How has your first book changed your life?
2. Andrea Baker
How has your life been different since? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
First I'm so happy about it and proud of it. "My book. My book!! Oh my God, I wrote a book!!" And that's all very good and never changes, even through all my bleak thought.
But there is a lot of bleak thought. Primarily, my trouble is that the book has no real weight and/or the weight it does have is false and I cannot reconcile this with how important it is to me. One problem is that poetry has nothing to do with my real world, the place I really live. If a book meant that the next time I might get an advance that would pay for time to just write, that would mean something pragmatically. Or if I wanted a teaching job and a book meant I might be able to get one, then it would have an impact. But I don't want to teach.
Though these things are just true and always have been true, I feel more deeply in touch with the fact that hardly anyone cares about poetry and that it really does not matter. For some unaccountable reason it matters A LOT to me--and it also matters to me that I am read, but vanity is the only reason I come up with.
I have also come to understand that I had expected the book to transform me on some level... Make me smarter?? Bring me money?? Make writing easier??
Obviously, it's done none of these things. It is important to me as a security object, but I find that highly suspect. I didn't learn to read until very late (dyslexia)... then my highest degree is high school (perpetual college drop-out)... But the book means to me, "It's all OK. I turned out alright after all." Which is completely nuts. One can't judge one's self on outside approval. Oh, but I do! and in these senses it brings out parts of me that I don't want to see.
But then even this relentless questioning drives me crazy because it can quickly sound, even to myself, like ungratefulness. And my book makes me so happy. I feel a sense of awe when I think of the people whose commitment to poetry enabled its production.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? How do you feel about the critical response and has that had any effect on your writing?
I suppose it's alright to admit that I hang on every word of every review and keep a little list of reviews I know are due out and reviews that have come out. The reviews are the first time I've gotten real your work is about x, y, z feedback about my writing. I'm an intuitive writer and probably a bit blind to whatever I find my way into, so having that sort of feedback is valuable. I want to be more accessible and knowing what I'm doing is important for that. Proceeding from that point is not without difficulty though. I plan to write reviews of other people's work because I know how much those have meant to me.
I read somewhere that second books are as challenging as first books, then it gets easier... I'm not sure if that was in reference to getting the books published or actually writing them. I'm not concerned about getting work published but I'm a little worried about managing to finish poems. I hope it won't be this excruciatingly difficult forever...
I feel accountable to whatever warm reception my book has had. It's very easy to slip into a self-defeating perfectionism.
What did you do to promote sales of the book, and what were those experiences like?
Just before the book came out, I did a very very small northeast "tour" that Slope arranged for me. After it came, I sent out many review copies and made sure the book was entered into a least a couple after-the-book-is-published contests. I have read around the city whenever I've been asked but turned down opportunities to read out of state, which would disrupt my daily life and not pay for themselves. I feel torn, again, about promoting. While I want my work to be read, the energy I have put into promoting has taken away from other aspects of life and can easily become frenzied and obsessive, but for what? And why? What on earth do I have to gain when poetry offers no real rewards? I have to question my own motives.
Did Slope pay your travel expenses on the tour?
They offered to rent a car that I would share with another poet I had never met and they would pay for gas and arrange sofas/floors for me to sleep on. I like things to be simple but I'm also a fairly private person and these arrangements would have been too uncomfortable for me so I went with my family in our own car and paid for hotels. When I look at the economics of promoting poetry it really seems like a wonder that any poetry gets promoted at all.
Can you know how well your book is doing? Does your publisher tell you anything?
Slope will tell me once a year--so far that means I have yet to hear. All I know are the Amazon sales rankings. Those were impacted by the Poets & Writers feature I was included in and also seem to be affected by on-line reviews (but not print reviews--perhaps because those reach a different purchasing culture...or maybe just have a smaller audience(??)--I'm clueless).
The real measure of how well it's doing seems to be in critical response and general "buzz." I know that bits of it have been taught at a number of colleges and that sure makes me the proud parent of my poems but I assume that has been Xeroxes and not book sales.
Did you find that you sold many books at a reading?
The most I've ever sold is four. This is completely depressing, but a lot of people who come to a reading already have a book. And the book wasn't printed in time for the initial readings (the "tour"). I'm a quiet seller so that may be a factor.
Do you enjoy reading?
I find it a bit painful if the audience is very small (I'm talking under 10 people). I've also read a couple times when the audience was very large (over 100)--these were for the Poetry Society and in nice, quiet auditoriums. I enjoy that a lot. But those are the extremes. Most readings have had maybe 15-30 people. They can go really well--one I did for Drunken Boat was an evening with so much energy. The more there are other arts involved, the more energy there tends to be. I read once with Charles Valle and that was also great because he had a visual component.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? Or what was the best advice you got?
I didn't get any advice and I'm afraid that all I have to offer is my own account of the experience.
Do you want your life to change?
No. I actually think everything is just right.
But I really wonder how all this makes you feel. Do you find it bleak? Do you want your book to change your life? Have the responses you've gotten so far altered your perceptions?
I remember this Yugoslavian cowboy painter who had slicked back hair and very formal Roman busts in all of his paintings. Matisse sat on his balcony turning things over in his mind: mat, fish, bowl.
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next interview: Stacy Szymaszek
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