How has your first book changed your life?
60. Kathleen Graber
For the past week or so, I've been compulsively watching Season III of House. I'm not sure if you know this television show. In my own defense, I can say a few things: first, that I have a long-standing fascination with popular culture and, second, that this is exactly the kind of non-activity that serves for me as a palate-cleanser between the end of the academic year and the start of summer, which I like to think of as the great writing season.
I mention House now, though, because of one of his curmudgeonly quips: Everybody lies. That's the first thing I thought when I looked over the questions. Even if I wanted to be completely honest about my immediate responses to the book's publication, I think the stories I tell myself now about all of that have evolved in ways I cannot track. Another reason to invoke Dr. House might be that he is one of those fictional nonconformists who are so brilliant at what they do that they can defy and disdain the system that necessarily sustains them and still succeed within it. Another word for this might be arrogance.
I've found one of the hardest things for me about pursuing something like a writer's life has been to navigate my relationship to the system, which is not nearly as transparent or orderly as the one against which most professionals wrestle. I'd say that the conventional stakes for poets are as low as they could possibly be: even the most acclaimed can rarely support themselves with their writing alone, and most Americans can't name more than a handful of living poets. You are not going to get either rich or famous writing poems, yet the competition among poets sometimes feels to me accentuated because of that fact rather than eased. With so few tangible rewards to go around, some writers seem pitched into a frenzy of ambition. It's hard to know how to respond to that in a reasonable way. I'd say no one, even at the highest level, gets everything she'd like in terms of recognition. How do we confront our inevitable disappointments and refocus on the page? How do we take whatever benefits we do garner and refocus on the page?
It became obvious almost immediately that the publication of the book wasn't going to suddenly change anything. It was, for the most part, an almost imperceptible event. I'd be surprised if most poets don't feel this way.
I became interested in writing poetry fairly late in my life, in comparison, say, to Keats. I was probably 35 when I signed up for my first workshop. I graduated from NYU's Creative Writing Program in 2002, and I'd begun sending out some version of the manuscript in the fall of 2003. The book won the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize in 2005. It had done very well that year: it was a finalist for the NPS and AWP competitions (though that's not knowledge I'd normally have), and it had made it into the final rounds at both Utah and Anhinga. Henry Israeli called to ask me if the manuscript was still available before he included it in the batch that he was sending on to Bob Hicok, the judge for Saturnalia that year, so I wasn't amazed when it won. I was very, very happy though.
Henry and I worked a lot on the design of the book. I think we established in our very first conversation that the book would have to be wider than normal, for instance, so that the long lines could be accommodated. We considered a lot of images for the cover, or at least I did, and he gave me his reactions. I finally arranged with Rosamond Purcell to use one of her photographs, and the first thing that struck me when I opened the box to see the book was how perfect, how beautiful, that image still seemed. I think the book looks lovely, and I am so grateful to Henry for that.
I teach expository writing full-time at NYU. I've done that since I as a student there. It's a fabulous job in a lot of ways. The pay is reasonable; I have good health care; I work with brilliant people; I believe passionately in the pedagogy of the program. It's hard work, however, and very time consuming. Hence, one thing that I had hoped the book might allow me to do was move from teaching composition into teaching creative writing. I was hoping that I might be able to find a position with something less than a 3/3 course load. I was essentially willing to relocate anywhere, and I applied for about two dozen different openings. I got one interview. This was a surprise to me, a pretty rude shock. I am a very good, highly experienced teacher, but I didn't attract the attention of even the smallest colleges in the strangest places.
One life-altering thing has come out of the book's publication, however, and that is a Hodder Fellowship. The fellowship is given by Princeton University, and it is essentially intended to provide support for writers with one or two books. It is a gift of time, scholarly leisure, is how they describe it, in the form of money, of course. I've taken a leave of absence from NYU, and I'll be in residence at Princeton, essentially writing, for the next year. What I had hoped to find by changing my job was a little bit more time to write. I didn't secure that in the way that I had imagined, but another much more significant opportunity has presented itself. It's overwhelming, frankly, and I'm grateful every minute of every day to the individuals at Princeton who have made this possible, especially Paul Muldoon, who has been so kind to me. It's been hard, in fact, for me not to find the turn of events nearly incomprehensible.
The critical response to the book (and by this I mean the response of people whose opinions I value, as it's only been officially reviewed in a couple of spots) has been very positive. The people who have managed to find it and read it seem to like it. Whenever I give a reading, people seem to buy the book. That's been extremely encouraging. I haven't done much to promote it, which comes back again to that idea of how one operates within the system. I'll do almost anything anyone asks me to do, but I don't go looking. I haven't sent out an unsolicited poem in over a year. I'd say I'm a bad model by most standards, but the entrepreneurial ambition of some writers, as I've already suggested, gives me pause. I have a naive faith in quality. It's a pretty stupid attitude to have in the current times, and it's perhaps the last really foolish (and, therefore, potentially pure-minded) idea I find myself reluctant to abandon.
Deciding to try to write poems changed my life. I'm very fortunate to have been old enough to have been fully conscious of this change as it was unfolding. Writing poems brought me into contact with new people, and it required me to learn to think about the world and my own experiences much more deeply. It's not an exaggeration to say that I am not the same person I was a decade ago. I'm happier and more awake to my life than I've ever been. What more could I possibly want?
Because I know that I've already gained so much experientially, I try to dedicate myself to writing the best poems that I'm capable of writing and to remember that this isn't a horserace. Writing poems, struggling to write poems, and reading the fine poems and struggling drafts of others is what changes our lives. Publication seems really unlikely to change our lives in the same rich and positive way. There are a lot of superb poems out in the world to read already. If we want to add to that, we should be as thoughtful about that as we can. Our responsibility might be to be a bit more careful about contributing to that conversation. I think we should try to put out there only the very best we have, even if that means publishing less frequently. Having said that, I also know how hard it is for me to assess my own work. I overvalue; I undervalue. I am frequently surprised by the reactions of my first readers, for better and for worse. But sitting on work for a little while seems to help me to see it more clearly.
Putting together a collection of poems forces you to confront your own preoccupations. I've heard it said that each writer only really has one. The preoccupations, to me, of Correspondence seem to be longing and grief. I'm pretty sure that those emotions are two sides of one coin, though I have no name for that currency. Knowing that I've already thought about that a lot, I'd like to take on some new material in the next collection. I'd also like to write poems that are more varied in their shape, size and scope. I'm intentionally not using the word form here, as I think it would be misleading. I want to get better at what I've already done, and I also want very much to do some new things. That's the way the publication of the book has impacted my present writing. I don't want to write the same book again.
I do think poetry can change the world, but not in easy or quick ways. I don't think, for instance, that overtly political poetry does very much to end wars or change opinions. Having poetry in our cultural landscape does, however, testify to the complexity of simply being human. And being human, of course, involves being political and social, among other things. Good poems are complicated poems, though their complications have many flavors. A poem doesn't have to be obtuse to be complex; it simply has to speak the truth--since all the truths are complicated, and quite possibly contradictory. Poetry instructs us to set aside polemic and embrace a more textured sense of reality and of the fundamental problems facing all of us as people. In other words, I do believe poetry changes the world: it changes the world by changing the way we think about the world.
A poem from Correspondence by Kathleen Graber:
[click on the title to read]
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