Poetry Of Presence: An Interview with Phyllis Cole-Dai & Ruby R. Wilson

By James Crews

Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems was published by Grayson Books in 2017 and has since amassed quite the following among those interested in the intersections of mindfulness practice, meditation and poetry. I spoke with editors, Phyllis Cole-Dai and Ruby R. Wilson, via email in the summer of 2019 about their process as anthologists, as well as what it was like to put together such a complex collection of poems (many of which were in translation), including such well-known writers as Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, and Rumi. What follows is both inspirational and practical advice for aspiring writers and editors interested in assembling their own anthologies.

Phyllis Cole-Dai began writing on an old manual typewriter in childhood and never stopped. She has authored or edited nine books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. Her latest book is Beneath the Same Stars, a novel of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 (One Sky Press, 2018). All her work is driven by a profound desire to help create a more humane world for this and future generations. Originally from Ohio, she now makes her home with her husband, teenage son and two cats in a cozy 120-year-old house in Brookings, South Dakota.

Ruby R. Wilson is a poet and freelance writer who calls South Dakota home. She centers her work in the landscape and relationships that shape the world we all share. Her fourth published collection of poetry is the award-winning anthology, Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems, co-edited with Phyllis Cole-Dai. She is also the author of Maybe the Moon is Falling, one of the winners of the 2014 South Dakota State Poetry Society annual chapbook contest. Her poetry and prose has been published in a number of collections including Crazy Woman Creek (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), Action, Influence, Voice: Contemporary South Dakota WomenNew Letters, and P3 (Painters, Poets & Pavilion) invitational exhibits at the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In addition to capturing images with poetry, she is also a photographer and loves roaming the countryside with her camera. She lives with her husband and an assortment of pets in rural Brookings County, and is an archivist in the South Dakota State University Archives & Special Collections Department.

James Crews is the author of two award-winning, full-length collections of poetry, The Book of What Stays and Telling My Father. He is also the editor of Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection, published by Green Writers Press. He lives on part of an organic farm with his husband in Vermont and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Eastern Oregon University.

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James Crews: What originally planted the seed for this anthology? Did the idea just come to one of you, or did the intention slowly build over time?

Phyllis Cole-Dai: Over the years I’d been collecting mindfulness poetry without realizing it. Dog-eared books of it occupied the shelves beside my fireplace. Yellowed sheets of it fattened a folder in my vertical file. Scribbled scraps of it would turn up between pages of sheet music, or stuck to a recipe for friendship bread, or buried in the to-do pile on my desk. Such poems encouraged me to be more present in the living of my life. To pay closer attention. To more intentionally inhabit my days instead of just going through the motions.

Yet I didn’t consciously think of such poems as “mindfulness poems” until 2011. That summer, while I was going through a rough patch, my friend Chuck sent me a few poems he thought I’d like. There was, he pointed out, something “mindful” about each of them, and he was right.

I began a voracious search for more poems with that “mindful” quality. It was an intuitive process. I didn’t set out with a definition of mindfulness poetry in mind; rather, a nebulous sense of the genre emerged as I read. The reading supported my mindfulness practice, which I’d been working at for more than half my life. Moreover, it gave me a new sense of purpose during a time of grief and disappointment. For months I read all day and sometimes well into the night. By the time I called an arbitrary halt to the search, I’d gathered more than 900 that I considered mindfulness poems.

In these I saw the makings of a worthwhile collection, but I wasn’t sure what form it should take. After shopping the idea of an anthology to some publishers, without success, I decided to start a blog called A Year of Being Here. Every day for three years (2013-2015), I posted a mindfulness poem and a companion piece of art. (That blog, though no longer active, is still available for readers to enjoy.) At the outset I knew nothing about blogging. I made tons of mistakes, especially because I was unaware that I was essentially acting as a publisher. Yet the project took on an amazing life of its own. It grew so quickly, without any marketing on my part, that I eventually invited Ruby to assist me in managing it. Thank goodness she said yes! By project’s end—I didn’t want to quit but I was tuckered out—the project had more than 7,000 subscribers in at least 50 countries.

