The Chapbook Interview: Katie Phillips on the Art and Poetry chapbook

How did your chapbook, Driving Montana, Alone, begin?
With loneliness. I had been moving every year for a few years, not really finding anything to hold me anywhere. I lived in Montana prior to writing poetry, moved to Illinois and started writing more seriously, and then decided in 2001 that I would give Montana another try. I had the mistaken idea that my happiness depended on the beauty of the place I lived and (sorry, Midwesterners) Illinois was just not cutting it for me.

My second attempt at living in Montana wasn’t a good experience (I moved back to Illinois within a year), but I wrote consistently during that time. I traveled the state according to the poems in Richard Hugo’s book “The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir,” and the title poem of my book came from a trip to see the old mining town he describes in “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.” I remember that drive so clearly, how badly I wanted to share that day with someone, and the poem came together very quickly. Most of the other poems were edited after I left Montana, but a lot of the grist came from writing I did while living there.

How long did you spend writing it?
The poems that ended up in the final version were written mostly between 2001 and 2006, and I started sending some version of the manuscript out in 2006. I didn’t ever sit down to write a book, but after enough time, it seemed the thing to do with all those poems.

Did you have the opportunity to workshop it in a classroom setting?
No, the book as a whole was never workshopped. The poem Reincarnation was shopped in 2008, and some of the other poems have been seen by a few eyes over the years, but I have not been actively involved in an ongoing workshop since the early 2000’s.

How many versions did it go through before you reached the final?
Hard to say. Probably 10, if you count all the slight changes in addition to the poem swaps I did from time to time. By 2008, though, it was pretty much where I wanted it to be and I stopped playing with it between contests.

How did your peers and teachers shape the revision process?
The poetry peer I consult most often is my husband, who is an excellent soundboard and is never shy to tell me when I’m saying either too much or not enough. At a workshop with Eamon Grennan in 2008, my classmates (and Grennan himself) helped me to distill the poem Reincarnation, which was initially much longer and more explanatory.

How much time did you spend to find a home for it?
About 5 years. I was a finalist pretty early on in the process (ByLine Magazine in 2006 and Flume Press in 2007) and that helped to keep me going. I kept telling myself that it was just a  matter of finding the right home, and that kept me from getting too discouraged when nothing happened for a couple years.

What about the publication of the individual poems prior to the acceptance from Slapering Hol Press? Many of these poems first appeared in print. Do you seek to publish your poems in print, online or a mix? Is there a balance you prefer of published and unpublished poems in a collection?
I’ve never published anything online (without a corresponding print version) and will probably continue to send just to print journals as long as they continue to exist. I’m not particularly disciplined about submitting to journals, so most of the poems weren’t published prior to appearing in the book.

Whether a poem had been published or not wasn’t a consideration when I assembled the book; I just picked what I thought were my best poems.

Tell me more about your poetry and your photographs in Driving Montana, Alone. I’m enamored with the conversation the poems and the art seem to be having across the collection. There’s something so haunting and lovely, yet lonely in many of the images—a feeling that is echoed in the poems. How did you go about putting such a sequence together?
Thanks! I’m quite enamored of it myself. Nearly all of those pictures were taken during a time I was desperately unhappy and so it’s been a good experience to see that pain turned into something beautiful.

I wish I could take credit for the design, but I can’t. I submitted just the poems to the contest. When Margo Stever and Peggy Ellsberg, my Slapering Hol Press editors, first talked with me about revisions, they also asked what questions I had for them. I suggested that it would be pretty great if the cover could be a photograph I had taken in Montana (I figured I might as well go all out–the worst they could do was say no). They had concerns about the cost, but when they talked to the designer about it, he asked if I would send him some pictures.

I pulled a few pictures out of frames, scanned them, and emailed them to him; he asked for more. I spent an afternoon digging around in dusty boxes in the garage and scanned (since none of the pictures were digitized and the negatives had long disappeared) 25 or so more.  He put together 2 proposals for Slapering Hol–one version that interspersed the pictures with the poems and one that was more standard, without the photographs (which I never saw).

I love how it turned out!

Tell me about that cover design and layout. I like the spiral binding because it works well with the heavier stock paper for the photographs. Too, I like the contrast between the color cover and the mostly black and white interior photos. It seems to suggest something particular clear and honest about what the poems convey. How involved were you with the selection of cover and the interior layout and design?
I was surprised by the spiral binding when I opened the first box of books, and I wasn’t sure I liked it. It was so different from what I expected. But it grew on me pretty quickly. I’ve heard many compliments, too, from people who like to be able to just flip the pages back and leave the book open to one of the poems or pictures.

I’m not sure how the designer and editors decided which pictures would be in color, but having most of them in black and white was a decision reached mostly because of financial constraints, I think. I like it, though, and feel it conveys a kind of desolation that suits the book.

Regarding the cover photograph, I lobbied hard initially for a different one (which is elsewhere in the book), but decided eventually to leave that decision to the experts. The image they chose incorporates more of the book’s elements than the one I had in mind.

What was the time between acceptance of your chapbook and publication date?
Margo Stever, founder of Slapering Hol Press and one of my editors, called on August 3, 2010 to tell me they wanted to publish the book, and I had the first box of books on Christmas Eve.

