I know Sligo-Galway man Trevor Conway as a Salmon poet (his first collection Evidence of Freewheeling was published in 2015) and from working with him briefly on Poems in Profile, while we have NUI Galway’s MA in Writing and ROPES 2016 in common.
When I saw recently that he’d made the decision to self-publish his second poetry collection Breeding Monsters in time for Christmas, I was both impressed and curious.
Trevor, thank you for talking to me. Let’s not waste any time and get to the most pressing question. Why are you taking the self-publishing route – I expected your second collection to come from Salmon Poetry?
Thanks, yourself for your interest, Neil. Always good to talk writing. There’s two main reasons, really: delays in getting the book published and the fact that I think writers, as the basic content creators of a book, should be getting a bigger slice of the (very small) pie.
Delays are understandable when your publisher is bringing out 30 or so books a year as well as yours, but I’ll be moving to Spain next year with my family, and it makes sense for me to make sure I get the book out before I leave. Self-publishing was the only way of being sure of that.
It also means getting 60-70% of the profits, as opposed to only 10% via a typical contract with a publisher. And many writers struggle to get those royalties from their publisher, I’ve heard, even though it’s stipulated in a contract.
Ultimately, that could mean the difference between roughly 20 cent per hour and 1 euro per hour when I look back and consider all the time I’ve put into the poems. Neither amount is great, but the second one seems a bit better to me.
Also, I’ve read a number of self-published books, and there wasn’t necessarily any difference in the quality of the work or the physical book itself. In some cases, I’ve preferred self-published work to work that’s been published via a publisher. Many publishers don’t have a huge amount of editorial input, but writers who self-publish can always hire editors and get feedback from writing groups and workshops, anyway, as I’ve done. I don’t think publishers have to be the gatekeepers of taste.
Why not just put books out there by whatever means, and let the people decide what’s worthy of critical acclaim or whatever?
I know you’re using GoFundMe as part of your venture. How would you describe your self-publishing experience thus far?
Great so far, I have to say. Lots of people have been very supportive, which means a lot when you take the relatively scary decision of going it alone. I’m a bit over 1/3 of the way to reaching my goal, but there’s four weeks to go yet…
It hasn’t been a whole lot different [from traditional publishing] except for the fact that I feel more informed, as I don’t need to get information from anyone else. Of course, I have to sort out things like the book cover and the launch myself, which I didn’t have to do before, but it’s been no big deal so far.
Your work to date is varied in terms of subject matter, and quite technical, I’d argue. I expect you take quite a scientific approach to your writing. Is that the case?
Yes, I do value variety, rather than ploughing the same furrow repeatedly. I never thought of my work as particularly technical, but maybe you’re right. And you’re definitely right about the scientific approach to writing! I have a timetable and everything. It’s fairly ritualistic, though there’s no bloodletting or human sacrifices.
I became a father recently, though, so the aforementioned timetable has been recalibrated, shall we say. In any case, I still plan out the thought process of a poem and think of various features to include, such as images, metaphors, sustained imagery and loads more.
What should we expect from Breeding Monsters – an enigmatic title if ever there was one?
The title comes from an etching by the 18th-century Spanish artist Francisco Goya, usually translated as ‘The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters.’ Since the idea of fear is explored in many of the poems, I wanted something to reflect the theme, and I think Breeding Monsters kinda gets it across.
I had planned to use the title of one of the poems as the book title – Dark-Skull-Cliff-Blood – but I thought it might be a bit too obscure. And maybe a bit pretentious, too.
Poets, like parents, should love all of their children equally, but if you could have us read just one of your Breeding Monsters poems, which one would it be and why?
I’ll go with ‘Razor and Sink,’ since it’s a very accessible one that lots of people seem to like. It’s about shaving, so the connection with fear isn’t as strong as in some of the other poems in the collection, but I still think it’s a fair enough reflection of the book overall.
