My Favorite 14-Year-Old Interviews Me

Posted on September 6, 2013


new dominion laughing_2  Last spring I was interviewed, rather informally by a 14-year-old boy, one I happen to know quite well, whose school project was to recreate a Studs Terkel “Working” sort of oral history, and who rather inexplicably chose me as his subject. I saved that transcript for later, and here, as I enter my 15th year at the helm of Tupelo Press (“Where wilt thou lead me?”) it so happens that “later” is now. I thought it might be fun to start off a new year (that would be the year 5774 by the Old Calendar) of blogging with this bit of oral history.

[Note: Next week’s blog explores the role of improvisation in the creating, care and feeding of a poem, because I can tell you after 15 years of reading 3,000 to 4,000 manuscripts a year, what most catches my eye (but rarely) in a great submission is the poet’s willingness to embrace the uncertainties of “improvisation.” Why improvisation? Because improvisation lies at the very heart of the creative process. Improvisation provides us with a means of stretching out the corners of the imagination and discovering new relationships between ideas, emotions, and the “things” of the world. Improvisation “makes it new.”

If you might care to explore the world of improvisatory listening and writing with me – in person – bear inpiano innards mind our upcoming Poetry as Improvisation: A Tupelo Press Conference in the Round improvisation-based writing and revision, Friday, October 25th through Monday, October 28th at the Round House in the Mountains of Western Massachusetts. This extraordinary conference will include talk/demonstrations from some wonderful and famous musicians (including Charles Neville, the jazz saxophonist with the Neville Brothers) — absolutely no musical experience needed — and the weekend will involve both generating new work, deep “improvisatory” revision of already existing poems, and both workshops and one-on-one conferences, giving close attention to the work – new and revised. Mainly, it will be (a) life-changing, and (b) a hoot.]

But for now, here it is, Tupelo y Yo. A life.

1.    What made you choose your job? I like this question very much, because it seems to me that there are at least three kinds of jobs: the kind that you choose, the kind that you just sort of fall into, and the kind that you create. I created this one. I guess you could say that I’m entrepreneurial – that I like creating things that I can be in charge of and make work (or not) pretty much on my own. After many years of doing other things (which I’ll describe or, at any rate, list, later on), I decided to get my Masters of Fine Arts in poetry. Now, writing poetry isn’t your everyday job description – it’s work, but not a job in the sense of paying work, unless you get a job teaching poetry at a college or university. But I didn’t want that. I wanted to create a small nonprofit publishing house that had a mission of discovering great, mostly young, writers, and designing, editing, publishing, and distributing their books. I knew there wouldn’t be much money in it, but I knew it would be so very satisfying to make these books, to give young “emerging” writers (meaning writers who deserved to be known, but weren’t yet there), a “vehicle” – and entry into the world of literature.

2.     How did you start Tupelo Press? So, in 1999 I created this “job” out of, well, nothing.  I knew what I wanted tophone do, but I didn’t really know very much about doing it. Strictly speaking, that’s not really true. It would be more true to say that I didn’t really know anything about it, except, I felt I had one important talent: that I could trust my judgment about what great writing looked — and sounded — like. (Every entrepreneur needs a healthy dollop of ego.) So, I rented a little office on the second floor of the U.S. Post Office in Walpole, NH, and I found a desk and a chair, a telephone (remember those), a computer and a printer and set about learning my craft.

3.     What other jobs have you had? Well, if you don’t count the stuff I did while in high school and college, the jobs I’ve had in my so-called adult life have all had to do with teaching, or with practicing law, or with playing music, or with writing. Usually, two or three of those things at the same time. I’ve played the clarinet professionally, and for decent money, in symphony orchestras and opera orchestras, and I’ve played guitar for fairly small change in coffee houses. I’ve taught clarinet and guitar privately. I’ve had some interesting teaching jobs: the first one at Skidmore College teaching music for dance and theatre in the, well, dance and theatre departments. I’ve taught English Literature in about six different colleges and universities widely spread out over a period of, I don’t know, 40 years or so, and I’ve taught high school English – in a private school in Connecticut for about 7 years, and much earlier, for a year in the International American School in Tel Aviv, Israel, where I can’t say I improved my Hebrew very much, but loved being there, that overwhelming sense of history that you get in the Middle East, including living for a time on a Kibbutz and sleeping to the sound of Syrian rockets exploding in the fields. But I’m getting off the subject. I spent about 25 years practicing law. First, as a criminal defense lawyer in New York City – as a Public Defender, and later, after a bit of training, as a corporate lawyer, and after that, as the head lawyer and what’s known as a senior vice president in two different corporations, one after the other.  There was some fun there. I got to travel a lot, and sometimes even to places that interested me: California, Chicago, Arizona, Mexico, West Africa, and a number of Caribbean islands.

