How has your first book changed your life?
49. Paula Cisewski
How did your manuscript get picked up by Black Ocean? Had you sent it out often previously?
The manuscript represents many years of writing. In 2002, Fuori Editions published a chapbook of my poems, How Birds Work, which had gone out of print. I re-collected some of those pieces, along with newer work, in Upon Arrival.
I sent the manuscript out to several competitions and open readings all at once. I got a couple nice no's in real handwriting and was a semifinalist in one competition. But before the last of the responses even came in, I decided FORGET THIS! I AM THE PRESS! And I went out and bought supplies and learned PageMaker and started stitching together my own little books under the moniker Greenfinch Editions. I think it was a defensive maneuver.
Janaka Stucky, a poet who had graduated from Vermont College a year before I did, contacted me. He asked that before I send the manuscript out again or go into full throttle production myself that we talk. He was ready to launch Black Ocean, and because of that fortunate timing, I had the honor of having my book published as their first full-length collection of poems.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
The box was to arrive on a day I was home, so I was pretty eagerly awaiting it, but it never came and never came. It was early spring. I propped my porch door, I made calls; it was a mystery. In the evening, I went out to my back yard for something, and there was the carton: in the lawn in the dusk as if it had been dropped from the sky (but softly). I hauled it in. Nobody was home. There wasn't even music on. I opened the box sitting in the middle of my living room floor like a kid.
I had seen a scanned image of the cover, several revisions, had discussed the kind of paper, etc., and still remained in a sort of denial that at some point I would be holding the finished object in my two hands. I thought it was made just beautifully; it practically has the feel of a handmade thing. It was a pleasure to hold. And then, too, it felt eerily final.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Yes, but ultimately just by agreeing enthusiastically with my editor's vision. Janaka and I tossed around some images. I had this idea of a dim lamppost, but he rightly said that it would be too static visually. He proposed the telephone pole and birds (there are a few birds on the front cover and a black flurry of them on the back), which is perfect for two reasons:
1. The birds. I'm not knocking myself, but there are practically feathers falling out of the pages of the book.
2. The phone lines as an image of a message in transit somewhere. The title Upon Arrival is meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek. If there is a speaker in the poems, she contemplates a failure of arrival: the way language beautifully fails to arrive at something beyond itself, time fails to stop, the "self" fails to exist, etc. In the end, there is only supposed to be more acceptance of all that. That little message in the cable, and the disinterested action around it, is the whole concern of the book.
How has your life been different since the book came out?
One way is the reading series I started: The Imaginary Press Reading Series (named after my abandoned Greenfinch Editions). It was such an inspiration participating in the different series around the country: The Clean Part in Lincoln, Pete's in Brooklyn, Danny's in Chicago. Though our literary community is astounding, there was really nothing like those events happening in the Twin Cities at the moment. I've hosted readings before, so I thought I'd give it a go, and it seems to be taking off at great speed!
I started the reading partially for the self-serving purpose that I am a little clumsy at receiving attention for my own work, even though, of course I want it. So now that the book is in the world, hosting the reading allows me to keep the energy of that attention flowing back to people whose work I admire.
Another difference is this real acceptance of myself as a non-critic. I had been struggling for years--why don't I just write a few reviews? They would look so great on my C.V. Well, I don't write reviews, not because I am unable but because the process is excruciating for me. I derive absolutely no pleasure from it. I'm a really good fan, which makes me a good hostess, which is an equally important service to the literary community.
Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I thought that the book would make me a serious poet. The surprise was learning that after all this time, serious poets, in my mind, were still the opposite of me.
I'm trying to figure out what I meant by a "serious poet." I guess one of my unexamined definitions was a poet who knows what she is doing. At all times. How repugnant is that? What's worse is that definition made a hypocrite of me. I'll prove it: the critical thesis I wrote in grad school was titled "The Wrong Answers or None at All: Not Knowing and Poetry." Its main purpose, I now see, was simply to give myself permission to stumble around and play. I spent months culling the ideas of...Keats and Heidegger and Krishnamurti and Ashbery and the surrealists and on and on... into basically this: if we were guaranteed to get exactly what we were looking for by writing poems, nobody would ever do it. To wildly paraphrase from the folks I just named, certainty disallows exploration, discovery. How can a person create like that? Then I came to learn that, underneath it all, I didn't entirely believe myself. It's so good to be forced to examine those definitions.
Then again, maybe I just thought people would take me more seriously as a poet because I have my name on a book. And some do. My folks do. So there is my second unexplored definition: on some level I hadn't differentiated between being serious and being taken seriously.
I think I envisioned at least a couple extended book tours. I don't know how I thought they would happen. Instead, I do readings as my schedule permits. They have been fantastic excuses to get out of town and meet some really stellar people. It's been very heartening. It's good for me to think of doing things in service to the book as a series of small, ongoing tasks rather than my normal impulse to jump into a project and finish it. I don't necessarily want to finish with this.
Plus, I started a weblog, which I intended to keep very literary and professional, all about the book. There are still links on the sidebar to where you can buy the book or read about the book and view my upcoming readings and whatnot, but I cannot seem to resist posting things like Queen videos or long musings about overcoming my bowling phobia.
I think it was the poet Sarah Fox, whose first book, Because Why, came out at almost exactly the same time as mine, who said something about just enjoying the book and not judging it. I would pass that on.
In the months after the book came out, I felt a little pressure (from where?) to have another finished product. Instead of simply trying to write a good poem, I was thinking of these series of poems I could write, which isn't natural for me. Sort of like the way Bill Knott differentiates between poets who write poems and poets who write books of poems. Upon Arrival is a collection of separate poems that I tried very hard to arrange in a pleasing and helpful manner, but all of a sudden I was trying to imagine this whole and have the small blocks serve it. I'd practically get nauseous when I forced myself into my office.
I let that go! Then there was a period of feeling completely unmired. Where was my big project?? I felt like I had to learn to write all over again, in a bigger way than I usually do.
Ironically, after letting all that go, nine months have passed and I seem to be finishing a 25-page-long poem/fragment sequence. I've never done that before. But it came organically, obsessively, worked-poem by worked-poem.
People are going to say whatever they want. Before anybody said anything about my work that seemed mortifying, but it's more liberating than I ever could have imagined! Ultimately, there's been a little bit of criticism and slightly more praise, and oftentimes the critiques and praise conflict. For example, one poem that my editor gently recommended I remove and I did not, a critic nodded to as one of the poems that best displays my specific talents. I wouldn't have guessed on either of those responses for that specific poem. Then, some folks laud the experimentalism of the book, while someone else used the word "experimental" about my work as if that term were derogatory. The critical responses affirmed that there's no authority out there; there are just a bunch of opinions. Albeit, some opinions are more popular than others...
Doesn't that sound healthy and removed? It doesn't mean the first jabs at the book didn't sting like hell.
My circumstance is the same as many artists out there--fitting the work I love into the pockets of time and energy that exist around the job that pays my bills (although I teach and I enjoy it). I would like, at the very least, equal time.
I have to believe that simply continuing is one course of action.
In that I think the only way to change the world is to disengage with power struggles and to promote positivity, yes: I believe poetry is 100% counterculture.
from Upon Arrival by Paula Cisewski:
In this dream I must selectively
My father is taking place
Not a dream, a memory: this is
the real day I am flying
Wait. Did my father wear glasses?
. . .
. . .