First Verse, a new feature of OmniVerse, 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.
Jane Lewty is the author of Bravura Cool (1913 Press: 2013) which was the winner of the 1913 First Book Prize in 2011, selected by Fanny Howe. Currently, she lives and works in Amsterdam.
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. His essays and reviews have appeared online and in print across a similar variety of magazines.
David Koehn received his MFA from the University of Florida, is a Vice President at a technology company, is an Angel investor as part of the Sand Hill Angels, and an Account Director at the pro bono volunteer organization Taproot, is an essayist for OmniVerse, and a father of five.
Jane Lewty: Thank you for this opportunity. I’m very delighted to be interviewed by OmniVerse.
David Koehn: Very good. This is our first ‘first book’ interview. We plan to hold a series of these first book interviews with a wide range of writers across the community that have put out a first book in the last year or so.
JL: I’m grateful. I mean, living over here in Amsterdam, I sometimes feel a little severed from American poetry, so this is exactly what I need at the moment, just to feel I’m in a larger network—albeit for the duration of this interview.
DK: Why don’t you talk a little bit about being apart? That said, you started out in Iowa…
JL: I guess in terms of writing poetry, I can say I “began” in Iowa in 2005. I’d moved over from London for a tenure-track job at the University of Northern Iowa in my old specialist area, which was Modernist literature. And I’d never really considered taking my own poetry seriously, or that it would ever be read. I was very committed to academia. I wanted to be a trailblazer in something, I don’t know. I worked on the connection between radio and Modernism, and was successful for a while. The job didn’t work out. I think it was a bad match. It was a small community; something I found hard to adjust to after living in London. I value that department; I liked that university, but it just was a bad fit for us both. I stayed there for two years.
DK: A bad match because…?
JL: Perhaps it was the idea of an English person teaching European literature that, for the department, overscored the fact that I was very naive as to what constituted a tenure-track job. I didn’t rebel, as such, but I also don’t think I observed certain guidelines. Being untenured, you’re occasionally reminded of how much power you don’t have and it can become corrosive. I felt my perception of writing and thinking was beginning to tunnel into a job, solely the job, staying in that job, keeping it, keeping a reputation in an area I was beginning to lose focus of. I think the students at UNI liked me and some of the staff liked me, but I wasn’t happy—I felt as though I was calcifying. A big change happened when the poet Rebecca Dunham was hired a year after me, and she of course was very invested in the creative writing community. I had no idea about anything. I barely knew what an MFA program constituted. But she was gracious enough to read some of my poems and said, “Apply for MFAs,” and I did, and then I got into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I resigned from my job on the spot without making any provision for myself, packed up and went down the road. So, it was—I like to see it as not fated, as such, because I don’t ascribe to superstition, but I remember getting the acceptance email and realizing that that was why I’d wound up in Iowa, really.
DK: Yeah. So, while at Iowa, who did you love? The way I think of MFA programs—many people I’ve talked to feel the same—you have an experience with a set of professors and, at some point, at least one of them, there’s a match.
JL: There was a match all the way through for me. Each workshop—both teacher and students—seemed to align to where and how my poetry was at that time. I had Mark Levine at first, who was patient to say the least. And then, later on, in my second year I had Peter Gizzi, who was visiting. I now count him as a friend—he was very nurturing and incisive. And I feel as though that was a turning point in the two years. I’d felt a little cowed, I think, by the Iowa experience, if you can call it an experience. I was a little older than everybody. I didn’t go out. I didn’t take advantage of the social scene as much as I should have done. I think Peter understood how withdrawn I was. And he helped to clarify a number of things about my poetry that I didn’t understand. What I seemed to be doing unconsciously. And not to be afraid of them or pretend they didn’t exist. Namely that I begin a poem from elsewhere, from an idea, not from notes or an observation. That being said, he commented on the formal content—flow and linearity and obscurity, and he told me not to think so much, to ease up on the academic training/critical thinking. It was a relief to be given that get-out-of-jail card.
DK: So flow and obscurity. Talk about—what did he say that caught your attention? I’m thinking about your work while I’m…
JL: Oh, you are. Right. Okay. Right.
DK: Flow and obscurity.
