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both both
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minimalist concrete poetry
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mr. tong bliss' journal
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nice guy syndrome
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you are here
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journals/small press/reviews:

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every other day

24 MAY 06

Choosing a Caption

1. "It's a place on the map. Way up high, at the top. It shows up a lot in my dreams. It's green. It's a place between places. But we can drive there from here."

2. "From the beginning I questioned whether guitars should be made of soft material or of a dense, hard material that would make the string do everything it was supposed to do, thereby excluding uninvited guests to the sound. First, I took a steel railroad track and strung a string along it. Underneath I put the receiver part of the telephone and hooked it up to the radio. That was how I found the sound I was dreaming of."

3. "What led. Is it fog?"

4. "Next I tried a four-by-four plank with a string stretched on it. That was the very first time I made a solid body guitar. The first time I brought it onstage, I took it to a tavern in Queens. People looked at me like I was nuts. So after that I fastened two sides on it, to make it look more like a guitar, and they applauded. I realized then that many people hear with their eyes."

5. "Let me say one other thing. The images you are seeing, you are seeing over and over and over. It's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase. And you see it 20 times and you think, My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?"


22 MAY 06

How has your first book changed your life?

8. Matthew Thorburn

Subject to Change

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

It's hard now to remember that day in late summer, 2004--to actually remember it and not make up a memory, even without meaning to. I do know I came down the stairs that day and saw a box sitting in the entryway to my apartment building. I recognized the return address, lugged the box upstairs and carefully cut it open. And then I must have just sat a while, looking at a copy of Subject to Change, this book that seemed to have taken so long to get there. (Though since then, I've talked to or read about lots of other poets and how long it took them to get their first books published, and now realize how lucky I was--really how quickly STC came to be.)

But I'd gotten a sneak peek at Subject to Change--everything but the cover art--when New Issues sent me a bound galley a few months earlier. I had carried that around, and shown it to friends (one of whom praised the spare, elegant design of the black and white, text-only cover!), and read through the poems, laid out on the page in actual book form, many times. And then they'd emailed me a jpeg of the cover art, so I had sort of seen the book already, albeit piecemeal--which may be why the particulars of that day are hard to recall.

The bigger "This is it!" moment was about 16 months earlier, when Herb Scott called me to say that STC was going to be published. Brenda Hillman, to my (and Herb's!) surprise, chose it and six others for the New Issues first book prize. "I liked your manuscript, so I sent it on to her," Herb said, "even though I didn't think she'd like it"--or so I remember, both of us supposing it probably wasn't "experimental" enough for her. I was in Jersey City, home alone, so when I hung up with Herb I called my parents--who weren't home. But my friend and neighbor Allison was, so she came over and we had a celebratory beer in the backyard.

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

I don't think I expected any major life changes because of it. It did feel like a kind of validation for me--though not in the sense of taking a step down the road to tenure or "making it" or whatever. What I mean is validation in the non-poetry world of my family and many of my friends. My parents have always been absolutely supportive and encouraging, even while admitting they don't "get" most of what I write. But having a book published made me feel that my poetry writing had become more real and tangible for my family and other non-poetry-reading friends and colleagues.

Do any particular comments from them stay in your mind?

Well, one interesting thing that happened a couple times was that someone would recognize a particular reference in the poems. I rarely write anything straight from real life, but there would be these little pieces here and there that would click. One example is in "Refrain," where I mention, hypothetically, that a person might slip up with a circular saw and cut off his fingers. Well, I'd sort of forgotten that that had actually happened. "I can't believe you remembered that," my old friend Bob told me after I read this poem at the book party in Lansing, because it was his father-in-law who had done that--and Bob was the one who had to go in the workshop and find the fingers, so they could be re-attached.

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

The biggest change in that first year was a practical one. I became much more focused on the "admin" stuff--lining up readings, sending out review copies, applying to those recently-published-book prizes--rather than on writing or revising new poems. I probably took part in more readings in that one year than I had in my whole life till then.

Like a lot of poets I know, I have a "regular" full-time day job, so the time I can dedicate to poetry is limited. Part of the challenge now is to pull back a bit from that stuff and focus again on writing.

