4/1/13: Identity Theory
2/19/13: A “Next Big Thing” Self-Interview
I’m super excited that my good friend Seth Abramson tagged me to participate in the Next Big Thing self-interview series about recently published or up-and-coming books. You can check out Seth’s interview here. As per the rules of the game, I’m tagging five more writers who will be posting their Next Big Thing self-interviews next Wednesday (2/27): Gregory Sherl, C. Russell Price, John Buckley, Chelsea Wagenaar, and Safiya Sinclair. And, keep a lookout for their great books!
What is the title of the book?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
The book is made up of two long, narrative poems. I wrote them separately, without the original intent of combining them—that only came later, when I needed to “make a book.” The first poem is a series of epistolary persona poems “written by” Adam (of the Garden of Eden fame) to Grace Kelly, a classic Hollywood actress whom my mom often referred to as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” I wrote the first drafts of these poems, collectively called “The Everywhere Letters,” in about 3-4 weeks during the fall of my third year as an undergrad at UVA. The second section is “Poems for Sarah Bernhardt.” It’s an abecedarian—meaning each section gets a letter, and every line in that section begins with that letter—exploding the life of stage great Sarah Bernhardt. I spent my final semester of college working on this sequence—it was originally in response to a “choose your own form” prompt for my prosody seminar with Stephen Cushman. I think we were supposed to write a page-long poem or something. I wrote twenty-seven. Oops.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
My family used to spend Sundays at flea markets, shopping for antique toys, so I didn’t grow up with a traditional version of the divine. When I was in high school, I was introduced to pantheism and panentheism and a thousand other –isms, and I became enchanted with religion. At the same time, I was obsessing over studio era Hollywood. I hoarded books about it—vintage pulps, biographies, coffee table Life special editions—and took copious notes on them in my writing journals. I watched all of the Best Pictures (affectionately referred to as B.P.’s) and all of the AFI Top 100 films. Over time, I began to realize that these movie stars had become a kind of American pantheon. Gene Kelly was a god, Frank Sinatra was a god, Marilyn Monroe a goddess—if one type of icon, what would it mean for them to be another? I don’t necessarily mean this in a nutcase blood-inked letters sort of way, but in the way that—in a sense—cinema does grant immortality. These are all ideas that contributed to both of the poems in God Factory.
What genre does the book fall under?
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Aha! Trick question. I’m of course tempted to cast only beautiful, dead people in my poems. Who wouldn’t be? In some obvious ways, I think I’m definitely Adam in “The Everywhere Letters,” as a lot of things that happened to him (getting caught playing hookey at Kohl’s, watching Dawson’s Creek during my sick days) happened to me. There’s also some Seth Cohen in Adam, I’m sure. Who played Seth Cohen? Adam Brody? Yes—perfect. And a hologram of Grace Kelly would have to play herself. I imagine it would be of the caliber of Leia’s in Star Wars. In “Poems for Sarah Bernhardt,” on the other hand, I could see an I’m Not There casting scenario happening. But it’s hard, because who—besides Sarah Bernhardt—could ever pretend to be Sarah Bernhardt?
What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Everything all the time. (Thanks, Radiohead.)
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Both poems are fairly researched, so I could plop in an MLA-formatted bibliography and leave it at that, but I won’t be so mean. During the time that I was writing “The Everywhere Letters,” we were reading a lot of epistolary and ecstatic poems in my workshop, especially poems that conflate the little-and-big-B-beloved. Think the Bhakti tradition, particularly the songs of Mirabai. We were also reading Emily Dickinson and Lucie Brock-Broido’s respective The Master Letters, which are of a similar vein, but at the same time are in love with language.
“Poems for Sarah Bernhardt,” however, kind of spontaneously germinated from a massive buildup of inspirations. I’d read one other abecedarian years before—Carolyn Forché’s. Other than that, I think there’s definitely some mysticism that comes with the form and its length—its infatuation with cataloging and capturing everything—that I was reading in old school poems like Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and Smart’s “Jubilate Agno.” The thing that inspires me to write is almost always reading. And listening to the Decemberists. But that’s like reading with your ears.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
God Factory is concerned with things that are true and/or good and/or beautiful. (Which is what—Kant? Plato?) I know it’s a very broad-picture answer, but don’t we all have the same questions? I mean, isn’t that what makes us human together—that we’re perplexed by the same problems, that we’re haunted by love and death and things that are larger than we are?
And if that’s not good enough, perhaps knowing that Red Vines, an amputated leg, The Arcade Fire, and Hamlet all make an appearance will whet your appetite?
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Well, it’s out at contests right now, trying its luck. So hopefully with a press someday soon! (Last year it was a finalist in the Milkweed Editions Lindquist and Vennum Prize.)
I wish I could paint or draw. If I could make anything a tenth as breathtaking as William Blake’s illuminated manuscripts, I would self-publish God Factory without a second thought (in a super limited edition of maybe ten). And they’d each be a little different, and you’d have to get a copy by bartering with me. And I would only barter for other artists’ books, or root beer. We’d make up our own little economy, and yeah, it would be divine.