every other day

11 AUG 07

How has your first book changed your life?

83. Joshua Poteat


How did you find out that your manuscript had won the 2004 Anhinga Poetry Prize? How often had you sent it out previously?

Voicemail. My wife and I were out of town, so Rick Campbell of Anhinga left a message saying that I won, that Campbell McGrath was the judge, that kind of thing, which was nice of Rick, since time is of the essence. I kicked my PR team into gear (a lazy-ass pug named Ruben, two pencils, and a can of Coke Zero) and got to work immediately, i.e., I watched an episode from the first season of Veronica Mars. I don't mind voicemail at all, actually. Some find it impersonal and distancing, but that's exactly why it's so good, you know? My wife heard the message first, then threw the phone to me. Luckily, it was cordless. I was in our backyard. I wasn't too surprised, actually, since Campbell McGrath is an old family friend, and he said earlier that summer on the beach in Cape Cod when he finally got to judge a contest he would pick me no matter how bad the book was. Just kidding. I still haven't met or talked to the guy. But I do love his work. The Bob Hope poem? Holy crap.

This was my first manuscript, so I sent it to the requisite prizes for 3 years or so (after taking a number of years off from writing anything at all, but that's another boring story), gradually getting more finalist notices as time went on. Yale Younger? Hell no. Walt Whitman...who? But the T.S. Eliot Prize, National Poetry Series, Copper Canyon, Ohio University, Phil Levine Prize, New England/Breadloaf, and some other ones, yes. It's good to know that you're doing something almost right, you know you're headed in the right direction, et al., but most of the time I'd rather not know I'm a finalist in anything, including jury duty, dentist appointments, and parking spaces, because it doesn't matter that much, really, if you think about it. Knowing such a thing, that is. Ultimately, where does it put you? Also, I have to think about being a finalist for a couple months, and that's no fun. I'm kind of glad the ol' book didn't get taken right away (as if), since I kept subtracting and adding to the book. Looking at it now, I occasionally wish that I had waited even longer, worked on it harder, that kind of thing. My work ethic could use a little work.

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

I remember not getting one of the two boxes of books Anhinga sent. More than likely, someone stole it off our front porch. I would have loved to see that thief's face when he/she opened the box. (Ipods? Bars of gold? Pornography? No, my friend, something so much better. You're welcome.) It was quite nice, though, to see the non-stolen finished book. I'm kind of a pessimist about most things, especially concerning poems, but I admit to being slightly excited. They came right before x-mas, which was convenient.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Yep. I wanted the book to look as old as possible without hiring underage workers to scuff and stain each book. That gets expensive. And illegal. I have a collection of old photos that I occasionally use to make things, such as light boxes, collages, scrapbooks, doilies, baby blankets, bible holders, bilge pumps, etc., so I used one of those that had water-marks, tears, abrasions, and I added bird images with a glue stick and my keen sense of spatial placement. My theory was to use the front of the photo for the front of the book, and the back of the photo for the back/blurb area of the book, so when holding said book, it is like holding an old fucked-up photograph. Lots of people ask me if the guy on the front is a relative of mine.

Lynne Knight at Anhinga did all the pushing of buttons, though. I know nothing about Photoshop. And she tilted the title just so, added a frontispiece, made the author photo look just as old, gave me a wide selection of fonts. I refuse to take credit for it. Well, most of it. It was actually lovely working with Anhinga on the book. I highly recommend them.

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

I went from a guy without a book to a guy with a book, which is exactly how I imagined it. If I had the self-confidence to imagine that my life would change with a book, I probably wouldn't be a poet. I would be a well-dressed project manager for a minor advertising firm managing accounts such as Shoney's or Miller Lite. I don't mean to be silly about all of this. I realize I should be honored in some way to even have a book, win a prize. And I am. I just have a few problems--one of them is believing that anything I do matters to the world. I have a hard time with that one. On a bad day, I think that writing could easily be substituted for any other sort of distraction, such as television, soccer, gardening, Trivial Pursuit. Anything to keep us from thinking about the end of our selves.

Has your life been different since?

I guess it's been a little different, despite the above answer. I picked up a few readings from places such as Nebraska, Colorado, New Jersey, Minnesota, South Carolina, and Florida, all lovely tourist destinations...and I met folks who I wouldn't have normally gotten to meet. If that is what having a book does, lets you travel and meet amazing people, then by God give me another. 

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

Promotion is a funny thing to me. I come from a punk rock background. I played drums in a few bands that toured here and there, put out records (the vinyl kind), booked shows at tiny clubs, big clubs, bars, houses, basements, garages, skate parks, record stores, colleges, motels, libraries (thanks Huntington Beach Library!). Keep in mind that this was pre-Internet, mid-nineties. Still, all one had to do was get the right phone numbers and you had a show, a string of them across the country, even in Europe if you were adventurous enough. I got used to playing in front of 7 people, so when 2,000 showed up, it was even better. (This did not happen often, and usually involved a bigger headlining band, such as Fugazi. Opening for Fugazi is like opening for Jack Gilbert.)