JL: Thank you for reading Bravura Cool, by the way. It can be a little dense and hard-going. It was to write, anyway… Peter Gizzi said that my poems should spool, and I didn’t know what he meant, so he gave me Barbara Guest’s poems and Alice Notley’s poems and said that there was a lot of forcedness in the poetry that I was writing. It was too tricksy. It was too opaque and not in a considered way. It was very performative rather than profound (while desperately trying to be) and took the reader down a path of wordplay that obscured the idea that I was tortuously trying to evolve. And no one had ever really told me that. I didn’t know how to balance my poetry at all. But I was very fortunate to be in a workshop of really, really gifted poets and reading their work helped me. They were daunting but never intimidating, just inspirational and I liked looking at someone else’s poem and thinking, “I have no idea how that line came to be, and I could NEVER do that, it’s magnificent, but I want to know how…” I know that my writing changed a lot at Iowa. The fact that I was writing, actually had to write. I’m not one of those people who wrote poetry consistently from childhood. It was sporadic and always took second place to what I thought I should be doing, which is just ridiculous because I can’t even recall what I should have been doing. Anyway, Peter told me I should just loosen up a little bit, and that guidance came at just the right time.
DK: Jeff Levine once said—I was in a conversation with him one time—“You know, you’re smart, but that’s a problem.” In this case when called me smart he did not mean it as a compliment. And it was related to this idea that, to some degree, we don’t want our poets too smart, right? We need poets to be in it and not of it. Which is a slight shift. I got what he was saying.
JL: Yeah, I felt exactly the same.
DK: I was recently talking to Sarah Bauhan of Bauhan Publishing about Seamus Heaney. He described the world of work and the grace of poetry. Something to the effect you go to work and that’s what you do, but then your poetry, what you write, the writing of poetry, is a grace, and that in his mind they weren’t the same thing. And so the idea of going to an MFA program and just writing—which I did. I went to the University of Florida. I got my MFA there. But it’s a different way of doing that work, so I identify with your sense of poetry as apart from work that we do to live our lives.
So then, from Iowa, you got from there to Amsterdam?
JL: I did. As I said, I made no plans whatsoever after Iowa. I was just so delighted to be given the time and space. And then got to the end and thought, “Well, I haven’t done anything about my future.” I got a small fellowship to stay in Iowa City and finish this. I have it [Bravura Cool] here, and worked three jobs, one of which was waitressing. I’ve been in and out of the service industry for about 20 years. I just hadn’t made any further plans, except a vague notion of coming back to Europe for a short while. There was actually not a job at the University of Amsterdam, but in 2010 I wrote to the chair of the English Department, sent my CV, and said I was available should any short-term vacancies arise. My brother lives here so Amsterdam was on my repatriation list. There were a number of gaps in the curriculum so I was hired, and now I’m here and I’ve just been—my contract’s been renewed, short-term. It’s great. It’s a great town, but I’m a little worried because creative writing isn’t taught here, unless I go under-radar and adapt one of my contemporary poetry classes. My CV is starting to look a little bit—I look like a failed Modernist who writes a bit of poetry on the side, which is unnerving since I’d like to return to the U.S. Hey, can you plug that in the interview? [Laughs]
DK: Sure, absolutely. Without a doubt. We can find you the right creative writing position without a doubt, if that’s what you really want.
JL: I think my problem is I tell myself repeatedly I can’t do anything else. I mean, I’m completely institutionalized. I’ve been in the academic world since I was 4. The year for me begins in September, you know? [Laughs]
DK: Yeah, I did my stint. I came out of Florida and taught at Eastern Oregon State College and University of Alaska, but the day I quit teaching I doubled my salary, and it’s good. So I’ve been in technology ever since. I’m an executive in a technology business. But I always kept the work going separate, in a separate world. But I’ve been very fortunate to stay connected while not being connected.
JL: I admire that decision to step out
DK: Well, that’s the way it worked out for me.
JL: And you should do what works out for you, and recognize opportunities when they present themselves. Still, there’s an assumption that it’s only the academy that produces and houses writers and thinkers, and it’s not.
DK: Yeah, exactly. No, I’m happy for the academy. I love people in the academy. I just think, for me, the better fit was to be an outsider, to be an alien, always kind of be the stranger who shows up from nowhere with something. It’s an easier way for me to operate in the business of the world of poetry.
When I think about that alien operation, it’s a personal choice, but I also actually think about your book. I think your book is filled with this sort of alien operation. I mean, you may not agree with that, but when I was reading through Bravura Cool, I had to orient and reorient as I was going through it. And there were some pathways that I was exploring that sort of didn’t pan out as a reader process, and then there were pathways that, as I was going through, sort of did play out, or spool, as you alluded to with Peter’s comment, and I found a way to spool through the book. And so maybe you could talk a little bit about the formation of Bravura Cool, and that may mean talking about some of the poems but also maybe the spool of the book as it came to be.
JL: This is a good question. It’s so funny how the book seems like an alien object when I’m officially talking about it. Just now I froze with self-doubt and I had to actually go back and look at my contents page. [Laughs] This book was written, in a way, very swiftly, and it was only truly compiled after I left the USA. And it was only when I was fussing over it for a couple of competitions that I truly comprehended what it was “about.” I hate to expressly define what I mean (because who can, really…) but at this point the motivation behind the book became clear to me, and it was something I wasn’t aware of when I was writing it. And that was displacement and the vagaries of exile. And how “exile” is used so freely by us all to define certain states of unhappiness.
