How has your first book changed your life?
5. Brian Teare
I don't remember much other than the fact that the first copies came from the distributor in an ordinary plain brown box that sat waiting on my doorstep, and not, as I'd fantasized, in Helios' chariot, bedizened with fireworks and disco-like lights--so it was anti-climactic in some sense.
It was not unlike getting a package from anywhere: I came home from one of the three jobs I had at the time--working at a used bookstore in Menlo Park or teaching in either Oakland or Palo Alto--and found the box on my doorstep. I lived alone at the time, since I and my boyfriend of two years were in the process of breaking up, so I remember very clearly the sense that I really wanted someone else (well, okay, him) to be there, but instead I ripped open the box and then called everyone I knew who would be excited.
Though I can't remember the feeling of being excited, I know that I was simply because I carried a copy of it in my backpack for several weeks, and that's something I do with any book I'm currently in love with.
And to be honest, no matter how my relationship to its interior contents has changed since it came out, I still think it's visually a very beautiful book. There had been a lot of haggling over the cover image and colors, and so the thing that struck me--and that I still remember clearly--was that upon my first glimpse of it, I was both relieved and delighted that it was a beautiful object, and that I was very grateful to the designer, Mira Nenonen. It's still a pleasure for me to actually hold the hardcover version, and this pleasure often takes me back to the ontological awe I first felt when I held it: this is mine?
Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices?
This is a saga, but I'll try to make it brief.
My first choice was a Julia Margaret Cameron photo whose title I no longer recall--it was a family portrait of sorts, a staging of a scene from a Tennyson poem (one of many she made), and it captured a kind of Victorian/Freudian family drama that I thought suited the book. It had a kind of structural menace--there's a real split down the middle of the photograph. On the left side, a mother in white has her hands on the shoulders of a young girl, all very nice and "normal"-like. On the right side, a father is holding a girl similarly, but there's thick fishnet draped over one of her shoulders--odd, jarring detail--as if caught by him. What I loved was that her head was in motion--blurred--as though thrashing a bit, struggling. I wrote all the appropriate authorities, tracked down the right museum and the right contact--it took months--and then it turned out that they couldn't find the photo in their archives.
My second choice was a photo by Ralph Eugene Meatyard--a white boy of about eight whose arms disappear in the air (clearly he's waving them above his head) by virtue of the shutter's timing. Structurally, it was a much cleaner and simpler formal composition--and the starkness of it was dramatic. I also loved it because it was clearly Southern (Meatyard lived in Kentucky) and I thought it was lovely, the way he made visible the physical fragility of boyhood--esp. because it's not the usual representation of boyhood's body: resilient, athletic, etc. Well, through Eastman-Kodak, I tracked down the holder of rights--Meatyard's son--it was a lot quicker, maybe a month or so--and that was a no-go because of the huge cost of rights.
At this point, we were pressed for time--Wisconsin produces the book in less than a year, and they do a fabulous job of it--and so the designer hit public domain. Over the span of a month, she sent a lot of images, and none of them worked for me. Finally, at the 12th hour--bless her patience!--in the very last file she was willing to send, there was the image that now graces the cover. I was thrilled, and though I was supposed to choose three images just in case, I told her that that image was the only one I'd consider. Luckily, it worked.
Ironically, a month after we'd worked out the cover art, I was visiting the Met and found in their bookstore a brand-new volume: the complete photographs of Cameron. When I looked up my photo by title, I discovered: a) it wasn't the image that the book at home had printed, and b) it was indeed listed as lost. On the opposite page was the photo I'd wanted--it bore a different title altogether.
The happy thing is, it struck me then as too literal and too melodramatic, and I was much happier with the one that Mira had found--and in the end, as I've said, I love the book's design, especially it's cover.
Before the day you ripped open that box and saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?
I grew up queer in a small town in the Deep South--for 22 years my entire life narrative was structured around the idée fixe, "When I leave, my life will begin and/or be lots better." Once grad school finally supplied me adequate money to leave, and after my life had not been magically changed by the act of crossing several state lines, I had to rethink the truth-value of my basic narrative arc.
The basic narrative formula they fed us in the MFA program about post-MFA life was this:
1) publish your poems in lots of journals and
I didn't grow up with anything resembling familial or mental stability, or much of an idea how to succeed at anything (let alone at walking the seemingly trackless path of being a writer), and so this recipe sounded really good to me.
