How has your first book changed your life?
4. Tony Tost
I didn't know what the cover would look like until I saw it on Amazon, but I was pretty relieved when I did see it--the clouds seemed pretty in synch with the gist of what I was up to (swan or wolf shaped clouds would've been better, but oh well), and I was very happy not to have like a headless wedding dress or something as the cover art. I cringe at the possible covers a title like Invisible Bride could generate.
When I had the book in my hands, it wasn't a religious experience or anything. It was nice to read it in that format, bound, but I was pretty chill about it. The idea had sunk in by that point, and I hadn't been found by the writers here in Chapel Hill yet, so it felt pretty strange at first, to have a book, but to just go right in early the next morning anyway to open up the coffee shop and not having anyone know the difference. No one in my daily life knew the difference except for me and Leigh, and that's not a social sphere, that's personal. I have a weird psychology, and I'm a bit dependent on my sense of my objective placement in whatever social sphere I imagine, so I was actually a little depressed about it all, just feeling unmoored. But soon I met Ken Rumble, Marcus Slease, Joe Donahue, Chris Vitiello, Evie Shockley, Todd Sandvik, Patrick Herron, and everyone else around here, and I snapped out of it.
When I found out about CD Wright picking my manuscript, I did imagine my life would change, if just in immediate ways: I was in like the last week of classes as an MFA student at Arkansas, didn't really have any idea of what I was going to do next, and knowing I would have a book with some kind of distribution made that scenario a lot less spooky. At the time, I was single and playing in some bands with friends in Fayetteville and partying too much, drinking a lot and falling down and having songs written about me and urinating in unacceptable places. So I just figured I'd continue to do that and try to get by on part time jobs and not self-destruct too much, try to outlive Frank Stanford. That was still my plan when I found out I'd have a book, but for the first time I thought that I could make a living through writing: all the basic stuff, getting one of those cushy creative writing teaching gigs, having a little less self-doubt about the whole being-a-writer deal, health insurance, affording to live in something other than a $200 a month apartment, not overdrawing my checking account each month, not continually misplacing my car, etc.
This was all before I knew about blogs, before I had access to poetry worlds outside of Arkansas, so all I knew (as a social structure) was the institutional MFA world in its conservative bent at my MFA program; it was a 4 year program, and the sort of writing I did wasn't the kind that got the funding or the push that other sorts did. So I was pretty skeptical about my job opportunities in academia. The book was a promise of a change in that, and that was welcome.
In an ugly but I think pretty understandable way, the knowledge of having a forthcoming book stood as evidence for me against the small but fairly vocal collection of peers and instructors at Arkansas who didn't think what I did was poetry, or that I would have any publishing success. A favorite example: Dave Smith visited our program and in our meeting he said, "the only thing I can tell you Tony is stop what you're doing." Or the first week of my first workshop, hearing about the older students taking turns reading my first poem at a bar and mocking it, etc. Or people walking out of workshop in the middle of my poem. This all fed into the ambition machine (which keeps humming).
I'd actually daydreamed about this exact sort of thing happening, getting some sought-after award or publisher, but that it'd happen right before my graduating reading and it'd be announced then, and then I'd laugh in everyone's face. But I think that's the kind of thinking that hyper-competitiveness can bring, or at least it's the kind of thinking that it bred in me. I feel pretty distant from that mindset now, but it was there, definitely.
Anyway, fairly soon after finding about winning the Whitman I fell in love with Leigh, to whom I'm now married, and followed her from Arkansas to North Carolina, so having a book really paled in the life-changing department compared to falling madly in love, moving to a new place, getting married, finding a new community of writers and a different social approach to poetry, and deciding to get a Ph.D. in English here at Duke.