4.     What’s your favorite part of the job? My work for Tupelo Press, which is the name of my little publishing house, is really two jobs: the job of being Editor-in-Chief, which has to do with all the artistic stuff: reading manuscripts, rating manuscripts according to how good I feel they are, deciding on what manuscripts will be published (turned into books), editing those manuscripts, working with book designers and translators. The other part of my job is being the Publisher. The Publisher manages all of the business of the company, manages all of the people in the company, and in a not-for-profit company (like Tupelo Press) it also means spending a lot of time (a LOT of time) finding money, because independent literary presses don’t actually generate a lot of income. So I search for foundations and government departments that offer grants to non-profits like ours, and I write grant proposals. I spend a lot of time as Publisher finding people to join our board of directors, because those people help me find financing. I invent special projects that I think will help with our financing needs, projects like poetry competitions (where we charge reading fees). By far, my favorite part of the work I do for Tupelo Press has to do with discovering great writing and then, having the pleasure of calling some struggling writer and telling him or her that Tupelo Press will publish their book. We’ve been doing this for almost 15 years now, and there aren’t many writers in the country who wouldn’t be totally delighted to have Tupelo Press publish their book. That’s a very, very satisfying thing to know about one’s life’s work. If you want to poke around at Tupelo Press, here’s the link to our website: Check out the 30/30 project. Check out our Million-Line Poem.

5.     Who’s your favorite poet? I don’t have a favorite piece of poetry any more than I have a favorite food. There are so many kinds of poetry, and you know, the amazing thing is, there’s really no single definition of poetry. Every single poet, in the course of writing, announces to the world what a poem is; and that’s what I look for: a poet who makes the thing new. There must be dozens and dozens of poets I couldn’t live without, going back to Homer, to Sappho, to all those guys you read in Latin, the ancient Chinese poets, and going all the way forward to some pretty lavishly gifted poets writing today. Anne Carson. Jorie Graham. Merwin. Dan Beachy-Quick. Your mom.

Jim Schley

Jim Schley, Managing Editor

6.   Who’s your favorite co-worker? My favorite co-worker? Not really a fair question, because Tupelo Press is so small, there’s just a small handful of us: Jim Schley, the best Managing Editor any press could ever want, ever, period, and Marie Gauthier, the best sales and marketing director any press could want, Kirsten Miles, who somehow manages to manage the Southern Territories and Other Less Remote Territories Within the Empire, and Rose Carlson, who wears about a dozen hats expertly and at jaunty angles. And then there’s David Rossiter, a retired mathematician who packs and ships our books because, well, that’s what he wants to do. That’s the job he wants. And our newest, Jessamyn Smyth, an amazingly gifted woman who heads up the brand new Tupelo Quarterly, our electronic journal. These are all great people.

7.     What is your job officially? I’m not exactly sure what you mean, but I think I answered this in number 5, talking about the duties of the Publisher and the Editor-in-Chief, the two very different yet linked jobs I seem to have created for myself.

Marie Gauthier, Director of Sales and Marketing (with Georgia)

8.     What is your average day like? I have no average day. There are so many different parts of my job – my jobs – and for that reason, every single day is different. I might spend an entire day reading manuscripts, or editing them. I might spend a morning working on the “business” of the Press – banking, cash-flow projections, calling potential donors, writing grants. I might spend an afternoon conferring with Jim Schley on a few possible design choices for a book we’re preparing, or trying to think up a new and more effective way of getting our sales team (a group of people we’ve hired to go into bookstores and sell our books) to work a little harder. Like you, I multi-task a lot, often doing two or three things at once, and if there’s an afternoon baseball game I can live-stream, well, that’s happening too!

