Success, Failure, Money: The Interview

We sat down with Ellen Smith, author of Nobody's Jackknife; Marilyn McCabe, author of Glass Factory; Lauren Brazeal, author of Zoo for Well Groomed Eaters; Dawn Manning, author of Postcards from the Dead Letter Office; and Cynthia Manick, author of Blue Hallelujahs from Black Lawrence Press. We talked about success, money, and failure because we think these are important issues that we don't talk about enough in the poetry world.

How many hours did you spend on your collection? 

Ellen Smith: I have probably spent more than 200 hours over the last 10 years on this collection, more if you include all the yoga I did (which informs the poems).

Marilyn McCabe: Most of the collection was written over the course of 2 or 3 years, with any one poem going through any number of major and/or minor revisions, so an hour count is impossible, especially as I work on a...well...let's put it "non-daily" "schedule."

Lauren Brazeal: I'd say my chapbook, Zoo for Well-Groomed Eaters, took a total of 300 hours to finish if I include drafting the individual poems, threading them together to form a cohesive collection, and redrafting the whole to synched better as a group. I'm not sure if I'm a slow writer or a quick writer. I know some who can finish a book in a weekend and I will definitely never be one of those people.   Dawn Manning: It might be easier to calculate this in years. In 2012 I started putting together these poems, mostly tanka, into a chapbook, but then it sat in a drawer germinating for a couple of years after a series of discouraging encounters with the now defunct press that was going to publishing it at the time. In April of 2015, I ran into Jeni and Daniel Wallace, the founding editors of Burlesque Press, at a wedding. They mentioned they were interested in my work and I really loved their author-centered approach to publishing. Things snowballed from there, and I ended up spending most of the summer writing and revising until I had doubled the length of the manuscript into a full length collection. I went out with some friends after a couple months or intense, isolated writing and realized how rusty I was at holding a simple conversation with a person other than myself.

Cynthia Manic: On and off for 3 years, so 26,280 hours

Ellen Smith: The most difficult section was the opening, “The Locust: A Foundational Narrative” (a version of which can be seen here).  I had several short poems but no overarching narrative. I spent about a month rereading old books and collaging it together in a way that would help to give a background to what became the book. As it was hybrid nonfiction, it was difficult, too, to engage with the content. For instance, it was important to demonstrate the racism that was all around me, and I agonized about using the N-word but ultimately felt that it was important to include it, to have that awful discomfort there. I’m always afraid of the presence of that word in the sequence, but felt that it best gets at the truth of the casualness of hate in the time and place I grew up in.

Marilyn McCabe: Certainly the poem "Marcelle," which is about the last day of life for a young friend of mine was and continues to be a difficult poem, and yet, for me, full of the grace of that moment as well.

Lauren Brazeal: Not a moment so much, but having to carefully edit was difficult. With a large collection, I believe there's a bit more wiggle room for a few poems that may not fit exactly, but a chapbook has to pack so much into such a tiny space. My goal for this collection was to present a poetry petit-four that didn't take itself too seriously. My second chap, and my full-length are so thematically heavy but Zoo for Well-Groomed Eaters has a smirk on every page. I suppose the most difficult moment was taking the axe to pieces that I loved deeply but knew ultimately would change the tone of the collection, or cause it to digress. Careful editing left me with a very tight little group, but only after some pretty major sacrifices.

Dawn Manning: Choosing the first poem of the collection proved to be challenging. The poem I originally started with was called "Birth, Labor," which using the birth of Pegasus as a metaphor for the creative process. But it really did not fit in with the rest of the collection so I pulled it out and left that page blank for awhile. I knew that the first poems would set the tone for the collection and I didn't want to rush into filling that spot with just anything. It wasn't until I was nearly done arranging the rest of the book that I rediscovered a short poem I had written years ago called "Topophilia," which means love of place. Since the poems in Postcards are place-centric, and the tanka are collected under headings that situate them by location, it seemed like a fitting orientation point for readers embarking on the journey these poems take around the world.

