$650 apartment for $650
How has your first book changed your life?
102. Brian Turner
When I returned home from Iraq, I used my first month back to type up the poems I had written while in Iraq (and to write another two or three poems). It was very difficult for me to have any distance from the poems and this made it hard for me to have a sense of order in the work. A great friend of mine, the poet Stacey Brown, helped me to create an order and to work on revision ideas at the time--the manuscript she suggested is basically what I sent in at the end of that month to the AJB contest. I was behind on my bills, in debt, and I didn't even have enough money to cover the contest entrance fee--again, Stacey helped by paying my entrance fee.
I'm pretty sure it was a Friday when I was called up by Alice James and told that they'd chosen my manuscript. I was working a variety of odd jobs at the time, really trying to hustle just to make it out in the civilian world, and it was a shocker to know that a publisher had chosen my manuscript.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I remember signing for the box at the front door to my apartment and I remember how heavy the box felt. I also remember opening the box and pulling out each four-book pack (the books were sealed in clear plastic bundles of four). I do remember an odd feeling, too--as I held the first book in my hands, I remember thinking: This is part of me? It was a classic sunny California day and I drove over to my parent's house (they live nearby) to show them. My best friend and I went out to celebrate that night, too.
I've asked many wonderful writers to sign their books for me. Before that first box of books had arrived, I'd already mapped out who I would give those first 25 copies to, but I hadn't ever considered what I would write inside of them. The first time I picked up a pen and opened up to the signing page, I felt as if I were outside of myself, observing myself from a distance. It was a bit surreal.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
April Ossmann, the Executive Director of Alice James Books, has helped guide me as an author every step of the way. She tried to prepare me--she and I often had long phone conversations in which she would mentor me and walk me through the events that were waiting for me.
When I was a young boy, I dreamed of one day growing up to be a writer. One thing I never really considered was that my book would be a doorway through which I would meet a wide variety of amazing people. It's been a great and unexpected gift.
How has your life been different since?
Along with what I said above, I'd have to add that I've been incredibly fortunate with this book, in many, many ways. I love to travel and this book has brought me to many places (including readings in Germany, Ireland, and South Africa). It's also been doing well enough that I've been able to scale back on all of my odd jobs and concentrate on writing and teaching.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I think the biggest surprise for me is the reaction to the book, in this sense: I was surprised that military institutions would invite me to read at their service academies. (I've read at West Point, Annapolis, the Coast Guard Academy, and at the Virginia Military Institute.) I have found that soldiers and officers are eager to talk about what is happening and what has happened.
What have you been doing to promote the book and what are those experiences like for you?
I have tried to be as accessible to every outlet I can to share these poems with a wider audience. Someone in Germany read an interview I'd done here in America at one point. Because of that connection, he ordered the book, read it, and invited me to read in a festival in Augsburg, Germany. Opening one door sometimes leads to much more than we might have expected.
I was given plenty of great and useful advice, by many people. But I suppose there are a few other small things that might have been helpful. For example, I wish I had kept a travel journal dedicated to the places I visited, the readings I was a part of, and the people I met. I also wish I had sat down with my schedule and been more diligent in scheduling time for new writing--I allowed little to no time for new work.
Some of the best advice I was given related to down time. A wonderful mentor told me, basically: You're going to be incredibly busy and you're going to have many demands for your time and energy. Be sure that you don't overtax yourself. Schedule breaks so that you can refresh your spirit. Not only will it allow for new work to begin, it will help you to maintain the passion you need in order to share the work you've done.
What advice would you give now to someone about to have a first book published?
I would encourage them to take the time to sort of take stock of their lives. If they are going to be doing readings and presenting their work in a public way, then they might want to consider: what is private and what is public?
There are some things I decided early on not to disclose. For example, I am often asked why I decided to join the military in the first place, after earning an MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. I do share many of the reasons that lead me to join the military. But I often respectfully decline to share all of my reasons for joining.
