Articles, advice, and ideas for first book poets

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Silence in the Rough: When Your First Book Breaks Through to Truth

Silence in the Rough: When Your First Book Breaks Through to Truth

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

—Nelson Mandela

In my last essay I wrote about how to endure the fingernails-in-palms-inducing feeling of writing my first book and waiting for my family, friends, and ex-lovers to find out I’d written about them.

Now, two months later I need to be honest. The reason behind my anxiety was neither my ex-lovers nor my friends’ reactions to the book. In the end, my dissonance regressed back to my mother. I was worried more than anything about my mother’s reaction to my first book.

Ever since my mother began to drink my family swore a solemn oath: an oath of silence. You take this oath into your body like a black elixir. This oath lives inside you like a virus; it spreads through your insides like spilled ink. If left unbroken, you are forced to live with this oath, constantly scrubbing away at it, trying to remove the stain from inside yourself, convinced that you are the one who is to blame.

I refuse to carry this blemish inside of me anymore, and I accept the consequences that come with its expulsion. It had been two months since my book had been published. I had written about my mother’s drinking problem, my father’s estrangement, and a lot of other family secrets. I’d heard not a peep from my family. I knew my mother was overseas on vacation and I secretly rejoiced, thinking her absence would buy me some time: I would send her a copy of the book with a note written inside the front cover. I would tell her that whereas I was sorry that she’d be hurt that I was entitled to my truth. I was shocked however, to hear from a family member that my mother had since ordered the book herself on Amazon, after I’d explicitly asked her not to, because my publishers would not profit as much.           

“So, she did read it?” I prodded a close family member on the phone.

A long pause. “Yes.” I waited a beat.

“Well, what did she say?”

Another pause. “What do you think, Maria? It broke her heart.”

My reaction that followed was not one I’d been expecting. Since writing the book, I’d treaded through a tumult of emotions: fear, excitement, dissonance, and sadness. But never once anger. Now I tasted anger, sweet and hot as brandy.

“Oh really? My book broke her heart?” I sucked in my breath and let out half of it, then half of the rest of it.

"I can’t believe you actually fell for that one.” I said.  “Somehow, someway, I’ve been breaking my mother’s heart since I was fourteen years old. And something tells me that I’m not about to stop anytime soon, no matter what I do or say or write.” I felt rage blind me like a scarlet bandana.

“Moreover, just because I published a book in which two or three poems were about her, it does NOT mean that I sent out to willfully hurt her. In fact, isn’t that the narcissist’s national anthem? I think it is.”

Another pause from the family member on the other end of the phone. “All I’m saying, Maria, is that you didn’t have to be so…negative. The book was well-written enough.”

Negative. Negative? If I am recalling that time of my life correctly, I’m fairly sure it was negative, for all parties involved. I’m sorry if I don’t have a sunnier recounting of my mother’s destroying herself with drinking in light of my father’s absence. That was a time of terror, sadness, and secrets, I will never forget it, and I will never write about it with a more jocular disposition.

I realized, once again, with sadness, that this conversation was not going anywhere. That I could explain myself in a million ways, but just because I had broken my vow of silence, it didn’t mean that others had. I know that I’ve decided not to bear the weight of responsibility any longer, anymore than I mean to transfer it’s bulk onto someone else’s shoulders. I’m neither relic nor demon, and anyone who has actually read my book should know that. In the book the pronoun “I” that resurfaces is a very real, very flawed me. I would like to remind anyone who ushers me into silence that I am very present in this book, and that I myself am no angel, but instead a very real, very tragically-flawed protagonist. In A Hymn , the character is played by Maria Nazos as herself. And she is nihilistic, rebellious, naïve, and destructive. She has flirted with alcoholism herself. Say what you must, but please do not say that I’ve constructed a me versus them binary in my book, because I have not.

It is my belief that dirty family secrets are buried under rocks. When I lifted them up I was afraid; they were pale, writhing creatures squirming beneath dark. To write about them is to hold them up to light, to see the translucent edges of their pale wings, to see their beauty and ugliness at the same time.

Recently, I’ve been noticing a real tightness in my throat. I told my therapist about it in a recent session.

“I feel tense, “ I complained, “Like I’m all constricted and can’t speak my truth.”

“Maria, you’re not so strange” my therapist responded. “Tension in the throat is common, especially when you’re dealing with anxiety. What are you anxious about?”