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

For some reason, I thought having a first book out there would make it easier to get a second book out there. Not true! I went through the exercise of querying the "big" poetry publishers, but otherwise the process of sending my new manuscript out to contests--many of the same contests I sent STC to--feels like deja vu all over again.

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

The biggest thing was to do as many readings as I could--and in fact I'm still doing readings when opportunities come up. Living in New York, I'm very fortunate to have a lot of local opportunities. I've read at places like The Ear Inn and Cornelia Street Cafe in Manhattan, The Art House in Jersey City, and more recently in the Earshot reading series in Williamsburg.

I didn't have the time available to do a full-fledged book tour, but when STC first came out, I did take a trip to Michigan for "The Misplaced Michigander Tour"--a three-stop jaunt across the southern half of my home state. Although I live in the publishing capital of the world, I had my "launch party" at a coffee shop in Lansing, my home town. I also read at Shaman Drum Bookshop, in Ann Arbor, where I'd gone to many readings as an undergrad.

The other big thing was to send out review copies. After I began sending out my manuscript to contests, I compiled a media list of publications that ran poetry reviews, as well as whatever contact info I could dig up for individual reviewers. Once STC was published, New Issues was great about sending review copies to all of these places (as well as to their own list of reviewers) and I continued to send a few copies out here and there as I came across other reviewers.

Reading from my book--especially at the Michigan events--has been the highlight of my publishing experience. Most of writing is a solo venture, when I really just have to trust my best instincts and do the work I believe in. So to have people respond to these poems and want to talk about them afterwards and buy a copy of them to keep and read was (and still is) a powerful and heart-warming experience for me. And to see old friends and teachers and family in Michigan made the experience doubly so.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?

Probably the most helpful thing, in a way, was that the folks at New Issues told me very clearly what they could and couldn't do for me, in terms of promotion. They could (and did) advertise a lot in Poets & Writers and The Writer's Chronicle and places like that, and they sent out a slew of review copies, but they didn't have the people power to set up readings (aside from at the AWP Conference, which unfortunately I couldn't attend). I think most poetry publishers don't. So I knew well in advance that it'd be up to me to do that kind of legwork.

The good advice I didn't exactly get, but soon figured out, is that in most cases you really do have to sell poetry books face to face, one at a time--at readings or school visits or book fairs or wherever you can. So the advice I would give is to get out there, to the degree that you are able to and comfortable doing so, and do readings and go to these other events. Something else New Issues is great about (and a lot of other publishers probably are too) is letting their authors buy copies of their books at half price to sell at readings. Clearly no one is getting rich here, but I found this helps a lot with make-ends-meet money for the logistical expenses of whatever kind of readings you're able to do.

Have you had occasion to meet Brenda Hillman since she chose your book, or was there written communication between the two of you?

I haven't had the chance to meet Brenda, though I'd like to. She did provide some suggestions on my manuscript (such as cutting a poem and pointing out a grammatical issue I'd never noticed) along with her "judge's statement," which was printed in the front of the book. But having selected seven manuscripts for publication, she was--I think understandably--unable to work with us individually or have any kind of back-and-forth about the manuscripts.

Were you asked for input about your book's cover design?

No, I wasn't. Actually that's something else Herb was clear about right up front--that the WMU Design Center faculty and grad students create the covers and the authors don't have a say in it. In a way, this was very freeing. I think it's best to leave it to the experts and not be a backseat designer. But of course I also worried like hell over it--that being what I'm most expert at--and hoped they'd come up with something I at least didn't hate, never mind hoping for something I actually liked.

But my worrying and low expectations turned out to be unnecessary. I love the Magritte-y image they created of picture or door frames set against a cloudy blue sky--and appreciate the red spine that stands out on the shelf. In fact, back when I first started sending my manuscript out to contests, I thought that if I did eventually get to pick cover art for STC, I'd pick a Magritte. He's one of my favorites. ("The Man With The Newspaper" is the painting I had in mind.)