At first, I felt a crimp on my writing. There is more I want to write about Iraq. But if I do that, will I basically typecast myself as a writer? I also felt a pressure, from within, to write something important and worthy of a reader's time. This is a terrible way to approach the page.
Last summer, I was invited to teach 18 gifted writers in Oklahoma at a summer arts institute (where high school kids from around the state gather to create and study art). Each day I gave assignments to these writers and watched how receptive they were, how open to the possibilities the blank page offers. The page is a creative expanse, a majestic landscape, and it waits for us each day. We need only arrive to witness what lives there. These young writers in Oklahoma taught me a great deal (and I'm still trying to learn that lesson).
How do you feel about the critical response so far and has it had any effect on your writing?
I try to concentrate mostly on what I'm writing now and what my 'best readers' have to say about it. (I have a few wonderful friends who read my rough drafts and offer great suggestions and insights that really help me grow as a writer and as a human being.)
There have been some great critiques/reviews of Here, Bullet that I've been able to learn from as a writer. But it's tough. Each new work has its own pitfalls to overcome.
Do you want your life to change?
In terms of writing, I want to write a novel and to feel what it's like to create a world in that form.
I'm working on a collection of short stories centered in Uganda. It's a step toward the novel and I'm excited about the possibilities it's opening up on the page.
Yes. Poetry can touch us and teach us spiritually, emotionally, politically, intellectually. It is a physical experience. I've seen people in tears simply from listening to the poetry filling the air.
There is much work that needs to be done in the world around us and within us.
I believe in the maxim that a writer's job isn't to pose the solutions to the problem; a writer's job is to state the questions more clearly.
What questions do you have?
The explosion left a hole in the roadbed
The shocking blood of the men
Allah must wander in the crowd
Alhazen of Basra
If I could travel a thousand years back
. . .
. . .
an interview with Gina Myers
What made you think you could start a journal?
Gabriella Torres and I met at The New School where we both worked briefly on LIT. We found working for a large journal informative but also very frustrating, and we decided it would be great to try and do something on our own without the supervision of advisors, editorial boards, multiple editors, numerous readers, etc. As an undergraduate at Central Michigan University I had worked on a publication called Poets' Collective, which was a very DIY student-run venture, so I felt like I knew the various aspects of what it would take to get a journal out. Also we had the New York poetry community as a resource--so many people here have started journals or have worked on one at one time. Everyone was really helpful if we had any questions.
Now that you are several issues in, how are you feeling about the tiny?
I think both Gabriella and I have a love-hate relationship with the journal. We have talked about ending it on several occasions--I actually once prematurely announced the last issue of the journal on a DIY panel at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church. Whenever the question arises, we always decide we really love doing the tiny and want to continue doing it. There is definitely a financial burden we've taken on in deciding to do things completely off the radar. Every so often we talk about becoming "legit," applying for not-for-profit status, etc., but ultimately that isn't a direction we're interested in going in.
How do you and Gabriella divide or share editorial duties?
We're both very much involved in soliciting writers, reading submissions, making selections, deciding on page order, proofreading, and PR work. I tend to take on more of the production stuff (sending out proof pages, dealing with the printer, etc.) and Gabriella plans the best parties.
Is dealing with the production a drag or do you find it agreeable?
The production end really is the most stressful part. We were definitely naïve when we started the journal. We were excited about reading and selecting poems, and never really thought of the production or administrative roles. The first issue was the hardest because it was our first time doing it, but the second issue ran smoothly. For some reason the third issue returned to having some of the problems we had with the first, but I think that had to do more with our personal lives than anything else. It is always a huge relief the day I send all the files to the printer. Then there is a bit of nervousness that returns when the boxes arrive. I am always worried that when I open the box the journal is not going to look anything like we intended. Thankfully that has not happened yet. The only post-production disappointment I have had has been catching typos.
In addition to doing the tiny with Gabriella, you've started Lame House Press as a solo venture, and have published nine chapbooks so far. Were these the first books you ever made?
