every other day

28 MAY 06

How has your first book changed your life?

9. Brent Cunningham

cover of Bird & Forest

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

My publishers [Ugly Duckling Presse] had set up a reading for myself and Yuko Otomo (another UDP author) in New York, at the Bowery Poetry Club. I saw my book for the first time about five minutes before the reading, and this was also the first time I had met my publishers (Matvei Yankelevich, Anna Moscovakis, and Ryan Haley, although it's a collective with many others involved). I had gotten to the club early, sat down at the bar, had a beer, and began scrutinizing those arriving. The Ducklings arrived late, and the book was thrust into my hands at the same time they were offering theirs for shaking.

Then the reading started. Luckily I was the second reader, so I had time to look at this strange object I had been so anticipating: I found it then, as I still find it, a beautifully designed piece of work. I've never met the designer of the cover, William Bahan, but he did a brilliant job. Much earlier I had sent them a painting I had done: in my mind, the painting was sort of the unpublishable completion of the title poem. William drew on the images from the painting in a way that managed to be simple and pleasing but not overly prettified--which was what I wanted my writing to do as well.

I also love how, inside the book, there are black & white details from your painting, connecting recognizably to the bird and tree images on the cover.

pages from Bird & Forest

Could I see a jpeg of the painting itself?

Here's one. It's not a professional shot--I think the painting looks better in real life, but whatever, I'm not really a painter...

painting by Brent Cunningham

So you came from California to Manhattan to read. Had you been in New York before?

I had been in New York, but had never read there or anything, and actually hadn't been to the Bowery Poetry Club, though I had been to St. Mark's a few times. Earlier this year I got to read at St. Mark's too, that was very amazing after so many years of reading about it, though it's a quieter space than the Bowery and I had doubts during the reading that it was going well.

Do you usually enjoy reading?

I used to really like reading, but that was back when I thought all my ideas were original and amazing and the world just so needed to hear from me. Now I'm unsure that's true, and it makes readings more fraught. Still there are so many bad readings in the world I figure that, even if it goes badly, one more doesn't hurt. There was a group reading with the UDP editors down in LA last month at Beyond Baroque, everybody taking about 12 minutes, and that was great: they had translations to read, there were differences in style but also a lot of resonances, there was a very appreciative audience, etc.

How did you happen to hook up with Ugly Duckling in the first place?

I submitted to their open call for manuscripts--blindly judged, which was nice because, working for a distributor of poetry books (SPD actually distributes UDP), anything else might have been perceived as nepotism a bit. I hear they're not doing that any more. They found it hard to disappoint a lot more deserving writers than they were able to please, by a factor of a hundred. Not easy to write 100 rejection letters.

Before you had your book in your hands, did you imagine your life would change because of it?

Given my job, I'm certainly someone who ought to have had a good idea what was about to happen. And actually I don't think I had many delusions about money or fame or other life changing events, even in modest ways. Mostly I tried to go into it with no expectations, although I did expect that my immediate family would be impressed. And they were: unduly impressed, really, since Ugly Duckling was pretty much the same as Random House to them. That's a big change: realizing just how strongly people hold to their idealized notions of what it means to be a published writer. In the case of my family, I've allowed them to retain their delusions in small ways where it benefited me, and I recommend that as a general approach. Part of the "small lies are healthy" school of thought.

How has your life been different since your book came out?

It's been a bit harried trying to travel around and give at least a few readings: New York, Washington D.C., North Carolina, Austin, New York again, and Los Angeles this year. Some of my more distant friends suddenly take my writing more seriously. Oh, and one of the more corporate-minded board members where I work has started a campaign to get me an agent and to have me negotiate for royalties. I tell him there's no money in poetry, and if there was I'd be happy to give it back to Ugly Duckling to make more books, but all he hears is that I'm letting myself be exploited, which is so ridiculous it amuses me endlessly.

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

Hard to not make this sound like false modesty, but I genuinely didn't expect as many copies to sell as sold, and I didn't expect people (not hundreds, maybe not tens, but certainly fives of people) to come up to me and say they liked the book and talk specifically about what they liked. I guess I was jaded before, but that really shocked me.

What did you do to promote sales, and what were those experiences like?

I gave readings, and those have been fine, sometimes great like the group reading at Beyond Baroque last month. But I had given readings before so that wasn't too new. I got very lucky and had a publisher who sent out review copies for me, and followed up when there were inquiries about the book, so I didn't have much that I really had to do in the way of marketing. But I did start a blog, figuring that otherwise people might not believe I existed, especially younger kids. I made the rule to keep the blog to images as much as possible because I tend to develop opinions slowly, so the daily journal kind of blog isn't my kind of cake.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out?

