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9 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

81. Steve Fellner

How did you find out that your manuscript was the winner of the 2006 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize? How often had you sent it out previously?

I had been sending my book out for many years, and I was crazy determined to get a book of poetry published. I got an MFA and PhD in creative writing. During all this time, I was sending out various incarnations of the book. No one wanted it. It was (and still is) an uneven book, but there were a lot of worse books out there, and I liked sending things out in the mail. Even when you get a rejection in the mail (and I got a zillion of them), it's always fun to have opened the envelope. It's like watching the Oscars. Even if the actor you love loses, you at least enjoy the spectacle.

I knew my book would never be accepted by a huge press, but I was completely comfortable with the idea of being insignificant. Still am. The world is nice that way: no one holds insignificance against you.

I can still remember the day I got the email from Marsh Hawk Press that Denise Duhamel had chosen my manuscript. My boyfriend and I decided to go see the Al Gore documentary, so I went upstairs to check my email and the showtimes. There was an email from Marsh Hawk Press and I assumed it was a message informing me that I lost and then an announcement of the winner. When I read the news, I couldn't believe it. I had given up hope.

What made me most sad is I couldn't call up my best friend and tell her my lucky fortune. She had won a major contest a few months prior and we stopped talking, partly because I couldn't deal with my own jealousy over her success. When she won her contest, I felt abandoned. I liked the idea of both of us failing forever together. We're talking now and laugh about it. But I wish I could have shared the news with her.

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

This is funny in dumb way: I was so sick with a serious thyroid condition (that had yet to be diagnosed), I didn't care. I was in the worst mood. My partner was jumping up and down, saying we had to celebrate, and I told him to shut up and then ordered him to put the copies in our basement. I didn't want to see them. My book made me sick. Everything made me sick. Synthroid has cheered me up considerably.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

The front cover: no. Claudia Carlson did the best job. I'm indebted to her.

I was obsessed with getting blurbs for the back cover. I didn't want anyone I knew personally or had met to blurb me. I knew that my book was coming from a small press (I don't know if my Amazon sales rank has ever risen above a million, and I check it every hour), and I knew I needed to trick people into reading it. So I sent 40 emails (all the same night) to 40 different poets I really admired, and told them how their work influenced me, and asked if they would consider looking at my book, and if they felt moved to do so, offer me a blurb. 15 out of the 40 poets responded. Most ignored me. Two told me to Fed Ex them the manuscript and then never contacted me again. One significant gay poet read the book and told me that he didn't like it. It hurt. I'm gay. He's gay. I thought he'd say yes simply because of those two facts. But that was cool. I admire people with discriminating tastes, and also, I'm a masochist. Because he rejected me, I'm even a bigger fan.

David Kirby said yes, and has helped me in so many different ways. He is a man who has so many students and he has been so kind to a total stranger. Says so much about his commitment to the poetry community. Timothy Liu was very nice: he gave me a great blurb and also in an email listed his favorite poems. I am also grateful to Steve Orlen and Jim Daniels.

Before the day you first saw your book, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?

No. I lucked out and already had a tenure-track job at SUNY Brockport. I knew very few people would read my book and I didn't expect anyone to ask me to read. Which is fine. At the same time I do get jealous of people who are able to promote their books and make readings happen. I should be more like that, but my self-consciousness gets in the way.

Has your life been different since your book came out?

No. I lead a very small, simple, happy life with my partner Phil.

Actually, the more I think about it, my initial no is a lie. It has been different. I teach at SUNY Brockport, and all the other creative writing faculty have always had a book, as long as I had known them. I was always embarrassed that I didn't. I felt like they secretly pitied me. Once I got my book, I felt like I was more worthy to be on the faculty. This is silly. They hired me knowing I was bookless. But still.

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

I'm surprised when anyone mentions my book, and I mean anyone. I had a student ask me to sign a copy and I was shocked he would have bought a copy. I was also taken aback that my book was mentioned in a poetry column in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Or when Mid-American Review, Quarterly West, Art Voice, and Salt Lake City Weekly published reviews of the book.

What have you been doing to promote Blind Date with Cavafy and how do you feel about it?

It's hard to get readings when your book comes from a small press and you're an insignificant writer. Again I don't mean insignificant as pejorative. Most of us are. There's comfort in being insignificant: you're free to do what you want; no one is watching you. In fact, I want to write an essay, a meditation about the power and positive consequences of being insignificant. There's so much pressure to matter in the literary community. This isn't to say there shouldn't be significant writers who win major awards, but aren't there any other alternatives to aim for?

I have a friend who is a significant poet and he's working on his second book. Occasionally, I've watched him work, and he is constantly looking at his first book when he writes poems for his second. He wants to make sure his new poems are as good as the first. If I were a significant poet, I would engage in this behavior. But I don't, because no one is watching me, and as a result, I don't need to watch myself as closely. To draw an analogy, if you are a beautiful person, the world expects you to leave your house looking attractive, well-groomed. If you're a person like myself, no one cares if you leave the house wearing dirty socks or if you have a stain on your shirt. You're free. Significant poets and beautiful people shoulder a great deal more responsibility than the rest of us.

