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every other day


18 MAY 06

Week 13, 14 sentences:

There were no men. I don't know why--whether it was war or just the time of day. We talked about this. If it's the body that holds us together. If not, what do you call these pixels in the air between us?

It was starting to rain. I could hear it echo in the body of the air conditioner that I didn't take out last fall and now it's nearly time to put them all back in again and she said, waking, "It's funny how a dream... always has to be a memory."

He tested the tooth next to it. He said, "It won't hurt, just tell me if it's cold." I said, "Yes." He said, "Good." I thought of the sign that I saw driving over: "We've got ice." Snow that looked like a tooth, sitting on the letters (I C E). And handwritten, underneath: "Thanks for your patients."


 


16 MAY 06

"The first task of the poet is to create the person who will write those poems."

flowering sage

Stanley Kunitz died on Sunday. He was 100 years old.

 

14 MAY 06

How has your first book changed your life?

6. Jen Benka

a box of longing with 50 drawers


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

While I know you're asking about the collection of my poems that Soft Skull published, I am full of memories of my very first book, which was a collection of haikus about basketball and dead frogs that I hand-bound in seventh grade. I remember ironing the fabric that I used for the cover and adding a few small drawings of clouds and trees in colored pencil to some of the pages. It was made in a limited edition of one, and when it was done, I, a shy twelve-year-old girl with messy hair, fell in love with the idea of the book. Collecting those silly little poems between two covers, building a tree house for them, was the first time I felt the word "meaningful."

I guess I'm suggesting a question of my own: how do we define or let others define "finished" or "first" book? Which begs perhaps an even larger question: what is a "book"? I'm hopeful that value is not necessarily gained by surrendering production to another or by quantity, and that what makes a book a book is not a barcode or an ISBN, or perhaps even paper, though that makes me a little sad. Here's cheers to paper, thick pulpy paper.

The book that Soft Skull published is a trade version of a limited edition handmade artist book I collaborated on with the artist Mark Wagner of Booklyn. So the poems have had the chance to live in two places and on two scales. I am thrilled to have the poems in a form that is more readily available, and am grateful to Soft Skull for making that possible. And to answer your question as it relates to the Soft Skull book, when I saw it, I thought: it's so tiny.

Before that day you saw your book, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?

I don't think I thought my life would change, but I did look forward to the possibility that this book might lead to new opportunities--such as the chance to share it with other writers whose work I was interested in, as a way to start a conversation.

How has your life been different since your book came out?

The book has wonderfully led to my meeting other poets in other cities and invitations to read, which I hope to be able to return in kind at some point. It has also made its way into the hands of people I have lost touch with and facilitated reconnecting with them.

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

Because of the political nature of my project, I thought having the book out there more widely might lead to my phone being tapped. Just kidding. I'm sure my phone was already tapped.

What are you doing to promote sales?

In the U.S., poetry basically exists outside of the economy--with only a few exceptions, books of poetry do not make money, they lose it. Poetry is all about losing money. Poetry is antithetical to capitalism. The poem and the dollar share only that they are both printed on paper. Thankfully there are many visionary people running presses who believe deeply that poetry matters and find other ways to cover publishing and printing costs. They are my heroes.

While this can raise questions for some about why there is a lack of demand for poetry in this country or reinforce for others the marginalized status of the poet, it is also a demonstration of the democratic nature of the art form. Poetry is free.

Could you tell me a little about how the idea for the book came to you--the idea to use these words as your basis?

After George W. Bush was appointed President by the Supreme Court in 2000, I decided to re-read the Constitution. Disillusioned and outraged, I thought first about creating a visual piece with the text of the document, to comment on the situation. The more I read, the more I kept returning to the Preamble, which, by its nature, summarizes the intention and aspirations of the framers of the Constitution.

