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21 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

91. Amanda Nadelberg

Isa the Truck Named Isadore

How did you find out that your manuscript won the 2005 Slope Editions Book Prize? How often had you sent it out before that?

I was having a real bad day about something or other, I just remember trying on dresses in the suburbs to make it better. And then I came home and got an email about it.

I finished the manuscript in/on time for Slope's deadline in 2005. That year Lisa Jarnot was judging and a friend of mine who knew I was writing a manuscript said to me, hey, maybe she'd like your poems since you like hers so much. (This was in January. I was at a miserable job and somewhere in the L's and M's of the manuscript (it was a chronological and alphabetical thing)). This was very good advice from this friend. I terrified quit my job in February and used the time off to finish the manuscript. I remember writing the last part, R and onwards, in the week before the deadline while weeding out crap from earlier parts of the manuscript. That kind of self-inflicted pressure, it suits me. So no I hadn't sent to other places. And then that day in June I got an email from Ethan Paquin. When the book was accepted a few poems were out as submissions at mags but nothing had been taken yet. I was a lucky mofo, I know that's not the way it usually works out. I am ready to have anything else be a lot harder to get past security.

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

It was earlier than scheduled and March. The door rang. Nice man in brown suit. Nice man brought the things upstairs. I wanted to tell him what was in there but I restrained myself. Two big boxes!

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Yes. Slope poets help a lot with the design. For instance! They are asked to find the designer. I asked Linda Koutsky, of Coffee House Press. Linda was terrific. I am really appreciative of her advice and the generosity of her time. I had interned at CHP in college and so that's how I knew her, and them, and we arranged that I'd do some work for CHP in exchange for Linda's beautiful work.

The cover was something I found, as is, a Barbie head on that daylily, on my street in Minneapolis. It was in the weeks I was starting to look for a cover. I was walking and I stopped right there and ran home to grab my camera and took a roll of film. I bet to some people it seems out of place, but it was just something that felt right for the book. The coincidence of it all makes it nicer.

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

I remember hoping I wouldn't feel different. I think that from the beginning I imagined I'd be the same person but just with a pile in the corner of readable things with my name on them. And this is still what I think. Writing poems makes life different, having a book of poems published doesn't. The act of doing changes things, not the other stuff that gets happened to you, like people deciding they do or don't like what you've written. I sound so pep talky. Apologies.
 
Has your life been different since?

Not especially. I've had the chance to meet people I wouldn't have met, either that I've corresponded with or that I've met when I've read someplace, and many of these people have become good friends. That difference has been the most significant. Otherwise I still don't know what I'd like to do with the other parts of my life, and I still work (and have for two years) in a super cafe in Minneapolis. My siblings had more babies but I don't think that has anything to do with me and my poems.

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

Not really. Partly I didn't think my life would change because my sister always says "Expect A Seventy" (that's like a C minus) and I believe that thinking that way keeps me from overwhelming disappointment in poetry and also not in poetry.

But I have been real surprised and glad to find out that strangers who aren't friends of my parents have read the book. And a few people have taught it in courses and that is probably the most surprising. Real nice of them. Just swell.

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

Slope (specifically the kick ass Chris Janke and the kick ass Cecily Iddings) organized a small tour for Matt Hart and me the spring our books came out, and that was great great great. Matt and I had never met and we got along swimmingly. On the first day, we were getting off the Mass Pike in Amherst and we were stopping for gas and Matt expressed some relief at the fact that I didn't seem to be a weirdo--that he and his wife and their friend had been wondering the previous evening whether I would be some kook wanting to hot-box it all the way to Buffalo and then I said, what's hot-boxing and Matt pointed at me and said EXACTLY.

I've read a few times in Minneapolis and Rain Taxi organized an awesome night for Laura Sims and Anthony Hawley and Matt and me last year in the Soap Factory. This past spring I read in a few new places. The fantastic Dobby Gibson and I met Matt in Iowa City and we three read together. And I was invited to read at the Juniper Festival this past April, and that was nice, I like Amherst and there were a lot of people there whose work I admire and I was glad to get to see them read. I hope for more readings. I hope Matt and I continue to tag team a few places because it's real good to have company and it's good for Slope, as Janke says. In general I like reading. I do get nervous just before. And I try to practice before. I like cars and airports. I am a good guest and I like to meet the people I've read about in books and on the internets.
 
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?

Best advice/warning I got was "wait six months for things like reviews to happen." That seemed to be very true, the timing.

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

That six month tip. And not to sound like an after-school special, but! Some people will like your poems and some people won't and that is okay. Just the same as you, lady or man I'm advising, probably don't like everyone-who-writes-poems' poems, not everyone will like yours. It comforts me to remember that. Taste!
 
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

I think the process and practice of writing Isa has affected my subsequent writing. The rules I made for myself with the dictionary of names taught me that I can make rules and follow them, and that I can write several poems. The second manuscript has very different rules, but I made them before I knew the first book was going to be published. I have been a lot working more on arranging the second one as a manuscript and revising it than I did with Isa (which was solely a chronological thing) and I'm learning how bad I am at that stuff, the arranging/revising. I'm bad at rethinking big picture things. Mostly, for me, poems happen very quickly, and if they don't come out well then I more often end up either starting over from the initial sentiment or cutting. So I'm really trying to learn how to rework things. It sometimes feels false to me, though, revising. And I guess that makes sense. If the poem comes out as a fast and unprocessed event, then sitting over it and wondering how it could be better, well, to me it's hard. I lose patience and concentration. I'm a good syllable and line editor though.

