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 ninth installment profiles Emily Jo Scalzo. She teaches creative writing and research at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and her writing has appeared in the journals Midwestern Gothic, the Blue Collar Review, Halcyon, Cattails, High Coupe, the HOOT Review, and others.
In a July email interview, MFA communication specialist Jefferson Beavers spoke with Jo about changing your literary direction, writing outside your comfort zone, and discovering fellow Fresno State alumni in surprising places.
When were you in the Fresno State MFA program?
From 2007 to 2010.
What were your first thoughts when you learned that your poetry chapbook, The Politics of Division, would be published?
Pure excitement. Since the chapbook has a lot to do with the exaggerated binary of the American political landscape, and it was accepted shortly after the 2016 election, the timing was perfect. My editor, Lynn Houston, thought so too.
Did parts of your poetry chapbook grow out of your Fresno State MFA thesis manuscript, the novel excerpt Sugar Moon? If yes, what was the process like, taking what was your thesis and making it into something more?
It did not. Sugar Moon is currently on hold while I rethink my direction, including perspective and plot structure.
How did you choose to go in a different direction, with poetry?
One of the last classes I took for my MFA was an amazing Walt Whitman class with Connie Hales, which inspired me to start writing poetry again for the first time in about seven years. In fact, one of the poems in the chapbook, “Postcards to Whitman from Cuba,” was born from that class. I just kept going with poetry. Also, I minored in political science and peace studies as an undergraduate at Purdue University, and I was drawn to that focus in my writing.
How did you land your publishing deal with Five Oaks Press, and what about their work is a good fit for your book?
Five Oaks has open reading periods. I initially sent them a chapbook of haiku and tanka-style poetry, which they decided not to take. However, the editor liked my work and encouraged me to submit again at any time. A friend of mine and I challenge each other, so she challenged me to create a chapbook of my sociopolitical poetry. When I did, I accepted Five Oaks’ invitation to submit again.
Five Oaks has a great reputation as a small press, and I’ve been following them for a while. They produce wonderful books, and I really liked the fact that they’re committed to working with authors on submitting for awards. They’re committed to enriching the literary world—in fact, when another small press folded not too long ago, they took on the books that had been accepted, and permitted the authors who had submitted to re-submit to them. They’re fantastic, and I wanted to be a part of that.
One of the best parts of working with them was discovering fellow Fresno State MFA alumna Stacey Balkun was my book designer. Working with her was a pleasure, and the end result is wonderful.
I didn’t realize I was working with Stacey until the formatting stage. Five Oaks allows the author to design the cover, and it provides free options including stock photos. I spent several days going through several sites and considering what would best match the theme of the book, political division. When I alit on the image of broken glass, I felt it was perfect. I used Photoshop to experiment with different font possibilities and found one I liked. I made a mock-up cover as a sample.
Stacey concurred and determined font size and placement, along with the cropping of the picture, then she created the finalized cover. I was really pleased with the end result. She also recommended the formatting for lines of poetry that run over two book lines, with the idea of creating a sort of cascading effect with tabs. The impact really meshed with the tone of the project. She was integral to the development of the final product.
How did you decide on your chapbook’s title?
This was actually a bit difficult. For some reason, I find titles are the hardest part of writing. I had probably a list of ten potentials and talked with friends I trusted about these and others. I also considered the focus of many of the poems, which focus on the political sphere and the schisms that plague contemporary American politics. The title popped into my head at that point, and I never looked back.
Outside of writing, what work are you doing to make a living?
I am an assistant teaching professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. I teach composition, research, and creative writing. I’m also the faculty adviser for the campus poetry slam student organization, Poetic Summit.
Tell me more about Poetic Summit. What kinds of programming does the group do, and how has your creative writing background contributed to your advising?
Poetic Summit has weekly meetings, and the students often challenge each other to write on different subjects. They have even written and performed “duet” poems. The executive members of the organization let me know what dates they want to hold poetry slams, and I reserve rooms for the times they need. I’ve also been able to help them with event promotion. Because I am a member of the English department, they’ve been able to collaborate to create events.
A member who has since graduated approached me to be faculty adviser because she had taken a class with me and knew my creative writing background, which is really the main way it has contributed to my advising. As a faculty adviser, I’m mostly the person who supports them to make them an official student organization. I make sure they don’t go into debt, for example. I stay fairly hands-off and let the executive members make decisions, and let the group find their voices. I have recommended poetry to the executive members, and they’ve shared it with the group.
What about your MFA experience at Fresno State has stuck with you, and what do you wish you might have done differently?
I loved my time working with Steve Yarbrough, David Anthony Durham, John Hales, and Connie Hales. Among my favorite experiences was doing CSU Summer Arts in 2009, which was absolutely exhausting and everyone got swine flu, but I worked with amazing and talented classmates and teachers. I was encouraged to work outside of my comfort zone. My creativity really flowed, and Doug Rice, Lance Olsen, Rebecca Brown, and Robert Glück were fantastic. In fact, parts of Sugar Moon were developed and written during that time.
I wish I’d had more time to work with Steve Yarbrough and David Anthony Durham, but ultimately, the path I took shaped the person, teacher, and writer I am today.
What’s your next writing project?
I’m working on a couple of secret projects with a fellow poet. Beyond that, I honestly have had difficulty writing since my father passed away in November—that happened two days after I learned The Politics of Division was accepted for publication; my editor agreed that a poem about him, “To My Father,” should be included as a result, and it wound up being the first poem of the book.
I think something I’m going to work on is writing about my father, and seeing where that leads me. It might not wind up being poetry, and I’m open to the journey I’ll be embarking on.
Jefferson Beavers works as the communications specialist for the Creative Writing Program. He is a former journalist, and he is an alumnus of the program in creative nonfiction.