January 2009

Anna Leahy


A Conversation on the (Re)Emerging Poet: First Books and What's Next

Anna Leahy: Nicole Cooley, Kate Greenstreet, Nancy Kuhl, and myself have published our first poetry books in recent years. We’ve found, however, that we’ve each had different experiences getting to and through that first book publication and that we’re dealing in different ways with what’s next. We’re each at a somewhat different reflective distance beyond that first book, but we’re all in this process of being, as they say, an emerging writer.

Kate Greenstreet: I understand why some people resist that label. But I had stopped writing for quite a few years and, when I started again, it felt like emerging. Beginning to get published a few years ago was another kind of coming out. So, in my case, the term feels accurate.

Nancy Kuhl: I have mixed feelings about the term -- on the one hand, of course, it might be said that we are all always emerging, but at what point has one emerged? And after emerging, then what? Has Nicole, with her third collection now forthcoming, slipped or propelled herself into that other dubious category: mid-career? I know other terms are no better or more accurate -- many who might be called emerging poets are not new or young or beginning -- but I do wish we had a reasonable alternative. Maybe simply "first-book poets."

Nicole Cooley: I too have mixed feeling about the term emerging and about the term mid-career. What has surprised me is that with each book -- my first and second and the one I am finishing now -- it always feels like I’m starting over as a writer. Re-emerging each time perhaps?

Leahy: Certainly, we were emerging before our first books, but, yes, the first book is a distinct career accomplishment, a benchmark of sorts. That term -- "first-book poet" -- demarcates the move from manuscript in flux to book, which I think I only understand in hindsight. Ordering the Storm is a collection of essays about putting book manuscripts together; while that sort of reference is likely helpful, the transition from manuscript to book is complicated.

When I finished graduate school, I sent my manuscript to a slew of contests and was occasionally heartened when I was a finalist, perhaps because well-published writers assured me that, once finalist notes arrive, it’s just a matter of time. Time wore me out, and I started writing new poems that weren’t easily swapped into the existing manuscript.

In 2003, I read Beth Ann Fennelly’s article “The Winnowing of Wildness: On First Book Contests and Style.” I stopped submitting my manuscript. That was really difficult because submitting felt like action, and, as I’ve heard Nancy echo the lottery slogan, "You can’t win if you don’t play." But you can’t win if you don’t really have a book either.

It took me eighteen months to overhaul my collection. This time, things moved quickly. What led to the Wick Poetry Prize, I’m convinced, was an overarching theme -- science metaphors and terminology -- to pull the poems together into the semblance of a narrative instead a pile of poems. When I began imposing that theme just to try it out, it felt contrived, but I was soon able to make sense of my writing in a way that delighted me.

Kuhl: My book was also in the contest market for a while -- in the five years before it found a publisher, it was a finalist or semi-finalist more than fifteen times. Having the manuscript acknowledged was great, but the bottom line, of course, is that being a finalist doesn’t get you any closer to the winners’ circle in the next contest. It just gives you the right mix of hope and confidence to keep you sending the manuscript to more contests, paying more reading fees. I continued to make minor revisions during that time, rearranging things, adding or subtracting a poem or two, but the book didn’t really change substantially.

Finally, at my husband’s suggestion, I sent the manuscript to Shearsman Books in the United Kingdom. I knew Shearsman because my work had appeared in the press’s magazine, and I’d admired Shearsman’s list of international poets for some time. I was thrilled when the editor, Tony Frazer, told me he wanted to publish the book. As luck would have it, the manuscript was a finalist in a contest with a fat cash prize at the time; Tony graciously agreed to let me ride that out before officially committing The Wife of the Left Hand to Shearsman.

Greenstreet: I also sent my first manuscript out for a couple of years. Nothing happened. As time passed, I reordered and improved it with new work, but eventually I just wanted to write a different book. So, while I continued to submit the first, I began a second manuscript, which became my first book, case sensitive.

Leahy: Now that you say that you started a new manuscript, I have to admit that I wasn’t really tinkering or even revamping my defunct one. But I couldn’t think of Constituents of Matter as a different manuscript at first.

Greenstreet: For me, the two manuscripts were completely separate. I didn't use anything from the first in the second. When the new one was finished, I sent it to Ahsahta Press during their 2004 open submissions period. Janet Holmes wrote to say she’d love to publish it, but couldn't do it until 2006. I was thrilled to be published by Ahsahta, so I didn't mind waiting.

A few weeks after Janet wrote, Colleen Lookingbill of Etherdome Press contacted me to ask if I had a chapbook manuscript. She’d seen two poems of mine in an online journal. Since case sensitive is divided into five sections -- or chapters -- meant to be the chapbooks of the protagonist, I thought: great, take your pick. But Colleen didn’t want to publish a group of poems that would be part of the forthcoming book. So I decided to take apart my first manuscript, Leaving the Old Neighborhood, and use those poems (sometimes cut up, reworked, retitled) to make Learning the Language, a chapbook that Etherdome published in September 2005. case sensitive came out a year later. There’s a two poem overlap because I ended up using two poems from the case sensitive manuscript in the chapbook -- not the other way around.

