Thanks so much to Poetry Daily for featuring "Little Thieves" as their poem of the day today.
"Little Thieves" appears in This Time Tomorrow and first appeared in the excellent journal Memorious.
"Little Thieves" describes a night markets on one of the "snack streets" in Beijing. Remembering this scene -- where birds I wouldn't have thought of as "food birds" were being served up off the grill -- made me think of Mao's campaign against the sparrows, which I had read about in one of those wider-ranging, feature-y year-end issues of The Economist -- a surprising source of useful info for several poems in This Time Tomorrow.
That's something I love about writing, and especially about writing poetry: how you collect these odd bits of visual or historical info and let them bump up against each other until you start to see the possible connections between them.
I remember the first "Next Big Thing" interview I read was by Mary Biddinger about her second book of poems, O Holy Insurgency. Since then, it seems like pretty much everyone has done one—and now Rebecca Morgan Frank has tagged me to do one too.
And in the spirit of keeping a good thing going, I'm going to tag three poets I don't think have done this yet, but should: Susana Case, Jay Leeming and Andrei Guruianu.
This interview took place during the recent AWP Conference, on a snowy morning over breakfast at at a waterside hotel in Charlestown. The coffee flowed freely and so did the conversation.
What is your working title of your book?
My third book of poems was just published this month by the Waywiser Press. It’s called This
Where did the idea come from for the book?
This Time Tomorrow is a collection of poems about traveling and finding your way in other cultures and landscapes—specifically Japan, Iceland and China. My wife and I visited each of these countries over the course of several years. While I didn’t set out on these trips with the intention of writing this particular book, I knew our experiences in these surprising, challenging, sometimes disorienting places were things I would want to find their way into my poems in one way or another.
A friend’s wedding led us to visit Japan in the summer of 2005, and following that trip I wrote a long poem called “Disappears in the Rain,” which was originally published as a chapbook by Parlor City Press in 2009. This poem, written loosely in the shape of a renga, sits at the heart of This Time Tomorrow. It’s preceded by a sequence of poems set in Iceland and followed by a group of shorter poems set in China and Japan.
What genre does your book fall under?
What that same happily married friend and I used to refer to in our college days as “the first genre”—poetry.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in their younger days. (If you’re going to ask, I’m going to go for it.)
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A poet finds his way (in many different senses) through unfamiliar landscapes by looking both outward and inward.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
My book was published by the Waywiser Press, under the careful and generous guidance of editors Philip Hoy and Joseph Harrison.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
That’s hard to say. As far as I can remember, I started writing “Disappears in the Rain” in early 2006 (after my memories had percolated for a while) and was working on drafts of some of the last poems to go into the book while I was at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in the summer of 2009. But there’s also one poem in the book I wrote while I was in the MFA program at The New School, circa 1999, which never felt right for my first or second book, but fit into This Time Tomorrow like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. And come to think of it, there’s a three-part poem in the book that I drafted before grad school, brought to David Lehman’s workshop at The New School, then tinkered with on and off for the next 10 years—and again, it never felt at home in a manuscript until this book came into focus.
Maybe novelists can give clearer answers to this question, but for me it tends to be the case that I’ll have poems like this that keep hanging out waiting for a book they fit. Putting together my first book, Subject to Change, I found I had some really good poems that just didn’t work in the context of that collection—and ever since then I’ve been happy to hold a few back that might be the start of the next book, or the next. And for that matter, I wrote a couple of poems after This Time Tomorrow was accepted by Waywiser that might have fit into the book. But it felt like that door had closed, poems-wise—the book felt complete to me—so they will probably find their way into the next manuscript.
What other books would you compare this book to within your genre?
