every other day

22 MAY 06

How has your first book changed your life?

8. Matthew Thorburn

Subject to Change

What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?

It's hard now to remember that day in late summer, 2004--to actually remember it and not make up a memory, even without meaning to. I do know I came down the stairs that day and saw a box sitting in the entryway to my apartment building. I recognized the return address, lugged the box upstairs and carefully cut it open. And then I must have just sat a while, looking at a copy of Subject to Change, this book that seemed to have taken so long to get there. (Though since then, I've talked to or read about lots of other poets and how long it took them to get their first books published, and now realize how lucky I was--really how quickly STC came to be.)

But I'd gotten a sneak peek at Subject to Change--everything but the cover art--when New Issues sent me a bound galley a few months earlier. I had carried that around, and shown it to friends (one of whom praised the spare, elegant design of the black and white, text-only cover!), and read through the poems, laid out on the page in actual book form, many times. And then they'd emailed me a jpeg of the cover art, so I had sort of seen the book already, albeit piecemeal--which may be why the particulars of that day are hard to recall.

The bigger "This is it!" moment was about 16 months earlier, when Herb Scott called me to say that STC was going to be published. Brenda Hillman, to my (and Herb's!) surprise, chose it and six others for the New Issues first book prize. "I liked your manuscript, so I sent it on to her," Herb said, "even though I didn't think she'd like it"--or so I remember, both of us supposing it probably wasn't "experimental" enough for her. I was in Jersey City, home alone, so when I hung up with Herb I called my parents--who weren't home. But my friend and neighbor Allison was, so she came over and we had a celebratory beer in the backyard.

Before that day, did you imagine your life would change because of it?

I don't think I expected any major life changes because of it. It did feel like a kind of validation for me--though not in the sense of taking a step down the road to tenure or "making it" or whatever. What I mean is validation in the non-poetry world of my family and many of my friends. My parents have always been absolutely supportive and encouraging, even while admitting they don't "get" most of what I write. But having a book published made me feel that my poetry writing had become more real and tangible for my family and other non-poetry-reading friends and colleagues.

Do any particular comments from them stay in your mind?

Well, one interesting thing that happened a couple times was that someone would recognize a particular reference in the poems. I rarely write anything straight from real life, but there would be these little pieces here and there that would click. One example is in "Refrain," where I mention, hypothetically, that a person might slip up with a circular saw and cut off his fingers. Well, I'd sort of forgotten that that had actually happened. "I can't believe you remembered that," my old friend Bob told me after I read this poem at the book party in Lansing, because it was his father-in-law who had done that--and Bob was the one who had to go in the workshop and find the fingers, so they could be re-attached.

How has your life been different since your book came out?

The biggest change in that first year was a practical one. I became much more focused on the "admin" stuff--lining up readings, sending out review copies, applying to those recently-published-book prizes--rather than on writing or revising new poems. I probably took part in more readings in that one year than I had in my whole life till then.

Like a lot of poets I know, I have a "regular" full-time day job, so the time I can dedicate to poetry is limited. Part of the challenge now is to pull back a bit from that stuff and focus again on writing.

Were there things you thought would happen that didn't?

For some reason, I thought having a first book out there would make it easier to get a second book out there. Not true! I went through the exercise of querying the "big" poetry publishers, but otherwise the process of sending my new manuscript out to contests--many of the same contests I sent STC to--feels like deja vu all over again.

What did you do/are you doing to promote sales, and what were/are those experiences like?

The biggest thing was to do as many readings as I could--and in fact I'm still doing readings when opportunities come up. Living in New York, I'm very fortunate to have a lot of local opportunities. I've read at places like The Ear Inn and Cornelia Street Cafe in Manhattan, The Art House in Jersey City, and more recently in the Earshot reading series in Williamsburg.

I didn't have the time available to do a full-fledged book tour, but when STC first came out, I did take a trip to Michigan for "The Misplaced Michigander Tour"--a three-stop jaunt across the southern half of my home state. Although I live in the publishing capital of the world, I had my "launch party" at a coffee shop in Lansing, my home town. I also read at Shaman Drum Bookshop, in Ann Arbor, where I'd gone to many readings as an undergrad.

The other big thing was to send out review copies. After I began sending out my manuscript to contests, I compiled a media list of publications that ran poetry reviews, as well as whatever contact info I could dig up for individual reviewers. Once STC was published, New Issues was great about sending review copies to all of these places (as well as to their own list of reviewers) and I continued to send a few copies out here and there as I came across other reviewers.

Reading from my book--especially at the Michigan events--has been the highlight of my publishing experience. Most of writing is a solo venture, when I really just have to trust my best instincts and do the work I believe in. So to have people respond to these poems and want to talk about them afterwards and buy a copy of them to keep and read was (and still is) a powerful and heart-warming experience for me. And to see old friends and teachers and family in Michigan made the experience doubly so.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?

