Getting Your First, or Second, Poetry Book Published? There’s a Panel For That!

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This Sunday, March 1st at 11 a.m. I will be on the panel From Zero to One: First Books and What We Wish We’d Known along with three other women poets, as well as the founder and director of Perugia Press. The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers takes place throughout the month of March, culminating in a book expo (see my Events page). If you find yourself writing toward a first book, have a rough first book in hand, or have already thrown yourself into the fray of book contests and open reading periods, this panel may be for you! I thought I’d give you a sneak peek at the panel’s format and some topics we’re planning to cover.

We’ll begin the panel with bio. introductions after which each panelist will give a seven minute summary of her experience getting her first book (and subsequent books)  into publication or, in Susan Kan’s (Perugia Press) case, the experience of ushering first books of poetry into the world. We’ll then open up for questions from the audience and try to touch on the following:

What went well with publishing your first (or second) book, and why? 

What would you do differently next time – why and how?

What advice do you give or would you give to writers interested in publishing their first books?

What are a couple of areas you feel especially strongly about, either in the “it went well” or “I’d do it differently” categories?

Any big surprises in the submission, publishing, PR process?

What are/were your strengths in the publication process?

What were your weaknesses?

How about your publisher: what did they do well?

What were the things (or, “are the things”) that made you afraid / reluctant about the publication process?

What did you do to overcome (if you did) the things from the previous question?

If you have a second book: how was the process for that book different to the first book or the same?

This will be an honest discussion about the highs and lows, the triumphs and disappointments of publishing that first book from four practicing poets and a publisher, bringing a variety of viewpoints to the topic.

I’ll tell you that one of the ‘surprises’ of the publishing process for me was that I missed submitting to contests. Once my books had found homes and I was out of the contest and open reading period submission grind, I missed the spike of optimism and hope that comes once the manilla envelope has been mailed, the PDF uploaded to Submittable. This really was a BIG surprise because that process had also left me dispirited and hopeless at times. I’ve since heard other poets express excitement when the whole submission process ramps up again as they begin sending out new manuscripts. Poets! We’re strange animals. Come join the herd on March 1st and share our particular kind of geekery. Bring your questions. See you there!

Historical Slang; Your Monday Vocabulary Lesson

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I’ve been perusing the Historical Dictionary of Slang: Three Hundred Years of Colloquial, Unorthodox and Vulgar English and have decided that popular culture has always been a little smutty. But, besides a slew of creative terms for body parts, and the functioning thereof, the dictionary contains some fun and colorful words for all sorts of things. I’ve decided that the English language of the 21st century is impoverished compared to the language spoken by our ancestors. In fact, we may not even be able to carry on a conversation with our forebears. So, in the interests of enriching and enlivening our vocabulary, here are a few choice phrases for the repertoire.

To nab the rust: Take offense, turn rusty. To nab the snow, on the other hand, is to steal bleached linen off a clothesline.

Steady habits: Nickname for the state of Connecticut, i.e; “the land of steady habits”

Single-peeper: A one-eyed person

Lap-clap: The condition of pregnancy, to be got with child.

Cribbage-face: Pock-marked

Flesh-tailor: A surgeon

Bone-box: The mouth

Carrion case: A shirt

Flurry one’s milk: To be angry or upset

Fox’s sleep: A state of feigned yet vigilant indifference to one’s surroundings

Frog-salad: A ballet

Front windows: The eyes, also the face.