I would trust other readers’ answers to this question a lot more than mine. My response is more aspirational than observational, but I can tell you I had Elizabeth Bishop’s poems about Brazil in mind, as well as poems by Seamus Heaney and Robert Hass. In addition, what I do structurally in several of the poems in the book is splice together several different story lines within a single poem, so that the poem cuts back and forth between narratives. That’s a move that I later realized was inspired by Pulp Fiction.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I was inspired by my experiences in these countries—by everything that was delightful and unfamiliar and disorienting, by the excitement of getting to know new places and the bittersweet feeling of then having to leave them behind.
Traveling in places that are new to you, you experience a continual sense of discovery—just ordering breakfast can be an adventure—but of course all this is only new to you: for most people there, it’s just everyday life. Jasper Johns said that sometimes we get so close to our lives we can’t see them anymore. For me, being in Japan and Iceland and China for the little while I got to spend in each had exactly the opposite effect. Everything felt clarifying and wakeful, like warm bright light and a new pair of glasses. And that was something I wanted to recreate in these poems as a way of going back and being there again.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
For all the fog-on-the-mountains stuff I just said, these poems are also filled with the real, roll-up-your-sleeves stuff of life being lived. Who wouldn’t want to read about following in Bill Clinton’s footsteps to sample the best hotdogs in Reykjavik? Or visiting the tomb of the first emperor of China, discovered when a farmer tried to dig a well? Or taking a peek inside a mountain-top monastery in Koyasan to hear the monks’ six a.m. prayers?
For that matter, how many books of poems feature cover art by a Chinese emperor? As the story goes, one day twenty cranes alighted on the roof of the emperor’s palace. Who wouldn’t consider that a sign of good luck to come, of good things to discover when you open the book?
This Time Tomorrow is here! Hot off the presses in Cornwall and ready for the AWP Conference next week in Boston, where I'll be signing books and reading with David Ferry, Morri Creech and a host of other fine poets published by Waywiser Press. And then a reading here in New York, again with David and Morri, at the end of March, and home state readings in Ann Arbor and Lansing at the end of April. (Michigan friends, I'm coming to see you!)
You can get the full debrief and preview -- read a few poems, take in a blurb or two, get the inside scoop on the story behind one of the poems -- right here on this site.
And in the spirit of the day after the Oscars, I have some important people to thank. I'm very grateful to Philip Hoy, Joseph Harrison and the Waywiser Press for handling my work with affection and care, for producing such a beautiful and elegant book, and for now helping This Time Tomorrow to find its first readers. If you're a poet looking for a publisher, I would definitely recommend sending your manuscript to the next Hecht Prize competition.
So how can you get a copy? This Time Tomorrow is available now directly from Waywiser Press with free across-the-pond shipping. Or you can order a signed copy from me via this site. If you prefer our online giants, Amazon and Barnes & Noble are offering a 35% discount on pre-orders. I would be happiest of all to have you come to one of the events in Boston, New York, Lansing or Ann Arbor, if you'll be in one of those palces, where you can hear the poems, and some of the stories behind them, and I can sign a copy for you and say thank you so much for reading.
The AWP Conference is only about a month away. Are you going? This will be my third AWP. I tend to go every year or two when the conference returns to the Northeast. The book fair is my favorite part -- it can be overwhelming, for sure, but I love seeing all the different literary journals and getting the chance to meet in person editors I've only known through their emails or via Facebook. It's also exciting to see all the new books hot off the presses. Especially for poets, it feels like our whole community of writers and editors and publishers is there, all buzzing around that one really big hall.
I'll be doing two readings and two book signings this year to celebrate my two new books, This Time Tomorrow and Every Possible Blue. Please check out my Events page for all the details. The Waywiser off-site reading is especially exciting -- I'll be reading with a terrific line-up of poets published by the press, including David Ferry, Morri Creech, Carrie Jerrell, Dora Malech and Eric McHenry. To make it even more enticing, we're reading at an Irish pub!
