How has your first book changed your life?
81. Steve Fellner
How did you find out that your manuscript was the winner of the 2006 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize? How often had you sent it out previously?
I had been sending my book out for many years, and I was crazy determined to get a book of poetry published. I got an MFA and PhD in creative writing. During all this time, I was sending out various incarnations of the book. No one wanted it. It was (and still is) an uneven book, but there were a lot of worse books out there, and I liked sending things out in the mail. Even when you get a rejection in the mail (and I got a zillion of them), it's always fun to have opened the envelope. It's like watching the Oscars. Even if the actor you love loses, you at least enjoy the spectacle.
I knew my book would never be accepted by a huge press, but I was completely comfortable with the idea of being insignificant. Still am. The world is nice that way: no one holds insignificance against you.
I can still remember the day I got the email from Marsh Hawk Press that Denise Duhamel had chosen my manuscript. My boyfriend and I decided to go see the Al Gore documentary, so I went upstairs to check my email and the showtimes. There was an email from Marsh Hawk Press and I assumed it was a message informing me that I lost and then an announcement of the winner. When I read the news, I couldn't believe it. I had given up hope.
What made me most sad is I couldn't call up my best friend and tell her my lucky fortune. She had won a major contest a few months prior and we stopped talking, partly because I couldn't deal with my own jealousy over her success. When she won her contest, I felt abandoned. I liked the idea of both of us failing forever together. We're talking now and laugh about it. But I wish I could have shared the news with her.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
This is funny in a dumb way: I was so sick with a serious thyroid condition (that had yet to be diagnosed), I didn't care. I was in the worst mood. My partner was jumping up and down, saying we had to celebrate, and I told him to shut up and then ordered him to put the copies in our basement. I didn't want to see them. My book made me sick. Everything made me sick. Synthroid has cheered me up considerably.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
The front cover: no. Claudia Carlson did the best job. I'm indebted to her.
I was obsessed with getting blurbs for the back cover. I didn't want anyone I knew personally or had met to blurb me. I knew that my book was coming from a small press (I don't know if my Amazon sales rank has ever risen above a million, and I check it every hour), and I knew I needed to trick people into reading it. So I sent 40 emails (all the same night) to 40 different poets I really admired, and told them how their work influenced me, and asked if they would consider looking at my book, and if they felt moved to do so, offer me a blurb. 15 out of the 40 poets responded. Most ignored me. Two told me to Fed Ex them the manuscript and then never contacted me again. One significant gay poet read the book and told me that he didn't like it. It hurt. I'm gay. He's gay. I thought he'd say yes simply because of those two facts. But that was cool. I admire people with discriminating tastes, and also, I'm a masochist. Because he rejected me, I'm even a bigger fan.
David Kirby said yes, and has helped me in so many different ways. He is a man who has so many students and he has been so kind to a total stranger. Says so much about his commitment to the poetry community. Timothy Liu was very nice: he gave me a great blurb and also in an email listed his favorite poems. I am also grateful to Steve Orlen and Jim Daniels.
Before the day you first saw your book, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
No. I lucked out and already had a tenure-track job at SUNY Brockport. I knew very few people would read my book and I didn't expect anyone to ask me to read. Which is fine. At the same time I do get jealous of people who are able to promote their books and make readings happen. I should be more like that, but my self-consciousness gets in the way.
Has your life been different since your book came out?
No. I lead a very small, simple, happy life with my partner Phil.
Actually, the more I think about it, my initial no is a lie. It has been different. I teach at SUNY Brockport, and all the other creative writing faculty have always had a book, as long as I had known them. I was always embarrassed that I didn't. I felt like they secretly pitied me. Once I got my book, I felt like I was more worthy to be on the faculty. This is silly. They hired me knowing I was bookless. But still.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I'm surprised when anyone mentions my book, and I mean anyone. I had a student ask me to sign a copy and I was shocked he would have bought a copy. I was also taken aback that my book was mentioned in a poetry column in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Or when Mid-American Review, Quarterly West, Art Voice, and Salt Lake City Weekly published reviews of the book.
What have you been doing to promote Blind Date with Cavafy and how do you feel about it?
It's hard to get readings when your book comes from a small press and you're an insignificant writer. Again I don't mean insignificant as pejorative. Most of us are. There's comfort in being insignificant: you're free to do what you want; no one is watching you. In fact, I want to write an essay, a meditation about the power and positive consequences of being insignificant. There's so much pressure to matter in the literary community. This isn't to say there shouldn't be significant writers who win major awards, but aren't there any other alternatives to aim for?
