First Verse is a series of conversations between David Koehn and another poet who has recently had a first book accepted or won a first book prize. These conversations navigate the process and experience of conceiving, developing, and bringing a first manuscript to its final form as a finished book.
Rachel Mennies is the author of The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards (Texas Tech University Press, 2014), winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry, and the chapbook No Silence in the Fields (Blue Hour Press, 2012). Her work has recently appeared in Sixth Finch, Poetry Daily, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poet Lore, and elsewhere, and was recently funded by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. She teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Carnegie Mellon University and is a member of AGNI‘s editorial staff.
David’s poetry and translations were previously collected in two chapbooks, Tunic, (speCt! books 2013) a small collection of some of his translations of Catullus, and Coil (University of Alaska, 1998), winner of the Midnight Sun Chapbook Contest. David’s first full length manuscript, Twine, now available from Bauhan Publishing, won the May Sarton Poetry Prize. David’s poetry has appeared in a wide range of literary magazines including Kenyon Review, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rhino, Volt, Carolina Quarterly, New York Quarterly, Diagram and many others. David Koehn received his MFA from the University of Florida, Bachelors from Carnegie Mellon, is an essayist for OmniVerse, and Chair of Omnidawn’s Advisory Board.
David Koehn: So, Rachel, with The Glad Hand—congratulations, first of all.
Rachel Mennies: Thank you so much. It’s really exciting.
DK: How much was the development of your first book simply collecting poems that you had written, and how much was it thinking through the creation of a book, as opposed to a collection of poems?
RM: Yeah, that’s a great question. This book is probably different from any other book I’ll ever write again because it came out of a—and I’m sure this is true for many other poets that you’re talking to—it came very loosely out of my graduate thesis. So, at the very beginning, there was a lot of community interest in this as a collection, because I was asked to put together a thesis. I had to start this by thinking of some sort of cohesive project. But the thesis is not one-to-one what the book turned out to be. I would say only vaguely it resembles now in its conclusion what the book is, but I did start from the beginning thinking, “I’m doing a project; I’m not just writing one poem at a time,” because I think that’s something that the MFA asks of its students. So, it did start—in the very beginning, it was sort of a loose collection of poems, and then when I realized that the poems—I was working on another set at the time—I wrote a chapbook before this. So, first I realized that the chapbook poems and the manuscript poems did not belong together. And then, once I separated them out, I realized that one had a lot more room to go and a lot more exploring and investigation to do, and the other really just made a small unit. And, so the latter became the chapbook, and then what eventually became my thesis then went on to become The Glad Hand. So, now, it’s a little different because I’m writing on my own, so what I have now is sort of a big pile of poems that I’m trying to figure out if they speak to each other. So, I’m in kind of a different situation now.
DK: In The Glad Hand, you said you worked with them as part of your MFA thesis. So, this is going to be a multi-part question. One is, who were you working with that was an influence over The Glad Hand, early on? Obviously, it changed after departing, but where did you get your MFA, and who were you working with that was an influence on this arc over time?
RM: Sure. Okay. Yeah. I got my MFA at Penn State, which is no longer possible, unfortunately. This is—Pennsylvania is a battleground state in terms of education funding, and at Penn State the MFA was on the chopping block the year after I graduated. So, when I was there, I was working with Robin Becker and Julia Kasdorf. They were the first and second readers for the manuscript. And I also took a nonfiction class with the writer Toby Thompson and a fiction class with the writer Charlotte Holmes, and even though they weren’t teaching in the same genre [as the manuscript], that actually too ended up being work that found its way into the collection. And then, my peers in the program—one of them, actually, my friend Sarah, Sarah Blake is publishing her first book this year too. So, some of us kind of realizing those goals now, I think—I graduated in 2011, so two and a half years since graduation? Yeah. So, some hands in the pot there, yeah.
DK: Penn State? I’m a Pennsylvania kid, I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, in a coal mining town: Hazelton, Pennsylvania. And most of my friends went to Penn State. I ended up over in Pittsburgh, but Penn State is familiar territory. Did you ever get down to The Diner when you were there?
RM: Yes! Yeah. Never at the hours that my students did, but I did go. It was for actual-breakfast, as opposed to my students, who seemed to tell me that they would go at 2 to 4 in the morning. We had one or two bars we went to, as grad students. Like, we went to this bar, that bar, you know; it sort of made the big school feel a lot smaller. It was nice.
DK: Understood. Post-MFA, you had this arc—by example, I remember when I put together my thesis back at University of Florida, I did actually have this arc in mind, which changed radically after I left, and I left much of it behind, at the time it was called Faith Healing, and one of the challenges of picking up a theme like that is, with your The Glad Hand, the sort of elephant in the room is taking on a challenge of religiosity, if you will. The Glad Hand is a book—I don’t know if you want to qualify it as focused on religion, but it’s certainly informed by religion, and I think that’s one of the beauties and challenges of the book to take on an unpopular, maybe, topic. I don’t know if you want to talk about that kind of—I know it’s topical and not aesthetic, but I think it’s worth talking about, with respect to your book.
RM: Yeah. Well, the book started as a project, an investigation into I guess what I would call complicated family narratives that I had growing up about my grandmother and my great-grandmother, their coming over from Germany in the wake of the Holocaust. So, it didn’t start out to be a book about my own Judaism, which is something, I think, when I started writing, I was still figuring out a lot of things about that part of myself, and I’ve always found myself as like a…
DK: What were you figuring out?
