Wednesday, June 15, 2011

#43 - Laurie Clements Lambeth

How often had you sent out Veil and Burn before it was chosen for the 2006 National Poetry Series?

My dissertation defense took place at the end of the 2005 Fall semester. Afterwards, I made a few changes, particularly re-titling the prose fragments in the table of contents. In February 2006 I sent the manuscript to the National Poetry Series, as well as to some other contests, and I submitted it elsewhere later that spring. In my vainer moments I could say that it was published after I sent it out 6 times. If I’m going to be even more vain, I could truthfully say that of those 6 contests, the National Poetry Series was the first one I sent the revised copy to. In essence, I could lie and say that I sent it out only once (ha!). Then again, there were other versions and many revisions. In total, I sent out “a manuscript entitled Veil and Burn” 15 times.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Veil and Burn? Did it go through any other changes?

Reluctant Pegasus (now the title of a sequence in Veil and Burn) and Undressing the Tree. But they were fundamentally different manuscripts from V&B.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

It was a learning process, to say the least, and it took a number of years. At least one poem in Veil and Burn dates back to my senior year of college. Many of them were originally in my MFA thesis, Reluctant Pegasus, which I had organized thematically. Back then I didn’t understand that there were more nuanced and engaging ways to press poems together, I suppose because as a reader I used to peck through collections, rather than reading them straight through. In a manuscript workshop with Cynthia Macdonald I began paying much more attention to the sequencing of a collection, the importance of poems speaking to each other in subtle ways, crafting new context in the space between poems.

Cue the angels singing or the light bulb fizzling above my head.

A couple years later, while experiencing optic neuritis, a symptom of multiple sclerosis that involves pain, double vision and vision loss, I wrote about it in prose. Mark Doty read and nurtured those lyric essays and suggested later that I try including some of my creative nonfiction in my poetry collection. I imagined at first that he meant something like Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony, and God, in that an essay might appear at the end or beginning of the book. My husband asked me if Mark meant that the prose would be scattered throughout the book or in a separate section. My heart leaped at the notion of scattering, so I went for it. I set to cutting up essays and taping them on sheets of paper, trimming the language back, then juxtaposing them against poems. Since the prose fragments explore vision loss and fear of blindness, something I felt was too melodramatic or maudlin for poetry, their positioning against the poems and their spareness are what I feel bring the book together through tension—what can and can’t be sung.

The title Veil and Burn then speaks to these two modes—more effusive poems and spare prose—and enlarges the concept of “Gauze Fragment,” which seeks representation of my vision loss in an old Hollywood trick: veiling the camera lens to soften wrinkles in close-up and burning the veil with a cigarette to let the actor’s wet eyes sparkle through.

It seems like there’s a possible misconception among some poets who are trying to get their first book published: that they must win a contest. Were you concerned about winning a contest at any point? What advice would you give to poets sending their book out now regarding contests versus open reading periods?

Winning a contest certainly is not essential, but for me it allowed my book to be read by a poet I’d admired since I began writing, Maxine Kumin. I don’t think I’d have had that chance otherwise.

I like the notion that, if a contest is fair, your book can be read by someone you don’t know, another person practicing the art. But it takes a lot of luck to even get that far, especially in an open contest like the National Poetry Series, where you don’t know who’s judging when you send your manuscript in. And you must make it past the preliminary judges, too, who might be reading 400 manuscripts in a six week period. It takes a lot of luck no matter what you do. I doubt it’s much different with an open reading period. Still, sometimes sending to a press you admire during an open reading period, and being published by that publisher, will also help foster a relationship that will last into your second and third book, which is a very good thing.

How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?

I think I wanted to be surprised by the interior design of the book, and it paid off. My only request was that the font and line spacing be large enough for me to be able to read at public readings, since the optic neuritis has left some scarring. I really like the concept of the fading vertical line down the middle of the page. It echoes the sensation of vision loss, losing clarity, and it acts as a divider between the two elements of the book’s title. I couldn’t have thought that up, or I wouldn’t have had the guts to.

Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?

