every other day

28 JULY 07

How has your first book changed your life?

76. Ashley Capps

How did your manuscript happen to be published by the University of Akron Press?

I saw an ad in Poets & Writers for the Akron contest, and the judge was Gerald Stern. He had been one of my "desert island" poets for years; I even wrote my M.A. thesis on him. Much beloved. I considered him an important teacher even though I had never met him. So I guess I hoped that since I'd been studying and admiring him for so many years, maybe something in my work might create an affinity with him. But when I answered the phone one day and heard this kind, dear voice say, "Hello Ashley, it's Jerry Stern"--I thought I'd choke.

That was the third contest I'd sent to. I hope this doesn't sound too awful, but, I was very ambitious, and in some ways very naive, and I think I had planned on only first sending to like a handful of big-name contests. But after getting rejected by the first two on my list, and in spite of knowing way better, I was crushed by those rejections; I developed even graver doubts about my strengths as a poet, and about that manuscript in particular. I decided to put it away for a year, work on some new stuff, then reconfigure the whole thing and start over sending to the same four or five contests. Then a few months later, I saw that ad and decided maybe a good way to choose contests would be to send to judges whose work you had sort of emulated or really lived with. I guess that worked, or I was very lucky.

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

I remember coming home from class and seeing the box on the porch and feeling nauseous and full of dread. I took my dog for a walk, rented a marathon of Sex and the City, and distracted myself for the rest of the night with a bottle of wine and a whole lotta Sarah Jessica Parker. I didn't open the box for a whole day. It just felt bad. I think I'd always sort of felt like I was just fooling everybody else into thinking I was a poet--that really if they knew how hard it was for me to come up with just one interesting line in eight straight hours of typing and staring at a screen, then they'd know I wasn't really a natural--just a big fat phony, albeit a good imposter. If I was the real thing, I thought (and sometimes still think) it would surely come a lot easier. Therefore the physical book was sort of like...being forced to stare under fluorescent lights into one of those scary magnifying mirrors that reveal your normally smooth-to-the-world- skin to be a clogged, hairy, strawberry-seed textured oilslick... Yuck, that's disgusting, but a lot like how I felt when confronted with my book. Like, Hey lady, the game is up; let's have a look at everything you've really been hiding and getting away with.

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

Yes. Back then I thought a book was the thing that would make me a "real" poet. I desperately wanted to be a "real" poet, the way the Velveteen Rabbit wanted to be a real bunny. I wanted to dance in a circle of other real poets on my own real-poet hind legs. But as it turns out, having a book does not make me feel real. My butt is still plush, and I'm still as tediously insecure as ever. I still look at other poets and wait for them to figure out I'm just a satiny, button-eyed poseur.  

How has your life been different since?

Well, I've gotten better looking.

Honestly, the only thing that's really changed is the book has lent a sort of legitimacy to my self-loathing, which was otherwise hazy and unfocused. It really is ridiculous to be googling your own name every day, in quotes, with the word poetry beside it, hoping to pop up in some blog that maybe 15 other people in the world read.

I only did that for the first six months. Now I'm down to once a week.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Yes. Akron and their designer, Amy Freels, were very wonderful to let me choose the cover image. My contract had said my ideas were welcome but that it ultimately wasn't my decision. I fell in love with that collage because it seemed to capture the mood of my book.

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

Like I said, having a book didn't turn out to be proof of anything. It didn't make me a "real" poet. Writing didn't get any easier. I realized the only proof I'll ever have of being a poet is in the dailiness of the thing itself--in devoting as much love and discipline as I can to the regular act of sitting down and writing--and by reading and just being as curious and open as I can to the weird wide world. Not watching too much TV.

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

I haven't done a lot. Self-promotion is really hard for me. It gives me existential dread. That said, put a couple drinks in me and I can fake my way through a reading pretty good. It's the organizing and setting up of that kind of stuff that makes me feel like the used car salesman of my soul. So I haven't really done much unless I got invited (anybody?)--and that's to my own detriment, and I realize I can't complain if nobody ever reads my book.

