Photo by K. Henri
After graduating UConn in 2011, former Long River Review editor Timothy Stobierski went on to publish his first book of poetry, Chronicles of a Bee Whisperer (River Otter Press, 2012). Several poems in Chronicles of a Bee Whisperer have since been nominated for a Pushcart prize. On March 27th he came back to UConn to do a reading of his poetry in support of Long River Review’s 2013 issue. The following interview was conducted after the reading by Long River Review’s Catherine Findorak.
LRR: You mentioned during the reading that you started writing at a young age. What exactly started that for you? When did you start getting serious about your writing?
TS: Well, I first started writing in second grade, because every day in second grade we had an assignment where we had to write a journal entry. At the end of writing, everyone would have to read theirs out loud. At one point I remember writing one that was a bit long, so my teacher wouldn’t let me read it out loud–which I was happy about because I hated reading stuff out loud. I realized that if I just kept writing longer and longer pieces, I would never have to read them out loud. Even if I volunteered, just to throw my teacher off balance, I wouldn’t be able to, so that was awesome. Around sixth grade is when I sort of started writing the first poems that I can remember actually writing, saved on my computer that I can look at, which are horrible. And then, you know, it just sort of grew from there.
LRR: Do you still hate reading them out loud?
TS: Yes and no. As long as I don’t make eye contact while I’m reading them out loud, it’s fine. With you guys, you’re all wonderful lovers of literature, so I hope that it was bearable.
LRR: Of course. It was awesome.
TS: To family, I can absolutely not read them out loud. Or to people that I know. If you want to read it, you can read it. I am not reading it to you.
LRR: I’m the same way. So, you were an editor at the Long River Review, and your first poems were published in the Long River Review as well. How did your experience at UConn shape you as a poet?
TS: Good question. Well, actually, I would say at least more than half of the poems in this book [Chronicles of a Bee Whisperer] were written while I was a student at UConn. They were things that were inspired by either the classes I was taking with Darcie Dennigan, or Sharon Bryan, Penelope Pelizzon, or they were inspired by things that happened, as often is the case with poetry or with any kind of writing. Life creeps in. In terms of the publishing side of things, I really credit Gina Barrecca with that, because as a part of her creative non-fiction workshop course she forced us to send work out or we failed the class. That sort of got me in the mode for sending stuff out. And the Long River Review showed me what the publishing and editing process was like. It’s sort of like a cheat sheet, because you know what the editors are going to want, just in terms of what makes their life easier. And, of course, the Long River Review will always be my favorite lit journal, because it was the first journal that published one of my poems.
LRR: Who are your favorite poets—your influences?
TS: For a long time when I was first starting out at UConn I was really into Emily Dickinson, because I had a class where we had to read a lot of Emily Dickinson. I tried writing like her, which is impossible. I don’t think she really impacted my style now—or, not obviously, it might be in there somewhere—but for a few years that was sort of what I wrote. And, again, it was probably god-awful. Other poets that impacted my style…Darcie Dennigan—I had a workshop course with her, so that’s one way she impacted it. Another way she impacted it was in her book Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse there were a couple of poems that I really enjoyed, that I tried to copy in some of my poems. My poem “A Family Saga” is sort of written as a parallel to one of her poems, “Seven Generations of Stephen Bruneros.” Billy Collins I love, because he’s just a fun poet to read. And Emerson—like I was saying during the reading, I hated him for a long time, and I don’t really know why I did. Now I won’t say I love him, but I appreciate his style and the themes in his poetry.
LRR: You mentioned during the reading that in one of your poems you tried to sort of mimic, or respond in a way to an Emerson poem because of a class assignment. Did the act of doing that help you to appreciate his poetry more?
TS: I think in the long run, yeah. That’s probably why Darcie had us do that—it was to realize first how difficult it is to write in a certain style or a certain voice, and to put yourself in their shoes to see how you’re constrained by what you can say because of how you say it. If you realize the different kind of voices you can use, you can sort of use them to your benefit.
LRR: Can you talk a little bit about your process for editing? You mentioned a lot of poems in this book you wrote while you were at UConn, and I guess last year you were sending this out to be published. How long does it take you from when you first start writing a poem, to when you’re sending it out, for you to have a poem that’s finished?
