Monday, June 27, 2016

First book reflections: My book is here!

It came! My first full-length collection arrived, and I’ve held it in my hand.

To most readers, it would probably feel a lot like any other poetry book. But I can’t stop slipping my thumbs along its glossy cover, or flipping through its natural-colored pages, or weighing its heft in my palm. The poems inside are what they are—the very best in me, and I hope readers find them up to snuff—but beyond the work itself, I can attest that this little volume is perfect in every way.

My cover art is by an extremely talented artist named Gabrielle Montesanti. She specializes in photography and mixed media, and the cover art is a wonderful collage of the partial facial view of a cow. It’s so unusual that my reactions, in order, were, “What?” and then, “Well, maybe,” and finally, “SQUEE!” I have remained solidly on “squee” ever since.

The exterior was designed by a talented designer named Kristen Camille Ton, and the interior was designed by Erin Elizabeth Smith, the head honcho at Sundress Publications. I was given a voice in all aspects of the appearance, including art, layout, and font selection. Although I’ve published many issues of literary journals, it was really fun to look at design from the slightly different perspective that a book project requires.

Before we got to the design phase, Erin and Sara Henning both served as my editors to help me revise and order my work. I’m thick-skinned enough that I actually found it fun to drop a poem or two that weren’t as effective or that didn’t fit, and to work to fix problems with my endings or with loose language. As I’ve mentioned, I’m late to publishing a full-length collection, and I wonder what my reaction to criticism might have been twenty years ago—tears and anger, I expect. A few things do get better with age. For those few suggestions I didn’t agree with, I merely said a polite no. We all operated in good faith, and I love the results.

Clearly, this book means a lot to me—and that raises an obvious question, since I’m also the author of two chapbooks, Stone for an Eye (Kent State/Wick, 2004) and Someone Could Build Something Here (Winged City, 2013). Did those chapbooks, or small-sized collections, not count?

It’s a tricky issue. I really love chapbooks. They allow a writer to pay sustained attention to a narrow theme that would be too much for a full-length collection. I love to be obsessed with, say, a stone (the topic of my first chapbook) for twenty pages or so. Almost anyone would be tired of rocks, or anything else, by the end of seventy pages.

Chapbooks are unique and singular works of art. I’m very proud of the two I’ve published, and I know I’ll feel the same about two that are now forthcoming—one a collection of personal poems and the other a collection of daily sentences that I write about people lost to gun violence. But chapbooks simply don’t have the cachet of full-length books, and I haven’t really felt like a varsity player until today, when the coach finally put me in.

Whether I can put up the numbers remains to be seen, but it feels awfully good to be in the game.


If you would like to purchase my book, ordering information can be found at this link.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

First book reflections: I’m ready for my closeup

“Hi Karen, you have a package coming tomorrow.” That’s the text of an e-mail from UPS, informing me that by the end of day Monday I will be able to open a box containing copies of my very first full-length poetry collection.

I could not be more thrilled. It’s been a long poetic life with little to show for it—I’m nearly double the age of John Keats at the time of his death, for heaven’s sake, yet I’ve published only two (very beloved) chapbooks so far. Can a book that weighs five ounces be an anchor to secure my spot in the literary world? Because it feels that way. It really does.

One of my favorite things on social media is a genre of photograph that only people with lots of writer friends regularly encounter. This, of course, is a picture of the opening of the box and the first time seeing and holding the brand new book.

My press, Sundress Publications, and my editor, Erin Elizabeth Smith, gave me a lot of say over my cover—which is not always the case in literary publishing—and I love what Erin put together with artist Gabrielle Montesanti and cover designer Kristen Camille Ton. I don’t anticipate any surprises when I open my box, having approved a proof, but still, I can’t wait to see my book—to hold it in my hands.

And of course I’ll need a photographer at the ready to record the moment—my moment. Mike, my partner, is standing by to take the picture, and he may be even more excited than I am.

Have you ever planned an outfit for opening a box? Have you contemplated a manicure for the occasion? Well, that’s where I am. It’s a little like buying a pretty nightgown for the first pic with a new baby. That shit gets a lot of looks, and despite the pain and effort of pushing nine pounds out of the vague, feminine region my nine-year-old refers to as “your butt,” new moms are expected to be radiant. Strangely, it usually does work that way. Creation makes us glow.

As far as the idea of prettifying myself to receive a box goes, I’m resisting. I’m determined to greet my book as naturally as I produced it—over years, mostly still-dark mornings, of quiet focus and contemplation, and long stretches of frustrating revision.

