“If you have time to spare, ride your bike there.
The library is great; let’s have a parade!” –G., age 7
I love my public library. I should—I come from a library-going, poetry-writing family. When my younger brother was in second grade, he won the prize for his age category in the local library’s library-themed kids’ poetry contest. He composed the whole poem in his head, and my mom transcribed and submitted it. The concluding lines are quoted above. (I’m pretty sure the semicolon was mom’s.) The prize was a colorful ribbon and the poem’s being displayed in the library showcase. To us, that library was a magic place. The kids’ room with a round couch, skylights in the ceiling festooned with fancy kites. The quiet research area, so mysterious, so inaccessible. The giant, barely-spinnable globe.
A year or two after that, I won a school-based poetry prize. My mostly white, largely Jewish middle school had an annual Diversity Day (capping off a four-week curricular Black History Month) in which students cooked and brought in foods from our own ethnic traditions, shared knowledge about known and lesser-known African American historical figures and wrote well-intentioned “brotherhood poems.” I recently found mine and it was not as awkward as I thought. Called “Unity Through the Ages,” the poem summarizes tragic historical events and ends with an ironical hope for better (in full rhyme and meter). It wasn’t unusual, in my family or in my town, for a twelve year old to be comparing and contrasting the Holocaust and lynchings. Here’s a middle stanza:
Only the surface unmarred by a ruffle,
The little ripples are carefully muffled.
Racism walks with a quiet shuffle;
We don’t always see the scuffle.
Semicolon! Capitalization! And, yeah, a sincerity of intent. Poetry was the only thing that seemed able to reach those extreme realms of thought or emotion around death and love. And if there are two things an adolescent is concerned with, it’s death and love writ large. (The poems I wrote about my crushes at that time are only slightly quieter than the ones I wrote about World War Two.) I got to read my poem out loud to the other students and our parents at the big ethnic-foods lunch, and the English teachers awarded me a prize. It was everything I could have wanted: a sparkly hair clip and a small leather wallet in reggae colors.
Prizes are nice. Writing for its own sake is also nice. Personal expression, etc. But then there was that moment I realized that other people were affected by what I wrote. The experience I had reading poems in books—connecting with a voice, a personage, real or fictive, who seemed to already have thought of and put on paper things I believed—was something I could give to other people. I was always going to keep writing poems, but it was the Diversity Day recognition I received that made me want to keep entering contests. To submit to my high school literary magazine. And, in college in the late nineties, collect my poems and have them bound at Kinko’s into little ten-page chapbooks that I gave to my friends and parents. And, as a young adult, submit steadily and unsteadily over years, winding up with a few publication credits online and in print. To reach people, tiny numbers of people, and know that my words and weird enjambments resonated somewhere outside my own skull.
All of which led, naturally enough, to putting together a book-length poetry manuscript. I submitted some version of it to various contests judged by well-known poets whose work I respected, and I received pro forma rejection letters from the editors every time. I wasn’t too dismayed, but I wasn’t satisfied either. My work needed to land somewhere. To keep myself motivated, I framed the exercise as a means to becoming a really great reviser of my own work. A keen self-scrutinizer, the way a classical musician should be.
When a friend, who works for the library here in town, pointed me toward a call for submissions by local authors put out by the library itself, it was one of those coincidences that would only seem weird if you had walked into the movie just then. My whole bookish life was actually leading up to such an event. I love the library. I love the new, naturalistic architecture of my local branch, and the straightforward assertiveness of the downtown main building. I love the kids’ room with the fairy doors in the shelves. I love the used book sales, the wonky workshops, the network of connected libraries where I have never failed to find any obscure work I wished, to have it delivered to within a mile of my house. And I love that they started a press to give local authors a means to get their work into many people’s laps. Do ride your bike there. We should have a parade.
I duly revised my manuscript again and submitted it. Then, imagine an underscored montage of the library’s in-house press receiving my work, and me waiting for word for the better part of a year, and me shrugging and assuming they were not interested. And a library staffer emailing me to say that they were interested in my manuscript, but needed me to resubmit it. The whole process repeats itself. Six weeks elapse, instead of months. And just when I get ready to take my manuscript elsewhere, a different library staffer sends me this email:
First, sorry for the delay in responding; it’s taken us a bit longer than we expected to get through all the submissions.
Second, we want to publish your book! (<—buried the lede)
We’re shooting for a fall launch of the press with 10 (and counting) titles, perhaps in November and tying it to NaNoWriMo event
Do you have any photos or images you’d like to use for the cover? If not, our designer can look for some things if you have ideas about what you’d like to feature on the cover.
Feel free to ask me any questions, or let me know if you’d like to meet up to discuss anything, including the cover.
Fruition again. No prizes, no money, just the best result of all: a small local press, run by city library staff, will be formatting and publishing my book of poems. They will be e-publishing it for free circulation to all library card holders. They will be promoting it at community events. They might even take my author photo! Gosh, what should I wear?
Now I’m figuring out how to be an author, more so than before. So I start this blog to let folks know about the book, still a few months in the offing. I connect with author friends and ask eleventy thousand questions, and I email library staffers with a degree of enthusiasm and detail that is probably annoying even to people who fully comprehend the Dewey system. I chat with local book shop owners about holding events. I do these things because I’m curious about how to connect, and you can’t know if you don’t ask.
I produce new work. Producing new work right now is especially joyous, because it feels like my writing has a place to land. I remember my beginnings: Doctor Seuss, Mother Goose, A Child’s Garden of Verses, Shelley, Burns and Byron, Whitman, then Hughes, Lorca, Neruda, Martí, Brooks, Szymborska, Milosz, Yeats, Lynch, Walker,Wilbur, Merwin, Piercy, Cummings, Ostriker, Gregerson, Ryan. (I once wrote Kay Ryan a fan poem in the style of Kay Ryan. She wrote me back, on a postcard with one of her poems. I forgot to keep a copy of the poem I sent her, but I have the one she sent me.)
I remember my libraries. The childhood one, that rewarded my brother’s enthusiasm. The elementary school library where I first read about Dr. King and Rosa Parks. The middle school library where I first heard the word “periodicals.” The high school library with a section of books by alumni and wooden ladders on metal rails. The various college libraries with their moldy stacks, their absolute hush, the odd intimacy of carrels. Their photocopiers. Their endless scope.
To pick up where we left off: after the brotherhood poem, and a very near loss in the district spelling bee, I must have been designated Word Girl of the eighth grade. A poem of mine was also read at middle school graduation. It wasn’t the one I first submitted. The one they read was somewhat fatuous, as grad poems tend to be. The one I wanted was about teenage girls’ social pressures and was titled “Anorexic Thespians.” My takeaway there was that you can write what you want, and you can get some notoriety, but it might not be for the same work.
Finding out whether that was true took the next couple of decades. And I’m still finding out. And I’ll let you know. In the meanwhile, I hope to share, here, my adventures as a member of the first group of authors published by this press, in this way. I’d like to share work by better, better-known poets and comment on why I think they are worth reading. I’d like some part of something I write to reach you, and I’d be honored if you reached back.