case sensitive: get it here
$650 apartment for $650
How has your first book changed your life?
16. Raymond McDaniel
Interesting story. I sent Murder out to a few contests the year I finished it and received some nice comments--I still think those little notes, often comprised of nothing more than "Hey, neat!", are the greatest and most meaningful expressions of appreciation I could ever hope for--but no one picked it up. I took the following summer to revisit the manuscript and modified the table of contents, so that each poem came with a sort of précis as to its relationship to the larger narrative. Every contest I entered after that put me somewhere closer to the innermost ring: semi-finalist, quarter-finalist, finalist, and then the National Poetry Series. Didn't change a single word in a single poem; just offered a little how-to guide. I'm still not sure if this contains a lesson I'd be happy to broadcast to others, but there it is.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I was visiting my mom in Florida, where I was born, and where I had begun the book three years prior--a pleasing echo. And of course there's nothing like having a parent there to proudly misestimate the importance of your book. Other than encouraging my mom to rein in her inappropriate excitement, I recall how odd it was just to see the thing lying around--to open the book, to read it, that was inevitably a disappointment, both because I was so bored and frustrated with the words after having edited them to within an inch of their lives, and because I naturally still wanted to re-write the poems even as I read them. But then I'd catch sight of it, and it would take me a moment to recognize what it was. There was a lot of "Hey, that person has my last name" and "Looks good. What is it?" and similarly confused delight. I had to keep sneaking up on the manifest reality of My Book from a childlike perspective, recalling that the little kid who said he'd write books was now getting a glimpse into some alternate future, in which he actually had.
Were you involved at all in the cover design?
Coffee House, of which I cannot speak highly enough, has a good veto policy in terms of book design. You cannot design the book yourself, but you can establish a fairly intensive list of what you don't want. In my case, I didn't want a "representative" image--I had nightmares of some artfully-composed photograph of a discreetly naked woman hefting a pole-ax. Fortunately, the designer, Linda Koutsky, found this marbled paper, the abstract vigor of which speaks to the mood of the book quite well. Unfortunately, I didn't exercise my veto power over the cover font quickly enough, and I still think it looks a little too Medieval Times for my taste. The page fonts and layout, however, I find utterly gorgeous.
Even more proof of Coffee House's devotion and passion: as you know, the book is meant to be read non-sequentially, unbound. Allan Kornblum and the redoubtable Chris Fischbach actually looked into doing this--to printing each poem on card stock and shipping it in a box. Alas, it costs more to print a book unbound than it is to bind it, but that they would even consider such a thing earns the stalwarts at the press my undying loyalty.
Did you actually arrive at the sequence in Murder by just tossing the pages in the air and picking them up off the floor at random?
Maybe some small, stupid part of me held out hope that The Other Kids would collapse, stunned, at the force of my mighty, mighty work. Of course, this is that same part of my mind that's still waiting to develop super-powers and that insists a resurgence in progressive politics is possible after all. We try to kill these things, but they are hardy weeds indeed.
Other than the tinny din of my shamelessly deluded reptile brain, I didn't expect much. I've been at this for a while, and I've also worked as a bookseller and advocate for others' work for very many years, so I know the fate of most books, certainly of most books of poetry.
Creatively speaking, I was just happy to get that character out of my head. Three years is a long time to spend with a soldier-girl suffering from dissociative lyric disorder lurking about your every thought.
Has your life been different since? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't?
It hasn't much changed. I'm happy to have written the book and have it ushered into the world, but like I said, I wasn't expecting a revolution, and I didn't get one.
To the degree that anyone knows who I am at all, they know me (I think) via my work at The Constant Critic. I thought maybe that the publication of the book would shift me over from the Critic column to the Poet column, but I'm still far more likely to be identified as the guy who didn't like Dancing in Odessa than anything else. I also thought that I might be subject to some revenge-reviews, but I was thankfully spared that fate, though the one negative review I did receive referred to me as "Ray"--the name I publish criticism under--and not "Raymond," the name under which I publish my poetry. Hm. I've also got a theory about what really happened on the grassy knoll, and don't even get me started on Area 51.
What did you do to promote the book?
I don't think I did as much as I could have. I was limited in some ways by geography and finances: I teach full-time and run a reading series, and it doesn't leave me much time to go jaunting off on my own behalf, which you have to do when you live in Michigan. No Brooklyn Mafia for me, alas, though I bless them and their collective works. I'm also just not very good at getting my name out there, frankly. I prefer to think of poetry as a gift economy, and in that regard I very much like helping and promoting others. I'm good at it, I enjoy it. Now, you would think that with years of hosting readings and selling books, I would have done a better job of developing a tactical mind and cultivating useful "alliances," but no.
