankly), so keep pushing it out there when I can.
Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the positive and I hope earnest response to Riverfall from other poets. Alison Hawthorne Deming, for example, forwarded some very kind words. Bloggers like Suzanne Frischkorn and Scott Edward Anderson have also been generous in their online (and offline) words. It's difficult if not impossible to be objective when it comes to your own work, so feedback from peers--even and perhaps especially if not positive--helps keep my balance.
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?
Fortunately for me, I'm not shy about promoting Riverfall. I've worked in marketing for many years, and as a web program manager (my paying gig), have plenty of experience promoting products both on- and offline. Well before publication, I built the book's website at www.riverfall.com, which contains everything from a PDF-based flyer to an events calendar to sample poems. Once Salmon's online bookshop appeared, I linked to that so visitors could purchase the book.
Prior to publication I also set up as many readings as I could, with a two-pronged approach: 1) Local readings, since I live in Tucson, and 2) Colorado-based readings, since I wrote most of the poems when living in Colorado, received a Colorado Artists Fellowship for Poetry in 2000, and had more name recognition there than here in Tucson.
Back at home, I hosted a book launch party at my house. Eighty friends and neighbors turned up and I sold far more books than I expected. I also set up readings at our neighborhood center as part of the community's speaker series (which not coincidentally I facilitate) and at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. I have yet to read at a local bookstore in Tucson--the one instance where I was set up to read, sadly the local independent bookstore closed its doors for good three weeks prior--but I have read at other venues like cafes. I admit I need to be more proactive about reading locally and across the state, but haven't had much luck with bookstores, much to my chagrin.
In addition to readings and other public "appearances," the publisher, Dufour, and I have sent numerous review copies to the publications poems in Riverfall first appeared in, as well as other review publications, both print and online. While a poem from the collection has yet to appear in Poetry Daily or Verse Daily, I periodically remind them that one should! I have also sent the obligatory copies to relatives and friends, and unsolicited copies to poets I know and don't know. For example, I sent a copy to Brian Swann, OnEarth editor who has commented extensively on but never accepted any of my poetry submissions.
Once the book was available for purchase from the Salmon Publishing website, I sent an email to all of the fellow poets I know, such as those who have published in Terrain.org. It wasn't a sales pitch, but rather an announcement. I didn't want to abuse our relationship; but just as I appreciate hearing their good news, I hoped they would appreciate hearing mine, all the while spreading the news of the book.
Finally, I started a blog, with the goal not of overtly promoting Riverfall, but rather of discussing poetry and the environment, posting photographs, and sharing the other myriad things we all use our blogs for. Appropriately, the blog is riverfall.blogspot.com
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
And I'd like to mention, too, that my book's publication--and my renewed vigor to write new poetry--have inspired my 8-year-old daughter to write poetry, as well. And I'm amazed at its quality, unconstrained as it is by the rules we all learn in poetry classes at college and elsewhere. She has read with me at a few readings now, and is always a tough act to follow!
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing?
What would have an impact, rather, would be a person or group that I'd share my draft poems with, who could provide critical feedback to help make the poems stronger. Unfortunately, I don't have that community--either local or online.
So, in part to get that kind of group and simply to force myself to write more, I will be attending graduate school once again beginning this fall. This time, however, I'll be pursuing the MFA in creative writing. Instead of poetry, though, I'm focusing on creative non-fiction. And when I say I'm pursuing the MFA, that's actually not what I'm doing at all. Yes, I'm a part of the MFA program here at the University of Arizona, but I'm not concerned about the degree per se. What I'm interested in is the courses themselves, the community of writers and faculty, the energy of the place and its people, the culmination of what should be a full manuscript, ready for publication when I'm done.
Do you want your life to change?
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
That is one of the main reasons I am now pursuing creative non-fiction over poetry. In today's world, non-fiction has a significantly larger impact on the way people think and act than poetry, largely because it has a much wider readership. If my goal, as I've said, is to change the world, and non-fiction reaches more people, then using non-fiction as the tool to change the world makes sense.
So while poetry can create change in the world, it cannot achieve the scale of change that the world needs. On the other hand, creative non-fiction--and the environmental essay particularly, in my case--can. And it must.
wire grass resilience
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next interview: Raymond McDaniel
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