And so I thought, "When I leave grad school…," and "When I publish lots of poems in Big Journals," and then, later, as I shlepped my adjunct ass around the Bay Area, "When I get my first book…" You get the picture.
So in a word: yes. On some level, I'd imagined my life would change dramatically. However, did these imaginings ever have much basis in what even then I knew to be reality? No.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
The major difference is: work.
The Bay Area is home to tons of post-MFA writers looking for work, and the book has enabled me to get jobs teaching something other than composition and/or technical writing. Sometimes these new, better jobs (in combination) pay an almost-living wage, too!
So the book enabled me not just to teach, but to be hired to teach grad poetry workshops and lit classes and also, eventually, to become more securely and remuneratively employed by the schools that had, but one semester previously, indifferently used me for cheap labor. This was, for someone longing for more stability, a very good thing.
But in a certain sense, even as I got access to better jobs, this access also exposed the deeply flawed and arbitrary nature of what academia considers "achievement" or "qualification": after all, I was, as a teacher, no better or worse the semester after publishing a book than I had been the semester before. The fact that the administration acted as if something essential about me had changed when, in fact, it hadn't, was not only slightly disorienting, but also disappointing.
One thing I truly love about the way my life has changed: I get to travel more--sometimes to teach, often to give readings. I've never had much extra money, so the experience of getting to see so much more of the country and its cities, and of meeting so many poets, writers and artistic communities, has been really lovely and fortuitous-feeling.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
Things I imagined would happen but didn't:
1) My family disowning me.
1) My parents read it and didn't disown me.
How big was the first printing?
There were 1,500 paperbound and 300 hardcover copies. I felt so lucky to have hardcovers at all! Having grown up enamored of libraries (my first merit badge as a Boy Scout was the Reading merit badge), I always felt that a hardcover was a real book--I hated flimsy kids' books--and ever since I can remember, I've loved holding their heft.
What did you do to promote sales, and what were those experiences like?
Since the book was published by a University press with a limited budget, the only real thing I could do was to read as much I could afford to--a friend of mine who had published his book a year earlier helped me to compile a list of places to write to in request of readings, and though most of them either didn't respond or weren't able to fit me into their schedules, I took every opportunity to read out-of-town that didn't financially kill me. It didn't add up to all that many, but it was really fun nonetheless.
All of them were good experiences, and many of them were downright lovely: John and Christine of Open Books in Seattle were the most marvelous, supportive, welcoming folks imaginable and their shop is a jewel of both the book business and poetry culture; Deborah Landau and Matthew Zapruder at KGB provided fabulous warm camaraderie, perfect atmosphere and a big crowd, plus Manhattan-octane cocktails; but I was really most surprised and moved by my experience at Poetry Santa Cruz.
First Dennis Morton interviewed me for his radio show, and we had a lively, smart conversation--and he really honored the book with an close and affectionate reading; second, the reading itself was attended by one of the most responsive and attentive audiences I've ever been graced with. The people who came up afterward said much that has stayed with me since--and it's the possibility of generous reciprocity that I love so much about readings. It's a real gift when it works, when both reader and audience are receptive to it.
The other thing I did was really pester the Press into sending the book out to prizes (the Lambda, the Norma Faber, etc.)--and so they did, and it was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award and won the Triangle Award, and I think both of those helped a little bit.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out?
The best advice I got:
1) Read publicly as often as you can--both at home and away.
The best advice I never got:
1) Don't expect much public reaction for at least the first 3 months. You don't have to be well-connected for a book to do well for itself or gain readers: a book makes its own friends.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
Almost none--if any. I'd already written half of my second book by the time the first one got published.
How do you feel about the critical response to your book and has it had anyeffect on your writing?
Again, it's had almost no effect on my writing, except perhaps a small passing sadness that, by the time it came out, I'd already written past the narrative content and style of the book.
