How has your first book changed your life?
52. Jake Adam York
I was sending out manuscripts for about three years, maybe a little more, when Murder Ballads got picked up by Elixir. Altogether, I sent some version of the manuscript out between 40 and 50 times. But the manuscript wasn't always Murder Ballads.
When I got started, I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't even think I was ready, but I was encouraged by Larissa Szporluk (Larissa, I've never told you, but you are wonderful, thank you forever) who told me that I had solid poems and that I should assemble a book and start sending it out, which is exactly what I did. In fact, I remember going home the afternoon after she said that to me and beginning to assemble a manuscript that would, after two years, become Murder Ballads.
In my first year, the manuscript was really just an envelope of poems, not really a book, but I got some encouraging responses, including being a semi-finalist in one contest. While I was watching the rejections come in, I was reading other poets' first books. I was reading the winners, trying to see if I was doing something wrong or doing something right. No one had ever talked to me about sending out a book or even about assembling a manuscript. When I got my MFA at Cornell, the pedagogical assumption, which I needed, was that things were going to be different for everyone, which is true, fundamentally, but I was never encouraged to think about the publishing world, or the contest world, as being a kind of market, so I didn't know how to address myself to those who would read and choose the manuscript. I didn't even know who those people were. But as I collected my notices and bought books, I began to learn about each contest, about subdivisions of the poetry world I'd never known, and I started to think about how I could shape my manuscript--not just the individual poems, but the manuscript as a whole--to greater success. What I was learning from the books I was reading was that the winning manuscripts read well as books. There was some principle in them--again, something I'd never considered. I began searching for some principle by which to organize my manuscript, and I tried several before I got down to the concept of the murder ballad and found a title, though that took some intervention (about which more in a few more lines).
The second year I sent out manuscripts, I had a stronger collection, and the manuscript was a finalist a few times, enough to keep me thinking I wasn't entirely daft but enough to dispirit me a few times. I thought I'd just keep changing the book one poem at a time, taking out the weak ones and replacing them with stronger ones, until I had a better book that would get a nod. But I wasn't much more successful.
Then the interventions.... First, when I was at an AWP, I met a poet who had judged one of the contests in which I was a finalist. He remembered my name from the list and, even more staggering, remembered my manuscript. He took me aside and told me he thought the manuscript as a whole was strong but that it needed a new title. I left a little confused, since I'd lived with another title for almost two years, but determined to make a break. I was considering abandoning the manuscript altogether and working on a new one, a second manuscript, that I was calling Murder Ballads. On the plane back home, I decided to make a list of the titles of the poems I couldn't do without, asked whether or not they could work under the title Murder Ballads and then began to rebuild the book. I had to write eight new poems to make the book long enough to send out, but I did it, dedicating most of a Spring and a Summer to create the book that is now Murder Ballads.
The second intervention came that summer when I was at Sewanee and one of the faculty members asked what I was doing with my manuscript. I told him how selective I was being, and he encouraged me to submit more widely, which I did. The result was that out of a dozen submissions I made in the fall of that year, six were finalists or semi-finalists, and Elixir picked it up.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I knew it was coming, and I was at my office, obsessively checking websites for tracking information, calling the loading dock to see if anything had arrived. I left campus for lunch and, on my way back, stopped into my favorite bookstore which had just received a whole box of Murder Ballads. I stood while the owner carefully razored the packing tape and pulled the flaps back to reveal four gleaming stacks of Murder Ballads, and I felt like I might go blind. I had seen a PDF of every page and had even seen a galley of the cover, but I wasn't prepared for it. I realized I had thought about the moment for a long time but had told myself not to think about it, so the experience was like what I imagine the return of repressed memories must be like, but this was at once the return of repressed fantasy and the realization of that fantasy which, because it had been fantasy for so long and because I had repressed it, I didn't believe as true. The owner assured me it was real. I drove back to my office in the most wonderful impairment ever and found waiting for me a similarly sized box of Murder Ballads, some kind of Christmas, which I opened and relished. And then I went to teach class.