I have a friend who is a significant poet and he's working on his second book. Occasionally, I've watched him work, and he is constantly looking at his first book when he writes poems for his second. He wants to make sure his new poems are as good as the first. If I were a significant poet, I would engage in this behavior. But I don't, because no one is watching me, and as a result, I don't need to watch myself as closely. To draw an analogy, if you are a beautiful person, the world expects you to leave your house looking attractive, well-groomed. If you're a person like myself, no one cares if you leave the house wearing dirty socks or if you have a stain on your shirt. You're free. Significant poets and beautiful people shoulder a great deal more responsibility than the rest of us.
I should add here that Marsh Hawk Press threw me a book launch in New York at Poets House, along with the other two poets who had books coming out with the press. Also this fall semester I have four readings scheduled, three in the Upstate New York area and one in New York New York. I'm excited. I love to read. And I like that for most of the readings I'm performing with someone else. I like the idea of two or three people reading together. That way if someone doesn't like your poems, they may like someone else's and that means you don't feel like they wasted their time coming. Time is a huge issue with me. I don't think there's a greater thing you can steal from someone else, and I don't want to be a criminal in that way or at least as little as possible.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
When my best friend and I were still talking after her book was accepted she told me that the initial excitement rubs off quickly. (We lived and still do in different states.) So celebrate. Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate. Because my boyfriend and I are geeks (our idea of a fun Friday night is making quesadillas on our George Foreman Grill and watching Farscape), we didn't go out and do anything surprising, novel. In a way, I wish we had.
What advice would you give to someone about to have a first book published?
If your book comes from a small press, give up your prize money and ask for it in copies. Then do a lot of work yourself. Sandy McIntosh, Claudia Carlson, Rochelle Ratner, and everyone at Marsh Hawk Press, works so hard. I felt it was my obligation to send out my book to as many places as I could for review. Which I did.
Also, if you have a book coming out and you have a friend who doesn't have a book, do NOT say to them, "You're next." They might not be next. They might not even be the next after the next after the next. So many of my more talented, significant poet friends said to me after they got their first book accepted, "You're next." I never was. We all gave up on me before my book came out.
I also find it sad that I read so many young poets are constantly changing their manuscripts after not placing in a contest. When everything is so oversaturated and so many contests are run by committee, taking your losing to mean anything is dangerous. Having been a screener for contests, I can say that I've seen so many manuscripts look overlabored. You need to let go of your manuscript. There's only so much you can do.
Unless you have a bad title. Here's an embarrassing confession: for years I sent out my manuscript and never placed. I called it the dumbest, dullest things! Aesthetics of the Damned was one. Hoaxes and Scams was another.
As soon as I called it Blind Date with Cavafy (all the poems were basically the same ones that appeared under the other titles), I started being named a finalist. And I won pretty quick. After many, many years of bad titles. This is my theory: most screeners, most poets are insecure in making aesthetic judgments. The mention of Cavafy made it clear that I knew something about poetry. The humor of the phrase "blind date" juxtaposed with the literary allusion signaled I was a poet. I am very embarrassed to admit this, but I think it's true. There's so much out there, and most people are tentative, they need clues that they're giving the right book the award. That isn't to say this is why I won, but I did notice that I started making it past the initial rounds much more often. Choose a smart title. Most titles suck. They're boring and pretentious and vague.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
I think a lot about a second book. And I am sometimes embarrassed that I am creating (have created) one. Does the world need another book by me?
I wish I were a more formally interesting poet. I belong (almost whole-heartedly) to the School of Quietude, and I wish I had more of a desire to explore innovative forms, but that's not where my heart is. Often times I feel that my poems are too journalistic. Also: I wonder if I should be writing poems at all. I don't take advantage of the line as much as a poet should.
How do you feel about the critical response so far and has it had any effect on your writing practice?
Anyone who spends time writing about someone else's poems is a very generous human being.
Do you want your life to change?
I'm OK. I like my life, my partner, and Synthroid.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
I'm writing overtly political poems. I'm getting away from the autobiographical "I." The world is in such bad shape that for me to drone on about my life is pretty disgusting. And I do think that political poems are important, necessary. It may not be true that one poem can change the world, but cumulatively, all the writing that seeks and encourages goodness can make an impact. I have no doubt about that.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I started writing because I wanted love. I think all writers write for that reason. And I think smart writers write so that their ideal reader will love them. Hopefully, the writer is choosy and wants an ethical, big-hearted person to love them. If that's why they write poems and they craft their poems to win that love, an honorable love, they can do no wrong. In fact, it's a small gift to humanity.
A poem from Blind Date with Cavafy by Steve Fellner:
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