One night, on the verge of sleep, I took the legal pad I kept by my bed and wrote each word from the Preamble on a separate page. The next day I started writing the poems. I was informed by Jerome Rothenberg's idea of "writing through," to see the work as a kind of translation, however English to English, and a poetic investigation into the textual, personal, and political body--applying poetry as a means to find what is there (in slight contrast to W.C. Williams' "what is found there.") The structure of the piece was also derived in part from a Polish literary genre, the ABC book. Several of the poems describe the immigrant experience, and one is composed of lines I extracted and arranged from a number of poems written by a distant relative of mine, the contemporary Polish poet Urszula Benka, whom I have never met. Many of the poems are also written in different poetic forms, as a way to unmirror how the words in the Preamble introduce the language that became the law that formed our country.

I also wonder about the differences between working with words like "of," "to," "and," & "the" and (for example) "posterity," "liberty," "constitution," & "ordain"--anything to say about that?

I don't think I approached the prepositions, conjunctions, nouns, and verbs differently. I tried to be attentive to how each word resonated independent from and also within its context. This "of" is just "of." It is also the fourth word in the Preamble to the Constitution... I do think the prepositions and conjunctions provided space to introduce a wider range of  subjects. They were also more challenging. I wrote the poems in order, and when I arrived at the sixth "the," for example, I wondered what more I could possibly find behind it.

How did the limited edition book differ from the Soft Skull version? Are the covers similar? Was this cover also designed by Mark Wagner?

The handmade, limited edition artist book version of my manuscript produced by Booklyn [Booklyn Artists Alliance] and the version Soft Skull published are quite different and not connected. The Booklyn book, released in January 2003, was titled, A Revisioning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America, and was treated primarily as a visual object. The book cover is brown, thinly ridged paper that is reminiscent of the paper used to make book jackets for grade school textbooks. The title and cover art were letter pressed. The interior pages were photocopied, folded into three signatures, and hand sewn together. The title of each poem was presented on a tab along the side of the pages, making a kind of dictionary. The book has been warmly received by the visual art world, and included in group shows at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C., Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. It has been exciting for me to see the poems have a life in the visual world, as I'm very interested in the interstice of text and image and inter-disciplinary work in general. It has also been sometimes strange--seeing the book displayed in a plexi-glass box, thinking, "Now how is anybody supposed to read that?"

the Booklyn Artists Alliance limited-edition version

Mark and I were not involved with the design of the Soft Skull version, which was designed by David Janik. Richard Nash, the publisher, kindly invited my input, but I gave very little, feeling confident in the designs they had produced for other books. I should note that the Soft Skull version also contains a number of new and revised poems, not included in the Booklyn book.

Another significant difference is cost and distribution. The Booklyn book was distributed literally out of a suitcase, one at a time, and sold to museums and collecting libraries for $200 or so. The Soft Skull version sells for $12.95 and has national distribution through Publishers Group West and is available for order online.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out?

Do not expect your name to be on the spine of your book.

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

I think more in terms of book-length projects than I did before.

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

As far as I know, people's response to the book and the poems has been positive. It has been affirming to have the work and what I was up to with the project understood.  

Do you want your life to change?

I like my life. I would like to spend more time in the woods. I would like to be more still. I would also like to learn to cook. That's a lie. I would like someone to like to cook for me.

Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?

No. I better get on that. Camping anyone?

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

Poetry and a relationship with language has changed my life; it is the way I understand my location in the world. As far as changing the world, I defer to Muriel Rukeyser, who wrote:

We have, in the opening of such a time, a sense of an age disclosing undefined possibilities, new meanings for multiplicity, and new meanings of unity. This age contains the promise of poetry among its great promises. But this is simply one of many needs.

Poetry will not answer these needs. It is art: it imagines and makes, and gives you the imaginings. Because you have imagined love, you have not loved...

Art is action, but it does not cause action: rather, it prepares us for thought.

Art is intellectual, but it does not cause thought: rather, it prepares us for thought.

Art is not a world, but a knowing of the world. Art prepares us.

