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The Silhouettes
The Silhouettes (Spring Gun Press, 2011).

First Book Questionnaire: Lily Ladewig

1. Does your manuscript bear any relation to a graduate thesis project?

I would estimate that about 70% of the poems in The Silhouettes were also in my graduate thesis. It had the same title and the individual poems are more or less in the same order.

As part of my thesis, I was required to write a brief introduction to the book. It could be whatever we wanted it to be. I remember agonizing over this for days. It was part history (exploring the traditions of pantomime, shadow puppet theater, and fashion) and part personal essay, interspersed with different definitions of the word silhouette. During my thesis defense, one of my committee members said that it would be interesting for me to somehow incorporate this introduction into the book. This was how four of the poems in the book, all titled “On Silhouettes,” come about.

When I was at working on my MFA at UMass, there was always a lot of emphasis placed on writing books. Many of my classmates had already published chapbooks or full-length books, either before, during, or shortly after graduating from the program. Instead of feeling intimidated or jealous, I found a lot of inspiration in this. Writing a book of poems and getting it published seemed totally possible!

2. How do you feel about these poems now that they’ve materialized in book format?

I think I’m happier with them now, printed in this book, than I was when I was sending my book out. I probably revised the manuscript every time I sent it out and this opened me up to a lot of self-doubt. All combined, writing and revising and sending out the book was a three-year process, and the whole time it never felt “finished.” I remember telling myself that it wouldn’t be finished until the book was published and happily that’s been the case. For better or worse, the poems have been tattooed on the page and that actually feels very liberating. This has freed me up to think about the next book.

3. What was your experience when you began publishing? What challenges did you encounter?

I definitely began by aiming too high. I think the first time I submitted poems to journals, I sent them to Ploughshares, The New Yorker, and Fence. Gradually I learned more about online journals and I started there. Around that time, different friends of mine were starting their own journals so I was able to submit to them as well and my publication list grew. I once sat in on a Q&A with Gillian Connelly and she gave some excellent advice: instead of submitting to lots of publications only one time each, pick a small handful of publications that you love and keep submitting during every reading period. Eventually they will become more familiar with your work and they’ll know that you’re a devoted reader.

Honestly, the biggest challenge is staying proactive and sending work out. I created a Google doc spreadsheet with different tabs so I can keep track of when the reading periods are for journals and contests, along with links to the submission guidelines, costs, and whether or not they take simultaneous submissions. It helps me create deadlines for myself.

4. How, if at all, did chapbooks prepare you for the making of a full-length collection?

A couple of poems in The Silhouettes were published as part of a 5-poem chapbook called You Are My Favorite Person of the Year by Mondo Bummer Press in 2010. (It’s a fun project that my friend Amy Berkowitz started, playing with the idea of what constitutes a chapbook.) There is a series of 18 poems in The Silhouettes, originally titled “Shadow Boxes,” that I had sent out to a few presses as a chapbook. When I found out SpringGun was going to publish my book, I stopped sending out the “Shadow Boxes” chapbook.

Other than that, my experience writing chapbooks has been very different from putting together my full-length manuscript. I co-wrote a chapbook with my good friend Anne Cecelia Holmes entitled I Am A Natural Wonder that Blue Hour Press published last year. We wrote these poems as a kind of dare and emailed them back and forth over the course of about six months. This project felt very separate from the other poems we were both writing at the time, and turning it into a chapbook seemed to be the perfect end product. Since Blue Hour Press publishes all of their chapbooks online, we also created a companion blog and solicited friends to write their own “Natural Wonder” poems. The results were really fun and startling.

5. How did you shape and order your manuscript?

I tend to be a very organized person and I like there to be a sense of symmetry and order. (Perhaps this is why I’ve been so drawn to writing in couplets recently.) When I first started putting my manuscript together, I had a collection of discrete 1-2 page poems and two longer multi-page poems: “Templates” and “Shadow Boxes.” I had been reading a lot of books where the authors divide their books up in to 3-5 parts or acts. I divided the individual poems into three parts that felt to me like a beginning, middle, and end. Then I inserted “Templates” as a marker between parts 1 and 2 and “Shadow Boxes” was between parts 2 and 3.

Throughout the process of defending my thesis and then revising and sending out my book to contests, the “Shadow Box” poems were grouped all together. I considered them to be one long poem because they were so interrelated and various motifs come up again and again. However, when I started working on revisions with my editors at SpringGun, Erin Costello and Mark Rockswold, they encouraged me to break up the poems and sprinkle them throughout the book. At first I was a little hesitant to do this because I had grown so accustom to the original shape of the book. However, I played around with the order and came up with the idea to group them into triptychs that divide the book into seven sections. Now I feel like this has made the book more cohesive and I’m really happy we made the change.