JL: Every type of displacement—those dispossessed from their land, from their families, self-imposed exile also, loneliness. I’m in no way alluding to myself as a representative voice of anything or anyone I have no right to speak for, such as people forced into detention or denied permission to live where and how they deserve to, but I’m remembering your question about a first book—is it “meta” experience, does it reflect where the poet is at? I wrote all this in America when I was constructing a new life for myself which wasn’t always how I’d imagined it to be. I think all of us are in several places at once, looking elsewhere when we believe we’re living “in the moment” but if you stop to consider for one second, you realize it’s a construct you’ve spontaneously designed to root yourself. You’re actually fragmented and unfixed. For good or bad.
DK: Yeah, and you said as you were going back through, you discovered this in the process of recompiling. I wonder if you would talk a little bit about the idea of recompiling?
JL: Recompiling. It was when Iaid the poems out on the floor, I heard that that’s what people did, so I did it. It’s odd, I didn’t have a eureka moment where I was like, this goes here and this goes here and this goes here. It all just gathered together like iron filings. The one thing that I do like about research, and writing academic books, is that you follow leads. You have to sustain an argument. You have to cue yourself. You have to allude to what you’ve already stated in chapter two or whatever. With Bravura Cool, I noticed that I’d repeated and recreated (all the re’s) specific moments over and over again—not always explicitly. It felt like an orchestrated event which I was in doubt over because it either meant I was entirely ignorant of my own writing process or that I’d returned to an old constraining pattern. I wondered if each poem could even exist as an isolate thing. I was looking at a strange chronicle that kept circling around itself, trying to deal with disconnectedness and using repetition to assert (or assuage) the problem. I hate bringing autobiography into this book, because I don’t feel as though I as a speaker am in it. But the process of recompiling was me staring at the whole and thinking “Wait a second. This could only have been written at this certain time, at this certain place, and by someone who is on the move…” Perhaps.
DK: Interesting. So, this actually goes to a sort of a little bit of the paradox, which is of course you’re in it because you created it. You can’t be anything but of it. Even though you may not feel autobiographical about it, it is—well, I use the term “metadata.” It’s like a meta-representation of whatever you were in that process.
JL: Absolutely. That’s a wonderful way of putting it. I was wondering what the word would be, and now I think that you’ve defined it. Like I’m not—I don’t think that I have restricted myself from this book, but because, as Peter Gizzi pointed out, I do tend to deflect emotion and I do tend to reason my way through a poem and am very conscious about its trajectory, but I do know—I mean, I’m looking at a few of the poems here—that they are very reflective of their process.
DK: Which poems in particular?
JL: Well, I think…
DK: The title poem?
JL: The title poem most definitely. I just did a conversation for The Volta with another 1913 poet, Karena Youtz, whose work I love and she asked “How do I get an inroad into this book?” And I ventured the title poem because it calls to mind a slow burn of ice. And that is very much how the book felt like to me later on. It was the slow burn of ice. It’s extremes. There are many personae in this book who exist on the periphery. They experience levels of extreme starvation or grief or madness. They’re scientists who can’t find the answer to their experiment. “Bravura” is assigned to an incredibly confident performance of technical skill, brilliance, bravery. Not just on a stage. But one can never sustain anything at that sort of level of heat and intensity. And the nature of bravura therefore dictates an ebbing or even disappearing. Of confidence or joy or being in love, or an idea/decision that once seemed so certain and failsafe.
DK: Would you read it?
JL: Of course.
Immersion braze is to dip a thing in solder (a feasible alloy, tin and lead) and flux (limestone or chalk). Hold the thing in the fire a little while to heat. When it is lowered into the solder, the latter will flow into the joint and firmly attach itself. Before dipping, the thing to be brazed is coated with a special anti-flux graphite, covering all the surface except that which is to be brazed.
Pares itself with a drawknife.
Reacts along the hallway, back and forth.
Trailing spelter, un-set a stream of it.
Run down cell, fitting, spent hours
Hours on the shelves, for ages, tidying.
Some injury. Pity the snow fell so soon.
JL: Thank you for asking me to read it. It’s a poem that literally tracks that dissolution I talked of.
DK: Sure, sure. So, a couple questions. One is—how did the construction of the book happen and how did the construction affect the choice of the title? Is it true “Bravura Cool,” the poem, existed before the book? Then there was the selection of the poem’s title as the title of the book?
JL: Yeah, it did, it did.
