The Hermit Poet

February 23, 2008

Making the Most of Your First Book: Bios

Filed under: First Book Advice — admin @ 9:57 pm

Bio

So what’s the big deal about writing a bio for your book? Shouldn’t it just be the same or similar to what you’ve used over the years as part of your regular submission cover letter? What’s different?

Well, there’s actually some fairly significant differences. When you send out your work to journals, the bio is often one of the last things that is read. The work takes precedence. While it is true that at some journals, an initial reader might check to see if the submitter has been personally recommended to submit to the journal by one of the editors or if this is a submission which seems to come from a well-published poet who might have a better than average chance of turning in something publishable — but for the most part, bios are read after the fact — usually after decisions have already made. When people read a journal, they often only turn to the contributor notes after they’ve read the work — it normally has little to no effect on their decision to read the journal.

The bio at the back of your book on the other hand is doing something completely different. When we pick up a new book of poetry, one of the first things we as readers do is turn it over and read the back. Why? To see what people have said (blurbs) and to figure out who this new writer is (bio). This usually happens before the book is even opened and the first poem is read.

Moreover, when writers give readings at bookstores and elsewhere, often the person hosting the event will rely on the information in the bio to introduce them. Which perhaps is the best way of thinking of what the real purpose of an author bio on a book — it’s there to introduce the writer and suggest a number of ways in which they might be an interesting person for the reader to become familiar with.

A good bio suggests something of who a writer is, where he/she comes from, where he/she is going.

I’ve put together a list, by no means complete — nor even wholly recommended. Just a snapshot of what’s out there in approaches. I’d say pick and choose in such a way that you can build a good enough picture for your reader of who you are to pique their interest, but not feel like you’ve clobbered them over the head or that you’ve completely unmasked yourself. Be professional, but show something of your personality (no one wants to read just a big long list of places where you’ve published– that tells the reader nothing, other than you’ve published a lot)

  1. Who are you?
    • current occupation / job title
    • former career (if pertinent or intriguing)
    • identities and affiliations (ethnicity/nationality/gender/etc)
  2. Where do you come from?
    • geographically — where were you born and raised?
    • educationally — where and what did you study (or not study)?
    • conceptually — how did you find poetry? (some people use this approach)
    • family history — interesting family background which might have relevance
  3. Where are you going?
    • what’s your next project?
    • are you in the middle of graduate studies / travel / project?
    • what else are you doing?  (editing journal? playing in a band? etc)

Depending on your press, you may have more or less space to work with.  Try to examine the most recent books out from your press to see how previous bios have looked and see if there are any aspects of them that you want to keep or need to avoid.   Bios on the back cover need to be shorter.  Bios inside the book can be a little longer (2 paragraphs).

A bio is short effective advertising.  It should be informative, convincing, and engaging.  Aim for brevity while keeping it true to your own voice in tone.  Read a lot of bios and try to figure out why some work and others fail to come off.  In the end, it’s up to you as to how you present yourself — but don’t brush it off.

February 14, 2008

Sneak Peek at the First Poem in My Book

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 1:07 pm

Hope you enjoyed the preview! I’ve decided to take down the poem for now since an online journal has offered to reprint it on their site.

I’ll post the link when it’s up.

You can read the poem on Ecotone‘s Reimagining Place Blog, as part of the Addiction as Ecotone series. Read it here.

Don’t worry, I’ll post another preview from the book soon.

February 13, 2008

Making the Most of Your First Book: More Prelim Work

Filed under: First Book Advice — admin @ 4:46 pm

I received an email from my book designer early this week who provided a more complete list of things needed before we can go to press. Many of these can and probably should be prepared well in advance.

So, in addition to the points made in the previous post – here are some more things that you can do even before the book gets picked up:

