every other day

3 MAY 07

How has your first book changed your life?

55. Tao Lin

Had you sent your manuscript out often before it won the Action Books prize?

I sent it out at the same time to Hobart's contest, which was for a small book of something, not necessarily poetry, Action Books' contest, and one other contest that I don't remember the name of. I was working on the manuscript while sending it out and continued working on it in December and January (I think the Action Books contest was open for the month of December) and I think Action Books called and said I won in February. Before those three contests I hadn't sent out the manuscript. I think I wrote most of the manuscript between July or August and November, or something, and began putting the manuscript together in October or November.

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

I was at my girlfriend's parents house. I was alone in the house. I picked up the box. I carried the box upstairs. I opened the box. I looked in the box. I looked at the books. I thought, "Oh." I took a photo with my camera phone and sent it to I think my mom, my other publisher (Melville House) and later I think Noah Cicero. I posted the photo on my blog and titled the post "Victory in Japan."

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

No. I anticipated I would feel good for maybe 1 or 2 hours. I was right. I felt happy I had the real book, because then the publisher couldn't cancel it, or something, and also because it looked and felt nice and there were maybe 1 or 2 people, in the world, who would view me now as a more "legitimate" person. The good feelings lasted maybe 1 hour. Or 2 hours, I'm not sure exactly. But that isn't a bad thing. I think permanent change happens gradually. I don't think a million dollars or the Pulitzer prize or moving to Japan, Canada, into a giant apartment, or anything else like that, would cause permanent change to my life. I might feel good for a few days or a week or a month or something, but then would eventually feel the same as I did before.

Permanent change can come, I think, by being conscious of one's own thoughts and actions, and then consciously... changing oneself gradually. I mean doing things deliberately that are "hard" or feel "wrong." If something feels "hard" that means your neurons have more connections for the "easy" way. Each time you do the "hard" thing more neurons will create connections for that new way, and gradually you will change--factually, the change will happen. Feeling happy because I have a physical copy of my book in my hands is something I want to resist, I think, because that would create more neurons in my brain for "feeling happy as a result of believing I have 'possessed,' or come into 'ownership' of an object." It doesn't have anything to do with human beings, pain, or suffering. It isn't "moral." I hope I made sense.
How has your life been different since?

It has changed in some ways, but not because of the book. Or rather I'm sure the book had a small effect on me, maybe something between .5% and 5%. I eat more raw and organic foods, am more conscious of where I spend my money--or "more strict," maybe, rather, on where I spend my money--and exercise more and rub organic coconut oil on my face now. I am "more strict" with not eating muffins, cake, bread, cereal, or anything like that. I try not to eat those things and am successful more often now. I make to-do lists and am more productive now. I am "more strict" with not complaining about anything unless in a sarcastic, creative, funny, or very emotional yet not at all melodramatic way. I'm not sure how much of an influence the book has had on those things though.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

At first, sort of. I asked Johannes and Joyelle if it could be a solid bright orange cover with no words and they said that it could, and that they liked that. Later Johannes emailed me and said it didn't fit the aesthetic of Action Books to have that, and then they designed the cover themselves and showed me when it was finished and I said I liked it, which was true. I made a suggestion about putting my name in lowercase, to match the lowercase title and poetry, but they didn't say anything about that. I can understand how the orange cover doesn't fit the aesthetic of their books. It would look like I was "just trying to be different." With a bright orange cover my book would have looked different than all their other books. I like the cover as they designed it.

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

I wanted to advertise in Teen Vogue or Hot Topic or places like that but I only talked about it and never did anything about it. I think my book could have sold many copies if it was targeted at the "depressed, confused teenager" demographic. Or even "depressed, confused college-student" demographic. I thought, or talked, about getting investors and then advertising on MTV. Carson Daly, or whoever is there now, could have held my book up and sold 500,000 copies in one day. But I don't think I really unsarcastically thought anything like that would happen. So I was not surprised. A writing professor I had at NYU, Sophie Powell, said I should get an agent and have the agent submit the manuscript to Japan, Korea, and places like that, but I never did that either.

What have you been doing to promote the book and what were/are those experiences like for you?

