Wax On, Wax Off

We were severely late, and the production room was a madhouse. The editorial staff was hugging the walls, having learned—for their own safety—to stay out of the way of the creative team. Like a scene out of a Bruce Lee movie, the production team was racing and lunging in and out between the numerous large five-by-fifteen-foot layout tables. With freshly minted and waxed copy in one hand and razor-sharp paste-up knives in the other, the last bits of this week’s publication were coming together rapidly—with only mild violence. I pulled the last section of copy from the bubbling-hot industrial waxer, and together my assistant and I cut and pasted it into its preordered spot. Grabbing up the remaining layout boards and shoving them into the case, three of us ran down the stairs, spun through the revolving glass door, and emerged into the steamy August night. It was 2:51 a.m., and I had been in New York City all of six hours that summer of 1978.

The three of us piled into the back of an enormous Checker cab, and the lead designer handed the driver a twenty, saying, “Corner of Elizabeth and Mott. Ignore the traffic laws; we have three minutes.” Actually, we had about nine minutes to make our press appointment at 3:00 a.m. in the middle of Chinatown. The cab ride lasted a scant three minutes, thankfully.

Getting out of the cab, I was unprepared for how quiet Manhattan was at that time in the morning, and the only sound I heard was the sound of the rubber soles of my adidas Original Tobaccos squeaking on the wet cobblestones, courtesy of the recent late-summer rain shower. Still in shock from our Saturn V–rocket cab ride, I was certain that we were no longer in New York City.

It was dark. The lack of streetlights made the streets of Chinatown feel like they would swallow us up. Only in the shadows of the Chinese writing could you tell that this was some kind of business district. In my mind this was no longer New York City but mainland China. We walked toward a row of narrow shops. I looked up and down the street, an alley really, for some indication of the large thirty-unit web-fed offset press, which was our destination. Impressive contraptions these presses, and of a size that would dwarf half a dozen full-grown T. rexes. An herb shop, a beauty salon, and a greengrocer were all just too tiny to be our print shop. We walked quickly toward a wall with a telephone number on it, and I was instructed to “knock, loudly!” Banging loudly on the crinkly yellow letters that read “212,” we didn’t have to wait long.

That’s when I heard that ominous sound. The sound of half a dozen washing machines that are all off-balance and set to some disheartening, maniacal, evil spin cycle. Out of nowhere, in between the herb shop and the grocery store, a heavy, insulated door popped open. A fistful of noise assaulted our ears, and the familiar but acrid smell of ink, solvent, and oil slashed at our noses while we climbed the wrought-iron staircase to the third floor. The entire building shook and vibrated violently. Protective orange earmuffs were placed over our ears as a man screamed at us, “You late!” I looked at my watch—it was 2:59 a.m.

Thankfully the days of blistering-hot waxers, razor-sharp paste-up knives, adrenaline-pumping cab rides, and 3:00 a.m. press appointments are over. However, tight production deadlines are still alive and well and remain a vital part of the business of publishing. I think I reminisce because clicking Send lacks a certain sense of adventure. Well, off to see Batman vs. Superman.

Graduate Insight: An Interview with Kait Heacock

As a 2012 Ooligan graduate, Kait Heacock has made a graceful transition from the Portland publishing scene to Overlook Press in NYC. She is a fiction writer and works as a book publicist. She has been published in the Portland Review, Tin House’s Open Bar blog, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn’s Sunday Stories section, among other publications. With all she has going on, we consider ourselves lucky to catch her for a few questions!

How did you select Portland State University for graduate study? Can you describe the work you did with Ooligan Press?

After finishing undergrad, I took some time off to gain work experience and sort through what I wanted to do next. I knew that writing would always be the biggest factor in my life, but I needed to find a “day job.” I knew I didn’t want to teach, but I was interested in the idea of working as an editor so I could stay close to books. I chose PSU’s program because of its length and full immersion in the publishing process. I looked at summer certificate programs that would have been quicker, but what I really wanted was the opportunity to learn the industry in as in-depth a way as possible.