I should add here that Marsh Hawk Press threw me a book launch in New York at Poets House, along with the other two poets who had books coming out with the press. Also this fall semester I have four readings scheduled, three in the Upstate New York area and one in New York New York. I'm excited. I love to read. And I like that for most of the readings I'm performing with someone else. I like the idea of two or three people reading together. That way if someone doesn't like your poems, they may like someone else's and that means you don't feel like they wasted their time coming. Time is a huge issue with me. I don't think there's a greater thing you can steal from someone else, and I don't want to be a criminal in that way or at least as little as possible.

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

When my best friend and I were still talking after her book was accepted she told me that the initial excitement rubs off quickly. (We lived and still do in different states.) So celebrate. Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate. Because my boyfriend and I are geeks (our idea of a fun Friday night is making quesadillas on our George Foreman Grill and watching Farscape), we didn't go out and do anything surprising, novel. In a way, I wish we had.

What advice would you give to someone about to have a first book published?

If your book comes from a small press, give up your prize money and ask for it in copies. Then do a lot of work yourself. Sandy McIntosh, Claudia Carlson, Rochelle Ratner, and everyone at Marsh Hawk Press, works so hard. I felt it was my obligation to send out my book to as many places as I could for review. Which I did.

Also, if you have a book coming out and you have a friend who doesn't have a book, do NOT say to them, "You're next." They might not be next. They might not even be the next after the next after the next. So many of my more talented, significant poet friends said to me after they got their first book accepted, "You're next." I never was. We all gave up on me before my book came out.

I also find it sad that I read so many young poets are constantly changing their manuscripts after not placing in a contest. When everything is so oversaturated and so many contests are run by committee, taking your losing to mean anything is dangerous. Having been a screener for contests, I can say that I've seen so many manuscripts look overlabored. You need to let go of your manuscript. There's only so much you can do.

Unless you have a bad title. Here's an embarrassing confession: for years I sent out my manuscript and never placed. I called it the dumbest, dullest things! Aesthetics of the Damned was one. Hoaxes and Scams was another.

As soon as I called it Blind Date with Cavafy (all the poems were basically the same ones that appeared under the other titles), I started being named a finalist. And I won pretty quick. After many, many years of bad titles. This is my theory: most screeners, most poets are insecure in making aesthetic judgments. The mention of Cavafy made it clear that I knew something about poetry. The humor of the phrase "blind date" juxtaposed with the literary allusion signaled I was a poet. I am very embarrassed to admit this, but I think it's true. There's so much out there, and most people are tentative, they need clues that they're giving the right book the award. That isn't to say this is why I won, but I did notice that I started making it past the initial rounds much more often. Choose a smart title. Most titles suck. They're boring and pretentious and vague.

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

I think a lot about a second book. And I am sometimes embarrassed that I am creating (have created) one. Does the world need another book by me?

I wish I were a more formally interesting poet. I belong (almost whole-heartedly) to the School of Quietude, and I wish I had more of a desire to explore innovative forms, but that's not where my heart is. Often times I feel that my poems are too journalistic. Also: I wonder if I should be writing poems at all. I don't take advantage of the line as much as a poet should.

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

Anyone who spends time writing about someone else's poems is a very generous human being.

Do you want your life to change?

I'm OK. I like my life, my partner, and Synthroid.  

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

I'm writing overtly political poems. I'm getting away from the autobiographical "I." The world is in such bad shape that for me to drone on about my life is pretty disgusting. And I do think that political poems are important, necessary. It may not be true that one poem can change the world, but cumulatively, all the writing that seeks and encourages goodness can make an impact. I have no doubt about that.

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

I started writing because I wanted love. I think all writers write for that reason. And I think smart writers write so that their ideal reader will love them. Hopefully, the writer is choosy and wants an ethical, big-hearted person to love them. If that's why they write poems and they craft their poems to win that love, an honorable love, they can do no wrong. In fact, it's a small gift to humanity.

