every other day

5 MAY 07

an interview with Lytton Smith

Lytton Smith

You're a publicist for Persea and Four Way Books poets--do you represent prose writers for those publishers as well?

Yes--I love doing poetry because so few people do it as a priority, but I have worked with prose titles--a biography of the baseball player Curt Flood (a lot of fun, that one), an anthology of contemporary Jewish American fiction, and I'm just about to work on an anthology of "short stories about nonconformist youth." I'm working on a collection of short stories by Eileen Pollack at the moment which is, happily, a real page-turner, and at the same time very emotional; an interesting set of emotions to be pinballed between.

Do you also do freelance work for individual poets?

Yes, and it's something I'd like to do more of. It's great working with different poets and different books. I think one of the real thrills of being part of a community of poets--or I should say a set of communities of poets--is being able to watch the different ways of thinking about poetry that people have. Some of it's related to how we situate ourselves in daily life--politics, techno-phobia or -philia, where poetry exists in relation to the rest of our lives--but a lot of it has to do with the imagination as it inhabits our conceptions of our books, and their public lives. It reminds me of one of the things I like about reading your first book interviews, too: the question "do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?"--which the poets you interview are expecting--and it's the forms of thinking that are as or more interesting than the content of the answers. I hope to always be able to work with interesting poets and books; if only there was more time and less need to pay the rent (I also teach, which I enjoy, and have a rather luxurious student-teaching fellowship, so wouldn't dream of complaining, but it does take up a lot of time.)

What do you charge? (if you don't mind saying)

I'm culturally trained to flip-flop on that sort of question (Lytton reverts to uber-British)! I won't say because it very much depends on what a client wants and what stage they're at--how much their press is and isn't supporting them. If a poet has to pay for copies of the book to send out to reading series, that's a very different thing that if the press has designated 200 review copies for whatever purpose. I'm acutely conscious that poets get the raw end of the deal financially: not only are our advances small, but we have smaller sales and little in the way of advertising and publicity budgets. A friend who recently published a debut short story collection put away a sizeable sum to fund publicity, reading tours; almost no poet ever gets to do that. So I try to find a way to survive financially, by which I mostly mean that I have to earn enough to give me the time to concentrate on my clients rather than being distracted by too many other jobs, while also being as cheap and therefore fair to poets and to presses as possible.

I think I'm a little uncomfortable with this, and can best explain it thus: my long-term goal is to set up a not-for-profit publicity organization that provides poets with information about how to publicize their books, what to expect from and ask for from their presses, and gives grants to poets specifically for publicity. There's a gap in the support for poets; you can get fellowships to help you work on a book, and fellowships/prizes/teaching jobs once you've got a book out, but almost nothing to help you promote the book itself. I'd love to see more things like the Wave Poetry Bus. And there's room for poetry in more unusual places: I'm working on trying to set up a reading in a boxing gym for an upcoming book, and maybe you end up with 5 people there who are gym regulars who've never been to a poetry reading but who like boxing, and that's great. That's making things public!

Ideally, I think the publicity aspect of poetry might be more closely linked with the writing of poetry. At present, publicity seems to mean "promotion," and I think that it might also, or more accurately, mean "explanation." I keep reading poets who (rightly) complain about "accessible" as a review term, but if we are to go beyond that usage, we need to offer an explanation of what we mean by "accessible" and why that's useful. What other terms might we want in talking about poetry today?

How did you happen to get into this line of work?

I think I've always been in this line of work, if that's not too coy! I love sharing the things I'm excited about and, being a bookish sort, that's often the novel, poem, essay I'm reading. My favorite novelist, Alessandro Baricco, I stumbled on by chance in a bookstore which fortunately didn't have the Julian Barnes novel I wanted, and ever since then I've been telling everyone about him. I want to shout about things from the rooftops. I just read and loved Paige Ackerson-Kiely's book from Ahsahta, and the next day was going to a reading, so had to bring it along to show people and enthuse about. I think that mentality led me into this, but I sense you also want a practical answer, too.

