How has your first book changed your life?
63. Kaya Oakes
How did you find out that your manuscript had won Pavement Saw's Transcontinental Award? How often had you sent it out?
I was in the basement, doing laundry, when David Baratier called and left a cryptic message on my machine. I heard the word "editor" and started running around the house in circles like a hamster. I tried to play it cool and wait to call him back, but I think I waited five minutes (probably three). Dave had actually seen one of the previous incarnations of the manuscript when I'd sent it to the Pavement Saw contest a few years before. I sent it again on a whim, he remembered a few of the poems from its having been a runner-up, and this time, he picked it for the editor's prize.
Prior to that, various forms of what became Telegraph circulated for eight years. It was a finalist and runner up in many contests, a loser in many more. At one point I sent it directly to presses who didn't run contests because of my ennui and frustration about the whole contest process, but that didn't work either. There were a lot of lessons in humility involved in getting this thing out there, a lot of close calls and wishful thinking. In the end, I'm happy with the press and the book, but I never imagined it would take so long to find a publisher. The oldest poems in the book were written when I was 26, and I'm 36 at the moment, so many, many changes in tone and style occurred in the writing over those years of submitting. Perhaps that's why the book feels a bit schizo to me, like looking at my hairstyles through the ages.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
Hopefully I won't get fired for this, but I had a tracking number for the package, saw it was coming on a day when I had to teach, and cancelled classes "due to illness." My first thought was that the book was really thin: 80 pages = 10 pages for each year that went into its composition and revision (and I confess I lined it up with other poetry books to see if it was thinner than most. It's not.). My second thought was that the books had curled in shipping and I wondered how to flatten them. I pressed them between The Riverside Shakespeare and The Complete Peanuts. My third thought was that I'd so worked myself up that I needed to take a nap. So I did. Then I woke up and forced my cats to pose with the book and took photos of them, which I emailed to friends.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
Not in large ways. As far as having improved eyesight, straighter teeth or clearer skin, my expectations were low. I did, however, imagine some things would take on a greater level of gravity--that writing, which has been central to my life since I was a girl, would be more central, if that makes sense. And it has felt that way, probably because there's a copy of the book in every room of my house (except the bathroom), so there's a near constant reminder of its reality.
The book is pretty new, I know, but has your life been different since?
It's been different in the sense that some of my lovely colleagues put postcards for the book on their office doors, and that I can walk into SPD or Pegasus and see my name on the shelves. Telegraph is kind of like one of those babies that's born looking old and wrinkly--it's less than a month old as an object, but much older as a collection of ideas. So it's kind of funky right now but will eventually be smooth and adorable.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Luckily, yes. Yoon Lee was generous enough to let me use that image from one of her paintings, which I'd seen in a gallery show in San Francisco, and which resonated strongly with my writing.
Lance King did the cover design, and apparently at one point the morse code had a secret message (I believe it was going to say "buy our poetry"), though right now it just says Telegraph. It's a surprising and strange looking book. I like that about it.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
The biggest surprise was seeing the number of people who came out for the launch. I'd imagined four people would show up and kept telling Clay Banes to only order five copies and I'd buy the leftover one myself. But we had a packed house and sold a lot of books. My mother, who hadn't been to a reading since my MFA thesis reading in '97, was regal and had a receiving line. My friends were there. Colleagues. Husband. Former teachers. Family. It was like a quincañera or a sweet sixteen. I brought Irish whiskey and my co-reader Jeff T Johnson brought beer and we celebrated. I did imagine that at least one of my exes would read it and maybe get pissed off, but if they are, they're keeping it to themselves. Or they don't read. Smart guys.
What have you been doing to promote the book and what are those experiences like for you?