Since the fall, I've written three longer and occasional pieces for various reasons/readings (one was for an art shanty that friends built on a lake in Minnesota in February!). They're pretty disparate in reason but seem redundant of each other in emotional ways and I've kind of refused to make anything part of a coherent whole. Several poe-friends kept reminding me to go against myself, my instincts, so if my instincts are to push things together, projects, let's say, then I'm trying otherwise. I have a lot of singular poems that are off on their own too, just hanging out, I'm even trying to divorce those longer pieces into smaller ones. But just a few weeks ago I got the bug to start something new I've been thinking about for a long while but I'm not sure how it's going. I'm trying to be loosey goosey and have fewer rules.

One other thing I've realized is that when I first started writing poems I wanted to show people right away. I remember it not feeling real until I did. Now there's a real difference. I've been slow to send stuff out all year. I've been slow to put anything on the computer (I write by hand mostly). I guess I'm saying I'm surprised by how hoarding I'm feeling about poems. 

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

I'm real grateful that any have been written. I find writing reviews to be (rewarding but) all-consuming and so I think it generous of anyone to care to spend time like that with someone else's book. I don't have very good reading comprehension and luckily this one friend of mine happened to be with me when I found out about most of the reviews and he is a real wordsmith and he translated some of them into my kind of English. So far there's been one review that was pretty not in love with Isa but like I said before--Horse Races. One friend said that it's better to be reviewed (albeit negatively) than ignored, and perhaps that's a helpful way to look at negative reviews.

Do you want your life to change?

Yes I'd like to figure out what I'd like to do for the long haul job-wise. And I'd like to live in some other places. I wonder about going to more school or not. Also, am I allowed to talk about this here? I feel, sometimes, that poetry has become something like a boyfriend. That poems spring out of the things that I would be saying to someone I was loving. I know this may sound strange but it's something I've been wondering.

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

Not so much. I'm in a perpetual state of stunned inaction. I bet though when I figure it out I'll act quickly. I'm not a procrastinator where there is something to be done, I just have trouble making decisions recently. 

I know that with this job thing, I refuse to have one that will make me unhappy, because I don't want to be unhappy and/or unproductive at home. Working in a cafe can be unhappy sometimes, but lots of things about it make me happy. My memory works well there. Someone will come in, maybe only for the second time, and I'll be able to remember where they sat and what they ate the last time. I don't know how else these memory powers could serve me, but using it makes me feel big things. Though perhaps I could become a private investigator. But I wouldn't want to work at night. I'd like to be home for dinner.

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

I don't imagine this country will have a Yevtushenko on their hands anytime soon. But certainly in that grand way (and especially in other countries) poetry can create those big changes. But poetry changes things for me in small ways. It changes how I am in the world. And I like that.

:

Two poems from Isa the Truck Named Isadore
by Amanda Nadelberg:


Deforest

Pennsylvania is sort of big compared to a child but
that is not really the point here. The point is that
the president, in my dream, was making a lewd
gesture, pointing towards my body and I thought,
we've got him. He's totally cooked. Someone write
the book about how he is so over--we are all over it.
This new expression, I guess it means "I have stopped
loving you" because people on TV are using it and
the woman in the store today, she used it too. We are
all over it, we say collectively, we.
One day it was something that no one
said and the next it's on television and
there is nothing, not one thing wrong with learning
from the fine people on television. They
obviously did something great to get there, so
if you try harder you will be over it too.

 

Emmy

Jesus Christ can help--he
is the right answer. There
are days when it seems
that nothing is going the
way it's supposed to and
your friend's mother's in the
hospital and you can't find
your shoes and then your aunt's
in the hospital and it's
raining trees outside. And you try
to say enough is enough
without sounding redundant.
But then Harvey, the pilot, is
so nice--why is he so happy?
One hour and ninety-four minutes of
flight time he said. People aren't
usually so happy. I can see straight
into the ear next to me a good
inch and a half into this man's
head. Fabulous. Truly. Just
send it all on to Jesus.


. . .

read more first-book interviews

. . .

 

20 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

90. Jessica Fisher

How did you find out that your manuscript won the 2006 Yale Younger? How often had you sent it out previously?

I was sitting on the couch nursing my twelve-week-old daughter when the phone rang. I carried Sylvie over to answer it, and couldn't believe my ears when it was Louise Glück on the other end, saying that she'd chosen my book for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. I was of course thrilled, particularly because I had just turned thirty and therefore had been reconsidering all the goals I had set for myself to meet by then. It was especially wonderful to have that sense of professional accomplishment with a new baby; and revising the poems one final time, as well as writing almost ten additional poems and cutting many old ones, gave me the perfect mental task to fill the long sleepless hours of new motherhood. Glück is an amazing--and amazingly dedicated--editor, and I loved having her as an interlocutor; our conversations provided a much-needed antidote to the kind of talk that dominates the park play-date!

The book got taken its second year out. I had waited a long time to circulate my manuscript, working on it over the years of graduate school--I am now finishing a PhD in English at Berkeley. My friend and mentor Bob Hass had said to me, when he read my first stab at a book-length manuscript a few years ago, that I could publish it then, and it would be a good book, or I could throw out all but the best few poems, and eventually publish a great manuscript. So I kept writing. Later I took an incredible graduate workshop with Lyn Hejinian, in which all the participants were working on book-length projects, and learned a lot from that experience about how to construct a book that engaged in a sustained inquiry. Lyn is an extraordinary teacher, and the other writers in the workshop were the most intelligent and generous readers anyone could ever hope for; I have continued to meet with several of them, particularly Julie Carr and Margaret Ronda, in the years since the workshop ended. Anyway watching Julie finish and publish her first book, Mead, inspired me to try to do the same, and in the fall of 2004 I got my act together, finally sending out both individual poems and the book manuscript for the first time.

