Leah Maines, Senior Editor of Finishing Line Press
Jendi Reiter conducted this exclusive email interview with Leah Maines, senior editor of Finishing Line Press. Founded in 1998, Finishing Line is located in the Bluegrass region of central Kentucky. The press runs two annual contests with prizes of $1,000 apiece: the New Women's Voices Chapbook Competition for women authors with no published books (deadline February 15) and the Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Competition (usual deadline June 30, extended last year to July 15). Up to 10 finalists from each contest are also offered publication. Finishing Line's books have won prizes such as the Appalachian Book of the Year Award and the San Diego Book Award, and have been featured on Garrison Keillor's “The Writer's Almanac” radio program and the PBS television show The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.
Zalla Scholar and Mazak Scholar Leah Maines lived in Gifu, Japan where she researched classical Japanese poetry at Gifu University. She has also studied at Kings College in London, England and The Marino Institute in Dublin, Ireland. She is currently seeking her Masters of Divinity at Cincinnati Christian University Seminary. Her works have appeared in numerous national and international publications including Nebo, Owen Wister Review, Licking River Review, Flyway and other litereary magazines and anthologies. She is former Poet-in-Residence of Northern Kentucky University (funded in part by the Kentucky Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities).
Maines is the author of two collections of poems. Her first book, Looking to the East with Western Eyes, New Women's Voices Series No. 1 (Finishing Line Press), was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Williams Carlos Williams Book Award (Poetry Society of America). The book reached #10 in the “Cincinnati/Tri-State Best Sellers List” (Cincinnati Enquirer), and is now in its fourth printing. Her most recent collection, Beyond the River, won the Kentucky Writers' Coalition Poetry Chapbook Competition and is now in a new second edition.
Leah lives with her husband and three children in Central Kentucky. She is an avid golfer, and collects golf balls (and poetry chapbooks) from around the globe.
Q: Tell me about the history and mission of Finishing Line Press.
A: Finishing Line Press was founded in 1998 by CJ Morrison. I took over the press in 2001. Our vision has been to launch new talent. We are always looking for well-deserving poets to publish.
Q: Why did you decide to specialize in publishing poetry chapbooks?
A: Chapbooks are easy to publish. The cost and time commitment for a full-length collection is massive compared to the chapbook. We would only be able to do one book a year if we limited our books to a full-length, and in fact, we only do one full-length collection per year. In 2009, we will publish our first novel. However, we publish over 100 chapbooks per year.
Q: Do you take a special interest in the literature of Kentucky or the South? What is distinctive about your region's literary scene?
A: While we do make sure to publish at least one author from Kentucky per year, we do not focus on Southern literature. We have authors from every state in the USA including Hawaii and Alaska, and many international authors, too.
Q: What factors have most often made the difference between a prizewinning chapbook and a near-miss?
A: That's a difficult question to answer. It is sometimes so very close, but it can come to this—do the poems flow well together? Do they have some kind of common theme? Do they form? The best manuscripts have poems that work and blend well with each other. Those are the ones that win.
Q: Do you see Finishing Line's titles as having a consistent “voice”, either in terms of style or subject matter? Assuming that a manuscript is of publishable quality, what makes it especially right or wrong for your press?
A: Nope, we have many “voices”. We have around 600 titles either in print, or under contract.
Q: Do you cultivate ongoing publication relationships with your authors after their first chapbook is published? Why or why not?
A: Yes, we have done second and even third books by the same author. If I believed enough to publish his or her first book, then chances are high that I will want to see more of his or her work in the future. I also nominate my best authors for book awards. I think it is important to support my authors by nominating them for awards.
Q: Your contests are notable for giving runners-up a good chance of publication. How do you ensure that each chapbook receives the personal attention to design, editing, and marketing that would give it the best chance of success?
A: Actually, we publish over 100 books per year. We have a team that works with each author in each process. The author has a say in the process.
Q: What is the press run for your titles, and how long do they stay in print? How many copies does the average prizewinner sell?
A: Our average press run is 500. Several are 1,000. Our books stay in print until they sell out and we have an option to do reprints. Some titles sell out quickly, some do not.
Q: Have you or your authors found creative ways to build an audience for particular Finishing Line titles? Please share any success stories that could help other poets gain recognition for their published books.
A: I've always been a big fan of getting out there and promoting yourself. I think it is very important for poets to get connected. Have a website. Join poetry groups. Do readings. Join Facebook. When you have gigs, send out press releases to your local newspapers, TV stations and radio stations. I have been in newspapers and on many local TV shows and radio stations just because I sent our press releases.
Q: Have you helped set up readings for your authors? Please share any creative ideas about finding venues for chapbook readings and sales.
A: Yes, we have for locals, but we help our other authors connect to each other to do group readings, and we give them ideas on how to connect to do readings. Ask your local independent bookstore to have you in for a reading if you have a book. If you don't have a book yet, see if you can do a reading at your local coffee house. The best thing to do is be bold and ask.
