How has your first book changed your life?
57. Zachary Schomburg
How did your manuscript happen to get picked up by Black Ocean? It was a finalist at a couple of contests before that, wasn't it? How long were you sending it out?
I read some poems from The Man Suit manuscript at the Club DeVille in Austin during AWP '06 for the LIT/Redivider reading. It turned out to be a magical night really. It was the best setting for any reading I've ever been involved with, great energy, etc. I was less awkward than normal and my banter was tight. I got a few claps for the poems that needed claps and some reverent silence after the poems that called for reverent silence. I sawed a woman in half. I remember drinking two beers during my 8 minutes on stage (I don't want to come off as a lush, or as an advocate of drinking 2 beers between poems on stage--these were maybe 2 of just 5 that night. Or 6. At most 7 or 8). I also remember mentioning at some point between outrageous bouts of applause that this manuscript was pretty sick of being the eternal contest bridesmaid. And it did feel like that. It had been a finalist for Slope, National Poetry Series, Verse, Action, and some others and a handful of open readings had it in their top few. It was all pretty heartbreaking and at the time I was thinking of giving up on it. I had already started making some moves on a new woman, a manuscript called Scary, No Scary, and the Suit was weighing me down. I started putting on the Suit in 2002, so it had been bounced around for 4 years. I loved it dearly, but most poets can only hold on to one project for so long.
Anyway, Janaka Stucky from Black Ocean was in the audience that night. He was the guy with the chops. The next day he told me he was reading some manuscripts for a 2007 release and he wanted to read the Suit. It was the first time, I think, that anybody ever asked me for my poems. I never realized how amazing that feeling was. A few months later he called me and said we'll take it and I said cool, thanks man. He and Carrie Adams reinvigorated my interest in the project, and helped make it 33% better. I owe both of them a lot.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I was all alone in the house. Allison, my wife, was still at work. I knew she'd think it was pretty cool. It was beautiful. It was a real book. It had a spine and my name was the only name on the front cover. I remember the most important thing to me (I already knew what the design would look like) was to check the font. The font is always a big deal to me. It must be small and not too clunky. Clean and readable and unnoticed. All that and not Times. After the font passed inspection, I looked at the spine. I looked at the Table of Contents. I looked at the Index. It all looks better when not binder-clipped on 8.5 x 11 copy paper. I read a few poems out loud from it while on the toilet. I put it between Simic and Tate on the bookshelf just to see what it looked like on a bookshelf. It had snowed a lot that day so I climbed up onto the roof of our house and shoveled snow (we have a flat roof). And when I was done shoveling snow I just stood there for a little while, thinking about how I have a book, and what that means, and how I should feel about it. And I watched my old old neighbor with a bad back shovel her entire driveway.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
I was writing many of these poems at the elementary school where I taught in Akron, OH, on my breaks. I usually had a Diet Sprite and hard salami (not in a sandwich--just straight up salami). The keyboard would get pretty nasty with salami grease. I cleaned it almost everyday. Anyway, I would come home and read them to A and we'd talk about them a little. I'd send them to some mags and had some success. But other than A and the occasional editor at some mags, I had no community at all. I wasn't in school. I was writing these crazy, unorthodox, strange little poems all alone and wasn't really showing them to any other poets. Looking back, I think that is the best thing I could have done--to get away from academia for a little while, take some time to discover how I like to write poems without the influence of a workshop. I was writing poems for me--a great feeling. I had no idea if these poems were really good or really bad. They were either one or the other. There was no in-between with some of these ditties.
When I started sending the Suit out to contests, I told A I wanted to publish this book before I turned 30. I made this promise to myself despite the fact I was setting myself up for major disappointment. Regardless, I needed this marker and 30 seemed like a good age to get that first project out into the world. Hell, some of my poetry heroes had published several books and already killed themselves by 30. The Man Suit's official release was on my 30th birthday, exactly.
But no, I didn't think my life would change. I see the Suit as just one small first step in a winding staircase of poetry projects. The step I'm currently on is always the best. My life is pretty stable and there is only about 3 or 4 things that I can imagine that would change it--most of them are for the worse and a book isn't one of them. If anything, I thought I would stop obsessing about the manuscript's book design, shape, organization, etc once I saw it in hand, which turned out to be true. But now I obsess about all that with SNS. This obsession about projects will happen until I die (of natural causes when I am 88).