RM: Whether or not I was Jewish, or whether I not I still was Jewish. My relationship with my husband, who at the time was my boyfriend, was becoming much more serious, and he’s Lutheran. And so, asking myself questions along those lines: am I willing to, sort of, leave the smaller all-Jewish community of my family that I grew up in for I guess what I would call, in the United States, a much larger community of Christian Americans? People in my religion have very pointed views on that, so that was part of it. Not finding myself particularly dogmatically religious after leaving home and going to college and figuring out what that meant in terms of my own beliefs, but then also feeling deeply connected to what I would call the “cultural” religiosity of Judaism, almost as if it were more an ethnicity than a religion—so, feeling like, is it fair to call myself Jewish if I don’t believe in God? Right, that’s a big question, but…
DK: Yeah. Beautiful. Beautiful.
RM: Yeah, so I was struggling with that, and I wasn’t able to really write through it. I felt blocked, but I found my way in through looking at my grandmother and my great-grandmother and the sort of stories that came out of that, which is why the book actually, I think, really began in the nonfiction class, because I was trying to write it “real” or write it true and research it and get the stories down. And the stories we have are so garbled that it—and I couldn’t really tell it the way I wanted to in a nonfiction workshop, because my professor—who was 100% correct—said, “You need to interview your grandmother. You need to be sure you get the story straight if you’re going to present this as memoir.”
DK: As memoir?
RM: And I thought, well, I can’t. I can’t do it. I’m hitting wall after wall. My grandmother was 11 when she emigrated to the United States, so her memory is that of a child, and she’s also the oldest of three, so my great-aunts were even younger, and my grandfather was married before—so, some of that’s in the book, right? My grandfather was married before he married my grandmother to a woman who survived Dachau but died in the United States of what I’d hazard to call residual complications. But my grandmother doesn’t like that story, I guess—makes sense? She doesn’t…
DK: Is that poem—I want to stop there real quickly. Is that poem, was that the sort of seed, or was there a seed poem? Is there a poem that we should focus on in the arc of the book that—not from—I’m gonna rephrase. So, within the arc of the book, was there a poem where you moved from thinking about memoir to writing a poem, leaving memoir behind, where you went, “Aha, I’m going to write a poem, which is a fiction, which is probably going to get me closer to a truth than if I try and write memoir?”
RM: Yeah, absolutely, and that poem—well, it started as one poem, and it split in the book, and I used to have it—it used to be called “Grandfather Shoemaker,” and now there is that poem next to the poem called—I think I ended up calling it “The Museum.” Let me dig out my notes here. This is something else I’ll talk about later, but as—things changed really quickly after the book was accepted for publication, so as you can tell, I’m still struggling to remember some of these little narrative details. Aha: “Grandfather Shoemaker” and “4000 Shoes.” Those are the two. That’s where we ended up. The story behind that is…
DK: I’m looking for the page. What page is that again?
RM: Oh yeah. Let’s see, they are… it’s in the second section.
DK: Yeah, I remember the poem.
RM: It is—okay, I need to go later. Earlier? Ah, okay, so we’re on page 25 and 26.
DK: Oh, shit, I blew way past it. 25 and 26.
RM: I know. I just did the same thing. This is good. It’s making me remember why I put things in the order that I did, too.
DK: By the way, this is common. I’ve had this same exact experience with all the first book writers. In some cases, I’ll be like, “Yeah, this poem on this page,” and they’re like, “Oh, is that poem in the book?” or “Oh, yeah, that’s right.” There’s like this…
RM: Yeah. it’s a crazy thing, and you think you know…
DK: You get so close to it, yeah. You’d think it would be so apparent. But, okay, so 25 is “Grandfather Shoemaker.” Right.
RM: Yeah, and 26. So, some background: I wrote an undergraduate thesis for a lit class—my undergraduate major was a bit blended. Comparative Literature and Holocaust Studies and Spanish. So, I did a lot of research into Holocaust literature and trauma, and so became interested in my grandmother and grandfather’s story at that point.
My grandmother had these pictures of what looked to me like the liberation of a concentration camp, and that’s what opens “Grandfather Shoemaker.” So, one of the pictures is actually—that first stanza is this picture, a black-and-white photo of a truck with a bunch of dead naked bodies in it. And then there’s pictures of soldiers eating food; there’s—and I grew up thinking that those were my grandfather’s pictures, and that my grandfather had helped to liberate Dachau. So, in my memoir class, I’m sort of proudly telling my classmates, you know, my grandfather helped liberate a concentration camp. We don’t think that’s actually true now. We think that those pictures belonged to my grandfather’s first wife, who was a survivor of Dachau, and my grandmother made up—made up doesn’t really seem fair, but my grandmother sort of allowed another story to be told because she didn’t like that she was married to a widower, and she wanted that part of the story written out.
And so, I thought, well, here I grew up thinking this was fact—and my grandfather died when I was 14, so that part of the puzzle I couldn’t fill in from him. So, I grew up this whole time believing thing A, and then learned thing B. So, trying to write that became really hard, because I thought, well, the truth is this was true for me for a really long time, this version of the truth…
DK: This version of the truth—exactly. What is truth is sort of emergent here as part of the conversation of “I think I’m writing memoir, which I’m representing as truth,” but turns out may or may not have been truth, and then you switch mode to poetry to feel safe in telling an untruth or a fiction to get something closer to the truth. And yet, at the end of the day, none of it may synchronize with what the historical fact may or may not have been, which is all these sort of layers.
RM: Yeah, and poetry lets you—I mean, I think it’s interesting that one of the questions I’m getting a lot now from family as the book is coming out is, “Oh, is this—are you telling—is this the story? Is this the truth?”
DK: “Is this true?”
RM: And I always do what you did, the sort of stump speech: poetry is not nonfiction; the speaker is not me. You know. So, after the stump speech is over, they’re kind of unsatisfied still.
