every other day

31 JAN 07

How has your first book changed your life?

48. Danielle Pafunda

Pretty Young Thing

How was your manuscript chosen by Soft Skull? Had you sent it out much previously?

Nepotism. I jest. But it was all pretty cozy. Shanna Compton and I were members of the same cohort in the New School MFA. Dan Nester published me early on, and passed me the La Petite Zine reins, er reigns. Then I met Richard. Soft Skull, Ugly Duckling, Autonomedia turned me on to small press and DIY publishing. Soft Skull sadly flagged a bit around the time I was moving to Georgia, but, when I next visited New York, it had revamped and opened the knock-out Shortwave bookstore. At a reading there, I was chatting with this red-haired sharp-dressed writerly-looking chap. Gushing about Soft Skull, about the new publisher Richard Nash. The chap turned out to be Richard, blush. Anyhow, we all seemed to fit well, and they called me six months later to offer the book deal. How lucky to do one's first book with friends! With people invested in one as both writer and human! I had been sending the manuscript out since I finished my MFA, and had a few nice responses, but this was the first publishing offer. At the time, Heidi Lynn Staples was still in Athens, and we heard from our presses within weeks of each other. Much champagne and chocolate cake was had. Many sparkly feather tiaras were worn.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Yep! I'm on the cover, in fact. My long-time friend, photographer Christa Parravani, was working on a fabular series. I came to Northampton for a visit, and it was one of those sunny days with fat, pristine clouds. She works in supersaturated digital colors, so such weather was a must-shoot. She had this scene in mind--it would be a vaguely Chinese fable about a farmer dragging a woman through his field. What's remarkable about Christa's work; she envisions a few elements, has a hint of narrative. She drags some costume pieces out of her closet (you should see her closet), stuffs you in the car, and says, "Let's look for a dirt field." Not just any dirt field, but the dirt field she's imagined. Ten minutes later, she finds the spot as though it materialized just that morning just for her, and positions you (and in this photo, her husband, the writer Jed Berry) firmly, kindly, perfectly. A day later, you've got this densely textured novel-in-image. And she was kind enough to let me switch up the fable's roles, so that on my book, I'm dragging Jed through the dirt (thanks, too, to Jed, patient!).

A poet should definitely be involved in the production of her book. Despite the popular dictum against fetishizing the product, these are discreet objects. They're permeable experiences from cover to blurb, and though it may put too many cooks 'round the soup pot, small presses ultimately benefit from this kind of involvement. Me, I love to make things. I'm starting a micro-press called Wunderbin Books, and I swear half the reason is so that I can sit around collaging skeletons and bugs and tutus and baroque textiles together and call it work.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?

My first reading from the book was at Bruce Covey's fine New Voices in Poetry series at Emory. Bruce, my partner-in-crime, my two-month-old babe, and I were having dinner at a Thai restaurant down the block (well, I was nervously twiddling noodles and breastfeeding the babe). Shanna Compton and Jen Knox, on their hardcore nonstop book tour, were about to join us. They arrived with no time to spare, and Shanna hand-delivered a box full of Pretty Young Thing. It was all ridiculously sweet; Shanna got to see me see the book for the first time, I got to introduce her to Hazel (said babe). I got to meet Jen Knox, who's my Soft Skull sister, yo. Bruce, the nicest guy in poetry, got to smile benevolently on all of this, and then Adam (said p-i-c) strapped Hazel into her Bjorn, and we all went and read like barnstormers to a great crowd. And we sold some books! Actual readers bought my actual book! Laura Carter and Kirsten Kaschock among them, bless 'em. Perfect.

Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?

Not so much with the book's arrival in my hands, but with its arrival in the hands of readers. The book was long in coming. Soft Skull took it in April 2003, and it came out in October 2005. There was a lot of time to reflect, switch poems in and out, restructure the sections. Ultimately, there's maybe too much evidence of my process over those years. It felt like readers would be getting one of my organs--an incredibly intimate tattle-tale beyond my control, a part of me?/my life? I can't put my hands directly on. I feel differently about the books I've worked on since--they're organs in masquerade attire.
How has your life been different since?

