Between Poets: Two First Book Poets in Conversation (Part 1 of 2)
Kate Northrop and Alexander Long
Kate Northrop's first full-length collection, Back Through Interruption, received
the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University Press in 2002. Her second collection, Things Are Disappearing Here
is forthcoming (spring 2007) from Persea Books. Her poems have been published in Painted Bride, Raritan, Michigan Quarterly
Review, Northwest Review, The Dark Horse, Quarterly West, Rattle, Louisiana Literature, and Black Warrior Review.
She is an associate professor of English at West Chester University and a
contributing editor of The American Poetry Review.
Alexander Long was born and raised in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania.
He’s worked as a musician, fry cook, and obituary writer. With Christopher Buckley, he is co-editor of
A Condition of the Spirit: the Life & Work of Larry Levis (Eastern Washington University Press, 2004).
His poems, essays, and book reviews have appeared in American Writers (Charles Scribner’s Sons), Blackbird,
The Cream City Review, 5 AM, Pleiades, Poetry International, The Prose Poem: An International Journal,
Quarter After Eight, Quarterly West, Rivendell, Solo, Third Coast, and elsewhere. He is a member of the
writing faculty at West Chester University and writes, plays, and tours with the band Redhead Betty Takeout.
How long were you "shopping" your first manuscript?
Kate: Although of course I was working on the book writing poems, organizing, culling, revising...since graduate school (alas, 1995), I only really “shopped” the manuscript for two years. But that first year (2000) I knew it wouldn’t—or shouldn’t—be taken. So why did I enter the contests? Maybe I hoped for a finalist call, something to encourage me. Anyway, when I finally felt the collection was a book—the fall it became Back Through Interruption—that’s when it was taken, summer of 2001.
Alex: Unconsciously, I guess, since 1995, when a poem was taken for some magazine that’s now defunct. I remember feeling somewhat called on my bluff. “OK, Long, we’ll take this one. But what else you got?” No one said this to me, of course. Some aspect of myself was talking to some other aspect of myself. I had nothing. I had to get to work; I had other things written down in lines, but they weren’t things one might identify as poems. That poem’s gone, anyway, nowhere in the manuscript that’s now Vigil.
Consciously, since 1997. If I had to guess, I dropped about more than a grand on contest fees, postage, etc. (The manuscript was taken in 2005.) My problem was submitting much, much too soon. I never felt I had a completed collection. I had a bunch of “poems” that exceeded 48 pages. What the hell? “I can take rejection,” I told myself. Wrong. And right, actually. I learned. I was as misguided as I was driven.
Kate: I’m curious Alex, at what point did you feel Vigil was a complete collection?
Alex: Honestly, Kate, I’m still waiting. It could be a much stronger book. That’s why we write, though. Bill Olsen once told me that the best revision of a poem is the next, separate poem. That certainly applies to manuscripts of poems, but the process is, obviously, a much longer, more frustrating one.
I stopped making significant changes to Vigil about two years ago. I added only a “new” poem, “Still Life with Suicide,” about month before Herb Scott at New Issues took it. (It’s no coincidence, either, that the new manuscript that’s taking shape is predominantly still life poems.) My motivation for “ending” the endless process of revision wasn’t so much a sense of completion; it was more a feeling of frustration and exhaustion. You can reason with a brick wall—or a mirror—only for so long. I had taken those poems—in myriad orders and versions—as far as I could take them. I resigned myself to one of two scenarios: they’d see the light of public scrutiny—by someone else’s choosing—or they’d live in perpetuity on my computer. I had new poems to write. I said bye-bye to Vigil. It was an amicable divorce. I have visitation rights every other Thursday, and alternate holidays.
Kate: You know what phrase has been going through my head for a few days now….? “Get Over Yourself.” I’ve lately been surprised at how much I need to repeat this mantra. And it seems to me part of what we’re talking about is this “getting over” oneself, the all consuming deeply focused attention on what one has made. Enough! The poems in the first book are what they are. The first book is what it is. To worry endlessly over the middle section of the poem on page 15…..well, it’s just indulgent after a while. Of course we need to feel the liberty to be indulgent, to a certain extent, in order to sit down to write at all. Anyway, this conversation has really helped me to get a little more “over” myself, in terms of this second book. It’s difficult though, to know when to let go. Oh no, it IS time to let go when you begin sounding like an 80’s pop song.
How many rejection slips did you garner from this shopping?