Q: The conventional wisdom is that it can be harder for chapbooks to get reviewed or stocked by bookstores, as compared with full-length books. Why might an author think about publishing a chapbook instead of saving those poems for a longer manuscript?
A: You don't need to “save them for a full-length book”. The chapbook is where you introduce the poems and prepare them. Then you move them on to the bigger collection. Many of our authors have gone on to include their chapbook poems in the full-length collections, some of which have won awards. For example:
Jacqueline Kolosov, author of Why Plant Bougainvillea, had her poetry collection, VAGO, published in May by Lewis-Clark Press. Portions of Why Plant Bougainvillea are included in this full-length collection.
Michael Miller, author of Leafing Out, was chosen by Stephen Haven as the winner of the Robert McGovern Publication Prize, sponsored by Ashland University. His book of poems, The Joyful Dark, was published in 2007 by Ashland Poetry Press. Portions of Leafing Out are included in this full-length collection.
Jason Tandon, author of Flight, has recently had his first full-length poetry collection, Wee Hour Martyrdom, published by Sunnyoutside. Portions of Flight are included in this full-length collection.
Paul Willis, author of How to Get There, has included a number of poems from that Finishing Line Press chapbook in his first full-length book of poetry, Visiting Home, published by Pecan Grove Press.
Michelle Bitting, author of Blue Laws, is the winner of the De Novo First Book Award for her full-length collection Good Friday Kiss. Thomas Lux was the judge. Portions of Blue Laws are included in the full-length collection.
Leigh Anne Couch, author of Green and Helpless, was the cowinner of the 2006 Zone 3 Press First Book Award sponsored by Austin Peay State University and chosen by poet Richard Jackson. Her book of poems, Houses Fly Away, was published in October 2007. Portions of Green and Helpless are included in the full-length collection.
Tara Deal, author of Wander Luster, is the winner of the 2007 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize, sponsored by the Texas Review Press. Her book, Palms Are Not Trees After All, will be published this summer. Selections from Wander Luster are included in the novella.
Julie L. Moore, author of Election Day, was selected as a finalist in Carnegie Mellon University Press's Poetry Series this fall for her full-length poetry manuscript, Slipping Out of Bloom. Included in her book are poems from Election Day.
Susan Settlemyre Williams, author of Possession, is the winner of the 2007 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Book Contest for her full-length collection Ashes in Midair, selected by Yusef Komunyakaa. Portions of Possession are included in the full-length collection.
Jeff Worley, author of Leave Time, won the Kentucky Literary Award for excellence in poetry for his newest book Happy Hour at the Two Keys Tavern (Mid-List Press). He received a cash prize of $1,000. Portions of Leave Time were included in the full-length collection.
Q: Please recommend some Finishing Line titles that would give prospective entrants the best overall sense of what the press is looking for.
A: Really, you could go to our website and select any of our titles to get a sense of what we publish. I think Still Here by Charles W. Pratt gives a good sense of one of our better titles, but again, for a completely different sense of what we publish, look at Bride of Frankenstein & other poems by Carolina Morales, or Beirut Redux by Susan Azar Porterfield.
Q: Apart from Finishing Line's own authors, which contemporary poets do you particularly admire, and what can prospective entrants learn from them?
A: Billy Collins. I just think he is the best. He knows the craft. He knows how to pull on the heart strings and mix all the emotions. He can make you laugh and then turn around in a flash and bring tears to your eyes. Not too many poets can do that. My favorite poem by him is “Splitting Wood”. That single poem changed my life. When I read that in the 1990's I knew I wanted to devote my life to poetry. I had the pleasure of meeting him for the first time this year at the AWP conference in NY. He was very polite. I got to sit right up in the front row and see him read. It was the highlight of my trip. I guess I'm a Billy Collins groupie.
As a bonus feature, Leah has permitted us to reproduce her article, “Self-Promotion for Poets”, which first appeared in the February 2008 issue of Writer's Digest.
SELF-PROMOTION FOR POETS
“Don't wait for your publisher to promote you!” This is the best advice I could offer a fellow poet, whether seasoned or starting out. There are numerous ways you can promote your work. The following suggestions can help you make a splash in your local literary community:
MAKE BUSINESS CARDS. When I first started writing poetry for publication, I made business cards using the title of “writer/researcher”, my name, telephone number, e-mail address, and regular mail address. (Although I'm mainly a poet, using “writer/researcher” kept my options open for other writing opportunities.) I distributed cards at poetry readings, social events, pretty much everywhere.
Once I got an e-mail from a radio host with a talk show about writers and artists. He'd been given my card by a woman I'd met at a college alumni reception. The talk show host asked if I was interested in being on his show. Not only did I do a 50-minute interview, I returned several times to promote events and talk about new writing projects.
Another time I gave my card to an old friend who was working for a local cable television show. She passed my card along to the producer, and in less than a month I was on the air. All that from a tiny business card and a little bit of friendly conversation. Which leads me to my next point—networking.