9.     What did you want to be when you were a child? Ah! I wanted to be a naval architect, to design enormous sea-going ships. I wanted to be a great conductor. I wanted to be a writer. Not just any writer. I wanted to be D.H. Lawrence, and after that I wanted to be Hemingway, and after that, James Joyce, and after that, a guy named Michael who was the most gifted writer in my high school (and probably the most gifted writer I’ve ever known), but he went on to study Japanese and Chinese and gave up poetry. Too bad. Like you, for a time I wanted to be a chef. I made a pretty mean paella from the time I was seven or so. Did I mention that I wanted to be one of the best all time baseball players? Oh, and I wanted to be someone who could dunk a basketball. Roger Angel, an editor of The New Yorker, who writes a lot about the trials and travails of baseball, wrote once (this about being a long-suffering Mets fan), “Being an adult is learning to make do with partial rewards.”

10.  What’s the hardest part of your job? If the easiest part of my job is saying “yes” to people we choose to publish, the hardest part of my job is saying “no” to those we don’t want to publish. We get about 3,000 – 4,000 manuscripts a year. We say yes about 14 – 15 times a year. That leaves a whopping big bowl of no. I know how hard writers work; I know about the enormous dreams they each have for their own lives and careers, and I hate being the one to say no.

11.  Are you content with your job? That’s an important question, whether I’m “content” with my job, because I think – this after 64 years of life experience – that there’s almost nothing more important than being content with one’s work. Yes. What I do gives me pleasure and also it gives me anxiety, but at the end of the day, when I look at the shelves full of books we’ve published and think about ways those books contribute to culture, to art, to literature in America, it’s a pretty darned satisfying feeling. Mainly. Every so often. Now and then.

Rose Carlson, Administrative Director

Rose Carlson, Administrative Director

12.  What’s your favorite moment from your job? My favorite moment from my job is really a recurring moment, and it’s the one I mentioned before: when everybody has left the Tupelo Loft, called it a day, and I’m there alone with the books on the shelves and the books in boxes and the manuscripts stacked up on the sorting table and the left-over coffee and the windows wide open on the Berkshire mountains, and I have time to think with no small pleasure about the difference this Press has made in the world, or anyway, the difference I imagine it has made, and that it amounts to a kind of modest legacy, and if I’m wrong about that, still there are those mountains.

13.  How would you describe your lifestyle? Lifestyle? It’s not a moneymaker, being a nonprofit publisher. But it’s a lifestyle maker. It lets me do what I love, and if that’s not lifestyle, I don’t know what is. And it gives us enough so that, between your mom’s job and mine, we can live in our sweet little house with a wonderful garden and the woods so close by and the river just down below and the sound of the river always and the baby grand piano and our music room (formerly, the dining room) and your new bachelor pad downstairs and the twin beauties at the end of the hallway and the occasional Oli sighting. We have great friends, all of us, and we have a Thai restaurant and an Indian one and the bells from Williams College every hour all night under a dazzling canopy of stars, and every now and then the sound of the train and, of course, an occasionally affectionate if somewhat superannuated and rather psychotic cat.

David Rossiter, Fulfillment Director

David Rossiter, Fulfillment Director

14.   What’s the worst poem you’ve ever seen? The worst poetry? You mean, other than “Trees”? Oh god. Don’t get me started. There’s a lot of really bad poetry in the world. The thing about it is this: there’s a lot of really good poetry, too.

15.   What past experience helps you most in your job? Every past experience helps me in my job. All those years of lawyering taught me certain ways of thinking (some of them useful), of managing, of solving problems or recognizing what’s not solvable. But no less important were (and are) all those years of making music, because writing – poetry especially – is about music, its sounds, its rhythms, even its silences. And the cooking, though that was never a real “job,” but you know, learning how to find ingredients, combine them creatively, and make something tasty out of them is an art that lies at the very root of everything else. The act of teaching, importantly, taught me how to teach, and editing is teaching, fund-raising is teaching, managing people is teaching. Living though a night on a Kibbutz in Israel with rockets bursting in the fields and not in the living quarters gives one the sort of perspective on what’s important, a perspective that’s useful to someone who spends the day reading poetry and novels and memoirs and such, because you have a way of measuring what matters. By the way, sitting in the middle of an orchestra is, among many other things, a daily lesson in listening. Listening well: the most underrated skill a writer, a musician, a parent, a poet, a human being can possess. Cats, not so much.