RM: “Well, a lot of it looks like the truth.” I just keep thinking back to writers like Cynthia Ozick, who wrote The Shawl, the novella about the woman who—it’s a terrible story, and it is a story; it’s fiction—but whose infant daughter is murdered in front of her in a concentration camp, but she, at that moment of trauma, cannot cope with it, and so the whole rest of the book is her growing up and becoming older and thinking that this child is still alive and maintaining a relationship with her and talking with her, even though everyone else in her life knows what actually happened and knows that the child is dead. But, for the protagonist in The Shawl, it doesn’t matter, because the truth for her is that this terrible thing never happened and that her daughter is still alive and she’s sure of it. So, out of these dark places, out of trauma, a lot can get garbled, and I think trying to represent all of that together is more, maybe, authentic or real than it is true, but it’s still something that needed—that’s the way I had to tell the story, I think, in the end. So, I just sort of gave in to that. I decided to lean into it and let the story happen, and that happens a few other places in the book. I never actually made it to the Holocaust Museum with my grandfather, but my grandfather’s father did own a shoe factory in Philly, and as soon as I got there I thought, “Oh, if I could have been there with my grandfather in the room of all the shoes.” And I thought, well, I didn’t have to be. I can write about it anyway. [Laughs] I can make that meaning happen, even though it didn’t happen, because he died before we went to the Holocaust Museum. So…
DK: The Holocaust Museum is jaw-dropping. It was really foundational. Anybody who’s never been to it in DC needs to go. It’s amazing.
RM: Yeah. Absolutely.
DK: Is that museum sort of in the “Grandfather Shoemaker” at some level, as well? It’s sort of one of things that informed the piece. Interesting.
RM: Yeah. Well, and I—weirdly enough, I went to the Museum twice in my life, and once was later in high school sometime, and then once was after I lived abroad. There’s the poems toward the end [of the collection] about living in Spain, and when I went to the Museum after living there, I saw these pictures of young, dark-haired Jewish women in the streets of Paris being chased down the street by the Vichy, I think—yeah. I just thought, here I was in Paris just two months prior, walking free as a bird. And while I did experience some—I guess what I would call some, maybe, friction from some of the people I knew in Spain for being Jewish, I wouldn’t quite call it overt anti-Semitism, like some of my friends experienced, but nothing like what I was seeing in that exhibit, you know, and just the feeling of having been able to move about the world so freely, but my grandparents left Europe in an awful hurry—you know, very different. Things have changed very much, in some ways. So, the museum helped put a lot of that in context for me, too.
DK: So, will you read “Grandfather Shoemaker”? I mean, as sort of an opportunity to surface this poem that was elemental in the transition from moving your story from the personal to the aesthetic and became sort of a movement that became representative of the overall book. That’d be great.
RM: Yeah, sure. So, all right.
Bodies piled in a truck, bare feet
making cold pyramids. Beside
them: Grandfather, dressed in
wool, American issue, stands rigid
in his polished black boots
that shine with light whose source
cannot be seen. Grandfather sits
at a picnic table in France, food gray
again a gray sky, on his way back
to the States; his muddy rubber rain boots
reach almost to his knees.
In Philadelphia, Grandfather stands proud
beside the single assembly line, leather
pressed and stamped into shoes
box by box. A child, I stand with my mother
at the closet I share with sisters, the shoes
and boots spilling from its mouth, all outgrown
or forsaken. “I don’t understand you girls,”
she says, “your need to collect
so much of the same damn thing.”
DK: Thank you.
RM: [Laughs] That last part is true. My sisters and I and the shoes, it’s an Olympic sport. Yeah.
DK: It’s an Olympic sport—oh, that’s great. [Laughter]
RM: I also—like my grandmother, I have two little sisters. I mean, they’re in the book, too. So, yeah, and all of us, definitely, with the shoes.
DK: As a preface to this and to this arc was the Cynthia Ozick story, The Shawl, how the speaker has this constant relationship to an untruth that became the mechanism for her own storytelling. Are there other writers that either you personally feel connected to or other writers that you’re connected to because of the way you’ve gone about writing this book? And those might be two different things. Like, you know, are there writers, very specifically, that you feel in conversation with? Again, sort of a multi-part question to let you kind of go which direction you want to go with that.
RM: Yeah. I always feel it’s a bold thing to say that you’re in conversation with a writer you admire, because I never want to feel like I’m saying, oh, you know, me and Famous Author A. But I will say maybe it’s a one-sided conversation because he’s never heard of me, but when I read…
RM: Yeah, I know. Okay, we’ll just pretend to be friends. Art Spiegelman is a huge influence on my work, which is maybe strange, because we’re gonna be categorical, right? I’m a poet; he writes graphic novels. But what he works with in Maus presents the same problems of his father trying to retell the story of life in Auschwitz, and the character in the book that is Art-as-speaker is so frustrated that he can’t get the details right, that he can’t tell the story chronologically. And I remember there’s this one frame when Art’s father is trying to tell some particular—there’s so many terrible stories in Maus, but one particular bad, terrible story, and Spiegelman actually draws a calendar. So, there’s this calendar or timeline along the side of the page, and the frame is sort of just degrading. Like, he’s having trouble getting details right, and the calendar just finally disappears at the bottom. And when I saw that, I thought, this is how I need to approach this book, as an inexact retelling. The story’s going to sort of fall in on itself in places and double back and revise itself. And that’s what Maus does throughout. I mean, he goes so far as to actually sort of proscribe different—like, you know, to make the Jews mice and to make the Germans, the Nazis, cats and to be magical and imaginative in his retelling. And Ozick, too—she presents this lost child as magically existing, even though what really happened is too terrible to even really imagine. And then, other poets, I think—certainly, other Jewish poets. I love the work of Alicia Ostriker. My mentor, Robin Becker, absolutely as well. Maxine Kumin, the late Maxine Kumin.
