HCE interview
SES interview

some poems online
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my book: case sensitive
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May 2007
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first-book & other interviews:


$650 apartment for $650
aaron mccollough
ada limon
al filreis
almost i rushed from home
adam clay
amanda earl
amy king's blog
annandale dream gazette
a peek of reach
a sad day for sad birds
asthma chronicles
attention without a me
a tonalist notes
a view from the potholes
a walk around the lake
bemsha swing
bewilderment inc.
big window
black and white
the blind chatelaine's keys
bob marcacci
both both
brandon brown
bread and jam for frances
the brother swimming beneath me
the burning chair
cahiers de corey
can of corn
catherine daly's blog
chicago postmodern poetry
chicana poetics
chicks dig poetry
clay matthews

collin kelley
critical fiction
culture industry
dbqp: visualizing poetics
delirious hem
the desert city
the dishwasher's tears
DIY poetics
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do gummi bears dream
effing blog
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elephant seals negate
esther press
eyeball hatred 
fait accompli
fewer & further
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fringe matters
geneva convention
goodness gracious
harlequin knights
here comes everybody
hg poetics
home-schooled by a cackling jackal
human's animal
hyacinth losers
i am yer grammer
i'll show you mine
in place of chairs
intagliod up in blue
iron caisson
ironstone whirlygig
isola di rifiuti
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jake adam york
jane dark's sugarhigh!
jeannine blogs
kaya oakes
lance phillips
leftover flying
lemon hound
lime tree
little red's recovery room
love and coffee
the lovely arc
lovers' last go around
lutheran surrealism
maryrose larkin
mindful ramblings
minimalist concrete poetry
minor american
modern americans
mr. tong bliss' journal
the neglectorino project
nervous unto thirst
never mind the beasts

nice guy syndrome
nothing to say and saying it
now then
omnidawn blog
paul hoover's poetry blog
the pangrammaticon
peek thru the pines
philly sound
poetry hut
poesy galore
poets' corner
poet with a day job
pshares blog
pudgy pigeon enterprises
pugnacious pinoy
qbdp: the mailartworks
radish king
reader of depressing books
reli[e]able signs
reginald shepherd's blog
rob mclennan's blog
rocket kids
rue hazard
samizdat blog
sandra alland's blog-like entity
sandra simonds swims and swims
say something wonderful
serif of nottingham
shanna compton's blog
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slim windows
spoke to the world on the phone
spooks by me
stamped & metered flying fish
the steinach operation
stephen vincent
texfiles in bahrain
they shoot poets don't they
third factory
this is all your fault
this morning in poetry
tom raworth's notes
twenty thousand thousand
the unquiet grave
unreliable narrator
virgin formica
voices in utter dark
voix off
the well-nourished moon
what an errand knave
wild horses of fire
wind meals
wood s lot
the word cage
yes, starlings! yes!

you are here
ysleta poeta
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journals/small press/reviews:

6 X 6
abraham lincoln
above/ground press
absent magazine
action yes
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house press
how2/barbara guest memory bank
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konundrum engine literary review
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little red leaves
new pages
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omg press
the page
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poetry 365
the poker
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rain taxi
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sona books
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to the sound
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every other day

15 MAY 07

O Canada! Much too briefly seen. Evidence of our fleeting visit to Ottawa at Amanda Earl's blog. Thanks, Amanda. And the amazing Sandra Alland talks about the reading we did together in Toronto at her blog-like entity (scroll down to May 12). More evidence soon.


11 MAY 07

How has your first book changed your life?

56. Linda Russo

front cover of MIRTH

How did your manuscript happen to be picked up by Chax Press? Had you sent it out much previously?

Mirth went through several incarnations before becoming Mirth, and I'd sent it out in different forms for about three years-- perhaps to 7 or 8 presses whose work I've followed closely for some time--before it caught the eye of Charles Alexander.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Charles and I worked very closely on the whole book, but on the cover moreso than anything else. I described to him my vision for a cover--featuring an image figurative yet not literal (i.e. strange and familiar at once) and entering into the space--floating in, really--from one corner. Charles suggested I might like the work of Gwyneth Scally, a Tucson-based artist. Sure enough, her organic/mythical/ambiguously emotive image "Loaves and Fishes" drew me in instantly. The multivalence of the image--she's biting, impressing upon, or merely tasting herself, or the marinelife she is becoming--captured the idea of "mirth" I had in mind: hopeful (perhaps even joyful) and grave at once, going through the process of these sensations, moving toward some future manifestation. There's  a good bit of Ovid in Mirth, and in a purely witty sort of way this is suggested in the woman's metamorphosis. As for the cover design, I love the bright, oily "drop" floating against the black surface. I like the way the image and the cover seamlessly blend.

