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every other day

19 JULY 06

How has your first book changed your life?

18.  Brenda Coultas

A Handmade Museum by Brenda Coultas

A Handmade Museum
is my first book of poems. However, I wrote a book of short stories called Early Films in 1995, which prepared me for the reality of bringing a book into the world.

A Handmade Museum sold 600 copies, which is a lot for me.   Early Films maybe sold 100 copies or less. I assume that the publishers, Rodent Press (Matt Corry, Judy Hussie) and Baksun Books (Jennifer Heath) who gave generously of their time, money, and vision, have a few hundred in their basements or have pulped the remainders.

In my hometown, my mother had some great plans for publicizing the book. We were going to present a copy to the library and call the local paper to snap a pic until my cousin called it porn which cooled my mom's jets. But she even defended the book, calling it art. Mostly my family was confused but kept it to themselves.

I promoted A Handmade Museum on my own by giving readings and by publishing excerpts online and in journals, including a Leroy Press chapbook edition of The Bowery Project.

During the writing of The Bowery Project, I photographed found objects and graffiti for a process journal. So when the book designer Linda Koutsky at Coffee House asked me for ideas about the design, I sent her copies of the photos, which she collaged together.

pages from A Handmade Museum

For A Handmade Museum, there were some wonderful reviews and a few hate-filled tirades. One reviewer based his review on the cover (really, he wrote about the design, blurbs, and biography, not about the writing) and compared it to the cover of a first book of poems by a corporate lawyer. The reviewer concluded by saying that because I had to write, the other poet's book was superior because, as a corporate lawyer, she had the option not to.

Another reviewer claimed that homeless people were boring, based on his experience, and unworthy as a subject. He wrote about how he hated the book even though he felt that the subject of dumpster diving and the Bowery was right up his alley but Coffee House Press had let him down with this waste of a good tree. On Amazon.com, in the reader's comment section, you can find a devastating review (I have the feeling that it's the same guy, based on the style and content of his ranting) and one in my defense by the amazing poet Megan Burns. The bad reviews were devastating and I called friends for support, but to a degree I felt the horrible reviews were a good sign, that I had touched a nerve, upset some people, and perhaps I'm proud that both books upset a few people.

The PSA award [Norma Farber First Book Award, 2004, for AHM] I don't know if that helped sales, only that they, The Poetry Society of America, buy copies for their members. But having Lyn Hejinian choose the book was the best reward. And for Coffee House Press, it helps them with their grant writing and fund raising.

My most disappointing moment was when I went with a few copies of Early Films in hand to the local independent bookstore thinking they would display it up front next to the other local poets, or in the window, but instead they took a couple of copies on consignment for the self-published rack in the back. I started crying right there in the bookstore, I lost control of my emotions. There were 2 book reviews of EF: the best part was a long positive review from Mitch Highfill in the Poetry Project Newsletter and that kept me going.

I don't think you can ever know how long the life of a book may be: just a couple of years ago a graduate student from Brown emailed me about teaching the book in a writing course. I was not able to locate enough copies, but I was very pleased to know that Early Films still has a life.

Many of my favorite books--for example, Studying Hunger and Memory by Bernadette Mayer, The Fast by Hannah Weiner, etc, published by Big Sky, Angel Hair, United Artists and other small presses--printed 500 or less. And those books have had a lasting impact. Sadly, many of those books are out of print. A copy of Studying Hunger will run you a hundred bucks now. I recently received a classic of investigative poetics from Ed Sanders, The Party: A Chronological Perspective on a Confrontation at a Buddhist Seminary. Published in 1977 by Poetry, Crime & Culture Press, The Party is the result of a student investigation into scandal featuring Trungpa Rinpoche that occurred at Naropa Institute in the 70s. This is another example of a book much talked about but hard to find because of distribution or volume, yet the conceptual aspect, of what can be considered as poetry, opens up the field, the imagination, even among people who have never read it.

I am pleased that AHM has been taught in universities and workshops as a model for investigative projects. It is fulfilling to be part of the dialogue of what a poem can be.