One of my favorite things about the Ploughshares blog is the way they feature these behind-the-scenes posts from their contributors about how they came to write the poems and stories published in the magazine. I love the shop talk and the nuts-and-bolts details of drafting and revision. And I'm encouraged -- or sometimes, let's be honest, a little annoyed -- to read how someone felt that bolt of inspiration or clarity or whatever, "and then the poem just wrote itself." (The Best American Poetry used to be infamous for such back-of-the-book notes.) But then I'm also reminded how on one or two occasions I've felt something like that same zing of recognition and hurried to write down the words that somehow popped into my head.
All this is a long way of saying my own story behind the poem is up on the Ploughshares blog today. Check it out to get the backstory on "A Field of Dry Grass," which you can read by purchasing the issue or, better yet, a subscription. (The poem is also online here.)
I'm very excited to have my work included in The Hecht Prize Anthology 2005-2009, edited by Joseph Harrison and due out from Waywiser Press in November.
For info on all of Waywiser's fall titles, click here.
The anthology features a generous preview -- seven poems! -- of Every Possible Blue, which was a finalist/semifinalist for the Hecht Prize three times, and will be out from CW Books in May. This book also marks the start of my publishing relationship with Waywiser, since the press will be publishing my third book, This Time Tomorrow -- a finalist for the 2010 Hecht Prize -- in 2013.
I'm pleased to be in the good company of so many fine poets in this anthology -- and hope to actually meet some of them, and have the chance to read together, once the book is out. There's definitely a sense of kinship I feel with many of them, having competed for the prize over several years, and seen them doing the same. One of the less talked about benefits of entering book contests is learning about the work of other poets, whether they're the contest winners or your fellow finalists. It's not as fun as winning the contest, of course, but it widens your readerly sense of the poetry world.
As I was planning which journals to send the remaining unpublished poems from This Time Tomorrow, some good news came in about some other (newer) poems from my "Untitled New Project."
Big thanks to Naugatuck River Review for picking up my poem "Plum Blossoms" for publication. This poem takes one of my favorite Wang Wei poems as a stepping-off point to imagine two lives: that of the woman alluded to in Wang's poem, and what the poet's connection to her might have been.
Wang Wei's poem goes roughly like this:
You just came from my old village
so you know all about village affairs.
Tell me, was it in blossom when you left,
the winter plum outside her window?
What got me started with my poem, though, was a note in the old Penguin paperback of Wang Wei's poems where I first read this poem. G.W. Robinson, the translator, remarked that the winter plum must be symbolic of something -- the way such things nearly always are in Chinese poetry -- but he had never been able to track down what. I love that little confession and kept it in the back of my mind until I eventually wrote my poem.
* * *
And thank you to Atlanta Review for picking up "10 Years Ago Today" for a future issue. This poem is set in the Queens Botanical Garden, in Flushing, Queens, and offers a fictionalized account of my wedding day (the fiction begins with the title).
Like Paul Simon's song, "I Do It for Your Love," the poem has to do with starting a new life in bad weather. As Paul sings:
We were married on a rainy day
The sky was yellow
and the grass was gray
We signed the papers
and we drove away
I do it for your love
Hot on the heels of my good news about Every Possible Blue getting picked up by CW Books, I'm honored and excited to announce that my third book of poems has also found a home. This Time Tomorrow will be published by The Waywiser Press in 2013 in both the US and UK.
It's going to be a busy couple of years for me, with new books due out in 2012 and 2013, but I couldn't be happier. Both of these manuscripts have landed at excellent presses, where they will be in the good company of poets whose books I admire, and will be guided out into the world by thoughtful, collaborative editors.
In the case of This Time Tomorrow, it also feels like a perfect fit to have this internationally-minded book -- comprised of poems set in China, Iceland and Japan, and built around my long poem "Disappears in the Rain" -- published by an international press like Waywiser. For a preview, you can read two poems from the Iceland section of This Time Tomorrow on the Waywiser website.
For now, though, it also feels strange not to be sending out any manuscripts (and not to be writing all those contest entry fee checks), after doing so for so long. And strange, too, after so long, to be thinking, What's next?