How has your first book changed your life?
93. Dorothea Lasky
How did your manuscript happen to be picked up by Wave Books? How often had you sent it out before that?
Joshua Beckman, one of the editors at Wave Books, had been familiar with my work for a little while before asking me to submit my book to be reviewed by their editorial board. Before the board reviewed it, he worked with me to put the book in the form it's in now and the book that is published today is entirely indebted to his brilliant editorial choices and continued belief in my poems. I may have written the poems, but I believe that he wrote the structure of the book. Before Wave Books picked it up, I had sent it to around 200 or so publishers and poetry contests over the course of about 4 years. That was not fun.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
It was a strange day. I was in St. Louis with my parents the day I got the book, but my dad was in the hospital. The managing editor at Wave Books, Lori Shine, had told me the day before she was going to overnight a few books--hot off the press--in the morning. My mom and I didn't go anywhere the morning the books were due to arrive and we sat and patiently waited for hours. Eventually, I fell into a deep sleep waiting and woke up to my mom yelling from the next room, "That's the doorbell! That's the doorbell!" I, completely out of it, went bounding towards the door, hoping I wouldn't miss the FedEx man. Their front door is very hard to open, so once I got there I spent five minutes trying to open it, shouting "Don't leave, please don't leave” to the Fed Ex man. Once I finally got the door open, the imaginary person had actually left maybe before I had even gotten to the door and there in front of me was the package, by itself at the foot of the door and larger than I had expected. I opened up the package and saw a very sweet note from Lori and then I saw the books. They looked exactly how I expected them to and I got very excited. I used my Macbook then to take a picture of myself with the book, a picture I sent to a few friends who I knew would care. The picture consisted of the book with my eyes and top of my head peering over in glee. It was a great day then, strange and great.
Could we include that photo in the interview?
Were you involved in designing the cover?
In a small way, I feel like I was a little bit. The cover was designed by Jeff Clark, but I did have some input into the design. The day that I found out that Wave Books was going to do the book, I had a vision of 100 very shiny black books with the word AWE in white writing all sitting on a giant bookshelf. In my mind, they looked like an austere army, which is what the words in the book are to me. Wave Books has an author questionnaire about the book's design and I wrote about this in the questionnaire. But I can't really take any real credit for the genius of Jeff Clark, which is what made the actual black, white, and red cover. I absolutely love the book's design, by the way.
Before the day you first saw your book, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
I didn't really expect my life to change with the arrival of the book, so much as that I expected my self to change with the presence of the physical book out in the world. It was almost as if I have always been more concerned with the feeling of knowing that others would be sitting and reading from the book rather than the feeling of my self holding the book itself. Just knowing that my book would exist for real and that I could be reading the poems simultaneously as someone else seemed like it would change my life. And my life has changed a lot by this, as I feel both incredibly more confident and incredibly more insecure than I have ever felt about my writing.
My life hasn't been so different with the arrival of the physical book, as much as with the arrival of the idea that I was going to have a book. During the time that I spent trying to get AWE published, especially towards the last year or so, my writing became kind of static and bad. For awhile I had deep and serious doubts that AWE would ever be published and this made me wonder if I was a poet at all. Since knowing that a press like Wave Books has enough confidence in my poems to publish my book, I have been writing a lot more and a lot more freely. I feel like I am a real poet now and no one can take that away from me and this is everywhere in my writing. It is a great space to write from, but it is different from the space I wrote AWE in, as that space was more aggressive and demanding that it be heard. Now I write from a space of knowing that there is a least one reader out there who I am definitely writing to. Knowing this for real has completely changed me.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
Seeing the poems in print has really humbled me. The poems have changed now that they are in a book and the book itself humbles me in the way that the magnitude of life always humbles me. Cyndi Lauper once said in some documentary, "When you finally get to the top of mountain, you better have something to say." Seeing the poems in the book transformed into something other than me has given them a sort of weight that is surprising. And likewise, the book has reminded me how vehemently I believe in the things I have to say and that I am so glad that the mountain of the book is in front of me as a platform to say it from.
What will you be doing to promote the book and how do you feel about it?
I will be giving readings during the upcoming year and I am very excited for those, as I love to give readings. This website, dorothealaskyreadings.blogspot.com, will eventually list all of my readings for the upcoming year and will be updated monthly. Also, I will be going on a tiny tour of readings this fall in my apartment. You can check out birdinsnow.com for more details about this tiny tour.
