How has your first book changed your life?
90. Jessica Fisher
How did you find out that your manuscript won the 2006 Yale Younger? How often had you sent it out previously?
I was sitting on the couch nursing my twelve-week-old daughter when the phone rang. I carried Sylvie over to answer it, and couldn't believe my ears when it was Louise Glück on the other end, saying that she'd chosen my book for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. I was of course thrilled, particularly because I had just turned thirty and therefore had been reconsidering all the goals I had set for myself to meet by then. It was especially wonderful to have that sense of professional accomplishment with a new baby; and revising the poems one final time, as well as writing almost ten additional poems and cutting many old ones, gave me the perfect mental task to fill the long sleepless hours of new motherhood. Glück is an amazing--and amazingly dedicated--editor, and I loved having her as an interlocutor; our conversations provided a much-needed antidote to the kind of talk that dominates the park play-date!
The book got taken its second year out. I had waited a long time to circulate my manuscript, working on it over the years of graduate school--I am now finishing a PhD in English at Berkeley. My friend and mentor Bob Hass had said to me, when he read my first stab at a book-length manuscript a few years ago, that I could publish it then, and it would be a good book, or I could throw out all but the best few poems, and eventually publish a great manuscript. So I kept writing. Later I took an incredible graduate workshop with Lyn Hejinian, in which all the participants were working on book-length projects, and learned a lot from that experience about how to construct a book that engaged in a sustained inquiry. Lyn is an extraordinary teacher, and the other writers in the workshop were the most intelligent and generous readers anyone could ever hope for; I have continued to meet with several of them, particularly Julie Carr and Margaret Ronda, in the years since the workshop ended. Anyway watching Julie finish and publish her first book, Mead, inspired me to try to do the same, and in the fall of 2004 I got my act together, finally sending out both individual poems and the book manuscript for the first time.
I remember struggling mightily to figure out an order for that first version of the book, taping together long skeins of poems which I then taped to the door jamb, so that I could see the movement not only from one poem to the next, but also of larger themes within the book. It was a mess. But I continued to work on it over that year, and had a month-long residency at Djerassi in August of 2005 that allowed me the time and space to struggle with the recalcitrant revisions that needed to be made before sending it out again.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
One weekend in March I got a message from Louise saying that the book was beautiful. I still hadn't seen it, but figured my copies must be in the mail. Sure enough, I got a call that Monday saying that the book would be arriving that day, and that I would need to sign for it. Staying at home on a hot day with a toddler is excruciating, but of course I was really excited to see the book, so Sylvie and I waited, and waited, and waited. I didn't have a tracking number, or even know who the carrier was, so there wasn't much I could do. Excitement turned to annoyance by late afternoon, and then to disappointment when night came and there was still no box. It was almost 8pm, and I had just started putting Sylvie to bed when the UPS delivery man rang the doorbell.
I was mostly worried as I opened the box, because I had never been sent a mock-up of the final cover image. It turns out that the designer never improved upon the version of the cover I sent him--if I could, I would at least vary the typeface, since what I sent initially was just a placeholder, and the best I could do with my old Word program. But all in all I think the book is beautiful, and I felt really happy to hold it for the first time.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Yes--in fact, the cover is pretty much my design. I love Gerhard Richter's paintings for many reasons, not least because they make apparent that mimesis and abstraction are not antithetical terms. The first cover image that the designer at Yale sent was all wrong for my book--it was a photograph of sailboats in the mist, which is for the record not what I mean to suggest by the title Frail-Craft!--and so I sent him the Richter image as an indication of the kind of work I wanted, specifying that the cover should show the way that representation emerges out of abstraction, and vice versa, during the course of looking. Much to my surprise, the designer said that he could get permission to use the Richter image--and so that, I thought gleefully, was that. Some months later the series editor called and said that it wasn't going to work out after all, and that the designer would be forwarding me some other options, but I didn't want to give up on that image so easily. A couple of nervous months went by before the issue was settled, but the editor's assistant pulled out all the stops, writing to Richter's New York and German galleries, and eventually he gave us permission to use the image, "courtesy of the artist" as the cover reads, for which I am eternally grateful.
Before the day that you first saw your book, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival? Has your life been different since?
I imagined that my life would change in the ways it has: I now get invited to do more readings, and am more organized at the readings I give, since I no longer have to shuffle through a stack of papers! I feel justified now in thinking of myself as a writer, and hope that when I go on the job market I will have luck finding a position as such.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
The reviews have all come as surprises. And kind emails from people I don't know, or haven't seen in a decade. It still really surprises me that people read the book, somehow.
