How has your first book changed your life?
46. Jean-Paul Pecqueur
How did your manuscript happen to get picked up by Alice James Books? Did you win a prize?
Just before I graduated from the University of Washington's MFA program, an acquaintance asked me if I had sent out my manuscript yet. He seemed pretty serious about this. When I told him I hadn't, he threw a fit, assuring me that everyone sent out their manuscripts all the time. Did I want to be a failure? Why was I at school anyway? He knew someone who edited a fairly important magazine, and this someone had informed my acquaintance that constant submission was just what poets did. I believed him, so I began to send out the manuscript to whoever would read it. This went on for five years--15-20 submissions per year. Most often these submissions were to "first-book competitions," but sometimes I would send to small presses with open reading periods. After about three years of doing this, I began to receive "your manuscript was a finalist" notices. These notices buoyed me somewhat. Not that I was going to quit without them; what else was there for me to do?
Anyway, one day during the fifth year of submitting my manuscript the phone rang and Kazim Ali was on the other end telling me that my manuscript had won Alice James Books' New York/New England Prize (now the Kinereth Gensler Award). I was literally shocked. All I could say was "Are you serious? are you serious?" Looks like he was.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I had waited all day for the mail. Just as I was leaving to teach a couple of classes, I was already running about 30 minutes late, I saw the mail-carrier turn the corner onto our block. I retreated into the apartment to await my delivery. But alas, the doorbell was not rung--there was no box of books. What I received instead was one of those yellow slips, ingenuously dated the previous day, instructing me to come to the post office to pick up my package. Not thinking, I rushed over to the post office, yellow slip in hand, and was not-so-promptly informed that my box was still with the carrier.
The following day I had classes from 10-2. I also had my yellow slip in my pocket. I couldn't wait. After work, I headed straight to the post office. I was sure that they had somehow misplaced my box, that I would never get to see my book. I was wrong. The clerk returned 30 seconds later with a small priority-post box from Alice James Books addressed to Jean-Paul Pecqueur. Hurray!!
Though I wanted to, I didn't open the box in the post office. Instead, I treated myself to lunch at a new hybrid Japanese-Mediterranean luncheonette just down the block. I opened the box there, seeing my book for the first time while enjoying a very delicious seaweed salad and a mango-ginger-lime juice.
Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it?
What I thought would happen is pretty much what has happened. When I go to poetry readings now, a few more people act interested to meet me. A couple of people have solicited poems and/or opinions from me. In general, my circle of acquaintances is expanding. I had hoped that this would happen, that I would be introduced to more people because of my book. Other than this, I didn't really expect much, other than a brief period when I wouldn't need to spend money I don't have to submit my manuscript.
You see, I had already discovered some years earlier how poetry could change my life. My poems gave me access to individuals and institutions that were once literally unimaginable. Let's stick with food for a minute: I didn't eat my first bagel until I was 23; before the age of 25, I did not know that people actually ate seaweed. For the first few decades of my life, polite, cultured society was inaccessible to me. I had no idea what those folks were up to. I feared them. Poetry, the practice of reading and writing, the broadening and fine-tuning of emotional and sensory attention, has helped me access the larger world. It has put me in contact with the most intriguing people and places. I have a serious project now. I imagine and trust that poetry will continue to open the world for me so long as I continue to treat it with the light-hearted respect it deserves.
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what are those experiences like for you?
Actually, I am very fortunate. Alice James Books promotes its titles superbly. They advertise everywhere. Lacy Simons, Cindy Ravinski, and Shelli-Jo Pelletier, our managing editor and editorial assistants, are tireless in their efforts. They not only send out review copies, they push to get the books read. They also submit all of our books to all applicable local and/or national contests. In addition, April Ossmann, our fearless Editor, continually reminds us "Alices" that we need to be out there supporting our books. This support is priceless. Alice James is truly a cooperative--success for one of our books is success for all. We collectively choose the titles to be published. If one author does well, that gets the name of the press out there. The more people know about the press, the more interest in the individual authors. Though it may surprise some more cynical readers, everyone in the press comes to think this way. Such collective support is highly contagious.
For my part, I have continued to go to readings and chat up whoever is in the mood. I've sent out emails requesting readings. I've answered questionnaires; and I've contacted all the people I know who may be in position to place The Case Against Happiness in the hands of its audience. This proactive stance has, I must confess, been quite difficult for me; while anonymous rejections are easy to deal with by now, more personal rejections still sting quite a bit. I can lose days recovering from the slightest slight. I persevere, however. I am fully aware of how many books are out there, and I really would like for people to read mine.
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing?
To date, there has been very little critical response, a couple of brief reviews and a blog notice or two. While both of the reviews I've read have been positive, one rather innocuous phrase has stuck with me. I was accused in one review of something called "small-time philosophizing." I didn't think that I'd be so sensitive to what anonymous readers had to say about my poems, but I must confess that this phrase has encouraged me to reach for ever greater heights of comic digression. The title for my next book will be, appropriately, Big Thinker.
What I would really enjoy would be to have one or two hyper-intelligent readers look over the manuscript closely so that I might learn what I have done. I know that I was trying out all kinds of things while composing the poems in The Case Against Happiness. I was answering questions and solving problems and having conversations and telling jokes. I just don't remember what I meant by it all. If someone could assist with this, I would be most grateful.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Yes I do, but I must also acknowledge that the majority of my students "do not like to read." They follow the 43rd president of the United States in this. I, on the other hand, am somewhat anachronistic in still considering the book to be the most profound technology in our history. One of the narratives I like to tell myself places the mythical book near the origin of that oceanic feeling, that feeling of mysterious inwardness that most of us claim to be central to our being. Books of lyric poetry are, for me, the most interesting and compelling kinds of books. They provide models of a specialized concentration and expressiveness that challenge readers to try out new ways to spend their days. Look here, lyric poems say, try to see this. Wait, they say, what does it feel like? If readers can train themselves to be attentive to such questions, the world will change. How the world will change, I don't know; I only know that it will change.
from The Case Against Happiness by Jean-Paul Pecqueur:
Patty wants me to write a poem titled
about needing to explain away the obvious with her
With her it's all let's go to the store let's go to the movies all the time.
If she wasn't at work right now I would need to invent her.
The classroom's been set on fire, I'd say.
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next interview: PF Potvin
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