every other day

5 JUNE 06

How has your first book changed your life?

11. Laura Sims

Practice, Restraint

The Alberta Prize is such a great one: $5,000 (a fortune in poetry terms) and Fence's good distribution... Were you amazed, or did you have a feeling you might win? Had you submitted to many other contests?

Yes, it's a very generous prize and yes, Fence does an excellent job of getting books out there--so I was thrilled to win, and no, I had no inkling. I had been a finalist for the Alberta Prize before, but it was still utterly shocking to WIN. Rebecca Wolff, Editor of Fence Books, sent me an email with the subject heading "you win," so that made it all the more shocking, and wholly unbelievable--I thought it was a practical joke for at least 24 hours.

I submitted to many contests from 2003 on. I said 20 somewhere, but it's probably more accurate to say about ten, with repeat submissions. I also submitted to presses without contests, and I had really had it with nice rejections and close calls when Alberta came through, so I felt and still feel very fortunate--and relieved, overjoyed--at the timing.

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

I was meeting Rebecca for the first time, and she nonchalantly pulled the book out of her bag and handed it to me while we were having dinner. There it was! I remember holding it a lot and flipping through it, and then obsessively checking for flaws, like some anxious mother checking for fingers and toes. All ten toes and ten fingers were there!

How involved were you with the choice of the cover?

I was free to choose my cover, although Rebecca had veto power over it, in case she hated it--luckily she didn't! I had seen Laurie Simmons's work in the MoMA when I was living in New York: haunting black-and-white photos of dolls underwater, right up my aesthetic alley, so when I was thinking about the cover I remembered her. I contacted her directly (via Sperone Westwater Gallery), and she graciously sent me a bunch of jpegs and told me to "go shopping"--for free! When I saw "Boy Walking Bottom of Pool" (the cover image), I fell in love with it, felt it really matched my work, and Laurie Simmons thought so too. I'm thrilled to have it as my cover--anyone who likes it should really check out her other work.

Before the day that you saw your book, did you imagine your life would change because of its arrival? How has your life been different since it came out?

I think I had fairly realistic expectations--I knew the book would "legitimate" me as a writer (whether deservedly or not), meaning that, especially in the "real world," people would stop thinking, "oh, poor Laura, when's she going to stop trying the poetry thing and get a real job?" and start thinking, "Oh, she's a WRITER." Period. It's silly, but that's the way it seems to work. It works that way within the writing world, too, though--suddenly you have some stature thanks to this physical object, and although you're the same writer you were before the book, people see you differently. They also start soliciting you for journal submissions and readings more often... I'm not complaining about that! That's lovely.

What have you been doing to promote sales, and what have those experiences been like?

I've been doing a lot of readings since last October (2005), and I hope those have helped promote sales--it's hard to know. It was difficult to manage trips for readings around my hectic teaching schedule (four classes at three different schools), so some of the trips were less enjoyable than they might have been. Whenever I came back from a quick trip, papers, emails, and lesson planning had piled up and became overwhelming at a certain point. But in general they were positive experiences--I met nice people all over the States, felt appreciated, and got the book out there.

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

Unfortunately, I haven't been writing very much since the book came out. Is it the book's fault? I don't know. From the time I found out about the Alberta until the book's publication I felt like I was in limbo and couldn't really start anything new. So maybe it is the book's fault! Oh well, it was worth the sacrifice. I'm sure the fragmented teaching life (did I mention, at three different schools? I like to highlight my martyrdom...) didn't help much, either. I have started a new project, but haven't been writing enough for it to be the least bit satisfying yet. I have about seven months of free time coming up now, though, thanks to the JUSFC/NEA fellowship, so that should help me get rolling. If it doesn't, I'll be really pissed at myself!

Would you tell me a little about the JUSFC/NEA fellowship? Why did you apply for it? What do you hope to do in Japan? Do you have a special feeling for or connection with Japanese culture?