Making poetry is not necessarily pretty. I spend many long minutes each day with my hands pressed over my eyes, or with my lips moving soundlessly as I go over a poem in an attempt to get it just right. I’ve caught myself digging my fingers into my hair and pulling, as if I could extract the right word out the top of my head if I just applied enough pressure.  I regularly scrunch up my face and grimace at the dumb stuff I come up with on the way to a finished poem. I produce a whole lot of stupid in my desire to serve truth and beauty.

In short, I suspect I look kind of crazed in the writing process. It’s ugly work. And I’d hate to think that my poems would arrive home and not recognize their own mom in the literary equivalent of a frilly new duster.

As in the delivery room, I suspect there will be two pics taken. One will remind us of the red-faced, sweaty astonishment of a mom awkwardly first-time holding a gooey screamer, and one will show all the composure of a Madonna cradling the nestling babe whose arrival might save us all. The second, of course, is the one I’ll approve for social media.

Either way, I could probably use a manicure.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

American sentences memorialize those killed by guns

I’ve been a spotty blogger since June 12, the date of the Pulse nightclub shooting. I’m sure I’m not alone in a tendency after a tragedy to think of normal activities as—I don’t know. Profane?

Of course, I tend to write about writing and creativity, an activity and an attitude that I find essential. There’s nothing trivial about art. In fact, it honors those killed by senseless violence to adopt a contemplative attitude and to think about essential subjects. Maybe this isn’t the time for me to write about what makes a good rejection slip, but there is no better time to talk about meaning-making.

When the tragedy happened, I was almost halfway through a Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, writing and posting a poem each day as a benefit for a wonderful small press. I adopted a (seemingly) lighthearted project, the basis of my current book manuscript—poems about classic TV shows, like Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, and more.

After the Pulse shooting, Hogan’s Heroes seemed too vapid a subject to deal with. (There’s deep irony there, since the show takes place in Nazi Germany, amid horrors that are not alluded to.) I felt stymied as a poet, and I dropped the ball with the Tupelo project. Although I still tried to write every day, I have a bunch of starts of Beverly Hillbillies poems that seem to have nowhere to go. I’ll return to these eventually, because I actually do believe TV is an obsession worth pursuing.

On the day of the shooting, I wrote a twelve-section poem called “American Morning” in a form Allen Ginsberg created called the American sentence. Each section is an American sentence—seventeen syllables (like a haiku) and a single complete sentence. “American Morning” tries to approach the Pulse shooting in something like real time. It wasn’t a poem for sharing as much as it was a tool for contemplation—a way of coming to grips with the loss of so many, and of finding a place for the images of panic and grief my TV was showing me.

Since that day, I’ve maintained a daily contemplative practice that memorializes victims of gun violence. Upon waking, I look for news stories about all of the people killed by a bullet the day before. It’s a grim Google search, usually involving the phrase “shot dead” or “shot and killed.” There has not been a morning in those thirteen days that I haven’t had my pick of several U.S. gun deaths.

Today’s American sentence concerns a tragic event in Katy, Texas, where a mother, enmeshed in marital problems with her husband, shot her two daughters, ages 22 and 17. The hard thing about these meditations is also the hard thing about poetry. I don’t get to finger-wag and pontificate—doing so does not make a poem. Instead, I have to close my eyes and really immerse myself in a sense of the pain of that place at that moment. This morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about the terrible, gut-wrenching irony of removing one’s own daughters from the earth, after the pain and agonizing effort of birthing them and raising them in the world. Here’s the poem:

She honeycombed with bullets those bodies
she once caressed with powder.

“Mother, 2 daughters killed in Ft. Bend triple shooting identified,” KRPCHouston, June 25, 2016

For poetry to work, and for meditation to work, it’s first necessary to pinpoint the love and to feel connection. I’m generalizing, of course—this is just what’s necessary for me to function. Even an angry poem is centered in love for someone who has been hurt. I do best with my American sentences if I try to exercise lovingkindness for all. I frequently fall short. Sometimes my frustration shows, as with this sentence about an incident where a man, merely being robbed, pulled his own gun to defend himself and ended up dead:

Dead man managed to preserve safety of wallet; unknown who shot first.

“Man shot, killed trying to defend himself from robber,” 11Alive Atlanta, June 21, 2016

This feels like the weakest of my American sentences so far, and I know the reason: it judges; it does not love.

It was easy—and very nearly overwhelming—to feel love for the youngest victim I wrote about, a four-year-old girl who accidentally shot herself in he eye while peering down the barrel of an unattended pistol.

From the nature of the injury, it appears she just wanted
to look down that dark hole.


In my meditation, I was the little girl, turning that gun in her hands, and I was the mother, encountering the fear and confusion of a younger daughter bent over her dying sister. I was even the medical personnel, frantically summoned to the scene from a clinic near the home, and I was the officers who will live with that image forever. Even writing about it now, it’s impossible to process all that I’m feeling.