One of those subscribers happened to be Ginny Connors of Grayson Books. She generously offered to publish a mindfulness poem anthology. You know what happened next.

Ruby R. Wilson:I will defer to Phyllis on this question. When she started A Year of Being Here and invited me to submit some of my work, I scratched my head, wondering what she meant by a “mindfulness poem.” I’m a big fan of poetry, accessible poems in particular, and was delighted to help manage the online collection when it became so successful that Phyllis needed help with the daily posts.

JC: Is poetry part of your own mindfulness practice? Are the two connected for you?

Phyllis: Reading poetry is an informal part of my mindfulness practice. I feel buoyed and challenged in daily life by such poets as William Stafford, Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye, W.S. Merwin, Wendell Berry, Rumi, Hafiz … the list goes on. The very act of reading a poem cultivates mindfulness. To fully experience any poem, I must stop whatever else I’m doing and give it my full and gracious attention, start to finish, just as the poet did when writing it.

The poet Muriel Rukeyser once said, “This moment is real, this moment is what we have, this moment in which we face each other, and if a poem is any damn good at all, it invites you to bring your whole life to that moment.” When I read a poem aloud, bringing to it everything I am in that moment, the poem alters me somehow. I can feel the change happening even as I’m giving voice to the words.

Ruby:Without a doubt! I believe that mindfulness is vital and necessary for the creation and enjoyment of poetry. The term was new to me when Phyllis started the project, but my understanding grew as we worked on A Year of Being Here, which eventually led to the print anthology. I realized that I had been practicing mindfulness in my creative life even though I didn’t have a name for it. Early in my writing career I’d heard former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s advice to read one hundred poems for each poem I write, so I decided to set aside a few minutes before work each morning to read poems and journal. I spend time with each poem to learn what it has to teach me, or to breathe in assurance and comfort. My favorite outdoor activity is walking, which has been an essential part of my writing routine for longer than I can remember. Often, ideas for poems emerge when I pay attention and engage all of my senses. My writing often grows from threading the rhythms of nature with my own life and experiences. I don’t necessarily have to be outside, however, to make space for my writing. If I can step back from the “busy-ness” that is cluttering my mind and really pay attention to what is happening around me when I drive to work, or stand in the grocery store checkout line, I may pick up little nuggets that I can use in a poem or essay.

JC: When you decided to put the anthology together, did you run into any challenges? Were there moments when you thought it might not come together at all?

Phyllis: Tons of challenges, yes, but we don’t recall ever doubting that Poetry of Presence would come together. While we were sometimes overwhelmed by the work, we never despaired. Maybe we just didn’t know how much we didn’t know. Or maybe we were just stubborn (i.e., determined). We believed deeply in the project, wanting to give the world some good medicine for what ails it. A deep sense of purpose can overcome all sorts of doubt.

Trying to recall specific challenges we faced while creating the anthology is a little like recalling the act of giving birth: once the baby’s here, you tend to forget the worst of the pain. But here are a few:

  1. Figuring out which poets to invite submissions from and which previously published poems to target. That isn’t easy when you have respect for so many poets but have a limited number of pages available and a finite bank account.
  2. “Rejecting” some submissions by poets. We put out a call to a select list of poets, inviting them to submit poems for our consideration. The response was amazing. We enjoyed reading every submission but couldn’t accept every poem we received. We didn’t much like delivering the “rejections,” by which we meant, “This poem isn’t exactly what we’re looking for.” Disappointing people is painful. But there was no way around it.
  3. Managing the financial burden of permissions. This was our foremost obstacle. Frankly, it’s what dissuaded other publishers from committing to Poetry of Presence. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ginny Connors of Grayson Books for taking a chance on the anthology and for being willing to creatively structure our publishing contract so that the book could last beyond the initial printing. That being said, we editors had to assume the financial burden of paying for all the permissions to reprint previously published poems. The initial outlay was enormous, and the cost is ongoing, as some permissions must be paid more than once, depending on how many copies of the book sell. We were warned by a mentor early on to be careful lest the project bankrupt us. That was sage advice. We took it seriously.
  4. Managing the administrative load. Color-coded spreadsheets became constant companions as we climbed this steep mountain. Our administrative tasks included communicating regularly with dozens of poets; tracking down holders of copyrights; negotiating final texts and contracts, sometimes in foreign languages and across a world of time zones; figuring out how to make payments in foreign currencies; and persevering with poets, rights holders and agents through significant, even tragic, events in their lives. Sadly, a couple of our poets didn’t live to see the anthology published.
  5. Finding time for the work. Ruby has a full-time job in a university archives and is also a poet. I’m a full-time writer who, while laboring over the anthology, was also researching and writing Beneath the Same Stars: A Novel of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. So we had to be very intentional about carving out “POP time.” We met weekly. We divvied up tasks. We learned to flex, each of us picking up the slack when the other was too pressed. We scheduled weekend working retreats. We enlisted our husbands in the fine-tuning of budgets and contracts. Ruby’s husband (“Mr. Shipper”) became our shipping department for books ordered from our website. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a tribe to raise an anthology.
  6. Meeting publisher deadlines for proofs while vacationing in the wilderness with sketchy connectivity. Enough said.

JC: I work with people all over the country in mindfulness & writing workshops, and most of them know of the book or have received poems from it by email or social media from friends. How do you account for the popularity of a book like this? And do you think we’re at a cultural moment when both poetry and mindfulness feel more necessary than ever?

Phyllis: We don’t pretend to know exactly why Poetry of Presence has become so popular at this particular juncture. Perhaps people are so attracted to the beautiful cover photograph by David Moynahan that they simply can’t resist the book!

More seriously, though, several factors have probably contributed to the anthology’s appeal. First, “mindfulness” is a buzzword in the culture. As a concept it’s gone practically mainstream. And since teachers of mindfulness often draw upon poetry, there’s enormous potential for “mindfulness poetry” to enjoy wide appeal. At the time we were shopping Poetry of Presence to publishers, we could locate no other mindfulness poetry anthology in print. This was an obvious selling point. The market was ripe for such a book.

However, we also believed that Poetry of Presence would appeal to people who weren’t familiar with mindfulness. Ruby, for instance, doesn’t practice mindfulness formally (though she’s one of the most mindful people I know), yet she has long collected and sometimes composed “mindfulness poems.” Our tastes in poetry are quite similar. We like beautiful, accessible, uplifting poems that celebrate the gifts of paying attention, cultivating compassion, and building community; that remind us of how we rooted we are in the present moment, the natural order, and our shared humanity. We hunger for such poems.

Of course, we’re not the only ones. Bear in mind that we were putting this book together during and after the last U.S. presidential campaign season. Ugly forces that have existed in this country since its inception were erupting with renewed fury, and they’ve only continued to escalate in the years since. Democratic and humane values are under withering attack. In the midst of the mess, many of us have an appetite for poetry that can help us endure, stand firm, bear witness, act in defense of those who are marginalized, turned into scapegoats and sacrificed on unholy altars. Poetry of Presence reminds us that we’re better than this. Present tense. We are better than this. But we’ve got to show up.

JC: Is there any advice you’d give to writers who might be considering putting together their own anthologies?

Ruby:We sought out advice before we took on the project, and almost everyone said, “It’s a ton of work!” or “You’re crazy!” or “Don’t use previously published work so you can avoid permissions!” Seriously, though, we are happy to share what we learned and some of the strategies we used.

