How has your first book changed your life?
96. Anna Moschovakis
How did your manuscript happen to be published by Turtle Point Press?
It really felt like the eleventh hour for this manuscript--I'd been working on it, or on some version of it, since 2001 (the oldest poems were from the late 1990s). I had sent out at least four different versions of the manuscript over as many years, and every time the book wasn't accepted, especially when it came close, I'd try to reassess what exactly I wanted it to be and to do. Mostly, I added newer, longer poems in the place of the shorter lyrics that had made up the bulk of the first versions. By the time it got to its final iteration, I really had very little hope of it getting accepted. But I felt, finally, that it had reached some state of completion, as ambivalent as I was about its merits.
Around this time Matvei (my guy) ran into Jonathan Rabinowitz, the publisher/editor of Turtle Point Press, who asked him about me and whether I had a manuscript. I had been Jonathan's assistant many years before (in the mid-90s) and had fallen out of touch with him, but he had always been kind and encouraging, and very generously gave me my first professional opportunity as a translator (I contributed to the TPP book, Horoscope). I really didn't think that Turtle Point Press would be interested in my book--the poetry list is limited to one title per season and most of the authors are much more accomplished than I (one of them, Wayne Koestenbaum, was at that moment a professor of mine at the Graduate Center). But at Matvei's urging, I sent in the manuscript. At around the same time I sent it to two small presses whose work I admired. And, unbelievably, all three of them were interested in publishing the book. Jonathan actually wrote to me less than a week after we put the manuscript in the mail.
I was totally blown away and pinched myself for months--mostly because I had really gotten to a point where the idea of publication was so abstract. Above all, the desire to have a book had helped me focus my thinking about what that book should be. The fact that after so many rejections I suddenly had interest from more than one quarter helped me to recognize the benefits of the whole process. It really was a five-year book, short as it is.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I was in Russia (with a gang of Ugly Duckling Presse editors working on a translation project) when the book came back from the printers, and I remember getting an email from Jonathan saying that he had sent it out to something like 100 reviewers. My heart dropped to the center of the earth--I was terrified by the prospect of all these people seeing the book before I did. What if it was a terrible mistake--what if the work wasn't strong enough to bear its own binding, not to mention press releases and requests for attention? I had an intense few days of wishing I'd never tried to get a book published, or that I'd waited until I was 65 and might actually have something worthwhile to say (I've always been partial to "late-bloomers"). All the old insecurities boiled over. I emailed a friend who had been on the review list and asked her how it looked, and her reply was as reassuring as it could be. So I forgot about it for a while. Then, a few weeks later we were in Boulder, Colorado, where Matvei was a visiting instructor at Naropa, and it was actually at the home of Eleni Sikelianos and Laird Hunt that I saw the book for the first time--it was very strange to have it casually handed to me at a dinner party. I remember holding it in my hands for no more than a couple of seconds, like a hot potato, before giving it back to my hosts.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with your book's arrival?
I had no expectations that the book would change my life for the better. I'd been well warned against such hopes by mentors over the years; I remember Lynne Tillman telling me that the difference between "before first book" and "after first book" was minimal, that one's relationship to one's writing is not so easily transformed by mere professional milestones. I had two fears: one was that I would literally regret having the book out there, either because I would find it unforgivably bad, or just because my sense of privacy might ultimately prove to be stronger than my desire to communicate with people and to participate in a public conversation through poetry. The other worry was that Jonathan would be disappointed--I felt that he had taken a risk on a younger writer and I was afraid that nobody would buy the book or review it.
How has your life been different since?
Well, now I occasionally get emails from people who have read the book (like the email I got from you requesting this interview). That is a really big change, because I had always felt that I was writing into a void. My smaller publications (in periodicals or chapbooks) never felt very public, since I knew the print runs and felt like I probably knew the entire audience personally. This is the first time that I know for certain there are some few people out there who have met my poems before meeting me. For me this just means catching up to everyone else in the world of bloggers and Facebook, etc. In many ways I think publishing a blog would have had the same effect: really, it is just about going public, and going public as a poet, giving my work over to something larger than my own little mind. It's not a very tangible change, but it has had a big effect, since I previously had so much anxiety about identifying as a writer at all. Now there is this object in the world that speaks for me to some degree, and to my great surprise that has on the whole assuaged rather than exacerbated that particular anxiety. Although I still only feel like a writer when I'm actively writing, now at least there's no denying that I did it once...
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Yes. I really wanted to use a photograph by Laura Nash, and she and I got together and chose a few options, which I sent to James Meetze, who designed the cover. I wanted a landscape, but a very subjective one: an unusually framed view to the outside.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
Every bit of attention the book has gotten has come as a surprise. I guess what I thought would happen was exactly nothing.
What have you been doing to promote the book and what are those experiences like for you?
