How has your first book changed your life?
103. Sarah Fox
How did your manuscript happen to be picked up by Coffee House Press? How often had you sent it out before that?
Because Why is actually my second manuscript. My first, Assembly of the Shades, I submitted to maybe 10 contests, it was a finalist 3 times, and was eventually solicited and accepted for publication by Salmon Press in Ireland. I signed a contract and everything. As we were in the process of editing the book and designing the cover, Salmon lost funding from the Irish Arts Council, specifically for American authors, so that book never made it out of the gates.
In the meantime, I'd been writing poems that were strikingly different, aesthetically, from the more narrative poems in the first book, and had begun to envision a second manuscript. Chris Fischbach, Senior Editor at Coffee House, confronted me one day about this second manuscript and asked to see it. At the time, it was not much more than a pile of poems, which I gave him, sheepishly, not expecting too much. But he liked them, and challenged me to develop a manuscript, and when I had, to give him a chance to read it before sending it out elsewhere. This was inspiring, of course, and I spent the next 6 months or so exploring common themes and puzzling out the new poems, and eventually sent Chris a first draft of Because Why.
I remember attending a fabulous lecture at the Walker Art Center--David Shapiro speaking about Jasper Johns--and I ran into Allan Kornblum (Publisher and Founder of Coffee House) in the lobby afterwards. He said to me "Your manuscript is on my A-list of books to publish." I nearly passed out. A month or so later, Chris set up a formal meeting and asked permission to publish the book. So I didn't have to send it out to any contests at all; it was the luckiest thing, practically, that ever happened to me. When I look back to the first manuscript--which still has some sentimental value, especially to my parents who can't make heads or tails of Because Why--I have to say I'm relieved no trees were cut down on its behalf.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I remember vividly seeing the book for the first time. It was towards the end of January. Lauren Snyder, Coffee House's then-publicist, called to let me know the books were in. I drove over to Coffee House (less than 2 miles from where I live) and the book was there waiting for me on the front desk. My satisfaction was complete when I saw it and held it, I thought it was beautiful and perfect. I put a tiny star on the title page of the first book I touched (corny) and also slept with it under my pillow that night. (A long time ago, Jane Hirshfield told me she did that, for luck, with her first book.) I'm a somewhat superstitious person, I love ritual. Seeing the book for the first time was very meaningful.
The cover image comes from a larger painting that my goddaughter, Grace Armstrong, made when she was 4 or 5. I completely trusted that Linda Koutsky (Coffee House's designer) would make a gorgeous book because she always does--Coffee House is famously attentive to the integrity of the book as an object of aesthetic delight. Allan got his start with Toothpaste Press in Iowa City, all letter-pressed and hand-bound books made with exquisite papers and designs. In fact, he was the inspiration for my own short-lived publishing endeavor, Fuori Editions.
For me, Because Why is in part concerned with children, and the associative, imaginary lingo of childhood, and I wanted the cover to reflect that, to be not too orderly. I gave Linda a stack of Grace's artwork, and she came up with half a dozen lovely possibilities. She took details from the paintings, and really worked with color and texture. I suspect many publishers cringe when the poet arrives with very detailed instructions about their visions for book covers. Perhaps Linda cringed, but never in my presence! She asked a lot of questions way in advance about colors, textures, images, themes, and with the paintings I gave her she offered her own unique touch with a lot of insight into the basic elements of both the book and my aesthetic. It was very collaborative, and ultimately I trusted her to make it work.
I love it that Grace is the cover artist. I tell her that she gave my book its proper face--in some ways, we share ownership of Because Why. She accompanied me on a few book signings and has developed a special "artist's autograph." She was "star of the week" in her first grade class when the book arrived, and as such was thrilled to bring her curious accomplishment to school as evidence of her stardom. Upon reviewing a few of the poems, however, her teacher chose not to expose the 6 year olds to what lay beneath the cover. (As it happens, "fuck" appears more than once in the very first poem!)
Speaking of things best kept from children, the night I saw my book for the first time I served as alchemist and ground control for a few friends who decided to journey with a special medicinal plant brew--another important theme in Because Why. It was indeed a memorable day.
Before the day you first saw your book, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
I'm sure I imagined thrilling, incredible things that I no longer remember. What I anticipated most was a sense of terror: that I'd be expected to change in ways that were beyond my capacity. I, personally, began to feel utterly exposed, and assumed that soon the world would unveil me as the imposter I knew myself to be. I suddenly felt as if, at bottom, I knew absolutely nothing about poetry, and that hordes of people were going to expect me to display some vast intelligence about poetics, poetic tradition, and worse, what my book was "really" about. I remember feeling intimidated, and decidedly unqualified.
As it turns out, nobody expected much of anything, and when people asked me questions, they were friendly, genuine questions that I decided to answer honestly and affably. In due course I grew to love talking to even complete strangers about stuff like being a doula, jazz, plant medicines, Minneapolis, spirituality, visionary poetics, etc.
