Wednesday, November 26, 2008

#7 - Morgan Lucas Schuldt

How often had you sent out Verge prior to its acceptance by Parlor Press: Free Verse Editions? And was this a contest or an open reading period?

I had extraordinary luck publishing Verge. Like everyone else, I’d heard the horror stories—years of close calls and wasted entry fees. It’s what I was expecting, and what I was prepared to endure. Parlor Press’s new poetry imprint Free Verse Editions—which I discovered soon after the publication of Adam Clay’s The Wash—was soliciting manuscripts as part of an open reading period. I mailed off my manuscript and five months later I received an email congratulating me that it would be published the following fall. Parlor was only the second press I’d mailed the manuscript to. The first was Iowa, but I never heard back from them.

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

After Parlor accepted Verge, nearly a year passed before the production process ramped up, but it took far less time for the joy I was feeling to turn to restlessness. One reason for this was how I continued to think of my manuscript as incomplete right up to the day I mailed off the final galleys. During the lull between acceptance and publication I continued tweaking individual poems, sometimes writing new ones to replace the few truly awful pieces I still hadn’t purged from the collection, or else re-imagining the placement of particular poems, etc. And that’s fine because once production gets going the work we do as poets quickly transitions into the work of the secretary and the copy-editor. Deciding on font types and sizes; responding to formatting questions; following up on typographical changes; writing promotional copy for the book—some people, I suspect, find the whole process an intimate experience, one more way of relating to the physicality of the book itself, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt more removed from my own work than as I watched my poems assume their final configurations on the page. Which is why by the time the book was in my hands what I felt most was relief. Relief that there was nothing more I could do for the poems. Or to them. It really wasn’t until months later—months of carrying the book around, months of seeing it mixed up among the other books in my bag—that (holy shit!) the awe of what I’d done finally set in.

Did you suggest the cover design? Were you offered choices?

The spareness of the cover—red text set against a slightly off-white background, with minimal typographical flourish, and no art of any kind—that was my idea. But it wasn't my first. David Blakesley—the one-man show over at Parlor, and as cooperative an editor as I can imagine working with—was generous enough to give me near-total control over the cover’s design. That was exciting because for some time I'd had in mind using a cropped portion of Francis Bacon’s triptych of Lucian Freud. It’s a beautiful painting—three panels, each a portrait of Lucian done in deep, meaty reds. In the particular panel I wanted to use there’s a single, conspicuous brush stroke swiping away nearly half the face. There’s something about the rawness of the reds and the willfulness of that brush stroke that really appealed to me. The figurative is literally being de-faced, violated. But as production schedules intersected with the permissions process, it became increasingly clear that for legal reasons I wasn’t going to be able to use that painting. In retrospect, it's just as well. That initial cover, while stark and beautiful and vivid, would have been too on the nose aesthetically. There’s enough violence happening on the level of language in Verge that to try to make the aesthetic conduct of the poems correspond directly with the aesthetics of the book’s exterior would probably have been to over-determine the reader’s experience. Instead, what I tried to do was to come at the cover from the complete opposite direction, from a perspective of severe minimalism, and in a way that—hopefully—allows for a more evocative experience.

Many poets seem to take their cash prize—if one is offered—in their first books instead of the cash. Since yours was chosen in an open reading period, did you have to become more judicious when sending out copies for press and reviews?

Parlor Press was great about review copies. As with most presses, I suspect, prior to the book going to print I was asked to complete a marketing survey and to provide the press with a list of print and online publications where I wanted to see copies of Verge sent for potential review. As for myself, I think I’ve been anything but judicious when it comes to getting the book out there. Once you realize you’ll rarely, if ever, make money selling your poetry, you’ll want to do everything short of giving your book away.

