By Emily Holland

Steven Leyva was born in New Orleans, Louisiana and raised in Houston, Texas. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in 2 Bridges Review, Scalawag, Nashville Review, jubilat, Vinyl, Prairie Schooner, and Best American Poetry 2020. He is a Cave Canem fellow and author of the chapbook Low Parish and author of The Understudy’s Handbook, which won the Jean Feldman Poetry Prize from Washington Writers’ Publishing House. Steven holds an MFA from the University of Baltimore, where he is an assistant professor in the Klein Family School of Communications Design.

Ahead of our Craft Happy Hour chat with Steven Leyva, we talked with him about the journey from manuscript to publication, working with a small co-op press, and the importance of finding a writing community. This interview has been edited for style and clarity.

EH: I remember your Cafe Musé reading a little over a year ago, and you mentioned that you were sending out the manuscript for publicationcan you walk me through the process of creating this book? How long have you been working on these poems? How long was the manuscript out for submission?

SL: The earliest poems in this manuscript were written around seven years ago. And there were several things that I experienced or that I had the opportunity to participate in during that time. One of the things that I was doing at the time is that I had finished my Cave Canem fellowship. Some of the poems in the manuscript began at the Cave Canem retreat.

I also was able to go for a month to the Vermont Studio Center and do a residency up there, so there are many poems in the manuscript that I wrote while I was in Vermont. And that was great. There was a whole community of writers and visual artists all interacting with one another. It was definitely one of those things where the environment was so stimulating that I know I carried that back when I went to my studio there to write. A lot of that energy was already churning, and it helped me to produce a lot of new work.

I would say that in terms of sending it out, I probably sent it out in this current form for about two years. I resisted some changes that were actually really important changes that came from feedback from mentors and friends that really helped me to kind of get over the hump. Some of it was just I was probably letting my frustration with the book not being selected affect my ability to see where it could grow and get better. It was a semifinalist for the New Issues Press first book prize, so there were a couple of things like that happening in between that were affirming, but nothing is as affirming as someone telling you yes to your manuscript, so I was really excited when I got the call from Washington Writers’ Publishing House.

Right, it’s kind of like getting those warm rejection letters where it’s nice that it isn’t a straight rejection, but you really wanted that acceptance.

Yeah, rhetorically it’s the same. We tell ourselves the narratives to not fall into despair. But really I think what might actually be more useful, and obviously I’m not a counselor or a psychologist, but something that’s been useful for me is to simply acknowledge that the narrative of having “tough skin” is a failed one. You can’t have tough enough skin. A rejection is always going to affect you. So why not just let it affect you a little bit so that you can move on? Rather than pretending that there are these strata or hierarchy of rejections. Just feel what you gotta feel and keep moving. I’m not trying to set up anything prescriptive for anyone, rather that that’s a paradigm shift that helped me as the rejections piled up. Although there weren’t an overwhelming amount of them. I probably undersubmitted, I would say.

You mentioned kind of resisting some changes to the manuscript that maybe ended up helping it get accepted. Could you talk about that transformation in yourself, as a writer?

I don’t know that there’s a direct relationship between the changes I made and the acceptances, but I do know that the manuscript overall was better, so we might draw that correlation. Essentially, what I think I had to let go of is a narrative that I did it all on my own. There’s a pervasive and kind of insidious sort of thing to be able to say, whether implicitly or explicitly, that “I did it all out of my own genius” or, you know, “it was my great ideas, it was my hard work, I just stuck at it” and sometimes obscuring the ways that people have helped you.

I think that people were trying to say things like “Hey, I think you should change these section titles.” I had all these Greek theatre terms for section titles and several folks giving me feedback were like “I don’t know if these are the right ones, here are some reasons why.” I had a friend, Cynthia Manick, who’s got a fantastic book Blue Hallelujahs, who sort of reached out to me and said, “Hey, I’ll give you a manuscript review for free because I can tell that you’re really in the weeds with this.” And she made some similar suggestions that I’d heard before, but I think I had begun the process of not being afraid to ask for help and not sort of trying to guard my own ego there. Ultimately, I said to myself I would rather have the book picked up than I would have the narrative that I did it on my own.

I don’t need the sort of false, fierce independence, you know? Community helped me, which is I think mostly true for how many people get their manuscripts picked up. They get introduced to an editor at a party. Somebody recommended them. They met somebody at a retreat. It’s a lot of that interpersonal interaction that, from the outside, can sometimes be deformed into a sort of nepotism, like everything is this rigged system, but it really isn’t that. I think the better way to say it is that relationships play a role in the way that people find your work. So you can’t be an asshole and then expect that to somehow not play a role in how people find and engage with your work.

So I was kind to people, I’m a generally affable and kind person, so it wasn’t really that. It just simply was that I think I might have been trying to manage my frustrations by holding tight to this value of wanting people to see my hard work rather than letting the previous work of relationships help me to do hard work.

I’m thinking, too, about the structure the Washington Writers’ Publishing House has, that kind of co-op where previously published authors help run the press, and how that forms its own kind of community. What was the process like working with them as a publisher and seeing the book go from accepted to now printed?

It’s really been a dream working with Washington Writers’ Publishing House. They’ve been very, very good to me. One of the things I think that the co-op and collective structure of the press allows for is that I had a lot of autonomy in making some choices about the book that at another press I might not have had.

For example, I got to pick my own cover designer and I chose to work with someone who I knew from grad edition of school whose work I really, really enjoyed. His name is Writer’s Andrew Center Sargus Magazine Klein, and he works for the Enoch October Pratt Free 10, 2020 Library here in Baltimore City. Being able to have a dialogue with somebody who I already had a relationship with I think helped the process of getting a cover that I thought was unique and representative of the book and interesting and kind of evoked curiosity.

The idea that everybody on the press who’s working in an editorial role is also a published author on the press I think lends itself to allowing for greater autonomy to happen along the production process.

But also I just got really good and attentive editorial feedback about how to polish the manuscript from what I submitted and what was selected for the Jean Feldman Poetry Prize into what became the final thing we sent to the printer. There was just a lot of wisdom I think born of a deep and sincere belief in the artistry of the book, not simply in just how much money the book might make. Which for poetry is always nebulous anyway.

They believed in the poems, and I knew that that belief was born out of their own engagement with writing poems themselves and writing fiction. I couldn’t have been happier. They were excellent to work with and the right fit for my quirky little book and my sensibility. It felt like an easy home to be welcomed into, and I felt very welcomed at every stage of the process.

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