In our Interview With An Author series, Writer’s Relief asks professional writers to share their tried-and-true secrets for publishing success.
Jonterri Gadson is the author of the chapbook Pepper Girl (YesYes Books, 2012). She is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships from Cave Canem, Bread Loaf, University of Dayton, and the University of Virginia’s Creative Writing MFA program. In the fall, she will be an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bloomfield College in New Jersey.
CONTEST: Leave a comment or a question for Jonterri below by July 16, and you’ll be entered to win a copy of her book, Pepper Girl! U.S. residents only. This contest is now closed. Congratulations to our winner, Neil S. Bowers! Thank you to all who participated!
What advice do you have for writers who want to improve their poetry-writing skills?
Read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Go to the library and check out as many poetry collections as possible and read them. When you find a collection that you like, read everything else that poet has written. Then ask yourself why you like this poet’s work. How has the poet created the effects that intrigue you? Try those techniques in your own work. Repeat.
So many times I’ve read a poet’s work and thought, “Wow! I didn’t know a poem could do that!” Reading helps me to see greater possibilities for what poems can do.
How do you stay inspired to continue writing poetry?
I like to say that I live a poem-led life; that I live my life from poem to poem. Writing poetry has been a guiding force for me. It’s what I’m internally driven to pursue. I tell myself to just write the poems and then everything else will follow. By that I mean, I’ll know what to do next when it’s time, but for now—write a poem. My plan was to be faithful to this thing that made me feel more connected and less alone than anything else. I practiced and studied it religiously. What keeps me going? It feels good. I love that feeling of just having made something from nothing. Since I decided to live a poem-led life, I’ve felt more alive. I trust that writing and poetry is a remedy that I can go to again and again. I continue to write poetry because I’ve found the thing that makes me feel most alive and I don’t want to lose the feeling.
How did you get your book of poetry published?
I love this story. Presently, I have a chapbook of poetry published and I’m pursuing a home for my full-length poetry collection. A few years ago, when I was in the MFA program at University of Virginia, I submitted my work to literary magazines. A few poets I know and admire had been published in Vinyl, an online literary magazine. So I sent some poems to Vinyl. I had simultaneously submitted and in my luckiest streak ever, all of the poems I submitted got picked up within days. So I contacted Katherine Sullivan, the editor of Vinyl at the time, to withdraw my submission. She asked if I had anything else to submit and all I had was a poem I was planning to workshop that week. I sent it to her, she gave feedback, I tweaked it and she published it in Vinyl. She was finishing up her MFA at Virginia Tech, just a few hours away from me, so she drove over for lunch one day. She explained that she was planning on starting a small press to publish poems and asked me to send her my manuscript when it was ready. A few years later, her press, YesYes Books was taking off and I sent her my manuscript. She said she didn’t think my full-length manuscript would work for the press, but that she saw a chapbook in it. She pulled out the poems that moved her most, added a few more that I’d recently written, and my chapbook, Pepper Girl, was born!
Short answer: My chapbook was published because I submitted my work to literary magazines for publication, which resulted in a great working relationship with an editor who remembered my work when she started her own press.
What’s one “mistake” you see pop up again and again in poems (or poets)?
Based on my experience teaching introductory poetry workshops, there are a few things that I warn my students against. I was shocked by how much the phrase “and I couldn’t help but smile” shows up in student poems. It comes up so much that I banned the phrase in my classes. It simplifies the response to whatever experience brought on this smile.
Also, form matching content is something to strive for, but whenever leaves fall in a student poem, the word “fall” tends to be stretched vertically, like:
The first person to think of that was a genius. The rest of us just aren’t as original as we think we are because I see this all the time!
Why does poetry matter?
Poetry matters because it can be a powerful vehicle for empathy. Poetry can be a way to communicate how connected we all truly are. Something makes people turn to poems when they’re in pain and when they’re in love or when someone dies. Poems can be freeing in that way; a way to encapsulate emotions and say, “Look what I’ve done with how I feel,” but more often than not they seem to say, “Listen.” Writing a poem can make you feel heard, even if the only one listening is you.
