every other day

5 SEPT 06

How has your first book changed your life?

31.  Jessica Smith

Organic Furniture Cellar

You decided to publish your first book yourself and it's just recently out. Had you sent the manuscript to publishers before deciding to take matters into your own hands?

Yes. And it was provisionally accepted to one publisher, but for some reason I declined that offer.

Did you have experience with printers before choosing the people who printed your book? What led you to decide to do it with them and how did it go?

I did; I published name, the undergraduate literary magazine at SUNY Buffalo with Hignell, a Canadian printer. This time I used McNaughton & Gunn, which is based in Michigan. I used them because they were the cheapest of the printers I got quotes from. I found them very frustrating to work with, but it was mainly matters of miscommunication.

Did you know what you wanted the cover to look like while you were writing the book? Did you have that image in mind?

No, actually I had another image in mind, the first photograph taken of Niagara Falls, which is also the first picture taken in Canada.

the falls

But I couldn't make it look right in the cover design so I went with the William Morris design. I chose William Morris and the cover font, which was designed by Paul Hunter and made into a TTF by Buffalo's P22 Type Foundry, because of Buffalo's instrumental position in the Arts & Crafts movement.

The colors, patterns, and fonts used on the cover emerged, if you will, "organically" during the design process.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?

Ha, well, it's all fastidiously documented on my blog. The UPS guy came so late. I was going stir-crazy. I couldn't sleep for days before it arrived and I tracked the packages obsessively on the UPS website. When I saw the book I felt relieved. There had been so many delays and revisions that it felt like a past-term pregnancy--I just wanted to get it out. Tellingly, I spent most of the following 72 hours asleep.

No one lives here with me in Virginia, but lots of people were online when I got it, which was good. A virtual celebration. My cats were excited because they got a lot of packing materials to play with.

Are you glad you made the choice to self-publish and do you recommend that route to other poets?

I'm glad I made the choice to self-publish. I like the way the book looks. But no, I would not recommend self-publishing to other poets. First, I've gotten a lot of flack about how self-publishing isn't legitimate. It makes me want to yell at people, "try actually reading the book!" I didn't expect anyone to be so virulently against self-publishing--and to be fair, it's not that many people. But I think that how the book is produced should not be such an issue, unless it's like hand-sewn with goat-gut on paper made from rainforests by children in Columbia. OFC probably went through more editors than most books because I was concerned about the self-publishing issue. Although I received a lot of good feedback from poets I admired, and much of OFC was published in magazines before it was published as a book, I was self-conscious about putting it out myself. If I was going to self-publish, I wanted to make sure I was preparing a worthy product. So it went through a number of readers and revisions before it came out. There's nothing illegitimate about this book--and some of the most major poets of our age seem to agree. But it's stressful to fend off the negative comments about self-publishing, so don't do it unless you have thick skin or rock-solid confidence in your work.

Second reason not to self-publish, it costs a lot of money. Unless you go POD, printing is expensive. Third, doing the design, working with the printers, and now handling orders and publicity myself is a lot of work. I wouldn't recommend self-publishing to anyone who doesn't want to do the amount of work it requires. 

But these are the only reasons I wouldn't recommend it. If you have faith in the quality of your manuscript and people aren't taking it seriously, or the release timeframe is an issue, then self-publishing is the way around all the obstacles of small-press publishing. And there's the advantage of having artistic control.  For some poets this control is very important.

Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it?


How has your life been different since?

I quite simply feel that I've done something worthwhile. This is a pretty rare feeling for me. I do lots of "good" things but they just drop with an echo into a big abyss where my self-esteem should be. It's different with OFC. I feel like it puts a bottom in the abyss. If I have nothing else, I have this.

It's pretty empowering to have a book and to know that one can self-publish. 

Were there things you thought would happen that didn't?

Not really, not yet.

What have you been doing to promote the book, and what are those experiences like for you?

So far I'm setting up readings and sending out review copies. I don't actually like reading poetry aloud--I rather enjoy being behind the scenes of poetry than out on stage. But poetry readings seem like an essential part of the "business." I haven't sent out many review copies yet because first I have to write a press release, and I'm not really looking forward to it. I have a lot of confidence in my work, but bragging about it in the way necessary to promote it is difficult for me. Girls are taught to be self-effacing, and I'm trying to get over that for the sake of the book.

Have you gotten any good advice, or what advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out?

I got lots of good advice from Derek Fenner, Shanna Compton, K. Lorraine Graham, and Brent Cunningham. Derek helped me sort out publishing, funding, and distribution stuff through Bootstrap Productions, of which Outside Voices is officially an imprint. Shanna has been very supportive and offering suggestions all along, especially when M&G was being a pain in the ass, and now she's being very helpful with promotion, teaching me how to send out review copies. Brent made the essential contribution of telling me that a poetry book will sell (maybe, if everything goes well) about 300 copies, so that helped me with setting the price and with not expecting, like, people swarming at the bookstore for my book. Last fall, Lorraine and I had a number of discussions about being a female poet, and those conversations are probably what led me to the conviction that I should publish OFC myself.

I think I had reasonable expectations of what would happen when the book came out, so I'm happy with what has happened thus far. Most of the changes that have happened for me are, like the writing and publishing, at the level of Self.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

I've written very little since completing the book in 2004. Most of what I have written has been stuff that could have gone into OFC.  I'm not sure "where I'm going next," stylistically, so I can't write. 

Moreover, when I finished OFC I pledged to myself that I wouldn't write anything else until it was published. My creative life centered on getting OFC "out." Maybe now that it's out my creative juices will start flowing again.

How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing?

I'm happy about the critical response so far, although maybe Ron Silliman's difficulty reading the text has made me feel a little cautious about writing "difficult," fragmentary texts. (Ron kindly reviewed the book right after I sent it to him, so I imagine he'll have more to explore in subsequent readings--it's a book designed to be reread.) I see that there are readers who might not want to work with the text as hard as one must work to decode all the words and references; this is perhaps the closest I've come to understanding that we live in a postmodern of consumption and disposability ("buy the book!") rather than modernist culture of close study and reuse ("make it anew")

I think OFC can be read on multiple levels, and that the very basic visual narrative is interesting and "good," so it's not absolutely necessary to dig further.

                               [click the image to enlarge & read]

flores para los muertos (click on it)

This trend toward coagulation rather than fragmentation isn't Ron's fault, it's something I've been moving toward anyway. I would like to write a book of poetry that would help someone, comfort someone, rather than just be fun, challenging, and pretty to look at.

Do you want your life to change?

Yes, but I'm not sure how. Having OFC is like having a buoy while life swirls around me. I'm not sure what beach I'll wash up on, but at least I have this.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?



A poem from Organic Furniture Cellar by Jessica Smith:


Passage (click on it)

[click the image to enlarge]


. . .

next interview: Aaron Kiely

other first-book interviews

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