DK: We should pause there and just acknowledge that Saturday, February 15th, we’re just a few days after Maxine’s passing, and just the giant of giants in the world. And I don’t know if anything comes immediately to mind around Maxine, but it might be just worth pausing there if you have any specific thoughts.
RM: What strikes me so much about her work is how early she had to push through the sort of all-male infrastructure, and as a sort of—part of the book also tackles a lot of my own sort of budding feminism and pushing against a lot of the sort of proscriptions of certain parts of Judaism. I didn’t grow up in a particularly patriarchal—I was a Reform Jew, but I admire her so much for her tenacity and her strength in that, beyond putting aside how much I love her work. I think she’s important for all women poets to know the story of her life and not just her work.
DK: She’s established a path. And anybody who’s established a path, it makes other people’s paths easier to walk, for sure.
RM: Yeah, absolutely. She taught my mentor, Robin Becker, back when Robin was a graduate student. So, I’ve never met her, but Robin’s stories about her are really striking. So, it’s nice to see that sort of happening down the line, like you said, the path getting—Robin does a lot of that work, too, as a gay poet, pushing against a lot of proscription. My path has been—I haven’t faced anything like either of those two women has faced, in getting their work out in the world.
DK: As a—in the lineage of Maxine, you’re part of the family, if you will.
RM: [Laughs] Well, I hope I don’t sound like I’m just sort of putting myself on the mantel there. But I am very much aware of the importance of this, for sure.
DK: So, two comments on that. One is when I say we’re in conversation with poets, it’s obviously aspirational. It’s like, who do we desire to be in conversation with? Not that they would ever pick up the phone and have a conversation with us…
RM: It’d be great.
DK: It’d be great if they would, but it’s the—I think it’s important for those writing the first book to be thinking about who they’re in conversation with, even if it’s a one-sided conversation, as you said.
RM: Yeah, absolutely.
DK: And the same in terms of family—who by accident or luck are we in the family of? You know, you sort of serendipitously end up in a family, both biologically and aesthetically, and that can be a great gift. So, I certainly don’t mean it presumptuously at all. And so, we’ll… yeah.
RM: I’m still—I think maybe this is a first-book thing. I’m still grappling with where I am in this whole process, and you one day get this letter in the mail that says that your career has just taken a sharp right turn up the hill, you know? It’s a lot to sort of reckon with at once, I think. So, I’m definitely there.
DK: Let’s talk about that. That is a common experience. It happened to me. And everybody else I’ve talked to in the first book interview series kind of has this reaction—and we should talk a little bit about this reaction, which is, for me, it was like, “really?” It was uncertainty. Am I worthy? Is this validating? And then it’s like, okay, maybe it’s not validating. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it shouldn’t. Your career takes this right turn, but then at the same time, it doesn’t really mean anything. You get all caught up in that. And so, I’d be very interested in hearing…
RM: Yeah, so I’ve had every single one of those thoughts. I think the greatest doubt came about a year into the process of, maybe a little over a year, of starting to send out the book. It wasn’t…
DK: So, where were you sending, and how was your thinking about sending? Were you just kind of “fire and forget,” or very calculated? Kind of what was your process?
RM: Yeah, definitely, fire and do my best to try to forget. That’s how…
RM: It’s really hard, and I thought that my practice in sending out journal submissions, batch journal submissions, would make it easier, and that wasn’t true—it’s a whole different creature when it’s your whole book. And you get even less feedback than you might from a journal submission. I started submitting based on some suggestions from other friends and faculty and admittedly some guessing. I started first—not quite—I wouldn’t say at the top, but I definitely said, okay, well, I feel like, as much as it scared me, I have to try for the big national prizes. So, I sent to Yale Younger. I sent to the Whitman. I sent to the Honickman, to BOA, in my first year, and Alice James.
And then I sent all over the place, too. I looked for places that had open reading series and I looked for contests. I wasn’t discriminating along those lines. I think I was just looking to—well, to write as many checks as I could write in a year, which isn’t many—you know, that’s one of the other challenges. You only get feedback if your book makes it pretty far up the chain, so you have to become okay with getting an email that says James Smith won the prize, and that’s all you get, or you see a contest announcement first on Facebook. Sometimes it feels you’re throwing pages into the wind, like that scene in Love Actually when the guy’s book flies off the typewriter. I felt that way a lot. Just let it go.
And then, in that first year, I had a couple really encouraging rejections: the manuscript was a semifinalist for the Beatrice Hawley at Alice James. So, that was the first success in that first year, where I actually saw my name on a list of people that made it up to Point X on a prize. Not just something that bounced back in the ether. And then the manuscript received a couple more nice notes here and there. I did send pieces to just one non-small press—Farrar Straus & Giroux at the time had stated on their website, if you send us four poems, if we like them, we’ll ask to see your manuscript. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen that from a big press. And I got a nice note on them, but you know: “We don’t want to see more, but good luck. These were interesting.” And I thought, okay, somebody in New York was interested. That’s good.
And then, a bunch more rejections, and then—a couple presses asked me to send to them again, which I struggled with how to respond, because I thought: send again the same book, or send again a book I haven’t yet written? Because when you get a re-sub from a journal, you can send four more poems. But another book? Should I—what do I do with that? In the end, what happened was—the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize is a bit unusual. Robert Fink, who’s the series editor, solicits, I think, 25 to 50 poets—I’m not sure how many in a given year—based on work that he’s read in literary magazines from people that he believes have not published a first book, I think, based on author bios and some research. So, that solicitation felt really encouraging because it meant that I was of 50 solicited poets for a contest instead of 750 unsolicited—that I knew this editor already liked my work, which is so rare, because normally…
DK: So you’re pre-screened, and the—statistically speaking, you just have a higher probability. That’s nice.
