HCE interview
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some poems online
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my book: case sensitive
available at your local bookseller
and online at Ahsahta Press,
SPD, & amazon.com

June 2007
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every other day

16 JUNE 07

How has your first book changed your life?

63. Kaya Oakes

Telegraph by Kaya Oakes

How did you find out that your manuscript had won Pavement Saw's Transcontinental Award? How often had you sent it out?

I was in the basement, doing laundry, when David Baratier called and left a cryptic message on my machine. I heard the word "editor" and started running around the house in circles like a hamster. I tried to play it cool and wait to call him back, but I think I waited five minutes (probably three). Dave had actually seen one of the previous incarnations of the manuscript when I'd sent it to the Pavement Saw contest a few years before. I sent it again on a whim, he remembered a few of the poems from its having been a runner-up, and this time, he picked it for the editor's prize.

Prior to that, various forms of what became Telegraph circulated for eight years. It was a finalist and runner up in many contests, a loser in many more. At one point I sent it directly to presses who didn't run contests because of my ennui and frustration about the whole contest process, but that didn't work either. There were a lot of lessons in humility involved in getting this thing out there, a lot of close calls and wishful thinking. In the end, I'm happy with the press and the book, but I never imagined it would take so long to find a publisher. The oldest poems in the book were written when I was 26, and I'm 36 at the moment, so many, many changes in tone and style occurred in the writing over those years of submitting. Perhaps that's why the book feels a bit schizo to me, like looking at my hairstyles through the ages.

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

Hopefully I won't get fired for this, but I had a tracking number for the package, saw it was coming on a day when I had to teach, and cancelled classes "due to illness." My first thought was that the book was really thin: 80 pages = 10 pages for each year that went into its composition and revision (and I confess I lined it up with other poetry books to see if it was thinner than most. It's not.). My second thought was that the books had curled in shipping and I wondered how to flatten them. I pressed them between The Riverside Shakespeare and The Complete Peanuts. My third thought was that I'd so worked myself up that I needed to take a nap. So I did. Then I woke up and forced my cats to pose with the book and took photos of them, which I emailed to friends.

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

Not in large ways. As far as having improved eyesight, straighter teeth or clearer skin, my expectations were low. I did, however, imagine some things would take on a greater level of gravity--that writing, which has been central to my life since I was a girl, would be more central, if that makes sense. And it has felt that way, probably because there's a copy of the book in every room of my house (except the bathroom), so there's a near constant reminder of its reality.

The book is pretty new, I know, but has your life been different since?

It's been different in the sense that some of my lovely colleagues put postcards for the book on their office doors, and that I can walk into SPD or Pegasus and see my name on the shelves. Telegraph is kind of like one of those babies that's born looking old and wrinkly--it's less than a month old as an object, but much older as a collection of ideas. So it's kind of funky right now but will eventually be smooth and adorable.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Luckily, yes. Yoon Lee was generous enough to let me use that image from one of her paintings, which I'd seen in a gallery show in San Francisco, and which resonated strongly with my writing.


Lance King did the cover design, and apparently at one point the morse code had a secret message (I believe it was going to say "buy our poetry"), though right now it just says Telegraph. It's a surprising and strange looking book. I like that about it.

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

The biggest surprise was seeing the number of people who came out for the launch. I'd imagined four people would show up and kept telling Clay Banes to only order five copies and I'd buy the leftover one myself. But we had a packed house and sold a lot of books. My mother, who hadn't been to a reading since my MFA thesis reading in '97, was regal and had a receiving line. My friends were there. Colleagues. Husband. Former teachers. Family. It was like a quincañera or a sweet sixteen. I brought Irish whiskey and my co-reader Jeff T Johnson brought beer and we celebrated. I did imagine that at least one of my exes would read it and maybe get pissed off, but if they are, they're keeping it to themselves. Or they don't read. Smart guys.

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

I can't say I'm great at promotion, but running an independent magazine and being in bands helped me learn the hustle. And it really is a hustle--the "look at me" stuff is not easy, but I grit my teeth and do it. So a friend helped me set up a website (oakestown.org) when the book won the prize. I'm not big on blogging about poetry, since I prefer to do that in real life, face to face, but I like to natter on about pop culture and my problematic hair. My site does get a lot of hits from people looking for "big fat asses." I used the magazine I edit and write for, Kitchen Sink, to promote the book as much as I could--we spammed the mailing list, stuffed postcards for the book into magazines, and generally annoyed our non-poetic hipster readership. I also got a MySpace page. Ugh. I went to AWP in Atlanta (my first AWP, a very strange experience of jet lag, migraines and chain hotels), but the book hadn't yet arrived, so I hung out at the Pavement Saw table with my fellow P.S. author Rachel M Simon and handed out postcards and tried to network, which mostly meant standing around feeling dorky. I find it hard to infiltrate already existing groups of poets since I've flown under the radar for so long, but I did meet some sweet folks, including a lot of the editors who published the poems in journals, and I met my publisher face to face for the first time, and found that we get along swimmingly. We're the same age and both come from backgrounds in punk rock, comic books and poetry, which gives us a lot to gossip about.

We did the launch at my favorite local independent bookstore, Pegasus, which has been podcast already thanks to Andrew Kenower, and three days later I flew to New York and did two readings. On the first day, it was freezing and raining, and on the next, it was ninety degrees. Jet Blue lost my luggage containing all of the copies of the book I'd brought, and it took two days to get the luggage back, so I had to buy underwear and didn't have books to sell or give out at the first reading. The second reading went a lot better, probably because I had my underpants and books back. I'm now in the process of trying to get a more extensive schedule of readings together for the fall (and planning on taking a carry on bag), but teaching makes the logistics of traveling difficult (and I'm broke). Getting readings is incredibly difficult, for some reason--it's not like sending your demo tape and playing for beer. It seems there's a "reading code" one has to crack, which I haven't learned yet. But Dave and I have probably sent out fifty review copies between us, which might help. Hi, everyone! Review copies! They're luscious. I'd be happy to send out more.

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

Mostly people told me to lower my expectations--don't expect job offers, don't expect people to ask you to read, don't expect immediate reviews or responses. One of my friends told me to be prepared for "first book depression"--the "is that all there is" syndrome, which hasn't yet begun, but might. This was all harsh but welcome advice which should probably be handed out with every course syllabus in poetry classes. I learned that people are not going to pursue the book just because it's a book, so I'm trying to chase reviews and readings as much as I can stand it, which so far is sort of a passive attack, since I just got back from New York and I'm sleepy.
What influence has the book's publication (or acceptance) had on your subsequent writing?

As soon as the book got accepted (October of 05), I started working on a new manuscript, which is about 90% done. 90% done in less than two years is pretty speedy for me, and considering some of the life-shit that has happened (deaths in the family, illness, the collapse of Kitchen Sink's distributor) in the interim, I can't believe I managed anything, much less poetry. Whether that's because publication conferred some sort of legitimacy or simply because I'd been bottled up with frustration and rejection so long is unknown; meanwhile, the new stuff is a departure from Telegraph, though kin to it in some ways. I'm geekily thrilled and not sick of it at the moment.

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

No response so far in terms of reviews in the book's infancy, but I got great feedback at all of the readings and had a blast. I'm a big, awkward, goofy person, and for some reason that works in my favor at readings. I very much like doing readings even if they induce a lot of anxiety beforehand. I like the interaction with an audience and the immediate response, which never happens with publication. And friends and strangers have said kind things about the book. I like kindness.
Do you want your life to change?

Most of the changes I want to make involve career, which is dullsville to talk about. I love teaching writing, and UC Berkeley is a pretty great place to do it, but I'd like to teach poetry writing and not just expository prose. However, the Bay Area is full of poets, so there's not a lot of elbow room. I have pretty pointy elbows, though, so we'll see.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?

Top secret stuff, but one thing can be revealed: I recently got approached by a literary agent about a non-fiction book project. Should something come of this, I expect to be on the Colbert Report and Charlie Rose, and to get fan mail from Jarvis Cocker and Leonard Cohen. Or maybe I'll get an office at school that's not in a basement. I'd like to see my next book of poetry emerge soon as well. After that, I'd like to have a freeway overpass named after me, or perhaps a small river.

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

Absolutely, though not always in concrete ways. It can change people's thinking, and can change ways of seeing the world. To me, that's the most significant kind of change.


