Interview with Tom C Hunley

tom-hunley-picTom C. Hunley is the author of six full-length poetry collections and two scholarly books. He is also a professor at Western Kentucky University, creator of the publisher Steel Toe Books,and lead singer/guitarist for Dr. Tom and the Mini-mes. In March of 2019, Tom C. Hunley kindly agreed to a Skype interview with the Licking River Review about the creation and management of Steel Toe Books. He also answered some follow-up questions about his recent book of poetry, Here Lies. Both interviews were combined for this publication.

In this interview, Tom C. Hunley describes the inner workings of running Steel Toe Books as well as his process of writing poetry.


1. What is the hardest part of creating a press?

Many small tasks that pop up, like little emergencies that pop up and you have to deal with them right now. You have to reject a lot of manuscripts—like 98%. So, some of those people are people that you’ve met at conferences or people I’ve gotten to know online. Saying no to all those great people is hard. Also, sometimes there are nasty comments that you get by email. It’s a thankless job—you’ve just got to have thick skin. I’m getting out of the business for all those reasons. Also, I’m getting older and have different responsibilities and things I want to put my energy into. I would encourage younger people to start a press—it’s not hard. I was putting in fifteen hours a week on top of being a professor. There were budget cuts and they took my institutional support away. I was already thinking about stopping and that kind’ve sealed the deal. We would do an open reading period once a year. There would be about two months where we would read all these manuscripts. We’d get 100-150 manuscripts. So usually that period was the really busy time and then the rest of the year things would just pop up.

2. How did you come up with the name Steel Toe Books?

One of my favorite poetry anthologies is called Stand Up Poetry. The editor is Charles Harper Webb. I really like his poetry and the aesthetic in that book. On the cover of that book, there was a picture of a poetry reading—a really lively slam type reading. In the audience for some reason, he’s holding up a sign that says, “STEEL TOE! STEEL TOE! STEEL TOE!” on it. I thought it would follow that anthology and the kind of poetry I like; academia’s response to slam culture, poems that work both on the page and on the stage. Also, I thought it implied working-class aesthetic. Our slogan was “The hardest working press in po’ biz.” It is important what you call your press because people will be drawn to you for various reasons.

3. What was the aesthetic of your press? Did you see a guiding principle behind your press? Have you noticed a theme (other than poetry)?

We put a listing in the poet’s market describing what we were looking for and I listed things like performability. I wanted to attract poets that could read their work out loud. That’s the best way for them to sell books. Shy poets will have a harder time selling books. Also, I wanted humor. I wanted accessibility, clarity, clear emotions, and clear thoughts in the poems.
That’s what I said in Poet’s Market. However, once you start reading manuscripts, you don’t know what you’re going to like until you see it. For instance, I remember this manuscript that really blew me away—it was so different from everything else. It ended up being called Lightning and Ashes, but it was called Mules for America to start. The poet’s parents met in a Nazi slave labor camp in Poland and it was all about their stories and you really felt like you were there. It was very different from what I said in poet’s market. There’s a real variety of books we ended up taking. I guess I learned to refine my own aesthetic through doing the editing.

4. What makes a good reader?

I like readers who would see the possibilities in a manuscript because we weren’t accepting manuscripts as they were necessarily. Sometimes we had ideas for changing the title, rearranging manuscripts. Some of my readers were really helpful at doing that kind of thing; they could imagine the ideal version of the manuscript. They could imagine it as a bound book, they could think of what the cover might be.

5. What is the biggest red flag you see when going through submissions?

Some of the cover letters were all about what I could do for them. I was cautious about first time authors because I thought some of them had really high expectations about what I could offer. They thought I could pay for a fancy book tour like a New York publisher would. A red flag would be if there was anything in there that indicated that they didn’t really understand their role—what they would need to do to promote the book. Also, if there was some hint in the cover letter that gave the impression that they weren’t going to be willing to work with me making the manuscript be as good as it can get. Some cover letters showed their genuine interest in the press, and what they’ve done to promote previous books of their so lacking that or the opposite of that would be red flag: seeming naive about the publishing world.