I remember struggling mightily to figure out an order for that first version of the book, taping together long skeins of poems which I then taped to the door jamb, so that I could see the movement not only from one poem to the next, but also of larger themes within the book. It was a mess. But I continued to work on it over that year, and had a month-long residency at Djerassi in August of 2005 that allowed me the time and space to struggle with the recalcitrant revisions that needed to be made before sending it out again.

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

One weekend in March I got a message from Louise saying that the book was beautiful. I still hadn't seen it, but figured my copies must be in the mail. Sure enough, I got a call that Monday saying that the book would be arriving that day, and that I would need to sign for it. Staying at home on a hot day with a toddler is excruciating, but of course I was really excited to see the book, so Sylvie and I waited, and waited, and waited. I didn't have a tracking number, or even know who the carrier was, so there wasn't much I could do. Excitement turned to annoyance by late afternoon, and then to disappointment when night came and there was still no box. It was almost 8pm, and I had just started putting Sylvie to bed when the UPS delivery man rang the doorbell.

I was mostly worried as I opened the box, because I had never been sent a mock-up of the final cover image. It turns out that the designer never improved upon the version of the cover I sent him--if I could, I would at least vary the typeface, since what I sent initially was just a placeholder, and the best I could do with my old Word program. But all in all I think the book is beautiful, and I felt really happy to hold it for the first time.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Yes--in fact, the cover is pretty much my design. I love Gerhard Richter's paintings for many reasons, not least because they make apparent that mimesis and abstraction are not antithetical terms. The first cover image that the designer at Yale sent was all wrong for my book--it was a photograph of sailboats in the mist, which is for the record not what I mean to suggest by the title Frail-Craft!--and so I sent him the Richter image as an indication of the kind of work I wanted, specifying that the cover should show the way that representation emerges out of abstraction, and vice versa, during the course of looking. Much to my surprise, the designer said that he could get permission to use the Richter image--and so that, I thought gleefully, was that. Some months later the series editor called and said that it wasn't going to work out after all, and that the designer would be forwarding me some other options, but I didn't want to give up on that image so easily. A couple of nervous months went by before the issue was settled, but the editor's assistant pulled out all the stops, writing to Richter's New York and German galleries, and eventually he gave us given permission to use the image, "courtesy of the artist" as the cover reads, for which I am eternally grateful.

Before the day that you first saw your book, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival? Has your life been different since?

I imagined that my life would change in the ways it has: I now get invited to do more readings, and am more organized at the readings I give, since I no longer have to shuffle through a stack of papers! I feel justified now in thinking of myself as a writer, and hope that when I go on the job market I will have luck finding a position as such.

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

The reviews have all come as surprises. And kind emails from people I don't know, or haven't seen in a decade. It still really surprises me that people read the book, somehow.

What have you been doing to promote Frail-Craft and how do you feel about those experiences?

The book came out in April, near the end of the academic year, and so far I have just done a book party and a few readings to promote the book--one locally, one in Florida, and one in Cambridge. I would do more if I could, but between being a mom and finishing my dissertation, there is little time. And it's very expensive to travel, so I have had to turn down several opportunities to read in other cities, since reading series often don't have the money for airfare. In one way I wish I had the time to take a road trip, giving readings here and there, but working the scene is not something that comes naturally to me. So I have elected just to do readings in places I want to travel to anyway--in the next year I will do a reading in my hometown of Oxford, Mississippi and at Swarthmore College, where I was an undergraduate, and will add other readings as I can. I hope the book will find its readers in other ways, too--through reviews and word of mouth. I am of course very lucky that Yale sent out advance review copies and included the book in a few ads!

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

I got two pieces of invaluable advice: the first was that it was my book, which proved to be an important thing to remember when faced with others' ideas about how the book should look and sound; and the second was that winning the Yale prize didn't need to define me any more than I wanted it to.

I wish I had known a lot more about the process of publishing a book. Luckily I realized very early on, before Yale had even appointed the book a designer, that the smaller trim size of past Yale Younger Poets' books wouldn't work for many of my poems; by pointing this fact out early in the design process, I was able to convince them to make the book larger. I knew less than I would have liked, however, about when in the process things like font size or leading are set in stone.

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

I would reiterate the advice given to me: first, it's your book. What this means, beyond that you should make your own decisions about it, is that ultimately you're the one who will suffer if it's not the best book you can make it. So, keep writing and editing until the press makes you stop; be meticulous about proofreading; engage in the conversations about design early and often; and so on. And don't act like a prima donna--I heard some horror stories from folks at Yale! Treat everyone at the press with respect, and try to make at least one friend there who can explain to you how the process works, and who can be your advocate when you need one. Secondly, for better or worse, realize that your first book is just that. It defines a moment, but it doesn't limit you.

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

Well, I am no longer working on Frail-Craft, which means that I no longer have its particular concerns in mind. I know a lot more about making a book now, too--so, for example, I will never again write a poem to fill an 8 1/2 by 11 inch page! Mostly I think that having a book published makes me more confident in my writing. Now when I am sure that a few poems are done, I send them to a journal for consideration--that always seemed like an impossible step to me before. And because having a book out makes it more likely that other work will be published, I have returned to some translation projects that I had shelved years ago; I am especially excited that my translation of a poem by the Dada artist Hans Arp, which I began when I was doing comparative literature work in college, will appear in The Paris Review.

