26 DEC 06
How has your first book changed your life?
44. Zach Barocas
Your manuscript was published by your own press, The Cultural Society. Tell me a little about The Cultural Society: when did you start it and what are its aims?
The Cultural Society started in Woodside, NY, in September, 2001. Originally the idea was simply to start a website that would feature work I liked, in hopes of creating a community whose energies could be networked through the site; that is, I hoped that it would be both a place to see work & a place to become familiar with other artists & writers, a hub. After 9/11, it was especially important to me to be positively involved with poets & other artists.
My friend Jon Curley (a poet & critic in NYC) joined me as co-editor almost immediately. When we decided to move into publishing (broadsides), Kimberley Yurkiewicz (I'm her husband now) joined up to help us coordinate production (she used to manage a letterpress shop here in Minneapolis before she moved to NYC). Though the website has evolved into being primarily my domain, Curley & Kimberley are still quite active in their roles. Peter O'Leary remains our sole credited advisory editor.
As for the goal of creating a scene, I think we've been reasonably successful. Some of the contributors have met each other through the CultSoc, some of us have been reacquainted. I suspect that most people who publish websites or journals report the same reward: it provides the opportunity to stay in touch with contributors, some of whom I count among my closest friends & favorite poets, photographers, etc.
What brought you to the decision to publish the book yourself? Did you design it also?
There were, not surprisingly, several factors, the first of which was that I wanted to learn to design a book & it didn't seem like that was the kind of thing a publisher would allow. Another factor was that it's a short book, too short for most publishers. Mostly, though, it was a matter of wanting to keep the process close. The poems in Among Other Things were originally written over the course of 12 years (I tend to write slowly & in bursts). Only three of them had been published & I doubt the others had been read by more than a couple dozen people. Writing poems had always been a private undertaking for me & I was reluctant to fully surrender the manuscript. I had terrific, critical readers advising me on how to shape the book, its flow, & which poems to cut. I can't imagine that I would have gotten better help from other quarters. Of course, the final selections were mine & I have to accept any blame for coming up short.
What do you remember about the day when you saw the finished book for the first time?
I had seen the proofs already but the books were a whole different story. We lived on Henry Street in Cobble Hill at the time & the delivery truck didn't fit on our block. To avoid extortion, I had the guy leave the eight boxes on the corner (four buildings away) from which I carried them to our building & then up to the fourth floor. Once I caught my breath, I cut a box open, tore off the shrink wrap, started turning pages, & there they were: two typos. I almost threw up. Once I calmed down, however, I just looked at it, flipped through it (no further typos), & found myself pleased in the knowledge that I could get back to writing. These poems, for better or for worse, were done. I called Kimberley at work to tell her they'd arrived & then marched over to see my friend & mentor, the poet & artist Jason Ian Moriber, whose office was around the corner on Columbia Street. We had a cup of coffee. He gave me a kiss on the cheek. That night, Kimberley & I had a few friends over. It was a wonderful day.
Did you imagine your life would change with your book's arrival in the world?
I did, though not much. I thought it would give me a kind of entry point, an introduction to other poets & other scenes. My experiences in the music industry tempered any notions of fame & adoration. Besides, I don't think I write the kind of poems that yield that sort of attention.
How has your life been different since?
A variety of things changed at that time, most or all of which are due to our move to Minneapolis. All obvious culture-shocks aside, this has been the first place I've lived where I know more than one or two local poets. In NYC, I knew mostly musicians & filmmakers, some designers, painters, actors, etc. but almost no poets, or at least almost no full-time poets. Here, on the other hand, I've begun doing readings, booking readings, & attending other poets' readings (in the entirety of my life preceding our move, I think I attended a total of 8 readings); I've gotten to know some local publishers (Graywolf Press, Milkweed Editions, Coffee House Press, Rain Taxi); Kimberley & I have ties to the letterpress community. We've felt very welcome here & are thankful for the people who've reached out to us. Certainly from the standpoint of the CultSoc, it's been a great place to work. I have new contributors to the website, expanded interest in my own work, & our new friends even support our business (a stationery & gift shop called Letterbox). If only there were seven million more people knocking around, it would feel like home.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
The only thing that didn't happen was sales. In NYC, I had a job at a video store that would have allowed me to sell 100-200 copies to customers I knew (I worked there on & off for eight years), which was basically how I anticipated making my money back. My father calls this type of financial lesson 'tuition.' I see his point.
The surprises have been myriad. I don't think I expected more than an "I-didn't-know-that-drummers-wrote-poems" response; maybe some kindness from friends & family but that was really about it. So to have it favorably mentioned or reviewed (or sort of favorably, like Ron Silliman's piece, which was accurate, in any case, & turned me on to William Bronk), to receive compliments from people I don't know, to be associated with the book--all of these things are surprising to me. And I'm grateful to have such a broad response.