I had two writing courses my senior year in high school--creative writing in the fall and poetry in the spring. The same teacher taught both classes and at the end of each semester we had to make a chapbook. The first semester we made the standard 8.5 x 11 folded in half and stapled books. In the spring we learned how to do Japanese stab binding and made our books that way. I made a couple of books as gifts after that, but when I started Lame House was really the first time I seriously made a chapbook since high school.
Do you enjoy all aspects of making books? And do you do all the work yourself?
I really do enjoy making these books. I do all the cutting and binding by myself. With the exception of the very first book, there has always been an artist involved. Andrew Mister has done a number of Lame House covers as has Dietmar Krumrey, and I have now opened it up to allowing the author to select a cover artist if he or she has someone in mind. After I have a manuscript I usually try to imagine what format would best work--the size and shape of the book, how it will be bound, etc. After I have an idea I present it to the author to make sure he or she is okay with it, or to hear what suggestions he/she might have. I'm really interested in hearing what the author thinks--I like to think of it as a collaboration of sorts, though I don't know that's how I was when I first started Lame House.
Do you see the publishing of chapbooks as a prelude to something else or, in terms of running a press, is making limited edition chapbooks where you want to keep it?
Right now I am happy making limited edition chapbooks. I have committed myself to a number of manuscripts that should keep me busy into the new year, and I haven't really thought beyond that at this point. I have in the past occasionally thought about putting out a full-length collection, but I don't know how many authors would be interested with my limited funds and limited means of distribution.
Since you aren't seeking submissions for Lame House, how are you choosing what to publish?
With the tiny I have had the amazing opportunity to publish some of my heroes--David Shapiro, Joseph Lease, Elaine Equi, Maggie Nelson, etc.--but one of the things I am most excited about as an editor is being able to publish new writers. The first chapbooks were all by friends who had little publication at the time. I then started to seek out manuscripts by people whose work I had seen and was interested in and wanted to read more of. In the instance of Arlo Quint's Photogenic Memory, I was there when he read it in the Zinc series and told him immediately afterwards that I wanted to publish it and he agreed.
You've had two chapbooks of your own poems published, Fear of the Knee Bending Backwards (H_NGM_N B__KS, 2006) and Stanzas in Imitations (New School University, 2007). When did you start writing poetry?
I started writing my senior year in high school and became pretty serious about it right away. Prior to that I was interested in visual art, particularly painting and photography, and had wanted to go to art school but that wasn't an option financially. At the community college I attended I took every writing course available and an art class here and there, but eventually the fine arts fell off completely for a number of years.
Where did you grow up and what brought you to New York?
I was born in Saginaw and lived there until right after my 20th birthday when I moved to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, to finish up school at Central Michigan University. I moved to New York when I started grad school and had only been on the east coast three times prior to that--twice to Boston and once on a mini-road trip to visit various colleges with friends. I had applied to a few schools at that time and the New School was not on the top of my list, but after spending all of a day and a half in NYC, I couldn't stop thinking about it. When I went to bed at night I would just picture feet walking on the sidewalk and I knew I was going to move here.
How are you making a living? How do you feel about it?
I recently started working as a receptionist for a digital advertising agency. I am ambivalent towards it--the pay is almost enough but the lack of stress is brilliant.
Do you read on the subway? If so, what have you read most recently on the train?
I like reading fiction on the train, but sometimes that can be unsatisfactory as you reach your destination and haven't finished the chapter you're on or you really want to know what is going to happen next. Most recently I have been reading Virginia Woolf's A Writer's Diary whose short entries are well-suited to the stop and start of the subway. Lit journals are also good for subway rides.
Why do you write?
It sounds cheesy to say but I write because I can't not write. I will sometimes go six months without writing and then tell my friends that I'm no longer a writer--Hazel McClure always gets a kick out of this because she has probably heard me say it a hundred times over the course of our friendship. Inevitably there will be a night where I stay up all night writing. There seems to be an urgency, but I can't place my finger on it. I'm not sure what I want to do or say with my writing, but I don't think that is necessary to know either. I just turned twenty-seven. I think I have plenty of time to sort these things out later in life.