I created a blog with all the information for the book. It was a nice experience I think. I enjoy creating blogs and making them look nice. I mailed copies to people I like who I think would like the book. I mailed copies to Miranda July, Mirah, Jenny Lewis, and some other famous people. I posted on my blog saying that if anyone wanted to review the book they could email me and I would send them a copy. I think that got me 2 or 3 reviews. On my blog I made a post where I typed about every poem in the book. I enjoyed all those experiences. I tried to get on Gawker by emailing them. I think I emailed them a photo of my ass. I didn't plan it very much.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?

I'm not sure. "Best" implies we--and anyone reading this--have the same goals in life. But no two people have the same exact goal. I think most people change goals daily, or maybe even moment by moment, even if it's just a change of "focus" in one's hierarchy of what is "important." Therefore I don't know.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

I don't know. The publication itself might have had a very small effect on my subsequent writing, like .05%, and most of it unconscious. I don't think I've ever thought, "Based on the publication of my last poetry book, should I delete this line about ugly fish or change ugly fish to moose?" The actual writing of the book had an effect, I think, on my subsequent writing, because I don't want to write the same exact poem again. By "same exact poem" I mean the exact same words, line breaks, and punctuation. I don't want to write about "different things," since ideally I write about existential themes, which can be applied to anything--and it doesn't really matter what I apply it to, I think, because the "things" (for example abortion, 9/11, baseball, moose, bears, hamsters, Africa, Spain, Canada, immigration, society, TV, etc.) are, ideally, just "tools" in order to convey the existential themes. I hope what I just typed makes sense.

How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing?

I got one negative review, one or two medium reviews, and I think the rest were positive reviews. The negative review had almost no effect on me. The medium reviews had almost no effect on me. The positive reviews made me feel good for maybe 10 minutes to 2 or 3 hours and maybe had a small effect on my subsequent writing in that it made me want to write more.

Do you want your life to change?

Yes. I want to be better. I want my actions to be more aligned with my morals and I want my morals to be more defensible philosophically. I want to block out less information. I want to decide what to do, in my life, based more on morals, math, and facts and less on bodily impulses, momentary urges, or what "feels right." Also I want to be able to reconcile those things--morals, choices--more within an existential view, a view that does not block out any information. All these things are things to strive for, not things that can actually be accomplished and "finished with." A person who doesn't want their life to change is not conscious, I don't think, and therefore is not a person, but a thing, like a rock. No one knows if a rock is conscious though. I'm not sure about these last two sentences I just typed.

Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?

Yes. I am aware of the ways in which I want to change. Just being aware helps bring about the change, factually, because of neurons, in the brain. But I do not think there are "quick solutions." I have thought about people. Some people get "an idea" every couple of weeks or months and then maybe for one day they try to actualize their "idea," but then almost always go back to how they were before. People who "freak out" every once in a while go through the same cycles repeatedly and then maybe "lose hope" and never actually change, I think. Permanent change is not dramatic. It happens gradually, slowly, and consistently, I think, based on my observations of people. Consistency, not being dramatic, and not reading magazines unsarcastically, maybe, are the "keys" to changing permanently. People who are "in control of their lives" or if not "in control" then at least "productive," are people who rarely talk about "change," but just assume that every day is a day that will be used to "become better," I think, based mostly on my observations of people. I try not to think in terms of "change," but just assume that every moment is a moment that I will change--it is synonymous with being alive.

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

Yes. Like anything else. Anything that exists inside the world will change the world. Anything that exists has no choice but to change the world. Existing is the same as changing. Occupying space or time--abstractly, in a person's head, or physically, in the universe--is synonymous, to me, and factually, also, with "change." If I am sitting and not thinking anything I am changing myself. If I am sitting and thinking things I am also changing myself--and the world. If I throw a rock I am changing the world. If I am not throwing a rock I am also changing the world. Poetry is not special in this regard, I don't think.


A poem from you are a little bit happier than i am by Tao Lin:


i feel most comfortable around middle-class japanese people
i know they are all thinking the same things as me


though their faces appear calm
their thoughts are exactly like i just put them


about how we cannot communicate in our first languages:

we don't care
we don't want to communicate at all
we just want to get our food
and eat it

and go home
and go to sleep

or else go home
and discover a secret passageway behind the refrigerator
and move the refrigerator back to where it was
and take a shower
and go to sleep


. . .

next interview: Linda Russo

other first-book interviews

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