An Interview with Poet Abigail Chabitnoy
Nov 16, 2018
By Colorado Review Managing Editor Katherine Indermaur
Abigail Chabitnoy was an intern at the Center for Literary Publishing and Colorado Review from 2013 to 2016, while earning her MFA at Colorado State University’s creative writing program. Her debut poetry collection, How to Dress a Fish, is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in spring 2019.
In this interview, Abigail Chabitnoy walks us through her experiences as a student, writer, and poet seeking publication. She was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow, and her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Boston Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, and Red Ink, among others. She is a Koniag descendant and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak, Alaska; grew up in Pennsylvania; and currently resides in Colorado. Visit her website at salmonfisherpoet.com for more information and updates on publication.
1. What was your experience at CSU like?
Honestly, I had an incredible experience. I had reluctantly decided to pursue poetry when I sent out applications to MFA programs. I originally thought I’d study fiction, despite the absence of some critical craft elements in most of my stories, and it was only at the insistence of my mentor from my undergraduate program that I sent out applications to poetry programs. I ultimately chose CSU because I felt the program would challenge my writing to develop, and to say that it did would be an understatement. The diverse aesthetics of the poetry faculty at CSU expanded my reading and awareness, pushed my own personal aesthetics and my critical response to works outside my comfort zone, and challenged me to be purposeful in my own craft decisions while also being patient and thorough. I also benefited from a wonderfully generous—and small—cohort of fellow writers while I was a student, which made for intimate workshops, a supportive network, and plenty of attention from my professors. (I’ve even dropped by office hours since graduating for advice in the professional sector post-studies!) I didn’t have a teaching assistantship, but internship opportunities at the Center for Literary Publishing and work-study positions in the English department provided additional work experience, and I had much more time to devote to my own writing and reading.
2. Can you describe the experience of getting your poetry manuscript accepted for publication, and what it’s been like to work with a university press?
An absolute roller coaster of hurry up and wait! I don’t mean that in a negative way—my editor, copyeditor, and everyone at Wesleyan have been terrific. But the process was certainly not without surprises. The first, of course, was when my thesis committee told me the manuscript was ready to send out. I think part of my experience in getting the manuscript accepted was a bit of luck in terms of who read the work when. When I submitted the manuscript to Wesleyan, they were actually closed to unsolicited submissions, but another press had already had the manuscript to review, and in talking to other writers I’d met at fellowships and conferences, I decided I wanted to see if there was a chance Wesleyan was interested. At the encouragement of an advisor who had previously published with Wesleyan, I queried Suzanna Tamminen, the director and editor-in-chief of the press, including a synopsis of the work—but not the work itself—and crossed my fingers. Suzanna quickly agreed to read the manuscript, but it was several months before I heard that she was interested in sending it out to second readers, and even longer until those second readers responded to her, at which point she still had to approach the board before finally accepting the manuscript for publication. I think all told, it was over a year from submission to acceptance. I’d just begun to send it out for a couple first-book publication contests when I received the e-mail from Suzanna. The timing was the hardest part to navigate, especially because I did want to give Wesleyan the first opportunity to review the work. The press has been excellent to work with. I had to re-break nearly half the poems in the book when it was determined the trim size would be more traditional, and the copyediting and proofreading team were very accommodating of my sometimes less-than-legible margin notes and proof marks.
3. In what ways did interning at the CLP help you prepare for getting your own book published?
While I had experience in proofreading from working in New York prior to CSU, interning at the CLP definitely helped with a better understanding of why certain decisions were made and how involved each step of the process was—and how any accompanying changes to the document complicated that process. I think this not only cultivated a respect for the work and for professionalism of the editorial team on the other end, but also made me more careful in my own review, even after I felt like I couldn’t look at the document anymore!
4. What is your writing practice like these days?
Notes, notes, and more notes. Some reading and frantic mornings trying to remember what a poem is, what it can be. Honestly, I was a little burnt out after the MFA program, but I think this had as much to do with having finished the manuscript at the same time. There was a lot of closure all at once, and suddenly I was back to square one with all this free time on my hands as I tried to figure out what was next—and I felt like I had nothing left to write! I journaled mostly during that time, just to keep in the habit of getting to my desk. And, of course, I read a lot. But for at least the first six months after graduating, I almost exclusively read novels. I’m still trying to figure out the work life/writing life balance, and still feel like I write more notes than poems, and these build up faster than I can catch up and take stock of what I’ve written. But I’m beginning the process of conscientiously going back through my journals and the notes I wrote—in little notebooks and in the Notes app on my phone—and trying to figure out what’s there. Lately I’ve really struggled with how to write poetry in a world that seems to be falling apart at every turn, but I also recognize that at least a good chunk of that feeling of collapse comes from a greater awareness of, and reckoning with, my own privilege. I also follow the news more closely these days than I ever did. Part of that started out for my work as a consultant, in an effort to stay informed and find news and articles that might interest our stakeholders. But I’ve started to collect interesting headlines, news articles that catch my eye, and have been returning to some in tandem with the notes and dreams I’ve been recording lately, trying to use poetry to try to maintain some kind of grounding as well as cultivate . . . well, not hope exactly—I’ve never been good at optimism—but at least a new or alternative perspective that might open a new angle of approach. My first book was very research-based, and to that end I am still trying to learn more about my Alutiiq history and culture, and I still take notes when doing this research. Because of my work schedule, at a more pragmatic level, I suppose my practice is constant note taking, thought collecting, dream recording throughout the week; poetry reading in the mornings before work and something related to poetry at lunch—whether that’s a craft article, working on a poem, reading something I saved on Facebook, or often these days homework for the Alutiiq language and cultural orientation classes I’m taking online. If I have time after classwork, I’ll read more in the evening (though I’m more likely to read fairy tales or graphic novels in the evening than poetry or critical texts). I don’t really get much time at my desk until Thursdays and Fridays, but I’ve recently had to actively cut back at my day job to create this time when I realized I was drowning in notes.