Do you have a full-length manuscript circulating?
A couple of months ago I put together a manuscript because a press was interested in seeing something. It was a collection of poems from grad school and a few I had written since then. They decided to go a different way, which I think is for the best because it didn't feel ready or right to me. Right now I am working on a book-length sequence called Behind the R that feels like it will be a more cohesive project.
Have you thought about publishing a chapbook of your own work?
I haven't ever considered publishing a chapbook of my own. The purpose behind Lame House Press is to promote other people's work. I have always been and continue to be much more excited about trying to find an audience for someone else's work than I am for my own work. I once self-published a broadside for the Sona Books Gift Exchange, but that was something separate from Lame House.
How do you feel about balancing all the jobs of publishing the work of others, on the one hand, with getting your own writing done and getting it out on the other?
I think one of my biggest problems is that I do not recognize my own limitations. I get very excited about various projects and take on more than I can handle. Usually my writing takes a backseat to my other projects--especially when I try to set deadlines for my editorial work (try being the operative word). I have also started writing reviews which is useful to keep me writing when I am not writing poems. This past month I have been writing a lot of poetry and have noticed that the reviews have fallen back. Ultimately I am still trying to work out how to balance things, but mostly I don't think about it and just sort of do whatever I feel like doing at the time, which is probably the least productive way to go about things!
Do you like giving readings?
I do like giving readings--especially in other towns. In your own scene things can become pretty insular so it is great to get out and see what is going on somewhere else. I recently read in South Boston and just returned from c-hosting a Lame and Narrow House event with Justin Sirois in Baltimore. It's fun to see a new city, be exposed to a new scene, and meet new people. I also don't produce a lot of writing, so when I read in NYC I worry that I am boring my friends who have heard me read the same poems over and over again.
What part is visual art playing in your creative life now?
I have a strange relation to visual art because it was very important to me at one time, and then I abandoned it completely, and now coming back to it I feel extremely inadequate. Occasionally I'll buy a sketchpad and some pastels and try to draw again, but I am extremely hard on myself and usually give up in frustration at my inabilities.
I like your photographs--especially the buildings and signs, and "urban decay" as they're sometimes tagged at flickr. How do you feel about picture making in relation to writing?
I feel a really strong connection to post-industrial decaying landscapes from having grown up in Michigan. Environment and what it conveys is very important to me, and I'd like to think that I am able to capture some of the imagery and implied associations in my writing, or at the very least to create an environment/mood. I think the Behind the R series is most directly engaged with this landscape. Overall I'm very interested in the everyday, and these images are part of my everyday life, but domestic chores and the like are just as likely to enter my writing.
I guess this has really been more of a comment on the subject of my pictures and not so much the actual picture making process...
Could you say a little more about the Behind the R sequence?
Behind the R is connected to the year I spent living in Red Hook, Brooklyn, literally living behind the R as photographed. When Andrew Mister and I first moved in, our friend Charles Valle looked out the back window and said I should write a book called Behind the R. I took it as a joke but after a few months it seemed to make sense. The series incorporates signs as well as my daily experiences/observations of Brooklyn, and it steals a lot from other writers. Mathias Svalina called it my bus and subway poem. Perhaps there is this sense of movement but never really going anywhere. Part of it feels like a journal, a daily record of events. Upon seeing a short version of the series, Kevin Thurston asked "Do you realize how many pieces begin with the word 'today'?"
3 poems from Fear of the Knee Bending Backwards
Or today buying a wooden picture frame
This doesn't change anything. The doorframe
On the other side of the wall: children laughing.
the tide rise or held a fragile life in my hand.
My magazine rack securing my place in the world.
The cup of tea I pour solves nothing.
If anger fades as it rises, folds itself
Fear of time travel.
. . .
Gina's blog: a sad day for sad birds
Fear of the Knee Bending Backwards at H_NGM_N
How has your first book changed your life?
