How has your first book changed your life?
80. Ivy Alvarez
How did your manuscript happen to be picked up by Red Morning Press? Had you sent it out often before that?
I'd sent my manuscript to over half-a-dozen presses in Australia, though I now know it was still too green, so it's good thing it wasn't accepted. Once I moved up to the northern hemisphere, without the hindrance of prohibitive postal rates, I went a little crazy, sending it out to over two dozen places in the UK. Either I was feeling optimistic or didn't do enough research--probably a healthy mixture of both. I also sent it a handful of times to North America, including a couple of contests but I stopped doing that quick smart.
After receiving a perceptive reading of the manuscript from poet WN Herbert when I was in Scotland, I went straight back to the ms, did some shuffling and then sent it out again. One publisher wrote back saying it was not for them but he was sure I'd get it published soon, a very heartening response. So I persisted. Finally, the poetry deities deigned to smile on me in the guise of Red Morning Press. That was a happy day. I'd found RMP through reading Jen Tynes's micro-review of Sean Norton's book, Bad with Faces. Now all three of us are press-siblings.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
Editor Chris Perkowski had emailed me that my book was on its way from the US to the UK. Meanwhile, other people were already reading the book before me because they'd pre-ordered it! It was thrilling to track its various destinations: Connecticut, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Seattle, Texas, Tennessee...also Ireland, France, Mexico, Australia... Friends emailed, telling me they'd received their copy. That made me more and more agitated, and so very eager to hold my book.
When I finally received my copies, I immediately told friends and family all about it in an excited email. One of my friends replied that my description sounded like childbirth, congratulating me on the arrival of my baby. Another friend agreed, 'It was like childbirth, but less messy'.
I'd been living with the manuscript as a digital file and as a sheaf of papers for so long, to have it transmogrified into a book... it's how I imagine an artist must feel when a frame is finally placed around their piece of art.
That excited email you sent--do you still have it? Could we include it?
Here. :-) If you think it's not too... something...
Outside the rainy-wet door, in the plastic box, the weight of the books. A box! Inside--my books! Sticky-tape wound around it. How to open it. Scissors!
I ran upstairs, grabbed the scissors, ran down to the landing where the box was sitting and sliced into it. My face heated up in a blush and I felt on the verge of tears. Here! Quickly, quickly, open open open.
And the book, in my hands. Shiny and larger than I expected, the fonts bigger, the paper yellower, the cover glossier. I checked for the errors I remember from the final draft--gone, gone, gone. Oh, my god, it's here.
I was reading the final draft last night and I thought, How complicated this all is, and Who will understand it, and Maybe only me, and That's okay.
overwhelmed is my watchword,
My original idea was an image of a white moth with a marking across its wingspan that looked like it was drawn in black charcoal, with one dot on with each wing. Later, serendipitously, I saw the painting 'Gimme' by poet Christine Hamm on her gallery. I felt it was a perfect match to Mortal's themes while still retaining a certain mystery about it. I sent a link to Chris Perkowski and he agreed with me. Another reason why it was such a great find was because Christine's art has previously appeared on the cover of one of my chapbooks, what's wrong.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with your book's arrival?
How to separate the life from the creation? I imagined that I'd feel much, much better about finally having a book. And I do. Having my own ISBN is such a thrill!
All I want is for the book to be discovered by its readers.
How has your life been different since?
I've received a lot of support from people, readers and other poets, which has been wonderful. Also, there have been some invitations to publish my poems online, to take part in a reading or two, and participate in interviews and conversations about Mortal and poetry in general.
I feel like I'm being enfolded lovingly, more personally, into poetry, whereas before this, interactions with readers have been at quite a remove. One publishes a poem in a journal and that is the last of it, often. Now I'm starting to feel as if this is the start of a really interesting conversation.
But you haven't mentioned your play. Isn't that a way your life changed since the book? Or how does it fit in?
I wrote The Quarry, my ten-minute play, around October 2005 and it was produced in Dublin in May 2006, so the play was performed before the book came out. RMP accepted Mortal around early October 2005, though--almost at the same time I started writing the play! Strange, I wouldn't have noticed the timing of that if you hadn't asked...
