Bad Advice Wednesday: No Small Gift–An Exchange with Poet John Casteen

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour

1 comment

John Casteen [photo Anna Williams]

Dear Bill,

I’ve been very happy to follow all the great news about your new book.  Very glad for you– and very glad to have a review copy, which I’ve been passing around and talking up with my nefarious cronies.
Here’s a quick question for you.  I’ve been writing some personal essays this fall and winter, and I’m sort of stymied about how to submit them.  I’m used to literary publishing, which is (obviously) a different game with different rules.  For prose that might appear in bigger places, I’m wondering about working with an agent, as other friends of mine doing similar work have done.  Is there anyone you’d recommend?  I’m working on individual pieces at the moment, but eventually expect to have a book manuscript together.
Best wishes to you and yours.  And to Maine.  I miss it, especially in winter.  Or the idea of it, at least.
Yours, John
Hi John:

–Sorry for the delay–I’ve been on the road.  That’s great you’re writing some prose.  I think placing essays is about the same as placing poems, maybe better odds, as there are fewer good essays around.  The best way to get an agent would be to have a number of these essays placed in good mags.  They don’t have to be big, but a, say, Missouri Review goes a long way.  Harper’s, even more so.  But agents are only interested in things they can sell.  Which is books.  And not collections of essays, but book-length nonfiction, generally.  Will these essays eventually form such a book?  That would be a great calling card: an excellent book with parts of it already published.  When it comes time to look for agents, go find books like yours and books you dearly love and find out who represented them, then approach them.  It might take dozens or a hundred tries.  Then again, you might hit first try.  First step is to write a great book.  Which I happen to know you’re going to do…

Luck, Bill


Dear Bill,

No need to apologize!  Life is full, and there are better things to do than screw around with email.
Thank you very much for your careful and wise answer.  I used to write a lot more nonfiction than I do now, actually; most of it was about gun policy, think pieces I wrote for Slate and VQR.  If I wanted to write a book on that topic, it would make sense, based on your advice, to find an agent who could market it.  But I don’t want to, because I like having friends, and a job, and writing poetry, and not working all that terribly hard.
I could definitely use some help editing and placing magazine pieces, but it makes sense that agents would prefer to go big or not at all.  I’ll keep working at it myself.  I like that process anyway, though its results are slow and spotty.  And it lets me write about whatever the hell I want, which is no small gift.

[John Casteen’s books, Free Union (2009) and For the Mountain Laurel (2011), are part of the VQR Poetry Series from the University of Georgia Press.  His poems have appeared recently in The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, and other magazines, and in Best American Poetry and The Rumpus Poetry Anthology.  He lives in Earlysville, Virginia, and teaches poetry at Sweet Briar College. ]

  1. Debora writes:

    Oh good! Books of poetry titles! John, I’m on it, can’t wait to read these!

    Gun policy. Good topic. I’d like to read those…I took a clinic for women. Turns out I’m a good shot!