How has your first book changed your life?
54. Kate Colby
How did your manuscript happen to get picked up by Litmus Press?
I just sent it to them. I had had a piece of it published in Aufgabe, so they weren't completely unfamiliar with me. I couldn't believe it when they said they wanted to publish it. The manuscript was more or less my MFA thesis and I just shoved it in an envelope one day and sent it two places, then kind of forgot about it once I got wrapped up in a new project. I was extremely lucky, I'd say.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
Not to sound cool or ungrateful--I'm neither of those things--but I don't really remember. I remember receiving the email from Paul Foster Johnson and Tracy Grinnell at Litmus over a year before, telling me they wanted to publish my book--to that I had a very emotional reaction. I anticipated an emotional response to receiving the book, but I think I opened the box and said "there it is" and went back to making dinner. Part of that is because I had seen the cover and carefully edited the proofs and already felt very familiar with what it looked like. Part was that I was already in the fear and loathing stage of my relationship to the work contained in the book (more on this below). I do know that I was stunned to have received well over a hundred copies.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Yes, and I'm so grateful for that. I know people who've been very unhappy with their book covers. I gave Tracy a couple of Alcott House images I found on the web (for which she had to haggle with an octogenarian representative of the
Orchard House Museum in Concord, Mass.) and requested that it be red. She played around with the design a lot and sent me several different versions. I have no eye for design and liked everything she sent me, but the end result somehow looks like I always imagined it would look. She did a fantastic job. I think it's a beautiful book.
No, not in any life-changing way.
I've become slightly more accustomed to giving readings. In spite of more than 15 years of dance training and having spent much of my youth and adolescence on stages, I developed paralyzing performance anxiety in adulthood. I have to take beta blockers and perform all kinds of superstitious rituals before doing any kind of public speaking, and am usually a wreck afterwards. Drives me nuts. It is slowly getting better, though I don't imagine I'll ever be comfortable reading. But the discomfort is in many ways an advantage, when it comes to being fully present during the reading.
The other way in which my life has changed is that I now take this writing activity more seriously. I'm extremely disciplined about it. And it has become holistically intertwined with/filtered through my life, which is the reason to do it, I now know. I believe I've become a much happier, less anxious person because of it. For me, it's similar to dance or tai chi in the way that it allows for a complete self-absorption--again, a presence--and a simultaneous yielding of the ego. How California is that?
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
There wasn't anything in particular that I thought would happen, but an odd thing that did happen is that my audience and community, such as they are, have revealed themselves to be in New York, and not so much San Francisco. I have a few wonderful poet friends here, but most of my friends here are not poets. I owe a lot to the local SF writing community and its influences and the traditions surrounding it, but haven't really been an active participant. There are lots of reasons for that, one of which is the aforementioned terror of public speaking, which often translates into a discomfort with public-ness and poet personae (my own or lack thereof, maybe, in particular). Being a remote participant in another community alleviates some of that. But I've made a lot of friends in NY and have received a tremendous amount of support there. I've done a number of readings there in the last few years, but not so many locally.
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what are those experiences like for you?
I haven't actively done all that much, frankly. I have Litmus to thank for review and prize copies being sent and for most of the readings I've done. Tracy arranged readings at Belladonna and Adam's/Unnamable Books in NY and the Discrete Series in Chicago, where I'm going in May. She and Jen Hayashida came out to SF to read with me at Canessa Park last June, which I owe to Avery Burns. Anna Moschovakis and Matvei Yankelevich have also been incredibly supportive of my work and have set me up with readings at Segue and CUNY. And Ugly Duckling is now publishing my next book.
I didn't get any advice, but it would have been useful to be warned that I'd loathe the book at first. Not the physical book, which is lovely, but the content and the fact of it being read by anyone. I hated the work, I hated being public in that way, and I felt out of control of my own self, what, image. The work in the book felt amateurish and not at all like what I'd been doing more recently. But I also would have been told that after the loathing comes indifference, then grudging appreciation, and eventually, I expect, fondness, which I'm working on. But now, with two more book-length poems between me and it, I can see that it has everything to do with what I've been doing and am still doing and will continue doing, I would guess. Whoever said that you only ever say the same thing over and over again was right. It's true. You just qualify it or say it another way.
It's probably increased my motivation, but otherwise, I'm not sure. I know I keep referring to that work in my subsequent writing. I'm not only writing the same thing over and over again, but it's also all become highly self/inter-referential. The last two poems I've written have been around 70 pages each, so it's hard to relate to the short, discrete poems in that book.
It's only very recently received any critical response, e.g., it was just reviewed on CutBank by Sommer Browning, which was nice, especially since I don't know her and didn't know it was coming. It also just received the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. Frankly, I didn't know such an institution existed until they called me a few weeks ago. At first I thought I was being marketed to by whoever belongs to that flashing banner on Dictionary.com--the one that says your poem could win you $10,000. However, it turns out it’s real and I recently went to New York to "accept" my award at a fancy ceremony. It's all very honorific and has put me in contact with Rosmarie Waldrop, who selected Fruitlands for the award, which is wonderful. I don't think that any of this has had an effect on my writing, though.
No, not in the least. After having a somewhat rough time of it in my late teens and 20s, I now feel just about completely content and incredibly lucky.
But my life is about to change, nonetheless. After 11 years in San Francisco, my husband and I are moving to Providence this summer. We both grew up near Boston, so it's a residually familiar landscape, but I do get culture shock when I go back there now. It will take a while to reacclimatize to Red Sox fans and iceberg lettuce. I think a lot about adaptation in my work and try to avoid it both there and everywhere else in my experience, so moving back to the region where I spent the first 21 years of my life is scary. I've never felt "at home" in California, and that's been almost an entirely good thing for both my work and my well-being.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
No, not really. Not this kind of poetry, anyway. Which isn't to say that it's not important. I think that engaging with art changes individuals who are willing to be changed by it. It changes me continually. But in spite of its socially critical nature, I think of this work that I do as a primarily meditative, self-indulgent activity.
On the other hand, I do believe in ripple effects, complex systems, etc., so, yes, there's indirect change--or resistance, anyway, which might be even more important. Most important of all, doing this work touches off a self-perpetuating awareness of both the danger and the dullness of these social tools we're all working with.
So, I'm going to go with "maybe." But do I believe that one is obligated to do more than only this.
A poem from Fruitlands by Kate Colby:
(the gray sound of spokes
For what it's worth, preferring
Picked up and driven home:
Let down, rather
of porchlight, inoculating
. . .
next interview: Tao Lin
. . .