That Glittering Possibility: Eighteen Debut Poets Who Made Their Mark in 2005

Kevin Larimer

Like Wind Loves a Window
(Slope Editions) by Andrea Baker
Age: 29
Residence: Brooklyn
Graduate degree: None
Job: Small business owner
Representative lines: “what if I loved / like wind / loves a window”
Influences: Sappho, Lydia Davis
Blurbs: Donald Revell, Jean Valentine, Bin Ramke
Time spent writing the book: 10 years
Time spent finding a publisher: 1 year
In the works: “I’m writing and beginning to have a sense of where I might be going, but I am not close to having any sense of a cohesive manuscript.”
A bit of advice: “Read first books and know which presses are receptive to your particular aesthetic.”

The Singers I Prefer
(CavanKerry Press) by Christian Barter
Age: 36
Residence: Bar Harbor, Maine
Graduate degree: MFA from Vermont College
Job: Trail crew supervisor at Acadia National Park
Time spent writing the book: 8 years
Time spent finding a publisher: 2 years
Representative line: “It smelled like you would, and kept right on smelling that way”
Influences: John Keats, Charles Bukowski, Robert Frost, Frank O’Hara, James Wright
Blurbs: Sydney Lea, Baron Wormser
In the works: A second book of poetry
A bit of advice: “You must somehow not get distracted or carried away by the process of sending things out, and, inevitably, getting rejected a lot. Send to the reputable contests—you probably won’t win, but if you are a finalist at a few places, it helps your viability when you send to other presses. Certainly, you need to publish in magazines. Be patient. Give patience a new meaning, something more like forgetting.”

Living Room
(American Poetry Review) by Geoff Bouvier, winner of the 2005 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, selected by Heather McHugh
Age: 36
Residence: San Diego
Graduate degree: MFA from Bard College
Jobs: Waiter, freelance journalist
Time spent writing the book: 9 years
Number of contests entered: 100 to 150
Representative line: “Here, between an M and N, lives my feeling’s loud illiteracy.”
Influences: Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens
Blurbs: John Ashbery, Lydia Davis
In the works: “‘Glass Harmonica’ is roughly 80 percent finished.”
A bit of advice: “Make sure that you keep writing for yourself. In other words, remember what’s important—the work itself—and never cater to the career. But don’t give up on the career either. You have to keep trying, but if you ‘make it’ on any terms other than your own, then someday you’re going to regret it.” 

(Edge Books)
by Leslie Bumstead
Age: 38
Residence: Takoma Park, Maryland
Graduate degree: MFA from George Mason University
Job: Full-time mother
Time spent writing the book: 10 years
Time spent finding a publisher: 3 years
Representative lines: “Very wondering manacled mind-eater / blues.”
Influences: Alice Notley, Susan Howe, Carolyn Forché
Blurbs: Laura Moriarity, Carolyn Forché
In the works: “I’m working on a collaboration with Jean Donnelly that we feel could work as a book.”
A bit of advice: “Remove the layers of not-truth from your book, whatever that may be—showing off, or losing the focus of what the language is doing in favor of what others will think of you. It’s also useful to keep in mind the purpose of publishing a book, which, for me, is very simple: to share your work with others. I see people—including me, when I forget—getting all worked up about their worth as a poet in terms of whether or not they’ve published a book. This is stupid. A poet is a person who makes poems, whether or not they get published in magazines or books. We all know this, and yet it’s easy to get caught up in the other bullshit.”

(Southern Illinois University Press) by Victoria Chang, winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award, selected by Jon Tribble
Age: 34
Residence: Irvine, California
Graduate degree: MFA from Warren Wilson College
Job: Researcher for the Stanford Graduate School of Business
Time spent writing the book: 10 years
Number of contests entered: 30 to 45
Representative lines: “Something is thundering in my body. / You can hear it in the soil, bulbs breaking out into a cathedral.”
Influences: Rainer Maria Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Larry Levis, Brigit Pegeen Kelly
Blurbs: David Baker, Linda Gregerson, Rick Barot
In the works: “It’s not a book, per se. I’m just writing poems that continue on the themes in the last section of my first book—more global themes related to war and human nature.”
A bit of advice: “I’ll quote an editor I heard at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He said that talent, luck, and chug [persistence] are the three traits that can lead to success in publishing. I agree, but I would also say that humility and a desire for excellence are really important traits in a poet—not insecurity, but humility. Read a lot of poetry, and support fellow poets by buying books. Finally, try to remain positive about yourself, and be positive toward other poets. It’s so easy in this environment to think that everything related to poetry is a big conspiracy. True, some aspects of the poetry world can be sketchy, but there are still a lot of people in poetry who have integrity and believe in the integrity of the work. One can waste a lot of energy focusing on all the wrong things.” 