TS: Sometimes one write through is all I need, and I feel like it’s ready to be published. I’m probably wrong, but sometimes I get it down in one go, and I decide to send it out while it’s still there before I decide to go back and delete everything. Other times there are poems that I write and I’ll put them aside for a few months. I’ll look back at them, I’ll make a few tweaks and I’ll put them aside for a year, and then I’ll go back and I’ll be like, ‘what the hell is this crap?’ Actually one of the poems in my book “Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes” is one of those poems. I wrote it, and I absolutely hated it the first time I looked back after writing it. Like, what the hell did I do, what did I massacre to get this horrible poem? And then when I went back to it with fresh eyes about a year later, I realized that it wasn’t complete crap. It needed some tweaking around. But I sent it to a friend who I trusted with their eye—I trusted their editing ability—and they said they enjoyed it. So I figured it couldn’t be terrible.
LRR: This is kind of a hard question. What makes a poem successful? What sort of things do you look for—either while you’re reading poetry, or in your own poetry?
TS: That’s not that difficult of a question, because I figured at some point someone was going to ask me either what the book was about, or what the process was like. I kind of went over this in my head and came to a pretty sound conclusion–in my mind, anyway. When I write a poem, regardless of whether there’s a storyline that goes to the poem, whether there’s a certain plot, whether there’s a certain play with language–which in some of my poetry, you’ll find– what I try to do is to make the reader feel something. And if the reader reads or listens to a poem and comes away not feeling the emotion that I set out to make them feel, then I sort of failed in that aspect. Sometimes a poem can take a reader in different directions, and that’s not necessarily a failure. But overall, a good poet, in my mind anyway, is someone who is able to make the reader feel something. Hopefully feel something other than hate for the poet.
LRR: That’s a good answer. Can you describe the experience of having your first book published? What’s some advice you’d give to young writers who would like to one day have a book published?
TS: The first thing is the process—with a book of poetry it depends on the press that you’re submitting to. Some presses will only want the first, say, 10 poems of your manuscript, or they’ll want the whole thing. And if it’s the first 10 poems, just pick the 10 strongest, that’s what you want to use. The press that published my book wanted the full manuscript—that was about 80 pages. So I sent it out to the editor, who I didn’t know beforehand, so it was kind of a blind call. I heard back about a month later with an email saying that the editor was interested in pursuing it. The next step in the process was drafting up a contract, which the publisher takes care of and sends to you. If you have any kind of clout or if there are certain things you are adamant about—like if you want a certain percentage of royalties, or if you want to retain reprint permissions, that’s where you’d sort of iron out those details. I was so happy to have a book of poetry published in my name that I didn’t really care at all about any of that, and I just signed the contract and sent it back. And I’m personally fine with it the way it is. With River Otter Press, which published my book, all of the profits from my book and a few other books they’ve published in the last couple of months go back into letting the press publish more books, which is something I’m more than happy to help with.
Then you go into a few rounds of editing. First it’d be structural editing. If there’s anything the editor or editors—I actually worked with three editors for this—if they think that a poem needs work, on the structure, or on the language, if they don’t think that it’s quite right, that’s what you’ll focus on first. Then after the big edits are taken care of, you’re going to go through and read it, probably four or five or six or twelve times, for copyediting. You’re looking for the misplaced comma, or the extra space between words. It’s really tedious, and it’s really difficult to do, especially when it’s your work, and when it’s something you’ve had to read about twenty times. It sort of just starts to go over your head. You’re not even paying attention by the end of it. For that process, it’s so awesome to have a number of different eyes looking at it. For me I had the editor-in-chief of the press, the poetry editor, and myself plus a few friends I had read through it once to hopefully catch any glaring mistakes. After that the publisher then has control over the rest of the processes. Picking a cover image, if there will be a cover image, is something that hopefully you’ll have some say in. I did. I’m actually the one that suggested this picture. But a lot of times, especially at bigger presses, you won’t. They’re going to try to pick a picture that will make the reader want to buy your book. It might not be something that you originally envisioned as being the cover of your book, but they do have your interests at heart. They want your book to sell. And they come at it from a marketing perspective, while you come at it from a literary perspective.