Do you see a connection between being a poet and being a doula?
I've just returned to Minneapolis after attending the birth of my sister's 4th child--Colette. I'm still kind of floating in that magical birth space, the ecstatic witness to a new being entering the world. I think most poet-parents would probably agree that the writing of poetry pales in comparison to the birthing of a baby. Birth is the most altering of experiences, so awesome and important, so utterly thrilling. But I do think poetry led me to my work as a doula, and that comparisons can be made. Essentially, both experiences require that one remove oneself from routine and the minutia of daily existence. Both experiences are acts of witness and creation. Both experiences can be ecstatic, literally a traveling outside of oneself. And both birth and poetry produce newness in the world.
As a doula, my job is to witness, and to soothe and empower the laboring mother (and father). I guess, in the best of times, when the imagination is fertile, poems become both extensions of self and living creatures that eventually one must separate from oneself. Do you think poems are creaturely? I really do, I think they breathe and move, they present themselves as utterly unique expressions. The poetic voice is like the laboring mother, and as its host I need to coax and empower it. I don't know, maybe this is too esoteric. Maybe there is not much comparison in the larger scope of things. Poetry is so much more abstract, while birth is the most concrete and physical of human acts.
If I had to choose, though, between being a poet and being a doula, I would certainly choose poetry. It's the more instinctual of the two vocations, for me, it's cellular (and being a doula is definitely different from being a mother, from giving birth oneself). In fact I can't choose not to write poetry because my daily life is predicated by it. Poetry is the lens through which I interpret the world and it comes from within me. I tend to gravitate towards extreme experiences, and attending a birth is to witness the most intense experiences a human will likely undergo. It brings me closer to the realm where poems live for me. Both poetry and doula-ing mean to contribute to the well-being of others, and really this is my primary wish.
Has your life been different since your book came out?
Yes, my life has been different, but perhaps not entirely due to the publication of the book. I cut my hair, for one thing. I've managed to perfect my recipe for peach pie. I finally finished my B.A. in English (the Math requirement was my only obstacle for 12 years!). I have thought more seriously about making my life different: putting forth effort to live more simply, to be more politically active, more generous to my community, to be a better teacher. I feel as if I have more responsibility now, more possible influence, and I want to take that seriously.
But in terms of the book, it has provided me greater access to marvelous poets around the country who perhaps wouldn't have crossed my path otherwise. I traveled to cities to give readings, and was treated with such hospitality by my poet-hosts. I've been invited to contribute articles and poems to magazines, and to participate in discussions and conferences (and interviews, like this one!), which happened to a lesser degree in the past. I feel more comfortable getting in touch with poets and artists I admire, I consider myself less suspect in that regard, which really is kind of silly, but I have been treated more as a "member of the club." I tend to be suspicious of clubs, however; I don't think there's reason for exclusivity or fragmentation, or even competition, among poets. After all, we're only a very slim fraction of the population as it is, and one would hope that community-building is part of the project of poetry.
It is comforting to have found poets on the whole so generous, and to count on a kind of recognition where the initial formalities of meeting people for the first time are eliminated. You're a poet, I'm a poet, we are part of a community, and camaraderie is assumed from the start. One of my favorite things that happened was that I got to lunch and read with Fanny Howe in Boston, which on its own is worth book publication!
So, my life has been different, but subtly so, and fundamentally it is the same life I have always had.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I didn't expect a lot and I haven't felt terribly disappointed by anything that didn't happen. Some surprises: After reading in Fargo with Paula Cisewski (Upon Arrival) and Juliet Patterson (The Truant Lover), I received a letter from a gentleman whose niece had attended the reading. He had worked with Eric Dolphy and was impressed that I had written a poem mentioning Eric Dolphy. His letter was long, and so interesting, about his life in music and various musicians he had felt lucky to have worked with. I also got emails out of the blue from former high school classmates and long-lost friends. I got an email from a young woman, also named Sarah Fox, who was making a documentary film for her college thesis about Sarah Foxes, and their accomplishments, and wanted me to participate (there are fascinating, and abundant, Sarah Foxes out there--a photographer, a soprano, a hockey star…). Those were the best surprises--making unexpected connections and reviving conversations with people I never expected to talk to again.
Another surprise was the general response that the book was "difficult" and "experimental." That it even verged on Language poetry. This was not my understanding of the book--I hoped it was inventive, but I didn't intend for the poems to be tricky or complicated.
What have you been doing to promote the book and how do you feel about it?
