How has your first book changed your life?
86. Collin Kelley
You published your first book yourself, using iUniverse. Why? Had you sent the manuscript out to publishers and contests previously?
From the late 90s to early 00s, I sent Better To Travel out in various forms to dozens of contests and open readings. It was like playing the lottery and I wasn't having any luck--not to mention the entry fees, printing, and postage were bleeding me dry. I had just lost my agent in New York, who was trying to sell a novel I had written, and was worn down by the whole experience. Many of the poems in the collection had been published in journals and magazines over the past decade, so I knew the work was viable. In 2002, Christeen Snell, the director of the Fayette County/Margaret Mitchell Library, secured a small grant from the Friends of the Library and told me to go publish the book of poems. I felt like I had nothing to lose and knew I had the savvy to market the book myself. Despite the flack and criticism from some parts of the poetry community, I have no regrets.
What form did this flack and criticism take? What beef did some poets have and how did they make it known to you?
The flack and criticism from other poets was usually in a dismissive tone or attitude once they learned Better To Travel was self-published. Sometimes it was almost an imperceptible change in voice or attitude, but it was obvious they found it distasteful. I had one poet--quite well known--who embarrassed the hell out of me at a table full of other well-known poets by directly asking what my "credentials" were. He used that exact word. After I stammered my way through a response, he sort of sniffed the air and never spoke to me again the rest of the evening. I was initially snubbed from being invited to some readings (including the KGB Bar in New York) and events and, of course, bookstores always rolled their eyes when I walked in with my stack of self-published books looking for shelf-space. I've read some self-published collections of poetry and fiction that are rubbish, so I can understand the attitude, but there are exceptions to the rule.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I felt both pride and fear. I was thrilled to have the physical book in my hand but also knew there was a long row to hoe in getting the collection to an audience, getting press coverage, getting reviewed and being taken seriously after self-publishing.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Since I am a bit of a control freak, being able to work with a designer to create the exact cover I wanted was satisfying. After finding the photograph of the winter tree in northern England, everything else fell into place. I was talked into having the "selected poems" tag added to the cover because the editor/designer I worked with thought it gave the book more weight. It's amateurish and inappropriate, and if I take the book elsewhere that tag will disappear.
Before the day you first saw your book, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
I knew I was going to be busy juggling my day job as a newspaper editor and coming home in the evenings and being a poet. I didn't have any delusions of grandeur. I knew it was going to be a lot of hustling, traveling, begging and ass-kissing for at least a year. I wasn't expecting to make any money either. I just wanted my work in front of an audience.
Has your life been different since?
I have made so many friends and met some of my poetry idols since Better To Travel and my chapbook, Slow To Burn, were published. I've also had the opportunity to travel all over the country and to the UK to give readings and workshops. My writing has improved by being able to work with so many people and have a whole new "critique circle" at my disposal.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I can't really point to any expectation I had that didn't materialize. One really sad surprise is how bitchy, territorial and condescending some poets can be, especially those who have already cemented their reputations.
Another was being told recently by a well-known publishing house that Better To Travel "didn't count" as a first book since it was self-published. They refused to read my new collection, Wake, suggesting I submit it to their first book prize. I sent a rather screechy letter back to the press and got up in arms on my blog about it. I know it chaps a lot of asses that my self-published book has sold so many copies, received good reviews and was nominated for a couple of big awards. I don't have an MFA, I'm not tenured, I haven't been published in Poetry. I've worked outside the mainstream of what a "successful" poet is supposed to do to reach this point in my writing life. I won't apologize for working my ass off, but I will cop to having had an incredible amount of luck and opportunity. I have faith that Wake will be judged on its literary merits, and a forward-thinking press will pick it up in the future. Did I mention that I'm also an eternal optimist? God only knows how many asses that chaps.
Probably the best surprise was meeting MetroMania Press publisher Tanya Keyser at the Austin Poetry Festival in 2005. She was a fan of my work and when she asked to publish Slow To Burn I was elated.
What have you done to promote your book and how do you feel about those experiences?
