How has your first book changed your life?
20. Rebecca Loudon
I only sent Tarantella to one first book competition. It wasn't chosen, and as I was unemployed, I didn't have the money to send it to any others. I really didn't think about the manuscript too much. I knew it was complete, but getting it published was not an urgent need for me. I knew it would be published eventually, because that is what I wanted. I realize how naive this is, but I have this stupid faith that the right things are going to happen for me as long as I keep doing the work. My urgencies were making enough money teaching violin lessons and scrubbing toilets and walking dogs and teaching poetry workshops to pay rent, and continuing to write. Continuing to do the work. I wrote to Ravenna Press on a whim because Kathryn Rantala had published several of my poems over the years, and I asked if they were reading manuscripts. She said no, but I sent her Tarantella anyway. She had it for what seemed like a very long time but it might have only been a few weeks, and finally said that she would love to publish it.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
The book had been held up in printing for quite a while and I think I sort of gave up on it ever arriving. I rarely use my telephone for anything but connecting to the internet, and when Kathryn sent me an e-mail telling me to get offline so she could call me, I got a little worried. I figured giant dogs had eaten the books or they had been held at the post office for harboring filthy words, or she had changed her mind and the press had decided to drop it.
She called me and said they're here and I screamed. A very loud girlygirl scream. I drove to her house like a maniac. The first thing I did was pet the cover of the first book on the top of the box, then I opened the book and smelled it. Ink! My ink. Kathryn made me a celebration lunch of asparagus, tomato, egg and champagne. When I drove home with my copies, I kept petting them, touching them, looking at them. When I got home I took them all out of the box and signed a copy for my son, and forced him to admire it repeatedly, and then I called my musician friends to celebrate. We had a party that night at my composer's house and I gave them all copies and we made many silly toasts and I was asked to read poems which embarrassed me.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Yes. I knew what the cover was going to look like from the start. My son had brought home a box of old photos from his grandmother's house and I found the photo of the two men (his great uncles) dancing and drinking beer. I knew it was perfect. I wanted red as the color, something hot, something that caught the eye and would compliment the black and white photo.
Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it?
In my sentimental poet heart I believed I would sell thousands of books and become famous and reclusive instead of just cranky and reclusive. Of course, it was a very small print run and what I really wanted was to sell enough books to get a haircut and maybe buy some fancy cheese. I knew I would have to work hard to sell the book, give lots of readings, and I did. It turns out that my life did change, but in ways I didn't expect.
How has your life been different since?
Shortly after the book was printed, I found a steady job and I didn't have to worry so much about money. Up to that point, I was teaching orchestra in a middle school to 5th and 6th graders. Unfortunately, it was not a full time job and I didn't work enough hours to buy medical insurance, or anything else including heat in my house and, often, food and basic essentials. I was sorry to leave the kids at the school, but the new job gave me time to breathe and consider and relax and look around a little bit. I realized that I had made it through an impossibly difficult time, that I had mostly kept my sense of humor, and that I never lost sight of my art. I went a little crazy, yes. I made some bad choices, yes, but I kept writing. I kept playing my violin. I stayed connected to those things that were important to my spirit. I realized I was a lot braver than I thought I was. I see Tarantella as a milepost in my life. I look at it and I think I did something remarkable--I kept going.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I was surprised that people read the book and thought they were reading a memoir. I was especially surprised when other writers thought this. This made me feel like I was standing around in my underpants. I felt exposed. I was also surprised at how many women fell in love with the book. I was delighted to find little hordes of young goth girls with white makeup and black lipstick and blue fingernails hanging around outside bookstores after I read, who wanted to talk to me about the poems. A lot of people found the poems to be dense and difficult and weird. (Wait until they read the next book, haha.) My mother said she carried the book around in a plastic bag so it wouldn't get soiled. She also said most of my friends don't know what the hell you're talking about.
I thought I would get more support from the press in getting my book into local bookstores. I discovered quickly that bookstores don't want to talk to writers. It took almost six months for my book to appear in even one local bookstore. I didn't know that many bookstores want you to read at their store before they'll sell your book.
