Here we are at gratitude day four, and since earlier blogs and resulting conversations this week have taught me so much about the process of selecting, anthologizing, and publishing, I thought you might be interested in hearing from someone who works as an editor.
Michael Dumanis is Associate Professor of English at Cleveland State University, where he also serves as Director of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center, a literary press, and teaches poetry in the consortial Northeast Ohio MFA Program (NEOMFA). He is the author of the poetry collection My Soviet Union (University of Massachusetts Press, 2007) and coeditor of the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande, 2006). His writing has previously been recognized with residencies at Headlands Center for the Arts, the Civitella Ranieri Center, and Yaddo; fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the James Michener Foundation, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, the Wesleyan Writers' Conference, and the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture; and a grant from the Ohio Arts Council.
I met Michael when we were in school together in Houston. He's proven to be a very helpful reader of my poems and a great friend. With thanks to him for our ten years of arguing and laughing, here are some things he had to say about his own writing and about the Cleveland State Poetry Center:
Jericho: Michael, I want to ask you about being a Russian-American poet and how that particular background informs your writing. Can you talk about how your Russian poet influences are the same as or different from your American poet influences?
Michael: I was born in Moscow, immigrated to the United States with my parents in 1981, at the age of five, and grew up bilingual. I was exposed to poetry in Russian long before I read it in English—it was presented to me by my parents as a vital art form that contained wisdom about human experience, that simultaneously enlightened and entertained. They would quote poems in conversation, recite them on road trips. I didn’t know this wasn’t happening in all the households on my street in suburban Buffalo, New York. I think I have been heavily influenced not just by Russian poetry but by Russian prosody, by the emphasis Russians place on metrical rhythm, the music of language, and wordplay, by my parents’ belief that the most important attributes of a poem were structure and sound. When I would read them poems I wrote, they would have a subjective reaction without necessarily knowing what the words in the poem were saying and would tell me whether or not they liked how the poem sounded and how individual phrases turned.
My Russian poet influences and my American poet influences have a lot in common. I tend to like poetry that is musically and structurally interesting, that is simultaneously playful and intense, performative and somewhat maximalist. In Russian, I like Vladimir Mayakovsky—especially “A Cloud in Trousers”—and Andrei Voznesensky. I like Marina Tsvetayeva. I love the weird experimental poems of the early 20th-century poet Velimir Khlebnikov. English-language poets whose work has meant a lot to me include, among others, John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, Mark Strand, James Tate, Lucie Brock-Broido, Michael Palmer, Harryette Mullen, Dean Young, Mark Levine, D.A. Powell, Kevin Young, Lisa Jarnot, and Olena Kalytiak Davis.
Jericho: Tell me about how you see the new poems you are writing as a departure from My Soviet Union. Does the popularity of your first book make it hard to move away from its intentions? Do you think of changing intentions from book to book as necessary?
Michael: Jericho, I think your question about the necessity of changing intentions is fascinating. I think the worddeparture implies that it is inherently useful to break with the past, to not spend your entire writing life pruning the same tree. Should the poetry of each successive book be a departure from the one before it, or can each book instead be a continuation of a lifelong compositional journey and line of inquiry? Louise Glück describes herself in Proofs & Theories as a poet whose books consciously depart. Claudia Rankine and Olena Kalytiak Davis are two contemporary writers I admire whose books all seem to represent consciously different intellectual and structural projects. I would argue that John Berryman, on the other hand, is a poet whose books often seem to end up in the same place. Once he started twisting his syntax and writing wild songs, he couldn’t stop. As for my own poems, I think this new book I’m working on is more consciously a book—the poems are being written in a kind of dialogue with one another—and I think this new book is less interested in surface pleasures and pyrotechnics—though I love pyrotechnics—but I do think the new poems and old poems have a lot in common. I started out with the intention of changing intentions, but as I get closer to completing this manuscript, I increasingly think that I am continuing the line of inquiry I began in My Soviet Union.
Jericho: How did you come to run the Cleveland State University Poetry Center? What were your intentions and goals when you became editor? Which do you feel you have yet to reach? What has been most satisfying for you and most daunting in the process of revitalizing the press?
