Our blog’s ongoing “On the Books” series introduces you to writers from our growing list of Fresno State MFA alumni who are getting their first books published. The sixth installment profiles Guiseppe Getto. His writing has appeared in Sugarhouse Review, Slant, the Santa Clara Review, and others.
In a July phone interview, MFA communication specialist Jefferson Beavers spoke with Guiseppe about returning to poetry after a two-year drought, working through the lottery of poetry book contests, and whittling down an existing body of work into something new.
When were you in the Fresno State MFA program?
I started the MFA program in poetry in 2002, and I finished officially in spring of 2007. I actually did two degrees there; I also did the MA in composition theory. I can’t remember which one I finished first, but I think I finished the MFA last because that’s just the way it worked out.
What were your first thoughts when you learned that your chapbook, “Familiar History,” would be published?
My first thought was: Is this really happening? [Laughs.] As with many writers, this thing had been shopped around all over the place. It had been sent out to countless contests. I had a full-length book version of it at one point that I was sending out. It wasn’t for lack of trying! Ironically, this was one of the last places that I sent it to. I was totally excited, but it was kind of a shock that after all this time it was finally getting taken. I was excited, of course, but disbelief was my initial reaction.
I know you were in a Ph.D. program at Michigan State for five years, shortly after you got your MFA. Were you still writing poetry and shopping around the manuscript while you were focused on the Ph.D., or did you take a break from poetry?
For the most part, I’ve been writing poetry the whole time. I published a few poems in literary magazines, off and on. My first publications, actually, came during my Ph.D. I entered a drought when I first got my current teaching job here at East Carolina University. I didn’t write for several years. About a year ago, I decided, okay, I’m going to dust this stuff off. I’m going to try again and send some stuff out. That’s when my chapbook got taken. So, poetry has been more of an avocation for me at this point, but I still have been pretty dedicated to it.
Did parts of your chapbook grow out of your Fresno State MFA thesis manuscript, “Psychoagricultural,” and if yes, what was the process like to take what was your thesis and make it into something more?
Absolutely. There’s a lot of that thesis in my chapbook. Things changed and morphed and took different forms. The title piece from the thesis, which I renamed to “Agricultural” – I decided that “Psychoagricultural” was a little, I don’t know, pretentious? [Laughs.] – it’s actually in the chapbook. A lot of it did change. I think I took the best poems from the thesis and revised them heavily.
One thing that I’ve learned about revision over the last several years is that given a long enough timeline, you can turn anything into a diamond. I think that’s really why this chapbook got taken finally. It got to a point where I think the collection was really solid, largely because I separated the wheat from the chaff. It took me a long time to do that. A lot of these poems, I’ve had around with me forever. You get attached to them, and you think wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever written. And then, you know, five or six years later, you’re like, maybe it’s actually not that good.
Also, the submissions process helped me, sending things out to literary magazines. You see what gets taken. You’re like, oh, this is what people want to hear, interesting. I wouldn’t have picked that poem. It causes you to refine your style. So yes, there’s a lot of the thesis that’s still in this chapbook, but it’s also very different.
I’d like to read to you an excerpt of your thesis abstract from 2007: “These poems are written mainly during the last five years but many of them began very much earlier, some of them even in my childhood, perhaps. In this way, I’ve carried them with me and carry them with me still, with the rhythms of my body and my memory.” Can you talk about those rhythms, and how they might come up in your current chapbook?
It’s definitely a theme that I’ve kept with me. I think somebody once called Philip Levine a poet of memory, and I think that’s definitely the case with me as well. I write a lot about things from my memory, things that I’ve sort of been carrying around for a long time. To hear that sentence from my thesis is interesting, but over the last several years I’ve started thinking of it in a different way, as applied to landscapes.
A lot of times when I sit down to write a piece, the first thing I think about is the landscape that the piece is going to happen in. I started thinking about this phrase: the landscape of memory. What shape does it take? What are the boundaries of it? What are the objects in it? I’m thinking of landscapes very broadly. It might be a room, but more broadly it’s the sort of place that things happen in. That is still central to my work.