:

A poem from Blind Date with Cavafy by Steve Fellner:


God in a Box
 

Everyone gave me money to sneak a peek
at God. My grade school friends
wanted to look through the slits
of my cigar box which contained
His elbow, surrounded by three
ladybugs. They were His bodyguards.
To claim I captured anything more
than a limb of the Lord seemed odd.
Surely God was bigger and swifter
than the fireflies we smashed
with our puny fists. I charged a quarter
for a five second look. All the kids
handed over part of their lunch
money. Some their lunch.
No one was disappointed
with what they saw. My best friend
stole a five dollar bill from his
mother's purse so he could have
the box for a night. A kid who lived
three houses down from mine claimed
he captured a strand of God's hair.
It was bright yellow and twelve inches long.
He charged one whole dollar.
Soon everybody claimed they had
part of God's body: earlobe, thigh,
lower intestine, pancreas, spleen,
toenail. Someone tried to charge
a dollar for a look at His navel. I left
letters on all my friends' and enemies'
front door steps, asking them
to come to my backyard and bring
whatever part of God they had.
We stood in a circle and named
the limbs and organs. All
together we had enough
for almost three full corpses.
I threw my box into the air
and watched His elbow
soar toward the heavens.
Cans, boxes, thermoses and pails
littered the sky. That night
we went back to sneaking up
on fireflies, surprising them
with our tenacity
as they surprised us
with their weak humble light.

. . .

read more first-book interviews

. . .

 

7 AUG 07

There's an ongoing "translations" project happening at Konundrum Engine Literary Review, where two poets exchange work and create interpretations of each other's poems. Zach Schomburg & Mathias Svalina did it, so did Paula Cisewski & Sarah Fox, and Stacy Szymaszek & Anselm Berrigan. Just up are the translations Bob Hicok & I did--you can check them out here.

Thinking about how to approach the project led me back to a book I love, Goran Sonnevi's A Child Is Not A Knife, to reread the essay "Sonnevi: A Translator's Retrospective Montage" by Rika Lesser. She's been his translator for more than 20 years.

Of course, then I started rereading the poems as well. I was struck by the way that the first lines of my favorite poem in the book could have been a translation of my feeling as I read the poem of Bob's that I was working on. I put those opening lines into my "commentary" (notes on process we were asked to include), but I'd like to give you the whole poem.


from A Child Is Not A Knife by Goran Sonnevi, tr. Rika Lesser:


Whose life? you asked

And I answered

my life, and yours

There are no other lives

But aren't all people

different?

There's nothing

but difference

It makes no difference!

People live in different conditions:

internal, external

I can hold no one

in contempt, for then

you have the instrument

What about those

who don't want to change their conditions,

those who believe

change

is impossible?

It makes no difference

There's nothing but

you, and you

Only when you become explicit

when you

question me, and I

answer, when there's

an exchange    Only then is there language

only then are we human

And this doesn't happen

very often?

No, most everything

remains difference, without seeing

the difference

Will we talk again some time?

Yes

 

Do you believe change is possible?

Yes, that too

 


5 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

80. Ivy Alvarez

Mortal by Ivy Alvarez

How did your manuscript happen to be picked up by Red Morning Press? Had you sent it out often before that?

I'd sent my manuscript to over half-a-dozen presses in Australia, though I now know it was still too green, so it's good thing it wasn't accepted. Once I moved up to the northern hemisphere, without the hindrance of prohibitive postal rates, I went a little crazy, sending it out to over two dozen places in the UK. Either I was feeling optimistic or didn't do enough research--probably a healthy mixture of both. I also sent it a handful of times to North America, including a couple of contests but I stopped doing that quick smart.

After receiving a perceptive reading of the manuscript from poet WN Herbert when I was in Scotland, I went straight back to the ms, did some shuffling and then sent it out again. One publisher wrote back saying it was not for them but he was sure I'd get it published soon, a very heartening response. So I persisted. Finally, the poetry deities deigned to smile on me in the guise of Red Morning Press. That was a happy day. I'd found RMP through reading Jen Tynes's micro-review of Sean Norton's book, Bad with Faces. Now all three of us are press-siblings.

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

Editor Chris Perkowski had emailed me that my book was on its way from the US to the UK. Meanwhile, other people were already reading the book before me because they'd pre-ordered it! It was thrilling to track its various destinations: Connecticut, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Seattle, Texas, Tennessee...also Ireland, France, Mexico, Australia... Friends emailed, telling me they'd received their copy. That made me more and more agitated, and so very eager to hold my book.

When I finally received my copies, I immediately told friends and family all about it in an excited email. One of my friends replied that my description sounded like childbirth, congratulating me on the arrival of my baby. Another friend agreed, 'It was like childbirth, but less messy'.

I'd been living with the manuscript as a digital file and as a sheaf of papers for so long, to have it transmogrified into a book... it's how I imagine an artist must feel when a frame is finally placed around their piece of art.

That excited email you sent--do you still have it? Could we include it?

Here. :-) If you think it's not too... something...

Outside the rainy-wet door, in the plastic box, the weight of the books. A box! Inside--my books! Sticky-tape wound around it. How to open it. Scissors!

I ran upstairs, grabbed the scissors, ran down to the landing where the box was sitting and sliced into it. My face heated up in a blush and I felt on the verge of tears. Here! Quickly, quickly, open open open.

And the book, in my hands. Shiny and larger than I expected, the fonts bigger, the paper yellower, the cover glossier. I checked for the errors I remember from the final draft--gone, gone, gone. Oh, my god, it's here.

