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the expectation of hearing work from the writer’s new book, only to find that the writer is more enthusiastic about an unpublished manuscript-in-progress, and is, in fact, tired of the brand new book.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!


  1. Congratulations, so exciting!
    I get concerned about tiring of my own voice, sometimes. I worry more about readers. How does one make each collection "different" enough without twisting voice into something synthetic? Just change the subject? Play with forms?

    I'm only to the "step" of seeking publication for a chapbook. I like the medium. I wonder how many poets just keep to chapbooks.

    1. This is such a good question. I think your answers are equally good! Yes -- change the subject, lay with forms. Do something NEW. That's what I try to do, although sometimes I still find myself reworking the same material. It's hard to let go of our obsessions!

      Thanks for writing. Sorry I missed this before.