What have you been doing to promote Frail-Craft and how do you feel about those experiences?
The book came out in April, near the end of the academic year, and so far I have just done a book party and a few readings to promote the book--one locally, one in Florida, and one in Cambridge. I would do more if I could, but between being a mom and finishing my dissertation, there is little time. And it's very expensive to travel, so I have had to turn down several opportunities to read in other cities, since reading series often don't have the money for airfare. In one way I wish I had the time to take a road trip, giving readings here and there, but working the scene is not something that comes naturally to me. So I have elected just to do readings in places I want to travel to anyway--in the next year I will do a reading in my hometown of Oxford, Mississippi and at Swarthmore College, where I was an undergraduate, and will add other readings as I can. I hope the book will find its readers in other ways, too--through reviews and word of mouth. I am of course very lucky that Yale sent out advance review copies and included the book in a few ads!
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
I got two pieces of invaluable advice: the first was that it was my book, which proved to be an important thing to remember when faced with others' ideas about how the book should look and sound; and the second was that winning the Yale prize didn't need to define me any more than I wanted it to.
I wish I had known a lot more about the process of publishing a book. Luckily I realized very early on, before Yale had even appointed the book a designer, that the smaller trim size of past Yale Younger Poets' books wouldn't work for many of my poems; by pointing this fact out early in the design process, I was able to convince them to make the book larger. I knew less than I would have liked, however, about when in the process things like font size or leading are set in stone.
What advice would you give to someone about to have a first book published?
I would reiterate the advice given to me: first, it's your book. What this means, beyond that you should make your own decisions about it, is that ultimately you're the one who will suffer if it's not the best book you can make it. So, keep writing and editing until the press makes you stop; be meticulous about proofreading; engage in the conversations about design early and often; and so on. And don't act like a prima donna--I heard some horror stories from folks at Yale! Treat everyone at the press with respect, and try to make at least one friend there who can explain to you how the process works, and who can be your advocate when you need one. Secondly, for better or worse, realize that your first book is just that. It defines a moment, but it doesn't limit you.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
Well, I am no longer working on Frail-Craft, which means that I no longer have its particular concerns in mind. I know a lot more about making a book now, too--so, for example, I will never again write a poem to fill an 8 1/2 by 11 inch page! Mostly I think that having a book published makes me more confident in my writing. Now when I am sure that a few poems are done, I send them to a journal for consideration--that always seemed like an impossible step to me before. And because having a book out makes it more likely that other work will be published, I have returned to some translation projects that I had shelved years ago; I am especially excited that my translation of a poem by the Dada artist Hans Arp, which I began when I was doing comparative literature work in college, will appear in The Paris Review.
How do you feel about the critical response so far and has it had any effect on your writing?
Reviews are nice, and nice reviews are nicer. But they don't effect what I write. Reviews that misread the book in some way serve as a warning of all the ways the book will inevitably be misread, but there's not much I can do about that now.
Do you want your life to change? Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
Life and change seem to me to be synonymous terms, and so of course I want my life to change, which is not to say that I want to change my life. I am really happy right now. My dissatisfaction comes from living in a world that desperately needs radical change. But on a personal level, too, I do want my life to change: I am nearly done with my PhD, and look forward to a time when "dissertate" doesn't seem like a valid verb. Then I hope to get a teaching job, since I love to teach, and to publish my dissertation. I want to write another book of poetry, as well as books that move beyond generic categories, and to do more work as a translator. Much of my early life was shaped by being in other languages and places, and I miss the experience of travel, so I hope to be able to spend some time abroad with my husband and daughter in the next few years.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I can't do any better, by way of answering this question, than quote what Roland Barthes wrote forty years ago in "From Science to Literature":
For literature...language can no longer be the convenient instrument or the sumptuous décor of a social, emotional, or poetic 'reality' which preexists it and which it is responsible, in a subsidiary way, for expressing....: no, language is the being of literature, its very world.... Technically, according to Roman Jakobson's definition, the 'poetic' (i.e., the literary) designates that type of message which takes for its object its own form, and not its contents. Ethically, it is solely by its passage through language that literature pursues the disturbance of the essential concepts of our culture, 'reality' chief among them. Politically, it is by professing (and illustrating) that no language is innocent, it is by employing what might be called an 'integral language' that literature is revolutionary.
The poetry that fights to be poetic, in Jakobson's sense of the term, comes the closest to creating ethical and political change. But we shouldn't kid ourselves into thinking that poetry is our only--or most effective--tool for social change.
A poem from Frail-Craft by Jessica Fisher:
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