I was reading the final draft last night and I thought, How complicated this all is, and Who will understand it, and Maybe only me, and That's okay.

overwhelmed is my watchword,
Ivy x


Were you involved in designing the cover?

My original idea was an image of a white moth with a marking across its wingspan that looked like it was drawn in black charcoal, with one dot on with each wing. Later, serendipitously, I saw the painting 'Gimme' by poet Christine Hamm on her gallery. I felt it was a perfect match to Mortal's themes while still retaining a certain mystery about it. I sent a link to Chris Perkowski and he agreed with me. Another reason why it was such a great find was because Christine's art has previously appeared on the cover of one of my chapbooks, what's wrong.

what's wrong   by Ivy Alvarez

Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with your book's arrival?

How to separate the life from the creation? I imagined that I'd feel much, much better about finally having a book. And I do. Having my own ISBN is such a thrill!

All I want is for the book to be discovered by its readers.

How has your life been different since?

I've received a lot of support from people, readers and other poets, which has been wonderful. Also, there have been some invitations to publish my poems online, to take part in a reading or two, and participate in interviews and conversations about Mortal and poetry in general.

I feel like I'm being enfolded lovingly, more personally, into poetry, whereas before this, interactions with readers have been at quite a remove. One publishes a poem in a journal and that is the last of it, often. Now I'm starting to feel as if this is the start of a really interesting conversation.

But you haven't mentioned your play. Isn't that a way your life changed since the book? Or how does it fit in?

I wrote The Quarry, my ten-minute play, around October 2005 and it was produced in Dublin in May 2006, so the play was performed before the book came out. RMP accepted Mortal around early October 2005, though--almost at the same time I started writing the play! Strange, I wouldn't have noticed the timing of that if you hadn't asked...

Were there things you thought would happen after Mortal came out that didn't happen? Surprises?

Things unfold at their own pace, I find, no matter how much you want to hurry things along.

One of the more pleasant things that happened after my book was published was a really interesting conversation I had with my mother about it. I'd sent her one of my author's copies, then I rang her up in the Philippines, where she was at the time, and discussed her thoughts on the book.

As the book revolves around a mother-daughter relationship, there are a lot of elements in both our lives that may be recognisable in the poetry. But there are also times when I've taken on other personae, such as a mother's mother.

One surprising thing was my mother's take on what I thought was the saddest poem in the book--she thought it was funny! On reflection, I must have held an expectation that everyone reacts the same way to a piece, but, of course, different readers have different ways of reading a poem.

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

I've done a few things since Mortal was released in November last year. When I knew it was close to release, I started mentioning it to the editors of journals in which poems from the book have previously appeared and who I thought would be interested in assigning it for review. I told all my friends about it, of course. And my mother's been pretty good about telling all her friends about it, and she's even shown off my reviews to one or two people.

I've made sure that my author's bio mentions my book when I get a poem published online, or a link to my publisher's website in my email signature. I don't know if these little things have an effect but I like to think I'm doing something to help my book find its readers.

I've also been documenting its evolution, from manuscript to book, on my blog, so a number of people who drop in from time to time also know about it.

Reading at more literary and writing festivals is something I'm aiming for, so I've started doing research into that and I'm hopeful that something will happen. I've read some crazy stories though--I'm thinking of one or two in Mortification (ed. Robin Robertson), in particular--so my expectations have become more realistic after that.

I enjoy reading my work in public. The moments before I get up on stage is the storm; the calm is when I read in front of an audience. It would be great to do more of that.

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

It's freed me up. I am going in a totally different direction with this next manuscript.

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

The critical response has been favourable so far and I appreciate the time and thought critics and reviewers take to read a book of poems.

Still, nobody else is there in that room when I'm writing. It's just the poem and me.

What was the best advice you got before your book came out? What advice would you give someone who is about to have a first book published?

The poet Karen Knight once told me that it's not real until you hold it in your hand. A number of things can go wrong between sending off a manuscript, its acceptance and eventual publication as a book. Publication could take a very long time. Her advice kept me level-headed and so I did not get too worried about delays and so on.

I think her advice is pretty spot-on. My own advice would be to do your research. Learn what you need to prepare yourself. If you think you need to learn more about book contracts, how to prepare a press kit or write a press release, or if you think you need to practice more public speaking, do it. Nobody else is going to do it for you.

Do you want your life to change?

Sometimes change is good. I like to be challenged and entertained, am always seeking mental stimulation. I'd like to have the right balance--of being able to concentrate on writing a lot of the time, or if not, then just sitting on poems, incubating them until they're ready, gathering experiences as I live in my day-to-day.

I am happy at the moment. If the change of which you speak makes me happier, I will gladly accept it. That's my New Year's resolution after all.

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

I'm always looking for large chunks of time to write in. A grant or a residency is a sign, a permission to write. Such acknowledgement sustains me, as if to say I'm neither deluded nor the only dreamer in the room--other people believe in me and support my writing and that it has value. So, hopefully, there will be more of these signs, which will in turn lead me into writing the better poems I'm always aspiring to write.