Were you involved in the cover design?
Yes. When the book was taken, my publisher asked me if I had an idea for a cover image, and I did, but I couldn't get the permission of the artist, so I started over and after a few weeks found the Cezanne image that's on the cover. My publisher liked it, and we got a license that was affordable, so we went with it. I didn't make any requests of the designer when the book and image were sent to him, but he did everything I could have asked. The only change we made after the initial design was to make my name smaller. I wish I could say I'd thought through the cover's implications fully, but it wasn't until the book was in my hand that I began to realize how well the image worked as an analogue to the collection. I don't know if anyone else thinks so, but I think the image translates the fantasy of the Louvin Brothers singing "Knoxville Girl" in the book's second poem. In print, it's darker than I imagined it would be, but in a way that pleases me greatly.
Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it? How has your life been different since? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I think I thought the book, had it come out a year or two earlier, would have had a profound impact on my academic career, maybe would have made me more mobile or have altered the circumstances of my work in Denver. The book came, however, after I followed another road to tenure. It didn't make me more mobile professionally--it didn't make more jobs available to me, at least it hasn't yet. But it did make me mobile in other ways, leading me into new communities, which I hadn't really expected. I guess I thought I was a certain kind of person and the certain kinds of people would be interested in me, while others would not--and all that has turned out to be wrong. I have had to learn the world again. The circumstances of my work have changed, but the change came more slowly than I imagined it would. I should not have been surprised, however: the poems came slowly, the book came slowly--why should the change have come quickly?
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what are those experiences like for you?
Mostly I've been reading a lot--bookstores, conferences, coffeeshops, high schools, colleges, universities, libraries, radio shows. The few reviews I've gotten have, as far as I can tell, translated into some sales (you know when a review comes out, and you can see your figures rise a little bit), but reading and talking to people is what has really moved the book, so I try to stay out, try to meet new people and to find new audiences. And I enjoy it. Often, I find myself entering a new room full of apprehension--not just the usual pre-reading jitters, nervousness about the performance, but a real fear that this room will be filled with people who will hate the poems, or me, or find what I do offensive in some way. But that apprehension has, so far, always been misplaced. Whether here in Colorado, back home in Alabama, or elsewhere--in Georgia or Illinois--I've found audiences very open to the work and very interested in dialogue about it, and that has been very fulfilling.
When I say fulfilling, I mean in part that finding receptive audiences has filled me with a kind of joy, the kind of joy one gets when one finds people who share one's interests. But when I say it's fulfilling, I also mean that the process of reading poems to an audience and talking about them also seems like the fulfillment of a kind of promise. When I write, I write in near-total silence, but I always imagine the poems being read aloud, and I try to write the poems so they will perform well, so they'll sound right read aloud. I mean for my poems to be read and to be heard. So when I read, and I find some listeners in a reading, I feel like the poems have arrived, have found the kind of home I'd always wanted for them.
Another thing I've been doing lately--in the last few months, since I found some of my books on remainder--is sending copies of the book to people I want to read it. Noah Eli Gordon told me some time ago that he took his Sawtooth Prize money in copies and sent the copies to all corners of the universe, and I wished I'd done that. Now I'm doing it more slowly, sending the book to other writers and musicians and artists whose work has helped me in some way. I just gave a copy to Charlie Louvin, whom I write about in the poem "Knoxville Girl," a musician from the part of Alabama where I'm from, a musician I grew up listening to. I don't know if he'll enjoy it, but he was very kind to me, and that moment will stay with me for a long time.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? Or what was the best advice you got?
I'm probably repeating myself here, but, apart from the advice I got on the poems and on the manuscript, the best information I got was from a friend who'd won a major prize who told me that, realistically, I was the one who was going to promote the book, that it would be my show, that the reviews I got were going to be the result of my writing reviewers and journals and that the readings I got were going to be the result of my looking for them, and he was right. I had assumed that there were presses and writers and that writers wrote and presses pressed not just the plates to the paper but the books to the public. Most presses, however, don't have the staff to market a book of poems very aggressively or the time to push a book of poems for more than a few months. Your book, however, is your book, and you've got to front for it.