How much editing of the poems and manuscript did you do during this time?
A lot of editing happened in the interim. A few poems were removed, a few were added, and a lot of small changes were made. I had never worked with editors before, but Margo and Peggy were great. They made excellent suggestions that helped the poems shine without changing their essence. And when I disagreed with them (which wasn’t often), they respected my position and allowed the poem to stand as I had originally written it.

When did you know, really know, Driving Montana, Alone was done and ready for the world?
I’d like to say when I opened the box of books the day before Christmas. But, really, it wasn’t until my book release party in mid-January 2011 that I saw my work going out the door in people’s hands and felt good about it.

Once you’d sent the final version of Driving Montana, Alone to Slapering Hol Press, how long did you wait until you had the chapbook in your hands? What did you do during this time?
About 9 weeks. To bide my time, I started a Facebook page, worked on arrangements for a reading and book release party, sent out a lot of press releases (locally and in Montana and Iowa), and contacted as many places I could find in the Chicago area that had poetry events.

It seems there might be a lingering sense among some poets, writers, and editors: poets must win prizes. Even the May/June 2012 Poets & Writers discuss the necessity of contests to bolster memberships for journals, covering part of running and managing a contest, and creating opportunities for writers of poetry and short story collections a venue for publishing their books and chapbook. Your chapbook won a prize, as well as being a finalist for other chapbook contests. What advice would you offer other poets considering contests and open reading periods for their chapbooks?
Thanks for bringing this up. I hadn’t read the article when I got your questions, but I have now. The article talks a lot about winning a contest as a door-opener for a lot of other opportunities, such as another book and a university teaching position. For me, though, having the book published was the end in and of itself. Not to say that having won the contest didn’t open doors for me and make connections I wouldn’t have otherwise made, but I just wanted my poems to be immortalized in book form and didn’t think too much about what else winning a contest would mean. That said, I also aimed high and started mostly with contests that offered large cash prizes and a trip to read somewhere; I figured I might as well get as much out of it as I could. But I also entered smaller contests that weren’t able to offer large prizes. And if the manuscript had gone out much longer without finding a home, I would have started to move away from contests and query small presses directly about publishing the book.

My advice to poets considering contests: it’s expensive, so do your homework. For each contest I entered (and for many that I didn’t), I purchased the previous year’s winner and researched the judge’s work. If I didn’t like what they had published in the past (or I liked it but it was too different from my own work to think they’d be a good fit), I didn’t enter the contest. I figured it was better to spend $12 to learn that I didn’t want to spend $20. Get to the point that you feel confident enough in your work that you’re not editing the manuscript every time you get it back–keep the variables to a minimum and just keep sending it. And whatever you do, don’t let them all come back. I lost a year of submitting because I let them all come home rejected and I was too disheartened to send them out again.

Has winning a chapbook contest shaped the way you approach writing in some ways?
I don’t think so. Despite my answer to the next question, I try to keep just one poem in front of me at a time and don’t ever sit down thinking, “And now I will write my book…” Doing so would be overwhelming; I can barely write a long poem, much less tackle a book!

What current projects are you working on?
I’m eyeing a full-length manuscript right now, tentatively called “Birds I’ve Known.” I say “eyeing” because I’m never sitting down to write A Book, but rather to write good poems. But the larger goal is a full-length manuscript, even though that’s not my concentration from day to day.

Number of chapbooks you own: 20ish

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 50-60

Ways you promote other poets: Going to readings, buying books

Where you spend your poetry earnings: In lieu of pursuing my MFA, I’m trying to work every year with a poet I admire. All my poetry earnings (plus some of my salary from my regular job) go toward this end. In the last 4 years, I’ve worked with Eamon Grennan in New York; Joyce Sutphen in Minnesota; and Ellen Bass, Dorianne Laux, and Marie Howe in Virginia.

Inspirations and influences: Billy Collins gets a big mention here. I heard him read “Japan” in Joliet, IL before he was Poet Laureate and was floored. It sounds trite, but I had not known that poetry could be like that, and learning that it could be was a big turning point for me. All the funny little paragraphs I was writing could finally become something!

Kenneth Rexroth’s “100 Poems by the Chinese” has been and continues to be a large influence on how I approach my work. I want my work to sound as fresh in 1200 years as theirs does today. Not that my poems will survive, but thinking about them that way gives me a useful perspective.

Residence: Geneva, IL

Job and education: Church Administrator; B.A. in English Literature from the University of Iowa

Bio: Katie Phillips grew up in Maryland & Colorado and lived in Montana before moving to a suburb of Chicago. She has a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Iowa and feels fortunate that she can walk to work with her dog, Sasha. Her poems have been published in the Cider Press Review, the Raintown Review,  The Same, and elsewhere. She has studied with Eamon Grennan, Joyce Sutphen, and Dorianne Laux. In February 2011, the title poem to her first chapbook, “Driving Montana, Alone,” (winner of the Slapering Hol Press 2010 Chapbook Competition) was read by Garrison Keillor on NPR’s The Writers’ Almanac.” Katie can be contacted at:

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