As for happiness, I'm trying to stay on track. There are aspects of my life I've neglected and I need to be mindful that they're important, too.

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

Yes, I believe it. Poetry will be a catalyst for change.

When life is made up of innumerable practical concerns, art can send you off someplace else. If people have a love for poetry, music, art and culture, then all is not yet lost.

:

2 poems from Mortal by Ivy Alvarez:


a memory of breasts

I show my mother a book of breasts. At first, she's shocked and pulls away. But then, she returns to them and looks at the pictures on the cover. She points to one. The breasts are creamy and voluptuous, arms gloved to the elbows, crossed in front. 'I like these ones,' she says. 'They are elegant.'

 

reunion

we hold
our six breaths
exhale into one

we feel the supple
leather
of our lungs

light
drains the room
into bonelessness

the body bends
into its ritual
shape

aches
to be pliant
and stretched

observes stillness
after a posture
cascade

listen.
the spine talks
the body speaks

a caesura
in each line
a pause for breath


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3 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

79. Hadara Bar-Nadav

A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight

How did you find out that your manuscript had won the 2005 MARGIE First Book Prize?

I received a call from MARGIE's editor, Robert Nazarene, right after my last MLA interview in DC. I was exhausted, checked my voicemail, and there was his message asking me to call him. And then the party began!

How often had you sent it out previously?

I had sent the manuscript in various incarnations to contests and publishers for about 2 years. I'd guess about 15-20 places.

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

That I was in love with the cover. Dancing to James Brown. And having sushi with my husband in a restaurant the size of a closet.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Yes. MARGIE gave me total control of the cover. I enlisted the help of my brilliant friend Jesse Roff, a graphic designer/3-D designer/filmmaker. I also had my eye on a couple of images that I had found in art magazines that I felt really resonated with my book. I contacted the artist Julia Randall, sent her my ms, and she agreed to let me use her "Lovebird II" for the cover. I've gotten great response on the cover. I have Jesse and Julia to thank. 

Before the day you first saw your book, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival? 

Not really. I'd still have to get up and go to work, and there'd still be new poems to write.  
 
Has your life been different since?

I've done more readings than I may have otherwise. And I got to do this interview! But really, "it's all about the work," as my friend Denise Brady says. Now I'm trying to find a home for my next book, Architecture at the Mouth, and working on two new mss. Yes, the publication of A Glass of Milk was great--reassuring and even validating. Something tangible to hold in my hands and to give to others. But there is more work to do, new poems to write, etc. And it's hard work. As hard and wonderful and frustrating as it has ever been.

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

I obsessively check my mail so maybe a surprise is on its way. A giant cake? A Pulitzer?

What have you been doing to promote the book and how do you feel about those experiences?

I've been doing readings on the East coast, some in the Midwest. Over the next year or so I hope to read in the West and Southwest. I've felt great about the readings. People have been very supportive and kind. Some even buy books!      
 
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?

Not to get stuck, which came from the poet Hilda Raz. Keep writing, keep thinking up new ideas. Don't obsess over one book at the expense of new books, new poems, ideas, etc.  

What advice would you give to someone about to have a first book published?

Enjoy it. Take some time to congratulate yourself. And then get writing! 
 
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

In my own way, I'm always trying to push the envelope, the technique, the ideas, something. If I fall into patterns, I get frustrated or even bored. I'm rethinking what a poem is, what a book is, and the newer work is helping me to do this.

How do you feel about the critical response?

Still waiting for the critical response. Any day now. :-)

Do you want your life to change?

Well, I'd like Architecture at the Mouth to find a good home.
 
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?

Writing, sweating, revising. Being persistent. Remembering on occasion to laugh.

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

I've just been re-reading some essays on the Black Arts Movement, and I'm immensely encouraged by this absolute faith in poetry as action, poetry as a tool to move the masses. I'm not a "political poet" in the way that term historically has been used, but poetry changes the world by helping people pay closer attention to language, to the way they think about and talk to themselves, their families, friends, etc. Poetry offers new perspectives and new insights. And I think these perspectives and insights are vital and necessary, even restorative. At the very least, it gives me hope that things can change.

:

from A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight by Hadara Bar-Nadav:


You Must Leave One Thing Standing

A driveway in Hallam with a boat and no water. No ocean, no river, no lake. Parched city in parts. Diebenkorn's colorblocks in yellows and greens. Beacons of corn on all sides. No sides, no walls standing. No bankers, bakers, lampposts, or cats. A boat with a broken window and a tornado passing through like a bullet train. When it rains, it rains.

I've seen a drowned boat. Picture a coastline. Tall, green blades cut the wind, the white, the water. Green smothers the boat while it bloats under the algae-blue surface. A green with secrets, a spring season with teeth.

