21 JULY 06
How has your first book changed your life?
19. Frannie Lindsay
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I wasn't expecting it! Utah sent the first copy of the book to my work address. So there in the middle of all the interdepartmental envelopes and memos was a padded envelope. I had been having a rough day and almost cried.
Then I opened it. I was afraid to read it. But I made myself read every single poem. It was scary. And it felt good.
The best part, though, was that Jean Valentine was in Cambridge for the afternoon. She came to my office, and I took the rest of the day off to celebrate with her. It could not have been more perfect.
How involved were you in creating the cover design?
Utah uses a standard template for their Swenson Award cover, but as for the cover art, I had full control. And I knew exactly what I wanted. The photo for my book was taken by a professional photographer and friend--Meg Birnbaum, of Somerville, MA--at the Mt. Auburn Cemetery columbarium where my mother's ashes are kept. Meg did several shoots, most of them on rainy days. Finally we got some weak, early-spring sun, and it gave us a painterly, light-infused effect. Utah chose the background colors, which I think are beautiful.
Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it?
It's funny, people kept saying things like "Now you're a famous poet," and I knew that nothing very dramatic was going to happen really. Having gone to Iowa, with many of my fellow classmates now on their sixth or seventh book, I considered myself to be on the very bottom rung of a tall ladder.
Still, given my last 30 years (eleven of them away as a serious pianist), it really has been a very important benchmark for me.
Was your focus on music part of the reason that you didn't have a book published until last year? Have you been writing all the while?
I wrote steadily in the years after Iowa, and sent two book manuscripts out to competitions. One of them did very well: it was a finalist--one of just two--at the Houghton Mifflin series. So I kept striving for a book.
My return to music came about very suddenly. Quite literally, I woke up one morning and needed, body and soul, to go back to the piano. Over time--and this is still true--I found that I couldn't keep both music and poetry going with the seriousness that each required. I was practicing about six hours a day, and beginning to perform. Looking back, I realize that, to me, the language of music had picked up where the language of words left off. So for the decade from about 1991 to 2001, I played very much in earnest. I believed my writing days were over. I didn't miss them.
And then, just as suddenly, I missed them terribly. And I started writing again.
How has your life been different since the book came out?
I've given more readings, people have paid me to come and read, and getting published has come a little bit more easily. Now and then, a good journal has even solicited work from me.
But by far the nicest thing has been getting email from total strangers who have read the book and been affected by it. That's been so moving to me. I always answered them; in fact, I've formed a close friendship with one of them. She is an excellent poet.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I remember telling a well-known poet about my book a few months before it came out. He said something like "Ahh, another book of poetry to be greeted with a great big yawn." I didn't think I'd ever forgive him for raining on my parade, but that comment prepared me for the reality.
On the other hand, I stumbled accidentally across some very positive reviews of the book in good journals: Mid-American Review, Salamander, and Harvard Review. I was deeply honored by these.
What have you been doing to promote the book?
Like most poets, I am not a natural self-promoter. Living in the Greater Boston area, where there are many poetry series, I didn't have to work too hard. Mostly, I talked to friends, who talked to friends, and so on. I can only imagine how much harder it would have been if I lived in a small, conservative town.
And I never thought I'd want one, but I've been coaxed into having a website for publicity.
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 I got was not to worry about the poems that I had to cull from the book. J.D. McClatchy is a wonderful and exacting editor, and suggested the removal of about eleven poems. This was hard to sit with, but a friend reminded me to look ahead to manuscript number two, and to keep these poems as a starter culture. I did, and my second book, Lamb, is now about to be released from Perugia Press. Those poems are there, and they are, in fact, a much better fit.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
It's helped me think of myself as a professional writer. Not in an egotistical way; rather, I take my need for writing time very seriously now. It doesn't get shoved aside as easily as it once did.
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing?
I was amazed--I still am--at how much people love this book. The one thing that readers say, again and again, is that it comforts them. Since it isn't exactly a comfortable book, but written with a lot of tenderness, that response comes to me as a real gift. And the reviewers really understood the impulses driving each poem.
In my current writing, I am much less afraid to go out on a limb, to treat extreme suffering and the transcendence of it.
You've won 2 prizes in 2 years--any down side to that?
The advantages are tremendous, of course. The publication of the second book has given me the fundamentals of hope in my future as a writer. And that outweighs everything I'm about to say about the downside. People probably don't often think of the disadvantages. I didn't. But yes, they are there.
Boston and Cambridge are densely populated by poets, and there are lots and lots of reading series here. Many of them tend to seek out readers who have either just come out with first books or are well known. My second book kind of disqualifies me from either of these categories, so I've faced some challenges in booking readings this time around.
My biggest challenge is overcoming my own expectation that a third book will be out by 2008. I've been writing a great deal of new work this summer, with a third manuscript in mind. But I don't want to feel that I'm running a race with myself.
Do you want your life to change?
Yes. I am still balancing between my 9-to-5 job and full-time writing. It's very tricky. I'm longing to move out into the world as a poet. I think this will be very difficult, since I am in my late 50s. I'll have to be extremely resourceful and flexible. I hope I can do it, even part of the way.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
Little by little, poets are seeking me out for guidance in their work and in their publishing efforts. I love helping them. I'm also about to start teaching a biweekly workshop for a local poetry series. I won't get paid, but right now that doesn't matter to me at all.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
One reader and writer at a time, yes--by making peace with our inner moral discord. I don't see poetry as a power-wielding political tool, but as a delicate instrument for spiritual change. Even though I am not an activist per se, if I didn't believe in that, I'm not sure I'd be as driven to write.
A poem from Where She Always Was by Frannie Lindsay:
Eve in Exile
When God's hand helped me
break, I thought the pain would kill you.
We were never meant to heal, so
I am taking up the snapped wing
that you gave me then
to drop, disabled, back to where
the cave of your travail is deep
with dust, the garden's flowers brittle,
and it is blessed to remain
unready. Adam, my sister.
. . .
next interview: Rebecca Loudon
other first-book interviews
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