How It’s Made: Marc Alan Di Martino’s Unburial
We’re so happy to have had the chance to look under the hood of Marc Alan Di Martino’s Unburial, his debut collection, published by Kelsay Books. With our How It’s Made series, we endeavor to take away some of that ever-present mystery of how a collection comes to being—in this interview, we learn of Marc’s “Eureka!” moment, his journey toward writing as habit, and the book’s development out of desire.
What were the most joyful moments of Unburial’s journey to publication?
Marc Alan Di Martino: When I finally found out I was writing a book, and not just a mysteriously-related bunch of poems, it was a “Eureka!” moment for me. As soon as I realized this, I noticed certain themes emerging – in this case family stories, origin myths, a lot of death and illness, a shaft of light here and there. Suddenly a way forward became clear, and a kind of symmetry appeared in the structure once I understood what my ‘story’ was. As I added new poems, I found that the book was loaded with all sorts of weights and counterweights, had a kind of balance. It seemed an important thing for a book of poems to have.
When the manuscript was accepted – that first email! – it was a complete surprise, because it hadn’t been rejected sixty times yet. (I’d read about such scenarios.) On the heels of that sense of elation, I got a second acceptance in a matter of days from Kelsay Books, who I ended up doing the book with. It kind of canceled out all those hundreds of rejections (of individual poems) that got me to that point.
What were the toughest moments you faced while getting the collection to the world and what have you taken away from them?
All the rejection, and the uncertainty it breeds, can be crippling. Luckily, I’ve been doing this for twenty years off and on, and I remember the days when I used to check the mailbox in the evening, tear open envelopes, save my rejection slips and tape them to the wall above my desk. So I’ve developed a thick skin, and have learned not to put too much stock in rejections. It’s usually not a judgement on the work – and even if it is, it’s an opportunity to revise and improve it – or start over. I look at it this way: rejection is the norm, acceptance the exception.
But it’s also a numbers game. The poem I’ve gotten the most feedback on – “Requiem for an Ocean Burial” – was rejected over fifteen times before it was accepted by Palette, which was the last place I submitted it. I had nearly given up on that one by listening to the rejection slips. It has since been published in the anthology What Remains: The Many Ways We Say Goodbye, whose editor nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. And it became one of the central poems in Unburial. So the lesson I learned is to just keep revising, sending the work out. Sooner or later it willl find its home. But it probably won’t happen the way you imagine it will.
What did you learn about writing and poetry over the journey of this book?
That experience is an inexhaustible mine of poetic material, but poetry – all art, I’d argue – requires you to break through the surface and dig as deep as possible to get the gold. Sometimes that takes the form of intoxication (no, I’m not a drinker), by which I mean an altered state of mind, an altered tongue, a certain take on things which can transform them from the ordinary to something new, slightly strange, uncanny. A certain slant of light. That’s where the poetry is, I think. You need to unlock that door, and step into a magical room to retrieve the poem.
Habit, for me, has become the surest way to do that. I try to write every day, or at least spend time with the work, arrange a line or a phrase, despite the constraints and pressures of work, family, etc. ‘Unburial’ is a metaphor for different things, not least of which is the artistic or creative impulse. Sometimes you need to grab a trowel and just go looking for it. Find it in the rocks and soil. Unbury it. Then, of course, like all quests for gold, the challenge is to hold on to it once you’ve found it.
What was the favorite piece of media or art you consumed while writing these poems? (and how did it inform your writing??)
I’m going to mention a book I read just after I’d sent off the final manuscript of Unburial, but which struck me as a book with a deeply shared genome, so to speak. The book is The Lost, by Daniel Mendelsohn. It’s about his search for six members of his family who perished in the Shoah, and the whole book is a deep excavation of his family history through the lens of these six relatives he knew almost nothing about. By the end of the book, he’d traveled across the world and spoken to every surviving Jewish person from his grandfather’s small town – or shtetl – and learned more than he ever bargained for about them, and himself.
The poems in Unburial grew out of a similar desire to know more about people I’d lost long ago: my father, who died when I was fifteen; my mother, who was in a state of creeping dementia as I was writing the poems; my grandparents, whom I’d either barely known or hadn’t known at all, and who came from different countries, different cultures. (The poem “Roman Fever” describes an ill-fated meeting between my maternal and paternal grandparents – the Jews and the Italians – during my parents’ courtship in Rome, while my mother was sick in the hospital there. I found myself traveling places I couldn’t possibly have been, but where poetry can bring you.) Like Mendelsohn, I was putting together a puzzle using only some of the pieces that I happened to possess. I had to make up the rest, including an origin myth (“Runaway,” which opens the book.) It’s possible that my writing informed my reading, not unlike the late Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence.
What’s your one sentence piece of advice for poets currently putting a collection together?
Listen to the work, and don’t let the rejections fool you.
Marc Alan Di Martino was born and raised on the East Coast of the United States. He attended Virginia Commonwealth University, where he studied visual arts. After college, he moved to New York City, where he spent eight years working in the city’s best used bookshops and collecting vinyl. He moved to Italy in 2003, where he now lives with his family.
His poetry appears in Rattle, Baltimore Review, the New Yorker, Palette Poetry, Valparaiso Poetry Review and many other places, including the anthologies What Remains: The Many Ways We Say Goodbye and Unsheathed: 24 Contemporary Poets Take Up the Knife. He has translated the work of Italian poets Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, Sergio Corazzini and Mario dell’Arco. He can be reached at marcalandimartino.com.