every other day

8 AUG 06

How has your first book changed your life?

23.  Stephanie Young

Telling The Future Off

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

I was at work when a box of 10 or 20 arrived from the printer. I'd been waiting anxiously, forever it seemed, and receiving the actual box felt terribly exciting and unexpectedly anti-climatic. In part because, due to the book's being delayed, I had seen many, many PDF versions of the cover and inside text. And made as many changes and edits to the manuscript, right up to the end, since my publisher, also a friend, accommodated the corrections as I accommodated the delay. Which was great, to have that freedom, but also nerve-wracking and a little crazy, to keep messing with it. In some cases I'd change a line, look at the corrected PDF and then revert back to the original version a week later.

The big change of course from PDF to book was its materiality, its folded and bound quality. Especially the folded part. Its compactness. I've had this same experience with my close friends' books as they get published--if you're used to carrying around someone's writing on 8/12 x 11 paper, held together with a binder clip, what a conceptual shift the book represents! What a leap forward in ease and portability! (This is true of chapbooks as well.) And the paper quality! I couldn't get over how great the paper felt. I wanted to give copies to friends right away.

The thing I remember even more than receiving the physical book, though, is first reading blurbs from Kasey Mohammad and Jennifer Moxley. I mean before the book was ever published. The blurbs served as evidence of first readership, outside of myself and my peers and the publisher, and from what readers! Also Kasey and Jennifer both quoted the same line in their respective blurbs, which caused me to pay undue amounts of self-conscious and curious attention to the poem they quoted from.

How involved were you in creating the cover design?

Like my endless editing, the publication delay allowed my publisher to make numerous adjustments and changes to the design, an inadvertently desirable outcome of the book's lateness. I know there was at least one other cover image before the current one, but now I can't remember what it looked like. I do know that I immediately liked what became the final image much better. I saw PDFs of every little change, which was great. Sometimes I'd give feedback on minute things like the shade of the font color on the spine, but I didn't really come in with any idea about what it might or should look like. Mostly I was curious about how the publisher would visually interpret the text, and trusted that. I love the final cover--especially its spectacular/fantastic/mysterious aspects and also the disjunct in classical dance forms represented. My favorite part is how the dancer is prostrate in front of whatever is happening to her, or above her, all of which she is possibly making happen. Yet still bowing to.

full cover

Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it?

Did I think I would take myself more seriously? Maybe. I know I thought someone would take me seriously but I didn't know who exactly. Other poets maybe. Perhaps my parents. Again these are all projections I think, of myself wanting to take myself more seriously. I always had the idea my poems needed to be presented along with all my other poems if they were ever going to accrete meaning or value or anti-meaning or ambience or narrative/emotive texture. I thought their being in the world like that might change how they were received. Getting back to my life: I don't think I had any idea. I thought my life would remain pretty much the same. I was happy doing secretarial work, executive assisting, for the long haul, creating reports in excel and writing at work when I could, participating in my local--whoa watch out it's a loaded term right now--community. I wanted to be part of that community in an engaged, full way. Which for me meant participating in the presentation of one's work, both to the local  (who I definitely see myself writing to, or for) and outside of it, to national or international communities. Reading, and being in public and private conversation with other writing and arts. Working to make opportunities for more presentation of more work by more people, more conversation. BUT THEN (perfect segue to next question)

How has your life been different since?

By the time the book came out, I had switched jobs, and been in my current academic administrative position for about a year. At the last minute, the department needed someone to teach an undergraduate poetry workshop, and then it all got really concrete, how a book might actually change one's life. Because suddenly I was able to get this teaching job, something I never thought I would want or be able to do. Which means I've also been really busy for the last year, adjuncting on top of my full time job. Plus I've traveled more than ever which has been mostly about giving readings.

Why did you think you could never get a teaching job? no mfa?

No, I have an mfa. But I also have a lot of ambivalence about this huge class of professional poet-teachers being produced by the mfa industry. I know, I know, even though I have an mfa, and getting it was a great experience. Still. I also had this idea that the same energies feed teaching and writing, and so it was better to do work utilizing other parts of myself. And leave the writing parts free to write. Like I've enjoyed jobs with some degree of rote activity. Generating reports in excel is downright meditative.

