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some poems online
scheduled readings

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


August 2007
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first-book & other interviews:
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27 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

96. Anna Moschovakis

I Have Not Been Able To Get Through To Everyone

How did your manuscript happen to be published by Turtle Point Press?

It really felt like the eleventh hour for this manuscript--I'd been working on it, or on some version of it, since 2001 (the oldest poems were from the late 1990s). I had sent out at least four different versions of the manuscript over as many years, and every time the book wasn't accepted, especially when it came close, I'd try to reassess what exactly I wanted it to be and to do. Mostly, I added newer, longer poems in the place of the shorter lyrics that had made up the bulk of the first versions. By the time it got to its final iteration, I really had very little hope of it getting accepted. But I felt, finally, that it had reached some state of completion, as ambivalent as I was about its merits.

Around this time Matvei (my guy) ran into Jonathan Rabinowitz, the publisher/editor of Turtle Point Press, who asked him about me and whether I had a manuscript. I had been Jonathan's assistant many years before (in the mid-90s) and had fallen out of touch with him, but he had always been kind and encouraging, and very generously gave me my first professional opportunity as a translator (I contributed to the TPP book, Horoscope). I really didn't think that Turtle Point Press would be interested in my book--the poetry list is limited to one title per season and most of the authors are much more accomplished than I (one of them, Wayne Koestenbaum, was at that moment a professor of mine at the Graduate Center). But at Matvei's urging, I sent in the manuscript. At around the same time I sent it to two small presses whose work I admired. And, unbelievably, all three of them were interested in publishing the book. Jonathan actually wrote to me less than a week after we put the manuscript in the mail.

I was totally blown away and pinched myself for months--mostly because I had really gotten to a point where the idea of publication was so abstract. Above all, the desire to have a book had helped me focus my thinking about what that book should be. The fact that after so many rejections I suddenly had interest from more than one quarter helped me to recognize the benefits of the whole process. It really was a five-year book, short as it is.

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

I was in Russia (with a gang of Ugly Duckling Presse editors working on a translation project) when the book came back from the printers, and I remember getting an email from Jonathan saying that he had sent it out to something like 100 reviewers. My heart dropped to the center of the earth--I was terrified by the prospect of all these people seeing the book before I did. What if it was a terrible mistake--what if the work wasn't strong enough to bear its own binding, not to mention press releases and requests for attention? I had an intense few days of wishing I'd never tried to get a book published, or that I'd waited until I was 65 and might actually have something worthwhile to say (I've always been partial to "late-bloomers"). All the old insecurities boiled over. I emailed a friend who had been on the review list and asked her how it looked, and her reply was as reassuring as it could be. So I forgot about it for a while. Then, a few weeks later we were in Boulder, Colorado, where Matvei was a visiting instructor at Naropa, and it was actually at the home of Eleni Sikelianos and Laird Hunt that I saw the book for the first time--it was very strange to have it casually handed to me at a dinner party. I remember holding it in my hands for no more than a couple of seconds, like a hot potato, before giving it back to my hosts.

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

I had no expectations that the book would change my life for the better. I'd been well warned against such hopes by mentors over the years; I remember Lynne Tillman telling me that the difference between "before first book" and "after first book" was minimal, that one's relationship to one's writing is not so easily transformed by mere professional milestones. I had two fears: one was that I would literally regret having the book out there, either because I would find it unforgivably bad, or just because my sense of privacy might ultimately prove to be stronger than my desire to communicate with people and to participate in a public conversation through poetry. The other worry was that Jonathan would be disappointed--I felt that he had taken a risk on a younger writer and I was afraid that nobody would buy the book or review it.

How has your life been different since?

Well, now I occasionally get emails from people who have read the book (like the email I got from you requesting this interview). That is a really big change, because I had always felt that I was writing into a void. My smaller publications (in periodicals or chapbooks) never felt very public, since I knew the print runs and felt like I probably knew the entire audience personally. This is the first time that I know for certain there are some few people out there who have met my poems before meeting me. For me this just means catching up to everyone else in the world of bloggers and Facebook, etc. In many ways I think publishing a blog would have had the same effect: really, it is just about going public, and going public as a poet, giving my work over to something larger than my own little mind. It's not a very tangible change, but it has had a big effect, since I previously had so much anxiety about identifying as a writer at all. Now there is this object in the world that speaks for me to some degree, and to my great surprise that has on the whole assuaged rather than exacerbated that particular anxiety. Although I still only feel like a writer when I'm actively writing, now at least there's no denying that I did it once...

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Yes. I really wanted to use a photograph by Laura Nash, and she and I got together and chose a few options, which I sent to James Meetze, who designed the cover. I wanted a landscape, but a very subjective one: an unusually framed view to the outside.

full cover

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

Every bit of attention the book has gotten has come as a surprise. I guess what I thought would happen was exactly nothing.

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

Mostly I did readings--not a very packed schedule, but one or two a month for the first year after the book came out. I was lucky to be invited to read for Double Change in Paris, where I have spent some momentous years, and to have a brilliant French poet (Jérôme Mauche) translate one of my poems for the event. We read interleaving sections, so that monolingual audience members only got half the poem, but still got an impression of its movement, which is based on repetition. That was the most fun for me.  

I did a couple of interviews at the beginning, one with Poets & Writers Magazine and another arranged by Turtle Point Press's publicists; that one was with a fashion magazine, which was very strange! I couldn't figure out why they wanted to talk to me. The interviewer was smart and asked great questions, but the final result was this little tiny sidebar article that hardly mentioned any of what we'd spent an hour discussing!