A poem from Telegraph by Kaya Oakes:


We hit this shoreline in darkness. To begin.
This is a half-reported note from land. No one
here remembers their home country. My partner
is a half-mute stranger with brambles
in his hair. Our assignations taking place behind
rotating backs of blank-eyed enemies.

I cabled mother from the shelter. Could you
come retrieve me? But I have no father; no mother
then, no country. A stalking sound I make sometimes
in morning hours, pacing through these ghettoes.

Some decades back an infant crawled from its
infirmary. They blew
her fingers off and left her there to paint their buildings.
Holding the roller in her shaky baby teeth, she became me.
Now blind in starless, non-electric night,
remembering the vomitoriums
and Peugeots of the hotwired ruling class.

The whining, ending lives. The world a spherical mess;
our cleaning led to barrenness.

. . .

read more first-book interviews

. . .


14 JUNE 07

How has your first book changed your life?

62. Carly Sachs

the steam sequence

Your manuscript won the 2006 Washington Writers' Publishing House Book Prize. Had you sent it out often previously?

the steam sequence began as my graduate school thesis---it was originally a chapbook before becoming a book length poem. I was a bit hesitant about sending it out because it didn't seem like the traditional first book manuscript to me. So I sent it out sparingly, maybe to about 5-10 places, because I felt like I was supposed to be sending it out. Honestly, I thought it would be a better second or third book. But when I moved to DC, a friend told me about the WWPH contest and I guess it was one of those days when I felt like I should be submitting a manuscript.

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

It didn't seem real to me. I think it was actually a bit deflating. Everyone had said it would be huge, but I think since I was very involved in the book making process, the leap from manuscript to book didn't seem that big at all. Maybe in my mind, it was already a book to me by then. I remember seeing the boxes--it seemed like there were so many books. It was cool and scary. I think I had gotten so used to the book in the hypothetical situation, but seeing all of those books made me really nervous. Because now I knew people were going to read it. Which is what we all do, but it seemed very weird knowing that anyone, anywhere, could read my book. My good friend Shannon had driven with me to Baltimore to pick them up from Piotr's house. We sat around in the living room drinking champagne. His cat ran around the room. Afterwards, we went shopping in Hamden. I bought shoes that matched the cover. It wasn't intentional. I had wanted them in purple, but they only had black in my size. The brand is Poetic License so I thought that was a strange coincidence.

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

I did. A book is a way for those outside the poetry community to see measured accomplishment. You now have something tangible and something that is able to be ordered online. I'd get emails from people I knew saying they found the book on amazon.com and they seemed very impressed by this. It's funny how much the internet has increased accessibility. I found myself tracking my sales and googling myself much more than I had in the past.
How has your life been different since?

I still feel pretty shy about the whole thing. I was brought up not to toot your own horn and so self-promotion is a challenge for me. I do it, but it doesn't feel natural yet. Maybe it never will. I get to travel more because I'm going to readings and the book is a way to meet other writers and talk about poetry. But even then, I often feel shy and small. I'm not sure if you need a book to do this, but it is definitely a good excuse for travel.

I think you get more respect--especially from friends and family not in the literary field. I think everyone secretly wants to write a book, and so now that you are someone who has, they see you in a different way. It surprises many of the people that come into the bar where I bartend. I like that they know that I can do something else with my time besides shake a mean martini.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Yes. Right away, my press asked me how I envisioned the cover. Honestly I had no idea. I did a google image search and made myself crazy trying to find an image that I thought conveyed the essence of the book. Mostly they were pictures of women and bathtubs. Maybe even a mermaid. I found a great Bonnard painting but the rights were very expensive and the press didn't have the budget for it. And then we all decided we wanted the image to be more abstract and so they showed me the current design and it was what became the cover.

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

I think I thought the whole process would be seamless. More magical. I think we go into this expecting great and significant changes, but mostly it's small ripples growing outward. Rarely do you get a big splash right away. The advantage of working with a small press is that you have a great deal of control over design---I picked the font, the shape of the book, the cover. What surprises me is how much responsibility is on the author. I had to do my own Library of Congress registration. I had to enter the contests for first books after they're published. I had to book most of my own readings. I had to set up my amazon.com account. It's like when they tell you you need an MFA to teach---but what they don't say is that you need significant publication, awards, prizes, etc. The destination ends up being much farther away than you thought. The upside is that you learn so much in the process. I think I had expected it to become a book without me, that all I had to do was write it and the rest would happen.

I really struggled with the little things---acknowledgments, dedication, author photo. I got really frustrated. My first draft was too gushy and girly and the press wanted a serious author photo and I'm naturally a smiley person, so I got very caught up in these things. Eventually it all worked out though, I still think I look naked on the back of the book and I'm really embarrassed about that.

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

I've been trying to do as many readings as possible and in various settings---bookstores, book groups, etc. My friend Shannon Dunne is choreographing a dance piece for this year's Fringe Festival in DC. I've had readings where only a few people showed up. I've had readings back home at my synagogue where people I hadn't seen in years came to hear me read. I've read to seniors in nursing homes and I've read at some area schools as well. One time, I split my pants on the train and had to buy a sewing kit before I read. I think these experiences have given me more ownership of my own work and they've humbled me and have made me laugh at myself. You learn that a big venue is not always what it's cracked up to be and sometimes the readings at local coffee shops really end up becoming wonderful evenings. You never know what is going to happen when you read and so you have to be open to that.

What's the best advice you got?

Someone once told me that writers spend 10% of their time actually writing and 90% of the time getting work out there. Whether that means sending review copies, submitting poems, entering contests, etc. And so that put a lot into perspective. Moira and Piotr, who had won the book prize before me, told me to really spend the year promoting the book and traveling rather than working on new writing. They said your first book only comes out once and so enjoy it. I think that helped me not stress out. I used the idea of setting up readings as excuses to travel to places I have always wanted to visit, or places where friends and family lived, so that rarely was I traveling to an unfamiliar place to do just a reading. I knew then, that even if the reading didn't go exactly as I wanted, there would be something else to look forward to.

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

I'm not sure if it has had an influence. I've actually been writing fiction and more narrative poems. The style of steam is very spare and so maybe this is a reaction to that style. I also think the style is very specific to the subject matter so I don't know if I could write in the style of the steam sequence any more. That would definitely not seem right.

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

It has been very hard to write about the Holocaust I think for many younger writers. It's a topic that has been done time and time again and so, naturally, reviewers will tell you that you're not original, that you haven't made it new, or wonder why you even attempted to write about something so large. I was also very nervous as to how people would respond to the style, as it was not something many "regular" people were used to seeing on a page. I think it can be a little intimidating to see empty space between words and strange spacing, so I was nervous that people wouldn't be able to get it. I remember people that I knew being very happy about the book, but less willing to actually read it because of the format, and so I had a little prodding to do. But overall, I think people get it---that once they get over their initial apprehension, the book is more accessible than they thought.

I'm still nervous to hear how Holocaust survivors take the book. But so far, I've mostly gotten very positive feedback

Why did you write about the Holocaust?

I actually didn't mean to write about the Holocaust. I initially thought I was writing about water. I'm not sure why, but at the time I was very fascinated by steam--half liquid, half gas. It was scientific and symbolic and somewhat ethereal and beautiful. Images speak strongly to me and I was drawn to the way steam rose from the bathtub. I think I had also gone to a steam room for the first time---my parents had taken me to a swanky resort for my 25th birthday. And somehow this woman emerged and the steam sequence became a narrative about her. I really felt as if something else was taking over when I was writing. I lost all control and original intent. Originally they were numbered poems, steam #1, steam #2, etc. But then I realized that they weren't separate from each other at all. That they were all one poem, but in fragments.
However, the Holocaust was actually what I started writing poetry about. When I was in high school, I went on The March of the Living, which is a trip that takes Jewish high school students from around the world to the concentration camps of Poland and then to Israel. We were required to write in journals to process our feelings during the trip and many of my entries became poems. So, I became known as "The Bus Poet" because I was always writing these poems as we traveled across Poland. So, early on, poetry and the Holocaust were linked for me.

Do you want your life to change?

Yes and no. I'm not sure what I want to happen.

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

I'm actually working on another book. An anthology of poems women have written about rape and sexual assault. It began as an undergraduate thesis and it's going to be published hopefully this fall by deep cleveland press. I'm going to send it to Oprah I think. That's something that I wouldn't have done for the steam sequence. This is the book that I hope will make a difference for a lot of people. I'm planning on donating a majority of the profits to rape crisis centers. I've always wanted to do something big and important and I really intend to go all out with the promotion of the anthology. I think it's really good that my own book came out first. I think that gives me more credibility and practice. I didn't intend for steam to be big, but I have really huge dreams for the why and later (that's the title of the anthology).