After the cover issue, the press puts it into production in terms of layout. You get a wonderful copyrights page, and all kinds of stuff. You might have a cheesy author photo taken. Then you’re just dealing with layout and making sure the paragraphs line up and that all indenting is correct. Especially with poetry, where lines are jagged and whatnot, you want to just make sure things are the way they should be. Then just before it’s sent to print, you will go through it probably twenty times in one day because you are freaking out about whether or not you missed anything, and then it goes to print. And depending on the publisher, depending on how large the order is, and the printer, it could be anywhere from a month, to three months, or a year—well, hopefully not a year, that’s a long time– before you have the book done and for sale and on Amazon and hopefully bookstores. Lots of bookstores won’t carry something by a small literary press.
LRR: I feel like that’s true for a lot of poetry.
TS: Well, poetry in general, yeah. Poetry is not seen as a moneymaker. And in reality, it’s not. Unless you are a bestselling poet, like Billy Collins, you’re not going to make generally any money from poetry, and you should just be resigned to that. You might get some fame and glory—maybe. But you shouldn’t go in it expecting a big paycheck or anything. But yeah, once it’s done and printed, you should receive some author copies, that’ll be settled in your contract… After that, you’re just going around and publicizing it. You’re sending out queries to reviewers seeing if they’ll carry your book on their blog. If you know anyone who is a book reviewer, you’ll send them a copy, usually for free, just hoping that they’ll read it and like it and write a review about it. Or read it and hate it and write a review about it. Because really as long as there’s something out there, it’s better than nothing.
The end of the process is the despair with which you look at your book’s Amazon ranking, which will always, always, just crush a little bit of your soul. Except for that first day that it’s released and everyone you know has gone on Amazon to buy it. Because then it’s like, oh, #15,000? That’s awesome! And then–I think, at last look, my book was something like #2,064,104.
That’s in a very large nutshell the process that I went through. The one [piece of advice] I can say without a doubt is that if you’re a writer of any sort, you need to submit. It’s something that will be hard when you’re not used to it—when you’re first starting out. You won’t want to, because either you are expecting it to come back as a rejection, or you just don’t think it’s any good—you yourself don’t think it’s any good, or you don’t think someone else is going to think it’s good. Then you just wind up keeping it in your bottom drawer somewhere, or in all likelihood on your computer. But you have to force yourself to send something out.
When you get a rejection—because you will get a rejection—just keep submitting it. If you think there’s validity in the editor’s statement that there’s something wrong with your work, go back and edit it, go back and read through it again, and see if you can change it and make it better. But keep sending it out there. Unless you think that it’s a lost cause, which sometimes is the case, and then you just move on to your next work.
The other thing that I would say for advice would just be that you’re going to need someone else to read your work if you want to be a writer. That’s sort of what completes the process of being a writer–having someone there to read it. And most of the time, everyone is not going to agree with you, with what you’re saying. They might not think it’s that good, or they might not think you have any valid statements in it. You want to take their comments under consideration, but you don’t want their comments to shape your work. Again, if after 25 years of writing, you haven’t had anything published because you haven’t budged to anyone’s criticism, you might want to go back and reevaluate everything. If someone offers constructive edits and criticism—take it, but don’t let someone else’s ideas of what your work should be becomes your idea of what your work should be.
LRR: That’s good advice. I have three more very important questions. What is your favorite word, your favorite animal, and favorite color?
TS: My favorite animal is a tiger. No special kind of tiger, just the regular orange, black and white ones. My favorite color is green, because my eyes are green and I’m egotistical. My favorite word…whenever this kind of question comes I usually go to the word “defenestrate” which means “to throw something or someone out a window.”
LRR: Interesting. I didn’t know that word.
TS: I learned that from Gina Barecca, actually. I tend to like words that were common but aren’t common anymore, like “haberdashery”. Things like that. I guess if you want to put one on record, go with “defenestrate”.
LRR: Okay. I think that’s it. Thank you very much!
TS: Thank you for having me!