This is the response I wrote for the Floating Bridge Press blog, the kind folks who published my first chapbook, Geography--
Many times when we see a book in print, we don’t think about how long it took to write that book or how many times it was submitted before it was accepted. Many times we just see the success—a book that’s made it to publication—and we return to our own writing and submitting feeling discouraged because we’ve sent our manuscripts out a couple times and no one has published it…
My chapbook Geography was not accepted by Floating Bridge Press the first time I submitted it, but the third time—five years after I wrote the first poem in 1998. In between the first poem and the acceptance, Geography went through many versions. Mostly, time and revision are what helped change my okay chapbook to a much stronger one.
The first time I submitted my chapbook to Floating Bridge Press, I was excited—too excited. The chapbook wasn’t complete, but I was the mother of new poems and off my children went without their raincoats or galoshes. Two poems were selected for the Washington State Poets Anthology,Pontoon, but the chapbook was not a finalist. I was thrilled to be part of Pontoon, but realized there was more work to be done.
The next year, I had improved the chapbook greatly through lengthy revisions. It had come a long way—the children were dressed for the weather—but still it wasn’t ready to be published. I submitted it anyway knowing it was a stronger manuscript than the year before—that year it was not only rejected, but none of my poems were accepted for Pontoon. I was discouraged, especially because I knew it had improved. Still, I felt in my heart it was a good manuscript and I wasn’t ready to abandon it yet.
In 2000, I had received Artist Trust GAP grant for some of the individual poems included in the chapbook, which gave me hope to keep trying. I enrolled in a chapbook class with Ann Spiers where we looked at various chapbooks, discussed the history of chapbooks, and talked about what a chapbook was. We discussed how a chapbook focused on a very specific theme or story and she reminded us to only use poems in the chapbook that stick with that theme.
I felt I was beginning to understand my chapbook more. I could see what poems weren’t strong enough to be included in it. I knew what I had to remove from my manuscript, but still, the chapbook didn’t feel complete and I wasn’t sure what I needed to do to improve it. Ann said something during the class that changed the way I viewed the making of my chapbook, she said, “Look at your chapbook and figure out what poems need to be written.”
It was the advice I needed. Instead of always taking away from my chapbook, starting with thirty poems and pulling out the weakest poems until I ended up with a number between eighteen and twenty-four pages, Ann had suggested the opposite. I was to look at my poems—my strongest poems—and decide what poems needed to be written to make the chapbook complete. For me, this was the suggestion I needed to hear. I realized that I needed to decide what poems were missing from the story I was trying to tell and to write them.
In early 2003, I was awarded a residency at Soapstone Writers Retreat in Oregon, where I focused solely on my chapbook for a week. I remember in the middle of a rainforest reading each poem again and again until I knew if it was right for the chapbook. I walked in the forest and in my mind went through every poem in the chapbook. When I returned home, I submitted my chapbook into the 2003 competition telling myself I’d give it try one last try. (Note: Knowing what I know now, I realize most poets submit their manuscripts many more times than just three before it’s accepted, so this was a bit of naiveté on my part.)
On a quiet afternoon, a Thursday I believe, I received a call from one of the editors at Floating Bridge Press telling me that my chapbook had been selected for publication. Five years after writing the first poem in the series, I would see a finished product. I was thrilled, thankful, and a little overwhelmed!
If I have any advice for other poets working on a chapbook, my mind returns to my class with Ann Spiers:
1) Focus on a strict theme or telling a story
2) Look at your chapbook and instead of taking poems out to make it stronger, start with your strongest poems and write the ones that are missing.
3) Write, Revise, Repeat.
Let the story or theme emerge in your chapbook then focus on it completely. Decide what needs to be written and when it comes to poems you’re not sure are strong enough I follow this advice—when in doubt, leave it out.
Good luck and good writing.