6. Do you have any advice for emerging writers on how to deal with the frustration of your work circling out and you keep getting rejected?

Just take heart. I probably sent my manuscript to seventy places and once you’re a semi-finalist or a finalist they say it’s going to get picked up somewhere else. Also, I’d recommend trying to find a way around the contest system, because there are plenty of small presses that don’t run contests. Once Steel Toe did the “buy a book to submit your manuscript,” I noticed other presses started to do that which is one thing I was hoping to accomplish. I wanted to steer more people away from the contests. I did win a couple contests; a chapbook and a book contest. Most of my books did not win contests and they sold just as well and got just as much attention.

7. How do you define poetry?

You know the genre ars poetica—there are a lot of poems called poetry or ars poetica and generally they resort to metaphor—like Emily Dickinson (“I know it’s poetry when I can feel the top of my head pop off.”) things like that. My favorite of those is by Heather McHugh and it’s called “What He Thought.” That poem is a narrative of a bunch of American poets in Italy and on the last night of this visit somebody says, “What is poetry? Is it the statue over there? Or is it the fruits and vegetables in the marketplace?” Then they have different discussions on what poetry is, but finally this one person that we all underestimated—he’s really conservatively dressed, he’s an administrator—he tells them what the statue is. It’s by this guy called Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake while wearing an iron mask for heresy. They put an iron mask on his face so that he wouldn’t be able to incite the crowd by speaking out publicly. The last couple lines of the poem are “poetry is what he thought but didn’t say.” What I try to say to my students is that the standard in this class is to try to write a poem that is the equivalent of what you’d say while you’re about to be burned at the stake while wearing an iron mask. It’s not original, but it’s my favorite standard for what a poem should aspire to.

I wrote a whole book called Here Lies where I die a different way in each poem and the reason I did it is because, I figure, you won’t be talking about trivial things. I wanted the book to be about weighty things and I thought the best way to do that is to start with, “Here lies Tom C. Hunley who…” and then see what happens next. I have forty-nine of those poems. I think this is true of stories too. I teach fiction too and when I see the stories are all anecdotes and trivial things I say, “What would this character say on his deathbed to people? Write that story."

8. I thought it was amazing the way that Here Lies, as a collection, complicates the language around death. I particularly loved the poem "Leaving" that borrows from the legalese found in wills. This playful but serious use of languages and different perspectives can be seen in a lot of your poetry including State That Springfield Is In. How do you maintain your own voice in your poems, while also taking on the voices of others? Do you have any advice for other poets seeking to accomplish a similar tone?

Thank you for the compliment! I think any poet’s voice is forged in the fires of all the voices that the poet has listened to. I guess my advice is to listen attentively too language wherever you encounter it and to consciously court the influence of poets and others use use of language you admire.

Follow-up Questions


1. I noticed the inclusion of two sonnets within Here Lies. I particularly loved the language and images within "Sonnet: Thrown Out the Window of a Burning House." These sonnets also seem to include more rhyme schemes and traditional formatting than some of your other poetry. What does the sonnet form help you achieve in your poetry?

I actually included four sonnets in Here Lies. I view them as interludes of a sort. They echo imagery and lines from elsewhere in the book. Basically, in each one, I started with lines from a few other poems, and I revised those lines, putting them into iambic pentameter and adding rhyme schemes. The sonnet is the granddaddy of Western poetic forms. It gives today’s poets a chance to partake in a tradition going back eight centuries, a chance to lock arms with Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Thomas Wyatt, and Howard, Earl of Surrey. It’s unthinkable for any serious poet not to attempt mastery of the form.

2. How do you use other poetry formats? What is your favorite? What is your least favorite?

I’m very interested in poetic form and structure, and I’m always looking for new ways to write poems. My most recent poem, for example, is an ars poetica in the form of a chili recipe. I like them all. The more forms a poet knows, the more attentive he/she can be to the poem at hand. If your poem wants to be a villanelle or a saudade, you had better be able to recognize that and know how to give the poem the shape that is right for it.