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

Reviews are nice, and nice reviews are nicer. But they don't effect what I write. Reviews that misread the book in some way serve as a warning of all the ways the book will inevitably be misread, but there's not much I can do about that now.

Do you want your life to change? Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?

Life and change seem to me to be synonymous terms, and so of course I want my life to change, which is not to say that I want to change my life. I am really happy right now. My dissatisfaction comes from living in a world that desperately needs radical change. But on a personal level, too, I do want my life to change: I am nearly done with my PhD, and look forward to a time when "dissertate" doesn't seem like a valid verb. Then I hope to get a teaching job, since I love to teach, and to publish my dissertation. I want to write another book of poetry, as well as books that move beyond generic categories, and to do more work as a translator. Much of my early life was shaped by being in other languages and places, and I miss the experience of travel, so I hope to be able to spend some time abroad with my husband and daughter in the next few years.

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

I can't do any better, by way of answering this question, than quote what Roland Barthes wrote forty years ago in "From Science to Literature":

For literature...language can no longer be the convenient instrument or the sumptuous décor of a social, emotional, or poetic 'reality' which preexists it and which it is responsible, in a subsidiary way, for expressing....: no, language is the being of literature, its very world.... Technically, according to Roman Jakobson's definition, the 'poetic' (i.e., the literary) designates that type of message which takes for its object its own form, and not its contents. Ethically, it is solely by its passage through language that literature pursues the disturbance of the essential concepts of our culture, 'reality' chief among them. Politically, it is by professing (and illustrating) that no language is innocent, it is by employing what might be called an 'integral language' that literature is revolutionary.

The poetry that fights to be poetic, in Jakobson's sense of the term, comes the closest to creating ethical and political change. But we shouldn't kid ourselves into thinking that poetry is our only--or most effective--tool for social change.  

:

A poem from Frail-Craft by Jessica Fisher:


Pioneer's Cabin, Near Grove


For a very long time                we'd been on the road, you bet
      
       we were tired of salt-beef, of sinew and the raw

                                                                wings of insects--    

             and so I suppose you can imagine

                                            how it felt at last

                                                           to cross the mountains


And when it's a long time

                                        since you've slept

                          in the disturbing softness  

                                                        of someone's breath

that tree-body takes you by surprise--

                                                    space enough inside

                             for most of us, yet

                                   all night we each felt all alone there

                                                                           walking

      from plain to peak to fog            toward the idea of ocean



What dreams we'll leave you

                                                 salmon runs

                                                                            the idea

                   of something outside:



                                   luminous patch of sky

                      through branches & black needles



. . .

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. . .

 

19 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

89. Rachel M. Simon

Theory of Orange by Rachel M. Simon

Before your manuscript won Pavement Saw's Transcontinental Award, had you sent it out often?

Once I felt like the manuscript was as done as it was going to get, I basically sent it to every contest in the back of Poets & Writers magazine that was open to me. That meant skipping the ones open only to descendants of Cherokees or lifelong residents of Mississippi. For a year it was my weekend job to send out copies and hope that the entry fee checks didn't bounce. As evidence of my tenacity, I think I spent about $800 on entry fees and postage that year.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

I have a friend in Maine who is an artist and I knew that I wanted his work on the cover. In discussing possible images, both the artist (Mike Branca) and my editor (David Baratier) were taking the Orange in the title of the book very literally and suggested pieces that had orange in them. We agreed on a painting of a tree with orange leaves but once the designer put it together, I hated it. I asked David if I could veto it. He was a great sport and paid the designer a kill fee and we started again with a new image. I wasn't sure if the toaster and toast image would work (it was a rubber stamp); but it did and I'm very happy with the cover.

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

On my 30th birthday the book was delivered to my publisher; that felt like a great sign. The day that the box got to me we had a snowstorm and the campus where I teach did the unexpected and cancelled classes. I wasn't expecting the books to arrive in the storm, but the mail carrier parked at the bottom of our street (because the mail truck couldn't make it up the hill) and carried the two heavy boxes to the door. He was covered in snow and said "What's in these?" when he handed over the books and saw how excited we (my partner Karen and I) were to get them. I told him "It's my book!  I wrote a book of poetry!" He's since told the other mail carriers about the book, who've congratulated me. He's very popular in our house, he carried my books through the storm and brings our dog biscuits when he delivers packages.

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

I didn't have any specific expectations for change, but I did hope it would help me get a full-time job.

How has your life been different since?

The most noticeable difference is that people keep using my middle initial. I use the M. because there's a woman named Rachel Simon who wrote a book that was made into a made for TV movie starring Andie MacDowell and Rosie O'Donnell and I wouldn't want her huge paychecks reaching me by mistake. So now in poetry contexts, people will introduce me to someone and include my middle initial. This leads people to ask me what the M. stands for which is something that is different from before the book came out.

What does the M. stand for?

Michelle (I'm named after my great Aunt Molly).

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

The biggest surprise has been how much of the book's success depends on my doing the legwork. I knew I wasn't getting a publicist and an agent, I'm a poet after all, but I just imagined this stuff would take care of itself.

What are you doing to promote the book? Do you enjoy reading publicly?

