That feeling when you’ve done a reading and someone comes up to you afterward and says, “I loved your poems! Do you have a book?”
And you falter and say–“N-…no. Would you be interested in the print outs of the poems I read from for $14? Do you have a stapler?”
And that goes over real well, but you’re left feeling inadequate. All the other poets have books. Some people even have more than one. With stickers on the front. That weren’t placed there by a schoolteacher friend who is trying to make you feel better about your lack of accomplishments.
So I have been working on a manuscript for a little over 14 years, and it is finally making the rounds like a car show model with a tray full of cheap champagne (or you know whatever).
I have gotten a few semifinalist and finalist placements out of the 11 places I’ve heard from (Crab Orchard Review, Brittingham/Pollack Prizes, St. Lawrence Book Award) as well as encouraging words from Copper Canyon (they are that friend who tells you look great in everything though) and BOAAT.
But my manuscript remains homeless, a mangy cur wandering the streets of West Philadelphia, looking longingly through fences at Boston Terriers on leashes, maybe baring its teeth a little.
In the 14 years my manuscript has spent being crafted, it has gone through several dozen incarnations. I think of it as emerging into several distinct phases over the last year in particular.
Phase one–April 2016: Meeting with my poetry teacher Leonard Gontarek in a coffee shop, going over a thick stack of poems fresh from grad school. He gathered from my book I’d had a hard life. He recommended cutting two primary poems which amounted to reducing the page count from a lean 45 to a different weight class of 33 pages–chapbook territory. I went in thinking I’d be Mike Tyson and came out a hobo with an empty bindle but a right hook that had some promise.
Phase two: I cut the poems Leonard recommended. I cut more poems, I wrote more poems, I stopped making it a collection of “poems I’ve written I like” and started thinking of it more as telling a story. A memoir through poetry, ultimately. I divided it into 5 sections (this went about as well as when I wear horizontal stripes) and when Joe asked me what I wanted for Valentine’s Day that year I asked for a manuscript consultation from Sandra Marchetti (v. much recommend) to get a set of fresh eyes on the work.
Joe said yes, Sandy said yes, I sent her this fat book and got valuable feedback on endings, on ordering, on the thread of my mother which tied it together. There was one poem about my failed engagement and Sandy said, “how can you just have one poem on this massive subject?” so I took it out. At this point I think it was called “Everyone Love Me All the Time” and I am so glad I hadn’t started sending it out to presses yet, as had it been picked up (unlikely) reviewers would have had a field day with the title.
Phase three: I took Sandy’s line edits, cut some poems, wrote more poems, revised and reordered. I wrote a lot. A poem a week, if not more, thanks to the generative nature of Leonard’s workshop. I brought the manuscript back to him, two sections (color blocking more than stripes now) telling a story of my upbringing and my love with Joe, a conspicuously absent 8-9 years (reference the failed engagement) creating a massive hole in the book.
Leonard deemed this version a real.live.book, and I started sending it out, in June of 2016. I had this hope that it would get picked up the first time it went out, had long conversations in my head about how humbling it was to have Graywolf accept my book without edits, or, how Crab Orchard would commission me to write a second and third on top of publishing my manuscript, now called, “Why My Mother is Still Afraid of Heights.”
Needless to say, this did not happen.
Phase four: In the midst of this rhapsodic fantasy, I realized that I wanted to write a poem about my failed engagement. I did. It was about 30 pages long. I workshopped it in Leonard’s group over several weeks and got wonderful feedback. I started sending it out as a chapbook, after making a pact with Elizabeth Hoover to trade chapbook manuscripts and enter them into a prominent chapbook contest. She was prompt and gave stellar feedback. I was late and sent her 30 wildly eclectic photographed pages with my scrawl in the margins. I should mention I have the handwriting of a prisoner who is only allowed crayons for the safety of the community. Elizabeth, I’m sorry.
My book began getting little responses here and there, “We liked it!” or, “We liked this other person’s book, here is a form email about why, Dear Writer!” and I began to revisit it staring at this 9 year gap in the loosely chronological arc, wondering what to do, what to do. I was a bit like a toddler trying to solve a puzzle with six pieces, holding the final piece, but in her mouth–it tastes good, but where does it go?
Phase five: I matched the puzzle piece with the gap in the puzzle. It felt complete. I sent the manuscript, now 72 pages, out to the most prestigious presses. This was a few months ago. I had created what would be known in the literary world as the first perfect first book. I spent several hundred dollars on submission fees, confident I would make it back and then some on royalties and prize money.
Phase six: I have this guinea pig named Jasper. He is 8.5 and skin and tumor and bones. But for a long time, he was really fat. Insanely fat. I brought him to the vet and they would say he had to go on a diet because he was morbidly obese and I would give him a blueberry because I thought it hurt his feelings. Anyway, my book was like that.
And today, I took out 14 poems. Added one, to complete the narrative arc of the mother that Sandy and Leonard had pointed out as so central to the book. I swapped poems’ order like partners at a square dance. I changed the title from “Why My Mother is Still Afraid of Heights” to “Why My Mother is Afraid of Heights.” Without you having read the collection I can’t explain why this is such a big deal, but it is, it’s the title of my book and has been since 2011, and I’ve been resisting it this whole time.
I sent it to six presses today, and am back in a land where I imagining conversations that start with, “the Nobel Prize for Literature…for me?”
I am sure there will be a stage seven, eight, nine, ten, etc.
But today I have accomplished the wonderful achievement of lifting my own literary spirits, in a time of form emails and rejections from Sure Thing Journal. I feel so happy about writing the world’s best, most perfect book. I want to chronicle this feeling so I can reread it again when I get my next rejection.
So you know, in ten minutes. I kid!
God, I hope I’m kidding.