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First Book Interview with Keith Montesano

Keith Montesano is the author of the newly released and stunningly black and bracing Ghost Lights, his debut from Dream Horse Press. At his First Book Interviews blog, he conducts a series of interviews with writers upon the publication of their first book, detailing the experience and the feeling of the completion of a first work, and I asked him to do the same with his own questions.

How often had you sent out Ghost Lights before it was selected for publication by Dream Horse Press?

I sent the book out 60 times before I received an email from J.P. Dancing Bear telling me that I was a finalist for the Orphic Prize and that the press was able to publish the finalists that year.

Was the title always Ghost Lights? Did it go through any other changes?

A good chunk of the book was my MFA thesis at Virginia Commonwealth University, when it was called About Ravishment. I remember sitting with some friends at a bar near VCU, and when I told them the title of the manuscript I was sending out, which they knew was the title of my thesis, I got some weird looks. I was asked if other titles were kicking around, and I told them I’d been thinking about Ghost Lights. Then I got the looks that said, “I think you found your title.”

It seems like there’s a possible misconception among some poets who are trying to get their first book published: that they must win a contest. Were you concerned about winning a contest at any point? What advice would you give to poets sending their book out now regarding contests versus open reading periods?

Like most folks sending their books of poetry out, I would’ve liked to win a contest, but it was never a must for me. You see contest-winning books ignored, and you see small press non-contest-winning books become well-reviewed and extremely popular, so you never know. There are so many presses now with contests, also, so I think it’s become something that really only guarantees you some money in the end. In my case, $500 or $1000 wouldn’t have covered the cost of postage and fees for every contest and open reading period I sent to anyway, so that didn’t really matter.

There are many open reading periods for poets who are looking to publish their first book, which I wish I’d known about more at the time I was sending out mine. A lot of folks have blogged about this, so if you do some googling, you can probably find some. I would mostly say: send to presses that you’d ideally be thrilled to be a part of. Sometimes this is impossible to know of course, but that’s always an excuse to buy books to see what kind of authors and books certain presses are publishing, and how the book-as-object looks and feels. I did just that, and a few presses I immediately ruled out because I wasn’t thrilled about any number of things—from the design, to the poetry, to the font used. Sometimes desperation can lead to regretful decisions for poets, so you always have to keep that in check.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

It went through a lot of variation and versions. I tried to do it all in one section. I tried two sections. Then three. Then back to two. Then three. I cut poems. I did a lot of work editing within the lines of poems. I did most of the editing after my MFA ended—I took a year off to adjunct and apply to PhD programs, so there were many late nights on the balcony with candles, white string lights and a pen, and me reading the poems out loud from the binder.

I don’t know exactly how many versions it went through, since I used to save a new .doc file every time I changed anything from a line break to an entirely different structure of a poem, but there were many.

How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?

Ghost Lights went through eight different sets of galleys, which may seem like a lot for a book of poetry—I’m not sure. That was mainly due to so many of the poems not being left justified—there are only a few in the book that remained that way. Also, many of my lines are long. So there was a lot of adjusting, font size switching, font changing, etc., until we found what would be suitable for the book.

However, when I say “we,” I do have to say that Bear was insanely patient and pretty much handed me the reigns to do, within reason, whatever I wanted as far as the interior design. I made the final decision regarding the font and size, which he was also happy with.

Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?

The cover painting was brought to my attention by an undergrad professor of mine, Christopher Bakken, who knew the artist, Felicia Van Bork. I remember him writing, “I think you’ll like these, but Smoke Map seems especially fitting.” The more I looked at it—the colors, the strokes, the smoke—the more I said to myself, “I like it so much that there’s no way this will happen.” But Felicia was awesome and completely into it, and she let me use it right away.

Bear and his team did the eventual cover design with the text, and I’m thrilled how the whole thing turned out in the end.

What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

I consider myself extremely lucky to have every poem in the book published elsewhere. Was this a point of necessity for me? No. But I work extremely hard at sending poems out—organization, good records, emailing journals I simultaneously submitted to as soon as a poem has been accepted elsewhere, etc. I try to remain disciplined at doing this, and hope I always will. As I was sending out the manuscript, I was also sending out the poems—some that later would be cut, and some that later would be in my second manuscript.