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

Some great advice I got just after my book came out, which I would've loved to've gotten before, was that what really matters is not so much which contest or press, but just getting your book out there in print. In the grand scheme of things, the harder sell and the bigger test will be your second book, in terms of showing that you're not just a flash in the pan; and a test because it can be very difficult to reinvent yourself in the shadow of your first book, to feel free or removed enough to write beyond it, to try new things, and not worry about any expectations or ideas people may have about your work because they've read the first book.

And the best advice I ever got was from my boyfriend: always hope, but never expect. I think that's wise.

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

Well here's the thing: personally, I wanted to win the Yale Prize or the Walt Whitman. Ha! I wanted to be a "famous" young poet. That sounds gross saying it, but I'm telling you anyway in hopes this might be helpful to someone. I mentioned earlier that I initially planned on only sending to like my top four or five contests, over and over till one of them (hopefully) took. Now I talk to people who say they did that for years, a bridesmaid one year, nothing the next. Or a bridesmaid four or five years in a row, and still no tamale!  I'm extremely glad I didn't go with that impulse. I'm not half as productive when I'm waiting on some kind of important answer, especially when it's a part of me that's being judged!  There's a constant low-level anxiety that sort of saps a lot of my energy and creativity in situations like that. I can't imagine being in that headspace for years. I'll admit, though, that after my initial excitement over the Akron, I actually got very anxious and gloomy that I never got to apply to those two contests, wondering if I were somehow hijacking my potential glory... Very silly and lame. But it's scary, because you work so hard, for so long, on your poems, they're sort of everything you've got to show for yourself, and you want to make sure you give them the best chance you can to get out into the world and be read. But winning a contest is no guarantee of a positive reception, or of career stability; and the kind of emotional and creative paralysis all that waiting creates--not to mention the quiet panic--I don't think it's worth it.

So that would be one piece of advice I reckon: don't attach too much importance to any one contest, just get your book out there with a press that you admire. Even with the biggest contests, the sponsoring presses often aren't interested in publishing the author's second book, because the aesthetic of the first book didn't represent the press's taste so much as the guest judge's. Or they just won't like the new book. And then you're gonna have to start all over looking for a new press anyway.

Plus, as much as they lead to good things, that whole contest mentality can really be a bad space to inhabit for very long. It can seriously cloud your perspective. I got to where just reading Poets & Writers made me nervous and I had to stop. It never even occurred to me that there actually was any other route to getting your first book published besides the contest--when in fact some of the best presses out there have regular, direct submission, open reading periods. And with the internet what it is today, the blog scene and all, there really are so many avenues to getting your name out there and getting your poems read. Just on your site, Kate, I read a Q&A with a poet named Jessica Smith who published her own book, which I thought was incredibly brave--and with the help of her own blog and sending her book to other bloggers like Ron Silliman, she seems to've gotten a hell of a lot bigger readership than I'd ever expect to get--bigger probably than a lot of first book poets going the conventional contest route. Brava.

The other thing I'm thinking on the advice front, and maybe this is just me talking to myself, but I guess I also feel like at some point you should try to let it go. Don't google yourself too much! All that wondering and worrying and self-regarding gets you nowhere. Once the book is out there, I mean--you've spent years writing it, probably at least another year organizing it and revising it and proofreading it and just being totally stuck in the headspace of its whole looming frigging imminent existence--not to mention how long you may have spent in the whole sending out phase, which is its own stalled-out bloodless creative limbo--you could easily spend a whole nother year or three in a kind of self-promotion mania, READ ME, READ ME, BUY ME BUY ME!!! That seems unhealthy, and can get a little gross.