I would like to do less of the meat and potatoes teaching (composition). By the end of the teaching year, I go a bit nuts from having my head and dreams filled with teaching scenarios. I wish I was a more prolific writer. However, I am working at accepting my slowness instead of railing against it. That's part of who I am, I need time to gaze, to clear out mental clutter before threads and shapes become clear.

I have played around with a super 8 camera. I thought of film as poetry, as being concerned with beauty and image. I love Rudi Burckhardt's black and white films of NYC and his collaborations with poets. I consider the films of Jem Cohen, and David Gatten to be poetry. I took a basic super 8 class and realized, due to the expense of film and its fragility, that I could get lucky and create some interesting images but I was limited by my primitive skills. What I love about writing is that one only needs a surface and a stick to create worlds.

Poetry changes the world constantly, only not in the ways in which we expect or recognize.


A poem from A Handmade Museum by Brenda Coultas:

Boy Eye

My film began this way: A park on the East River, 4th of July.
Three fat ladies on the ground doing leg lifts and laughing. I bought a Pepsi.

I didn't know where to begin with recording the world so I started with skin. Then entire bodies, later rocks and flowers. Then onto gardens. There was land, water, and aluminum cans, barges, sea planes, and plastics yet to be recorded. I said I'd record every kind of animal 2 by 4. I went into this hoping to save something, like memory or coupons. I was trying to make sight important. I was making it important to see. I was making it important to describe. I was becoming a seeing eye artist.

In the park were men in go-carts, wheelchairs, and on foot. When news arrived of the third eye, I was elated. My foray into experimental organs had begun. I would be like the mechanical heart man, only I would have a fine eye. A boy's eye implanted on my forehead.

The eye arrived in a thermos of ice. My cold eye on rocks. Laid on ice like an oyster. I didn't kill the boy myself, he died natural and I didn't harvest it. I only ordered it through the mail from the back of a driver's license.

With the eye I saw people walking toward fireworks. I could see them all fully clothed but they could see me naked. It was very exciting to be totally naked in a crowd while wearing three eyes.

Soon the third eye atrophied. It had a reverse effect. Instead of recording the world the eye looked inward.

What did it see?

It saw highways. It saw rock cairns, piles of stones from the sea. It saw the last formations of the mound builders. It saw me mound building. I was very busy. I was building a shrine. I was making mounds for viewing. It was important for seeing.

What was your work? What was important to do?

It was important to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge at midnight, to thrift shop all fifty states and to ride a bike. It was important to hang out and be there. Being there was the best part. I was part of a history. I was a woman, I think. I was with other writers and we were working toward a collective vision, a melee of language and symbols. We were bookmaking. Our hands were speaking and collecting. The hands were breaking sound. It was important to write poems. It was important to hear music and eat. Sex was, sleeping was. Reading books, that was important, but most of all it was important to see you.

. . .

read more first-book interviews

. . .


17 JULY 06

Week 20, 14 sentences:

She has no French, meaning "good" (in the sense of beautiful). Traditionally, cake. "People live so differently than we do," she was saying. "All the lights on at Lotito's! And them with only the upholstery shop."

Learn about the four types of storage. Understand the four kinds of stress, of pruning, injury, symmetry, and lies. And how about when strangers come and pack up your books? When I say I have it, I mean: I remember it. Use a test--make sure it's straight.

I took the bottom half with me. In case I needed to hit somebody with it. We doubt, and are doubted. But it must be borne.


15 JULY 06

I like my neighbors. (Some of them, anyway.)


13 JULY 06

Okay, I'm talking about one dollar. Or: When is one dollar two dollars? Observe. Or: it could be two dollars, that would be four dollars, five would be ten.

Observable Readings is cash poor but idea rich. For every dollar you contribute to support them, The St. Louis Regional Arts Commission will give the same. Nice.

The first annual Observable Dollar Campaign is happening now. Paypal them a buck, feel good about supporting the literary arts, get on the list. Find out about it here.