About Pepper Girl
“The poems in Jonterri Gadson’s Pepper Girl certainly live up to their title: spicy, provocative, pungent. These capacious and generous poems hold bodies full of candid desire and blood—the blood of passion, family, and violence. Gadson’s lines brim with spunk and grit, humor and heartbreak. Her imagination is acrobatic in dazzle and prayerful in its grace.”—Denise Duhamel
Follow Jonterri on Twitter!
CONTEST: Leave a comment or a question for Jonterri below by July 16, and you’ll be entered to win a copy of her book, PepperGirl! U.S. residents only. This contest is now closed.
What happened in your life that makes your writing seem so powerful and relatable when so much poetry seems to be further from real thoughts and current times?
Thanks for finding my writing relatable, Archie! What happened in my life is that I read other people’s poems that made me feel like I’m not as alone in my traumas or feelings as I thought I was. That’s an amazing feeling. So I want to write and pass that sense of not being alone on to other people. When I sit down to write, I ask myself, “What am I most afraid to say?” and then I say it. I’ve found that other people usually end up having the same fears that they’re afraid to talk about.
You said to read as many poets as you can…what poets have inspired you?
Thanks for the question, Debra! My poetic inspirations have been Gwendolyn Brooks, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Denise Duhamel, Terrance Hayes, Claudia Emerson, Jericho Brown, Rita Dove, and Greg Orr. A newer inspiration has been When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz.
I loved the interview! Very inspiriting. My question is what is your process for submitting poems to various places, or do you have a process (smile)? For example, are there publications that you stay away from and publications that you gravitate toward? How much research, if any, goes into seeking places to submit your work? Thanks.
I had the pleasure of seeing Jonterri read last summer at Bread Loaf, and man, she’s a presence to behold. I was really taken with the characters that came alive in her work.
Is poetry your favorite way to express yourself through writing? If not, what is?
What is your best advice for someone looking to write full-time?
I love what you say about why poetry is important. How do you feel about more language-based, “intellectually” focused poetry? Does it have the same value? Or, value, but of a different nature?
Thanks so much for great comments and questions! I’ll knock a few out all at once.
@Latorial- my process for submitting is to wait until I have 3-5 poems that I’m feeling really good about and then pull out the list of places I’ve always wanted to get into (Rattle, Ploughshares, Diagram, jubilat, for instance) and then send. I tend to gravitate toward publications that I see publish narrative poems, because a lot of my stuff used to be narrative. But Diagram publishes really unique stuff so I throw my more experimental stuff their way. I like to have submissions out to at least 5 journals at a time, that way when I get a “no,” I still have 4 other opportunities out there for a possible yes, even though I might be feeling deflated from the rejection. As far as research, that’s why I love online journals. You can just up and read as many issues as you’d like. I’ve encountered a lot of writing/writers I love this way.
@Rachel–poetry is my favorite way to express true experiences through writing. I tend to stick very close to things that actually happened in my poetry. Other than that, I have the most fun doing tv writing. I love writing in different character’s voices and telling a story mostly through dialogue.
My best advice for someone wanting to write full-time is to write right now. When I worked a full-time job that had nothing to do with writing at all, I started freelancing on the side and I set a goal to have so many writing assignments that my job would just get pushed out. I also started calling myself a writer, no matter what my day job was. I was writing and I was committed to it, so I was a writer. So I say, claim it and then act accordingly.
@Kat–I like how you phrased the question. I think poetry that is more language-based/intellectual has a different value to different readers/writers. Right or wrong, I always ask of poems “What’s in this for me?” Because I love words and language and what poems can do, sometimes that intellectual poetry reaches me in the place that gets excited about what words are able to do. But that’s a different place than poems that really reach into me and connect with my human experience or help me to understand someone else’s. Ideally, in my opinion, great poems will have both a “Holy shizz! look at what they did with words/thoughts/form” quality and a “Wow! this poem makes me understand me/you/us better and I’m happy to be alive to feel the way this poem makes me feel!” thing going for it too.
Thanks again, everyone! I’m excited for someone to win a copy of Pepper Girl!
How much of your poetry is the result of inspiration? How much the result of hard work?