My work at Ooligan focused on editing. I was the acquisitions editor for Sean Davis’s The Wax Bullet War and transitioned into the project manager the first two quarters of the book’s life at Ooligan. That was my first time working closely with an author, and I couldn’t have asked for a better person to work with than Sean. I felt truly honored to help bring his story to the public.

Did you have any internships or job experiences in Portland’s publishing community?

I was an editorial intern at Tin House Books—great experience, amazing staff, and some wonderful authors, including the one and only Kevin Sampsell, who served as something of a mentor to me during my time in Portland (and still does). The summer following my graduation, I worked as a publicity, marketing, and sales consultant for Roosevelt High School’s Writing and Publishing Center. I helped launch their first book, Where the Roses Smell the Best. This was my first time working in publicity, and it led me to where I am now.

You’re working for Overlook Press, an independent, general-interest publisher that puts out about one hundred new books each year in a wide range of genres. What is your role at Overlook Press? How did you pick that opportunity?

I am a publicity associate, which means that it’s my job to talk about books. Pretty great, right? I manage around ten titles per season, sending galleys and press releases to the media, planning book tours, attending industry conferences, and managing social media. I originally worked at a non-profit when I moved to NYC because I have a background in that field and knew it would be easier to find a job in that sector than in the ultra-competitive world of publishing. From there I transitioned into another publicity consulting job, this time for the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and their first published book, Greenwich Village Stories. After my contract ended with them, I knew I wanted to pursue book publicity full time, which led me to Overlook.

There are plenty of differences between the smaller, student-run Ooligan Press and Overlook. Have you found any similarities?

Overlook is a small press. We have about fifteen employees. Working in a small office environment made the most sense to me since my background is with independent presses. The small staff affords a lot of room for collaboration, which was an important experience I had at Ooligan. We also publish a little bit of everything, from literary fiction to memoirs and biographies, thrillers to children’s books, and young adult novels to cookbooks. The variety reminds me a lot of Ooligan, where I worked on a debut novel, a poetry collection, and a memoir, among other [projects].

Can you tell us a bit about your experience moving from the publishing climate of the West Coast to that of the East Coast?

Working in the East Coast publishing industry, I immediately feel the decades-long legacy of traditional publishing. Though Overlook is an independent press, our publisher managed Penguin UK for twenty-five years, so we’re very much a part of the legacy. Everything feels bigger here. My first book launch was at Strand Books and featured a reading with John Leguizamo. I sat right behind his wife and kids. After the reading, I walked through the busy streets near Union Square and had one of those surreal moments where it felt like my life was a movie—like, how did I end up here? That being said, I admire and miss the spirit of West Coast publishing. Places like McSweeney’s, Seal Press, and Tin House (which also has an office in Brooklyn) make me excited about where literature is moving. I miss the Best Coast and its do-it-yourself, zine-making pioneer attitude.

You are currently working on a debut collection of short stories. How does your own writing influence the ways you see yourself fitting into the publishing world? What will you be doing in five years?

Working in publishing is an extension of my writing. I think, talk, and write about writing most of the time, so working in publishing means surrounding myself with people who share the same passion as me. Perhaps most importantly, since I consider myself a feminist writer, I want that to shape my professional choices as I continue in my career. There are great disparities in the publishing industry between the genders, namely that women make about $25,000 less than men, even though we account for 74 percent of the workforce. As I fight as a female writer to have my voice heard, I hope as a publicist to do the same for other female writers.

In five years, I will be writing. I can’t say anything else for sure. Writing is and always will be the constant in my life. I’ll wait to see what else happens as it comes.

Thank you for discussing the disparity of female representation in the industry. Do your feminist ethics influence what you read? What are you reading right now?

Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. I’ve been participating in the #ReadWomen2014 campaign, which has been a wonderful experience. It’s a very simple concept that asks readers to consider the ratio of books they read by male and female authors and to spend a year reading books by women. Participating in it helped me realize how important it is to diversify my reading habits. There are so many books out there. How strange that so many of us only read those written by white American/British males.

