Apr 10, 2014
My First Book of Poetry: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Independent Presses (Part I of III)
Frances Justine Post
I am not ashamed to tell you that my debut book of poetry, Beast, was rejected 70+ times over an approximately 5 year period before it was finally accepted and turned into an object in the world this past January. When I counted up these numbers after the fact, I was shocked. I was also a little proud of my previously unacknowledged combination of hope, persistence, self-delusion, and/or insanity. I'm not sure which of these words describes my persistence in the face of rejection the most.
I am not ashamed to tell you that when I got the email from Augury Books , I stared at it in shock and befuddlement, thinking it was a mistake. After all the hours of revising and writing and submitting, I had never actually considered this moment, the moment when someone finally said "yes."
I have been lucky. I have had individual poems published, I have received awards, I have gotten good workshop comments and support from my professors, but someone was finally saying "yes" to what felt like my entire vision of the world. I was never actually sure that it would happen. If you are feeling this same way, I would like to offer advice in the hopes that, like me, you can thicken your skin and persist in your belief in your writing.
PART I: Putting Your Poetry Manuscript Together
The oldest poem in my book is about 10 years old and the newest is 6 months. My book and I, we have lost and gained weight together, we have changed our names, we have moved apartments and cities, we have put ourselves out there and been both rejected and accepted. A book is a living thing that must be constantly attended to.
Kill your darlings
Do what Faulkner said. You must look at your book with the cold, exactitude of an editor's eye. Even if you love each poem like a beloved pet, you must evaluate whether or not it contributes to the book as a whole. I had to remove some of my favorite poems because they were in a different voice and probably belonged to a not yet realized project.
Think of the book as a narrative
Think of your readers not as your friends or as your professors who know you and your work and your life story and all your good intentions. Think of them as people who want to be told a good story. How can you arrange the book to tell your story in the clearest way possible? What poems do you need to write to complete this narrative? Write them. What poems are detracting or distracting from this narrative? Cut them; save them for another project.
Think of the book as one long poem
Like in a poem, one stanza naturally leads to another. Your manuscript needs to do the same thing. Even if the poems themselves are complex, lyric experiments, there still needs to be a reason that they are all being put together in a certain order in one manuscript. My book is not overtly narrative. It is far more lyric and leans toward the difficult. But I had something to say, and the poems I kept in the manuscript articulated that meaning in the clearest way possible.
Think of submitting the book as part of the process of revision
Each year, over the summer, I took a cold, hard look at the book. I had to be really honest with myself. In the back of my mind, what did I know was wrong with my book? Was the story changing? How could I make my story clearer? What needed to be taken out? What needed to be added? If the whole submission process is part of the revision process, then it won't feel like you are wasting all this effort. It is just a part of the process of writing.
Make your book invincible and clear
Over this past summer, I revised my manuscript for what felt like the last time. I knew in my heart that there was nothing else to be done. I don't know what I would have done after this, but this was the summer that I got the email from Augury. My wonderful, supportive family read the book in almost every possible version. Towards the end, they told me that it gleamed like a sharp little diamond. It was invincible and clear. There were no more digressions or muddling colors. It was stripped down and hard and ready to rumble. The Beast had become lean and sleek, ready for battle.