Well, I had a baby two months before the book came out, and I'm living in Chile this year, so it's hard to parse what's book and what's other major existential shift. Obviously the book changes my life in some material ways, but I also think about the book's life...it's really the book's life that changed.

Could you say a little more about how "the book's life" changed?

The book's life--

It's bound, literally and figuratively. My book fits in a purse, goes on the subway, hangs out on a breakfast table, gets picked up by a housemate, colored in by a toddler, and is in all these ways bound to its physical body. It's bordered by what Thomas Hummel or Shanna Compton or the reader's best friend says about it. At the same time, the book is suddenly so much less discreet. It becomes part of poetic discourse (which isn't to be grand, but just to say that every bit of poetry produced is an agent in the discourse), and part of its own more localized dialogue. 

There's an aura that develops in production--the field wherein author, subject, and material endeavor triangulate--but there's a wholly other aura pulsing between autonomous text and its readers. And I'm not actually privy to this second aura. I'll be over here in the author glow, and the reader glow appears at best a sort of foggy warmth on the horizon. Marianne Moore freaks me out in this regard. To go back to the book, to call the poems back and edit or rework them takes some serious guts. This is one of the ways in which the moderns seem to me somehow more postmodern than the postmodernists. Moore divests the category "book" of its culturally constructed authority in a pretty perverse fashion, and I do love her for it. She's ever the mad, yet mannered, scientist.

Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

I'm thoroughly surprised by how many readers from outside the poetry world write to me about the book.

What did you do to promote the book and what were those experiences like for you? What are you planning to do next time?

Well, I've got the standard blog approach, and I read in New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, and at AWP in Austin. I sent the book to a few fine minds I admire--pretty targeted promotion. I think more about the poetics I want to champion and taking up space Pound-style. Which is not to say that I'm a Pound fan, so much as I'm a fan of Pound's omnipresence. And his spontaneous public dancing. I've got a lot of projects running, and I cannot shut up about them.

Do you enjoy reading publicly?

Love it more all the time. I'm thinking about reading in costume from now on. If anyone would like to make me a sort of ravaged Victorian riding habit? Please? And then I'll paint my face a bluish-copper, and pink my cheeks, and build that kind of hell-bird bride hair you see in the avant-fashion pages. It's silly that it should take permission, but I seem to have finally begun to receive mine from... uh, myself? This sounds corny. Still, I suddenly feel I can make art and do art to the full extent of my curiosity and obsession. Glee!
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?

The best advice came from Johannes Goransson, who said to remove the titles from all the poems (which advice I followed partially and could finally see how all the poems made a book happen), and from Lara Glenum who insisted I include all the doctor poems I had. I wish someone had, or someone would give me advice on how not to feel tender about it all. I'm a preternaturally thin-skinned tough nut (so everything hurts my feelings, and I chug along just the same). Even the nicest things people say about my work cause me a raw shiver. A good raw shiver, but overwhelming nonetheless.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

Not a tremendous amount, I suppose. By the time the book came out, I'd already finished my second manuscript, and was halfway through my third. It's hard to back up from that kind of momentum (if I wanted to, which I don't).
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing?

The reviews of my book (casual and official) have been remarkably in line with my own assessment of the project, and so reinforce my enthusiasm for my current strategies and mutations. The few that have been off-base and negative have reassured me to some degree--i.e. if so-and-so dislikes it, I'm clearly doing something right. The comments that include what I'd consider positive misreadings (the reader likes it because he thinks the poem does X, and I surely don't think the poem does X) encourage me to work harder, stranger. Ultimately, though, my writing process is speedy, loose, unpredictable, and so it's never happened that I say I will or won't write in a certain fashion. I stew my poetics, my obsessions, my catalogue of creatures and sensations, and then poems tumble out. Reviews must be in the goop somewhere, but the individual poem's overdetermined.
Do you want your life to change?

Yes, in some ways.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?

