How often had you sent out Now You’re the Enemy before it was chosen for The University of Arkansas Press Poetry Series?
Should I say I don't remember and appear nonchalant about this part of the process, a hipster saying, “I don't care if it ever gets published, man, it's the art that matters….”
Well, I won't, though it is the art that matters. I kept immaculate count. Now You’re the Enemy traveled to twenty-seven contests, open reading periods, and interested editors before it found a home. It finalized a few times for contests like the Whitman, which gave me hope that the manuscript yielded a compelling reading experience. I sent it out first in May of 2006, thinking it was done. It wasn't. Early readers and contests turned it away, sometimes with kindness.
By October, I knew the book was completely finished. I couldn't do anything more for it. Now You’re the Enemy confronts suicide, violent love, and self-excoriation at the same time that it points at the ways in which narrative can heal and empower. I didn't want to add more weight to those frameworks; I needed it to be stately without overwhelming the reader. In June '07, Enid Shomer, University of Arkansas' Poetry Series Editor, called to offer a contract.
I remember that moment: I pulled the phone away because I didn't want to shatter Enid's eardrum.
Had it always been Now You’re the Enemy or had it gone through different titles?
One former name carried the book through a manuscript workshop at the University of Houston. I hope my compatriots will do me the great honor of forgetting that awful title.
Another story, about the title, seems important to tell.
My younger brother and I were talking one night while we cooked dinner. Dustin had met this beautiful man, they dated briefly, and we were analyzing the demise of the relationship over dinner.
Dustin said to me, "Whenever a man says I love you, the first thing I think is, Great. Now you're the enemy." It was the saddest and most lacerating statement; it nailed exactly the feeling of the poems I'd been fashioning—this book about loving a self-destructive mother figure, how that shapes subjectivity, and what happens when we find ourselves shipwrecked on the shores of Love Always Fails Us.
On your blog, you have a few links to poems in Now You're the Enemy. One of the things I noticed about some of those poems was the different forms that some of them take on (mostly dealing with the length of stanzas and the line-break and enjambment choices), which leads me to a question for some reason that I'm fascinated with: How "ready" should a poem be for publication when writers send them out to journals? And does the poem really become "final," then, with the book, and not with former publication in a journal or magazine?
You're asking me, Keith, about iteration and identity, my two favorite things.
No identity is stable. That's the short answer.
"The end" is a construct we need for stories to have shape, for the work of interpretation and reflection to begin. But there is no such thing as an ending. In "Portrait of My Mother as Victorine Meurent," the speaker exiles the mother "out of my life forever." That "forever" sure is some damn hard wishful thinking. The line says more about longing than it does the fact of time.
There's a different kind of editing you do when you're: polishing a poem for its first read by friends or class; revising a poem to send out to journals; revising a poem so that it converses with the other poems in a book in an un/neighborly way; revising a poem for a forthcoming book in which, you feel at least, the last version of that poem will be iterated for all time.
If a journal wants you to change something about your poem, why not? Unless the suggestion is embarrassing or downright rude, you'll have another say in book form. But, then, I've always been energized by letting my poems live in different skins. The more radical re-envisioning the better. I love stories about writers who hound down their books in stores and stand in front of the stacks, making their revisions by hand, bending back the spines and doing that particularized surgery.
You must abandon the poem, knowing when it's able to speak on its own. Trust that the gaps in the saying are just as important; they are perhaps the most integral part of the subject matter.
I used to edit for Gulf Coast, a literary journal produced out of the University of Houston. I saw a lot of writing that could use some shelf time. Like any of us, art needs a disco nap before it can rock the party.
Before the day you ripped open that box and saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?
I always felt that getting published was happening to someone I kind of knew, someone I kinda liked. He'd written this book and I was delighted for him, like you are when your friend gives birth.
After it was taken, I wanted to forget the book. I wanted the next one. I felt like a bad parent, stewarding the book into the world, then neglecting it. I want it to have its own life, and me its Auntie Mame. I'm still negotiating those feelings.