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



from the steam sequence by Carly Sachs:

in the tea kettle       a train
     which    stopped running  a    long
time    ago
       though     she     knows
the whistle
she will have to   board


the train moves through her body
                                                   in her letters
                                                                         she writes

              i am healthy and feel well

      words                                engines

who reads                             sees

                                                                      knows what
                                              the truth


                      the   tea
the   woman
in   a   blue   bathroom

                          from              the woman
is burning
                                   the dim light
     in   the    room
                                 the moon


the woman     lives
in a series      of dark rooms
                                      that open

                     she goes around
all day

                                closing doors
she dreams
                                of     the blue    bathroom
with   its cool      smooth       tiles
  and   the tub   large enough

                      her whole


if     you     ask     her
  she     will     tell      you
she             is           burning
        in             this


. . .

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. . .



12 JUNE 07

How has your first book changed your life?

61. Paige Ackerson-Kiely

In No One's Land

How did you find out that In No One's Land won Ahsahta's Sawtooth Prize? Were you amazed or did you have the feeling you might win? Had you sent the manuscript out much before that?

I had spent the previous 2 hours talking, then moaning, then slurring and finally just breathing quietly to my friend Allison on the phone, drinking wine, and sitting on the front porch. It was 11pm when we hung up. The phone rang--I assumed it was Allison with a final detail that would shatter me with its elegance and hopeful outlook and winsome trajectory, but it was not. The caller identified herself as Janet Holmes, from Ahsahta Press. Immediately I imagined that she had called, so late at night, to let me know that Ahsahta would never ever publish my manuscript, because, well, this world is at times a cruel place and if there is a wound or a worry there is a jar of salt and a hand that cannot wait to participate in the debridement.

Then I imagined D.A. Powell, the Sawtooth Judge, a man I had never met nor seen an image of, laughing and laughing and he looked, to my mind, like John Malkovich as Vicomte Sebastien de Valmont, his eyebrows hounding me--all perilous and sexy, and because I often confuse the two, an apt character of rejection.

Of course, it was the opposite.

I never have the feeling that I might 'win.' It allows me to feel amazed when and if, however infrequently, it should happen. There are too few opportunities to feel amazed. Or I am an incompetent seeker. I cultivate a sense of permanent foreboding precisely for moments like these--when I can be reminded, or reprimanded, that there is a sort of joy and whimsy to the natural ordering of the universe. And by joy I do not mean effortless. It takes a lot of effort to feel joy, or pride, as a woman, as a woman in the 21st century. Despite 'improvements' I am suspicious of celebrating any 'successes.' Wary of peering into a mirror despite my desire to look really 'good.' Tired of attempting to look 'good.' Too old to do so without peering into a mirror.

I was amazed.

I was grateful. I was very much afraid.

It makes me sad to give such a self-conscious account. It makes me sad that my truth is often sad and also so small and unrelated to larger, even sadder truths.

Like Paris Hilton going to jail. I am in these moments. Big deal, Paige. Poor baby with everything you could ever want to eat. And clean, pretty clothes. It has been a snap, comparatively, and I have a lot to feel happy about. I have a lot to feel--what a gift!

I sent In No One's Land to 3 contests at the same time. I was 'lucky' it happened as it happened. I didn't know if I was someone who believed in 'luck.'  I still don't know. I do know that Ahsahta is a great press. I am lucky for that.

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

I tracked the package like I was Peter Freuchen right after Pipaluk was born and I needed both limes and walrus meat simultaneously to continue on in my studies and life, and there was a ship arriving, at some appointed time, with those very provisions.

The package arrived at 1:30 p.m. Before opening it I put Skip James on the player. I needed to hear Devil Got My Woman because I listened to that song, like, 48,000 times while writing the manuscript. You know I cut all your kindling, you know I cut all of your kindling then baby I made your fire, and so forth. Then, I opened the box and put my face right in there and took a big whiff.

It smelled like melted crayons and the plastic pourers on those metal boxes of olive oil and also like something foreign, maybe like a bunker in Albania when Hoxja was still in power. Of the last description I cannot be certain.

Then I looked at the book. It was very, very white. The photo on the back was much larger than I had anticipated, and so I sank the ship of provisions to myself momentarily, because it is always weird to look at a picture of yourself. You want to feel a little dead.

I opened a bottle of wine I had been saving for that very occasion. Before drinking any I sent an email to Janet, letting her know the box had arrived, and thanking her, too. I poured myself a glass, and then I remembered that I had to pick up my kids at 3pm, and thus could drink only the smallest bit.

So, I fiddled around. I looked at the book a bunch, but didn't read it. I got my hands really dirty and then put them on the cover and then wiped it off with a sponge to see how well the cover coating worked against dirt. It worked well. I called my husband. I called my mom. I called my dad. I picked the kids up at 3pm, and I brought the book with me. They were the first to see it. My daughter, 5 at the time, said: Mom! You got published! And my son, 6, read a poem aloud in the car and declared it his favorite. Of all time. And it was perfect.

It was perfect because I have been so inelegant about combining all of my loves under one roof. I haven't included the people I should in my pursuits all of the time. I have remained, like, 20 and singular and awkward and askance despite this great family I created and am committed to, despite the friendships I have forged and the ideas I have worked through and ultimately discarded and the pithy poems I have written and the equations I balanced poorly. I mean, who wouldn't want to see every person and object and theorem and caste and cloud you have ever loved under one roof? That would be the best. But still, when I imagine the room full of my loves and pursuits, I imagine that it couldn't be contained--that a hideous fire that would erupt, and everything and everyone I have ever loved would be consumed, and I would be left so completely alone with no choice but to die or begin anew, which seem like the same thing when I think about it. A big canceled-out love. There is no lesson in that. As a result of this fear, I have kept poetry to myself and my family to myself and my friends on a foggy islet far removed from one another, and am pretty much consumed with a pathological privacy that needs to change.

Thus I am happy about how it went when I first saw my book. It was healthy.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Quemadura designed the cover. I sent him a photograph of a rusted out hull of a ship, just to sorta give an idea of the aesthetic I was interested in--nothing I was wed to. He sent a few different choices for a cover. The one we settled on is gorgeous to me. Like a sonogram of the book while I was working on it. It made me feel, at the time, like my 'baby' was healthy. I love the cover.

Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it?

I am the CEO of a corporation that imagines the various ways in which my life might someday change.

Actually, it is not a corporation at all, rather a non-profit organization, and for that I am a little bit sorry.

Listen, like most good Americans I am wholly addicted to fantasy.     
How has your life been different since?

In quotidian matters, no discernible difference. I am still working at the same place. I continue to eat the foods of my ancestors and make time each day to read and write a little bit. My children are getting bigger, but my ability to recognize them grows alongside their physical changes. I am still with the man I shacked up with--who took the term 'shack' to heart--as we live in the same tiny house, drive the same old cars, and employ the same tools when things are broken, even if the tools don't quite fit the job.

I suppose the book 'legitimizes' a level of solitude that I am ever ratcheting up. Sometimes I wish it didn't.

The book makes me want to deserve it. It makes me want to do better 'things,' to write better 'things,' and then to abandon 'things' altogether. And then to stand around in some alley next to a dumpster or meadow full of half-dead larkspur where the lighting is really great and look cool like I didn't have to go through all of that.

Really, though, the book makes me want to end the alarming subjugation of desire that has me in the most unbecoming stranglehold to the point where I can't even really talk about it because talk is too spontaneous an act to really delineate desire.

In this way my life has changed. Despite the evidence to the contrary, I feel more 'silent.'

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

I guess I didn't think anything would happen. I mean, save for my fantasy, which in retrospect was terribly pedestrian.

I am constantly surprised by those strangers who have sent letters in response to the book. Positive and negative. Surprised that some people have read it and felt like reaching out, which is a difficult thing to do. I prize connection above all else. It is a rare and blessed thing. To be confronted with it through the lens of the book is a great big lemon chiffon cake of surprise--like Leonard Cohen jumping out on your 16th birthday holding a dress that you would never have considered, but looks great on all the same.

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

I've done a few readings, but not much else. I'd like to do more but travel is a financial burden that currently I cannot abide.