I'm finishing what one kind and exquisitely talented writer has called my "goddamn PhD." I've got many feisty and practical reasons for pursuing this degree, but there ain't nothing easy about being a poet, an editor, a teacher, a student, a compassionate citizen, a parent, a partner all in the same day for less than $15K a year. Even my freaky-deaky well of energy can be cashed out. So, I work to finish, I look for that ever-elusive position as junior unicorn in the department of fucking up the looking glass, on the committee of resurrection and evisceration. I'm also on a mission to take up space (see above). Feminist poetics have been in action for nearly half a century now, and still the poetry world can be despicably old-boy old-school. In part, this is because we've got centuries worth of knowing how to read centuries-old subject matter and strategies. If I'm writing and editing from a subject position relatively underrepresented, in a strategy relatively unfamiliar, and doing these things for what I consider to be some admirable reasons, then I'd better make sure I share it far and wide as possible. I'd better make sure there's enough evidence out there for folks to school themselves on.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

Of late, I consider writing to be a set of strategies by which one creates a discreet, but permeable experience (per above). Strategies whereby one might suss out partial connections and flashes of the real, should the real turn out to exist. Jasper Bernes, poet and all-'round smarty, and I were recently chatting about the tiresome assumption of subjectivity as bourgeois, of individuals as tapped-out, empty husks who heave whatever commodities they can lay claw on into the craw...I paraphrase a bit liberally, but Jasper got me thinking. I don't believe anyone's particularly empty. I think we're all overfull, symptomatically postmodern, and most folks are scrambling like mad to maintain some sort of coherence. Which struggle requires the editing out or the manipulation of the information that threatens this coherence (as the theorists bank on). It seems to me that all the gore and grotesque, all the slippage and incompatibility is seething there under the baseboards. Poetry is one way to saw (and thus see) through the floor. One way to rip the structure off the foundation, one way to help people gain their footing in an "imaginary" instability, so that they're less frightened when the "real" instability rears up. Well, I should say poetry is a set of ways. Or we might more generally look at art as a set of systems, and poetry one strategy therein.

But this is also a pet peeve of mine. In a more applied way, the whine persists, does (my) poetry make a difference? Or, I know poetry is self-indulgent, wah-wah, I wish I were an aid worker in a crisis zone, I donate to Amnesty International, etc. Firstly, if you'd prefer to be an aid worker, for the love of mud, please go do that. Secondly, why do we lob this attack at the arts in particular? Do we ask the folks who produce gumball machines or create new and improved salad spinners whether or not they're good citizens? Do those folks ask themselves? I don't know; I'm being rhetorical. My point is that we question the overall value of poetry primarily because it has such a low market value, and that is big-time lame. If my poems get one person to reconsider gender norms, for instance, that's some fine work. If my poems infect a reader or two with more subtle compassion, then that's huge. Undeniably, the world is rife with hideous violence and injustice. But just because my part in its correction is not the most glamorous does not make it unnecessary or wholly selfish. Now, if you're writing the kind of Pottery Barn lyric that grants readers permission to edit out inconsistencies and search out aesthetic bomb shelters, then you can go right ahead and feel ashamed. I would encourage you to become that doctor without borders or that human rights lawyer you always suspected you had in you. Should I have issued a rant warning a paragraph back? Maybe, but I can't stomach the bad faith poets, or the argument that the most material application could survive without the more abstract mechanisms.


from Pretty Young Thing by Danielle Pafunda:

The house was full of furniture I'd never been tied to. I saw
a lamp and called it a halo. A small deformity. A hook in the     frame
went off at an angle. My towel dropped away in the doorway.
I gave you a time capsule full of lead paint. To bury a babyhood.
I gave you the pelvic bone of a six-year-old girl. A dollar.

Where was the teapot the cat broke, the brooch, the figurine?
When your grandmother called you to her bed, you went, and I.
And I was on the patio. The lawn. The neighbor's lawn.

The phone showed its sick root to me last night. It wanted
to call you. A tremor, a wound worm in the pillowcase.

. . .

next interview: Paula Cisewski

other first-book interviews

. . .