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Today and Tomorrow
This afternoon, Max & I are driving west & south to Philadelphia. I'll be reading at the Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus, 3508 Locust Walk, at 6 pm--the second installment of the Emergency Reading Series. I'm reading first, followed by Jason Zuzga and Noah Eli Gordon. There will be some form of discussion or Q&A following the reading--something I haven't done before. Curious to see what we can get up to.
Jason Zuzga is a PhD student in English at the University of Pennsylvania and he is the nonfiction editor of FENCE magazine. He was the 2005-2006 James Merrill Poet-in-Residence in Stonington, CT, and a 2001-2002 Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Writing Fellow.
Noah Eli Gordon will have two books out in 2007: Novel Pictorial Noise (selected by John Ashbery for the 2006 National Poetry Series) and A Fiddle Pulled From the Throat of a Sparrow (New Issues, winner of the Green Rose Prize). He is the author of the book-length poem The Frequencies (Tougher Disguises, 2003), a collection of three long poems The Area of Sound Called the Subtone (Ahsahta Press, 2004, selected by Claudia Rankine for the Sawtooth Prize). Ugly Duckling Presse recently published That We Come To A Consensus, a chapbook written in collaboration with Sara Veglahn. He teaches creative writing at the University of Colorado at Denver.
Then on Friday (17 November) I'll take trains north & southeast to Brooklyn, to read with Janet Holmes and Justin Marks in the MiPo Reading Series, hosted by Amy King (with Shanna Compton acting as a special co-host for the evening). 7 pm at the Stain Bar, 766 Grand St. (the L train to Grand, 1 block west).
Justin Marks is the editor of LIT magazine. His chapbook You Being You by Proxy is out on Kitchen Press. His full length manuscript Twenty Five Hours in Iceland and Other Poems was a finalist for the 2006 May Swenson Poetry Award. He lives in New York City.
Janet Holmes is the author of 4 books of poetry, The Physicist at the Mall (Anhinga, 1994), The Green Tuxedo (Notre Dame, 1998), Humanophone (Notre Dame, 2001), and, just out, F2F (also from Notre Dame). She is the director of Ahsahta Press, an all-poetry publishing house at Boise State University, where she has taught in the MFA program since 1999.
Ahsahta Press? Yes, Janet is my editor. You knew that. Her hand, which I have yet to shake, plucked my manuscript from the open submission pile. I am looking forward to meeting her! and to sitting with her somewhere in real time with a map, to work out details of the book tour we'll be doing together in the year ahead.
So far, nothing special planned for Saturday. Back to work?
How has your first book changed your life?
40. Jennifer L. Knox
How did your manuscript get picked up by Soft Skull? How often had you sent it out before that happened?
My friend, Dan Nester, was working for Soft Skull at the time, and I asked him if he would look at it. He left Soft Skull shortly after, so Shanna Compton took over editing it. I knew Shanna--she had seen me read--so I had two advocates at the press. Without them, Soft Skull itself, and the publisher, Richard "Poppa" Nash, I'm sure that no one would have ever published it.
I had sent the manuscript out, like, a million times.
This is no big revelation, but funny, dirty poems--which account for about one-third of the book--aren't well accepted by academic presses. I've actually had people tell me they don't like funny poems. Period. It's weird to me, but it's not a rare opinion. My thesis advisor at NYU told me that no contest judge would ever go out on a limb for me--that no one would risk their professional reputation on poems that were profane, scatological, and blasphemous. He was absolutely right. But still I kept trying the contest route.
I thought I was cleverly "tailoring" the manuscript to fit the tastes of the different presses. I would take out all the really dirty, funny poems for things like the Three Lesbians Press First Annual Global Anti-Torture First Book Award. Over time, the manuscript became more and more anemic. So by the time I gave the book to Soft Skull, Dan and Shanna asked, "Where's all the funny stuff? Where's 'Hot Ass' and 'Chicken Bucket'?" which I had taken out.
Now I know I wasn't really hiding my hot ass from judges at Three Lesbians Press, or the Harpoon Prize Southern Alaska Community College Northeast. Those presses all knew a hot ass was hiding in there, and they didn't want it hanging out of their catalog. You can't hide the shape of your soul, or lack of it. And Soft Skull wanted it back. Like my dad always said, "Just be yourself--you've really got no choice."
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
It was at the release party. The subway to my neighborhood was down, and Richard brought a box he'd hauled over in a stolen station wagon. I was in shock. I couldn't focus my eyes, but even blurry it looked pretty good. The cover felt like velour, and tasted like the most delicious cupcake ever.
Were you involved in the cover design?
I was. Soft Skull is very generous to let the authors be as involved as they are with cover design. I saw the painting by Charles Browning in a show, and was blown away by it. It's 6 feet tall. I couldn't afford it, but then (ding!) I figured out a way to keep it forever. Charlie Orr, who designed the book, is as brilliant and talented as he is twisted. I just realized that two men named Charles made my cover. I love my cover.
Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it?
How has your life been different since?
I can google myself with better results. I found "Chicken Bucket" posted on a few enthusiastic 17-year-olds' Myspace pages. My mom "could" give them away for Christmas presents.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
All the money didn't make me happy like I thought it would. 24-K gold tarnishes like you wouldn't believe. And ponies are filthier than pigs. Especially 24-K gold ponies.
What did you do to promote the book, and what were those experiences like for you?