RM: Exactly. And then, after I sent to them, I probably sent to a couple more places. And then we were actually on our honeymoon in Greece when I got the acceptance email, and so it felt a little bit like gilding the lily. I thought, of all the places to get an acceptance letter for my new manuscript, to be on an island in the middle of nowhere, this is cool. I’ll take it. [Laughs]
DK: So, how does that happen? You got an email? Is that what you said?
RM: Well, yeah, normally, I think—so, when I landed back in the States, I had a couple of phone messages. We didn’t have…
DK: Phone contact, yeah.
RM: No internet, no cell phone service. I had been feeling kind of discouraged before we left—I’d gotten a couple rejections and was like, screw it, I’m going on vacation! You know, I’m unplugging. And then, of course, in that process, they—and I think most people tell you that normally they call you first, because they want to make sure that the manuscript’s available.
DK: Right, before they do the public notice.
RM: I was probably their worst nightmare, because it took me—they emailed me after trying to call me, and then I finally got on Skype and frantically bought international credit on the crappy internet that they had at the hotel and was like, oh my god, I’m so sorry! I’m on my honeymoon! So, after that initial chaos, I basically said, absolutely, the book is yours. I can’t really do anything for another week because we’re traveling, but the second I get back—and then everything happened really quickly after that.
DK: Okay, so you started with a spray-and-pray model. I’ve talked to some folks who were very targeted in who they thought would be receptive to their first book, and I’ve talked to some who definitely went the top prize route, and…
RM: Yeah, I like “spray and pray.” I attempted intellectualizing, thinking, okay, well this judge might like my work, or that judge, and after a while, I started realizing, so many people touch this thing before it even gets to a judge that it’s so hard to know what they might see—and then, of course, my one friend always reminds me, “How do you know what a judge is going to like? Just because they write a certain kind of poetry doesn’t mean they’re going to like your work”—you know, it’s like, how…
DK: Yeah, yeah, how do you really know?
DK: I definitely had a spray-and-pray model myself. And what was interesting in relation to what you said is that right when I got out of grad school I had some validation, finalist in National Poetry Series and a couple of other prizes, and then I got frustrated and literally dropped out. I unplugged for, like, eight years.
RM: From the whole—okay.
DK: For a variety of reasons. But then, when I started to get the calling to come back, that manuscript had absolutely nothing to do with where I was. And so, I had to sort of pick a couple poems from that thing and move on. And then, when I kind of got back to it, I was talking to some folks around. Should I spray and pray? What should I be doing here? And within just a couple years, I got lucky. But the finding out is one thing, and then there’s the process. Okay, so now I’m in. I’m in! I’m on the boat. I’m on the boat.
RM: Right, yep. [Laughs]
DK: I have no idea how to sail this thing. So let’s talk a little bit about that process.
RM: Right, and it happened so fast! Yeah. It’s so wild how, once it happens, you have to first frantically slam on the brakes, because if the book’s out at other places or you’re in conversations with other people who are trying to help you get the book out, everything just grinds to a halt, and not having any control over when that happens was one of the hardest parts of the process for me. It almost makes you obsessive. And as a poet, especially, in a contest model, you’re at the mercy of other people’s reading schedules and an editor liking your work after or before reading another collection. But once I did all that, the frantic brakes-hitting—and I did have to withdraw it from a couple of places that had still had it—it was immediate. Like, they sent me the contract, and that was the other scramble. I don’t know if other poets have talked about the contract. My chapbook came out with a great small press, Blue Hour Press, that does digital chapbooks. There was no contract…
DK: Oh, cool.
RM: With Blue Hour Press, there was no contract or royalties. You know, chapbooks just don’t always fit that model. The editor, Justin Runge, made the chapbook and put it up on the press’s website. And I thought, this is great, and that was it. Right. But then, with the book, you get this contract in the mail, and you think, oh my god, I don’t know how many royalties—well, what are my royalties supposed to be, and how many copies should be in a first print run?
The contract was challenging because I didn’t know what was normal, or if there is a normal. And the internet’s not helpful, at least what I Googled, because it’s all—like, most of what I found was geared toward, you know, it’s all for major press fiction. Everything I could find online was like, negotiate your advance. And I thought, what advance?
DK: What advance? Advance?
RM: I would love an advance. I won a poetry prize. That is the advance, the privilege of existing in the world. Yeah, so that was really scary but also exhilarating. And once we signed the contract and everything became public, that’s when that feeling, the feeling you described of the, oh, wait, am I worthy? This book is going to be out in the world and other people are going to read it. Holy crap. My grandmother’s going to read it. Holy crap. People who review poetry books are going to read it. So then you have that moment, and I made it through that moment intact, but it was also kind of—there’s the dark side to acceptance, which is realizing that now you’re really opening up yourself. You’re out there in the world, so…
DK: So, two more things on production. It was weird to find out I had to go ask for blurbs. It’s like a—I don’t know if you want to talk about that. That was a weird thing. Like, I somehow in my mind—I didn’t know whose responsibility that was, but I didn’t think it was mine.
RM: Right. Yeah, yeah. At Texas Tech, that process was half mine. I made suggestions, and then Jada Rankin, who’s the marketing director, reached out in most cases. I asked Robin myself, because…
DK: It made sense, right?
RM: Because I knew her, yeah. But, after that, I submitted a list of people, and I ended up asking a poet—well, I didn’t ask; Jada asked on my behalf and she said yes—Sandra Beasley, who I hoped would be a good reader for the book, and also, more profoundly, whose work I really admired. I decided that that, more than anything else, this measure would be enough. I had also considered asking poets at CMU, but I also worried that could be tough, because we’re in the same department.
DK: Oh, yeah.