  1. Ask potential readers what they think of your idea. We were lucky that Phyllis had a mailing list for her A Year of Being Here blog. We used that platform to survey her subscribers about their interest in a print volume. We were able to determine who our audience might be. We also asked for input about the book organization, format, pricing and publishing.
  2. Seek the advice of anthology editors, but don’t stop there. We brainstormed questions for such editors, gathered and discussed their answers, figured out what we wanted to do, and put together a plan for how to accomplish our project.
  3. Consult (even informally) with a professional before seeking permissions. We muddled through the first set of permissions on our own. We could have saved ourselves some headaches had we talked to an expert sooner.
  4. Model your contributor agreements on those that have already been crafted. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. We looked at what other editors had done and designed one we felt good about.
  5. Work with a publisher you trust and who is willing to negotiate. We were very fortunate that Ginny Connors at Grayson Books was flexible and patient with our questions and concerns.
  6. Develop a rubric by which to evaluate submitted poems. We suggest reading the submissions blind, then evaluate them using your rubric. If working with a co-editor, as in our case, read and score the submissions individually first. Then get together, read each poem aloud, and assess them again. You’ll probably have to do some friendly parleying with each other to decide which poems to include.
  7. Be humble. Be kind. This is especially important when sending a rejection letter, or when receiving backlash from a disappointed poet.
  8. Accept that you will make mistakes. There is no “perfect.” Be gentle with yourself.
  9. Consider your anthology a piece of creative work. Ordering the poems was the most enjoyable part of creating Poetry of Presence. Neither of us had ever arranged a poetry collection this large. We hardly knew where to begin. The process was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with no borders or picture to go by. We knew that each poem had its own place–we just had to trust our instincts enough to find it. We delighted in sometimes placing poems by lesser-known poets next to those by acclaimed writers, because each poetic voice is valuable and unique. Even Mary Oliver was a lesser-known poet at some point in her career!
  10. Don’t underestimate your readers. For example, we challenged readers by including a lot of poems with serious themes, such as grief and suffering. Our response to mortality is a big part of mindfulness practice and part of our common human experience. But humor had to show up, too.
  11. Keep your promises. Meet deadlines with your co-editor (if you have one), the poets and the publisher.
  12. Delegate, and don’t put off your paperwork. Our workload was intense even for two people. We chunked down the project into manageable pieces to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the immensity of the project. We also set up timelines and deadlines to keep tasks on track. Yet we still would have benefited from an additional person to handle communication and record-keeping.
  13. Plan on doing most of the publicity yourself. You can’t rely solely on the marketing your publisher does. Pick a few marketing efforts to focus on, study how to do them, and try to do them well. Figure out what efforts are realistic given your time and resources, and calendar them. The book launch will be just the beginning of your marketing efforts. If you’re an introvert, you’ll need to become a situational extrovert to get things done. In the process, undiscovered abilities may come to light.
  14. Be flexible and keep your sense of humor. This is vital, especially when partnering with a co-editor. Make sure you and your co-editor work together well because life won’t stop happening just because you’re editing an anthology. Phyllis and I had to work around illnesses, family emergencies, professional workloads, and allowing ourselves down-time.
  15. Lean on those you love and who love you. The support of our families was invaluable. They were flexible and understanding, allowing us to take over the house for anthology retreats, rescheduling family time when necessary, and helping us work through some of the major decisions.

JC: Are there things you’d do differently?

Ruby: Neither of us had ever tackled a project like this before, and we learned a lot from the mistakes we made. These are some of the things that pop to mind:

  1. Give ourselves more time for the project!
  2. Seek fewer expensive paid permissions.
  3. Consider using an automated submissions system so work doesn’t get lost. One of our invited poet’s submissions got buried in our email system and we didn’t discover it until too late. We still deeply regret that oversight.
  4. Explain more clearly what we’re looking for and offer some examples. Invited poets often didn’t quite understand what “mindfulness poetry” was because it was such a new concept.
  5. Include more urban poems and fewer nature poems in order to reflect a wider variety of life situations and environments.
  6. Let potential readers in on the creative process as the book takes shape.

JC: How did you go about marketing the book and getting it into the hands of readers?

Phyllis:We knew very little about marketing when we started, so we’ve always been working from behind, without much money or time to devote to it. You might call us “accidental marketers,” capitalizing on hunches, guesses, serendipities and flashes of inspiration. From our vantage point the anthology’s success has largely been due to appreciative readers talking up the book. You can’t beat word-of-mouth advertising. We’ve never purchased any paid advertising.

We hoped to get some marketing momentum rolling during the first year after publication, then let the anthology go. The book would then either sink or swim on its own. We’re very happy that it has stayed afloat.

