How has your first book changed your life?
101. Michael Robins
How did you find out that The Next Settlement had won the 2006 Vassar Miller Prize? Had you sent the manuscript out much before that?
Valerie, Daisy (our dog), and I were visiting friends in Springfield, Missouri. We were asleep Monday morning, a few drinks trailing us through the long weekend, when my cell phone rang, went to voicemail and rang again about fifteen minutes later. I checked the message, woke up Valerie, and was still absorbing the news that the manuscript would soon be published when the phone rang yet a third time. I remember that the sky was blue. There were actually birds in the trees.
I got serious about sending out The Next Settlement the previous November. Before then I'd sent out the manuscript some, not too much. I guess I'd made up my mind that if the poems were ready then I needed a proactive approach in submitting the work. The process was necessary and necessarily expensive, but this lasted only a few short months, which makes me very fortunate and acutely aware of those poets who deserve as much and more.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I was at work when the package arrived at home. Some friends of mine in Tullycraft--a really superb band from Seattle, Washington--were a late addition at The Subterranean in Chicago, so I spent the first part of the evening at a club. I left during the headlining band, walked a short block to join Valerie after a shift at her job, drove home, opened a bottle of wine and began unwrapping. In many ways I think I was distracted by notions of how I thought one should act in such a situation, which in the moment helped create a kind of distance from the actual experience. The event of holding the book, this thing for which I'm accountable, has been a gradual and pleasant unveiling, one that continues to evolve.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Not so much initially. Early on I'd suggested two cover images, the first by Daniel Chang and the second by Hector Giacomelli, a 19th century Italian artist. Locating the original source and determining the copyright of the latter was practically impossible, thus making the decision between the two images an easy one. Plus I'd really admired Chang's work ever since first seeing a selection printed in the Fall/Winter 2005 issue of Black Warrior Review.
I have to admit that I was surprised by the amount of time and thought I invested in the design of the cover, or how the design of the cover might eventually look, which ultimately has little to do with the poems themselves. I wanted a beautiful book and the staff at University of North Texas Press was very helpful and receptive. I asked and suggested changes from the design first presented, a hard thing for me to do in consideration of how grateful I felt in having a collection forthcoming. Really, the staff at UNT Press was great. Karen DeVinney, the Managing Editor, was wonderfully patient and I'm quite grateful to have had the chance to work with her.
Before the day you first saw your book, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
In Finding Forrester, the reclusive writer tells his pupil that women will want to sleep with you even if you write a bad book. This simply hasn't been the case, which is disappointing since everything I know about writing I learned from Sean Connery.
In all seriousness, I'm thankfully the type of person who doesn't get overly excited by things until they're at hand. I tried to be as realistic as I could about what it means to publish a single book of poetry in the United States, though I can't deny wanting some success in being able to translate experience for a reader. Authorship is a strange currency, one that offers the option to apply for various teaching positions and, more immediately, the chance to exchange books with other poets.
Has your life been different since?
Last May I took part in a great mini-book-tour with Christopher Janke (Structure of the Embryonic Rat Brain) and Elizabeth Hughey (Sunday Houses the Sunday House), two poets who also had their first books come out this year, and every city and every reading was a pleasant surprise, even when the three of us slept on the floor of a small room (Janke, poor soul, woke the following morning with my bare feet just a few inches from his face). This type of touring didn't seem possible before the book was published, and the readings have offered the chance to meet some great people, both poets and non-poets, which is invigorating.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
Besides that empty promise from Sean Connery, I'll mention that this year I attended my first AWP conference, where each time someone stopped at the table to browse my book I felt like I'd just returned from the bathroom with my pants down. The vulnerability was surprising. If you tell yourself that you can't please everyone, that's good, but anyone can still come along and cut the work down with a few words.
I've been surprised too by the number of people I've encountered who are so clearly focused on assigning meaning to a poem, and in turn devalue their own response and instincts. How poetry is taught in schools, when it's taught at all, has no small role in contributing to this tendency. I can't tell you what a ballet performance means, but I know that ballet has moved me to tears. What does this work of art mean? has little to do with it.
What have you been doing to promote the book and how do you feel about those experiences?
It was great to first see my book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, a chain bookstore, but it was even more pleasing to see the book in the company of interesting and enticing voices at an independent bookstore. In addition to a few interviews and a handful of public readings to promote The Next Settlement, I've contacted a number of bookstores to simply ask if they'd be willing to stock the title on their shelves. I've spent hours in some of these stores, like Prairie Lights in Iowa City and Open Books in Seattle, where an individual book of poems doesn't feel lost in a nationwide network of identical stores. There's a certain amount of attention and intelligence inherent in successful, independent bookstores, and I appreciate the fact that you can actually get to know the owners and staff of these businesses.