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

Well, after so many years I think I had all the advice I needed, but some of it I wasn't able to really understand until after the fact. Most important: learn to take full responsibility for your own work. It's easy, especially after loads of rejections, to think that if somebody is interested in publishing your book, well, what a relief, it must be "good" now, or "done." There's that elusive approval factor, which I think comes out of the old notion that an artist's intrinsic talent, if it's good enough, will eventually be discovered. That's not a very realistic or interesting model today. It can be indispensable to have others read and comment on your work, of course, and I was lucky to have several insightful readers over the course of writing the book. I also trusted that Jonathan wouldn't publish something that he didn't stand behind. But when I was faced with having to sign off on the manuscript, it became alarmingly clear that the final decisions were mine--when I sent the final version to the type-setters I knew that if it turned out to be a disaster there was nobody I could blame but myself.

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

Try to keep your head in whatever new work you're doing, so you don't feel like a has-been before even beginning your "book tour"! There is often such a lag-time between the writing of a book and its publication, it can be hard to feel connected to the work right at the moment when it is made most public. I have found that it makes a huge difference if I am really working on something new; then I can still feel connected to the older work, because it all seems part of a larger endeavor.

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

I don't think it has had any influence, except that the book's publication allowed me to put that work to rest and re-conceive what I'm most interested in doing with poetry. But I still have the same struggles and write at the same stilted pace, and I find my attention and impulses shifting at about the same rate and in similar ways to how they did before the publication of the book. When I sit down to write, I don't feel any more "official" or "pro," or like I'd better rush to get another book out there fast. I feel just as much the bumbling amateur as I did before I'd gotten a single poem published. I guess all the work put into making that particular selection of poems for the first book did affect, or indicate somehow, the direction I'm interested in heading: My newer poems definitely follow more from the poems that made it into the first book than they do from all the countless poems that I cut out of it.

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

The reviews have been fun to read. And strange. It's just incredible to see someone else's mind work on something that I think I know so well, something I made. I definitely read reviews with some kind of (involuntary) psychological buffer: I don't really take them personally, whether they are positive or negative or mixed, or whether they seem to reflect my own views of the book or not. I read them more as I read reviews of anyone else's work, out of curiosity and with an interest in how people read poetry today. Of course, it's a strange thing when a reviewer discovers something in the text that I did not knowingly put there, but that is undeniably there. That's the only way out of that authorial heaviness, that sense of responsibility for the text--What a relief! Something else is at work!

Do you want your life to change?

Yes.

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

I have no idea! (Ask me next year...)

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

The world can use all the help it can get, and any activity--poetry writing and reading and translating and publishing included--can either ratify or resist the world's worst tendencies. Ortega y Gasset made this great distinction, in an essay on the feasibility of translation, between good utopians and bad utopians. Good utopians genuinely believe in the impossibility of the task at hand, but they attempt it anyway because it (the attempt, as well as the task) is intrinsically valuable. Bad utopians are optimists in disguise; they secretly think that because the impossible goal is worth pursuing, it must ultimately be attainable; it's the idea of attainability that is actually motivating them. It seems to me that a net-positive change in the world, from poetry or from anything, is unlikely, and its desirability doesn't make it any more possible. But we have to do something while we are on this earth--we can't just sit on it and wait for it to shatter. And the means are all we have, since we'll never know the end. So on my better days I try to be a Good Utopian: Poetry (and I) can't change the world. Poetry (and I) should try.

:

from I Have Not Been Able To Get Through To Everyone
by Anna Moschovakis:


Winter Song (Two)

Dead for the buried is understatement.
Nothing qualifies.

That's why we take walks:
to see things.

Or, to have them,
like planets, for dinner.

But eating with the television
is so 20th century,

she said, picking labels
off everybody's beer.

It's important to know
where the trash goes

in your town. Take a walk
and see

how the rocks are made
of Styrofoam

the tennis courts are dirt,
the low-class club

is for members only. No wonder
the gypsies settled

here, having noticed a city
under construction

resembles a city under
destruction

--a sentence passed
10,000 times--

wait, but a this
does resemble

a that--and again you've lost
your way, and the boats

are gone for the place
without pictures

where every table is
actually a table.


----


There's an important way
in which everything's ended.

People die left & right
of belief. The earth is on fire

and the sun is no longer
any good to read by,

and not since I sacrificed
the word love for the thing

have I fought such a mind in my war.


. . .

read more first-book interviews

. . .

 

26 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

95. Nicholas Lea

Everything is Movies by Nicholas Lea

How did your manuscript happen to be published by Chaudière Books? How often had you sent it out previously?

I hadn't actually sent it out at all. I asked rob mclennan, who had published a chapbook of mine, what publishers he thought might be sympathetic to my work. He told me that he and Jennifer Mulligan were starting a new press called Chaudière Books and to pass my manuscript along to him. I did and he liked it enough to publish it. 

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

Elation. Fear. Then elation.

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

I knew it would. When you finally have a book book, you finally feel legit; it's silly but true.

The book is pretty new, I know, but has your life been different since? (Or has it felt different since?)

Well, like I said, I definitely feel like a writer now, now that I have the hard material evidence, you know? But the excitement eventually wears off and you begin to realize that, basically, you published a book of poetry in Canada and that no one will care, probably.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

I wasn't, but I'm extremely pleased with it. It really visualizes the random, frenzied nature of my work. In fact, all of the icons represented on the cover are taken from images in the book. I dig it. [more about Tanya Sprowl's work at phivedesign.com.]

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

Well, the reviews thus far have been favourable. I got a review in our local arts and culture rag, which was really neat; also, some blogs and Matrix magazine out of Montréal, Quebec. Also been getting a lot of positive feedback from not just peers, but yer-average-reader people, which, to me, is the most rewarding.

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

Well, stuff like this. Interviews (another forthcoming in Ottawater). I did some radio interviews before the launch... I must admit I'm not much of a self-promoter, but I'm realizing in the business of poetry you have to be pretty militant. Shameless self-promotion is darn near a necessity.
 
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?

I went into it kinda blind and came out of it kinda blinder.

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

Enjoy the moment.

