How has your first book changed your life?
26. Christopher Salerno
I had been living the "always a bridesmaid" scenario before placing Whirligig, with a half-dozen contests or presses calling the manuscript a finalist or semi-finalist in the previous year, and a few other presses writing kind little notes. So I had begun believing that it might actually happen in the foreseeable future, that the arc of the book perhaps had been realized to some degree through revision, and that maybe this validation meant that the manuscript was reading now as a book and not simply a collection (one can hope). Anyway, I was getting weary of sending my hard-earned money off to all those contests, knowing that even if the manuscript gets into the final rounds for, say, the Walt Whitman or whatever, that someone like Mary Oliver might never dig it--or, at least, the final judge was always going to be a wholly different, subjective entity than the pre-judges (naturally).
I first heard of Spuyten Duyvil a few years ago while browsing the bio notes of some anthology of younger/new American poets. I've always tried to trace poets and presses back, especially in the days of thinking about placing a manuscript. I'd really admired the small Indy presses that I'd seen, especially vibrant ones like Spuyten Duyvil. It's not a name one forgets. Anyway, a little investigative work and soon I realized that they had an impressive and capacious catalogue of different genres and wide-ranging styles. I had known a few Spuyten Duyvil authors, actually, and was excited about the possibility of being in their company. Tod Thilleman (editor) is a force, by the way. I sent him the manuscript and he wrote me a wonderfully perceptive response to it after a just a few weeks. Things went from there. I'm excited to be (finally) meeting him and reading with him at the Bowery Poetry Club in September.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I returned to my apartment one afternoon to find a knee-high box in front of the door. It had been shipped straight from the distributor, and of course I knew what it was immediately. I carried it in, opened it, and I remember making a sort of high-pitched sound as I lifted the first one out of the box. Then I did the robot. Then I breezed through the pages to look at the layouts of some of the poems which were meant to be more "by field" than others. That stuff always worries me, and since it had been several months since seeing the galleys, I was unsure how we'd left things. In the end, it definitely had all ten fingers and toes. Funny, it's one thing to get the book in your hands; it's another to get 100 books all at once. The cover looked so shiny and glossy.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
I had no delusions, of course. I assumed any change would perhaps be in the form of more access and credibility in the small but tight-knit world of poetry journals and readings, though mostly in other locations. Living in North Carolina keeps me at a slight distance to the book's publishing house and local network. Most of the journals in which I placed individual poems from Whirligig are in New York. I'm hoping, however, to get more involved around here with readings and other local poets as well.
Personally, I was already as serious as I could be about doing the work, and I didn't think I would suddenly have to get new tweed outfits or wear a monocle or anything like that just because I had this glossy book with the ubiquitous earnest author photo. I'm always prepared for relative obscurity, and always surprised and delighted by its opposite currents.
How has your life been different since?
Life hasn't changed too much, post-publication, although I've increasingly been spending more time in the email zone. I've also had some good connections: invitations to read here and there, an invitation to take on an associate editorship, a few new mail correspondences, a complex status amongst local friends whom I've never told I write anything (let alone poetry). It's only been a month since the book has been out, so I suppose I can be optimistically brief on this one. But I think that in the year before the book was shaping up, I published almost half the book's poems in a smattering of different journals. I tend to choose journals I admire, many of which publish a number of authors I had been reading and recognizing already. The result of this I suppose is a kind of minor recollection ("I think I've heard of him, sure") amongst people who read or publish in these places. All told, that's probably the best feeling. I hope I get to meet them and buy their books and ask them to sign their books for me.
It's been nice to get emails from strangers about Whirligig. It's also surprising to hear which poems people have liked. Poems I suspected were B-sides have connected with certain people. Who knows? Meeting other poets and selling copies after readings is rewarding as well, even if I don't always appreciate all readings (at the risk of being uninvited to my future reading engagements, I'm starting to wonder if there isn't too much emphasis on getting yuks). All told, I think I'm OK at reading publicly, because I try to avoid the pitfalls of the "poetry voice" or whatever, which gets on my nerves. I like to read slowly and matter-of-factly.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
My ex-wife Robin is a freakishly gifted graphic designer always winning awards, getting her work in PRINT magazine, and so I always knew that my book would be well designed. Thankfully, Spuyten Duyvil let her do the cover. The funny thing for me is that while I'm not always certain if the poems are any good (because they're mine) I always knew that the book design was tight. I was literally kneeling next to her computer chair for the entire design process. We broke up shortly afterwards.
What have you been doing to promote the book and what are those experiences like for you?