One of the most interesting things that happened with the book is that my musician friends bought it, and my two worlds, music and poetry, began to overlap. Musicians began coming to poetry readings. Poets began coming to concerts. I'm not sure the two worlds will ever mix well socially. When I had my book release party, I invited all the musicians and all the poets I knew. There were a lot of people there, but the musicians stood on one side of the room (near the alcohol) and the poets stood on the other side of the room (near the food) and there was little interaction. In my mind, music and poetry are the same thing, they are one art. I know there are some poetry purists, ahh, the academics, who disagree, who think poetry is POETRY and sits on its golden ass in an ivory tower twiddling its thumbs. There are musicians who feel the same way. I have argued this misconception my entire life beginning in grade school when I was playing violin and seriously competing, and was also writing, and was told quite clearly that a musician eats, breathes and drinks music and nothing else.
What did you do to promote the book, and what were those experiences like for you?
I promoted the book on my blog and pre-sold half of the first printing. I gave local readings constantly, but could not afford to travel. I sold books to friends and family and musicians and students. I sold books to my dermatologist and to my landlord and to people at my new job. I read at least once a week, sometimes twice a week. I got burned out. I went to open mikes, the most dreaded of mikes. I became sick of the poems in the book. I started reading new poems instead of poems from Tarantella. I could have sold more books if I was better at schmoozing. I totally suck at schmoozing. I love to read, but when the reading is over, I'm out of there as quickly as possible. I should have stuck around, talked to people, found out who they were and why they were there. A year ago last May, I gave my last reading for Tarantella. Then I took a year off completely from reading, a year to concentrate on writing. And hiding.
You pre-sold HALF of the print run?! How big was that run?
I think it was 125 books. My editor offered me an extremely generous deal, which was that I could keep the profits from whatever I pre-sold. I don't think she expected me to sell so many, but I was hungry and I am, after all, the daughter of a used car salesman. Plus I was able to sell lots to unsuspecting musicians who, once they read the book, mostly said Oh. Mm.
Radish King must have a lot of readers. How long have you been blogging and how did you get into it?
I started my first blog in 2002, I think, somewhere around there. A friend of mine owned some server space and he gave a group of us our own little parcels of serverland that were basically a blog. Mine was named Vitadrome and I used it the same way I use Radish King. Part diary, a place to post and unpost poems, a place to vent, a place to play, but mostly a place to practice writing.
I started the Radish King blog in September 2004. It was a hard time for me. I was poor, it was getting cold, I had yet to land the teaching gig, and I was waiting anxiously for Tarantella to arrive. It was a difficult time for me emotionally as well. I needed a place to play and I never expected anyone to read my blog since I wasn't (and I'm still not, thank god) part of POETRYWORLD, or, if they stumbled on it, I never expected anyone to come back.
I get anywhere from 90 to 130 hits a day at Radish King, not very many if you look at the numbers, but I get very little spam traffic and my readers are loyal. They come back. I'm not sure exactly why. I think it's because when I post on my blog, I don't think about having readers. I put poem drafts there and three a.m. rants and recipes real and imagined and stupid dreamy posts about my garden and my paintings and the art of others and photographs and movie reviews and just about anything that flaps its wings inside my brain. I rarely censor what I write there though I frequently delete my own posts. I have been asked to remove a post once, and I did, and I'm still pissed off at myself for caving in. I say what's on my mind (as I do in the meat world) and I think that writers are, at heart, voyeurs, and they like to peek in the window. Especially when it's dark and the little glow of the computer monitor illuminates the circumference of another person's darkness. I think that's why they come back.
I also use blogs as a means of document control, something I tend to be careless with. I recently wrote my chapbook Navigate entirely on a private blog. I found the blog was the easiest way to keep track of my writing. I just revised on the blog itself. When I sent the manuscript to No Tell Books I also included the blog URL. I'm writing my new book, Cadaver Dogs, the same way.
How could you give so many local readings? Are there many places to read near where you live? (Are you in Seattle?) As one cranky recluse to another, do you enjoy getting out and reading?