Meanwhile, my own horn:

Free Verse #10 includes a poem from case sensitive. And several sections of The Last 4 Things (the ms. that's chasing me around the studio each morning & finishing itself when I'm asleep) are now up at KELR.

I've got five poems in this year's 26. The site hasn't been updated lately, but you can get a copy at: 26, P.O. Box 4450, Saint Mary's College, Moraga, CA 94575-4730. $12 for one, or $20 for a two year subscription.

New issues of CARVE and Spell will be out in a minute and I have stuff in both. (The Spell pages are art + words.)

Two more reviews of Learning the Language have appeared--one in Galatea Resurrects #2, the other in Bookslut. And speaking of dollars, seven can still buy you a copy of this chapbook (critically acclaimed!) while supply lasts: here.

Coming soon... Statues, my tinyside from Big Game Books. Tinysides are the most recent brainchild of Maureen Thorson, force of nature. And I think Maureen may still be accepting submissions (check with her) as production of the tinysides continues at all hours.

One more thing. Ahsahta Press is now offering subscriptions. You can get the six books of the 2006-07 season for $60, plus Ahsahta will throw in a free back-list title. Free shipping! That works out to $8.57 a book. As someone who spends way more on books than I can reasonably afford, I feel qualified to say that's a pretty sweet deal. It all begins with the two September '06 books: Aaron McCollough's Little Ease, and my book, case sensitive. Oh, but wait--I see now that you can also order the entire 2005-06 season for $50! Six terrific books for fifty dollars! free shipping! (I haven't talked so much about money since I got my flood insurance bill.)


11 JULY 06

How has your first book changed your life?

17.  Aaron Kunin

Folding Ruler Star

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

Before answering this question, I want to say something about the weird experience of receiving twenty copies of your own book in the mail. Each copy is a metonym for you because your name is on it and you wrote the text, and the textual content seems both familiar and illegible, and it's repeated twenty times. It feels a bit like writing your name over and over again when signing and initialing a lease for an apartment (where some kind of mark is required on every page), or endorsing a stack of checks. I suppose that's exactly what people do at book signings.

I first saw the finished book a couple weeks before I got my copies. It was on the shelf at Amherst Books, where I had gone to hear a reading by Clark Coolidge and Michael Gizzi. I didn't look at it for very long because the reading was about to start and I felt self-conscious. "Look at him reading his own book," etc. I checked to make sure that the typo on page 55 had been corrected. I was also relieved to see that the cover didn't look too red, white, and blue.

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

I don't think so. I very much wanted the poems to be collected in a book, and I wanted the poems to be read together and in order (which is probably not a realistic notion of how people read books), but I had no other plans.

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

I moved to California, started a new job, and got a cat, so my life is quite different, but not really because of the book.

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

I sometimes feel that the book is describing me in ways that I did not intend. This kind of mimetic regression shouldn't come as a surprise because it often happens through reading: you read a book about bees, and bees start following you around. Obviously, the same thing happens with writing and publishing. In my case, the book generates all this shame (a "toxic" affect, according to Silvan Tomkins) as a by-product that then attaches to me in the form of experiences. "Here I am crying in front of the school, sort of like the poem."

One symptom is that I sometimes have a proprietary response to the subject of the book. Someone says, "Shame?"; I say, "Present!" As though I am some kind of authority on shame because I wrote a book of poems about it. I would like to stop doing that.

You mention being relieved that the cover didn't look too red, white, and blue. How involved were you in the designing process?

My friend Mark Owens designed the book. I made no creative contributions to the design; Mark gave me a lot of options, and I told him whether or not I liked them. The biggest design problem was the question of whether the paired poems would appear on facing pages. I thought that would look interesting, but I wasn't sure about the compromises it entailed: each poem needed to be on exactly one page, and the letters had to be quite small. That turned out to be fine.

The cover was also a problem. My first, rather trite suggestion was to use one of the images from the Sigmar Polke photos. We quickly decided not to do that, because Mark didn't like the photos and didn't want to work with them, and I didn't want the cover to look like an illustration of the title. We decided that we wanted it to look like a certain kind of educational book from the sixties and seventies. Mark collects these books--they have titles like An Introduction to Empiricism, and the covers are clean, spacious, colorful, modernist, diagrammatic. So we were going for something like that.

