A Collective Interview Wherein Writers We Like Discuss Topics Related to the Craft

Including the following:
Jennifer K. Sweeney, Kevin Prufer, Jacqueline West, Melody Gee, & Keetje Kuipers.

Questions by Patricia Caspers

For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 5.2, June 2011
Tell us about the cover art for your book. How and why was it chosen?

Jennifer K. Sweeney: Salt Memory (Main Street Rag, 2006) and How to Live on Bread and Music ( Perugia, 2009): I feel fortunate that both of my publishers, Main Street Rag and Perugia Press, have allowed me to choose the cover art for my books. For my first, Salt Memory, I asked my good friend and accomplished artist, Eric Zener. His work explores submergence in bodies of water, and I loved the way that spoke to the themes of the sea as subject, guide, and metaphor in my book, and also the larger connotation of being submerged in the subconscious. He let me spend an afternoon in his studio looking at the breadth of his work. The one we used has a woman curled in a circle under water. She feels very elemental to me: she could be woman or salt herself, and the image could be both soothing or foreboding. When I saw it, I knew. In the time between the first and second book, my accountant-turned-artist father, Richard Kochanek, delved into printmaking and created a striking series of prints. The opportunity to collaborate was one I could not pass up. I selected Angels in Procession, an aqua and intaglio print that feels lit from within. There are three simple angel figures that spoke to a few specific poems, “I am Myself Three Selves at Least” and “The Three Sisters,” and also to an idea guiding this work. I feel that we often deal with dialectics in poetry, the tensions between opposites, and I love the subtlety of the third possibility. The luminous quality of the print itself and the composition was the ideal image to accompany the collection.

Kevin PruferNational Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008), Wir wollten Amerika finden: ausgewählte Gedichte (Luxbooks Verlag, 2011), In a Beautiful Country (Four Way Books, 2011): There are lots of pills in [In a Beautiful Country].  Sometimes, people take pills because they are sick.  Other times, pills talk to each other on the bedside table or, observing us, entertain mean little thoughts.  Sometimes snow falls from the sky like aspirin tablets.  But really there are two intertwined themes at work in the book.  On the one hand, the poems seek to understand political culpability during a time of war — when that war is so distant from us, when we are, snug at home, so cushioned from its repercussions.  Also, in addition to making sense of this kind of loss, the poems try to understand more immediate, personal sorts of troubles, the deaths of loved ones, a possible absence of God.  Of course, these troubles —both abstract and immediate—are intertwined.  I imagine that the pills falling from the sky or asleep in their pillcups offer both the possibility of a cure and the temptation of numbness and oblivion.  It seemed like the right choice for the cover.  (I believe the image is a doctored photograph meant to be used as a pharmaceutical ad.)  

Jacqueline West
Cherma (Parallel Press, 2010) and The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows(Dial Books for Young Readers, 2010): The poems in my chapbook tell the stories of Cherma, a small rural area in western Wisconsin that was settled by Bohemian immigrants in the late nineteenth century. Besides several dozen farms run by interrelated Bohemian families, Cherma once had a one-room schoolhouse, a general store, and a post office, all of which were dismantled many years ago, but the true hub of the settlement was St. Martin’s Catholic Church.  The church was built in the 1890s by the families that used it; they quarried the stone and hauled the lumber and mortared the bricks for the chimney and carved the wood for the altar. A lot of the poems in Cherma are based on events that would have happened right in and around that small space: weddings, baptisms, holidays, funerals, burials.      In the 1970s, when many rural parishes were being shut down or consolidated, St. Martin’s was closed, and the Cherma congregation filtered into a number of other nearby churches.  In 1987, a day before the fixtures of St. Martin’s were to be auctioned off, the church burned to the ground.  (I always loved that story, the mystery and the perfect, poetic timing of it.) Now all that’s left of Cherma is the cemetery, with many of its aging headstones carved in increasingly illegible Czech.  Even though St. Martin’s itself is gone, it seemed appropriate for the cover to feature a small, wooden, rural church—one that could represent so many of the tiny immigrant communities that sprang up and faded away across the country.  

Melody Gee
Each Crumbling House (Perugia Press, 2010): The cover art is a painting called “Harbor Houses” by Martin Lawrence, an artist in the UK. My editor allowed me to choose the cover, so I started looking up art with houses, hoping something would fit since I didn’t have any idea of what I wanted. I actually found this painting on the artist’s website through a Google search, and it seemed perfect. We asked him for permission and he gave it right away. It couldn’t have been easier. I loved the vibrant red and watery brush strokes. The painting was a great—and surprising—fit for a book about China and Chinese-American culture.  

