every other day

20 JULY 07

How has your first book changed your life?

72. Joel Bettridge

That Abrupt Here

How did your manuscript happen to be published by The Cultural Society? Had you sent it out much previously?

Zach Barocas (The Cultural Society's editor) published a few of my poems over the years in his magazine, so we were in touch occasionally. And then last summer (2006) he wrote to ask if I'd be interested in doing a project with The Cultural Society; we started throwing some ideas around and ended up with the current book. Everything The Cultural Society put out previously was really well designed. Plus the work was all by poets I admired, folks like Pam Rehm, Peter O'Leary, Devin Johnston, Michael Heller, and John Tipton, so I jumped at a chance to work with Zach and join that company of poets. Importantly for me, they all merge a lyrical and innovative sensibility, and are in their own ways practicing what I've noticed Ron Silliman call a third way in contemporary poetry (recently in reference to Cole Swensen's work, which is also a crucial touchstone for me). I'm increasingly drawn to this aesthetic and The Cultural Society publishes largely in that vein, so it felt like a good fit. I had not sent the manuscript out that much, just here and there and to the regular contests, but it never went anywhere, which I certainly don't regret. Given how well I think That Abrupt Here and The Cultural Society match up, I couldn't be happier with how it all worked out.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

I knew I wanted to use a drawing by Joe Biel, who is a terrific L.A. artist. I met Joe when we were both teaching at the same university in California; he is one of those few people you meet who reads a lot of poetry even though he is not a poet, and I think his work shows it. Joe sent me some images and I passed them along to Zach with the names of a few books with covers I liked, just to give him a sense of my taste. Zach then came up with a bunch of designs and sent them to me, at which point I told him the ones I liked the most. Zach pretty much took it from there, sending me new versions until we arrived at a cover we both felt strongly about.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?

Like many of the other poets you've interviewed, I remember most clearly how odd it felt--a strange mixture of pleasure and foreboding. When the UPS truck pulled up I was talking on the phone to my friend Richard Deming, who is a great poet and one of the people who took a lot of time to work on the manuscript with me. So I just stayed on the phone with him, got the box off the truck and brought it inside. Then I opened the box with my pocketknife and looked at the books sitting there for a while. Then I looked at them a little more. Then I picked one of the books up and sort of turned it around, like the ape does with the bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then I cut the shrink wrap off it and flipped through the pages to see how the page layout, type, and titles looked. Richard was encouraging and made some appropriately ironic but still generous comments. Then I called my friend Kim LaRocca who'd also helped a great deal with the book. Then I went back to grading papers.

Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?  

Not really. Too many of my friends have published books--I had a good sense of what to expect. Mainly I was looking forward to having the book in the world. I saw it as a way to participate more fully in the larger conversation around poetry--responding to the tradition of innovative writing and engaging with the work that is currently being published. I've spent the last decade or so reading, writing, and writing about poetry, and much of that energy involved figuring out how poetry worked and what I wanted it to do; the book, even with all its flaws, was an outgrowth of that process, a way to make that conversation with contemporary poetry and its tradition material. A decade is not that much time, of course, but it makes up a large part of my conscious life. Publishing That Abrupt Here has let me feel free to move on to a new set of concerns in my thinking about poetry.

How has your life been different since?

I can't say my life has changed in any remarkable way. My friends, family, and colleagues have been very kind, so that is nice, although they were solid before. The one peculiar fact I have noticed, like some of your other interviewees, is the way strangers and acquaintances take the book as a legitimizing force. I don't feel different, but some people apparently would feel differently about me if I didn't have a book. The economy of that interaction is interesting, and as I think about it, it makes sense really.

There is a great moment in James Baldwin's Another Country where one of the main characters, Vivaldo, introduces himself as a novelist, "unpublished," and you think, not just that he is acting like an asshole, but that he is staking his identity on his writing, and so the fact that he does not have a book that people can read throws his very presence in the world into doubt, which is to say nothing about that potential book's quality, which adds another element to his "character" and its legitimacy. Perhaps, in some way, I've made a similar move, however unconsciously. I'm not sure I would accept as valid the forces that make me feel as I do (although the forces don't appear to care one way or the other), but as I try to answer your question I can't help but notice that I do at least feel less like an asshole, or a self-deceived pompous bore, when the fact that I write poetry becomes a topic of conversation, there being some physical proof of it now. I can't say it comes as a surprise to learn this though; each time I read that novel I discover more ways I'm like Vivaldo than I'd care to be. Too bad really.

