How has your first book changed your life?
53. Nancy Kuhl
Shearsman is a British press, isn't it? How did it happen that your manuscript was picked up there?
I have long admired the rich and complex list of poetry published by Shearsman Books; I've also avidly read Shearsman magazine, edited by publisher Tony Frazer and often including his sharp and witty commentary and criticism about contemporary poetry. Certainly Shearsman Books is located in the UK, but it is and has long been a truly international poetry publisher (authors include Anne-Marie Albiach, Gustaf Sobin, Billy Mills, and Yang Lian to name just a few non-Brits.) I can't say how great it feels to be in the very good company of Shearsman's incredible poets.
I had more or less finished The Wife of the Left Hand about five years before I submitted it to Shearsman and in that time it had been a contest finalist or semifinalist about 15 times. I was about to shelve the manuscript when my husband suggested I submit the manuscript directly to a short list of publishers I admired. I had long since forgotten that contests aren't they only avenue to publication, so this was a crucial and eye-opening bit of advice.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I received my first copy of the book while I was in the middle of a five-week-long residency at the MacDowell Colony, which was great, but also a little surreal. The people I felt close to there didn't have a relationship to that work for me and although they were terrifically enthusiastic and supportive, I was sorry in a way that I wasn't at home with my husband when the book arrived. Richard has played a truly central role in my writing life since we met almost fifteen years ago, so I was very anxious to share the book with him.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
I selected the cover art--a painting by poet-artist Joe Brainard. The image is perfect for the book, and Brainard has been very important to me, so it meant a lot to me to have this particular image on the book's cover.
I was very lucky to have a terrific designer working on the book, Megan Mangum of Words that Work. Megan and I have been friends for several years and she really understood the kind of book I wanted The Wife of the Left Hand to be. It was very important to me that the book design work with the text, that the outside match the inside.
You have blurbs by Ann Lauterbach, Alicia Ostriker, and Elizabeth Robinson. That's an interesting range. Would you comment on that?
Blurbs are a kind of curious genre to me, so I was very glad that things happened quickly and easily on this front. Alicia Ostriker selected the manuscript as a finalist for a contest a few years ago and wrote a citation about it--when the book was accepted, I contacted her and asked to use the citation as a blurb. And shortly after I learned Shearsman would publish the book, I saw Ann Lauterbach and she offered to write a blurb before I had worked up the nerve to ask her. Finally, I asked Elizabeth Robinson and she agreed.
If blurbs help to locate a book, I hope those on my book map some of my most important influences, the territories I have read into and through, internalized, even written against in some moments. In different ways I think the writers whose words and names appear on my book reference, among other things, a complex and evolving feminist poetic tradition of which my work is a part. The three writers who endorsed my book are heroes of my writing life, women whose lives and work have influenced and inspired me and my work.
When someone picks up my book and reads the blurbs, I hope that his or her curiosity will be piqued by the constellation of writers, their different aesthetics. I am deeply grateful to these poets for their thoughtful readings of my work and for their continued influence.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I know this sounds stupid, but I have been surprised by how "public" my work suddenly is... I've been caught off guard several times by people referring to specific poems in the book or by asking me complicated questions about its structure, rhythms, etc. "Oh," I find myself thinking, "you read it." Somehow I wasn't prepared for this.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
My life hasn't been any different really, but it is exciting to be able to hand my book--my work--to people, to share my writing with people in this way.
What have you done to promote the book and what have those experiences been like for you?
I've had a couple great book-launch parties--really fun events that celebrated the book but also gave me an opportunity to thank my friends and family for their support. I've also been scheduling readings--I've been glad to have this book as an excuse to contact people who host reading series and to expand my own poetic community by connecting with them, even if I didn't end up setting up readings every time. Finally, since I work as a librarian, I've been promoting the book by contacting other librarians directly, encouraging them to add my book to their collections.
I am conflicted by the whole process of promoting my book because, while I want very much to sell the book to support Shearsman Books, my own small press (www.phylumpress.com) operates exclusively within a "gift economy," so I am very accustomed to giving books away. As a result, I'm trying to find ways to promote the book and giving lots of copies away at the same time. I have been most gratified by trading copies of my book with other writers--at readings and conferences--and I've discovered amazing work this way. I am very invested in building and participating in an engaging and challenging poetic community and trading books seems a really great way to do both.
Well, Kate, I found your good and thoughtful questions in the Every Other Day first-book interviews, and the wide variety of responses you've collected, to be very useful, inspiring, encouraging, and reassuring.
One very good bit of advice I'm glad I followed: "proofread it again…and again."
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? How do you feel about the critical response so far and has it had any effect on your writing?
Maybe it's too soon to respond to these questions--the book's only been officially available for a little more than a month. Thus far there has been one short review of the book and I am very pleased that the reviewer, Simon DeDeo, took the time to respond to my work and I found his ideas useful in thinking about the book and how it might be read and located within a variety of poetic traditions.
But the responses that have been most gratifying are those of friends, poets I admire, the people who have influenced me and my work. I think writing is at once solitary and collaborative, so the opinions of those people who have participated knowingly or unknowingly in shaping my work have been most important to me.
I'm very lucky--I have a great marriage (and my husband, Richard Deming, is a terrific poet and scholar), a vibrant and vital poetic community locally and at a distance, a challenging and rewarding career, and, when the stars are in alignment, time and inclination to write. I struggle most with the last--my writing life sometimes suffers because of my professional commitments and my other daily obligations. If I could change my life, it would be to find more consistent balance among all of these parts of my life.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
I'm doing many things, with varying degrees of success...
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
A poem from The Wife of the Left Hand by Nancy Kuhl:
to say. The impossibility
The rumor it turns
ful design, day by day,
of ticket stubs and match
Flirt into then what,
Flutter of hands. Hips.
inside a crystal vase. Be
the faultless lips. One wants
at the throat. See, the dancer's
next spin (skirt lifting
. . .
next interview: Kate Colby
. . .