“My mother’s reaction to the book.”

 “How do you think she’ll react?”

I sighed. “She won’t. That’s the thing. I already know she won’t react with anything but silence. And I won’t hear from her for months after she reads the book. And the silence will be deafening. It’s be the worst thing in the world.”

My therapist countered: “Is it?”

The question hung in the air. It was not rhetorical. 

I’ve now answered the question. Silence is the worst thing in the world when it is my own. Others may not engage me and I can’t make them. As a writer, however, I think the worst thing in the world is when Silence meets Silence. I would even rather that Silence collide with Awkwardness, Anger, even Hurt. In fact, I welcome it.

I also accept that whereas I never meant to hurt my mother, I also never meant to protect her. Conversely, I did mean to hurt her, and I did mean to protect her, too, but as a human, I embody a paradoxical existence. I wanted to hear what I will never hear: answers, apologies, explanations, and untangled myths. My publisher Wising Up Press encourages their books to always engage in conversations about what makes us human, so it’s synchronous that my book found a home with them. My intentions to “converse” were good, but my mother was the wrong subject to engage. What I really wanted was to have a conversation with my mother, to engage, to hear her own truth. The closest I will come to brushing up against the hard facts is by mining the truth with pen as my pickaxe that knocks up against truth’s hard edge until light spills out.

Poet and lyrical essayist Maria Nazos is the author of A Hymn That Meanders,published by Wising Up PressShe received her MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work is published in The Chicago Quarterly Review, Poet Lore, The New York Quarterly, The Sycamore Review, Tar River Poetry and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Provincetown, Massachusetts. You can find her at

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Publicity: Touring - Cynthia Arrieu-King

I remember reading about Annie Dillard’s first book coming out and her cautionary words about the fact that the day arrived, and nothing happened. She did not get a parade of delivered flowers. She did not get a Presidential appointment. She might have gotten a phone call from her mom. In retrospect, this set my expectations very low about all aspects of what might happen when my book would eventually come out and this was actually a gift.

I think when I told my mom that I was going to have a book published, she said, “That’s great,” and went back to enthusing about how my brother had single-handedly hauled away the family’s 20 year old microwave and helped her buy a new one all in one afternoon. I didn’t actually mind so much, but it was noticeable.

“Wait until there’s an actual object. Wait until there’s a book,” a friend told me.

Fortunately, more than nothing happened and a lot of that is because you can do readings and tour with your book. I especially recommend touring with other writers.

There is a whole universe beyond the Barnes and Noble or extremely unattainable seeming venues that you might imagine are the place to read your book. There are coffeeshops and basements and bookstore reading series and in-house reading series and poetry center and open-air festival series. If you are on Facebook and know any poets, you’ll be sure to receive invitations to readings all the time. But also look into local listservs that report readings, and ask friends for ideas about where to read and where your book would “go”.

I know the poet Matt Hart who tours as a poet just as regularly and fervently as he has as a musician in the rock band Travel. He told me to schedule poetry tours about a year in advance, to make my bio and photo materials ready to send via e-mail, and to hit as many readings in a row as possible. I think in Matt’s universe this means twelve or twenty readings in a row, possibly on another continent as in his recent adventures in China, but in mine, I thought four readings in a row would do.

Last winter when my book came out from Octopus, I had already planned on touring with two other poets in California (Lily Brown and Claire Becker) and in New England (Lily Brown and Julia Cohen). Four days in California with a reading a day and time to drive Highway 5 in a rental. Four days in New England with a reading a day and time to stop and visit friends and my tour-mate Julia’s grandmother. We made sure to read in towns that made a line of some kind instead of a zig-zag. We up and asked people we kind of knew, or knew very well, or did not know at all; bookstores that sold our books, bookstores that had poetry series, etc. We looked them up or knew them or asked our friends. We tried to have one of us be the local pull in some cases.

This worked out. It required about 150 g-mails, a google.doc of all of our bio and photo information, some conference Skyping, some researching on-line and on Facebook, and a lot of persistence. And I’m not simply referring to all this technology that makes it so easy to investigate a venue, sense who your audience is, reach out and touch someone. You have to persist in the idea that your book needs to meet the world. The difference is that once you get out there and read, you instantly hear from the audience – something Dillard admits happened to her after a while. How many times did a beaming couple come up to me and say that they were really moved by my poems? Or the older woman in Santa Cruz who clutched my arm and said that I truly had something to say? Also, people bought our books with actual spendable money that we used to buy gas and that a nameless member of our party used to buy some of the last legal Four Loco, but that is another story.