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

It's certainly given me more cred for future publications. That's always a bonus: cultural merit, I like to call it. As for my writing, I like to let it evolve organically let my reading and writing and thinking experience shape its growth.

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

Positive reinforcement is always nice. But so is good criticism.
 
Do you want your life to change?

It's inevitable, isn't it?

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

I think a major function of (good) poetry is to use language in ways that change perception, that makes people see in different and strange ways, ways that generate meaning beyond the common discourse. Kind of akin to epiphany, but not simply in religious terms; the moment when a good line hits you like bricks... that feeling. I don't know if poetry can or will change the world, but I'm not interested in doing that.

:

Two poems from Everything is Movies by Nicholas Lea:


Monocle on

I'm afraid to start.

The world is mostly Good&Evil.

I'm afraid to start.


Be your opposite

So there's Sheild between us, so what.
So it's snow-covered, muted by white--
who cares. There
are words: spare-
but-unrestrained, and
I've become resolute to slow étude.

There's a whole heart there.

Tell me who squired the inner-child
home, in the dark: crunch,
saw.
Tell me (be law-
less) who twisted (Indian burned)
the masculanist's wrist. Tell me,

is it mauve enough?

The winter air bites with mice teeth,
my face paints its own blood-graffiti.
I can be vicious sometimes, can turn
exquisite fingers. If the corporeal

gives a paltry gesture, only
ghosts will react. Sad. And so
there's vast patches of snow between us.

I don't know how the light bulb works.

I'd like to learn.


. . .

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. . .

 

25 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

94. Connie Voisine

Cathedral of the North

How did you find out that your manuscript won the 1999 AWP Prize for Poetry? How often had you sent it out previously?

I had been sending it out in various forms under various titles for almost three years. I was in a casino in Las Vegas when I decided to check my voicemail. A cryptic message from D. Fenza got me a little excited but I had already had one phone call that week (from Cleveland State) saying we loved your book but it didn't win. When I returned Fenza's call, he told me Pittsburgh would publish it. The thing I often say when something lucky happens is "I should go to Vegas right now." I mentioned this strange coincidence ("and here I am IN VEGAS!"), but he didn't seem to think it funny. Meanwhile slot machines were ringing and a beautiful genie in high heels brought me a drink.

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

I don't want this to sound too bizarre, but when I first saw it, I realized that, in my mind, the book was the size of a road atlas. Its publication was that important to me. When I opened the box I thought, "gosh, it's tiny."

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Yes. I have many friends who are visual artists and wanted one of them to contribute to the cover. I sent Pitt a bunch of slides and they chose one. [more about painter K. Levni Sinanoglu here]

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

I was more embarrassed than anything else. I knew how many of my friends were excellent writers and deserved to be in print. Besides I had gotten a tenure track job without a book, so it all seemed like overkill. I tried not to imagine things (other than the size of the book).
 
Has your life been different since?

Yes and no. There is a certain credibility that comes with book publication, whatever that's worth--it got me a great second job. My family was made very happy by the book. But a poet still has to write that second book (and getting that published has turned out to be even harder).

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

People look you up (college boyfriend, strange geeky person from summer camp, etc.). Once my book was taught in a Franco American Studies class (they have those at University of Maine), and when I spoke to the students I found myself strangely resistant to classification. (So what the hell was I doing there?) Go figure.

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

My best advice that I got was a warning not to get stuck on that first book. Declare it done, send it out, but start the next one. Do not let the whole production distract you from why you really got in this business--to write poems.

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

That said, selling it is a lot more important than you think. I secretly think that low book sales (about 1100) of my first book had something to do with my second book not getting picked up by Pitt. After they turned it down I read an interview with Ed Orchester. He said that all his writers sell in the thousands. And really, in the end, no one does the selling but you.
 
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? 

None other than a tiny bit of confidence now and then.

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

I got good reviews and appreciated getting some feedback from my Dear Readers (thinking of how the Brontes addressed their readers intimately).
 
Do you want your life to change?

Always and constantly. In the past three years I got married, bought a house, got tenure and had a baby. My second book is coming out in Feb, my third almost done. The only groove (meaning stable consistency) I can possibly discern has been the way writing and reading has made my life larger.
 
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?

I am thinking of the fourth book--should I try to write like Alexander Pope? Do I want to write a book that has images in it (like Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely)? Moving to the Southwest drastically changed me as a writer, and I'm about to move to Ireland for a while, so who knows...?

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

How can it not? It saved my life. Surely I'm not the only one.

:

A poem from Cathedral of the North by Connie Voisine:


That Far North

I invented my own sign language.
I wrote it down with elaborate descriptions
of the positions of my hands and
where I touched, how I moved them.
The path through the woods behind home
was double-rutted from an old tractor,
abandoned, and I walked in its grooves.
I took out books on flowers,

identified the unbeautiful few that could grow
that far north: mustard, hawk's-eye,
ragwort, and I invented and recorded
for each a silent sign. I found a book
on eating them and began to eat
bark off trees, lick the sap that beaded
on their cuts and buds. I dug up thistles
and ate the roots while my mother,

without my help, cleaned the house
like a woman possessed. I don't care
how poor you are,
she said, you can
at least be clean.
The tiny leaves
all around me at the bald top of the hill,
furrowed down to our house.
From up there, I watched the mill lose
its black crown of sparks, and my mother,

big as my thumb at the clothesline,
fought sheets from the wind.
I knew they weren't clean,
she would always work hard,
and each year, the mill rolled enough paper
so it could go, but didn't, to the moon
and back. One of the odd songbirds
half-finished its song. The guide said

these leaves are hardy, adore full sun and
well-drained soil.
I picked ten,
rubbed them clean on my pants,
and ate them. Sour. Bright. The sun
slid behind the mill and mouth dry,
I practiced signs to my mother's
small figure, as she began
to mow our acre of lawn.