The actual cover is based on a diagram by Sarah Oppenheimer, an artist who made a series of video documentations of people reading newspapers on subways, which she then abstracted into diagrams of how readers fold their newspapers. You can see some of the diagrams on the web at foldingpatterns.com, and examples of her perforations in and extensions of non-structural interior walls at foldingenterprises.com. I've known Sarah for a while and have often been energized by her work, her ideas, and her way of being an artist. Also, when my interests coincide with hers, I feel wonderfully validated. "If Sarah is interested in folding too, then I must be on the right track!" Her diagrams seemed perfect for my book--interesting, profound, completely relevant to the poems but not redundant in any way, and beautiful. (Sarah tries to create situations where she isn't making aesthetic decisions, but it's as though she can't help making beautiful objects). And, as Mark pointed out, the book has its own folding pattern.

Because of the colors that we chose, I was a little worried that the cover would look like the U.S. flag, or like someone's flag, but I think it doesn't.  The lines feel active to me, as though they retain traces of the human actors moving the pages of the newspapers and holding them in place.

How did your book happen to get picked up by Fence?

I entered the manuscript in their annual contest in 2004. The judge awarded the prize to Geraldine Kim's book Povel; the publisher, Rebecca Wolff, also liked my manuscript and asked to publish it.

What are you doing to promote sales, and how do you feel about it?

I give readings, but a public reading is another way to present poetry, and not necessarily an advertisement to promote sales of the book. But do advertisements promote sales? With a lot of ads, I get the impression that selling things is not their only or even primary function. Even people whose job is to sell things probably do a lot of work that doesn't result in and maybe isn't supposed to result in a sale. The salesmen in the documentary film Salesman are selling one book, the Bible, door-to-door. But most of what they do is way in excess of mere selling. For example, they give one another animal names (Badger, Rabbit, Bull, etc.).

I don't think anyone (commercial publishers, small press publishers, distributors, owners of bookstores and people who work for them) has a very good idea of what forces might be necessary to compel people to buy a book. Plus, you don't just want people to buy the book, which is kind of a superficial mode of reading. You want them to open it, look at it, think about it.

As a teacher, I am pretty good at promoting sales of books. When I assign books to students, the students are supposed to buy them and read them critically. In any case, I don't ask students to read my book.

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

Someone advised me to buy property in California, which I still haven't done.

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

Not much. It seems like I have to teach myself how to write every time I start a new project. Whatever I learned from writing the shame poems is not useful for the work I'm doing now.

Sometimes I try to write a new poem to correct a mistake in an old poem. For example, when I wrote the Mauberley poems, I was working with a limited vocabulary that included a few gender-specific pronouns--none of which I used, except in one poem, where the figure normally called "the moron" is also called "he." (The fact that "he" is a non-recurrent element means that it could be a mistake, as though I had been unconsciously applying a rule everywhere else that somehow got broken in that one place.)  Later, when I used the same vocabulary to write the Sore Throat poems, I decided at the start of the project that gender was going to be clearly marked; there were going to be a lot of "he"s and "she"s.

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

I'm strongly committed to criticism as a genre. It's a big part of what I do, and, in general, my feelings about it are positive. Criticism is the bad child that I love more than the good child. To describe that relationship as a "positive" one is, I guess, about half of the story.

I'm interested in the critical response to my book--I try to track down reviews and read them and learn something from them--but I don't want to respond to them more than that. I've done enough work framing the poems in the preface, in giving readings, and in interviews like this.

I kind of admire artists who respond aggressively to criticism. Like Jeanette Winterson, who apparently stalks critics and yells at them. Or, better, like the choreographer (whose name I forget) who made the dancers in his company wear adjectives from Joan Acocella's review of their performance from the previous season ("CLUMSY," "UGLY," etc.); in effect, Acocella becomes the voice of popular media reinforcing one's negative self-image. In poetry, the most interesting example of this kind of aggression that I've seen is Leslie Scalapino's response to Marjorie Perloff in Seamless Antilandscape. As a critic, of course, I can't support that.