Is there one Overlook title that you feel especially excited about?

I have had the great pleasure of working with Deirdre Franklin, animal rights activist and founder of Pinups for Pitbulls, Inc., a non-profit that promotes education and awareness of pit bulls through pinup-style calendars. Overlook recently published a book collecting ten years worth of photos and stories about the organization, Little Darling’s Pinups for Pitbulls. She is an amazing woman with a heart for animals, and I’m happy to say that, out of our time working together, we’ve become good friends. She is the best author a publicist could hope to work with.

Any advice for other Oolies as we graduate and head into the industry?

Don’t be afraid to pursue your dreams, but don’t expect for a second that just because you took the risk and pursued them everything will fall into place. I dreamed of moving to NYC to work in publishing for years, and I will never regret that I went out on a limb to follow this dream. But this has also be the hardest year and a half of my life. Sometimes you have to take the first three steps before the universe shows up to meet you. Nothing worthwhile comes easily.

You can follow Kait and her writing on a variety of platforms, including her personal blog, her Twitter account, and even on Bustle.

Interview with Mary Breaden, Ooligan Alum

I introduce to you, Mary Breaden, an Ooligan Press alum who graduated from our program in 2013. During this time, she founded a website called PDXX Collective, which is dedicated to showcasing women writers. She also helped publish Wax Bullet War, which is our most recently launched title. Since graduating, she held various jobs around New York, and ultimately got a gig with Mediabistro. She was kind enough to answer some of my questions about her life during and after Ooligan Press.

What have you been up to since your Ooligan days?

After I graduated, I moved to NYC! After I arrived, I temped for a few weeks (fodder for future short stories!) while I interviewed and I eventually landed a job with Mediabistro, a website that many Ooligan students may or may not be forced to look at, for job postings if nothing else!

Was it tough getting a job after school?

Getting a job in New York was a piece of cake for me; getting a fulfilling job has been a different story. I did a lot of lateral moves in my twenties, which is an asset in some ways and detrimental in others. I don’t think I would have gotten a job as quickly in Portland, though. Portland has a much smaller job market.

Are you enjoying New York?

I heart New York and New York is indifferent to me; the city and I have formed a symbiotic relationship, mainly one that benefits me. I love spying on people; the city sets my imagination on fire. I’m fascinated by the city’s history and by the speed with which it alters itself (this isn’t always a great thing for those who have lived here a long time). If you are a writer or artist, you really should experience living in New York (in my humble opinion).

What can you tell me about PDXX Collective?

PDXX Collective was a WordPress site I started at Ooligan as an independent study. I was interested in looking at how collective publishing could help emerging women writers launch their author platforms. The goal is to offer a feminist perspective that’s thoughtful, articulate, and generous. Managing the site and working with these women is very important to me. I’ve never been in any community as loyal and supportive. Also, doing my feminist profiles has given me the chance to speak to some pretty rad feminists. We’re always looking for contributors, by the way!

What can you tell me about working for Mediabistro?

Mediabistro is a website for media professionals that offers classes, events, a job board, and network-y stuff. It’s interesting to be in the education department because we offer so many online classes in very trendy topics that usually are the inspiration for other websites’ online courses. Since we have a small department (only four of us!), I feel like I have more of a stake in helping the department do well. I get to write copy, research courses, recruit instructors (who are usually in publishing), schedule social media posts, and advise students. I’m also taking a novel writing course through my job and that’s really fun.

What was your favorite thing about Ooligan? Do you have a favorite memory?

I loved my time at Ooligan! Working with Kait Heacock on Sean’s book was a really important part of what I did there. Also, being at the Willamette Writers conference and getting pitches from authors, and eventually nabbing Karelia’s wonderful book for the press, was extremely rewarding to me. I’m so happy that Ooligan is publishing her book.

Any future plans?

After a pretty stressful transition period since my graduation, I’m trying to put down some roots out here.