RM: Yeah, it can be a little knotty and twisted. So, I ended up not doing that. And in the end, it worked out well—but it’s scary. It’s that first feeling of, oh my god, someone whose work you love, whose body of work you absolutely love, is going to read the book and then give their thoughts on it, and I was definitely nervous.
DK: Sure, and what if they say, “Nah, I don’t feel like blurbing this thing”? It’s like, aghhh. [Laughs]
RM: Yep, yep. I know. You’re just constantly putting yourself out there. What if they read it and then say, “You know, I’m too busy after all” or “You know, this just isn’t a good fit.” And you think, oh, no.
DK: And then—I definitely kind of went the both route. I went with, certainly, aspirational asks, but I kind of knew them, so with Arthur Sze and Robert Pinsky and Rusty Morrison I got very lucky. But I think that people putting together a first book should feel comfortable probably doing either way, through their publisher—I chose not to. I knew these people, so I thought it would be weird to have the publisher do it. But…
RM: I think that makes sense.
DK: Just like you said, with Robin, it would be weird for the publisher to reach out to Robin when you really have a personal relationship with her in some way.
RM: Yeah, and you want to show that goodwill when you have it, but then also, if you’re shooting for an aspirational blurb from someone who’s a stranger, it could just get filtered out in spam filter and never make it, so it is nice to have an ethos of a publisher behind you in that context. But yeah, that makes sense.
DK: Yeah. And then: cover. So, before I started the first book series, I was talking to a couple of seasoned vets—you know, 10, 15 books, whatever the case may be—and they were unusually, I thought, for me, I was surprised at how interested and important they thought a cover was. And I asked, why? And they were like, well, you know, when I have a good cover, people pick it up, buy it, and ask me to sign it. When I have a cover maybe I thought was good but in general doesn’t appeal, the book doesn’t sell as good. And these are poets. Like, does a cover really matter? Just, you know, why not just a white page with the book title on it? Wave kind of elevates its press over the poet this way but mostly, covers matter. And these poets were kind of like, well, you know, I think you should think about the cover. I said, wow, that’s beyond me. So, tell me about your cover process.
RM: Yeah. Well, that was a part the contract that I labored over because—and I think this is normal. It’s normal for the press to make the cover, and for you to have input, but it’s something ultimately that they decide. I love illustration, graphic design. I’m still someone who picks up a book at the bookstore, idly, based on what it looks like. And I was very nervous, especially, because of the content of the book, that the sort of—you mentioned religiosity—that some of the religious elements could be horribly represented in cover art, you know? And part of me was thinking, okay, if people mistake this for like a “spiritual” book, with like Chicken Soup, I have a problem. I have an anecdote from a fiction-writer friend who wrote a novel in which the protagonist had AIDS, and the first draft of her cover had a big yellow ribbon on it. Something like that would make me nervous—here’s something blunt, or not sensitive to how the book crafts this complicated consideration, and then when I saw the cover for The Glad Hand, I thought, Oh, thank god. They’re seeing the book the same way I’m seeing the book.
DK: Which is great.
RM: Which is that there’s some darkness and joy in there together. If you told me before I saw the cover that it had a picture of a hand on it, I would have been really nervous. But when I saw it, it made sense. Even with the whole wrap cover, which they’re still working on, all of the changes that I suggested were really minor.
DK: What kind of changes did you ask for? So, the reason I ask the question is that, for somebody who’s writing a first book and then they’re in this process, they are likely uncomfortable asking for changes. So, talking about what you were actually willing to sort of be in conversation with them about I think would be incredibly informative.
RM: Yeah, sure. Let me preface by saying I am so in that uncomfortable boat. I’m an assertive person, but I’m also conflict-avoidant. So, for me, I maybe would have preferred for everything to be fine and not ask for changes. But, what I did end up asking for was the—I’m trying to remember how it looked when I first saw it—but there were orientation issues with the way they had the small part, my name and the word “poems”—oh, I remember what it was. So, they had The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards. And then, on the P, they had OEMS, so the P belonged to “poems” and “points” on the title. Whereas, now—let me pull up the finished so I can remind myself exactly how it ended up. For me, when I first saw it, all I could see was “Oems,” and I showed it to my sister, who’s also in writing, in journalism—she’s a food writer. And so, she’s done a lot of visual sign-offs on things, and she said she saw the same thing. And I thought, okay, we’re 0 for 2 here. We need to move Poems, and it needs to say its own thing. And now that’s what it does. It says Poems, and then my name, and then The Glad Hand, the actual title, is sideways-oriented.
It seems like a small thing. Now, I’m not—having not been in that situation, if I saw the whole cover and it gave me nightmares, that’s a really tough question, because I think you want people to pick up your book, and if the cover doesn’t engage, then you’re losing out, I think, on people that might be curious based on its visual communication. Poetry’s a visual medium too, right? So, we poets are…
DK: That’s true.
RM: … I think, more sensitive to—we want our poems to pose aesthetic challenges. We make aesthetic decisions with line, with stanza, with white space, and so, I feel like we’re naturally going to be more sensitive to this question, and it’s something we shouldn’t be—I mean, certainly, you don’t want to offend anybody and call your publisher and say, “This is awful.” But I was nervous. I debated: “do I tell them that this looks funny?” And as soon I did, they said, “Yeah, we agree. We’re going to change it.”
DK: Yeah, I very much liked the choice of the—would it be vertical?—yeah, the verticality of the title. I thought that was really smart and interesting and had some resonance with the book, and it was not explicit and it was nuanced enough, and I thought that was pretty cool. Because you don’t always see that.
RM: Oh, good, yeah.
DK: It was different, and yet, you know, if you do it randomly, it doesn’t really make any sense. But when you see it and you actually encounter the book, there’s this kind of connection, and I thought that was kind of cool.