Before you saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it? How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

To answer this question I have to mention a little bit about what else was going on the day the book was accepted, because it has real implications for everything I believe about poetry. The day Parlor accepted Verge I was admitted to the hospital for complications related to Cystic Fibrosis. I’d come down with a pretty bad case of pleurisy, which, if you’re not familiar, is something that happens when the lungs become so infected they become inflamed and swell and rub against the inner walls of the rib cage. Think sandpaper against sandpaper and you have some idea how painful breathing can be under those circumstances. So if you’re asking whether or not I thought a book would change this aspect of my life, no, but it certainly made the weeks of recovery that followed more tolerable. There’s a whole lot of daily, deadening routine involved with taking care of a disease like Cystic Fibrosis, and from the start I’ve always tried to use whatever ambitions I have as a means of distracting myself from that reality. Most, if not all, of Verge was written through a half-dozen hospitalizations, and every poem out of a real fear that I’d enjoy neither the time nor the health to finish the book, let alone see it through to publication. And when, finally, I did publish Verge there was this whole other set of emotions to contend with, including one particular variety of panic that left me convinced that, now that the book was finished, I’d no longer be able to maintain the same level of intensity in subsequent books. Maybe Verge was it, I thought, maybe I’d written all the poems I needed to write. In retrospect, an utterly ridiculous feeling, but one that seemed absolutely plausible at the time.

As for whether publishing a first book has changed my writing life any, no, not in any immediate, tangible way. Journals still reject my poems more often than they accept them, and I still have to shop projects around to potential publishers. Editors aren’t breaking down doors to publish my work, and even if they were, I’m such a slow writer I’m not sure I’d have anything new to give them. Still, I’ve been fortunate (and heartened) to hear from strangers who’ve read Verge and taken the time to write and tell me how much they’ve enjoyed it. I love that, and so I suppose among these people, and the few poet-friends I regularly keep in touch with, there’s a little more credibility and good will circulating out there. However, if there are changes that come with putting out a first book, they’ve got to amount to more than a running up of the number of journals you’re publishing in. When you finally see your book taking up a quarter inch of bookshelf between Scalapino and Schuyler, it’s humbling to realize how high the stakes really are. It’s one thing to obsess a first book into being, but entirely another to repeat the process with even greater intensity and with an awareness of (and resistance to) the contentment that inevitably comes with commanding a particular style. It’s the realization that, for better or for worse, you’re writing yourself into a historical record, so you better damn well make it count. Better figure out how to come at your obsessions from more than one direction, or else in subsequent books risk becoming inimitable even to yourself.

What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you? I know recently you drove across the country for a few readings. What was that trip like, and did you find it worth it in the end once you went back home?

The drive back east in May was more an excuse to do a few readings than it ever was a case of a few strung-together reading dates necessitating a cross-country drive. Ever since making the move from Virginia to Tucson back in 2000, I’d wanted to make that drive again. The trip you’re referring to was one in which, over the course of five days, I read with friends at the University of Cincinnati, at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn, for the i.e. reading series in Baltimore, and at Chop Suey Books in Richmond. To friends and family who asked, I called it a reading tour, but four dates really pales in comparison to the kinds of reading swings that can be put together. The relation of bard to band isn't lost on my generation. Some poets put together week after week of readings, but you have to be comfortable with self-promotion and be willing physically to tolerate the grind of keeping something like that going. Frankly, I’ve never been comfortable in sales, especially when they come at the expense of my health. But even if I were, there’s something about reading too much that, for me at least, takes the joy out of the whole experience. And that’s to my detriment because, ultimately, readings mean exposure, and exposure can translate to book sales, and book sales mean a following of sorts. Reading remains the most personal way for a poet to keep his name in circulation, his books in everyone’s hands, and his work where it should be—in everyone’s ears. Too much exposure, though, and you risk your ambition shrilling into something else, the readings themselves into a kind of self-enthralled stand-up act. Careers in and around Po-biz can thrive on that kind of celebrity, and I suspect some poems can endure that way too, at least in the short run. But I have to believe there’s more to poetry than that. For me, it means cultivating a legacy among friends. It means advocacy on behalf of others. But also reading where and when the opportunities present themselves, getting the book into the hands of as many readers, reviewers and friends as possible, advancing one’s own poetics by writing new poems and, most importantly, I think, reminding one’s self how it’s often the second, the third, the fourth book that sends future readers back in search of the first.

Your poetry is certainly not “narrative.” In a recent reading, you read the poem “Triptych for Francis Bacon,” telling the audience that the poem was probably the most narrative in your book. Have you always been a poet who doesn’t write narrative, or is this something that changed throughout the years?

