How has your first book changed your life?
58. Ken Rumble
How did it happen that your manuscript was picked up by Carolina Wren?
Well, it wasn't so much that Wren picked Key Bridge as much as I picked the Wren. I'd had KB in the usual book contests for the usual amount of time and had the usual results, some final rounds, some semi-final rounds, some "loved it but...", and I didn't really take any of that as discouraging really. I figured it was par for the course. I wasn't really a very methodical submitter; I'd shoot it off to a half-dozen or so places maybe once or twice a year sort of at random. I wasn't really following any pattern of sending to the "major" first-book prizes or making sure I hit those deadlines every year though I did send to them, too, at times.
I say the process wasn't discouraging, but that's not entirely true. Anybody in the biz has to get acclimated to rejection pretty quickly, but damn, it can really wear on a body. Part of the way I got through it--detrimental I think--was to take less ownership/pride in my work. Like I would try to release any love I had for the work quickly so I could go about the business of submitting without getting my heart broken. It really sucks.
But then many things changed in my life a couple years ago, and I changed, and I decided in the spring of '06 that it was time to get KB published, so I got in touch with Andrea, the president/editor of CW, and asked her to meet me and talk about looking at Key Bridge. Andrea is an excellent poet herself, but the kind of stuff I write--what some might call "experimental," "post-avant" or what have you--is not really what she's into. She's been pretty involved in Lucipo [the Lucifer Poetics Group], but her aesthetic hasn't been swayed really.
So when I met with her--the first thing out of her mouth was literally "No, I don't even want to look at it." So it took a little convincing to just get it in her hands. Much of KB had been published at that point, but many of those publications were on the web, and Andrea at that time took hard copy journals more seriously I think. But finally, I sold her on the strength of the connections I had via Lucipo and the Desert City [the Desert City Poetry Series], to be honest. I convinced her that if she were to publish it, that I'd work hard for the book.
So she agreed to take it to the board of directors. It was maybe two months later that I found out they'd accepted it, and it was really gratifying.
During that whole manuscript submission dance, I really lost sight of what the book was or was about or anything--it was just this object around which this dance was worked; I'd hardly considered what the book was until it came out a couple months ago and people started reacting to it. "Oh, yeah," I found myself thinking, "the book has some content that people will think about--duh." I was sort of surprised.
Part of what I'm trying to say is that until maybe a year or two ago, honestly I was thinking of the book--and publishing generally--as this step that I had to make before I could make the next step and the next. It's a familiar dance and goes something like
1. get MFA/PhD
So it's sad, but I saw getting the book published as just (sort of) a means to an end; it was just another credential I needed to reach my goal which, I guess?, was to be an English professor? And now when I think about that, I'm really surprised and confused. I don't think I started all this to be an English professor; I started this to be a writer; I want and wanted to be a writer.
I would still love to be a professor, but I no longer see that as the goal; I see it as just one option among many ways to earn a living while writing and learning.
And I think that's true for the writer/professors I know. They see the academic life as a way to support themselves while they write. The problem is that the demands of an academic life are not insignificant; teaching and being part of a department can take a lot of someone's time. So being a professor isn't this automatic entry into a life of leisure and unlimited writing time. For some, it can really be the opposite, from what I gather.
The other troubling thing about my line of thinking in the past about goals and academia is that I didn't consider much the value or importance of having my writing as a thing in the world. This maybe goes back to the defense mechanisms that build up as a possible result of the submission process. I avoided thinking too much about why my book should be in the world, why the world needed it.
I'm not sure the world does need my book, but now those sorts of questions have become really important to me. I do believe art is necessary, and if I'm going to claim to be producing art, then I want to hold myself to the highest standard that I can.I don't know if I reach that standard all the time, but I really can't truck with anything less these days. I want the best from myself.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
Ahh, god, this was really a great moment and really freaking weird (of course). It was Friday, March 2, 2007, at about 10 AM. I'd gotten up at 3:30 AM that morning, got in my car, and drove six or so hours from Greensboro to Atlanta to catch the last couple days of AWP. I was going on the cheap cuz I was broke, so I was hoping I could sneak into the festivities. I didn't really know how that was going to work or if it was possible or what the consequences of getting caught might be (banned from AWP???!!!), but I figured I'd just show up and see what happened.
So the other part of the back story is that I was sort of afraid at the time that my book was going to come out and that it would be met with the deafening roar of crickets. I mean, it is a book of poems after all, so I wasn't expecting millions of pre-publication sales a la Mssr. Potter. It was just that I sort of thought that I'd written myself out of the poetry world--the part that I'd up to then been a part of. I'd booted the majority of non-North Carolinians from Lucipo, which was an unpopular move apparently; I'd allowed the Desert City to seriously lag itself into non-existence and, further, ignored or only sent half-assed replies to people that emailed me to be considered for the DC; and I'd just generally been a real recluse from everyone; I really thought the poetry world had forgotten about and was maybe even a little hostile towards me--the minor-est of figures and best known for his organizing skills not his poems.
