How has your first book changed your life?
78. Henrietta Goodman
How did you find out that your manuscript had won the 2006 Beatrice Hawley Award? How often had you sent it out previously?
On April 1st, 2006 (April Fool's Day) I got a phone call from Kevin Goodan, a board member of Alice James Books and also a longtime friend. I hadn't spoken with him in a while and thought he had just called to catch up, but after we had talked for a few moments he said very seriously, "I'm calling to tell you something." It never crossed my mind that he was calling about my manuscript. I thought he was about to tell me something awful, that he was dying or someone else was dying. When he told me I had won the Beatrice Hawley Award, I was so shocked that I really felt like he had told me some tragic news. I started crying. It was like that life stress scale that rates stress according to the magnitude of the change, so the real tragedies, like losing a loved one, are high on the scale, of course, but positive events are there too, because they freak you out so much. I was at a pretty miserable point in my personal life at the time, plus I had accepted the fact that my book might never get published, so I was absolutely stunned. Also, because I was Kevin's friend, I assumed at first that he had somehow made it possible for my book to win, but that isn't how AJB works. At the board meetings where discussion of the manuscripts was taking place, he couldn't discuss mine because of our friendship. That's how it should be, of course, but I had become so convinced that publication wouldn't happen to me that I assumed there must have been some trick to it.
I started sending a manuscript out in 1999, and in the first couple of years I was a finalist in several first book contests, so I became very optimistic. Then several years went by, and I made some revisions and kept sending it out and nothing happened, and then I changed it some more and sent it out some more and was a finalist in a couple of other contests, and I got to the point where I didn't even want to know how close I had come. In 2004, I first entered the Beatrice Hawley contest, and was a finalist. The following summer I conducted an independent study for a student and friend, Chelsey Robison. Because she's one of the most brilliant poets and perceptive readers I've ever met, I agreed to do the IS if we could exchange work, rather than just her submitting work to me.
That summer my manuscript changed a lot, due largely to Chelsey's insight. I was able to begin revising in a way I'd never done before. I gained perspective on the manuscript, saw it as a whole, with themes that needed more exploration, and weak spots that needed to be cut. The following fall, I submitted a shorter and stronger manuscript to the BHA again, and it won. So I sent it out for about six years, but the manuscript that won the award is far different from the manuscript that I started sending out in 1999.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
One of the things that surprised me about the whole process of publication was how long it took. I found out I had won in April of 2006, and I received the book in the mail in April 2007, just a few months ago. A year seemed like a very long time to wait, but in retrospect, I needed that time. I didn't expect the book until the second week of April, but when I came home from work on the 5th, the box was waiting on my porch. I was in a big rush to take my children to childcare and go to my writing group, so I cut open the box, grabbed a copy and stuffed it in my briefcase, and got back in the car. When I got to writing group, I showed it to them and they said "oh, great," or something like that, and then we did this exercise we always do that I call "write til you puke" and talked about our poems. It was beautifully anti-climactic, kind of like when you publish poems in a magazine. The real celebratory moment is when you get the letter saying that your poem has been chosen, rather than when the copy of the issue with your poem in it finally appears.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
I didn't imagine that my life would change drastically, but of course I was looking forward to seeing the book, and to being able to show it to other people. I was eager to know what sort of responses my work would get, both in terms of reviews and from individual readers, but I didn't expect any major, immediate changes.
