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Guest Blogger for April - Keetje Kuipers

Keetje Kuipers' new book, Beautiful in the Mouth, is officially published by BOA this month! Her manuscript was selected by final judge Thomas Lux as winner of the 2009 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. Lux said of the book, “I was immediately struck by the boldness of imagination, the strange cadences, and wild music of these poems. We should be glad that young poets like Keetje Kuipers are making their voices heard not by tearing up the old language but by making the old language new.” In honor of the publication, we've asked Keetje to be BOA guest blogger for April. Here is her first installment: When BOA asked me to blog on their website for the month of April, I knew exactly where I wanted to start: From 2006-2008, the poet Kate Greenstreet kept a blog ( where she interviewed poets about the experience of publishing their first book. As she describes in her own interview, which concluded the series, “I was blogging and wanted to talk about new books... It occurred to me that I could interview the authors instead of trying to write critically about their books. Much easier, more fun! Also, my own first book was due to come out later that year and I wondered what would happen when it did. What had other people experienced?” My own first book, Beautiful in the Mouth, is available from BOA Editions starting this month, and so I’ve also been spending a lot of time thinking about how this experience is unfolding for me and how I want it to unfold. When I stumbled on Kate’s original blog last month, I read every single one of the interviews—I felt as though I needed as much information as I could get about this strange, new incarnation of my life! Of course, reading those interviews got me thinking about what my own answers would be to her questions. While Greenstreet’s website remains, she no longer conducts first book interviews. As she said in her final interview, “My book came out after I'd posted 32 interviews. I kept the project going until I thought it had reached a natural conclusion, about a year after that. By the time 103 poets had responded, I figured I knew what I hadn't known when I'd asked the questions originally.” I found the variety of answers to her questions fascinating, and I’ve used them to measure and temper my own experience as the author of a first book of poems. Alex Lemon offered one of my favorite pieces of advice: “A friend told me to give the book a life--and I've tried, and continue to try and do just that.” I found the responses of other poets deeply comforting in their willingness to admit the sort of post-partum sadness that can come with the actual arrival of the book. Most importantly, reading their interviews made me feel a sense of kinship with these poets—I’m not alone on this wild and crazy ride! Now I’d like to continue their conversation by adding my own two cents. With tremendous thanks to Kate Greenstreet, here are her original questions and my response: Your manuscript won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize from BOA Editions. How did you find out? Had you sent it out often before that? I’d been sending out my manuscript for a year and a half, and I’d been sending it everywhere, probably 5-10 contests every month. In fact, when I heard from BOA in March, I’d just finished putting together a huge packet of mailings to all the spring contests. Over that year and a half, I’d been a finalist or semi-finalist in a number of competitions. At first, this was really heartening—I thought I must be doing something right. However, after a year and a half of hearing “you were so close!” I’d begun to find the near-misses almost more upsetting than the contests I didn’t place in. In fact, I was in a pretty dark place the spring that Thom Ward and Peter Conners at BOA gave me a call. I’d begun to think that it was time to toss my manuscript—not just put it in a drawer, but permanently chuck it. Of course, it’d been through some heavy revision during that year and a half, and I figured that if that revision hadn’t done the trick, nothing would. I was convinced that it was a nice manuscript with some nice poems, and nothing more—it’s actually been quite hard to shake that suspicion, even now. But the week that I heard from BOA was truly amazing. It was March and I was just getting over a terrible flu. I had been knocked out for weeks, my body somehow exhibiting all the physical manifestations of how I was feeling emotionally: I was living in Missoula, Montana at the time, and while I had a wonderful job teaching at the University of Montana, an adorable house with a vegetable garden, and plenty of dear friends and family in my beautiful town, I was feeling lost and stunted in my life. As I said, I’d been sending out the manuscript for a year and a half, and was starting to feel fairly bleak about the whole thing. Also, my teaching life seemed stalled in perpetual adjuncting—I loved my students, but I was broke and it was a slog. At the same time, my then-partner was living hundreds of miles away in Las Vegas. Essentially, I felt as if some area of my life needed to grow and change, and I was at a loss for how I would make that happen. But that week it all happened, starting with a phone call that didn’t come from BOA: I had the flu and was in one of those strange, delirious states where you can’t really do anything, but at the same time the thought of being in bed for even one second longer is maddening. I’d decided to vacuum, which is what I was doing when my phone rang and I missed the call from Eavan Boland telling me that I’d been awarded a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. It seems absurd now, but I remember feeling very happy about the Stegner Fellowship and simultaneously lamenting the fact that the call wasn’t about my book. It’s embarrassing to admit that I could feel any disappointment