I like to read. I love to travel.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

I am writing more prose.

Why is that?

I suppose I am writing more prose because I needed another exercise in commitment. When something isn't in my face screaming and devolving in a rapid and sometimes beautiful way, I often shelve it. I love moving from poem to poem. It is forever satisfying. I find revision extraordinarily difficult because I loathe return. I feel like an old used up milk carton with a few spores clinging to the spout around my old poems--overwhelmed by apathy toward the object and full of an inward sense of shame, which is boring. Oftentimes I can barely acknowledge an old poem's right to exist alongside new work. I want that to cease.

I thought maybe writing a novel would help exfoliate some of those surface reactions to language, or creation--that it would be such an intense, sustained relationship with art, and thus undeniable.
That said, I am also working on a second poetry manuscript. And this novel gig is hard when you are such a run-on.

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

There hasn't been much 'critical' response to speak of. I've been mentioned on a few blogs, The Cafe Review, Publishers Weekly and Foreword said kind things about the book, I think there is a review due out in American Book Review soon--all of it sort of puts those clean borders on no one's land for me. Which I appreciate immensely.

I guess I feel a little detached from 'critical' response. Because I am a total loser when it comes to 'critical' thinking, I read any review like it is some fabulous set of cutlery set gently on the table, and I look at it and just know I am relegated to the plastic cutlery in the backroom, because invariably my response to most art is 'oh baby!'  or conversely 'don't touch me there...'  the kind of response that tarnishes good cutlery. Who wants to rub the knife to a shine after I have sullied it? Which sounds lame, and I hope to change, and I read and read and think and think and look and look hoping it will, but in the end I am all 'I felt X.' Ugh. Embarrassing.

I do not intend to demean 'critical' reviews at all. No. No at all. I guess when I am looking to have a sensual experience, with art, with food, with wine, with another person--I dunno. I am addicted to intimacy. Like any good American? When I am intimate with someone, I do not call their former friends and lovers. I do not ask how they measure up. I do not want the intricacies of their experience to proceed my own. I read reviews and 'critical' responses for affirmation, to succeed my intimacy with the object.

Do you want your life to change?

Undoubtedly and in many ways I have already indicated. I want to cultivate congruity between my interior and exterior worlds, I want to love more freely, I want to be loyal to something, I want to subdue my admiration for the ruin, I want to quit posturing but stand up straight, I want to spend less time with my arms folded across my chest and more time in front of something I admire, gesticulating wildly, I want to grant full access to my family, I want to travel more, I want to quell my wanderlust which is a big vice that incorporates all other vices, oh it is just infinite. And I can't wait.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?

I plug away. I try to be conscious. I read a lot. I listen even when it gets boring.

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

Sometimes I feel like poetry is some sub-species of songbird, of which exist in captivity only 29, and I am participating somehow in keeping those birds alive, unhappy, in dumb plain cages that barely resemble their natural habitat, feeding them a pharmaceutically formulated liquid diet with and eye-dropper 5x per day. I know in my heart those birds gotta go. But I am sentimental and gentle and selfish and worry that their deaths will set off a chain reaction that will cause the delicate eco-system to fall into disharmony, and as a result I will surely die. Along with my children and friends who never asked for it.

I don't know right now if I think 'poetry' can change the world.

I think focused passion changes the world, and its outlet is of little import.  Be it ornithology, or poetry, or caning old chairs, or Jesus Christ, or doll making, or lying on the grass with the one you imagine being with forever.  I could bestow my passion anywhere, really, and that poetry was what availed itself feels like a fluke of sorts.  I mean, a good sort of accident.  Is it changing the world?  I don’t have a device that measures such smallness.


A poem from In No One's Land by Paige Ackerson-Kiely:

No, I've Had Enough

From the bow of my boat I daydream your pants, the longing is so great that I might imagine slipping into them, not just a hand but both legs. I might take a jog around the deck so large is my desire to not just touch you but to dwell righteously in your femur, which is hot like a fever but in the end is not a fever. Jesus came and he kissed the eyes of a blind woman. Jesus opened his robe and the ocean poured forth. Look closely at all of the fish we have to eat, their scales upon which the keys of our teeth may finally sing. Their bones a most staunch crunch to remind us now, right now, get down on your knees and put your hands over your ears and become as small as you possibly can, c'mon, you can fit into that shoebox with the balled up tissue paper lying next to you smelling like Cambodian food. And Jesus came with food to Cambodia and elsewhere he came with plates of pickerel and snapper and cod and jellyfish. The world is limp and furthermore dead and I am so hungry I will not eat a single thing as you are everything to me, you are at this instant every single thing.

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10 JUNE 07

Quote of the week: "Cutting pipe IS plumbing."


8 JUNE 07

How has your first book changed your life?

60. Kathleen Graber

Correspondence by Kathleen Graber

For the past week or so, I've been compulsively watching Season III of House. I'm not sure if you know this television show. In my own defense, I can say a few things: first, that I have a long-standing fascination with popular culture and, second, that this is exactly the kind of non-activity that serves for me as a palate-cleanser between the end of the academic year and the start of summer, which I like to think of as the great writing season.

I mention House now, though, because of one of his curmudgeonly quips:  Everybody lies. That's the first thing I thought when I looked over the questions. Even if I wanted to be completely honest about my immediate responses to the book's publication, I think the stories I tell myself now about all of that have evolved in ways I cannot track. Another reason to invoke Dr. House might be that he is one of those fictional nonconformists who are so brilliant at what they do that they can defy and disdain the system that necessarily sustains them and still succeed within it. Another word for this might be arrogance.

I've found one of the hardest things for me about pursuing something like a writer's life has been to navigate my relationship to the system, which is not nearly as transparent or orderly as the one against which most professionals wrestle. I'd say that the conventional stakes for poets are as low as they could possibly be: even the most acclaimed can rarely support themselves with their writing alone, and most Americans can't name more than a handful of living poets. You are not going to get either rich or famous writing poems, yet the competition among poets sometimes feels to me accentuated because of that fact rather than eased. With so few tangible rewards to go around, some writers seem pitched into a frenzy of ambition. It's hard to know how to respond to that in a reasonable way. I'd say no one, even at the highest level, gets everything she'd like in terms of recognition. How do we confront our inevitable disappointments and refocus on the page? How do we take whatever benefits we do garner and refocus on the page?

It became obvious almost immediately that the publication of the book wasn't going to suddenly change anything. It was, for the most part, an almost imperceptible event. I'd be surprised if most poets don't feel this way.

I became interested in writing poetry fairly late in my life, in comparison, say, to Keats. I was probably 35 when I signed up for my first workshop. I graduated from NYU's Creative Writing Program in 2002, and I'd begun sending out some version of the manuscript in the fall of 2003. The book won the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize in 2005. It had done very well that year: it was a finalist for the NPS and AWP competitions (though that's not knowledge I'd normally have), and it had made it into the final rounds at both Utah and Anhinga. Henry Israeli called to ask me if the manuscript was still available before he included it in the batch that he was sending on to Bob Hicok, the judge for Saturnalia that year, so I wasn't amazed when it won. I was very, very happy though.

Henry and I worked a lot on the design of the book. I think we established in our very first conversation that the book would have to be wider than normal, for instance, so that the long lines could be accommodated. We considered a lot of images for the cover, or at least I did, and he gave me his reactions. I finally arranged with Rosamond Purcell to use one of her photographs, and the first thing that struck me when I opened the box to see the book was how perfect, how beautiful, that image still seemed. I think the book looks lovely, and I am so grateful to Henry for that.

I teach expository writing full-time at NYU. I've done that since I as a student there. It's a fabulous job in a lot of ways. The pay is reasonable; I have good health care; I work with brilliant people; I believe passionately in the pedagogy of the program. It's hard work, however, and very time consuming. Hence, one thing that I had hoped the book might allow me to do was move from teaching composition into teaching creative writing. I was hoping that I might be able to find a position with something less than a 3/3 course load. I was essentially willing to relocate anywhere, and I applied for about two dozen different openings. I got one interview. This was a surprise to me, a pretty rude shock. I am a very good, highly experienced teacher, but I didn't attract the attention of even the smallest colleges in the strangest places.