MAKE CONNECTIONS. Networking is vital to a poet's career. You may be saying, “It's talent that will get me published,” but persistence and networking can make the difference and get you the coffee house gigs, radio and TV appearances, newspaper write-ups, and so forth. The exposure you get from these various media outlets can lead to more demand for your work in print. I've been approached by several editors and publishers who heard me on the radio, saw me on TV, or read about me in the newspaper and asked me to submit poems to their journals.
Not sure how to start networking? Why not…
Join a local writer's group. This is the best way to make contacts in your literary community. Getting together with others who share your passion for the written word is helpful and motivating and a good way to keep informed about what's going on locally. Also, such groups may offer workshops and public speaking opportunities. My writer's group often arranges poetry readings at local bookstores and occasionally publishes anthologies. If you have few or no publishing credits, appearing in your group's anthology can be a good start to building publication credits.
Join your state poetry society. You'll stay better informed about what's happening around your state. These groups often put out a monthly newsletter with publication and grant opportunities as well as information about which members are publishing and where. If you get a poem accepted, win an award, or schedule an appearance or reading, inform your newsletter editor—it's a great way to keep your name in the public eye.
DO A PUBLIC READING. This sounds a little scary, but it can really boost your reputation. If you suffer from stage fright, try reading at an open mic event (usually at bookstores and coffeehouses). Open mic readings are easy, and there's no pressure to read unless you want to. Usually there's a sign-up sheet at the door, so go, sign up, read a poem or two. It's fun, and there's always the possibility that an editor is in the audience. Check your newspaper for listings, and keep an eye out for flyers and bulletin board notices at coffeehouses and bookstores. And when you go, don't forget to take along your business cards.
Once you've braved an open mic reading, consider going solo. Let the manager of a local coffeehouse know you're a poet and available to do special readings. Suggest that you could be their featured reader with an open mic to follow. If you've published a book or chapbook, show the manager a copy. If you don't have a book but your work has appeared in journals and magazines, inform the manager (you could even make copies of the printed poems to show him). Volunteer to prepare flyers and write a news release. Remember to be polite, not pushy.
You could also offer to do a reading at your local bookstore. (This can be a little tricky to maneuver, but it's worth a shot.) Contact the bookstore manager or events coordinator, if they have one. Show her your book or copies of your published poems and explain that you've given successful readings in other venues. Maybe the bookstore would be open to hosting a local poets night; you could gather fellow poets, perhaps from your writing group, to stage a reading. I've participated in such events and they've always been a great success. (The bookstore will probably handle the news release, but when in doubt you can send one out yourself.)
CONTACT YOUR LOCAL NEWSPAPERS. Whether the newspaper is a big urban daily or a community weekly, send them a news release. Most papers have a calendar or similar section where they announce various events of public interest. Contact the paper for the name of the section editor to whom you should submit information. Follow the paper's guidelines and respect deadlines! Your release should be brief and to the point. No fluff—just the “who, what, when, where, and why” of the event. And remember, if the deadline is Tuesday, make sure the editor has your release on or before Tuesday (the earlier the better).
While you're at it, why not contact the appropriate editor and let her know you're available to be interviewed? Tell her about your publication successes and any other information she might find unusual and interesting about you.
It worked for me. While living in Japan, I decided to keep a daily journal in which I wrote poems that eventually grew into a book. I thought my story was unique and hoped the editors of my local newspaper would think the same. One thing led to another, and much to my pleasure, The Kentucky Post ran a half-page article about my life in Japan and my poetry book.
CONTACT YOUR LOCAL RADIO AND CABLE STATIONS. This sounds like a big step, but if I can do it successfully (and I have), so can you. When you schedule a poetry reading, let your radio and cable stations know. Find out if the station has a program that might be interested in having you come on and talk about your event, maybe even read some of your poems (public radio and television stations are more likely to have such shows). Don't be afraid to ask! The worst they can say is no.
Another idea: Local PBS stations often have annual televised auctions where merchants donate goods to be sold on air. This is a fantastic way to get some free publicity. Does your writing group publish an anthology? Suggest they donate some copies for the auction. Do you have a book or chapbook of poems? Donate some to the station; or better yet, ask your publisher to contribute some. My publisher donated copies of my book to our local PBS Action Auction, and they did a great-looking on-air display. If you don't have a book but still want to tap into this free publicity source, why not donate something else and attach a note “donated by local poet [insert your name here]”? Every year I donate items I've purchased from my travels abroad, and I always meet someone who heard my name announced on TV or radio as a result of my donation.
Self-promotion is an art that can really open doors. There's nothing sweeter to a poet than to see his or her poems in print. The promotional work you do to further your writing career is meant to spark people's interest in your poetry. So keep writing and submitting your work to keep up with your public's demand. And remember that exciting possibilities will open up for you when you promote yourself!