I started working at Persea because I read Gaby Calvocoressi's debut collection in galleys and loved it so much I wanted to work there; a friend was fortuitously looking to leave so I asked her to recommend me. It's a small company, and I made it my business to do as much publicity as I could--I organized a tour of England for Gaby, and indeed her enthusiasm and sense of possibility as a poet was an education to me--and just tried to be as imaginative as possible. Then at AWP last year, my first, I met the poet Chelsea Rathburn whose book had just come out from University of Evansville, and we were talking about publicity and I suddenly realized I could be really helpful to a lot of poets; she asked me about freelance work, and though my schedule didn't allow that to happen, she gave me the idea of more actively promoting more poets. I'm ever cautious about getting overwhelmed--I never want to short change anyone--so I don't take on too many poets, but I want to find time to do so more.

Your manuscript The Lost Tin Myth has been a finalist for the Sawtooth Prize and the Dorset Prize, among others. Do you feel your work as a publicist is helping you in your effort to get your own book published? If so, how?

Not directly--I have a rule that I won't submit the manuscript anywhere I've done publicity work, and I won't do publicity work anywhere I want to send the manuscript. That's a little disappointing at times, but it's important to me; I want the book to be taken on its merits, and to know that.

What I do get out of being a publicist is a better knowledge of how publishing works, and of what happens once the book has become a book. I'm reading more poetry more carefully, and advocating for poetry has always been a great way of coming to a better understanding of what I'm doing as a poet. My process involves getting to know other poets well--I like to "play the sedulous ape" as R. L. Stevenson encouraged, and being a publicist can help with that. It's also putting me in touch with some books I wouldn't necessarily seek out otherwise, and I think that's healthy.

When your first book is published, what do you plan to do to promote it?

Everything! I'm definitely going to have a launch reading in a bar with a band playing before the reading (and maybe after), somewhere I can get a crowd that isn't the typical poetry reading attendee. I'm going to hit the blogs: there are poems in the book that use language from HBO's Carnivale so I'll try blogs such as Whedonesque in an attempt to get it into the hands of people who aren't reading P&W; then there's the medieval strand to the poems, and I plan to get it to the attention of medievalists in English Lit and History Departments. I've since re-titled it The All-Purpose Magical Tent and I'm thinking of various tent-related possibilities: an All-Purpose Magical Tent website, a one-man tent tour of the US, readings at circuses? A lot will depend on if and when the book gets taken, and who puts it out. I'm prone to fantasizing its acceptance and release, and I have to keep stopping myself.

Are you as comfortable promoting your own work as you are the work of others?

Well, when/if the time comes, I'm looking forward to having someone publicize me. I think that's in part because advocacy by a third party seems to have a stronger effect than self-promotion in some cases, and partly because a third party looking in on the work sees new things, new ways of promoting it.

But that said, I love reading, and as you can probably tell from these answers, talking and talking--and talking. I'm comfortable promoting my own work, but I guess I see it as a very different thing: the act of being a publicist (someone defined by the act of making public, by whatever that '-ist' suggests) is different when it's your own work, I think. The writing of the poem is a step in the act of making public, and you're not a fresh reader no matter how much you try to distance yourself. As a publicist for someone else, your way of making something public begins with the private act of being a reader, and that fascinates me. I like to think I can occasionally reveal something new about a book I'm publicizing, another option for it, and friends who've read my manuscript have done that for me; I look forward to having an editor and/or publicist do so.

Do you feel that strong reviews are more or less valuable than readings? Is being reviewed in good publications essential to the success of a book?

I think readings are the most important thing: a strong review of a book might impress a reader, but at the same time confirm that it doesn't sound like "their" type of thing. I know even while I try to be open-minded as a reader, always interested in a thing I've not read before, I have certain familiar notions of favorites. But hearing the poetry read can cross that divide--I've definitely ended up buying books on the basis of a reading. And, in addition, the reading informs people about the book's existence beyond those who are there.

That said, given that the more widely the book is mentioned the more people might buy/read/think about it, getting mentions is key, and a strong review, whether in a senior publication or on a new blog, will help sell the book, or perhaps another of the poet's (future) books. I've just bought Jaswinder Bolina's Carrier Wave on the basis of a poem posted on John Gallaher's blog.

Do you like to read publicly and do you do it very much?

