This is the eighth interview of the "Where are we now?" series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. Please leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.
Interview with Leah Maines
over the phone
25 March 2010
Note to readers: Leah is the senior editor of Finishing Line Press, which published my poetry chapbook, The Significance of Swans.
IA: First, why don’t you talk to me about your own writing? You are a poet?
LM: I am a poet. I have published in journals and anthologies, and two chapbooks. My first chapbook was the first of the New Women’s Voices series. And that is what started Finishing Line Press, as a matter of fact. I had entered my manuscript in a chapbook contest and it came in as a finalist. I was a new writer. If I had known better, I would have just continued submitting it. But I didn’t take the time to do that. I did not want to self-publish, so I talked somebody else into starting Finishing Line Press! So many small presses start out this way: somebody gets their friend to start a small press to publish their work. My friend started Finishing Line Press and launched the New Women’s Voices series. She published a few books—one or two chapbooks a year—but publishing wasn’t really her passion. In 2002 I took over the press because she didn’t want to do it anymore. I bought the Press and moved everything to Georgetown, KY.
Later, I won the Kentucky Writers' Coalition Chapbook Competition for my second collection, Beyond the River. I just put together a bunch of poems that had been in journals and anthologies. I thought, Well, I’ll see if anything happens. And so I did; I submitted it, and I won! With my first collection I came in as a finalist. I do not recommend doing it that way, now, but I was a young writer then and I didn’t know any better. I was so guarded of my work and I didn’t have any confidence. I didn’t go to workshops. I didn’t speak to a lot of other writers, so I didn’t know what you’re supposed to do. But when I won, that was great.
IA: Can you describe your poetry to us? Do you think of yourself as a formalist? What techniques do you use?
LM: It’s all free verse. I write a lot of love poetry. I love to read forms. I love to read sonnets. I really love to read poetry that I know poets have put a lot of work and thought into. I know how difficult it is to write it. When I read that, I appreciate it very much. I take note of that.
IA: It’s difficult to write good love poetry, too. Are there other poets that you use for inspiration?
LM: Billy Collins is my favorite writer by far. I believe his work will outlive him. The first poem of his I ever read was “Splitting Wood.” It was in Poetry Magazine. The imagery in that poem stays in my mind. I see the wood teetering, tottering on the block before it falls in two pieces on the ground—sort of like a long-time marriage before it splits into divorce. That poem still stays in my mind.
IA: He’s very clear: he writes visual, memorable poems. They are also readily accessible. Is that true of your own work, as well? Do you strive for very clear, accessible verse with memorable images?
LM: Yes, I do. Absolutely.
IA: And is that what you look for in the manuscripts that you read?
LM: Not always. I like that, but I don’t always look for that. I think that it’s important as a publisher to have diverse voices and not to get stuck just publishing the same stuff over and over again. That’s why we strive to publish people of different cultural backgrounds and different voices. I love nature poems; I love good love poems; but it’s difficult to find them. I very rarely read good love poems. We tend to publish a lot of nature poems. But not always. I love sonnets, but we don’t get a lot of submissions of sonnets. People don’t want to write them, I guess.
IA: They’re difficult; they take very close attention. You see a lot of nature poetry; do you see any other trends? What other topics do you see passing across your desk quite frequently?
LM: Well, a couple of years ago there was a trend of mythology stuff. I hated it. I don’t know who was workshopping that. That was about three years ago, I guess. Everybody was sending me that! I couldn’t stand it! I couldn’t wait until it was over with!
IA: What was wrong with it?
LM: I just didn’t want to read it! I was glad when it died out, finally.
IA: How long did that last?
LM: A year? A year having to read that over and over again!
IA: Is there another wave right now; are you seeing something that must all be coming out of the same workshop right now?
LM: I don’t see anything right now other than various types of nature poems. And I see some political stuff right now.
IA: Positive political voices, or critical?
LM: It depends on whose side you’re on. You can take that however you want it. We’ll just leave it at that. We get some really weird submissions. People send me the weirdest things sometimes. There will be manuscripts with spells in them—incantations—witchcraft. I get the weirdest stuff.
IA: Is that common?
LM: Yes, it is common. I don’t know why.
IA: Do you think that these themes you’re seeing in poetry are microcosms of larger movements in our society as a whole?
LM: I think the political stuff is. I don’t think the mythology stuff was.
IA: Now, when we look back at literary history at certain time periods, we can see themes and trends. When we look from a distance, we can say: “The Seventeenth Century was concerned with such-and-such.” Do you think that these trends you are seeing are the ones scholars will point to when they look back at us three hundred years from now?
LM: That’s an interesting question. I’ll have to think about that more.
IA: How many manuscripts do you see in a given year?
LM: In a given year, about two thousand.
IA: So that’s a pretty good cross section of what’s being written around the country?
LM: Yes, it is.
IA: That’s not just for the New Women’s Voices series; that’s everything? That’s old and young, male and female, established and new writers?
LM: Yes. That’s all submissions. We get about two thousand total.
IA: That sounds to me that if you see these themes, that’s a pretty good indication of what people are writing all around the country right now. As a publisher, obviously you’re trying to make your selections based on quality and to a certain extent on trying to have different voices. Are you also intentionally trying to cause a certain wave in American writing? You see two thousand submissions a year. Are you trying to cause something to happen in the American literary movement?
LM: As editors, whether we intentionally do that or not, we will select what we like. So whether we want to cause something to happen or not, we select what we think is good. Also, there are times that we might not necessarily agree with someone on certain issue, but I still feel that they have a right to be heard in spite of personal objections. If it’s good, I’ll publish it, at times. Let me tell you why. I am a devout Christian: a Messianic Jew/Jewish believer. And I’m an ordained minister as well. But I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of expression. I have to be able to allow voices to be heard. I have to be willing to go ahead and publish things that will offend some Christians.
IA: You’re also in a unique position because the opposite is also true: You’re not going to reject a religious piece just because of its religious content either.
LM: Absolutely not. We publish people of many different faiths. The quality of their work was beautiful and I felt that they needed to express it and it was something that I wanted to work with. There are a lot of people using that freedom of expression and of speech for other purposes. You have to be willing to just refuse it. I am very, very devout. A very, very devout believer. I don’t compromise the Scriptures. I don’t think I’m compromising.
IA: The quality of the literature is an important factor as well as the content. I think you’re taking that into account.
LM: Absolutely. We publish it based on the quality.
IA: Do you want to make a predication about what you think is going to happen to American poetry in the future?
LM: I don’t know what’s going to happen: I just hope it keeps happening. It’s on a good trend right now. It’s popular right now, even in Hollywood. Right now we’re publishing Melora Walters: she’s one of the actors on HBO’s “Big Love.” She’s our book-of-the-month author right now. We had F. Murray Abraham singing poems at Carnegie Hall. He sang poems at Carnegie Hall in New York City—from one of our books: Lethe, Postponed by Ilene Starger. It was absolutely amazing! Poetry is very popular right now. It’s becoming very mainstream. Actors are liking poetry. Regular people are liking poetry. I see a lot of poetry being quoted. A lot of people are really enjoying poetry. As a publisher I’m a little concerned about where chapbooks are going to go; I guess we’re going to have to learn how to adapt to Kindle and other e-readers.