Last year, BSU English professor Michael Meyerhofer released his third full-length book of poetry, Damnatio Memoriae. To recognize this achievement, interns Tyler Fields and Nakkia Patrick interviewed him to discuss various aspects of his new book as well as his publishing process, future plans, and his writing inspirations. See the interview below.
Tell us a little bit about your book, Damnatio Memoriae.
Damnatio Memoriae is my third full-length poetry book. Like my others, it’s basically a “selected” of all the poems I’d written over the course of about two or three years (with maybe a few older, revised ones sprinkled in).
I tend to be all over the place in terms of subject matter; some of the poems cover autobiographical/childhood stuff but there’s a lot of random factoids and oddball musings there, too. I basically try to take the reader with me wherever I go, like a well-intentioned but extremely dysfunctional carnival ride.
This collection of poetry won the Brick Road Poetry Prize. Congratulations! Can you discuss that prize and how you found out about it?
Thanks! I first heard about that particular contest on Allison Joseph’s CRWROPPS list. (If you aren’t subscribed, CRWROPPS is a free, awesome service advertising a ton of publishing opportunities for creative writers.) I always check out a press before I send there, just to make sure they’re not looking for a completely different style from my own. So I researched a few of the poets that Brick Road had published, really liked them, and figured I’d roll the dice. The prize was $1,000 and some free copies of the book. The real prize, of course, was having the book published and getting my work out there, since the challenge with poetry in particular is trying to generate some publicity and winning a contest is a good way to do that. I also really like how the guys running the press, Ron Self and Keith Badowski, release books in print and ebook format, which helps get them read by a wider audience.
We understand that this question comes up often, but we think many readers (students especially) would love to hear about your publication process. Specifically with this book.
Glad to! Obviously, the first step is to really put most of my time and energy into writing poems that I’m happy with; publication is important, but I’d say about 90% of your focus and energy has to go into the actual writing.
Once I have a batch of poems that I’m happy with, I start sending them out to journals… a lot of journals. I try to have at least twenty journals considering my work at any given time. However, my rule on that front is that I’ll only send work to journals that I’m familiar with and that I like to read. In other words, I don’t want to waste time submitting work to journals that maybe aren’t my cup of tea or that I’ve never even looked at, since that’s almost always a waste of time.
No matter how hard a poet works or how much he/she thinks the work itself is a good fit for a particular journal, though, there are the inevitable rejection slips. On the one hand, that sucks. One the other, it’s actually a good thing because it forces us to be persistent; it also means that there’s a strong element of competition to this business, getting back to the cliché that anything worth doing should involve some measure of difficulty.
Once I’ve amassed a decent number of poems published in journals, I start looking at ways I could organize those into a book manuscript. My general rule is that the manuscript should be fifty pages or longer and about one third to half of the poems should be published in journals first. Sometimes, I’ll assemble and send out a chapbook manuscript (about 22 pages) to chapbook contests ahead of the full-length book manuscript, but at this point (having five published chapbooks out there), I’m mainly focusing on book-length manuscripts. When it comes to publishing a book, I send it off to contests or presses that I’ve researched and like (basically the same as my process for journals), and hope for the best.
Can you talk a little bit about your writing process for this collection? Do you have experience with “the rush” to publish or have advice for students or new writers beginning to send out their work?
The title, Damnatio Memoriae, probably sounds a little stuffy, but I hope that once people actually pick up the book (or look at the cover), they get the joke. The title translates as damned memory and refers to an ancient practice of smashing the statues and erasing all earthly mention of rulers who had displeased their subjects. I meant it as a kind of tongue-in-cheek reference to the pressures and arrogance involved in writing, as well as an acknowledgement of tenuousness and impermanence.
As far as writing and publishing go, lately I’ve been telling my students that the way to become a better writer is to write without ceasing. In other words, try and view everything that transpires around you, no matter how silly, gross, beautiful, embarrassing, or mundane, through the lens of writing—or, more specifically, by asking yourself, “How would I write about this? Why should I write about this?”
As I mentioned, the first goal after that is to write the best stuff that you can. We all experience that natural impulse to send our work out there as soon as we’ve finished a draft; sometimes, it takes all our willpower to slow down, show it to some friends for a little feedback, and/or put it aside and then come back and view it more critically and objectively once a few days have passed.
Early in my career, I floundered quite a bit and just sent whatever I’d been doodling on to whatever journals I could find, which I think probably hurt me a lot more than it helped. Now, I think I work harder to really craft my stuff, then only send it to places I genuinely admire and am familiar with.
My personal position is to avoid self-publishing because even if some self-published work is great, there’s a bad stigma that goes with it in general, which usually leads to a narrower readership, and my goal is to get my stuff read by as wide an audience as possible. All of these things take time so it’s important to… well, I was going to say be patient, but I’ve never been patient one day in my life, so I suppose what I should say is that it’s good to be impatient because it probably means you’re passionate about your craft, but that impatience/passion has to be balanced with a measure of deliberation. In other words, think of publishing as a chess game, not a 100 meter dash.
If at all, how does Damnatio Memoriae differ from your past poetry collections?
There’s some similarity (we all have certain themes or subjects that we keep circling), but I didn’t want this book to just be a rehash of earlier ones so I really tried to push the narrative and lyricism as far as I could. I also played around with form a little bit; I’m a big fan of flash fiction so I decided to include a prose-poem section, as well.
In general how do you draw inspiration? From where did you draw inspiration for Damnatio Memoriae?
I was initially drawn into poetry by the so-called Confessionals, so I tend to write a lot of autobiographical poems, but I also think it’s good to have variety in theme as well as style. So I basically try to draw inspiration from whatever’s going on in my life, whatever my friends and I are talking about, including all our political rants, neuroses, geeky interests, etc. I’m also addicted to documentaries and “educational” television. I don’t think there’s anything on the History Channel that I haven’t seen at least once.
If you’d like to, can you talk a little bit about any future projects you might have in the works?
Poetry has been my main focus for… yikes… fifteen years or so. Before that, though, I was really into fiction (especially socially-conscious, dark fantasy/sci-fi) and still go back to that in the summers. I wrote about a zillion drafts of a novel, finally got it to where I [more or less] want it, and sent it out. It’ll be published in April of 2013 as an ebook, hopefully the first in a five-book series (the second one’s “done” except for a little line editing).
Aside from that, I always have one or two poetry manuscripts rattling around my hard drive (including a pretty experimental series that I’m working on right now, which I’m hoping will eventually be part of my fourth poetry book). When I first started out in poetry, I was also really into “eastern” forms and I’ve been thinking lately that I’d like to get back to that, too.
In the meantime, in addition to teaching, I’m also working as the Poetry Editor of Atticus Review. I like the idea of trying to spin a bunch of different plates at the same time. It’s messier and stressful and chaotic but it’s also a lot of fun.