Michael: I became a professor at Cleveland State University in 2007, with the added responsibility of serving as the Poetry Center’s Director. The Poetry Center publishes between three and six poetry collections a year. It’s been around since 1962 and has published books since 1971. Though it enjoyed relatively high visibility twenty-to-thirty years ago, publishing early books by such established figures as David Baker, David Kirby, Tom Lux, Thylias Moss, Claudia Rankine, and Franz Wright, by the time I got to CSU, the Poetry Center was less well-known nationally, in part because it hadn’t had an actual director for some time, in part because the poetry culture had changed over the past twenty years and the center had yet to adapt to these changes. We lacked external distribution or significant web presence. Books would be published with little fanfare and go largely unnoticed and unpurchased—it was rare that a collection would be reviewed externally. There was also a clear focus on publishing regionally rather than nationally.
My desire, when assuming the duties of editor, was to publish some of the most exciting, innovative, idiosyncratic, and vital poetry I could get my hands on, while trying to rapidly improve and professionalize the books’ design, the contest screening process, promotion and distribution, and the website. Things have been happening really fast. We have a terrific designer for all our collections, and I love the way she makes the books look. Our books are once again offset-printed in runs of 1,000 copies
(when I got to CSU, for financial and practical these-books-don’t-sell reasons, the press had been doing digital short-runs). Small Press Distribution in Berkeley distributes all our recent titles, which frequently appear on their monthly bestseller lists. Our books are getting reviewed. Poets Elyse Fenton and Dora Malech have been interviewed about their poetry on such NPR shows as Bookworm and All Things Considered. Elyse Fenton’s collection Clamor won the University of Wales DylanThomas Prize, the largest monetary award for a poet under the age of thirty. This year, poet Shane McCrae won a Whiting Writers’ Award for his collection Mule.
Most daunting: the lack of stable and permanent resources. Despite Cleveland State University’s strong and unwavering commitment and support, our entire operating budget consists only of money earned through book sales and contest fees. Most satisfying: the entire process of working with a writer, from the moment I call them to tell them we would like to publish their book through the design and editorial and production process to the moment the finished book arrives in my office. Goals: I want more of our books on the shelves of
independent bookstores and university libraries. I would like sales of individual titles to double in the next several years. Also, I would like to keep expanding the list of publications which have been regularly reviewing our collections.
Jericho: Part of Louise Glück's legacy as judge for the Yale Younger Prize will likely include her working with poets on manuscripts after choosing them. Michael, I want to ask you about how hands-on you are as an editor with each manuscript individually. How "done" is a book before you accept it in terms of what you're willing to work with during the time between acceptance and publication? Are there situations where you find yourself in a bit of a deadlock with poets about changes you suggest? How do you move on from that point?
Michael: It really depends on the book. Several times, I have written over twenty-five pages of editorial comments on an excellent book I was thrilled to be publishing, including ideas on reordering sections, line edits on particular poems, and suggestions that certain poems be cut. Other times, I have decided to be more hands-off and mostly limited myself to proofreading, because the particular book seemed to be sosui generis that I didn’t want to over-impose my own aesthetic sensibilities. I have also found myself in occasional deadlocks about editorial suggestions. In the end, I usually let the author decide. On very rare occasions—and the only ones I can think of offhand pertain to my decision that a single poem be omitted from the manuscript—I don’t. In some cases, the title of the manuscript accepted doesn’t seem perfect to me, and I suggest alternatives until the author and I agree on something we love. If a book feels like it needs extensive editing, I don’t make it a finalist for our contests even if I happen to admire the project and many of the poems. I guess I favor the Louise Glück/Ezra Pound collaborative model to some extent, though I do think one runs the risk of editing out the stumbles and idiosyncrasies that help make a style compelling and singular, the same way one can run the risk of being overly prescriptive in a writing workshop.
Jericho: Do you make suggestions to poets regarding promotion after publication? What might these include? As an editor and publisher, are you enchanted or daunted by online outlets and resources? Are poets ever reluctant to follow your suggestions? Why might they be?
