How has your first book changed your life?
62. Carly Sachs
Your manuscript won the 2006 Washington Writers' Publishing House Book Prize. Had you sent it out often previously?
the steam sequence began as my graduate school thesis---it was originally a chapbook before becoming a book length poem. I was a bit hesitant about sending it out because it didn't seem like the traditional first book manuscript to me. So I sent it out sparingly, maybe to about 5-10 places, because I felt like I was supposed to be sending it out. Honestly, I thought it would be a better second or third book. But when I moved to DC, a friend told me about the WWPH contest and I guess it was one of those days when I felt like I should be submitting a manuscript.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
It didn't seem real to me. I think it was actually a bit deflating. Everyone had said it would be huge, but I think since I was very involved in the book making process, the leap from manuscript to book didn't seem that big at all. Maybe in my mind, it was already a book to me by then. I remember seeing the boxes--it seemed like there were so many books. It was cool and scary. I think I had gotten so used to the book in the hypothetical situation, but seeing all of those books made me really nervous. Because now I knew people were going to read it. Which is what we all do, but it seemed very weird knowing that anyone, anywhere, could read my book. My good friend Shannon had driven with me to Baltimore to pick them up from Piotr's house. We sat around in the living room drinking champagne. His cat ran around the room. Afterwards, we went shopping in Hamden. I bought shoes that matched the cover. It wasn't intentional. I had wanted them in purple, but they only had black in my size. The brand is Poetic License so I thought that was a strange coincidence.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
I did. A book is a way for those outside the poetry community to see measured accomplishment. You now have something tangible and something that is able to be ordered online. I'd get emails from people I knew saying they found the book on amazon.com and they seemed very impressed by this. It's funny how much the internet has increased accessibility. I found myself tracking my sales and googling myself much more than I had in the past.
I still feel pretty shy about the whole thing. I was brought up not to toot your own horn and so self-promotion is a challenge for me. I do it, but it doesn't feel natural yet. Maybe it never will. I get to travel more because I'm going to readings and the book is a way to meet other writers and talk about poetry. But even then, I often feel shy and small. I'm not sure if you need a book to do this, but it is definitely a good excuse for travel.
I think you get more respect--especially from friends and family not in the literary field. I think everyone secretly wants to write a book, and so now that you are someone who has, they see you in a different way. It surprises many of the people that come into the bar where I bartend. I like that they know that I can do something else with my time besides shake a mean martini.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Yes. Right away, my press asked me how I envisioned the cover. Honestly I had no idea. I did a google image search and made myself crazy trying to find an image that I thought conveyed the essence of the book. Mostly they were pictures of women and bathtubs. Maybe even a mermaid. I found a great Bonnard painting but the rights were very expensive and the press didn't have the budget for it. And then we all decided we wanted the image to be more abstract and so they showed me the current design and it was what became the cover.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't?
I think I thought the whole process would be seamless. More magical. I think we go into this expecting great and significant changes, but mostly it's small ripples growing outward. Rarely do you get a big splash right away. The advantage of working with a small press is that you have a great deal of control over design---I picked the font, the shape of the book, the cover. What surprises me is how much responsibility is on the author. I had to do my own Library of Congress registration. I had to enter the contests for first books after they're published. I had to book most of my own readings. I had to set up my amazon.com account. It's like when they tell you you need an MFA to teach---but what they don't say is that you need significant publication, awards, prizes, etc. The destination ends up being much farther away than you thought. The upside is that you learn so much in the process. I think I had expected it to become a book without me, that all I had to do was write it and the rest would happen.
I really struggled with the little things---acknowledgments, dedication, author photo. I got really frustrated. My first draft was too gushy and girly and the press wanted a serious author photo and I'm naturally a smiley person, so I got very caught up in these things. Eventually it all worked out though, I still think I look naked on the back of the book and I'm really embarrassed about that.
What have you been doing to promote the book and what were/are those experiences like for you?
I've been trying to do as many readings as possible and in various settings---bookstores, book groups, etc. My friend Shannon Dunne is choreographing a dance piece for this year's Fringe Festival in DC. I've had readings where only a few people showed up. I've had readings back home at my synagogue where people I hadn't seen in years came to hear me read. I've read to seniors in nursing homes and I've read at some area schools as well. One time, I split my pants on the train and had to buy a sewing kit before I read. I think these experiences have given me more ownership of my own work and they've humbled me and have made me laugh at myself. You learn that a big venue is not always what it's cracked up to be and sometimes the readings at local coffee shops really end up becoming wonderful evenings. You never know what is going to happen when you read and so you have to be open to that.
What's the best advice you got?
Someone once told me that writers spend 10% of their time actually writing and 90% of the time getting work out there. Whether that means sending review copies, submitting poems, entering contests, etc. And so that put a lot into perspective. Moira and Piotr, who had won the book prize before me, told me to really spend the year promoting the book and traveling rather than working on new writing. They said your first book only comes out once and so enjoy it. I think that helped me not stress out. I used the idea of setting up readings as excuses to travel to places I have always wanted to visit, or places where friends and family lived, so that rarely was I traveling to an unfamiliar place to do just a reading. I knew then, that even if the reading didn't go exactly as I wanted, there would be something else to look forward to.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
I'm not sure if it has had an influence. I've actually been writing fiction and more narrative poems. The style of steam is very spare and so maybe this is a reaction to that style. I also think the style is very specific to the subject matter so I don't know if I could write in the style of the steam sequence any more. That would definitely not seem right.
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing?
It has been very hard to write about the Holocaust I think for many younger writers. It's a topic that has been done time and time again and so, naturally, reviewers will tell you that you're not original, that you haven't made it new, or wonder why you even attempted to write about something so large. I was also very nervous as to how people would respond to the style, as it was not something many "regular" people were used to seeing on a page. I think it can be a little intimidating to see empty space between words and strange spacing, so I was nervous that people wouldn't be able to get it. I remember people that I knew being very happy about the book, but less willing to actually read it because of the format, and so I had a little prodding to do. But overall, I think people get it---that once they get over their initial apprehension, the book is more accessible than they thought.
I'm still nervous to hear how Holocaust survivors take the book. But so far, I've mostly gotten very positive feedback
Why did you write about the Holocaust?
I actually didn't mean to write about the Holocaust. I initially thought I was writing about water. I'm not sure why, but at the time I was very fascinated by steam--half liquid, half gas. It was scientific and symbolic and somewhat ethereal and beautiful. Images speak strongly to me and I was drawn to the way steam rose from the bathtub. I think I had also gone to a steam room for the first time---my parents had taken me to a swanky resort for my 25th birthday. And somehow this woman emerged and the steam sequence became a narrative about her. I really felt as if something else was taking over when I was writing. I lost all control and original intent. Originally they were numbered poems, steam #1, steam #2, etc. But then I realized that they weren't separate from each other at all. That they were all one poem, but in fragments.
Do you want your life to change?
Yes and no. I'm not sure what I want to happen.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
I'm actually working on another book. An anthology of poems women have written about rape and sexual assault. It began as an undergraduate thesis and it's going to be published hopefully this fall by deep cleveland press. I'm going to send it to Oprah I think. That's something that I wouldn't have done for the steam sequence. This is the book that I hope will make a difference for a lot of people. I'm planning on donating a majority of the profits to rape crisis centers. I've always wanted to do something big and important and I really intend to go all out with the promotion of the anthology. I think it's really good that my own book came out first. I think that gives me more credibility and practice. I didn't intend for steam to be big, but I have really huge dreams for the why and later (that's the title of the anthology).
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
next interview: Kaya Oakes
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