One life-altering thing has come out of the book's publication, however, and that is a Hodder Fellowship. The fellowship is given by Princeton University, and it is essentially intended to provide support for writers with one or two books. It is a gift of time, scholarly leisure, is how they describe it, in the form of money, of course. I've taken a leave of absence from NYU, and I'll be in residence at Princeton, essentially writing, for the next year. What I had hoped to find by changing my job was a little bit more time to write. I didn't secure that in the way that I had imagined, but another much more significant opportunity has presented itself. It's overwhelming, frankly, and I'm grateful every minute of every day to the individuals at Princeton who have made this possible, especially Paul Muldoon, who has been so kind to me. It's been hard, in fact, for me not to find the turn of events nearly incomprehensible.

The critical response to the book (and by this I mean the response of people whose opinions I value, as it's only been officially reviewed in a couple of spots) has been very positive. The people who have managed to find it and read it seem to like it. Whenever I give a reading, people seem to buy the book. That's been extremely encouraging. I haven't done much to promote it, which comes back again to that idea of how one operates within the system. I'll do almost anything anyone asks me to do, but I don't go looking. I haven't sent out an unsolicited poem in over a year. I'd say I'm a bad model by most standards, but the entrepreneurial ambition of some writers, as I've already suggested, gives me pause. I have a naive faith in quality. It's a pretty stupid attitude to have in the current times, and it's perhaps the last really foolish (and, therefore, potentially pure-minded) idea I find myself reluctant to abandon.

Deciding to try to write poems changed my life. I'm very fortunate to have been old enough to have been fully conscious of this change as it was unfolding. Writing poems brought me into contact with new people, and it required me to learn to think about the world and my own experiences much more deeply. It's not an exaggeration to say that I am not the same person I was a decade ago. I'm happier and more awake to my life than I've ever been. What more could I possibly want?

Because I know that I've already gained so much experientially, I try to dedicate myself to writing the best poems that I'm capable of writing and to remember that this isn't a horserace. Writing poems, struggling to write poems, and reading the fine poems and struggling drafts of others is what changes our lives. Publication seems really unlikely to change our lives in the same rich and positive way. There are a lot of superb poems out in the world to read already. If we want to add to that, we should be as thoughtful about that as we can. Our responsibility might be to be a bit more careful about contributing to that conversation. I think we should try to put out there only the very best we have, even if that means publishing less frequently. Having said that, I also know how hard it is for me to assess my own work. I overvalue; I undervalue. I am frequently surprised by the reactions of my first readers, for better and for worse. But sitting on work for a little while seems to help me to see it more clearly.

Putting together a collection of poems forces you to confront your own preoccupations. I've heard it said that each writer only really has one. The preoccupations, to me, of Correspondence seem to be longing and grief. I'm pretty sure that those emotions are  two sides of one coin, though I have no name for that currency. Knowing that I've already thought about that a lot, I'd like to take on some new material in the next collection. I'd also like to write poems that are more varied in their shape, size and scope. I'm intentionally not using the word form here, as I think it would be misleading. I want to get better at what I've already done, and I also want very much to do some new things. That's the way the publication of the book has impacted my present writing. I don't want to write the same book again.

I do think poetry can change the world, but not in easy or quick ways. I don't think, for instance, that overtly political poetry does very much to end wars or change opinions. Having poetry in our cultural landscape does, however, testify to the complexity of simply being human. And being human, of course, involves being political and social, among other things. Good poems are complicated poems, though their complications have many flavors. A poem doesn't have to be obtuse to be complex; it simply has to speak the truth--since all the truths are complicated, and quite possibly contradictory. Poetry instructs us to set aside polemic and embrace a more textured sense of reality and of the fundamental problems facing all of us as people. In other words, I do believe poetry changes the world: it changes the world by changing the way we think about the world.


A poem from Correspondence by Kathleen Graber:

"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

[click on the title to read]

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6 JUNE 07

Good day, my friend. I can't remove my eyes from you.

You are so handsome and so interesting, man. I have never met into my life.

As usual, men got acquainted with me, but everything is different today.

Maybe I am ordinary from one look, and you won't fall in love from the sight.

But don't be precipitate at your decision. (This hapless window
with but another minute of your time.)


4 JUNE 07

How has your first book changed your life?

59. Mary Biddinger

How did it happen that your manuscript was picked up by Steel Toe Books?

After being a finalist for a number of book prizes, I entered Prairie Fever in the Steel Toe Books open reading period. At the time my approach to submitting the manuscript was one of mass saturation, but I always admired Steel Toe Books for holding a reading period rather than a contest. I was also partial to the name Steel Toe Books, having spent much of my life stomping through the streets in big black boots. It seems I've been a Steel Toe poet in training since high school. I read Tom Hunley's description of the press in the Poet's Market, and thought, "Hey, that's me."

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

I think I got more excited when I received the contract, actually. The Steel Toe folks informed me of my acceptance by phone, and the next morning I started wondering whether I had imagined the whole thing. I kept asking my husband to confirm that Prairie Fever had been accepted for publication. I secretly flipped through the caller ID to confirm that a call had indeed come from Kentucky. When the contract arrived, everything solidified.

Tom Hunley passed along numerous electronic versions of the document, so when the box arrived on my doorstep I had a clear picture of the book in my head, but I was totally unprepared for the intensity of the cover's color and the creamy paper inside. I had imagined this day so many times in my head; you know, slicing open the box with a bejeweled golden dagger, my adoring public cheering from the lawn, banners in hand, the fireworks exploding in the sky as I cradled a copy of Prairie Fever in my hands for the first time, grinning as the paparazzi converged upon me. Only somehow it wasn't like that.

I was coming home from work. I saw the box on the front porch as I was driving down my street. I knew what it was. My kids were in the back seat being cranky. I schlepped everything from the car--children included--into the house. I waited for a moment, then opened the front door and picked up the box. It was heavy. Nobody was standing on my porch with balloons. I put the box next to our fireplace and waited until my husband got home. He got home. I opened the box with a slightly sticky pair of kitchen scissors. The book looked awesome. I instantly became terrified that it was replete with typos. I looked inside. It wasn't. I held a Prairie Fever for a few minutes and flipped through it. Then it was time for me to make dinner. I think we had spaghetti that night.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Yes! One of the things I loved most about working with Steel Toe Books was how much they welcomed my input on matters big and small. I always worried that whoever published my book would make me pick a cover I didn't like, or a very literal interpretation of the title: a Laura Ingalls Wilder look-alike with a thermometer in her mouth, or a blackberry pie cooling on a country windowsill. I wanted a photograph that illustrated the haunting collision of nature and civilization. I hoped for something green. I love pictures with a lot of little details that tell an implicit story. I also wanted a photograph from right here in Northeast Ohio. My corner of the state is full of hills and ravines and misty valleys, and that was something I wanted to capture.

My husband, Gregory Thompson, drove past a set of train tracks every day on his way to work in central Akron. These tracks were overtaken by grass and lined with sprouting junk trees and detritus. Obviously this was the perfect place for a photograph, and Greg suggested it to me as a possible cover for the book. He came home with a bunch of shots, and I settled on "Comeback" immediately. So many of the poems in Prairie Fever deal with train tracks: as a way out, as a place to drink warm cans of Schlitz with shady characters from homeroom, and as a locus amoenus. One time I did a public reading where I only featured train poems. It went on for thirty minutes. That's a lot of boxcars.

My favorite part of the cover is in the upper right corner, in the stand of foggy trees. If you look at the "r" in my last name you will see that it connects with a telephone pole that has an eerie resemblance to a cross. This was a coincidence, of course. Every time I stare at the cover I see something new in it. Who needs Hieronymus Bosch when you have an abandoned train yard of Midwestern delights to admire?
Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it? How has your life been different since?

Publishing this book has helped me move on and begin my new project--a series of poems that reinvents Saint Monica (patron of bad marriages, among other things)--and that's what I was really hoping it would do. On a more immediate level, publishing the book was a great relief for me, as I'll be applying for tenure in the not so distant future. As much as I liked being the oddity (how many journal pubs can one person possibly accrue without publishing a book?) I am very glad to have Prairie Fever on my vita.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

The only thing that really surprised me was how much I like reading out of the book. I am so happy with the book's font, and I've found it really comfortable to hold the book and read from it. At first I thought I should still print the poems out on pieces of paper, since that's what I'm used to when preparing for public readings. But the book feels good, and I can actually see it when I'm at the podium.