In the beginning we were fortunate to have mailing lists. We made use of the massive subscriber list from A Year of Being Here. Grayson Books, our publisher, also had a mailing list, plus many of our contributing poets promoted the anthology through theirs. We’re so grateful to those poets for all the ways they boosted Poetry of Presence. The anthology wouldn’t have done nearly so well without their help.

We set up a website, www.poetryofpresencebook.com, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts. Admittedly, we could have been more active in posting content to all these, but we did our best, given that we’re extraordinarily busy introverts with an ambivalent relationship to social media. (Smile.) The website proved essential to our marketing. Hundreds of customers have purchased Poetry of Presence directly from us instead of elsewhere, which has helped our bottom line. Many of them have also sent donations. Their support has been very gratifying.

We’ve framed our marketing efforts less as “selling a product” than as relationship-building. For example, in 2018 we invited readers of the anthology to submit creative works in response to one or more of its poems. The result was a delightful spin-off digital publication, Beginning Again: Creative Responses to Poetry of Presence.That publication was another marketing tool, but we did it primarily for the fun, and it had merit of its own.

Among our other marketing efforts were holiday special offers, discounts for mindfulness teachers, t-shirt sales, public appearances at book festivals and other speaking engagements, media interviews…. Some efforts yielded good returns, others fizzled. That’s life.

JC: Has POP changed you? How has putting this book out into the world affected your daily lives as well as how you view yourselves as writers?

Phyllis: Working on the anthology enriched my life immensely. I learned many practical skills that inform my current work as a novelist. My friendship with Ruby deepened beyond measure through our collaboration, plus I made the acquaintance of many wonderful poets. And hearing how readers use Poetry of Presence and what it has meant to them personally has been fuel for my creative fire. I’m amazed and touched that so many people would make the effort to share their stories and express their appreciation.

In a somewhat humorous way, though, the anthology has also complicated my life. Many folks assume that because I edited this book, I must be both an expert in mindfulness and a poet. I’m neither. I work at mindfulness every day in a free-spirited way, but I’ll always be a beginner. As for that “poet” label, on occasion I’m moved to put lines on paper. That’s the extent of my poetic endeavors. You’ll notice that in the anthology, my poem “On How to Pick and Eat Poems” appears just after the introduction, as a prelude to the collection. I insisted that it not be included within the collection itself, where it would appear alongside selections by gifted wordsmiths who labor over their craft. My aim as editor was to celebrate and pay tribute to their work, not to place myself in their company.

I edited Poetry of Presence not as a mindfulness expert or as a poet but as a fond reader. With Ruby I had the pleasure of setting a beautiful table, laying a feast of dishes created by masterful chefs, and inviting guests to partake. Now we get to sit back and watch everyone enjoy. How delightful!

Ruby: The anthology definitely complicated my life (mostly in a good way!), and I’m a much busier person than I was before we started collaborating. On the practical side, I learned many things to help me with my next project, whatever that happens to be. Working with Phyllis throughout the hard work, trials, and joys in bringing this collection to the world has been a great adventure for me. We were worried that spending so much time together might stress our friendship, instead it has brought us much closer. I couldn’t have asked for a better, more understanding collaborator and friend. My understanding of myself and others is much deeper and stronger now than ever before. I have grown as a writer, a reader, a presenter, a marketer, an accountant, and hopefully–most importantly–as a friend and neighbor to all I meet.

Like Phyllis, I don’t consider myself a mindfulness expert. I’m just someone on a journey along with our readers. Our primary goal in creating the anthology was to reach out and share with others the gifts that poetry has given us. When I hear the stories about how Poetry of Presence has impacted our readers, or how it is used in workshops, or how it has helped someone deal with a painful time in their lives, I’m encouraged, uplifted, and strengthened in my belief in the power of poetry and words. Now I can say with conviction that poetry, especially mindfulness poetry, can definitely change the world, one person at a time. Poems can help us understand each other, be more compassionate and kind, give us strength to do hard things, and make us aware of the precious life in and around us each day.