Michael: What I tell poets I publish is that I see a direct correlation between a variety of factors and the extent to which a book gets noticed and distributed. The writers who maintain a strong web presence, who are participating in literary communities and conversations not only in actual life but also on Twitter and Facebook and blogs, who give a lot of readings in a short period of time, who attend AWP, who see it as their professional and artistic obligation to not just author a book but also interest the world in it—those poets tend to sell a minimum of four hundred copies of their first books in the first year after publication, and believe me when I say that’s quite good for an American poet. They may even sell over a thousand if they get many course adoptions, or get reviewed a lot in mainstream publications, or suddenly get noticed by the mainstream media because they won an award or got lucky. Meanwhile, those writers who don’t aggressively market or otherwise self-promote—some find it distasteful or overwhelming or financially challenging—those writers tend to sell between 150 and 300 copies of their first book, total, no matter what the Cleveland State University Poetry Center tries to do for them. The reasons we write are usually pretty purist and we’re certainly not writing poetry for commercial gain, so we can at times be reluctant to market our poems as though they were a line of whimsical T-shirts we were selling on Etsy. For the press’s part, we always send between 150 and 200 complimentary copies of each book of poems to a carefully crafted list of review outlets and well-established poets. We nominate our books for awards. We try to maintain a strong presence on Twitter and Facebook ourselves, and do off-site readings for our new poets at AWP. When time permits, we try to help our poets set up their own readings. But ultimately and unfortunately, much of the responsibility to promote and sell the work has to fall on the poet. Our job is to select and bring the books into the world.
Michael: We have two contests each year, run concurrently, the First Book Prize and the Open Competition. The submission deadline for both is February 15th, and the entry fee is $25. Each contest offers $1000 plus publication.
The First Book Prize is open to any poet who doesn’t yet have a book. This contest is judged by an outside judge of my choosing, who then comes to Cleveland the following year and reads with the prizewinner. Graduate students, under close supervision, help me screen manuscripts, which I then narrow down to a list of finalists and forward to an outside judge. Since 2009, the judges of this contest have been D.A. Powell, Rae Armantrout, and Matthea Harvey. The current (2012) judge is Nick Flynn. The 2013 judge will be Tracy K. Smith. I try to pick judges whose poetry I think is quite exciting and distinctive, who are aesthetically different from one another, and whose own taste I am curious about. Every year the judge’s choice comes as a pleasant surprise. The winners of this contest the past four years have been the poets Allison Benis White, Elyse Fenton, Emily Kendal Frey, and S.E. Smith.
The Open Competition is for poets who already have at least one full-length collection. Between 20 and 25 finalists are forwarded to a permanent jury of four poets residing in Northeast Ohio. Since 2008, the three jurors other than me are University of Akron professor Mary Biddinger, Case Western Reserve University professor Sarah Gridley, and Oberlin College professor Kazim Ali. The four of us deliberate until we reach consensus on a single manuscript. The last four winners of the Open Competition have been poets Liz Waldner, John Bradley, Zach Savich, and Jon Woodward.
Afterwards, I select one-to-three additional manuscripts for publication from among the remaining finalists for both contests. So far I have personally selected books by poets Helena Mesa, Mathias Svalina, Allison Titus, Shane McCrae, Lily Brown, Dora Malech, Sandra Simonds, and Samuel Amadon.
Jericho: Can you discuss how the process of selecting is different for you now than it was when you co-edited Legitimate Dangers or when you were a poetry editor at Gulf Coast? Have your tastes changed in the last five to ten years? If so, how? Do you think your editorial experience itself made any of these changes happen?
Michael: The only similarity is that in each of those three cases, the process has been collaborative. When I was a poetry editor at Gulf Coast, I had two fellow poetry editors and we had to reach consensus on the poems in each issue. When Cate Marvin and I coedited Legitimate Dangers, we discussed each poet and poem until we both agreed about inclusion. The Cleveland State University Poetry Center is also a collaboration—graduate students help with the screening, I select the finalists in each contest, outside judges select the winner of the First Book Prize, and a permanent jury discusses the finalists for the Open Competition until the four of us can all agree on a single manuscript. Other than that, we’re talking about three very different editorial projects, a journal and an anthology and a press.
In terms of my own tastes, I think they get more catholic the more I do this. I keep finding myself more and more aesthetically open, in different directions. But I wouldn’t say my core tastes have changed.
Jericho: What would you say the books published after you became editor at Cleveland State have in common?
Michael: I think they all have really beautiful covers—Amy Freels, who designs them for us, is amazing. To me, the books I’ve published all stand out in one way or other—each does something I’ve never seen before, and does it well. I like the idea that each poem written by anybody immediately enters into conversation with all poems that have been written before it, and that each poem should consequently be contributing something new to the conversation of poetry. I look for books that add to the conversation. I think that every book has some amazing poems, and some wildness to it, and some unforgettable lines. I hope the similarities end there—I aim for a certain amount of eclecticism, for aesthetic breadth.
