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Interview with Sarah C. Harwell
Kit Frick (from Sapling #152)

Sapling: Tell us about the process of getting your first full-length poetry collection, Sit Down Traveler, out in the world. Did you enter contests? Open reading periods? What transpired between sending the manuscript out initially and its acceptance at Antilever Press?

Sarah C. Harwell: Yes I entered contests. I entered and entered contests. I revised and entered contests. I revised again. I spent time in Despair. I spent time in I Am A Bad Poet Land.

And then I was a reader in a contest, and I watched other poet-judges judge for contests and I realized that the contest process is insane. People kept telling me that, but I never believed them until I saw it firsthand. Time-harried screeners pass on what they think are the best manuscripts and the judges hate them and call in more manuscripts randomly or based on names they recognize from the master list. Or they just pick what they think is good enough. Of course people want to publish good manuscripts, whatever “good” means—that also seems to me to quite problematic. But the process is marred by lack of time and lack of experience and is further complicated by the lack of a common aesthetic in contemporary American poetry and in the end the poet who gets picked is not the “best” poet, but the luckiest poet. I kept getting books in the mail (first contest books that won the contest I had entered) that I didn’t particularly enjoy reading. And it’s hard to know how to revise when what’s getting published isn’t what you want to be writing. So it was very confusing to me and I don’t really know what to say to poets who are still in the thick of it. The money I spent on all those contests could’ve better been spent on supporting literary journals, or buying new poetry books, or buying socks that matched. But what are the other options? I went through a couple of open reading periods in the last year before I got published. However when reading periods are also asking for twenty-five dollars and accepting books for a limited time period I don’t really see how it is any different than a contest.

When I finally had a little luck, it had been 7 years since I graduated from an MFA program (which doesn’t seem long now, but felt like an eternity then). Chris Kennedy (Director of the SU MFA Program, former teacher of mine, now boss) took back my manuscript and he and his wife Mi Ditmar revised it backwards. They re-ordered it and put my heavily, desperately revised poems back into their almost original forms. And Chris sent it to this new press that had put out a call for manuscripts along with a half-finished forward that the press required. When he told me he was doing this I yelled at him—I thought writing a forward for a manuscript that was bound to be rejected was foolish. Plus embarrassing. Plus I knew nothing about Antilever Press. For all I knew it was run by rabbits or aliens or white slave traders. But Chris ignored my protestations and sent it anyway. And then they emailed Chris and now I have a book. Chris always said that 1) I would never get published by a contest and 2) it would happen in the most unexpected way. And he was right.

S: What was your experience with the editing of your manuscript after its acceptance? Did you have an opportunity to make revisions, either at your own suggestion or at the suggestion of your editor? How involved were you in the design aspects of the book’s production (cover image, interior design, and so on)?

SCH: Antilever Press was very professional and intelligent in the editing process. They accepted the manuscript with the stipulation to cut a few poems and revise a few more. We went back and forth in the editing process but it wasn’t painful and their suggestions were spot on. I added a new poem with their approval, and bandied about different title ideas. There are five editors but all the communication is done through one editor, Dillon Tracy. And Dillon Tracy has been responsive, helpful, smart and extremely hardworking.

They have a very distinctive template for the design—but I picked out the cover art with their approval. That was rather nerve-wracking, I had no idea how it would turn out since I’m probably the least visual person in the universe, but I like it now. They chose the font and the size, etc. and it all looks good to me. A couple of weeks ago they sent me an e-book file to proof. They’re very smart and up to date and fun to work with. Oh & they didn’t make me get blurbs. That alone should make them the most popular press in America.

S: Did you publish a number of poems in literary journals or other periodicals before the publication of the finished book? Did this seem like a necessary part of the process for this particular project?

SCH: Okay, this is the part where you (“you” being all you poets reading this) should not do as I do. I’m really busy. I have a kid and a demanding job. I send out poems when I can, but I don’t do it as often as I should. When I have a little time I want to write. I sent some of the poems in the book out, about half are published, but some of those were solicitations. The Tarot poems, which are the spine of the book, were hard to know what to do with—it’s a long series and I didn’t really know where to send it. So, probably it is a necessary process, but I didn’t do it as much as I could. But you all should send your stuff out. In fact, why are you reading this? Go send out poems.

S: In what ways have you been involved in the publicity and promotion of your book? In what ways has the press handled its marketing?