Absolutely. After a couple of images were presented to me, I felt they didn’t speak to what was at the core of the book. University of Illinois Press was very kind when I asked if I may look elsewhere. Keith Carter, the photographer whose work I selected, lives and teaches in the Houston area. Mark Doty suggested I look into his work, as one of his photographs is on the UK edition of Firebird. Beside the obvious connection between Veil and Burn’s cover photo and the first poem “Coming Down,” where the wedding dress figures prominently, I felt drawn to the photo’s hazy quality, reminiscent of my altered vision with the optic neuritis and more figuratively, the fuzzy area between two extremes. The lack of a body inside the dress, in a book that seeks representation of the afflicted female body, seemed perfect. I’m also pleased with how UIP designed around the image, its negative on the back, and the glossy finish of the cover. The reader’s face is reflected, which is a nice way of saying, believe me, you’re in here, too. I don’t write about illness and disability to whinge about my own condition; I want readers to feel themselves in those poems, in those bodies.

Carter’s an amazing photographer who in 2009 developed cancer in one eye. In response he created a series called Ocularia, where he digitally combined microscopic optical images of his eye with Hubble images from space, the macro in the micro. When I saw those images I felt even more connected to his work.

What about the publication of the actual poems in journals and magazines prior to the book being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

I wanted to get individual poems published in reputable magazines, but I never felt any pressure to publish in quantity. After the book was selected—and there was a long time between winning the contest and the book’s publication—I wanted to publish some of the poems in order to maintain a presence, generate whatever interest I could in the book, and so on. I thought it would be easier to get published in literary magazines after winning, but it wasn’t—much. It’s not as if (and I actually thought this is the way it would be) once you have a book you are automatically admired by editors everywhere and have a free ticket. It’s still hard.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?

Not much at all. I found the epigraph in Rilke’s poem “Going Blind,” and I put that in.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?

Padded envelope. Single copy. Hmm. Didn’t expect that.

I knew I’d be receiving a shipment of copies, but had no idea that a single copy would arrive first. I felt torn about whether I should open it immediately or when my husband came home from work that day. Immediacy won. I remember the moment felt very quiet and private, meditative, and that seemed a good way to soak in the experience.

How has your life been different since your book came out? Did it become a factor in getting a future job for you?

In many ways my life hasn’t changed. But there have been fantastic moments when I’ve heard from people who have enjoyed or been affected by Veil and Burn. A few opportunities have come up that wouldn’t have arisen if I didn’t have a book; I was invited to be an Artist-in-Residence at Saint Mary’s College of Maryland, and my poetry was, in part, the subject of a scholar’s doctoral dissertation. So that’s fairly mind-blowing to me. When I met the late writer Kathy Acker, I told her I wrote a paper about her work and Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, and she was blown away that anyone would be writing about her at all. Now I understand, but on a much smaller scale.

Perhaps V&B has become a factor in finding a future job for me—in the future. We shall see. For now, the book allows me to apply for certain jobs at great universities and get interviews, but I haven’t pursued that very aggressively in the past couple of years, given the academic job climate. I think my book has also helped me in my adjunct teaching; from time to time I get to teach upper division poetry workshops at the University of Houston, and have also been asked to teach Literature and Medicine there, given the focus of my writing.

And there’s a sense of legitimacy I feel from having crafted this book that’s out in the world. That said, I have plenty of poet friends who have written spectacular manuscripts that still struggle to find a publisher. There’s so much luck involved, and those manuscripts are just as deserving as mine.

If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”

Ah! I have had such a conversation. Over breakfast at a B&B in Venice, California, where I was staying when I did a reading at LMU, I actually sold a copy to someone who doesn’t read poetry. I think he was a retired math teacher. I generally tailor the description to what I know about the person’s interests: it’s about MS, it’s about finding beauty in the ugly and terrifying, it’s about animals, relationships, it’s about classic film, it’s about loss. I try to keep it simple and light, avoid talking about form and so forth, which is sort of hard to do.

I imagine that on a plane there is a sense of awkward proximity to your captive audience. Depending upon the poet’s level of bravado, he or she could give an entire reading and the poor guy sitting in the next seat, gripping his SkyMall catalog, would at least pretend to listen, or maybe he’d fall asleep, or “accidentally” spill his drink. Or maybe he’d call the flight attendant. Thankfully, I haven’t quite been in that kind of situation. A breakfast room at a B&B is far roomier, but sometimes you do have to share a table. At least I didn’t send the guy running into the ocean.