I can't say I'm great at promotion, but running an independent magazine and being in bands helped me learn the hustle. And it really is a hustle--the "look at me" stuff is not easy, but I grit my teeth and do it. So a friend helped me set up a website (oakestown.org) when the book won the prize. I'm not big on blogging about poetry, since I prefer to do that in real life, face to face, but I like to natter on about pop culture and my problematic hair. My site does get a lot of hits from people looking for "big fat asses." I used the magazine I edit and write for, Kitchen Sink, to promote the book as much as I could--we spammed the mailing list, stuffed postcards for the book into magazines, and generally annoyed our non-poetic hipster readership. I also got a MySpace page. Ugh. I went to AWP in Atlanta (my first AWP, a very strange experience of jet lag, migraines and chain hotels), but the book hadn't yet arrived, so I hung out at the Pavement Saw table with my fellow P.S. author Rachel M Simon and handed out postcards and tried to network, which mostly meant standing around feeling dorky. I find it hard to infiltrate already existing groups of poets since I've flown under the radar for so long, but I did meet some sweet folks, including a lot of the editors who published the poems in journals, and I met my publisher face to face for the first time, and found that we get along swimmingly. We're the same age and both come from backgrounds in punk rock, comic books and poetry, which gives us a lot to gossip about.
We did the launch at my favorite local independent bookstore, Pegasus, which has been podcast already thanks to Andrew Kenower, and three days later I flew to New York and did two readings. On the first day, it was freezing and raining, and on the next, it was ninety degrees. Jet Blue lost my luggage containing all of the copies of the book I'd brought, and it took two days to get the luggage back, so I had to buy underwear and didn't have books to sell or give out at the first reading. The second reading went a lot better, probably because I had my underpants and books back. I'm now in the process of trying to get a more extensive schedule of readings together for the fall (and planning on taking a carry on bag), but teaching makes the logistics of traveling difficult (and I'm broke). Getting readings is incredibly difficult, for some reason--it's not like sending your demo tape and playing for beer. It seems there's a "reading code" one has to crack, which I haven't learned yet. But Dave and I have probably sent out fifty review copies between us, which might help. Hi, everyone! Review copies! They're luscious. I'd be happy to send out more.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
Mostly people told me to lower my expectations--don't expect job offers, don't expect people to ask you to read, don't expect immediate reviews or responses. One of my friends told me to be prepared for "first book depression"--the "is that all there is" syndrome, which hasn't yet begun, but might. This was all harsh but welcome advice which should probably be handed out with every course syllabus in poetry classes. I learned that people are not going to pursue the book just because it's a book, so I'm trying to chase reviews and readings as much as I can stand it, which so far is sort of a passive attack, since I just got back from New York and I'm sleepy.
As soon as the book got accepted (October of 05), I started working on a new manuscript, which is about 90% done. 90% done in less than two years is pretty speedy for me, and considering some of the life-shit that has happened (deaths in the family, illness, the collapse of Kitchen Sink's distributor) in the interim, I can't believe I managed anything, much less poetry. Whether that's because publication conferred some sort of legitimacy or simply because I'd been bottled up with frustration and rejection so long is unknown; meanwhile, the new stuff is a departure from Telegraph, though kin to it in some ways. I'm geekily thrilled and not sick of it at the moment.
How do you feel about the response so far and has it had any effect on your writing?
No response so far in terms of reviews in the book's infancy, but I got great feedback at all of the readings and had a blast. I'm a big, awkward, goofy person, and for some reason that works in my favor at readings. I very much like doing readings even if they induce a lot of anxiety beforehand. I like the interaction with an audience and the immediate response, which never happens with publication. And friends and strangers have said kind things about the book. I like kindness.
Most of the changes I want to make involve career, which is dullsville to talk about. I love teaching writing, and UC Berkeley is a pretty great place to do it, but I'd like to teach poetry writing and not just expository prose. However, the Bay Area is full of poets, so there's not a lot of elbow room. I have pretty pointy elbows, though, so we'll see.
Top secret stuff, but one thing can be revealed: I recently got approached by a literary agent about a non-fiction book project. Should something come of this, I expect to be on the Colbert Report and Charlie Rose, and to get fan mail from Jarvis Cocker and Leonard Cohen. Or maybe I'll get an office at school that's not in a basement. I'd like to see my next book of poetry emerge soon as well. After that, I'd like to have a freeway overpass named after me, or perhaps a small river.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Absolutely, though not always in concrete ways. It can change people's thinking, and can change ways of seeing the world. To me, that's the most significant kind of change.
A poem from Telegraph by Kaya Oakes:
We hit this shoreline in darkness. To begin.
I cabled mother from the shelter. Could you
Some decades back an infant crawled from its
The whining, ending lives. The world a spherical mess;
. . .