MIRTH by Linda Russo

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

A Holiday Inn concierge delivered the package to me, tingeing an otherwise fraught period of my life with a sense of import. This to me is indicative of the care Charles gave to the project at each step. I don't know if many poets nurture a similar sense about their first book (or perhaps any book for that matter), but in my mind the book Mirth is inseparable from the experience of working with Charles.

Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?

I suppose I thought the arrival might be more emotional and dimensional than it in fact was. I'm not very keen on thinking about Mirth in terms of its or my "success"--I'm just not sure what that means in this case. I hadn't forecast any change; I was merely anticipating the arrival of the material object. It was so long in the coming that any "change" was already realized, perhaps, in editing the manuscript. But the book object provided a sort of background happiness that kept me going during a rough period. I didn't have a lot of time at that moment to really dote on the book, and I was very isolated--staying at a Holiday Inn in a strange city.

How has your life been different since? Were there surprises?

I've done a few readings and signed books; the book has been sold and I've given it away; I've made and received comments about Mirth because of these activities. For instance, I was unofficially dubbed the most morbid poet at a local literary festival. Such moments are welcome, but my "life" is not different. One moment resonates with my life more than the others, though. As I said, I didn't get to dote on Mirth--not until a week or so later, when I went to visit my family. My mother was essentially Mirth's first reader, and she loved it. I felt, on the one hand, that the book served to establish some sort of understanding about the weird shape my life has taken, in my parents', and to some degree my siblings', eyes. On the other hand, this confirmed for me that despite its disjunctive, parodic, dark, ambiguous, critical, and political moments, one doesn't need a Ph.D. to "get" Mirth. It broached, for those few days that I was home, entirely new conversations amongst my family.

And I thought I'd get a job. I thought I'd be offered six or seven jobs. This did not happen. The biggest surprise was learning that an undergraduate English major at the University of Oklahoma is writing an essay on my work.

What have you done to promote the book?

I'm not much of a self-promoter, and I don't beat myself up over that fact. Aside from giving readings and lining up more readings in the future, I haven't done much. I don't have a blog. I announced it on a listserve or two. Charles has sent out review copies.

What was the best advice you got?

The best advice I got was in the manuscript stage: put your new work first. That decision acted as a cornerstone and the rest of the sections fell into place after that. It helped me let the book be finished and no longer in-progress.

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

It allowed me to think consciously about doing something different.

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

I've made note of a few critical responses--if by that you mean some form of written attention from a reader who may or may not be a friend. No effect; I don't really expect there to be one at this stage. My writing has long very much been, for better or for worse, oblivious to whatever hackles or praises it may raise.

Do you want your life to change?

I rarely find myself not "wanting" change. That's not to say I'm not at moments not discontent. But I often look forward to another set of circumstances, another context, to live my life in.

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

Yes. I'm trying.

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

I do. Poetry is a form of attention and intention; it's a material engagement. It changes the individual--being a poet is, to me, allowing yourself to get swept up in the great sea of potential that is working with language. I've seen poetry change things for individuals, mostly younger poets. I wouldn't go so far as to say that poetry can create change "in the world" because it (the world) is made of things (structures, ideologies, inequities, etc.) that poetry can't effectively change. But on individual bases, yes--poetry can create change for the individual interacting with their world. That's one very good reason that writing is written.


A poem from Mirth by Linda Russo:

Strategies for Anxiety Cure

It's not just that your friends annoy me.
I haven't had a proper breakfast
for thirteen years. If we
don't keep up with current events
are they current? My toes, also pink, stink.
Under our system the statesman has such status.
I am an island, I am a rock, and fragrant, and my strategies
for sadness are none of your business.
Here's something we can all chew on. Pork is still
the other white meat. But could we just hold each other?
In the dream it persisted. Though canned ham is cured.
I can't tell you where I'm going with this.
I'm not lonely--I'm just getting restless!
I don't see any ships or waves. Or casseroles.
I have not been on my knees like the chore
demands. I just can't get myself to do it, I'm a fear factor
failure straight from the disposition factory. Who am I
kidding? I have not been on my knees or asked to get on my    knees.
No one actually said my boobs were all wrong.
I shouldn't swear. I do.
Is this the right skirt? Does it look right on me?

. . .

read more first-book interviews

. . .


