LS: Would you tell me a little about the publication history of The Mad Song? When and why did you decide to use The Espresso Book Machine? What forays into more, dare I say, conventional models of publication had preceded that?
MS: I entered the manuscript into about a dozen first book contests starting in fall 2006, almost as soon as the thing was written. Never even qualified as a finalist. Sent it to some publishing houses, big and small, and got very friendly, supportive rejections. Shortly after I started working at the Northshire Bookstore in fall 2007, they took delivery of one of five Espresso Book Machines in the world. So I now worked at one of the best independent bookstores in the country that not only had the distribution but the means of production, and the time (fall 2008) seemed right — with Obama’s push for the White House — for The Mad Song to enter the world. It was an obvious decision. It took the risk of the perception of cronyism out of the process but it did leave me without a marketing team per se, which is the second half of getting a book out into the world and getting people to read it. Still, as of this interview, I’m closing in on 100 copies, many to people I don’t know.
There’s a Peter Davis poem that appears in Tight 4 called “Poem For People Who Might Want to Involve Me In Some Other Artistic Project, Like Writing a Song or Something.” It reads, in whole: “I’m open for that sort of thing. Collaborations and what not.” I toyed with the idea of a website where you could click through each chapter or sentence, in different order, making the whole thing available online. That could still happen. I like the idea of farming the manuscript out to other publishers to see, if they were moved enough by the work, what their take on it would be, how they would otherwise present it in book form, making the thing itself, as books should be, a piece of art. Or some other form besides book. Just because it’s appeared in book form doesn’t mean it can’t take other forms (playing cards for instance, as each chapter is 52 sentences). Visual artists like Sterling Allen and Monique Brideau (whom I met during my year at the Vermont Studio Center) have used chapters in their work. I’m keen to see it take the form of animation or a sound recording with music or whatever else some artist working in another medium might conceive. I read the entire thing in public once: at VSC in October 2006. I had a local student play fiddle in between the chapters. I like the idea of presenting it that way, with musical preludes, interludes, postludes.
LS: You’re working in a long tradition of authors who involve themselves directly with the means of publication: Walt Whitman setting the type on Leaves of Grass, Emily Dickinson binding her fascicles, C.P. Cavafy overseeing the printing of his loosely-bound or unbound folios of work, to name but a few. Like them, you’re harnessing a new technology, or rather harnessing technology in a new way. Would you describe yourself as a publisher, an author, a distributor, all three, none of the above? What’s the key activity your mode of publication — using an Espresso Book Machine, in conjunction with Northshire Books — foregrounds?
MS: A poet is all of those things always. But, yes, practically speaking, I am all of those, un/subconsciously. While I probably have the marketing savvy, I don’t have the energy or time. I throw out an occasional reminder on Facebook or my blog about the book. It’s enough for me to know the thing is out there and available but I’m not resting on my laurels. I do an interview like this and maybe that sparks some interest. I’m finishing up my second manuscript, Green Mountains, as well, and poems from that are forthcoming in jubilat, The Raleigh Quarterly, Sixth Finch, and Turntable & Blue Light, among others — so I can only look forward.
I don’t think poetry can change the world and as much as the impetus to publish The Mad Song during the Presidential election of 2008 was political, I had no delusions that it would turn the tide. The American people did that by themselves, as I knew they would. Whitman knew that Leaves of Grass was not going to be understood at first by the publishing world or generally accepted by the public. But he also knew he was right, he knew what was going on, he caught the wavelength. He knew the people he was talking to and about because he was one of them. He empathized. It all stems from Emerson:
“The breadth of the problem is great, for the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.”
I think we’re not too far off from a time — if indeed we’re not there already — where writers will be publishing their books at home, with smaller versions of the EBM. Forming collectives, or tribes as Dean Young said (evidently, I wasn’t there) at his reading during the AWP conference in Chicago. Poet/editor/publishers like Matt Hart, Shanna Compton, and Reb Livingston are already doing this, and doing it well. It’ll be as easy as making music and distributing it from your home, as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! proved. It’s a wonder to me that the indie music world and the indie poetry world haven’t found each other in more public ways. It seems natural for a poet like Matt Hart or Chris Martin or my Tight co-editor Andrew Hughes to open up for Animal Collective or The Dirty Projectors or Wilco or be a part of some tour or festival. Sandburg and Segovia. Ginsberg and The Clash. Muldoon and Zevon.