The Bacon poem is one of only two poems that I didn’t abandon after graduate school; the other is the proem on Keats that opens the collection. Both can be called narrative insofar as the biographical details in each gave me something on which to hang my meditations. The truth is I’ve never been much of an imagist, and I’m not very good at metaphor-making. I have very little patience for digression or association as an aesthetic mode, and I can’t tell a story worth shit. What appeals to me—what has always appealed to me in poetry—are the material conditions of language itself. All the texturizers that work the surface of the poem, from typography down to the aural level of phonemes. Consonance, assonance, rhyme, yes. But also homophones, puns, anagrams, transposition, neologisms, portmanteau—the oddments and extra-intentional sleights-of-hand one can use to complicate words and their meanings. Khlebnikov called his composition process “word-working”; Joyce, in Finnegans Wake, coined the term “verbi-vovo-visual” to circumscribe the kind of hyperlexia he was inventing. It’s in these veins I’d like to think I’m working. But whatever term I might use to analogize what I’m attempting, what interests me is the idea of creative destruction. A recombinant lyricism that works the physical material of language itself, but toward more immediate, emotional ends. A poetry that registers the shock of daily living and that speaks at once both brokenly and reparably of the body, its corporal realities.

I, like many, have an aversion to the word “experimental,” but I think it’s hard to flip through Verge and not come up with the term to describe some of your work. But, as you say, there’s also a playfulness going on, especially with sound, homonyms, and an attention to sonics. How do you find sound playing a part in your writing, and why is it so important?

Robert Frost once likened poetry to taking life by the throat. It’s as fine a point as I can put on it, and it’s what I want for my work—urgency, force, a violent grace. Whether or not that comes across as “experimental” doesn’t interest me as much as writing the poems I want to read. Francis Bacon once remarked how remarkable it was to him how every time he passed a butcher shop he wasn’t there splayed out among the meat. It’s the same kind of corporal stoicism one comes across in Lawrence Durrell’s novel Justine: “After all the work of philosophers on his soul and the doctors on his body, what can we say we really know about man? That he is, when all is said and done, just a passage for liquids and solids, a pipe of flesh.” It’s a grotesque reduction of the human body, a nod to how mere we really are, but it’s also one that makes a whole lot of sense to me. There are days when I feel like the sum of my coughing and everything I’ve brought up that day. Phlegm. Blood, on occasion. And in those circumstances the question becomes: what does the poem sound like that’s written by someone who feels stranded in a body so dysfunctional that too often it feels more like a dumb piece of meat than anything enlightened or desired? The answer, so far as I have one (and so far as it is one), is to leave as much breath and breathlessness on the page as possible. Fill the poem with language that is urgent, concussive, maybe even slightly awkward. Let the density of poems’ sounds be their hyperventilation. And, conversely, the wordplay that spins “meaning” off in multiple directions, let that be their ventilation. All the skirmishing over terms like experimental, quietude, avant, post-avant, third-way, these labels might make for an interesting post-mortem once the poems are written, but they’ve never written my poems. Nor do they seem especially urgent or necessary given the circumstances from which I write.

How does theory, if at all, inform your work?

Again, it all comes back to writing a poetry that takes for its primary subject the frustration and terror of inhabiting a body intent on its own self-destruction. I have real problems with some of her criticism, but Helen Vendler has written eloquently on more than one occasion about Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Skin” as he was known by his friends), and how, in her words, “putting the mimesis psychologically instead of cosmically, one could say that [Hopkins’] spondees represent the impressions of a poet who receives the stimuli of daily life as a series of unforeseeable and unsettling assaults. The regular measure of ordinary verse simply did not seem to Hopkins to represent the felt texture of his experience, which was ‘counter, original, spare, strange.’ And the first duty of any poet is to reconfigure felt experience in an analogical rhythm—prosodic, syntactic, or structural.” While I’d argue realities (and by extension responsibilities) differ poet to poet, the idea of analogizing via language the shocks and concussions (“the assaults”) of daily living—that makes sense to me. For some time now it’s been the vogue to theorize “the body,” what it is, how we mean what we mean when we use the word, and so on. And much of what is written is thoughtful, indispensable even. I’m particularly fond of thinkers like Kristeva and Barthes because, among other things, their thinking on language makes room for the sensual. But for me to think away the violence I live with, or to ironize it, or to distance it via conceptual frameworks, theoretical jargon, discourse sets, or else to feel like I have to apologize for aspiring to write a poetry that is weighted toward the visceral, the emotional, the empathic—that strikes me as incredibly disingenuous, one more way of sanitizing life. Or ignoring it altogether.