What did you are you doing to promote the book, and what are those experiences like for you?

I'm still figuring out what, if anything, I should do. I have sent the book to people I wanted to have copies; the announcement was posted on a listserve or two. Zach has set up a few readings and one or two other people have been in touch about readings, so those should be fun. I do enjoy going to and doing readings, even if the latter is nerve-wracking. I have not done any of these events yet, so what those experiences will be like remains to be seen.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?

Oddly, I can't remember any particular advice. I'd already talked with most of my friends who had published books and read the answers to this question your other interviewees gave and internalized most of that.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

The poems in That Abrupt Here are anywhere between nine and four years old, and after I finished them I did a series of poems that drew on Presocratic philosophy and the blues. Those poems ended up taking on a more narrative and, I hope, humorous form. Going back to the older poems got me thinking again about the concerns and possibilities of innovative, lyric poetry. For the poems I'm working on now, I'm trying to further explore humor and narrative, but, at the same time, I'd like to invest the work with the lyrical energy I've become interested in again. It might very well be a disaster.

I know your book is still very new but how do you feel about the critical response so far? Has it had any effect on your writing?

Most of the critical responses so far have been people writing to tell me what they think of the book, which has been gratifying. Also, it's been great to be able to exchange books with people, and that has opened up some new conversations with other poets.

Do you want your life to change?

I fear change. Plus, at this point, I feel particularly privileged. I moved to Portland last year and now I have an interesting job teaching at Portland State University and I have gotten to know a small group of poets here who make up a great poetry community. There is a group of writers who run a series as a collective called Spare Room (David Abel, Maryrose Larkin, Lindsay Hill, Mark Owens, Chris Piuma) and they set up at least two readings a month. Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand run the Tangent series and just hanging around with them is a good time. Also, Rodney Koeneke moved to town from San Francisco about the same time I arrived, and, as luck would have it, some old friends from Buffalo, Alicia Cohen and Tom Fisher, live here too. Kasey Mohammad even lives down the road in Ashland and Tim Shaner (another Buffalo friend) lives in Eugene and they often come up and Jared Hayes is around town as well. There are plenty of other interesting writers here too, but the point is that it is great to be part of such a vibrant poetry community again. I'd rather my life didn't change actually.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

Poetry changed both how I live and how I think, and so if my life contributes in any way to change in the world I'd have trouble separating it from poetry. As an undergraduate I was lucky enough to have Mary Leader as a teacher and she introduced me to Language writing. The more I read the work, the more excited I became. I decided to write my honors thesis on Bruce Andrews's Getting Ready To Have Been Frightened, which eventually led me to the Buffalo Poetics Program, and that experience was certainly a transformative one for me. But even before that, when I was just starting to read Language writing, there was a moment I remember when I was waiting outside my advisor's door reading an essay on how form affects meaning and I understood suddenly, for the first time, that Truth, a concept I'd been largely motivated by, was shaped by the means of its expression. I realize that for many people the idea that form determines meaning is not a startling discovery, but for me it was. Oddly, at that moment, my politics, philosophy--my entire worldview really--shifted radically all at once. All the poetry, poetics, and philosophy I was reading came together to form a whole new lens for thinking about the world.

It is hard to describe to people who grew up with a more leftist perspective, but for me, the insight that Language writing, and subsequently the broader innovative tradition, provided was life altering. Looking back on this experience I would say that I think poetry can put people in a position to live differently--challenge their familiar modes of thinking, ask them to believe in new ways and develop new cultural, political, or philosophical concerns. In that way I think poetry can create change. I don't expect, or even want, a poem to operate in the world in the way a vote or a bullet does; I don't think that is what poems are for. I do not share the worry, which appears to be on the rise, that poetry is not directly political enough. Poetry, for me, has been and continues to be a means of navigating my environment--it is one of the ways of thinking that allows me to act in the world deliberately, and, I hope, with more insight and care. I never actually feel outside of poetry; as a way to make sense of my experience I can't think about poetry (or a single poem) as a tool, or as something apart from me, something I use to execute or demonstrate my politics. I might use poems to figure out my politics, among other concerns, but I don't substitute them for political actions.


from That Abrupt Here by Joel Bettridge:



Unbelievable what today has been
And each night the big outside


After next year
five years will be plenty    I think


I did not think
change changed much


of course it didn't    when
carried through the day


till morning    steal in and cover me
Jesus    I did not think    I think


our benediction
lags despite our stumbling


. . .

next interview: Maryrose Larkin

other first-book interviews

. . .