I've been doing some readings here and there, and am gearing up for some fall gigs. I've got three or four in NYC in September that I'm very excited about. I recently read at the Burlesque Poetry Series in D.C. which was very enjoyable--it was my first reading from the book. Otherwise, I'm not a great promoter. Most poets probably aren't, all told. Spuyten Duyvil has been great about sending out review copies, and their beautiful catalogue/mailer, etc. They also have a strong website. There are a handful of reviews coming down the pike, and that's always exciting, and one hopes it will spark some interest. I still think readings are the key, though, however ambivalent I might be about them. I also have a blog.
What was the best advice you got?
Honestly, any advice I received was in the "how-to" part of placing a book. Post-book, I have had some particularly savvy friends suggest I ignore the Amazon sales ranking (I agree, it's useless, and not a strong indicator of anything). Some other good advice has been to find the people you like and make sure they get review copies. There are some key places, and those places are probably online these days. I also recommend some personal online activity, whether a simple blog or a website where you can connect with other poets and let people know what's up.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
About a week or so after receiving my copies of Whirligig, I sat down and read it. There's this scene in "Cool Hand Luke" where Luke's mother tells him about the moment that a mother dog ceases to recognize her pups. I had been waiting for that moment. As precious as that sounds, it took having the book in that form (as object) for me to finally appreciate some of the poems, and to see them without seeing my own hand.
At the same time, I have been trending in a different direction since before the book was accepted for publication. I'm governed more by sound now, I think. My work and process are both a bit different these days. I wrote a bunch of experimental poems last year while waiting for the book to be published, because I felt that freedom, but I've recently found something I'm more comfortable with. I'm having fun now. That said, I find that I'm always tripping over my old conventions or ways, and of course I'm slightly worried about writing "Whirligig! Part Deux." And I'm slightly anxious about BOOK as BOOK now, and about having an overarching "project." Shouldn't I have a PROJECT? Don't you have a PROJECT? You have to have a fucking PROJECT!
As of now, I have about 40 pages of something new, and I've recently placed some of the poems from it, which has been encouraging. On the other hand, the poems I'm writing now are so vastly different from each other; I may be starting five different books. Otherwise, I've learned that I'm a reviser, and most of a book's realization will undoubtedly come when I write INTO a full draft, coloring it then with whatever the hell I'm into at that time.
Do you want your life to change?
I'm one of those typical fellows who are so in love with Poetry that they want to make it their job to discuss it, to "teach" it, and watch other people discover it. Will the book bring me this? Probably not, but it might help me get there. I teach currently at a local university here in Raleigh, but I only get to teach a workshop once or twice a year. It's a big department, and suspect the establishment and creative writing department would probably go on ignoring me even if I had won one of those hot contests.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
I'm just going to keep writing at my normal pace, and trying perhaps to poke my head into the job search scene here and there. Maybe I'll start schmoozing a little bit, making a point to touch elbow with left hand while shaking hand with right.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I'm thinking of a bumper sticker that reads, "Art is Not the Answer." I'm also thinking that, while probably not a consistent driving force of social change, poetry MAY get to hop in and steer the bus a little bit from time to time. Now would be a good time.
I do think that one answer is to start exposing junior high kids to the poems they deserve. No more 17th century for them. No more lock-and-key poetry lessons. How about we start them on Russell Edson, give them that piano making a huge manure! Then, by the time they get to high school and college, they'll be hungry to find out where the late 20th century poets came from; but most importantly we'll all find them less intimidated by poetry and more willing to track it all the way back to the 17th century. I'm shocked every semester to face a number of students with a strong aversion to poetry based solely on a past experience of intimidation and confusion.
On another level, I think the small press spirit and community might change the poetry world, which in turn might affect the broader consciousness in some way. As soon as one realizes that all poetry is small time, then it becomes much more realistic to turn to and (also) support the presses and communities that aren't all about the contest and the big advertisements with the gauzy curtains and the postwar typewriter (as stamp of approval). This isn't a new argument by any means.
Don't get me wrong, I do think it's important that every young writer (with a first book) go through that stage of thinking big, of taking their cues from their academic situation, of sending the wrong work to the wrong places, of sending work to the desks of absolute strangers. And why not try to win prestigious contests? You certainly will be read with more frequency if you win, and your book will probably deserve the attention. However, it can be an immense distraction to live with this mindset exclusively.
That said, the beat-down of rejection one gets in that world can be enlightening if you let it, especially if you have the right community of poets around you when you do open your eyes to the broader scene. I live near and around the Lucifer Poetics group in NC, and hanging with them and digging into their work took me immediately out of the post-MFA haze I was in. It's suddenly like, "Oh, I had no idea this was going on...how fucking stupendous!"
The hurricane digs for its salt white dress
Forms a crude 9 Our place
Is like empty drams for it The hurricane dreams
The miles in profile swing stroked over dress
One form most blessed in aft--
Uphill. February. It had to be something small because a day was all you had.
Vestibule. Psyche. Memory.
One place and then the next.
. . .
. . .