The best advice I ever received, and it's common enough but worth repeating, is that one cannot get anywhere by half-measures. In poetry, to do something neatly and safely is fatal; what is worth doing is worth overdoing. It was only when I committed fully to the specificity of Murder with no thought as to its seemliness or appropriateness that I was able to write a book that someone wanted to publish. Do what you have to do, the way you have to do it--simple to say, wicked to execute.
The book's publication earned me a publisher. Coffee House accepted the second manuscript before the first even hit the shelves, God preserve them, and thus I have time and room to maneuver without wondering if anyone will ever look askance at me again. Publication also reinforced the legitimacy of the advice detailed above.
How great that Coffee House picked up your second manuscript before the first book even was out. At what point did you pitch it to them? (or did they ask?)
Has there been a critical response? Where?
Actually, there were a few nice pieces here and there, and I'm very grateful for them, because they each put the lie to the assertion that the book was too weird or willful or cussedly unfashionable to understand. People got it. And best of all, some of the people who got it weren't even my beloved smart-arsed colleagues and allies--the most surprising set of responses came from arts weeklies and pop culture zines. An endorsement from within the tribe can mean a lot, but it doesn't approach the value of getting a letter from a comic book shop owner, or an ex-soldier, or a surly hyper-bright senior at a Catholic girl's school, each of whom locked into the very heart of the insoluble moral dilemma I was trying to express.
I want the world in which I live to change first, please. I cannot stop thinking about the power and resources at our disposal, and how we could have--can--contrive things so, I don't know, other than this. Poetry is never going to directly induce that level of change (nor should it, lest it become indistinguishable from those authorities it ought to upset), but it can remind people, and teach them to realize in practice, that things can be made--literally made--different, and differently. If anything I write starts that cascade in someone else's mind, then I will have paid some small measure of the debt I owe. And then I can go fight for water rights and gay marriage and the renewal of Battlestar Galactica and the countless things the age demands.
. . .
They have no art. All they have are their ideas--about how life should be. You must prepare yourself. To continue as you have been, press one.
Everything was becoming darker. Oh, it's raining now. These things happen when you travel. "Outside" is... outside of me. I don't want to think about it.
"The herd at rest." He predicts a long summer of diplomacy. Something involving the trombone player? I don't know. Pass the butter, please?
The poets are excited, extensively
How has your first book changed your life?
15. Simmons B. Buntin
That evening, I read through the entire book--my book--the culmination not only of years of writing poems, but nearly as many years waiting for the book to be published. All of the waiting now was worth it, as I knew it would be.
How did you happen to be publishing with Salmon? I thought they only published Irish authors.
Salmon Publishing is based in County Clare, Ireland, and is one of Ireland's foremost publishers of poetry, especially poetry by Irish women. But it also has a rich history of publishing American poets like R.T. Smith and Adrienne Rich. Jessie Lendennie, the publisher, is herself American, hailing from Arkansas before moving to Ireland in the early 1980s.
Jessie contacted me after she saw some of my work in Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. She learned about Terrain.org, which I edit and publish, because we had requested a Salmon book to review for a forthcoming issue.
I was surprised and obviously delighted when she requested that I send her a manuscript, as I didn't have a manuscript together and was not considering book publication at all. In fact, when she contacted me in 1999 I had not been seriously writing poetry for four years, as I was in graduate school studying urban and regional planning. Revising and periodically sending out poems, yes, but not writing new poetry.
Initially I sent a joint collection of poetry and prose, which Salmon accepted about a month later. Yet after three years, after Salmon lost funding post-9/11, and after a series of missed publication dates, we mutually agreed that it would be best for me to withdraw the manuscript and try to find another publisher.
I was devastated. But I took the opportunity to tighten up the collection, starting with removing the prose pieces. By this time, I had been writing just a bit more poetry, so reworked the manuscript before sending it out to a handful of stateside book competitions.
About a year later, with no momentum in the contests, I had nearly given up altogether when Jessie sent an email asking if I had any luck finding another publisher. When I replied no, she said, "Then we better take it back." I was cautiously optimistic, letting her know I'd still be delighted for Salmon to publish the book, but that beyond the contract there had to be a real commitment and real publication date from the get-go. Jessie agreed, we set a publication date for spring/summer 2005, and Riverfall officially published in May 2005.
Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it?
How has your life been different since?
In a more general--let's say neighborhood--context, being the "author of a book," and apparently any book by a respectable publisher, whatever that may be, has certainly piqued the interest of my neighbors, friends, and co-workers. It's another topic for conversation, certainly. A lot of that has to do with how I've marketed the book (see below), since I'm blatant but not obnoxious about promoting Riverfall.
