every other day

17 OCT 06

How has your first book changed your life?

39.  Rachel Loden

cover of Hotel Imperium

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

Well, this is a little embarrassing, but I recall saying that I wanted to sleep with it under my pillow. I never actually did that. Really my most vivid memories are of receiving a print of the cover from designer Erin Kirk New. I remember tearing open the UPS package and being thrilled to smithereens. She had Lichtensteined my man Nixon, as she put it in an email. I can't imagine a better cover for my book.

But given the fact that the Georgia series has been axed in the wake of the whole Foetry dust-up--though not because of it, at least on the record--probably what some people would like to know is how did I win this contest, and was anything sinister involved?

I'd resisted publishing a book for decades, and (in retrospect) am very grateful for that. Shudder to think what those books of juvenilia would have been like. Finally I made a manuscript and started sending it out to contests--fourteen in all, over the space of a little more than a year (says my check register). Georgia was number eleven. When I got the call from Bin Ramke, with whom I'd never previously spoken, I thought I'd entered some kind of twilight zone, a happy but amazing one. Neither he nor the judge, James Galvin (also a complete stranger), had anything to gain from giving a book to an agoraphobic housewife in Palo Alto, California. But that's exactly what they did.

One of the exquisite ironies of the recent contretemps is that now the wife of the founder of Foetry has a book in a nonexistent series, because she, too, won the competition. One thinks of the law of unintended consequences--a cruel law for her, perhaps, because (like so many of us) she suffers the consequences without being a player in the game.

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

Not so much with its arrival, but with the realization that if others were going to take me seriously, and expend time and resources on my work, perhaps it behooved me to do more than sew up my little packets and leave them in a shoebox under the bed.
How has your life been different since?

I still go back and forth on "Auction of the Mind" (as Dickinson called it) and sometimes long for the days of writing in delicious isolation. But I think that's like longing for a place you've lived, and (in truth) will never live again. It's very similar to the way I feel about Vermont--I'm married to a Finn, and he's had enough snow for a lifetime! But that doesn't stop me from pining for the place. So there's a lot of snow in the poems.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

I sent Erin some pictures of Nixon, and probably chattered a bit about his primacy in the book. But what she did--blowing up a shot of him, cropping it in the eerie way she did, using that faux-Cyrillic font--was all her own genius.

Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises? Did Hotel Imperium lead to the publication of your chapbook, The Richard Nixon Snow Globe?

My expectations were low, so pretty much everything that happened was surprising--the fact that the book was reprinted, for instance, that it was shortlisted for a BABRA (Bay Area Book Reviewers) award along with books by Michael McClure, Adrienne Rich, and Philip Levine (McClure won), that it was both reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle and later selected for their best-of-year list, that Poetry Daily featured the book three times, that Contemporary Authors did an entry, that I had a letter from the mysterious Fund for Poetry, that there were so many reviews, and such generous ones.

Randolph Healy and I got acquainted through the POETICS list, I think, or perhaps some combination of lists. We exchanged books--he's a brilliant poet as well as a publisher of beautiful chapbooks--and he asked me back in 2002 whether I'd like to do a chap with Wild Honey Press. I said yes (and was very happy) but then proceeded to do nothing about it for a very long time, as is unfortunately my wont re: book publishing.

Finally, late in 2004, I sent him a manuscript and, luckily, he still wanted to publish it, so The Richard Nixon Snow Globe came out last year. Randolph's one of the most sterling individuals I've had the good fortune to meet on the net and it was a thrill to publish a book in Ireland, which is one of the places my people come from.

I'm sad that I wasn't able to send either book to my mother, that (due to her illness) it would simply have confused and frightened her. That's a real loss for me, but not exactly a surprise.

What have you done to promote Hotel Imperium and what have those experiences been like for you?

I sent the book to some people who weren't on Georgia's list, and probably should have sent it to more. Learned how to make a postcard, bought a mailing list, sent that around. Made a website, very rudimentary, should have updated it more often. Tried to be part of the life of my times on the various lists and blogs. Am establishing a blog of my own, although I won't be active on it till some other projects are complete.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? Or what was the best advice you got?

The best advice came from poet Wendy Battin, quoting Don Marquis, who said that "Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo."

To which I would add, I guess, that in the world of the poem, dawdling can be productive, so you might as well take the time to be really pleased with the trail of rose petals you leave.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

There was an unsettling period right after the book came out when I felt somewhat torn by my various responsibilities. It wasn't fun, but I found my footing again. During that time, I often fantasized about a list for first-book authors, a place to compare notes and commiserate--something like what you've done on your blog, actually! It's wonderful that you had the wherewithal (and the common sense) to do this.
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing?

It's been mostly bracing and terrific, from the first review in Publishers Weekly to more than a dozen that followed. I was lucky. I learned things. Even when I wasn't on the same page with the reviewer, it was psychedelic to have my work upended like that, to realize that I could be read that way.

