Wednesday, July 25, 2012

On Not Being a Winner

Yesterday I received the best possible news about my manuscript The Barons and Other Poems: Omnidawn Publishing has accepted the book for publication and will bring it out in Fall 2014. This is thrilling news for a number of reasons. One is that Omnidawn is one of the most exciting, relevant, and hard-working presses that the contemporary publishing scene has to offer. Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan have built an astonishing list in its decade or so of existence: their authors include Cal Bedient, Norma Cole, Gillian Conoley, Richard Greenfield, Lyn Hejinian, Paul Hoover, Devin Johnston, Myung Mi Kim, Hank Lazer, Laura Moriarty, Craig Santos Perez, Bin Ramke, Aaron Shurin, Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, and Tyrone Williams, all people whose work I respect and in some cases revere. They have demonstrated a level of commitment to their authors that is unparalleled, working tirelessly and of course without compensation to edit, design, and promote their books. But most of all, I’m excited to be publishing The Barons and Other Poems with Omnidawn because for the first time since my chapbook Hope & AnchorI’ll be working with a publisher directly, without having to win a contest first.

I won’t pretend to be outraged by the contest model that has been so good to me: I’ve won four of ‘em, after all. No one likes to pay reading fees, but for the most part I haven’t minded subsidizing presses whose work I respect. Omnidawn has three poetry contests, without which I’m sure the press would not be able to produce books in anywhere near the same quantity or quality. This time, I neither entered nor won a contest: there will be no prize money, nor can my book be touted as a prize winner. This is a good thing. It means that the person who fell in love with my book, who believes it to be worth devoting a considerable quantity of time, energy, and money, will be devoting herself personally to its success. It’s far better, in my view, than having an outside judge pass along a winning manuscript to an editor who, however dedicated, won’t own the process in the way she would if she had chosen the book herself.

It’s not my intention here to disparage my former editors: far from it. No editor has worked harder on my behalf than Jim Schley at TupeloPress did when he was in charge of shepherding Severance Songs through the publication process: he even functioned, wonder of wonders, as an editor, making suggestions and recommending cuts and rearrangements that helped to make it a better book. That’s shockingly rare in the poetry world; I suspect it’s become rare in the world of fiction and trade books too.  I look forward to a similar back-and-forth with my Omnidawn editors. But I feel somehow that the exchange we have is going to be more profound, more fundamentally collaborative, and cut more closely to the bone of what I’m trying to accomplish with this particular book.

The Barons and Other Poems is my most ambitious book yet, in part because it’s a collection (as the title implies) and not a “concept” book or a “project” in the way of my other books (and of so many other poetry books published today--the vast majority, I'd say). It’s open. I have a longstanding interest in open form in the narrow sense, and you can see evidence of that in almost everything I’ve written, even the sonnets of Severance Songs. But this is the first time that I feel I’ve produced a truly open work in the sense that each poem makes a gesture, hazards something, contradicts itself or what’s gone before, without ever, as Mallarmé said, abolishing chance—the possibility of things going (always already being) disastrously wrong. The fault is in our stars and in ourselves. There’s an intrinsic roughness and shagginess to this work. I feel so lucky to have found a publisher who will respect that, and may seek even to enhance it, and to complete the book’s gesture which I have come to understand can only happen when a book is properly designed AND distributed AND promoted—talked about—believed in—by its publisher.

I am sure there will be disagreements and disappointments, but I am equally sure that this is happening at the right time, with the right publisher, and the right book.

And not least of all with this news comes a sense of liberation: the ability to close the door on one body of work and to open the door onto something unprecedented and unpredictable. Will it look like poetry, or fiction, or something else?

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