When I can--NYC can be a great place to read but between the MFA and the first book it is a little harder to book a reading. Plus, I'd rather save venues until I have a book--I think publicity has a more and less effective time period. I've just read twice recently, though, at Cornelia Street. It gave me a chance to read some non-manuscript poems, new things I'm puttering about with, and that was liberating.

How long have you been living in the States and why did you come here originally?

Ha! So many answers. 3 and a half years. Because I read Moby Dick. Because of a great, intense conversation with a professor at undergrad about captivity narrative and America. Because myth operates differently in the US: the guitarist Richard Thompson talks about the size of monuments and other mythic structures in the US versus the UK, the way that things operate on a smaller scale in the UK, that there's nothing comparable to Route 66 or the Grand Canyon (we have the M25 and Offa's Dyke, and myth functions differently in these locations). In the US (and I will say I'm hesitant about exactly what that encompasses in terms of time, geography, and peoples) there was a sense, for some, of creating/imposing a national identity through literature, and even now it's possible, more in some circles than others, to talk about writing the Great American Novel. And if you were to say in an interview that you wanted to write the Great British Novel it would be faintly ludicrous, it would be a proposal for a Hugh Laurie-esque wry comic thriller.

I think fundamentally language is creative, by which I mean it creates new things through utterance; these things might not be graspable, though at times they are, but they're no less existent. And so I think the US offered me a way of believing that that staying in the UK didn't, not matter how much affection I have for the land (though less, perhaps, for its culture, in cases--if I'm homesick it's for the geography, the soil, more than the nation, which is in any case a fragmented group of nations). Gertrude Stein said a writer should have two countries, and that's been very useful for me.

Then there are the benefits of writing being taken seriously in practical terms: an M.A. in Creative Writing in the UK, at least when I was applying, was treated a little contemptuously, so that you have to write papers on the history and theory of publishing in order to justify it. And it would have been one year. The two-year-plus system here, with the summer between the years as a break, was much more appealing. Additionally, in London I always wanted a community of poets. I read somewhat romantically about the poetic groups in France and England in the early 20th centuries and wanted that. It never seemed to exist in London for me: you had cliques, and even they weren't that different, there was very little range in the poetry before me as a naive reader (even while I loved and love a great deal of it) and little public presence for anything different from the norm. I don't know if Americans ever quite agree with me on this, but the situation is much healthier out here. I will say it's improving in the UK, partly because of presses like Seren, partly because of MFA programs like Bath Spa (who were actually at AWP last year--a minor miracle in British forward thinking, but then again one of their faculty is American and got her MFA from UC Irvine, Carrie Etter, and it's a program with American inspirations).

If I hired you as a publicist, what would you do for me? What would be the most important things?

Generally I write a press release and pitch letter for the book, I come up with a list of reviewers for it to go to--the obvious places but also others that might not come to mind; thinking about reviewers I know of who would be right for the book. I think I can be a big help finding and contacting reading series about a book. I'll help organize a tour of an area where useful and possible, or organize a launch reading or other bigger event. I sometimes do postcards for a book, which are cheap and a good way of getting information out where the poet has lots of snail mail addresses. But it's different for each book--I'm helping one poet with grant proposals at the moment. So long as it's getting the book more public, I'll do anything. I long for the poet who wants to involve sky-writing with publicity...

I've been reading case sensitive and liking it a great deal. And I kind of wanted to answer this question with something about case sensitive specifically. But I also worried that I would be intruding, entering your space without permission in a way, and so I haven't. I will say though that one of the things I look for in a book is that it makes me think, and makes me engage with it on some formal level. case sensitive very much does both for me, and I feel good publicity work can come out of wanting to and somewhat needing to explain that thinking.

I've been trying to help a poet friend to compose a brief description of her book that will be used by the publisher for publicity. Would that tend to be part of what you'd do for a client?

Yes, very much so. It's one of my favorite parts of being a publicist. I always do it with the input and approval of the writer: I'll read the book, write a description (often as I'm writing a press release, etc.), and then show it to the writer. I'm not trying to read the writer's mind, but trying to describe the book in a way that will help it into the public while doing justice to what the writer intends and prioritizes. It's a reader's reaction, not a writer's, but hopefully not just one reader's reaction.

How would you briefly describe The All-Purpose Magical Tent?

