How has your first book changed your life?
61. Paige Ackerson-Kiely
How did you find out that In No One's Land won Ahsahta's Sawtooth Prize? Were you amazed or did you have the feeling you might win? Had you sent the manuscript out much before that?
I had spent the previous 2 hours talking, then moaning, then slurring and finally just breathing quietly to my friend Allison on the phone, drinking wine, and sitting on the front porch. It was 11pm when we hung up. The phone rang--I assumed it was Allison with a final detail that would shatter me with its elegance and hopeful outlook and winsome trajectory, but it was not. The caller identified herself as Janet Holmes, from Ahsahta Press. Immediately I imagined that she had called, so late at night, to let me know that Ahsahta would never ever publish my manuscript, because, well, this world is at times a cruel place and if there is a wound or a worry there is a jar of salt and a hand that cannot wait to participate in the debridement.
Then I imagined D.A. Powell, the Sawtooth Judge, a man I had never met nor seen an image of, laughing and laughing and he looked, to my mind, like John Malkovich as Vicomte Sebastien de Valmont, his eyebrows hounding me--all perilous and sexy, and because I often confuse the two, an apt character of rejection.
Of course, it was the opposite.
I never have the feeling that I might 'win.' It allows me to feel amazed when and if, however infrequently, it should happen. There are too few opportunities to feel amazed. Or I am an incompetent seeker. I cultivate a sense of permanent foreboding precisely for moments like these--when I can be reminded, or reprimanded, that there is a sort of joy and whimsy to the natural ordering of the universe. And by joy I do not mean effortless. It takes a lot of effort to feel joy, or pride, as a woman, as a woman in the 21st century. Despite 'improvements' I am suspicious of celebrating any 'successes.' Wary of peering into a mirror despite my desire to look really 'good.' Tired of attempting to look 'good.' Too old to do so without peering into a mirror.
I was amazed.
I was grateful. I was very much afraid.
It makes me sad to give such a self-conscious account. It makes me sad that my truth is often sad and also so small and unrelated to larger, even sadder truths.
Like Paris Hilton going to jail. I am in these moments. Big deal, Paige. Poor baby with everything you could ever want to eat. And clean, pretty clothes. It has been a snap, comparatively, and I have a lot to feel happy about. I have a lot to feel--what a gift!
I sent In No One's Land to 3 contests at the same time. I was 'lucky' it happened as it happened. I didn't know if I was someone who believed in 'luck.' I still don't know. I do know that Ahsahta is a great press. I am lucky for that.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I tracked the package like I was Peter Freuchen right after Pipaluk was born and I needed both limes and walrus meat simultaneously to continue on in my studies and life, and there was a ship arriving, at some appointed time, with those very provisions.
The package arrived at 1:30 p.m. Before opening it I put Skip James on the player. I needed to hear Devil Got My Woman because I listened to that song, like, 48,000 times while writing the manuscript. You know I cut all your kindling, you know I cut all of your kindling then baby I made your fire, and so forth. Then, I opened the box and put my face right in there and took a big whiff.
It smelled like melted crayons and the plastic pourers on those metal boxes of olive oil and also like something foreign, maybe like a bunker in Albania when Hoxja was still in power. Of the last description I cannot be certain.
Then I looked at the book. It was very, very white. The photo on the back was much larger than I had anticipated, and so I sank the ship of provisions to myself momentarily, because it is always weird to look at a picture of yourself. You want to feel a little dead.
I opened a bottle of wine I had been saving for that very occasion. Before drinking any I sent an email to Janet, letting her know the box had arrived, and thanking her, too. I poured myself a glass, and then I remembered that I had to pick up my kids at 3pm, and thus could drink only the smallest bit.
So, I fiddled around. I looked at the book a bunch, but didn't read it. I got my hands really dirty and then put them on the cover and then wiped it off with a sponge to see how well the cover coating worked against dirt. It worked well. I called my husband. I called my mom. I called my dad. I picked the kids up at 3pm, and I brought the book with me. They were the first to see it. My daughter, 5 at the time, said: Mom! You got published! And my son, 6, read a poem aloud in the car and declared it his favorite. Of all time. And it was perfect.
