Interview with J. Scott Brownlee

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J. Scott Brownlee is a poet-of-place from Llano, Texas. His work appears widely and includes the chapbooks Highway or Belief (2013 Button Poetry Prize), Ascension, (2014 Robert Phillips Poetry Prize), and On the Occasion of the Last Old Camp Meeting in Llano County (2015 Tree Light Books Prize). His first full-length collection, Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, was selected by C. Dale Young as the winner of the 2015 Orison Poetry Prize, named a finalist for the National Poetry Series and Writers’ League of Texas Book Award, and received the 2016 Bob Bush Memorial Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters. Brownlee is a founding member of The Localists, a literary collective that emphasizes place-based writing of personal witness, cultural memory, and the aesthetically marginalized working class. He teaches for Brooklyn Poets as a core faculty member and is a former Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at NYU, where he earned his MFA. Brownlee currently lives in Austin and is at work on Diamond Kings, a novel and A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, a second full-length poetry collection. Both manuscripts are rooted in rural Texas.

Tell Tell digs into the nitty gritty with Scott about his experience publishing with a small press, specifically Orison Books—the challenges getting there, the joys of being there, and pulling your head from the sand to celebrate the people beside you.

 

Tell Tell: So, Scott, can you describe the process, I mean, putting together the manuscript, then sending it out, and finally publishing with Orison?

J. Scott Brownlee: I started putting together poems I thought would be a book, oh, probably three or four years before it actually got picked up. I was pretty confident at first that I knew what I was doing. I had an idea for the order to put the poems in, structured it, gave it a title I thought was good, and started sending it out immediately. In hindsight, I probably should’ve worked on individual poems a bit more, but, you know, if you don’t start it, you’re never going to have it. You gotta start somewhere, so I think that first step is putting the poems on the ground, seeing how they go together, how they don’t.

But basically, I put together this book, sent it out, it got rejected a lot—oh gosh, probably more’n a hundred times over a couple years. And you enter the contests, and every once in a while what happens in that landscape is if you’ve got something that’s potentially a book, eventually you’ll hit some sort of semi-finalist, or you’ll get a little note from somebody, but it’s mostly No’s. I think you can focus on publishing individual poems as you’re building your book, and that gives you a sense of how competitive it’ll be in a bigger contest—because if you can publish in big journals then chances are your book’ll probably stand up against others’.

So I sent it out the first year and it didn’t do that well, but it got a semi-finalist so I thought, “Oh cool! There must something here!” So I kept editing it, working on it, went to grad school, got a lot of support from mentor poets to make the individual poems better. And then when I sent it out in grad school I’d get a little closer, a finalist here, finalist there, and I thought, “Oh yeah, it’s going to happen really soon, anytime!” It was still a year and a half before anything good happened. I remember a point where I was actually doing worse in the contests with what I thought was a better book—instead of getting finalist I was getting semi-finalist in the same contests and I thought, “Uh oh, what’s wrong here, am I getting worse?” And that’s where some of it is just random, like the readers, and the ranking of the manuscripts. I cast a wide net in the beginning, but over the years I’ve narrowed it down to which presses aesthetically are a good fit and which ones clearly are not. I’ve learned not to waste my time and money sending to something that’s not going to align.

Right, so how do you go about reading for the aesthetics of a press?

Well, if you know one or two of their poets you can just read their stuff online to get a sense of what’s going on. I’m a narrative poet, so if it’s language poetry and experimental, and it’s about some sort of idea as opposed to an experience, you know, I could try to fit that square peg into a round hole all day but I probably wouldn’t have any luck.

Orison was a brand new press. It was the first year they’d done that prize, so I think Luke [Hankins, Editor] was kinda combing for people that would be a good fit, because in the early stages of the press you have to be the ambassador. So he wrote to me and said, “I like your poems. I think you should think about sending it.” So I got that feedback, and thought, “Well, ok, this press is taking an interest,” and I saw the judge, C. Dale Young, and he’s a good editor. If I won that I’d get both of those people to work with.

I did win, and after that it was kinda working with the press to change the book—and I thought it was pretty done. But there are so many ways to order a book of poems, and C. Dale Young was really helpful. We had a couple calls and he took a few more looks and I reordered it from some of his recommendations, and I even wrote a few more poems. It kind of opened up the book for me. It gets to a point where you don’t know what to do with it anymore, and that’s where an editor comes in. And they’d both been editors for a bit, so I trusted to try out what they had in mind, and they certainly gave me that privilege where if I didn’t like something I’d go back to my ideas, so that made me open to changing.

So Luke reached out to you directly?

Yeah, I think that’s pretty common. If I’m an editor and I start a new press of rural writing, I’m going to first figure out who all’s doing that writing, right. And then I’m going to have to generate their interest, so I’m sure he probably queried people that were doing the same kind of writing. It wasn’t a promise of publication at all. I’ve actually never gotten that offer from anyone and have only published through contests. One thing that’s kinda interesting too is you think, “Oh the judge wouldn’t like my poems if their poems aren’t the same,” but I have a chapbook that’s on Button Poetry, and Rachel McKibbens, a really good slam poet—and page poet—was the judge. I didn’t think in a million years that she would like my poems and she loved them. But I think there’s a line too. A Mary Ruefle or Jorie Graham would never pick my poems because mine are so far away from what they’re trying to do. But I’ll still take a risk on some others if I like the press and feel like they would represent what I’m trying to do.

Orison is based in Asheville, NC. Being a narrative poet, and more specifically a poet of place, did that have any influence when you were sending out your manuscript?