And that’s the point of my American sentences project. I have made the personal decision to no longer turn my shoulder on my country’s epidemic of violent death at the end of a barrel. On Dec. 14, 2012, the Newtown shooting took place at an elementary school, leaving twenty precious children and six selfless teachers dead. I heard about it—and I stopped listening. I couldn’t watch the news of this. Anything I’ve learned about Newtown has been gleaned peripherally. I have never looked at footage or pictures of that day, because I knew I couldn’t stand immersing myself in the fear of those innocents. What I have picked up—children hiding in cabinets, teachers offering up the soft shields of their bodies as a last resort—is all way more than I can bear. I’ve thought of my own son at school, going through drills that had him hide from a shooter, and I’ve known that no cupboard would protect my child—and that he would never be able to hold his tongue and be silent. It’s impossible to contemplate, and simultaneously, it’s crucial to contemplate.

I invite all writers to join me in remembering those we have lost, as well as those we continue to lose each new day. It’s a harrowing and necessary responsibility, and one we as a culture can no longer look away from.

I invite you to follow my American sentences project on Twitter, @AmrcnSentences.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

First book reflections: On growing tired of your own voice

My very first full-length poetry collection, No More Milk, is heading to the printer today, so I’m in a celebratory mood. This moment has been a long time coming, and I’m savoring it.

I’ve had a lot of fun working on the collection with my editors, Erin Elizabeth Smith and Sara Henning of Sundress Publications in Knoxville, Tennessee. Erin and Sara coached me through ordering and edits, and Erin, the head honcho at Sundress, allowed me to have a say on cover image and font selection. (Cover input from the author is not always permitted by publishers, so I feel particularly lucky to have had a say in that process.)

From time to time over my thirty years of attending readings, I’ve heard writers express weariness with the book in hand. I’ve gone to many readings with the expectation of hearing work from the writer’s new book, only to find that the writer is more enthusiastic about an unpublished manuscript-in-progress, and is, in fact, tired of the brand new book.

It’s kind of like back in the eighties when I and my tall hair would go hear an arena rock band. I’d expect “Double Vision” or “Hot Blooded” or “Feels Like the First Time,” and darned if the band didn’t haul out something from its shitty upcoming album, Inside Information. (No, Foreigner, I will not “get over it,” as a matter of fact, and I will keep writing until I receive a proper apology.)

I never really got these writers—or bands, for that matter. If the book is brand new, how can they be so over the work in its pages?

Well, I’m starting to get it, and I haven’t even been to my first reading from the book yet. I’ve looked at my poems for a long time, and they’re starting to seem pretty familiar. This may be especially true with a first book, since a few of the poems go back quite a few years.

I’ve changed a lot as a writer since I wrote some of the poems in No More Milk. I have a different sense of what makes an effective line; I have, I believe, more sophisticated diction, and a keener understanding of syntax. I’ve even got different ideas about imagery, and a metaphor I would have chosen twenty years ago is not one I would reach for today.

It was humbling, working with editors who had refined ideas about poetry, when a handful of the poems in the collection were from a novice writer. My best poem from circa 1995 lives on in memory as a competent piece (and I still believe ardently in self-pegged pants), but the work benefitted from exposure to a skilled editorial eye—two sets of such eyes, in fact.

At the moment, I’m feeling very enthusiastic about the poems I’m writing about classic television. I’ve started to think of my current poems, written primarily this month, as comprising my third book. The poems in No More Milk feel like my greatest hits album (although the comparison falls apart when I consider how few people have read even the published poems—“dozens” may be an optimistic assessment, when thinking of literary journal audiences). I’ll bet Lynyrd Skynyrd got a little tired of doing “Free Bird,” even though it’s pretty much one of the most awesome songs ever.

Although I have a new understanding of writers’ professed weariness for old work, I’m excited to shine a light on those earlier poems with this new book of mine. I’ve determined, I think, that the uncomfortable thing is that I’m so different than I was when I wrote some of those poems—one year ago, five years ago, ten years ago. Heck, I wrote several poems last week, and world events and reflection mean that I’m a different person today than I was then. I’ve never found it easy to revisit old ways of thinking, looking, being—maybe it’s just part of being a woman, imbued with the understanding that all we are is never quite sufficient. I suspect there will be something very healing about holding a selection of my life’s work in my hand and saying, “This—this is what brought me here. This is what I’m about.”

If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me? Probably not. But No More Milk is a real thing, and it’s probably on the press right now, and because it is, maybe someone other than my family will. That’s a consoling thought.


No More Milk is available for preorder at this link. Many thanks for reading and for your support!