As I noted above, the advice I wish I'd got: take any prize money or advances in copies.
Your second book will be out next Spring--what are your plans for it? Will you do anything differently?
I don't think I'll do much differently. I just think I'll do more. I expect, once the book comes out, that I'll spend a few weeks traveling heavily, then retire for the Summer to push the book to potential reviewers before hitting the roads again in the Fall. I'm already trying to schedule readings for 2008, 2009, and even 2010, so I'm looking further ahead. You can psych yourself out, thinking that a natural hopefulness, that someone will want to read the book, is a kind of arrogance, but you've got to stay focused on that hope. I hope people will want to read my book and want to hear me read the book. If people do, I'll go anywhere. Seriously.
What influence has your first book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
When Murder Ballads was published, I started looking around for other books that were coming out at the same time, and, again, I was struck by how strongly unified most of the books were. I'd tried in Murder Ballads to strike some kind of balance between thematic and narrative unity and textural diversity, a combination I still value, but I got to thinking about how I might achieve textural diversity in a manuscript that had even stronger thematic unity. Within three or four months of the publication of Murder Ballads I had the structure, and about half the poems for, A Murmuration of Starlings, the second book that will be out next Spring. Sending that book around was much different: I sent it to eight presses, and the manuscript had been named a finalist twice and then accepted within six months. It was much easier, maybe because of the stronger unity, though one never knows for sure.
It may be a matter of subject, too, though. My mentor Robert Morgan used to say that a poet had to find the right subject, and I feel that I found my subject, or at least a subject, rather late in the process of writing Murder Ballads, when my interests in elegy and Alabama history converged in the elegies for Civil Rights martyrs. In reading Murder Ballads, I found myself most strongly drawn to read those poems, which I came to feel really gave the book its structure, so when I started writing A Murmuration of Starlings, I was interested in writing an entire book of those kinds of elegies.
A side-effect of that decision was that I've split the other kinds of writing I do into separate streams, so now I'm working on a series of poems that are all based on small language experiments and a series of prose poems. Maybe all those will converge again at some point in the future, but for now I'd say I'm branching out in ways I couldn't have predicted, ways that are, somehow or other, influenced by the way I understand publishing now.
Who is putting out your second book?
Southern Illinois University Press. The manuscript took second place in this year's Crab Orchard Open Competition.
How do you feel about the critical response so far and has it had any effect on your writing?
I don't know if a few reviews constitutes a "critical response," but the reviews have largely confirmed the sense I was getting from the readings, that the Civil Rights poems are the real core of Murder Ballads, and that, as I wrote above, has caused me not only to focus more severely in writing A Murmuration of Starlings, which I understand as a continuation of Murder Ballads, but to continue into the writing of what promises to be a third in a series of books I hope will continue until I have written poems for the martyrs whose names are on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. I now understand this as my central work. I'll continue to write poems in many different modes, but these poems are, this memorial work is, I think, my central work, and I'll put my strongest efforts into extending that work.
Do you want your life to change?
My life has changed in so many ways in the last three years, partly for personal reasons, party for professional reasons, and partly for artistic reasons. Every day, I think, requires us to understand ourselves again, to look for the change that has to come, and to learn to work through it.
I remember often these lines from Walden:
How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties. So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre. All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.
I don't want to be "compelled to live" in any way. Compulsion leads to law and away from poetry. I want the change, in whatever way it comes.
So, yes, I want my life to keep changing. It will whether or not I want it to, but I do want the change. I have only to wait, to watch and listen.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Poetry changes people. People change the world.
A poem from Murder Ballads by Jake Adam York:
Bluets, larkspur, common violets in the jimson
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