Yes, in the sense that human endeavor can always create change in the world. It’s important to remember that “change” is a value-neutral term—poetry can create just as much dreadful, boring, or mediocre change in the world as it can good. But we should always have high expectations for it nonetheless. Maybe it’s that “change” isn’t just value-neutral, but by definition, it’s never stable or safe—there are always unimaginable repercussions to change. That’s what I love about poetry—the good stuff changes you in ways that you never could have expected.
How often had you sent out The Diminishing House before it was chosen for publication in 2010 by Carnegie Mellon University Press? What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
The manuscript was chosen for publication back in late 2008. I’d been sending it out for about four years at that point, and was starting to despair about how many times I’d been a finalist, but hadn’t gotten the jackpot. I’d started joking that I felt like Susan Lucci. However, I got some good and timely advice from Linda Bierds, who suggested that if I’d come close so many times without winning, it was probably a sign that I needed to reorder the book. Shortly after following her advice and sending out the newly ordered manuscript, I got the call from Jerry Constanzo at Carnegie Mellon.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been The Diminishing House? Did it go through any other changes?
For a while it was called Apocrypha for the Body, because of the anatomical poems within the book. My husband, the poet Brian Barker, eventually suggested changing it to its current title; after being attached to the former one for so long, it was liberating to see how a new title can help change one’s ideas about a manuscript. I enjoyed the dual idea of a “house” as both a domestic structure and a family line, and the ambiguity of the adjective—the sense that a “diminishing house” could be a house that was somehow shrinking, and the sense that this could also be a house in which one is diminished, as in a slaughterhouse.
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?”
I would rather have my eyes gouged out with a rusty screwdriver than strike up a conversation with someone on an airplane. But let’s say that someone was threatening to gouge out the eyes of someone I love with a rusty screwdriver unless I did—okay. The short version I’d give them is that it’s about the death of my father. Hopefully that would end the conversation, and I’d be able to get back to my Entertainment Weekly and Courvoisier.
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?
I was absolutely concerned, in the general sense of just trying to get the book picked up—the passing years during which I sent out became a kind of slow panic in that respect, one that I’m guessing a lot of other writers can identify with. And of course, the pressures of the academic job market & its relation to publishing didn’t help much, either. But in terms of trying to decide whether one should chose a contest or an open reading period, I think the character and reputation of the press you’re wanting to work with is much, much more important than the means you choose to get published. The relationship that you have with them and how they respect and promote your work is going to last a lot longer than any prize money you might win. Of course, if you’re trying to pay off loan sharks, that’s a different story.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.? Did you suggest or have any input regarding the image that was used on the cover?
Carnegie Mellon was very generous about this, and was very proactive about soliciting my input for the cover. I’d had the idea for a while of using a blueprint image, which they were very receptive to, and I’d sent them some mock-ups to illustrate the idea using blueprint images I’d pulled off the internet. Annie Jacobson, the designer, did a fantastic job in bringing it all to life.
And, in a very poetry-geek admission, I should say that I really liked the idea of my first book being blue, because Elizabeth Bishop requested a blue dust jacket for North & South.
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 was concerned about it a little, because I felt, rightly or wrongly, that a juicier publication list at the front of the manuscript might give a contest reader a reason to hang on to the work for a few minutes longer. But I didn’t let that keep me from sending out the manuscript. I’d seen enough first books with only a handful publication credits not to agonize over it too much. And, in the end, because it took so long to get the book picked up, a lot of the poems did wind up getting published before the book came out.
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 a great deal—many of the poems had been finished for so long before the final proofing, and I’d felt pretty solid about where they were. But the weird thing is that once the book came out, I found myself wanting to fool with the poems much more—sometimes I’ll be doing a reading, and in the back of my mind as I’m saying a line aloud, I’ll find myself ruminating, “Huh—that line break could be improved,” or “Maybe I should have used ‘putrescent’ instead,” etc. Something about having something so solid and unchangeable in my hands must have brought out the Highly Perverse Editor in me.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
That I wished my parents were alive so I could show it to them.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
I am less consumed by a blinding envy when I meet other people with published books. Or rather, I can now focus my blinding envy on their talent and good looks, where it belongs, rather than on the fact that they’re published.
What have you been doing to promote The Diminishing House, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I’ve done a fair amount of readings in the past year and half since the book came out, and they’ve all been a tremendous amount of fun. I’ve gotten to read at Central Missouri University, University of Missouri-Columbia, Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, Sarah Lawrence College, and at the Triptych reading series in Manhattan, the Chin Music series in Brooklyn, the Sarabande reading series in Louisville, and the Gypsy House series and the Bad Shadow Affair series, both in my adopted home city of Denver. I know it sounds corny, but they’ve all been really wonderful experiences—partially because I love doing readings, but also because of all of the incredibly talented and distinguished writers that I’ve gotten to read with as well. Not to mention all the dedicated folks who run these series—I don’t think it’s always widely understood how much hard work and headache goes into keeping those things afloat, and I greatly admire the people who do it, often against the odds, without much money, if any, and without the level of thanks that they truly deserve.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
There are so many kinds of advice I could have benefited from in the thirty-four years before the book came out! “Never indulge in ‘Ladies’ Night’ in Tijuana,’” “Never date someone who says he does ‘A little of this, a little of that,” for a living,” “Never get a body piercing at an establishment that also does motorcycle repair.”
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
I don’t think the book’s publication has had a huge influence on my subsequent writing—I sit down to the same big ol’ blank page I did before I had a book, and still worry that I’ll never write another good poem again.
I’m trying to finish up my second manuscript, The Octopus Game, right now. Many of these poems are less explicitly autobiographical, which I suppose might be an unconscious pushing-back against the content of The Diminishing House. The majority of the poems are about cephalopods—primarily octopuses, but I’ve got a squid poem and a cuttlefish poem swimming in there as well. But if I have to have that conversation with a stranger on an airplane, I’ll probably say that it’s about fiery plane crashes.
Nicky Beer is the author of The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon, 2010). Her poetry has been published in Poetry, The Washington Post, The Nation, Best American Poetry, McSweeney’s, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She has been awarded a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a fellowship and a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a Campbell Corner Prize, a “Discovery”/The Nation Award, and the Colorado Book Award for Poetry. She teaches at the University of Colorado Denver, where she co-edits the literary journal Copper Nickel.