I'm still surprised and honored that it was so well-reviewed, at least, it seemed to me, for a first book--over a half-dozen reviews, all well-written, some in really nice places, and with a few interviews as well. Because a graduate-school colleague (also gay) had asked me if I was afraid that straight readers would feel alienated by the sexual nature of much of my work, I worried about it for years. And then came the really sympathetic and totally simpatico reviews--like the one in Blackbird--that made me realize: a) it wasn't the impossibly dense, entirely unpleasant book my workshops had often led me to think it was, and
The other best thing I learned from reviews is about book structure: I worked so hard to get the book to click as a book--years, really--and for the most part, I learned that I succeeded. But I also learned where in the structure I didn't succeed and why. Those failures taught me something about the way a book's shape communicates with a reader, made me think about how to make a book's conceptual project more clear to others without sacrificing complexity. These are things I still think about, both in terms of my second and third manuscripts, but also in terms of my grad students' theses.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Teaching teaches me that the introduction of new ways of thinking--especially original critical thinking--can change a student's world/view, stun her out of old patterns, reveal to him his reliance on useless logics, and unsettle for them both a picture of the "real" that they may have long ago unconsciously settled for. I have seen this change to be political, spiritual, existential, psychological and/or aesthetic--and I have seen it arrive both suddenly as a shattering illumination, and over the span of a few years in a kind of evolution. And so I have come to believe that because the ways in which poetry engages, incites and changes our thinking, our a priori unchallenged worldviews, does so on an individual level, they also have the potential to change the world at large as well.
This might be too personal: I wonder, after your parents read your book and didn't disown you, what happened then? What was your next conversation with them like?
The book came out. I didn't send it to them--and didn't. And still didn't.
And then, a few months later, they told me they'd ordered it on Amazon (also, that some of their friends in their prayer group had as well! I had to laugh--I imagined many novenas going up for the Teare family). Even though any normal person would know that their reading it would be inevitable, I freaked out nonetheless.
Because: my parents had at one point in my life pretty much rejected me because of my sexuality, and I was afraid of being rejected all over again for writing about my experience within the family and the community (and though to some it might seem unlikely, the book shows a lot of restraint and tact--what made it onto the page was only a fraction of a fraction of the stories I could've told). These were things I'd confronted them with, but that they'd never been able to talk about with me. They knew they'd fucked up--for great parts of my early adolescence they'd left me in the house, alone, with a 20-something year-old schizophrenic drug addict in possession of firearms--and eventually there'd been Social Services involved, etc. The times I'd tried to talk to them about this, my father would go all stoic and my mother would cry and that would be it.
At any rate, I'd also known all along that it was likely I was going to freak out--not just about their reading it, but in part about the story being out in the world. I really wanted a way to make it alright for readers (including my family) to read the book as it was meant to be read: as carefully made artifice, not solely as content (which is why I also re-wrote all the publisher's jacket copy to de-emphasize "sensational" content and re-emphasize the genre play of the book). So I had the publishers put on the copyright page a little disclaimer:
"The poems in this book are acts of the imagination, and the characters therein inventions. Neither poems not characters should be mistaken for reality, the context that invents imagination."
I cribbed the gesture from the copyright page of one of my favorite books, Carole Maso's novel The Art Lover--I probably should have acknowledged her in the notes!--but the writing is mine.
So in the midst of freaking out, I wrote my parents a long letter in which I told them: a) that I was afraid they would reject me again, and b) that they should feel free to read the book as a mixture of invention and autobiography.
I wanted to give them an out: anything they didn't like, they could pretend it wasn't true. When they got the letter, we talked briefly on the phone, and honestly, that conversation instigated a new phase in our relationship--we became a little closer in spite of ourselves.
Well, they read it. My father didn't say much--in fact, I can't remember his saying anything other than, "Well, I read it." My mother simply said, "It was very sad." I think she said it was well-written (her speed is more Patricia Cornwell or saucy bodice-rippers with muscled shirtless hunks gripping busty women on the covers). And then she said, "But I didn't like the part about the Moon Winx." And who can blame my very Catholic mother for not liking the idea of her teenage son hustling? So I said, "I understand, mom. It is sad." And that was the extent of that.
The ironic thing is that I've heard from a few people who've taught the book that the little note on the front has occasionally caused a great deal of furor in their classes--that rather than allowing people to read the book for its linguistic play and invention, it gets in the way of their appreciation of "truth value." But that's another discussion.
a poem from The Room Where I Was Born by Brian Teare:
No I'm--just watchful and counting things: pills, pages
Let me remind you what you taught: home, one can
anyone as I love you in my disappearing:
in hours, the room will work me into tapestry.
. . .
. . .