“My Tribe” Interview with Sheila Squillante

Beautiful-Nerve-CoverSheila Squillante’s first full-length collection of poetry, Beautiful Nerve, was published by Tiny Hardcore Press in 2015. She is also the author of three chapbooks and the coauthor of a craft book, Writing the Personal: Getting Your Stories Onto the Page, with Sandra L. Faulkner. Her poetry and essays have been published in Brevity, The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, and many others.

Squillante is the Associate Director of the MFA programs in creative writing at Chatham University, where she also serves as editor-in-chief of The Fourth River.

I first read Sheila Squillante’s work in Sweet: A Literary Confection, during the “My Tribe” workshop that inspired this interview series. When our leader, Jennifer Richter, asked us to bring one or two poems from a poet in our tribe (emerging women writers) to our next class, I chose to bring the poems I’d recently found by Sheila Squillante to share and discuss (hear one of them below). I was particularly drawn to her rhythm and the way the images create motion. I still connect strongly to these and other poems by Sheila, and I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to do this interview.

What were some of your struggles with Beautiful Nerve and how did you overcome those issues?

My biggest struggle was with finding a publisher for the manuscript, which I had been actively sending around in one form or another for close to a decade. Before anyone panics (ten years!?), what I mean is that I had what I thought was my “first book” when I graduated with my MFA in 2002, and like many new graduates, spit-shined and immediately began sending it out. So confident! So hopeful! A handful of the poems in Beautiful Nerve—fewer than ten, I think—were part of that original manuscript, which after several years of submitting to the contest circuit, ultimately became two separate chapbooks that each took a few years to land as well. While that process was happening, I was still writing the poems that would become the whole of Beautiful Nerve (which went through three or four other not very good titles) and writing checks for contest fees and open reading periods. Check after check after check. In one three-year period, it was rejected by 35 separate presses, and honestly, that’s not even that much. Many poets I know hit that many each year. I felt an enormous amount of frustration and a fair bit of skepticism about the process and was seriously considering retiring the manuscript and taking a step back from publishing for a while. It was at that point that a poet-friend of mine, without my knowing about it, contacted an editor we both knew at a small press and said, “Hey, how about you take a look at Sheila’s manuscript? It’s good.”

So after all that time, effort and money, a personal connection is what finally got it in front of the right editor, ten years after I graduated. I tell this story realizing that one word to describe this could be “cronyism,” (I knew someone who knew someone) but the other—the one I vastly prefer and stand by—could be “community.” This sort of thing does not happen unless you are intentionally, actively building relationships and creating good will. During those years of submitting, I spent a lot of time doing just that. I went to AWP and smaller regional conferences. I met people and bought their books. I reviewed books and I shared work I loved—mine and theirs—on social media.

None of this ever felt like work to me. It’s not like I was thinking, “I have to do this because I want my book to be published.” If it had ever started to feel slimy or born of self-interest, I hope I would have stepped back to reflect and reexamine my motivations.

It seems like poets, in particular, need to be really proactive in promoting their books, especially first books. Can you tell me about some of the outreach you’ve participated in since the release of Beautiful Nerve and how you think you benefited from these activities?

Tiny Hardcore is what you’d call a “micro-press.” There can be wonderful perks to taking this path that might include more authorial control, closer contact with attentive editors and publishers, and in some cases, more interesting (to me) aesthetic possibilities. (Look at my cover, for instance. Amazing, right? That’s Alban Fisher, who does stunning work for the small press community. Let’s give him all our money.)

The downside is that small presses often don’t have any marketing budget, nor do they have dedicated staff to help authors get exposure for their work. The work they do is truly a labor of love and gritty resolve. Some things I did to help BN along include asking for a pdf copy of the book so I could seek reviewers myself, posting about it on my website (I could be doing more there), doing interviews and sharing (but not over-sharing!) updates about the book and my work on social media. I sent one big e-mail blast to pretty much everyone I knew when the book was finally available. I made up postcards with the cover image on one side and a sample poem and ordering info on the other to take to readings and leave in bookstores before my author copies arrived. I felt that was a worthwhile expense. I did an author signing with the book at AWP.

It also helped, I think, that I am basically a mid-career writer at this point. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I have a big network that grew up organically over many years of publishing in journals, teaching and doing all the above community-building stuff.

Put another way, there are benefits to being old. 😉

Still, I expect the process would have been better and easier if I felt I had more support and direction from the very busy folks on the press side. (Though it should be said that I know writers whose books came out with major publishing houses or university presses who had the same experience of being required to shoulder marketing efforts and floundering around a bit. It’s just where we are in publishing right now.) They did send out a few blurb requests, and that brought me a nice endorsement from a poet I admire. I probably should have pursued more on my own but this stuff takes a kind of endurance I don’t always have.

I’m actually about to get another go at PR stuff because Tiny Hardcore (which was affiliated with PANK magazine), is going through a transition. My book and the rest of the catalog are being taken on by another press in 2016. Unfortunately, until then Beautiful Nerve is unavailable, but I’m trying to remind people it’s still out there by doing interviews (like this!) and readings and such in the interim.

Does working at Chatham University and on The Fourth River feed or influence your writing?