(Louisiana State University Press)
by Geri Doran, winner of the 2004 Walt Whitman Award, selected by Henri Cole
Age: 41
Residence: Pacifica, California
Graduate degree: MFA from the University of Florida
Job: Development and communications director at Djerrasi Resident Artists Program
Time spent writing the book: “Several years.”
Number of contests entered: “A handful of contests for a handful of years.”
Representative line: “I want the god I pray to to be real.”
Influences: W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot
Blurbs: Henri Cole, Eavan Boland
In the works: “A second book is years away, I suspect. For now, I want to move forward in the poems, to find a new music or a new way with old music.”
A bit of advice: “People find their own way through. Our paths are all so different.”

King Vulture
(University of Arkansas Press) by K.E. Duffin
Age: “Older than a prodigy, younger than Stanley Kunitz.”
Residence: Somerville, Massachusetts
Graduate degree: None
Jobs: Part-time editor, writing tutor
Time spent writing the book: 11 years
Time spent finding a publisher: 6 years
Representative lines: “Your story is cracking open without any thunder, / hatching the unformed darkness in which you see / your shadow bob and dissolve as light puts its hand / on your shoulder for the last time. And you slide under.”
Influences: Osip Mandelstam, Czeslaw Milosz, Hart Crane
Blurbs: Alfred Corn, Henry Hart
In the works: “I have another book nearly complete, and, I suppose, new poems are now headed toward a third.”
A bit of advice: “Read widely and cultivate a lifelong immersion in the work of the masters—not in the academic, quiz-show sense, but as a seeker of comfort and thrill, moments of ratification and surprise that exist outside of time. Follow quirky passions, because they will lead to your own distinctive strangeness. Trust the ear. Remember what Mallarmé said to Degas: ‘Poems are made with words, not ideas.’ There are three necessities for the life of poetry in the world: an instinctive, fatalistic love of the art; near-psychotic persistence; and a willingness to alienate all others in finding your own way. Submit to presses that can accept several good books a year.”

The Maverick Room
(Graywolf Press) by Thomas Sayers Ellis
Age: 42
Residence: Cleveland
Graduate degree: MFA from Brown University
Job: Teacher
Time spent writing the book: 6 years
Time spent finding a publisher: 1 year
Representative line: “flags are not flowers.”
Influences: “I am a cross between Br’uh Signifying Rabbit Shine Stack O Drum Voices and Gwendolyn Amiri Aimé Funken(gertrude)stein De la AWS Worriation.”
Blurbs: Amiri Baraka, Michael Eric Dyson, Michael S. Harper
In the works: “I don’t even want to utter a working title, but I am enjoying it and it really does feel as natural as skin.… Some titles of the poems in the manuscript are ‘As Segregation, As Us,’ ‘The Return of Colored Only,’ and ‘Ways to Be Black in a Poem.’”
A bit of advice: “Forget the word book. Resist the trend of thematic series. Practice all forms of literacy—visual and emotional, too. Admit that there’s more than one of you; and surprise and embarrass all of yourselves.”

Honey and Junk
(W.W. Norton) by Dana Goodyear
Age: 29
Residence: Los Angeles
Graduate degree: None
Job: Senior editor of the New Yorker
Time spent writing the book: 3 years
Time spent finding a publisher: 1 year
Representative line: “Don’t let the smell of burning comfort you.”
Influences: Louise Glück, Mark Strand
Blurbs: J.D. McClatchy, Eavan Boland, Henri Cole, Marie Ponsot, Vijay Seshadri, Dan Chiasson
In the works: A second book of poetry
A bit of advice: “Wear sunglasses to the post office. In other words, try to protect yourself from other people’s disbelief.”

Weather Eye Open
(University of California Press) by Sarah Gridley
Age: 37
Residence: Bath, Maine
Graduate degree: MFA from the University of Montana
Job: Teacher
Time spent writing the book: 6 years
Time spent finding a publisher: 4 years
Representative lines: “Look: scarcely red thermometers: how the slight oracles / speak of weather”
Influences: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” by Robert Duncan, “The Strength of Fields” by James Dickey
Blurb: Cole Swensen
In the works: “I suspect that what I am writing now might later prove to be tossers—disposable exercises in service of some kind of aesthetic molting.”
A bit of advice: “On a practical note: Go in fear of epigraphs. Obtaining permissions consumes time and money. On a philosophical note: In reading some of Walt Whitman’s prose accounts of his travels in the West, I came across a Shoshone oath which he had made a special point of recording: ‘The earth sees me, the sun sees me: shall I lie?’ I think the best thing you can do for yourself as a writer is to keep the endeavor that clear, that strong, that focused.”