The best advice I got was from my friend Eric Baus (author of The To Sound). He told me that I would get the book and be excited, but it would be somewhat of a letdown. He said that the real way that the book works its magic is invisible to the poet herself and that I would never be able to see all the really exciting ways that the book would work, like when someone spent her Saturday morning reading it or when two people I had never met had a discussion about the book that would always be entirely unknown to me. And because I was prepared to be excited for the invisible ways of the book, I haven't been let down at all.
I think because it is pretty hard nowadays for poets to get their first books published, and it takes so long, there is so much expectation for the book to be worth it when it arrives. But the truth is that the road of communication--this way of communicating with the world that includes poetry––does not stop or begin with the book. As cheesy as it sounds, it is a lot like the relationship between marriage and the actual ceremony of a wedding. If you have decided to marry poetry, and you love it completely, then the first book itself is simply a happy step on the road to that commitment and like a wedding, in your hands your first book is more a symbolic gesture of your love for poetry. Like a wedding, the universal workings of a book are necessarily more mysterious than they can ever seem on the surface. I think understanding this is the best way to not be let down.
What advice would you give to someone about to have a first book published?
Jump up and down and scream with joyous laughter! Do that for about 6 months or until your new book arrives in the mail.
What influence has the book's publication (or acceptance) had on your subsequent writing?
As I talked a little bit about above, it has been a mixed blessing for my writing. I think before the book was published I was in a static period of writing bad poems for about a year, partly because a lot of my writing energy was spent trying to think about how I was going to get the book published. A lot of the poems in AWE are written from a place that is like "Listen to me!! You better! No really, please listen to me" and this sort of appeal doesn't make sense anymore. In AWE, I sort of half-believed that maybe no one would ever read the poems within it, which makes for a very different kind of poem. Now I write from a free place that is just like "Oh hi, you again?" It is less aggressive. But at the same time, it is sometimes not that good to be less aggressive, because I truly believe a poet's voice should be sort of aggressive, even if it is a gentle aggression. So, I think I have been changed by having the first book, but we will see in my next batch of poems if this is for the better.
How do you feel about the response so far and has it had any effect on your writing practice?
The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, primarily because it has been from people I know (or sort of know) who are generally very supportive of me and I think actually like the book. This has been good for my writing practice to feel this love and because of it, I have been writing a lot of new poems. But sometimes just knowing that the book is out in the world and that people might hate it fills me with a kind of paralyzing shame of my own voice. This hasn't exactly affected my writing practice yet, but I feel like it could or that it could affect my future poems.
Do you want your life to change?
I want my life to always change. I want to live in a constant state of growth and renewal. Because I am a poet, this will probably always include publishing books.
One of my major life goals is to affect change in the way that arts education is supported in this country. I think that a lot of problems within our educational system stem from the fact that the arts are undervalued and under supported, both because there are young artists within the system with no place to learn how to express themselves in healthy and serious ways and because of the implicit benefits of the arts for learning in general. I am currently getting a doctorate in education because I hope to one day work to change this sad fact of the system.
I also think that by writing poetry I am changing the world, both through the form of the poems I am thrusting into the world and the ideas I am planting in others' heads. I think that by authentically changing the ideas in others' heads, you change the world in the most meaningful ways.
I do. But it is more so that I believe that the things that surround poetry can change the world through all the workings of people, like: art, love, change itself, language, beauty, the spirit, knowledge, death, life, and pain. I think that poetry, when coming from an authentic place, has the ability to transmit the necessary human information of the spirit--something that is often unsaid. Because poetry has the ability to say the sometimes unsayable, it can change the world in the prayer that it creates just through speaking it. Poetry gives voice to the silent and in that way can change everything. But so can any art, I think. So can any kind of idea that is spoken with help from the spirit and reaches in some way, reaches in a way that hasn't been done before. The risk of speaking the silent in a way that hasn't been done before is done for the purpose of creating change. There is no other reason for such a risk. It is very risky to use so much power to make the world different and risks like art are always for a reason and they are always worth it, of course. So, yes, poetry can change the world and I am quite glad that it can and I am very glad that I am somehow part of this change just by being who I am.
2 poems from AWE by Dorothea Lasky:
He was always distant.
Yes he was, you told everyone.
And what about poetry?
Well, what's it to you?
And what about the real one over there. He loves you.
Yes he does, when he can.
I love him.
He's sweet. He reminds me of the forest.
No, not that, the other sort of forest
And what is the fog?
Do you really mean that?
And what about the things you've learned?
And what of longing and the din of metal?
Then why are you still awake?
And is love art?
And how do you feel?
And what is happening?
And what is trapping it?
Boobs Are Real
They stole my tires
They pierced my eyelids. They scalped my brain.
. . .