How has your first book changed your life?
14. Juliet Patterson
I submitted this particular manuscript to six contests, so I was incredibly lucky! I had another manuscript that I circulated pretty widely. When nothing happened with it, I decided to take some time off from contest submissions and just focus on writing. For the next eight years, I didn't submit the manuscript. I just thought about how I could make the poems better. When I finally felt like it was ready, I sent it off to a limited number of contests. I thought carefully about the presses that might be interested in my work and also paid close attention to judges who might be sympathetic to my style.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
Publicly speaking, it wasn't a very extraordinary moment. A box was delivered to my office, like any other box. It was a cloudy day. I was alone in the office. I opened the box as casually as the mail. But, privately, I experienced a wide range of emotions: joy, anxiety, pride, fear. It's a wonderful moment (of course) to hold the book, feel the heft of it in your hands, to smell the pages. But there's also something very strange about it--a kind of detached feeling--as though you had nothing to do with it. As if the book (as object) now had its own life completely separate from you. How could I have made this book? It didn't seem possible. I know that sounds rather dramatic, but it's really true. At the same time, I was very aware of how much work had gone into the book--years of writing (not to mention a rather intense editing process) and the amount of perseverance required to live a life that can sustain creative practice, and I couldn't help but feel some kind of spiritual joy in the book as a testament to my life lived.
I've heard a lot of people say that the day the book arrives is the worst day for the writer: that makes some sense to me. Publishing is really different from writing. And most writers, I think, are really driven by the act of writing, not publishing. Certainly, I think that's true in the realm of poetry. Paradoxically, I can't think of one writer who doesn't want to also publish. So the feelings that surround the first book are complicated. However big and important to your life the book seems to be, the truth is it's just 60 pages of writing that won't really change the immediate conditions of your life and there will (hopefully) be other books and a life of writing.
Getting back to the moment of first seeing the book, I can say that I was struck by its physical beauty--really just kind of bowled over by how gorgeous the book was, thanks to the good work of Tim Roberts, who did the design. I felt humbled by the amount of attention he gave not only to the cover but to the interior of the book and felt as though his work really brought a new life and dimension to my poems. More joy.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change because of it?
Spiritually speaking: yes. In the "dally through daily-ness": no.
Did the book change a lot after it was chosen?
I added a few new poems and omitted others--but I wouldn't say the book went through an overhaul--the intense editing process I mentioned really refers to the years I spent mulling over each of the poems. I will say however that Nightboat editor Jennifer Chapis gave the book a shrewd reading and gave me some things to think about in terms of the final version of the book. She's a very intelligent reader and I felt really lucky to work with her.
Did you have (while writing and, later, sending out the manuscript) an image in mind of what the book cover would look like, one that the finished design reflects or replaced?
It's curious that I really didn't have a visual image for the book until after it was accepted for publication. Nightboat graciously solicited my input on the cover design and I really almost panicked, because I didn't have a lot of particular ideas. I went back and forth about the use of a photograph, but in the end, it felt like it reflected the tone and energy of the poems. I submitted three or four images to be considered for the cover and the people at Nightboat and I all made a decision collectively. The photo we used is taken by a Minneapolis photographer I love, Celeste Nelms. She works exclusively in self-portraits, which seemed fitting, since that's a running theme for the book.
As I've said, the finished design really brought the poems to life in a way I didn't expect. I think the designer, Tim Roberts, understood my poems better than I did in a way, which was a little bit shocking and embarrassing, but ultimately I'm so grateful he understood the work so deeply, because the book we made is really a beautiful object.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
The main difference is: work.
The book enabled me to be hired to teach poetry workshops and creative writing classes at the university level, and also to be more securely employed on a part-time basis as a teacher. Previous to publishing the book, I was teaching a lot as an artist-in-residence in the schools (primary and secondary education) and at the Loft Literary Center. I really enjoy teaching outside of academia, but I also wanted to have the experience of teaching poetry at the college or graduate level. The book has afforded me this opportunity, but of course, there's also a "rub" there because I'm not sure that publishing a book has made me a better teacher. It's unfortunate that the academy seems to measure qualifications based on these terms, but it's just the truth of how the system operates.
I'd also say that the book has brought me out into the world a little more. I'm a fairly introverted person and need a lot of solitude and time for contemplation. Publishing a book has caused me to travel a bit for readings, workshops, etc. and keep a rather "public" schedule (relative to how I've been living my life). I've met some really amazing people and have had some great experiences seeing different parts of the country. It's been a bit exhausting, but it's changed me in the sense that I have been thinking about how we really are all connected, you know? People, in general, of course, but poets in particular. There are threads made between us that are seemingly invisible, but deeply intricate and beautiful.
