every other day

26 APRIL 06

My first book will be published in September and I wonder: what kind of difference will that make? I mean, will it change me? Or will it inspire me to change--to do things to help the book find its audience?

Curious about how others were finding their first-book experience, I made a list of questions to ask a few poets who have one full-length book out so far. I'll post responses (in Q&A form or in paragraphs) as they roll in. My basic question seems to be

How has your first book changed your life?

1. Shanna Compton:

I remember where I was when I got the news that Winnow Press wanted to publish the book. I was home, and Corrine Lee (the publisher) called, and as she was telling me they'd like to do it I immediately started to panic. I'd changed the entire book since I'd submitted it. It was about 30 pages longer, had a new title, and though there was a little bit of overlap between the book I'd sent her months before and the book I ended up with, it felt completely different to me. I explained everything, and was very relieved when she said revisions were fine, and that a new title was even fine, and that she was looking forward to reading the improved manuscript. After Winnow made the announcement, there was a little bit of a backlash about the contest--I don't really want to get into the specifics--but I had a couple of difficult decisions to make and had to really think about whether publishing the book with Winnow was going to be worth the potential trouble. At one point I withdrew the book, backed out of the contract, which I had signed but not yet mailed. But we kept talking, and in the end decided to go ahead.

And yes, I remember when I first saw the book. I was home and answered the door for the delivery, and opened the box. I immediately took a picture of the book in my hand and posted it to my blog.

 Down Spooky (from Shanna's blog)

It was a Saturday (last June) so my husband was home, which was fun. The book was even more beautiful than I expected. I felt (and still do) very grateful to Corinne and everybody at Winnow for taking such care with it.

So the book existed but wasn't officially "out" for several more months. The publication date wasn't until October. So nothing changed then, not really. It was exciting to show it to my friends and just to say "hey, this thing exists." But I think my take on the experience might be a little different from some first-time authors because I've been through the process with so many people as an editor and publicist. I think I had a better idea of what to expect, and what not to expect. Still, after the book was officially out, now, it's great to be able to answer that inevitable question "do you have a book?" with a yes. Of course that's great. I'd like to say I shrugged off the pressure to publish before Down Spooky was accepted, but I hadn't completely. I'd been a finalist in another contest already with another book, and the MS that became Down Spooky was really the third full-length collection I'd written. I took the others to the prom and they didn't dance. And I felt that disappointment, and that pressure. I dismissed it as well as I could. I was just about ready to publish the book myself, because I'd had so much fun doing chapbooks.

Jennifer Knox & I decided to go on a book tour together.
Our books were coming out at the same time, and since I was her editor at Soft Skull and would be working on setting up her events and promoting her book (A Gringo Like Me) anyway, and since we had become friends while working on her book together, we thought it would be fun--and less expensive/lonely--to team up. We had such a freaking fantastic time. I'm naturally pretty shy in person (which is why I like blogging so much, I guess--it's just easier for me) but Jen's not at all. Even though our performance styles and poems are quite different, we quickly fell into a rhythm and came up with sets that complemented each other.

In addition to the readings, she and I also gave workshops and visited all kinds of classes. We did one performance workshop, where I just sort of assisted Jen (she being the true Performer and having the slam background and all), and a couple on publishing/book design, which reversed our roles. But most of the time we answered questions about our books, which the students had read in advance of our visit, and "how to get published" questions, and "what's it like to live in New York" questions, and "hey do you wanna go get a beer" questions.

I learned a lot about reading and performing on the tour and from Jen--I'm still learning this part of being a poet, and until a few years ago wasn't able to read in public at all. Even now, I get nervous and bomb about 1 in 7 times, but that's lots better than 4 in 5. I like reading. It just takes practice. Readings are also a great way to sell books, and I'm obligated to my publisher to sell as many as I can. They put in a lot of money and effort, taking a chance on me. Gotta hold up my end.

Has my first book changed my life? I'm of two minds about it. Part of me, out of a long-growing understanding of the inner workings of the publishing world and more superficial workings of the literary arena, wants to say no, having a book hasn't changed my life, and to mean it. Because I think too much importance is placed on the first book, or "book" period (in the way most of us mean it when we say it). I lament (along with so many others) that for a poet without one it's so awfully hard to get one. This is why I'm an advocate of DIY and micropress publishing, and am thrilled to see poets continue those trends (which are part of what's really a very long tradition), and cheer for the new technologies and options available to all. Do I think having a book proves anything about me as a writer? No. Not anything that the poems outside of the context of a book wouldn't. Do I think the book is superior to my chapbooks for instance, no, not because it's "more official" or more widely accepted as the real deal. Does it change my life as a writer on a day-to-day basis, no. People are already starting to ask about the next one. The next one! There's always a next one.

On the other hand, yes. Yes in the ways I mentioned before, being able just to say I have one and have that pressure valve releasing steam. Has it been a boost to my confidence that somebody liked my work well enough to spend money on producing and distributing it in book form? Absolutely, and I'm very grateful for that. Have more people come to read my work in book form than in scattered magazines and websites alone? Yes, and that's great. Was I pleased to graduate from writer to author, that subtle but meaningful shift? You bet. Does the book as object and context mean anything special to me, as a kind of physical representation of my accomplishment? Yes, and I'm proud of it. So I guess more yes than no, but with those qualifications.

The best advice I got before the book came out was from two former teachers: "Ignore the assholes," and "Publication day is the worst day in a writer's life. The writing process itself is where you should get your satisfaction." Both of those things have really been helpful to keep in mind. Writing the poems is much more fun for me than anything else.

The reviews so far have been mostly great--in fact, I was really shocked at some of them. I just feel grateful that people have read the book and felt compelled to say they like it and why, and to criticize and challenge me, too. I expected the negative reviews--in fact, I'd steeled myself for more--and hope I can read them with an open mind (those that aren't just spittle). Working as a publicist for many years certainly helped my perspective on all that stuff. You can't influence or police public reaction to a book. A reader's honest reaction is never wrong. You might not agree with it, but you can't blame them for having it. You just write a book and put it out there, then write the next one, and I'm trying to do that now.


A poem from Down Spooky by Shanna Compton:


The day of prophecy has come and gone.
It seems our father never did possess
any ecclesiastical spacecraft.

Suppose he had, in his white suit and hat,
arrived? Would we have felt the same surprise,
and laughed beneath our hands as we do now?

It takes two years to dissipate the shock
of living in this city, even though
its builders tried to tame it with chill tile.

Its flickering cinema features two films:
The first one treats of progress and its force.
The second is all fiction, mystery.

The soundtracks mingle through the walls. Listen:
Hear the cold creeping spring,
these ardent, clicking leaves.


. . .

next interview: Andrea Baker

other first-book interviews

. . .