How has your first book changed your life?
30. Steve Mueske
The first time I saw my book, actually, was at the book release reading. I'd seen the proofs before, both for the cover and for the internal matter, but not the physical book itself. To hold it in my hands was very satisfying and yet strange in a way. I experienced a kind of mixed awareness: a sense of the time involved in writing the poems--some eight years worth of work-- and this book, this thing in my hands, was the final product, a compression of all that time into something tangible; but it was also a letdown. I think we dream about having a book for so long that the reality of it can't possibly measure up to the desire. This is not to say it's any fault of the press [Ghost Road]--they've been fantastic. I'm always at war with my work, it seems; I think this is just another manifestation of that.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change because of your book's arrival?
Not really. I saw it as another phase of development, a new kind of beginning, as it were. I was excited, of course, but not blindly optimistic that it would change my life. In some ways, I was more excited receiving the contract than the actual book. In some sense it validated, to my friends and family, my work as a poet. I mean the idea of someone writing poetry, especially as it's portrayed in the commercial media, is always something of a joke. And this is never countered by experience. People have in their memory an awful association with poetry; and why not? It's often taught to young students through a New Critical lens, as though the poem were some puzzle they needed to figure out. I think some teachers do this because it's easier to teach something when the answers are right in front of them. It's a lot more dangerous to go out in front of a bunch of kids and say, "I have no fucking idea what this means but it sounds cool and it gives me goose bumps." I've often believed that if students could see how vibrant and exciting poetry is, they might incorporate it into their lives--especially those students who develop an affinity for literature early on.
How has your life been different since?
It hasn't really. I'm writing much slower, though. And I've developed a nasty addiction to Butterfinger Crisps.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I didn't think that it would be so difficult to get local bookstores to stock a poetry title by a local author. It's also sort of annoying that a bookstore will order 15 copies of a book and send 13 of them back. For presses that are already hard-strapped for cash, this is a sure way to lose a lot of money.
I didn't think it would be so hard to get book reviews. It's daunting to compare the "books received" versus books reviewed from any journal. That's one of the reasons why I've decided to start Poetry 365--that and the fact that I'm suspicious about a link between reviews and sales. Reviews are generally more about positioning yourself as a critic. This is not always the case, of course, with every critic; many poets have written to me saying essentially the same thing. It's all part of the way things are done, though. Like getting book blurbs. I'm grateful that I found people to say nice things about me, but blurbs, in general, are nearly useless. Why do we have them? Wouldn't it be better for the poet to have a place to frame his or her work?
What have you been doing to promote sales, and what are those experiences like for you?
I try to do as many grass roots type of things that I can, like this question and answer, for example. I've conducted several interviews via email. A local paper featured a lifestyle piece and that helped generate some interest. I emailed the acquisition librarians for every private and public library in the state, including the college libraries. I called book stores, and scheduled readings. I've even read during a church service.
One thing that's very clear: there is nothing like one-on-one contact to promote the sales of a book. I'm not in the academic world and don't have a history of students and potential students so there is not that built-in audience that a lot of poets have. Just making people aware that the book is out there is important.
Despite initial hesitations, I'm thinking about putting together a few workshops to cover the nuts and bolts aspect of writing; I've either run or moderated a private workshop for several years, and have participated in many others longer. There are a lot of talented young poets out there looking for some advice to progress to the next level. As an editor, I see the same sorts of poems over and over again; I could bring a helpful perspective to younger poets. I would tell them to peel off their skins and let the wild spirit out. There are no right and wrong ways to write. What's important is to treat the craft like the art it is and trust in your ability to write. I've resisted this for a long time because I don't want to get into that rut of teaching certain kinds of poems that match up with craft-based issues. That could get stale really quickly. What I'd like to do is work on process, discovery, inner-dialog--the things we do every day as artists, that we sometimes take for granted. These are the sorts of questions I get most often at readings.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? Or, what was the best advice you got?
Right before the book's release, my friend and mentor Jim Moore said not to worry too much about sales, that I should know that the book will find its way into unlikely hands and that it will be a blessing when it does. Those words were very comforting to me. I can be very idealistic at times--I do believe that poetry is a necessary enterprise. I think he was preparing me for the inevitable poor sales of a first book. One thing I always tell the poets I work with: make sure you call yourself a poet. It sounds hokey to a degree, but I feel that it is very important that you recognize and name that creative spirit.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
I've always been a kind of underdog, but that's okay with me. I don't have any delusions about ever being a well-known poet. All I really care about--again the idealism--is writing the best poems I can. What I have noticed, however, is that I've slowed down quite a bit and that I'm second-guessing my work much more than I would have previously. Louise Gluck has said that she has a period of silence after the release of a book. I'm not sure, yet, what the effect is. It's really too early. I work very slowly as it is, so if I work any slower I could race mold.
How do you feel about the critical response to your book and has it had any effect on your writing?
I've gotten some very good reviews from the book, and a few bad reviews. You have to take both. I would like to see--purely from a selfish standpoint--a deeper engagement with the text itself. In the workshops I participate in, I find that I learn more from critics who take a hermeneutic approach. I've heard the word "sloppy" used a few times and that rankles me a little because that's the last thing I'd say my work is. Some readers may not like it. Others will. But no poem of mine comes into the world without a lot of time and attention.
Do you want your life to change?
It would be nice to live a creative life without having to find a job to pay the bills. If I could find a way to make music and be involved with poetry all day every day that would be very cool. It's pretty likely that will never happen, so for now I just try to stay busy and try to do my part to build a poetry community and maintain a network of friends. No one I know is in this for the money.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
I don't know. I try to be as involved as I can. I'm the editor-in-chief for the literary arts journal three candles, the publisher for three candles press, and curator for Poetry 365. I view these activities as a way to participate, to make my voice heard. Some people bitch about the state of affairs in poetry, this or that magazine, this or that program. If you feel strongly about something, do something to support it. Start a press. Start a journal. Organize a reading series. Getting involved is crucial to this art form.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I'm of two minds about this. As an idealist, I do believe that it creates change because of its fundamental nature. I've long believed that poetry is an art that deals with the ordering of signs to create the illusion of meaning. In this way, poetry is tremendously versatile, but it still deals with the nature of relationships. Whenever art makes someone a participant, it creates a kind of vehicle for examination and self-examination.
As a pragmatist, I doubt that it makes much difference: it takes a certain level of intelligence, a certain kind of surrender and that kind of sensibility is not something our culture tenders. We'd rather focus on business, pleasure, and entertainment. If we could use poetry as a tool with younger children and work it into a standard curriculum, then yes I believe poetry would be a phenomenal tool. At the very least I'd like to see poetry taken out of its standard box and given a new freedom. Students need to see that they can engage poems in different ways, that they can make them their own and, like dream images, metaphors, and emotions, use them as sources for creative living. I'm not saying that we abandon teaching students about the mechanics of poetry--Lord knows we need a common vocabulary--just that we stop considering poetry to be a short unit in a literature class.
A poem from A Mnemonic for Desire by Steve Mueske:
If I could burst into bloom, red
. . .
. . .