Tuesday, October 16, 2012

#57 - Nick Courtright

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

I worried at first that the book wasn’t “funny” enough to merit such a title, but now that I know the book better I do realize the humor in it, an optimistic but dark sort of humor.  The title Punchline had actually been the title for a short series of poems I wrote which were based off of the ends (the “punchlines”) of famous or notable quotes.  Then, when I wrote the manuscript that was to become the book, and I was looking for titles, these two distinct projects sort of ran into each other.  I feel pretty good about the collision, especially since it made me really think about what my book was about: the hilarity and absurdity of our awesome confounding existence here on this planet.

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 honestly don’t think it makes much of a difference, as long as your ego can withstand not being a “contest winner.”  I’ve known people who had good experiences with contests, and people who didn’t, and people who had good experiences with open readings, and people who didn’t.  When I first started, though, I did put a lot of extra emphasis on winning a contest, but I just realized later that it’s more about just finding a situation that’s going to work for you and your book, with the right amount of control and support that you want.  Being with Gold Wake, I’ve never once felt bad about not winning a contest.

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

I was very lucky in that this project wasn’t a patchwork job—I wrote it all in one fell swoop, 30,000 words in one month, then edited it down, and I think that compressed composition led to the work having an inherent but spontaneous narrative to it.  So, unlike with the frustrations I had at times with an earlier manuscript of “collected” poems, its flow was pretty natural and I didn’t have to constantly tinker with the arrangement of poems within it.  Of course, there were some adjustments, but the fact that I didn’t just have a bunch of discrete lyric poems to stitch together made for a much more organic organization.  The big challenge, though, was whittling that 30,000 words down to the roughly 6,000 that actually made it into the book.

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?

Gold Wake Press gave me a great deal of liberty, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.  Jared Michael Wahlgren, the publisher, basically suggested that I could control the design elements that I wanted to control, and anything I didn’t want to worry about, he’d take care of.  So I was very involved in the interior layout, and, after several months of banging my head into the wall before admitting that I don’t know a damn thing about design, I asked Justin Runge, who runs Blue Hour Press, to do the design for me.  I know many (most?) other presses don’t lend such liberty, and I’m sure Jared would have stopped me if my ideas were horrible, but very I’m glad I got the chance to be such a big part of the design side of things.

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 love this question, because it’s another thing where my attitude on it changed a lot over the last few years.  I used to think you had to have all the poems, or at least a lot of them, published, and during that era I placed dozens of poems in good literary journals.  I think this actually might have hurt me, though, when it comes to writing an actual “book”: I was obsessed with making great individual poems, but was less concerned with making sure they all went together, or crafted a sensible narrative in the sense of an idea evolving over the course of the text.  And I lost that one-time viewpoint on accident, since I had all these published poems that I had stuck together in failing manuscripts, but then, ironically enough, Punchline was accepted for publication without a single poem in it being published.  This ended up providing an interesting opportunity, since it then let me semi-serialized the poems after the book was accepted for the explicit intent of previewing the book.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
I still couldn’t believe it.  When I got my proof copy, I just stared at it.  And the real shock was when I opened my front door one day, and there, on the front stoop, was a cardboard box.  I knew it was full of books, and I was almost afraid to open it—its existence was something I had been waiting for for so long that by the time it happened, I was almost in denial; it also seemed like I had an awful lot of work ahead of me.  But it was a good feeling, and it was a very good feeling when I found my book in a bookstore for the first time.  The order on the shelf was Billy Collins, Eduardo C. Corral, Nick Courtright, e.e. cummings…

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, the old elevator pitch.  I fretted about this immensely when the book was first accepted, mostly because I suppose I didn’t quite know yet what my book was about.  But I think I’ve figured it out, and I even have a one-sentence explanation: “The book is about the uncertainty in the world, and how we can find happiness and beauty even in the unknown.”  If the person on the plane asks about the title, I’ll say it’s about how all of us humans are part of the cosmic joke, and how the fact that we’re here, sitting down in a metal tube in the sky, traveling above clouds at hundreds of miles an hour, is pretty damn hilarious.