The poetry scene right now reminds me so much of my punk scene back then. Kind of underground, full of a strange energy, readings available anywhere, no money, sleeping on floors, cool people coming together from disparate backgrounds with the same idea in mind, small presses, set lists, PA systems, selling books after the reading, something pure underneath it all, etc. etc. I could go on. The only difference is now we have the internet. Blogs have become the new fanzines. A good review on a blog can turn a few readers your direction (thanks Jake York!). If that's what you're into. Oh, there's another difference. You can actually make money off punk these days.

So when Anhinga sent me on a week-long tour of Florida after the book came out (another reason why Anhinga is awesome...honorariums, expenses paid, what the hell?!), I suddenly felt nostalgic. And it was a lot easier than being in a band. No drums to set up. No sweaty bars and drunk dudes with attitude problems. I had done readings that involved travel before this, of course, but it was like touring without a record. What I've been trying to say is the book has made me realize how lucky I am to be a poet. And how joyful it is. Promotion is more than just accumulating sales.

Also, bad reviews are funny and helpful. A kid in New Jersey called me a "fucktard" on his blog. He hated the way I read. I think he was more used to a slam style of reading, in which I have no training. Good reviews are nice, too.

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

Shoot, I don't know. I kind of knew what I had to do going into it, and I did very little. The best advice after the fact, though, comes from Noah Eli Gordon, who takes the prize money in extra copies of the book. He then gives away tons of books, just to get the books out there. I highly admire this non-capitalist version of poetry.

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

Don't get cocky. Someone with a small moustache once said the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless. No, it wasn't Hitler.

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

Closure, mostly. It let me move on to new projects. Otherwise, I would probably still be working on the same old book full of dead birds. How many dead birds can a guy fit into a book? A lot.

Do you want your life to change?

Mostly. I wish my dogs could talk. I eventually wouldn't mind changing jobs, from a junk mail proofreader to perhaps some form of teacher. I kind of miss teaching.

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

75 milligrams of Effexor every day seems to take the edge off. There's definitely something missing, though. Not enough soccer, probably. I realize I shouldn't complain. There are much worse things happening to people around the world than plain ol' white- male-middle-class-American-sadness. It's all I know how to do, though. Any advice concerning such issues would be wonderful.

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

This question is worded rather well. If it said can poetry change the world? I would probably answer no (keep in mind who's answering it). However, worded the way it is right now, with a full moon outside lighting up the alley, I think it probably can.


A poem from Ornithologies by Joshua Poteat:

Nocturne: For the River

I can't bear to be forgotten by any more people,
and walking home under these anonymous street lamps

it would be easy to slip under the cobblestones
and sleep away the nights, comfortable and alone.

Even the street lamps have forgotten me,
forgotten how to give their light,

the sickly powder-orange of a child's mouth
full of aspirin is all they can muster now.

It's sad, yes, but it's also a little too...participatory.
There's no avoiding them, no resemblance

to the living, to the morning light they mimic.
There's a Buddhist proverb:

Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world,
and I've tried, believe me, smiling the pink smile

of a lamb, a quarter in a blind girl's cup,
but does it mean to breathe in this airy version

of asbestos or to keep walking these streets,
smashing each light to reclaim some small, hidden

memento from a time when there was hope?
Tonight, a south wind brings me the scent

of the tobacco plant across the river,
and the bread factory a few blocks away

has given up its loaves to the air,
which redeems us in a way, I think,

for redemption is nothing more
than a breaded wind pulling a night from frailty.

Tell me, Robert E. Lee, of the hundred-year sleep,
of mice skulls in owl dung, your bronze head

bearing the weight of catacombs hidden
in the itch of amputees, gas-lit, forlorn.

Tell me, J.E.B. Stuart, that everything will be o.k.,
that your horse is facing north because

she misses the snowy fields.
Tell me, sad horse, with doves nesting

under your raised hoof, in this century of longing,
how can I go on loving this ruined excuse for a city,

sleepy-sweet night, sweet cicada,
sweet oak, sweet old nothing?

Sad-eyed Matthew Brady, come down to me
from your glass-plated heaven of iodine,

from your tent-city of wagons in a muddy field
where my apartment building now stands,

years of smoke rising between us,
and watch the reflection of crows

roost far below the water in the tulip trees
as Whitman did once after the war,

from a skiff in the shallows of the James,
pale gold, the play of light

coming and going, bats and thrushes
alive with stars, woven over the musical trees 

and over the past, over the milky blossoms
of wild carrot, or, oblivion.

And so, like the river in the distance
humming the trestle-song of night trains,

its skin seeming to hold twilight, delay it,
I stand among these street lamps

a forgotten man, and let the South's last summer
rise up and consume me.


. . .

next interview: Christine Hamm

other first-book interviews

. . .