Poetry’s Alive in Portland

This past Sunday, November 10th, local poets John Beer and Zachary Schomburg came together for a reading and conversation at the Literary Arts event space here in downtown Portland. They brought Joshua Beckman along for the ride, another accomplished poet who splits his time between Seattle and New York.

The event was well-attended with the seats filled to capacity and many more content to stand and listen in what is an intimate, but not crowded, space. Encouragingly, much of the crowd was a younger set drawn in by good poetry (as well as the free food and drinks that were offered). Many of the events at the space are free and open to public, offering constant opportunities for anyone to walk in off the street and experience something special and inviting right in the middle of the city.

Zachary Schomburg, the first to read, is the author of three volumes of poetry: The Man Suit (2007), Scary No Scary (2009), and Fjords Vol. 1 (2012), which won the 2013 Oregon Book Award for poetry. He publishes through Black Ocean Press, distributed through Small Press Distribution, and coedits Octopus Books here in Portland. His work is often called surrealist or absurdist, but it contains a good deal of self-effacement and humor. The up-and-coming work from which he read didn’t disappoint in this regard. His reading style is laid back and easy, which fit the relaxed atmosphere of the space and set the conversational tone for the rest of the reading. He takes his poetry seriously, though. Schomburg, by his own admission, is well aware of the surrealist traditions he comes from, and he is responding to them and forging new ground for poets like him.

Humor and a comfortable place within tradition are the things that seemed to relate these poets to one another artistically. John Beer, a faculty member in the MFA program at Portland State, gave a reading of his own that elicited plenty of laughter from the crowd. Beer has published The Wasteland and Other Poems (Canarium, 2010) and is now an author for Wave Books. He also has a background in theatre criticism and nonfiction writing. His new work is centered on subject matter that sounds highbrow at first glance: a Duchamp art exhibition or translation of an eighteenth-century German philosopher. The poems themselves, however, are humorous. The poetry about translation is really a long joke about his inadequacy as a translator and all of the tangents and funny conversations he has with other people, and himself, about the failure of his work. His poetry centered on Duchamp, while lyrical and well-rendered, uses repetition of phrases and imagery to assert the absurdity of both the art and his response to it. In listening to Beer and watching his constant smile as he read, I got the sense he takes his poetic craft seriously but definitely doesn’t take himself too seriously.

The same goes for Joshua Beckman, also a writer with Wave Books. He is the author of nine books of poetry and several translations. Beckman chose mostly to read from his newest collection of poetry, entitled The Inside of an Apple, which was published just this past September. His quiet voice drew the room into his spare poetry that was markedly different in rhythm from Beer’s and Schomburg’s. The new book catalogs his mental and emotional responses to everyday events around him in an immediate and visceral way. Beckman’s poetry rolls out in long, convoluted sentences with sound echoes so dense it can be hard to keep track of them all. This made it an interesting listening experience and seemed to keep the audience engaged—even after an hour of reading and a couple breaks for food and drinks.

The evening closed with Beckman and Beer alternating readings of poetry by a poet whom they both like and admire, Robert Lax. John Beer, while living on the island of Patmos in the Greek Isles, actually served as literary assistant to Lax. While Lax’s poetry, repetitive and experimental, didn’t really fit into the style of the rest of the evening, it was good to close the night with Beer and Beckman sharing their love for this particular poet with the audience.

The event accomplished what it set out to do: creating a feeling of having a few beers and good food while listening to friends read the fruits of their passionate labor. As a bonus, it showcased not just some of the Northwest’s best poetry but also the kind of great poetry that’s coming from the small presses here in Portland and elsewhere. With poets like these around, and places like the Literary Arts events space for them to reach the community, literature and poetry will continue to grow and thrive in the city Ooligan Press calls home.