My life has been different in subtle ways, for which I'm very grateful. The book is visible proof that the work I've been doing for the past fifteen years or so has value. If I hadn't published the book, I would have written the same poems, but I wouldn't have the credibility that having a book brings. The book has made me more confident in situations where I'm talking to other people who have books. I have a book too. It feels like a permission slip, in some ways. People take you more seriously when you have a book, or maybe they don't, maybe I just think they do, but it's the same either way, really.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
One of the many reasons why AJB is such a wonderful press is the involvement their writers have in the final appearance of the book. I selected the piece of art for the cover of the book, though it took a very long time to find something we could get the rights to that AJB found appropriate. So I couldn't just say "here, use this." It was collaborative. The first piece I found was "Ashes" by Munch: a man and a woman in a forest with a bed, and smoke rising from the trees in the background. Both of them look anguished. He's dressed, and she's putting on her clothes, and the general interpretation is that they've just had sex but are facing the uncrossable distance between them. I loved it. It was perfect for the Gretel poems in the book, but we couldn't get the rights to it. Then I found something from the 14th century, a man and a woman in bed in Hell, with a pig butt in the corner. It would have been a poor choice, but at the time I thought "how could you not love a pig butt?" Then I found a black and white photograph of a beautiful naked woman sitting in a chair wearing an elaborate animal mask. Those were the ones I really liked. By the time I found the piece that's on the cover, I had probably grown attached to at least 20 different pieces that weren't quite right for one reason or another. It was frustrating at the time, but ultimately I was glad that AJB was so intent on having me find exactly the right piece, because I think I did, and if they hadn't pressed me to keep looking, I would have settled for a much less striking cover.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
Luckily, I had a pretty realistic sense of what it would be like to publish, and the surprises have all been pleasant ones. The two reviews so far have been the best surprises of all: a Library Journal review that compares my work to that of Anne Sexton, and Jacqueline Kolosov-Wenthe's review (forthcoming in Iron Horse). Her review, especially, was so wonderful because I saw that she had understood me exactly, that she had read my poem "Ars Poetica" just as I had intended it. I was overwhelmed by the fact that the writers of both reviews were talking about ME. I had never imagined that someone would talk about my work in that way. One of the most pleasant surprises has been the response of a guy I didn't know who came to my launch party. Since then, he's joined my writing group, and at his first meeting I asked him who he liked to read, and he said "Richard Hugo, Philip Levine, James Wright, and you." That was by far the weirdest and most flattering list I've ever been on. To get such an appreciative response from a reader, particularly from a male reader, delighted me. Many of the poems in the book deal with relationships and with what I feared would be perceived as domestic issues: motherhood, etc, so I was concerned, initially, that men wouldn't find my poems relevant. His response did a lot to ease that fear.
What have you been doing to promote the book and what are those experiences like for you?
I did my launch party at a bookstore in Missoula, Shakespeare & Co., whose owner is a great guy named Garth who had invited me to read in his store several times over the past few years and who allowed my intro-level creative writing students to read there also. I was glad to finally have a book to sell, so he could make a little money from being such a gracious host. Most of the people at the launch party were friends and colleagues and a few former students, one of whom brought her two beautiful children. There was a gorgeous vase of flowers and lots of wine and dried papaya and three kinds of cheese. I felt loved, not just as a writer, but as a person. Then at the end of the semester I went to Massachusetts and read with my friend Kim Burwick in Amherst Books and in New York City at the Ear Inn. The reading in NYC was sort of a revelation, because I hadn't been to New York since I was 14, and I was intimidated by the idea of going there after living in Montana for so long. I was afraid of being hopelessly uncool, but that wasn't the case. I'm pretty cool.
I wish I had known to arrange more of a book tour. I still intend to set up a couple of readings in Seattle and Portland for the fall, but I should have made a better plan last spring, when the book came out.
Another thing: people will ask you to sign your book, so you better have something to say. I became a writer partly so I could think before speaking, but I had given no thought at all to what I should write in people's books. At the launch party, I wrote "happy writing" in a lot of books or even just signed my name. That was dumb. Then while I was in Massachusetts I was reading a book that the poet Patrick Donnelly had signed for my friend Kevin, and he had written "To Kevin, with admiration and best wishes," and I realized I could steal that, or vary it a little to match the particular circumstance.
By far the best advice I got was the help April Ossman from AJB gave me with editing and ordering the poems. I was sort of dreading the editing session (a four-hour phone conversation!), because I was afraid she would ask me to make changes I wasn't comfortable with, but after the first twenty minutes or so, I had complete faith in her. She assured me that I didn't have to make all of the changes she suggested, but I took almost all of her advice. None of the changes were drastic, but all of them made the book better, tighter. She's brilliant. I felt so lucky to be able to work with her.
What advice would you give to someone about to have a first book published?
I think I answered some of this in the previous question. I think most poets know, by the time they finally publish a book, that no giant change will occur in their daily lives because of being published. I was afraid that people would read my book and think they knew me, or draw certain conclusions about me, but for the most part readers are other poets who know the transmogrifying machine we put personal experience through to make poetry. So no one has commented on or inquired about any of the scandalous elements of my poems. That's reassuring.
And people will like the book. If they don't like it, they won't bother to talk to you about it, which means it will feel good to be told by people you know and people you don't know that your book spoke to them, that they liked a particular poem or a line. It does change your life in that way. It doesn't make you a rock star, but it gives you a few fans.
And another piece of advice: never buy a VW bug.