6. Was anyone or anything indispensable in the process of making your debut collection?

The summer before my final year at UMass, I had the opportunity to live in France for six weeks. My mother is a professor at Tufts University, and they have a summer program in the French Alps (that I actually participated in as an undergrad) and she went to teach a class. My father and I went with her, and we lived in a two-bedroom apartment with amazing views of Lake Annecy surrounded by mountains. We traveled on weekends, and friends came to visit me, but during the week I had the luxury of full days with no responsibilities other than reading and writing poetry. It felt like a little retreat and the book began to take shape. (I went back again this past summer, only for a week and a half, but I was still able to write every day and I wrote ten poems that are now in the book.)

Shortly after I returned from France, when I was seriously working on my thesis, Dara Wier offered a manuscript workshop. There were seven of us and each week we read someone’s book and then met at Dara’s house for dinner to give that poet feedback. After so many years of workshopping single poems, it was really exciting to read a greater body of work. It gave me a deeper insight into what everyone was trying to achieve with their poetry. It was also really cool to look at different approaches to ordering a manuscript. I feel like I learned more from reading everyone else’s books than I did from receiving feedback on my own.

7. What is your impression of book contests?

I consider them to be necessary. I know a lot of writers have written screeds against book contests philosophically but they make sense economically. It’s very difficult for small presses to raise the funds to publish books. Also, it’s amazing how many people blindly submit to journals and presses without supporting them financially, let alone even reading what they’ve published. Lots of contests I’ve entered send you a book or copies of an affiliated journal, which is nice.

Before Mark and Erin selected my manuscript for SpringGun, I had submitted my book to about thirty contests, sometimes repeatedly. That actually doesn’t seem like much in the grand scheme of things. I guess when you consider the reading fees, it adds up. I never felt bitter about it, however, because I was lucky to make it as a semi-finalist and finalist a number of times, or I received personal notes from the editors, which not only encouraged me to keep sending out my book but also confirmed to me that editors are actually reading manuscripts and caring about them. I received feedback and it created a dialogue between the editors and me, so it didn’t feel like I was just sending my book out into the void.

8. How did you learn to navigate the press world?

With great help from my friends! When I’m hanging out with other poets, I feel like we’re always sharing information about when presses are having open readings and contests. This was definitely the case when I was in my MFA program, and it’s still that way today. I actually learned about the SpringGun open reading period because one of my friends posted the link on Facebook. I might not have known that they were accepting submissions otherwise!

9. What aspirations did you have for this book?

I know this is an obvious answer, but my biggest aspiration was that someone would read my book and want to publish it. More than anything, I wanted people who I didn’t know to read my poems and find some kind of connection.

10. How would you describe this work?

Hmmm. I guess the best way to describe the poems in The Silhouettes is to look at the cover. It’s feminine, fragmented, corporeal, lacy and a little unsettling.

11. Do you work primarily on discrete poems, serially, toward a project, with a set of concerns, or otherwise?

The first two years that I was in graduate school I wrote mostly discrete poems. Then, in my last year and since I’ve graduated, I became much more interested in working on projects. Recently I’ve found it really helpful to have something to write towards. I have a hard time picking up my pen and writing something wholly new.

I also love how working on a project turns you into a sort of investigator, or researcher. A few years ago I started writing a series of poems about hats and hat making and since then I notice them everywhere. I know all the names for different kinds of hats. Friends have given me books on the subject, or sent postcards, or even bought me interesting hats. I have a much loved framed drawing that Dara Wier bought for me of ducks wearing lots of different hats with the caption “Duckie thinks about hats.” When we first started dating, my boyfriend bought me a picture book called Have You Seen My Hat? He completely won me over.

12. Whose poems affect you or your work?

It might sound cheesy, but my friends and classmates from UMass had the most profound impact on me as a writer and reader. I feel like the list could go on and on but I’ll keep it just a handful: Luke Bloomfield, Jeannie Hoag, Mark Leidner, Natalie Lyalin, Zach Savich, and Emily Toder.

Barbara Guest was also a big influence during the writing of this book. As I mentioned before, I was lucky to spend time in France and I brought her beautiful, heavy Collected Poems in my suitcase. Most mornings I would sit outside on the balcony of the apartment and read Guest, write a little in my notebook, and then go back to Guest.

In terms of the project poems that I’ve been working on lately, Cole Swensen’s Such Rich Hours and Book of a Hundred Hands and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets have had a really big impact on the way I think about writing towards something and putting a book together.

13. What are you working on now?

Last year I stumbled on a book called History of Beauty edited by Umberto Eco, and I started writing a series of poems that borrow the title and some of the language from the book. Eco’s book is written in a very cerebral way, but the subject matter is all about beauty, which is something that I’ve always thought of as an intuitive response. I’m trying to mix an academic syntax with a more emotional contemporary voice. Right now all of the poems are in couplets and they’re untitled. Other themes at play in the poems are winter, desire, and the game “Would you rather…”

Lily Ladewig Lily Ladewig’s poems have appeared in Conduit, Denver Quarterly, H_NGM_N, Salt Hill, Sixth Finch, and SUPERMACHINE. Ladewig is the author of The Silhouettes (SpringGun Press, 2012) and, with Anne Cecelia Holmes, a coauthor of the e-chapbook I Am A Natural Wonder (Blue Hour Press, 2011). She lives in Brooklyn.

(The Volta | Friday Feature)