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

That was the other big surprise! After the book came out, I think I didn't write for over 6 months, not one poem or even draft. I have always fanatically tried to structure my life so that no one or thing would interfere with my writing, and I had been writing at least two or three hours each day for a long time. But suddenly, I wasn't writing at all. I hated the book looking back at me--the poems that disappointed me made me feel like a bad writer, and the few I still loved, well I looked at them and thought, how did I ever write these? I don't know how to do it again! Somehow the book came to feel like a completely separate creature, full of poems I either wouldn't or couldn't write again even if I wanted to.

Thankfully, that stage has passed. From time to time I wonder if people who like my first book (you know who you are, I sent you your checks) will be disappointed by what I'm doing now, which hopefully becomes a second book--I think it's quite different, or at least I want it to be. I start to get bored with myself after a while and then I'll start experimenting trying to do something different. Usually I don't actually know what that is till I've written the poems and they tell me. But I hope it's not disappointing.

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

No effect on my writing, really.

I guess there hasn't been a whole lot of critical response. I've seen a couple of benign reviews online, and even a couple of very positive ones. People have been nice on their blogs. By April I sort of thought the window for getting reviewed had probably started to close, and I didn't really expect to see anything else. Then I got an email the last week of that month, that a review was coming out in the London Times Literary Supplement. Say what? I still have no earthly idea how that one happened. From what I could tell, when they did review poetry, it was usually British folks, or if it was American it was someone quite established. So how and why they decided to review a first book by a no name poet from a quiet university press--it still seems pretty crazy. And very lucky. It was a big feature review, and it was really smart and positive. I'm so grateful that happened. It was cool to think of British people sipping tea on a rainy Sunday and reading my book. 

And just today! I got a letter from a British novelist who is guest editing an international journal I respect very much, and who read my book (sipping tea, in the rain) after catching that review. And he wanted some new poems for a special edition! How happy that makes me. You just never know what kind of good thing might be heading your way, even as you're thinking that the silence, which must be permanent, has gotten deafening.

Do you want your life to change?


I want to have peace without God.

I want to be okay with death--but I want to understand it--I mean what happens to the soul, if there is a soul, and is there?, etc. I want to lose ten pounds. I want to be as calm on the inside as I seem to seem on the outside. I want to figure out which thing I'm supposed to do to support myself as a writer, that I can love, but that will not take too much energy and time from my writing. I make jewelry, love working with plants, loved working in Yellowstone National Park, enjoy social work, and taking care of animals. I dream about working on a farm sanctuary or being an interpretive park ranger. I'd like to figure out one of those things to do.

I want to become a better writer without having to live in a way that feels totally selfish and self-indulgent. I want to be socially responsible, to dedicate meaningful time and energy to social change. But I want to be able to do that kind of work with as much passion and enthusiasm as possible, without detracting from my commitment to writing, or from the quality of my poems. If I'm going to do something, I want to do it as well as it can be done. But I would like to be able to do many things well and not feel that I am cheating myself or those endeavors.  

I'd like to have a vegetable garden. And a pet pig. And someday own lots of land where animals taken from shelters and factory farms can run around and enjoy their lives.

I'd like to have enough money that I'm not always worrying about it. Health insurance would be nice.

If I am misguided in ways of thinking or if I worry about the wrong things or see dilemmas where there needn't be any, I hope that will be revealed to me so I can stop being wrong.

Mostly I'd just like to feel peaceful.

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

I'm the poster child for self-improvement. So, hopefully. But my answers are boring, even to me.

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


I think you have to define change, or qualify it here, because otherwise the answer is Yes, because everything changes everything-- shifting ratios of energy and matter and concentration, etc., and that kind of obviousness I don't think is what you're going for.

A lot of people have answered that question by saying, Yes: poetry changes individuals and individuals change the world. But that's so vague!  And it's also not helpful because an individual's being changed by an aesthetic or intellectual experience isn't really indicative of what kind of changes that individual will go on to effect in the world. Somebody likes a book of poems, probably they'll want to write poems, or they'll read more poems, or they'll feel better about a given circumstance. Is that really the kind of change we're talking about when we talk about art's propensity to change the world?

