The Lowdown: I’m in the middle of writing my second book of poetry. I wondered how other poets who have finally published their second book approached it and felt about the process, etc. And then there’s all kinds of other quirks related to the writing, publication and reception of their second books. So I asked them. Here is one result.
Who: Zachariah Wells was born and raised on PEI and now lives in Halifax, following sojourns in Ottawa, Halifax, Nunavut, Montreal, Halifax and Vancouver. He is the author of the poetry collections Unsettled (Insomniac Press 2004) and Track & Trace (Biblioasis 2009); the co-author, with Rachel Lebowitz, of the children’s story Anything But Hank! (illustrated by Eric Orchard, Biblioasis 2008) and the editor of Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets (Biblioasis 2008) and The Essential Kenneth Leslie (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2010). He has worked as an airline cargo handler/agent, as a railroad service attendant and as a freelance writer and editor. A collection of his critical prose, Career Limiting Moves, is forthcoming from Biblioasis.
IL: First of all, any second thoughts about your first book?
ZW: The publication of Unsettled was something of a fluke. I don’t have the classic story of doggedly shopping around a ms., collecting rejections and cursing philistine editors. I submitted it cold to one publisher—who very sensibly turned it down—and then didn’t bother doing it again. Some time later, to make a long story short, some connections I made on the internet from my work-site in Resolute Bay, NU, led to Paul Vermeersch soliciting and accepting the ms. at Insomniac. Had that not happened, who knows if I’d ever have got around to sending it out again. I wasn’t feeling very motivated to publish.
As is very common, I think, with first books, if I were doing it all again today, I’d change quite a bit. Mostly, I’d delete a number of weaker poems. The book was too long—as I’ve come to believe most poetry collections published today are. That said, there is a core of poems from that book that I’m still quite proud of and that I think stand with the best of anything I’ve done since. But it’s not the sort of book I could ever see myself publishing again; in many ways, it feels like someone else wrote it.
IL: How important do you think staying with the same publisher is, and why?
ZW: That depends on a lot of factors specific to each case, so I can’t comment generally, other than to say you should stay with a publisher if you feel good about it and move on if you don’t. In my case, I changed publishers. Not because I was displeased with Insomniac, but it just wasn’t a terrific fit for me. Biblioasis’ vision of how a book should be made was closer to my own and I liked that they were a small press dedicated exclusively to literary books and to high production values, whereas Insomniac, as a mid-sized publisher, had a lot of other irons in the fire and so, by necessity, no individual author could receive the same kind of attention I could count on from Biblioasis; Insomniac’s production values erred on the utilitarian side, too, which was good in terms of keeping the price of my book down, but made for a less aesthetically pleasing object than I would have liked, ideally. I published two other books with Biblioasis prior to the publication of my second trade poetry collection, so in a way I was staying with my publisher, with whom I’ve developed a terrific professional and personal relationship over the years. (I was on the editorial board of Canadian Notes & Queries, a magazine published by Biblioasis, for a couple of years before I published a book with them.) At this point, it would take something pretty damn tempting to woo me away from Biblioasis.
IL: Was your approach to the second book different than the first, and if so how?
ZW: My first book was a geographically unified collection: all the poems were set in/inspired by the Arctic region I lived and worked in between 1996-2003. During that period, I wrote quite a lot of non-Arctic poems, some of which were collected in a ltd. ed. chapbook, Fool’s Errand, which was published a few months before Unsettled.
So the short answer is that my approach to my second book was already well underway before I published my first book. That said, as per my remarks above, publishing my first book and doing quite a bit of editorial work thereafter led to a heightened awareness of the perils of publishing. I felt that I should have waited longer, refined the book more, and I was determined not to rush a second book into print. My second book could have been published earlier—besides Insomniac, several other publishers had invited me to submit a ms.–and it could have been much longer, but I feel that by waiting and being more selective, I produced a much stronger collection than I would have otherwise. Several readers have said that they’re impressed by how much I improved from one book to the next. I don’t think I’m necessarily that much better a writer—particularly considering that around 1/3 of the poems in T&T predated the publication of Unsettled, in many cases by years—but I’ve become a much better critic of my own work—in part from all the reviewing I’ve done of other people’s books—and generally more conscious of audience and more in control of my material. I think of it in baseball terms: a young pitcher comes up from the minors throwing heat. He might strike out a lot of guys, but he’s wild. More of a thrower than a pitcher. I’ve learned how to pitch better.
IL: Was your second book easier or harder to write, and why?
ZW: As my answer to the previous question implies, I don’t really write books. I write poems and when I have a pile of them I try to figure out which ones fit together in a book-like way. I never have much of a clue what I’m going to write next. I prefer it that way.