. . .

Listen to Connie Voisine at From the Fishouse, here.

. . .

read more first-book interviews

. . .

 

24 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

93. Dorothea Lasky

AWE by Dorothea Lasky

How did your manuscript happen to be picked up by Wave Books? How often had you sent it out before that?

Joshua Beckman, one of the editors at Wave Books, had been familiar with my work for a little while before asking me to submit my book to be reviewed by their editorial board. Before the board reviewed it, he worked with me to put the book in the form it's in now and the book that is published today is entirely indebted to his brilliant editorial choices and continued belief in my poems. I may have written the poems, but I believe that he wrote the structure of the book. Before Wave Books picked it up, I had sent it to around 200 or so publishers and poetry contests over the course of about 4 years. That was not fun.

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

It was a strange day. I was in St. Louis with my parents the day I got the book, but my dad was in the hospital. The managing editor at Wave Books, Lori Shine, had told me the day before she was going to overnight a few books--hot off the press--in the morning. My mom and I didn't go anywhere the morning the books were due to arrive and we sat and patiently waited for hours. Eventually, I fell into a deep sleep waiting and woke up to my mom yelling from the next room, "That's the doorbell! That's the doorbell!" I, completely out of it, went bounding towards the door, hoping I wouldn't miss the FedEx man. Their front door is very hard to open, so once I got there I spent five minutes trying to open it, shouting "Don't leave, please don't leave” to the Fed Ex man. Once I finally got the door open, the imaginary person had actually left maybe before I had even gotten to the door and there in front of me was the package, by itself at the foot of the door and larger than I had expected. I opened up the package and saw a very sweet note from Lori and then I saw the books. They looked exactly how I expected them to and I got very excited. I used my Macbook then to take a picture of myself with the book, a picture I sent to a few friends who I knew would care. The picture consisted of the book with my eyes and top of my head peering over in glee. It was a great day then, strange and great.

Could we include that photo in the interview?

that day

Were you involved in designing the cover?

In a small way, I feel like I was a little bit. The cover was designed by Jeff Clark, but I did have some input into the design. The day that I found out that Wave Books was going to do the book, I had a vision of 100 very shiny black books with the word AWE in white writing all sitting on a giant bookshelf. In my mind, they looked like an austere army, which is what the words in the book are to me. Wave Books has an author questionnaire about the book's design and I wrote about this in the questionnaire. But I can't really take any real credit for the genius of Jeff Clark, which is what made the actual black, white, and red cover. I absolutely love the book's design, by the way.

cover design by Jeff Clark / Quemadura

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

I didn't really expect my life to change with the arrival of the book, so much as that I expected my self to change with the presence of the physical book out in the world. It was almost as if I have always been more concerned with the feeling of knowing that others would be sitting and reading from the book rather than the feeling of my self holding the book itself. Just knowing that my book would exist for real and that I could be reading the poems simultaneously as someone else seemed like it would change my life. And my life has changed a lot by this, as I feel both incredibly more confident and incredibly more insecure than I have ever felt about my writing.
 
Has your life been different since?

My life hasn't been so different with the arrival of the physical book, as much as with the arrival of the idea that I was going to have a book. During the time that I spent trying to get AWE published, especially towards the last year or so, my writing became kind of static and bad. For awhile I had deep and serious doubts that AWE would ever be published and this made me wonder if I was a poet at all. Since knowing that a press like Wave Books has enough confidence in my poems to publish my book, I have been writing a lot more and a lot more freely. I feel like I am a real poet now and no one can take that away from me and this is everywhere in my writing. It is a great space to write from, but it is different from the space I wrote AWE in, as that space was more aggressive and demanding that it be heard. Now I write from a space of knowing that there is a least one reader out there who I am definitely writing to. Knowing this for real has completely changed me.

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

Seeing the poems in print has really humbled me. The poems have changed now that they are in a book and the book itself humbles me in the way that the magnitude of life always humbles me. Cyndi Lauper once said in some documentary, "When you finally get to the top of mountain, you better have something to say." Seeing the poems in the book transformed into something other than me has given them a sort of weight that is surprising. And likewise, the book has reminded me how vehemently I believe in the things I have to say and that I am so glad that the mountain of the book is in front of me as a platform to say it from.

What will you be doing to promote the book and how do you feel about it?

I will be giving readings during the upcoming year and I am very excited for those, as I love to give readings.  This website, dorothealaskyreadings.blogspot.com, will eventually list all of my readings for the upcoming year and will be updated monthly. Also, I will be going on a tiny tour of readings this fall in my apartment. You can check out birdinsnow.com for more details about this tiny tour.
 
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?

The best advice I got was from my friend Eric Baus (author of The To Sound). He told me that I would get the book and be excited, but it would be somewhat of a letdown. He said that the real way that the book works its magic is invisible to the poet herself and that I would never be able to see all the really exciting ways that the book would work, like when someone spent her Saturday morning reading it or when two people I had never met had a discussion about the book that would always be entirely unknown to me. And because I was prepared to be excited for the invisible ways of the book, I haven't been let down at all.

I think because it is pretty hard nowadays for poets to get their first books published, and it takes so long, there is so much expectation for the book to be worth it when it arrives. But the truth is that the road of communication--this way of communicating with the world that includes poetry––does not stop or begin with the book. As cheesy as it sounds, it is a lot like the relationship between marriage and the actual ceremony of a wedding. If you have decided to marry poetry, and you love it completely, then the first book itself is simply a happy step on the road to that commitment and like a wedding, in your hands your first book is more a symbolic gesture of your love for poetry. Like a wedding, the universal workings of a book are necessarily more mysterious than they can ever seem on the surface. I think understanding this is the best way to not be let down.

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

Jump up and down and scream with joyous laughter! Do that for about 6 months or until your new book arrives in the mail.