I love reading. I just read last week at a gallery that I think makes for a great poetry reading space. It allows the audience to zone out and have something interesting to look at and they seem to usually have good acoustics. Next week I'm reading in a bookstore basement in Cleveland. The readings are a good excuse to find everyone I know in a city to be in the same place at the same time which has been a bit surreal, but always great.
 
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?

The advice I did get, and I'm glad to have heard it, was from a former teacher of mine, the Maine poet Ira Sadoff. He said, "It's all downhill once you've got the book in your hand." And while it is a bit of a downer, I've never again reached the endorphin level of hearing that I'd won the contest.

What influence has the book's publication (or acceptance) had on your subsequent writing?

I've written almost no poetry since winning the prize.

How do you feel about the critical response so far?

I've really loved all of the critical response. Even the reviews that talk about my shortcomings have been very valuable to me. There have been great in-depth readings of my work. I wish I'd gotten these reviews in graduate school.
 
Do you want your life to change?

I could use a full-time job...

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

I could be reading the AWP joblist, but instead I'm watching a documentary about crossword puzzles.

If you could have any job you wanted, what would you do for a living and where would you be doing it?

I would love a full time job teaching creative writing. I'm currently teaching 5 classes on 3 campuses as an adjunct with side jobs teaching senior citizens and high school students. It would be great to have one desk and one school's politics to learn.

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

Yes.

:

2 poems from Theory of Orange by Rachel M. Simon:


When You're Not Allowed to Daydream

One can live for years not knowing the teaspoon is inaccurate. Call the bureau of weights and measures. They'll understand. In massage school I learned to rub a full belly in a clockwise motion to aid in digestion. In the theory of orange, what is the best way to skin a grape? The citrus board feels strongly about the marketing campaign's mouth sores. Cracking a stranger's knuckles will not necessarily lead to mold under the nails. A Yogi can get away with that posture. I know to slouch is not the answer, yet all these crazy and abusive men never have a shortage of wives. No, I never could touch my toes. The irony doesn't end there. I kill bugs with my palm. If I had that many legs I wouldn't waste my time on some mediocre ceiling. When I fly I never dress for the occasion. When I land you can appreciate the thud. Just keep running, the parasail will take care of you. If the wind deposits you in a gift shop it is only appropriate to buy one moderately priced tchotchke.

 

The Textures of Concealing

This is the heavy piece of velvet I've
strung across troublesome emotion.

It's class warfare, the way cashmere feels
rubbing up against you on the subway.

I've never had a good cry, despite my
recent commitment to folding Kleenex.

Holding a styrofoam coffee cup out
to the homeless does not save the village.

Such difficulty, to compress raging
feelings onto simple cardboard signs.

Does wool make you itch, Rachel? It's Tuesday,
three above zero, and this is your life.


. . .

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18 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

88. Alex Lemon

Mosquito by Alex Lemon

How did your manuscript happen to be picked up by Tin House?

I was the poetry scholar at the Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop in 2005. It was an amazing time--great readings, incredible classes (I was in a poetry workshop with D.A. Powell, and will forever be grateful to him for his teaching), and I was thrilled to meet so many wonderful writers. Among these folks, I met Brenda Shaughnessey, the poetry editor of Tin House magazine. She asked if I'd submit some poems for the magazine and she also asked if I was working on a manuscript. A number of months after the workshop she emailed to ask some questions she had about the poems she was accepting for the magazine. In the same flurry of correspondence she asked what was going on with Mosquito, and said that Tin House was interested in publishing it. This came as a heart-attack of a surprise because when I'd sent it to her I was under the impression that she was going to help me with it--give me feedback, comments, etc. This was a Friday--she called me back on Monday (after one of the longest weekends of my life) and told me Tin House wanted to publish Mosquito. I was teaching creative writing in room 011 of Old Main of Macalester College when she called.

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

I was at Tin House's summer workshop the following year--July '06--because they'd asked me to come read. I was outside of the Reed College dining commons, talking to friends I'd met the year before, when Meg Storey--now a great friend, and the person I had been working day-to-day with on edits (she put up with so much craziness from me. I was incredibly scared, nervous, whatever--I thought everything I was doing was terrible)--brought me a copy that had arrived at the actual Tin House in Portland. I felt happy and sick and loved and distraught all at the same time. None of it seemed real.

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

I'm not sure, really. Even after all of the production started happening, I thought something would happen. I didn't think I'd ever see the day.
 
How has your life been different since?

Sure, life's been different, but I'm not sure about how much it has to do with Mosquito. I continued teaching at Macalester College. I took a medical leave. I still lived in the Twin Cities. My writing life changed substantially, though--I worked harder on what I was doing. Mosquito's publication made me a better reader; I found a new level of engagement with my work. I was invigorated by just thinking about poems in ways that I hadn't before. The process of editing Mosquito itself gave me a deeper understanding of my writing.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Kind of. I was sent a number of cover designs and I listed my top three, but I think Laura Shaw did an amazing job. I was incredibly lucky to have people who cared so much working on my book. I didn't feel like I had a tremendous amount of input--in fact, I kind of freaked out when I found out how small it was going to be--but once again, the decisions the folks at Tin House made ended up being perfect. I would have ruined it. It would have had a paper bag cover, and after flipping to the cover page it'd ignite in your hands.

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

I was surprised when people contacted me after reading it.

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

I've done as much as I've been able to. I had to cancel a number of things I'd planned on doing because of the medical leave I took from Macalester the fall after Mosquito came out, but other than that I've tried to say yes to whatever's been asked. I've read all over--from NYC to L.A., been on the radio, done interviews, responded to classes who were reading it and had questions for me.

