How has your first book changed your life?
16. Raymond McDaniel
Interesting story. I sent Murder out to a few contests the year I finished it and received some nice comments--I still think those little notes, often comprised of nothing more than "Hey, neat!", are the greatest and most meaningful expressions of appreciation I could ever hope for--but no one picked it up. I took the following summer to revisit the manuscript and modified the table of contents, so that each poem came with a sort of précis as to its relationship to the larger narrative. Every contest I entered after that put me somewhere closer to the innermost ring: semi-finalist, quarter-finalist, finalist, and then the National Poetry Series. Didn't change a single word in a single poem; just offered a little how-to guide. I'm still not sure if this contains a lesson I'd be happy to broadcast to others, but there it is.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I was visiting my mom in Florida, where I was born, and where I had begun the book three years prior--a pleasing echo. And of course there's nothing like having a parent there to proudly misestimate the importance of your book. Other than encouraging my mom to rein in her inappropriate excitement, I recall how odd it was just to see the thing lying around--to open the book, to read it, that was inevitably a disappointment, both because I was so bored and frustrated with the words after having edited them to within an inch of their lives, and because I naturally still wanted to re-write the poems even as I read them. But then I'd catch sight of it, and it would take me a moment to recognize what it was. There was a lot of "Hey, that person has my last name" and "Looks good. What is it?" and similarly confused delight. I had to keep sneaking up on the manifest reality of My Book from a childlike perspective, recalling that the little kid who said he'd write books was now getting a glimpse into some alternate future, in which he actually had.
Were you involved at all in the cover design?
Coffee House, of which I cannot speak highly enough, has a good veto policy in terms of book design. You cannot design the book yourself, but you can establish a fairly intensive list of what you don't want. In my case, I didn't want a "representative" image--I had nightmares of some artfully-composed photograph of a discreetly naked woman hefting a pole-ax. Fortunately, the designer, Linda Koutsky, found this marbled paper, the abstract vigor of which speaks to the mood of the book quite well. Unfortunately, I didn't exercise my veto power over the cover font quickly enough, and I still think it looks a little too Medieval Times for my taste. The page fonts and layout, however, I find utterly gorgeous.
Even more proof of Coffee House's devotion and passion: as you know, the book is meant to be read non-sequentially, unbound. Allan Kornblum and the redoubtable Chris Fischbach actually looked into doing this--to printing each poem on card stock and shipping it in a box. Alas, it costs more to print a book unbound than it is to bind it, but that they would even consider such a thing earns the stalwarts at the press my undying loyalty.
Did you actually arrive at the sequence in Murder by just tossing the pages in the air and picking them up off the floor at random?
Maybe some small, stupid part of me held out hope that The Other Kids would collapse, stunned, at the force of my mighty, mighty work. Of course, this is that same part of my mind that's still waiting to develop super-powers and that insists a resurgence in progressive politics is possible after all. We try to kill these things, but they are hardy weeds indeed.
Other than the tinny din of my shamelessly deluded reptile brain, I didn't expect much. I've been at this for a while, and I've also worked as a bookseller and advocate for others' work for very many years, so I know the fate of most books, certainly of most books of poetry.
Creatively speaking, I was just happy to get that character out of my head. Three years is a long time to spend with a soldier-girl suffering from dissociative lyric disorder lurking about your every thought.
Has your life been different since? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't?
It hasn't much changed. I'm happy to have written the book and have it ushered into the world, but like I said, I wasn't expecting a revolution, and I didn't get one.
To the degree that anyone knows who I am at all, they know me (I think) via my work at The Constant Critic. I thought maybe that the publication of the book would shift me over from the Critic column to the Poet column, but I'm still far more likely to be identified as the guy who didn't like Dancing in Odessa than anything else. I also thought that I might be subject to some revenge-reviews, but I was thankfully spared that fate, though the one negative review I did receive referred to me as "Ray"--the name I publish criticism under--and not "Raymond," the name under which I publish my poetry. Hm. I've also got a theory about what really happened on the grassy knoll, and don't even get me started on Area 51.
What did you do to promote the book?
I don't think I did as much as I could have. I was limited in some ways by geography and finances: I teach full-time and run a reading series, and it doesn't leave me much time to go jaunting off on my own behalf, which you have to do when you live in Michigan. No Brooklyn Mafia for me, alas, though I bless them and their collective works. I'm also just not very good at getting my name out there, frankly. I prefer to think of poetry as a gift economy, and in that regard I very much like helping and promoting others. I'm good at it, I enjoy it. Now, you would think that with years of hosting readings and selling books,
I would have done a better job of developing a tactical mind and cultivating useful "alliances," but no.
The best advice I ever received, and it's common enough but worth repeating, is that one cannot get anywhere by half-measures. In poetry, to do something neatly and safely is fatal; what is worth doing is worth overdoing. It was only when I committed fully to the specificity of Murder with no thought as to its seemliness or appropriateness that I was able to write a book that someone wanted to publish. Do what you have to do, the way you have to do it--simple to say, wicked to execute.
The book's publication earned me a publisher. Coffee House accepted the second manuscript before the first even hit the shelves, God preserve them, and thus I have time and room to maneuver without wondering if anyone will ever look askance at me again. Publication also reinforced the legitimacy of the advice detailed above.
How great that Coffee House picked up your second manuscript before the first book even was out. At what point did you pitch it to them? (or did they ask?)
Has there been a critical response? Where?
Actually, there were a few nice pieces here and there, and I'm very grateful for them, because they each put the lie to the assertion that the book was too weird or willful or cussedly
to understand. People got it. And best of all, some of the people who got it weren't even my beloved smart-arsed colleagues and allies--the most surprising set of responses came from arts weeklies and pop culture zines. An endorsement from within the tribe can mean a lot, but it doesn't approach the value of getting a letter from a comic book shop owner, or an ex-soldier, or a surly hyper-bright senior at a Catholic girl's school, each of whom locked into the very heart of the insoluble moral dilemma I was trying to express.
I want the world in which I live to change first, please. I cannot stop thinking about the power and resources at our disposal, and how we could have--can--contrive things so, I don't know, other than this. Poetry is never going to directly induce that level of change (nor should it, lest it become indistinguishable from those authorities it ought to upset), but it can remind people, and teach them to realize in practice, that things can be made--literally made--different, and differently. If anything I write starts that cascade in someone else's mind, then I will have paid some small measure of the debt I owe. And then I can go fight for water rights and gay marriage and the renewal of Battlestar Galactica and the countless things the age demands.
next interview: Aaron Kunin
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