PR for Writers & Filmmakers

An Interview with Red Hen’s Keaton Maddox

*This post originally appeared on Anthony Mora’s blog, Notes from the Salon

I met Keaton Maddox (if that was not a writer’s name, someone would invent it) when he was a guest speaker at a writer’s conference. My wife and I also had the good fortune of sitting next to him at lunch. His passion for literature, particularly poetry, was palpable. It had been quite a while since I had heard someone talk with such zeal about poems and poets. It did my heart good.

Keaton is the Associate Editor of Red Hen Press, as well as the Assistant Managing Editor of the Los Angeles Review and Senior Editor of Write Bloody Publishing. Books he has edited have received reviews or feature coverage in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Slate, Poets & Writers, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is a graduate of the George Mason University creative writing program and his writing and scholarship have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Keaton graciously took the time to answer some questions about writing, reading, publishing and offered some tips on a writer’s roadmap.

What first drew you to writing?
I first became interested in writing poetry for the very reason you would expect a pubescent pre-teen boy would become interested in poetry: to swoon a girl. I was in middle school and my seventh grade English teacher assigned us to write 25 poems of all different forms as part of our unit on verse. At the time there was a girl I sat with at lunch I had a crush on who loved horses. So I wrote a 25 poem collection all about horses (I remember only one distinctly—a concrete poem that I laid out on Microsoft Word to be in the shape of a galloping horse). The girl also wrote her collection about horses and that gave us all of 10 minutes of something to talk about. I don’t think she ever even read one of my poems. But the seed was sowed. If I could churn out 25 poems about something I hardly knew anything about, what if I wrote about something I actually enjoyed? It took me a few years to find what that was, but that was the jumpstart I needed to begin seeing myself as a writer.

Who are three writers that have influenced you the most?
This is a really hard one. There are so many, but let’s go with Ted Berrigan, Maggie Nelson, and Brendan Constantine.

Berrigan’s The Sonnets was the first really astonishing book of contemporary American poetry I read in a college classroom. On a first read, the poems make no sense—intentionally! —but by the end you start to see lines you’ve read before, but in different arrangements and orders. It’s only after you’ve finished (and mostly likely read the book a second time) that you begin to see how all of the pieces take on new meanings depending on where you locate them. For me at the time, this technique was a revelation, completely different from the confessional poetry the poems of my workshop classmates. A lot of the projects I’m working on now were inspired by Berrigan’s collages, and are attempting to work in a vein similar to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen—bringing real world issues, facts, and personal experiences into juxtaposition to uncover what exists underneath the tension.

Maggie Nelson is one of those writers who’s especially known for her prose writing but is also a brilliant poet. I find a lot of times my favorite prose writers were poets first (see also Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station or Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, etc.). Maggie Nelson belongs to the academic school of writers, which means her writing, even in cases of personal narrative, is firmly planted in extensive research and often deals with subjects grounded by scholarly theory. What is especially exciting about Maggie Nelson, though, is that she’s writing for more than an insular circle of esoteric professors. She’s creating public scholarship in the vein of Barthes, but even more accessible and applicable for our times. When you read The Argonauts or Bluets or listen to her speak you spend the whole time thinking “Wow, this woman is a genius.” Yet you aren’t jealous or upset with her at all for it because she totally lacks pretentiousness. She wants to share the truth she’s uncovered and there are few greater privileges than being able to listen into it and learn. Even if you can’t relate at all to her subject matter, she writes with such understanding of the human condition you will feel it as universal truth.

And finally Brendan Constantine, who writes in a very different style than either of these other two, but is still an artist I would place in the category of clever poets. He’s a performer so his poems are designed to be read out loud, by him. He’s a Red Hen authors and every time we bring him in for a reading he sells out every copy of his books. He knows how to work a crowd, but that in no way means that his written word isn’t up to par. He has this way of making you look at a word or phrase you’ve heard or thought of a thousand times, but then twisting it into something entirely new. One of my favorite examples of this is in his new book Dementia, My Darling, which is all about memory and forgetting. In it there’s a narrative poem called “The War on Drugs” in which he describes in all of its absurdities what it would be like if the War was the thing on drugs. It’s surprising at every turn and yet familiar in a way that feels honest.

You have a great passion for poetry, what draws you to that particular form?
There’s a line in the Derrick Brown poem “Sour Mash” that I think sums it up well: “a great line of poetry was a bullet and novels were a long choke.” Finishing a long novel might be the best feeling in the world, but it requires time and commitment and the choice to spend hours investing in an isolated experience instead of doing anything else. We’re in the internet age and our attention spans require more immediate gratification than they used to. Poetry has the ability to grab you by the throat and change your whole worldview in less than thirty seconds. What other form of writing can do that?

It’s difficult enough for any writer to get published, but poets have some challenges that are specific to the genre. What advice do you have for aspiring poets?