Kickstarter Pedal Powered: Marketing by Bike

After journeying around the world with her two young sons, Rebekah Tyler plunged into the world of self-publishing with a successful Kickstarter campaign for her memoir, Full Tilt. She popularized herself while traveling around northern New Zealand by bike, with a cart advertising her book trailing behind her. For those who are unfamiliar with New Zealand’s landscape, it is not flat, and dragging a trailer around must have taken immense energy and enthusiasm. I saw her adorable bicycle setup locked up outside Wordstock, and even had a chance to meet with her at her booth.
What made you decide on a Kickstarter and self-publishing? Did you consider traditional publishing?
I decided to write my book after returning to New Zealand following my eight-month adventure around the world. I was feeling depressed that I had come back to the same routine I wanted to escape from.
After sending my manuscript to about one hundred agents in New York and London, and receiving one hundred rejection letters, I knew I had to take things into my own hands. Living on the small island of New Zealand, I felt miles away from the action. Kickstarter gave me the opportunity for global exposure. During my Kickstarter campaign in New Zealand, I towed a promotional cart behind my bike and hit the streets of Auckland and Wellington. I achieved my $10,000 goal in the first two weeks, and raised $13,400 by the end of my thirty-three day campaign.
How was your self-publishing experience?
My self-publishing experience has been an emotional roller coaster! I wanted my book to be as professional as possible, so I hired a professional editor, typesetter, and cover designer, but I still felt that I was not being made aware of the choices that were available to me until it was too late. Changes were being made, but at my cost. I feel there is a need for self-publishing companies to clearly explain the in’s and out’s of the printing and publishing process.
Because my book is about traveling the world with a two year-old and a ten year-old as a single mom, I would like to get on the The Ellen Show for her Mothers’ Day episode. Perhaps I could give all of the pregnant moms a copy of my book, and have a golden ticket inside one with a free airplane ticket to New Zealand. I did try sending Ellen a gift box full of wonderful New Zealand souvenirs (including two pairs of possum fur nipple warmers) one for Ellen, and one for Portia, but then discovered they were both huge animal rights activists. Oops!
Why did you decide to market in the US and Portland in particular?
I had huge support from strangers on the West Coast. One supporter was a fellow author named Shasta Kearns. She suggested I attend Wordstock. I picked up the phone and was lucky enough to speak to the director, Katie Merritt. She said, “If you can get on a plane, we will have you!”
I found that trying to promote my book and sell it on the streets of Portland was tough, much tougher than back home. So I thought my days marketing my book on the cycle might be coming to an end. Everyone was busy and did not want to be disturbed. The manager of Powell’s was going to move on from me, but instead let me stay in the entrance way giving away free copies of my book. A girl’s gotta try!
After a not so great day trying to sell books at Wordstock, I decided to go to a local Piazza Italia restaurant in the Pearl to eat pasta and get a little drunk on red wine. I had shipped 600 books from Minnesota, but only sold about 50 during my time in Portland. I was now having to ship 550 back. I was feeling pretty despondent. Shortly after arriving at the restaurant, a group of five women walked in and I said to my partner, “Hey those are the type of ladies who would love my book!” Twenty minutes later I managed to get the manager of the restaurant to drive me back to my hotel, pick up a box of books, and drive me back to the restaurant where I spent the next hour handing out copies of Full Tilt for free to all the customers. I might not have made any money, but I sure had fun.

Lilija Valis Guest Poet Post

Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature Lilija Valis, a poet from Vancouver, B.C. Please enjoy her post!


We are strangers among strangers.
Even within our blood families, where we establish strong bonds, we have our secret thoughts, desires and deeds. We may use the same words, but we don’t speak the same language. We often consult some type of translator, today called therapist, to unravel our tangles. The first job of this translator is to explore what is embedded in the words we use to hide what we want.
“Love” means different things to the teenage girl and to her grandmother, as does “freedom” to the son and to his father.
Since ancient times, we have sought to discover what lies beyond what we see and hear. Long before we created a formal language with signs and rules, we had poetry as our spirit language.
It uses words to reach what we have no words for in order to reveal the hidden, the primary connections, bridging time and space.
Poetry releases love and expands family. My family now includes the Celtic people who since ancient times blessed everyday life; the numerous Chinese poets who for thousands of years have been sharing what they saw and felt, and the wisdom that grew out of their experience (Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching); the Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz for pouring “light into a cup” for us to drink; New England’s nineteenth century Emily Dickinson for detailing her soul; early twentieth century Anna Akhmatova for baring the gritty Russian soul (“It’s not Promised land….. Yes, for us it’s the grit between our teeth.”); to name just a few of my large family.
We know poetry is powerful because poets have been and continue to be imprisoned and executed for their life-changing words. They have been tortured, sent to slave labor camps to die, like Osip Mandelstam, whose words we still read today, when we can’t remember the names of his jailers.
As poets we take our bloody, pulsating hearts and pass them into the hands of others, putting our trust in this world of broken promises and betrayals, but also of love and beauty.