DK: And then, in the recompiling process, you said you were recompiling for a couple of places to submit it, and I thought, as an appendix to that question, maybe we could talk a little bit about the places you were thinking about sending to. I mean, for me, I went through my early youth as an academic, submitted an early version of my manuscript that was a finalist in the National Poetry Series, and a few other contests, and then I dropped out. I dropped out for eight years and didn’t write, really didn’t participate. I sort of came back to life and, of course, when I came back to life, the recompiling process changed the book or work. I had published a couple poems, and therefore, the title changed. But I became sort of rigorous about how I wanted to shape the book. And for me, I got to a place where, for about two years, I was pretty settled in on the form, very committed to it, until the last moment, maybe a month before it got selected, when I was thinking about completely restructuring it. And so just maybe talk about managing that process of title selection and the poems in the order that they’re in, and even relate that to publication. Because you said that some of those existed in previous versions. How they got…
JL: Some of the poems did exist in previous drafts that saw the light of day in journals. However, I’m not a poet who gets regularly published. I don’t yield a big crop from my submission drives.
DK: I’ve been rejected by everybody. There’s no one who hasn’t said no to me.
JL: I think that one gets used to it! But in terms of this book, it didn’t change a great deal from the moment it was submitted to 1913 to the moment it came out. I removed one poem that jarred slightly because it was written later than all the rest. Although it contained aspects of Bravura Cool, it was gesturing elsewhere. I didn’t feel it fitted. So I took that out and put another poem in, called “Find Poem,” on page 79. I often wonder what would have happened had it been in the original lineup? I wouldn’t call it a joke poem, as such, but it really is a collection of lines that didn’t make it into Bravura Cool that suddenly cohered into a strange manual or key to the whole.
DK: Say that again? This poem was a set of lines that hadn’t otherwise made it into the book? Is that what I heard?
JL: Yes, I’m afraid! The first line is “field manual.” With the idea that some people, you know, have a notebook that they carry around as they navigate the space of their daily life. When I was researching the history of radio years ago, I’d read these documents full of data and observations and terminology and minute occurrences. A lot of this book, at least language-wise, is probably the psychological detritus of my academic work. [Laughs] I had to get radio out of my system and write it the way I wanted to write about it, and not as a researcher. “Find Poem” is ideas and potential other books, poems that I never wrote, ideas I had that never got incorporated into Bravura Cool, like the semaphore. I wanted to do a lot of work on semaphore, and it never manifested. And “green crystal on the terminals of a battery.” That was an image I had, and I didn’t expand it. Anywhere or anyhow. Nevertheless, there is actually a complete piece in “Find Poem”—the italicized words. That’s the poem. The non-room and the magnetic pressure leak from the car and the crystal rectifier, and glass. The making of glass is one of the sustained topics of Bravura Cool. So, it’s like a little sort of failure of a poem, in which a poem is embedded that does contain themes that should be noticed… Not that I would urge readers to turn to page 79 at first in order to find clues. That’s an awful thing to do.
DK: But now they will. Now they will, right? After they’ve read the interview, they’ll be like, “Ah, so I don’t start with page 1. Start with page 79.”
JL: How many people are going to be angry at me for that? But it felt quite liberating when I inserted that poem and Sandra and Ben concurred because it was very—it was an instant of fusion that Bravura Cool needed. And I’m glad because I find writing poetry to be all-consuming and get very absorbed in getting the point, the exact point, line, word. I really still do have to build these connections and these layers and these interconnective elements. But at that point in the collating of BC I saw a grid system that seemed (to me) very rational and practical, and I was like, “Of course—it’s weather systems. It’s electromagnetic pulses. It’s the sun. It’s voltage. It’s spirituality. [Laughs] It’s like—it’s the gap. It’s the caesura. It’s interstitiality. It’s all those things.”
DK: Yeah, I mean, those were, as a strategy for me when I was reading your book, that’s what I was attracted to was that—the more nontraditional poetic language, which more and more is being accepted as both material and as metaphor. And so, I was attracted to “solder.” I’m attracted to the interstitial magnetisms in the book. And so, again, what’s interesting for me is that, as you thought about it in a grid system, I think you described it as—is that right?
JL: Yeah, how it appeared to me at the end.