It was perfect because I have been so inelegant about combining all of my loves under one roof. I haven't included the people I should in my pursuits all of the time. I have remained, like, 20 and singular and awkward and askance despite this great family I created and am committed to, despite the friendships I have forged and the ideas I have worked through and ultimately discarded and the pithy poems I have written and the equations I balanced poorly. I mean, who wouldn't want to see every person and object and theorem and caste and cloud you have ever loved under one roof? That would be the best. But still, when I imagine the room full of my loves and pursuits, I imagine that it couldn't be contained--that a hideous fire that would erupt, and everything and everyone I have ever loved would be consumed, and I would be left so completely alone with no choice but to die or begin anew, which seem like the same thing when I think about it. A big canceled-out love. There is no lesson in that. As a result of this fear, I have kept poetry to myself and my family to myself and my friends on a foggy islet far removed from one another, and am pretty much consumed with a pathological privacy that needs to change.
Thus I am happy about how it went when I first saw my book. It was healthy.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Quemadura designed the cover. I sent him a photograph of a rusted out hull of a ship, just to sorta give an idea of the aesthetic I was interested in--nothing I was wed to. He sent a few different choices for a cover. The one we settled on is gorgeous to me. Like a sonogram of the book while I was working on it. It made me feel, at the time, like my 'baby' was healthy. I love the cover.
Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it?
I am the CEO of a corporation that imagines the various ways in which my life might someday change.
Actually, it is not a corporation at all, rather a non-profit organization, and for that I am a little bit sorry.
Listen, like most good Americans I am wholly addicted to fantasy.
In quotidian matters, no discernible difference. I am still working at the same place. I continue to eat the foods of my ancestors and make time each day to read and write a little bit. My children are getting bigger, but my ability to recognize them grows alongside their physical changes. I am still with the man I shacked up with--who took the term 'shack' to heart--as we live in the same tiny house, drive the same old cars, and employ the same tools when things are broken, even if the tools don't quite fit the job.
I suppose the book 'legitimizes' a level of solitude that I am ever ratcheting up. Sometimes I wish it didn't.
The book makes me want to deserve it. It makes me want to do better 'things,' to write better 'things,' and then to abandon 'things' altogether. And then to stand around in some alley next to a dumpster or meadow full of half-dead larkspur where the lighting is really great and look cool like I didn't have to go through all of that.
Really, though, the book makes me want to end the alarming subjugation of desire that has me in the most unbecoming stranglehold to the point where I can't even really talk about it because talk is too spontaneous an act to really delineate desire.
In this way my life has changed. Despite the evidence to the contrary, I feel more 'silent.'
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I guess I didn't think anything would happen. I mean, save for my fantasy, which in retrospect was terribly pedestrian.
I am constantly surprised by those strangers who have sent letters in response to the book. Positive and negative. Surprised that some people have read it and felt like reaching out, which is a difficult thing to do. I prize connection above all else. It is a rare and blessed thing. To be confronted with it through the lens of the book is a great big lemon chiffon cake of surprise--like Leonard Cohen jumping out on your 16th birthday holding a dress that you would never have considered, but looks great on all the same.
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what are those experiences like for you?
I've done a few readings, but not much else. I'd like to do more but travel is a financial burden that currently I cannot abide.
I like to read. I love to travel.
I am writing more prose.
Why is that?
I suppose I am writing more prose because I needed another exercise in commitment. When something isn't in my face screaming and devolving in a rapid and sometimes beautiful way, I often shelve it. I love moving from poem to poem. It is forever satisfying. I find revision extraordinarily difficult because I loathe return. I feel like an old used up milk carton with a few spores clinging to the spout around my old poems--overwhelmed by apathy toward the object and full of an inward sense of shame, which is boring. Oftentimes I can barely acknowledge an old poem's right to exist alongside new work. I want that to cease.