RM: Cool. Oh, I’m glad. You’re my first person I’ve talked to about it besides my husband and my sister.
RM: So, I’m glad to hear that.
DK: Well, you know, speaking of your sister, for better or worse, I anchored on certain poems in the book as places where I thought the book disclosed itself a little bit, and you’ve mentioned your sister a couple times here. And one of the poems in the book is “My Sister the Abacus.”
RM: Yep. Yep.
DK: And, of course, it’s not really her.
RM: Right, yep. No, and I have two sisters. When I read the editor’s introduction to The Glad Hand, I saw that his take on the book is that the sister persona was the same in all the sister poems. And I thought, well, you know, that’s perfectly reasonable, because I don’t distinguish between sisters, and it’s not that one sister belongs to a poem or anything like that. But yeah, that was also something I was nervous about, because—to circle back to an earlier conversation, people know me and they know I have sisters, and I have poems in the book with that title, so there’s a possible inclination to think, like, oh, here you’re giving away something about your family. But yeah, this poem was a departure for me, too. I was writing so much about coming to terms with my Jewish identity and then I thought, but I’m also an oldest sister.
DK: That’s what I notice. It’s a little bit of a branching. Sure, there’s grandmother and mother, and there’s the trope of Judaism, and yet there’s the sisterness, sisterliness that sort of branches out, gives the book a little bit more scope, and so would you do me a favor and read “My Sister the Abacus”?
RM: Yeah, totally. Here, I have it right here.
In high school, she says,
the hallways make a perfect
alien music: eight hundred
and six slamming
lockers, her feet stuck in place
until they all reply
in kind. She taps and taps in
air, she makes a calculus
of her fear, her own
actuary, she takes
no risk and imagines hundreds; she
cradles her research
against her chest, the angles
checked and checked
again, the circle drawn exact,
the silence inside gaping—O, O
—zeroes after two on the red-
numbered clock, the tires that spin
on winter ice. She says:
I’m taking Honors Psychology
this year. Exactly one hundred
and seventy-four miles
northwest, I hear her twist
and twist our home phone’s
thick black cord, nervous laugh
like an adult. I’m learning a lot
about the human brain, she
says: orbital-frontal, the loop
that swings between the thalamus
and the caudate nuclei.
Serotonin, uptake, reuptake.
I think I have one
of the following disorders,
she says, I made a list,
are you ready to hear them?
do you have a pen handy?
So—I mean, I mention Mel Brooks in the book. I grew up on Mel Brooks. I grew up, for better or worse, I suppose now, on Woody Allen. The trope of the Jewish neurotic is not unfamiliar to me. And so I wanted to show that there is—you know, there’s some truth in that, but also here may be some other places to try my hand at putting something really serious against something that might be funny, and seeing—that’s Mel Brooks putting Hitler on ice skates in History of the World: Part I. It’s a way to see these serious issues in a different way.
DK: Yeah, absolutely. One of the reasons that I talk about that poem as broadening the scope of the book is—and there’s, in all of the first books, there’s these—people are grappling with things that are sometimes almost un-grappleable-with, and almost to a one, great writers such as yourself realize that without humor, even black humor, there’s a lens on it that’s missing. And so, I wanted to highlight that in the sense that, you know, if people were to walk away from the interview thinking that this was a Holocaust book, that would be the wrong feeling to take from the interview, and that for somebody putting together a first book to keep their eye out for when they’ve tested in their poems where there might be some humor, because that’s another dimension of aesthetic experience, even in these dark places—places where there’s a dark history, rather, I should say. So, I liked that. It made me smile. And there’s no shortage of humor or—I’m not even sure it’s like—it’s not like ba-dum-ching humor, but there’s a little bit of wink-wink nudge-nudge going on in here.
RM: I think so. I grew up learning humor from my father. That’s the way I’ve always related to him. He grew up in the space between my grandmother and me in terms of proximity to what happened during the Holocaust, and he didn’t know very much about these stories—because my grandmother and grandfather didn’t tell these stories so much, I think, to my father and my uncles and aunt growing up. I think that all came unpacked later. So, I think that we used other means to bridge that gap. Humor is definitely one of them, and I wrote about Mel Brooks in the book. He is a huge fixture in my childhood. Blazing Saddles, I mean, all of it. I saw Spaceballs before I saw Star Wars.
RM: Like, I didn’t even know I was keying in on so many important cultural elements that he was parodying and skewering before I—you know. I still haven’t seen all the Star Wars movies, and I don’t get half the jokes in Spaceballs, but you know.
DK: But you know Mel Brooks, yeah.
RM: Oh, yes. Every movie backwards and forwards. And I wanted to write about him because he makes such important arguments for why humor is important to Judaism and why making fun of Hitler is important, which is a weird thing to think about.
DK: Okay, so let’s answer the question: why is making fun of Hitler important?
RM: Well, he had—I have to Google it to get it exactly right. But he said something along the lines of, this is a way for us to enact a form of revenge, that we absolutely can and should remember, and be angry, and hold all of this together, but that there is also power in making him small and funny in a weird way, right? That the Hitler character in—I can’t remember the name of the play—Springtime for Hitler in Germany, in—oh my God, you’re putting my knowledge to the test here and I’m failing badly. Let me Google the movie. I’m thinking of The Producers. And the play they put on in The Producers—because that’s the whole point, right, is that they’re going to make that surefire flop, and it’s going to be a comedy about Hitler, but people end up loving it, right? Yeah, it’s called Springtime for Hitler. Oh my God, it’s been way too long.