DK: As a grid system, that makes sense to me. I think about, when I was putting my first book together, for sure, I was initially sort of blinded by the poems and then just started noticing interrelationship. And that was it. Then I was able to get them into—which, for me, is a little triptych. And so, for me, my grid was as fancy as a triptych, and I got them there. But then, of course, within each, you’re trying to find the thread across all, but also the unifying thread within each. I thought the brave part of the organization of your book was that there is no sort of conventional section one, section two…
JL: That’s—yes, it is sectionless, and what I’m working on at the moment is not sectionless, thankfully for everyone. It’s interesting to hear that you also work in that sort of, what did you imply, the recognition of interconnections? I’m now occupied with something more sequential, or rather, something more compartmentalized. I do recognize how Bravura Cool has got filaments extending everywhere but no significant ordering structure. It’s like the inner workings of a device. Not everybody is going to like this book. I think it is, in many ways, a divisive read, you know? It’s just—I don’t expect people to have the patience with it, but…
DK: Yeah, well, 1913 did, right? And maybe let’s connect to that a little bit, which is that where were you thinking about sending it? Where had you sort of thought you were going to send it and then, once—did you kind of target 1913, or was it sort of a happy accident that they were a match? And then, as a follow-up to that, let’s see if we can get to something that will help some other folks putting their first book together, which is what is the experience around when you get the call to that launch experience? And maybe talk about that from your own point of view, from being an expatriate in Amsterdam.
JL: Being an expatriate in Amsterdam—well, this is the thing. This is a good topic, because I do have a tendency to feel disjointed from poetry communities, but when I’m in them I retreat a little bit.
DK: I love that. So, I so identify with that exact expression of the problem, which is I operate almost intentionally outside of them as if I long to be among them, but then among them I like to be outside of them.
JL: That’s exactly it. Can we say that I said that, what you just said?
DK: We have total control of the editing process.
JL: It’s an unusual position to be in because you’re never fully edified by any place, self-generated or community-generated. You feel slightly daunted by the potential of each one, but you’re not inclined to violently object to either! What I do feel lucky about is that here, in Amsterdam, I’m involved with the English-language journal Versal—with a great group of people—which, by nature of its identification as an international journal does in a way knock down the divisions of central and peripheral. You can collapse the distance if you want, by choosing to write in one place, but to operate as a writer in another.
In terms of Bravura Cool, I was very strategic in where I sent it. I wanted it to be with a US press. It’s hard to further explain, but I innately feel like an American poet, even though I’m not American. I knew that (and this, again, this is why my time at the IWW was so helpful to me, in terms of encountering Peter Gizzi and Cole Swensen, who I also count as a great mentor) my book wasn’t going to be globally adored, but that it belonged where I’d started to initiate it, or engender it.
DK: But my suspicion is that what you’re saying may be inspiring and a way to put the blinders on and go ahead and get the work done. But my suspicion is, before it’s all said and done, you’re probably going to see your work at some point in both of those places. My sense of the industry is that its intolerances last for a very short period of time before their intolerances become their du jour. So…
JL: I do see your point. I’ll reserve judgment on myself, but I do see how mercurial it really is. And thank you so much—it’s good to hear. But I think the industry, for want of a better term, it is very mercurial. What I did was find writers whose work I admired, learn about them, detect where they published. I would read 1913: a journal of forms and be invigorated by every writer who was in there. And other presses….
DK: Real quickly, what are those other presses? For people who love your book and people who love 1913, what are those other presses that might be in that same arc?
JL: Action Books, Ugly Duckling. I like Ahsahta Press. Belladonna—they’re fantastic. There’s some wonderful books they’re putting out. Where else? Rescue Press and The Song Cave. Les Figues, Futurepoem—those are names that immediately spring to mind.
DK: Perfect. That’s all—yeah.
JL: So, I was, again, quite determined to place in the right place, be alert to my own work and decisively orient where it might fit. I do have the ego of not wanting to be discarded immediately. I think that we all have the dream of our ideal reader, and whilst that notion is impossible, I want to be appreciated for the experiments that my poems enact and try to follow through. One of which is honoring scientific language, which has its beauty. I mean, I’m reading Erica Doyle at the moment…
DK: Erica Doyle, yeah.
JL: Yeah, her book Proxy, which I think is stunning, and how it’s informed by calculus, how she recognizes the beauty of mathematical language and formulae. I share her opinion, and deliberately try to make a theoretical standpoint in my poems. Simultaneously, and in a more implicit manner, I want the malleability (and unfamiliarity) of a different vocabulary to contribute to the making of meaning. This process isn’t going to appeal to every press. I gravitated to 1913, hoping they’d recognize, would respond….and they did. And I was lucky. I wasn’t submitting Bravura Cool as a complete manuscript for very long. I think it was about a year. I feel fortunate to have it picked up so soon.
DK: It’s funny how really talented people often get lucky. So, it’s good to be talented, and a little bit of luck helps too, but without a doubt, they wouldn’t have picked up your work unless it was masterful—and your work is fantastic. Two things there: one is language of math, language of science, the language of technology, using them both as material and metaphor, both sign and signifier. I mean, I think that’s probably some of the advantages these poems have over sort of conventional work or the contemporary is that it’ll go there, and it can—and it’s unapologetic about it. And so the fact that 1913 has a sensitivity to your work, I think, is a real compliment to them, and I think that’s probably worth commenting on.