Publication gave me permission to move out of the dark world of Now You’re the Enemy to another place, one where people greet each other at the post office, where it's possible to believe in a love that doesn't utterly destroy you. I imagined I could finally stop grieving.
It changed everything, and it changed nothing. It changed what I imagine, but not how I imagine.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I first saw my book at UA's AWP Book Fair booth. I remember thinking it was odd to hold in my hands what had been so long in my head.
A funny mix-up occurred five days earlier: a box of books had been sent to my apartment in Pennsylvania, where I lived at the time. My friend Julie and her girlfriend Angie were coming over that evening, by coincidence, and Julie had just been fascinated by the whole process. I let her open the box, and she handled the scissors almost tenderly.
What she pulled out was There When We Needed Him, a book on civil rights warrior Wiley Austin Branton. Copy after copy of that book. Mine nowhere to be found.
It was then I learned how appropriate it was to feel diminished ownership over Now You're the Enemy.
Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices?
The University of Arkansas Press staff was wonderful about this part of the process. They understand the intimate relationship a writer has with her or his poems, and so they solicited my input about cover art. After poring through Getty Images and contacting artist friends, I sent a selection of images to the Press.
The press liked a darker print, Dominic Rouse's Hanger: God, what a gorgeous image-maker Rouse is. But I worried that the color palate was too muted, and that the subject—a closet opened to reveal a noose—might limit the echoes the book makes.
In Houston, I once worked as the Poetry Curator for an independent literary bookstore. So, I had a pretty good idea of what kind of cover would stand out. When I submitted the images to the Press, I wrote a kind of apologia for the one I wanted, the Steve Casimiro photograph of a woman behind a blue screen. She's there to help you; she intends to hurt you. In the background, a palm tree tries to stay rooted in the earth. There's a hurricane on.
I can't say enough nice things about the University of Arkansas Press. They really did keep me involved and informed throughout the entire process. And they make beautiful books. Now, if only I could change my author photo. What was I thinking?
How has your life been different since your book came out?
The normal things have changed: I give readings. Sometimes people contact me on Facebook or email me out of the blue or say something about my book on a blog. Those kind of communiqués make me feel like I'm being seen for the first time in my life.
Since my book came out, I'm a lot less in love with my ex-boyfriend.
Since my book came out, I'm a little less in love with the poems that make the book. Toni Morrison has said that she writes because she wasn't reading the stories she wanted to read. It's a good sign, I think, to be searching for the new stories I want to hear.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I thought my little book would be ignored. I'm pleasantly surprised that hasn't been entirely the case.
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I never met a spotlight I didn't like. I'm performative and outgoing. Truth be told, Keith, I'm a good time on two legs.
Now You're the Enemy confronts sexual and physical violence. When I first read from it, I almost broke down in tears. It's a raw book. I feel like I'm an exposed nerve every time I open it. The book is like reading a knife. I used to apologize for that: sorry, room full of listeners, for my sad little poems that break your heart. I think I was apologizing to myself more than the audience. It is painful to re-enter that book.
But it humbles and utterly sustains me to remember that there are loads of people out there for whom poetry matters. Poetry creates communities. Poetry brings us together, makes us feel less alone in our bodies. If I can add my voice to that, I'll suffer through the hacksaw on my aorta.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
Reading these first book interviews covered it. Seeing my friends steward their own books through the process really helped too.
In addition to poetry, you've also published some recent non-fiction pieces. A very personal piece, "Suicide Memorabilia," was recently published in Pebble Lake Review. Are you working toward a memoir with these pieces?
Yes, I'm making headway on a book called I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well. The essays are about growing up with a Springer-esque family during the outlandish socio-political landscape of the 1980s and 90s. I've published pieces about A.I.D.S., my grandmother's predilections for nudity, my mother's suicide attempts, and a new essay about sexuality and terror, which includes a short anecdote about the time my brother was harassed by the FBI after making a pass at a man.
Speaking of "Suicide Memorabilia," I kept being reminded of certain events in poems from Now You're the Enemy. How hard is it to keep poetry separate from autobiography? Or is this something that you think should be embraced?
Louise Glück's penultimate sentence in her poem "Parable of the Dove" reads in part, "change your form and you change your nature."