How could you afford this? If you’re a student, ask for the money for plane tickets and gas. If you work at a school, ask for travel funds. We paid for some expenses out of our own pockets and also lucked out by getting a paycheck that we split.

Which brings me to my last point. So many authors travel alone on their book tours. They have great strategies for never getting tired or overtaxed socially. Always leave the scene by nine p.m.and read before bed. Or some always find the party, hanging around after the reading and asking who wants to get a drink. But when you travel with other poets, you get to have the long necessary conversations about life that you just can’t get into in the 30 minutes before or after a reading. You have another couple of drivers if you want to take a nap. It’s always better to get lost with some buddies. And not to be too hard-nosed about it, but their fans will be exposed to your work and vice versa, so it’s a good idea to travel with poets whose work complements yours in some way.

Other tips: be willing to trade your book for other people’s work or to give it away. This is poetry. Not many of us are rich and you’re probably already paying out of pocket to get where you’re going. Pay attention when you’re signing people’s books so you don’t sign the wrong name. Know what your voice sounds like on a hot mic and a weak mic and with nothing at all. Know what pieces of your writing get the reaction you can count on, or decide to surprise yourself every night with some new mandalic poetry performance.

This is the inside-out phase where you, the introverted writer, will be out in the world broadcasting, bleeding, exposing the guts of your deepest visions. It can be so exhilarating and tremendous. You get the chance to tell people that you see them, that you see this particular world. They in return will tell you that they can see you which is a thrill.

Cynthia Arrieu-King is an assistant professor of creative writing at Stockton College and a former Kundiman fellow. Her book People are Tiny in Paintings of China was published by Octopus Books last year. Her work has appeared this year on the PEN Foundation Blog, in Boston Review, and Forklift, Ohio.

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Publicity: How Do I Get the Right Blurb? - Cynthia Arrieu-King

I can’t help but want to say a word about blurbs. I want to talk about the process of deciding who would blurb my book because you think this would be really easy. You’d like to think you know who to ask, that you’ve known for ages. I did anyway. And I made a couple of interesting mistakes. 

The day I sat down to think of people to ask for blurbs, I thought about how I react to other people’s blurbs. Sometimes it’s clear that the blurber was a mentor to the other person. Maybe someone got asked cold. Once I was at lunch with two poets who were pretty much killing themselves laughing with banter about assuming the blurb position and what a bother it is to be asked (granted, these were kind of big poets who probably get asked a few times a week). I also knew the feeling of seeing huge named poets on the back of a brand new first volume of poems and wondering what the true value of that recommendation was worth. Did somebody know somebody? If the book had won a prize judged by that person, the blurb seemed better than the blurber appearing out of nowhere. I also had seen a friend reduced to tears by a blurb probably written in good faith but which was not at all incisive or engaged with her text.

In other words, I was thinking about a kind of social language that goes on below the surface of what looks like an eloquent thumbs up or what might be a branding, even a hazing. Did I want big name? No. I wanted something else but I wasn’t sure what it was. I made a short list. The person I thought would be perfect, I had heard from a former assistant of hers, simply didn’t do blurbs. “But you should ask anyway,” the former assistant recommended. I did not have the heart to do this. I had met her in person. If I’d known this very busy and cosmopolitan poet even a little, or had a decent conversation about poetry with her, I might have dared ask. But the assistant-friend had already asked after working with the poet on a project, and that person’s poems are exceptionally interesting and fine. So I found myself not reaching for the name that had become so important to me. Who else does lyrical experimental work from a multi-racial background? I would have to think about this.

I had more involved conversations and had gone over a few of my own poems at a writer’s colony with my favorite poet in the world. The friend I made at the Vermont Studio Center, Hillary, and I whispered about the fact that this poet was “sighted” in the cafeteria and we were awestruck. I don’t get awestruck. But when I thought about her work in relation to my first book, I felt this was a bad idea. Maybe she would make sense with regards to my second book about women and inner insight to the invisible, but not the first book. It had little to do with what she as a poet does though we might have been mightily informed by William Carlos Williams to the same degree. No, not going to tell you who that was.