Immediately, the book did very little in terms of changing my life in any manner of lived experience. After moving to Chapel Hill, I got a job counting traffic, then a job in a coffee shop, then I did some monstrously monotonous text-editing (wasn't even editing, but taking out extraneous dots and blips from 500 page documents that'd been scanned in and converted to a text file). So, that bitter side of me got self-pitying when I'd get unhappy with this work, thinking about my earlier conception of post-book life. "This was supposed to change my life!" etc.
But, again, in the more common better moments, it was good for my confidence, in terms of stretching out into new communities, not getting stuck in trying to prove myself to the MFA ghosts of accomplishment in my brain in order to shut them up. I got the confidence to start Octopus with Zachary Schomburg; pathetically, it took something like having a book coming out to get me over the top-down, prestige-anxiety thinking that an MFA program can instill. (Part of why I'm sort of evangelical about the online poetry world is that it has served as a radical counter to this mindset for me.)
But my book has been a pretty miniscule influence on my life compared to all the other things. It's a book, a small one: hopefully, a prologue to bigger, funkier projects.
What did you do/are you doing to promote sales, and what were/are those experiences like?
I've given some readings, but I'm not hugely social, so I haven't pushed the book like I should in terms of readings. I often forget to bring copies to my readings. But I'm sure having a blog and a couple online journals has been a means of promotion. I'm a slow and steady sort of fella; I have a probably naive faith in just plugging along and hoping people will get interested one at a time over a long duration, and that that sort of attention is ultimately more valuable than an immediate, tap-dancing kind of attention getting. To be honest, I've thought about killing my blog to cultivate more authorial mystique, but the attention a blog brings is pretty addictive, and I like the idea of just getting my boring dailiness out of my system thru the blog medium, and getting into the golden shit in the poems. Plus, a blog is a good way to get a lot of my ideas out of my head, where they get precious for me, and into the open, where they can be seen more clearly. It's also a good way to cultivate or just invent the sense of self I think I need, in terms of poetry--I get crazily insecure and unsure, but I find that if I blog as though I'm steadily ambitious and confident, it actually does help.
I'm pretty in love with the various roles that can be inhabited within the world of poetry; I'm thinking here of editing,
Anyway, I'm looking forward to having my second book, Amplifier for Hercules, published by University of Iowa Press next fall; I don't think LSU knew what to do with me, or were too invested beyond their contractual obligation to the Whitman: but Iowa seems much more awake and willing to collaborate on building an audience. So I'm anticipating a completely different mindset to develop with book two. And I'm at a more secure point of my life and am looking forward to giving a stronger push to this next book, in terms of readings and shit. I'd love to do a Midwest tour with Aaron McCollough, or a West Coast tour with Standard Schaefer, just to give an example of two adventures I think I'm ready for now that I couldn't have conceived of for Invisible Bride.
Yours was the very first blog I read. How did you get into that?
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? (&/or: What was the best advice you got?)
Oh Jesus, I got no advice. I knew that however big and important to my life the book seemed at that time, that it was just 60 pages of writing, and that in the long term of things I've got grander ambitions and the first book is just a preliminary gesture towards that. I just wanted Invisible Bride to be an interesting first book, and to make the kinds of mistakes a first book always makes (which end up being their virtues): tons of sincerity and ambition and hopefulness and recklessness and incompetence. A fecund starting point. I want to leave an interesting slug trail behind me for whoever's interested in following it, and I basically imagine 40 years in the future, someone reading a book or poem by me and liking it and investigating what I wrote earlier. I'm hoping that Invisible Bride will reward that attention in some way, the way early or first books by contemporary poets I dig amplify my affection for them.
Fuck advice, seriously. Who fucking knows what's up. The best part of consciousness is getting absorbed in your project and not knowing or caring what the end result will be. Advice gets in the way of that.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
I wrote a bunch of awful poems post-Invisible Bride, because I was in a position I'm sure all other post-first book poets find themselves in: writing with a public record. Or just with the notion of a public record, for this first time. Post self-anonymity. I couldn't just invent myself from scratch the way I was used to. But since then, it's been a test of self-confidence--just kind of trusting that I wrote the poems I needed to write at that point of my life, and that they didn't need to be written anymore, and that I didn't need to 'correct' them or anything, but to begin writing the poems I felt I needed to be composing now. That's pretty nebulous. I've been trying to investigate all the things I didn't do in my first book lately, and have only recently been cool with trying to build upon what I did do.