Learn the aesthetic of where you’re sending your work before submitting. This does not mean that you should be manipulating your art just so you can be published in a big name journal, but rather that you should be looking for places that champion the type of work you’re doing. So much of the publishing game is about developing a community of supporters, building an audience. With as many different publishers as there are out there, you’re doing yourself a disservice by valuing name recognition over fit.

You are an associate editor at Red Hen Press. How would you describe Red Hen and its mission?
Red Hen Press is a literary nonprofit based in Los Angeles. We are committed to publishing works of literary excellence, supporting diversity, promoting literacy in our local schools, and fostering a community of readers and writers who are actively engaged in the essential human practice known as literature.

More specifically: we publish poetry, literary fiction, and narrative nonfiction, typically between twenty and thirty books a year; run a Writing in the Schools program, which connects local authors with Title-1 schools in Los Angeles to host workshops and encourage student engagement in writing and literature; and put on at least thirty readings and events a year in New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles.

It’s a non-profit company, how does that impact your approach to publishing?
Mostly it means we don’t have to publish every book solely for its potential marketability. Of course, we try to take on books that people will buy because they want to read them—any publisher that claims they’re not attempting to do this is missing the point—but we also have the freedom to take risks on unknown authors or experimental works that won’t guarantee high sales.

Has working in the publishing end of the business changed how you view or approach the writing process?
Working in publishing has, more than anything else, exposed me to new possibilities in writing I would never have discovered otherwise. My favorite find of this past year is the lyric essay. This style of writing tends to be a blend personal narrative and research with unique form construction and poetry-reminiscent prose. It doesn’t have nearly the popularity of the other genres—essay collections get passed over in bookstores even more often than short story collections—but because of the current online literary marketplace, this type of writing has found homes in places like target=”_blank”>The Nervous Breakdown and The Rumpus. In a lot of ways, lyric essays build their structure not dissimilarly from what I like to do with poetry, so I’ve begun to branch out and test its waters, something I never would have done without stumbling upon the form in a submission. This is just one example of many. So often we have a tendency to read only exactly what we know we enjoy for pleasure, but working in publishing has forced me to consider different approaches the writing and opened up my eyes wide to the endless possibilities.

What do you feel are the two biggest misconceptions new writers have about publishing?
If you’re rejected it’s because your writing was bad. There are a whole host of reasons why a particular piece or manuscript might be rejected and often times they’re factors the author has no control over. For example, sometimes an author will send us a manuscript that looks like a perfect fit—they did their research and know this the exact type of book we like to publish—but we may have just accepted a similar book and now we don’t have room in our production schedule to publish something on that same topic again so soon. You can’t take rejections personally.

Once accepted, you will retain complete artistic control over the production of your book, especially in regards to layout and cover design. We try our best to produce a product the author will be happy with—if you hate the way your cover looks, you won’t want to promote it as hard, and that’s bad for us and the book—but ultimately the publisher-author relationship is a collaboration. We work with designers and sales reps who have collective lifetimes figuring out what will make someone pick a book off the shelf. You have to trust that your publisher wants what’s best for your book too, even if it isn’t exactly what you first envisioned.

In many ways the internet has disrupted the old publish model. Where do you see the industry headed in the future?
It certainly has! We’re in the middle of converting our bi-annual print journal The Los Angeles Review to an online format. Disruptive indeed—the internet is both a blessing and a curse for publishing. On the one hand, the increased exposure and accessibility is unprecedented. Never has it been easier to find amazing writing than through the internet. But it also means that what we publish isn’t just in competition with other literature; it’s in competition with everything available online. You have to make an audience pay attention to your work instead of watching YouTube videos or scrolling for hours through their Facebook feeds. The publishers that succeed in this market are doing so because they’re pushing the boundaries of what we can expect and developing a community (see The Offing, Two Dollar Radio, Button Poetry. All of a sudden, networks of people you never would have had access to are able to read and easily share your work. I think we’ve yet to see the full culmination of what this will mean or become, but one thing is for certain: if you can figure out how to adapt, there has never been a more potent time to make a name for yourself in the writing world.

What advice would you give to writers who feel overwhelmed by the changes? Is there still a roadmap? Was there ever?
There’s definitely still a perceived road map—write until you get into an MFA, publish in journals until you achieve name recognition, publish a book, become famous—and this strategy has worked for many writers, but not for everyone. If you get too bogged down by what you’re supposed to be doing, it can end up feeling like a game, and by that point you may end up caring more about publishing than you do about writing.

In my opinion, the only road map that matters is this: 1) Write write write. 2) Promote promote promote. You have to focus on the art and you have to hustle. Tour even if you don’t have a book yet. Cherish the people that love your work and champion the writers that you love. Be as involved with your literary community as you can, either in your area or online. Connect and contribute and work on your art. If this sounds like a sprawling answer, that’s because there is no one path to success. You have to forge what works for you. But if you focus on your writing and support other writers with theirs, the rest will reveal itself.

Many thanks to Keaton, who lives, writes and edits in Los Angeles, for taking the time to share such insightful answers. To learn more about Red Hen Press visit http://redhen.org



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