I like doing all of it and I would do more if there were more time, but it can be pretty exhausting, emotionally, sometimes. I like to think it would be different--that people at readings would be asking me out to have a good time, or telling me stories about their favorite adventures or some such thing--but because of the subject matter I end up spending a lot of time talking to people about living with or through illness. I don't think for a minute this is always a depressing thing--I often feel more present after talking to these people, but I'd be lying if I said it doesn't make me sad, or send me spinning off into a dark place sometimes. When I say "the subject matter" I'm talking about the poems that deal with trauma, sickness, and recovery--the poems that have to do with my brain surgery and the aftermath.

Can you tell me more about what happened to you?

I had brain surgery in the fall of 1999 after three brain bleeds (strokes, or stroke-like events, depending on which doctor you ask). The first happened when I was 18, and the following two happened when I was 21. All of them occurred as a result of a vascular malformation I have in the pons of my brainstem.

Was the medical leave from teaching that you took after the book was published connected that?

It was. I went on medical leave the fall of 2006 because I started losing my sight the spring of 2006. My vision was getting so bad, I was having a hard time reading my students' papers or making out much of anything past a few feet in front of me. The symptoms I was having--nystagmus and double vision, general clumsiness--were the same ones I've had since I reached a baseline after I recovered from surgery, but they are also the symptoms that were/are a sign of another stroke, and I'll always have a chance of it happening again.

Until I was cleared by MRIs and a neurosurgeon, I was worried that I was having brain hemorrhages again. The neurosurgeon referred me to a neuro-ophthalmologist who thought the worsening symptoms were from a changing sensitivity to my baseline. So, what I was left with after I'd recovered from the surgery had suddenly--or over the course of a couple of weeks--gotten substantially worse.

Working with a new rehab therapist and the same doctor, I decided to begin medication and start working toward seeing better. The only way this was possible was to occlude one of my eyes, and begin taking an anti-seizure drug to try to dampen the bouncing in my eyes. In the same visits, the question arose of whether or not I might have neurofibromatosis, a genetic disease that causes tumor growth. I took the fall off to begin working on all of these issues.

How are you doing now?

I think I'm doing great. I wore an eye patch for the better half of the semester, and tinkered with the dose of medication. I was taking the incorrect amount for a long while: first too little, and then far too much. Both of which left me unable to do most of everything. Eventually I got it down. I got crazy-big enlargers (special medical ones), and a globe enlarger that I've taped a kind of horizon line on, and for the last half year or so I've been wearing a black contact lens that occludes one of my eyes so I don't have to wear the eye patch.

I'm still pretty clumsy, and I can't see so well, but all in all I feel fortunate to have had this happen when I was young-ish--if it hadn't, there's no way I'd be as healthy as I am/feel now. I did get beach sand in the contact the other day. That's about as terrible as I've been of late. Thanks for asking.

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

A friend told me to give the book a life--and I've tried, and continue to try and do just that.
 
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

I think it freed me to do what I've wanted to do, actually. Mosquito was mainly compromised of my MFA thesis (U of Minnesota, whoop, whoop), and the poems in it were the poems I had to write first. They had to come out of me first to clear the way, and build a fertile foundation for the poems I hope to write down the line.  
 
Has the critical response had any effect on your writing?

I hope it hasn't.
 
Do you want your life to change?

Nope. I'm overjoyed with my life--I have more friends than I deserve, and feel fortunate to be surrounded by so many rocking and genius people--both in and out of the poetry world.
 
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

Sure. I have a tremendous amount of faith in the transformative power of language--the scale of that change might be debated--but the alchemical nature of words can produce monstrous and wonderful things.

:

2 poems from Mosquito by Alex Lemon:


Mosquito

You want evidence of the street
fight? A gutter-grate bruise & concrete scabs--
here are nails on the tongue,
a mosaic of glass shards on my lips.

I am midnight banging against house
fire. A naked woman shaking
with the sweat of need.

An ocean of burning diamonds
beneath my roadkill, my hitchhiker
belly fills sweet. I am neon blind & kiss
too black. Dangle stars--

let me sleep hoarse-throated in the desert
under a blanket sewn from spiders.
Let me be delicate & invisible.

Kick my ribs, tug my hair.
Scream you're gonna miss me
when I'm gone.
Sing implosion
to this world where nothing is healed.

Slap me, I'll be any kind of sinner.

 

Kinematics

Someone is hanging from an ice pick
Wrestled into my lung
But I haven't had Blue Cross
In so long it might only be my memory
Of a blue jay chasing the others away--
House finch, sparrow and pigeon--
How it sat at the feeder,
Beak-high, without eating for hours.
The entire afternoon I watched, reliving
The smoke-dark morning I shot my best friend,
And how four years later, seniors
In high school, we sat drunk on Pabst,
Squeezing the remaining buckshot from his calf
As a girl we both thought was ours
Watched, a cigarette burning a knuckle
On her hand. The moon was something
I will never remember and plutonium
Was what I thought of the fireflies.
And now, when I leave my porch
The ground will give beneath my feet
On this day wet and comfortable
With warm rain. Most of the apples are mealy
With bruises, but I will sliver them
With my grandfather's pocketknife, eat
Them with peanut butter while sipping green tea.
It would be much easier if I could
Say I have so much of everything I don't
Remember loving anything at all, but really,
What wouldn't I do for twenty bucks?

. . .

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17 AUG 07

14 sentences:

I saw this place the other day, about an hour north, and thought, yeah, that looks like it...the garden, the chicken coop. The lady was moving to Paris, I'd pick up where she left off.

