every other day

30 JULY 07

How has your first book changed your life?

77. Catherine Doty

Momentum by Catherine Doty

How did your manuscript happen to be picked up by CavanKerry Press? How often had you sent it out previously?

I have always been bad at the business of sending out, much as I love the idea of an audience. CavanKerry's Joan Cusack Handler contacted me and asked to see a manuscript, which I then hastily, carefully, and with the help of wise friends cobbled together.

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

I was delighted with all the things somewhat out of my control: the colors and proportion of the cover images, the typography and design of the pages, and the delicate heft of it all made me happy. I also had that "cleaned closet" frisson: here was all I had of usable good, and in one place.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

I had several family photographs I wanted to use, but was not sure how best to use them. CavanKerry's Peter Cusack experimented, enlarging and cropping until he came up with something that didn't shout "memoir." I wanted the cover photograph to be evocative, but not narrative. I loved what he did with it.

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

I was a very old first-book person, so what changed in my life was that I was no longer bookless. That's truly all I expected to change.

Has your life been different since?

In situations in which a writer is only accepted or respected if sandwiched between two covers, my life has improved: I am much more likely to be perceived as a "real" writer. In more personal ways, my view of my work has changed. That first volume took me fifty years to accumulate; I haven't that luxury of time if I hope to have a second. Also, I tossed anything not deserving placement in the first book, so that shaggy pile of pieces in transition became book or compost. Very cleansing.

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

I really had few expectations. CavanKerry does a masterful job of publicizing its books, and it is thanks to my press that Garrison Keillor picked up a piece for More Good Poems for Hard Times and Billy Collins for 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day. Hearing Keillor read my poem on his Writer's Almanac was very happy-making.

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

I bring my book to all the readings and writing/teaching events I am involved in. I could do more, I know. I've always wanted to make a good poem more than I've wanted to show that I've published one, and self-promotion takes both stomach and energy I lack. CavanKerry even helps its authors by gathering us to discuss such things as book pushing. I refuse to attack people in elevators, but I know I could do more.

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

I wish someone had told me to write a young-adult novel with a wizard in it. The best advice I got was from The Roches, in their song "Big Nothing," which describes the rocketing career changes they expected the day after their appearance on Saturday Night Live. I don't mean this in any cynical way; if one has a fairly satisfactory life, there's plenty to be thankful for, and it's not wise to expect a book--especially a book of poetry--to change it much. (Now a novel....)

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

If that person were looking for a tenure-track teaching job, I would say flog that slender volume for all it's worth. If I were not teaching full-time in a public middle school, I would, because that's where publication can certainly give one leverage. Before and during the publishing process, talk to others who've been through it, and run all paperwork past a lawyer familiar with publishing.

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

I have a flat little pile of things live-and-in-process. I'm faster than ever to jettison weak stuff, and not romantic about revising ancient work.

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

I am very grateful for the few critical responses my book has gathered, and more grateful for the kindness with which it has been received. I have plenty of strong ideas about what I see as weaknesses in my work, and crafting those weaknesses away is my job. If a critic comes out with a crushing rejection of my stuff, I hope I'll see that as a means to strengthen my resolve to make good poems.

Do you want your life to change?

In many ways, yes. Are we still talking about books?

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

I'm trying to clear my desk for writing. My desk is metaphorical, but laden with stuff outside the realm of writing. To self: simplify. Say no.

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

Poetry changed my world, or kept me in it, at least. Anything can create change in the world, so why not this arcane and suspicious passion for words?


A poem from Momentum by Catherine Doty:

Living Room

Remember the Halloween night
I was sick with migraine
left alone with you
while the others went out
and we took your nap together
after the beer
you on the couch and me
on my back on top of you
I could smell the painted flames
on my devil costume
the devil's starchy mouth hole
damp with beer
I could see the car lights
stripe the living room ceiling
hear Halloween banging
at the door
hear your breathing
as I lay full-length
on that bony, crabby daddy
that man who never touched
who hardly talked
I was happier than I had ever been
I was petting a sleeping lion
I thought of turning five
the next day
I thought of the cake
the paints and paper
I'd asked for
a picture I'd make you
of two red devils sleeping
of bowls of candy
safe and untouched in the dark


. . .

next interview: Henrietta Goodman

other first-book interviews

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