Along with Brenda, I'd like to someday meet the designer, Chiu Ping Chen, and say thank you for the cover. I would also thank copy editor Jonathan Pugh, who spent a chunk of time on the phone walking me through a lot of small but important typographical questions. He made sure the insides looked as good as the outside, which I appreciate. And Marianne Swierenga, the managing editor of New Issues, whom I did get to meet when I read in Kalamazoo, is someone else I'm very grateful to get to work with.

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

I can't say it's really had any noticeable influence, good or bad. By the time Herb called with the good news about STC, I'd already written a dozen or so poems that would go into my second manuscript, so that helped me sidestep any of the sort of "Well, now what are you going to write?" anxiety I had once imagined would follow getting a book published. I think that's the plus side of the lag-time between acceptance and publication.

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

I've been very fortunate to get positive reviews in quite a few places, and not to get any negative reviews. None of this has changed the way I write or what I write, but it's encouraging to know that people are reading and thinking about my poems and taking the time to articulate their responses to them. And on a more practical level, these reviews help to get the word out about the book, nudging sales along and making it easier in some cases to set up readings. It's also been interesting to see how different people read the book differently.

Do you want your life to change?

It has changed a lot, and keeps changing, though most of that isn't because of or related to publishing a book. But it was just a few months before the book came out that I left a job I'd grown to hate (a real soul-killing place that had already done a number on me) and soon after STC that I landed my current job, which is sane and enjoyable and mentally healthy in all the ways that the old one wasn't.

Much more importantly, I'm about to marry a truly amazing woman. I met her in 2003, when the book was just in the works, and she came with me on my mini-Michigan tour (and in fact has been to all my readings since then, God help her). And we're moving to a different part of the city, looking at maybe buying a place to live, planning a couple of big other-side-of-the-world type of trips, and getting going with all the "real life" kinds of things that I used to always look forward to as these distant, unimaginable things that only adults do.

So I'm not looking for more change, and I wouldn't chalk up any of these things as results of having a book out there, but writing and publishing poems is something I've been fortunate to be able to do in the midst of everything.

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

It changed my world, years ago when I first tried writing poems. That's how it works, I think: one person at a time. I'm glad it did and still does.


A poem from Subject to Change by Matthew Thorburn:

Little Waltz

We all fall in love with a bright sky falling between the trees like a church. Like anything we cannot touch. We walk out towards it; it creeps further away. And each night has a dog in it that barks and barks. When we sing, we sing to someone, even if he or she's not there. Think of the loneliness of valence electrons, all those open hands--that dance they do to give us salt, rust. That's why lightning's always on the run, why I love a door ajar, and the light it lets out, and someone singing in the tub. The scratches on this record sound like rain. Or is that rain? When I make up words for "The Long-Legged Waltz," I make them for you. They say, Let's go back between those careless black filaments of trees. Let's go back. Let's go. Let's.

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20 MAY 06

How has your first book changed your life?

7. Amy King

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

Actually, I saw my finished book before I saw my book finished. I met an Argentinean artist, Ramiro Clemente, selling his tourist-stopping ink drawings on a street in Barcelona. I bought a couple; we began corresponding via email; he sent me a few jpegs of a collaborative series he had done with a photographer, and among those, I spotted my book's cover--simply put, it rang out and resonated with the thematic content of my manuscript. I bought the piece and sent it on to my publisher [Geoffrey Gatza, of BlazeVOX]. We decided a black frame, the title, and my name would suffice. The content of Clemente's painting traverses and encompasses the words within. Hence and at risk of sounding irreverent, the arrival of the final product was not surprising or even terribly monumental, but rather, it felt like a coming together that was somehow a natural signpost in the course of the work of poetry.

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

Happily, my life changes every day because of poetry, whether it is related to writing towards a book or not. The most obvious change though has been an increase in the number of reading invitations, for which I am especially grateful. Doing readings is a learning experience that doesn't seem to get emphasized as it should, especially in writing programs and before one's first book. The performance aspect is truly one to grapple with happily and perpetually, and hearing the words emerge from my own mouth speaks volumes for the editing process. For this latter reason, I make it a point to read a few new poems at each venue. I hear what needs to be nixed more readily and the points that could stand some development. Another prominent plus of readings is luxuriating in how poetry creates and generates the banter that conceals a very real and strong community. I have located many new comrades in a variety of states, those belonging to the U.S. and to the ways of being, because of my book.
How has your life been different since your book came out?