9 MAY 07

2 city tour of Ontario

Tomorrow, May 10, I'll be at the Ottawa Art Gallery, reading for rob mclennan's Factory Reading Series with Rhonda Douglas. Starts at 7. Friday at 7:30, it's Mercer Union in Toronto--Mark Truscott's Test Reading Series, with Sandra Alland. (Special guest a. rawlings will read a few poems with me!)

ps: If you happen to be in Montreal on Thursday instead, Sina Queyras is reading there at 7 for the Atwater Poetry Project.


7 MAY 07

Okay, this has now become a baby blog. I can't help it.

Ava Therese Firestone-Morrill. She sees into your heart.


5 MAY 07

an interview with Lytton Smith

Lytton Smith

You're a publicist for Persea and Four Way Books poets--do you represent prose writers for those publishers as well?

Yes--I love doing poetry because so few people do it as a priority, but I have worked with prose titles--a biography of the baseball player Curt Flood (a lot of fun, that one), an anthology of contemporary Jewish American fiction, and I'm just about to work on an anthology of "short stories about nonconformist youth." I'm working on a collection of short stories by Eileen Pollack at the moment which is, happily, a real page-turner, and at the same time very emotional; an interesting set of emotions to be pinballed between.

Do you also do freelance work for individual poets?

Yes, and it's something I'd like to do more of. It's great working with different poets and different books. I think one of the real thrills of being part of a community of poets--or I should say a set of communities of poets--is being able to watch the different ways of thinking about poetry that people have. Some of it's related to how we situate ourselves in daily life--politics, techno-phobia or -philia, where poetry exists in relation to the rest of our lives--but a lot of it has to do with the imagination as it inhabits our conceptions of our books, and their public lives. It reminds me of one of the things I like about reading your first book interviews, too: the question "do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?"--which the poets you interview are expecting--and it's the forms of thinking that are as or more interesting than the content of the answers. I hope to always be able to work with interesting poets and books; if only there was more time and less need to pay the rent (I also teach, which I enjoy, and have a rather luxurious student-teaching fellowship, so wouldn't dream of complaining, but it does take up a lot of time.)

What do you charge? (if you don't mind saying)

I'm culturally trained to flip-flop on that sort of question (Lytton reverts to uber-British)! I won't say because it very much depends on what a client wants and what stage they're at--how much their press is and isn't supporting them. If a poet has to pay for copies of the book to send out to reading series, that's a very different thing that if the press has designated 200 review copies for whatever purpose. I'm acutely conscious that poets get the raw end of the deal financially: not only are our advances small, but we have smaller sales and little in the way of advertising and publicity budgets. A friend who recently published a debut short story collection put away a sizeable sum to fund publicity, reading tours; almost no poet ever gets to do that. So I try to find a way to survive financially, by which I mostly mean that I have to earn enough to give me the time to concentrate on my clients rather than being distracted by too many other jobs, while also being as cheap and therefore fair to poets and to presses as possible.

I think I'm a little uncomfortable with this, and can best explain it thus: my long-term goal is to set up a not-for-profit publicity organization that provides poets with information about how to publicize their books, what to expect from and ask for from their presses, and gives grants to poets specifically for publicity. There's a gap in the support for poets; you can get fellowships to help you work on a book, and fellowships/prizes/teaching jobs once you've got a book out, but almost nothing to help you promote the book itself. I'd love to see more things like the Wave Poetry Bus. And there's room for poetry in more unusual places: I'm working on trying to set up a reading in a boxing gym for an upcoming book, and maybe you end up with 5 people there who are gym regulars who've never been to a poetry reading but who like boxing, and that's great. That's making things public!

Ideally, I think the publicity aspect of poetry might be more closely linked with the writing of poetry. At present, publicity seems to mean "promotion," and I think that it might also, or more accurately, mean "explanation." I keep reading poets who (rightly) complain about "accessible" as a review term, but if we are to go beyond that usage, we need to offer an explanation of what we mean by "accessible" and why that's useful. What other terms might we want in talking about poetry today?

How did you happen to get into this line of work?

I think I've always been in this line of work, if that's not too coy! I love sharing the things I'm excited about and, being a bookish sort, that's often the novel, poem, essay I'm reading. My favorite novelist, Alessandro Baricco, I stumbled on by chance in a bookstore which fortunately didn't have the Julian Barnes novel I wanted, and ever since then I've been telling everyone about him. I want to shout about things from the rooftops. I just read and loved Paige Ackerson-Kiely's book from Ahsahta, and the next day was going to a reading, so had to bring it along to show people and enthuse about. I think that mentality led me into this, but I sense you also want a practical answer, too.