I needed an ark to cross, to curve the broken miles. Miles of hands and knees. Miles of nails and no city. Where is the home we belong to? A driveway with a boat and no river. A cat and a woman with gold eyes. The pictures are scattered. Three blocks away, a washing machine and piano sink into a field.


The Last Gesture

My hand grew big as a house.
It was heavy to carry
and drag through the streets.

I staggered across the lawn
on gravel-burned knees
to watch the home
I could no longer enter.

My wrung wrist turned blue.
My shoulder bled.
Skin tore up my neck
and split open my eye.

I had given too much.
I had taken too much.

The hand grew
as the sky grew,
hand the size of wind

expanding until it was no longer
my own, until the weight
buried me.


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1 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

78. Henrietta Goodman

Take What You Want

How did you find out that your manuscript had won the 2006 Beatrice Hawley Award? How often had you sent it out previously?

On April 1st, 2006 (April Fool's Day) I got a phone call from Kevin Goodan, a board member of Alice James Books and also a longtime friend. I hadn't spoken with him in a while and thought he had just called to catch up, but after we had talked for a few moments he said very seriously, "I'm calling to tell you something." It never crossed my mind that he was calling about my manuscript. I thought he was about to tell me something awful, that he was dying or someone else was dying. When he told me I had won the Beatrice Hawley Award, I was so shocked that I really felt like he had told me some tragic news. I started crying. It was like that life stress scale that rates stress according to the magnitude of the change, so the real tragedies, like losing a loved one, are high on the scale, of course, but positive events are there too, because they freak you out so much. I was at a pretty miserable point in my personal life at the time, plus I had accepted the fact that my book might never get published, so I was absolutely stunned. Also, because I was Kevin's friend, I assumed at first that he had somehow made it possible for my book to win, but that isn't how AJB works. At the board meetings where discussion of the manuscripts was taking place, he couldn't discuss mine because of our friendship. That's how it should be, of course, but I had become so convinced that publication wouldn't happen to me that I assumed there must have been some trick to it.

I started sending a manuscript out in 1999, and in the first couple of years I was a finalist in several first book contests, so I became very optimistic. Then several years went by, and I made some revisions and kept sending it out and nothing happened, and then I changed it some more and sent it out some more and was a finalist in a couple of other contests, and I got to the point where I didn't even want to know how close I had come. In 2004, I first entered the Beatrice Hawley contest, and was a finalist. The following summer I conducted an independent study for a student and friend, Chelsey Robison. Because she's one of the most brilliant poets and perceptive readers I've ever met, I agreed to do the IS if we could exchange work, rather than just her submitting work to me.

That summer my manuscript changed a lot, due largely to Chelsey's insight. I was able to begin revising in a way I'd never done before. I gained perspective on the manuscript, saw it as a whole, with themes that needed more exploration, and weak spots that needed to be cut. The following fall, I submitted a shorter and stronger manuscript to the BHA again, and it won. So I sent it out for about six years, but the manuscript that won the award is far different from the manuscript that I started sending out in 1999.  

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

One of the things that surprised me about the whole process of publication was how long it took. I found out I had won in April of 2006, and I received the book in the mail in April 2007, just a few months ago. A year seemed like a very long time to wait, but in retrospect, I needed that time. I didn't expect the book until the second week of April, but when I came home from work on the 5th, the box was waiting on my porch. I was in a big rush to take my children to childcare and go to my writing group, so I cut open the box, grabbed a copy and stuffed it in my briefcase, and got back in the car. When I got to writing group, I showed it to them and they said "oh, great," or something like that, and then we did this exercise we always do that I call "write til you puke" and talked about our poems. It was beautifully anti-climactic, kind of like when you publish poems in a magazine. The real celebratory moment is when you get the letter saying that your poem has been chosen, rather than when the copy of the issue with your poem in it finally appears.

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

I didn't imagine that my life would change drastically, but of course I was looking forward to seeing the book, and to being able to show it to other people. I was eager to know what sort of responses my work would get, both in terms of reviews and from individual readers, but I didn't expect any major, immediate changes.  
 
Has your life been different since?

My life has been different in subtle ways, for which I'm very grateful. The book is visible proof that the work I've been doing for the past fifteen years or so has value. If I hadn't published the book, I would have written the same poems, but I wouldn't have the credibility that having a book brings. The book has made me more confident in situations where I'm talking to other people who have books. I have a book too. It feels like a permission slip, in some ways. People take you more seriously when you have a book, or maybe they don't, maybe I just think they do, but it's the same either way, really.  

Were you involved in designing the cover?