Overall, I don’t think having many of the poems previously published makes a monumental difference whether someone wants to publish it or not, but I think of it has a cohesion barometer of sorts—the more poems editors are willing to take a chance on that are in the same manuscript, the better you feel about them going together, which means the harder you work to make the manuscript into an actual book. At least that’s how I dealt with everything.

I’ve never been a screener for an open reading period or contests, and though I imagine that having many of the poems in a book published would at least be a catalyst to getting out of the first “round,” or whatever the name for it is, I’ve seen many books where only a handful of poems in the book were previously published in journals.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?

I spent so much time on the aforementioned balcony with the poems, and I tried to edit and edit and edit until I couldn’t do it anymore, that I pretty much had my final version ready to go by the time Bear accepted it.

There were a handful of last-minute edits as I read through the galleys many times, but overall, the book didn’t change that much from acceptance to publication.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?

I had just returned from seeing the new Nightmare on Elm Street remake, and the book proof was sitting in the envelope Bear had sent a couple days before.

Luckily, this was the proof, so I was able to comb through it to see if there were any mistakes that still needed to be corrected before it officially went to print. I admired the cover and how the blurbs looked, checked out the spine, and then read it cover-to-cover, finding one small mistake—two page numbers that were accidentally left out—that got corrected later on.

Through it all I had a smile on my face. I was glad the hard work paid off.

What have you been doing to promote Ghost Lights, and what have those experiences been like for you?

Recently I was part of the Dream Horse Press First Book Tour with Kyle McCord. We did seventeen days in a row, with only one day where we didn’t read, through the Northeast, Midwest, South, and we finished in Cambridge, close to our starting point in New Jersey.

That’s been the biggest thing. It was a blast, but I’m not sure if I could do it again. But knowing that I would most likely never be able to do anything like that again, I decided to go for it, and thankfully, my wife also supported me, even though she wasn’t thrilled that I’d be gone for almost three weeks.

Other than that, I’ve been trying to get the book into the hands of people. I’ve been selling signed copies through my blog, I sold a good amount on tour, and I’m doing my best to send review copies to places and editors that I think would review it. Hopefully as time goes on some more reviews will pop up, and hopefully those folks like the book.

If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”

I didn’t want to answer this question, but I figured if I’m going to give it to the poets that I interview, then I have to.

I would probably focus on the elegiac nature of the book and try to keep the description fairly simple—poems about people who are now gone, whether that means friends, people I knew in high school, people who used to live down the street from me, neighbors I never knew in apartments, musicians, celebrities, characters in films, etc. There’s also a lot of destruction and decay. Like many writers these days, I’m pretty obsessed with the apocalyptic nature of the world, which seems like it’s getting closer every day, so there’s a lot of that in many of the poems also.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

I was actually conducting first book interviews—and had read every one Kate Greenstreet did—before Ghost Lights was accepted for publication, so I feel like I was able to gain a lot of valuable advice from reading and re-reading those interviews. You really learn a lot about experiences, presses, how hard it is to get a book published, the luck involved, etc.

Mostly, though, it’s doing your best to get the book out there—whether it’s touring, having the funds to be able to send a ton of review copies out, selling it through a blog, giving local readings, trying to get interviews, etc. Whatever you can do to make sure you don’t go broke.

What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing?

I have a second manuscript that I consider “finished,” if that word has carries any weight at all with a manuscript anymore. It’s gotten a few recent finalist and semi-finalist nods from contests, so I’m concentrating on editing as much as I can, while still sending it out.

And I also feel like I have the kernel of the third manuscript started, even though that seems pretty lofty at this point.

Mostly, I just never want to be in that place where I’m satisfied with what I’ve done. I always want to keep writing and working toward new projects, even if some of that writing ends up in the trash.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

Honestly, I’m not sure that I do. Poetry’s something I hope I’m able to write until the day I die, but it seems like there are other things that need to be changed in the world rather than hoping whether poetry will do it or not.

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Buy Ghost Lights here.

BIO:  Keith Montesano is the author of the poetry collection Ghost Lights (Dream Horse Press, 2010). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, American Literary Review, Third Coast, River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He currently lives with his wife in New York, where he is a PhD Candidate in English and Creative Writing at Binghamton University. He blogs at http://kmontesano.blogspot.com and has and runs first book interviews with poets at http://firstbookinterviews.blogspot.com

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