101. Michael Robins
How did you find out that The Next Settlement had won the 2006 Vassar Miller Prize? Had you sent the manuscript out much before that?
Valerie, Daisy (our dog), and I were visiting friends in Springfield, Missouri. We were asleep Monday morning, a few drinks trailing us through the long weekend, when my cell phone rang, went to voicemail and rang again about fifteen minutes later. I checked the message, woke up Valerie, and was still absorbing the news that the manuscript would soon be published when the phone rang yet a third time. I remember that the sky was blue. There were actually birds in the trees.
I got serious about sending out The Next Settlement the previous November. Before then I'd sent out the manuscript some, not too much. I guess I'd made up my mind that if the poems were ready then I needed a proactive approach in submitting the work. The process was necessary and necessarily expensive, but this lasted only a few short months, which makes me very fortunate and acutely aware of those poets who deserve as much and more.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I was at work when the package arrived at home. Some friends of mine in Tullycraft--a really superb band from Seattle, Washington--were a late addition at The Subterranean in Chicago, so I spent the first part of the evening at a club. I left during the headlining band, walked a short block to join Valerie after a shift at her job, drove home, opened a bottle of wine and began unwrapping. In many ways I think I was distracted by notions of how I thought one should act in such a situation, which in the moment helped create a kind of distance from the actual experience. The event of holding the book, this thing for which I'm accountable, has been a gradual and pleasant unveiling, one that continues to evolve.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Not so much initially. Early on I'd suggested two cover images, the first by Daniel Chang and the second by Hector Giacomelli, a 19th century Italian artist. Locating the original source and determining the copyright of the latter was practically impossible, thus making the decision between the two images an easy one. Plus I'd really admired Chang's work ever since first seeing a selection printed in the Fall/Winter 2005 issue of Black Warrior Review.
I have to admit that I was surprised by the amount of time and thought I invested in the design of the cover, or how the design of the cover might eventually look, which ultimately has little to do with the poems themselves. I wanted a beautiful book and the staff at University of North Texas Press was very helpful and receptive. I asked and suggested changes from the design first presented, a hard thing for me to do in consideration of how grateful I felt in having a collection forthcoming. Really, the staff at UNT Press was great. Karen DeVinney, the Managing Editor, was wonderfully patient and I'm quite grateful to have had the chance to work with her.
Before the day you first saw your book, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
In Finding Forrester, the reclusive writer tells his pupil that women will want to sleep with you even if you write a bad book. This simply hasn't been the case, which is disappointing since everything I know about writing I learned from Sean Connery.
In all seriousness, I'm thankfully the type of person who doesn't get overly excited by things until they're at hand. I tried to be as realistic as I could about what it means to publish a single book of poetry in the United States, though I can't deny wanting some success in being able to translate experience for a reader. Authorship is a strange currency, one that offers the option to apply for various teaching positions and, more immediately, the chance to exchange books with other poets.
Has your life been different since?
Last May I took part in a great mini-book-tour with Christopher Janke (Structure of the Embryonic Rat Brain) and Elizabeth Hughey (Sunday Houses the Sunday House), two poets who also had their first books come out this year, and every city and every reading was a pleasant surprise, even when the three of us slept on the floor of a small room (Janke, poor soul, woke the following morning with my bare feet just a few inches from his face). This type of touring didn't seem possible before the book was published, and the readings have offered the chance to meet some great people, both poets and non-poets, which is invigorating.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
Besides that empty promise from Sean Connery, I'll mention that this year I attended my first AWP conference, where each time someone stopped at the table to browse my book I felt like I'd just returned from the bathroom with my pants down. The vulnerability was surprising. If you tell yourself that you can't please everyone, that's good, but anyone can still come along and cut the work down with a few words.
I've been surprised too by the number of people I've encountered who are so clearly focused on assigning meaning to a poem, and in turn devalue their own response and instincts. How poetry is taught in schools, when it's taught at all, has no small role in contributing to this tendency. I can't tell you what a ballet performance means, but I know that ballet has moved me to tears. What does this work of art mean? has little to do with it.