And that’s a good line about revision from Olsen. I’ll put that over the desk. Here’s what I have over my desk right now…I think it attaches to this conversation, in that we don’t write for recognition or even for the possibility of writing ‘good poems.’ Anyway, here it is. The late Stanley Kunitz. God Bless.
“When you look back on your lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you have to think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgment of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself. And I think the world tends to forget that this is the ultimate significance of the body of work each artist produces. It is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life.”
Kate: I’m going to say 5? Maybe fewer, maybe more. I only entered a few contests in 1999/2000, and after I heard from Kent State, I withdrew the manuscript from other contests (in 2001), so surely rejections were heading my way, although I managed to save myself from the wince they always cause. If the book hadn’t been taken in 2001, I would have submitted it to more contests (as many as I could afford) the following year, because I did finally feel it was “ready.” I know people who submitted their manuscripts to over a hundred places. I don’t know if I would have had the strength (is it strength?) to keep submitting.
Alex: No idea. I once had a folder full of them. Maybe 150. And, yes, it is strength. But it’s a matter of developing the “right” kind of strength. You can develop your pecs and biceps, but if you don’t work your back, you’ll end up walking like a hunchback.
I even acted out one of the clichés: I taped the more “prestigious” rejections to my computer monitor. It’s one thing to get dumped by Jenny Doughtery, Class of ’90. It’s another to get security called on you by Natalie Portman. Both, most certainly, are justified.
I’ve learned two important things as a result of my failures. One, my poems weren’t there yet, wherever there is. (Nor may they ever be.) Two, sometimes—oftentimes—a press’s publication schedule and budget can’t, and won’t, accommodate my poems. I’ve often felt at the mercies of others in terms of my poems. After awhile, I felt myself saying, “Screw that. You’re not in this to get published. You sure as hell won’t get famous. Stop whining. Write.”
I wonder, though: is rejection failure?
Kate: Well, no, I don’t think so. Or at least it isn’t the really interesting failure. Poems rejected from a magazine just failed to find a home at that one magazine. That’s a tolerable failure. Poems that fail to be good work - that’s a failure. And not always a failure, since the failures are necessary, at least some of them are?- on the way to something else. Alex, what is it - Vivas for those who have failed?
Alex: Yeah, that’s the line. How easily I forget.
How frustrated were you during the process of trying to place it? Did that frustration energize your writing, or did you truly feel "defeated"?
Kate: I didn’t feel frustrated because the publication process happened strangely quickly for me. I certainly never felt as cranky with trying to secure a publisher as I felt and continue to feel in writing poems. I’m always frustrated with writing. I’d say 98% of the time. And even when I feel lines or images occurring easily, I know frustration is not far off. Like the gong in the Gong Show. I hated that show. Anyway, I don’t think that frustration exactly energizes me. I would like to feel calmer. But I also think if everything happened easily, I wouldn’t be very interested for very long.
Alex: The Gong Show was the precursor to American Idol, wasn’t it? At least Chuck Barris was honest enough to make a movie about his paranoia. I wonder if Simon What’s-His-Name is also a covert agent? He’s certainly delusional. But then, so am I. I used to think I could hang with Milton and Dickinson. That’s delusional.
I’d say I was enormously frustrated. Sometimes too much so. Frustration can be productive. And sometimes it can eat you away, little by little, until one day you find yourself in a cubicle: you have a decent salary, you have medical insurance, your car works, your roof doesn’t leak. Everything is in order. You watch CNN or read The New York Times, and nothing affects you. That is, nothing really disrupts your order. Everything is in its right place. Sort of. On the surface, at least.
Rejection and frustration—that is, creativity and the muse—disrupt that façade of certainty, serenity. Why risk it? Why sacrifice that American dream of security? Why make yourself vulnerable, and for what? So maybe a thousand people—if you’re really good—read your poems? Who cares? Is one of my poems going to end this war on terror? Was Yeats able to fix Ireland? Robert Lowell did time as a result of protestations of the Vietnam War. William Stafford was a C. O. Mandelstam simply disappeared. For what? To “endure not yet/ A breach, but an expansion,/ Like gold to aery thinness beat”?
Donne was onto something. Something far beyond any petty frustrations a white American middle class poet-in-training might feel.
Now, do I hate people, do have an ulcer? On both counts, I’m pretty certain I can say no. Was it painful? Only in the vainest sense (which can sting badly if you let it…there were days I did…).