Do you want your life to change?

That's a very personal question! Currently I'm in more of a reactionary mode: I examine myself every day to make sure that I haven't changed very much, and if I detect signs of change, I want to take them back.

I have sometimes been open to significant change. Before moving here, I knew that California, or this part of it, would not be a very livable place for me without some adjustment, that I might have to become a completely different person in order to enjoy what is enjoyable here--and that kind of change seemed possible, desirable, interesting. Then, when I got here, I reacted strongly against the place and against myself, because I had chosen this, and therefore I had already changed enough to make that decision, right?

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

If poetry can create change in the world, then it's a form of research on human subjects, and poets need to start asking the same questions that scientists ask about their research. Professional medical researchers, anthropologists, sociologists--all scientists who use people as test subjects--are expected to conform to the three ethical principles established in the Belmont Report for the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. These principles are: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. This is the case even for scientists whose research consists merely in interviewing people. Kate, if you were a sociologist, before sending me these questions you would write a statement explaining how your questions conform to the three principles from the Belmont Report. Apparently, sociologists take the rhetorical power of the interrogative mood very seriously!

It's possible that scientists have the wrong idea about what questions do to people. Maybe they impose protections that don't work. Probably some of them are lying. Maybe their three ethical principles are wrong or incomplete or incompatible. (In my experience, the gesture of "respect for persons" is frequently used as a cover for the total absence of any effort toward beneficence or justice. And a statement in favor of all three may be used as a cover for other, more sinister commitments.) However, the fact that scientists are required to make an effort, the fact that they are trying to protect people from the possibly injurious effects of language, and the fact that they have professional ethical guidelines--this doesn't mean that they are right, but it means that they are sane, which is not necessarily the case for poets. There are some poets who want to be Doctor Moreau.

You asked what I believe. I'm skeptical about the instrumental use of rhetoric. The idea of rhetorical manipulation is interesting, but it's a theoretical fiction. People are different and respond differently to the same piece of writing. I'm not even sure that it's a laudable ambition to want to predict or control these responses. At least, I would be cautious with such an ambition, because it can easily devolve, as everyone knows, into something impertinent, condescending, and paternalistic in the worst way.

Despite my skepticism, there is an important sense in which poems, insofar as they describe people and insofar as people are expected to read them, are a form of research on human subjects. This is the sense in which poetry can be experimental: because we do not know what the results of our experiments will be, how readers might be changed by them, whether that change will be positive or negative, because people are different and respond differently. To put it another way, poetry is experimental because it risks failure.

What are you writing poems about now?

I'm writing about the activities of the United Fruit Company in 1954. So the poem, or whatever it is, is about food politics, corporate personhood, enclosure (how much of Guatemala is public land? how much belongs to the company?), and branding (the technical problem of attaching 2.5 billion Chiquita stickers to individual bananas so that consumers know what kind of banana they are buying). I'm sensitive about being mistaken for a historian; history is not normally what I do, but in this case, I am trying to do that. Basically, I'm in way over my head.


3 poems from Folding Ruler Star by Aaron Kunin:

The Shame Tree

the t.v. has a
human face (the face
has two memories)

in the shade of low
branches or human
furniture under

the smothering tree
the damaged women
(enter together)

and some of them heard
(pretend not to
hear) your suffering

tree's facial nightlight
ripening human
(yes) fruits behind the

eyes tree looked thicker
reflected in your
hair ah in the shape-

less mask of your hair
your additional
hair your living hair


The Shame Tree

aspirin tonight
no contempt please no
contempt tonight please


Five Security Zones

never put on your
blindfold (unfold and
study but do not

put it on) affix
it to your eyes do
not tighten ever

frequently try it
on never wear it
outside (I've never

seen it on him) at
any rate (they are
longing to wear it

secretly) for those
in peril do not
oh do not take it

. . .

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. . .

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