I applied for it on the poet Sawako Nakayasu's recommendation--she visited Madison for a reading and had just returned from the fellowship, and spoke very highly of it. I had heard of it before, but after her visit I seriously looked into it and decided to apply. I'm glad I did! They send five artists in various disciplines every year, and it's a very generous fellowship. Some people assume you need to know Japanese to apply, but you don't--and they give preference to people who've never visited Japan before.

I first went to Japan in high school, on scholarship, for two months during the summer. At the time, I knew nothing about Japan and had no idea what to expect. But I fell in love with the country immediately, and when I came back, I studied Japanese, and then minored in Japanese Studies in college. Right after I graduated from college I went to Japan on the JET program, and ended up staying for several years. So yes, I do have a special feeling for Japanese culture--I feel like Japan is my second home, and I'm thrilled to be going back there.

I plan to write, write, write and read, read, read when I'm in Japan. My husband will be working on his dissertation while we're there, so I'm hoping that his discipline will influence me to be disciplined with my own writing. I want to work on my poetry, of course, and I also might start work on a young adult novel...but I'm not sure about that. Top priority is the poetry, and I'm also interested in doing some critical writing--not reviews, which I've done a lot of, but larger projects. We'll travel around the country, too, and maybe visit Hong Kong, and I'm going to take as many hot springs baths as I can!

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

I've been very grateful for the critical response so far. First, cyberspace has been a blessing--Ron Silliman reviewed the book on his blog right after it came out, and that was probably the greatest boost I could have gotten. Better than a New York Times review--a Ron Silliman review! Also Simon DeDeo, who runs rhubarb is susan, has given my work some very smart attention. Since then, more print reviews have been coming out, and they've been wonderful, too. I don't think they've had any effect on my writing though--especially since I haven't been writing much!

Do you want your life to change?

Some days I do, some days I don't! (And sometimes my feelings about that change on an hourly basis.) I would like to have a full-time teaching job--that would be a great change.

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

Well, I'm applying for full-time teaching jobs, so hopefully that will work at some point. I'm also teaching and gathering more experience in the classroom, which should also boost my chances in the highly competitive job market. I would also like to follow a stricter writing routine, which is very hard to accomplish during the school year. But I feel like I need to be as disciplined as possible, and hopefully I'll establish some good writing habits in the upcoming months.

How do you feel about teaching? Had you always planned to be a teacher?

I love teaching. It was always something I considered doing, at least after I gave up on becoming a detective like Nancy Drew (at about age 10, I think I finally let that dream go). Teachers have had a huge impact on my life, and I'd like to think I can have a positive impact on students' lives, too. It's wonderful to be in the classroom, but what's most gratifying is to connect with students individually and help them in some way at a crucial time in their lives (college age). Teaching creative writing workshops in particular has been rewarding for me--I've seen it as a way to relive some of my best workshop experiences, and also as a way to redeem some of my worst ones.

What's difficult about teaching is that it takes so much of my energy--or I let it take so much of my energy, how could I not?--that I write infrequently, at best, during the school year. But that's something I realize I'll have to deal with for a long time, unless I want to go back to meaningless office work.

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

I want to say YES! I certainly used to think so when I was younger. In high school I remember writing a pretentious little essay called "Why I Write," and the central theme was basically "the pen is mightier than the sword"...ha! But now, especially in these dark days (or my increased awareness of the darkness of our days), I have very little faith that anything can create change in the world, least of all poetry. I wish I could recapture that faith in The Word! What a great feeling it was.

I guess, on a more positive note, that in a miniscule way poetry can create change--just because people who write and read it do it out of pure love (I hope), and share it with others, and that must create some kind of positive energy in the world. Right?


A poem from Practice, Restraint by Laura Sims:


nowhere and nowhere concerned

with your welfare,

albeit a strange one


The doll looks on.

With a plush human face

the fowl looks on.


Wings over water anticipate


In threes, by the porcelain toes



This is the glassed-in city,

these are its gates.


This tiny hand

is the gatekeeper's wife


in a gesture of solace

unlikely, unlikely,

the sound of her voice

. . .

next interview: CAConrad

other first-book interviews

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