One of the many reasons why AJB is such a wonderful press is the involvement their writers have in the final appearance of the book. I selected the piece of art for the cover of the book, though it took a very long time to find something we could get the rights to that AJB found appropriate. So I couldn't just say "here, use this." It was collaborative. The first piece I found was "Ashes" by Munch: a man and a woman in a forest with a bed, and smoke rising from the trees in the background. Both of them look anguished. He's dressed, and she's putting on her clothes, and the general interpretation is that they've just had sex but are facing the uncrossable distance between them. I loved it. It was perfect for the Gretel poems in the book, but we couldn't get the rights to it. Then I found something from the 14th century, a man and a woman in bed in Hell, with a pig butt in the corner. It would have been a poor choice, but at the time I thought "how could you not love a pig butt?" Then I found a black and white photograph of a beautiful naked woman sitting in a chair wearing an elaborate animal mask. Those were the ones I really liked. By the time I found the piece that's on the cover, I had probably grown attached to at least 20 different pieces that weren't quite right for one reason or another. It was frustrating at the time, but ultimately I was glad that AJB was so intent on having me find exactly the right piece, because I think I did, and if they hadn't pressed me to keep looking, I would have settled for a much less striking cover.

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

Luckily, I had a pretty realistic sense of what it would be like to publish, and the surprises have all been pleasant ones. The two reviews so far have been the best surprises of all: a Library Journal review that compares my work to that of Anne Sexton, and Jacqueline Kolosov-Wenthe's review (forthcoming in Iron Horse). Her review, especially, was so wonderful because I saw that she had understood me exactly, that she had read my poem "Ars Poetica" just as I had intended it. I was overwhelmed by the fact that the writers of both reviews were talking about ME. I had never imagined that someone would talk about my work in that way. One of the most pleasant surprises has been the response of a guy I didn't know who came to my launch party. Since then, he's joined my writing group, and at his first meeting I asked him who he liked to read, and he said "Richard Hugo, Philip Levine, James Wright, and you." That was by far the weirdest and most flattering list I've ever been on. To get such an appreciative response from a reader, particularly from a male reader, delighted me. Many of the poems in the book deal with relationships and with what I feared would be perceived as domestic issues: motherhood, etc, so I was concerned, initially, that men wouldn't find my poems relevant. His response did a lot to ease that fear.

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

I did my launch party at a bookstore in Missoula, Shakespeare & Co., whose owner is a great guy named Garth who had invited me to read in his store several times over the past few years and who allowed my intro-level creative writing students to read there also. I was glad to finally have a book to sell, so he could make a little money from being such a gracious host. Most of the people at the launch party were friends and colleagues and a few former students, one of whom brought her two beautiful children. There was a gorgeous vase of flowers and lots of wine and dried papaya and three kinds of cheese. I felt loved, not just as a writer, but as a person. Then at the end of the semester I went to Massachusetts and read with my friend Kim Burwick in Amherst Books and in New York City at the Ear Inn. The reading in NYC was sort of a revelation, because I hadn't been to New York since I was 14, and I was intimidated by the idea of going there after living in Montana for so long. I was afraid of being hopelessly uncool, but that wasn't the case. I'm pretty cool.  
 
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?

I wish I had known to arrange more of a book tour. I still intend to set up a couple of readings in Seattle and Portland for the fall, but I should have made a better plan last spring, when the book came out.

Another thing: people will ask you to sign your book, so you better have something to say. I became a writer partly so I could think before speaking, but I had given no thought at all to what I should write in people's books. At the launch party, I wrote "happy writing" in a lot of books or even just signed my name. That was dumb. Then while I was in Massachusetts I was reading a book that the poet Patrick Donnelly had signed for my friend Kevin, and he had written "To Kevin, with admiration and best wishes," and I realized I could steal that, or vary it a little to match the particular circumstance.

By far the best advice I got was the help April Ossman from AJB gave me with editing and ordering the poems. I was sort of dreading the editing session (a four-hour phone conversation!), because I was afraid she would ask me to make changes I wasn't comfortable with, but after the first twenty minutes or so, I had complete faith in her. She assured me that I didn't have to make all of the changes she suggested, but I took almost all of her advice. None of the changes were drastic, but all of them made the book better, tighter. She's brilliant. I felt so lucky to be able to work with her.

What advice would you give to someone about to have a first book published?

I think I answered some of this in the previous question. I think most poets know, by the time they finally publish a book, that no giant change will occur in their daily lives because of being published. I was afraid that people would read my book and think they knew me, or draw certain conclusions about me, but for the most part readers are other poets who know the transmogrifying machine we put personal experience through to make poetry. So no one has commented on or inquired about any of the scandalous elements of my poems. That's reassuring.

And people will like the book. If they don't like it, they won't bother to talk to you about it, which means it will feel good to be told by people you know and people you don't know that your book spoke to them, that they liked a particular poem or a line. It does change your life in that way. It doesn't make you a rock star, but it gives you a few fans.

And another piece of advice: never buy a VW bug.
 