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

I’ve done a bunch of readings, a bunch of interviews, been on the radio a few times, did a public tv show recording…it’s been good.  It is a lot of emailing, though, since most poets have to do much of the legwork arranging this sort of stuff themselves—unless you do win one of those huge prizes, the really huge ones, no one’s going to be banging down your down to promote your book for you.  So I’ve tried to make myself available when opportunities come up, and always try to make people glad they had me around.  After the last five months of trying to promote this book, though, I’m pretty glad that I can start relaxing a bit now, at least for a few minutes…

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

There are so many elements of publishing I could mention, but I think the biggest thing I wish I would have known years ago would be related to the idea that you should write a book, not just a collection of poems.  Like with a really excellent album of music, you want it to all be part of one grand statement or idea, not just a cobbled-together bunch of random singles.  That’s why greatest hits albums often suck, even though the songs were ones we loved in the context of a time period or an album.  After all, novels have to have everything fit together and not be piecemeal, so why not a book of poems?  I would give someone that advice as a means of thinking big picture, and I’d also say: have faith.  You have to have that, because it can be a long slog from drafting to publication.

What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?

Having Punchline published did vastly change my way of looking at things, mostly in terms of trying to learn from any shortcomings that book has, while also trying to recapture any of the magic I did stumble upon with it.  I also learned that poems in a book are fundamentally different than poems on an 8.5” x 11” piece of paper or word processor screen, leading me to ditch that unnatural size in my editing process.  And yes, I have a new project, and I’m pretty excited about it; it’s a kind of philosophical/scientific/religious manifesto defining “poetry,” so it’s a little insane and full of big claims. Punchline felt like a risky book, but this one’s shaping up to be even riskier, so I’m excited to keep working on it.

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

Yes, I do.  It may not be a wave of eye-opening crashing through the cities of this earth, but I see it time and time again: a person being changed by a poem, even if the epiphany is only momentary.  Poetry is still one of the, if not the, most challenging and beautiful of arts, capable of the greatest profundity, and it can access the fusion of the emotional and the rational, the sensible and the intangible, better than anything else we in our language, language being our widest avenue for complex awareness, have at our beckoning.  Rather than get mad about millions of people not reading poetry, I’d rather be happy with the few new ones everyday who, as Moore says, “discover in it, after all, a place for the genuine.”

Nick Courtright is the author of Punchline, a National Poetry Series finalist published in 2012 by Gold Wake Press. His work has appeared in journals such as The Southern Review, Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Iowa Review, and many others, and a chapbook, Elegy for the Builder’s Wife, is available from Blue Hour Press. He’s Interviews Editor of the Austinist, an arts and culture website based in Austin, Texas, where he teaches English, Humanities, and Philosophy, and lives with his wife, Michelle, and son, William.  Feel free to find him at nickcourtright.com.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

#56 - Quinn Latimer

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Rumored Animals? Did it go through any other changes?

It’s always been Rumored Animals. I think, sound-wise, rhythm-wise, it just worked for me, but conceptually too. The book engages so many different themes and forms that I liked the idea of one central idea or image—of the spectral animal—running (or pacing) through it. With so much going on in the various poems—family, desire, loss, art and literary history, art- and literature-making—this strange bestiary was a way to bring it all together. In some of the poems the animals are lucid, domestic, quite there; in others, the animals are neither practical nor material nor totally discernable—they’re just the hint of some strange intelligence or sensibility illuminating or darkening the perimeter. Acting as an against, an other, etc.

At some point, late in writing the book, I found this wonderful Virginia Woolf quote that perfectly encapsulated the kind of animal that I was imagining, its affects and effects. In A Room of One’s Own, she wrote, rather startlingly: “The sight of that abrupt and truncated animal padding softly across the quadrangle changed by some fluke of the subconscious intelligence the emotional light for me. It was as if someone had let fall a shade.” And so that became the book’s epigraph.

How often had you sent out Rumored Animals before it was chosen for the 2010 American Poetry Journal Book Prize from Dream Horse Press?

I sent out a much different version of the manuscript to about five contests in the year or two after I finished grad school at Columbia, and I had that experience that many poets have of being a finalist. After that I put the manuscript away for about five years. I think I knew it wasn’t ready to be published, and I wanted some time to simply write new work without book publication being the loud, insistent goal. Then, in 2010, I started sending it out again, and I clicked that year with the American Poetry Journal Book Prize.