I also thought I'd be terrible at it, or not like it. And have found the opposite instead, that I really enjoy it. Here this word comes again but the best part is watching a community form in the class. I wanted to do a class this fall where we'd work all semester on a single, long collaborative poem and while I'm not sure we'll pull that off, it's illustrative of the strong impulse towards collaboration I've seen in my two classes so far. Even when not formalized as such, there are all these conversations between poems, a lot of imitation and admiration and complications and interrelationship.

Do you see a relationship between your blogging and the publication of your book?

There's definitely a relationship between my blogging and the book's reception in the world. I'd been blogging for two (or maybe three?) years before it came out. I'd guess that being part of online poetry world created more interest outside of my immediate scene than there might have been otherwise. And I'd also guess that blogging has to do with most of the reading opportunities I've had outside of the bay area.

What have you been doing to promote the book, and what are those experiences like for you?

I've read a lot. Locally at SPT, Artifact, Modern Times. Then out of town at the University of Maine in Orono, SOU in Ashland, my publisher's reading series in San Diego, and in New York at Teachers & Writers, with Brandon Downing and David Larsen, a release for our three first books. I seem to be talking a lot here about local v. national scenes and at several of those out of state readings I felt dislocated. Local readings often have a context or subtext surrounding and supporting the work that I feel naked without. The local reading is an extension of ongoing and intimate conversation with other writers.

The weird but of course obvious thing I failed to understand is how the book paves the way for one to encounter an audience mostly unfamiliar with one's writing and person. I hadn't anticipated the shock of this effect, or reach. Reading to students at universities felt particularly...odd? Off-putting? Nervewracking. In Orono I clung to the faces I knew: Jennifer Moxley and Steve Evans, hosts extraordinaire, Kasey, my fellow reader and friend, and then Ben Friedlander and Kevin Davies who I was meeting for the first time but felt somehow familiar with, via this net of poets both online and off. Then New York was totally different, reading to poets who I share affinity and closeness with, thanks again to Ms. Internet, but others who I don't know at all or have admired and adored from afar. Also David Larsen and I read from each other's work instead of our own, which I recommend everyone try at least once, there was a way we were creating a vocal/performative context for one another. There was less pressure and more joy. Also the three of us, Brandon Downing, David and I, all presented video work of one kind or another. It was a good party. And totally different from a university.

But the weird part about reading at universities is also what makes it great: you get to encounter interested students. At SOU there was a fairly informal afternoon conversation, I guess this is called a colloquium, and the questions were smart, the dialogue went in unexpected directions. I learned a lot. The other great thing about reading at universities is you get to hang out with your friends who work there. Books make that possible.

How are you feeling about the way the book is selling so far? (Do you know how it's selling?)

The first 200 copies sold really quickly. Which was exciting. Then it was out of stock for a long time, five or six months. Now it is back in stock and I hope it hasn't lost momentum in the meantime. My sense is that poetry books sell the most in their first year and it's almost been a year now since it was released. We'll see. I'm just glad it's back in stock. Hey! Everybody! Did you hear that? It's back in stock! Oh boy, here I am, promoting my book. This is what it looks like.

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

I wish someone had told me to put more energy into self-publishing instead of working early on to get a book-book together. And had assured me that it's OK to go slowly. Luckily, I wasted only a little time sending earlier work out to presses I knew very little about and had no personal connection to. I'm relieved that my earlier writing never got published, and even more relieved that it didn't get published by a university or other somewhat removed press, which is the biggest mistake I could have made with a first book. It would have been like publishing into a vacuum. I'd say to always go with your friends, or people you are friendly with. One more thing about slowness: I could have been told 20 times that it's a slow process but didn't really understand until I went through it. Also, things will go wrong. That's kind of the deal. As much as we complain about the professionalization of poetry, we're not like mainstream publishers. I use a particular communal 'we' here. We are under-resourced and doing our best.

