How has your first book changed your life?
17. Aaron Kunin
Before answering this question, I want to say something about the weird experience of receiving twenty copies of your own book in the mail. Each copy is a metonym for you because your name is on it and you wrote the text, and the textual content seems both familiar and illegible, and it's repeated twenty times. It feels a bit like writing your name over and over again when signing and initialing a lease for an apartment (where some kind of mark is required on every page), or endorsing a stack of checks. I suppose that's exactly what people do at book signings.
I first saw the finished book a couple weeks before I got my copies. It was on the shelf at Amherst Books, where I had gone to hear a reading by Clark Coolidge and Michael Gizzi. I didn't look at it for very long because the reading was about to start and I felt self-conscious. "Look at him reading his own book," etc. I checked to make sure that the typo on page 55 had been corrected. I was also relieved to see that the cover didn't look too red, white, and blue.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change because of it?
I don't think so. I very much wanted the poems to be collected in a book, and I wanted the poems to be read together and in order (which is probably not a realistic notion of how people read books), but I had no other plans.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
I moved to California, started a new job, and got a cat, so my life is quite different, but not really because of the book.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I sometimes feel that the book is describing me in ways that I did not intend. This kind of mimetic regression shouldn't come as a surprise because it often happens through reading: you read a book about bees, and bees start following you around. Obviously, the same thing happens with writing and publishing. In my case, the book generates all this shame (a "toxic" affect, according to Silvan Tomkins) as a by-product that then attaches to me in the form of experiences. "Here I am crying in front of the school, sort of like the poem."
One symptom is that I sometimes have a proprietary response to the subject of the book. Someone says, "Shame?"; I say, "Present!" As though I am some kind of authority on shame because I wrote a book of poems about it. I would like to stop doing that.
You mention being relieved that the cover didn't look too red, white, and blue. How involved were you in the designing process?
My friend Mark Owens designed the book. I made no creative contributions to the design; Mark gave me a lot of options, and I told him whether or not I liked them. The biggest design problem was the question of whether the paired poems would appear on facing pages. I thought that would look interesting, but I wasn't sure about the compromises it entailed: each poem needed to be on exactly one page, and the letters had to be quite small. That turned out to be fine.
The cover was also a problem. My first, rather trite suggestion was to use one of the images from the Sigmar Polke photos. We quickly decided not to do that, because Mark didn't like the photos and didn't want to work with them, and I didn't want the cover to look like an illustration of the title. We decided that we wanted it to look like a certain kind of educational book from the sixties and seventies. Mark collects these books--they have titles like An Introduction to Empiricism, and the covers are clean, spacious, colorful, modernist, diagrammatic. So we were going for something like that.
The actual cover is based on a diagram by Sarah Oppenheimer, an artist who made a series of video documentations of people reading newspapers on subways, which she then abstracted into diagrams of how readers fold their newspapers. You can see some of the diagrams on the web at foldingpatterns.com, and examples of her perforations in and extensions of non-structural interior walls at foldingenterprises.com. I've known Sarah for a while and have often been energized by her work, her ideas, and her way of being an artist. Also, when my interests coincide with hers, I feel wonderfully validated. "If Sarah is interested in folding too, then I must be on the right track!" Her diagrams seemed perfect for my book--interesting, profound, completely relevant to the poems but not redundant in any way, and beautiful. (Sarah tries to create situations where she isn't making aesthetic decisions, but it's as though she can't help making beautiful objects). And, as Mark pointed out, the book has its own folding pattern.
Because of the colors that we chose, I was a little worried that the cover would look like the U.S. flag, or like someone's flag, but I think it doesn't. The lines feel active to me, as though they retain traces of the human actors moving the pages of the newspapers and holding them in place.
How did your book happen to get picked up by Fence?
I entered the manuscript in their annual contest in 2004. The judge awarded the prize to Geraldine Kim's book Povel; the publisher, Rebecca Wolff, also liked my manuscript and asked to publish it.
What are you doing to promote sales, and how do you feel about it?
I give readings, but a public reading is another way to present poetry, and not necessarily an advertisement to promote sales of the book. But do advertisements promote sales? With a lot of ads, I get the impression that selling things is not their only or even primary function. Even people whose job is to sell things probably do a lot of work that doesn't result in and maybe isn't supposed to result in a sale. The salesmen in the documentary film Salesman are selling one book, the Bible, door-to-door. But most of what they do is way in excess of mere selling. For example, they give one another animal names (Badger, Rabbit, Bull, etc.).
I don't think anyone (commercial publishers, small press publishers, distributors, owners of bookstores and people who work for them) has a very good idea of what forces might be necessary to compel people to buy a book. Plus, you don't just want people to buy the book, which is kind of a superficial mode of reading. You want them to open it, look at it, think about it.
As a teacher, I am pretty good at promoting sales of books. When I assign books to students, the students are supposed to buy them and read them critically. In any case, I don't ask students to read my book.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
Someone advised me to buy property in California, which I still haven't done.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
Not much. It seems like I have to teach myself how to write every time I start a new project. Whatever I learned from writing the shame poems is not useful for the work I'm doing now.