(Verse Press) by Tyehimba Jess, winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series, selected by Brigit Pegeen Kelly
Age: 39
Residence: Champaign, Illinois
Graduate degree: MFA from New York University
Job: Teacher
Time spent writing the book: 5 years
Number of contests entered: 29
Representative lines: “freedom lurches in and out of my life / heavy as the swollen secret of a noose.”
Influences: Sterling Plumpp, Ai, Sterling Brown, Ernest J. Gaines
Blurbs: Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Toi Derricotte, Cornelius Eady
In the works: “I am only working word by word, line by line, poem by poem these days.”
A bit of advice: “Revise, revise, revise. Listen to critique as humbly as you can. Keep your head down and your hopes high. Don’t give up.”

(Penguin) by Corinne Lee, winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series, selected by Pattiann Rogers
Age: 43
Residence: Austin, Texas
Graduate degree: MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
Jobs: Freelance writer and editor, publisher of Winnow Press
Time spent writing the book: 3 weeks
Number of contests entered: 4
Representative lines: “a woman can stream milk / for anyone, mugger or mogul, each drop spooling / like grace, like bisque.”
Influences: John Ashbery’s poem “At North Farm,” Brian Henry’s book American Incident, Hoa Nguyen’s chapbook Red Juice
Blurbs: Kathleen Peirce, Pattiann Rogers
In the works: “I am writing a collection of poems called ‘Astrolabe’; it is based on Geoffrey Chaucer’s delightful treatise on the astrolabe. As the collection’s title implies, the poems in it are larger and more ‘cosmic’ in scope than those in PYX.”
A bit of advice: “Concentrate more on your poems than on obtaining acknowledgments. At the press I run, Winnow Press, we see far too many manuscripts of poems that have a stellar publishing record—almost every poem has been in a prestigious magazine. However, the poems themselves are bloodless, pedestrian. It is as if those poets struggled too much to please everyone and, in doing so, ignored their unique voices.”

Pity the Drowned Horses
(University of Notre Dame Press) by Sheryl Luna, winner of the 2004 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, selected by Robert Vasquez
Age: 40
Residence: Denver
Graduate degrees: MFA from the University of Texas, El Paso; PhD from the University of North Texas
Job: Teacher
Time spent writing the book: 5 years
Number of contests entered: “I didn’t count, but it was a large sum.”
Representative lines: “This is the way the border transfigures greed, / shapes it into something holy”
Influences: Elizabeth Bishop, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens
Blurbs: Bruce Bond, Lisa Chavez, Robert Vasquez
In the works: A second book of poetry
A bit of advice: “I offer encouragement, and I think that the whole endeavor requires a willingness to make sacrifices and persist.”

(Center for Literary Publishing)
by Rusty Morrison, winner of the 2004 Colorado Prize for Poetry, selected by Forrest Gander
Age: 49
Residence: Richmond, California
Graduate degree: MFA from Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California
Jobs: Teacher, publisher of Omnidawn Publishing
Time spent writing the book: 3 years
Number of contests entered: “At least 8 contests each year since 2001.”
Representative line: “whethering which is to say waking is only one thing”
Influences: Osip Madelstam, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sylvia Plath, Robert Duncan, Barbara Guest
Blurbs: Forrest Gander, Elizabeth Robinson, Gillian Conoley
In the works: “I am not someone who can comfortably summarize works-in- progress.”
A bit of advice: “I spent quite a few years sending to all the larger contests, and always with much hope attached to the process. Of course, I felt a lot of disappointment at each rejection. And more and more I began to think about the odds, and how impossible winning had begun to seem. But at some point, along with that sense of the impossible, came a kind of giving up on worrying, or hoping. I kept using contest deadlines as revision deadlines, but I kept that as the focus. My process became what it is now: I use the deadline as a pressure point to reenter the work and to see what I want to do to make the poems most present and engaging.”