  1. Keep an electronic version of your manuscript. A MS Word file is probably best. Most presses use computer-aided printing, so a digital file will cut down on typos and other errors. More importantly, keep track of which version you sent to which press (I number the revisions of my manuscript and keep track of the dates I send things out as well as the version of the manuscript — this helps ensure that the right version of the manuscript gets to the press).
  2. Author bio. Note that this is not necessarily the same as the bio you send out with your regular poetry submissions. I’ll post more about bios, blurbs, and reviews later. For now just know that a good author bio should provide a glimpse into the person behind the book while maintaining a professional tone.
  3. Dedication. Do you want one? If so, who and how personal? I argue for keeping it short and simple. Parent(s). Lover/mate/spouse. Avoid cute.
  4. Acknowledgments. You probably have already assembled a basic acknowledgments page listing where poems in the manuscript first appeared — to this you should add any notes and thank yous for grant support, writing retreats, close readers, mentors, and other supporters. Don’t get too long-winded — it’s impossible to list everyone, so in most cases you will have to be general. For example, while I can’t list the entire MFA class at UC Riverside, I can note the program and my mentors. I definitely recommend listing anyone who served as a close reader of the manuscript. I’ve noticed that some acknowledgment pages list only given names, an approach which I am somewhat in favor of — sometimes name-dropping in acknowledgment pages feels pretty heavy-handed or awkward (edit:  on the other hand, a first book really does need to say Thank You to certain people for its existence — I’m switching back to a reasonably pared down list of full names)
  5. Artist’s Statement for Publicity Packet. To be honest, I’m not really certain what this is yet. I need to ask my press for some examples. I think this might be just a general statement of the scope and interests of the book, as well as something of an ars poetica. If someone has a better idea, please let me know. If you’ve done a press kit before, then your extended bio there is probably a good place to start from.
  6. Contact List of Local Newspapers. Email and physical mailing addresses. Again, this is something worth developing early on. The objective here is to have a list of newspapers which might run a “local poet does good” type story. “Local” doesn’t need to mean just the communities that are geographically near — consider other “neighborhoods” or “communities” that you are a part of. For example, being part Asian, I might also add some publications to my list that are directed more toward the Asian American community. Being Canadian with ties to both Vancouver, British Columbia and Regina, Saskatchewan, I could also add newspapers from both those communities to the list. Being alumni of BYU and UC Riverside, I should also have the alumni and general university publications on the list as well. Sometimes having an unusual previous career can work to your advantage. In my case, as a former computer games programmer, I have contacts with a number of computer industry magazines — those people as well would certainly be good to add to my list.
  7. Contact List of Potential Reviewers. It’s a good idea to build this list early as well. While it’s nice to have a few guaranteed good reviews by asking people who know your work already, these reviews often fail to come off as unbiased (frankly, I see a number of these come in at Boxcar and it’s usually clear who is a close personal friend of the poet doing this as a favor, and who is genuinely interested in the work). Build a list of journals which accept review copies as well as poets and critics who might be interested in reviewing the book. In terms of potential reviewers, try to pick people whose work you respect and find an affinity with — hopefully they will sense a common ground in your work as well. With respect to journals, it’s helpful to send out review copies to a variety of places: east and west coast, big-name and smaller-name, places you’ve published and places you haven’t, etc. You will probably find that the journals where you’ve previously published will be the most interested in running a review of your book — it’s good PR for them as well (again with the “community” angle). We’ll talk a little more about reviews in another post.
  8. Contact List for Readings. Essentially, are there places which might be interested in having you come and read if they had a chance to read your book? Such venues might include universities, bookstores, reading series, book festivals, etc. You probably don’t need to send a review copy to the local coffee house reading, but you might send copies to places you’re interested in stopping at as part of a book tour.
  9. Book announcement postcard mailing list. As you do readings, get feedback from people via email, and otherwise make friends in the poetry world and beyond, be certain to ask if they would be interested in being contacted when your book comes out. Other people you might consider adding to your list: editors of publications you respect, writers you respect, in short anyone who you feel might have an interest in the book, but aren’t already planning to send review copies to. When your book comes out, your press most likely will print out a good number of postcards and send them to you to mail out to your list. You should also keep some as promotional material at readings for those people who might not be able to buy the book right away (people like free things — but books are not free).

Next up: Bios, Blurbs, and Reviews

February 11, 2008

Book Swag — Recently Acquired at AWP & Beyond

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 1:07 pm

For the curious, here’s what I brought back from AWP (and in the past few weeks).
First Books of Poetry

  • Barot, Rick. The Darker Fall. Sarabande 2002. (Winner of the 2001 Kathryn A. Morton Prize)
  • Chandhok, Lynn Aarti. The View from Zero Bridge. Anhinga Press 2007. (This was the 2006 Philip Levine Prize Winner)
  • Chang, Jennifer. The History of Anonymity. University of Georgia Press 2008. (VQR Poetry Series)
  • Chen, Lisa. Mouth. Kaya Press 2007.
  • Courter, Justin. The Death of the Poem and Other Paragraphs. Main Street Rag 2008. (MSR Editor’s Select Poetry Series)
  • Dobbs, Jennifer Kwon. Paper Pavilion. White Pine Press 2007. (Winner of the 2006 White Pine Press Poetry Prize)
  • Kozma, Andrew. City of Regret. Zone 3 Press 2007.