I saw covered wagons floating in the surf, I went to tell you about it and you said what you keep saying, over and over: let me tell you what my friend Chris says about it. Or: do you want to hear a story my friend Chris told me?

Belief is dispositional. Somewhere there's a man with a very, very long penis and a replica watch. Do you have any idea at all when you'll ship my items? Belief resembles knowledge: stairways of wax, slower ways of seeing. I had to quit with the nostalgia stuff because I just ran out of room.

I had no other goal except to go out and have nothing destroy me.

You know how people are always talking about shoes, and what kinds are good? They want sense. That's why poetry was invented. So, no, I guess I don't want to hear what Chris said.


[thanks Maurice, Krissy, and Colin McGinn]

 

16 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

87. Joshua Kryah

Glean by Joshua Kryah

How did you find out that your manuscript won the 2005 Nightboat Poetry Prize?

A phone call during a poetry reading. I was at UNLV listening to Maxine Chernoff, when the Nightboat editors left a voice message. In the message, Kazim and Jennifer, my editors, told me that they had "good news." I was so excited that I didn't call them back. Instead, I walked around campus a few times, savoring the news without confirming it or telling anyone. There was something about the space between knowing and not knowing that I wanted to hold onto for a while.

I had been working on the manuscript for four or five years. Now that it was about to happen, I wanted to sustain a sense of disbelief or naïve ignorance, to speculate otherwise, to almost turn away from it. But the prospect of having Glean published created the most delicate and evanescent of moments. I knew that there was no longer the possibility of writing in anonymity. That kind of commitment was terrifying. It scared the hell out of me.

It still does.

How often had you sent it out previously?

Consistently for a little over two years. I sent to a lot of contests and spent a lot of money. I understood that contests were the most likely avenue for publication, but I wasn't happy about it. I don't know that anyone is. The charitable urge to support presses through entrance fees for contests is, I think, immodest. None of us really wants to receive a copy of the winning book as much as we do our own.

I understand, however, the current state of poetry publication and why such fees are necessary. I also understand how these fees result in the publication of books like Glean. But every time I sent out my manuscript with a check, I felt uncomfortable, dirty.

And contests are dirty. There are always losers. And a lot of them, including myself, don't take losing well. I became pretty pessimistic during those two years. It was tough to remain humble, to feel supportive of others' successes. I tried. But it's difficult when we're all competing for the same things. I hope to be more humble now that Glean is out. I have no reason not to.

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

My wife, Amber, designed Glean, so I was intimately involved with the physical production of the book from the very beginning. This had always been a fantasy of mine, to make the book into a collaborative effort, particularly with Amber's background in book design.

We worked on the design on and off for about nine months. Actually, Amber experimented with type treatments while I sighed and fretted and generally got in the way. And this was during her pregnancy with our first child. Together, we chose the type for the poems and titles, the margin spacing, the line leading.

What I'm really happy with is the inclusion of my birth year on the copyright page. Not many books do birth years anymore. I'm always intrigued to know when someone was born in relation to their publications, especially if it's a first book. I want people to know I was born in 1974.

When the printed book finally arrived, we were ecstatic. It's the complete package, beautifully constructed and rendered. The size is unconventional and the spacing is more open, more ventilated than most other books. It gives the poems room to move around, to interact with the page, to be themselves. It's gorgeous. Whenever anyone tells me how much they like Glean, they usually say, "It's beautiful! I haven't read it yet, but it's just a beautiful book!" It really is.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Very. Originally, we had planned to use a drawing by Cy Twombly, something very modern, very graphic. However, there were certain restrictions on the artwork that we were unhappy about. Fortunately, one of the editors at Nightboat has an aunt in Germany, Ulrike Termeer, who is a fantastic artist and agreed to create a piece specifically for the book.

Once we saw a catalogue of Ulrike's work, we were immediately intrigued. One series in particular caught our attention. "Proust und die Maler" re-works or defaces paintings by old masters like Bruegel, Poussin, Ingres, Vermeer, and Corot. It's a very post-modern approach to canonical representations of art. And this worked perfectly with another idea I'd had for the cover.

Caravaggio's depiction

I'd previously considered Caravaggio's depiction of Doubting Thomas for the cover, but thought it was too austere, too romantic. We've all seen them, books of poetry with classical paintings on the cover, testifying to the gravity of the poems inside. I did and didn't want this.

earlier ideas for the cover

So when I saw Ulrike's "Proust und die Maler" series, I knew I could have both the preciousness of the original and the edginess of its reinterpretation. 

Ulrike was extremely receptive and accommodating. I imagine it's rare to commission an artwork from an established artist these days, particularly by the likes of a no-name poet with a print run of a thousand books. There wasn't much in it for her, but she took to the project with such zeal and consideration that the resulting painting defied my expectations. It's exuberant, feverish, worked up. Really, it's just wonderful. So much so that we reprinted the entire painting inside the book to give readers the full effect, though in black and white.

detail from Ulrike Termeer's cover art

And the glob of red placed on Christ's wound is great. It covers up the gratuitousness of Caravaggio's original slit, while at the same time highlighting its significance. I love it, that red. The way it echoes the red of Thomas' coat, how it picks up on the red that abounds in the poems.

I should mention that the impact of Ulrike's artwork wouldn't have been felt in the same way if it hadn't been for Amber's design. She came up with the crisp, white background, the cropping of the artwork and title--everything that makes the painting work as a cover.

