I moved to
Then one evening while I was playing soccer there in
As usual, Ed was right. I wrote fourteen of the poems from After Greece during my first semester at
How often had you sent out After
I sent out a version of my manuscript to some of the bigger contests now and then during the six years of my doctoral program. I knew that those early manuscripts were inter-larded with dreck—exercises, drafts, and the other stuff that would help me make the minimum page counts. But doing that was an important exercise for me. A few hours after shipping the thing off, wasting precious beer money on the contest fees, I’d often have revelations (you know, the kind of small revelations that are borne out of humiliation and dread) about the lamest of the poems or about the manuscript’s organization.
Of course, submitting it occasionally also helped me build a thick skin, which I thought I needed since I had every expectation that I’d still be trying to publish my little “Greek book” well into my geriatric years.
Truth is, I only sent out the final manuscript, a streamlined version of my dissertation, for a year. I tossed it off to all the usual contests and even pestered several publishers with the thing. And then I was lucky enough to win the T.S. Eliot prize.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
You know, you’d think that would be one of those moments when you feel great accomplishment and pride. But, having worked on it night and day for seven years, I remember taking one look at it and saying to myself, “OK, what next?” Its existence immediately gave me permission to move on to the next project.
Then, I remember looking at it more closely and feeling a lot of awe at the physical book itself, which is very beautiful. Truman State University Press printed it in both hard and soft-cover, and they designed something that was entirely desirable as an object. It just weighed much more—as a physical thing in the world—than I ever expected it could.
Did you have any input on the cover or suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you mainly offered choices from the press?
I chose and requested the image—a photograph of one of my favorite works of ancient Greek pottery—and luckily it wasn’t too expensive to procure. Then
Many poets seem to have to choose between taking their cash prize, or using that cash prize to buy additional copies of their book. What did you do, and why? And what advice would you offer others faced with this choice?
I received both books and cash. That makes me a lucky man, evidently.
What did you do to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?
Really, the only way to promote a book of poetry is to give readings. So I begged my way into some reading gigs, and then several others followed, and I continue to keep the book in print by giving readings and thereby getting copies in front of potential readers. That’s pretty rudimentary marketing, but it’s about all there is.
Of course, I had the publisher send review copies everywhere and was lucky to have the book reviewed quite a few times. But I’m not sure reviews, positive or negative, have much effect on the sales of poetry books—reviewing is much more important to our art when you take the long view of things.
Finally, at the advice of a mentor, I made a list of ten poets I admired but didn’t know personally and I sent them all a copy of the book and a letter introducing myself. This potentially narcissistic act didn’t translate into any real promotional value, but one of the most gratifying parts of publishing that first book was receiving comments about it from those important strangers, some of whom I’ve come to know a little in the years that have followed.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Most likely, your first book will only matter to your family and friends. Expect no one else to buy or read it.
Your second book, Goat Funeral, was recently published by Sheep Meadow Press. How did your plans change for the promotion of Goat Funeral from After
No, what I’ve said about the first book applies to the second book as well. The only thing that changed for me, since enough readers admired both of my books, was that it was much easier to line up readings.
Also, your book of Titos Patrikios’ translations, The Lions’ Gate, was released around the same time as Goat Funeral. Tell us how you got introduced to Patrikios’ work and what it’s been like working on translations. How did you choose his work? And did you approach
A very talented Greek translator, Roula Konsolaki, began translating my “Greek book” into her language almost a decade ago, and I participated in that process, which was so stimulating that the two of us decided to try our hand at bringing some Greek texts into English.
Titos Patrikios is one of the most important living poets in
You were recently in
I moved with my whole family to
Few people in the world appreciate their poets as much as Romanians do and the literary scene in
Don’t worry, my next book of poems will probably not be called After Romania. But I’m finding once again how saturation in another place can complicate to my literary sensibility. The poems I seem capable of writing these days show an evidence of that I’m not sure I quite understand yet myself.
What influences have the publication of your books had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon?
In hindsight, I think that a lot of desperation and anxiety went into the writing of my first two books. There’s a certain pleasure in being able to relax now. And no doubt those books aided my successful quest for a tenure track job, which comes with its tempting securities.
But I’m also a little jealous of the younger poet I was able to be once upon that time. Now, with two books at my back, I always hear those previous sounds and sensibilities urging me to hurry up and do something different, something new, and I sometimes need to remind myself to let the next manuscript germinate as long as the earlier ones did, since in both cases they were better for the waiting, the polishing, the slow cooking that poetry always requires.
I seem to have dueling manuscripts going at the moment. I’ve recently written a series of cranky, harrowing, anti-pastoral poems about my
Also, I’m hatching plans for a book of culinary/literary prose. Last November, I participated in the olive harvest on a Greek island and my essay about that experience, “The Throumbes of Thassos” (due out soon in Parnassus: Poetry in Review), was such a joy to write that my plan is to produce a series of essays about the relationship between poetry and manual labor, about artisanal food cultures in the Aegean, about eating poetry.
Do you have any additional advice for first poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?
Yes, polish every individual poem as if your life depended on it and then anguish over the organization of your manuscript, considering in both cases what you want the reader’s experience of your work to be. So many books and manuscripts I read seem tossed together and it’s no wonder most readers are turned off.
There’s no reason poetry cannot be intoxicating and compelling as a physical experience. Intellectual tricks and pedestrian word games are hardly the thing I look for when I turn to poetry for nourishment, and I suspect a lot of the judges reading for those contests feel the same way, especially after they’ve plowed through a couple of hundred messy first book manuscripts that sound like they were written by a literary theory addict on a cheap beer binge.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
It’s been awhile since we’ve had a broad intellectual culture in the
At the very least, I wonder if a renewed respect for language, subtlety, and truth—things poetry honors in very fundamental ways—might play a part in the change Obama is promising. In my more optimistic moments I persist in the belief that it could.
Christopher Bakken's Goat Funeral was awarded the Helen C. Smith Prize by the Texas Institute of Letters for the best book of poetry published in 2006. He is also the author of After , which won the 2001 , and he is co-translator of The Lions' Gate: Selected Poems of Titos Patrikios. He is Associate Professor of English at .