Sunday, August 1, 2010

#26 - Paul Hostovsky

How often had you sent out Bending the Notes before it was chosen for the Main Street Rag’s Editor’s Select Poetry Series?

Not that often. Maybe half a dozen. It was runner-up in a couple other contests before it got picked up by MSR.

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

The title comes from the poem “Every American Child” in the first section of the book: “Every American child/ will be issued a blues harmonica at birth/ and taught to bend the notes because the notes/ are for bending.” As any harmonica player will tell you, bending the notes makes the song a lot more interesting. I’ve known that since I was 15, so I figured it was time to put it in a book. Also, a lot of the poems, especially in the second section, are a little scurrilous in their praise, a little prurient in their singing, the way most good blues songs are. So that’s another reason for the title. Also, a good many of the poems are about the writing of poems, sort of ars poetica poems, and I like poems that bend the notes, poems that are intoxicatingly interesting and have lift. Also, a lot of the poems in the book are about deaf people, not the deaf as metaphor (which is how most writers have treated them—and the blind, for that matter—throughout the history of literature), but deaf people as real people, who use a language with a music of its own, a very different music. Being Deaf isn’t about silence. It’s about that music, which is the most beautiful music the world has ever seen. So the title is also trying to get at that.

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 suppose one ought to do a lot of research, find out about poetry publishers and their guidelines and reading periods and all that. But I’m pretty lazy when it comes to just about everything except making poems. So I went the contest route myself. I’d already won several chapbook contests advertised in the back pages of Poets & Writers. And that’s where I found MSR. I didn’t win the MSR book contest though; I was a runner-up. But they offer publication to the runner-ups, too. God bless them.

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

Ted Kooser has said that putting together a book of poems is a lot like putting together a poem. Assembling the book was kind of like that. You know, the best poems in their best order. I played around with it pretty compulsively for a while, going through several different versions, killing more than a few darlings, though probably not enough. The book is probably still too long. But it’s published now, so I feel like I got away with it; my darlings are safe. And sound.

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

I chose the cover image, and the order of the poems. That’s it. And I supplied the photo and the blurbs and the bio. But I was not involved in the choice of font or paper or anything like that. There was some back-and-forth, I recall, about what to include on the acknowledgments page, and also in a few places where the poems ran onto the next page and I didn’t like where the page break occurred. I got my way in most instances.

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

Yes, I chose the cover image. It’s a painting called “Deaf Picnic” by a deaf artist, Ralph Miller. I love that painting. It’s a sort of deaf version of “Sunday in the Park” by Seurat. At first you don’t notice that the figures in the park are deaf. But if you look again, you’ll see that they are all signing.

What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Most, if not all, of the poems have been previously published. Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

I submit compulsively, sending my stuff out like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t. The result is that most of the poems eventually get published. So by the time the book got put together, most of the poems in it had already appeared somewhere or other. Also, I don’t always trust myself about which ones are keepers. I may like a certain poem, but if no one else has liked it well enough to publish it, then I’ll take another look at it. On the other hand, if I like a poem, and an editor has also liked it well enough to publish it, well, I find that reassuring.

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 made very few changes to the poems after the manuscript had been accepted, but I went over all the poems probably ten times to make sure there were no typos or mistakes. And I think there was just one, finally, that got into the book, but it must have been very small, seeing as it got by me, and seeing as I can’t even remember now what it was.

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

I had a mixed reaction. It seemed smaller than I’d imagined, kind of like a famous person who looks shorter somehow when you see him up close. Of course I had to sniff it, and bite it, and go to bed with it, and I think I ate a few of the poems that first night after dinner.

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 say, well, it’s poems. Do you like poems? You don’t? Well, these poems are very accessible, so you will probably like these. Some of them are very funny. And they’re about all kinds of things: poems about childhood, poems about divorce, poems about poems, poems about breasts, lots of poems about deaf people and sign language, and also quite a few about blind people and Braille.

How has your life been different since your book came out? Did it become a factor in getting a future job for you? Also, another book, Dear Truth, has been released since Bending the Notes. Tell us about Dear Truth. What can we expect from it? How is it different from Bending the Notes?

My life isn’t different at all since the book came out. The only thing that’s different, I suppose, is how I’m perceived. I’m a poet with a book now. I’m a published poet, thank you very much. No, the book hasn’t helped me get a job. But the job has helped me sell the book. I make my living as an interpreter, and lots of my deaf friends and colleagues, as well as my interpreter friends and colleagues, bought the book. I’d like to think I changed some minds about poetry, converted some of the poetry-haters among them, winning them back from their unhappy places of exile. As for Dear Truth, the book is a kind of Dear John letter to Truth. There are lots of poems about pain, and illness. And there are more poems about poems, more poems about deaf people and blind people, and breasts, and God, and masturbation, and all that good stuff. Check it out!

What have you been doing to promote Bending the Notes, and what have those experiences been like for you?

Well, not a whole lot. I did a bunch of readings when it first came out, then I sort of burned out on those. I entered it in a few contests. I sent it to a few reviewers. I sold a few on the Internet. I gave a few to libraries. I gave one to the gas station guy. And I gave one to the girl working at the Dunkin Donuts who looked sad and overworked and beautiful in a tired sort of way.

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

Hmm. I’m very happy with the book and how it came out. I mean I like it a lot. I probably like it too much. I guess I wish someone had told me that hell is having nothing to read but your own poems.

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

Has it influenced my subsequent writing? Hmm. I don’t think so. Except, maybe, that I trust myself, my voice, a little more now. I have a poet friend who’s always working on the next book, thinking about the next book, writing toward the next book. I can’t do that. For me, it’s always and only about the next poem. Period. I never think about how the poems might fit together in a book, until I have enough keepers in the drawer that I start to think about a book. At that point, I sit down with the poems, and I hold each one under the light of its neighbor, and I try to make a poem out of the poems, which for lack of a better word, I suppose you can call a book.

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

Ooooh! Saved the toughest question for the end, I see. Well. What did Auden say? “Poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ in the valley of its saying where executives/ would never want to tamper.” And Grace Paley said: “Poetry is not important. People are important.” And Szymborska says: “But what is poetry anyway?/ More than one rickety answer/ has tumbled since that questions first was raised./ But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that/ like a redemptive handrail.” As for me, I don’t think poetry can change the world, no. But I do think poetry can change your mind about the world. Which may be the only change there is in the end.


Paul Hostovsky’s poems have won a Pushcart Prize, the Muriel Craft Bailey Award from The Comstock Review, and chapbook contests from Grayson Books, Riverstone Press, Frank Cat Press, and Split Oak Press. He has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Writer’s Almanac, and Best of the Net 2008 and 2009. He has two full-length collections, Bending the Notes (2008) and Dear Truth (2009), both from Main Street Rag. He works in Boston as a sign language interpreter.