:

From A Box of Longing with Fifty Drawers by Jen Benka:


AMERICA

an unsolved mathematical equation:
land plus people divided by people minus land
times ocean times forest times river.

escape and the delusion of discovery:
across the mad ocean to the rocky shore
step foot onto land call it yours.

promised land lemonade stand.
auction block stew pot.

the dreams:
of corn field wheat field tobacco field oil
of iron cage slave trade cotton plantation
of hog farm dairy farm cattle ranch range
of mississippi mason-dixon mountains
of territories salt lake lottery gold
of saw mill steel mill coal mine diamond.

topographic, economic
industry and war.

a box of longing
with fifty drawers.


. . .

read more first-book interviews

. . .

 

12 MAY 06

How has your first book changed your life?

5. Brian Teare

The Room Where I Was Born


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

I don't remember much other than the fact that the first copies came from the distributor in an ordinary plain brown box that sat waiting on my doorstep, and not, as I'd fantasized, in Helios' chariot, bedizened with fireworks and disco-like lights--so it was anti-climactic in some sense.

It was not unlike getting a package from anywhere: I came home from one of the three jobs I had at the time--working at a used bookstore in Menlo Park or teaching in either Oakland or Palo Alto--and found the box on my doorstep. I lived alone at the time, since I and my boyfriend of two years were in the process of breaking up, so I remember very clearly the sense that I really wanted someone else (well, okay, him) to be there, but instead I ripped open the box and then called everyone I knew who would be excited.

Though I can't remember the feeling of being excited, I know that I was simply because I carried a copy of it in my backpack for several weeks, and that's something I do with any book I'm currently in love with.

And to be honest, no matter how my relationship to its interior contents has changed since it came out, I still think it's visually a very beautiful book. There had been a lot of haggling over the cover image and colors, and so the thing that struck me--and that I still remember clearly--was that upon my first glimpse of it, I was both relieved and delighted that it was a beautiful object, and that I was very grateful to the designer, Mira Nenonen. It's still a pleasure for me to actually hold the hardcover version, and this pleasure often takes me back to the ontological awe I first felt when I held it: this is mine?

Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices?

This is a saga, but I'll try to make it brief.

My first choice was a Julia Margaret Cameron photo whose title I no longer recall--it was a family portrait of sorts, a staging of a scene from a Tennyson poem (one of many she made), and it captured a kind of Victorian/Freudian family drama that I thought suited the book. It had a kind of structural menace--there's a real split down the middle of the photograph. On the left side, a mother in white has her hands on the shoulders of a young girl, all very nice and "normal"-like. On the right side, a father is holding a girl similarly, but there's thick fishnet draped over one of her shoulders--odd, jarring detail--as if caught by him. What I loved was that her head was in motion--blurred--as though thrashing a bit, struggling. I wrote all the appropriate authorities, tracked down the right museum and the right contact--it took months--and then it turned out that they couldn't find the photo in their archives.

My second choice was a photo by Ralph Eugene Meatyard--a white boy of about eight whose arms disappear in the air (clearly he's waving them above his head) by virtue of the shutter's timing. Structurally, it was a much cleaner and simpler formal composition--and the starkness of it was dramatic. I also loved it because it was clearly Southern (Meatyard lived in Kentucky) and I thought it was lovely, the way he made visible the physical fragility of boyhood--esp. because it's not the usual representation of boyhood's body: resilient, athletic, etc. Well, through Eastman-Kodak, I tracked down the holder of rights--Meatyard's son--it was a lot quicker, maybe a month or so--and that was a no-go because of the huge cost of rights.

At this point, we were pressed for time--Wisconsin produces the book in less than a year, and they do a fabulous job of it--and so the designer hit public domain. Over the span of a month, she sent a lot of images, and none of them worked for me. Finally, at the 12th hour--bless her patience!--in the very last file she was willing to send, there was the image that now graces the cover. I was thrilled, and though I was supposed to choose three images just in case, I told her that that image was the only one I'd consider. Luckily, it worked.