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

I tend to write short, abstract lyrics and then much longer essayistic or didactic poems that keep to a somewhat academic register. From the very beginning—and under the adept advice of my grad school professors—I structured the book into sections that isolated the long poems into their own individual chapters, and then grouped many of the shorter, lyrical poems together in sections around them. Though the poems within the chapters would change quite a lot over the years, as would the chapters themselves, I basically kept to this format. It gave the collection some buoyancy, some propulsion, this movement back and forth between tone and length.

In terms of the actual book, though, the first versions of the manuscript read pretty lovelorn: I was in my early twenties, so love and love poems were the thing. But there was always a tangible current of familial examination in some of the writing as well. Later, after my mother died, this latter theme became more, as it were, pronounced. The collection followed suit.

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

I work in the art world, where books are often seen and designed as art objects—even more so now with the rise of digital books and web magazines. So I always had this sense that I wanted the look of my book to be right: very intentional and beautiful and contemporary. Early on, for the cover image, I wanted to use a specific painting by the American artist Susan Rothenberg, from her 1970s series that featured horses crossed out or halved by geometric lines. Actually, last week I was reading a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, and an article on Obama’s foreign policy was illustrated with a photo of the president in a meeting in the White House, and this exact Rothenberg painting was hanging on the wall behind him. I cracked up, but I was also impressed: he (or likely his curator) have great taste. Anyway, in the end the horse painting was too literal and illustrative with my title. I just couldn’t have an animal on the cover, no matter how abstracted the animal actually was.

So I ended up asking an artist in Los Angeles, Jennifer West, if I could use one of her experimental film stills. I liked the idea of using a frame from a film, as image-making and framing comes up so much in the book, which often has a filmic touch. And I feel very close to Jennifer’s work: its themes of Southern California landscape and counterculture, feminism and punk music. The still I used is from a 2011 film of some girls surfing on a beach near where I grew up, and the image is totally blown out with psychedelic, fluorescent colors; the artist took the 16mm film stock itself and coated it in sunscreen, Cuervo, surf wax, Tecate, sand, and a million other materials that have the same tenor.

Then I asked a Swiss graphic designer based in Lausanne, Sarah Leugger, to design the cover. Book design in Switzerland is a huge thing with a very important history, and I really wanted someone here—where I currently live—to leave their mark on the book. Sarah did an amazing job, and steered me to an insane new font by the Dutch typographer Jan Duiker. I wanted something similar to Futura, with a modernist and postwar European feel to it, like Godard title cards or old Frankfurt School paperbacks. Sarah and I didn’t have any input on the interior of the book, but I think the publisher did a really nice job and I was surprised how the outside and inside ended up matching pretty well.

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 had quite a few of the poems published while I was in grad school and directly after, and then I took a bit of a break—five years or so—from poetry publishing and the poetry world in general. When I won the book prize and knew the book would be published in the next year or two, I started sending out poems out again, as a way to get my name out there and perhaps do some early publicity. To be honest, I definitely should have sent out more, as it’s really the only way of publicizing your book, besides doing endless marathons of readings. Still, it’s not, and it’s never been, my main concern to have poems placed everywhere all the time. Though it probably should be.

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?

I actually did quite a bit of editing. My book took almost two years to appear after I won the prize, some of which was my fault for constant tinkering and also pulling old poems out and adding new poems in. I wanted to write one new long poem for the book, the poem “Bathysphere,” and that took about a year to emerge, so.

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

I got a profanely dirty cardboard sleeve in the mail as I was about to take my dog for a walk. We proceeded to the river and I stared at the book as we walked along it. I had been so worried how the cover image’s fluorescent colors would come out, about typos, all these insane, ridiculous things. But really it was just wonderful and weird. I had been thinking of what my future books would look and feel like since I was about ten years old, so it was really just extraordinary and reassuring and strange, in this very normal way.
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?”

Well, it’s not about animals, despite everything I said before. This is a difficult question. Every review I’ve gotten of my book so far has surprised me in its diagnosis and analysis; the reviewers have all been right, and so wonderfully acute, but I never would have come up with many of the ideas and themes they laid across my pages. However, that’s not much of an answer. I suppose one way I understand the book is as an exploration of criticality and corporeality, of the way they course through each other—of thinking through or against landscape, body, form, ideas.