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Yep. Janaka is a terrific publisher to work with. He told me the most important thing about the cover is that I am happy with it. So he gave me a few suggestions, but ultimately, he handed the reigns over to me. It is my book after all and the cover is, in my opinion, the most important page. It is the first page, and it teaches the reader how to read it--it puts the poems into context. Because it is easy for someone to read these poems as little joke poems (this bothers me), it was important to me that the cover be rather dark and haunting. These poems are dark and haunting and sad and heavy (and funny).
Denny Schmickle did it. He is the designer for Octopus and a good friend. He is a brilliant designer and was able to capture the scene for the poem "I'm Not Carlos" pretty accurately on the cover. Though where he put a moon, I suggested a coffin constellation. There is a coffin constellation in another poem, and besides, the tree machines ate the moon in the Carlos poem.
This was Denny's first book cover. I imagine it won't be his last. Because it's killer.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I didn't expect people to love it. I'm not saying everybody loves it, but there are a handful of people who swear by it. It has had two pretty shiny reviews so far. Publisher's Weekly said I was one of the sincerest Surrealists around. I don't know what to do with that. It is like someone shoving a big ol' giant cake into my mouth. I love cake. But I prefer to eat it in small bites with French vanilla ice cream. I can't enjoy cake when my mouth is stuffed to the gills with it. Can you? I don't know how to eat a whole cake at once.
So, I expected some people to really like it, but some people love it. Some people are teaching it in their classes. Some people sleep with it at night (just me?). I want to say wait wait, you should see this new shit.
What have you been doing to promote the book and what are those experiences like for you?
I went on a little reading tour through the Midwest with Mathias Svalina and Joshua Marie Wilkinson. North Newton, KS. Maryville, MO. Chicago. Minneapolis. Lincoln. Promoting this book is a great excuse for spending time in a Subaru and hotel rooms with lovely peeps like Mathias and Joshua. We sold quite a few books, which is always awkward for me for some reason. I almost always want to ask the buyer are you sure? I hope it doesn't disappoint you. Wouldn't you rather buy Frank Stanford's The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You? We read almost half of Stanford's Battlefield out loud in the car on that trip. We tried to read it all, but kept repeating parts that killed us. I lost my glow-in-the-dark skeleton gloves in a Days Inn though (I wanted to wear my skeleton gloves while reading from SNS). I've had a very difficult time getting them back--Days Inn has been a real discourteous drag about the whole thing. They refuse to foot the few bucks in postage to return them (despite the fact they've called me long distance 5 times) and I refuse to give them credit card info for a dollar-something in postage. I don't trust them with my credit card. They've been bumbling non-professionals through this entire situation. So we're at a tense and angry stand still, me and Mike, the GM at the Newton, Kansas, Days Inn. I'd like to take this opportunity to ask you to boycott Days Inn.
I'm going to do a handful of readings this summer and fall. A and I are taking five weeks to drive up to Alaska and I'll be reading in Missoula with Julie Doxsee on the way up. It'll be good to see Brandon Shimoda again. Then this fall: Denver. Seattle. Chicago. Omaha. Maybe San Francisco. Maybe South Bend and Cincinnati.
I asked the buyer for UNL's library to get it. That's kinda cool.
Other than that, my blog may go a long way in promoting it. Not really sure. I think Octopus, a magazine I started with Tony Tost and am now co-editing with Mathias, is also a good way of being/staying visible. The Lovely Arc and Octopus aren't things I do to self-promote. Though they do help get my name out there, that isn't the impetus behind them. The impetus, primarily, is to put myself into a community, more or less. To stay active, etc. But Octopus can reach a lot further than I can on my own. Maybe a few potential readers will follow a tentacle back to me and find my book.
Ultimately, I'm thinking of promoting an entire personal catalog over the long haul. My second and third book, and so on, will hopefully generate enough interest that people will work backward to the Suit. This is how my discovery of so many bands and writers can be defined. My first Superchunk album was Foolish.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? Or what was the best advice you got?
