AWP Denver was a transformative experience. Last year's AWP in Chicago was my first and, like so many others, I spent most of my time trying to get to all of the panel discussions whose titles fascinated me, in order not to miss anything relevant. The problem was I ended up skimming the surface. This year I decided to spend more quality time in the book fair, connecting with my writing community, and attending only a few of the panels that spoke to my primary writing goals for the year. This strategy proved itself useful. During the next few days, I will post a series of blogs on topics related to the post mfa experience. The first of these is based upon the recent panel discussion entitled "The 25th Poem: Putting Together Your First Book."
Dan Albergotti led off the panel. I had read his impressive The Boatloads, winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize (2008), and was anxious to hear what Dan had to say. He had to say a lot, and I found his points some of the most helpful of the entire week.
He began by asking the audience of around 300 for a show of hands on how many of us had sent out our first manuscripts. Approximately 90% of us had. Then he asked how many had spent at least $100 in contest fees. The number went down to around half. $200? A fourth. $300 or more? About 10%. I still had my hand high in the air and was amazed that we had lost most of our fellow-writers. Dan went on the relate the story of Spencer Reece sending out his first manuscript (The Clerk's Tale) for nineteen years without any recognition. Dan dramatized the process by counting off on his fingers while repeating the litany of "rejected, rejected, rejected, etc." eighteen times and then "winner of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize." I thought, "What if he'd stopped sending out his manuscript after a couple of years? Ten? Eighteen?!?"
Then Dan shared two things that gave me a shot of confidence about my manuscript, as well as a way of evaluating it for further revision. First, he said that I would get my manuscript published if I did three things. Since I'm a sucker for lists, He had my attention. Here they are:
1) If your work is at the center of what you are thinking about.
2) If you believe in your work.
3) If you are persistent.
Ok, I've heard (and believed) the last two points for so long that they barely registered in the richter scale, and not a single picture on the wall tilted, not a single chandelier swayed. But #1!!! I'd heard "embrace your obsessions" as a mantra for writing success. But I'd never heard of evaluating your work by how central it is to your thought process, translated, your life. In the words of "Meteorite Men," I had found my first hammer rock from deep space, crashing into my house, and waking me up.
The other thing that Dan said was that "Sections are your friends." In other words, think of your manuscript in pieces. If we have chapbooks, he said, we should study them. Don't think about writing a book, but think about assembling pieces we already have. I liked that. It reminded me of putting together legos--concentrate on making sense of small collections, and then see how they might fit together.
Other good helpful ideas that Dan shared:
1) Think outside of literature to the other arts for assembling your work. Examples: spatial organization, music, ritual, litergy.
2) Think about the value of refrain.
3) Write every poem to honor the poem (not to flesh out the book).
4) Honor your obsessions.
5) For contests, put your best poems in front, in order to get them read by the final judge. You can rearrange them to your liking later, if your manuscript wins.
The next speaker was Nicky Beer. I'll summarize her insights in the next blog.
Monday, April 9, 2012
The Best of AWP: Putting Together Your First Book
was born in the Midwest, grew up in New Mexico, and has lived in the San Francisco bay area for over a decade. Terry has published in numerous literary journals, including Best New Poets 2012, Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Great River Review, New Millennium Writings, and The Comstock Review. His work has garnered six Pushcart Prize nominations. He is the winner of the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. His chapbook, Altar Call, was a winner in the the 2013 San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival, and appears in the Anthology, Diesel. His chapbook, If They Have Ears to Hear, won the 2012 Copperdome Poetry Chapbook Contest, and is available from Southeast Missouri State University Press. His first full-length collection of poems, In This Room (CW Books, 2016), is now available, and his second, Dharma Rain, was released by Saint Julian Press in October of 2016. Terry is a 2008 poetry MFA graduate of New England College, an assistant editor at Trio House Press, and a free-lance poetry consultant. For more information about him and his work see www.terrylucas.com