I started recently – and I think there’s quite a bit about this in the chapbook, and it’s where the title comes from – pulling in other people’s memories too, through history. I’ll sit down and write something and then start doing some research and think, oh, I wonder what happened in this landscape a hundred years ago? Then I’ll find some interesting things that I wouldn’t have thought. So yes, my approach has changed. It’s not always so much about my own personal rhythms and memories, but that’s still part of it.
How did you find about Finishing Line Press, and what about their work is a good fit for your chapbook?
I’m a pervasive submitter. I find and submit to any press that I think is legit. I think I originally found them on the Poets & Writers website, where they have that database of independent literary presses. I still send to the mainstream presses like BOA Editions and others like that. But I kind of gave up on the really competitive contests a while ago. I still do submit to them. It’s like entering the lottery, you know. [Laughs.]
I submitted to a different chapbook contest around the same time I submitted to Finishing Line, actually, and I got a notice back. It was a small contest I hadn’t heard about before, and they were like, “We got over 600 chapbook submissions this year.” And I thought, oh my gosh, the odds are so against you with these contests.
The first thing I do whenever I find a press that I might submit to, I go to their website and I look at what they’re publishing. Are they publishing good poetry? Because there’s a lot of independent presses that were started by folks off the cuff and the work is not so good. But Finishing Line is an established press. They’ve been around since 1998 and they specialize in poetry so it felt like a good fit. Also, the reading fee was low. [Laughs.]
Some of these presses charge 20 or 25 bucks just to read your manuscript. It’s daunting. You send out to 10 of those and you’re investing $250. There was a lot about their work that attracted me to them, but in some ways it honestly was just another press that I submitted to. I would definitely publish with Finishing Line again. They were great to work with. Very professional, lots of tips on marketing your book. I’ve had a good experience.
How did you decide on the chapbook’s title?
For the longest time, this manuscript, in whatever form it was in, was called “Borderlines I Have Known.” There’s a poem in the chapbook with that title and it’s largely about the borderline personality disorder that several of my family members suffered from when I was growing up, but it’s also about borderlines in landscapes.
I was sending out both manuscripts concurrently at one point, a full-length version – which I’ve largely scrapped – and the chapbook version. There’s not going to be a full-length version of this book, I’ve decided now. I think I’ve got the best poems out of it. When I looked hard at what’s remaining, I thought, no, this needs to just be a chapbook.
I wanted to separate the two manuscripts, so I left “Borderlines I Have Known” as the main book and I changed the title of the chapbook to “Familiar History,” which is also a poem in the book. The poem is also about landscapes and memories of growing up. Then afterward I thought, hey, that’s a better title! It was one of those incidental choices you make along the way that you don’t realize is the right one until later.
It seems like that becomes symbolic choice too, right? When you’ve shifted from working on one book to a whole different book, it creates a sort of separation, yes?
Yes, that’s when it became what it needed to be. It depends on the press, of course, but the page limit for Finishing Line is something like 32 or 35 pages. So, when I had to shrink down to that size to submit to them, it made me think hard. What are really the best poems in this manuscript? You have to make tough choices. It became clear to me that a lot of the poems I excised were not my best poems, and it was a good thing that the best poems got published in this form.
Outside of writing poetry, what work are you doing to make a living?
I’m an assistant professor of English at East Carolina University. I teach as faculty in the same department with Liza Wieland, weirdly enough.
Yes! Liza, of course, previously taught at Fresno State. How close is your office to Liza Wieland’s?
Our offices used to be closer, but now she’s an associate dean and her office is farther away. We’re still on the same floor, but she’s kind of tucked away in the important-people section and I’m still with the faculty.
I did do my MA in composition as well at Fresno State and I really got excited about teaching when I was there. That became a second passion, along with the scholarship of teaching, and that’s what I did my Ph.D. in, which led me to East Carolina. My job now is the teaching of writing—not creative writing, but more business writing. That’s what I’ve been teaching to make a living.