As has been pointed out, Rumored Animals definitely limns themes of cinematography, of portraiture, of feminism. But I also sometimes think that, as a poet, I work like some old-timey painter or photographer: I write a landscape—the apocalypse of Southern California, the glowering West Texas desert, New York, or heavy Mitteleuropa—and then I plant some sort of thinking, feeling, contemporary figure within it. More specifically, though, the book might be about grief—the inherited kind and the situational sort. It might also be about my mother.

What have you been doing to promote Rumored Animals, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I have been doing lots of readings around Europe for the past six months, which has been wonderful. Sometimes my audiences are strictly literary—I read with the poet and translator Michael Hulse recently at the University of Basel—but more often they end up being a crowd of artists, curators, critics, and musicians, as that is my scene and set of contacts here, mostly. At first this was strange, to read poems to people who were not poets, which is the expected audience for poetry readings in New York or LA, where I read before.

But then it became exciting. I started thinking of the readings as performances, performative turns or lectures or spells. At my book launch in Zurich, I was accompanied by five films by Jennifer West projected across the glass walls of the space, which turned the whole room into a kind of magic lantern. And I read underneath an enormous, gold Art Deco palm tree from the 1960s. That was super strange and great. In Berlin, at the great bookstore Pro qm, it was much more straightforward. I simply read to the assembled crowd of friends and strangers. I had a particularly lovely reading in Geneva last month too, and an impromptu one a few weeks ago in Elba, where I just finished a residency—it’s mostly been excellent. I plan to do a small reading tour in the US early next year as well.

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

Practically, I suppose it would have been good for someone to impress upon me the fact that I would absolutely have to turn into a crazy, self-promoting monster for a year or so. No one did, though, or perhaps I closed my ears.

What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?

One of the best and oddest things about having my first book of poetry done and published is that it completely motivated me to spontaneously and seriously devote myself to the second. Rumored Animals took such a long time to come together, it spans so many years and themes, that I felt like moving into the exact opposite direction with my following collection. The new book I am working on uses compression both as a formal theme and a conceptual idea: the poems follow one specific form and then they spin off of quotations from artists, filmmakers, writers, theorists. Taken together, the poems form a kind of notational hive—not a linear construction of narrative or meaning, but something more mutable and temporally unstable. Paradoxically, I also see it as a kind of rĂ©cit or poetic notebook—but we shall see.

I also just finished a book of essays ostensibly about the artist Sarah Lucas, but also exploring Artaud, Mexico, the modernist female nude, Sontag, fertility icons, Napoleon, Beckett, colonialism, and distance. It should be out from Mousse, a publisher in Milan, later this year. I am very excited about it.

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

This summer I became quite obsessed with the second volume of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks. I really can’t recommend it enough. She was quite close to Joseph Brodsky, and her journal is full of his quotes and notes about him. Here are three from December 1977, when they were in Venice together:

Joseph: “Censorship is good for writers. For three reasons. One, it unites the whole nation as (or into) readers. Two, it gives the writer limits, something to push against. Three, it increases metaphoric powers of the language (the greater the censorship, the more Aesopian the writing must become.”

A few pages later:

Joseph: “I feel like crying all the time.”

And a few pages later:

The poet-in-exile [Brodsky], born in Leningrad, walking alone on the wet empty streets at two in the morning. It reminds him, “a little bit,” of Leningrad.

Quinn Latimer is an American poet and critic based in Basel, Switzerland. Born and raised in Southern California, she was educated at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University’s School of the Arts in New York. Her poetry has appeared in Boston Review, The Last Magazine, The Paris Review, and elsewhere, and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her first book of poetry, titled Rumored Animals, won the American Poetry Journal Book Prize and was published in April 2012. She is a regular contributor to Artforum and frieze, and her criticism has also appeared widely in Art in America, Bookforum, Kaleidoscope, and Modern Painters. She recently edited the publication Paul Sietsema: Interviews on Films and Works (Sternberg Press, 2012), and her book Describe This Distance will appear in late 2012 from Mousse Publishing in Milan. Latimer is currently on the faculty of the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, where she teaches writing. Her website is: http://www.quinnlatimer.com/