5. What keeps you inspired? (You’ve written some book reviews for Colorado Review. Does that kind of thing help you feel connected to the writing community post-MFA?)
My proximity to CSU and continued participation in that community definitely plays a large role in helping me feel connected to a community post-MFA. Holding on to that community has definitely been the hardest part of life after the program. A few of my fellow graduates and I tried to establish an e-mail workshop, but it didn’t survive long with everyone’s competing daily demands. I have friends I’ve met through fellowships and conferences, and I’m trying to continue to meet and engage with more writers. Honestly, their confidence in me, as well as my professors’, inspires me to keep going even when I feel that writing poems is the most absurd thing to be doing in the midst of one national/global crisis after another. (No, really—I’m terrible at optimism.) Part of my persistence is also probably rooted in stubbornness. I left a good opportunity in New York to move across the country to pursue poetry, and while I’d often like to quit and become a professional baker, I don’t think not writing is really an option at this point. I do love writing book reviews as this not only keeps me current in work that is coming out, but also keeps me in practice of thinking and conversing critically about poems. I wish I had time to write more of them!
6. What do you wish you had known about the book publishing process when you were first sending out your manuscript?
I think I’m still learning what exactly I do and don’t and should know, as I’m still very much in the process, but I do wish that perhaps I knew to approach the conversation of book design—like trim size—earlier in the process. I had a lot of very long lines in my manuscript, deliberately (one line even commented on the importance of where one breaks a line), and was thrown into a bit of a panic when I learned the trim size of the book would not be altered to accommodate them. I also think the process might have been less stressful personally if I knew just how long it can take to go from initial interest to committed acceptance and contract. I think this is very different from press to press, as well as poet to poet, but I had nearly convinced myself Wesleyan simply wasn’t interested as months went by after the initial expression of interest before I received any update.
7. What advice do you have for poets looking to publish original poetry manuscripts?
Network widely—but sincerely. A lot of the opportunities I’ve had have come from friendships and relationships I’ve formed at workshops and conferences. And while networking was something that filled me with dread when I was starting out, I realized that when you’re trying to form relationships with people whose work you are generally interested in, and who you’re interested in forming a relationship with for the sake of them as a person, without a clearly defined approach of “what can this person do for me,” it’s not really networking. Or it is, but in the sense of building a genuine personal network of support and relationships. Also, while I would not send a complete manuscript to someone without asking—unless it was an open submission period—I’d also say it’s worth championing your work and taking a risk to reach out and ask someone if they’d be interested in reading it. But I caution to consider whether or not you can clearly articulate why you think your manuscript would be a benefit for them to read despite the fact that they’re not currently looking. Also, be persistent. For every accepted publication or application, I’ve had a dozen more rejections.
8. What’s next for you, as a writer or otherwise?
Oh, I wish I knew! I have a strong, type-A personality who likes to have a plan, and frankly, for the first time, I don’t really have one. I’m sort of trying to figure it out as I go. While it took me some time to start writing again after the MFA program, I do have some projects in mind I’d like to pursue, but they include some time in archives in D.C. and the Aleutian Islands, as well as travel to California to build a traditional Alutiiq kayak. I’ve done some readings in anticipation of the book’s release, and am starting to turn my attention to lining up more of those. I’ve considered pursuing a PhD in creative writing, but ultimately decided my current schedule allows more reading and writing, and is perhaps what I need at the moment. I would like to get more involved in teaching, especially working with youth, as well as nonprofit work with indigenous communities, building off of my experience as a research associate for a consulting firm that focuses on supporting tribal self-determination initiatives, and I’m always looking for an excuse to move closer to the Pacific Northwest coast. I also just completed my first broadside and linoleum cut, and have always been interested in poem comics. So maybe more work incorporating graphics with text? But for now, I’m just continuing to focus on the work at hand–trying to arrive at a better view of where we collectively are or could be going the only way I know how: through poems.