My girlfriend sometimes calls me the Crusher of Dreams. She sees me saying discouraging things to younger poets a lot. I believe it's a good idea to be realistic, but such realism sometimes sounds like pessimism. However dour I sound, I do love poetry, I'm obsessed by it, it organizes my life and pervades my thought, it is my convivial companion in the country and in travel. But it's no route to celebrity. And in a sense that should be freeing: if you have a sound mind for it, being published ought only lead you to push your writing further, and cause you to answer the difficult question of why you do the writing outside the numbers of audience. Low expectations, moderation, and generosity towards all involved: no matter the field, "good" advice always advises the same thing, it's just boring to follow.     

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

I have this rather old idea that you should change what you're doing as radically as possible as often as you can. The fact is, you'll think you just traveled from Earth to the Sun, but to the outside people and readers it will only look like you went from Calexico to Mexicali. That's the weirdness of being a person: your apocalypse barely registers out there. Still it's better to move than to stay in Calexico. So: I'm trying to go to the Sun.

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

Most of the reviews have been kind, sometimes downright flattering, so it has given me the sense that I did ok. More than anything they have made it more difficult to move to something new, as now I am in a panic that my best work is behind me. But it doesn't change the rule about trying to alter your deal.

Do you want your life to change?

Not so much anymore. Personally I'm fairly content with where I am. That might have something small to do with the book publication, or to do with the person I'm dating, or my job going well right now, but mostly it's getting a better handle on myself and my mind's habits (there's a phrase I think I get from Fredric Jameson that seems better than measuring true or false, which is to ask instead whether a thing or an explanation is "satisfying to the mind"). I do want the political situation of our country to change. But I'm not sure how much impact I can have on that.

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

Small attempts to act more politically, and to be more informed. But mostly, as I said, I'd be ok for things to stay as they are in my personal life. I only want to have the weather be like it has been today (cool but sunny) and I'll be fine.

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

I think that poetry draws to it those who are interested in its questions. It not only creates change among those people, it is itself mired in the question, the difficulty, and the reality of alteration and the de-stable. Poetry is often rather change-averse, I find: radical only in the degree of its skepticism and conservativism.

It's certainly useful to recall how large the world is, and that poetry's but a small corner of it, with a small presence on the cultural screen. However it's also true that every particular knowledge is created by leaps and assumptions that are secretly more universalizing than many people want to face, and more arrogant. Poetry voyages alongside history, philosophy, economy, science, labor, etc. All these fields partake of concepts that really can be considered cultural and societal in their embodiment, so I suppose poetry could theoretically affect some of those concepts dramatically. But to change things in that way carries the same burden as a new historical theory, or a new theory of work: which is, that nothing can come into being until it constructs a false limit. Words always delimit, even as they offer or vivify. I guess I'd just want to ask: why do we always think we're the best ones to create change, how do we know that, and wouldn't anything we made be complicit in its unmaking of other things?


From Bird & Forest by Brent Cunningham:

Part III: Bird & Forest (And Forest)

There was something I wished to get at. What exactly was it? That every living thing crosses a surroundings. But this is nothing, I realize.

Reality can't be forced. Nevertheless it pressed on me terribly, until I wanted it over and done with. If some other being, across this great forest, could be made to understand, that would be worth my small self and treasure. Not how it had happened, but how it had happened.

In short, I understood: the bird had died in its flight, while another had taken its place.

Many times I said to myself: "The bird is no longer bird, the trees no longer trees." I had to look at a few things. What things? I'll tell you: life, conflict, thought, love, fiction. All the faces of trouble.

A grain or irritation, fought against, made into art. We know this's impossible. And yet...

No, not "and yet." At least write something besides "and yet."

An image is made until it is adequate to reality. It can't just become reality. It can only happen the exact way I have just said so carefully, after changing words, writing over words, giving up, coming back, with one phrase, and another phrase, giving up again, forgetting, invalidating, it is adequate.

My bird, my forest. How they sickened and excited me. Then a new set of concerns came along, new technologies, a new lease on life. Metal sides, rubber wheels, metal feathers, glass windows, bridges, roads, floats, tunnels. The flyer entered a forest mechanical.

By effort, or by indifference, a bird sometimes escapes its ancient duties. Someone has asked whether this escape can be other than from desires in general. Will it not suffer the fate that it is? Such a question is deceptive, destructive, and impure.

A motion. a thing smaller than any mote. A hidden noise.

My friends, I have come today, in my little bird-car, to say hello to these depths of the heart.


. . .

next interview: Geraldine Kim

other first-book interviews

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