So showing up to AWP was actually scary. I didn't know what to expect; I hadn't seen my book; I was way jacked up on coffee and commercial-radio hip-hop; shit was gonna be funky.
So I got to the hotel, parked my car, got in the elevator, and the next stop the doors opened up, and I was looking down this little hallway into one corner of the book fair. Well, goddamn, I thought--so I got off the elevator and didn't see a single official-looking tag-checker person, so I headed off into the rows and rows of tables. I was really excited, but also really nervous--I didn't really want to see anyone yet, so I was sort of half looking at people and half scurrying away as quick as I could. Then I saw my friend Tanya who works for CW sitting behind a table over near the bathrooms, and I walked up and there was my freaking book sitting on a table in a big freaking stack!! Holy shit--god, it was so weird; the closest--and frankly wrong--analogy I can make to the experience is that it was like throwing up and then looking at the throw up and wondering "where the fuck did that come from??" Except in a really sweet, innocent, doe-eyed way.
And then all these really sweet people kept coming up all day to congratulate me and buy my book--you know, the po' biz can be an unfriendly, kill or be killed kind of world sometimes, but sometimes it can just be the best damn thing ever; I love being a poet and I love poets--it's been really awe-inspiring to see how supportive of me and interested in the book people have been. I feel a little gushy saying all that, but it's true; so many people have been so nice about it all, and some of them I didn't even know already. (smile)
Were you involved in designing the cover?
And truth be told, I ripped off the idea for the cover from C. S. Giscombe's book Into and Out of Dislocation; it's got this beautiful cover with pictures and maps and colors, and it's really a hot looking book. I'm sure others have done a similar cover, but that was the book I had in mind.
Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it?
And yet, I had had so many imagined interviews with Oprah, Terri Gross, Larry King, Charlie Rose, all those folks, that I started to conceive of a new poetry project called "The Oprah Interviews." I had a whole slew of questions that I was already so poised to answer that my answers would provide the groundwork for a whole new America with love, liberty, and sufficient resources for all!
Then, of course, it is just a poetry book.
Has your life been different since? Or has your life been different since you knew the book would be published?
I don't think my life has been that different--way busier and I just finished up a little 10 day tour of the East Coast--but basically it's the same: I get up, go to work, write when I can, exercise, take care of my daughter, read, correspond with folks, etc.
Really though, the biggest changes that involved the book happened before I'd even submitted the book to CW; those changes are the reason the book got published I think. My life changed, and the book happened. Much of that change centered around the end of a relationship I'd had for several years up until summer 2005. When it ended, my relationship with the poetry community at large and at local changed, too--my relationship with poetry changed; everything changed. To put it in what I'm sometimes afraid is a crass (not quite the right word) way, I decided that I needed and wanted to start working for myself first and foremost. I'd spent a lot of very happy time working to promote the work of others through the Desert City and Lucipo--I certainly benefited greatly from that work, but the danger of that kind of involvement is that folks stop thinking of you as a poet and you become an organizer. So I became really cognizant of that and fearful of it.
I also realized that I'd been sort of downplaying my own value and talent as a poet, being modest and insecure about it all, thinking others were better than me. And I realized that was just really fucking stupid. Shit, if someone--anyone--is going to give even 5 seconds of their life to poetry, they better fucking step up and realize they can't do this for any other reason than they have to and it's in the blood--nobody in the world wants a person to be a poet. I'm not saying people aren't supportive; my parents are huge supporters of me and my poems, but would they have looked down at their little baby and said, "honey, I really hope he's a poet!" Probably not.
What I mean is that a life centered around poetry offers precious few benefits that the vast majority of people in a poet's life can understand. So if you're going to do it, you better just do it as well and as hard as you can. And if I wasn't taking myself seriously as a poet, if I wasn't willing to work half as hard for my work as I was for all these other people's work, then what the hell was I doing? I'm a fairly altruistic person, but poetry work is not easy, and I was working hard at it.
So I decided to do it, I decided to take myself seriously as a poet, demand as much as possible that I was a good poet and deserved respect, decided to work for myself, and accepted that no one out there was going to wave a wand and bestow upon me the success I pined for in the early morning hours.
So once that changed, everything changed.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
Really just the fact that I've gotten so many positive reviews and that people seem to really like the book--that is surprising. Like I said, I really hadn't thought about the book as anything other than this thing I had to do this thing with, or think about it in terms of "which word needs to go here?" or "how do I break this line?" I'd developed a real myopia about the book.
People talk to me about the significance of the dates, and until the book was actually out, I just didn't hardly even think about the dates. I knew I wanted to use them as markers in the book, but they were unrevisable, and I was thinking about revision, so for years, I didn't even consider that the dates were there.
What are you doing to promote the book, and what are those experiences like for you?