I'm not sure that Billy Collins, for example, would give a hoot (even though as a poetry whore I did slip him a copy of my book at a reading some months ago), but I did receive a friendly email from Brendan Galvin, following a favorable review in Shenandoah recently. Galvin is mentioned in a poem in the book, and has always been a poet whose work I've both admired and aspired to.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I thought it might be easier to place the book for reviews. I was naïve in that capacity, which I admit is surprising because I'm an editor and realize that Terrain.org can only review perhaps 10 percent of the books we receive. And yet, I've been pleasantly surprised by the venues that have reviewed or at least mentioned the book, like Shenandoah and Books Ireland. Still, I'd like to see more reviews (favorable or not, frankly), so keep pushing it out there when I can.
Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the positive and I hope earnest response to Riverfall from other poets. Alison Hawthorne Deming, for example, forwarded some very kind words. Bloggers like Suzanne Frischkorn and Scott Edward Anderson have also been generous in their online (and offline) words. It's difficult if not impossible to be objective when it comes to your own work, so feedback from peers--even and perhaps especially if not positive--helps keep my balance.
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?
Fortunately for me, I'm not shy about promoting Riverfall. I've worked in marketing for many years, and as a web program manager (my paying gig), have plenty of experience promoting products both on- and offline. Well before publication, I built the book's website at www.riverfall.com, which contains everything from a PDF-based flyer to an events calendar to sample poems. Once Salmon's online bookshop appeared, I linked to that so visitors could purchase the book.
Prior to publication I also set up as many readings as I could, with a two-pronged approach: 1) Local readings, since I live in Tucson, and 2) Colorado-based readings, since I wrote most of the poems when living in Colorado, received a Colorado Artists Fellowship for Poetry in 2000, and had more name recognition there than here in Tucson.
Back at home, I hosted a book launch party at my house. Eighty friends and neighbors turned up and I sold far more books than I expected. I also set up readings at our neighborhood center as part of the community's speaker series (which not coincidentally I facilitate) and at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. I have yet to read at a local bookstore in Tucson--the one instance where I was set up to read, sadly the local independent bookstore closed its doors for good three weeks prior--but I have read at other venues like cafes. I admit I need to be more proactive about reading locally and across the state, but haven't had much luck with bookstores, much to my chagrin.
In addition to readings and other public "appearances," the publisher, Dufour, and I have sent numerous review copies to the publications poems in Riverfall first appeared in, as well as other review publications, both print and online. While a poem from the collection has yet to appear in Poetry Daily or Verse Daily, I periodically remind them that one should! I have also sent the obligatory copies to relatives and friends, and unsolicited copies to poets I know and don't know. For example, I sent a copy to Brian Swann, OnEarth editor who has commented extensively on but never accepted any of my poetry submissions.
Once the book was available for purchase from the Salmon Publishing website, I sent an email to all of the fellow poets I know, such as those who have published in Terrain.org. It wasn't a sales pitch, but rather an announcement. I didn't want to abuse our relationship; but just as I appreciate hearing their good news, I hoped they would appreciate hearing mine, all the while spreading the news of the book.
Finally, I started a blog, with the goal not of overtly promoting Riverfall, but rather of discussing poetry and the environment, posting photographs, and sharing the other myriad things we all use our blogs for. Appropriately, the blog is riverfall.blogspot.com, and of course provides links to the Riverfall website.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
And I'd like to mention, too, that my book's publication--and my renewed vigor to write new poetry--have inspired my 8-year-old daughter to write poetry, as well. And I'm amazed at its quality, unconstrained as it is by the rules we all learn in poetry classes at college and elsewhere. She has read with me at a few readings now, and is always a tough act to follow!
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing?
What would have an impact, rather, would be a person or group that I'd share my draft poems with, who could provide critical feedback to help make the poems stronger. Unfortunately, I don't have that community--either local or online.
So, in part to get that kind of group and simply to force myself to write more, I will be attending graduate school once again beginning this fall. This time, however, I'll be pursuing the MFA in creative writing. Instead of poetry, though, I'm focusing on creative non-fiction. And when I say I'm pursuing the MFA, that's actually not what I'm doing at all. Yes, I'm a part of the MFA program here at the University of Arizona, but I'm not concerned about the degree per se. What I'm interested in is the courses themselves, the community of writers and faculty, the energy of the place and its people, the culmination of what should be a full manuscript, ready for publication when I'm done.
Do you want your life to change?
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
That is one of the main reasons I am now pursuing creative non-fiction over poetry. In today's world, non-fiction has a significantly larger impact on the way people think and act than poetry, largely because it has a much wider readership. If my goal, as I've said, is to change the world, and non-fiction reaches more people, then using non-fiction as the tool to change the world makes sense.
So while poetry can create change in the world, it cannot achieve the scale of change that the world needs. On the other hand, creative non-fiction--and the environmental essay particularly, in my case--can. And it must.
From the wire grass resilience
. . .
. . .