I asked a poet whose background seemed like she might be the right person for the job. I wasn’t sure I’d read a bunch of her poems. This felt ill-footed and an insubstantial connection – maybe even the kind of connection my poems refused. The answer came back that she was busy. She has small children. This turned out to be a no.

Then I talked to my friend Juliette Lee, a poet of mighty energy and innovation, for advice (should there be another chapter about knowing who to ask for advice perhaps? It’s trickier than one might think). She said, “Ask a friend who gets your poems. They don’t even have to have a book. Screw that whole system.” Hers is the scintillating point: even if you already know you don’t necessarily need a Big Poet (rubber stamp noise) to stamp his or her approval on your book, I think this is essential: You do need thoughts from someone who understands what you are doing.

I thought of someone whose poems were recently out on a big press and whose poems, engaged with a different culture, in a different language sometimes, engaged with many of the same issues my poems did: family, naming, displacement, cooking, identity. I knew instinctively we were sister poets. We knew a couple of the same people. I didn’t necessarily get radical and ask an unpublished poet or a friend who was not a poet, though opening your mind to that universe does something in and of itself. Instead, I asked someone whose poems I admired and got rid of the idea that I wanted a blurb as a mark of the holy writ. This was an interpretation of the social language of blurb that made sense to me: if someone liked Kristin Naca’s poems, they almost certainly would like my poems. Also, she got my poems one hundred percent. You cannot count on that. After she skimmed the poems, she agreed to write a blurb. I was thrilled with what she wrote. I have never wished it was anyone else’s quote. And I got a blurb from my first teacher in graduate school, full of affection. I don’t know what people think when they see these blurbs, exactly, but I can live with all the possibilities I can imagine. May as well celebrate our new easy access to each other via the internet by asking the mentor and a potential comrade.

Obviously, this doesn’t go for everyone. But if you took the time to think of who would make the most sense as an indicator of what your book is like, rather than who you wish would read and write your book, you might establish yourself in a part of the poetry world as someone who knows what she’s about and never lose a minute wondering. Isn’t that what makes a person and her or his poetry tough and unmistakable and worth reading?

Cynthia Arrieu-King is an assistant professor of creative writing at Stockton College and a former Kundiman fellow. Her book People are Tiny in Paintings of China was published by Octopus Books last year. Her work has appeared this year on the PEN Foundation Blog, in Boston Review, and Forklift, Ohio.

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Publicity: Full Court Press Kits - Oliver de la Paz

  So you’ve written a book! It’s a wonderful feeling to be an author, but it’s important to remember that publishing that book is only the first step. After writing the book, and publishing the book, the next big job is to put that book into the hands of readers. One of the best ways to do this is to read from the work to an audience. But how does one go about doing this? The problem of finding and creating an audience certainly establishes another set of issues—how do you get a reading if you don’t know that many people? 

That was the dilemma I faced after I had published my first book, Names Above Houses. I was fresh out of graduate school and I was very green when it came to the idea of promotions. Southern Illinois University Press was good enough to provide a reading for me on their campus, but outside of that, I didn’t have any gigs prepared after the book had landed on my doorstep.  

When the book arrived, I was living in Gettysburg, PA. Gettysburg is located in south central PA, about an hour and a half’s drive to Baltimore, MD and Washington D.C.. It’s an hour outside of Harrisburg, PA, and from Harrisburg, it’s a four-hour train ride to New York and a two-hour train ride to Philadelphia. What a great place to live!  So many opportunities for readings! So many schools! 

Unfortunately I didn’t know how to go about booking readings. So I failed to take care of my book by providing my work with the opportunity to find an audience. I didn’t know the first thing about how to present myself as a writer and a speaker. Much of what I learned and provide for you here is stuff I wish I had known ten years ago when my first book was published. 

Before your new book even arrives at your doorstep, you’ll want to get started on a press kit. What’s a press kit? It’s basically a document or collection of documents that tells potential audience members/readers/curators something about you, the author. Press kits are essential for soliciting your reading/performance services to venues who may not be familiar with your work. Even still, they’re useful to have in those circumstances where you’ve booked a reading and need to generate publicity. Included in a press kit are the following items: 


You’ll want to have several versions of a bio—50 words, 75 words, 100 words, and extended bio/paragraph. I have several versions of my bio all saved  to a single document entitled “Bio Notes.” What a venue desires, as far as the  word count of a bio goes varies, so you’ll want to be prepared. 