Goth: A frumpish or uncultured person

Grampus: A fat man

Grassville: The country

Grecian-bend: To be stooped

High-pooped: Heavily buttocked

Infra-dig: Scornful or proud

Jawbation: A scolding

Jug-bitten: Drunk

Mousle: To nibble a woman

Lady of the lake: A kept woman

Fairy Tale Poetry Prompt

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Poets and writers have used classic fairytales as fodder for their own work for as long as there have been classic fairy tales. Even the Frenchman Charles Perrault, whose collected fairytales from the 1700s many of us take to be originals, was inspired by earlier tales in slightly different versions. In short, who can resist the story of Little Red Riding Hood? The tale is rich with motif and metaphor and always ripe (excuse the allusion) for reinterpretation. I’ve been reading about theories of fairytale origins for a project I’m working on and have been fascinated not only by the age and universality of our classics (many fairytale motifs seem to have sprung up simultaneously in different parts of the world)  but the way they’ve changed over time. Little Red Riding Hood acquired her signature red hood fairly late in the game. Folklorists believe she never originally wore red, or a hood. The classic red hood may have developed when the tale migrated to Britain where the full riding cloak was a popular accoutrement for women. The book Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, And The Evolution Of A Fairy Tale is a fascinating look into the transformation of that one little tale we all know so well. I enjoyed the earlier chapters on the origins of the story, especially the simple, and very plausible, theory that Little Red Riding Hood may have begun as a kind of cautionary tale French peasants told based on a spate of brutal murders of young girls. The likely suspect: a man suffering from lycanthropy (believing oneself to be a werewolf). France was apparently rife with cases of lycanthropy in the 1500s. Officials would go so far as to kill and cut open an accused lycanthropist to see if he wore his wolf’s hide on the inside, echoing that last scene of Little Red Riding Hood where the wolf is sliced open to free the girl and her grandmother. The originals, however, didn’t seem to employ such magical thinking. If Red Riding Hood escaped with her life, she did so by her own wits, sometimes the quick thinking of her grandmother. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is a great collection of fairytale short stories, based on the classics, but with a decidedly feminist bent.

Your prompt for the day is this: take a classic fairy tale, or more than one tale (the edges do sometimes blur) and make it your own in a poem of any length. You can also employ a specific fairytale or details as metaphor or symbol in a poem about something completely different, but I think it’s fun and worthwhile to follow Anne Sexton’s lead and try your hand at corrupting a classic. The example I’ll give you is my own re imagining of Beauty and the Beast as a reality television show. I think WordPress formatting will double space my poor poem. I don’t know why it does that. The poem is fairly long in the first place.

Real Fairytale

No one called me beauty before I was paired with the beast.

I’m not beautiful. This isn’t modesty. Once I was plucked

from amongst the Beauty hopefuls, taken from home

and seated at the head of a grand table beside the beast,

they groomed me, my virginal innocence

became the tease, what audiences tuned-in to see.

Some clucked and feigned worry for my safety,

others thought the pairing cute, all salivated

in anticipation: will that be filmed too? The juxtaposition

of hunch-backed, bristling hyena/lion/man(?)

with the mousiness of me, made for some great TV.

They filmed us at table, they filmed us asleep,

talking late into the night, riding horseback awkwardly.

They filmed my visit home.

I had forgiven my father and sisters for tricking me

into the audition, declaring me a minor and stealing

my paychecks. I thought once I got home I’d want

to stay. But everything, though the same, was changed:

the furniture duller, the rooms smaller. My sisters

tried to bait me into telling the beast’s secrets,

and when I wouldn’t, into petty arguments;

all so superficial and boring. No beauty lived

in that place. I went back to the beast. The film

crew was hyped-up, working overtime in preparation

for the big wedding episode. The long table in the ballroom,

their ground zero, was littered from morning til night

with platters and plates, half eaten food, chicken bones,

stuffed ashtrays, crusts, crumbs, and

empty cans of Jolt; the crew, like swine

at the trough. I tried to stay out of the way.

Where once I dreaded the season finale, now I was all nervous anticipation,

like a real bride eager for her wedding night. I felt tenderer

and tenderer toward my beast, letting my hand stray

to his muscular leg under the table, laughing more;

even the feel of the wiry hair that stood up on his thick neck,

which once repulsed, now stippled me with electricity,

through my arm, down one whole side of my body.

The wedding couldn’t come soon enough.

That night, the church fairly sparked for me, flooded with light,

cameras positioned to capture every conceivable angle.

The beast grunted, fumbled

the ring onto my finger. I beamed, said I do…

and then, as if this were a 7th birthday with everyone

shouting surprise, instead of my wedding, the beast shrank

before my eyes. I stumbled back, shook my head,

tried to take in air. The cameras were rolling. But I couldn’t

squint away the small pink-fleshed man standing there

in beast’s overlarge suit, hair smooth, features finely-cut

and handsome. He reached a hand out,

I recoiled. He said beauty, don’t you recognize me? I did see

the beast lurking in his eyes. I just need a little time I said,

trembling. I’ll have to get used to this. Everyone laughed.

I took his soft hand in mine. I couldn’t help whispering

for only the two of us to hear: where has beast gone?

As if the whole thing were a practical joke

this stranger might let me in on. Where is my real other half?

I wanted to yell in his pretty face. The prince just laughed,

exposing his straight white teeth. The cameras loved him.