Cynthia Manick: I had 2 difficult moments. The first was deciding on the first poem in the collection because it really is an invitation to the reader and it sets a precedent for the poems that follow. So if the book was an album or playlist, I had to decide how the listener would feel and respond. The 2nd difficulty was letting go of the collection. You spend years with memory and imagination creating these poems and then you open it up for the world to see. It's exciting, scary, exhilarating, and terrifying.

How many unpaid hours do you spend on supporting poetry?

Ellen Smith: Until about two years ago, I was Reviews Editor for Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics. The journal has ceased publication, but I’d say I spent about 50 hours/year on that, between assigning and sending books to reviewers, editing, and writing my own reviews.

Marilyn McCabe: I am a first-round reader for a contest, a judge for a writing residency, a proofreader for a small press, a and sit on the board of a regional writers organization, as well as a member of a writers group and a poetry book reading group, so although it is not daily or weekly, certainly many months of the year I spend many hours in support of writers, writing, literary publishers, and poetry.

Lauren Brazeal: On average, I'd say 10-15 hours a week but it depends on the year. Last year I read for Tinderbox Editions during their non-fiction open submission window, I was also the poetry editor for Martian Litin my past, and I try to give free poetry workshops at local libraries when I'm able. I gave birth to my son last year so I've had less time to commit recently.

Dawn Manning: I co-coordinate a few writing events each year, such as readings, salons, and workshops through Poetdelphia. It probably amounts to 10-15 hours for each event.

Cynthia Manick: It ranges from 6 to 12 hours a week. I'm East Coast Editor of Jamii Publishing, a small press in California that I co-founded with a friend. I also have a reading series called Soul Sister Revue that performs four times a year, so I'm always reading journals looking for new talent. Occasionally I serve as a reader for places like the Vermont Studio Center, Hedgebrook, and the Brooklyn Arts Council where I read and vote on submissions. I'm also on the New York team for the BinderCon conference.

What does a normal day look like for you? How do you spend most of your waking hours?

Ellen Smith: When I’m not teaching (which I do full time about 8 months out of the year, a normal day involves my spending 3-7 hours writing, revising, and sending out work. During the school year, I try to write for at least 40 minutes a day, with one or two days (usually Saturdays) weekly given entirely to writing.

Marilyn McCabe: I get up and have coffee, sometimes writing in my journal, sometimes reading the paper, sometimes just staring out the window -- which is a kind of creative effort in itself (I HAVE to believe...). Then I go to my home office and try to do something in pursuit of my writing or publishing or creative work of some kind, if I don't dither away the hours checking email, Facebook, and other stupid shit. Sometimes my "work" is just reading other people's work, which is often instructive, and, if I'm lucky, inspirational. Sometimes my "work" is to wander out into the garden and randomly pull weeds, or frown at the out of control perennials and threaten to pull them or move them or otherwise completely revamp the garden into some semblance of order. It is an empty threat. Sometimes I give myself a writing task or exercise. Sometimes I just write, because some line has asserted itself in the night. Sometimes I work on videopoems, or draw, or play in some craft or other. In the afternoons I go to my dreary part-time job.

Lauren Brazeal: Right now I'm still taking care of my infant son, so I haven't returned to work full-time. I wake at 4am and write until 7-8am when the baby usually wakes up. I try to steal writing breaks throughout the day, but sometimes it'll take me ten hours just to get the right verb because of all the distractions. I currently tutor at-risk kids in reading and writing during the school year. I also teach at the Writer's Garrett in Dallas on occasion; they have an amazing program called Writer's in the Schools which puts local poets and writers in the classroom, helping students appreciate the beauty of language and encouraging creativity. I earn money as a freelance editor and manuscript consultant as well. I think most writers have to spackle a living from a variety of sources, and I'm no exception. 