I am quite famous now. Rock stars ask for my lyrical assistance. Fortune 500 companies court me regularly for major advertising campaigns. David Lynch will soon use the book as a treatment for his next script. Of course, this only makes sense since I've long been an admirer of his films.
Finally, one of the biggest changes happens in seemingly small ways: fellow poets and readers contact me through my website to send kudos or ask a question about poetry. I love that kind of written-word induced conversation. Derrida has long attested to an inversion of the spoken-trumps-the-written binary. I am walking proof: I don't particularly enjoy talking poetics in person, but I adore going back and forth with individuals in private emails.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't?

I didn't become terribly famous. Rock stars still don't recognize me, even after I employ my mad & legitimate word skills to write scintillating letters that surely must woo them.
Actually, I thought I would more readily tell people who are not in the po-biz that I am a "Poet" since I now have a book to present as physical evidence. However, I usually don't mention it, though this phenomenon might be more of a testament to my laziness than to the legitimacy of having a book.

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

People are good at heart and generous. Ask and ye shall receive. Write some noteworthy poems and someone might surprise you and respond in print. Ron Padgett told me once that even bad reviews are good, because they are evidence that people are paying attention. I figure if they're expending energy to say something about my work, that's something to feel good about and learn from. And of course, any encouraging reviews should be publicly appreciated. Barry Schwabsky, Kevin Thurston, Reb Livingston, and Simon DeDeo will be just a few of the names of my first born child.

What did you do/are you doing to promote sales, and how do you feel about those experiences?

I make public appearances. Poets sell poetry. I keep writing. Poetry sells poetry. I send my work out when it's ready, though that's much less frequent these days. Publishing sells poetry. Poetry is an action. I go a-poeting hour by hour, day by day, and nearly never concern myself with selling the book commodity. I carry copies to readings, and hosts generally remember to announce their availability. After that, I let the words do the talking.

Whenever I sell a book, I am more interested in the reader's reception than the fact that "it's getting out there" because I mostly want to receive feedback from that person regarding what poems worked for them or which ones pleased them and why and which ones fell flat. It's dangerous to think in terms of number of books sold, because ultimately most poets will be failures. Very few live on the proceeds of poetry sales, save Billy Collins, and still, those numbers sold don't reflect the merits of his work.

How do you feel about having a blog as an ongoing project, and blogging as a way of inviting a wider audience into your poetry?

Reading blogs has lead me to other bloggers' poetry for sure. But I don't know if people have discovered my poetry because of the blog. I'm not being humble here, but no one has said as much. What I post is such a mixed bag and so infrequent that I don't know if I would be lured to my poetry based on my public minutiae.

Nonetheless, blogging remains an ongoing project, as you put it, because it is not a project. It is marginalia without beginning or end, unless someone offers to publish your blog, which has happened, though not in the poetry world that I know of. Blogs are the white talk bubbles above everyone's cartoon head, varying from silly to serious, and sometimes, they come together for a chat in an entire cartoon strip.

There was a great discussion going on recently over at Jessica Smith's and Josh Corey's blogs regarding gender and blogging and the modes of masculine versus feminine writing. I mention this discussion to bring attention to the topic and to point out how the blogosphere, because it is so informal, allows for less-scholarly, more personal & emotionally-invested discussions that need to take place in such a controlled way ( i.e. usually just a handful chat together, kind of like bus-stop banter). Listservs generally lead to posturing. People in person tend to dominate, argue, and dismiss. In the blogosphere, if you start to preach, you are ignored or asked to go off and write a tome on the subject instead of monologuing everyone to death – most participate in discussions because they are truly invested in the subject. And interlopers might later learn from the still-available chats. I'm no example of how this works because I rarely participate in these discussions, but if I had more free time, I certainly would. I'm envious of this blogging perk, very much.