What it will then come down to is your ability to get your book into the hands of readers and independent bookstores (if they still exist) and, believe it or not, the quality of your writing. Bad writing can only live for so long before it’s exposed for what it is, and we’re moving into an era where, in the short-term if not the long, people will be extremely picky where their money goes. You have to give them quality. A good poetry book is a sound investment. You can read it over and over and over again and it will yield different readings at different times. A novel, if it’s good, you read maybe twice? Then, of course, there’s Moby Dick.
LS: What, then, do you understand the “public” in the word “publication” to mean?
MS: Poetry is communication. One human to another. Opaque as some poetry seems, the true poet’s goal is to communicate, and this is where mastery of language comes in. These ways might seem hermetic to some but I’m reminded of Wallace Stevens’ letter to Hi Simons in which he said
Sometimes, when I am writing a thing, it is complete in my own mind; I write it in my own way and don’t care what happens. I don’t mean to say that I am deliberately obscure, but I do mean to say that, when the thing has been put down and is complete to my own way of thinking, I let it go. After all, if the thing is really there, the reader gets it. He may not get it at once, but, if he is sufficiently interested, he invariably gets it. A man who wrote with the idea of being deliberately obscure would be an impostor. But that is not the same thing as a man who allows a difficult thing to remain difficult because, if he explained it, it would, to his way of thinking, destroy it.The public is far more intelligent than publishers — or the public as a collective mind — gives them(selves) credit for. The big thing now and always it seems is for people to “understand” poetry, to have poetry be “accessible.” The same way you understand instructions to your iPod, I suppose. But if poetry is music, you understand it first with your gut, your heart, your soul, and sometimes only that. How can you explain “Filles de Kilimanjaro” or “Nem Um Talvez” in words? You can’t. You listen and feel. If a poem is doing what it should, not just replicating nature but being a thing of nature, the only explanation for the thing is the thing itself. If the poet knows what he’s doing, it’s easy to get the poetry. Poetry shouldn’t be a warm glass of milk to make you feel good about yourself. It shouldn’t put you to sleep. It should take the top of your head off, as Emily Dickinson told us.
LS: Independent bookstores have closed on an almost weekly (at times, daily) basis in 2008 and 2009 thus far, and even the chains are struggling. Do bookstores have a future through reinventing themselves as not just booksellers but publishers? I’m thinking, perhaps idealistically, of a future that’s not only economic but social, (once again) a community arranged around the publication, distribution, and reception of books? One of the early reviewers of The Mad Song, a colleague from Northshire, writes that “There is nothing like having a talented young poet in your midst to re-ignite a slumbering passion for poetry” and that's true of having a publisher in one’s midst, too.
MS: I think they do have a future but it’s going to take a very brave independent bookstore owner to change the model, and right now nobody is willing to take that chance. I think they’re all hoping to ride out not just this depression but the onset of Kindle and its ilk. I can’t say as I think that’s the best approach. We have to fight.
Right now, retail, specifically book retail, works this way: I go to a store because it has a book I want to purchase and, hopefully, but more and more rarely, it employs booksellers who know what the hell they’re talking about, who are passionate about books, no matter what genre or style, who, if you treat them in a civil manner, will spend hours helping you find what you want. Very soon, the model is going to have to be the inverse: I go to a store or center because there are people there who know what they’re talking about and after I’ve had a conversation with them about X, Y, or Z, I can then purchase the book or author we’ve discussed.