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

I was honored to read poems from Prairie Fever at the Switchback Books and Friends reading during AWP 07 in Atlanta, and that was sort of the world kickoff for the book. Since then I have been invited to read in a variety of places, and I was especially excited to have several readings in Youngstown, Ohio, a city that exemplifies the rust belt beauty that inspires me. I have also posted a lot of my experiences on my blog, The Word Cage, in hope that future first-timers will find some of the information useful. 

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

I wish someone had prepared me for the surge of requests for copies. We sold out of Prairie Fever very quickly at AWP, and if I could do it all again I would stash fifty more emergency copies in my luggage. It felt awful turning people down, though I had a deluge of requests for signed copies through my website.

The best advice I received was from Kelli Russell Agodon, who told me to view book signing like writing out a thank you or "thinking of you" card. I had been seriously daunted by the idea of signing books for people, especially because I am a perfectionist (subject to irrational fantasies of spelling my name wrong) with carpal tunnel syndrome that can make my handwriting more artistic than I intend it to be. After Kelli's advice I viewed each book as a card, and my blood pressure dropped. I was in familiar territory. I am a devout thank you note sender by nature.

I also received much valuable advice from my fellow Steel Toe poet Jeannine Hall Gailey, and from my friend and colleague Elton Glaser, who read an earlier draft of the book and gave me some very useful criticism. The support of friends like Brandi Homan and Simone Muench and Jackie White made all the difference, too.

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

Prairie Fever's publication has helped me feel more comfortable taking risks and trusting my own judgment. I like poems that make the reader work. Midwestern poetry does not have to be straightforward or conventionally narrative. The poems in Prairie Fever are not traditional; you will find fragments, quick shifts, buckling pavement, but this is essential to the experience. When I was in school I endured many poetry workshops as the weird chick, the one whose poem was followed by several minutes of complete silence. I've had people tell me that my poems are not poems. I can't count how many times my classmates whined, "I don't get it," as if there was some secret punchline that evaded them. I had some professors who didn't offer much more advice than that.

I don't view the book's publication as vindication, of course, because since then I've learned that many people--editors included--do "get" what I am doing. But I am definitely more confident now. In the poetry workshops that I teach I make sure that nobody is subjected to the long silence. If it takes me seventeen reads, I will make sure that I am prepared to offer worthwhile commentary on every poem. I also encourage students to take risks and innovate.

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

My book is still pretty new, so in many ways I'm waiting for the response, but the individual responses I have received from readers are amazing. I always hoped that there were people out there reading my poems in the litmags and wondering if I would ever publish a book. After Prairie Fever came out, I received a number of emails and blog comments from readers who were excited to finally get their hands on a volume of my work. Just thinking about that makes me blush.

I am also excited by the immediate response I have received from people at readings, especially from folks who I wouldn't necessarily expect to enjoy my poems. That's the thing. However I might experiment with language usage and narrative, I want to choose words that the characters in my poems would understand if they showed up at one of my readings and heard a poem for the first time. I want audiences to connect with the images and stories in the poems, and to think about them again and again. Not to disrespect the stereotypical beret-wearing, clove cigarette smoking poetry fan, but I get stoked when somebody's grandmother stops me after a reading and mentions a particular poem, or when an aspiring rapper asks me to sign his copy of Prairie Fever. That's when I feel like I am really getting my work out there.  

I look forward to learning from my reviewers, because I feel like my understanding of the poems is limited by my intimacy with them, and my personal involvement in some of their stories. Jay Robinson taught me something I hadn't realized about my poems: "Biddinger's best offer us characters who mystify, not only because of their proximity to violence, but also because of their inexplicable and nearly unwitting participation in what endangers them." That makes perfect sense. I like reviews that articulate the things that a writer can't put into words. I hope that's what I do when writing reviews for other people.

Do you want your life to change?

I want to be able to spend more time writing. Of course, that is impossible. I'm a professor and a writing program administrator, not to mention the mother of two young children, so there will always be more work than time. But I do want to make writing more of a priority. I would also like to have a more creative lifestyle overall. By nature I am very left-brained, which can be a real obstacle for an artist. If there's a spreadsheet to update I will be tempted to leave a poem mid-sentence and immerse myself in Excel. I find many excuses for never seeing films. I don't bother listening to music unless I am in the car. I want to spend more time planting things in my backyard. I want to be more spontaneous and less neurotic. I do not, however, want to acquire more cats. We have five, and that's way more than enough.

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

Though I grew up in Michigan and Illinois, Ohio is my new homeland. I have my dream job teaching literature and creative writing at The University of Akron and NEOMFA (Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing) program. I own a late 1930's bungalow with an insane perennial garden and pachysandras that would probably withstand another ice age.  I was recently awarded an Individual Creativity Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. I can drive a few miles from my house and see hundreds of blue herons roosting in trees. My students write such compelling poems that I find myself rushing back to my office after class so that I can start a new poem of my own. I want to help nourish the literary scene here and give back to the community that has embraced me and made me feel welcome.

In addition to the work I do at The University of Akron--which includes facilitating writers' groups and bringing readers to the area, in addition to teaching classes--and serving as an Associate Editor of RHINO, I am starting a new literary magazine [Barn Owl Review] with the help of my husband and some other talented local writers. We've been talking about starting a litmag for years, namely a print journal of poetry and fiction that takes risks while still connecting with the audience. Being privy to the publication process with Prairie Fever pushed me over the edge, and I am now ready to take the plunge.

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

Poetry is a laser. Fiction is a rib-spreader. Both of them are indispensable, but only poetry can do the most delicate surgery, penetrating with minimal damage. I do think that poetry can create change in the world, and I believe that it is essential to the world. Poetry is already there, in the ridiculous typo on a sign at the grocery store, or in the snippets of conversation drifting across a playground. We just have to find it.


A poem from Prairie Fever by Mary Biddinger:

Milfoil & Afterthought

There were four rooms. There were eight. You were in corners and under furniture, near my knees, reflections of your back in stainless steel. Suspenders, Florsheims and avocado linen. There was limestone halfway up, and I knew I'd crash into it if I could move fast. You thought it was a cold place. The light bulbs? It was all like helium to me at that point. I said someone should be taking pictures, the way we were sprawled on the hardwood or propped up on rattan sofas. One time in the airport we were both small and spun together in a leather chair chained to the ceiling. You touched my leg. Nobody was taking pictures, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen, or that we weren't in Frankenmuth five years later, at connecting tables but kept separate. A shed behind the school, or that storm sewer at the dunes, past the grasses, left of concession, the sand that felt like clay, like slip, how blond you had become, I hardly recognized. If you were here in this room you'd remind me of the guitar, the train platform, the silver Cutlass containing me and continuing on past it all. You said we'd go back. I was always a good runner. You said: the smoothest skin ever. We'd seen the skyline from two dozen taxis, our own legs on the bridge, from the grass, from the grass again, in the grass on my front lawn, lit by the cheap plastic solar lamps, from deep past the buoys of Lake Michigan and into the waterways connecting. We knew where we had come from, had that in common. In college I looked out the laundry room window and saw you between leaves, in a corduroy jacket. We're here, you said. There were blue sheets I used instead of curtains. Later I'd be in a hundred rooms with tin ceilings and slim wine glasses, or rectangular tables and cinderblocks and papers. In the subway window I'd look nothing but tired. I would try everything from milk to cactus in hope of turning you to milk and cactus and dark rafters and back again, so when I closed my eyes it was heat and every other color we described. The nights kept us like ants under plastic. I kept you in places that were cool and uncovered. You touched my face like it was years ago and just starting. I was busy fending off letters and drinking green tea and lying in a cool bath. By noon, everything was back where it had been. We're here and we're living, you said.

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2 JUNE 07

How has your first book changed your life?

58. Ken Rumble

Key Bridge

How did it happen that your manuscript was picked up by Carolina Wren?

Well, it wasn't so much that Wren picked Key Bridge as much as I picked the Wren. I'd had KB in the usual book contests for the usual amount of time and had the usual results, some final rounds, some semi-final rounds, some "loved it but...", and I didn't really take any of that as discouraging really. I figured it was par for the course. I wasn't really a very methodical submitter; I'd shoot it off to a half-dozen or so places maybe once or twice a year sort of at random. I wasn't really following any pattern of sending to the "major" first-book prizes or making sure I hit those deadlines every year though I did send to them, too, at times.

I say the process wasn't discouraging, but that's not entirely true. Anybody in the biz has to get acclimated to rejection pretty quickly, but damn, it can really wear on a body. Part of the way I got through it--detrimental I think--was to take less ownership/pride in my work. Like I would try to release any love I had for the work quickly so I could go about the business of submitting without getting my heart broken. It really sucks.

