April 8th, 2011 / 2:46 pm
Behind the Scenes & Craft Notes

Bookmaking: !@#$%^&*

[In this series I will think aloud about the multifarious process of publishing a first book.]

The first time I ever cursed was in the fourth grade. I’d just transferred out of Catholic school to public school. I was standing at the door to Mrs. Rogers’ portable classroom, friendless and waiting to be dismissed, when I mouthed the word “shit.” Then I whispered it. Then I said it. Just like that. Shit! I couldn’t stop smiling.

I didn’t feel the same exuberant freedom again until I was 18 and shaved my head. I remember looking into the rearview mirror of my ’86 Le Sabre after I’d buzzed my hair off; I couldn’t stop grinning.

I’m 33, and it just happened for the third time. For weeks I’d been awaiting the publication of my first book, but I’d become petrified of its first poem—that it IS the first poem in the book with its one goddamn, one fucker, and one motherfucker in 20 lines, and that certain people (such as my Italian Catholic grandmother) would read that first poem and get their feathers ruffled, feel disappointed that I’m actually such a no-good heathen. What were my publishers thinking?

This poem will always be the first poem of the book. It’ll always set a tone, which is why it’s the first poem. It’ll be there to remind me that I like to run my mouth (but also to remind me that I enjoy mis-hearings, misunderstandings, and even occasional misanthropy). That’s a lot of pressure for one little guy in a sea of bigger fish (it’s close to the shortest poem in the book).

Then I got my author copies in the mail, and I realized that the language I very deliberately chose for this poem—and every poem—simply embodies my fourth-grade epiphany or my freshman-year hair buzz, those times I used my body as the subject of my own story, pleasuring in the language of the forbidden, simultaneously defining and deferring definitions (the eternal tension of différance), and felt the freedom therein.

Basically, I’m saying that if I ever go to hell, I hope it’s because of my motherfucking mouth. That’s not all I’m saying, but it’s a start.

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  1. Guestagain

      Even occasional misanthropy, that the family might discover what has been hidden then revealed by your work and they are horrified, this is a great motif, I had this experience, the family goes out in a caravan to see the band (I tried to keep it a secret but my sister has a big mouth) and we’re wretched, utter rubbish on purpose, they were expecting Journey, Stix, something “good” it was darkly fantastic and laced through with this sour Catholic guilt on my part, you’ve tapped on this very same thing, best of luck.

  2. alexisorgera

      Yeah, it’s disconcerting to know that people love you, they really do, but they don’t understand you fully, that the apple has, in fact, fallen a little farther from the tree than anyone anticipated.

  3. Kyle Minor

      Eventually there’s nothing to do but make as close as you can to peace with the fact that the thing you do displeases people who love you. Otherwise (experience speaking here), the unfulfilled desire to please, coupled with your own unwillingness to do things in the way that invites pleasure from those you’re displeasing, is a recipe for deep unhappiness and a yawning cold distance between you and those from whence you came. My parents can talk about what I do in the abstract, but when it gets to specifics, there’s nothing to say that doesn’t stir the pot unhappily. Silence has become one cost of continuing. I don’t like it one bit, but I prefer it to the alternatives of fighting or disassociation. When it’s your pages, you can control what’s in them, but when it’s outside your pages, other people have agency, and, whether you’re 10 or 80, you’re back to the same questions of what to accommodate and what to accept and what to agitate about. I keep thinking about the sadness Kurt Vonnegut must have felt when an entire wing of his family parted ways with him over his atheism. There’s no comfort good work or success or esteem in the eyes of the world can bring to balm a thing like that.

  4. Josephpatrickwood

      As a WOP fomer-Catholic, I have found that what people in my family–all not working-class, non-literaty folk—latch and not latch onto is completely capricious. My grandmother went on Youtube and found me reading the last half of “Gutter Catholic” at the Racine library. My 80 year old grandmother called me up and said “I’ve been showing everyone that clip and your grandathher would have been so proub.” Can you send me a copy? And now it has circulated among the family.

      My point is unless you’re writing “Prince of Tides” or as the previous poster mentioned of Vonnegut, you never know what your family will or will not latch on to. I mean, we worry and fret–but I was very pleasently surprised.

      Likewise, some of what I thought innocuous poems have rubbed friends the wrong way–“you’re misremembering the experience, etc.” And I think that ultimately, the anxieties we bring to a text aren’t what hit with people always. Though it’s very natural to be nervous about them.

      At the end of the day, I’m dumb enough to think that if something real is being said and is not throwing an entire family under the bus, then I think you might be surprised how people react.

  5. Guestagain

      incidentally, “it’s disconcerting to know that people love you” is massive, looking forward to your book

  6. Russ

      Definitely true. There’s no telling what people will like. Even people you think you know well.

      I rarely share things I make with my parents for all the reasons mentioned in above comments and then one day my Mom calls me up and tells me that she and my dad saw my autotuned cover of “Goodbye Horses” on youtube and they “can’t get over how good it is”. Go figure.

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  8. Shannon

      I really love this. And that last line won me over completely.

  9. alexisorgera

      Reply all: thanks for the comments here, and I agree–the only thing you can do is write what you write. Readers (family included) will seldom take everything the way we intend. Being nervous about work in the world is one thing; changing it according to the whims of the world is quite another, I guess. Joseph: nice to hear that story about your grandmother. My grandmother, who’s probably very similar to yours in many ways, is always surprising me with her general hipness. Divorce? Fine! Moving in with someone so soon after? Great! Obama? Angel sent from heaven! Etc. etc. So I guess maybe I’m simply funneling my fears into one person when in fact they’re more generalized and fairly misshapen.