I approached my first two manuscripts from opposite directions. Leaving the Old Neighborhood grew as new poems accumulated, and was never intended as anything but a collection of poems. case sensitive, on the other hand, began as notes for a story -- I thought it might be a novel. And it was built around a fictional character, whereas the first manuscript was more autobiographical.

Cooley: My experience is somewhat like Kate’s process for case sensitive, I see, because I earned my M.F.A. in fiction, but all along I was secretly writing poems. Oddly -- or maybe not -- I constructed the manuscript of my first book Resurrection as if it were a novel, envisioning my poems like chapters. Then, after a few years of writing, I laid my poems out over the floor and walked around and around and in between them, putting them in order, considering them as a book. Because my background was in fiction, I think I felt a great deal of freedom within my poetry. I borrowed ideas of voice and persona from fiction and worked to link my poems together as a project.

Leahy: It sounds as if you had a structure -- a narrative arc of sorts -- as the poems were written, whereas I had to find a structure and rework. After the manuscript was really formed, how did you approach submitting it?

Cooley: I have always worked hard to separate the work of writing from the work of submitting, and I try to approach all submissions in a detached way -- to be businesslike and non-emotional, I guess, in so far as that is possible. The year I won the Whitman Award, I was a grad student with a job in the law library computer lab, which meant that one or two nights a week, I sat at a computer overseeing the lab, and since I couldn’t focus enough to read or write or study in that setting, I just worked on submissions to magazines and contests. I am convinced that attending to the business end of writing for so many hours a week that year helped me to move forward.

Winning the Walt Whitman Award was amazing luck, all the more meaningful to me because, as it turned out, my first book would be published by Louisiana State University Press. I’m from New Orleans and many of the poems focused on the landscape of the Gulf Coast. This was wonderful synchronicity. I was able to give a number of readings in Louisiana and the South and to have my family and friends from the area be part of bringing my book into the world.

Leahy: I felt lucky, too, even though I’d worked hard for a long time. On the morning I left for a research vacation in 2006, I saw the e-mail and knew -- or hoped, but really knew -- what it was. I couldn’t stop smiling for two days and had to check that message several times.

Nancy had won a Wick Chapbook Prize several years earlier and had wonderful things to say about the Wick Poetry Center and Maggie Anderson, so I was excited to have my books in good hands. That matters more than I’d expected, though I’m sure most poetry presses care about their books a great deal. Kent State University Press allowed me (encouraged me even) to secure the cover art (and Lylie Fisher was generous to provide it at little cost), and the marketing staff has sent out review copies, book contest nominations, and catalogs that include Constituents of Matter. A weeklong residency at Kent State -- to teach a workshop, give a reading with judge Alberto Ríos, and give a lecture -- was part of the prize as well and a wonderful experience.

I feel as if part of my work as a poet now is to usher the book to readers. I’ve had postcards printed and contacted acquaintances at other institutions to set up readings. And I’ve worked with a dear friend to develop a website. This work in the wake of book publication seems trial and error and demands more time than I’d anticipated.

Cooley: Louisiana State University Press is also wonderful to work with, and I was very happy with the covers they did for both my books and the way they designed the books. I really enjoyed the marketing of Resurrection -- I loved giving readings at colleges and universities, traveling by train, car, bus and plane through the South in particular. I was a graduate student at the time, so my schedule was comparatively flexible, and I could do things like take a Greyhound bus through Louisiana to different colleges for readings. It was incredibly fun.

Greenstreet: My job allows me to work from home or the road, so I've been able to read all over the country, in all sorts of venues. Before case sensitive was published, I was extremely reclusive. I really was the kind of person who rarely left the house except to take a walk or drive to the grocery store. I’m writing this from a motel room on the other side of the country from where I live, at the beginning of a three-week tour with dates in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada. I’ve been doing a lot of readings with my publisher, Janet Holmes, whose fourth book came out soon after my first -- that’s been great.

Also, Janet allowed my husband and me to design the cover of case sensitive. We’re designers, but we’d never done a book cover, so working with Ahsahta has been an opportunity to expand in several ways.

Kuhl: Tours and travels sound exciting and part of me is deeply envious, but another part of me is exhausted at the thought of it. My own professional work, as a rare book and manuscript curator, is not at all reclusive and I’ve found that adding traveling for readings to the demands of my so-called day job has made it increasingly difficult to find time to write. Always it is a struggle for balance, I think, managing a challenging and intellectually stimulating job with a writing life -- but any new demand, even a pleasurable one like traveling to give a reading, can easily eat into writing time. So, though I’ve valued the opportunity to read and especially to use readings as an opportunity to connect with poets in other parts of the country, I haven’t done nearly as many as Kate or Nicole.

Thinking of all this now, how complex time management can become in the wake of the new book, I am glad that I’d already written a second manuscript and most of a third before my first book actually arrived in print. The fact of the book itself, coupled with the demands of promoting it, might have made it difficult to move on to some next thing. Finishing my MFA thesis, for example, left me with a sort of post-partum grief; I didn’t write anything of substance for a long time.