Dawn Manning: Aside from doing the grunt work for my own writing, I teach English as a Second Language over the internet. Since my students are 6-8 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time and are adults with full time jobs and families etc., the schedule can be a bit erratic. Some days I'll have no students, which means I focus on being a poet, running errands, and doing chores. On other days, I have students back-to-back and I'm pretty drained afterwards. I'm also an amateur metalsmith (mostly silver), so I try to squeeze in some time for that every week.

Cynthia Manick:  I've worked for a nonprofit organization for the last 9 years and it's a 9 to 5 job. A typical day starts at 7:30am and I check email for any upcoming meetings; a train or bus ride where I read or edit a poem of my own or I read a literary magazine; 7 hour workday and I check personal email for acceptances, rejections, Jamii correspondence, and other literary news; print out poems for a workshop or writing group; go to the gym, attend workshop, or attend poetry reading; call my mom; and then work on a new poem or submit work to a literary magazine.

What allows you to keep writing, even when you don’t want to?

Ellen Smith: I feel better when I write. Even when I take writing breaks, which I think are healthy, I find myself writing every three days or so.

Marilyn McCabe: If I don't want to write, I don't. But after a while I start to feel -- I don't know, not guilty or bad or anything I can put a name to, but eventually after not writing for a few weeks, I'll sit myself down and start a regular practice for a while -- a ten minute writing exercise a day, for example. And then I find myself writing again.

Lauren Brazeal: I want to say something romantic and sentimental, like “the love of language,” but honestly, writing is more like an itch I need to scratch most of the time. Those closest to me know when I haven't gotten my dose on any given day because I become sullen and short-tempered. I keep writing because I can't not write.

Dawn Manning: Setting goals for sending off work helps because there's a deadline. If I see a call for submissions due at the end of the month and I feel my work is a good fit for the publication, then I love having that deadline to push against to finish (or start) the poem/s I want to send there. Sometimes that means I only end up with a rough draft and I know the work isn't ready to go out into the world, but I also know it wouldn't have gotten written, or at least it wouldn't have gotten written in the same way and in the same timely fashion, if I hadn't focused on that deadline.

Cynthia Manick: Poetry has the unique ability to combine life, creativity, and history to create something for others to experience. If I want to experience all-consuming love at a moment's notice, I'll read Lorca. If I'm in a mood for syncopated beats, I'll read Jayne Cortez. That idea of creating a bubble for others to step in keeps me writing. But I'm also one of those people who can't wait for the muse to strike, so I like being in workshop or writing group where creating work is its main goal.

How do you define literary success?

Ellen Smith: Prioritizing your writing, helping others to write and express themselves, moving continually out of writing comfort zones.

Marilyn McCabe: Before I die, I want someone to pay for my travel somewhere to read my work to an audience. That will be success. If you could make it a first class ticket, I could die immediately thereafter.

Lauren Brazeal: I think the definition of literary success is completely subjective. To some, publishing one poem or story is success, to others, anything less than 10 books is a failure. I count Zoo for Well-Groomed Eaters as a success because it found a good home and I'm proud of what that little book has become.

Dawn Manning:  For me literary success is being able to chisel a piece of writing into sounds and shapes that resonates with someone else. There was a time when I took the Emily Dickinson approach of not sharing my work with other, only instead of a drawer filled with tiny scrolls, I had a neglected hard drive and stacks of scrap papers filled with half-finished poems. I say 'half-finished' because I've learned that for me a poem doesn't resurrect off the page until it is read by someone else. My poems are responses to the things I witness and experience, but they are also a calling out in search of a response in someone else.

Cynthia Manick: Getting your poems to people and being happy with a poem I've written. The book is a symbol of a type of success but I also think connecting with other writers is a success. It's also always a nice surprise to get an honorarium for a poem or reading, no matter how small; the added monetary value to the work goes a long way.

What would you do if you didn’t write?