As the priest finished the ceremony and the cameras followed

us back down the aisle the way we had come, hoping to catch

a besotted expression (I hated to disappoint them), I tried

to focus on the ardent prince’s eyes and couldn’t shake the feeling

that the beast was trapped inside. I was ready to pry open his skull

with a crow bar and set my beast free. Even the film crew fist-pumped,

threw confetti. I became convinced they were all in on it,

that the writers intended this to be Season One’s finale.

If some other virgin had gotten the part, she’d have been just as duped,

just as beautiful. It was written in the script,

as was my coupling with Ardent. His last gig

must have been a toothpaste commercial, or pushing

some kind of drug for enhancement, why else that smile rending his face.

The cameras would have us in the beast’s bed, Episode One, surrounded

by candelabras. Me: still virginal, still mousy. Then the fun would start.

The producers wanted to carry this thing through a second season

on Ardent’s prowess, and they wanted me to play along. Close-up

on my transformation from virgin to whore.

They probably intended to end the last episode with me

back in that bed, legs splayed, some human baby

dragging my darkness out with its caul for all to see. Flashback,

close-up on my transformation from maiden to mother:

setting it right. But I could still feel beast’s tough hide beneath

my hand, the way his fur and skin tightened then relaxed in response

to my touch as if, unable to speak to me, he communicated bodily.

What I want to know is this: where does the banished self reside

when change is wrought? To get through

even the first episode of Season Two, I knew

I would have to go there. Maybe find my beast.

Putting Together the First Poetry Collection: Advice

Unknown Ordering the Storm; How to Put Together a Book of Poems by Susan Grimm

In preparation for my upcoming panel (see events)  on the experience of getting that first poetry book get into print, I’ve been thinking about what advice I might give to other poets who are where I was two or three years ago. I’m not an expert but, with two poetry collections under my belt and a third manuscript now making the rounds, I’m no neophyte either. Here’s an orderly list. I’ll try to be succinct, I am a poet after all.

*Once upon a time it was not unusual for a first poetry collection to be comprised of the young poet’s best poems to date. No more. Those good old days are gone. Somewhere along the line a savvy young poet put way too much thought into her collection as a whole and ruined it for the rest of us. All kidding aside, publishers and contest judges are looking for a higher level of intention in a poetry collection, not unlike a short story collection.

*If you’re just beginning writing toward what you hope will be a first collection, I would advise you not to write each poem in a vacuum. Look at the recurrent themes, totems and images that seem to be preoccupying you and making it into your poems. As poets, we all have these weird obsessions: extinct species, maps, rivers, reflective surfaces, you get the picture, as well as large, overarching philosophical preoccupations. I’m not suggesting you write poems about all of these things straight on, but keep them in your creative peripheral vision while you work, and be aware of them as a thread throughout your poems.

*If you already have what you feel is a complete or nearly complete first manuscript, look at it with all the above in mind. Chances are, there are many thematic threads running through the poems you may not have been aware of, or only half aware of. Now’s the time to play around with themes, through order and juxtaposition, as well as cutting poems and writing new poems to fill in the gaps. A simple poem, which seemed to be one thing to you, can become much more when you order the poems with an eye, and ear, toward allowing them to fraternize.

*Read the book Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems by Susan Grimm. It’s a collection of essays by poets who have put together many of their own collections. The poets acknowledge the fact that there are as many ways to ‘order the storm’ as there are ways to create that storm in the first place. I loved the book.

*When ordering your own collection, pay special attention to your opening and closing poems. You want to create an arc. You want to begin in one place and end up somewhere else. Pay attention to the movement of your collection, to the way one poem transitions into another, how they play off, and speak to, one another. If I have totem images or recurrent phrasing or titles throughout my poems, I make sure not to cluster them, but give them the space of several poems in between. During this process of ordering you will inevitably find poems that aren’t pulling their weight or seem out of place. An out of place poem could be brought into line with a title change or a little tweaking, but a weak poem is just weak. Why does it hurt so much to cut one little poem?

*I’ve been a reader for a couple first book contests, not the final judge who happily gets 15 finalists to choose from, but a lowly reader who wades through 500 manuscripts and winnows. These readers get word-drunk, lines begin to blur, and one thing sounds like another. So, your job is to submit the tightest, strongest bunch of poems that will pierce through reader-fog and rise to the top of the pile. It may seem daunting, but it’s do able. Someone has to win. Be tough on your collection and be aware of what it’s saying and doing as a collection. Readers and final judges want to see intent. They want to see that the poet has consciously crafted her manuscript, down to the last detail.