It certainly helped. I had actually lived in Carolina for two years, and I knew some people and had some mentors there, so when it came time to actually do some outreach for the book and set up readings and things it was pretty easy. Luke set up one in Asheville and then from there I was able to set up one in Greensboro, one in Raleigh. If the press was in, say, Wyoming, I might’ve gone there for the launch, but I don’t think we would’ve been able to stack like we did. So Carolina was where I had supporters and a readership, and the other place was Texas. I was living in Philadelphia at the time we launched it, so I did a little bit on the East Coast too, but mostly I just did Texas and Carolina because I’m writing this Southern poem and it’s just going to be an easier sell in those parts of the country.

You really have to do some kind of tour, but you get to structure it on your own, I think, if you’re working with a smaller press. Luke definitely helped. He set me up with a few festivals I didn’t know the context for, sent out the books to a lot of post-publication contests. A lot of the on the ground readings, especially in smaller towns, it’s really up to you. If we had a bigger press we’d have some more help but you’re kinda on your own so you use your network. You have other poets, you know, you sleep on their couch this time, and when their book comes out they sleep on yours, and you kinda use that back-and-forth. You do that guerrilla tour and people say, “Oh you’re so popular, you did this tour!” And I would tell them, “No, I’m not popular at all—honestly I just emailed a lot of people.” It didn’t magically happen. Maybe it could magically happen if you have a big enough social media presence, but I never had that, so you have to knock on some doors. And most independent bookstores are happy to have you. They’re going to sell a couple books and they don’t have to pay you anything, so everybody wins.

Could you talk about the differences of experience in working with a small press versus a large publishing house?

Yeah, I think one big one, Orison, when we started that year, we only put out my book and one other book, so you get a little more time with a small press. Obviously you’re not getting as much PR exposure as you would if you were with Copper Canyon or something, but I think the difference would be that, particularly in the press’ infancy, the press has a lot at stake in your book. If your book doesn’t do well, neither does the press, so it’s very mutually beneficial. And with the bigger houses usually you get a marketing team around you that’ll help with galleys and stuff. They have the funds to send them out for reviews and to generate that hype. Luke was really good though. He sent out about two hundred copies, so we got a lot of coverage for the book.

Another thing is that a big house will put out eight or ten books of poetry a year. Where, yeah, you’re going to get the editor’s full attention, but you’re also going to get it divided by eight. And also probably going to work less with one person and more with a team. Some people are going to do one part of the process, and then there are others, whereas with us—it was me, Luke, C. Dale Young with some editing stuff, and the designer, and that was it. But yeah, I mean, the big presses in poetry are still small. I think that’s important to emphasize. And I think you just need to know if they’re going to stick it out or if they’re just doing this for fun because they started a press, and I think from talking to editors you can usually figure that out pretty fast.

But Luke’s still doing it, and the press actually did a lot better after my book. Yehoshua November’s book Two Worlds Exist was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, and Jordan Rice’s book Constellarium was a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, which is the prize for the best first book in the country. So right away, the press exploded, and one part is, I think, Luke understands the market. He actually did hire a guy who would do marketing for us on Twitter and help me get readings, you know—he got coverage in a local newspaper in Texas, and that was really cool and wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Usually you’ll get that at a larger press, but Luke had a vision for that market strategy, which I think is good to ask before you sign a contract, like, “What’s the plan for outreach? Are we going to send it out to contests after publication? Am I going to pay the submission fees for that as the author?” And what we agreed was that I would pay the submission fees and Luke would provide the books, so he gave me thirty books. We got a lot of coverage as a result, and I think that’s part of the reason the other books at that press did so well.

So what happens, then, after your book comes out?

Well, I have to say, after your first book comes out, it’s a sort of flatline. At first it’s like, “Your book! Your book,” and you win a prize. I won this Texas prize and I was just, “Aw, this is great!” Went to the Texas Book Festival, felt like a real author, taught at this really cool festival. And then, you know, six months later, you’re kinda yesterday’s news, and it’s back to the drawing board and lots of rejections. I mean, I think it’s good to know it’s not “the grass is greener.” Yeah, you’ve got the book, it exists, if you die your poems exist outside of you, that’s good. But you’re back at square one with the submissions process.

I think the main thing though is to continue to write. You can professionalize the hell out of poems, and that can lead you to publishing maybe 50% more in the short term. But in the long term, if you’re not consistently writing, you’re not going to have the material to go back and edit to professionalize in the first place.

How has working with Orison changed you as a writer, whether in writing poems or in the way you live as a person? Or has it?

Yeah, I would say so. I would say it’s a little less anxiety having something out in the world. First books, people think, “Oh I could’ve done better.” I actually really like mine. I feel like I put a lot into it. But it makes you understand that you’re part of this larger community, and that it’s not just about the next prodigy or whatever. It’s a team effort. You know, when the book would do well we would celebrate, but also when someone else’s on the press did well we would celebrate. As an author, you can really dig your head in the sand and think it’s really just about you and your book and your future, but then you get a little community where you can root for everybody.

Going in, I wasn’t really sure because it’s this press about the life of the spirit and I was like, “Well is everyone really religious in a particular way?” I came to find it’s not about religion per se at all. It’s more just about writing that engages questions around the idea of the spirit. There are people of faith who are associated with the press, certainly, but it’s artists who are open to supporting other people regardless of perspective. They’re a press that has really emphasized LGBT writers, you know, Jordan Rice’s book that came out right after mine. She’s a trans woman, and so it was really cool to be part of this community that is really inclusive. Like Jordan and I did a reading together when her book came out that was really fun, and none of that would’ve happened if I had buried my head in the sand and said, “Oh I have to win the APR/Honickman or the Yale Younger,” and just wait forever, you know—if I hadn’t sent it in and took a risk on this book, going with this press. So I think that was a lucky decision, and one for which I will always be grateful.