Poetry Party

Local poets partying with words at the Poets Potluck, hosted by Lilija

In spite of everything, or maybe because of it, poets are well known to be party people. We like to connect and celebrate. Even when we go off into the mountains to get away from our agitating societies, we still do things to connect and celebrate the life around us. Han Shan, or Cold Mountain if you prefer, couldn’t help chiseling his poems onto stones and trees in his chosen isolated mountain home for us to read, a thousand years later. We have named after him a local movement to save forest trees.
Currently in Vancouver, British Columbia, you can attend some poetry event almost every day – at times, five events the same day. We have numerous local groups, such as Poetic Justice, Twisted Poets Literary Salon, and Hogan’s Alley Open Readings. International organizations, like World Poetry, Poetry Around the World, and Writers International Network bring together poets from all cultures, India, Afghanistan and Latin America among them. We have Dead Poets societies to keep up our connections with deceased family members like Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda and Robert Frost. We have links to painters and musicians and get together to celebrate each other’s art.

Writers International Network Group Photo

Writers International Network Group Photo

Anything that shifts our perceptions, enlarges our view, and increases our understanding and appreciation builds community. Poetry does these things. Candice James, the Poet Laureate of New Westminster, reminds me, “I am the architect of my own fall.” Margo Prentice’s view of death as returning to the Mother Nature she loves reconciles us to the inevitable. Gavin Hainsworth made me laugh as I recognized a truth about human nature in the title of his poem, “The Condemned Man Ate A Hearty Meal.”
In addition to local activity, we now have new technologies to enable us to connect easily with poets, as well as other sympathetic souls, all over the world, enlarging our sense of community and shrinking our alienation.
Yes, poetry creates links. It invites us into each other’s inner lives, to form a community unbroken by time and distance.
Han Yu (768-824):
Don’t forget,
if it rains
stop in for a visit.
Together we’ll listen
to the raindrops splash
on all the green leaves.
And Li Po (701-762):
Then let us pledge a friendship without human ties
And meet again at the far end of the Milky Way.

Poetic Justice reading at the Heritage Grill in New Westminster

Lilija is in the center of this poetic group at the Poetic Justice reading at the Heritage Grill in New Westminster.

Lilija Valis, born in Lithuania, has lived on three continents during times of war and peace, riots and festivals. While pursuing education and working in cities across America—from Boston and New York to San Francisco—she participated in programs that help to liberate people from poverty and personal misery. Her poetry has been included in four anthologies and her book Freedom On the Fault Line was published in 2012.
Lilija’s poem, “Everyday Things,” is featured the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Vancouver edition. Both books are currently available from your favorite local bookshop or online retailer.

Willa Schneberg Guest Poet Post: “From the Enchanted Tower to Publishing’s Rutted Road”

Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our forthcoming anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature Willa Schneberg, a poet from Portland, OR. Please enjoy her post!