The ultimate truth is that I took to the blog because I'm a lazy thinker who likes to point at standout things on occasion and say "yay" or "nay." I'm not rigorous; I can't remember concepts & theories to save a bird in a bush nor do I have the patience to go back and figure out where I'm contradicting myself or find my flaws. So I get to be the lazy commentator who has no editor, mentioning whatever books or music or news items are on my mind between baths or classes or holidays even. I suppose that means my blog generates little to no discussion in the comments section, and we all know, thanks to Behrle, how some think that number ranks your worth in the blogosphere. Nonetheless, I get more hits than I ever imagined, and people offer to send me their books now and then, which is an unpredicted blessed perk. A university press just gave me the pick of their catalogue with no strings attached--a free box of books just because I might mention one on my blog? Can't beat that for the lazy man's reward!

As noted above though, one of the most important aspects of blogging is the social one because it also translates into real world camaraderie. If you post now and then, read others' blogs, and make even minor chit chat, you are participating in a community that ultimately comes to life in the carnal way. As a person who has generally been outgoing all her life, blogging allows the monster to really rear her head in an unprecedented fashion! I'm one of those folks that private people keep the chain on the door for; I want to live in your home for a period of time, drink with you, shoot the breeze, and just generally get good vibes going between bodies. If the blogosphere can facilitate this madness, then there should be free internet for everyone, and there will be soon.

How did you get started blogging?

I started a little blog during the last presidential election solely as a reference tool that offered addresses for the media and politicians so that I could sit at my last job and send off letters when I had downtime. I thought a blog would encourage others to join in too.

Then when my web designer-friend was making my site, I asked him to tack on a blog page so that I could mention upcoming readings. When he finished the site, he had a reading scroll on the main page, so I was left with this blank page that I hadn't really seriously considered. I literally started posting by stating as much. I wasn't even into reading that many blogs then either, save Silliman's.

Like most marginalia, I still don't place any real weight on my blog, though lots of folks know that marginalia is, as Beck says, "where it's at."

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

I wish someone had told me to sit on my poems longer and edit more. I wish someone mentioned that the urgent need to publish comes from somewhere else (ego anyone?) and that it need not be satiated whenever a bored moment descends. There's something to be said for the soup that simmers. I am still learning this advice. Rare is the poem ready on a first draft. Unless you ask Ashbery, which I did once. Most of us are no Ashbery though.

Do you want your life to change?

My life is change. Life and change are synonymous. That's why dead people don't do much; they stopped changing. They ceased. I wish more Americans toyed with these concepts more often and stopped trying to secure everything they prize in a stable, unchanging, and insular state. There might be more sharing of resources and experiences then.
Sometimes I want my life to change faster, but then according to the preceding theorem, that means I want to live faster, which conjures the old adage about burning the candle at both ends or something negative like that. I guess I would ultimately flip the question and ask, "Who wants their lives to remain constant?"  That'd just be weird like living on Golden Pond forever, secure and safe but boring as the placid surface of non-change. We absolutely need to ride the ripples before we die. Poetry helps and even jets along. Poetry is possibly the ultimate in body surfing.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?  
Absolutely. The effects are not obvious and measurable the way we Americans like our results tallied, but yes, poetry changes the world just as language influences thought, persuades, and prevents, etc.
An additional question people might consider: do you want to be someone who receives language as it describes the world you inhabit or do you want to be someone who owns your potential as a wordsmith and culture-maker?   Do you want to inhabit the world you make?
I'd rather go beyond just perpetuating the status quo, and play around with the words that sustain it. Undermine them. Reinvent them. Refresh them. Rework, reorganize, undo, make new, ad infinitum. I want to have some say in the steering, however incidental. That way I can one day attest, "At least I was not only there; I tripped up that conservative notion and helped someone find pleasure in a way she never imagined, an imagining my efforts discovered and reveled in too."


A poem from Antidotes for an Alibi by Amy King:

Everyone Wants to Know

Who the owner is where
summer visits. What
the dog weighs when
pressing play. If there
wasn't darkness could
beetles exist. What
saint-like jaws would say
how we got this way.
How we came to this.
After seven years in New York,
I adjust to begin my Jesus year.
Full time permanent resident
native, I am a Sikh cab driver
and hairpin president.
I know how to get to you
a captured unprovoked presence,
though you could never think it.
These streets report back to me.
I wish I could control you less
as I am just starting to arrive,
bruised with ample storyness.

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