Can you please tell me what you think of rhyme? I have written quite a few good ones but I seem to gravitate toward rhyme and yet I see other’s poems that have no rhyme at all. Is rhyming so antiquated that it is no longer used and should I abandon it?
My first published book was a book of poetry, Reaching For the Beauty and Facts of Life. It was published through iUniverse. How do you know your writings are any good? I have written the poetry book, short story book and my first children’s book. They were all self Published.
Since you pay for a package, sometime you wonder if truth is part of the deal.
Ms. Gadson, short of sampling each of the literary outlets that are open to you for publication of poetry, is there a way to cut to the chase? Is there a way to exclude publications whose tone, style, or focus is too dissimilar from your own, and focus on ones that would be a better fit for you, perhaps some type of descriptive listing that would help you to narrow down the possibilities to those for which you stand a reasonable chance of being selected for publication?
The idea that a poet can simply write the poem and then trust that the next steps will come to her really resonated with me, so thanks for the inspiration.
@Caroline- I used to think that writing was all inspiration-based…and then I didn’t write for 3 years because I wasn’t inspired! lol Now it’s about showing up to the page, which can be hard work. I believe inspiration exists, for sure, but I also believe you have to have done the work so you’re ready for it and know what to do with it when it comes. By work I mean reading and being aware of different ways of expressing an idea. A mentor made the analogy once that inspiration comes like a flood, but the water is often dirty and full of trash (clichés, for example) so you have to have some skill in order to get what’s good out of what comes by inspiration.
@Ella- the thing about rhyme is that rhyming is easy, rhyming well is more challenging. A lot of people aren’t aware that poems don’t have to rhyme, so depending upon how the rhyme is used in the poem, it can signal the work of a less experienced writer. I think rhyme is okay and it’s really exciting to read when it’s done well and when there isn’t awkward phrasing used just to make a rhyme or the rhyme doesn’t overpower the poem. I encourage students not to rhyme in my intro classes because I want to overcome the misconception that all poems have to rhyme. I like to ask, “What would you say here if you weren’t trying to rhyme?” And I’m often amazed by what comes out.
An example of the easy rhymes I mentioned are one syllable words that rhyme at the end of every line (fall, ball, end, bend). Something more unique is to vary the syllables between rhyming words (fall, recall; end, precedent). Unique or unexpected or slant rhyme excites me. I love to suddenly realize toward the end of a poem that it was rhymed and I didn’t realize it.
@Betty- I totally understand where you are coming from. I self-published a book of poems about 8 years ago. Never even tried to see if anyone else would publish it, because I knew nothing about publishing. I was proud of it and I thought highly of my work, high enough to pay to have it published. Once I took poetry workshops and started to read widely, I realized there was so much more that I could have done with words and structure in my poems. I self-published because I wasn’t aware of the options and that goes along with me not being aware of what other poets were writing because I wasn’t reading and seeking out other poets’ works.
So how do you know you’re good? Read other people’s work and see if you get that feeling that you haven’t gone far enough in your own work. You can try submitting individual poems for publication to literary journals. Workshop your work with poets who have a lot of experience giving feedback to other writers. Just a few ideas.
I self-published through a company that didn’t screen the work. If you wanted to publish something, they handled the print-on-demand part, so my experience may be different than yours in that I know for sure the quality of my work had nothing to do with anything. Have you read the work of other people who have published through the same platform as you have? Do you think their work lives up to a particular standard? That might be one way to gauge for yourself what it means for your work to be published via the same means. Congrats on seeing so many books through to publication!
@Neil- I hear you. The first thing that comes to mind is Duotrope. Nowadays, it isn’t free (it might be $5/month), but the search feature might be helpful. You can search journals by genre or theme and they’ve got acceptance rates listed for different journals. You can search by keyword. I’ve used this in the past to narrow things down. I’m glad you asked. Sometimes they have interviews with the editors that can give you insight on what the journal is looking for.
New Pages has a free listing and pretty good descriptions and reviews of lit mags as well.
Also, when you read a collection and feel connected to the work, look at the acknowledgments section that lists where the poet has had work published and send work to those places.
You can also send to the places that your peers/friends get accepted to.
The reason you write resonated with me. Reading words from an author who communicates your feelings is an awsome feeling.