Mostly I did readings--not a very packed schedule, but one or two a month for the first year after the book came out. I was lucky to be invited to read for Double Change in Paris, where I have spent some momentous years, and to have a brilliant French poet (Jérôme Mauche) translate one of my poems for the event. We read interleaving sections, so that monolingual audience members only got half the poem, but still got an impression of its movement, which is based on repetition. That was the most fun for me.
I did a couple of interviews at the beginning, one with Poets & Writers Magazine and another arranged by Turtle Point Press's publicists; that one was with a fashion magazine, which was very strange! I couldn't figure out why they wanted to talk to me. The interviewer was smart and asked great questions, but the final result was this little tiny sidebar article that hardly mentioned any of what we'd spent an hour discussing!
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
Well, after so many years I think I had all the advice I needed, but some of it I wasn't able to really understand until after the fact. Most important: learn to take full responsibility for your own work. It's easy, especially after loads of rejections, to think that if somebody is interested in publishing your book, well, what a relief, it must be "good" now, or "done." There's that elusive approval factor, which I think comes out of the old notion that an artist's intrinsic talent, if it's good enough, will eventually be discovered. That's not a very realistic or interesting model today. It can be indispensable to have others read and comment on your work, of course, and I was lucky to have several insightful readers over the course of writing the book. I also trusted that Jonathan wouldn't publish something that he didn't stand behind. But when I was faced with having to sign off on the manuscript, it became alarmingly clear that the final decisions were mine--when I sent the final version to the type-setters I knew that if it turned out to be a disaster there was nobody I could blame but myself.
What advice would you give to someone who was about to have a first book published?
Try to keep your head in whatever new work you're doing, so you don't feel like a has-been before even beginning your "book tour"! There is often such a lag-time between the writing of a book and its publication, it can be hard to feel connected to the work right at the moment when it is made most public. I have found that it makes a huge difference if I am really working on something new; then I can still feel connected to the older work, because it all seems part of a larger endeavor.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
I don't think it has had any influence, except that the book's publication allowed me to put that work to rest and re-conceive what I'm most interested in doing with poetry. But I still have the same struggles and write at the same stilted pace, and I find my attention and impulses shifting at about the same rate and in similar ways to how they did before the publication of the book. When I sit down to write, I don't feel any more "official" or "pro," or like I'd better rush to get another book out there fast. I feel just as much the bumbling amateur as I did before I'd gotten a single poem published. I guess all the work put into making that particular selection of poems for the first book did affect, or indicate somehow, the direction I'm interested in heading: My newer poems definitely follow more from the poems that made it into the first book than they do from all the countless poems that I cut out of it.
How do you feel about the critical response so far and has it had any effect on your writing?
The reviews have been fun to read. And strange. It's just incredible to see someone else's mind work on something that I think I know so well, something I made. I definitely read reviews with some kind of (involuntary) psychological buffer: I don't really take them personally, whether they are positive or negative or mixed, or whether they seem to reflect my own views of the book or not. I read them more as I read reviews of anyone else's work, out of curiosity and with an interest in how people read poetry today. Of course, it's a strange thing when a reviewer discovers something in the text that I did not knowingly put there, but that is undeniably there. That's the only way out of that authorial heaviness, that sense of responsibility for the text--What a relief! Something else is at work!
Do you want your life to change?
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
I have no idea! (Ask me next year...)
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
The world can use all the help it can get, and any activity--poetry writing and reading and translating and publishing included--can either ratify or resist the world's worst tendencies. Ortega y Gasset made this great distinction, in an essay on the feasibility of translation, between good utopians and bad utopians. Good utopians genuinely believe in the impossibility of the task at hand, but they attempt it anyway because it (the attempt, as well as the task) is intrinsically valuable. Bad utopians are optimists in disguise; they secretly think that because the impossible goal is worth pursuing, it must ultimately be attainable; it's the idea of attainability that is actually motivating them. It seems to me that a net-positive change in the world, from poetry or from anything, is unlikely, and its desirability doesn't make it any more possible. But we have to do something while we are on this earth--we can't just sit on it and wait for it to shatter. And the means are all we have, since we'll never know the end. So on my better days I try to be a Good Utopian: Poetry (and I) can't change the world. Poetry (and I) should try.
from I Have Not Been Able To Get Through To Everyone
Dead for the buried is understatement.
That's why we take walks:
Or, to have them,
But eating with the television
she said, picking labels
It's important to know
in your town. Take a walk
how the rocks are made
the tennis courts are dirt,
is for members only. No wonder
here, having noticed a city
resembles a city under
--a sentence passed
wait, but a this
a that--and again you've lost
are gone for the place
where every table is
People die left & right
and the sun is no longer
and not since I sacrificed
have I fought such a mind in my war.
. . .