But then many things changed in my life a couple years ago, and I changed, and I decided in the spring of '06 that it was time to get KB published, so I got in touch with Andrea, the president/editor of CW, and asked her to meet me and talk about looking at Key Bridge. Andrea is an excellent poet herself, but the kind of stuff I write--what some might call "experimental," "post-avant" or what have you--is not really what she's into. She's been pretty involved in Lucipo [the Lucifer Poetics Group], but her aesthetic hasn't been swayed really.

So when I met with her--the first thing out of her mouth was literally "No, I don't even want to look at it." So it took a little convincing to just get it in her hands. Much of KB had been published at that point, but many of those publications were on the web, and Andrea at that time took hard copy journals more seriously I think. But finally, I sold her on the strength of the connections I had via Lucipo and the Desert City [the Desert City Poetry Series], to be honest. I convinced her that if she were to publish it, that I'd work hard for the book.

So she agreed to take it to the board of directors. It was maybe two months later that I found out they'd accepted it, and it was really gratifying.  

During that whole manuscript submission dance, I really lost sight of what the book was or was about or anything--it was just this object around which this dance was worked; I'd hardly considered what the book was until it came out a couple months ago and people started reacting to it. "Oh, yeah," I found myself thinking, "the book has some content that people will think about--duh." I was sort of surprised.

Part of what I'm trying to say is that until maybe a year or two ago, honestly I was thinking of the book--and publishing generally--as this step that I had to make before I could make the next step and the next. It's a familiar dance and goes something like

 1. get MFA/PhD
 2. get lowly teaching job/residency/grant
 3. get book published
 4. go on job market
 5. get rejected
 6. go back to lowly teaching
 7. get another book published
 8. go on job market
 9. get tenure track job
10. get more books published
11. get tenure
12. ?????

So it's sad, but I saw getting the book published as just (sort of) a means to an end; it was just another credential I needed to reach my goal which, I guess?, was to be an English professor? And now when I think about that, I'm really surprised and confused. I don't think I started all this to be an English professor; I started this to be a writer; I want and wanted to be a writer

I would still love to be a professor, but I no longer see that as the goal; I see it as just one option among many ways to earn a living while writing and learning. 

And I think that's true for the writer/professors I know. They see the academic life as a way to support themselves while they write. The problem is that the demands of an academic life are not insignificant; teaching and being part of a department can take a lot of someone's time. So being a professor isn't this automatic entry into a life of leisure and unlimited writing time. For some, it can really be the opposite, from what I gather. 

The other troubling thing about my line of thinking in the past about goals and academia is that I didn't consider much the value or importance of having my writing as a thing in the world. This maybe goes back to the defense mechanisms that build up as a possible result of the submission process. I avoided thinking too much about why my book should be in the world, why the world needed it. 

I'm not sure the world does need my book, but now those sorts of questions have become really important to me. I do believe art is necessary, and if I'm going to claim to be producing art, then I want to hold myself to the highest standard that I can. 

I don't know if I reach that standard all the time, but I really can't truck with anything less these days. I want the best from myself.

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

Ahh, god, this was really a great moment and really freaking weird (of course). It was Friday, March 2, 2007, at about 10 AM. I'd gotten up at 3:30 AM that morning, got in my car, and drove six or so hours from Greensboro to Atlanta to catch the last couple days of AWP. I was going on the cheap cuz I was broke, so I was hoping I could sneak into the festivities. I didn't really know how that was going to work or if it was possible or what the consequences of getting caught might be (banned from AWP???!!!), but I figured I'd just show up and see what happened.

So the other part of the back story is that I was sort of afraid at the time that my book was going to come out and that it would be met with the deafening roar of crickets. I mean, it is a book of poems after all, so I wasn't expecting millions of pre-publication sales a la Mssr. Potter. It was just that I sort of thought that I'd written myself out of the poetry world--the part that I'd up to then been a part of. I'd booted the majority of non-North Carolinians from Lucipo, which was an unpopular move apparently; I'd allowed the Desert City to seriously lag itself into non-existence and, further, ignored or only sent half-assed replies to people that emailed me to be considered for the DC; and I'd just generally been a real recluse from everyone; I really thought the poetry world had forgotten about and was maybe even a little hostile towards me--the minor-est of figures and best known for his organizing skills not his poems.

So showing up to AWP was actually scary. I didn't know what to expect; I hadn't seen my book; I was way jacked up on coffee and commercial-radio hip-hop; shit was gonna be funky.

So I got to the hotel, parked my car, got in the elevator, and the next stop the doors opened up, and I was looking down this little hallway into one corner of the book fair. Well, goddamn, I thought--so I got off the elevator and didn't see a single official-looking tag-checker person, so I headed off into the rows and rows of tables. I was really excited, but also really nervous--I didn't really want to see anyone yet, so I was sort of half looking at people and half scurrying away as quick as I could. Then I saw my friend Tanya who works for CW sitting behind a table over near the bathrooms, and I walked up and there was my freaking book sitting on a table in a big freaking stack!! Holy shit--god, it was so weird; the closest--and frankly wrong--analogy I can make to the experience is that it was like throwing up and then looking at the throw up and wondering "where the fuck did that come from??" Except in a really sweet, innocent, doe-eyed way.

And then all these really sweet people kept coming up all day to congratulate me and buy my book--you know, the po' biz can be an unfriendly, kill or be killed kind of world sometimes, but sometimes it can just be the best damn thing ever; I love being a poet and I love poets--it's been really awe-inspiring to see how supportive of me and interested in the book people have been. I feel a little gushy saying all that, but it's true; so many people have been so nice about it all, and some of them I didn't even know already. (smile)

Were you involved in designing the cover?
Yeah, I had the basic idea (collage of picture with map) and found the map image and bridge picture and gave it all over to Andrea and the designer, Lesley Landis, but what they gave me back was better than anything I could have imagined; I'm really happy with the way the book turned out from a design standpoint.

And truth be told, I ripped off the idea for the cover from C. S. Giscombe's book Into and Out of Dislocation; it's got this beautiful cover with pictures and maps and colors, and it's really a hot looking book. I'm sure others have done a similar cover, but that was the book I had in mind.

Into and Out of Dislocation

Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it?
Oh yeah definitely and not at all. I mean, on one hand--it's a book of poetry as I pointed out earlier. So let the cricket chorus begin!! with gusto now! stroke the strings!!! And I did a tarot reading like a couple weeks after CW accepted it and asked about what would happen with the book. I don't remember the outcome card exactly, but it was like the 6 of wands maybe? Whatever it was it was totally anticlimactic (after having several major arcana in the spread), so I was like, "oh yeah, no biggie--it's poetry, dude." 

And yet, I had had so many imagined interviews with Oprah, Terri Gross, Larry King, Charlie Rose, all those folks, that I started to conceive of a new poetry project called "The Oprah Interviews." I had a whole slew of questions that I was already so poised to answer that my answers would provide the groundwork for a whole new America with love, liberty, and sufficient resources for all!

Then, of course, it is just a poetry book.

Has your life been different since? Or has your life been different since you knew the book would be published?

I don't think my life has been that different--way busier and I just finished up a little 10 day tour of the East Coast--but basically it's the same: I get up, go to work, write when I can, exercise, take care of my daughter, read, correspond with folks, etc.

Really though, the biggest changes that involved the book happened before I'd even submitted the book to CW; those changes are the reason the book got published I think. My life changed, and the book happened. Much of that change centered around the end of a relationship I'd had for several years up until summer 2005. When it ended, my relationship with the poetry community at large and at local changed, too--my relationship with poetry changed; everything changed. To put it in what I'm sometimes afraid is a crass (not quite the right word) way, I decided that I needed and wanted to start working for myself first and foremost. I'd spent a lot of very happy time working to promote the work of others through the Desert City and Lucipo--I certainly benefited greatly from that work, but the danger of that kind of involvement is that folks stop thinking of you as a poet and you become an organizer. So I became really cognizant of that and fearful of it.

I also realized that I'd been sort of downplaying my own value and talent as a poet, being modest and insecure about it all, thinking others were better than me. And I realized that was just really fucking stupid. Shit, if someone--anyone--is going to give even 5 seconds of their life to poetry, they better fucking step up and realize they can't do this for any other reason than they have to and it's in the blood--nobody in the world wants a person to be a poet. I'm not saying people aren't supportive; my parents are huge supporters of me and my poems, but would they have looked down at their little baby and said, "honey, I really hope he's a poet!" Probably not.