What have you been doing to promote the book and how do you feel about those experiences?
It was great to first see my book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, a chain bookstore, but it was even more pleasing to see the book in the company of interesting and enticing voices at an independent bookstore. In addition to a few interviews and a handful of public readings to promote The Next Settlement, I've contacted a number of bookstores to simply ask if they'd be willing to stock the title on their shelves. I've spent hours in some of these stores, like Prairie Lights in Iowa City and Open Books in Seattle, where an individual book of poems doesn't feel lost in a nationwide network of identical stores. There's a certain amount of attention and intelligence inherent in successful, independent bookstores, and I appreciate the fact that you can actually get to know the owners and staff of these businesses.
Beyond Chicago and the bookstores I've visited in person, several friends were kind enough to put me in touch with stores in and around the cities and towns where they live, and I occasionally browse the poetry blogs of both friends and acquaintances and note additional possibilities. I've never stepped foot in Arkansas (yet), but recently a friend whose work I admire gave a reading at a bookstore there. I sent an email and unassumingly inquired if the store would be willing to order a few copies of my book. Like that, now my book can be purchased at a bookstore in Fayetteville. I find this remarkable and strangely satisfying. I suppose the aim is that the work will be encountered not unlike a blind date, and hopefully some stranger will find the offering attractive enough to take a copy home.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
I don't think I had any particular need for advice in advance of the book, but having a book published can create a new kind of insecurity for someone who is his or her own worst critic. My friend Lori was kind enough to point out that book sales don't equal success, so I've managed to avoid that trap, mostly. Just after the book came out another poet offered what wasn't so much advice as it was a kind of commiseration when he described book publishing as "a mind fuck" for the author. I can subscribe to that idea. It's terribly easy, really, to get caught up in things on the periphery, things only loosely connected to writing the next good poem, which is the first and foremost responsibility of the poet.
What advice would you give to someone about to have a first book published?
I'd tell that person to enjoy the first book in the same way that some are able to enjoy the first time their work appears in a literary journal... (Enjoy it. Really, I insist.) I have a notion that the first book is unlike any that might follow, like one's first day at school or a first kiss, even if a true appreciation arrives much later in life.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
When I finish a new poem I have a clear idea now whether or not it's a fit for the group of poems that's shaping into the next manuscript, but I try to put aside such consideration while writing. The idea of the world as circus, especially with my country's involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, has preoccupied a certain amount of my non-writing time, and I see these themes solidifying in the recent work.
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing practice?
There hasn't been much in terms of book reviews yet, and maybe that's a sign of what's not to come. Silence too is unnerving, but these things take time more often that not, and so far people have been kind enough in person and on their blogs. If The Next Settlement becomes the first of several books to which my name is attached, then this greater scheme provides a context that keeps things in perspective.
Do you want your life to change?
I could use a benefactor or two, maybe Bill and Melinda Gates or support from one of the other foundations I'm always hearing about on NPR. Valerie and I are starting to put pressure on our three-year-old dog (that's 21 years to you and me!) to start paying her own way. Something so simple as Daisy obtaining a part-time job would alleviate having to pinch pennies at the end of each month. She pays no attention to the want ads we leave near her food bowl, and every time I ask, "Do you wanna get a job?" she runs to the front door for an unscheduled walk.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Immediately I want to say yes, especially since I'm part of this world and my introduction to poetry made a notable difference in me. Maybe poetry doesn't so much create change as it redirects the individual and that individual's actions. I just gave a reading in Brooklyn and afterwards a friend in the audience told me that he noticed during the middle of a poem, right after a specific line, a couple reaching across the table to hold hands. This gives me a certain hope.