This means the destruction of certain business models, turning bookstores into a model of democracy, wherein the booksellers as the people/congress hold the power and decide the ultimate direction of the store because they’re the ones on the ground; the owner/manager acts as an executive officer with veto power; and the customers/readers are a sort of judiciary, to say “This is OK; this isn’t” with their wallets. This also means that the distribution of wealth will have to shift toward the booksellers. If you hire someone with an MFA to work at your bookstore because of their knowledge, you rightly should pay them $15-20, minimum. Let’s even take the MFA out of the equation: someone who’s well-read is invaluable nowadays. The key is finding someone who’s both well-read and good at customer service, which is tricky when it comes to poets especially, who tend to be social misfits of the most outspoken kind. If a customer comes in looking for the latest Mary Oliver, you can’t try to sell her Christian Bök. Joseph Ceravolo, as big a leap as that is, might be more up her alley. Readers must also be willing to take those leaps, and many are. If you can get readers excited, they’ll come back for more. If you can show readers that they know more about poetry than they think they do, presenting them with good, interesting poets, they will absolutely read so-called “difficult” poetry.
Here’s a story: a woman came into the Northshire in February, was moving her family to Milwaukee, wanted books on the place. I first gave her a Michael Perry memoir, Truck: A Love Story, which is not Milwaukee specific but takes place in Wisconsin. Perry’s great and funny and you figure your typical customer wants prose, not poetry. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned John Koethe, the philosopher-poet who teaches at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin, and showed her North Point North, his new and selected, and the poem, “Early Morning in Milwaukee.” She went with the Koethe, her logic being she could read a poem in the morning every day. That never would’ve happened: A) Had I made assumptions about the customer and not engaged her as a person and; B) If I didn’t have the power that working at an independent bookstore gives me to have a poet like John Koethe on the shelf. Never underestimate the customer/reader, or assume they prefer the prosaic “accessible” over the poetic. You can come up with unlimited computer programs whose parameters will tell you “Customers who purchased Poet Smith also purchased Poet Jones” but no matter how precise you make these electronic suggestions, they’ll never be able to replicate an instinctual human being’s well-informed opinion.
And then there are simply those “a-ha” moments you get in bookstores, like when I stumbled upon Steve Scafidi’s For Love of Common Words a couple of years ago in the Burlington Barnes & Noble (and I was only shopping there because, believe it or not, there are no independent bookstores, save used ones, in Burlington). I was drawn to the title, the cover looked interesting, and from the first poem I read, I knew I had found a poet who was the real deal, who wrote poetry because he had to/wanted to, not because he was looking for tenure. I don’t think that would’ve happened on the solitude of the screen.
LS: Craig Dworkin, in The Consequence of Innovation, explores the literally overwhelming number of poetry collections published today – many through book contests – and the impossibility of reading everything. He suggests that, instead of a comprehensive knowledge of all contemporary poetry, we might become more adept at communicating the poetry we have read to each other. I wonder how you feel this intersects with your own writing and publishing?
MS: Hyperbolically speaking, if there are 11,000 new books of poetry published every year, how many of them are really worth reading and, more importantly, re-reading, now or ever? 100? Maybe 200 or so in the very, very long run, once they receive a wider audience than they’re initially met with, but even that’s a stretch. I’m not talking here about immortal collections of verse; simply books that don’t waste your time. I think one should always be open and on the lookout for new writers but there are only so many hours in the day. That’s why the dearth of good criticism is disconcerting. We need critics, specifically practicing poets, to call out books that should be read by a wider audience as well as books that should be avoided. I’m talking about reviews and essays of different modes and manners, not just a blog post saying: “I loved this book” or “I hated this book.” Let’s have some engagement again.
People know more about poetry than they think they do, and we can get some voices out there that can both promote interesting poetry and make people feel like they can get into it. Kenneth Koch did this with his books on teaching and his anthologies. There’s a feeling that we have to do everything we can to praise a poetry that starts to get a large audience, that we can’t criticize it or poetry in general will be sunk or that those that criticize will be thought to be jealous. There’s also a misconception that we have to write a certain way to, again, make poetry “accessible,” but this is giving absolutely no credit to the reading public or to imagination in general and is indeed doing people a disservice by pandering. If we don’t try to be great, why should readers expect greatness from us? We are no closer to or farther from the ideal - poetically, civically, spiritually - than any generation has been. But others understood, as Emerson did, that there is one mind common to all individuals. Everything that has ever been is available to you. It’s only for you to realize this and act.