It grew out of necessity. I went to Fresno specifically to get the MFA, but I had to teach, like many people do. Then I discovered that I was as passionate about composition as I was about creative writing, and I didn’t expect that to happen. That grew into a career, and it has been good. Careers are tough to find, and it has been nice for me to have creative writing as an avocation that I can keep up. I can still be professional about it and push myself. And, it’s not work, you know?
Sure. It feels good to have a professional outlet but not have it tied to your work.
Exactly. I’m glad it ended up this way. I am passionate about my work and I think I’m in a fortunate place. It’s a good position for me. Plus, my department is very open to crossover. No one was freaked out when the business writer published a chapbook of poetry, even though I’m in a tenure-track position that’s largely devoted to the teaching of writing. No one cried foul because there’s a lot of interdisciplinarity here.
I was looking at your faculty profile on the ECU website and the research interests you list. Could you tell me more about some of your academic-side interests?
One thing that happened when I got here is that I was encouraged by several faculty – and I think this was the right move – to really focus on the academic side of things, to work toward tenure. My faculty profile before, at my first teaching job – this is actually my second tenure-track job – was at a small school in upstate New York. There, I did a lot of both. Here, it’s a more competitive school. It’s a Research 2 university, so they really encourage me to focus on the academic research. Now that I’m nearing tenure, maybe I’ll go back in and add poetry to the profile.
So, teaching writing is the broader field. Composition is the home discipline, and I’m in a sub-field of that called technical communication. Composition focuses more on writing for school, and technical communication focuses on writing for work. The younger version of me is like, how did you end up doing something that boring? [Laughs.] But actually, it’s quite interesting.
Writing for work has changed so much. You’re not just teaching the memo and the business letter anymore. In fact, I rarely teach that sort of stuff. Now, I’m teaching how to develop a social media campaign, stuff like that. Writing now requires a lot of on-point creativity that it maybe didn’t in the past. I’m even introducing some basic web design. It’s a growing field.
All the research is showing that people don’t write well when they get into the workforce. Technical communication, as a field, really grew up around this research. There are a lot of jobs out there for people who can write well. Pretty much anybody improves their chances of getting a good job if they can write. The field helps people become more proficient communicators in a constantly changing technological space.
What about your MFA experience at Fresno State has stuck with you?
I’ll never forget when B. H. Fairchild came to visit the program. He gave this dire speech about what it’s like to be a poet beyond the MFA. He said, well, you’ll be isolated for about a decade. You’ll be doing some crappy job. You’ll be toiling in obscurity. You’ll send your book out over and over again and no one will want it. He said that he published his first poem when he was in his MFA program and then he didn’t get anything published for 10 years. Nothing. Then he wins two major book awards in one year. He was just becoming an all-star when he came to visit us in Fresno. I remember thinking, oh my gosh, that sounds horrible.
He was largely right. I remember Chuck Hanzlicek—I was fortunate enough to take his class when he stepped in to teach for Ruth Schwartz, when she left Fresno State. Chuck came out of retirement to teach a workshop. He made similar comments. He would say, there are five poets at any given time who are destined to be in the spotlight their whole careers, and the rest of us have to work at it.
I remember being so angry when people would say this stuff. I was like, what do you know? But it’s true. You have to go out there, you have to network, you have to work your butt off at this craft. It’s so hard. It’s easy to rest on your laurels and think oh, this poem is pretty good, this collection is pretty good. But you really have to refine and refine and refine, and then be much harder on yourself and your poems.
What I learned from my experiences in Fresno is that there are many things that do not make good poetry. I butted heads a lot with my colleagues in the workshop because I was in an experimental phase. I was trying to push myself into what was almost like language poetry. It was teenage rebelliousness or something.
What would you say your poetry writing like now, in contrast?
Now, my aesthetic has shifted back the other way. A lot of what I write now is very close to the Fresno aesthetic. I like writing it, and that’s also what presses seem to like. I would send out this kind of experimental stuff before but I don’t think anybody got it. Through my experience at Fresno State, I learned a lot about my own personal aesthetic, and I learned a lot about what poems poets like and appreciate.