Probably the most helpful thing, in a way, was that the folks at New Issues told me very clearly what they could and couldn't do for me, in terms of promotion. They could (and did) advertise a lot in Poets & Writers and The Writer's Chronicle and places like that, and they sent out a slew of review copies, but they didn't have the people power to set up readings (aside from at the AWP Conference, which unfortunately I couldn't attend). I think most poetry publishers don't. So I knew well in advance that it'd be up to me to do that kind of legwork.

The good advice I didn't exactly get, but soon figured out, is that in most cases you really do have to sell poetry books face to face, one at a time--at readings or school visits or book fairs or wherever you can. So the advice I would give is to get out there, to the degree that you are able to and comfortable doing so, and do readings and go to these other events. Something else New Issues is great about (and a lot of other publishers probably are too) is letting their authors buy copies of their books at half price to sell at readings. Clearly no one is getting rich here, but I found this helps a lot with make-ends-meet money for the logistical expenses of whatever kind of readings you're able to do.

Have you had occasion to meet Brenda Hillman since she chose your book, or was there written communication between the two of you?

I haven't had the chance to meet Brenda, though I'd like to. She did provide some suggestions on my manuscript (such as cutting a poem and pointing out a grammatical issue I'd never noticed) along with her "judge's statement," which was printed in the front of the book. But having selected seven manuscripts for publication, she was--I think understandably--unable to work with us individually or have any kind of back-and-forth about the manuscripts.

Were you asked for input about your book's cover design?

No, I wasn't. Actually that's something else Herb was clear about right up front--that the WMU Design Center faculty and grad students create the covers and the authors don't have a say in it. In a way, this was very freeing. I think it's best to leave it to the experts and not be a backseat designer. But of course I also worried like hell over it--that being what I'm most expert at--and hoped they'd come up with something I at least didn't hate, never mind hoping for something I actually liked.

But my worrying and low expectations turned out to be unnecessary. I love the Magritte-y image they created of picture or door frames set against a cloudy blue sky--and appreciate the red spine that stands out on the shelf. In fact, back when I first started sending my manuscript out to contests, I thought that if I did eventually get to pick cover art for STC, I'd pick a Magritte. He's one of my favorites. ("The Man With The Newspaper" is the painting I had in mind.)

Along with Brenda, I'd like to someday meet the designer, Chiu Ping Chen, and say thank you for the cover. I would also thank copy editor Jonathan Pugh, who spent a chunk of time on the phone walking me through a lot of small but important typographical questions. He made sure the insides looked as good as the outside, which I appreciate. And Marianne Swierenga, the managing editor of New Issues, whom I did get to meet when I read in Kalamazoo, is someone else I'm very grateful to get to work with.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

I can't say it's really had any noticeable influence, good or bad. By the time Herb called with the good news about STC, I'd already written a dozen or so poems that would go into my second manuscript, so that helped me sidestep any of the sort of "Well, now what are you going to write?" anxiety I had once imagined would follow getting a book published. I think that's the plus side of the lag-time between acceptance and publication.

How do you feel about the critical response to your book and has it had any effect on your writing?

I've been very fortunate to get positive reviews in quite a few places, and not to get any negative reviews. None of this has changed the way I write or what I write, but it's encouraging to know that people are reading and thinking about my poems and taking the time to articulate their responses to them. And on a more practical level, these reviews help to get the word out about the book, nudging sales along and making it easier in some cases to set up readings. It's also been interesting to see how different people read the book differently.

Do you want your life to change?

It has changed a lot, and keeps changing, though most of that isn't because of or related to publishing a book. But it was just a few months before the book came out that I left a job I'd grown to hate (a real soul-killing place that had already done a number on me) and soon after STC that I landed my current job, which is sane and enjoyable and mentally healthy in all the ways that the old one wasn't.

Much more importantly, I'm about to marry a truly amazing woman. I met her in 2003, when the book was just in the works, and she came with me on my mini-Michigan tour (and in fact has been to all my readings since then, God help her). And we're moving to a different part of the city, looking at maybe buying a place to live, planning a couple of big other-side-of-the-world type of trips, and getting going with all the "real life" kinds of things that I used to always look forward to as these distant, unimaginable things that only adults do.

So I'm not looking for more change, and I wouldn't chalk up any of these things as results of having a book out there, but writing and publishing poems is something I've been fortunate to be able to do in the midst of everything.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

It changed my world, years ago when I first tried writing poems. That's how it works, I think: one person at a time. I'm glad it did and still does.


A poem from Subject to Change by Matthew Thorburn:

Little Waltz

We all fall in love with a bright sky falling between the trees like a church. Like anything we cannot touch. We walk out towards it; it creeps further away. And each night has a dog in it that barks and barks. When we sing, we sing to someone, even if he or she's not there. Think of the loneliness of valence electrons, all those open hands--that dance they do to give us salt, rust. That's why lightning's always on the run, why I love a door ajar, and the light it lets out, and someone singing in the tub. The scratches on this record sound like rain. Or is that rain? When I make up words for "The Long-Legged Waltz," I make them for you. They say, Let's go back between those careless black filaments of trees. Let's go back. Let's go. Let's.


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