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

I don't know what I'm doing right now. It's a little terrifying. And all the stuff around the book, the administrative work of being a poet, knocks out writing time or it did for me. Plus I was working on this big editing project, and now it feels sometimes like I won't ever be able to write again I mean anything not scrappy or a total mess. I feel outside of the vein and I want back in. I'm also trying to do something very different, a lot of it in prose, self-consciously investigating genre and autobiography and working with shorter units, less lyric, more exterior than interior, but I have a hunch it will wind up looking like more of the same. The book made me want to do something new, as in new to me, like I've been thinking a lot about research and procedural work and how outside information enters the poem. But again it will probably not look that different in the end. Like trying to escape one's tail, how can one? One can't, really.

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

The critical response so far has been interesting and generous and just what I'd have wished for, had I known what to wish for: smart attention from younger female writers, namely Geraldine Kim and Sarah Trott.  I know this might sound disingenuous but it's true, I am always still surprised and grateful that people are reading it and paying attention. I don't think though that the critical reception has had any effect on my writing. In some ways it feels like Geraldine or Sarah are writing about these poems by 'Stephanie Young' which don't feel like my poems anymore, and they aren't, really. At this exact moment I am in restless anticipation of what Brian Kim Stefans has written about the book, which will appear I think in the Boston Review but I'm not sure when.

Do you want your life to change?

All the time, yes. But right now that has nothing to do with publishing. (or moving, or a different job, or whatever) I don't want the big facts of my life to change. Something else I can't describe.

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

I am reading things that I hope will change me. Right now working through the books in Juliana Spahr's fantasy course, "Writing of the Last 10 Years that is Not About Poetry but that Poets Should be Reading Anyway Because It Might Change What They Are Writing About."

Spending more time alone than is usual for me. 

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

Coming mid-stream in your excellent series of interviews, this answer feels like an echo or re-re-articulation of other more eloquent others, but: I can only say with certainty that poetry changed/changes me. It changes the way I think, the way I experience ideas, my permeability to ideas and the way those get attached to emotive or bodily experience. The equation here: poetry can change people, we are the world, etc. But then, are people the world? We definitely wield control over the rest of the world, the objects and animals and plants and matter that make up the world. (Lately in the bay area we are thinking a lot about how poetry might matter or not to animals but now I'm really wandering away from the question.) Veering back: poetry also led me to greater knowledge of activism and alternative social/economic models that I have hope might change the world in necessary ways. Art and poetry and heightened attention to the way language constructs the world are part of those models or I think should be. This, though, is a very personal answer. The way poetry changed or is changing me isn't the way it will change another person. Poetry isn't leading. But it is opening. To use my friend Suzanne Stein's terminology, it does effect a maneuver of some kind on its reader. What that maneuver is and how it works is still mysterious to me.   


A poem from Telling The Future Off by Stephanie Young:

My Life Expresses a Spirit of Flexibility

There is a woman
whose luck has found her.
See it descend even now
she is putting things
in her mouth.
lit up with a desk lamp
she is nothing
if no decisive.
"that isn't me in the picture."

No invention here
to stand between my momentary turn
away from the turning subject. Some great
barrier name, Jane or Judy
comes in and out of the room
with the whole dress shop, saying
"air conditioning is very bad for the pipes"
or "when Ms. Fitzgerald was onstage
there was no smoking."

But this comes from my hands!
Palms face up
for a lemony beating
they want that problem
with the stinging nettles.

Singer opens his mouth and out comes an operatic "MEMBER!"


and we have no sense to distinguish between
laughing behind our fingers
or not laughing
behind somebody's actual fan.
There's the trouble. I attempted to open and close
each painted scene on the interior of my mouth.

I was denied
something important or somebody denied me
was taken away without my consult
and that is how I got to be miserable.

Watching his body become more and more "clear"
until I clamored for
anonymous sex. It didn't matter that tomorrow
this would have a new name:
no more 'Keith' or 'Mark' or 'Steve.'

You can walk your feet back now
for a nice stretch. Shift your weight
into the hips, place your hands
here, put your hands here
I was begging
and my breath was uneven.
Do you think I will be able to know
your name when it changes? Would you like
some sweet and sour chicken?

. . .

next interview: Alyssa Wolf

other first-book interviews

. . .