How has your first book changed your life?
71. Dana Teen Lomax
Yesterday, I went to a 4th of July parade in the Central Valley of California dressed as Yoda. The costume was unbearably hot (Yoda wears robes which I made out of bedsheets and it was 104 degrees in Mokelumne Hill); so my green make-up ran with drips of sweat. People thought I had confused holidays. Others didn't see the connection to "Independence Day." But I felt identifiably American with my light saber over my heart during the national anthem, having spent $26.00 on a costume (the bald head mask, cosmetics, and pointy ears) I might not wear again this year. Plus, I had brought the STAR WARS warfare theme into the occasion, and still cracked up some kids along the street with my alien voice and syntax (snowcone, I must--hmm?), all the while backing my daughter's current fascination with the movie series. I thought it was layered, thought-provoking, performance art. Some people thought it was just weird.
And this story isn't altogether different from my experience with Curren¢y. The work strives to be accessible, familiar. As a poet, I want the work to be understood and even see myself as one of the more available "innovative" writers. (So much so, that I've even had fears of being "kicked off the experimental island…"*) And yet, the work uses language and the constructs of communication and society to point to the messy and scary and violent problems inherent in them. In my poetry, I want people to recognize things they know or have seen before although maybe in a different context. Curren¢y acts to unpack many of the structures we often take for granted in words / cultural icons / society. And it all relates directly to or comes out of what's going on in the world, my home, my family.
(* I first heard the "getting kicked off the experimental island" remark from Elizabeth Treadwell and I think she had said that she picked it up from another poet... Anyway, I like how it points to the kooky and sometimes pressurized assumptions about "innovation" that I have fallen trap to over the years.)
Curren¢y took a really long time to write, over five years. I watched friends of mine crank out a couple of or even several manuscripts in that timeframe. And I had dedicated myself to getting the book in print for about a year when a friend, David Buuck, told me about Palm Press. I had never met Jane Sprague, the editor at Palm, but I sent the manuscript on what happened to be the last day of the reading period. Two days later, while I was waiting for my mom to get out of a heart procedure in Scripp's Medical Center and pacing in the hospital parking lot, my partner called and told me there was a phone message about the book and it "sounded good."
Jane accepted the book so quickly; it was a sudden turn-around. All the years of writing and sending out and then --presto!-- a book. It's funny. I had moments of feeling like a hack, like maybe the book wasn't ready or _____??? And then Jane was so excited about the work. It pisses me off that I let "the market" detract from my confidence in the writing I was doing, but that's how it happened. It was a really valuable lesson.
I remember the book arriving at my house a day before I was scheduled to read at Small Press Traffic. I was so stoked & relieved that I would have the copies for the SPT event, to celebrate the book coming out and show off to my friends. The timing was "right" with Curren¢y in a lot of ways. I thought this work should be a book and felt glad that it was.
I remember thinking about the cover too. My daughter's legs there, the fake animals and flowers, my name in red. When I saw the cover on the book, it hit me just how much the photo has to do with my personal life and my family life in relation to writing. It's really nothing that a reader might take from the picture on a conscious level maybe, but balancing mothering and writing and all the time and identity shifts that come into play were somehow magnified when I saw the actual book for the first time.
Initially, because I do some work in photography and film, I had thought I would take the cover photo. But then I came across a piece by Yedda Morrison who had been visiting and taking some pics of my daughter. And I love the one that's on the cover. It's got a plastic bird, a part of a purse and a bizarre fur in the background--all kind of scattered around my daughter's feet that are shoed in Wizard of Oz ruby slippers. It combined the most real relationships in my life with a bunch of random fake crap. It was too perfect.
I'm really grateful to Yedda for that series of photos and the cover shot in particular. I'm also thankful to Kaia Sand and Jane Sprague for their treatment of the photo and my daughter's body. I felt really understood and well cared for in their design work. Also, I want to thank my daughter, Una, again. She was strong in her parameters of how much of the photo I could use. At 5-years-old she told me, "No. I don't want my business in everyone's living room." And she was right.
I had waited a long time for Curren¢y to come out. I had published a chapbook and won some awards and had many poems published discreetly, but there was a certain credibility that I thought having a book offered. It's maddening really that I so willingly played into the capitalistic / hierarchical model of the poetry world / our society. That "having" "the" "book" makes you a better or more real or more respected poet. I never deeply believed those things exactly, but I felt the pressure and jumped to.
And the truth is: after Curren¢y, I was offered more readings and recognition. Other opportunities are coming my way now that probably would have landed elsewhere if I didn't have a Palm Press book. I'm not sure that I would have a creative writing job at USF or be working at SPT if Curren¢y hadn't been picked up. I didn't expect these gigs, but I'm sure that the book helped me get them.
