It feels like forever since I got the news that my first chapbook of poems, a collection I’d been circulating to various small presses in some version since 2005, finally had been accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press.
That news came in October 2015, and the many steps in the process that take place — from manuscript acceptance to contract, from blurb-gathering to permission procuring, from book pre-order promotion to galley editing and many things in between — began to unfold. I’m happy to say that the end result, books landing in mailboxes, has finally taken place. (If anyone who ordered my book has not received it, please let me know, but as best I can tell, the orders have all been filled.)
Although early August marked the end of the critical waiting period (otherwise known as “my life of anxiety” as I awaited word the books had shipped from the publisher), it marks the beginning of the post-book stage, which has stresses of its own. For instance, now I actually have to talk about the book, which is not always as easy as it might seem.
For a long time I took a page from friends who wrote poetry who got by with saying, “the poems should speak for themselves.” I tried to say that, since it was easier, sounded sort of all-knowing and let’s face it, got me off the hook. But I feel a responsibility to the people who have supported me by buying this book to at least try to tell them, if they ask, what my poems are about. This is also not easy, and not just because, if I’m honest, I’m talking about some pretty personal stuff. To reveal oneself through poetry that suddenly has gone from readers of a literary magazine (or only my and an editors’ eyes) to a much broader readership of friends and, eek, some family members, is not so much for me a matter of being brave as of suddenly realizing a whole lot of people I invited into this world actually took me up on it and are looking at me in a different way.
This past week at a conference, a close friend of mine who had purchased two copies of the book, one for her and one for her mother, came up to me to say she’d received her copies and read hers cover to cover. She liked what she’d read and told me so, referencing specific poems and parts of poems that spoke to her. Then she said: “My mom just called me. She’s reading your book and she’s upset because she doesn’t get it.”
I admit this caught me off-guard. I listened to my friend talk about the particular poem her mom was reading and to her interpretation of that poem as she relayed it to her mom and then in turn back to me, with the implied question, “that’s right, isn’t it? That was what you were saying, wasn’t it?”
My friend both impressed and touched me by her careful reading and I did tell her she was “on the right track” (sounds safe, doesn’t it)? But there’s always more to say about a poem: where it came from, how it evolved, what it meant then and what it might mean now. It’s not always as simple as “what it’s about.” But I understand why people ask that question of poetry; I ask it myself when I read or describe a work or am interested in reading about a particular poet (although in that context I’m mostly wondering what the POET is about.)
So I’m trying to cultivate a language I can use to describe not just what I do and why, when I write, but what specific poems “are about.”
I might say, “this poem is about someone I knew through our families but I didn’t really know him personally and one day I heard on the news that he was dead.” Or, “this poem was written about a thing that someone dear to me gave me as a wedding present more than 20 years ago that came to embody much more than thing-ness when the person died.”
I’m describing my poems more frequently as stories. I might say, “each poem is a story about something that happened to me or to someone and the speaker of the poem is sharing this experience in hopes that story will resonate with you, the reader.”
If you’re someone who has read my work and wonders what a certain poem is about, you can always feel free to ask me. I will do my best to answer, but have absolutely no idea what I’ll say.