The thud at the front screen door announced the arrival of Continental Drifts, my new poetry book. I ripped open the envelope to hold the culmination of months of writing and years of sending it to publishers. I returned upstairs to my office, placed the book on the couch, and returned to work.
A few days later, I had yet to mention its receipt to anyone. Previous books incited me to grab the phone immediately to announce its arrival. My indifference this round was bothersome. How was it possible that it left me so blasé?
In contrast, its inception enthralled me, coinciding with reading the Zohar, a central text in Jewish mysticism written around 1300. Occasionally, books impact me by firing my imagination and compelling me to write, and such was the case with Daniel Matt’s translation of this dense text. Every few words translated from Aramaic ignited a poem, my language surging with an urgency that required effort to stem, which I didn’t. Committing myself to writing a book requires that the initial inspired vision be strong and insistent enough to last through editing and the labor of finding a publisher. Continental Drifts, much of the first draft written in an ecstatic frenzy, had that strength.
The medieval text exhibits an approach to language that often makes its way into my poetry: nonlinearity, a multiplicity of meanings, connotation and associative leaps as significant as the literal reading. The Zohar’s author, Moses de Leon, recognized that language is not static. To portray existence truthfully, a text must encourage multiple interpretations. We may crave certainty, but language, which we rely on and believe capable of precise meaning, must be a door that simultaneously opens and closes. The seven styles and sections in Continental Drifts give the illusion of difference, but like seismic activity and shifting continents, a larger view and recurring themes reveals connections. “Psst, this way. Was a book,” reads the first page.
A book’s birth gets us to see where we are and aren’t, who we’ve been and who we’re becoming. Sarah Rosenthal’s, Manhatten, assisted her reflections concerning a move across the country. The book came to her, she explains,
as an ah-ha moment at a time when I was feeling the tug to move to New York after many years in San Francisco. Writing a book centered in New York was a way to move there metaphorically. The form of the book came to me simultaneously with the focus on New York: I knew immediately there would be a column of prose juxtaposed with lineated poetry. I thought at first that there would be prose on every verso page and poetry on every recto page; much later in the game I decided to weave the prose and poems into a single narrative, albeit a fractured and nonlinear one.
Not every poet gets struck by an ah-ha moment. Camille Martin offers what took place with Sonnets:
There’s no epiphany when the book says, Here’s the vision of the feast, now just figure out the ingredients! It starts with play—introducing cinnamon to tarragon and both to scallops (or what’s more likely, introducing a sewing machine to an umbrella on a dissecting table). The poems come into being through play, and they evolve into larger shapes by sparking conversations among themselves. The writing itself might progress fairly quickly once the book senses what it needs to do, but I’m also constantly revising—that’s the slow boil.
Norman Fischer experiences a different process for each book. He says, “Usually works pop up that want to be written, vague sounds/ideas, sounds that are ideas, ideas that are sounds. Several works appear related to the sound (that is a period of time, personal and historical time) and then I realize I have a book, I can see the whole book.”
After however long it takes to write the book, sift through edited drafts, secure a publisher and decide on a cover, the inevitable, usually hoped-for but sometimes blasé thud hits. The mail carrier delivers the package. Manhatten’s release for Rosenthal was similarly disenchanting. She says, “The arrival of the actual book was in one sense anticlimactic; it felt in a way like merely the next iteration of a project I was frankly ready to be done with. Bumping up against that feeling was awe at the thing-ness of it, the way it inhabited the world as an object that was me and not me, the way it entered into the company of every book I have ever held and read.”
Says Fischer, “When the actual book comes in the mail I am happy to see it but oddly without much sense of pride or accomplishment. I consider all my books to have fallen short of the mark, not quite right. A box of copies of my latest book serves as a goad to the next book. Maybe next time it will be right. By now I realize it is always going to be this way. It is very funny and foolish.”
Martin maintains enthusiasm. She explains, “I feel gratitude for the care that the publisher has taken in the book’s production and for the encouragement and help of friends. And I also feel the pangs of a parent sending a child out into the world. I hope it’s good and that others think it’s good, but I also secretly hope it gets into mischief.”
Mischief. Hmm. I prefer it to my indifference. I’d like my book to get into a bit of trouble.