Keetje Kuipers: 
Beautiful in the Mouth (BOA, 2010): The cover art for Beautiful in the Mouth was done by a friend of mine, the Oregon artist Frank Boyden. I knew that I wanted one of his pieces for my cover, but at first I’d imagined choosing a much darker tone for the collection. Much of Frank’s work is haunting and even a bit disturbing—spiders, owls, skulls. My first choice was a drawing of a skeleton taking a bite out of a human heart—there’s so much love and death (and the two in constant combination) in my poems, I just thought that an image that spoke directly to those ideas would be appropriate. However, my editor Peter Conners thought (very wisely) otherwise. He pointed out that such a concrete image actually excluded much of the work in my book, and that it might exclude readers as well. After looking through more of Frank’s work, I chose the image of the phoenix—while many of my poems deal with loss and longing, the words that came out of those experiences rise out of the ashes of those losses.

How much revision went into your manuscript after it was accepted for publication? Tell us about that process.  

Jennifer K. Sweeney: In both cases, more editing took place after the books’ acceptance than I would have thought. Revision is a complex and glacial process, and just when I think it’s done, I seem to lift another veil and see a poem from a new perspective. When the poems get dangerously close to mortality—i.e. fixed in their places free from the editing pen—I tend to see things I simply could not see before. For Salt Memory, I combed through the manuscript over and over, and my editor obliged the process as long as we had a clear “last send.” For How to Live on Bread and Music, editor Susan Kan was more hands-on with this process, and it felt more collaborative. I made more significant changes to the manuscript—changing the order, dropping some pieces, adding a whole new section—and those changes truly transformed the book for me.

Kevin Prufer: Quite a lot, but that’s because I have a VERY good editor named Sally Ball.  In addition to the usual sorts of line editing queries, Sally thought the organization of the poems wasn’t particularly effective.  The book began in three long sections, but they were overwhelming.  The poems seemed to gang up on the reader, were a little unrelenting.  We settled on twelve sections of four poems each because the poems seemed to work more subtly in conversation that way.  Also, I imagined readers not reading the book straight through, but reading just one section at a time, letting the four poems circle around a theme before moving on to the next.  I didn’t want to be relentless and this revision allowed for that a bit.

Jacqueline West: Very little revision took place after my manuscript was accepted.  Really.  Almost none.  And most of the revising that was done was of the copy-editing variety: double-checking the spelling of certain family names, getting the usage of a few Czech words right. It’s funny, because this was pretty much the opposite of my experience with fiction (my first book for young readers was also released in 2010), which has involved a lengthy, intense, multi-stage editorial process.  However, I should point out that each poem in this chapbook underwent a great deal of pre-submission revising.  I began writing Cherma during an advanced poetry workshop at UW-Madison. I workshopped many of the poems in two independent writers’ groups, and I rewrote and re-imagined and reassembled some of them until they hardly looked like English to me anymore, let alone like poetry.  So there was plenty of revision — it just took place before acceptance, not after.      

Melody Gee: Susan Kan and I edited the book together. She began with a list of suggestions for a new title. Originally, the book was called The Voice Before . I was slow to give it up, but Susan convinced me that the title should have something more concrete and visual to it. Then we moved on to editing individual poems. I sent her an updated manuscript with newer poems I had added since I had first sent her the manuscript. She sent me a list of suggestions and questions, but I had the final say on all changes—though I’m pretty sure I took just about every one of her edits. She asked a lot of questions about individual words and line breaks and poem titles, pressing me to understand and defend all of my choices, and to explain any references that seemed too esoteric or vague. If I didn’t have a good reason for something, I changed it. If I was really married to something, I kept it. We did very little re-organizing. I had lots of control over every aspect—I chose the fonts, the text alignment, what got put in bold, etc. I loved being in control of the small details. It was especially nice to focus on the book visually, after so many weeks (and years) of poring over the words. 