I started working at Persea because I read Gaby Calvocoressi's debut collection in galleys and loved it so much I wanted to work there; a friend was fortuitously looking to leave so I asked her to recommend me. It's a small company, and I made it my business to do as much publicity as I could--I organized a tour of England for Gaby, and indeed her enthusiasm and sense of possibility as a poet was an education to me--and just tried to be as imaginative as possible. Then at AWP last year, my first, I met the poet Chelsea Rathburn whose book had just come out from University of Evansville, and we were talking about publicity and I suddenly realized I could be really helpful to a lot of poets; she asked me about freelance work, and though my schedule didn't allow that to happen, she gave me the idea of more actively promoting more poets. I'm ever cautious about getting overwhelmed--I never want to short change anyone--so I don't take on too many poets, but I want to find time to do so more.

Your manuscript The Lost Tin Myth has been a finalist for the Sawtooth Prize and the Dorset Prize, among others. Do you feel your work as a publicist is helping you in your effort to get your own book published? If so, how?

Not directly--I have a rule that I won't submit the manuscript anywhere I've done publicity work, and I won't do publicity work anywhere I want to send the manuscript. That's a little disappointing at times, but it's important to me; I want the book to be taken on its merits, and to know that.

What I do get out of being a publicist is a better knowledge of how publishing works, and of what happens once the book has become a book. I'm reading more poetry more carefully, and advocating for poetry has always been a great way of coming to a better understanding of what I'm doing as a poet. My process involves getting to know other poets well--I like to "play the sedulous ape" as R. L. Stevenson encouraged, and being a publicist can help with that. It's also putting me in touch with some books I wouldn't necessarily seek out otherwise, and I think that's healthy.

When your first book is published, what do you plan to do to promote it?

Everything! I'm definitely going to have a launch reading in a bar with a band playing before the reading (and maybe after), somewhere I can get a crowd that isn't the typical poetry reading attendee. I'm going to hit the blogs: there are poems in the book that use language from HBO's Carnivale so I'll try blogs such as Whedonesque in an attempt to get it into the hands of people who aren't reading P&W; then there's the medieval strand to the poems, and I plan to get it to the attention of medievalists in English Lit and History Departments. I've since re-titled it The All-Purpose Magical Tent and I'm thinking of various tent-related possibilities: an All-Purpose Magical Tent website, a one-man tent tour of the US, readings at circuses? A lot will depend on if and when the book gets taken, and who puts it out. I'm prone to fantasizing its acceptance and release, and I have to keep stopping myself.

Are you as comfortable promoting your own work as you are the work of others?

Well, when/if the time comes, I'm looking forward to having someone publicize me. I think that's in part because advocacy by a third party seems to have a stronger effect than self-promotion in some cases, and partly because a third party looking in on the work sees new things, new ways of promoting it.

But that said, I love reading, and as you can probably tell from these answers, talking and talking--and talking. I'm comfortable promoting my own work, but I guess I see it as a very different thing: the act of being a publicist (someone defined by the act of making public, by whatever that '-ist' suggests) is different when it's your own work, I think. The writing of the poem is a step in the act of making public, and you're not a fresh reader no matter how much you try to distance yourself. As a publicist for someone else, your way of making something public begins with the private act of being a reader, and that fascinates me. I like to think I can occasionally reveal something new about a book I'm publicizing, another option for it, and friends who've read my manuscript have done that for me; I look forward to having an editor and/or publicist do so.

Do you feel that strong reviews are more or less valuable than readings? Is being reviewed in good publications essential to the success of a book?

I think readings are the most important thing: a strong review of a book might impress a reader, but at the same time confirm that it doesn't sound like "their" type of thing. I know even while I try to be open-minded as a reader, always interested in a thing I've not read before, I have certain familiar notions of favorites. But hearing the poetry read can cross that divide--I've definitely ended up buying books on the basis of a reading. And, in addition, the reading informs people about the book's existence beyond those who are there.

That said, given that the more widely the book is mentioned the more people might buy/read/think about it, getting mentions is key, and a strong review, whether in a senior publication or on a new blog, will help sell the book, or perhaps another of the poet's (future) books. I've just bought Jaswinder Bolina's Carrier Wave on the basis of a poem posted on John Gallaher's blog.

Do you like to read publicly and do you do it very much?