Mostly I've been focused on getting readings whenever and wherever I can, and that's been going pretty well so far; folks seem interested in having me out, and I'm willing to go wherever and cover my own travel--so I'm a pretty cheap date. And that just seems a part of where I am really--I'm at the point where going wherever/whenever on my dime is the way to get the book out, make connections, and put this poetry stuff I'm writing on the line--you know, okay, my friends like it, but what about poetry lovers in Chillicothe, Ohio, for example? do they like it? And actually, I can say that some of the poetry lovers in Chillicothe, Ohio, liked my book. Some of them didn't like it, and one didn't like it because it was like the poems he'd read that "had words all over the page! and it didn't rhyme! and they used that gutter-language; you can't print that stuff in the newspapers--why can you put it in a book? I mean, they wrote 'fuck.'"
But I had a blast in Chillicothe. It was the second to last stop on this ten or so day East Coast tour I did which overall was a total hoot--god, I was driving home through the sun and West Virginian mountains on a Sunday with the window down and the radio way the fuck up, and I was thinking long and hard about selling all my junk, breaking my lease, and just going out on the road for like months and months. Getting wined and dined, hanging out with poets, reading poems, seeing the country--what could be better than that? Well, a few things, but it's mighty tempting to follow the urge.
So the tour was a real treat--I love reading and love being at readings, so I'm a glutton for punishment, and it shows. A couple highlights of the tour were Cleveland, Columbus, and Hollins U in Roanoke. All very different experiences: Cleveland was this crazy-ass poetry-rave, all night bacchanalian orgy of language--it was so much fun! I hooked up with this great guy and poet Joe Makkos up in Cleveland, and he's hooked into this open mic 20-something poet crowd, and he set up a reading in his spacious basement apartment for the night I was traveling through--people were reading this crazy ass shit and hooting and howling and just going going going--the readings didn't stop till like six in the morning! God, the fucking passion--it was so exhilarating.
Then in Columbus I read at my sister's boyfriend's house to a group of OSU engineering and psychology professors; I was nervous and way, way worn out--it was the last night of the tour, I'd read at Chillicothe that afternoon, and the night before had been Cleveland. David Baratier showed up thankfully, so I wasn't the only poet there. At any rate, I read, and it was really great--they all had questions for me afterwards; it was such a pleasant surprise. We ended up talking about all sorts of things with me in the center as like the authority, and all these very accomplished, smart people were looking at me and responding to my answers with nods and smiles--again, I was really pleasantly surprised.
And Hollins was just such a blast--and it came together at the last possible moment and went from being "maybe we can have a few friends over for you to read to in our living room" to "we're going to pay you to read in Hollins' premiere reading room where all those Pulitzer people usually read and there'll be like 50 or 60 people there" in the course of about a week. So that was really great--I met the wonderful Sandra Miller and Ben Doyle for the first time, the crowd was large and enthusiastic, they laughed at my jokes, and generally it was just a great time.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
How do you feel about the critical response? Has it had any effect on your writing?
Really though, the main effect is that now--especially because people seem to like KB--I worry that no one's going to like my new work. I tend to write in large projects, and each project tends to (at least in my eyes) be very different from the others. So my more recent work really isn't about place or race or represent the broad range of formal choices that KB does. Whatever tradition KB takes part in is not necessarily reflected in the subsequent work. So I'm curious--sometimes I wonder if I should go back and write like 13th Street Bridge, Memorial Bridge, or Chain Bridge. It's like when Sir Mix-a-lot put out "I Like Big Butts." Apparently the record execs were like "hey, can you do something like that butts song? like 'I like big...?'"
Do you want your life to change?
That's a pretty accurate summary of my approach to reading poetry, too, actually.
I look back and think in some ways that my life has changed a lot over the last couple of years, but really, wasn't I headed here all the time anyway? and isn't this really just where I want to be?
I don't know if that really answers the question. What I mean is that your life is your life, "changing your life" is just another part of your life that's ultimately inseparable from "your life," right?
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
So I'm going to just keep doing that for a while.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Of course. I don't, though, want to ascribe some mystical "power" to poetry (like the "Power of Pride" or something). Poetry is just a thing, an activity, that people do; there are so many things that people do, this cacophony of activity that just buzzes and crackles off the surface, and that's all there is: activity, action. And there are degrees of impact to an action--me writing a poem is substantially different from George Bush declaring war on Iraq; though even in that case, I'm tempted to say that his single act did not necessarily have any greater impact than the impact I made when sitting down to write that day; the big difference is that his act spurred another person to act, which led to another person acting, and all these little individual choices made by many, many smart, loving, and lovable people are the reason that so many, many people have been slaughtered in Iraq.
So action--in my case poem writing and reading--spurs the activity of others or the activity of the actor. And that's it--that's good poetry--the stuff that is infectious, that makes you write it, makes you read it; poetry's value has to be on some level it's ability to make someone else write a poem, to participate in the activity. What else is it good for? Poem writing and reading can and does help people in a very, very literal way; poems help me, but they don't help everybody.
But why should they help everybody?
from Key Bridge by Ken Rumble:
Here's the story: his name's Frank
the only black invitee to my 13th birthday
he's ridden the bus
we ate pizza, watched Night of the Living Dead,
next interview: Mary Biddinger
. . .