I've seen your reading schedule at your site. How did you manage to plan such a well-organized tour? Where did you start--do you have any advice?
I won $1,000 with the Nightboat Prize and made the decision early on to hire a free-lance publicist. I really did want to throw myself into the promotion of the book, give it some energy, etc. and knew that I couldn't do it alone. I worked with Jana Robbins (formerly of Graywolf Press) and she handled almost all of the tour logistics and organization. Working with Jana has been wonderful and she made the potentially overwhelming task of planning a tour very easy. I don't have any solid advice about how to approach a reading tour--so much depends on what
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out?
1) You don't have to be well-connected for a book to do well--a book can find its way into the world without you.
2) Do what you can for the book--but don't overwhelm yourself.
3) Don't worry about public reaction and love the poems as much as you can.
4) Give books away to people who love to talk.
What was the best advice you got?
1) Be clear about what you might want to happen from your book. Do you want to find a job? Connect with other poets? Reach ordinary people in your community? Make plans accordingly.
2) Read publicly as much as you can.
3) Think outside the box; find an audience for your book in ways that are authentic to you and the material.
4) Leave your ego at the door.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't?
Things I imagined would happen, but so far haven't:
1) Fan letters
1) Second-hand fan letters
Second-hand fan letters?
Not second-hand letters...but praise. I've received some really positive comments about the book from people indirectly: a friend of a friend says something about the book in a bar or someone forwards me an e-mail they received which mentions something about a reading I gave that they attended. I've had very few people contact me directly, but I'm getting some positive
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
I've been resting a bit from writing. I didn't have a second book really started when my first book was published and I think there's a gift in being immersed in a project when your book is finally published--I found myself stalling out a little in generating new work. It's sometimes a little frightening to think about and I'm a little disappointed that publication hasn't somehow inspired me to write more. But the truth is, it's been very difficult to manage the more "public" side of life that the book has created (readings, teaching, etc.) and the more private and solitary side that my writing practice seems to require. I also really threw myself into the promotion end of the book as a kind of experiment--and have had a pretty heavy reading schedule, so I sort of let go of writing for awhile. Reading and touring has taken an enormous amount of energy--much more than I expected (the curse of being an introvert, I guess) and I really haven't felt capable of writing, lately. I hope that will change soon.
Aesthetically speaking, I'd also say that publishing the book caused me to think more deeply about some of the strategies and techniques I've been using. The book is very spare and economical in its language--the hope was to create work where no word is lost or wasted. It's a high ambition and probably is one of the book's mistakes--like many first books, the work IS ambitious. Does that make sense? In any of the new writing I'm doing, I can feel myself trying to loosen up the syntax and create a more baggy atmosphere for the voice of the poem. This impulse is directly related to the experience of the first book--which reminds me of something one of my teachers once said: "You're writing this poem to write the next poem."
I saw at The Lovely Arc and Yes, Starlings! Yes! wonderful descriptions of your recent reading in Nebraska with Paula Cisewski and Sarah Fox. Reading each other's poems, reading multi-voice poems together, weaving in & out of each other's sets--sounded great! Have you read with these women before? Or is this something you put together on the fly?
I'm so blessed to live in a community full of writers. Minneapolis is really an amazing literary town and there are so many amazing poets and writers here. I had been a fan of Sarah and Paula's work for awhile--it was just a coincidence that we all published our first books at the same time. I think I approached Sarah about trying some events together and she suggested adding Paula to the line-up. It's been a wonderful experience, because I feel a deep kinship with their work. I think we feel a lot of respect for each other and there doesn't seem to be a lot of competition among us--which is so refreshing. We took a trip to Fargo, North Dakota, and I think Sarah suggested that we read from each others' work. From there, our "set" has just developed organically. As we do more readings together, I think the performances become more dynamic--so I hope we'll continue.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Yes, because of the way poetry engages, incites and changes our thinking individually, I do think it can create change in the world; one person at a time. It's a very subtle and slow-growth kind of change--perhaps akin to mediation or prayer--and perhaps it's the kind of influence that is often difficult to measure or see, particularly in a capitalist society, where the measure of success or change is made in economic terms.
What did Wallace Stevens say? Something like: "Poets are the priests of the invisible." I think about this phrase a lot--as both a comment on the task of poetry to attempt to know what's unknowable and as the poet's role in the society. Sam Hamill has a nice phrase for it, "shadow work"--the job of the poet is integral to the health of any given community, though often unseen.
Poetry, at its best, galvanizes and shatters the spirit. I can't think of a better agent of change.
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