Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Story of My Book

Between Ron Silliman’s discussion of book contest winners, Gina Franco’s lament about book sales, and new book announcements by C. Dale Young and Paul Guest, I think the blogging world is ready for “The Story of My Book.” Or perhaps, simply, I’m just itchy to write it all down. This is not, I warn you, a brief post.

The story of my book, Riverfall, is like the story of a river itself, which starts with a small trickle, meanders not quite knowingly along the way, and finally meets with and becomes (a mostly anonymous) part of the sea.

Accordingly, it was a dark and stormy night….

Or maybe not. While I cannot recall the weather, it was indeed sunny inside my house, not to mention my head, when I received an email from Jessie Lendennie, managing director of Ireland’s Salmon Publishing, in late 1999. Turns out she had been exploring A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments, an online journal I edit. had just requested a Salmon book published by R.T. Smith, titled Split the Lark: New and Selected Poems.

Rod was my poetry teacher at Auburn University from 1990 to 1991. In addition to being an outstanding teacher, he is an equally outstanding poet and editor (he now teaches at Washington & Lee University and edits Shenandoah). I’ve always enjoyed and admired Rod’s work, so when the opportunity to review his newest book for came up—and I decide what books to review, so it’s an opportunity I created—I couldn’t resist.

The issue of that Jessie was exploring was our fifth, “Indigenous America,” published in the fall of 1999. I had four poems in the issue, including two previously published. It was the only time I’ve had my own poetry in the journal. Jessie saw my poetry, read some of my other work—my “The Literal Landscape” column and an article or two I had written in this and other issues—and wrote that she enjoyed my spirit. She then inquired about whether I had a manuscript, and asked me to send one along!

At the time, I had no manuscript, though of course was elated that she liked the handful of poems so much she would consider reading and possibly publishing a full collection. In truth, I had not been writing poetry “seriously” for four years—since I started graduate school to study urban and regional planning in the fall of 1995. However, when I wrote back and asked if I could send a manuscript of both poetry and prose, noting that I had been writing much more creative non-fiction lately, she said yes, and a month later—after much frenzied revising—I put together Riverfall: Poetry and Prose.

The manuscript was divided into four sections: A Body of Water, Sometime Travels, On the Orchard’s Edge, and The Last Harvest. Each was comprised of about eight poems and two essays.

Three times previously I had handcrafted very limited sets of poetry, not more than a dozen of each. The first I titled An Idea of Geography, which I assembled just after graduating from Auburn in 1991. The second I called Zoology, dated perhaps 1994, and the third Riverfall: Poems, Prose, Prints, and Photos, from I think 1997. None were shared beyond family and former teachers.

Just a few weeks after sending in my manuscript—weeks that, looking back, now seem as short as any ever were but undoubtedly at the time approached eons—I received an email from Jessie that Salmon would like to publish Riverfall. Wahoo!

It was now January 2000, and it was one of those points in my life where no matter what I did it seemed I was charmed. Ah, those fleeting moments….

Later that month I was awarded a 2000 Colorado Artists Fellowship for Poetry, in which the Colorado Council on the Arts said, “Simmons B. Buntin from Denver ‘wowed’ panelists with brilliant imagery, ‘constantly tied back to land.’ His poems are well balanced and complete while providing new information.”

And about this time—with my wife pregnant with our second daughter—as we were caught up in the whirlwind of life changes, we decided to pursue moving to the Sonoran Desert, with a wholesale career swap, to boot. In February we visited Tucson, and my wife gave me the go-ahead to look for a job. In March I flew to Tucson for two job interviews.

Everything was coming up serendipitous. Back in Denver, as I was thinking hard about whether we really wanted to change our lives this much, I saw a man in the elevator of our corporate office wearing a Tucson t-shirt. Sting’s “Desert Rose” played on the radio and filled my buzzing mind. All signs pointed to our move, including job offers following both interviews.

Shortly after moving to Tucson, in April, I received the contract from Salmon Publishing. It looked pretty standard, so I signed two copies and returned them. Then the wait set in, and went on and on.