Yes, I live in Seattle, and I think Seattle may be the best place in the world to find or give a poetry reading. We are quite the little hotbed of spoken word, slams, open mikes where middle-aged college-educated women pretending to be Native Americans can read to their heart's content, bookstore reading series, library reading series, famous poet readings and good old fashioned male-encrusted presses. (Like Copper Canyon.) Richard Hugo House is a great place to read, and the Jack Straw Foundation has given voice to many local poets. We have coffee houses and taverns and bookstores and even museums that feature poetry readings twice a month or even once a week. You can't swing a contrabassoon in this city without hitting a poetry reading.
I do enjoy reading. I'm good at it and I love it, love the audience response to my poems. What I'm not good at is dealing with my anxiety about leaving the house for the reading, or hanging around after talking to other poets. I'm an absolute failure at networking.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out?
I wish someone had told me to get a contract for the book. My publisher has been more than fair and square with me but I didn't know until a month ago how much an author's copy would cost me. I don't know how many books I've sold. I really don't know anything. I'd like to be more aware of the business aspect of selling books.
I wish someone had told me to be more strident in removing poems that I didn't feel absolutely crazy about. I don't believe collections of poetry should have filler poems, or ladder poems. Each poem must be as strong as the next, and there are a few poems in Tarantella that I would cut now if I had the chance. I basically didn't get any advice, because at the time I was writing the poems, I was not directly involved with poets or a poetry program. I was just writing away and playing music and following my intuition. In a way I'm glad. Advice can be damaging to both the giver and the givee, and is almost always wrong.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
I realized right away that it was important for me to continue writing while waiting for Tarantella to be published. Part of me wanted to shut down and wait but instead I threw myself into the next book. I am now more conscious of how my poems inform each other. With the first book, there was much ordering and arranging and fretting and removing poems and putting them back. Now my poems order themselves for the most part. I believe that each poem brings the seeds of the next poem in its mouth. I'm more willing to write crap and recognize it as crap and move on. My writing is becoming less personal, a bit wilder, more experimental. I'm allowing myself to invoke the moon and the stars and love and all the things I was taught didn't belong in poems. I'm breaking all the rules I learned but so what? That's what happens when you keep going forward. Fuck the rules. Good writing is good writing, no matter what you want to invoke. This comes from practice. Practice and deep play and falling in love with your own work.
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing?
Tarantella didn't get much critical response. My book didn't win any contests or cash prizes or any of that folderol. I worried at first that it would get bad reviews, then after a while I worried that it wouldn't get reviewed at all. It did though, and all but one of the reviews were positive but didn't really give me any insight into the book, which I wanted--perhaps a selfish desire, but a true one. I had one review that was two thirds positive and one third negative, and at first I fumed a tiny bit, stamped my foot, etc. but in the end, it is the review I learned the most from, the review to which I return. The reviewer was honest and funny and forthright, made a comment about the women characters in my book being passive, and I took it personally but eventually realized what she was seeing and why she saw it, and how my interpersonal relationships at the time I wrote the poems had shaped those women. She was right, but the poems weren't wrong. It was just the women I chose to write.
Do you want your life to change?
Yes, absolutely and constantly. Someday I would like to start an art school for children named The Renaissance School. The curriculum would be music and painting and poetry and dance and sculpture and voice and architecture and literature and a study of all that art encompasses and there will be no separation of the arts, but one art stemming from the same place in the brain, in the human psyche.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
I am working more and more with my composer. I have written the libretti for two choral pieces for him, and a five part song cycle titled Bone Island Suite for orchestra and soprano that had its world premier last April. I am currently writing a children's symphony for him that will be performed in January, 2007. This is not a choral piece, but a children's story titled Ursula that will be read by a narrator accompanied by orchestra. We are also writing an opera together, Red Queen, based on the relationship between Alice Liddell and Charles Dodgson. The more we work as a team, the more both of us are inspired in our respective arts, and the more poetry and music slip back and forth in my head until they are one art. I don't know what change this will bring for me, but I feel it coming.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Poetry has saved my life. And change in one person changes the world. If someone reads a poem and it causes them to view even a miniscule part of their world differently, then the world has been changed.
Do you know where you are?
What is your name?
What am I holding? (Hold up a common object such as a comb or watch.)
Hold your arms straight out in front of you.
. . .