Or: people say, Yes, poetry changes the world because it makes the world more bearable. Well, so do ice cream, new tennis shoes, and weekly episodes of So You Think You Can Dance. (Or is that just me? Go Dominic and Sabra!)  But those kinds of change--pacification, consolation--they also maintain the status quo by making people feel better about whatever they want to feel better about--better equipped to tolerate the very conditions that need to change. Consolation isn't really a huge catalyst for social change--agitation is... 

But I'm thinking about ornery abstractions like justice and equality, and I'm talking about change that is global, moral, economic, governmental, environmental. I mean holistic, systematic change--which sounds abstract but has everything to do with the quality of individual life on this planet.

Do I think poetry can effect that kind of change? No. And that bothers me. A whole lot. Not because I think poetry should create that kind of change, but because poetry is what I do. And for me, the doing means that poetry gets most of my energy, most of my love, most of my ability, most of my time. I am a glacially slow producer--a lot of the process of writing for me consists of reading other poetry and literature, letting outside ideas and texts and images absorb and coalesce with whatever is subconsciously brewing in my own head, till: marinate, marinate, marinate, TA-DA! A poem (or, more likely, a line) is born.

I absolutely do not believe that art has or should have any social or political obligations. That seems like the quickest way to kill it. But I do struggle with wondering whether poets--and that's poets, not poems--don't have some kind of obligation to act, to speak up, inhabiting as they do such a unique position with regard to language manipulation. Poets are capable of understanding maybe better than anyone how powerful and influential a metaphor can be; and it is metaphors the world lives by, metaphors shaping how we see and code information, shaping what we value. In that realm, how easily and quickly language goes from being a tool to being a weapon.

That's not to say if poets do (?) have some kind of obligation to social critique, it need take the form of "political poetry." Let the poems be esoteric and insular, so long as the poet's sphere of action isn't similarly circumscribed.

Maybe? I dunno. To me poetry feels like a pretty consuming activity. When I have tried to devote what felt like a responsible amount of time to more public involvements, like grassroots campaigns or regular editorial work, I haven't wanted to do those things half-assed, so most of my enthusiasm and energy went there--and I just let the poetry stall for a while.

Maybe a solution to the (my) conflict would be allowing poetry to be a more seasonal devotion--never abandoned, but sometimes laid down for other devotions--and then, with those duties attended, taken up again in all its single-minded glory. Maybe. Somehow I always seem to revert to total self-absorption with my writing, because I am so--what--unmoored without it. (But I worry that "bored" may be the more honest word). All the while though I'm wondering what the extreme carefulness and precision I try to practice in my own poetry might achieve if applied to, say, journalism or environmental writing. I'd still like to believe there is a way to do both, that it's just a question of balance to which I haven't yet found a tenable answer.


from Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields by Ashley Capps:

Hymn for Two Choirs

Best apple I ever had was three o'clock
in the morning, somewhere outside
San Francisco, beach camping, stars holding
the sky together like sutures. I was thinking
how I was going to get old and ask myself
why did I only live for one thing:
at the same time I didn't know how to change.
I thought I felt like my neighbor's huge dog--
every day stuffed into a small man's green T-shirt
and chained to a stake in a yard of incongrous
white tulips. Here and there a red bird, a train.
Way down the beach other tents glowed orange.
I heard a stranger call my name
and another stranger, laughing, answered.


What Constitutes a Proper Planet

I decided to drive to the beach, where I sat in the sand and dug
     a large hole.
There was a tiny translucent crab with eyes like my mother
and such a specific inner life I tossed it fast back into the tide.
The sop I scooped out made a kind of wall which slid in on itself
     if my pace slackened.
I had to dig quicker. I dug frantic. Kids appeared with plastic
I wanted to ask them not to collapse it, but they hung back, a
     cautious tribe.
Till at last, one poked me with a stick and asked why I was
     doing that.
And I said, to keep the ocean out. And then they all joined in.


. . .

next interview: Catherine Doty

other first-book interviews

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