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

As I talked a little bit about above, it has been a mixed blessing for my writing. I think before the book was published I was in a static period of writing bad poems for about a year, partly because a lot of my writing energy was spent trying to think about how I was going to get the book published. A lot of the poems in AWE are written from a place that is like "Listen to me!! You better! No really, please listen to me" and this sort of appeal doesn't make sense anymore. In AWE, I sort of half-believed that maybe no one would ever read the poems within it, which makes for a very different kind of poem. Now I write from a free place that is just like "Oh hi, you again?" It is less aggressive. But at the same time, it is sometimes not that good to be less aggressive, because I truly believe a poet's voice should be sort of aggressive, even if it is a gentle aggression. So, I think I have been changed by having the first book, but we will see in my next batch of poems if this is for the better.

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

The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, primarily because it has been from people I know (or sort of know) who are generally very supportive of me and I think actually like the book. This has been good for my writing practice to feel this love and because of it, I have been writing a lot of new poems. But sometimes just knowing that the book is out in the world and that people might hate it fills me with a kind of paralyzing shame of my own voice. This hasn't exactly affected my writing practice yet, but I feel like it could or that it could affect my future poems.

Do you want your life to change?

I want my life to always change. I want to live in a constant state of growth and renewal. Because I am a poet, this will probably always include publishing books.
 
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?

One of my major life goals is to affect change in the way that arts education is supported in this country. I think that a lot of problems within our educational system stem from the fact that the arts are undervalued and under supported, both because there are young artists within the system with no place to learn how to express themselves in healthy and serious ways and because of the implicit benefits of the arts for learning in general. I am currently getting a doctorate in education because I hope to one day work to change this sad fact of the system.

I also think that by writing poetry I am changing the world, both through the form of the poems I am thrusting into the world and the ideas I am planting in others' heads. I think that by authentically changing the ideas in others' heads, you change the world in the most meaningful ways.

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

I do. But it is more so that I believe that the things that surround poetry can change the world through all the workings of people, like: art, love, change itself, language, beauty, the spirit, knowledge, death, life, and pain. I think that poetry, when coming from an authentic place, has the ability to transmit the necessary human information of the spirit--something that is often unsaid. Because poetry has the ability to say the sometimes unsayable, it can change the world in the prayer that it creates just through speaking it. Poetry gives voice to the silent and in that way can change everything. But so can any art, I think. So can any kind of idea that is spoken with help from the spirit and reaches in some way, reaches in a way that hasn't been done before. The risk of speaking the silent in a way that hasn't been done before is done for the purpose of creating change. There is no other reason for such a risk. It is very risky to use so much power to make the world different and risks like art are always for a reason and they are always worth it, of course. So, yes, poetry can change the world and I am quite glad that it can and I am very glad that I am somehow part of this change just by being who I am.

:

2 poems from AWE by Dorothea Lasky:


Awe: A Dialogue

He was always distant.
No he wasn't

Yes he was, you told everyone.
Sometimes he wasn't

And what about poetry?
My friend said she wanted to kill herself because she couldn't      write a poem

Well, what's it to you?
I understand, I want to kill myself now

And what about the real one over there. He loves you.
He never calls

Yes he does, when he can.
Not really, not with the obsessive quality he should

I love him.
Why?

He's sweet. He reminds me of the forest.
Of the fog on the forest in California?

No, not that, the other sort of forest
With the fires and that sort of thing?

Yes.
No, not like that, like the fog.

And what is the fog?
I don't know, the world's saliva

Do you really mean that?
Yes I do, I mean the spirit

And what about the things you've learned?
They mean nothing

And fire?
Nothing

And what of longing and the din of metal?
Those are occupiers. Leave me, I am free.

Then why are you still awake?
Freedom is not contentment. Freedom is only art.

And is love art?
No, art is nothing like fire

And how do you feel?
I am burning

And what is happening?
My spirit is ascending, my soul is trapped

And what is trapping it?
God. God and Awe.


Boobs Are Real

They stole my tires
They knocked down my house
They killed my father
They cut off my fingers
And I thought, "And I did like those fingers."

They pierced my eyelids. They scalped my brain.
They ran their sweaty fingers down my sweaty back.
They played me music but it wasn't music.
They loved me and then they didn't.
Somewhere in there I grew these enormous boobs.
At some point what they took away
Was given back
In the form of boobs.
What they took from me
They gave back
Just like, as Lydia Davis says,
When a limit has been reached
What is real but does not help
Is lost forever and replaced by the unreal.
The difference is: these boobs are real.


. . .

read more first-book interviews

. . .

 

23 AUG 07

an interview with Jeff T. Johnson

Jeff T. Johnson

In poetry, the distinction between a book and a chapbook usually has to do with how a collection is bound and how long it is. Is yours a chapbook?

I consider The Record Room to be a chapbook. It's 53-pages long, but I designed and bound it myself. For the past few years, I've been making an annual chapbook of the best poems I wrote that year. The chapbooks vary in length, depending on my output that year, but this is the longest one I've made (last year's was 40 pages), and it's the first one I've put in a store (Clay carries it at Pegasus Books in Berkeley, where I did a reading with Kaya Oakes and sold a bunch of copies). It's probably also the most book-like of my chapbooks, in terms of flow and concept (it's set up like a double album with four sides/sections, and architectural and music-related themes run through the poems). I call it a chapbook because I made it myself, and out of habit. I think of chapbooks as self-produced books, regardless of length, though I realize I'm getting to the point where I should pick the best poems from my past few chapbooks and get a manuscript together.

You're taking an unusual approach to being a published poet. Tell me about that. Is it the result of a philosophical stance, or temperament, or something else?