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

No. I mean, yes. Both. I knew the book would lend a legitimacy to my writing that hadn't existed before. I knew that having the tangible proof of my labor would better explain to people my aesthetic. I knew this would be particularly helpful for my family and friends, who had often struggled to understand my writing. If anything, I knew the book would act as justification for all the time I'd spent in graduate school or garretted in my office, scribbling.

I knew the publication of Glean would also substantiate my ambitions as a poet, and I also knew that it would lend me currency in the current literary environment. How much or how little I wasn't sure, but that didn't seem to matter. I knew if I wanted to make a life in poetry, the book would have to come first. And so it has. And that seemed the biggest hurdle. I think the rest becomes easier. At least I hope so. 

Has your life been different since?

Yes, but not necessarily because of the book. At about the same time that Glean was published, my wife and I had our daughter, Eavan. I was also finishing my Ph.D. studies. So there was a lot happening in my life. And in a way, that was helpful. It allowed me some perspective on the entire process, particularly the book's reception. I had initially hoped to do everything I could to get attention for Glean, but being exhausted from the demands of a new family and my Ph.D. exams, I was happy to let things take their own course. And so they have and continue to do so.

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

Not really. The market is flooded these days with new books of poetry, new poetry presses, new hot young poets--there's too much to keep up with. I'm just happy to have had my day.

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

I've put together a few readings, as much as time and money permit. It's difficult to travel now that I'm a father. I feel guilty about leaving home for long periods of time.

The readings I have done, however, have been wonderful. I'm still getting used to the format. It's getting easier, more comfortable. At first it almost seemed like a chore. Or I made it seem like a chore in order to calm my nerves. Once I got used to standing in front of an audience I began to work on my projection, pacing, rocking back and forth on my heels. I enjoy it. I dread it, but I enjoy it.

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

Send it out. Nightboat gave me close to seven months to revise the manuscript. It was during this time that the manuscript really became what it is. In fact, some of the best poems were written during this time, when I didn't have to worry about contests and publication. Not that the manuscript was paltry before then, but it wasn't yet fully realized. This shouldn't necessarily deter anyone from submitting their manuscript. You'll have time to revise it later, without the pressure, without the hassle. You'll finally have a moment of peace away from the insistent din of contest deadlines. 

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

Send it out. Paul Hoover suggested I send copies of the book to every poet I admired. And I have. Some have responded, some haven't. It really doesn't matter. The opportunity to share my work with these writers is what counts. I'm grateful I've had the chance to do it.

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

More than anything, it's allowed me to relax, to find some of the humility I spoke of earlier. Obviously, I no longer feel the overwhelming need to get a book published. I'm very content with taking my time with new poems, allowing Glean to make its way into readings, workshops, reviews. I have no desire to immediately publish another book, either, as it would only take attention away from Glean.

I'm also still trying to figure out where this book came from. It kind of took me by surprise. I feel as though I'm not done writing it. I've been slowly, in subtle ways, revising Glean. I often comb through it, changing a few things, adding notes, including new poems. It still feels very alive, unfinished.

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

At this point, not much. The book has only been out for six months, so there really hasn't been much of a response. And who knows if there will be? The reviews I've seen have been positive, but more importantly, smart. I find that incredibly encouraging. Particularly because it validates intelligence in poetry. It's gratifying to know that some readers recognize rigor as an integral part of both writing and reading poems.

What's been most surprising about the book's publication is the response I've received from other poets. Carl Phillips, Eric Pankey, Reginald Shepherd, and a few others have sent me some very kind words. Being welcomed by poets I admire is terribly flattering.

Do you want your life to change?

No. I only hope to gain a greater appreciation of and submission to what my life already is.

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

Writing. And reading.

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

I should let someone else answer that. How about Celan? "Poetry, ladies and gentlemen: what an eternalization of nothing but mortality, and in vain."

:

2 poems from Glean by Joshua Kryah:


Called Back, Called Back

Acquit me, make me
purblind, unbloomed, a thing that,

when aroused,
                      remains dormant, unused, none
among many. As the bulb that persists within its sullen,

despondent mood, alive, but no more, no better
than some kind of senseless meat.

I turn away but wherever I turn I encounter
the same soft refrain--

                                 I did not call you, lie back down.
I did not call, lie back, lie down.

There is death and then
                                   there is sleep, or I no longer know who's
        calling or
what I've heard or what I'll say. As, when roused once more

by your voice-light, its endless drag and weight,
I move

            as a tuber on the verge of swelling, the called-forth,
fruited body, caught between monad and many,

between almost and already.

 

Numen

Provocation, voicelet,
                               what moves in me awaits
credulity, a torn sheet in which to wrap its weight.

Solicitous attendant, o pilgrim, from the charnel
house you must transpire,

a shudder, a complaint.

                  ~

What stirs is not ancestry.

Nor the inception of any one blood.

But the insistence to wake,
                                        to bear witness, comes
as a stranger, from no one's mouth, no
other arrangement.

                  ~

Your tongue, speech-pocked, unnerved, a whip
circling overhead.

My body forced to it, listening and
listening.

The imagined crack, its hiss, or what
it might have said:

                       let those believe who may.

A summons
                 (let those believe) that gathers
to itself a certainty, (let those believe
who may
) the more

it leaves one behind.

                  ~

And belief now an unrest, growing
singly in search of a pair,

the absence of some other, your voice calling
out to me--

                  skeptic, refuser, Thomas' head
            as it continues to shake.

(know this)

I would not be here without you.


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