SCH: I hate all those words. Publicity, promotion and marketing, they all make me a little ill. As does reading aloud, so maybe I’m not the right person to be answering this question.

Antilever Press & I are figuring it out as we go along. They’ve sent the book to the review outlets where I’m sure it’s languishing along with 900 other first books in some bleary-eyed reviewer’s foyer. They asked me who I would like to send it to, other than review outlets, so I had them send it to some of my favorite authors, even some who are not poets (Pema Chodran, Adam Phillips, Hilary Mantel—all interesting people, writers, thinkers).

I deal with readings and whatever else I can think of. For example, I’ve given the book to my mother, who then bought many copies for her friends. And I put in for a panel at AWP—which as we all know, will guarantee great success. I’m doing readings if people ask me to read, which a couple have, and I know I should send out more inquiries about reading. But reading out loud is really scary. I don’t like it. It makes me feel like an eviscerated fish.

I made a website all by myself. I’m pretty sure no one has ever clicked on it.

Other than that I’m open to ideas. This part seems a little like magic, and I’m not sure I know the right spell.

S: What surprised you about the process of having your book published? Is there anything you wish you’d known beforehand about putting a first book out into the world and/or publishing with a small press?

SCH: I loved publishing with a small press. They actually care deeply about poetry and their authors. I believe that publishing a poetry book with a huge publishing company isn’t a smart move. They aren’t interested in new poets and they won’t do any publicity for books that have very little chance of selling. A small press has more to lose and is heavily invested in making a splash in the poetry world, no matter how small that splash might be. I’m sure there are great editors at some of the big publishing companies, but the small presses seem to be doing a much better job of publishing new poetry.

The best advice I have for a first book is to have really low expectations. Then anything that happens, a reading, breaking the 400,000 mark on Amazon, doing this interview or seeing proofs for your ebook is lovely and exciting.

I wish I had known that it’s okay to take your time. The hard thing about graduating from an MFA program is that you somehow think, oh I’ve got a book! Now I must Publish! But for most people, me included, the thesis is just a beginning….even though I worked very hard on it for three years, and it felt almost “done,” it wasn’t. One of my teachers, Bruce Smith, always said it takes ten years of learning to begin to write a good poem. Same goes for a book.

S: Bonus number 6—By day, you serve as the Associate Director for the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Syracuse University. How do you balance your writing with your professional life at Syracuse?

SCH: Not well. Along with my administrative work I teach in the undergraduate program, and the intensive study of poets helps keep up my enthusiasm for poetry. On the other hand, administration just causes me to wake up at 4 am and worry about emails I haven’t returned. Sadly, it is rarely inspiring. However poets have always worked jobs, except maybe a long time ago in China, and poems have gotten made. The tension between the job and the poet can be a fruitful one. Look at Larkin, Cavafy, Eliot. Don’t look at Bishop, Lowell or Merrill. Also, after a year or so of feeling like a failure you begin to understand that the amount of poems produced in grad school is unsustainable.

And it’s good to look at this metaphorically—a balance is never stable right? A balance is always tipping one way or the other, jiggling and readjusting, and even when you have it just right—one weight to 20 beans, it’s just a matter of time before someone comes along and upsets the balance by eating a bean or tromping across the floor. So my daughter needs me, my job needs me, the overdue bills need me, but sometimes on a Saturday morning when I wake up at 5 and I’ve let the cat out I can write. There are poets who are better organized and more protective of their time, they never make appointments in the morning or they reserve one day a week for writing, and I admire these poets. But my life isn’t like that, has never been like that, will probably never be like that. I don’t have money, I’m a single mother, I have a very needy cat and a job that demands my attention. Writing gets done in the cracks and crevices, stealing time from one obligation to give to another. In the meantime I cut out all the non-essentials. We eat a lot of take out. I don’t watch much television. I don’t garden. I’m not a great housekeeper. Laundry is done once a month, or less. But I would rather have my daughter than a thousand poems, and I’d rather have a job than starve. Life is messy, which is good, for otherwise there would be no need of poems.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, and raised in many other places, Sarah C. Harwell has worked as a waitress, librarian, telephone psychic, astrologer, tarot reader, New Age book buyer, and natural language programmer. She holds a BA from the University of Toronto and an MLS and MFA from Syracuse University. She is the Associate Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Syracuse University. She lives in Syracuse, New York, with her daughter, Hannah, and their cat, Joseph.