*With the above in mind, look closely at: poem order, title of collection, title of poems, opening and closing poems, sections or no sections and why, use of repetition, use of form, juxtaposition of poems (which isn’t quite the same as order), if you write both lyric and narrative and play with different forms, be aware of giving the reader some variation, i.e, don’t organize all of your lyric poems together, etc.

*Submit single poems to journals before the book is published, many won’t want the poems once they’re in book form

*Continue to tweak and tighten your manuscript while it’s being sent to contests and open reading periods. It’s not that your manuscript needs a complete overhaul, but just revisit the poems and try to see them fresh.

*For contest listings and open reading periods see Newpages, Poets and Writers and AWP. As a poet, I have never found Writer’s Digest and the other magazines with popular fiction writers on the cover to be very helpful.

*This is my best piece of advice, in my opinion. Ready? Move on to the next project. Around year three of submitting my first collection, only sporadically writing poems and getting more and more wound up and distracted by the submission process, I finally got wise and realized I needed to start writing toward another project, with all the experience I’d gained from completing the first. By ‘another project’ I mean I started to pay attention to themes and interests bubbling beneath the surface, I began to write with intent.  I wrote my second collection in about a year and submitted it for only 6 months when it was taken by Parlor Press, just one month after my first collection won the Red Mountain Press Prize. Sometimes we forget, in the maelstrom of creating a book, that writing poetry is where it’s at. Always remind yourself.

Split the Crow Officially Published and Available!

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It’s here! My long-awaited second poetry baby. I have a theory that all poetry babies are overdue. Split the Crow is my second collection and was published by Parlor Press. It’s available now on the website for a mere $14 and you can choose super-quick or no-rush shipping, depending on your tastes. For those of you who read my first collection Church of Needles and enjoyed my blending of history, persona and lyric, I think you’ll like this one. Split the Crow begins in the contact period, 1600s New England, with King Phillips War and friction between European settlers and Native Americans. The poems move forward in time and migrate to the southern United States and the forced expulsion of tribes from ancestral land, forced schooling and attempted eradication of not only native culture, but native people (read: genocide). The poems adopt many voices, both European and native and arrive somewhere in the present, or future, with a few poems on environmental degradation. This quote, one of my blurbs, is from the poet Ellen Dore Watson:

“Split the Crow is rife with surprise, rich with inventive images from the natural world, and delicious with music. Weaving through centuries of Native American material culture, Sousa walks no straight lines. From ‘Her Moods Caused Owls’: ‘Once there was a girl who spoke / garlands’ and (four lines later) ‘her fear caused gardens.’ This brilliant, idiosyncratic book rides the wave of language and consciousness rather than narrative, to breathtaking effect. And this poet is not just smart, she’s wise.”

The beautiful artwork on the cover, titled Fragments of Midnight, is by artist Elise Mahan. Her shop is dangerous for me, so many mythic birds. I want them all! And I’d like to thank David Blakesley, publisher at Parlor Press, for getting the cover design just right.

My book launch will take place on March 30th, 7 p.m. at Amherst Books in Amherst, MA. It will double as my honorary prize reading for winning the 2015 Anne Halley Prize awarded by the Massachusetts Review.

2015 Anne Halley Poetry Prize

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Good News. The editors of The Massachusetts Review have awarded me the 2015 Anne Halley Poetry Prize for two poems they published in last fall’s issue, above. Part of the prize package includes a reading at Amherst Books in Amherst, MA; just up the road, I might add, from Emily Dickinson’s house. Because my newest collection Split the Crow has just been published (it really has, more news to come soon) and I need to launch that thing, we’re combining my Mass Review reading and my book launch to create a kind of poetry extravaganza. Also, the poems published in the above Massachusetts Review issue are in the collection. The launch/reading will happen at the end of March, I’ll post on my events page when I make my book announcement and unveil the cover. You all might want to buy the book just for the cover, soooo beautiful. I hope I do it justice.  I’ll link to the fabulous artist in the announcement post. I want to thank Ellen Dore Watson: poet, editor of the Massachusetts Review and blurber of my book, for suggesting we combine the prize reading and launch. It’s kind of a dream come true.