I see some poets take themselves way too seriously. Some poets think they're famous. If they're famous, they're famous to a sliver of a sliver of the population. A first book doesn't make you a big deal. You should know that. So, maybe, get over yourself.
Also, it feels really good to walk every night after the sun goes down. If you have a partner, walking with your partner makes for the best conversations. I write my best poems at night after exerting some energy outdoors.
Spend more time in cornfields.
Wear a cape.
It's not really a question but I love the index. Anything you want to say about the index?
I started the index one night during a strong case of Block. It was fun and I couldn't stop. I stayed up late. I realized that creating an index is an incredibly useful exercise once a manny is close to being finished (I will incorportate this exercise into any advanced grad poetry workshop I teach in the future). It allowed me, finally, to get a feel for which poems didn't belong in the manny and which tricks I relied on too heavily. I found that too many poems ended with tears and crying when the "Crying" entry became overloaded. I wanted the Suit to be sad, and I think it accomplishes that, but I ended up altering many of the crying tricks. I learned how to make them sad without throwing a cry pie in the reader's face. They're better off for it, no doubt. I didn't even know I had a gorilla with people clothes twice in the manny until I did the index. Honestly. I was so excited when I got to put a second page number on that entry.
I understand I'm not the first with this idea, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work. It does work. Many of the poems in the Suit share a common vocabulary and a common shelf of props and range of emotions/themes. The index then is like an abbreviated version of the Suit--and it helps prove (to you and me) that this thing does hold together. It's pretty funny. And if you didn't think this thing had enough sex in it, my common complaint about most books of poems, the index proves you wrong.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
No. Well, what do you mean? A and I would like to start a family at some point in the next few years. That scares the hell out of both of us, but it is something we want badly. I want to be a good dad and a good poet at the same time. That might prove to be a challenge. We'll see. And we'd like to move back to the mountains--maybe land a teaching gig somewhere out west.
I'm finishing up my coursework for a Ph.D. in Lincoln. I should be on the job market in fall 08. Do you want me to explain what we are doing in order to have children?
(I had a long answer about changing people, and it being in our blood, and what we all have in common, and levitating the Pentagon, but I think brevity is the way to go here.) It can so change the world.
2 poems from The Man Suit by Zachary Schomburg:
On the Monster Hour, there was this monster that used to come out and try to kill everybody in the audience. No one expected it, not even the producers who were told by the monster he would play a few blues tunes on the piano. The monster apologized after each show and asked for another chance. I'm planning on telling a few jokes this time he would say. But time after time he'd break his word and try to kill everybody. The producers finally replaced him with a gorilla in people clothes that came out and played a Wurlitzer, but they never changed the name of the show. It was always the Monster Hour. I don't think anybody understood then what a monster really was.
Full of Knives
1. His back is full of knives. Notes are brittle around the blades.
2. He sleeps face down every night in a chalk outline of himself.
3. He has difficulties with metal detectors.
4. At birthday parties, someone might politely ask, may I borrow one of those knives to slice this chocolate cake?
5. He likes to stand with his back to walls. At restaurants, he likes the corner tables.
6. There is a detective that calls him to ask about the brittle notes. Also: a biographer, a woman who'd like to film a documentary, a curator of a museum, his mother. I can't read them, he says. They're on my back.
7. It would be a mistake for anyone to assume he wants the knives removed.
8. Most of the brittle notes are illegible. One of them, even, is written in French.
9. Every Halloween, he goes as a victim of a brutal stabbing. Once, he tried going as a whale, but it was a hassle explaining away the knives.
10. He always wears the same bloody suit.
11. When he walks, he sounds like a tree still full of dead leaves holding on.
12. It is ok for children to count on his knives, but not to climb on them.
13. He saw his own shadow in a park. He moved his body to make the knives reach other people's shadows. He did it all evening. In the shadows, his knives looked like soft outstretched arms.
14. His back is running out of space.
15. On a trip to Paris, he fell in love and ended up staying for a few years. He got a job performing on the street with the country's best mimes.
16. The knives are what hold him together. It is the notes that are slowly killing him.
17. He is difficult to hold when he cries.
18. He will be very old when he dies and the Doctor will say, he was obviously stabbed, brutally and repeatedly. I'm sorry, the Doctor will say to a person in the room, but he's not going to make it.
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