I guess my only possible complaint, in the midst of a lot of happiness, is that occasionally people's takeaway is a kind of caricature of what I do, involving (say) Nixon or a partisan view of the U.S. political scene, when actually I think and hope that I'm after much bigger game--even and especially when I'm writing about those things.

I don't think it's an influence except in that I stubbornly continue to write various sorts of poems and am delighted when people notice, as when The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror mentions "My Secret Flag," a recent poem that includes fairies.

What direction is your current work taking?

One fun thing recently was a microplay, "A Quaker Meeting in Yorba Linda," based on my prose poem of the same name. It was performed in New York in May as part of PLAYS ON WORDS: a Poets Theater Festival curated by Tony Torn, Lee Ann Brown and Corina Copp, produced in association with the Ontological-Hysteric Incubator and the Poetry Project. The amazing Tony Torn starred as "a scarily comic version of Richard Nixon," as Charles Bernstein wrote later on his blog. When I have a chance I'd like to look at poems like "Last W & T" (from Hotel Imperium), which is based on Nixon's will, and see whether there's more dramatic potential to be plumbed, or even the beginnings of a larger project.

Lately I've also been inhabiting poems by people like Desnos, Stevens, Eliot, and Rilke, and then turning them (as spies are sometimes turned) towards an enemy, or towards my own ends. Nixon sometimes has a nefarious role in this--and bursts through in all sorts of forms, like a hideous baby alien. But for the most part I just try to be there when the poems come through and not send them away, which is always a temptation when people are dying and the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket.

I've had an offer to publish a second full-length book but haven't even put the manuscript together. At the moment, I'm editing "The HumPo Files"--which is to say the record of my conversation with D.A. Powell, Gabriel Gudding, K. Silem Mohammad, Maxine Chernoff, George Bowering, Gary Sullivan, Ron Silliman, and (in early stages) Ange Mlinko and Katie Degentesh, about poetry and humor. That will likely appear in Jacket in 2007.

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?

Yes. I need tweaking. But organized stupidity is also on the march and it's easy to feel like the sorcerer's apprentice, trying to keep up.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

What's that phrase in chaos theory, the butterfly effect--the notion that (in Wikipedia's words) "the flapping of a butterfly's wings over Tokyo might create tiny changes in the atmosphere, which could over time cause a tornado [in] Texas." I like that. If it's true, it's also remotely possible that somebody read a poem today--and if so, it would be hugely arrogant of us to think we knew in advance exactly what the effect of this reading might be. I say we don't and that's what's so mysterious and pleasurable and even (intermittently!) satisfying about the project.


3 poems from Hotel Imperium by Rachel Loden:


No one is counting in the bedclothes tonight.
No calling cards left on the silver tray.
No stray trolls, snoring beneath a street sign.
No daughter sits down
with a sharp knife and a pomegranate.
Let the old roan whinny in the barley,
the cinder-boy sleep just as his brothers slept.
Nothing is coming. You can hear it
in the slowness of this St. John's night
as it eats through the fields and levitates
the barn. Nothing is waiting
in a suit of mail out in the summer dawn:
no horse, no rider. No hill of shimmer-glass.
Three golden apples, tumbling . . . then none.


My Exchange

          "irrational exuberance"    
             --Alan Greenspan on the markets

Still, the path of the tango was not strewn
with roses.  Five thousand years

might pass without a single dance, the dejecta
of great cities rolled out on a plain like dice

or jewels.  And on my roof
the sleighbells of the gods, their tchotchkes

curled inside a broken jar at Qumran, painted
standing armies in the vaults of heaven.


Was it some corporate Sturmführer

saw a need for spreadsheets
in a town like this, with seven central bankers

to look at; the sweet sea air buffeting
the NASDAQ?  Oh irrational exuberance,

you make me weak!  Let me lie among
the fallen orders, vermilion petals at my feet.


The Killer Instinct

No one can quite

get over it.  It is summer and revenge
lies sweetly in the fields
with her legs open,
                             her Bo Peep
petticoats in ribbons.
                              Et tu,
cutie?  Not

far away, alternate worlds
queue up
to be auditioned,
despairingly among themselves,

but nobody's called back.  Revenge,

our wretched darling, shakes the straw
out of her hair
                      and shines herself
into the reddest apple
on the highest bough.
                                Hanging tough
through hundreds of such afternoons,
worried into life
                       by lightning's play
on elemental soup, her stalwart heart

will rise again, slough off
loose brilliance
                      like a firecracker,
and pack more melodies than Mozart.

Love, revenge, remaindering . . .
is this the end?
                      --The world pumps on,
with all its gently pitiless muzak.

. . .

next interview: Jennifer L. Knox

other first-book interviews

. . .