And I recognize how fucked up that is in a way. After all, we're talking about the arts--poetry even. And yet, I feel like I am in the business of poetry, that the book leverages me. That's not why I wrote it. But it has functioned economically that way. Even the process of requesting blurbs for the back of the book felt some like seeking endorsements. Yes, this process is also about community, but there's a strong marketplace edge to it all. Curren¢y is about money and value and what we hold dear and the publication of the book has made me think about these questions at an even deeper level.
Since the book came out, I've been a lot busier. I just realized the other day how strongly entrenched I am in the American way. My family over-spends. We work a lot. And then I spend my leisure writing about how problematic it all is, hoping people will read my poetry, so I can get a better paying job that will allow me more disposable income and then I'll incorporate the whole of that into the writing as well. I guess in a fashion, the book coming out has helped me realize these ambitions more fully.
In terms of promoting the book, this is a weird world for me. It seems that if you have the luxury of people doing it for you or if you are somehow "in demand," you are lucky. If not and you "push too hard," you are graceless. It's a fine balance, and so I give readings and hope people will get to know me through SPT and publications. I put my work where it might get seen and I try to be smart about it. But I am not comfortable with, can't afford, and don't want to make a lot of time for the process of publicizing or advertising myself and my work. As Jane Cortez said in an anthology I am co-editing right now, "Real poetry sits outside of that kind of activity." I share this inclination.
Two pieces of worthy advice that I got right around the time Curren¢y came out are:
1. "Don't get too wrapped up in goings-on that lead you away from the writing. Stay focused on your work..." --Beth Thielen
2. "Take cod liver oil." --Kush
Rather than being surprised by things that didn't happen as a result of the book coming out, I was surprised by the friendships the publication of Curren¢y has helped create. I've met a whole new group of poets and am very happy to have this wider sphere of camaraderie within the poetry community. Again, I feel indebted to Palm Press for this as well.
The critical reception of Curren¢y has been completely mixed. In poetry circles, it has been well-received and I've been proud of the attention it has found, but it's been troubling that many of my friends and family who have read Curren¢y say they don't "get it." One friend even let me know that she tried to read it backwards to see if it might make more sense...(Hi P!) I was surprised and a little freaked. I have never thought of writing just for other poets, and it bothers me that my book makes people I respect "feel dumb." Even when I talk with them directly and explain the experimentation in my work and its aims, I sense a disconnect from some readers outside of the literary world.
Since the publication of Curren¢y, my writing has become even more concerned with questions of readability. I don't intentionally sit down and say, "OK now I want to write something that will be easier for my mom to read," but the responses I received from Curren¢y have made me reexamine my poetics. But now what? I thought Curren¢y WAS/IS super-accessible. I have to write what is mine to write; I don't know other options just now. But I do know that just out of graduate school, I really wanted my writing to sound smart; I'm not so much worried about that now. I want to write what is real and difficult and challenging to me about being a mother and an artist and a person here now in this place full of possibilities and failures.
A while back at the Robert Creeley memorial in San Francisco, a poet told a story about how Creeley had once yelled out, "I'm just trying to be in my life!" The story hit me hard. I would like to slow down and pay more attention. I have a difficult time balancing all I want to do in this far-out lifetime, and I would like to bring a different concentration to living. And this is what my poetry is about and helps me generate.
I have different answers on different days for the question of poetry's agency in the political sphere.
Most often: yes, absolutely, poetry changes the world.
There are cynical days, though, when I think that we're entitled, we poets, pushing toward a social consciousness tipping point between massages.
I hold strongly to the idea that publicly voicing opposition to blinkered gender markers or racism or governmental impudence and publicly exploring love and motherhood and language's job in these processes is vital. And I write poetry in this effort.
Two poems from Curren¢y by Dana Teen Lomax:
OF THE UNITED STATES
rivaled by our own sensibilities
a dying friend says, I'm too sick to be clever
read garish American
intifada yada yada I have art to make
spider hides in the corner
mistaken wedding for war
Anteing you can do, I can do better
I can do anteing better than you
what swims in our heels
slip of time
cylindrical policy sphere
agenda in plain sight
bankroll and enterprise
swore, "If you paint a chicken on it, it'll sell..."
all levels of wealth and terror
teabags filled the Atlantic
the buffalo gone missing
silhouettes burned into concrete
grind the daily the daily
mines near sacred sights
skywriting a new generation
conditions such as they are
violent in other words
. . .
next interview: Joel Bettridge
. . .