How has your first book changed your life?
51. Evie Shockley
How did your manuscript happen to be published by Carolina Wren Press? Had you sent it out much previously?
I love telling the story that answers your first question, because it's a happy-endings story (how often do we come across those?) and because it says something about the world of publishing that I didn't really get for a long while. Before the manuscript for this book was more than a twinkle in my eye, I had a chapbook manuscript accepted for publication by Carolina Wren Press. The chapbook, The Gorgon Goddess, was ultimately published a couple years later, in 2001. By that time, I had composed the earliest version of the full-length manuscript that would become a half-red sea. I remember sitting across the table from my editor, David Kellogg (who was then the president--or fearless leader, or whatever the title is--of CWP), going over some changes he'd recommended in the chapbook. I asked him if CWP would ever consider publishing a full-length collection of my work. His first response was "not likely"--because at that point CWP's main poetry publishing was devoted to the chapbook series. But then he amended his statement to say: "Unless, of course, your chapbook sold out..."
Well, over the next five years, I sent ever-changing incarnations of my full-length manuscript out to contests and open-reading periods, to the tune of hundreds of dollars in fees, printing, copying, and postage. (Pull out the violins and play along, everyone--don't many of us know this tune??) I got just enough encouragement, in the form of "semi-finalist" and "finalist" nods, to keep me in the game. But it was pretty discouraging. And then one day in late 2005, I got in touch with CWP (now embodied by Andrea Selch, to whom David had passed the reins in the meantime) to order copies for an upcoming reading, and Andrea said to me, "You know, your chapbook is nearly sold out. We should think about doing a full-length book for you." You could have knocked me over with a feather. But after I saw that season's round of contests to their bitter ends (including one last "finalist" designation), I handed the manuscript over to CWP quite happily.
So what this says about publishing that I didn't get at first is that it is about ongoing relationships. Ideally, editors invest themselves, their time, and their money in your work because they believe in it--and because they believe it will speak to their audience(s). I have growing gratitude towards the journals, editors, and presses that have published me more than once.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Yes! My publisher asked me to start thinking about cover art early on. I hadn't had some specific art in mind since birth, which seems true for some writers (or close!), so my first thought was just to generate some ideas. Given my title, I decided to search Google images for the keywords "red sea." I began scrolling through the results and, lo and behold, I stumbled upon this painting by an artist I was totally unfamiliar with named Maria Entis. I fell in love with the colors and the emotion and the suggestiveness of the piece, and called the gallery whose website had featured it. They put me in touch with Entis herself, and I asked for permission to use the painting on my cover. She didn't immediately say yes; rather, she requested to see some of my poems! This endeared her to me even more--I felt this spoke to her integrity as an artist, that she cared about the poems with which her painting would be associated. I sent her some work, and she sent back the okay.
At the point when it would have been time to talk to her representative about getting a good photo taken of the painting--did I mention that Entis lives in Canada and that the picture was hanging in a Vancouver art gallery?--I just decided that I wanted Red Sea for myself. So I bought it and had it shipped to North Carolina, where I was living then. It's on my bedroom wall now! My partner, Stéphane Robolin, took the photo of the painting (it was hard work getting the colors to come through vividly) and we sent it to CWP, where Andrea and the book's designer came up with the color scheme that surrounds the image. While the art and colors are specific to my book, the basic cover concept is common to all the books in the CWP poetry series.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I'd been expecting the boxes forever, by the time they came. My book was released simultaneously with two others in the CWP poetry series, and it turns out that the printer was holding my copies while working out the kinks involved in the cover colors of one of the other books. When Andrea finally figured this out, she asked them to go ahead and send my books to me.
I got home from a long day on campus and there the boxes were. I dragged them inside my apartment and cut them open. It felt wonderful to hold that first copy in my hands. I went out to dinner to celebrate and took a copy with me. After I ordered, I started reading the poems from the beginning. I thought they might feel unfamiliar to me, but the book's design allowed me to preserve to a large extent the way the poems looked in manuscript version, in terms of their spacing on the page and the like. It was uncanny, I guess you could say, how the poems in book form were familiar and unfamiliar to me at once.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
I don't think I thought of it in those terms: that "my life would change."
Not much, except that I've been busier--I have more opportunities to read come my way with the full-length book than I did with the chapbook--and that I get more feedback, of all sorts, about this book than I did about The Gorgon Goddess. There's probably some mathematical formula that could predict the proportions of this change. The book's print run was X times larger than the chapbook's and there are Y more pages in the book than in the chapbook, so I should expect Z more responses from readers, editors, and curators... I'm joking, but I should say seriously that I have felt incredibly honored by some of the lovely things I hear from people who have read the book. I feel both a sense of achievement and a sense of (even greater) responsibility to use whatever talent I have wisely and well (which doesn't always mean seriously...).
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
My first thought was to say "no" in response to this question, but then I decided that it depends on how you look at it. So, I could say that I thought my parents might have had a negative reaction to some aspects of the book, given that they are very church-going, Christian-identified people (not fundamentalists, but pretty traditional in many ways). But my father says he's proud of it, and my mom, especially, was completely gung-ho, and even sent announcements and order forms to many of her friends from church!
Well Andrea and I have sent review copies to every place we could think of (and are still thinking about it!) and have entered the book in a some of the contests for which it is eligible. We have also sent announcements out to our various poetry/writing-related listservs. But the main avenue for promoting a poetry book, as your question suggests, is through readings, so I have arranged as many readings as I can manage within the constraints of my teaching schedule. This is a real pleasure--I love reading my work for people. I love going to hear other poets read, because of the insight it gives me into their work, and I think of my own readings as a way to provide my (potential) readers with an entry into what I'm up to on the page.