Like a standard curriculum vitae, this lists your education, your publication record, your awards and fellowships, etc., but it won’t list that you’ve taught such and such class, or that you served on such and such committee at your school. It’s streamlined to present only the side of you that is the writer. 


You’ll want something that’s black and white, usually. And you’ll need to have versions of your headshot that are in high resolution for larger publicity fliers and headshots that are lower in resolution. Again, venues have a variety of needs. They may need a low res headshot for the website, but a higher resolution headshot for the flier. Be prepared to accommodate any possible venues needs.  


Even if your copies haven’t arrived, it’s good to have a .pdf file of it just in case a potential reading series needs to see it before booking you. Also, for those of you who already received copies of your books— while some of the people you thanked in your acknowledgments page no doubt deserve a copy, you need to keep a few copies for your press kit. (And don’t forget, some of that advance money/prize money should be allocated towards the purchase of more book copies). 


The poems you pick for this can change from venue to venue, but it’s always good to provide a poem from the book you are trying to publicize.  


 The artist statement is perhaps the most difficult piece of prose you can ever write. But you need to have on. While few venues actually ask for one, there are some that expect one. Still, you may as well write an artist’s statement for grant applications. I realize I can write a whole entry about this, so I’m going to keep it brief—an artist’s statement is basically a few paragraphs that discuss your current work, your artistic process, and your vision for your current and future projects. 

After you’ve created all these documents, create one version that includes all of these pieces (with the exception of the book) into a single document. Keep also the standalone version of each of the documents: Bio, CV, Photo, Sample, Statement.

This is not gross. There is no reason to feel dirty about creating a press kit or about promoting your work. You owe it to the work you’ve created. It deserves to be seen, and it needs to have the opportunity to create its own community of readers. You just need to help it along, and having a press kit ready will open doors and allow you and your new book to work your magic. 

Oliver de la Paz is the author of three collections of poetry, Names Above HousesFurious Lullaby (SIU Press 2001, 2007), and Requiem for the Orchard (U. of Akron Press 2010), winner of the Akron Prize for poetry chosen by Martìn Espada.  He is the co-editor with Stacey Lynn Brown of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (U. of Akron Press 2012).  He co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry and serves on the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Board.  A recipient of a NYFA Fellowship Award and a GAP Grant from Artist Trust, his work has appeared in journals like Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, Tin House, Chattahoochee Review, and in anthologies such as Asian American Poetry:  The Next Generation.  He teaches at Western Washington University.

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Challenge: How to Write About Those You Love and Those You Don’t Love Anymore (Part One) - Maria Nazos

When my first book of poems, A Hymn That Meanders was about to be published, I was hit with a gust of bliss. No, I was drifting through rose-ether. I, Maria Nazos, could finally call myself an author!

Then, gravity yanked me back down to earth.

What would my family say? The book was due out any day now and I’d not shown my loved ones the proofs. I’d written about my family in the same manner that I do everything in life: unabashedly. I’d written about my mother’s alcoholism, my sea captain father, my same-sex dalliances…I’d even written a lyrical essay about my mother’s nipples. I’d titled the piece after Robert Hass’ excellent poem about his own alcoholic mother.

On top of it, I’d written ex-lovers, many of whom I’ve had to make an effort to get away from, most of whom I don’t think much of, when I do think of them at all…and that’s putting it diplomatically.

To top that off, I live in a town of 3500 people. I bump into these former lovers more often than I’d like.

Which led me to my next searing question: how do I write about those I love and those I don’t love anymore when they’ll confront me with own words?

I contacted my beloved mentor, Laure-Anne Bosselaar for advice. Laure-Anne responded:

“My answer to you is this:  speak to those you love and respect that your book will speak of TRUTHS that are yours and yours alone. It is art. Not journalism.   But it is also an art so few follow — so cousin Fred or uncle Joe don’t risk much.  Tell your mom that Yes; you are sorry that some will be hurt. And that it is out of hurt that you write most of your work. I believe it was Bill Kittredge who once said: If you’re not pissing your family off, you’re not writing, well!”

Wow. I thought. I wish I could be so fierce. But I needed some more footholds on this slippery terrain. As if by magic, She Writes, the all-female web forum, was holding a radio discussion titled “How To Write About Those We Love And Those We Don’t Love Anymore.”

“Hi, this is Maria Nazos calling,” I stammered as I called into the show. “I’m um, publishing my first book of poems…and I KNOW for a fact that the person I’ve written most about is going to read the book…because…she’s my mom.”