When I can--NYC can be a great place to read but between the MFA and the first book it is a little harder to book a reading. Plus, I'd rather save venues until I have a book--I think publicity has a more and less effective time period. I've just read twice recently, though, at Cornelia Street. It gave me a chance to read some non-manuscript poems, new things I'm puttering about with, and that was liberating.

How long have you been living in the States and why did you come here originally?

Ha! So many answers. 3 and a half years. Because I read Moby Dick. Because of a great, intense conversation with a professor at undergrad about captivity narrative and America. Because myth operates differently in the US: the guitarist Richard Thompson talks about the size of monuments and other mythic structures in the US versus the UK, the way that things operate on a smaller scale in the UK, that there's nothing comparable to Route 66 or the Grand Canyon (we have the M25 and Offa's Dyke, and myth functions differently in these locations). In the US (and I will say I'm hesitant about exactly what that encompasses in terms of time, geography, and peoples) there was a sense, for some, of creating/imposing a national identity through literature, and even now it's possible, more in some circles than others, to talk about writing the Great American Novel. And if you were to say in an interview that you wanted to write the Great British Novel it would be faintly ludicrous, it would be a proposal for a Hugh Laurie-esque wry comic thriller.

I think fundamentally language is creative, by which I mean it creates new things through utterance; these things might not be graspable, though at times they are, but they're no less existent. And so I think the US offered me a way of believing that that staying in the UK didn't, not matter how much affection I have for the land (though less, perhaps, for its culture, in cases--if I'm homesick it's for the geography, the soil, more than the nation, which is in any case a fragmented group of nations). Gertrude Stein said a writer should have two countries, and that's been very useful for me.

Then there are the benefits of writing being taken seriously in practical terms: an M.A. in Creative Writing in the UK, at least when I was applying, was treated a little contemptuously, so that you have to write papers on the history and theory of publishing in order to justify it. And it would have been one year. The two-year-plus system here, with the summer between the years as a break, was much more appealing. Additionally, in London I always wanted a community of poets. I read somewhat romantically about the poetic groups in France and England in the early 20th centuries and wanted that. It never seemed to exist in London for me: you had cliques, and even they weren't that different, there was very little range in the poetry before me as a naive reader (even while I loved and love a great deal of it) and little public presence for anything different from the norm. I don't know if Americans ever quite agree with me on this, but the situation is much healthier out here. I will say it's improving in the UK, partly because of presses like Seren, partly because of MFA programs like Bath Spa (who were actually at AWP last year--a minor miracle in British forward thinking, but then again one of their faculty is American and got her MFA from UC Irvine, Carrie Etter, and it's a program with American inspirations).

If I hired you as a publicist, what would you do for me? What would be the most important things?

Generally I write a press release and pitch letter for the book, I come up with a list of reviewers for it to go to--the obvious places but also others that might not come to mind; thinking about reviewers I know of who would be right for the book. I think I can be a big help finding and contacting reading series about a book. I'll help organize a tour of an area where useful and possible, or organize a launch reading or other bigger event. I sometimes do postcards for a book, which are cheap and a good way of getting information out where the poet has lots of snail mail addresses. But it's different for each book--I'm helping one poet with grant proposals at the moment. So long as it's getting the book more public, I'll do anything. I long for the poet who wants to involve sky-writing with publicity...

I've been reading case sensitive and liking it a great deal. And I kind of wanted to answer this question with something about case sensitive specifically. But I also worried that I would be intruding, entering your space without permission in a way, and so I haven't. I will say though that one of the things I look for in a book is that it makes me think, and makes me engage with it on some formal level. case sensitive very much does both for me, and I feel good publicity work can come out of wanting to and somewhat needing to explain that thinking.

I've been trying to help a poet friend to compose a brief description of her book that will be used by the publisher for publicity. Would that tend to be part of what you'd do for a client?

Yes, very much so. It's one of my favorite parts of being a publicist. I always do it with the input and approval of the writer: I'll read the book, write a description (often as I'm writing a press release, etc.), and then show it to the writer. I'm not trying to read the writer's mind, but trying to describe the book in a way that will help it into the public while doing justice to what the writer intends and prioritizes. It's a reader's reaction, not a writer's, but hopefully not just one reader's reaction.

How would you briefly describe The All-Purpose Magical Tent?