The adjustment to Tucson wasn’t as easy or as “spiritually aligned” as we expected. We lived in a tight apartment for eight months while our house was being built, half of our furniture and clothes in storage. I was unsure, initially, of the job I took, and whether I was up to it. My wife was seven months pregnant, and then when our little girl was born in July, her big sister was downright unhappy with our new addition.

Publication, though, was set for late 2001. Then summer 2002. Then fall 2003. After 9/11, Salmon Publishing—like many small presses—lost much of its funding. I banded with a few fellow Salmon poets to buy an ad in Poets & Writers magazine to help promote Salmon stateside. One of the poets was in the same situation I was in—an accepted book with a fleeting publication date. Not long after, he withdrew his manuscript, giving up.

Soon after that, Jessie and I exchanged a set of serious emails which concluded in the mutual realization that Salmon wouldn’t be able to publish Riverfall. This wasn’t a book funded by contest entries, nor an otherwise endowed publication. There was simply no funding.

I was devastated.

As a parting favor, Jessie agreed to informally typeset just the poetry in the book, so I could gauge if I had enough poetry for a poetry-only collection and so I could begin shopping the manuscript around, entering it in contests, leaving it on the chilly midnight hush of editors’ doorsteps.

I felt betrayed, in part because I had the opportunity to directly submit a manuscript to the University of Colorado Press as a 2000 Fellow which I turned down given the Riverfall contract. But now, that opportunity was long gone. And yet I felt compassion for Jessie and Salmon Poetry, knowing that canceling the contract certainly wasn’t planned, nor malicious. It was just luck of the draw—serendipity turned sour.

Over the next year Jessie and I checked in periodically, as I would see (and every now and then review) new Salmon books, and as new issues of launched. I entered the manuscript in a half dozen or so American contests, but with no luck. It was not, I concluded, meant to be.

And then in mid-2004 I received an email from Jessie asking how the search for a Riverfall publisher was going. It wasn’t, I replied. She wrote back saying, “Then we better have it back.”

I was tentatively delighted. I replied that we needed to be sure, because I didn’t think I could handle the contract being canceled again. There's a history of manic depression in my family, after all. She guaranteed Salmon would publish it, either in spring or summer 2005. “You’ve got a deal!” I cheered, as much out loud as online, which she may in fact have heard all the way over in County Clare, Ireland.

The contract, which we could share nearly entirely by email now, arrived shortly after. I pulled out the manuscript again—35 poems—and spent the next few weeks thoroughly revising it once more before sending it back to Salmon. I removed the Sometime Travels section, leaving the three others, each named for the poem that begins that section.

During the next few months we entered into the book-making phase. Markus Beaumonte, a Tucson friend and artist, agreed to design the book cover at no cost. I worked closely with Salmon’s designer and typesetter on a series of three galleys, which included some substantial revisions, yet not as much editing from Salmon as I expected, even though we cut three poems.

By 2005 I was completely energized by the forthcoming book, the reality of it all: finally! That got me writing poetry a lot more, as well—something I hadn’t done regularly for ten years. Only two of the poems in Riverfall, in fact, are from 2000 or later.

In May I received an email from someone in England who purchased a copy of the book even before I could feel it in my desperately waiting hands, let alone see it. When my copies arrived—I purchased a couple boxfuls to account for the slow North American distribution, to sell at the launch party and readings, and for local independent bookstore consignment—it was the end of one wild rafting trip, and of course the beginning of another. And well worth the wait.

Even if folks don’t like the poetry in Riverfall that much—and of course I hope they do!—there’s no denying the high quality of the book itself, from the lush and subtly abstract photo on the cover to the font and typesetting of the poems themselves. I have many books from small presses, and very few are presented as finely, as eloquently, or in such high quality as those from Salmon Publishing.

Now, on to the enticingly rough seas of selling the thing!



Suzanne said...

What a great book story. Inspiring!

gina said...

Wow. See? That's why selling just ain't on the top of my list of things to do. Not much story there.

Simmons B. Buntin said...

Ah, but we can make a great story in one way or another, eh?!