The Poetry of Beginning: Twelve Poets Who Got Things Going in 2007

Kevin Larimer

"I am ecstatic and supergrateful," says Albert Flynn DeSilver, whose debut, Letters to Early Street, was released in July by La Alameda Press, an independent publisher in New Mexico. "It's been a long and amazingly perfect process—certainly far from smooth or easy, but very life-like—that has brought me to this lovely place of having the book available to the world in such a gorgeous little package."

This isn't the first time DeSilver has seen a collection of his work in print, however. Some Nature was published by the Non-Existent Press in 2004, but that book, he says, doesn't really count as his debut because "it was printed in a microedition—less than a hundred copies—by a 'nonexistent press,' which is code for self-published." Lest self-published poets take umbrage at his apparent dismissal, DeSilver explains that the distinction he makes between a nationally recognized and—more important—distributed press like La Alameda and a marginal self-publishing project like the Non-Existent Press has nothing to do with the relative validity of their activities, but with how broadly they allow the poet to participate in literary culture: "Right now, the scale I'm participating at—reaching hundreds, perhaps thousands of people with my work—feels much more dynamic, more interesting and helpful, than reaching dozens of people a few years ago by being self-published."

Prior to the February publication of his poetry debut, Why Speak? (Norton), Nathaniel Bellows already had a book of his own on the shelf too. But in his case it was a novel, On This Day, and it was far from self-published—it was released by HarperCollins in 2003. Bellows says that having had the experience of publishing a novel under his belt made the release of his debut poetry collection a little easier. "Having toured for On This Day, I was lucky to have made some great contacts and relationships with booksellers who were very generous in asking me to come back for Why Speak?"

Bellows, who received an MFA from Columbia University and still lives in New York City, says it took him approximately ten years to write the poems in his new book—the longest of any of this year's debut poets. (The average was just over five years.) Éireann Lorsung says it took her only eighteen months to write Music for Landing Planes By, and she wasn't even planning to publish it. Bill Reichard, her thesis advisor at the University of Minnesota, where Lorsung received her MFA, submitted the collection to Milkweed for her, and it was published in March. Lorsung admits it was a lucky break, one that never would have happened had she not attended graduate school—an experience that ten of this year's twelve debut poets share. "Part of my luck was being able to surround myself with some really talented peers to emulate and be challenged by and receive criticism from," Lorsung says.

Aracelis Girmay had already graduated from New York University's MFA program and moved to Long Beach, California, when she sent her unfinished poetry manuscript to Martín Espada, whom she had met at a workshop at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona, in the summer of 2004. About two months after she sent it to Espada (whose eighth collection, The Republic of Poetry, was published by Norton last year), Girmay received an unexpected e-mail from Alexander "Sandy" Taylor, the codirector of Curbstone Press, a nonprofit publisher of Latin American and Latino literature based in Willimantic, Connecticut, who asked her if he could publish her manuscript once it was finished. As Reichard had done for Lorsung, Espada—knowing that Girmay's work was special—sent it to a publisher whom he suspected would be interested. He was right, and Teeth was published by Curbstone in August.

Other poets—most poets, in fact—need to submit their manuscripts time and again, to contests and during open reading periods, before they find willing publishers. Dorothea Lasky sent her book to approximately two hundred contests and publishers during a period of four years before Wave Books accepted Awe for publication in September. "It was four years full of dark days, self-questioning, and endless regret that I hadn't been born something other than a poet," she says. "I know that the actual length of time I spent trying to get the book published is not actually that long in comparison to others, but just the process of sending out to poetry contests makes the whole thing stretch out into infinity. Trying to get anything published can be very impersonal, especially in the beginning." Lasky compares the process to jumping into an ice-cold swimming pool, "a repetitive jumping, day after day, with no warm towel at the end of it."

"It's disappointing that the economy around publishing doesn't often invest strategically in careful reading," says Steve Willard, who sent different versions of his manuscript to contests and presses for several years. He eventually sent his work to the University of California Press, where, he says, "the editors slog through their own slush pile." There they found Willard's Harm, which was published in April.

It took even longer for Joseph O. Legaspi to find a publisher for his debut, Imago. Legaspi, who cofounded Kundiman, a nonprofit in New York City dedicated to advancing the work of Asian American poets, entered many of the growing number of competitions that offer book publication, without luck. "I was tired—and broke—from entering contests," Legaspi says, "so I decided to pursue the 'open reading' route, and I struck gold." CavanKerry, a nonprofit literary press in Fort Lee, New Jersey, published Imago last month.

At first glance, Chris Martin had a remarkably easy time submitting to contests. The Brooklyn-based poet (not the lead singer of Coldplay) sent his manuscript to just one competition—the Hayden Carruth Award, sponsored by Copper Canyon Press—and he won. But, Martin admits, he had sent other manuscripts to "tons" of other contests before American Music, which will be published this month, met with such quick success. The book is the eighth and final winner of the Hayden Carruth Award, which Copper Canyon recently suspended. "As far as I could tell, there were two or three contests you had to submit to, if only to propitiate the gods of blind chance," Martin says. "This was one of them."