Jericho: Have you had to deal with rejecting later manuscripts for poets you already published by CSU? Can you discuss how you handle this?
Michael: Unfortunately, the Poetry Center does not at present have the staff or resources to publish multiple books by individual poets. In four cases I can think of, all before my time, an exception was made for a poet who sold particularly well and strongly appealed to the aesthetic sensibility of the then-Director. However, every time a small press with limited resources publishes a book by one of its authors, it’s not publishing a book by someone new. And I feel committed to identifying and playing midwife for as many different poets’ manuscripts as I can—this means I can only publish a second book by somebody in an exceedingly rare circumstance, and the manuscript has to, in my eyes, be far more original, wild, and engaging than the book I have already published by the same writer. The manuscript would also have to be more interesting to us than anything else being sent to our contest, since it would be published at the expense of one of the contest finalists. It’s a real challenge, because I would love to keep publishing our authors (though I am not necessarily sure that it is always in a writer’s interest to have repeated books with the same press). Ultimately, I’m still trying to formulate a long-term policy on this.
Jericho: Which presses that publish contemporary work do you most admire? Why?
Michael: I admire presses for the poetry they publish, but also for the look and design of their books. Ahsahta Press, run by Janet Holmes out of Boise State, is publishing a lot of innovative, beautifully-made collections. I also am a big fan of Octopus Books, run by Zach Schomburg and Mathias Svalina; Saturnalia Books, run by Henry Israeli; and Black Ocean, run by Janaka Stucky. They all consistently publish distinctive and exciting poets. I also really admire two somewhat more established independent presses, Sarabande Books and Four Way Books. And I have tremendous respect for the two independent presses that to my mind are among the most significant institutions in contemporary poetry publishing, Fence Books—Rebecca Wolff’s magazine and press really did completely change the landscape—and Wave Books.
There are too many other fantastic small independent presses to mention, As for university presses, I am also particularly impressed by the editorial work of our juror Mary Biddinger at the University of Akron Press and the editorial work of Mark Levine for the University of Iowa Press’s Kuhl House series.
Jericho: Given the fact that you're seeing so many unpublished manuscripts, you must have some strong ideas about the state of contemporary American poetry, the aesthetic interests of younger American poets, and where poetry is heading. Will you discuss your view of this?
Michael: This past year we got over 900 manuscripts submitted to our contests, and I personally looked at the majority of them at least briefly. I don’t know how representative a sampling that is, however I can make some broad generalizations. In 2010, the poets Eliza Gabbert and Mike Young collaborated on an incisive, funny, charming, and moderately snarky piece for HTMLGiant on forty-one oft-utilized moves in contemporary poetry— while some poets have understandably criticized the piece for being reductive or for merely listing technical phenomena in lieu of saying something meaningful about the aesthetic sensibility behind them, I repeatedly encounter each of these forty-one moves in the manuscripts I read.
Some additional observations: I am surprised by how few of the poets sending to our contests seem to be writing post-confessional autobiographical lyric poems or narrative poems grounded in identifiable experiences. I am surprised by how many manuscripts are unified projects with a central conceit, either structural or conceptual, and though I have often argued against the need for a central conceit in a manuscript, I am surprised by how many of the titles I publish do have one. I am surprised by how many people are writing entire manuscripts of sonnets these days, and how good many of these manuscripts are. I am surprised by just how high the percentage of prose poetry is among the better manuscripts submitted to the contests.
Other trends? Ellipticism. Minimalism. Whimsy. Affectless and demotic language. Disjunction. Eroticism and violence, both in language and content. I think the lasting influence of the New York School, Language poetry, and of poets such as Dean Young, James Tate, Dara Weir, and Mark Levine cannot be understated. I also think the lasting influence of Wallace Stevens cannot be understated. One of our contest jurors remarked to me a year or two ago that most of the titles of our finalists all weirdly had something to do with either death or sunlight. Maybe that’s just what people think about the most.
Jericho Brown worked as the speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans before receiving his PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. The recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Krakow Poetry Seminar in Poland, Brown is an Assistant Professor at the University of San Diego. His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including, The American Poetry Review, The Believer, jubilat, Oxford American, Ploughshares, A Public Space, and 100 Best African American Poems. His first book, PLEASE (New Issues), won the American Book Award.