in that moment, but it was the book that I’d worked for and the book that I wanted. Two days later, I was back at work at the University of Montana. To supplement my teaching income, I was tutoring at the writing center there, and I had a break between students. My phone rang and I saw that it was a number I didn’t recognize. What’s important to understand here is that when I first started sending out my manuscript, I’d had a sense of inevitable success about it. It wasn’t that I thought my poems were the best poems, but simply that I’d worked so hard on them that it would be impossible not for that work to be rewarded. I’d spent the first year answering unknown numbers on my phone with a sense of delighted expectation. Of course, by this point, I’d long since given up that fantasy. Instead, I assumed that it was a student calling about a late paper or a missed class. I ducked out into the hall where students were streaming past me and answered my phone with some irritation. When I heard Thom Ward, my soon-to-be editor at BOA, identifying himself on the other end of the line, I was supremely disoriented. I knew that something very exciting was happening, but I had a hard time understanding—or believing—what it was. Eventually, I started whooping and jumping up and down. Thom and Peter Conners, another editor at BOA, were so enthusiastic over the phone, I didn’t think they’d mind if I just gave myself over to the excitement of that moment. After that week of ridiculously good news, my friends kept telling me that I should play the lottery. I hate to say that the hard work that went into my book was actually partly luck, but there’s no denying that for that week I was a very lucky person. What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time? Thom had let me know that the book would be arriving earlier than we’d originally thought, in fact, it was set to be about a month earlier than we’d projected. I was excited, but also a little thrown off by this. I felt like I hadn’t had enough time to prepare for it—I’m not sure how I thought I was supposed to be preparing myself, or why I thought I needed more than a year to do so. I just knew that in my mind I’d planned on getting the book during Stanford’s spring break and having that time to sort of commune with it on my own. Anyway, the day the book was set to arrive on my doorstep, I knew I wouldn’t be home. I had to drive down to Stanford from San Francisco, and I wouldn’t be back until late. I live in an apartment building and I don’t have a doorman, so I assumed that what would ensue would be a week of missed package deliveries and fruitless calls to UPS. But Thom emailed me that day and told me that the train my books had been on had derailed! I later found out that derailed UPS trains aren’t that unusual, but at the time it seemed like the most bizarre thing that could have happened to my book. Delivery was rescheduled for the next day when I would be home. I woke up the next morning to the sound of a UPS truck pulling away from the front of my building. The buzzer on my door is broken and I assumed they’d tried to deliver but had given up. I dashed down the stairs and out of my building in my pajamas, but they were gone. I quickly put a note on the front door with my cell phone number and proceeded to hunker down and wait. However, every time a loud truck passed (which happens all the time in front of my building) I became frantic, so I knew I had to get out of my house. I put on my running shoes and took my dog, Bishop, for a jog. I had my phone in my pocket and was prepared to turn around and dash back as soon as I got the delivery call. But no call came. Instead, every time I turned a corner I’d see the UPS truck parked in front of someone else’s apartment building. This went on for forty-five minutes before I couldn’t take it anymore. I finally marched up to the guy driving the truck and told him that I thought he had a package for me. He handed over one of my boxes (there were two boxes, and the other was too heavy for me to carry) without even asking for identification. I was kind of appalled, but also delighted. Then I had an even bigger problem, though: I didn’t know what to do with my box of books. It seemed sort of sad and lonely to take them home and open them with my dog. As much as I wanted it to be a private moment, I hated the thought of not having anyone to share it with. Instead, I walked down the street and rang the doorbell of a friend, the poet Holly Virginia Clark, and opened the box in her entryway while her husband took pictures of me holding the book for the first time. In the photos I look kind of sweaty and disheveled from my run, but it was really the perfect way to experience that moment. [caption id="attachment_717" align="aligncenter" width="250" caption="Keetje Kuipers. Happy BOA Author."]Keetje Kuipers. Happy BOA Author.[/caption] Were you involved in designing the cover? Yes, BOA was really marvelous about the whole process. Thom told me right away that I should start thinking about the cover. Of course, I’d been thinking about the cover for years. Some girls imagine what their wedding dress will look like—I day-dreamed about my book cover. Two years earlier I’d had the great fortune of being chosen as the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident. The residency is administered by John Daniel of PEN Northwest and the two brothers who own the property where the residency takes place, Frank and Bradley Boyden. Frank is a tremendous visual artist, and as soon as I’d seen his work, I knew I wanted it for my cover. Frank’s work is very beautiful, but it can also be quite dark, and the first images that I selected weren’t ones that Thom and Peter were wild about. Many of the poems in my book deal with death and mortality, as well as the more metaphorical death of love. I really wanted a cover that somehow reflected this grappling. I think one of the images I was most