provocative profiles: episode one, jay baron nicorvo

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jay’s poetry, fiction, nonfiction and criticism have appeared in The Literary Review, Guernica, The Iowa Review and The Believer. his debut poetry collection, Deadbeat, is published by Four Way Books. he’s served on editorial staffs at Ploughshares and PEN America, and worked for clmp. he teaches at western michigan university, where he’s faculty advisor to Third Coast, and lives on an old farm outside battle creek with his wife, thisbe nissen, their son, sonne, and a dozen vulnerable chickens.

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said nick flynn of Deadbeat, “it seems possible that jay baron nicorvo has ingested all the darkness of this life and now breathes fire.” whoa. either nick flynn just accused jay of halitosis, or this book is deadly serious. the collection revolves around a central character, called deadbeat—descendant of john berryman’s mr. bones, marvin bell’s dead man and ted hughes’s crow, to name a few.

Q & A with jay!

nook: you spent many years thinking about the experience of the first time author at clmp. can you detail a couple of surprises you encountered during the publishing process?

jay: the first, biggest and best surprise was the acceptance of the book for publication. i’d been revising the damn manuscript, off and on, for ten years, my own private odyssey. a version of it was my mfa thesis at emerson college. about, oh, nine years into the rewrite process, i had a dream that woke me in the middle of the night. i jotted down a note in the dark. in the morning, i read, “make deadbeat a character running through every poem.” then i spent another year revising with that idea in mind. when done with this draft, i made a shortlist of indie publishers i’d come to admire in my time at clmp. Four Way Books was at the top of the list and they were the first place i sent the ms. i got an acceptance from martha rhodes a few months later, and she didn’t want me to change a word. that was another surprise.

other surprises? matthea harvey agreeing to provide the cover image. finding campbell mcgrath and terrance hayes willing to write blurbs after i emailed them cold, knowing only their poems. terrance got his nba nomination right after he agreed to look at my ms. i kept telling him, if he couldn’t get around to it, no sweat; he had bigger things to worry about. he said it was no problem. he took the ms. with him to nyc for the award ceremony and said he’d get around to it then. that came as a surprise; the guy’s as good as they come, as a poet, as a person. then he won! no surprise there; if anyone deserves it, it’s terrance—and we joked the ms. was a good luck charm.

it was a surprise to see my book debut on the poetry foundation bestseller list, and then to get a review—never mind a good one—from Publishers Weekly. i’m surprised PW still makes room for poetry, and i attribute that to craig morgan teicher, who’s a stalwart champion for poetry and indie presses. we would have little of the former in this country without the latter.

nook: i know Four Way is an all-star operation, and its queen, martha rhodes, a most committed warrior for poetry. it must have been great to have your first publishing experience with such a loving and supportive publisher. what were some challenges you faced with her along the way, and how did you address them?

jay: “loving and supportive” perfectly describes martha. i call her my literary godmother. she granted my wish of publishing a book. one thing that makes her so wonderfully effective—so loving and supportive—is her accessibility. she’s involved and available, always. she cares about her writers like a mother cares about her kids. and so, as your question rightly intimates, any challenges we faced, we faced together, and there were a lot of them.

each phase of the publishing process is a challenge—securing the blurbs, finding art for the cover, the month spent answering the author questionnaire, the three passes through the ms. with the copy editor—and that’s only on the author’s side. the publisher’s side is even more challenging, because they’re dealing with multiple books at once, and poets are a persnickety bunch. but because martha is who she is, she’s surrounded herself with a staff as effective, as caring, and as involved as she is. i worked closely with ryan murphy, bridget bell and victoria mccoy. they all challenged me to help them make the best book we possible could. and we did.

nook: how has becoming a dad and becoming a published author, within months, changed your relationship to writing?

jay: the two—becoming a dad, publishing a book—are, for me, inextricable. Deadbeat was accepted; three months later, thisbe gave birth to sonne. sonne was born two months prematurely; the book felt long overdue. on top of it all, at the heart of Deadbeat is the father-son relationship: how it breaks apart in countless ways, how parts of it last a lifetime, and longer.

having grown up without a dad, i was afraid of fatherhood, afraid i’d be doomed to fail my son the way my father failed my brothers and me. but now that i’m a father, i feel little of that fear, and fatherhood has come naturally. having written for so long without a book, i was afraid i’d never publish one. now that i’ve published a book, i no longer feel that fear either. other than that, though, little has changed. after all these years, writing is what comes naturally.

having a book, like having a son, helps me to know that i’m not wasting all of my time in the world; i have something, someone, to show for my myself. i’d like to think such validation—that i write, that i exist—is unnecessary, but i often find i need proof, painful as that is to admit, even if the proof doesn’t make life, or writing, any easier.

too, being a dad has opened me up. i’m slightly less self-centered, more interested in writing from points of view that have little to do with my own. also, i now write in between diaper changes. there’s a change for you.

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