Next week I should receive my advance hard copies of Poetry’s Possible Worlds. I feel like I’m facing a portal, a door to strange woods opening at the back of a wardrobe. I know book launches are lucky and thrilling, but they also ramp my anxiety right up, especially the tasks that involve talking up my book’s amazingness and asking people to give it various kinds of attention.
Other boundaries precede and follow it: a doozy of a Winter Term ended Friday, so onward I forge into grading and revising committee reports. The barrage of university deadlines is slowing, though, so maybe I’ll be able to celebrate part of National Poetry Month for real. I’ll certainly read a lot. Starting to write and submit again, though: that gives me the alarming facing-the-portal feeling, too. I know, as a practically grizzled person in her fifties, that the ability to write and think has always come back in the past and probably will again. But crossing the threshold from busy-busy to slow thoughtfulness is always hard for me. As I tell my writing students, starting from a cold stop is HARD. Once you’re into the swing again, there are different kinds of difficulties–finding structures and words, killing your darlings–but that panicky feeling subsides. Until you’re ready to publish, when it roars back again in altered forms.
When I was finalizing the ms, I fizzed with worry about my last chance to get it right. Now my apprehensions are less about the book’s content and more about my responsibility to give the 10 years of work this book represents a better chance of reaching audiences. With that in mind, I’ve done it: I’ve hired a publicist, Heather Brown of Mind the Bird Media, for a few months to help launch Poetry’s Possible Worlds. Many of us learned via Twitter this year that the top publicists charge something like $30K or more for a book launch, which is a little startling, but I also don’t feel like judging people about those choices. That level of investment isn’t in the cards for me for a LOT of reasons; the publicists I interviewed offer their services at much lower cost and, not incidentally, specialize in small press books. They use their contacts to pitch media coverage; help send out review copies; query potential reading venues; and more, depending on what an author needs. One observation from early in the working relationship is that it’s helpful to have an ally whose job it is to stay enthusiastic when your own confidence flags! I don’t know yet how much success we’ll have; everything is still in process. But it feels like the right career moment to try this strategy. I couldn’t have afforded it as I was starting out, but these days money is easier to spare than time. I’ll keep you posted.
Otherwise, my March was crowded with conferences and events, all of which went well. It was so sweet to see many old poetry friends again and chat with writers whom I’d only “met” virtually. The lunches and coffees at AWP were particularly wonderful, as was an enthusiastic book-buying crowd at the Virginia Festival of the Book. A LOT of friends talked about retiring, or are actually doing so or at least downshifting. And a LOT of them are talking about hiring publicists, or told me they’ve done it already…I’m wondering to what extent this might be a sea-change, making poets (the ones with disposable cash, which is probably a minority) more like writers in potentially better-selling prose genres.
Yesterday I also presented a 40-minute lecture at a W&L “Lifelong Learning” (read alumni-focused) event devoted to The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, a former student of mine–which was fun and rewarding, but another big hurdle to jump in this spring of serious work. I’ve been planning some launch events, too, although I need to arrange more and write another side piece related to my book and/or arrange an interview or something (way harder than grading, if you ask me). If you have other ideas, I’m all ears. Publicists help, but there’s no way for an author to find audiences without putting in a lot of time and effort herself, as Rebecca’s strenuous touring reminds me. The woman gets around and it pays off.
More on Poetry’s Possible Worlds soon. In the meantime, here’s one of the poems I published in Interim recently, “Memorandum of Understanding,” which concerns the threshold between me and a maybe supernatural world, and another recent publication in Birmingham Poetry Review. “In the Belly” is one translation of Imbolc, St. Brigid’s Day, midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It’s a seasonal hinge; the poem marks one years ago during which I suddenly felt the ground below me as support, holding me up. It turns out life is full of these soft transitions–harsh boundaries like my mother’s death in April of last year are rarer–but all can be freighted with feeling, at least if you’re listening for a knock at the door.