Ironically, a month after we'd worked out the cover art, I was visiting the Met and found in their bookstore a brand-new volume: the complete photographs of Cameron. When I looked up my photo by title, I discovered: a) it wasn't the image that the book at home had printed, and b) it was indeed listed as lost. On the opposite page was the photo I'd wanted--it bore a different title altogether.

The happy thing is, it struck me then as too literal and too melodramatic, and I was much happier with the one that Mira had found--and in the end, as I've said, I love the book's design, especially it's cover.

Before the day you ripped open that box and saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?

I grew up queer in a small town in the Deep South--for 22 years my entire life narrative was structured around the idée fixe, "When I leave, my life will begin and/or be lots better." Once grad school finally supplied me adequate money to leave, and after my life had not been magically changed by the act of crossing several state lines, I had to rethink the truth-value of my basic narrative arc.            

The basic narrative formula they fed us in the MFA program about post-MFA life was this:

1) publish your poems in lots of journals and
2) you'll publish a book and then
3) you'll get a nice tenure-track teaching job.

I didn't grow up with anything resembling familial or mental stability, or much of an idea how to succeed at anything (let alone at walking the seemingly trackless path of being a writer), and so this recipe sounded really good to me.

And so I thought, "When I leave grad school…," and "When I publish lots of poems in Big Journals," and then, later, as I shlepped my adjunct ass around the Bay Area, "When I get my first book…" You get the picture.

So in a word: yes. On some level, I'd imagined my life would change dramatically. However, did these imaginings ever have much basis in what even then I knew to be reality? No.

How has your life been different since your book came out?

The major difference is: work.

The Bay Area is home to tons of post-MFA writers looking for work, and the book has enabled me to get jobs teaching something other than composition and/or technical writing. Sometimes these new, better jobs (in combination) pay an almost-living wage, too!

So the book enabled me not just to teach, but to be hired to teach grad poetry workshops and lit classes and also, eventually, to become more securely and remuneratively employed by the schools that had, but one semester previously, indifferently used me for cheap labor. This was, for someone longing for more stability, a very good thing.

But in a certain sense, even as I got access to better jobs, this access also exposed the deeply flawed and arbitrary nature of what academia considers "achievement" or "qualification": after all, I was, as a teacher, no better or worse the semester after publishing a book than I had been the semester before. The fact that the administration acted as if something essential about me had changed when, in fact, it hadn't, was not only slightly disorienting, but also disappointing.

One thing I truly love about the way my life has changed: I get to travel more--sometimes to teach, often to give readings. I've never had much extra money, so the experience of getting to see so much more of the country and its cities, and of meeting so many poets, writers and artistic communities, has been really lovely and fortuitous-feeling.

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

Things I imagined would happen but didn't:

1) My family disowning me.
2) Fan letters.
3) Bad reviews.
4) A tenure-track job.
5) Selling out of the first printing.

Surprises:

1) My parents read it and didn't disown me.
2) Readers still buy and read it three years after it came out.
3) Being on the cover of The Lambda Book Report.
4) A beautiful and insightful review in Blackbird.
5) Winning the Triangle Award for Gay Poetry.

How big was the first printing?

There were 1,500 paperbound and 300 hardcover copies. I felt so lucky to have hardcovers at all! Having grown up enamored of libraries (my first merit badge as a Boy Scout was the Reading merit badge), I always felt that a hardcover was a real book--I hated flimsy kids' books--and ever since I can remember, I've loved holding their heft.

What did you do to promote sales, and what were those experiences like?

Since the book was published by a University press with a limited budget, the only real thing I could do was to read as much I could afford to--a friend of mine who had published his book a year earlier helped me to compile a list of places to write to in request of readings, and though most of them either didn't respond or weren't able to fit me into their schedules, I took every opportunity to read out-of-town that didn't financially kill me. It didn't add up to all that many, but it was really fun nonetheless. 