This one I've found very tough, partly because I think description is so context-dependent. The two paragraphs below wouldn't be what I'd put on the back of a book but I've used them to explain it to would-be publishers. Recently I've been thinking about it as "the Venerable Bede meets HBO's Carnivale with a soundtrack by the Counting Crows." But that doesn't seem quite right to me; I guess I'd like people who are interested in these things, since they've (indirectly) influenced me. But I'm not sure that that sentence would be what a reader would describe it with, and I wouldn't use it on the book either. Though I'll happily stage-manage a blurb to get HBO in there--I mean, it can't hurt the publicity of it! And I do feel a kinship to that show, which I only watched after writing the manuscript--thankfully, I think, as the themes overlap in many places, and it would have limited my thinking and expression.

I'll also say lastly that maybe the re-titling is part of a brief description: The All-Purpose Magical Tent is, among other things, a storehouse for and performance arena of the imagination. It's an imagination that's working through historical voices, speaking for the self through other people, and unable to avoid recurrence. I'm less interested in imaginative disjunction and leaping than in the way the imagination, even at its wildest, can have deep-rooted patterns and formal structures.

But here's that description. I've failed utterly to be brief...

Adopting a variety of forms--sestina, terza rima, sonnet, cento, free verse--and drawing on several speakers--a clockmaker, the Monster, an anchoress--the poems in The All-Purpose Magical Tent argue that myth is necessarily tentative as it comes into being and is handed on, testing the thresholds and margins of speech. A circus wanders through the collection, its members dwindling and its future increasingly uncertain. A solitary attendant waits for customers inside the All-Purpose Magical Tent. And waits. For these characters, what is at stake is how the "tradition of the greater world they came from became mythical in colour and uncertain" (H. G. Wells).

In considering this, these poems explore how lyric's capacity for memorialisation together with the errancy of narrative sustains event through language. Fascinated by an interest in what Giorgio Agamben calls "the dream of language," these are poems invigorated by sound and sense, searching for a unity of the two that remains, in Agamben's analysis, elusive yet potential. While these poems draw variously from the tradition of Robert Browning and Gerard Manly Hopkins, and more recently from Karen Volkman and Srikanth Reddy, they exist in a world wholly their own. It is a world that, by borrowing from history, from World War II, medieval monasteries, the history of 20th British poetry, the American Dustbowl, reminds us how history survives in its telling and re-membering.


How will your first book change your life?

I have a number of friends who know I'm a poet, or that I'm "doing poetry," but for whom that's not necessarily a tangible thing. Either they might not write themselves, or haven't read much of what I've written. They're all wonderfully supportive and curious, and it'll be gratifying to see what they think of the book, and of the poems in it. It's something I want to share with them, as well as with new readers who will offer an unexpected perspective; in both cases, I'm interested in the conversations a book will spark. This is especially true where the medieval/Anglo-Saxon poems are concerned; I hope they speak to a specific audience as well as beyond that audience. One of the pleasures of being a writer is that what you write starts conversations, helps you realize shared topics of discussion, and so on. I'm thinking and hoping that having the book will set up new avenues of communication with friends new and old, both here and in the UK. Again, it's that meeting of the often private act of writing with the public act of, well, publication.

This is a strange question to answer in the hypothetical, because I hesitate to suppose a book will actually exist even while I very much hope it will. I don't think of myself as someone who wants to write a ton of poetry books: most of my mentors have been poets publishing a book every 7 to 10 years, and that's quite liberating to me. Having a book will take away some of the pressure of thinking about being published, and allow me to think more about what projects I want to pursue, and which might be in some way valuable to other people. There's an idea for a tentative novel about the Nordic gods in a dusty filing cabinet in a rarely visited parted of my brain...I hope I'll get to spend time with that. 


A poem by Lytton Smith (first published in Verse, 2006):

Scarecrow Work

Bury your eyes in late barley. Your congregation
sleeps in the baptismal river--an answer to thirst,
         a satisfaction--a flock

that would not shepherd. When told the abandoned
do not companion despair they still sought flight,
         sought turning from water.

Their restlessness a dusk leave of settlement; yours
a crowsighted knowledge: how you were chosen
         for laying-on hands,

how your congregation rests riverbed for your mercy
is unbound. Your lesson: what will not scatter is safe,
         is dove, is olive return.


3 MAY 07

How has your first book changed your life?

55. Tao Lin

Had you sent your manuscript out often before it won the Action Books prize?

I sent it out at the same time to Hobart's contest, which was for a small book of something, not necessarily poetry, Action Books' contest, and one other contest that I don't remember the name of. I was working on the manuscript while sending it out and continued working on it in December and January (I think the Action Books contest was open for the month of December) and I think Action Books called and said I won in February. Before those three contests I hadn't sent out the manuscript. I think I wrote most of the manuscript between July or August and November, or something, and began putting the manuscript together in October or November.