Beyond Chicago and the bookstores I've visited in person, several friends were kind enough to put me in touch with stores in and around the cities and towns where they live, and I occasionally browse the poetry blogs of both friends and acquaintances and note additional possibilities. I've never stepped foot in Arkansas (yet), but recently a friend whose work I admire gave a reading at a bookstore there. I sent an email and unassumingly inquired if the store would be willing to order a few copies of my book. Like that, now my book can be purchased at a bookstore in Fayetteville. I find this remarkable and strangely satisfying. I suppose the aim is that the work will be encountered not unlike a blind date, and hopefully some stranger will find the offering attractive enough to take a copy home.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
I don't think I had any particular need for advice in advance of the book, but having a book published can create a new kind of insecurity for someone who is his or her own worst critic. My friend Lori was kind enough to point out that book sales don't equal success, so I've managed to avoid that trap, mostly. Just after the book came out another poet offered what wasn't so much advice as it was a kind of commiseration when he described book publishing as "a mind fuck" for the author. I can subscribe to that idea. It's terribly easy, really, to get caught up in things on the periphery, things only loosely connected to writing the next good poem, which is the first and foremost responsibility of the poet.
What advice would you give to someone about to have a first book published?
I'd tell that person to enjoy the first book in the same way that some are able to enjoy the first time their work appears in a literary journal... (Enjoy it. Really, I insist.) I have a notion that the first book is unlike any that might follow, like one's first day at school or a first kiss, even if a true appreciation arrives much later in life.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
When I finish a new poem I have a clear idea now whether or not it's a fit for the group of poems that's shaping into the next manuscript, but I try to put aside such consideration while writing. The idea of the world as circus, especially with my country's involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, has preoccupied a certain amount of my non-writing time, and I see these themes solidifying in the recent work.
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing practice?
There hasn't been much in terms of book reviews yet, and maybe that's a sign of what's not to come. Silence too is unnerving, but these things take time more often that not, and so far people have been kind enough in person and on their blogs. If The Next Settlement becomes the first of several books to which my name is attached, then this greater scheme provides a context that keeps things in perspective.
Do you want your life to change?
I could use a benefactor or two, maybe Bill and Melinda Gates or support from one of the other foundations I'm always hearing about on NPR. Valerie and I are starting to put pressure on our three-year-old dog (that's 21 years to you and me!) to start paying her own way. Something so simple as Daisy obtaining a part-time job would alleviate having to pinch pennies at the end of each month. She pays no attention to the want ads we leave near her food bowl, and every time I ask, "Do you wanna get a job?" she runs to the front door for an unscheduled walk.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Immediately I want to say yes, especially since I'm part of this world and my introduction to poetry made a notable difference in me. Maybe poetry doesn't so much create change as it redirects the individual and that individual's actions. I just gave a reading in Brooklyn and afterwards a friend in the audience told me that he noticed during the middle of a poem, right after a specific line, a couple reaching across the table to hold hands. This gives me a certain hope.
The question also reminds me of an experience I had just after I started writing poetry. During my senior year of high school I wrote a short poem for a girl after she walked into a classroom where I was sitting, fell heavily into her chair and sunk her face in her arms. After several weeks, on one of the last days of class, I handed her the poem. That was that, I thought. Graduation came and passed, and we went our separate ways as most acquaintances do after high school. About three years later I ran into the same girl at a party. We spoke for a while before she reached into her purse and unfolded the very copy of the poem I'd given her. She'd carried it with her everywhere for over three years. I doubt I'll ever again experience what I felt in that simple, extraordinary moment.
Two poems from The Next Settlement by Michael Robins:
Reelection a rumor that we could believe,
When I was building a frame for our bed,
of a perfect lumber, prying away the nails.
Candidacy, a promise that wouldn't keep,
Some had flags & some their yellow ribbons,
that the memory closed, our blackened home.
Small Hands at the Water's Edge
We couldn't remember if we'd touched a goat
we studied to resist confession among strangers,
how some were still buckled to their seats?
were lovely, the women with whom we lived.
farther into the forest? Like suspicion & sin
where animals stopped to rest in the darkness.
against the shore from where they'd come,
. . .