All of them were good experiences, and many of them were downright lovely: John and Christine of Open Books in Seattle were the most marvelous, supportive, welcoming folks imaginable and their shop is a jewel of both the book business and poetry culture; Deborah Landau and Matthew Zapruder at KGB provided fabulous warm camaraderie, perfect atmosphere and a big crowd, plus Manhattan-octane cocktails; but I was really most surprised and moved by my experience at Poetry Santa Cruz.

First Dennis Morton interviewed me for his radio show, and we had a lively, smart conversation--and he really honored the book with an close and affectionate reading; second, the reading itself was attended by one of the most responsive and attentive audiences I've ever been graced with. The people who came up afterward said much that has stayed with me since--and it's the possibility of generous reciprocity that I love so much about readings. It's a real gift when it works, when both reader and audience are receptive to it.

The other thing I did was really pester the Press into sending the book out to prizes (the Lambda, the Norma Faber, etc.)--and so they did, and it was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award and won the Triangle Award, and I think both of those helped a little bit.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out?

The best advice I got:

1) Read publicly as often as you can--both at home and away.
2) Enter the book for prizes.
3) Send a copy of the book, or have the press send a copy of the book, to the journals who published poems from it.
4) Don't look at (or get obsessed with) your Amazon rating--it means very little.

The best advice I never got:

1) Don't expect much public reaction for at least the first 3 months. You don't have to be well-connected for a book to do well for itself or gain readers: a book makes its own friends.
2) Do what you can for the book--but don't stress out about what you think you should do for it, or what others you know are able to do for theirs.
3) People have couches so that poor visiting poets can sleep on them.
4) Don't be afraid to ask for small favors--such as a couch to crash on.

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

Almost none--if any. I'd already written half of my second book by the time the first one got published.

How do you feel about the critical response to your book and has it had anyeffect on your writing?

Again, it's had almost no effect on my writing, except perhaps a small passing sadness that, by the time it came out, I'd already written past the narrative content and style of the book.

I'm still surprised and honored that it was so well-reviewed, at least, it seemed to me, for a first book--over a half-dozen reviews, all well-written, some in really nice places, and with a few interviews as well. Because a graduate-school colleague (also gay) had asked me if I was afraid that straight readers would feel alienated by the sexual nature of much of my work, I worried about it for years. And then came the really sympathetic and totally simpatico reviews--like the one in Blackbird--that made me realize: a) it wasn't the impossibly dense, entirely unpleasant book my workshops had often led me to think it was, and
b) I could write the poems I wanted to write and others (literally, those Other than I) could not only understand them, but also enjoy and get meaning out of them.

The other best thing I learned from reviews is about book structure: I worked so hard to get the book to click as a book--years, really--and for the most part, I learned that I succeeded. But I also learned where in the structure I didn't succeed and why. Those failures taught me something about the way a book's shape communicates with a reader, made me think about how to make a book's conceptual project more clear to others without sacrificing complexity. These are things I still think about, both in terms of my second and third manuscripts, but also in terms of my grad students' theses.

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

Teaching teaches me that the introduction of new ways of thinking--especially original critical thinking--can change a student's world/view, stun her out of old patterns, reveal to him his reliance on useless logics, and unsettle for them both a picture of the "real" that they may have long ago unconsciously settled for. I have seen this change to be political, spiritual, existential, psychological and/or aesthetic--and I have seen it arrive both suddenly as a shattering illumination, and over the span of a few years in a kind of evolution. And so I have come to believe that because the ways in which poetry engages, incites and changes our thinking, our a priori unchallenged worldviews, does so on an individual level, they also have the potential to change the world at large as well.           

This might be too personal: I wonder, after your parents read your book and didn't disown you, what happened then? What was your next conversation with them like?

