every other day

25 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

94. Connie Voisine

Cathedral of the North

How did you find out that your manuscript won the 1999 AWP Prize for Poetry? How often had you sent it out previously?

I had been sending it out in various forms under various titles for almost three years. I was in a casino in Las Vegas when I decided to check my voicemail. A cryptic message from D. Fenza got me a little excited but I had already had one phone call that week (from Cleveland State) saying we loved your book but it didn't win. When I returned Fenza's call, he told me Pittsburgh would publish it. The thing I often say when something lucky happens is "I should go to Vegas right now." I mentioned this strange coincidence ("and here I am IN VEGAS!"), but he didn't seem to think it funny. Meanwhile slot machines were ringing and a beautiful genie in high heels brought me a drink.

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

I don't want this to sound too bizarre, but when I first saw it, I realized that, in my mind, the book was the size of a road atlas. Its publication was that important to me. When I opened the box I thought, "gosh, it's tiny."

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Yes. I have many friends who are visual artists and wanted one of them to contribute to the cover. I sent Pitt a bunch of slides and they chose one.

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

I was more embarrassed than anything else. I knew how many of my friends were excellent writers and deserved to be in print. Besides I had gotten a tenure track job without a book, so it all seemed like overkill. I tried not to imagine things (other than the size of the book).
Has your life been different since?

Yes and no. There is a certain credibility that comes with book publication, whatever that's worth--it got me a great second job. My family was made very happy by the book. But a poet still has to write that second book (and getting that published has turned out to be even harder).

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

People look you up (college boyfriend, strange geeky person from summer camp, etc.). Once my book was taught in a Franco American Studies class (they have those at University of Maine), and when I spoke to the students I found myself strangely resistant to classification. (So what the hell was I doing there?) Go figure.

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

My best advice that I got was a warning not to get stuck on that first book. Declare it done, send it out, but start the next one. Do not let the whole production distract you from why you really got in this business--to write poems.

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

That said, selling it is a lot more important than you think. I secretly think that low book sales (about 1100) of my first book had something to do with my second book not getting picked up by Pitt. After they turned it down I read an interview with Ed Orchester. He said that all his writers sell in the thousands. And really, in the end, no one does the selling but you.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? 

None other than a tiny bit of confidence now and then.

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

I got good reviews and appreciated getting some feedback from my Dear Readers (thinking of how the Brontes addressed their readers intimately).
Do you want your life to change?

Always and constantly. In the past three years I got married, bought a house, got tenure and had a baby. My second book is coming out in Feb, my third almost done. The only groove (meaning stable consistency) I can possibly discern has been the way writing and reading has made my life larger.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?

I am thinking of the fourth book--should I try to write like Alexander Pope? Do I want to write a book that has images in it (like Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely)? Moving to the Southwest drastically changed me as a writer, and I'm about to move to Ireland for a while, so who knows...?

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

How can it not? It saved my life. Surely I'm not the only one.


A poem from Cathedral of the North by Connie Voisine:

That Far North

I invented my own sign language.
I wrote it down with elaborate descriptions
of the positions of my hands and
where I touched, how I moved them.
The path through the woods behind home
was double-rutted from an old tractor,
abandoned, and I walked in its grooves.
I took out books on flowers,

identified the unbeautiful few that could grow
that far north: mustard, hawk's-eye,
ragwort, and I invented and recorded
for each a silent sign. I found a book
on eating them and began to eat
bark off trees, lick the sap that beaded
on their cuts and buds. I dug up thistles
and ate the roots while my mother,

without my help, cleaned the house
like a woman possessed. I don't care
how poor you are,
she said, you can
at least be clean.
The tiny leaves
all around me at the bald top of the hill,
furrowed down to our house.
From up there, I watched the mill lose
its black crown of sparks, and my mother,

big as my thumb at the clothesline,
fought sheets from the wind.
I knew they weren't clean,
she would always work hard,
and each year, the mill rolled enough paper
so it could go, but didn't, to the moon
and back. One of the odd songbirds
half-finished its song. The guide said

these leaves are hardy, adore full sun and
well-drained soil.
I picked ten,
rubbed them clean on my pants,
and ate them. Sour. Bright. The sun
slid behind the mill and mouth dry,
I practiced signs to my mother's
small figure, as she began
to mow our acre of lawn.

. . .

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