This one I've found very tough, partly because I think description is so context-dependent. The two paragraphs below wouldn't be what I'd put on the back of a book but I've used them to explain it to would-be publishers. Recently I've been thinking about it as "the Venerable Bede meets HBO's Carnivale with a soundtrack by the Counting Crows." But that doesn't seem quite right to me; I guess I'd like people who are interested in these things, since they've (indirectly) influenced me. But I'm not sure that that sentence would be what a reader would describe it with, and I wouldn't use it on the book either. Though I'll happily stage-manage a blurb to get HBO in there--I mean, it can't hurt the publicity of it! And I do feel a kinship to that show, which I only watched after writing the manuscript--thankfully, I think, as the themes overlap in many places, and it would have limited my thinking and expression.

I'll also say lastly that maybe the re-titling is part of a brief description: The All-Purpose Magical Tent is, among other things, a storehouse for and performance arena of the imagination. It's an imagination that's working through historical voices, speaking for the self through other people, and unable to avoid recurrence. I'm less interested in imaginative disjunction and leaping than in the way the imagination, even at its wildest, can have deep-rooted patterns and formal structures.

But here's that description. I've failed utterly to be brief...

Adopting a variety of forms--sestina, terza rima, sonnet, cento, free verse--and drawing on several speakers--a clockmaker, the Monster, an anchoress--the poems in The All-Purpose Magical Tent argue that myth is necessarily tentative as it comes into being and is handed on, testing the thresholds and margins of speech. A circus wanders through the collection, its members dwindling and its future increasingly uncertain. A solitary attendant waits for customers inside the All-Purpose Magical Tent. And waits. For these characters, what is at stake is how the "tradition of the greater world they came from became mythical in colour and uncertain" (H. G. Wells).

In considering this, these poems explore how lyric's capacity for memorialisation together with the errancy of narrative sustains event through language. Fascinated by an interest in what Giorgio Agamben calls "the dream of language," these are poems invigorated by sound and sense, searching for a unity of the two that remains, in Agamben's analysis, elusive yet potential. While these poems draw variously from the tradition of Robert Browning and Gerard Manly Hopkins, and more recently from Karen Volkman and Srikanth Reddy, they exist in a world wholly their own. It is a world that, by borrowing from history, from World War II, medieval monasteries, the history of 20th British poetry, the American Dustbowl, reminds us how history survives in its telling and re-membering.


How will your first book change your life?

I have a number of friends who know I'm a poet, or that I'm "doing poetry," but for whom that's not necessarily a tangible thing. Either they might not write themselves, or haven't read much of what I've written. They're all wonderfully supportive and curious, and it'll be gratifying to see what they think of the book, and of the poems in it. It's something I want to share with them, as well as with new readers who will offer an unexpected perspective; in both cases, I'm interested in the conversations a book will spark. This is especially true where the medieval/Anglo-Saxon poems are concerned; I hope they speak to a specific audience as well as beyond that audience. One of the pleasures of being a writer is that what you write starts conversations, helps you realize shared topics of discussion, and so on. I'm thinking and hoping that having the book will set up new avenues of communication with friends new and old, both here and in the UK. Again, it's that meeting of the often private act of writing with the public act of, well, publication.

This is a strange question to answer in the hypothetical, because I hesitate to suppose a book will actually exist even while I very much hope it will. I don't think of myself as someone who wants to write a ton of poetry books: most of my mentors have been poets publishing a book every 7 to 10 years, and that's quite liberating to me. Having a book will take away some of the pressure of thinking about being published, and allow me to think more about what projects I want to pursue, and which might be in some way valuable to other people. There's an idea for a tentative novel about the Nordic gods in a dusty filing cabinet in a rarely visited parted of my brain...I hope I'll get to spend time with that. 


A poem by Lytton Smith (first published in Verse, 2006):

Scarecrow Work

Bury your eyes in late barley. Your congregation
sleeps in the baptismal river--an answer to thirst,
         a satisfaction--a flock

that would not shepherd. When told the abandoned
do not companion despair they still sought flight,
         sought turning from water.

Their restlessness a dusk leave of settlement; yours
a crowsighted knowledge: how you were chosen
         for laying-on hands,

how your congregation rests riverbed for your mercy
is unbound. Your lesson: what will not scatter is safe,
         is dove, is olive return.

. . .

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