I started to think about publishing poetry in college, but the more I learned about poetry, the less I felt ready to publish. It seemed like a better idea to read as much as I could and to focus on writing poems instead of worrying about revising and submitting poems. Eventually I developed habits of revision, which led to chapbook making, because I always showed in-progress poems to friends, but I wanted to collect batches of finished poems to show my friends and my family. I also wanted to make sure I finished poems and moved on, and chapbooks give me a sense of retrospect on each year's work that I've incorporated into my writing process.

I still think about publishing in journals, but it seems like a means to an end--I read books of poems, and I like what happens to poems when they are collected and arranged by a poet in a volume; however, I don't get a comparable enjoyment out of reading journals, unless multiple poems by a poet appear together. I want to make books, and I realize that in order to publish a book I probably have to first publish in journals, but I have trouble getting excited about submitting to them. This has something to do with the absence of context in journals, and it has something to do with my stubborn aversion to assembling a list of publications for the sake of catching someone's eye. It also has something to do with procrastination. I've been telling myself I'll submit poems from this chapbook, but I haven't done it yet.

Do you like designing books & constructing them? Any desire to make them for others, to become a publisher?

I love handmade books, and I love the idea of making them. My motivation is inconsistent, because I get distracted by reading, writing or other projects, but once I lower my head and get to arranging, designing, gathering materials and binding, I fall happily into it. I was a founding editor of Kitchen Sink magazine, which recently stopped publishing due in part to a meltdown at our distributor, which got me thinking about self-publishing. In particular, I'd love to get some people together to do a chapbook press. Kitchen Sink was the pilot program of a still-extant nonprofit called Neighbor Lady Community Arts Project, run by some of the same people who staffed the magazine, and we've been talking about the possibility of making books. In the past we talked about starting a sort of traditional press, but I'm starting to cheerlead for a chapbook press. The time is right to go back to handmade and self-distributed books.

Are your previous books still available? How many do you make of each? Do you make more when the supply runs out or are they limited edition by choice? Aside from going to Pegasus, how can your book be purchased?

I usually only make about 30 chapbooks each year and give them all out. This year I made 76. Actually, I've probably made 40 or 50 of them, and I have supplies in my kitchen to make the rest. Pegasus still has a couple copies, and I'll keep them stocked for as long as my supply lasts. I made more books this year with the intention of bringing them to readings, but I've been out of town so much it's been difficult to plan anything. Anyone who is interested can email me (raygonne at earthlink dot net) about buying a copy.

Fear of the Outdoors

You also make music. Do you put out your own recordings?

I've played in three bands. Two of them (century schoolbook and fear of the outdoors) made two albums apiece, which we packaged ourselves to give away to friends and sell at shows. The other band (nasturtiums) made at least 15 albums, most of which were 2-man musical improvisations with poems and lyric snippets I'd bring to our practice space. We used to give out tapes, but at some point we went digital, so now we burn CDs.

Kitchen Sink

How does (or did) your ambivalence about poetry journals relate to your experience as an editor of Kitchen Sink?

I used to aspire to write about music for local weekly papers and other magazines, and I did write a bit for the SF Weekly and Pitchfork, but I liked writing for Kitchen Sink much better. I got more out of working on my own project and collaborating closely with others, rather than working with an editor who couldn't care less about me or my writing. I don't want to describe music and I don't want to tell people what CDs to buy. I enjoy writing about the way I think when I listen to music; or, rather, I like music to soundtrack and infiltrate my writing. I don't want to work on assignment, and Kitchen Sink's editorial mission was pretty much to let writers do what they do best, without too much editorial interference. Some of our writers would affirm that if they read this, and some would laugh maniacally, drain and refill their drinks. It was always my intention to help create exactly the type of magazine to which I would like to contribute, and I'm spoiled by that experience.

Kitchen Sink

When did you start writing poetry and why? Did you focus on writing or literature in school?

I started writing poetry as a kid, but I really got into reading it in high school. I got serious about studying poetry in college, which is also when I got more serious about writing poetry. I was a literature major at UC Berkeley with a minor in German lit, and I took as many poetry courses as I could in both departments. I wrote my senior thesis on the poetry of William Carlos Williams, and wrote my honors thesis on Allen Ginsberg's poetry. I also took a poetry writing workshop with Jane Hirshfield my senior year, which I remember quite fondly. That's where I met two of my most trusted poetic conspirators. After I graduated, I plunged headlong into John Ashbery's poetry and discovered a whole new (to me) world. Reading poetry encourages me to write, but ultimately I do it because of the thrill I get out of poetic engagement.

Do you speak German?

I used to be semi-fluent. I studied abroad in Germany and Austria, and I spent two summers in Germany and Austria, writing for a travel guide. I still read some poetry in German (favorites: Trakl, Hölderlin, Celan), but I try never to speak German because I get depressed about how much I've forgotten. I have a difficult enough time expressing myself in English.

What do you do for a living? Do you like it?

I'm an architectural illustrator--I measure and draw buildings. I like it because I'm an independent contractor and have a flexible schedule, and because it seems to exercise a different part of my brain than letters do. However, my experience with buildings has entered my poetry for the last few years. I've gotten good responses from friends about that crossover, so I've been working on a series of poems based on particular jobs I've done in various cities--I stay in a hotel for a month or so, drawing and writing poetry and exploring and not talking very much.

You measure and draw existing buildings? Why are those drawings needed?

"Asbuilt" plans are needed for a variety of reasons, but usually they are needed to get construction permits. Also, architects can't work from blueprints, if those are even available, because the actual construction of a building typically deviates from the original plan. A building's history also takes a toll on it, and architects want to know about the existing condition of a building before they adapt the drawings I provide to their purposes. However, what I create is strictly (and precisely) a drawing of what exists. I do not speculate on future plans for the building.

Could we include a small example of your architectural drawing?

I've sent along a couple drawings from a project that informed some of the poems in the chapbook. I've made better-looking drawings of more interesting buildings, but the experience of living in and drawing this particular building had a significant influence on my poetry at the time.