16. libreria  What bothers you most about your job? I get irritated on my job when I forget the lesson I seem to have to learn over and over again: that people are needy, that, as Andre Malraux said, “There’s no such thing as a grown-up person,” even the ones we publish. All writers have a fantasy of what it will mean and what it will feel like to become a published writer, to have that coveted book, to have a beautiful book cover, to find one’s book in bookstores, to be asked to give readings—all those things that actually do happen to a young writer. But in truth, those experiences never fully match the fantasy of acclaim. There’s really not much veneration to go around in the world unless you’re a movie star or a famous rap artist or celebrity chef, and even then, as you know, it lasts only a short time. Even fireworks last a short time. Which is why family, and the piano, and the gold finches, and especially, one’s own writing.  And gelato.

17.   What’s your process for hiring people? I look for people who are way overqualified and who want to do this work anyway because they love this work, even knowing that they could get a “real” job. I rely on resume and instinct. Mainly, though, I love the fact that we hold onto our crew. I’ve been very lucky with my hires, and I have no idea how I’d replace any of the core members of our team.

18.   Tell me a funny story about your job. Ok. Well, one time time, and this is pretty recent, I arrived at a fund-raiser in my black cashmere jacket and gorgeous white shirt and Armani tie, all of which I tell you because the chef and host, let’s call her “M,” had me taste all the hors d’oeuvres first, and one bite into a thing with minced short ribs and potato crust, one finger full, it exploded and there went my shirt, my tie, and my jacket. So after the detonation, and really, the little canapé is still exploding like one of those fireworks that does one thing and then another thing and then another, and I’m standing next to M as she’s waiting, expectantly, nervously, for me to tell her how wonderful the short ribs potato thing is, and I’m plunging my white paper napkin into my tumbler filled with ice water and daubing at my tie, my jacket, my shirt, then taking off the tie and squeezing lemon juice all over it, then holding the tie in my left hand, the tie dripping water and lemon juice, and daubing at my shirt, the formerly white one, all the while still holding onto the remnants of the exploded canapé in my left hand which also now clutches a red napkin along with the white, and trying to keep in mind that it would be a bad idea to daub at any of my clothes with a red anything and more-or-less remembering that, and Marie Gauthier coming over and saying, good god, Jeffrey, what happened to your shirt, and M is beaming, and I say, the same thing that


happened to my tie and my beautiful black cashmere jacket, and one of M’s servers comes by and offers me red wine and more hors d’oeuvres (mushrooms stuffed with something all on top of something brittle) . . . this while M is standing in front of me, smiling from ear-to-ear, vibrating, rocking slightly from side to side, unable to bear the pause after which pause surely I will spurt an enthusiastic spate of compliments and close noticings about the melding of flavors the slight smokiness of it all and the exceptional, um, juiciness contained by something so small that, rather than wait a second longer, she herself tells me all about it, the composition, the marinating, the baking, the plucking from the bone by means of the fingers and the just-right temperature at which it has been served, would I like another? Am I sure? Maybe in a few minutes, Marie now relieving me of my tie, sopping wet with water and lemon and short rib juices, and S, our other host, M’s husband, in close orbit, telling me he’s so glad that I’ve taken off my tie because he couldn’t decide whether to wear one and had finally just before the party started decided against, but maybe that was not the right decision and yes, I said, yes it was the right decision, yes and M still standing in front of me, beaming, yes, with new hors d’oeuvres, and I could feel those new, just hot enough and so very juicy hors d’oeuvres all perfume yes and M offering me not one but two, with her fingers, and my heart was going like mad and yes I said I will yes.

19.   How hard is your job? Well, Jackie Gleason (an honest-to-god comedian from back in the day – check out Youtubes of “The Honeymooners”) used to say, it’s nothin’ but a bag o’ shells.

IMG00060-20110730-1455If you’ve made it this far, then you deserve a New Year’s blessing: L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem, which means “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”

Posted in: Poetry