every other day

24 JULY 07

How has your first book changed your life?

74. William D. Waltz

Zoo Music

How did Slope Editions happen to pick up your manuscript? How often had you sent it out previously?

The short answer is that my manuscript won the second annual Slope Editions Book Prize.

Dean Young was the judge, and although the details are fuzzy with the passage of time, there's a bit more to it. My manuscript was a finalist or semi-finalist for the same prize the year before and one of the editors asked if he could hold onto it, and, of course, I said help yourself and I held out hope. The seasons came and went and nothing, so I moved on, which in this instance meant I gave my manuscript a fairly radical over-haul, cutting twenty or thirty pages, adding new poems, and giving it a new title.

I'd been sending out my manuscript selectively for years and it had been finalist a few times--after the first time that's small consolation--and like most first book manuscripts mine was slowly evolving or devolving, as the case may be. Finally, I decided to hone it down by purging poems that I really liked but that now seemed less related to the rest of the project.

Anyway, while the good folks at Slope were considering my old manuscript, I submitted the new and improved manuscript for the next installment of the contest.

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

I was thrilled and relieved. Really relieved. I was tracking the package via the Internet and I may have been on the front porch when the trucked rolled up to the curb. Once in the house I slowly opened the box, trying to savor the moment while yet allowing myself to worry about typos on the cover. Really relieved because my book release party was set for the next day. It's a good idea to have your book on hand at the book release party.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Yes, I was. I'd always imagined I would be, so I was glad that my financially strapped publisher gave me the option of handling the cover. I knew I wanted my long-time friend and collaborator Scott Bruno to work on it. Scott was my Art Director for Conduit, so I had total confidence in his abilities. My contribution was puny compared to all the work he put into it. He gave me six or seven covers to choose from! In the end, I talked my publisher into granting us total freedom to design the book cover to cover. I was lucky on two counts: to have such a great designer for a friend and to have a publisher so bold as to give up control.

Before the day you first saw your book, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?

I knew my life would change--it had happened already. I had been liberated, a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders. Really. Poetry is a funny business. There's so little to show for one's labors, but a book can be held, a book can be caressed, and in a pinch a book can be applied to the side of some numbskull's head. Never again would I wonder if I was a poet. I had the proof. It's not that the bouts of self-loathing have ceased, but they are less cruel.

Has your life been different since?

I suppose it has, but it has more to do with being a father than being a card-carrying member of the book club. I became a father and published author in the same year. I'm still recovering.

Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

I thought more people would read it--I have high expectations!--I thought I'd hear more feedback from friends and acquaintances. I thought my brother would buy the book. There's a temptation to think things will dramatically change but they usually don't. They change slowly. Your book enters bookdom and that's pretty darn cool, but the entrance more resembles absorption than celebration. I know I shouldn't have been, but I was surprised when someone at the book release party asked me about my next book.

What have you done to promote Zoo Music and how do you feel about those experiences?

Besides the book release party and a couple of other readings here in the Twin Cities, I went on two reading tours, one in the Midwest and one back east, so I read a couple dozen times that first year. I sent copies out for review and gave copies to writers and musicians that I felt indebted to.

I considered hiring a PR person but the cost-benefit equation didn't add up.

Hmmm, it doesn't sound like much. Does it?

I enjoy reading and it's an excellent way to give entry into your poems, so I loved road-tripping with my companion poets, and meeting the people at the readings. Lots of new people and a few old friends who came out of the woodwork. Besides, after reading a few nights in a row one begins to feel like a minor rock star, and that's not a bad feeling.

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

Best advice not given: Lie about your age.

Best advice given: I was fretting over some really ridiculous detail like what was the proper way to phrase the dedication and Dara Wier let me know in her way that there was no point in worrying about such things because any way was the right way and that there were better things to do during such a happy time.

How would lying about your age have helped?

Well, I think if I had been younger or thought to have been younger, my story would have been a sexier one and maybe my book would have gotten more attention than it did--whether or not it deserved more is beside the point. The poetry world is not immune to America's youth obsession. Youth is the juice that moves the market.

Since I graduated, the opportunities for young writers have quadrupled and that's great. But, I worry that poets in their thirties and forties might be overlooked because of their diminishing youth. We shouldn't forget Wallace Stevens was 43 or 44 when Harmonium was published.

Anyway, I don't really look my age, so I wish I hadn't blown my own cover and instead kept the mystery alive. By the way, I'm 29.

What advice would you give to someone about to have a first book published?

Enjoy it, enjoy all of it. Feel strong and feel proud. Don't waste your time worrying how the book will be received. Some folks will love it, some won't, and none of it really matters.

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

One thing I have noticed is that I had become less meticulous as a writer, which is partly documented by fewer revisions. I'm not exactly sure what's going on, but I think it has to do with that sense of liberation and a growing confidence in my powers. Hopefully that won't disappear overnight.

How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing?

I was fortunate enough to have my book reviewed a number of times and they were all pretty positive, so I can't complain, although I was hoping for more of them, so I guess I am complaining.

I read the reviews and it was interesting to see what impressions and insights the reviewers came away with. Reading your reviews is sort of like reading your horoscope when you're high. Some of it seems so amazingly true, and some of it reads as if it had been written about someone or something else.

I think it's had no effect whatsoever on my writing.

Do you want your life to change?

Oh, yes, I do. It's not really life if it's not changing and evolving.

Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?

I'm reading, and I'm purging, and I'm planning.

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

Absolutely, it changes the world one person at a time.


A poem from Zoo Music by William D. Waltz:

Bear Trap

I dug a hole

in the wet woods
behind the swinging bridge.
I felt productive.

The lousy rains

flushed the rabbits out.
I could've used a bucket,
a pick, a hand,

but I felt productive digging

a well with a spade.
I smoothed the clay
sides with a trowel

made of ash and bone.

From the bottom
of my hole, hands
cupped for communion,

I bailed. Was it

precipitation or the water table?
I built a ladder with sticks
and wild grape vines,

carried brush and branches

and leaves into the pit.
I camouflaged
the opening with these.

Still the hole's mouth was manifest,

so I unraveled my ladder
and placed each rung
over the aperture.

I crouched in the trap

with one round stone
the shape of a skull
in my lap.

The woods were silent

save the last rain falling
onto the forest floor
and nature gently bending.

I waited.


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