Poetry

  • Herrera, Juan Felipe. 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007. City Lights Books 2007.
  • Rekdal, Paisley. The Invention of the Kaleidoscope. University of Pittsburgh Press 2007 (Pitt Poetry Series). Not bought at AWP, but at UC Riverside’s Writers’ Week.
  • Shelton, Richard. The Last Person to Hear Your Voice. University of Pittsburgh Press 2007 (Pitt Poetry Series). Again, at UC Riverside’s Writers’ Week.

Anthology (Poetry)

  • Ochester, Ed.  (editor).  American Poetry Now: Pitt Poetry Series Anthology. University of Pittsburgh Press 2007. (Picked up at UC Riverside’s Writers’ Week)

Novella

  • Orange, Michelle. The Sicily Papers. Short Flight/Long Drive Books 2006 (Hobart Press sponsored prize). How can you not love & buy a book that is designed to look like a Canadian passport! Hobart is cool.

Non-Fiction

  • Gilbert, Sandra M. Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve. Norton 2006. (Purchased at Gilbert’s lecture at USC last week). Also discusses contemporary elegy and the poetry of grief.

Journals

  • Barn Owl Review (contributor copies — beautiful cover)
  • dislocate
  • ELM / Eureka Literary Magazine (run by a long lost friend of mine that bumped into me just outside the book fair)
  • Gulf Coast
  • Hobart (fiction / creative non-fiction) – one of the best book designers out there
  • Juked
  • Ninth Letter – brilliant and innovative from cover to content
  • Rio Grande Review (bilingual review English/Spanish)
  • Zone 3

February 6, 2008

Making the Most of Your First Book: Setting the Stage

Filed under: First Book Advice — admin @ 2:29 pm

As promised, here is the first installment of a series of posts which will examine what a poet can do to make the most of his/her first book. Most of these posts will revolve around the critical period between a manuscript’s acceptance and the first year anniversary of a book’s publication. This particular post however will also look at some things we can do even while we are still sending it out. For the most part, I am simply chronicling my own process, noting where I’ve missed out opportunities, posing the occasional question to more experienced/published writers, and detailing what has worked and not worked for me.

PHASE 1: Setting the Stage

  1. Author pic. It never hurts to have a good picture of yourself that can be run in a press release. Avoid having to take a digital photo of yourself (or recycling a very old or embarrassing photo) in order to get something to your press in time for the announcement. Having a couple good hi-res digital images of yourself isn’t narcissistic, it’s good planning. Make certain you have something that will grey-scale well (ie. they will probably need to photocopy the release, so your picture should look good in b&w too). A good author pic also helps when you are building a press kit.
  2. Website. Once you have a manuscript and are shopping it around, you should also invest time/money/both and get yourself a nice looking website. There are a lot of places that offer very good economically priced packages — you will likely want both a domain name (eg. www.yourname.com) and web hosting (the online location where your website will be stored). I personally like www.1and1.com — prices are very reasonable and there hasn’t been any problems with downtime or access. Expect $5.99/year for domain name alone (useful if you already have hosting elsewhere) and $60-$100/year for a package with both (you may find cheaper deals if you look or are just lucky). I’ll go into website details in another post — but essentially your website is your virtual business card — it represents you in the world and should look professional and be well-organized.
  3. Be an active part of your local poetry community. Go to open mic readings and read your work. Not only are you building an audience of potential customers when the book comes out, you are also gaining valuable experience in doing public readings. Being comfortable in front of a large (or small) group of strangers is going to be very important to you as a published author in the future. You need to be able to gauge your audience so as to create a reading/listening experience that engages a wide variety of people. If you have opportunities to be a featured poet, work hard to craft 20-30 minute sets (depending on the reading) which provide emotional, topical, and tonal range — no one likes to hear the same note over and over. Ask for feedback from friends in the audience. Some poets even have themselves taped or videoed and study their performances afterward to look for places to improve. The key is to become comfortable with your work and your own voice. Again, I’ll go into more detail in a later post.
  4. Business cards. Give out business cards with your name, email address, and website address. Only give out your phone number to people you trust (obviously). The business card becomes a way to establish yourself as a professional writer and is a physical reminder to the people you contact that you are available for readings and features. I give out poet business cards to other poets, but also to hosts of readings and random people I meet who express genuine interest in the fact that I write poetry and am working on a book. I order my cards from www.overnightprints.com — for a very inexpensive charge, they let you custom design your own card with templates and even give you the option to upload your own graphics. They are very fast as well.
  5. Attend other poets’ readings and features– really this is just a part of 3, but a reminder that things go in two directions. Watching other writers can help you see how a good reading might be or what pitfalls you may want to avoid. More importantly, supporting others can help you find writers who share common interests — this may lead to writing groups, joint readings, invitations to participate in other events, or introductions to publication opportunities. At the very least, listening to other writers will broaden your perspective on what a reading may be and how a poet might interact with his/her community.
  6. Chapbooks. Producing your own or getting one published through a chapbook contest or press — having a chapbook to sell/trade is another way to begin the process of creating an audience for the book. If you are doing your own, try to stick to poems you’ve already published — this avoids taking unpublished poems out of the submission pool through a chapbook publication.

