How has your first book changed your life?
97. Gabriel Fried
My wife Alex and I had taken our son, Archer, who was nine or ten months at the time, for a consult with pediatric urologist. He'd had a botched circumcision (there's a poem in Making the New Lamb Take about it), and we were trying to figure out what to do about it, if anything. The whole experience was fraught, as we'd been back and forth about doing the thing in the first place, and now here we were trying to decide whether to do it again, this time with general anesthesia. When I came out of the appointment, relieved by our meeting with the doctor, who was tremendously kind, but drained by our back-and-forth over whether to operate, there was a message on my cell phone from Sarah Gorham, Sarabande's editor in chief, saying she had good news. (In retrospect, that was an understatement, at least from my perspective.) I called her from the street, and just listened to her talk about me winning, about Michael Ryan's enthusiasm for the poems--Michael judged the contest. I don't remember what I said to her at all--probably nothing coherent. When I got off the phone, I had such a rush of exhilaration, pride, relief. A great sense of relief.
I had been sending the collection out for about six months. Initially, there was a real surge of good feeling for me in getting it out there. That lasted about three weeks. I know six months is nothing, that people send wonderful collections out for years before they're taken. But it didn't feel like nothing--I had real lows in that time--and I'm relieved it didn't take years. Actually, it's interesting, the original manuscript I'd sent out had a much more insistent architecture than what won Sarabande's prize: three sections, each supposedly tracing a different story (Persephone, Cain & Abel...I forget the third!). It was heavy-handed, and yet didn't really add up to anything. Some months after sending out my first couple of batches of submissions, I began to have my doubts about the structure, and asked Alex about it. She said, without hesitation, that she realized after I started to submit that it was flawed, but hadn't want to dismay me by saying anything. I reworked the collection into a simpler format more or less overnight. Sarabande was the first and only place I submitted that new incarnation to.
What do you remember about the day you saw your finished book for the first time?
It was actually the day my second son, Nate, was born: June 3, 2007. I ran home from the hospital to take a shower and there it was. So the day was memorable--unforgettable--for more than one reason. I do remember wondering if I was supposed to feel more jubilant about the actual finished product, and it may have been that the newborn baby overshadowed the new collection of poems. Also, for me the real jubilation over the book came when I heard from Sarah. And it was more than a moment. That euphoria lasted weeks, months.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
I found the image by Gretchen Dow Simpson. I have used Gretchen's work for several poetry books in the series I edit at Persea Books. Her paintings and prints are so straightforward, on the one hand, but they are also suggestive of imminent change--the way she works with light, with intersections, with horizon lines. I can stare into her work endlessly.
Before the day you first saw your book, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
I think I was nervous that my life wouldn't change.
Has your life been different since?
Absolutely. It doesn't change everything, but publishing a book has affected my interior and exterior sense of myself as a writer. Creatively, I have been able to move on from the work in the book in a way that feels almost topographical, like crossing a mountain range or a canyon. It's a feat that's over, as formidable, mystical, and confounding in its completion as it was in its execution. And I guess as far as the outside world is concerned, it's easier to be considered a professional writer once you have a book out. So there are differences in how I'm received. And I receive myself differently, too. Sometimes I'm actually proud of the book.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I've been surprised--and delighted--by how many people have expressed their thoughts to me about the book. I was expecting a lot of polite smiles and nods, but a surprising number of people have written letters containing real insight into the poems and descriptions of how they're affected by them. I find that really moving. I guess I hadn't wanted to presume that people would take the time to do that, or even that people would actually read the book in full.
What have you be doing to promote your book and how do you feel about it?
I've been giving lots of readings, which I've loved doing. I feel sorry for those loyal family members and friends who have come to three or four events only to hear a similar play-list--with similar preamble. I try to vary what I read--for my sake as much as anyone's--but certain poems are very well suited to readings and to giving a feel for the book as a whole, while others exist better on the page. Short lyrics, in particular, are challenging to read, to listen to. They're over before an audience gets its bearing.
I'm lucky--in so many ways--to be Poetry Editor at Persea Books. There's a kind of built-in promotion for my own book from having that position, which happily requires very little of me. I've met so many wonderful people in the literary world, and I can't deny that that helps get my book out there, if only through a generous kind of word-of-mouth.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got? What advice would you give to someone about to have a first book published?
I think you reach a point after a book has been published, however long the festivities surrounding it last, at which you have to move on and think about what you're going to do next. Some people do that too quickly, and some no doubt wait too long. I think the timeframe probably varies tremendously, depending on the individual and his/her process and circumstances. I do nothing quickly myself and am always anxious about that quality, so I've tried to be generous with myself about taking time to relish the first book. I guess the advice I would offer--and wish I had received--is that it's important to be honest with yourself about when it's time to move forward, keeping in mind that it might not be for a while.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
Of course, I can't know that for sure--not yet, anyway. Certainly, there's a sense of not wanting to repeat what's in the first book. Louise Glück writes so well about not letting the idiom of one book become the tics of its successor. I'm still sizing up what I want to carry over and what I need to let go of.
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing practice?
The response in print has been great so far, but I know from my editorial life that reviews of poetry trickle in over the months and years after a book comes out. At this stage, the most affecting responses have been from readers and listeners, and those have been almost entirely uplifting. Again, I can't really say with any certainty how it influences my writing process, but I am surprised at how meaningful getting praise for the book feels.
Do you want your life to change?
I always want to find ways to be more thoughtful, considered, patient. Wiser. A couple of inches taller. But the facts of my life, the contexts I exist in, are pretty great.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
Does Pilates count? My family and I just made a big move from New York City to central Missouri, and I'm waiting for the dust to settle. I'm really hopeful about the effects of this move, but at the same time don't want to put too much pressure on it.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I think art can influence individuals, and enough individuals can change the world, yes. How many people does Arlo Guthrie say constitute a movement in "Alice's Restaurant"? Fifty? I think poetry can influence fifty people, for sure.
A poem from Making the New Lamb Take by Gabriel Fried:
People rough you up,
in them, or need to
in routes I did not choose,
I have found myself
and have found sad pleasure
myself fulfilling others'
seeds I've been eying.
in stupid places, deliver
thought of change,
I sense I know the way
me with a halo's safety.
have launched them
only to remember--the ship
ahead--that I have been man-
. . .