drawn to was of a skeleton with his head tipped back, jaws open, about to take a bite out of a human heart. Peter eventually told me that it’d be better if the cover art didn’t have any skeletons or angry looking owls (another favorite of mine) in it. I eventually chose one of Frank’s other pieces that contained a heart, but this one was colorful, joyful, and full of vitality. This seemed right to me in so many ways, not least of all because I was so happy about the book, and wanted the cover art to somehow convey the happiness I was feeling (this is also why I’m grinning in my author photo). At that point, Sandy Knight took over. She’s the designer at BOA these days, and even though I know next to nothing about visual art and design, she was somehow able to channel my vague ideas into a truly magnificent book cover—I’m eternally grateful to Sandy. I think the cover turned out feminine but also tough and bold, which is exactly how I would characterize the poems inside. Before the day your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it? Yes, absolutely. I imagined my life would start changing the moment I found out that Thomas Lux had chosen my manuscript for BOA. What I experienced was something that all writers experience at many, many points throughout their writing lives: a sense of having arrived. We may feel this when we’re chosen for publication in a magazine we’ve always admired, or when we find a community of like-minded artists and writers who welcome us in. Of course, this feeling was almost simultaneously replaced with a crushing sense of responsibility: I needed to write the next book. I needed to prove my worth. I instantly felt as if I owed it to this unborn book to make something of the life I was bringing it into. I also felt that my life would change in the usual ways—professional recognition can open doors to more opportunities for things like jobs and fellowships. However, I mostly felt that my life would need to change. As I said, I thought I owed it to my book, and to BOA, to give the book the life it deserved. Even though I’d worked hard for this moment, I knew I would have to continue to work hard and I would have to continue to earn this privilege. How has your life been different since your book came out? Most of the changes in my life are difficult to gauge in terms of correlating them with the book because so many other factors in my life have shifted in the last year. I moved from Missoula to San Francisco, started the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, ended one romantic relationship and began another. I can definitely say that I’m happier now than I was a year ago, though I think that has less to do with the book itself than it does with the extremely active literary community that I’m now a part of. Of course the book is a huge part of that! Old friends from graduate school have looked me up since the book’s publication, mentors from years ago have re-entered my life. The book brought these people back into my world, and so my reading, thinking, and writing are much richer for it. Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises? I think many writers are familiar with the way that outside validation from people who don’t know you, who only know your poems—an editor at a magazine, for instance—can fuel a sense of confidence about your work. Of course, I think we’re also familiar with how fleeting that sensation generally is. I’ve always known that the real fuel comes from within, and I’ve never counted on outside support in order to feel like a writer. In fact, it took many years of writing poetry before I began to receive any sort of recognition from the larger writing community, so that has never been part of my drive to write. However, I think I thought it would be different when it came to the book. I think I imagined that sense of belonging would feel more permanent. It doesn’t. I still wake up every day feeling the need to reprove it and reprove it to myself. I think this is just the way with writing, though. It’s not like being a doctor or a lawyer. You may get a graduate degree, but hanging it on your wall doesn’t prove anything. Neither does having a book. The writers that I know and have the privilege of working with these days—my colleagues at Stanford, and folks all across the Bay Area’s writing community—mostly make me feel as though having a book isn’t any sort of big deal. They are such incredibly talented people. Some of them have books, some of them don’t, and you’d never be able to guess which is which. What have you been doing to promote the book, and what are those experiences like for you? The book is just officially out this week, so I haven’t actually hit the road yet in terms of giving readings from the book. All that starts next week in Denver, and then continues, for the month of April, in Philadelphia and then across the Pacific Northwest. In the meantime, I’ve been doing my best to lay the groundwork for a successful set of readings. As any writer will tell you, the business end of promoting a book is actually a ton of work, and not generally a whole heck of a lot of fun. But as I’ve said, I want to honor the poems in the book and the hard work that got them there by giving the book a good life. To that end, I’m utilizing social networking sites like Facebook, setting up readings across the country, sending out postcards (seeing those for the first time was almost as cool as seeing the book!), putting together interviews on public radio and television, and updating my own website as often as I can. This stuff has not been the fun part of the book. However, this promotional work has given me a wonderful opportunity to connect with old friends. Buddies from summer writing conferences, grad school friends, and other poets I met along the way at residencies and readings have been so generous and helpful in finding places for me to read. For instance, at the end of April I’ll be reading