I don't have an answer to the first part of this question yet--which is to say, I don't yet know what huge mistake I've made with regard to this book! As for the second part, the best advice I got was to send review copies of my book to poetry bloggers and review blogs. That has been a very effective and affirming way to help get the word out to poetry readers. That advice--along with other pearls of wisdom--came from Amy King, whom I'm happy to have the chance to thank publicly!
As you will have noticed, I've squished three of your questions together, and that's because they have a related answer. It begins with an anecdote. The first reading I did after the book was published was only incidentally the first--i.e., it wasn't scheduled to be my "book launch" or anything like that. But I was glad to have it nearly coincide with the release. I was very high (naturally, not chemically) for the reading, which went well, I think, and I was still floating when the reading's hosts took me and my partner out to dinner. I was sitting to the left of the person I knew least well among the group. We started chatting, and almost the first question this person asked me was: "So, have you started shopping your second manuscript?" !!! So much for feeling good! I didn't have a second manuscript completed--or even in the works, in any focused sort of way. I spent far too much time after that feeling like I'd been confronted with a failure. Then I shared the story with a poet-friend who assured me that it was utterly cruel to ask such a question of someone whose book was absolutely brand shining new. I actually don't think it was meant to be malicious, but it certainly made me conscious right away that I wasn't going to have long to rest on whatever laurels (if any) my first book might garner!
I've been thrilled to find that the responses to my book--a few reviews posted online and the word-of-mouth that comes my way--have been largely quite positive, so far. So as I've been thinking about what I want to work toward next, I find myself wondering whether I'll be tempted to do "more of the same" (however one would describe that), just because it seems to be well received. At the same time, I feel like it would be crazy to change my whole aesthetic just for the sake of doing something different! As time passes, I am coming to see that there's a vast middle ground between these two poles, and that's where I'm aiming. Right now, I'm writing poems individually, as they come, and also toying around with a concept that might frame or thread through (two very different metaphors!) a book-length group of related poems. We'll see which way my creative juices flow...
Do you want your life to change?
Hmmm. I want my life to evolve.
Yes. As a poet, I'm continuing to read and learn from the poets around me and those who've come before, and I'm writing--"practicing"--poetry, which is also a way of learning and growing. I'm also a literary scholar, which means that I have incentives to continue to read and learn and write and teach and grow in that vein as well. Both of these vocations are also avocations, though perhaps to differing degrees, and both involve me creatively, intellectually, politically, and (inter)personally. I feel lucky, even blessed, to have the opportunity to walk this path. I began my professional life in a very different field of endeavor, one which drained me of energy and in which I didn't, in my opinion, add to the greater good of the world very often. I'm under no illusions about the world of poetry or the academy being paradises, but the fact that they're not perfect doesn't prevent them from being a great fit for my temperament and talents. They allow me to explore and build.
What did you do before, and how did you come to switch directions to teaching and poetry?
What I did before was practice law--environmental law, but at a big corporate law firm in Chicago. I was pretty unhappy in law school and more and more miserable as a lawyer, with each passing day. When I realized I was dreading getting up out of bed 5-6 mornings a week, I knew it was time to move on. But where? I considered going into legal publishing, becoming a law teacher, writing text for law firm manuals and brochures, but none of those possibilities would get me out of a field that I found to be fundamentally...let's say, not to my cognitive taste (to borrow a phrase from Barbara Herrnstein Smith).
Well, that summer, I had registered for a couple of workshops at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, one in fiction and one in poetry. I spent a week of my vacation on this, in an effort to infuse my life with some sort of pleasure. So I drove down to Iowa City. I spent that week in a bit of heaven. (My poetry workshop was with Jane Mead, who would later become my colleague, as fate would have it.) By the end of the week, I'd had the proverbial epiphany: I knew I had to go back to school and prepare myself to become an academic and a writer. I took the GRE exam that October, sent out applications in November and December, and by spring I was enrolling in Duke's Ph.D. program! Though I'd decided along the way against getting an M.F.A. (it just seemed too risky for someone who still had law school loans to pay off), being in an English program--and being in North Carolina, frankly--led within just a few months to my being involved in a couple of wonderful writing communities, and my poetry began to grow right along with my lit-crit skills.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I do. For example, poetry contributed to the political/social changes in American society during the 1960s. The poets of Black Arts Movement were able to communicate ideas for black empowerment and critiques of white supremacy to large numbers of African Americans who might have been more willing to listen to poetry than read a political tract. Their need to get poetry to the people, so to speak, forced them to be creative about distribution in ways that have been influential and could be seen as forerunners to the ways many poets today use the Internet and DIY to publish the poetry that seems most urgent to them. And the Black Arts poets' refusal to apologize for their subject matter, their use of black vernacular, and their engagement with African American culture has made it a lot easier for African American poets in the last several decades to pursue their writing in ways that would have pushed them completely off the literary map in the decades just before the 1960s. Harlem Renaissance poets did a similar type of work, aesthetically speaking, but those lessons had been largely lost by the time the young Black Arts Movement poets began to emerge.
So did this poetry create a political revolution of the type their works sometimes called for? No. But does change have to be revolutionary to count as change? Poetry can create change in a society's competing ideologies or an individual person's perspective in the same way that such change is created through elections, court cases, protest marches, political rallies, educational programs, mentoring efforts, heartfelt conversations, volunteer organizations, etc., etc.--slowly, non-linearly, often unquantifiably, but meaningfully just the same.
blue-ing green: the sonobiography of miles davis
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next interview: Jake Adam York
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