Razor and Sink
To choose the cheek
or the sloping chin:
this face is a hackneyed land.
I dread the jaw, its blind turn,
the ridge that rises below the nose.
A tilted head shows fear to the world.
Dip and tap – floating rafts
of fuzzy, clotted hair
arrive at lathered islands.
Each clean stroke is a massacre,
curt and precise
or wide as an autumn harvest.
Slick skin is a curious thing.
A thin thread of red about the neck,
and I await the sting.
I could be a bearded man,
but then, I wouldn’t feel my face
rinsed of its errant ways.
The world reverberates to the song of tapped sinks.
I like to delve into the mundane aspects of life sometimes and see what it throws up. Often, it results in a poem that’s just too bland, and such poems never see the light of day beyond that first draft. Sometimes, it gives me the kernel of something that might be decent, and I work on it, eventually honing it into something I like or discarding it.
With this one, it felt like the first draft had captured something. I’ve done many drafts of it following feedback in writing groups, but it hasn’t changed as much as many other poems I write. It tends to get a particularly good reaction from women, possibly because it depicts an act they’re not privy to, the world of their fathers or brothers, beyond a closed door.
I think it’s important for poetry – for any artistic endeavour, in fact – to transport people to another world, to see what lies behind the doors that are closed in front of us.
Outside of poetry, you write and publish fiction, edit, review etc. Could you give us an idea of your writing-based work and how you make your living?
I’ve put on some classes, but more people tend to send their poems, stories, etc. by email to edit these days. It’s freelance. The supply of work can be erratic at times, but at least it’s a job I enjoy and one I feel I’m decent at, which wasn’t necessarily the case with most of the jobs I’ve had.
You have 10+ years of serious writing behind you, 2 poetry collections and various prose pieces published, what’s next? Is there a work of fiction in the pipeline?
Yep, I usually have some fiction on the go. I’ve written many short stories, a few of which have been published in magazines. I’ve been revising a GAA-based novel recently, and I plan to send it to an agent soon. I might end up self-publishing it, though, if I feel the quality of the book is up to scratch after getting more feedback.
This year was unusual in that I wrote a feature film script (based on a short story I wrote many years ago) and also revised a play about Socrates. I don’t think the latter makes the grade, to be honest, but I’m planning to work a bit more on the script and maybe send it out. Apart from that, I write songs (an album of my songs was released in 2013 by Sandra Coffey, called Morning Zoo), but I’ve been doing so less in the past couple of years, as I’m trying to learn to Spanish, and it can be hard trying to fit everything in.
The financial rewards for writing aren’t exactly great, but I guess that’s the plight of the artist nowadays, and it’s why so many of us give up writing eventually. I hope that doesn’t happen to me, but it’s hard to resist the itch that comes with a new idea floating into your head.
For now, you’ll find me doing my writing thing at the launch of Breeding Monsters in The Crane Bar, Galway, on 1 December at 6pm. I find that book launches tend to be very sterile affairs, so I want to make a proper night of it in a pub, with free wine, sandwiches, and my latest baking hobby: oatmeal and raisin cookies. There’ll also be free CD copies of Sandra Coffey’s album, Morning Zoo, with every book collected/sold at the launch, and live music by Sandra Coffey and Gregory Prendergast.
Trevor Conway writes mainly poems, stories, and songs. He also cuts his own hair, though maybe with less success. His work has been published in Ireland, Austria, the UK, the US, and Mexico, where his poems were translated into Spanish. He has been interviewed for RTÉ Radio 1’s Arena arts show, and his first collection of poems, Evidence of Freewheeling, was published by Salmon Poetry in 2015.
In December 2018, he’ll publish his second collection, Breeding Monsters, which can be pre-ordered/funded here. He posts to his website/blog occasionally, in between his greatest achievement: managing to brush his teeth three times daily.
Don’t forget, Trevor will launch Breeding Monsters in The Crane Bar, Galway, at 6pm on December 1st.