Leahy: Though I’ve worked on other kinds of writing, like scholarly essays on Natasha Trethewey’s poetry, it was almost a year after the book acceptance that I was able to think about a new manuscript. And I have to admit that I went back to my defunct first manuscript to salvage at least a section as a foundation for some next thing.

I wonder whether we, at times, need ruminating or shoring up -- more positive phrases than "writer’s block" -- in order to move on with creative work. In a Scientific American Mind article entitled “Unleashing Creativity,” Ulrich Kraft points out, “the brain [continues] to work on a problem once it has been supplied with the raw materials.” He goes on to write, “A little relaxation and distance changes the mind’s perspective on a problem -- without us being aware of it. This change of perspective allows for alternative insights and creates the preconditions for a fresh, and perhaps more creative, approach.”

I wonder, too, whether seeing individual poems as potentially part of a book even before I’d written them -- since now one book exists, and I surely want another -- created a sort of block. Neurologist Alice Flaherty, in the somewhat unsettling The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, claims that writer’s block may “stem less from emotional problems than from deficits in cognitive skills,” “too-early editing,” or “hard projects.” It was difficult not to let the idea of "book" overwhelm the idea of "poem," perhaps.

Once I sat down with a bunch of old and new poems to see what’s what, I felt better. Rearranging and revising a few existing poems created the drive to write new ones. I wrote a lousy set in fixed forms and then began a sequence in a historical persona that excites me, has generated some research, and is growing. And I met, after almost a year, with two friends to workshop new poems. I feel as if I’m writing poetry again -- both individual poems and a book. I could be wrong about the book, but you can’t know how a next poem will work until you’re in it.

Greenstreet: I had the urge to write a book-length poem for a while before I finished case sensitive. It began to come to me in pieces as I was working on the final edits -- I had five or six pages by the time I submitted case sensitive to Ahsahta Press. I worked on it for a couple more years before I felt it was finished. That manuscript, called The Last 4 Things, will be published by Ahsahta in 2009.

Right now I'm working on a new book, still in the mysterious stage. I started it before The Last 4 Things was completed -- that's just the way it seems to happen for me. But the time and energy I’ve given to promote case sensitive has interfered with the progress of new work. I haven't been able to write much on the road, aside from a few straightforward prose projects. So, I've been writing poetry in blocks of time sandwiched between trips. I'm looking forward to being at home this winter and getting some work done!

Kuhl: Writing my new manuscripts was really different from writing The Wife of the Left Hand. My writing process has changed and evolved from the period when I wrote the bulk of my first book -- I was less settled in some ways, then, in terms of jobs, graduate school, and those sorts of regular life pursuits. So while sometimes I had virtually no time to write (when I was full time in library school and working two jobs, for instance), and other times I had much more flexibility (in my first few years out of library school, when I rarely had any reason to take work home or even think about work after hours). Now that I have my current job, one which isn’t strictly 9-5, everything is different. For the first couple years in my current job, I was working so intensely that I had little time for serious writing. Once I felt more comfortable in my professional position, I knew that I had to figure out a way to fit writing into my life in a more substantial way. So I started applying for grants and fellowships and ended up with a residency at the Vermont Studio Center (and, later, the MacDowell Colony). That VSC residency was, I think, the first time I really devoted myself completely to writing -- even as a grad student I had the distractions of classes and grading student papers. I was able to be really productive, but what was more significant was that I also developed some serious momentum and the motivation to restructure things in my life a bit to make more room for writing.

Cooley: After I finished my first book, I wanted to do something completely and utterly different for my second project. But despite that impulse, I found it hard to execute. I recalled the ideas I talked about in class with my creative writing students. I always tell them you have to try to write the poem that you don’t feel capable of writing, the project you feel will be too difficult, too hard to take on. And at the same time, you have to shake up all your ideas about poetry whenever you write a new poem.
At the time, my husband and I had put huge pieces of paper up all over the walls of our apartment. This was my way of radically altering my writing space and escaping the smallness of a poem on a single sheet of paper or a computer screen. And so I started writing on that paper, and returning to my childhood fascination with the Salem Witch Trials. This led to my second book -- The Afflicted Girls -- which focused on the trials, and took me into many different worlds.

I was fortunate to spend a summer at The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, researching the book. The AAS offers fellowships for creative artists. There, I met historians, literary scholars, descendents of people involved in the trials, and genealogists who knew and researched Salem. The sustained time to research was a joy, and the broadening of my circle of readers was also a true pleasure. Most of all, working on this new project challenged me as a writer because it raised new questions, about history and voice, that I had not considered fully before.

In fact, I have continued to explore this line of questioning in my new manuscript, Breach, which focuses on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I believe that each project should be completely different from the last, but at the same time, each one leads you to the next, provides a kind of stepping stone.

Leahy: All of us are, then, continually re-emerging for as we approach anything akin to mastery, we move on to new challenges. While a first book may not demarcate mastery, it has, for each of us, signified a step or benchmark that allowed us both to understand what we had already written and to discover what’s next. As Robert Frost wrote in “The Figure a Poem Makes, “For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.” Before the first book is out, it seems a goal; now, it seems a motivation.