The panel chuckled.

The panelists echoed Laure-Anne. Write your truth; and yes, there is more than one. Yes, my loved ones have as much of a right to respond to my work, as I have to write about them. My loved ones are entitled to say that I’m wrong, that I’m inexact, that I’m cruel, obscene, repugnant, that I’m using my family and friends as a confessional Kleenex.

Annie Dillard believed that a writer should never write about another individual unless that other person has his/her own platform from which to respond. I respectfully disagree. I elected to become a writer in order to make sense out of the chaos that was my upbringing, just as much as writing chose me.

On the She Writes radio show, one woman-caller shared a positive experience: she’d written about her philanthropist parents. Her parents read the first draft of the book and said, “We don’t agree entirely with everything, but we know that you can make this more truthful.” So, the woman took the book back and revised it. The book became a bestseller.

On the darker end of the spectrum, another woman caller described how she’d written about her family and gotten terrible reviews from family and critics alike. She’d never written again.

Rosanna Warren was visiting during my recent fellowship Vermont Studio Center. I asked her what she thought on this matter. Rosanna felt that as we grow as writers, there are varying angles from which we can examine our subject matter. For example, in one group of poems, she’d written about caring for her dying father.

“But in one poem, I found myself taking a drastically different stance,” said Rosanna. “I found myself writing about metaphorically gorging myself on spoonfuls of my father’s illness. That poem was symbolic for my guilt that I felt while writing about him.”

Rosanna also maintained that an important step is to be aware that the invasion of others’ privacy is a serious question, and one must find a way to incorporate that question into the structure of one’s own writing.”

At Vermont Studio Center during an informal reading, I read “My Mother’s Nipples” aloud. I was so nervous, I felt as though the wine I had consumed was seeping from my underarms.

“What did you think?” I asked my peers.

One woman said, “Are you kidding? I’d be proud if I were your mother. She had such a tragic, lovely life.”

Then it hit me: not only is there more than one truth, but also hopefully my writing is good enough to where it speaks numerous truths. I’m not demonizing my mother, but depicting her as a flawed, graceful individual. Many audiences might even find the story of my mother—a young rebellious woman of the 60’s, who abandoned reason to sail the world with my Greek sea captain father—to be a tragic and exotic story.

I feel very lucky. I’ve gotten to hear some diverse opinions. I myself am still awaiting my mother’s response to the book. In due time I’ll hear from the other people I’ve written about. I understand that I made a deliberate choice to publish this book without even sending my mother the proofs, for godsakes.

I also contend that I’m a poet, not a babysitter. I refuse to sit in watchful passivity over my subjects’ emotions. However I also do have a responsibility to care for my subjects as I write about them. But in this world where “reality” TV serves as the “truth,” now more than ever, I feel an even bigger responsibility to speak my truth.

It is in this spirit that I sign off. Stay tuned, as I will update you on what happens as my loved ones respond.


Poet and lyrical essayist Maria Nazos is the author of A Hymn That Meanders,published by Wising Up PressShe received her MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work is published in The Chicago Quarterly Review, Poet Lore, The New York Quarterly, The Sycamore Review, Tar River Poetry and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Provincetown, Massachusetts. You can find her at

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Publicity: Thinking about Bios - Neil Aitken

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.

Neil Aitken is the author of The Lost Country of Sightwinner of the 2007 Philip Levine Prize, and founding editor of Boxcar Poetry Review.  His work has been published in Barn Owl Review, Crab Orchard Review, diode, andNinth Letter.  He is currently completing a PhD in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Southern California and anticipates graduating in 2012.  You can find him online at

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Publicity: Getting Book Blurbs Right - Neil Aitken

If you’re like me, when you’re working on your manuscript, book blurbs and author statements are usually the furthest things from your mind. Your attention is on the poems and rightly so.

Once the book has been accepted, suddenly there is a mad scramble to line up your blurbs — which can often be something of a crap shoot — you just don’t know how people are going to respond, what they’ll write, and when they’ll turn it in.