The question also reminds me of an experience I had just after I started writing poetry. During my senior year of high school I wrote a short poem for a girl after she walked into a classroom where I was sitting, fell heavily into her chair and sunk her face in her arms. After several weeks, on one of the last days of class, I handed her the poem. That was that, I thought. Graduation came and passed, and we went our separate ways as most acquaintances do after high school. About three years later I ran into the same girl at a party. We spoke for a while before she reached into her purse and unfolded the very copy of the poem I'd given her. She'd carried it with her everywhere for over three years. I doubt I'll ever again experience what I felt in that simple, extraordinary moment.
Two poems from The Next Settlement by Michael Robins:
Reelection a rumor that we could believe,
When I was building a frame for our bed,
of a perfect lumber, prying away the nails.
Candidacy, a promise that wouldn't keep,
Some had flags & some their yellow ribbons,
that the memory closed, our blackened home.
Small Hands at the Water's Edge
We couldn't remember if we'd touched a goat
we studied to resist confession among strangers,
how some were still buckled to their seats?
were lovely, the women with whom we lived.
farther into the forest? Like suspicion & sin
where animals stopped to rest in the darkness.
against the shore from where they'd come,
. . .
How has your first book changed your life?
100. Chuck Stebelton
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I was at dinner with my friend Stacy Szymaszek. She had just moved to New York from Milwaukee to take on a new job, and I had just moved to Milwaukee from Chicago to do the same. This was our first chance to catch up with each other in person in the midst of all these changes. That the occasion included the arrival of this gorgeous object couldn't have been more special. It was an extraordinary day. I was visiting New York for the first time in a long time. I remember taking a shuttle into Manhattan from the Newark airport that morning, then I walked a good length of Broadway to Strand Bookstore. I found a used copy of Jeff Clark's Music or Suicide at the Strand. From there I hoofed it directly to Angelika Film Center and saw The Squid and the Whale, then grabbed a beer before meeting Stacy at a brick oven pizza place near the Zinc Bar. When we got a table and sat down, she pulled a copy of the book out of her bag, and I was like, "That's mine." That was the first time I laid eyes on the actual book.
I remember being taken by surprise at just how well James Meetze's design for the cover worked in real life. It seemed sleek and weighty and textured, and I loved the way the pinks and blues and yellows seemed to shift against a flat black background, and every color just popped. I didn't dare to look too closely inside the book until I was alone for fear of spotting a typo, of finding a change that might not have made it into the final version. I also remember flipping through and eyeing the page numbers, the two section breaks, and the relationship of the typeface used for titles to the type size in the body of the poem. I'd scrutinized these things in version after version of the draft manuscript in PDF. Now that the thing was bound and living in the world as a book, these elements took on something more palpable. Weirdly, though, and this became a bit of a problem for me to deal with after I'd lived with the book for a while, the book still didn't feel permanent. I continued ruminating on a few nagging changes to the manuscript. James indulged me only in the one instance that we both agreed that it was necessary, else I might not ever have let it go.
Do you mean that when CF went out of print and before it was printed again, you were allowed one change that James agreed was necessary?
Yeah, that was part of the hold up. The necessary change had to do with the front matter of the book. The indulgence on the part of James was that he accommodated me when I insisted on also making a change to one of the poems. I had a distorted sense of that one poem's value and it was a regrettable move on my part. I learned the hard way that it's healthier to let some things go and focus on the next project instead.
Why did Stacy have a copy of your book before you did?
James had sent twenty copies to her directly from the printers so we could be sure to have it available at a reading that had been planned for after its publication date. I read from the book for the first time that following Monday night.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change because of the book's arrival?
No, because so much of my life was in transition just then. There were bigger changes afoot. And it was a long process seeing Circulation Flowers through publication. A few poets close to me saw publication of their own first books in the meantime. After a couple of years of living daily with the idea of this book, it was easier to be realistic about what its arrival might engender.
When & how did you begin being involved with Woodland Pattern?
