How has your first book changed your life?
66. Susan Briante
How did your manuscript happen to be picked up by Ahsahta Press? Had you sent it out often before that?
I did the book contest thing for a while before I sent it to Ahsahta during their open reading period. Initially, Janet Holmes sent it back to me with comments and a few structural suggestions and asked to see the manuscript again. When I sent the manuscript during the next open reading, Janet took it.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
Janet and folks at Ahsahta really pushed to get the book out for this year's AWP conference. They did a Herculean job. I went down to the book fair late on the first day. No one was around and a sheet was draped over the Ahsahta table. It was vaguely erotic lifting up a sheet to catch a first glimpse of my book.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
I knew I wanted something graphic in the style of old jazz album covers like Coltrane's Olé. Janet passed that idea onto her designer, the very talented Jeff Clark, and after a few different versions, he came up with the cover image you see. In the end, everything fell into place down to the blurred author photo: a self-portrait taken from my cel-phone, which (incidentally) no one seems to like except me and Janet. Most people don't even think it looks me.
For my next book, I think I'll use this photo
which also doesn't look like me in a totally different way.
Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it? How has your life been different since?
I have an MFA, and I was getting near the end of a PhD when the book was accepted. Having a book under contract allowed me to go on the academic job market and find a job teaching in an interdisciplinary PhD program. There's much to criticize about MFA and PhD programs, which can feel like some type of weird pyramid scheme. There's a way in which the academic process also gives book publication a kind of weight that seems outdated considering the many different ways work enters into world today and the strange quirks of poetry publication. Still, until we have better local and federal funding for artists, MA, MFA and PhD programs can provide support for apprentice artists. My mom's family couldn't afford to send her to college. My dad went to college on a baseball scholarship but had to give up a chance to play professionally to support his family. I've made particular choices and feel particularly fortunate to be able to earn money to do what I love: write and teach. Now it's time for me to start seeing what changes can be made within academia--that and start paying off my student loans.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I was shocked when my parents told me they were buying a box of books to give out to family and friends. It was kind of endearing and horrifying all at once. I wanted to say to them: "You know, I reference 'nipple-clamps' on page 11."
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what are those experiences like for you?
I've mostly done readings, which provide a nice excuse to travel and see friends as well as get turned on to what other poets and poetry communities are doing.
What advice would you give to someone about to have a first book published? What was the best advice you got?
The best advice I got was that I should not expect much to change. The best advice I think I can give is to not dwell too much in the book or its reception, but keep focused on new work.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
Pioneers in the Study of Motion had a set of particular thematic and formal concerns (displacement, commerce, the erotics of cultural/political encounters) that feel different from the set of obsessions and problems I'm trying to work through now (cultural amnesia and memory, landscape, Civil War photography). My friend, the painter/poet Philip Trussell says: "A poem is the record of an attention willing to be surprised." My attentions have changed so that I find new elements of surprise and pleasure in my work.
Do you want your life to change? Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek? Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
In many ways, I'm very happy with my life now. At the same time, I want a dramatic change for my country and its policies not just in terms of the war in Iraq, but in terms of the corruption, the ineptitudes, the inequality and violence at home. Those concerns form part of my poetry, but I have to admit, I question whether that's enough when car bombs explode daily in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is one thing to struggle with the decision to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz. It seems to me that it's a somewhat different decision to write in the midst of daily atrocities committed by one's own government both here and abroad.
I've always held a lot of interest in those poets and critics who believe that the lyric can provide a space for social/political change. In The Prelude, Wordsworth insists on the lyric as a place of retreat and remedy against the corruptions of sensibility produced by "the great national events." More recently, Juliana Spahr wrote about the lyric's potential to "reveal how our private intimacies have public obligations and ramifications."
The control and manipulation of the images and discourse surrounding this conflict have been unprecedented. And yes, a poem provides a space where we can take back language, refocus the gaze, and explore the most complex intellectual and emotional responses.
But there are more than 20,000 poems on the Poets Against the War website--and the war in Iraq continues. And we are certainly not going to change what's going on in America today by arguing over what Ron Silliman just posted on his blog. I have this feeling we all need to be doing much more, but it is not easy to know what: sign another petition, walk in another march, vote for another party, buy a Prius, switch out our incandescent light bulbs.... I think the changes will need to be radical, a rethinking of systems and ideals. Poetry and art will open those discussions, but in the end, I think poetry may only be the start.
from Pioneers in the Study of Motion by Susan Briante:
A radio tower rises like an oil rig from the heat, the ceiling fan wobbles, blonde-haired girls gather in a corner by the jukebox. I imagine we have been dancing, I reach across the table--
4:49 on a July afternoon.
The sun stalks me 12 blocks through the quarter. A woman ascends the coffeehouse stairs while her companion gestures to a sidewalk table. He could map the insides of her. He laid her carpet and trued her blades; she shelved his books and filtered his water.
At such a moment it is important to examine your feelings: a chess set, an aria, the bougainvillea insists, blue glass of tequila, clear glass of ice on the nightstand, a set of keys to remember.
I sleep on the rug. Red peony
for our table, iron roses for our balcony, filigree to double back on itself and push us forward. I have driven 2039 miles clutching you like a key.
And if I rode to Cheyenne 2147 miles
or Toronto or Wichita or Abilene (1655).
From all of this turning I wake with a rash on my knees.
A black dress flowers from the rail as wind chimes praise the fire escape. Rook pulls pawn. Your voice winds through me: cornice, tracery, spire. A girl twists from a payphone, a spectrum coiled to wire, a wire with a 'can't' in it.
It sounds like rain that car coming down St. Philip Street.
next interview: Jill Magi
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