Recently my friend Daniel Wallace edited a collection of poetry called Siren Song. It was the very first book released by Burlesque Press (the brainchild of Daniel’s amazing wife, Jeni Wallace), and the poems happen to have been written by my friend, Tawni Waters.
Not only is Tawni a poet, she’s also won awards for her travel writing, recently published a breakout YA novel, Beauty of the Broken, with Simon and Schuster, written and starred in plays… the list goes on. Here’s what Daniel (who writes the blog The Incompetent Writer) has to say about working with Tawni and editing her book. (P.S. Daniel’s a Brit, so I’ve left in his wonky British spelling.)
Daniel, tell me about Tawni Waters.
Tawni’s talent would be exasperating if I didn’t know how seriously she takes her craft, how dedicated she is to art and the imagination.
If you follow Tawni on Facebook or meet her for the first time, you might think this was merely a woman who stays up late writing inspiring messages about love, who stumbles through life having visions, and who probably loses several possessions every time she passes through an airport. But we writers, well, we have a kind of knack for spotting a person’s other side, if they have one. If you listen to Tawni talk, you’ll quickly see how seriously she takes her work, her investigation of the world around her, and her artistic vocation. When it’s time to write, she writes.
She’s someone the world should be hearing more of.
I agree. Now, tell me about this new book of hers.
Siren Song is a collection of poems centred around the idea of divine love. As Tawni has pointed out, this is a theme we see repeated in religion after religion, in every mythology: while there is great darkness and evil in the world, love has a transformative power. Love can make us divine, and not just by being loved by someone else; when we commit to the act of loving, we discover our own greatness, our own power.
In Siren Song, we meet goddess figures such as Persephone, Mary Magdalene, and Isis, each of them struggling to redeem and resurrect those they love—we also watch them gradually developing a proper understanding of their own independent, immortal nature.
What about Tawni’s poetry appeals to you? What do you think will appeal to readers?
The nice thing about editing and publishing Tawni Waters is that you don’t have to guess what parts of her work will appeal to other people: she already has a following; she already provokes amazement and delight in readers.
People find that she speaks about feelings they have long been trying to express, that she says the things they were hoping to have permission to say themselves. We all know we are greater than the contents of our wallets and our resumes; we all want to connect to forces greater than ourselves. Tawni’s poems show us how large we really are.
When people first hear or read one of the longer poems in the collection, “A Message to the Mad Ones,” they invariably end up quoting it on Facebook.
This was your first time editing a book, correct? Tell me about the experience.
It was a lot of work! I’m extremely grateful that Tawni was the first author I worked with on a project of this scale: she was okay with delays, with edits, with more delays, with re-imaginings and restructurings of the manuscript, with the evolution of cover designs and font choices. I can’t imagine many authors being so tolerant.
How long of a process was the creation of Siren Song, from conception to holding the paperback baby in your hands?
Can you elaborate?
We started off with a huge collection of Tawni’s stories, essays, and poems, and for a while, we thought that Siren Song would be a general introduction to her work, like a companion-piece to her YA novel, which was coming out around the time that we were putting the manuscript together. As my wife and I continued to re-read Tawni’s poetry, however, we came to see a unity within many of those poems. Eventually Jeni decided: this should primarily be a collection of poetry. We divided the poems into three sections, each dedicated to a different group of goddess figures.
Then I merely had the simple process of teaching myself Adobe InDesign, typography, book cover design, searching for the right cover images, and then learning the requirements of Lightning Source (our printer), and communicating with them as the book went through electronic and physical proofs. At one stage, I had a long phone conversation with the printer’s rep, discussing which of four different blacks I was supposed to make the text.
Then, at last, we waited (nervously) for the first print run to be delivered to New Orleans, where we launched it (at the 2014 Hands On Literary Festival).
How did Tawni react to the book when she first saw it?
What’s next for Burlesque Press?
We will continue to host our annual writers and readers conference in New Orleans: The Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball.
We are looking for more manuscripts to publish, and we’re interested in novels, poetry collections, essay collections—we’re not so interested in genre divisions. If you’ve read this far in the interview, I hope it’s clear how firmly I stand behind Tawni Waters’s work, and how much I believe in it: that’s what I’m looking for in any future manuscript we accept.*
*Since I did this interview with Daniel, Burlesque Press has made the announcement that they will publish the debut novel A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene later this year. Apparently they have a thing for “Tawns.”
Will you be editing more books for Burlesque Press? What sort of manuscripts are you looking for?
I’ll be editing all future books, I think.
We’re not particularly focused on how well a book will sell, but we are very, very focused on what we think readers will want to read. That doesn’t mean that a book has to be “likeable” – it could be harrowing and painful – but it should be a work that I know I could honestly tell a reader: you must take a look at this.
I’m also interested in editing and publishing a book (or three) on the craft of fiction. This is a passion of mine; I try to have read (or at least have looked into) every well-known book on the subject. So if anyone has a very good manuscript on the techniques of writing stories and novels, I’d love to look at it.
How can people get their very own copy of Siren Song?
You can order a gleaming new copy on Amazon. But I would prefer, for financial reasons, if you would order it directly from us. Like all small presses, we make more money if you purchase it that way, and that extra money helps us read and publish more authors.
Visit our store here: Burlesque Press.
Would you be able to share with me one of your favorite poems from the collection?
One of my favourite poems is the first in the collection, “In Memoriam.” It’s told in the voice of Mary Magdalene: it describes Mary’s dawning realisation that she is a divine figure, just as Jesus is. Other poems in Siren Song develop her story, describing Mary’s journey from being a lost, wandering woman to becoming a goddess in her own right.
Here it is. (Thanks to Daniel and Burlesque Press for this fun interview!)
IN MEMORIAM: FROM MAGDALENE TO THE CRUCIFIED CHRIST
by Tawni Waters
Did I lose the real story when I came to this place?
In visions, I’ve seen
the darkness that was over the face of the deep
“let there be”
brought this dead world back to life.
Black nothing still hovers here
smothering the memory
of every soul that enters the atmosphere.
We forget the celestial spheres.
My curse is I still half-remember.
When I saw you, I knew
who you were
even though you did not.
It was that knowing that drove me
to give up everything
to be yours.
Pharisees called me crazy,
and I’d think so too
had you not whispered secrets
only God could know,
had not invisible angels
visibly conspired with me
every step of the way.
Darling, I watched you cure lepers.
Darling, we raised the dead.
I read the book. I understood
you would have to die,
though no one told me
I would be crucified too.
When I was taken to the wilderness
to face Satan first
I was stunned.
Until I was staring into the devil’s eyes,
I believed I was nothing more
than a whore kissing your feet.
I did not know that there was such
a thing as the
Daughter of God.
I saw the icons. I thought
when you breathed your last,
I’d be kneeling at your cross,
I did not know
having conquered death
I would be watching
from some distant paradise,
barely able to see your wounds
that would someday become
this heaven is hell without you.
Divine light lived in your eyes,
but here, surrounded by the holy,
it was your humanity I loved most.
The blood that poured from your mouth
when they broke you
must have tasted like salt.
My king, know this as you weep alone in your tomb.
If I could, I would wash your feet forever.
I would hold your human head against my chest
and make you remember holy.
My love, do not listen to the demons.
Death is an illusion.
When you see that
and fly free
Son of God
Son of Man
fly to me.
My sacred lips will kiss you
until you forget the fire.