What have you been doing to promote the book and what are those experiences like for you?
I've never been a good promoter of my own work. I've sent out review copies & sold a few at my website & the CultSoc. My old record label sells & distributes copies for me in & around DC; we sell it at Letterbox; I put it up at Amazon. As I mentioned above, I've started doing readings. Mostly, I've managed, almost entirely through Joseph Massey (one of my favorites & no stranger, I suspect, to anyone reading this), to hook up with a group of younger (by which I mean younger than me) poets & editors who have been very helpful in terms of getting the word out. Frankly, I've tried to keep this aspect as close to home as the production of the book. It's been an effective way to be in contact with poets & readers whom I would otherwise have missed.
I reserve a certain reserve, as well as contempt, for marketing & promotion. I think it's the only pitfall of self-publication: the desire to protect the art can hamper the availability of the art.
How do you think art is protected by contempt for marketing & promotion?
Marketing & promotion distort the scale of a work. Artists & audiences are drawn together by the mutually-held scale of the artistic experience they share. So if, for example, the pro-chapbook poets & readers out there are satisfied by the intimacy & immediacy they perceive in the format, why wreck it by promoting these collections to people who don't care? It would only betray the fundamental idea that defines & drives the community. I feel similarly about my book. When Kimberley, Curley, & I discussed publishing my poems, we had the resources to print & publish a smyth-sewn paperback book. But I'm not arrogant enough to think it makes the poems better or broader-based. It could have just as easily been saddle-stitched, hand-sewn, photocopied, or a PDF. As it happens, mine is a small book that people have found transparent, skillful, & at times, pleasurable & truthful. I don't know how I'd market those qualities & I'm not sure I'd trust someone who told me they did.
In short, exploiting something a handful of people take seriously in order to (hopefully) extract entertainment dollars from a larger group is dishonest. I have learned (initially from the music industry) that this notion is true in all cases & all media. So if contempt for this practice doesn't protect the art, it at least protects the artists & audiences.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
All of the advice I received from friends & colleagues was sound. I think the most influential advisement, however, was an essay by Galway Kinnell called "Thoughts Occasioned by the Most Insignificant of All Human Events," which takes its title from Herman Melville, who turned the phrase to describe the publication of a poet's first book. Melville states that though such an event might be of the utmost importance to the volume's author, it matters little, if at all, to anyone else. There are exceptions, I guess, but Among Other Things is not among them.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
There was a stretch through this past spring & summer when I felt I wasn't writing fast enough. There were solicitations for work coming in & I found that I was afraid to say no, afraid that if I didn't send anything I'd never get anything published anywhere again. Publication was a buzz, I guess, whose comedown was a source of anxiety for me. Like most anxieties, though, it was moot. I had nothing to send & that was that.
The whole experience put me back in my right mind & reminded me that I've never written quickly & relatively speaking, I've been very productive since the book came out. I'm back on an even keel now & looking forward to having new work appear in places & alongside people I admire.
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing?
When I was designing the book, picking the title, ordering the poems, etc., I was afraid that it wouldn't be coherent. Overall, the critical response to it has confirmed that I presented the work as best as I could, & further, has allowed me to free myself up to try other poetic modes & forms. It's been very helpful.
Do you want your life to change?
I always want my life to change. I want my life to always change. But not too much & not too fast.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
I was asked earlier this year to write an essay on "poetry & the spirit" &, though I submitted a finished version of it, I've continued to think about the topic a great deal. Lately it strikes me like writing about "fish & the water," which is not the vantage from which the forthcoming piece was written.
There's also drumming, which has, in the last couple of years, reasserted itself in my life. It is not a separate matter from poetry, though it is a separate practice. I hope to learn to better integrate the lessons from each into the other.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
(This question reminds me of Anne Sexton's "need is not quite belief," a favorite line of mine from way back.)
Also: would the world change without poetry? Yes, I believe it would. But that doesn't get us off the hook.
3 poems from Among Other Things by Zach Barocas:
A body beneath
its clothing echoes
muscle under skin.
The muscle holds the
body, makes the bones
support from within,
a body's faith, its
trust: structure is thus
the same as spirit.
It is not merely
the radiance, one
barely, if at all,
contains; it is the
witness, too, warmed &
facing the light's source
alone, basking with-
out fear, that matters.
From Here I Can See Everything
Look to a photograph of upstate
autumn, where all save skin
& leaves is gray;
or this one of my family:
the threat of my father's
& my brother's
. . .
next interview: Katie Peterson
other first-book interviews
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