I feel more driven now, in that it took me a very long time to publish my first book. I finished my MFA in 1994, and so it took me twelve years after that. Granted, during that time I got married and divorced twice, had two children, and worked full-time, often more than full time, but still, I could have written more. Just before my first child was born, I did a reading in Missoula and two women I'd done my MFA with said "oh, we're so impressed that you're still writing." Well of course I was. But during those years, I didn't have the sense of urgency that I have now. I don't want to take twelve years to write a second book, so I'm writing a lot more, but none of the poems feel finished. I don't want to do what a lot of bands do: spend a long time making a good first album and then put out a mediocre or even crappy second album a year or so later. I took a long time to write the first book, and now I feel a lot of pressure, just from myself, to write another one, but I don't want to rush it.
Just a few days ago, I got an acceptance letter from Cimarron Review for my first post-book poem, which is encouraging.
How do you feel about the response so far and has it had any effect on your writing?
The reviews that I talked about in an earlier question have made me very happy, and overall I'm more focused and more dedicated as a writer now. I want to know what I'm going to do next, in my poems. I have a fantastic writing group and some friends who are poets, so in general I'm very pleased with the role writing plays in my life right now.
Wow. What a question. I'd like to leave Missoula, at least for a while. I'd like to get a "real" teaching job, which is more possible now, because of the book, or if not that, then I'd like to go back to school. I'd like to make more money, not because I'm greedy but because I've never had enough money and when you don't have enough it controls every decision you make. I'd like to have enough money not to let the lack of it and the need for it govern all of my choices. And I'd like to fall in love.
About a year and a half ago, I was very unhappy in my personal life and in my writing life. I had married an inappropriate person, and I had very little time or energy for writing and almost no poetry-friends left in Missoula. Then several things happened. I decided to look up a friend that I hadn't talked to since I left North Carolina in 1992. I had a tremendous crush on him throughout college, and he was a very influential person to me, a brilliant person. He's responsible, more than anyone else, for teaching me to write, because he made me feel like what I said and how I said it mattered. We had an intellectual friendship, but we almost never talked about personal matters, mostly because I was so shy then that I was afraid to ask anyone anything. I thought I had to just wait and wonder, and if people wanted me to know something they would tell me, and if not, too bad for me. I wanted to know how his life had turned out, and to tell him how important he had been to me, because I didn't know whether he knew. Maybe I also hoped to find out that he was single and madly in love with me after so many years. I don't know. What I found out, though, was that he had died in 1994, that he had committed suicide. After I got over the shock, after I mourned for him so belatedly and with such incomplete knowledge of who he really was, I began to realize that he had taught me my own potential, and I had failed to live up to it. I felt that I owed it to myself and to him to live differently.
Shortly after that, I answered an ad posted by a guy who was starting a poetry group, and I began to write regularly again. And then I won the BHA and got divorced and now I'm a single mother of two and I live in Missoula in an ugly blue house and I write a lot and read a lot and I'm happier than I've been in years. What I want now is to keep doing what I'm doing, to remain intellectually active and to keep myself in the company of other people who have common interests and concerns. Despite what I said in the previous question, these things are really more important to me than leaving Missoula or finding a different job or going back to school.
I went through a period last year when I was so sick of my own melodrama that I wanted to go and join the Peace Corps to get involved in something larger than my own personal bullshit. But it's hard to join the Peace Corps with two children. And like the Peace Corps, poetry is also larger than my own personal bullshit. From poetry, we learn that someone else has felt the thing we can't even put into words, the thing we thought we were the only one to ever feel. If we're talking about change as in stopping wars and curing famine, then no, unfortunately I don't think poetry by itself can do this. I think poetry is more involved with individual psychology than with the realms of the social and political. I think poetry is a process of determining what can be figured out and what can't. But I believe that poetry can save individual lives, and the world is made of individual lives, so in that sense then yes, poetry can change the world.
2 poems from Take What You Want by Henrietta Goodman:
It's not a bird, and that's part
what you see. If paradise means
for a second glance, or a second guess.
You can take what you want
if that's what it is, has more to do
more to do with iron burning
You're in a church and that's part
but you keep thinking of how he showed you
palms out, fingers laced together,
God as an engine seems right. Not God
but God to grind promises up,
burn them like gas. You know
that they aren't meant to only be kept.
Farewell Note in Czech
This is only what is always left--
The words you know are love and goodbye
best like this, to go on
next interview: Hadara Bar-Nadav
. . .