How do you feel about the critical response to your book and has it had any effect on your writing?
Oh, I was hoping for more backlash, to make me sexier. But then that was in my Arkansas MFA mindset, where Ashbery was the far circumference of what was conceivable. I realized quickly that in a non-Arkansan frame of mind, Invisible Bride was just a perfectly acceptable little semi-quirky book to file next to all the other likeable first books, which was a let down.
But: I'm always psyched when I hear people dig it. I hope it could serve to younger poet folks the way like Joshua Clover's first book or certain Michael Palmer or Cole Swensen titles did to me: a gateway drug to the interesting things in poetry.
But critical response, I'm pretty sure, has little to no influence on what I write. One nice thing about the idea of being insanely ambitious is that it offers an escape route from your most recent critics. "It's part of the process," I tell myself, through the tears. "Ovid had it worse."
Do you want your life to change?
Uh, not much. We want to start a family pretty soon. And I'd like to have a less tempestuous relationship with the poet friends I care the most about. Other than that, I desire stasis. But I do long for reconciliation with the poets I've gotten estranged from.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
Well, starting work on this Ph.D. will bring about many changes, I'm sure. I've been finishing up projects I started pre-going-back-to-school, so I'm unsure how this will all alter me. I have a lot more time to read and write now, than while doing soul-sucking jobs. As I get a little bit older, I turn less to clever stuff and more towards things like Creeley, which seem to speak directly to my psychology, or else people like Olson or Aby Warburg and Siegfried Kracauer, who operate in my imagination as figures of a new, more useable stance towards knowledge. I get more into the idea of Stein.
My behavior is less self-destructive, though I'm drunk while writing this. But gently drunk, like the father figure in Don Williams' "Good Ole Boys Like Me." I'm just speaking of honor now, as opposed to hitting on Miller Williams' wife.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Totally, but only one consciousness at a time. Poetry has made me a better person, for real. It's the best medium for knowledge I know of.
from Invisible Bride by Tony Tost:
For years, irate mothers' groups have demanded playground reform as child-guidance experts, educators, architects and artists formulated the exact number of dangerous illusions in the world. For openers, the lakes appear to be sheathed in glass while it is in fact the dreary expanses of asphalt that are stuffed with it.
Two swing-sets are nearly touching.
A playground lets our children dash about--willing, laughing, suspending, breaking each other's bones--as the thinkers make fools of us. The playground spins our thoughts around and extends a hospitable welcome to those who want to avail themselves of a chance to walk in the shade of some excellent exterior landscaping. This month, I will explore playground reform as an intuitive response aiming to produce and promote ideal gender identities in children.
A child's body itself is a playground in which gender identities can be monitored and produced, compelling reformers to locate them in public, visible settings. Like a cloud, I am meant to serve a large population. A playground should be a sort of truce between the tunnels and twilights of childhood. A playground should be rippling at its outermost branches. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 120,000 playground injuries are treated in U.S. hospitals each year.
A playground should remain in a child's heart, even as that child, years later, awakes, in his or her own clothes, on a beach, bruised (in a "pool of bruises" in fact), blue-veined and delivered from his or her indolence into an outdoor, multi-use play area of a completely different sort, one that acknowledges a community's commitment to its children and the future they will inherit.
A playground, above all else, should be the first blossom and wintry ground, the fuzzy, distant shore and the whale's belly, the physical soup and the philosophical skin that agrees to mouth adult expectations concerning aesthetics and safety, even as it swallows them.
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next interview: Brian Teare
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