I feel when you change the form, you alter the story entirely. Tonally, for instance, I find it easier to be lighthearted, arch-eyebrowed, and irreverent in prose.
Two weeks ago, my mother called me. She quoted my poem "The Enemy" back to me. Her vowels were sharp and her voice embittered as she finished. "So, when I say I love you," she said, "you feel like I'm your enemy." I said if she wanted to know how I felt, she'd have to wait for the memoir.
My poems take liberties, invent details, conflate characters. In regard to the spectrum of truth, poetry can negotiate a different contract with the reader. Nonfiction must always present itself as the truth.
How have these non-fiction pieces influenced your poetry writing?
Writing in two genres allows me to recharge my batteries for, say, poetry while I finish a personal essay. The two also inform each other. As a memoirist/poet, I rumple the well-made bed of narrative progression with an insistence on sonic texture and lyric structure. Even if/as I remain allied to dramatic situation. As a poet/memoirist, I allow my interests in queer theory, art history, and film to suggest strategies for the poems I'm writing. Even if/as I remain allied to vivid image.
Poets often seem to write memoirs, and though they're not necessarily inseparable, it's a genre toward which many poets eventually gravitate. Why do you think this is?
Because we want to make some money.
Well, that's flip of me. There are tons of reasons, of course, to write.
I remember Mark Doty saying, in a nonfiction class, that he began to write prose after his first husband's death from complications due to A.I.D.S. I think after such a deeply personal devastation like that—and reading his Heaven's Coast is enormously telling here—he found comfort? a way to move forward? in prose. It didn't have to be poetry; how could poetry exist in a world so bereft? There wasn't anything to sing. I'm paraphrasing badly here. Of course Mark Doty's prose is beautiful and lyric. He's incapable of ungorgeous lines. I'm saying that writing in that genre propelled him forward after facing the blank page—after making art—seemed insurmountable.
Maybe because poets want transformation: for us, metaphor is dope. So, why not transform genre?
Maybe because all poets don't feel narrative compulsion in poetry, and sometimes want to tell our stories. So why not go to a narrative form?
Maybe because stories exceed the boxes they're put in—so why not put the overflow in a different container?
I write nonfiction because it's fun to render without the silence that is integral in poetry. It's fun to make other shapes. It's fun to push the limits of image. It's fun to write dialogue and use footnotes…. The list seems endless.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any other new books or other projects on the horizon?
Publishing Now You're the Enemy cleared my head; I could begin writing poems again. Besides the memoir, I'm working on a second manuscript of poems, tentatively titled Hand of a Lover. Publishing a first book forces you to discover what else you are compelled to say.
Do you have any additional advice for poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?
April Bernard: "You chose to be a writer, to say the difficult thing. Say the difficult thing."
Liam Rector: "Always Be Closing."
Ellen Bryant Voigt: "Write more syntactically interesting sentences."
Jorie Graham, quoting Frost?: "No discovery for the writer, no discovery for the reader."
Find your aesthetic. Then read the opposite, or adjoining, aesthetic. Read prose on poetry by poets. Wallace Stevens' "The Irrational Element in Poetry" changed the way I write. Ditto for Louise Glück's Proofs and Theories. I recommend a wonderful anthology called Women Reclaim Poetry edited by Molly McQuade.
If there's an opportunity to show your writing to other writers, take it. Everyone has something to teach you. Your job is to find what that something is, then to separate the useful from the useless (and sometimes detrimental). Seek out smart criticism, the most blunt, most honest that you can find. Pray that your teachers are hard on you, and let their voices into your process. As hard as they are on you, be even harder on yourself. When praise comes along, relish it half as much as critique, but twice as long.
Courtney Love: "I want to be the girl with the most cake."
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Yes, I believe poetry can change the world. Though it is both a great advantage and a great misfortune that the earth is possessed of no memory.
James Allen Hall teaches creative writing at the . His first collection of poetry, Now You're the Enemy, was a winner in the 2007 Arkansas Poetry Series and was a finalist that year for the . He can see Canada from his house.