As a journalist, I knew exactly how to present the book to newspapers and magazines to get a response. The goal was to start locally and slowly spread Better To Travel beyond the southeast. Getting good reviews, especially a cover mention in the Lambda Book Report, helped. I gave business cards with the book title to everyone I met, posted up flyers around town for readings, created a website and blog and took books to indie bookstores and talked them into stocking it. I pretty much went anywhere I was invited to read--no matter how big or how small--and most of the time at my own expense. I was fortunate to hook up with two amazing poets--Cecilia Woloch and John Amen--and we all had new books out at the same time and did a lot of joint readings. Sometimes we'd have huge crowds and sometimes we performed for handful of people. At some readings we ran out of books and others we wouldn't sell any at all. It was a mixed bag of experiences, but I was meeting new people, getting my work in front of an audience and having a lot of laughs.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
That it's okay to say "no" occasionally when it comes to readings and being asked to serve on boards and plan events. I am very active in the Atlanta poetry/spoken word scene and sometimes it's overwhelming, but I also feel I need to walk the walk if I'm going to talk the talk. So many poets don't want to support other writers, events or venues, but I think it's a vital part of being a poet and extending the community. Best advice: Patricia Smith told me to ignore the bastards who tell you that poetry has to be done a certain way--written, published, promoted--to matter.
What advice would you give to someone trying to get a first book published?
Enter the contests and submit to open readings, but also consider micro-presses and self-publishing. It really depends on what you want to accomplish with your poetry. Many poets are looking for a teaching job and a first book award or publication by a traditional press can be the key, but if teaching is not your thing or you're just looking for an audience, consider all the options. Your writing is ultimately about your self-expression and art--it shouldn't become bogged down in business.
Are you going to self-publish your second book?
I will if I have to, but I'm going to explore indie presses first. I've entered Wake in a couple of contests, but I've set a limit. I'm not so fussed about winning any more awards at this point. I want this work in front of an audience, so by any means necessary remains my motto. I enjoyed the collaborative aspect of working with MetroMania Press on Slow To Burn so to work with another micro or indie press on Wake would be fantastic.
Has the book's publication had an effect on your writing?
Absolutely. I cringe at some of the work in Better To Travel. My line breaks are terrible, images are not fully fleshed out and some of it seems juvenile now, but I think it documents a creative time in my life when I was traveling in Europe and around America. I think my poetry has improved tenfold since Better To Travel. I've had great mentors these last four years who have emboldened and challenged me to improve my knowledge and craft. I've also become an absolute believer in revision, revision, revision. For Wake and the new poems I'm working on now, it's all about taking it further--exploring sexuality and politics and naming names. Better To Travel was a safe book, but anyone who's read Slow To Burn knows that there has been an evolution in both my voice and subject matter. And that was just a warm up.
How do you feel about the critical response and has it influenced your subsequent writing?
I was pleased that 99 percent of the reviews were all positive. Only one reviewer took me to task for being self-indulgent and I wasn't too upset by it. The good reviews didn't have anything to do with the subsequent work. By the time Better To Travel was published, I was already working on new poetry that would eventually wind up in Slow To Burn and Wake. I can't imagine my writing being influenced by a review. I have to go where the poetry leads me, not where others think I should go.
Do you want your life to change?
I would eventually like to make enough money writing (not just poetry) to retire to England. That's my spiritual home. I have many friends there and I find the muse is always in residence when the plane touches down in London. I've had the great fortune to perform and co-edit an anthology in the UK and those experiences have been the most rewarding yet since I embarked on this "career" as a poet.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
I should be trying to pay off my credit cards and save my money, but I'm terrible about that. Travel is an impetus for much of my writing. If I can't travel, then I'm fucked. Travel ain't cheap these days, especially to Europe. Maybe I should spend some of my creative time looking for a sugardaddy. Hmmm...
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I think every time someone picks up a book of poetry it subtly changes him or her. A book of poetry can open new worlds, thoughts and ideas. If someone is moved by what they read, or even if they dislike it, maybe they will be inspired to seek out more or write their own. The Internet, blogging, online 'zines, micro-presses and print-on-demand are definitely changing the landscape of poetry...for the better. It's no longer tied up in academia or controlled by The Academy. It's been set loose in the virtual world and there's a whole new group of young poets who are revolutionizing the way we will receive, read and understand poetry in the future. Amen to all that!
Poetry has certainly changed my world. If it weren't for Anne Sexton, Stan Rice, Sharon Olds, Margaret Atwood and Alice Walker, I wouldn't be answering these questions.
2 poems from Better To Travel by Collin Kelley:
Black folds ripple,
The unused black
. . .