3. In your interview with Michael Meyerhoffer in Atticus Review, you mention poetry prompts that you give your students; "I write along with my students when I can, so I try to create prompts that inspire me and will hopefully inspire them." How do you come up with these prompts? Do these prompts tend to focus on themes/ideas or poetic format?

I come up with them inductively, for the most part. That is, I read a poem that I like, I ask myself what is going on in the poem, from a technical standpoint. I ask what the poet did and how he/she did it. Then I write an exercise based on it and have my students try it out. If the exercise leads students to write something strong, I include it in my book, The Poetry Gymnasium, which is going into an expanded second edition with McFarland in 2020.

4. Can you explain your process of putting poetry collections together? How do you decide the order of your poems?

It’s different each time. I wrote a book of poems called Octopus. It was mostly about new fatherhood, the shock of all the new responsibility and the loss of free time, the way I felt like I had to have eight arms because I was suddenly so busy. Naturally, the book had eight sections. I wrote a scholarly book called Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach, arguing for spending less class time on workshopping and using most class time on five types of writing exercise, derived from the five canons of classical rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery). That book was easy to arrange. After making my argument in the first chapter, it became clear that I needed to devote a chapter to each of the five canons, as well as another chapter about how to get lots of feedback to student writers without using up a lot of class time. So really it’s about marrying form to content, which is also what we do with individual poems.

5. How did you decide the two “Discontents” groups in Here Lies?

At some point in drafting, I noticed that about half of the poems began with the line “Here Lies Tom C. Hunley”. That seemed a bit redundant, so I cut the first line out of each of those poems, gave them Roman numerals rather than titles, and entitled the section “Here Lies Tom C. Hunley”. One reason that I included two sections is that I really wanted to use both the Josh Bell epigraph about wanting to die more often and the John Biguenet epigraph about the musical term, The Grand Pause, which one composer had put on his own gravestone.

6. I noticed the lack of capitalization within the first part of Here Lies. How do you think capitalization changes the sound and meaning of a word in your poems?

I did capitalize the first letter in each sentence, as well as the word “Death”, nicknames like “Mom” and “Dad,” and proper names such as “Gulf”. There is no end punctuation in the booko, though. In an earlier draft, every poem ended with a comma. That was inspired by a play called W;t, in which a John Donne scholar, discussing the punctuation in different versions of one of Donne’s sonnets, argues that Death is “just a comma”. But all those commas in the manuscript became quite distracting, so I cut them out.

7. In your interview with Karen Craigo on Better View of the Moon, you mentioned that your favorite word in Springfield was "embiggened" and that basically means each of us contains multitudes. I also noticed in the poem [on his hammock] the lines "there's more/ to a person than he could ever fit/ in his fists, more than he could hold/ clenched in his muscled oiled arms/ more beauty than you can bottle/ in something as soft and lightweight/ as a body" in Here Lies, follows a similar idea (13). How does your poetry on this subject affect your perspective? How does this perspective affect your poetry?

Wow, what great reading on your part. You’ve unearthed some connections that I hadn’t noticed myself. I think art in pursuit of truth and beauty embiggens the artist as well as those who take the time to take it in.

8. What do you wish you had been told about writing poetry earlier on?

I can’t think of anything. I had some great teachers, who led me to some great books. I’m grateful to them.

9. What was it like to think of yourself in the past tense for an extended period of time throughout Here Lies?

It was rough. It got morbid at times. My death was never the point of the book, though, just like the Simpsons were never the point of The State That Springfield Is In. Each book had a hook that enabled me to write about whatever my deepest concerns were at the time. In The State That Springfield Is In, I looked for connections between myself and various characters from the TV show and tried to write about my own issues using their voices. In Here Lies, I used various potential deaths as opportunities to let aspects of my life flash before my eyes and my readers’ eyes.

Thank you so much to Tom C. Hunley for spending time with us!

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Further questions can be emailed to lrr@nku.edu.