Absolutely. As part of my teaching contract, I am now expected to write and publish. A paycheck is a very motivating thing!

No, the real answer is that working with people (faculty and students alike) who care about writing as much as I do is wonderfully affirming and motivating. They keep me grounded and active in my craft. Last year, for instance, my colleague and I sat at my dining room table on a Sunday afternoon putting together our NEA applications. Misery loves company.

Editing The Fourth River reminds me that the publishing world is dynamic and thriving in many ways. It’s pretty exhilarating, if also daunting, to see all that work waiting in our Submittable queue at the start of each semester. I love being in the position to show MFA students around that world. I want them to form healthy habits and attitudes around writing and publishing which means I am always trying to model that for them. I hope I do.

I’ve also become much more familiar with nature writing as a genre (we are a journal of nature and place-based writing), and with the many excellent writers whose work we are fortunate to publish. Those influences are certainly working their way into my thoughts as well as my writing.

What sort of writing support system do you have? For example, are you part of a writing group?

I do most of my writing alone, now. It’s nice to be at a place in my career where I mostly trust my own instincts. I do have a couple of close friends—not all of them writers—who will read drafts for me if I ask them to. My husband is especially helpful with this. So my biggest support comes from people I get to see once or twice a year at conferences. These are the same people I see and read every day on Facebook, where I spend too much time despite how positive and nurturing it has been for my writing self. (True!)

I do want to shout out one group who I certainly think of as a support system: Barrelhouse Magazine. I’ve been kind of a hanger-on with them for several years through the Conversations and Connections conference they run, but as of January 1, I am officially joining the team as blog editor. I’m excited. They are fun and weird and smart and really, really terrific writers. Nicest people in publishing.

Your job sounds amazing! Can you tell me a little about how you came to be a leader at an MFA program, teacher, and editor-in-chief at a nationally respected journal?

My job is indeed amazing, thank you! How I got it was by being stubborn and persistent for many years, and then, by being on Facebook too much.

After I graduated with my MFA, I stayed on to teach as an adjunct at my university for what I thought was going to be a year or two at most. Two things happened that extended my stay: I was offered the position of associate director of that program, and I met my husband who was in the middle of his PhD. So I learned a lot about arts administration while continuing to hone my teaching and my writing. I kept sending work out to journals and the manuscripts out to contests. I also started applying for tenure-track positions. This is the stubborn part, because the truth was that I really wasn’t qualified to do so without a published book, and maybe especially, without a PhD of my own. The professor for whom I began working as associate director had said plainly to me that those skills would give me a huge advantage on the job market later. I believed her, so I kept applying, PhD be damned.

I didn’t apply every year—I became a mother twice in that time, too—but of the many, many jobs I did apply for, I got exactly one phone interview and one Skype interview, both from universities who were looking to hire someone with teaching and administrative skills.

I don’t say this to be discouraging, but to illustrate just how competitive that job market is and to encourage anyone pursuing an MFA to seek out opportunities beyond teaching that can add to their repertoire and make them more appealing as a candidate. That could be administration or publishing. Grant writers are in big demand, too. And maybe think about getting that PhD after all. This is one of the things I really love about Chatham’s program, actually. We offer students the ability to earn a concentration—basically like a minor—in addition to their MFA. We have concentrations in nature writing, travel writing, food writing, publishing and pedagogy. We want to give our students any possible advantage to help them have a sustainable, fulfilling life after graduation.

There are so many excellent teachers and writers who definitely deserve to be teaching in MFA programs. I hope they keep applying, but I’ll be honest: I was very close to giving up the hope that I’d ever get there. It’s an exhausting process and as I said, I had two small children and a steady adjunct teaching job that afforded all of us benefits if not a huge income. We had lived in our town for fourteen years. I was also over forty years old. I was tired. I told myself I would only apply to jobs if the application felt easy to do. I couldn’t bear expending any more energy.

Then, one day I read an essay which appeared along with one of mine in an online journal and was very moved by it. I went looking for the writer on Facebook, sent her a message to tell her how much I had enjoyed it, and we became friends there. It was literally the next week, I think, that she posted about a job opening at her university. I saw it and thought, “I could do that.” So I applied at the eleventh hour. And I’m so glad that I did! Chatham is a great place. I love my colleagues and adore my students. And the fact that they trusted me to take on The Fourth River in my first semester was the cherry on top. Of course, that wasn’t a completely blind decision as I had been involved with the publishing world in various respects for several years, but it was still a risk for them and I’m grateful they took it. With the launch of our last (truly spectacular) online issue, Queering Nature, I’m pretty sure they’d say it paid off.

What are you working on now?

I am about two thirds of the way into a new book of poems about a character who I’m telling people is “mostly human, most of the time.” I call her Round Baby and though we share some experiences and characteristics, she is decidedly not me. This is the first time I’ve ever written fiction of any kind and I have to say it’s been pretty fun and surprising. The poems follow her from birth up to about age fifteen. She’s my age so that means she gets to spend adolescence sporting unfortunate big hair and listening to Def Leppard on her Walkman. I think she’s awesome.

Learn more about Sheila Squillante

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