My approach was that when I was working on my book was “I don’t know the industry; I don’t know people in the industry; I don’t know who to send it to.” So, the only way I will ever know if what I’m writing has value is to get this first book done by having somebody pick it up out of a stack. That was sort of my—the quality of what I’m doing is based on that process, and that this artifact is somehow going to be a signifier of my, the quality of my art. To some degree, there’s some, maybe, mistake about that. Is a book finished when it’s finished? Is it a happy accident? What do we do with all the stuff we’ve excluded? What do we do with the—for example, what do I do with the change I was making from this form I had to say, “This is it, this triptych form, 19 poems in a section, this is what it is,” and I say that for three years, and then I change it to a sectionless book the day it gets picked up in its triptych form?
JL: God, that’s such a good example. Yeah, when are they finished? I remember being in Jim Galvin’s workshop and me writing some atrocious poem and seeing him afterwards and saying offhand as I skipped out, “Okay, I’ll do all the things you said, and then I’ll go and perfect it.” Of course I’d used the wrong word, and Jim said, “Jane, poems are never perfected, and they’re never finished.” And it’s true. They revolve and evolve from state to state, depending on how long you want them to be active. And it applies to manuscripts as well. I think the endorsement of Fanny Howe helped to put the brakes on Bravura Cool. But, as I said, I did convulsively insert “Find Poem” as a code to the whole. Not quite as huge as loosening a triptych into a seamless flow, but “Find Poem” did shift the movement and dynamic of Bravura Cool. I’m very big on code, if you hadn’t noticed. But yes, I could have played and fretted with that manuscript for a long time. There are so many of my own concepts I didn’t pursue. I could have worked more intently with the Cocteau theme. And there’s an undercurrent of spirituality in this book. You know, I could have followed that. But it didn’t happen, and where does it all go? I do feel as though I have shards and residual moments of poems that never came to light. I don’t think the book is complete in any way. I think it’s fact. It’s matter. It exists. It looks beautiful. It’s out there. I can’t play with it any more, and I’m content with that. As for the concepts/ideas I didn’t bring to further light, do I pursue them elsewhere in another collection? Are they still interesting enough for me, or do I let them drift away? Even though ‘drift’ is my favorite word. And that’s the problem I’m having now, and I’m sure you do the same. How to treat the poems that you write after a collection. A collection that has solidified in some way. How to turn abruptly from it, and become invested in individual pieces when you’ve been thinking in terms of cohesion. I’m sometimes daunted and wonder if I’ll look at a body of my own material again. At the moment, I’m trying something entirely new, but the objective is very hard to extract, and that makes me nervous. I’ll get over it, though.
DK: Yeah, I am completely tickled. By the time I’ve completed a poem or maybe just a handful of work in a related process, I can’t wait to abandon that process and move on to a completely different process. So, for me and the book, it was about, for me, it was about illustrating that unresolvable multiplicity, and sort of only accidentally having comprehensiveness to it, because by design, I think about things like writers that become, or poets that become a parody of themselves by simply reproducing, largely unbeknownst to them, within their apparatus, an image of themselves. And many poets whom I love have operated that way for an entire career, for 10, 15 books. It just isn’t for me.
JL: I agree. I’m of your way of thinking there. There are those poets who do sit very safely within their apparatus as you were saying, which is fine, and I admire the sureness/surefootedness of that decision, but I feel like my eyes are always flickering elsewhere. There’s such an influx and a drive at the moment for interdisciplinary work—like book arts, materiality of the book.
DK: Literally, the feeling of it.
JL: Yes, absolutely. And the slippage between prose and poetry—sorry, not slippage, but the amalgamation. I’m re-reading Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene at the moment. It’s absolutely amazing—lucid and reflective, but also the artistically dextrous writing that goes on. And I’m very committed to pushing myself into uneasy territory where I’ll likely fail but it will impact on my poetry in some way. I feel an urge to write prose, to see what kind of prose writer I actually am! I don’t do literary criticism at the moment, and haven’t produced for a while, but there’s something about its methodology that speaks in me. Purposeful, alert to its surroundings and counter-arguments, analytical, intentional. I should try to reason with that somehow. Too see where my poetry goes when it admits other disciplines into its process.
DK: Yeah, it takes a lot of chutzpah to sort of break the bowl every time, no doubt. So, with respect to Bravura Cool, let’s really quickly sort of pivot back to another piece you mentioned where, with the endorsement from 1913, you get the call, the book gets finalized, there’s a couple of pieces of that process. What was that process like? Maybe—because I think, as we—certainly, poets who are working on their first book can talk to others about the first book experience, but maybe sort of diagramming the sentence from acceptance through to go-live, I don’t know, I think that’d be interesting to hear from your perspective what that was like.