They're scaled way down, which makes them pretty crammed, but you get the idea; also, I want to make sure they aren't too legible.

Drawing, making music, writing--do you consider one of these activities to be "central" with others more orbiting around it, or do they each have a similar weight and your free movement between them forms a kind of whole? Any other things you're doing that would also be part of this set?

Out of all the things I do, writing is most important to me, and everything else, directly or indirectly, serves writing or springs from it. Architectural illustration pays the bills, but it's gotten into my head enough that it ends up in my poetry as well. I play bass, but as far as music goes, I am most interested in writing lyrics and singing, which are closely related to poetry. Also, I am able to collaborate musically in a way that is an extension of poetic collaborations and partnerships of which I have been a part. My writing and editing work with Kitchen Sink was similar to that in terms of collaboration. Poetry is closest to my heart, but I know that all writing is writing. Any time I put words together I take care with them.

How would you characterize your ambition?

I am ambitious about writing poetry but I am conflicted about publishing it. I wouldn't say that I write poetry primarily for myself or even for my friends. I want people I don't know to read my poetry. I want to make books and I would like them to be published, but I'm not in a great hurry for that to happen. My greatest ambition is to continually get better at writing poetry. I've got a big green chest of poems in the middle of my room, and I've been making chapbooks and handing them out so the poems are not lost to a hard drive or notebook. Maybe I'm waiting for some imperative to submit, and I don't know if that will take the form of a sense of progress or achievement in my poems, or if the ambitions of my friends will spur me on, or if I will just become impatient with my own reticence and get in the habit of sending finished poems to journals.

Do you see making these chapbooks as a prelude? If so, to what? Or, if you put together a manuscript, what would you do with it then?

The chapbooks are complete in themselves, in that they mark my progress and chart my preoccupations each year, but I do hope they lead me to a manuscript. I've learned a lot about sequencing poems, and it would be fun to select poems from my chapbooks, re-sequence them, and make connections and byways with new poems. I would like the chapbooks to be the first steps in narrowing down my poems to my best work. I'll probably do another chapbook before I put together a manuscript, and along the way I'd like to get into the habit of seeking publication in journals and chap/book contests. However, if these chapbooks are the prelude to bigger and better chapbooks, well, that's preferable to smaller, shittier chapbooks.

The Record Room has a really nice feel to my eye and hands. Is the production entirely a one man show--I mean is everything done by you including printing and folding and all the punching and stitching?

After I pick and sequence poems, I think about artwork and layout, and then I go to a paper distributor and select the paper and coverstock (I'm partial to linens). I print a sample chapbook (unassembled) and go make copies of that, bringing the paper I've selected. After that I assemble everything: I do all the folding (hooray for bone folders!) and punching (I use an electric hand drill) and stitching (with a book needle). For the past two years, my friend Tara helped me realize the cover design, and she's the one who showed me how to make this style of book.

Do you enjoy giving readings? How does it compare with performing music live, in terms of how you anticipate it, what you feel while doing it, and what seems to happen between you and the audience?

I love reading poetry out loud, and when other people are listening, I love it even more. I love what I learn about poems (my own and others') when I read them out loud to an audience. I used to get pretty shaky and nervous when I read to a crowd, but that changed when I started performing live music. Music performance seemed easy after having read poems in front of strangers. Playing music with others keeps your mind occupied, and once you get warmed up, your anxieties drop off. That's how it is for me, anyway. Reading poetry is a naked exercise. It can be exhilarating, but also nervewracking.

On the other hand, you can look pretty stupid on stage playing music, even if you get to the point where you don't care if you look stupid. At any rate, I was surprised how relatively relaxed I felt playing music on stage, and after that, I felt a lot more comfortable reading in public (whether it's essays or poetry). Actually, I feel more confident reading (or performing, if you like) poetry or prose than I do playing music, because I know that writing is what I do best, and I choose what I'm going to read based on how well I think I can pull it off in front of an audience. I'm bringing my best stuff, so I'm rearing to go. When I play music, despite the comfort zone of the band, I feel like the most receptive audience members are trying to be supportive and polite (which is to say those people are my friends), and when I read to a good audience, I know I can win some of them over.

The last reading I did was Kaya Oakes' book launch party at Pegasus in Berkeley, and Kaya brought out a big crowd, many of whom didn't know me or my poetry. I'd just finished my chapbook and was really happy for Kaya and generally excited, and I probably gave the best reading of my life, and people were really into it. People I didn't know came up after the reading to ask me to sign a book, and I'd never been on that side of a book signing before. That was months ago, and I'm still thrilled by the experience. I just hope a couple of them have opened my book since then!

Jeff reading at Pegasus

:

a poem by Jeff T. Johnson:


Some Other City

In the window lit-up words a block away fight through trees
like classic memories like meals  we do not regret

the idiom  Is this the transcription

is this the war  is this the year

Each day something historic occurs
           in this part of the country
           the shining mirror the collapsing tray of lipstick
           arranged by shade next to extended watches
           like a store like a drain to the bay

Some Wednesday I'll be free 

We'll go to the Missouri
                               but last night
                               was impossible

The penmanship is careful on your hand
it says
            carefully
it says
            which park
this means something
but our interpretations are oblique

Jar me on a traffic island
            hide but don't look like you're hiding
pass me that bag  let's hope the car is moving
when we look back down

As long as this lasts
                     will you

As long as this lasts
will you remember

Will you remember the songs

I remember the songs


. . . .

 

22 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

92. Susanne Dyckman

Equilibrium's Form by Susanne Dyckman

How did Shearsman happen to pick up your manuscript? How often had you sent it out before that? 

A good friend, also a poet, read a version of my manuscript and suggested I send it to Shearsman. I sent the editor, Tony Frazer, a letter, along with a sample of my work, asking if he might be interested in a book-length manuscript. As it turns out, he was, though he said the manuscript I sent him was too short. I then worked, very, very quickly, to lengthen it, and he accepted the revised version for publication.

