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

Kevin Larimer

For Alena Hairston, the Lexi Rudnitsky Poetry Prize exerted a similar pull. The annual prize, sponsored by Persea Books, is given for a debut collection written by an American woman. After submitting The Logan Topographies without success to around twenty other publishers, Hairston sent it to Persea because, she says, the indie press in New York City publishes "high-quality, genuine works. I knew my manuscript would be read seriously." Evidently it was; her book was published in April.

Dawn Lundy Martin submitted A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering to the Cave Canem Poetry Prize three years in a row before it was finally selected by Carl Phillips and published by the University of Georgia Press last month. She had even been a finalist in 2006, when Harryette Mullen judged the annual contest open to African American poets. Martin says she revised the manuscript, which she describes as "two books in conversation with each other," through collaboration with groups of people whose work she admires and whose opinions she trusts. "I write with two groups—the Black Took Collective and the Southampton Project," she says. "Neither is primarily focused on direct feedback; the value of the process is more situated in writing together, playing writing games, listening to each other's work, and trying to liberate ourselves from our usual writing habits."

Elizabeth Reddin benefited from collaboration of a different sort as she prepared her book, The Hot Garment of Love Is Insecure, for an August publication by the Brooklyn-based independent Ugly Duckling Presse (UDP). Rather than a formal writing group, Reddin worked closely with her friends Anna Moschovakis and Matvei Yankelevich, the editors at UDP who had asked to publish her book. "Anna and Matvei helped all the way," she says. "We talked about every detail, deciding what would be in the book and how it would look. I felt like UDP let me participate in every aspect so I didn't feel out of control."

Like Reddin, Roger Bonair-Agard didn't have to blindly submit his book to a publisher. The fact is, two presses asked him for Tarnish and Masquerade. The first was Third World Press, the forty-year-old independent publisher in Chicago, where the book was slated for publication in early 2005. "Unfortunately, that didn't work out," says Bonair-Agard, "but around the time that Third World was letting me know that they wouldn't be able to do Tarnish, Willie Perdomo had just launched the Cypher Books imprint with Rattapallax and was about to publish Suheir Hammad. He asked for permission to publish Tarnish, I asked for permission to pull my book from Third World Press, and they were very gracious in allowing me to do so."

With a second publisher interested in his work, Bonair-Agard, a two-time national poetry slam champion, can be excused for having thought that production of the physical book would go according to plan. "The biggest surprise was the amount of time and debate that went into the cover design," he says. "I had not expected to have stuff vetoed and have to go back to the drawing board. Once the process was begun, though, I felt like the team there really thought hard about what the cover should convey and how its aesthetics would drive or contribute to the book's dynamic." The cover of Tarnish, which was published in January, turned out just fine, its only problem being that it couldn't contain all the prepublication blurbs the book had received. Instead, a page inside the book was reserved for the praise, including that of four-time national poetry slam champion Patricia Smith, who called Bonair-Agard's poetry a "lilting, uproarious, precise gospel."

And so twelve more talented poets—among hundreds of others—will close out the year as published authors. For some, the reviews, interviews, and promotional readings have already begun; for others, the anticipation of what the book will bring is in full swing. Some will no doubt follow Rusty Morrison's lead and ignore the numbers and the sales rankings; others, like Thomas Heise, will look on with interest—or at least bemusement—as the figures come rolling or trickling in. For some, the year ahead will be empowering, as they work on their next books with newfound confidence; for others, the postpublication period will be one in which to reassess, reconsider, and revise.

No matter what the next year holds, for all of these poets it will be a time of adjustment, of getting used to the idea of being published authors. And that, it turns out, is not as easy as it sounds.

"When I first heard Imago was picked up for publication I was in utter disbelief, then I slipped into a mild depression," Legaspi says. "My reaction was most unexpected. I thought I'd be blitzed-out elated, and I was, but there was also fear and other existential angst. In a way, I got comfortable with not being published, rejection became a sort of being—not because I didn't believe in my work—and I wallowed in what I deemed to be an injustice to my unsung talent. Of course, I snapped out of it and realized that I needed to step up and embrace this. Maybe I'm mistaken, but I felt that I entered a new phase in my life: I'm a published writer! That's no small feat."