Written by
Sandra Beasley
February 2010
Written by
Sandra Beasley
February 2010
My second poetry collection, I Was the Jukebox, won the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize (selected by Joy Harjo) and will be launched into the world on April 5, 2010 by W. W. Norton. I've been trying to figure out where to begin. Galleys? Reviews? Readings? Book trailers? But you all hardly know me yet. So I thought I'd start with a story. My first collection of poetry, Theories of Falling, was published by New Issues Poetry & Prose, which is based at Western Michigan University. They did a fantastic job with editing and design, and have been incredibly supportive at every step of the way (even now, having just initiated a 2010 reprint of the book). One great thing about a university press is that some of the staff will be salaried, meaning you don't have to feel guilty about asking them to respond in a timely fashion; sure, it's a labor of love, but it is also their job. Yet unlike New York houses (where the turnover can be relentless), employees at university presses tend to stay for at least 2-4 years, which will be the core lifespan of your book. These folks usually have priorities in addition to climbing the publishing ladder--a PhD program, or a family, or other commitments to the town. They stick around, and you get the pleasure of building a real, lasting relationship with them. Even with the best presses, sometimes things go wrong. Rewind to March 2008. Technically, that was supposed to be when my first book came into the world but to be safe, I had not scheduled my first trio of readings until April. I was particularly proud of what I referred to as "the New York launch" of the book: a reading with Meghan O'Rourke at Long Island University. Admittedly, Long Island is not exactly Manhattan. I would have to make the six-hour drive the morning of the reading. And the cheap hotel room would cost more than half of my meager honorarium. Still...New York is New York! Plus, this wasn't just any reading. This was a university reading. Then my editor called, and I heard what no author wants to hear. "There's some problems with the book." The advance copies from the print run had come back with pages missing or transposed, and a color signature for the cover that in no way matched the original design. When your cover is a particularly eggplant-like shade of purple, accented with light green, mismanaged colors look truly wretched. There was no option: they would have to redo the run (and later, fire the printer). I would have to go to my New York launch empty-handed. I took a few hours to cry. Then I took a few hours to plan. What could I do that would make the reading feel like something other than a lost opportunity? I had the poems, the cover design--it had been sent to me as a hi-res file--and two days before I needed to be in Long Island. New Issues had offered to reimburse me $50 for whatever Plan B I could come up with, but I didn't have enough time to design a broadside, much less get it printed. The next day my boyfriend came home to find me on the floor of my office with sheets of red and blue cardstock, poems printed out onto heavy matte paper, glue stick, scissors, a hole puncher, and three spools of the white ribbon you would use for a gift-bow. "What are you doing?" he asked. "Making my book," I said, as I cut out a greyscale facsimile of my cover, spread it with glue, and pressed it to the folded card stock. In my grief, I'd gone into hyper-strategic mode. The trick was to pick poems that gave a representative flavor of the collection, I reasoned--without using a "best of" that would negate the need to buy the book itself. Ribbon bindings would feel classier than stapled ones (not to mention, I didn't have a stapler that could reach mid-page). I designed a title page with the reading's date, time, and location, to make it clear that this was a "special edition." I included info on how to order the real book, including a discount coupon authorized by my apologetic editor at New Issues. It was a long drive to Long Island that included a bad set of map directions, but a quick dinner of Thai curry helped rebuild my spirits. The reading was well-attended, and though I was in awe of Meghan O'Rourke (she worked at the Paris Review, for goodness sakes!) I hoped I'd I held my own. Sure, I was reading off loose sheets of paper, but I was used to that. For a while I forgot that anything was missing. Reality descended after the reading, which is usually time for booksigning. I was hocking a handful of xeroxed pages for $7 each. Meghan's book was a hardcover from Norton that glowed a jewel-like aqua-green and retailed at $24.95. I knew better than to even ask about a trade, blushing as I handed the student assistant my credit card. Meghan had to get back to the city; the host had to get back to his home in Connecticut; the students had work due the next day. By 9 PM I was standing alone in a Long Island parking lot with twenty unsold chapbooks and the sinking realization I'd have to untie and re-thread them with a different dedication page before driving to my next reading in Richmond, Virginia. So much for my New York launch. Shivering in my too-thin coat, I stuck both hands into my pockets. One hand found the car keys; the other hand found a small fold of ones and fives. I'd sold a few chapbooks. Not many, but a few--to Meghan, the host, a couple of students--enough to cover the tolls for the drive home. I had made the trip, and as a result my poems were in hands they would not have otherwise found. What more could the world ask of me for one night? What more could I ask of the world? Sometimes, when I'm trying to define "success" in tangible goals, I think about those chapbooks. There's probably a dozen of them out in the world. (Some I sold in Richmond a week later; the rest faded to oblivion in the direct sun exposure of my car's backseat.) I'd like to reach a point in my career when that "special" edition to is actually special; when someone's $7 purchase circa April 2008 is revalued at $70 or, hell, $700. It's not about the profit--poets don't really deal in profit. It's about the investment. It's about believing that no matter what goes wrong along the way, you're on the right road. Even if that road is the Long Island Expressway, and you've got miles and miles to go. # For more information about my work:

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  • Liz Gallagher

    Wonderful story, Sandra... bet those chapbooks do become collectors' items one day ; ) Looking forward to your forthcoming book.

  • Marie Gauthier

    Oh Sandra, I wish had one of those hand-fashioned books! Look at how far you've come, counting down to your own Norton hardcover, your second prize-winning book. Miles and miles. Lovely read, thank you.

  • Victoria Mixon

    Sandra, this is a beautifully-written story of a writer's experience. It takes a special kind of courage to pursue publication as a poet. I studied poetry for years, and there was a time when my friends and I could talk about nothing else. So much work in the distilling, so much dedication to each solitary word, so much heart and epiphany and unsayable life on the page. And you hardly make a dime!

    That's what I call an artist.

  • Sherelle Wallace

    This was so inspiring! I can relate to this, and I'm sure there are so many SHEWRITERS who feel the same. Thanks so much for sharing, and giving a spark of hope to poets. Good luck on pub day!

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Sandra, thank you so much for sharing this story! I was really moved by it -- and so impressed by your determination and your ingenuity. And as a working writer myself, this line especially got me: "I had made the trip, and as a result my poems were in hands they would not have otherwise found. What more could the world ask of me for one night? What more could I ask of the world?" I wish I could have had one of those chapbooks. It would be a great honor to own one. And I will keep my fingers crossed for the $70 markup.