The book came out. I didn't send it to them--and didn't. And still didn't.

And then, a few months later, they told me they'd ordered it on Amazon (also, that some of their friends in their prayer group had as well! I had to laugh--I imagined many novenas going up for the Teare family). Even though any normal person would know that their reading it would be inevitable, I freaked out nonetheless.

Because: my parents had at one point in my life pretty much rejected me because of my sexuality, and I was afraid of being rejected all over again for writing about my experience within the family and the community (and though to some it might seem unlikely, the book shows a lot of restraint and tact--what made it onto the page was only a fraction of a fraction of the stories I could've told). These were things I'd confronted them with, but that they'd never been able to talk about with me. They knew they'd fucked up--for great parts of my early adolescence they'd left me in the house, alone, with a 20-something year-old schizophrenic drug addict in possession of firearms--and eventually there'd been Social Services involved, etc. The times I'd tried to talk to them about this, my father would go all stoic and my mother would cry and that would be it.

At any rate, I'd also known all along that it was likely I was going to freak out--not just about their reading it, but in part about the story being out in the world. I really wanted a way to make it alright for readers (including my family) to read the book as it was meant to be read: as carefully made artifice, not solely as content (which is why I also re-wrote all the publisher's jacket copy to de-emphasize "sensational" content and re-emphasize the genre play of the book). So I had the publishers put on the copyright page a little disclaimer:

"The poems in this book are acts of the imagination, and the characters therein inventions. Neither poems not characters should be mistaken for reality, the context that invents imagination."  

I cribbed the gesture from the copyright page of one of my favorite books, Carole Maso's novel The Art Lover--I probably should have acknowledged her in the notes!--but the writing is mine.

So in the midst of freaking out, I wrote my parents a long letter in which I told them: a) that I was afraid they would reject me again, and b) that they should feel free to read the book as a mixture of invention and autobiography.

I wanted to give them an out: anything they didn't like, they could pretend it wasn't true. When they got the letter, we talked briefly on the phone, and honestly, that conversation instigated a new phase in our relationship--we became a little closer in spite of ourselves.

Well, they read it. My father didn't say much--in fact, I can't remember his saying anything other than, "Well, I read it." My mother simply said, "It was very sad." I think she said it was well-written (her speed is more Patricia Cornwell or saucy bodice-rippers with muscled shirtless hunks gripping busty women on the covers). And then she said, "But I didn't like the part about the Moon Winx." And who can blame my very Catholic mother for not liking the idea of her teenage son hustling? So I said, "I understand, mom. It is sad." And that was the extent of that.

The ironic thing is that I've heard from a few people who've taught the book that the little note on the front has occasionally caused a great deal of furor in their classes--that rather than allowing people to read the book for its linguistic play and invention, it gets in the way of their appreciation of "truth value." But that's another discussion.

:

a poem from The Room Where I Was Born by Brian Teare:


Agorophobia: A Reply
    
(Telemachus to Penelope)


Not yet. Frost hasn't hit. Gripping the branches, only
crabapples last, balled infants' fists, toughest parts turned
inward. No not depressed. Just sick inside all week.
Cars slur by; the windows itch in their panes, crawl
the opposite wall. I watch into drift, liquid fever-shift.
Mother, inside me the room busies your hands.

 

No I'm--just watchful and counting things: pills, pages
read, days until my birthday. Of course send money. Yes
no socks. No anything in bulk. Leaves, early this year,
measure the yard in hands, days in falling. I was in bed
when a man and a rake came to bargain; he gathered
a whole afternoon in a handshake and led the yard away.

 

Let me remind you what you taught: home, one can
claim nowhere comfortable, no place private. That
is why your children suffer self like heavy clothes
shrugged off when hot. Mothered things card misery
like wool, find themselves rich with this one action:
minutes. Spun into finest thread, I've never loved

 

anyone as I love you in my disappearing:

                        in hours, the room will work me into tapestry.


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