Prior to its acceptance by Shearsman, I submitted various versions of the book to a number of contests and open reading periods. I was a finalist for the Ahsahta Press Sawtooth Prize, and two independent presses expressed some interest in the work, though neither accepted it in the end. I made revisions, sometimes minor but often major, each time I submitted it for consideration.   

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

I opened the box, held the book in my hand for only a second, and then immediately put it back in the box. I didn't open the box again for several days.

During those days when the books were in the closed box, what were you feeling? Were you thinking about the book or did you put it out of your mind?

The box arrived on the Solstice (nice symbolism) so I was easily distracted by Christmas events. After the holidays, when I did have to re-open the box, my anxiety about it was both specific and general. Though the manuscript had been proof-read several times, I was worried about errors (to quote Oscar Wilde: "A poet can survive everything but a misprint."). More generally, while I had grown comfortable with the pages of the manuscript, holding the book, as a printed object, created a sense of finality I wasn't sure I was prepared for.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Yes. I hadn't thought about a cover design at all, as my focus had been on the manuscript. (I've since learned that writers often have a complete cover design at hand, prior to a manuscript being accepted.)  I knew what I didn't want more than what I did. The publisher sent me several mock-ups, and I chose one, suggesting just a few design changes.

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

I don't think I believed it would change my daily life substantially. I knew I'd still need to go to work, buy groceries, etc. I was very excited and a little intimidated by the thought of seeing the work as more than pieces of paper clipped together. I wanted to have the work out in the world, without knowing exactly what that meant.

What was most exciting to me was the day it was accepted for publication, more so than the actual publication of the work. Because the work was, and is, important to me, having it accepted for publication was deeply satisfying.

Then too, there was and continues to be the hope that that book will be of significance to some one person other than myself.

Has your life been different since?

Yes, in that I can now say that I have a book. I do think I would be feeling some frustration if the manuscript had not found a home.  Being published is both a big event and a not-so-big event. There are many very fine writers, and many poets with multiple publications. It has brought me personal satisfaction, but I understand my own sense of success needs to be kept in perspective. It's one slim book of poetry.

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

I initially sent out a number of review copies, and I've been giving readings over the last six months. Prior to its publication, I didn't think about promotion. It's been for the most part a very rewarding experience, as I've met a number of wonderful, welcoming people on my travels. But it's also an expensive and time-consuming process, as I've had to set up most of the readings and pay for the travel myself.

The best part of it is not the promotion of my own work, but becoming engaged with a larger poetry community.

Promotion occurs out in the world, while my writing occurs in seclusion. They are very different types of experiences. As a somewhat shy person, I've had to force myself to be more outgoing. It's sometimes exhausting, though not without its rewards.

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

I might have been better served by having a more complete sense, in advance, of how to promote a book, and for how long. Is there a set time period?  Does it become old after six months, or after one year?  I can't actually think of one best piece of advice I was given, but my friends have been very supportive, and if I know the right question to ask, I always get a good answer. Knowing the right question to ask can be the challenge.

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

Here's the shocker--one I wasn't prepared for at all. Once a first book is published, the thought of a second book surfaces, suddenly and unexpectedly. Will I ever write another book? Will I ever have a second book published? Is this a one-time event, or is there more ahead? I thought I'd have a longer lasting sense of completion. Instead, I had a good twenty-four hours of bliss, and then it was on to other things.

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

The major influence is a very practical one. I make use of the generosity of the page, the space of it, when I write, and I discovered that an 8 ½ x 11 page does not reduce easily. I never thought about the conversion to a smaller format as I was writing. The editing of my manuscript to accommodate a reduced page size was a long and frustrating experience. In some cases I had to change line breaks and spacing so the poem would fit the smaller page. Given that I had been very conscious about the placement of every word in my original manuscript, I was unprepared for the alterations I was going to have to make.

Now, although I still use the page as a kind of canvas, I'm aware of the possible problems of translation to book size. I sometimes wish I wrote everything in a traditional, left-justified, manner, but that's just not what I do.

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

I'm still waiting to read the review that I'm told is going to be published, and I'm honestly curious. I've gotten some enthusiastic, though informal, responses, and that has been gratifying. Generally, I don't want to focus on reviews, but having a positive response to my work is always a bonus--who doesn't want to be liked, if not loved? 

Do you want your life to change?

My life will change whether I want it to or not--that, I think, is the nature of being alive. I have many things to be grateful for, the book just one of them.

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

Since I'm uncertain of what change I seek (other than my fantasy of winning the lottery), I don't know.

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

Let me flip the question. Because I believe we absolutely need art--poetry, stories, painting, music--I am convinced that its absence would, in fact, radically alter the world.

:

2 poems from Equilibrium's Form by Susanne Dyckman:


history

The hallway is long and immaculate and empty. I'm on the fourth floor, the sun is bright through the western window. I've claimed a chair, one with wooden arms, upholstered in brown and purple fabric. The cushions have been protected with a glossy silicone spray, so the backs and thighs of a hundred restless people, sitting, then standing, then sitting again, rubbing their clothing and coats against the fabric, will never leave a mark. The doctor walks past me in his green surgical scrubs. His posture is perfect, his body gives off no warmth. I'm startled by his fingers, long and slender, like a concert pianist's. I scurry to catch him.

 

postscript

& gone    but warned the day before    goodbye was too hard

& what to do with bottled vetiver    why she likes it so

(more at jonquil                more at diminished)   

in saying     determined to take a warmer region

collecting and to put     would she?     breathe   not hold

to drive down that street, which is the way I usually go...

of course          &

                       --in a lengthy tête-à-tête

how to say     of where we are       conversation is not a quest

absurdly                              it didn't work      

from any locale someone leaves the will to be

every step & after           

now gone            sense of static, turning to the radio  



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