For awhile, I couldn’t write unless I was mad. Anger is a useful emotion, as long as no one gets hurt. You can only punch a pillow for so long. Besides, I’m American. What do I have to be angry about? I can bitch and moan about this politician, that policy, the lack of this or that. And I can go home, open up a bottle of smooth merlot, click on The Daily Show and plan my next day of poems.
Kate: How serious are you….that we wealthy Americans haven’t the right to be angry?
Alex: I’m very serious. I suffer from American guilt. Sure, everyone has the right to be angry. I’ve never considered myself wealthy, because I’m not. But, in a much wider and more accurate sense, I’m damned lucky and privileged. I guess it’s a matter of getting angry at the “right” things for the “right” reasons. Now we’re having an ethical discussion.
The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert worked in the Polish resistance during World War II. He watched a friend of his get shot. They were riding in a car. The friend was driving, and then he was shot dead right in front of him. Herbert, the story goes, had to take the wheel and somehow get away. He says he hated the Nazis, and his hatred was necessary to survive. I believe him. I hate the Nazis, too. The question then becomes, for me at least: who’s got more of a right to be angry?
We all know how Whitman volunteered as a nurse during the American Civil War. What he witnessed there forever altered his vision as a poet. I watch CNN and ABC News. I see images, I hear numbers. Who’s a more credible witness? That is, whose anger is more justified?
I complain and complain and complain about rejections, about my “struggles”. What’s more important, and more real, is that I’m continually amazed at the sheer randomness of my good fortune.
Kate: Yes, I think this ties back into our discussion over the first question. You need to argue with yourself alone in your room for a good while but you also need to step outside yourself and outside of your room. For ethical reasons, yes. For writerly reasons, as well.
Did you think of abandoning the manuscript and starting "anew"?
But this question of who has more of a right to be angry….I just find it troublesome. I can never reach a conclusion. Without a doubt, there are sufferings that are worse than other sufferings. But for what it’s worth, here’s a story from graduate school. Over a pitcher of PBR, a friend of mine told me all about her mother’s committing suicide. It was pretty gruesome. She killed herself in the garage but, evidently, had changed her mind so my friend found her own mom pressed up dead against the garage door. And she looked at me and said “So where’s the tragedy in your life”? It’s was a question edged with anger; it was dismissive. And true, I didn’t find my own mom dead, but I sure as hell suffered at the hands of those in power over me, my parents. So maybe I am arguing out of my personal experience. I was told over and over that my feelings weren’t valid, that I had no reason to be upset or angry, that the abuse I suffered wasn’t abuse. And I did grow up rich. Real rich. Boarding school, yachts and planes, Ivy League….you know all that. Anyway, I’m sure one of the reasons I write lyric poems is to give voice, finally, to something silenced, a voice rising out of a certain place, whether that place is real or imagined. I would never imagine my suffering to be worse than any one else’s but it is mine and I write, in part, out of it.
Alex: Ah, sweet confidence. That’s why I admire you, and your work, so much.
I thought of abandoning my poems in Vigil today. Too late. I signed a contract.
I’m always trying to start “anew.” That’s good in theory. It can’t make your life more than a little chaotic. I saw an interview with Brian Eno, the co-producer of U2’s The Joshua Tree, and he talked about the struggles he had with the band over the album’s first song, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” The song begins with this ambient, almost church-like soundscape. The time signature is 6/8, a kind of waltz. Then, The Edge’s guitar begins echoing and churning in. Then, suddenly, almost miraculously, the time signature changes to 4/4. A straight-ahead thump thump rock beat.
The story goes that that transition from the 6/8 to the 4/4 nearly drove Eno nuts. He couldn’t figure it, or he couldn’t compromise with the band, or he simply disliked it. Or whatever. The point is he’d had enough, and he was ready to delete nearly six months’ worth of recordings and start “anew”. An intern saw him getting ready to press DELETE, and tackled him.
The intern got fired. We have “Where the Streets Have No Name,” which sets the emotional tone for the rest of the record, one of the more relevant and resonant artifacts we have of the 20th Century.
Art has always been subjected to that kind of crisis Eno allegedly suffered. And sacrifice. You don’t tackle, say, Whitman, just before he throws his latest version of Leaves of Grass into the fire. Or do you? That’s an editor. I’m thinking of Pound. Or of Bakhtin, who under much more severe circumstances, used his manuscript papers to roll tobacco into.
Sometimes, the geniuses show us how we can be our own editor.