In addition to being a writer, you’re also an editor of CUE: A Journal of Prose Poetry. When did you start the journal, and how has being an editor affected your writing? Also, work in CUE has won two pushcart prizes. Talk a little about how you select work for that and how it has affected submissions, if at all.

My friend Mark Horosky and I started the journal back in 2004. What we imagined at the time was an indie magazine, something with high production values, a low cover price, a small but discerning readership, and an aesthetic vision that was wide-ranging and inclusive. Something demonstrably NOT in the tradition of the warehouse journal that would have the reader slog through hundreds of pages of mediocre poetry in order to find the few gems. And though we never stated it explicitly to each other, I think what we were going for was a journal on the order of a long chapbook, something a reader could sit with and finish in one read. Given how fashionable cross-genre writing is now, it’s hard to believe we could have ever really believed that the “prose poem” was a marginalized, put-upon form. But we did, and I’m glad we did. It was motivating. When Mark moved to Brooklyn a year or so later, I assumed full control of the journal and, ever since, CUE for me has become one more way of meeting other writers, an extension of the kind of community-making I mentioned earlier. As to how editing has affected my writing directly, I don’t think it has. Over time there’s the possibility that editing a journal can clarify and reinforce one’s own aesthetic predispositions, and so maybe that has happened. What being an editor has really done for me, though, is confirm what I think anyone who edits a magazine already knows—that there’s a lot of bad writing circulating out there. In fact, over the past four years, there have been numerous moments when, if I had to read one more poem involving talking animals in the absurdist, fabulist, parable mode, I’d have scrapped the magazine altogether. What I did instead was move to an invitation-only submission policy. As for the Pushcart Prizes, winning those was as shocking to me as it was, I’m sure, to the writers who received them. No secret, really, as to how that process works. All I did was submit my favorite poems from that year’s publications and hope for the best. Speaking strictly as an editor, I’ve always thought of the prizes more as free advertising for the journal than anything else.

You recently moved from a print journal to an online journal. Why was this? How has the dynamic of CUE changed because of this switch?

Well, we haven’t made the move just yet, but we’re going to. Soon. In the next couple of months, I hope. It’s a necessary shift. Even with the grant money (which isn’t much in a state as conservative as Arizona) we’ve received over the years, CUE has become too expensive to mail, let alone publish. The plan, instead, is to make the move to online, open up the magazine to more than just prose poetry, and redirect whatever personal resources we were spending on the journal in the direction of a new chapbook series, CUE Editions. The goal, ideally, is to put out three to four chapbooks a year to start, but we’ll see how things go after we publish the first—Mark Horosky’s Let It Be Nearby.

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

Well, it’s nothing I was personally cautioned against, but it’s something I’ve witnessed. It’s the phenomenon of rating one’s own book(s) on websites like Goodreads. Or, worse, reviewing one’s own book on Amazon. It’s the kind of shameless self-promotion that would be laughable if it weren’t so tacky. Don’t be that person.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon?

I don’t know yet. My gut tells me I’m working to extend the vision I began in Verge, but we’ll see. I’ve got a new full-length manuscript, erros, in the works, as well an untitled chapbook I’ve recently put together from work culled from erros. I’m as slow a writer as they come, but I’m getting there.

Do you have any additional advice for first poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?

Contests are a means, not an end. Be patient. Be generous. Take chances. And if you’re ever in the position to advocate on behalf of someone else, and you believe in the work, do it.

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

I have to.

Morgan Lucas Schuldt is the author of Verge (Parlor Press: Free Verse Editions, 2007) and Otherhow (Kitchen Press, 2007), a chapbook. His poems have appeared in Fence, Verse, and LIT; online at Shampoo, Coconut, and DIAGRAM; and in the anthologies Prose Poetry / Flash Fiction: An Anthology (2006), The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel, Second Floor (2007) and Best New Poets 2007. A brief essay on the poet Larry Levis appears in A Condition of the Spirit: The Life and Work of Larry Levis (Eastern Washington University Press, 2004), and an interview with Charles Wright is forthcoming in Charles Wright in Conversation: Fifteen Interviews. A graduate from the University of Arizona’s MFA program, Morgan lives in Tucson where he edits the literary magazine CUE and the new chapbook series, CUE Editions.