at the Doe Bay Resort on Orcas Island off the coast of Washington. This totally cool opportunity came about because of a dear friend I met at the Vermont Studio Center, the fiction-writer Cameron Walker. And in the fall I’ll be doing a series of readings across the Midwest, which is all thanks to various friends like the poet and fiction-writer Kevin Gonzalez (who I met at Bread Loaf), the poet Rob Schlegel (who I met at the University of Montana), and the fiction-writer Carol Roh-Spaulding (who I met at the Nimrod conference in Tulsa). I love that these people are still in my life and are so enthusiastic in their support of my book. What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got? I wish that someone had warned me about the temporary writer’s block that arrived with the actual delivery of the physical book. I wish someone had told me, “Don’t panic, don’t beat yourself up, don’t think too hard or too much about it!” I didn’t know that having the book come out would make me feel scared, vulnerable, and uncertain at times. I often feel like I’m not doing enough for the book, like this exciting time is slipping past me faster than I can grasp it, that I’m somehow wasting its preciousness. The best advice I’ve received—and so many people have told me this—is in direct response to the warnings I wish I’d gotten: Revel in this time! Be joyful! Celebrate! I often forget how extraordinary an experience this is, and that you only have a first book once. People who have encouraged me to kick off my shoes and do a little dance around the living room have been the best voices in my ear. What advice would you give now to someone about to have a first book published? Don’t feel guilty or shy about it. Self-promotion can look like a terrible thing in the poetry world, and it’s very much frowned upon. I’ve spent a lot of time feeling like a jerk about having my first book come out, especially since so many of my poet friends who don’t have books are doing work that knocks my socks off. All of these feelings are understandable, but I still think it’s important to shout it from the mountain tops. I’ve seen some great first collections come out completely under the radar, and stay there, because the poet was intent on being perceived as humble. If you’re a good writer and an honorable writer, you’ll always be humble in your heart, and you have to trust that your community will understand that about you. What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? Seeing the book in print has given me the opportunity to examine its shape and trajectory in a way that I wasn’t able to do when it was just a sheaf of pages. This has made me more conscious of the formation of books and how books written in a short period of time or centered around a single theme or question read very differently from those that aren’t. Seeing my book in print—a book that has poems in it that I wrote over a five year period, a book that wasn’t composed in response to one, single artistic exploration, but a number of exploratory moments—has made me want to write something very different. I’m now interested in writing a more compact collection of poems. I want the artistic experience of narrowing my focus and examining a certain, single idea. I’m thinking here of a book like Thistle, by Melissa Kwasny. I have no idea how long it took her to write the poems in that book—perhaps it was a much longer and less focused experience than I am imagining—but I’m very drawn to the experience of reading those poems in a single collection. They have a cohesion, and therefore a momentum, that intrigues me. So that’s what I’m working at now. Do you want your life to change? Well, not too much! Right now I’m splitting my time between San Francisco, where I’m a Stegner Fellow, and Missoula, Montana where I have a home. These are two of the most beautiful places in the world, in my opinion, and there are really very few other places I’d rather be. My life also gives me plenty of time to read and write, and I get to teach a little, too—so I’m doing all the things I love. I think the only sort of change I crave at this point is a little bit more stability in my life. I’ve been jumping from school to residency to fellowship to adjuncting and back for the greater part of a decade now. I think I’m ready to slow down and do my work in just one place for a while. Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world? Of course I do! I don’t think I could be a poet if I didn’t believe that. In fact, I’ve seen poetry create change in the world, most profoundly with my students in Montana. Montana has the highest per capita number of servicemen and women, and many of them are also students. I’ve seen the distinct effect that a poem can have on them: to soothe, to comfort, to rally, to defend, to heal. I’ve mostly taught non-traditional students at the University of Montana, so they’ve often been older than me, recovering addicts, former convicts, and single parents. They’ve had to bring their kids to class sometimes or do their homework in that brief period between getting off the night shift at the factory and coming in to class in the morning. They’ve been in combat, they’ve dropped out of high school. But I’ve seen poetry create explosions inside them, set them free from their grind, give them hope for their future. Poetry expands the world we live in while shrinking our common experiences to small, shared moments. If that kind of internal revelation doesn’t change the world, then I don’t know what does. I’ll be writing from the road for the next few weeks as I begin to travel to promote Beautiful in the Mouth. First stop, Denver for the AWP Conference—I hope to see you there at my reading with Cecilia Woloch and Dan Albergotti at 8pm on Friday, April 9 at the D’Vine Winery (1660 Champa Street). Or, if you can’t make it, check back here for updates and photos from the road!
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