Some things you should consider in advance:

  1. Blurbs from people you know - In general, this is the route that is taken. Most blurbs come from former or current professors, close personal writer friends, or long-time professional acquaintances. The good thing about doing this is that generally these people know what you stand for, what your project was about, and are willing to devote time and energy to write something compelling. However, sometimes these blurbs can seem less than genuine or suspect if a potential reader feels that the writer’s connection to these individuals is too close or tainted in some other way. It’s impossible to satisfy everyone, so if you go this route, it’s in your interest to choose people that will appear above the board and whose opinions are widely respected.
  2. Blurbs from people you don’t know or who you respect, but have no personal connection with - This is a tougher way to go, but does mean you can hopefully count on a more unbiased response to your work. If you go this route, choose someone whose work has meant something to you in your development as a writer. This makes it easier to approach them — you can honestly tell them that you have admired their work for some time and that you feel that they might enjoy reading an advance copy of the book. Send a short selection of poems from the manuscript and ask if they would be willing to look at the book and if they enjoy it, possibly write something on its behalf. Do this early in the editing process. Even if you have to send a binder-clipped copy of manuscript, send it early enough that this person has time to reflect on it. After a few weeks, check in with them to see if they have received the manuscript and if they would be willing to write a blurb. The more well-known the author, the busier they are likely to busy — be prepared for them to turn down the invitation and thank them nonetheless. Have some backup plans in place. This is why you started early.
  3. Let your blurbers know their deadlines and follow up. This is key. If they know when you need the blurbs, they can plan for it. If there is no fixed deadline, then they may put it aside and not get to it. Regardless what the actual deadline is with your press / editor, you should build in a buffer and set an earlier date with your blurb writers. This way you can appear generous if they ask for a little more time :)
  4. Create a brief description or synopsis of the book (if possible, several). This can help give a blurb writer (especially one unfamiliar with your work) a general sense of what your book is about and why it might interest them. You’ll need to be able to describe your book in a few sentences anyway — it’s part of the short sell that you’ll be giving whenever someone asks, “So what’s your book about anyway?”  Sometimes I tell people:  “My book moves between narrative and lyric in its exploration of loss, exile, and return as it pertains to the loss and recovery of countries, languages, and family.”  I might follow up with something more personal.  In a different audience, I might mention its strong elegiac turns or its preoccupation with travel. Or maybe its concern with memory and forgetting. Or maybe tell the story of how it became an unintended elegy of sorts for my father who was dying even as I was finishing and revising the book — and whose passing ultimately shaped the book into what it became. Or maybe how it’s a love story about loss. Depending on your audience, you should have a variety of ways to talk about your book.
  5. Keep your blurbs to a maximum of 3. Really. Sometimes less is more. Try to keep them at a reasonable size as well — if the blurb is too long, a potential buyer isn’t likely to read all of it. Keep the long version on the website — along with any extra unused blurbs and reviews.
  6. Consider what audiences each of your blurb writers will bring. Your blurb writers should help a reader triangulate where you and your writing fall. You are an unknown, but hopefully your blurb writers are known to your reader (or least their tastes can be surmised). If you write primarily narrative free verse poetry and have blurbs from avant garde language poets or new formalist poets, regardless of how good the blurbs are, you are creating confusion for a potential buyer. There’s a clear disconnect and the wrong audiences are being attracted — simultaneously, your best potential buyers are missing the connection. If there is a range of approaches in your book, then try to have blurbs from poets with a range of styles.

Neil Aitken is the author of The Lost Country of Sight, winner of the 2007 Philip Levine Prize, and founding editor of Boxcar Poetry Review.  His work has been published in Barn Owl Review, Crab Orchard Review, diode, and Ninth Letter.  He is currently completing a PhD in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Southern California and anticipates graduating in 2012.  You can find him online at

Filed under publicity first book of poetry book blurbs

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A Guide to the First Book - Project Overview

We’ll be adding posts on a regular basis that address various aspects of the first book experience including the types of things that you can prepare in advance before the book is picked up for publication, advice on what to do (and not do) for your book launch, how to plan events for your first year, and what to do after that first year is over to keep up interest and book sales.  Other articles will focus on marketing and promoting, interviewing for the various media outlets, scheduling events at venues (academic and otherwise), suggestions about getting more from residencies and retreats, and finally, how to apply for grants.

The list below summarizes the main topics of conversation.

I. Battle Plans

  1. Pre-Book Preparation

  2. Launch Day

  3. First Year

  4. And Beyond

II. General Advice

  1. Marketing and Promoting the First Book

  2. Interviewing Advice for Print, Radio, and Television

  3. Scheduling Events at Universities and Schools

  4. Residencies and Conferences

  5. Applying for Grants