Somewhere Else
(Coffee House Press) by Matthew Shenoda
Age: 28
Residence: Berkeley, California
Graduate degree: MFA from the University of Arizona
Job: Teacher
Time spent writing the book: 3 years
Time spent finding a publisher: 1.5 years
Representative line: “That our eyes must be liberated”
Influences: Sonia Sanchez, the poets of the Black Arts movement
Blurbs: Juan Felipe Herrera, Simon Ortiz, Quincy Troupe
In the works: “I am currently finishing a new collection titled ‘Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone.’ It is a book that deals largely with ecological and cultural practices and the destruction and continuation of those practices in the Nile River Valley. The book weaves ancient Egyptian narrative with modern struggles and subject matter.”
A bit of advice: “I think it is very important to remember that poetry is not a material art; poetry is oral, it is a part of song, and sometimes songs vanish. The temporality of music is an important part of this process. It is necessary, in my opinion, for poets to find the fire within, to know why they write and never compromise their work for the sake of publishing. This is not a monetary art form. Too many young poets are seduced by Hollywood notions of fame, forgetting the healing and cultural properties of poetry. We must not forget the ancestral struggles that came with being a poet, a griot, a singer, a story-speaker.”

Practice, Restraint
(Fence Books) by Laura Sims, winner of the 2005 Alberta Prize, selected by the editors of Fence
Age: 31
Residence: Madison, Wisconsin
Graduate degree: MFA from the University of Washington, Seattle
Job: Teacher
Time spent writing the book: 5 years
Number of contests entered: 20
Representative lines: “Let this year be a year / Of presents / To the weird authentic”
Influences: Rae Armantrout, Lorine Niedecker
Blurbs: Cole Swensen, C.D. Wright, Rae Armantrout
In the works: “I’m taking a prose manuscript I’ve had for about ten years and ‘rewriting’ it as poetry. It’s an experiment at this point; we’ll see how it goes.”
A bit of advice: “Keep sending it out—and not just to contests. There are many excellent small presses that accept unsolicited manuscripts, and even when the manuscript is not accepted, you may get some valuable feedback—which you usually won’t get in response to contest submissions. Also, wait to send it out until it’s truly ready. I don’t think my manuscript was truly ready until this past fall.” 

(Texas Tech University Press) by Mark Sullivan, winner of the 2004 Walt McDonald First-Book Series in Poetry, selected by Robert Fink
Age: 44
Residence: New York City
Graduate degree: MA from Columbia University
Job: Legal assistant
Time spent writing the book: 10 years
Number of contests entered: 75 to 100
Representative lines: “Imagine / each movement as an arrival”
Influences: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Richard Hugo
Blurbs: Louis Asekoff, Dare Clubb, Emily Hiestand
In the works: “As always, I’m currently working on new poems that I hope eventually to shape into a book. Since I decided, for the sake of some stylistic and thematic unity in Slag, to stop adding new poems to the manuscript at a certain point, I now have on hand about three or four years of work that comes after the first book. I’ve put together a chapbook of some of these poems, which I plan to start sending out, and I’m hopeful that—the vagaries of inspiration and life allowing—I may have a new manuscript in another year or so.”
A bit of advice: “Take seriously the accomplishments and even minor encouragements that come to you. As writers, we often dwell on the difficulties of the profession and the negative experiences—the summary rejections, the lack of money and recognition. But when you think about it, it’s completely amazing that something you produce in fleeting, private moments can at times resonate enough with others that it brings about the acceptance of editors and, eventually, the attention of readers, however many or few. There’s no need to undervalue ourselves or be overly humble, but we also shouldn’t forget how unlikely and moving—no other word for it—this all is. Engage in the literary world in some way that isn’t about your own career, whether it’s buying poetry books, subscribing to journals, teaching, or volunteering at a journal.”

Enter Invisible
(Sarabande Books) by Catherine Wing
Age: 33
Residence: Seattle
Graduate degree: MFA from the University of Washington
Jobs: Teacher, waitress
Time spent writing the book: 4 years
Time spent finding a publisher: 3 months
Representative lines: “A garden overthrown / with glitz and grammar.”
Influences: Rick Kenney, Cody Walker, John Ashbery, W.H. Auden
Blurb: Dean Young
In the works: “I’m writing some new poems that I hope will eventually add up to a second book, but for now I’m taking it one poem at a time.”
A bit of advice: “If you want to be a writer of any kind, you have to make the choices in life that will allow you the time to write. In a recent New York Times article about Chris Jordan, the former-corporate-lawyer-now-photographer, Philip Gefter wrote: ‘When [Jordan] finally left his job, he went to the trouble of resigning from the bar, intentionally dismantling the safety net that his legal experience would provide should photography not be an adequate livelihood.’ With all my legal waivers signed in triplicate, and my malpractice insurance up to date, my advice is to dismantle the safety net. If you want to write, make the choices that will allow you to do so.”

Kevin Larimer is the senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.