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Portrait of the artists as young poets

October 19, 2008 | 11:02 am


Before publishing her first book, the poet Kate Greenstreet started to wonder about what becoming a published author would mean. "Will it change me?" she asked in 2006. "Or will it inspire me to change -- to do things to help the book find its audience?" She asked more than 100 authors -- mostly poets -- about the experience and has archived their responses.

Few poets move in the kind of circles that might get them on the cover of tabloids; the changes are more quiet epiphanies, and the interviews reveal many of the poets growing into themselves. The archive is wonderful, despite being dormant for some time. Now, Keith Montesano, a poet who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, has launched a new First Book Interview blog that has interviewed three poets, "continuing in the tradition of Kate Greenstreet." Excerpts from Greenstreet's original interview series, below, trace an arc of becoming a poet today.

Oliver de la Paz, author of "Names Above Houses," published by Southern Illinois University Press: When I was in my first year of graduate school, there was a glamour I had assigned to being a poet with a book, but that was quickly deflated when I went to my first AWP [Association of Writing Programs] conference in Portland, Ore. There were so many poets. There were so many poets with one book. It was all pretty intimidating. All of a sudden, the writing world seemed a lot bigger, less intimate.

Alex Lemon, author of "Mosquito," published by Tin House: I was outside of the Reed College dining commons, talking to friends I'd met the year before, when Meg Storey -- now a great friend, and the person I had been working day-to-day with on edits (she put up with so much craziness from me. I was incredibly scared, nervous, whatever -- I thought everything I was doing was terrible) -- brought me a copy that had arrived at the actual Tin House in Portland. I felt happy and sick and loved and distraught all at the same time.

Jill Magi, author of "Threads," published by Futurepoem: Some things about my aesthetic confidence increased -- after I heard the book was accepted for publication, I felt OK about my revision process and that I could write something publication-worthy. I began to feel more peaceful about my compositional choices and I felt a jolt of inspiration to continue with new projects.

More about the process of becoming a poet after the jump.

Gabriel Fried, author of "Making the New Lamb Take," published by Sarabande Books: It doesn't change everything, but publishing a book has affected my interior and exterior sense of myself as a writer. Creatively, I have been able to move on from the work in the book in a way that feels almost topographical, like crossing a mountain range or a canyon. It's a feat that's over, as formidable, mystical, and confounding in its completion as it was in its execution. And I guess as far as the outside world is concerned, it's easier to be considered a professional writer once you have a book out. So there are differences in how I'm received. And I receive myself differently, too. Sometimes I'm actually proud of the book.

Kazim Ali, author of "The Far Mosque," published by Alice James Books: My life has certainly changed. I accepted a teaching position, I've been doing lots of readings and events in connection with the book, and I've had my second book of poems accepted by an amazing publisher, BOA Editions. The critical question for me is now that I have two things I had sought after for so long (a first book and an accepted second book) how do I generate the emptiness of spirit necessary for poems to find their way to beginning? I don't want to become dependent on outside validation, but of course I can already sense it happening. The fact that I even ask these questions speaks to what has been taken away from me through the publication of the book.

Kate Greenstreet, organizer of the First Book interviews and author of "case sensitive," published by Ahsahta Press: I did 80 days of readings or class visits or both, hitting schools, bars, bookstores,  gallery spaces, living rooms, and theaters in 28 states plus two cities in Canada.... if you want to do it, I recommend going with a buddy, a mate or fellow poet, if you can.... The three of us, Janet Holmes and Max and me, set out early.... It's mid-April. Maybe a third of the way between Ithaca and Albany, the falling snow begins to thicken. Soon we're passing more and more cars and trucks that have slid off the highway to the embankment or the median. The traffic has moved into a single lane, as the rest of the road fills with ice and drifts. The wipers can no longer clear the windshield. And I'm a wreck, saying (over and over) Let's just pull over... Oh look! there's a Days Inn... There's a Super 8! Max is driving, not unafraid, but fanatically committed to delivering us as promised. He says, "No, let's keep going" in a voice that I take to mean I'm trying to concentrate. So everyone is crawling along way too fast, too close to avoid a crash if somebody brakes. Just when I think I can't take it one more minute, Janet, from the back seat, as if she's thought of an entertaining story to tell us, says, "Complacencies of the peignoir, and late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, and the green freedom of a cockatoo upon a rug mingle to dissipate the holy hush of ancient sacrifice." The atmosphere -- maybe the light? -- shifts. She continues. She's reciting "Sunday Morning" -- you know, the Wallace Stevens poem? It's really long and she has it all by heart, and beautifully. Right around "Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet" I notice that my body is relaxing. It seems like a miracle: I've fallen into the spell of her sound.

Jen Benka, author of "A Box of Longing With 50 Drawers," published by Soft Skull Press: In the U.S., poetry basically exists outside of the economy -- with only a few exceptions, books of poetry do not make money, they lose it. Poetry is all about losing money. Poetry is antithetical to capitalism. The poem and the dollar share only that they are both printed on paper. Thankfully there are many visionary people running presses who believe deeply that poetry matters and find other ways to cover publishing and printing costs. They are my heroes.

Samples of poetry by each of these authors is available at the end of their interview; just click on the name.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo of Alex Lemon reading this year in Minneapolis courtesy Alex Lemon.