How has your first book changed your life?
65. Katie Degentesh
How did your manuscript happen to be published by Combo Books? Had you sent it out much before that?
Mike Magee, the publisher of Combo Books as well as an excellent poet and critic (My Angie Dickinson) is a friend and member of the Flarf Collective. I am very lucky in that he has always been a big supporter of my work and expressed interest in a manuscript.
It took me a while to get The Anger Scale together and give it to him. I had never sent a manuscript out before--for one thing, I hadn't felt ready. But in general I always thought unsolicited manuscript submissions were a waste of postage, and I won't submit to fee-based contests on principle.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Yes and no.
Yes, in that I had the luxury of a long email conversation with the very talented designer, Christian Palino, who was curious about the book's poetic process and the MMPI test, and listened attentively. No, in that the lame-ass idea I halfheartedly suggested for the cover involved a photo of a sinister-looking rabbit. Using the scan-tron test response form from the MMPI was all Christian's idea, and I was thrilled to see its brilliant execution. When he sent his design via PDF it was the best email I've ever gotten.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
It was raining, and I stayed home from work until noon to receive the UPS package.
After work my partner, the poet Drew Gardner, and I went to the Bowery Ballroom and saw Vashti Bunyan sing, which was a very intense, incredible experience. Vashti Bunyan is a sixtyish hippie woman with a thin quiet voice--so quiet that it sounds as if she's almost trying not to be heard when she sings. She put out one album in the '70s that got zero acclaim and then, heartbroken, stopped singing until Devendra Banhart and his neofolkie movement found her album and started a mini Vashti renaissance.
It's really not the type of music I'd normally go for, but there's something about her albums that speaks to me despite the fey lyrics, etc. And her concert was just amazing. She was clearly very happy and so beamingly overwhelmed by the fact that she was playing to a large adoring audience in New York City.
She made me think of my mother--a smart, exuberant woman who at different times in her life wanted to dance or write children's books and instead, through a series of choices she made out of fear, spent her life raising three daughters under the thumb of my paranoid, controlling dad. For a moment it seemed to me almost as if Vashti was my mother--a woman who knew her life's dreams were out of reach--yet in this case she had suddenly been granted them, at an age when most people's dreams are more comfortably forgotten. The whole experience moved me to tears.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
How has your life been different since?
Well, I have been stopped on the street in Manhattan a few times for autographs, but I think it'll take maybe one more book with a print run of about 1500 or so to get to the point where I need to hire a bodyguard.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I was really thrilled that Stephen Burt chose to review it in The Believer, and that he felt so positively about it. That--especially the quote comparing me to the Stooges, which I will forever treasure & requote in my self-promotional fantasies--was a bigger break than I expected to get.
What have you been doing to promote the book and what are those experiences like for you? Do you enjoy reading publicly?
I absolutely love to read and was lucky to get a slew of good bookings over the past months, most of which paid expenses or a decent fee--in Reykjavik for the Nyhil Poetry Festival in November; in San Francisco, my former home, at Small Press Traffic with Drew; in Providence, RI, at the La Tazza series; in Albany at the College of St. Rose, where I discovered that the ideal audience for this particular book is boys who watch South Park and attend a religious school. I also read in Baltimore, Washington DC, and at Dickinson College in PA with some of my favorite fellow Flarfers; and at the New York Public Library and the KGB Bar here in New York.
I have always enjoyed reading, but doing so many readings from the same material over a relatively short period of time reminded me how much I love performing. As the readings went on I started to do more and more with them, developing character voices for Jesus, etc., doing my best to make them as ridiculous and funny as I feel them to be. And the audience responded! I love when that happens!!!
Even more than the critical response, I've been happy with the way non-poets have responded. They seem to really 'get' my weird little book full of masturbation and anti-religious jokes--I never expected that.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
I feel very good about the book, and satisfied with the way it represents my connection to poetry. I'm not sure what to do next, but want it to be something very different. Most of the projects I have in mind now would be in prose form.
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing?
I don't think I could possibly ask for a better critical response to a first book on an avant-garde press. I was particularly thrilled with the Believer piece that I mentioned earlier, and Michael Gottlieb's spot-on, super-thoughtful meditation in Jacket Magazine.
What was the best advice you got? What advice would you give someone who is about to have a first book published?
I would only say that I waited a long time to put a book out, and I'm glad I did. It's the right first book for me.
Do you want your life to change?
Yes, I want to quit my high-octane day job in order to spend winters snorkeling and diving from a small island in Thailand, spring and fall in New York doing nothing or touring the world reading poetry, and the summers in Finland at yoga retreats. Meanwhile I will become a person of quiet renown in the right avant-garde music and literary circles for both my unprecedented talents and my incredible beauty that seems only to increase with age. I will also bear three or four children without pain and manage to give them all the emotional and financial support they need without ever sacrificing a moment of time that I need for myself. And I will have many devoted lovers concurrently without inspiring the slightest jealousy among any of them. Oh, and I will never be sick or tired or grumpy again after l buy the Lower East Side and cordon it off with a huge ice wall in order to raise my parrot colonies within it.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
I am learning to support myself in headstand on my arms alone. The key is keeping your weight in your hands, wrists, and elbows. The goal is to hold this posture for 108 breaths every day. I am up to about 20 on my best days.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
My knee-jerk response to this is to quote Auden and say that poetry makes nothing happen.
But then I think about my book in particular and realize that I did go into that project out of a genuine activist sensibility against not only the rigidity and ridiculousness of the MMPI test itself--I still can't quite believe that this test is used to determine people's fitness for trial, for jobs, for raising children--but also of American social and religious rules and roles. I would love it if even a few people would read the book and develop a healthy skepticism and fear of these things; or at least of the test.
Maybe the answer to this question is that poetry can't create change in the world, but the reason most poetry is written is because its authors want to change the world. Good poetry can be a beautiful, complex complaint and at the same time a reminder of our own impotence--like photographs of people who are about to die violently. Only funnier, because no one dies for poetry.
A poem from The Anger Scale by Katie Degentesh:
The Only Miracles I Know of Are Simply Tricks That People Play on One Another
it's how life was originally created
mustering energy for the "unconscious"
I never discussed this with the doctor, but
I do know that rule number one
Just stay home and be a mom!!!
a woman who learned to bend spoons from Uri Gellar
Baby dust to all, Sherry
next interview: Susan Briante
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