Ellen Smith: Play guitar, or drum.

Marilyn McCabe: If I didn’t write, I would read even more. Maybe learn how to play the piano.

Lauren Brazeal: I would be unable to function if I didn't write. I'd probably never leave my bed, remain in a savagely bad mood, and be totally useless to anyone.

Dawn Manning: Maybe become a full time metalsmith. Definitely take a vow of silence.

Cynthia Manick: I would still be in the writing community because I love words. So I can picture myself running an open mic joint, pop-up speakeasy, or even a nonprofit involved with arts or literature.

What is the most memorable writing advice you’ve ever heard?

Ellen Smith: I like Anne LeMott’s thoughts on “shitty first drafts.” It’s important to write for the process and worry about the product later.

Lauren Brazeal: My mentor Brenda Shaughnessy once told me “If you want to write about a girl falling in love with a glacier, write about a girl falling in love with a glacier.” Silly as that may sound, it's completely stuck. I don't limit what I write about and I always let my imagination take me where it's going to go. Incidentally, a poem about a girl falling in love with winter ended up in Zoo for Well-Groomed Eaters.

Dawn Manning: Not really advice, but I always come back to Paul Valéry's summation that "a poem is never finished, only abandoned." It helps the perfectionist in me let go of a poem when I've been clinging to it, tweaking the same few words over and over again without making any progress.

Cynthia Manick:  "The turn in the poem is that place where the poem will lead to another connotation or place; it’s something that quakes you"- Vivee Francis

 "In this poem I don't want deer, I want venison" - CD Wright

What are you currently working on and where do you see yourself and your work in the next 5 months? 5 years?

Ellen Smith: I’m working on a project called Shaken: A Re-Cycle, where I make poems inspired by the first lines of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I’m into the last 45, and am now starting to see the poems as a collection, trying to figure out how to arrange them in relation to one another. At least four of them have been published as individual poems, but I imagine some of them will merge. I visit the hard copy a few times a week to try to suss out possible sequencing.

Marilyn McCabe: I have a chapbook length collection I would like to see published, and a long poem I'd like to figure out how to create a narrative arc for. I would like to increase my experimentation in multimedia work. Mostly my goal for myself is to increase and hold on to my sense of play. The more playful I feel, the more chance I have to create really interesting work, I suspect. It's amazing how quickly I fall into earnestness and a sense of self-seriousness. I write really crappy poems then. In 5 years I hope to have amazed myself with something I've created. I want to make myself laugh out loud.

Lauren Brazeal: I'm shopping my full-length—a memoir in verse about my time on the streets when I was a teenager--around to different publishers at the moment. I'm also currently working on a collage of one-act plays, epistolary stories, poems, and diary entries that chronicle the life of a professional EVP transcriber. It's pretty zany. I'd love to have made significant headway with that project in the next 5 months. I try not to plan too far ahead, but I'd like to have the memoir-in-verse and this current project published in the next 5 years.

Dawn Manning: Currently, I've taken to sonnets. Like tanka, they have a turn, but the longer length allows for an image or idea to morph more slowly, and you can build towards the turn gradually allowing for more rumination within the poem itself. For the foreseeable future, I think I will work on some longer poems, with the occasion burst of tanka writing thrown in for good measure. I'm a slow processor, but I hope to have another collection of poetry composed of these longer poems completed in the next few years. Right now I'm just writing my way through one week at a time until I have enough well-shaped poems to see what this next collection wants to be.

Cynthia Manick: Well Blue Hallelujahs will be out next month, so I'm mentally prepping for that. I'm currently doing a fellowship at the Poets House where I'm writing new poems that deal with race, joy, craft, Aunt Jemima, Soul Train, and the way bodies move. In 5 months I want to corrupt some traditional forms. What if a poem was written like a cease and desist letter? or warranty information? I like the idea of poems transforming something old to new. In 5 yrs, I'll still be writing but probably drinking more whiskey.