"The Allegory of the Hat"

by Bonnie Bolling
When asked about publishing my first poetry collection, alarm bells always go off. It’s been out nine months now, and the entire process still seems mysterious, painful even, like being in Plato’s cave, interpreting the shadows. But I shall try to decipher it here for you. The first thing I can honestly say about publishing a first book is to not think about publishing at all. Period. The thing you must do, and I say this from my heart, is to write the very best poems or stories possible. You must reach very deep and tap into something that can only come from you. Difficult? Yes, but stories of the human heart never lie, do they?
My one, firm rule, if it can be called a rule at all, is to show up at the table every day. Preferably at the same time. This is where the writing will take place. Stay until you get some things down, or until your back hurts and you must take a walk or iron something. Or cook. Stay until the demands of the concrete world pull you away. This part of the process always includes the drafting of new work and the editing of previous work.
Once this has been done with a good amount of success, you wear a different hat—this hat is less ‘you’ and more ‘Player.’ This is the part where you format your work perfectly, prepare brief cover letters, and send things off to a variety of journals and magazines. Congratulate yourself as you walk home from the post office. Go ahead, buy yourself a coffee. Then, forget about it. Go back to work.
What will happen now is one of two things: Someone will accept your work, or they will decline it. This is not a cause for great emotion one way or another. Ideally, you have done your homework. You’ve done the writing. You have researched—meaning have read—the particular publications you are hearing from, and the ball is in their hands. If they accept, well, of course, because after all, you sent them your very best work. And if they decline, well, it’s not your fault because you prepared and sent them your very best work, right? Besides, you are still wearing your ‘Player’ hat, so you will feel fine. Now, put on your ‘you’ hat and go back to work. Most writers will tell you that, if you keep at it, one editor or another eventually will find what they are searching for in your work.
When you feel you have enough material to fill a book, you may now begin to submit to book prizes, contests, or open readings. I suggest all three, paying special attention to first book contests or presses. (It’s a good idea to have a budget line for submitting, so you’ll have to put the third hat on now. This hat represents work of a different kind—my third hat is ‘editor.’) The book submission process takes time. Again, as manuscripts return, you might look them over, think about how to tweak them a bit, then send them back on their way. If the submission places at all, this is a very good sign.
For my first book, this was pretty much the process. It started with the different kinds of work. Eventually, it placed a few times in various contests and I kept at it. I was beginning a new series of poems and fooling around with a novel when notice came from Briery Creek Press that Tom Sleigh had chosen my book for the 2011 Liam Rector Poetry Prize. I didn’t yet own the appropriate hat to wear for this occasion, so being naturally skeptical I had to do some checking. Yep. It was true. Now this is where things started becoming like being in Plato’s cave. My book was actually finished. Someone else was responsible for it, and now they would be doing the work—my hands were tied. And somehow they managed and made it into a real book. Okay, this is the part where you may laugh a lot, out loud, and step out of the cave. I did, especially at AWP, where I signed books and felt like a rock star for five minutes. Now, that was a really great hat to wear.      

   © 2011 Bonnie Bolliing                                                                                                  Web site design by R. Cocco