What I mean is that a life centered around poetry offers precious few benefits that the vast majority of people in a poet's life can understand. So if you're going to do it, you better just do it as well and as hard as you can. And if I wasn't taking myself seriously as a poet, if I wasn't willing to work half as hard for my work as I was for all these other people's work, then what the hell was I doing? I'm a fairly altruistic person, but poetry work is not easy, and I was working hard at it.

So I decided to do it, I decided to take myself seriously as a poet, demand as much as possible that I was a good poet and deserved respect, decided to work for myself, and accepted that no one out there was going to wave a wand and bestow upon me the success I pined for in the early morning hours.

So once that changed, everything changed.

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

Really just the fact that I've gotten so many positive reviews and that people seem to really like the book--that is surprising. Like I said, I really hadn't thought about the book as anything other than this thing I had to do this thing with, or think about it in terms of "which word needs to go here?" or "how do I break this line?" I'd developed a real myopia about the book.

People talk to me about the significance of the dates, and until the book was actually out, I just didn't hardly even think about the dates. I knew I wanted to use them as markers in the book, but they were unrevisable, and I was thinking about revision, so for years, I didn't even consider that the dates were there.

What are you doing to promote the book, and what are those experiences like for you?

Mostly I've been focused on getting readings whenever and wherever I can, and that's been going pretty well so far; folks seem interested in having me out, and I'm willing to go wherever and cover my own travel--so I'm a pretty cheap date. And that just seems a part of where I am really--I'm at the point where going wherever/whenever on my dime is the way to get the book out, make connections, and put this poetry stuff I'm writing on the line--you know, okay, my friends like it, but what about poetry lovers in Chillicothe, Ohio, for example? do they like it? And actually, I can say that some of the poetry lovers in Chillicothe, Ohio, liked my book. Some of them didn't like it, and one didn't like it because it was like the poems he'd read that "had words all over the page! and it didn't rhyme! and they used that gutter-language; you can't print that stuff in the newspapers--why can you put it in a book? I mean, they wrote 'fuck.'"

But I had a blast in Chillicothe. It was the second to last stop on this ten or so day East Coast tour I did which overall was a total hoot--god, I was driving home through the sun and West Virginian mountains on a Sunday with the window down and the radio way the fuck up, and I was thinking long and hard about selling all my junk, breaking my lease, and just going out on the road for like months and months. Getting wined and dined, hanging out with poets, reading poems, seeing the country--what could be better than that? Well, a few things, but it's mighty tempting to follow the urge.

So the tour was a real treat--I love reading and love being at readings, so I'm a glutton for punishment, and it shows. A couple highlights of the tour were Cleveland, Columbus, and Hollins U in Roanoke. All very different experiences: Cleveland was this crazy-ass poetry-rave, all night bacchanalian orgy of language--it was so much fun! I hooked up with this great guy and poet Joe Makkos up in Cleveland, and he's hooked into this open mic 20-something poet crowd, and he set up a reading in his spacious basement apartment for the night I was traveling through--people were reading this crazy ass shit and hooting and howling and just going going going--the readings didn't stop till like six in the morning! God, the fucking passion--it was so exhilarating.

Then in Columbus I read at my sister's boyfriend's house to a group of OSU engineering and psychology professors; I was nervous and way, way worn out--it was the last night of the tour, I'd read at Chillicothe that afternoon, and the night before had been Cleveland. David Baratier showed up thankfully, so I wasn't the only poet there. At any rate, I read, and it was really great--they all had questions for me afterwards; it was such a pleasant surprise. We ended up talking about all sorts of things with me in the center as like the authority, and all these very accomplished, smart people were looking at me and responding to my answers with nods and smiles--again, I was really pleasantly surprised.

And Hollins was just such a blast--and it came together at the last possible moment and went from being "maybe we can have a few friends over for you to read to in our living room" to "we're going to pay you to read in Hollins' premiere reading room where all those Pulitzer people usually read and there'll be like 50 or 60 people there" in the course of about a week. So that was really great--I met the wonderful Sandra Miller and Ben Doyle for the first time, the crowd was large and enthusiastic, they laughed at my jokes, and generally it was just a great time.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
I don't know if I would've taken any advice? or rather, I don't know that I would've been able to distinguish good advice from bad advice, so I don't think I missed out on any pre-pub advice. That said, the best advice I got was from Ron Silliman actually. It wasn't terribly personal advice--I think he gives it to everyone who asks him about publishing, and it's not exactly advice come to think of it--he says that poets already know the person that is going to publish them. I thought about that for a while then turned around and sent my book to Carolina Wren. So yeah, that was the best advice.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
Hmm, it's slowed it down some cuz I'm busy doing other things. But the other thing is that between the time I stopped writing new things for KB (early 2003) and now, I've written two other book manuscripts and a couple chapbooks at least. So a lot of my subsequent writing really happened outside of any shadow KB is now casting.

How do you feel about the critical response? Has it had any effect on your writing?
The critical response has been truly wonderful--Silliman, Killian, Svalina, and then just a lot of private responses--people have been so complimentary and supportive. Wow, I'm really really happy about it--wow, I keep thinking "did I really do this that good?" I'm not inclined, though, to be very analytical about the response right now; I'm just enjoying it, and the champagne is fine.

Really though, the main effect is that now--especially because people seem to like KB--I worry that no one's going to like my new work. I tend to write in large projects, and each project tends to (at least in my eyes) be very different from the others. So my more recent work really isn't about place or race or represent the broad range of formal choices that KB does. Whatever tradition KB takes part in is not necessarily reflected in the subsequent work. So I'm curious--sometimes I wonder if I should go back and write like 13th Street Bridge, Memorial Bridge, or Chain Bridge. It's like when Sir Mix-a-lot put out "I Like Big Butts." Apparently the record execs were like "hey, can you do something like that butts song? like 'I like big...?'"

Do you want your life to change?
The flippant answer is that the condition of one's life is that of that lasting contradiction: constant change. But it's also the honest answer, and for me, that state is what makes poetry useful. Poetry is the best tool I have to understand and process the massive amounts of data that my body receives constantly. So the eternal quest for me is to learn to move with the changes, learn when to act and when to be passive, how to release my preconceptions about various possibilities that life might present me and see what actually is.

That's a pretty accurate summary of my approach to reading poetry, too, actually.

I look back and think in some ways that my life has changed a lot over the last couple of years, but really, wasn't I headed here all the time anyway? and isn't this really just where I want to be?

I don't know if that really answers the question. What I mean is that your life is your life, "changing your life" is just another part of your life that's ultimately inseparable from "your life," right?

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

I'm continuing to write poetry; I don't really know any better way to come to terms with what existence actually is; I don't know any better way to find those moments of clarity when I feel that I've transcended my need to do laundry and can see through time, space, and thought, and then see and appreciate briefly how doing laundry is such a beautiful and pleasurable part of the drama of existence.

So I'm going to just keep doing that for a while.

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

Of course. I don't, though, want to ascribe some mystical "power" to poetry (like the "Power of Pride" or something). Poetry is just a thing, an activity, that people do; there are so many things that people do, this cacophony of activity that just buzzes and crackles off the surface, and that's all there is: activity, action. And there are degrees of impact to an action--me writing a poem is substantially different from George Bush declaring war on Iraq; though even in that case, I'm tempted to say that his single act did not necessarily have any greater impact than the impact I made when sitting down to write that day; the big difference is that his act spurred another person to act, which led to another person acting, and all these little individual choices made by many, many smart, loving, and lovable people are the reason that so many, many people have been slaughtered in Iraq.

So action--in my case poem writing and reading--spurs the activity of others or the activity of the actor. And that's it--that's good poetry--the stuff that is infectious, that makes you write it, makes you read it; poetry's value has to be on some level it's ability to make someone else write a poem, to participate in the activity. What else is it good for? Poem writing and reading can and does help people in a very, very literal way; poems help me, but they don't help everybody.

But why should they help everybody?


from Key Bridge by Ken Rumble:


Here's the story: his name's Frank
in my English & drama classes, second-period lunch,

the only black invitee to my 13th birthday
showed up an hour early

he's ridden the bus
from his apartment complex

we ate pizza, watched Night of the Living Dead,
Day of the Dead & Dawn of the Dead--movies

about race.

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