I toured with Shanna for about two months solid. Maybe you can put a hyper link here to take people to her interview, as she types fast and is very detailed in her explanations. She planned the whole tour--she's a whiz at the whole picture. I didn't even know people read blogs before that trip. So I had the luxury of sitting back enjoying the ride. But I drove sometimes. Our styles were a great contrast. We met fantastic people--people who thought poetry was important, and what we were doing was important. People were often apologizing for the towns they lived in. We went to Target every chance we got, and ate Mars Cheese Castle cheddar spread out of a little crock balanced in the cup holder. The highways of Michigan were lined with dead things: every 10 seconds we saw some bloody schmear along the side of the road. That state needs to put up a fence.
When your second book comes out, will you tour behind it with similar dedication?
Maybe something abbreviated from the first one. I'm not a great promoter of my stuff. I submit a lot and I'll show up wherever someone tells me to, usually on time. I don't think I'd know where to begin. I don't blog. I didn't watch Shanna work out the minutiae of our tour, so it all seemed magically perfect ("Well, this all worked out nicely!"). But Ada Limon told me about the nitty-gritty of planning her similarly extensive tour, and though she handled it all with cool-headed grace, it looked way too hard for me. Instant messaging is way too hard for me.
A Gringo Like Me is primarily dramatic monologues, and I don't want to be a one-trick pony. I don't want to write like that anymore--I can't. The reason for doing it is done. So there's a big change in the second book. And I want that again for the third.
Has your second book already found its publisher?
Nope. Right now it's just too many papers crammed in the strained maw of a binder clip.
How do you feel about the critical response so far and has it had any effect on your writing?
What I've gotten has been good. I have to shake off expectations that I project upon readers. What I project on people affects me more than people's actual perceptions do. Because really people just want to read good poems.
Could you say a little more about those expectations?
My biggest fear used to be that people couldn't, or wouldn't, follow a poem. For years, I think I subconsciously opted to not take certain risks in poems (not with diction or subjects--but with syntax, form, associations, leaps, whatever) rather than risk losing a reader. But that's just selling people short. Surface clarity is very important to me--I think you can ultimately arrive at a far more complicated place in a poem when the surface is clear--but I don't want it to be the primary thing leading the poem anymore. Not everyone's going to like the same style, but making decisions based on the imagined tastes of imaginary readers is pandering--and to people who don't even exist! I wasn't pandering consciously, but I'm taking more risks now.
Now that I'm thinking about it, the imagined readers' expectations are kinda like the little voice in my head that tells me I'm a loser. It's the same voice I hear whenever I smoke pot.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? Or, what was the best advice you got?
Be flexible. You're not going to make any money. I mean, not one penny. You may pay for your beer, but you'd pay regardless.
Do you want your life to change?
It doesn't matter what I want, because it will.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
Exercise, keeping myself open, vulnerable, and honest, and paying off my debt.
If by "change" you mean "get people to agree with you about XXX," probably not. I think anything that takes a risk to actually talk to people, rather than just to itself, can change the world. But anyone can unleash new ideas into the atmosphere. The Teletubbies did it. They didn't cause an uprising, but their shape and sound was let loose into the atmosphere, and now you can see little Tubby-tracers in all walks of life: wiggling and smiling and celebrating pre-verbalness (but there was also a shape that preceded the Teletubbies which allowed their shape to arrive). The shape didn't stop us from electing George Bush twice, but maybe it'll stop us from needing to make Saw IV.
A poem from A Gringo Like Me by Jennifer L. Knox:
. . .
We're driving north tomorrow morning. Tomorrow night (that's Saturday, the 11th) at 8 pm, I'll reading with Matt Henriksen, Adam Clay, and Jess Mynes. Chris Tonelli will be laying down some tarps for us at the Lily Pad in Inman Square, 1353 Cambridge St., Cambridge, MA. (They're in the midst of drywalling at the Lily Pad. But there will be chairs and atmosphere. And we'll all be there.)
Max emailed Adam the other day:
An old friend of mine has started a blog. He is a chauffeur. His entry for Tuesday put me in mind of you.
It's 10:30 and we're just getting around to having some dinner. I chopped up some stuff a couple hours ago... and now K is singing in the kitchen--there is hope!
Is this a dream? I want mine to be. There was a day when you were shitting and bleeding and making those lists, right? Go back. I came to forget. Is there something else that we could ask? "You're only one man."
Sunflowers--really? They can grow in the closet? Don't they need light? Their throats. "Light from within." To light my candle for the feeling of "receive me." Conversion of a life--a moment that can only be returned to in one way.
It's out. And it's terrific.
You are not giggling under the tablecloth you are two adults sitting at expensive computers touch-typing (oh! yes) resting your index fingers on the F and the J waiting for the incoming ping of the instanter message like a starting gun
gd 2 c u again
your form is never more than an extension of such content
and no one sees you
each has the words of the other's body
the dark between them the same dark
& almost as much of it
Marriage (a visit to the fortuneteller)
"It might not feel very artistic. The production is modest, more on the order of a school play than a broadway show. But when the extra is taken away, there is strength."
"Because you have chosen the life of an artisan, you can't expect things to go fast. It's slow. You knew that. But you just have the one idea--in two sizes--and that's good, it's not split. Slow down and remember the original idea. Your job is technical and complicated, though basic--it's done with the hands. Her job is done with the mind. She is more the ornament? Though not very glittery--it is pretty banged up. You are more the backstage manager. But your tools are more fabulous, so it evens out."
. . .