Keetje Kuipers
: The manuscript went through many drafts and numerous revisions before it was accepted by BOA for publication. At that point, I’d been working on the manuscript for five years and sending it out for two—most of the tinkering that could have been done had already happened. I did receive some minor edits from my editor Thom Ward, and I took many of his suggestions. I also went through the manuscript again with a close friend, examining each of the poems as if I’d never seen them before, and changes to the manuscript came out of that process as well. There are still days when I open the book and see potential changes—sometimes small line edits, sometimes entire poems that I would cut—but I think that’s fairly common. Maybe a book is never really supposed to be finished. I’ve become much more comfortable with that idea, and now when I send poems to magazines I don’t mind if they change dramatically after publication. In some ways, it’s a pleasure to share the process of changing a poem with readers.

How does having a poetry book published change your life? Or does it?     

Jennifer K. Sweeney: There was always a question of legitimacy in the back of my mind before publishing a collection of poetry. It was unfounded, of course I was a poet, but a publication is irreversible, and once I held the physical object in my hands, that question was laid to rest. I think I gained a different kind of authority as a writer. Having a book doesn’t necessitate that, but for me, it certainly helped. Poetry is probably the least commodifiable form of art, so having a poetry book published doesn’t send out a huge ripple into the world, but it was incredibly satisfying, and surprisingly vulnerable at first, to know that the work was out there, being read, slowly finding its audience. Once there was a first book, my path as a writer took shape. I could see a second, then possibly a third. There are so many deserving poets without books—the way poetry books come into the world, so limited—I am very grateful to my publishers for selecting these two manuscripts.

Kevin Prufer: Well, in a very concrete way, publishing poetry books has helped me earn a living! I teach at the University of Houston’s creative writing program and I doubt they’d have hired me if I hadn’t written books.  So, that’s a very fine and lucky thing — that is, having the good fortune to be able to spend my days talking about poetry with smart, ambitious students … and get paid for it.  And, of course, in less measurable ways, it is gratifying to think that the poems have an audience, even if it is a small one compared to, say, the audience a romance writer might have.  Poetry is, after all, a kind of communication, a way of talking about complex ideas.  Publication is one way of helping that communication happen. I don’t think I’d write poetry if I couldn’t at least imagine that someone else — not me — was reading it.

Jacqueline West: My 14-year-old poetry-writing self was pretty sure that having a book published would transform me completely.  On the day that my book was released, I would be whirled into a life of international travel, permanent artistic validation, and intellectual conversations with people wearing handmade jewelry and wool blazers. Of course, what really happened is that I woke up the next morning and got back to putting words down on paper and opening rejection letters.   Small presses — like my wonderful publisher, Parallel Press — release a limited number of titles per year.  This can mean a long wait for accepted writers.  Three years passed between Cherma‘s acceptance and its publication …which is plenty of time to realize that it is the daily work of writing, not the once-every-few-years excitement of being published, that really impacts your life. So, no, publishing

Cherma didn’t change my life.  But writing Cherma definitely did. 

Melody Gee: Before the book, publishing individual poems certainly felt like a validation of my writing, a sign that I was on the right track to something. The book felt like a validation of my work as a unit, as something that could hang together and say something as a whole. It’s also been a way for me to get more work out there through a few readings and interviews. The opportunities have been wonderful. I’ve gotten to travel a little bit through my publisher and meet some great writers. I’ve learned a little about promotion and poetry as a business. The best part has been receiving feedback from readers, which I never imagined would happen.   Perhaps the biggest change has been in my own head, in how I view my writing. The book has set a part of my writing life. What I mean is that now, my first writing is defined by this book—its themes, its successes and failures, its concerns and questions. I either write more like it, or write away from it. Everything I write now (which is not much these days with an 8-week-old baby) feels like an attempt to branch out into something new, to either write completely different themes, or, if I’m still going to write about my mother and China, to really do it in a new way. I also have more confidence to see new individual poems as part of a larger work. I can imagine poems together. I can even imagine a second book.

Keetje Kuipers: The most profound way that the publication of Beautiful in the Mouth has changed my life is that I’m a lot busier now. Because so much of finding new poetry to love is simply about word of mouth, having a book out there in the world makes it a lot easier for that word of mouth to spread. I travel to give more readings, I do interviews like this one or on the radio, I present at conferences and book festivals—essentially, the book has allowed my reading and writing community to expand exponentially, and I now cross paths with many more readers and writers than I used to. This also means that I’m busier as a reader: I find more books that I love, I meet more poets who inspire me. The publication of my own book has allowed me entrance into more conversations about the poetry that’s being written and read today, and I love the way the book is constantly working as an introduction to other poets, other poems, other ways of writing.