The serious promotion of the book has ebbed now as it's been more than a year since the book came out. I won a Minnesota State Arts Board grant to do a Midwest and East Coast tour, and did several out-of-town readings with two poets I love and admire, Juliet and Paula. I did interviews and created a huge mailing list. I feel a deep responsibility to Coffee House for putting forth the time and money to make this book, and continue to seek means to bring the book to a wider audience. I hope to make it to the West Coast one of these days. I would say that key to successful promotion is funding, especially for the smaller non-profit presses who struggle to make ends meet and can't afford sending authors on elaborate tours. Juliet has been a role model for this--she's been incredibly diligent and bold about promoting her book. I'm rather shy, it's a challenge for me to pick up the phone and invite myself somewhere. This is something I'm trying to overcome.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
Publishing a book is, in some ways, like having a child--nobody gives you an instruction manual. You have to create your own style in tending to the book's needs. I wish someone had told me there are many ways to react to a book's publication, all of them possibly useful ways. I also wish someone had told me well in advance that my meager knowledge was sufficient--that people in general are more interested in each other as human beings than they are in erudition and expertise.
Good advice came primarily from my husband, John Colburn, who is also a poet (a wildly talented poet, in fact my favorite poet). He told me, among other things, to honor the book and accept my luck. Steve Healey (Earthling, another Coffee House title), whose book came out about a year before mine, told me not to expect too much, not to be disappointed by the inevitable anti-climax. Chris Fiscbach gave me of course such smart and individualized editorial advice, but he also said to me, "I love 90% of this book, and the other 10% I really like." I trust him unreservedly, and since he had committed himself to this book, and didn't love it entirely, his rather indirect advice was that I could be okay with a level of discontent from my readers.
What advice would you give to someone about to have a first book published?
I would advise the initiate to trust herself, and not to feel obliged to explain or decode her poetics. Poetry is intuitive, one's poetics I think more instinctive and uniquely inventive. Allow the poems to speak for themselves.
I would also encourage the poet to honor her achievement and allow herself to feel a personal affection for her book. Believe in the book and respect it, and don't be bashful about promoting it. Also, ask someone else to read the reviews, just in case.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
The book's publication has had a somewhat negative influence on my productivity as a writer. I don't exactly know why, but I've discovered through conversations with other poets that this is not unusual. I suppose it takes a lot of creative energy to attend to the book's presence in the world. I'd been working on a manuscript before Because Why was published, called The Brain Letters, and the work is stalled--I think that sense of feeling exposed, intimidated, has made me feel as though the project I set out for myself is maybe smarter than I am! At the same time, I was affected by the reaction from people I care about (my family, individuals I work with, students) that Because Why was in some ways impenetrable. I know I'm undergoing a drastic aesthetic change, and that my new poems want to be comprehensible while sustaining aesthetic invention. Seriously, I seem to have forgotten how to write poems. I'm actually thinking about going to grad school next year to pursue an MFA just so that I can re-invent the structure and focus of writing, as I feel so adrift. I expect my poems to avoid complacency, to chase after what can make them new.
I think perhaps the work of reacclimating oneself to the solitude, and trust, and private focus, one requires to approach the page, after the intense exposure of being a more public poet, can be a complex process. I suppose another bit of advice I'd offer to a soon-to-be-published poet is to be thoroughly engaged in a new project, in the creative process, even amidst all the excitement and trepidation of the book's arrival that tends to be consuming.
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing practice?
I have been extremely lucky in that the critical response to my book has been wholly positive, even instructive--in terms of introducing me to new interpretations of my book. I wouldn't say, though, that it has had any effect on my writing practice. I think it's important to separate one's writing from others' expectations for it, and from the theoretical interpretation that reviews, necessarily, employ. Allowing reviews or critical response to intervene in the intuitive process is dangerous, I think. Outside criticism can pollute natural utterance and the receptivity to accident that art demands. Criticism is a separate business, and while it has its place, I think it's an unreliable muse.
Do you want your life to change?
Of course. Change is imperative, transformation always the goal. Poetry will inevitably come along for the ride, and will change alongside of me, and may often provoke change within me and outside of me. But I would say that I don't expect my life to change merely because I had a book published; I'm not seeking particular status or renovation of my position in the world. I think of the book as a lucky achievement in the continuing process of my life as a poet and person. I try not to consider it a means to transformation though, or a conquest, but more the result of change within myself.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
Constantly, obsessively. The continual process of letting go. For me, it is a matter of expansion, and ideally change happens at the level of consciousness.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Yes, I believe poetry can and does create change in the world. Perhaps the change is minimal, but it can't be underestimated. And again, I think the change that poetry can facilitate is at the level of consciousness. Its dialogue is, in so many ways, mysterious and interior. Even invisible. Poetry need not seek credit for change; when it does that, I think it limits itself. But it can attempt to shift consciousness, and, even if just for a moment, it can inspire deeper awareness, which in turn can lead to healing, to communion, and maybe even to a reaching out for peace and goodness.
a poem from Because Why by Sarah Fox:
Everybody's pregnant. I myself seem
. . .