From the Enchanted Tower to Publishing’s Rutted Road

Almost a year ago to the day, I completed a poetry manuscript that took me about eight years to finish. It is entitled, “A Good Time To Die.”
I love being immersed in a manuscript. I listen for the voice that tells me an idea, a fragment, a title, a phrase, will become the seed of a poem or the arc of a collection. I know the anxiety when it seems clear that no matter how many revisions, a poem will never lift off and must be abandoned, and also the joy when poems are heightened by the perfect placement in the work.
Last January, on vacation in Kauai, still tinkering with the ordering of poems, I stopped to watch a macaw land on the Buddha head in the garden of plumeria and hala trees outside my renovated Quonset hut window. It was at that moment I felt done. I was exhilarated and sad, cognizant I was no longer living inside the enchanted tower of creative process, but catapulted into the cutthroat world of po-biz. [*]
My first poetry collection was Box Poems, and Alice James Books, a publisher exclusively devoted to poetry for over forty years, accepted it. They may have been the only press I sent it to. Naively, I then thought, “I can just write the poems and publishing will follow.” My second collection, In the Margins of the World—which would later be honored with the Oregon Book Award—sat in the publisher’s drawer at Plain View Press for over a year when I received a handwritten note asking me: Is it still available?
Margins of the World Cover
I knew my next full-length collection, Storytelling in Cambodia (2006), would be a tough sell because “the killing fields” have a palpable presence in that manuscript. Finally, after approximately forty rejections, I placed it in the hands of the now retired Director of Calyx. At this feminist, Oregon-based press, it found a home.
Book Cover
When I felt all the poems I must write for “A Good Time to Die were in the computer, and I needed to close the spigot, I asked two fine poets— both members of my peer critique group—to look at the manuscript. I wanted to know if the structure held the sweep of the narrative arc. They found poems that were outside the scope of the essential narrative and wanted them culled. I cut, but the manuscript was still 130 pages.
“A Good Time To Die” is a series of linked poems designed to capture the life and times of one family. It is structured in three sections: “Esther, Ben and Willa,” “Esther and Willa,” and “Willa;” these sections include prose poems, flash fiction, imagined meetings with historical figures, ancestral appearances, and ephemera.
The early rejections starting coming in; first as a trickle, then a deluge. I’ve become a miner looking for golden comments within the lines of:

“Thanks for your interest…”

“I realize this is disappointing news…”

“The selection process isn’t easy…”

I will always cherish this nugget buried within my Graywolf rejection: “We certainly found a great deal to admire…” There was the print-on-demand press that wanted to publish the manuscript, but I just couldn’t do it.
After about six months of stepping into every conceivable publishing pothole, a Professor at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland (who is working on a book about the death of metaphor) heard me read, and offered to peruse my manuscript. His critique was invaluable. The manuscript needed to be lean and tight, the poems fully realized and more risky. I went deeper, restructured the order, and cut the manuscript close to the bone. The poems that remained were as polished as I was capable of making them.
He emailed: Transformed!  It is tight and powerful and hangs together with more power for me now. He sent it to the Poetry Editor at a major New York house, who is his friend. Nothing yet. I’m not holding my breath.
In spite of scraped knees, it is the positive rejections that keep me on this pilgrimage, including one from Ooligan, who sent me “flowers” with these words:

Our editors liked… your use of literal but evocative imagery. Your style is diverse and dynamic and we liked the mixture of mediums and the “found” nature of some of the poems. We very much enjoyed reading the collection. However, while reading the poems we really FELT New York. (Ooligan’s emphasis).

But, Ooligan is a regional press, and there weren’t enough poems anchored in Oregon, so no cigar.

I will keep walking this mean street. I carry in my pocket the latest form letter rejection that holds a handwritten scrawl: Sorry, it is a very strong and moving collection.


Willa Schneberg’s manuscript previously entitled “A Good Time to Die,” now entitled “Rending the Garment” has finally found a home. It will be published by Mudfish/Box Turtle Press, NYC, 2014.

Willa is the author of three poetry collections: Box Poems; In The Margins of the World (winner of the Oregon Book Award for Poetry); and Storytelling in Cambodia. Among the publications and anthologies in which her poems have appeared are: American Poetry Review; The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (St. Martin’s Press); and I Go the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights (Lost Horse Press). In fall of 2012, her interdisciplinary exhibit entitled “The Books of Esther” was on view at the Oregon Jewish Museum.
Willa’s poem “The Bells of St. Bavo Sing Scat” are featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Portland edition. Both books are currently available from your favorite bookstore or online retailer.

[*] the poetry business