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

I feel more driven now, in that it took me a very long time to publish my first book. I finished my MFA in 1994, and so it took me twelve years after that. Granted, during that time I got married and divorced twice, had two children, and worked full-time, often more than full time, but still, I could have written more. Just before my first child was born, I did a reading in Missoula and two women I'd done my MFA with said "oh, we're so impressed that you're still writing." Well of course I was. But during those years, I didn't have the sense of urgency that I have now. I don't want to take twelve years to write a second book, so I'm writing a lot more, but none of the poems feel finished. I don't want to do what a lot of bands do: spend a long time making a good first album and then put out a mediocre or even crappy second album a year or so later. I took a long time to write the first book, and now I feel a lot of pressure, just from myself, to write another one, but I don't want to rush it.

Just a few days ago, I got an acceptance letter from Cimarron Review for my first post-book poem, which is encouraging.

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

The reviews that I talked about in an earlier question have made me very happy, and overall I'm more focused and more dedicated as a writer now. I want to know what I'm going to do next, in my poems. I have a fantastic writing group and some friends who are poets, so in general I'm very pleased with the role writing plays in my life right now.
 
Do you want your life to change?

Wow. What a question. I'd like to leave Missoula, at least for a while. I'd like to get a "real" teaching job, which is more possible now, because of the book, or if not that, then I'd like to go back to school. I'd like to make more money, not because I'm greedy but because I've never had enough money and when you don't have enough it controls every decision you make. I'd like to have enough money not to let the lack of it and the need for it govern all of my choices. And I'd like to fall in love.   
 
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?

About a year and a half ago, I was very unhappy in my personal life and in my writing life. I had married an inappropriate person, and I had very little time or energy for writing and almost no poetry-friends left in Missoula. Then several things happened. I decided to look up a friend that I hadn't talked to since I left North Carolina in 1992. I had a tremendous crush on him throughout college, and he was a very influential person to me, a brilliant person. He's responsible, more than anyone else, for teaching me to write, because he made me feel like what I said and how I said it mattered. We had an intellectual friendship, but we almost never talked about personal matters, mostly because I was so shy then that I was afraid to ask anyone anything. I though I had to just wait and wonder, and if people wanted me to know something they would tell me, and if not, too bad for me. I wanted to know how his life had turned out, and to tell him how important he had been to me, because I didn't know whether he knew. Maybe I also hoped to find out that he was single and madly in love with me after so many years. I don't know. What I found out, though, was that he had died in 1994, that he had committed suicide. After I got over the shock, after I mourned for him so belatedly and with such incomplete knowledge of who he really was, I began to realize that he had taught me my own potential, and I had failed to live up to it. I felt that I owed it to myself and to him to live differently.

Shortly after that, I answered an ad posted by a guy who was starting a poetry group, and I began to write regularly again. And then I won the BHA and got divorced and now I'm a single mother of two and I live in Missoula in an ugly blue house and I write a lot and read a lot and I'm happier than I've been in years. What I want now is to keep doing what I'm doing, to remain intellectually active and to keep myself in the company of other people who have common interests and concerns. Despite what I said in the previous question, these things are really more important to me than leaving Missoula or finding a different job or going back to school.    

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

I went through a period last year when I was so sick of my own melodrama that I wanted to go and join the Peace Corps to get involved in something larger than my own personal bullshit. But it's hard to join the Peace Corps with two children. And like the Peace Corps, poetry is also larger than my own personal bullshit. From poetry, we learn that someone else has felt the thing we can't even put into words, the thing we thought we were the only one to ever feel. If we're talking about change as in stopping wars and curing famine, then no, unfortunately I don't think poetry by itself can do this. I think poetry is more involved with individual psychology than with the realms of the social and political. I think poetry is a process of determining what can be figured out and what can't. But I believe that poetry can save individual lives, and the world is made of individual lives, so in that sense then yes, poetry can change the world.     

:

2 poems from Take What You Want by Henrietta Goodman:


Bird of Paradise

It's not a bird, and that's part
of the problem. It calls into question
what pleases the eye, makes you doubt

what you see. If paradise means
things are what they seem, there's no need

for a second glance, or a second guess.

You can take what you want
and what you want
will want to be taken. But this flower,

if that's what it is, has more to do
with possibility than with paradise,

more to do with iron burning
in slow motion, smoldering orange dust.

You're in a church and that's part
of the problem. Vows aren't supposed to be
made with crossed fingers,

but you keep thinking of how he showed you
the configuration of a V-8 engine--

palms out, fingers laced together,
the way you'd turn your hands
into a church for a child, and say the rhyme.

God as an engine seems right. Not God
to make promises to, or in front of,

but God to grind promises up,

burn them like gas. You know
they must be good for something,

that they aren't meant to only be kept.

 

Farewell Note in Czech

This is only what is always left--
a language you can't read,
tiny sketch of far-off mountains.

The words you know are love and goodbye
and you don't want to translate the rest.
It's enough to hold
the sheet of paper folded--

best like this, to go on
loving but not having, or having
but not knowing.


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