But yeah, his argument is that it’s important to feel like we can skewer something so serious—it allows us another way in. And I think that’s—I mean, when I wrote the sister poems, writing about the things that teenage girls in my generation, and certainly generations previous, come up against—bulimia, anxiety, sex—there are moments of humor there too. Like the sort of overly precocious character in the sister poem I just read, so “self-aware” that she folds in on herself. It’s important to me to write about female adolescence, because it’s such a—it’s where so much of this stuff started to splinter for me: my religion, my sexuality, figuring out where those two things intersected, having sisters, all three of us having various sort of…
DK: Makes for a very interesting concoction. And, by the way, your book is a glorious book. I absolutely loved reading it. I think it’s gonna be an adventure for the community to negotiate it.
RM: Thank you.
DK: So, I think that’ll be interesting to watch. And we’re a little past an hour, so thank you for being so gracious with your time. And you talked about all these things sort of mixing together, and sort of to close—we’re going to close with sort of two things. One is, is the right poem to close with Mel Brooks, sisters, sex, Judaism as religion or ethnicity, Rachel’s role in all that, is the right poem “How to Make a Jewish Poem”? Or, is there another one you’d prefer to read?
RM: Sure. That’s great, because the poem performs a weird metacommentary on the whole book, I think. And that’s something I struggled with, asking that question: is this a “Jewish book”? Is this a book that really only can live within a community, or is it—same question, kind of: is it only a “poetry book”? Are only other poets going to be interested in my book? I think a lot of poets ask themselves that question. Can this book live outside of…? I would love to. I can read it. Would that be the next step? Do you want me to read it?
DK: Yeah, the one thing to answer before we read it is, is there anything in particular that makes it a metacommentary—its form, its choices, or anything that you’d want to highlight before reading it? This is an opportunity to say, “this is why.”
RM: Yeah. Well, formally, probably not. I wouldn’t say that the form was informed by anything particularly Jewish or religious, but I do ask myself this question, and the answer changes all the time: am I Jewish, or how am I Jewish? After I got married, did that make me less Jewish because I decided to marry someone that wasn’t Jewish? The longer I go without being in a synagogue, am I less Jewish? When I help my elderly neighbor with her shoveling, am I more Jewish? My mother would say, “You’ve done a mitzvah,” right? You know, do I—what is it that brings me back to this religion and culture that I both feel utterly of and that I grapple with every day? So, I think that the tendency of this poem to ask questions, and ask questions about sort of that very—you know, what makes this poem Jewish and what makes these particular—is it following these liturgical elements? Is it having a certain name? Is it following certain rituals? I think, in that sense, it embodies that, some of the broader questions that the book asks and that I, the speaker, ask: what is my place in all of this? So, I think, in that sense, I would categorize it as a sort of metacommentary.
RM: It’s a word we just covered with my students, actually, so maybe that’s why it’s on the tip of my tongue.
RM: We’re at that point in the semester where we’re talking about meta-analysis, so, yeah. All right, well, I’ll read it. I certainly don’t want to start talking about freshman composition, because then every one of your readers will probably fall asleep.
What makes this poem Jewish? Nobody’s
blessed it yet. Nobody’s named it,
named it again in Hebrew, put the name
on a Kiddush cup, filled that cup
with wine purple as a bruise.
Who’s going to march it
up and down the aisles,
dress and undress it
like a newborn at the altar,
kiss the book that taps it
from the pews?
Where are the bobby pins to stick
the lace to this poem’s crown, cover
its head on the Sabbath? Where’s
this poem’s sense of ritual? Its litany
of tics, its love of counting?
Let’s call this poem Rivka, Also,
Becky. Also, Rose, an ancient
relative this stanza’s never met.
Let’s yoke it to the ox of rules.
Let’s light a candle after dark.
smash a glass under its husband’s foot,
circumcise its wailing, red-faced
sons, watch it multiply
into a book (some poems
will remember, some
will not)—sit shivah
for its passing once
RM: Thank you. Thanks for asking to hear that one. I don’t know if other poets have said this, but some poems you read a lot, and then some you don’t encounter as often, and there’s always that moment where you think, “Oh, yeah, this one’s here and it’s making its argument.”
DK: Yeah, exactly, and I certainly felt like it could be a cradle for the conversation if the conversation went that way.
DK: So—glorious. It’s a triumph. The one thing I do like to leave the interview with is, if there’s one piece of advice to give to somebody working on their first book, what in the world would we offer, or could you offer to somebody who’s trying to make it happen?
RM: Yeah, that’s a good question. It might seem conflicting, but I would say, first, to read a lot of other books. Maybe not explicitly first books, but to read a lot, and part of that is not just to read a lot of poetry for the sake of doing so, which is itself a good thing, but also to get the feel of the pacing of a book of poems. To decipher yourself why poems are in the order that they’re in. What is this author doing with sections? Is this book 100 pages? Is it 40 pages? Why? Why do certain poems open the book, close the book? I think that helps a lot, once you’re at the point where you’ve decided that you are indeed writing a book and not just that you’ve written a bunch of poems. Because I know—I think we opened with some of this discussion. Once you’ve realized that you’re on the path to writing your first book, I think understanding what the book does is really important.
The flip side of this is not feeling like a first book needs to sound a certain way or enact a certain argument. When I was in grad school, I heard a lot of conventional wisdom like “first books tell the story that the poet needs to tell,” or “they’re mostly biographical”—and I would say, you know what, don’t worry about any of that. Write the book that’s coming to you. Write it as it needs to happen. Let the previously mentioned reading inspire you, but not overly influence you or proscribe you to any particular approach. And it’s scary, and let it be scary. Like, you’re writing a book. It’s scary. [Laughs]
DK: Perfect. “It’s scary, and let it be scary.” That’s pretty good advice. That’s pretty good.
RM: Yes. [Laughs] It’s not easy to take, but it’s probably—hopefully—helpful.
DK: Again, thank you so much, Rachel. With that, I’m going to hit the stop on the recorder.