Monday, October 13, 2008

#3 - Christopher Bakken

Your first book, After Greece, was essentially your Ph.D dissertation, and the poems were mostly written while you were in Greece, correct? Tell us about the experience of living and teaching in Greece before your were admitted to Houston, where you ended up getting your Ph.D.

I moved to Greece two months after finishing my M.F.A., yes, but the truth is I wrote almost nothing while in Greece. In part, that’s because I’d just spent two years trying to scrape together a thesis at Columbia—not a manuscript so much as a pile of more or less finished gestures—and my cisterns were dry. There was also the fact of living outside my language on the side of a Greek mountain, with an intimidating view of Mt. Olympus from the window of my living room. And there was the lure of the islands, not to mention Turkey and all the Levant within easy striking distance. After living in Greece for two years, I applied to the Ph.D. program at Houston with great reluctance; I was so in love my new country and new language that it seemed foolish, if not impossible to leave.

Then one evening while I was playing soccer there in Thessaloniki, one of my students came running from the college switchboard to tell me a call was on the line from across the Atlantic. It was Edward Hirsch calling. I told him I didn’t think it would make sense for me to leave Greece for a place like Texas. “But are you writing?” he asked me. When I said that I wasn’t, his response was both funny and aggressive (he likes to remind me of it every time we see one another now): “Come to Texas and I promise you’ll write lots of beautiful poems about Greece.”

As usual, Ed was right. I wrote fourteen of the poems from After Greece during my first semester at Houston. The rest followed soon after that and eventually comprised the manuscript that served as my dissertation. So, true to the book’s title, most of the poems were written after actually being in Greece. I had to exile myself to unlovely Houston to make them happen.

How often had you sent out After Greece before it was chosen as the winner of the 2001 T.S. Eliot Prize?

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 Truman State’s designer composed the book’s cover in such a way as to complement that image. Truman State was perfectly accommodating and open to my ideas; they allowed me to be part of the process. I’m extremely grateful for that.

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 Greece? Have you done anything differently this time around?

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 Truman State University Press about publication since you had published After Greece with them previously?

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 Greece and to our surprise, though everyone in France and Italy knew and read his work, very little of it had been translated into English. Soon after we began tinkering with his poems, we actually came to know the poet in person and we ended up working with him on the translations included in The Lions’ Gate.

Truman State was kind enough to ask to see another manuscript from me and since I was already in conversation with Stanley Moss at Sheep Meadow about my own second book of poems, I offered them the Patrikios book, which they ended up printing. Several other very good presses showed interest in The Lions’ Gate at that time, but I went with Truman State since I knew from experience that they would allow me to have a lot of say about the way the book was put together. The finished product, which integrated the poet’s own hand-written drafts of poems into the book’s design, is a stunning piece of book-art and I’m really proud of what Truman State University Press created.

You were recently in Romania on sabbatical for a Fulbright Scholarship. Tell us a little bit about that.

I moved with my whole family to Bucharest last February. When we first arrived, the place was utterly consumed by ice and fog and impoverishments of every kind, and I was sure we’d moved to Hell. We rented a sad apartment above SEX SHOP on one of the main squares in central Bucharest and began participating in post-Communist urban life almost immediately. While one should separate Bucharest from the rest of Romania by virtue of its sudden wealth and relative modernity, the place is still very much a work in progress. It was a fascinating and difficult experience, more so because I have two young children.

Few people in the world appreciate their poets as much as Romanians do and the literary scene in Bucharest was vibrant and cosmopolitan. But the majority of the Romanian population seemed pathologically wounded, readily exhibiting the scars of too many decades of dictatorship, mental anguish, and paranoia. I never really felt at ease there, which made it the perfect place for an American poet to live, I suppose. Poetry matters in a very conflicted way there, but it really does matter.

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 Wisconsin boyhood, while simultaneously writing a batch of poems radically different in style and sensibility about rather philosophical and esoteric things set no place in particular. At this point, I can’t see at all how these two kinds of poems could ever become part of the same book. That’s really exciting, since it means I have no idea where my work is taking me—I’m hoping that’s a sign of literary health.

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?

In Romania, it was charming to encounter an old-fashioned concept: the intelligentsia. That idea still persists in a very real way in Romania and the intelligentsia is actually important to the political system, which means that politicians read and may even know how to write. My answer to your question is, “yes,” but only if poetry is read by a sizable part of the intelligentsia and only if an intelligentsia exists in the first place.

It’s been awhile since we’ve had a broad intellectual culture in the United States; it’s been quite a while since we’ve had a truly literate president. At the moment, I’m optimistic that we might be on the verge of electing a bona fide intellectual to our highest office. How weird that we have to choose between that and the populist blandishments of a hockey mom who does not, from what I can tell, read Emily Dickinson in her spare time.

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 Greece, which won the 2001 T .S. Eliot Prize, and he is co-translator of The Lions' Gate: Selected Poems of Titos Patrikios. He is Associate Professor of English at Allegheny College.