I thought maybe writing a novel would help exfoliate some of those surface reactions to language, or creation--that it would be such an intense, sustained relationship with art, and thus undeniable.
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing?
There hasn't been much 'critical' response to speak of. I've been mentioned on a few blogs, The Cafe Review, Publishers Weekly and Foreword said kind things about the book, I think there is a review due out in American Book Review soon--all of it sort of puts those clean borders on no one's land for me. Which I appreciate immensely.
I guess I feel a little detached from 'critical' response. Because I am a total loser when it comes to 'critical' thinking, I read any review like it is some fabulous set of cutlery set gently on the table, and I look at it and just know I am relegated to the plastic cutlery in the backroom, because invariably my response to most art is 'oh baby!' or conversely 'don't touch me there...' the kind of response that tarnishes good cutlery. Who wants to rub the knife to a shine after I have sullied it? Which sounds lame, and I hope to change, and I read and read and think and think and look and look hoping it will, but in the end I am all 'I felt X.' Ugh. Embarrassing.
I do not intend to demean 'critical' reviews at all. No. No at all. I guess when I am looking to have a sensual experience, with art, with food, with wine, with another person--I dunno. I am addicted to intimacy. Like any good American? When I am intimate with someone, I do not call their former friends and lovers. I do not ask how they measure up. I do not want the intricacies of their experience to proceed my own. I read reviews and 'critical' responses for affirmation, to succeed my intimacy with the object.
Do you want your life to change?
Undoubtedly and in many ways I have already indicated. I want to cultivate congruity between my interior and exterior worlds, I want to love more freely, I want to be loyal to something, I want to subdue my admiration for the ruin, I want to quit posturing but stand up straight, I want to spend less time with my arms folded across my chest and more time in front of something I admire, gesticulating wildly, I want to grant full access to my family, I want to travel more, I want to quell my wanderlust which is a big vice that incorporates all other vices, oh it is just infinite. And I can't wait.
I plug away. I try to be conscious. I read a lot. I listen even when it gets boring.
Sometimes I feel like poetry is some sub-species of songbird, of which exist in captivity only 29, and I am participating somehow in keeping those birds alive, unhappy, in dumb plain cages that barely resemble their natural habitat, feeding them a pharmaceutically formulated liquid diet with and eye-dropper 5x per day. I know in my heart those birds gotta go. But I am sentimental and gentle and selfish and worry that their deaths will set off a chain reaction that will cause the delicate eco-system to fall into disharmony, and as a result I will surely die. Along with my children and friends who never asked for it.
I don't know right now if I think 'poetry' can change the world.
I think focused passion changes the world, and its outlet is of little import. Be it ornithology, or poetry, or caning old chairs, or Jesus Christ, or doll making, or lying on the grass with the one you imagine being with forever. I could bestow my passion anywhere, really, and that poetry was what availed itself feels like a fluke of sorts. I mean, a good sort of accident. Is it changing the world? I don’t have a device that measures such smallness.
A poem from In No One's Land by Paige Ackerson-Kiely:
From the bow of my boat I daydream your pants, the longing is so great that I might imagine slipping into them, not just a hand but both legs. I might take a jog around the deck so large is my desire to not just touch you but to dwell righteously in your femur, which is hot like a fever but in the end is not a fever. Jesus came and he kissed the eyes of a blind woman. Jesus opened his robe and the ocean poured forth. Look closely at all of the fish we have to eat, their scales upon which the keys of our teeth may finally sing. Their bones a most staunch crunch to remind us now, right now, get down on your knees and put your hands over your ears and become as small as you possibly can, c'mon, you can fit into that shoebox with the balled up tissue paper lying next to you smelling like Cambodian food. And Jesus came with food to Cambodia and elsewhere he came with plates of pickerel and snapper and cod and jellyfish. The world is limp and furthermore dead and I am so hungry I will not eat a single thing as you are everything to me, you are at this instant every single thing.
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next interview: Carly Sachs
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