What have you been doing to promote Veil and Burn, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I had a great debut reading with James Allen Hall, who was kind enough to come back to Houston for that reading. Mostly, I’ve been doing readings since then, some of which fell into my lap, some arose out of friendships, and others I pushed for, sometimes unsuccessfully because I didn’t plan far enough in advance.

I love introducing my work to people through readings. I like to “convert” people who are afraid of poetry. I expect everyone possesses the capability to read a poem. So when those people come to readings and speak to me afterwards, it’s incredibly gratifying to know that the work is connecting to them on a very deep level. I’ve taken part in a few public radio interviews, too. Book reviews are also immensely important but in many ways out of a poet’s control, so I’ve sent V&B to publications that might be interested. I haven’t had a great number of reviews, but the one in Shenandoah was a fantastic surprise, and the others have been great, too.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

1. The New Yorker will probably not review your first book. Do not be discouraged when your book is not included in the “Briefly Noted” section.

2. Once your book is accepted, get started early preparing for post-publication book contests.

Know their deadlines so you’re ready once the book is in print. I believe I was so content with the book itself as a tangible object in the world that I momentarily lost sight of what to do next.

3. Discuss marketing, reviews, and contests with your publisher. Don’t assume anything. Make your expectations clear from the start and be aware that while the press is very willing to assist you, their purpose is not to do everything for you.

4. Gather your courage to arrange readings early on. I wish I’d traveled a bit more for readings when the book first came out.

What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing?

I feel like I’m writing the same book. It’s a continuum. For instance, there is a poem in Veil and Burn entitled ‘Hypoesthesia,” so named for a symptom of MS, numbness. Not long after the book came out I wrote a poem entitled “Dysaesthesia,” named for another MS symptom, a fiery pain on the skin’s surface when there is no source, no agent inflicting the pain, no evidence, such as a red mark. Both poems address these mysteries that are in many ways two sides of a coin. I would have liked to have put them together in one book, but I hadn’t yet “lived” what informs “Dysaesthesia” when I wrote Veil and Burn. At least with poems that have their roots in experience, I think there will always be connections.

I’m also working on a memoir, or more specifically, a collection of linked essays. The same month that I sent Veil and Burn off to the National Poetry Series I was contacted by a literary agent after she read my essay in The Iowa Review. I signed with the agency, and for a while harbored a sense of confusion about what shape my writing would take. After investing so many years in poetry, what if my first and perhaps only book would be nonfiction? How would that make me feel as a poet? After all, Lucy Grealy had some great poems in journals like Ploughshares, but we know her for her memoir Autobiography of a Face. But later that year I learned my poetry manuscript won the NPS, so there was little reason to worry. The nonfiction project has taken a back seat in the past, but I’m finding time to devote much more attention to it, and I have a good sense of where it’s going.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

A poem can change a person’s imagination and ear, even if only for the moment that person is reading the poem, so I’d like to think it can create some change. It will resonate and bounce across neurons and help rewire that reader’s thinking, hopefully expanding the way he or she pays attention to his or her surroundings, and by extension, the world.

If metaphor can be felt, physically felt, and even more so when tied to cadence, then poetry must have the power to cultivate empathy, which could indeed change the world. This is a theory still in development (language is slippery and hard to place into vials), and we are currently conducting double-blind studies in our imaginary poetry laboratories.


Laurie Clements Lambeth is the author of Veil and Burn (University of Illinois Press, 2008), which was selected by Maxine Kumin for the National Poetry Series and finalized for the 2009 Glasgow/Shenandoah Prize for Emerging Writers. Her most recent poetry has appeared in Crazyhorse, Seneca Review, Zocalo Public Square, and American Letters and Commentary. She holds MFA and PhD degrees from the University of Houston, where she is an adjunct lecturer. She is currently at work on a memoir as well as her second collection of poems, Bright Pane. Find out more at Laurie's website.