I used to make book buying pilgrimages to Woodland Pattern when we still lived in Chicago. There's really no place like it. Occasionally we would drive up to Milwaukee for a reading or something really special like the Niedecker conference. When the position of Literary Program Director became available in the summer of 2005, I had been running a weekly series of readings and talks at Myopic Books in Chicago for close to two years. Stacy was very encouraging once I decided to apply. Anne Kingsbury and Karl Gartung (the founders) and I found that we had a lot of affinities. Our enthusiasms clicked. It's been two years this month since I moved to Milwaukee to work at Woodland Pattern.
Were you involved in designing the cover of Circulation Flowers?
Only to the extent that I would go ape! over anything James came up with. He's a terrific book designer. Before he started typesetting and coming up with interior design possibilities, I suggested using a Jo Jackson image for the cover. James searched around and initially came up with this one
before deciding instead to go with the pinkest flower I ever saw.
Were there any surprises?
The big surprise came on the day James called to tell me he was going to publish the book. [James Meetze is the founder/editor of Tougher Disguises Press.] Earlier the very same day a rejection letter came in the mail from the one MFA program that I'd ever gotten it together to apply to, and I was actually banking on moving to that other city. I knew it was a rejection because the envelope had bulk metered postage. After the disappointing news I wanted to get outside so decided to walk to the grocery store and get some toothpaste and junk like that. I was sitting in my apartment after running my errands and thinking about what I might do next. The phone rang and it was James. As soon as he introduced himself that day's news did a 180. It ended up taking just over two years from that date to see the book into print.
What did you do to promote the book, and what were those experiences like?
I notified friends and bookstores and gave some readings. Most of that activity actually took place while the book was still unavailable. I'm sometimes surprised that the book made its way to certain readers. It's been a crash course in the punishing economics of small press distribution.
Can poetry create change in the world?
It can engage individuals to want to make change in the world. Progressive poetry communities are rich in their ability to sustain that impulse. One comes to poetry with or without a politics and poetry teaches you that everything is political. It can remind you to be active.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing and other artistic pursuits?
The experience has given me a taste for playing things more organically with current projects. I'm proceeding chapbook by chapbook and a second collection is now taking shape around those.
How do you feel about the critical response to your book and has that had any effect on your writing?
My chapbook Precious appeared around the same time as the book and it received much more substantive feedback at first. That experience was part of the reason I decided to focus on smaller projects. The critical response to Circulation Flowers was much less immediate. But there was some occasional low level noise about the book online and the fact that a few people were actually engaging with it seemed generous to me. Every comment is instructive, even the mixed reviews. More recently I received a letter out of the blue from Michael Cross responding to the book. It was one of those letters that can just make your year.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
Working at Woodland Pattern it always feels like we're making a difference. Right now Karl Gartung and I are running a sort of research group using the Duncan / Levertov correspondence to look at issues of how an artist can or should respond to such times. Our idea is that this will result in a public program next spring or possibly in the fall. I think we'll always have a lot to learn from both Duncan and Levertov. The question of literary activism is a slippery one for me.
A poem from Circulation Flowers by Chuck Stebelton:
What we will be eating from that plenty reminds
intensity. We certainly have every right to expect an end
. . .
Speaking of book design. Some things are much harder to show (represent, convey with a photo) than others.
But don't wait too long.
Doing the first-book interviews, I tried to credit each cover designer and artist and link when possible to their sites. I avoided singling out any cover for praise, though of course I am very opinionated on the subject.
Lately, I've been looking a lot at the cover of Brenda Iijima's new book, Animate, Inanimate Aims (published by Litmus Press), and I just want to say: I really like it. There's no title and no author's name on the front cover! Just as radically, the opening and closing pages of this book of poetry--14 pages in the front and 15 in the back--aren't poems but visual art, drawings and collages, primarily the work of the author. The cover art is also Brenda's (to find out more about Brenda Iijima's projects, visit yoyolabs.com).
The book's design is by HvADesign (Henk van Assen and Amanda Bowers, whose studio is in Brooklyn--see more about them here). Click on this image to enlarge:
Here are a few of the 2-page spreads of art (you can also click on these to enlarge):
but to experience that you'll really need to buy the book.
. . .