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

I was at my girlfriend's parents house. I was alone in the house. I picked up the box. I carried the box upstairs. I opened the box. I looked in the box. I looked at the books. I thought, "Oh." I took a photo with my camera phone and sent it to I think my mom, my other publisher (Melville House) and later I think Noah Cicero. I posted the photo on my blog and titled the post "Victory in Japan."

Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?

No. I anticipated I would feel good for maybe 1 or 2 hours. I was right. I felt happy I had the real book, because then the publisher couldn't cancel it, or something, and also because it looked and felt nice and there were maybe 1 or 2 people, in the world, who would view me now as a more "legitimate" person. The good feelings lasted maybe 1 hour. Or 2 hours, I'm not sure exactly. But that isn't a bad thing. I think permanent change happens gradually. I don't think a million dollars or the Pulitzer prize or moving to Japan, Canada, into a giant apartment, or anything else like that, would cause permanent change to my life. I might feel good for a few days or a week or a month or something, but then would eventually feel the same as I did before.

Permanent change can come, I think, by being conscious of one's own thoughts and actions, and then consciously... changing oneself gradually. I mean doing things deliberately that are "hard" or feel "wrong." If something feels "hard" that means your neurons have more connections for the "easy" way. Each time you do the "hard" thing more neurons will create connections for that new way, and gradually you will change--factually, the change will happen. Feeling happy because I have a physical copy of my book in my hands is something I want to resist, I think, because that would create more neurons in my brain for "feeling happy as a result of believing I have 'possessed,' or come into 'ownership' of an object." It doesn't have anything to do with human beings, pain, or suffering. It isn't "moral." I hope I made sense.
How has your life been different since?

It has changed in some ways, but not because of the book. Or rather I'm sure the book had a small effect on me, maybe something between .5% and 5%. I eat more raw and organic foods, am more conscious of where I spend my money--or "more strict," maybe, rather, on where I spend my money--and exercise more and rub organic coconut oil on my face now. I am "more strict" with not eating muffins, cake, bread, cereal, or anything like that. I try not to eat those things and am successful more often now. I make to-do lists and am more productive now. I am "more strict" with not complaining about anything unless in a sarcastic, creative, funny, or very emotional yet not at all melodramatic way. I'm not sure how much of an influence the book has had on those things though.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

At first, sort of. I asked Johannes and Joyelle if it could be a solid bright orange cover with no words and they said that it could, and that they liked that. Later Johannes emailed me and said it didn't fit the aesthetic of Action Books to have that, and then they designed the cover themselves and showed me when it was finished and I said I liked it, which was true. I made a suggestion about putting my name in lowercase, to match the lowercase title and poetry, but they didn't say anything about that. I can understand how the orange cover doesn't fit the aesthetic of their books. It would look like I was "just trying to be different." With a bright orange cover my book would have looked different than all their other books. I like the cover as they designed it.

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

I wanted to advertise in Teen Vogue or Hot Topic or places like that but I only talked about it and never did anything about it. I think my book could have sold many copies if it was targeted at the "depressed, confused teenager" demographic. Or even "depressed, confused college-student" demographic. I thought, or talked, about getting investors and then advertising on MTV. Carson Daly, or whoever is there now, could have held my book up and sold 500,000 copies in one day. But I don't think I really unsarcastically thought anything like that would happen. So I was not surprised. A writing professor I had at NYU, Sophie Powell, said I should get an agent and have the agent submit the manuscript to Japan, Korea, and places like that, but I never did that either.

What have you been doing to promote the book and what were/are those experiences like for you?

I created a blog with all the information for the book. It was a nice experience I think. I enjoy creating blogs and making them look nice. I mailed copies to people I like who I think would like the book. I mailed copies to Miranda July, Mirah, Jenny Lewis, and some other famous people. I posted on my blog saying that if anyone wanted to review the book they could email me and I would send them a copy. I think that got me 2 or 3 reviews. On my blog I made a post where I typed about every poem in the book. I enjoyed all those experiences. I tried to get on Gawker by emailing them. I think I emailed them a photo of my ass. I didn't plan it very much.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?