Were there things you thought would happen after Mortal came out that didn't happen? Surprises?
Things unfold at their own pace, I find, no matter how much you want to hurry things along.
One of the more pleasant things that happened after my book was published was a really interesting conversation I had with my mother about it. I'd sent her one of my author's copies, then I rang her up in the Philippines, where she was at the time, and discussed her thoughts on the book.
As the book revolves around a mother-daughter relationship, there are a lot of elements in both our lives that may be recognisable in the poetry. But there are also times when I've taken on other personae, such as a mother's mother.
One surprising thing was my mother's take on what I thought was the saddest poem in the book--she thought it was funny! On reflection, I must have held an expectation that everyone reacts the same way to a piece, but, of course, different readers have different ways of reading a poem.
What have you been doing to promote the book and what are those experiences like for you? Do you enjoy reading publicly?
I've done a few things since Mortal was released in November last year. When I knew it was close to release, I started mentioning it to the editors of journals in which poems from the book have previously appeared and who I thought would be interested in assigning it for review. I told all my friends about it, of course. And my mother's been pretty good about telling all her friends about it, and she's even shown off my reviews to one or two people.
I've made sure that my author's bio mentions my book when I get a poem published online, or a link to my publisher's website in my email signature. I don't know if these little things have an effect but I like to think I'm doing something to help my book find its readers.
I've also been documenting its evolution, from manuscript to book, on my blog, so a number of people who drop in from time to time also know about it.
Reading at more literary and writing festivals is something I'm aiming for, so I've started doing research into that and I'm hopeful that something will happen. I've read some crazy stories though--I'm thinking of one or two in Mortification (ed. Robin Robertson), in particular--so my expectations have become more realistic after that.
I enjoy reading my work in public. The moments before I get up on stage is the storm; the calm is when I read in front of an audience. It would be great to do more of that.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
It's freed me up. I am going in a totally different direction with this next manuscript.
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing practice?
The critical response has been favourable so far and I appreciate the time and thought critics and reviewers take to read a book of poems.
Still, nobody else is there in that room when I'm writing. It's just the poem and me.
What was the best advice you got before your book came out? What advice would you give someone who is about to have a first book published?
The poet Karen Knight once told me that it's not real until you hold it in your hand. A number of things can go wrong between sending off a manuscript, its acceptance and eventual publication as a book. Publication could take a very long time. Her advice kept me level-headed and so I did not get too worried about delays and so on.
I think her advice is pretty spot-on. My own advice would be to do your research. Learn what you need to prepare yourself. If you think you need to learn more about book contracts, how to prepare a press kit or write a press release, or if you think you need to practice more public speaking, do it. Nobody else is going to do it for you.
Do you want your life to change?
Sometimes change is good. I like to be challenged and entertained, am always seeking mental stimulation. I'd like to have the right balance--of being able to concentrate on writing a lot of the time, or if not, then just sitting on poems, incubating them until they're ready, gathering experiences as I live in my day-to-day.
I am happy at the moment. If the change of which you speak makes me happier, I will gladly accept it. That's my New Year's resolution after all.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
I'm always looking for large chunks of time to write in. A grant or a residency is a sign, a permission to write. Such acknowledgement sustains me, as if to say I'm neither deluded nor the only dreamer in the room--other people believe in me and support my writing and that it has value. So, hopefully, there will be more of these signs, which will in turn lead me into writing the better poems I'm always aspiring to write.
As for happiness, I'm trying to stay on track. There are aspects of my life I've neglected and I need to be mindful that they're important, too.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Yes, I believe it. Poetry will be a catalyst for change.
When life is made up of innumerable practical concerns, art can send you off someplace else. If people have a love for poetry, music, art and culture, then all is not yet lost.
2 poems from Mortal by Ivy Alvarez:
I show my mother a book of breasts. At first, she's shocked and pulls away. But then, she returns to them and looks at the pictures on the cover. She points to one. The breasts are creamy and voluptuous, arms gloved to the elbows, crossed in front. 'I like these ones,' she says. 'They are elegant.'
we feel the supple
the body bends
next interview: Steve Fellner
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