Ok, that’s a start. What other things have people done to begin building an audience for a book, or to make the transition to published author a little easier?

ADDENDUM (Updated 11:21pm Feb 6, 2008)

Additional suggestions and thoughts:

  1. Create a personal Google or Yahoo group. As Oscar notes below, this is a excellent way to alert friends and poetry fans of upcoming events (book launch, readings, and other literary news) in a professional manner. (I’m going to do this over the weekend)
  2. Decide on your cover image early. I really wish I had thought more about this in advance. Knowing which image you want to appear on the book’s cover and obtaining whatever permissions might be necessary to use it can help make your book designer’s life a lot easier. It also takes stress out of your life. In my case I had an image, but didn’t have a good scan of it (too low res). Now I have to dig through my boxes, locate the original photo (taken pre-digital camera), and get a high res scan done (I no longer own a scanner, so I’ll have to go someplace that has a good one).

Road Trip that Becomes Something Else

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 11:59 am

Yesterday I woke, dressed, and was out the door by 10 am to drive to Riverside for the 31st annual Writers’ Week at UC Riverside. It was arguably a spur-of-the-moment type of thing — the electronic flyer arrived in my inbox on the weekend reminding me of the event and as luck would have it, I just happen to have no classes on Tuesday. I’d also been meaning to make a return trip to say hi to old professors and meet up with some friends in the area — so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to do so.

I made the hour long drive out there from LA, slowed down by only one accident and arrived by 11:30 and found parking on campus. Chatting with the parking / info kiosk person, I realized that something had changed — the usual conference location had been changed to a new building. A new building which hadn’t existed when I was on campus in 2006. Strange how quickly the world changes in a year or so.
Evidently over Christmas break, the entire Creative Department had relocated its offices to the 4th floor of this brand new building. It’s a gorgeous building and the layout and features of the building made me envious of the current and future students in the MFA program. In addition to housing all the faculty offices on the same floor, it also features a large graduate student TA cubicle farm (everyone gets there own) and a separated conference section, a large lunch break area with gorgeous view, a computer room, a large work office space for staff and interns, a separate office for the literary journal staff (no more sharing with the TAs), and a gigantic windowed room for receptions and conferences (this is on the 4th floor and is in addition to the downstairs auditorium). I was blown away by how much space has been given to the writing program — it’s an amazing place — I’d do a second MFA there.

Anyway, I had made the trip out to catch the poetry day of the conference. On the bill were Paisley Rekdal, Richard Shelton, and Ed Ochester (the focus was on the Pitt Poetry Series). My old professor Chris Buckley was supposed to conduct and moderate the day’s events. Unfortunately both Ochester and Buckley had to cancel at the last minute to due serious health-related issues. The other faculty covered for Buckley in the first two readings, but had other classes or family things to attend to, and so asked if I would be willing to do the introduction for the poet they had asked to fill in for Ochester. I agreed and also agreed to serve as the moderator for the evening panel at the downtown Riverside library.

Here’s the odd bit of serendipity. The poet invited to fill in was none other than C.G. Hanzlicek, the final judge of the Philip Levine Prize who selected my manuscript as the winner! Very strange. I was delighted to meet him in person and give the introduction, even more delighted to hear him read his own work.

I enjoyed listening to all the poets whose work was both varied and compelling. We ate together for dinner with some of the grad students, then headed over to the library for the panel. I managed to stumble through the moderation duties, grateful that each of the poets proved so articulate and engaging in both their readings of other Pitt poets and their own work, and in their responses and discussion afterward, that in fact I had little to actually do beyond introducing the poets and posing the occasional question when the discussion seem to draw to a close on a previous topic.