I'm not sure. "Best" implies we--and anyone reading this--have the same goals in life. But no two people have the same exact goal. I think most people change goals daily, or maybe even moment by moment, even if it's just a change of "focus" in one's hierarchy of what is "important." Therefore I don't know.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

I don't know. The publication itself might have had a very small effect on my subsequent writing, like .05%, and most of it unconscious. I don't think I've ever thought, "Based on the publication of my last poetry book, should I delete this line about ugly fish or change ugly fish to moose?" The actual writing of the book had an effect, I think, on my subsequent writing, because I don't want to write the same exact poem again. By "same exact poem" I mean the exact same words, line breaks, and punctuation. I don't want to write about "different things," since ideally I write about existential themes, which can be applied to anything--and it doesn't really matter what I apply it to, I think, because the "things" (for example abortion, 9/11, baseball, moose, bears, hamsters, Africa, Spain, Canada, immigration, society, TV, etc.) are, ideally, just "tools" in order to convey the existential themes. I hope what I just typed makes sense.

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

I got one negative review, one or two medium reviews, and I think the rest were positive reviews. The negative review had almost no effect on me. The medium reviews had almost no effect on me. The positive reviews made me feel good for maybe 10 minutes to 2 or 3 hours and maybe had a small effect on my subsequent writing in that it made me want to write more.

Do you want your life to change?

Yes. I want to be better. I want my actions to be more aligned with my morals and I want my morals to be more defensible philosophically. I want to block out less information. I want to decide what to do, in my life, based more on morals, math, and facts and less on bodily impulses, momentary urges, or what "feels right." Also I want to be able to reconcile those things--morals, choices--more within an existential view, a view that does not block out any information. All these things are things to strive for, not things that can actually be accomplished and "finished with." A person who doesn't want their life to change is not conscious, I don't think, and therefore is not a person, but a thing, like a rock. No one knows if a rock is conscious though. I'm not sure about these last two sentences I just typed.

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

Yes. I am aware of the ways in which I want to change. Just being aware helps bring about the change, factually, because of neurons, in the brain. But I do not think there are "quick solutions." I have thought about people. Some people get "an idea" every couple of weeks or months and then maybe for one day they try to actualize their "idea," but then almost always go back to how they were before. People who "freak out" every once in a while go through the same cycles repeatedly and then maybe "lose hope" and never actually change, I think. Permanent change is not dramatic. It happens gradually, slowly, and consistently, I think, based on my observations of people. Consistency, not being dramatic, and not reading magazines unsarcastically, maybe, are the "keys" to changing permanently. People who are "in control of their lives" or if not "in control" then at least "productive," are people who rarely talk about "change," but just assume that every day is a day that will be used to "become better," I think, based mostly on my observations of people. I try not to think in terms of "change," but just assume that every moment is a moment that I will change--it is synonymous with being alive.

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

Yes. Like anything else. Anything that exists inside the world will change the world. Anything that exists has no choice but to change the world. Existing is the same as changing. Occupying space or time--abstractly, in a person's head, or physically, in the universe--is synonymous, to me, and factually, also, with "change." If I am sitting and not thinking anything I am changing myself. If I am sitting and thinking things I am also changing myself--and the world. If I throw a rock I am changing the world. If I am not throwing a rock I am also changing the world. Poetry is not special in this regard, I don't think.


A poem from you are a little bit happier than i am by Tao Lin:


i feel most comfortable around middle-class japanese people
i know they are all thinking the same things as me


though their faces appear calm
their thoughts are exactly like i just put them


about how we cannot communicate in our first languages:

we don't care
we don't want to communicate at all
we just want to get our food
and eat it

and go home
and go to sleep

or else go home
and discover a secret passageway behind the refrigerator
and move the refrigerator back to where it was
and take a shower
and go to sleep

. . .

read more first-book interviews

. . .


1 MAY 07

Sometimes when we're working we communicate by email. I asked him what was on his mind, he sent me this:

thoughts of Ottawa

Queen Elizabeth II, robins, discontinued denomination, dark terra cotta with pastel colours, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, belted kingfisher, dark blue with pastel colours, Canadian Journey Series: children at play, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, child on toboggan, snowflakes, child and parent skating, poem by Roch Carrier, children playing hockey, mostly blue with various colour tints, if there is an error select the one underlined part that must be changed to make it correct, Sir John A. Macdonald, osprey in flight, purple with pastel colours, Canadian Journey Series: remembrance and peace keeping, Sir John A. Macdonald, poppies, "In Flanders Fields," doves, modern soldier, Vimy Memorial and two soldiers, two children and a veteran, mostly purple with various colour tints, the poem is correct and there is no error, Queen Elizabeth II, common loon, green with pastel colours, William Lyon Mackenzie King, snowy owl, red with pastel colours, also what's for lunch.

. . .

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