JL: Okay. I can do that. Well, I got an email from Sandra Doller who was asking if it was the right email address. And she just asked, “Is your manuscript still available?” And I didn’t believe it for a while. I had to reread and reread the letter. And I’m pretty sure I remember thinking, “Oh, I’ve got a poem in the journal. That’s what really has happened.” You know? Bravura Cool had been a semi-finalist once, but regardless 2011 was not a heavy-hitting year for me. I was very under-radar, not publishing many individual poems, my job was demanding and I didn’t have much time to write. And then, the evolution of the book happened very gradually. I can’t speak highly enough of the Dollers. I think they’re a magnetic force. They draw great goodness and dynamism from other poets. And I could not—I truly believe this—I could not have wished for a better press and better editors. They understood everything. They understood the trajectory of the manuscript, were sensitive to what each poem was attempting. And Ben, as line editor, was very meticulous.
DK: Ben Doller?
JL: Ben Doller, yes. Every single comma and every line break and space (whether it be one syllable, two or three…) and so forth was considered and cared about. They even made the book square, as you know, to accommodate the poems. My lines are at times over-long…
DK: Have you ever seen where people go through a book, and then they turn the book sideways or upside down to get the poem? I actually heard poets commenting on it. They just want a different shape. So, the fact that your book was produced in a shape that could accommodate its beauty is amazing.
JL: I think so too. It took, maybe, I’d say just under a year to calibrate it all. It wasn’t a tortuous process at all, and I would say to people who have got their first book accepted that it should be enjoyed, and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. It could take five years. It can take six months. It could be out next week. But always know that it’s your book. You do have control over it. Therefore it’s so remarkable to have editors invested in your book as seriously as you are. Because they’re editors, they can see its longevity and its future, rather than a compendium of past/personal effort, which is how the writer will always feel. They see it as something that contemporaries are going to read. And how it will represent the press. I was so proud when I first laid eyes on the book at AWP last year. I walked up and the Dollers turned around—it was the first time I’d actually seen them in person—and they had this big stack of purple Bravura Cools. My first feeling was that I’d had no idea what my book would ever look like until I saw it. And I realized that that is how I’d imagined it. Does that make sense?
DK: Yeah, yeah. That’s really amazing. And, of course, what it looks like includes the cover. And, you know, I think that it’s not something—what’s interesting is it’s not really a part of the processes. For me, at least, it wasn’t. I wasn’t thinking about the cover of the book when I was constructing it. Maybe you’re different. Maybe you were thinking about what the cover should be when you were constructing your book. But it’s an interesting part of the process. Tell me about how your cover became your cover.
JL: It was my choice, and that’s another thing I love 1913 for. They wanted me to be so very involved with the texture and appearance of Bravura Cool. I’m very attached to my font, Cochin, that I use consistently. It was originally produced in 1912 and, I guess, hit the shelves in 1913.
DK: That is cool.
JL: Isn’t it great? Anyway, they asked me to suggest some images, and my mother is an artist. She works with multi-media—wire, wool, paint, computer-generated graphics. The piece that became the cover of Bravura Cool has been hanging in my parents’ house for years and it always transfixed me.
DK: And this (the cover art) was built by your mother?
JL: It was.
DK: And what is your mother’s name?
JL: Sandra. Another Sandra. So, Sandra Doller, Sandra Lewty, greater women than me who bring it all together.
DK: And what’s the name of the piece?
JL: It’s called “Skiagraph,” and it was made in 1999. A skiagraph is—it’s basically a radiograph. In classical Greek, “skia” means “shadow” or “shade” and “graphia” means to inscribe, or, more pertinently, the specified manner in which a process is enacted: photo-graphy, and so forth. I thought that the art piece was indicative of Bravura Cool in its extremes of heat and temperature and inscription and reception, transmission, concerted attempts to communicate. But there will always be the inbetween-state, the shadowing behind or alongside the delineated line. That dualism vs. stasis (I hope) occurs throughout Bravura Cool, certain moments of freezing whereupon an experience is at its most intense. One of the later poems, “Whoseees,” tries to enact this tension.
DK: Yeah, the artwork seems like a perfect visualization of the data in the book.
JL: I’m glad to hear you say that, because [holding book] here’s the slow burn of ice in the floating circular shapes. The chill and opacity of the white space juxtaposed with the impassioned right-hand side of the cover, turbulence. It affected me, and still does. I was so delighted with how it turned out.