Sometimes I try to write a new poem to correct a mistake in an old poem. For example, when I wrote the Mauberley poems, I was working with a limited vocabulary that included a few gender-specific pronouns--none of which I used, except in one poem, where the figure normally called "the moron" is also called "he." (The fact that "he" is a non-recurrent element means that it could be a mistake, as though I had been unconsciously applying a rule everywhere else that somehow got broken in that one place.) Later, when I used the same vocabulary to write the Sore Throat poems, I decided at the start of the project that gender was going to be clearly marked; there were going to be a lot of "he"s and "she"s.
How do you feel about the critical response to your book? Has it had any effect on your writing?
I'm strongly committed to criticism as a genre. It's a big part of what I do, and, in general, my feelings about it are positive. Criticism is the bad child that I love more than the good child. To describe that relationship as a "positive" one is, I guess, about half of the story.
I'm interested in the critical response to my book--I try to track down reviews and read them and learn something from them--but I don't want to respond to them more than that. I've done enough work framing the poems in the preface, in giving readings, and in interviews like this.
I kind of admire artists who respond aggressively to criticism. Like Jeanette Winterson, who apparently stalks critics and yells at them. Or, better, like the choreographer (whose name I forget) who made the dancers in his company wear adjectives from Joan Acocella's review of their performance from the previous season ("CLUMSY," "UGLY," etc.); in effect, Acocella becomes the voice of popular media reinforcing one's negative self-image. In poetry, the most interesting example of this kind of aggression that I've seen is Leslie Scalapino's response to Marjorie Perloff in Seamless Antilandscape. As a critic, of course, I can't support that.
Do you want your life to change?
That's a very personal question! Currently I'm in more of a reactionary mode: I examine myself every day to make sure that I haven't changed very much, and if I detect signs of change, I want to take them back.
I have sometimes been open to significant change. Before moving here, I knew that California, or this part of it, would not be a very livable place for me without some adjustment, that I might have to become a completely different person in order to enjoy what is enjoyable here--and that kind of change seemed possible, desirable, interesting. Then, when I got here, I reacted strongly against the place and against myself, because I had chosen this, and therefore I had already changed enough to make that decision, right?
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
If poetry can create change in the world, then it's a form of research on human subjects, and poets need to start asking the same questions that scientists ask about their research. Professional medical researchers, anthropologists, sociologists--all scientists who use people as test subjects--are expected to conform to the three ethical principles established in the Belmont Report for the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. These principles are: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. This is the case even for scientists whose research consists merely in interviewing people. Kate, if you were a sociologist, before sending me these questions you would write a statement explaining how your questions conform to the three principles from the Belmont Report. Apparently, sociologists take the rhetorical power of the interrogative mood very seriously!
It's possible that scientists have the wrong idea about what questions do to people. Maybe they impose protections that don't work. Probably some of them are lying. Maybe their three ethical principles are wrong or incomplete or incompatible. (In my experience, the gesture of "respect for persons" is frequently used as a cover for the total absence of any effort toward beneficence or justice. And a statement in favor of all three may be used as a cover for other, more sinister commitments.) However, the fact that scientists are required to make an effort, the fact that they are trying to protect people from the possibly injurious effects of language, and the fact that they have professional ethical guidelines--this doesn't mean that they are right, but it means that they are sane, which is not necessarily the case for poets. There are some poets who want to be Doctor Moreau.
You asked what I believe. I'm skeptical about the instrumental use of rhetoric. The idea of rhetorical manipulation is interesting, but it's a theoretical fiction. People are different and respond differently to the same piece of writing. I'm not even sure that it's a laudable ambition to want to predict or control these responses. At least, I would be cautious with such an ambition, because it can easily devolve, as everyone knows, into something impertinent, condescending, and paternalistic in the worst way.
Despite my skepticism, there is an important sense in which poems, insofar as they describe people and insofar as people are expected to read them, are a form of research on human subjects. This is the sense in which poetry can be experimental: because we do not know what the results of our experiments will be, how readers might be changed by them, whether that change will be positive or negative, because people are different and respond differently. To put it another way, poetry is experimental because it risks failure.
What are you writing poems about now?
I'm writing about the activities of the United Fruit Company in 1954. So the poem, or whatever it is, is about food politics, corporate personhood, enclosure (how much of Guatemala is public land? how much belongs to the company?), and branding (the technical problem of attaching 2.5 billion Chiquita stickers to individual bananas so that consumers know what kind of banana they are buying). I'm sensitive about being mistaken for a historian; history is not normally what I do, but in this case, I am trying to do that. Basically, I'm in way over my head.
the t.v. has a
in the shade of low
the smothering tree
and some of them heard
tree's facial nightlight
eyes tree looked thicker
less mask of your hair
The Shame Tree
never put on your
put it on) affix
frequently try it
seen it on him) at
secretly) for those
. . .