You mention the Fresno aesthetic. How would you describe that?
I took two workshops with Connie Hales when I was there. In one of them, someone asked her that and she said, well, I don’t know what The Fresno aesthetic is. But I know what my aesthetic is. She said, my goal is to get poetry in the body. I remember that. Then people in the class were like, what does that mean? Some people didn’t get it. But this kind of idea follows you and years later, you get it. I remembered.
I picked up a literary magazine recently. I have it sitting right here beside me, the Evening Street Review, a journal I recently discovered. You look through here, looking at different poems, and there’s some interesting stuff. And then you find poetry that you’re like, what is this? I really like this journal, I do. I ordered it and I’ll order it again. But I opened the page randomly and there was a poem called “Deposition,” and it’s about Mel Gibson and Christ’s loincloth. And I’m like, why would I care about that? There’s a lot of poetry out there that I don’t get.
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about, well, what do I care about with poetry? I’ve reckoned with that question. I care, first of all, about being able to understand it. I’m willing to work hard with a poem as a reader, but not so hard that I don’t understand the point. There’s a lot of poetry these days that seems like that. It’s trying to do so much that I question what it accomplishes.
People often talk about narrative when they talk about the Fresno aesthetic, and I think that’s part of it. But I think a lot of it is clarity. People were constructively critical toward me when I was there about the experimental stuff I was writing. They were like, I don’t get what you’re trying to do. I was in a different phase of my life, and I remember thinking, it’s not my job to explain things to you. But it is! It’s easy to get away with an obscure poem. I know, I’ve written them! [Laughs.] It might sound good, but it’s largely meaningless. It’s much harder to create a poem that is accessible and still good. That’s what I’ve started working on more and more, and I think that’s what the Fresno aesthetic is all about.
What’s your next writing project?
In the last year or so, I went from this sort of artistic depression, or whatever you’d call it, to my first chapbook. Teaching at ECU, it’s a bigger school than I’ve ever taught at before. That put a lot of demand on me. I think my brain was busy and I didn’t have room for creative writing and poetry when I first got here. I didn’t write anything for two-plus years. But I’ve started to dust off the poetry and started sending out again. Then, I got the book taken. It’s going to be published. And then it takes forever for it to come out. You’re waiting and waiting, and you’re telling people about it and waiting.
During that waiting time, weirdly enough, I think I’ve been able to psychologically put that old stuff away. Okay, I’m done with these poems. They’re going to press. I can’t mess with them anymore. Then I started writing new poems. It feels very different, definitely, from the first manuscript. It’s better, hopefully. But it does look like I’m forming another collection already. I’ve only got maybe 10 or 12 pages of poetry so far, but it feels like something is taking shape.
What I’m writing is about a lot of the same themes, history and persona within those landscapes. But it feels much broader in scope. I think it’s about the founding of America, as pompous as that sounds. [Laughs.] I never would have thought that I’d say that I’m working on a poetry collection about America.
Perhaps it’s the current political climate in this election year?
I actually wrote this poem during the election cycle that my wife has been pushing me to send out. I don’t think it’s good enough yet, but we’ll see. I wrote a poem called “Palin Speaks,” and it’s about when Sarah Palin came out and endorsed Donald Trump. It’s a found poem, because I took the actual transcript from her quote-unquote “speech,” if you can call it that. I turned it into a poem! I realized that she actually may be a clever poet. Maybe I’ve just been misunderstanding her. [Laughs.] If you lay out what she’s saying in a certain form, it actually sounds pretty good. [Laughs.] That was what I did. Maybe it will see the light of day someday, I don’t know.
There have definitely been developments in this election cycle that have made me think about the status of this country, absolutely. I’ll see where it goes.
Jefferson Beavers works as the communication specialist for the Creative Writing Program. He is a former journalist, and he is an alumnus of the program in creative nonfiction.