DK: I love it. It’s sort of also—it’s not only sort of a visualization of the data in the book in its own progressive pattern, but it also has these kind of layers to it which suggest the kind of palimpsest which suggests the connections between the poems in the book as well. I thought the cover was fantastic. So, the fact that your mother built it, who in some way built you—I don’t know if that’s the right thing to say, but…
JL: Who in some way built me, yes, and I’m trying to get her to do more book covers, but she’s very shy. So many people have asked me, who’s the artist? and I say my mother, and they say, “Has she got a website?” She doesn’t. I’d say that the book has been constructed by her and the Dollers. The poems are just data, errata, atoms that took shape at the last minute, and given form at the last minute, or rather encased in the right way… If this book wins anything, ever, I’d be pleased at Best Front Cover. Somewhere.
DK: “Skiagraph” wins Best Book Cover. That’s amazing.
So, we’re coming up on almost a full hour of conversation. Maybe as kind of a closing note, again, something a little bit utilitarian and practical for those producing a first book—and this is sort of the big, grand question to you—would be, if you could give one piece of advice to poets who don’t yet have their first book accepted or are going through the process, what would you advise?
JL: What would I advise? I would say minimize the operation as much as you can. That being said, you can familiarize yourself with—let’s use all those debatable words like “industry,” “po-biz.” You can, if that is what makes you feel secure and connected. We have every opportunity to join in—social networking, blogs—people are on the whole helpful. Familiarize yourself with that, but think about, first and foremost, your work and where you envisage it. As I said, when I saw my book in print, it was how I’d imagined it. I knew that I had ended up in the right place. Don’t throw enough out there with the vague hope it’ll stick somewhere. Will that go in the interview…?
DK: [Laughs] Oh, it’s going in. No.
JL: No! But do try and streamline the process, because it can be overwhelming. Find the writers you admire, find the presses you admire, and wait for their reading periods or competitions. Truthfully, I’d rather have one book and a small audience than a mass of work I feel disconnected to because I hadn’t been honest with myself. I’m thinking of an interview by Zach Savich in Thermos in January. Among many wise observations, he says “Let’s yawn at those who clearly write mostly from an anxious hope for prestige or a particular success or hoping to replicate parts of celebrity culture and media cycle and commercial renown that don’t matter….” So, maybe I’m saying—well, put the brake on submissions and think about the work and not the accolade. What I’m not saying is be rigid and close yourself off to opportunities and other avenues. Just be conscious of your own writing and tune out the white noise. But everyone works differently. Personally, I’ve found I produce more when I think that way.
DK: I love it. Minimize the process.
JL: And I think one question to ask is, is acceptance a lever, is it a foot in the door to something you imagine? So much pressure is put on poets, to succeed and to be noticed, to be put “on a list” and I think that’s detrimental. I likely won’t publish nine books before I’m 50, right? But I know how I work, and I simply can’t be that person who has a religious routine of writing every morning however much I’d like to because I have to survive financially, and, besides, I fare better when I move through the world rather than residing in my own head. I write as soon and as often as I can, and I try to bring my projects—however small—to fruition . So, that’s what I would say. I would say be honest about how you work and who you read, what truly energizes you, and gravitate towards that. That’s what I would tell anyone. Find your home. It might take you 10 years, but that’s where pride and peace with your work comes from, I think. So, just take it down a step, to everyone. I mean, is that good advice?
DK: I think it’s fantastic advice. I think knowing, from my own experience and from what I’ve talked with other young poets and old poets alike—I’m an old poet—about that process…
JL: I’m an old poet, too.
DK: …the idea of scaling down the thinking and not being overwhelmed by the everywhereness and the nowhereness of the opportunity, I think what you are saying is super smart. And in this age where presses are emerging, while it’s a struggle to create one, there are more presses with more tastes and more aesthetics available than really ever.
JL: Yes, there really are.
DK: Even 10 years ago, there was really 10 places you could send—in total. I’m exaggerating for effect, but now, with so many smart people with so many different aesthetics producing so many beautiful books, 1913 and your book included, your advice might be the best advice I’ve heard ever. In looking for a place to place a first book, get smart and minimize the process.
JL: Thank you. Get smart and minimize the process. So many people say, “Just send everywhere.” No, no, because—places such as the Dalkey Archive are going to spurn me—I’m not going to send everywhere…
DK: Jane, I know this was our first; I hope this will not be our last conversation. And so, if you ever need to talk to somebody about poetry, you can just hit my name on Skype and we can have a conversation.
JL: I’d really like that, and would really love to read your work. I’m sorry I haven’t done so before. You know? We should be in touch.
DK: You would not be the only person who hasn’t read my work.
JL: Well, I appreciate you wanting to talk to me about Bravura Cool. So thank you.