Dreifus, Erika. Birthright: Poems. American Fork, Utah: Kelsay Books, 2019. 86 pp., $17.00.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What motivated you to create a poetry collection?
Erika Dreifus (ED): I’m not at all certain that it’s something I set out to do. First came the motivation to write individual poems. I’d written poetry occasionally when I was a child/adolescent, but I’d become much more of a prose writer in adulthood. In 2007, following a move from Massachusetts to New York, and after getting settled in a new office job, I found myself seeking to express myself in new forms. That’s when I began a series of online poetry courses. I didn’t know, then, that I’d eventually create a collection that would include some poems I first drafted in those classes.
TWM: What strategies did you use to organize the poems into this order?
ED: There were several: studying other poets’ collections; literally printing out the poems and arranging them (and re-arranging them); investing in a marvelous poetry-manuscript workshop at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) Postgraduate Writers’ Conference (mine was taught by Kathleen Graber); and asking Matthew Lippman, one of the instructors I worked with in one of those early courses, to review the manuscript and advise me.
TWM: You thanked many mentors and classes. For your work, what benefits did they provide you?
ED: Too many to enumerate! But as I mentioned just above, in some cases, I received concrete advice and suggestions, whether about sequencing poems or revising them (or omitting them from the manuscript entirely).
In some cases, mentors and courses introduced me to poems and/or poets who were new to me—those taught me by example and, in some cases, inspired new poems of my own. And in one transformational series of classes, led by Amy Gottlieb at the Drisha Institute and combining the study of Jewish texts with creative-writing prompts and exercises, I discovered an entirely new direction for my work, which I was fortunately able to continue pursuing with some of my classmates after Amy’s courses ended. (I’ve met some really wonderful people along the way, too! That’s also a benefit.)
TWM: How important is it to submit individual poems for publication before they get incorporated into a collection?
ED: I think that it’s important. Many poetry-book publishers/editors seem to expect that at least some of the poems in a manuscript will have been published elsewhere first. In that sense, it can be something of a prerequisite.
But there’s other value to sending out poems for publication on their own before they’re part of a book. For starters, editorial feedback at that level can also help improve the work before it’s included in a collection. (It can also help you realize that a poem needs further attention/revision.)
Also, having poems published along the way can sustain the ongoing project. It’s validating to receive acceptances, and to have poems published and/or win awards along the way. As I said earlier, I began writing the poems in this collection in 2007. That’s twelve years ago. Twelve years is a long time; publishing individual poems throughout was encouraging.
TWM: How do you know when a poem requires revision? Can you describe your process?
ED: I have one friend who seems to draft perfect poems from the start. I’m not joking when I say that if I drafted poems like hers, I would send them out instantly. Her work is that good.
Alas, my first drafts are nothing like hers. All of my poems require revision. The question is: How much revision? How many drafts? How many seemingly “tiny” changes?
I can’t say that I have a defined process. It varies for each poem. I can say that workshops, and instructor feedback, have also shaped revisions.
And one other thing: Sometimes, even a published poem may benefit from revision. There are some poems in my collection that I’ve revised between their first appearances in journals/on websites and the iterations in Birthright. Again, there’s no single formula or process.
TWM: What was your greatest challenge—and your greatest satisfaction—in writing this book of poetry?
ED: I return to the same answer for both questions. Organizing and sequencing the collection was a significant challenge—so much so that resolving it is probably at least as significant a satisfaction!
TWM: What do you want other writers to know about Birthright?
ED: Perhaps it’s more something that I think other writers may be interested to know: Many poets already understand that the road to getting a first collection accepted for publication can be quite long; it can also be quite expensive, since so much of the poetry-publishing pipeline involves contest and reading fees. I tried to be especially attentive to fee-free opportunities—and especially selective about sending the manuscript to fee-charging competitions and publishers. I think other poets may appreciate knowing that I invested a total of $167 in fees, for 16 submissions over 15 months, in this process.