After the panel was over and the poets headed across the street to their hotel rooms, I drove a friend back to UC Riverside and had a great conversation about the program at Riverside, about writing in general, and about Kundiman as a writing family. It is a rare and wonderful thing to have a circle of writing friends whose presence (even in email) fills you with such immediate joy. I’m looking forward to this summer and the opportunity to come “home” again to that family. I think whether you find your writing “family” among friends, in an MFA or PhD workshop, through blogging, or through a retreat, that family is vitally important. Knowing you have a “home” to come back to, people who both love and critically nurture you as a writer, and a sense of security that allows you to try new things– all are essential in reminding us that as much as writing can be lonely work, that what we do is part of a larger community of voices, and that some of the greatest joy we feel is knowing that we are not singing alone, even if we do not sing the exact same songs.

February 5, 2008

Post AWP Report

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 12:39 pm

I must say, I am quite taken by New York — although I only glimpsed the smallest fraction of what it must be like to live there, I was more than impressed.  It’s not just the ease and inexpensiveness of the buses, subways, and taxis –it’s the way that the city feels like one built for pedestrians.  In our after hours forays into the city to catch off-site readings, grab food to eat, or just chill in a tucked-away pub with writer friends, we walked for the most part from one destination to another — a welcome change for navigating the sprawl of LA  on overcrowded streets.

With regard to the conference itself, some key points and notes:

  • I stayed in the book fair for almost the entire conference, manning the Boxcar Poetry Review table.  This wasn’t a bad thing actually — I really enjoyed meeting our past contributors, introducing the journal to new people, and discussing business and project ideas with other journals on my floor.
  • Speaking of floors, the book fair spanned three floors which I suspect hurt table and booth traffic substantially.  We were located on the third floor of the Hilton and saw a good deal of traffic, but nothing compared to the first floor.
  • Our table neighbors were Hobart (http://www.hobartpulp.com/) and Juked (http://www.juked.com/).   Both staffed by really cool people.  Hobart is really a slick looking fiction/non-fiction journal, with amazing book design work.  They also decked out their table differently on each day (day 1- My Little Pony, day 2-Star Wars w/Darth Vader masks, day 3-High School Musical posters and table cloth).  They also brought in Jesus party paraphernalia (fans, candies, bouncy balls) purchased at a party store.
  • I did slip away for the Kundiman Panel which featured readings from Tamiko Beyer, David Mura, Jon Pineda, Oliver de la Paz, Purvi Shah, and Sarah Gambito.  It was great to hear them read again and wonderful to reunite with all my other Kundiman friends who were there.  I also met Lee Herrick in person for the first time –who turns out to be just as pleasant and delightful in real life as he is in his blog.
  • My evenings were spent hanging out with Kundi-folk, doing some AWP events and some random gathering events.
  • I caught the Li-Young Lee and Jennifer Kwon-Dobbs reading at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (both were fantastic).  The poems were great, the conversation in the Q&A had a number of high points — Jennifer’s discussion of the Korean adoptee experience  and Li-Young Lee’s comments on contemporary  poets tendency to confuse the “me” and the “I” (for Lee, the “me” is focused on the self alone, the “I” speaks outward with a greater lyrical force and in many ways can only exist in the presence of a “Thou”).
  • Also caught the NYU Asian Pacific Islander Institute’s reading with Joseph Legaspi, Jon Pineda, Jennifer Kwon-Dobbs, Jennifer Chang, Lisa Chen, Rick Barot, and Oliver de la Paz.  Good reading with great food!  Such readings demonstrate to me again the great diversity of voice and approach to be found among Asian American poets.
  • Did a little PR work for USC and passed out some brochures for the program.
  • Ran into most of the usual blogging suspects:  Paul, Charles,  C. Dale, Reb Livingston, etc
  • Met with Anhinga Press and started the conversations about book covers and blurbs. I’ve decided that my blurbs will not come from previous professors, but from poets with whom I do not already have a strong professional connection (it just seems more productive and credible to do it this way).  I already have a great blurb from the judge, C.G. Hanzlicek, so I only need two more.  I’ve asked and have a commitment from one poet I admire and am in the process of contacting another one.  I have a third option who I may ask as a backup.   Not all blurbs need to go on the book either– I can use some for the Amazon book page and/or for my own website.
  • I’ll be starting a series of posts on things to do after the book has been picked up and before it’s out.

Hope everyone else has traveled back in safety.  I’m looking forward to Chicago next year and promise to be even better prepared.

Today I’m heading over to my old school, UC Riverside to catch the Writers’ Week readings — it’s poetry day today and Paisley Rekdal, Richard Shelton, and Ed Ochester are reading. It’ll also be good to catch up with my old professors and the few remaining grad students I know in the program.