FIRST BOOK INTERVIEW: AMARANTH BORSUK
Handiwork, By Amaranth Borsuk, Slope Editions 2012
1. Tell us about the title, Handiwork. Where did it come, what does it mean to you, or how did you decide on it?
Because the hand is such an important figure throughout the poems, I wanted the title to draw the reader’s attention to the duality of what the hand does, which ranges, in the book, from knitting mittens, to using thumbscrews, to scattering salts. I was drawn to the term “handiwork” because while it refers to craft, it can also have a negative connotation—the devil’s handiwork, so to speak. For me, the word encapsulates the productive and destructive—from careful stitching to torn holes. The word “text” comes from an Indo-European root that means “to weave; also to fabricate, especially with an ax.” I’m fascinated by that simultaneous act of construction and destruction inherent in language, and it’s a through-line in the book, which is full of gaps that can’t be filled.
2. How would you describe the book in a few sentences to someone who doesn’t regularly read poetry?
I would say Handiwork meditates on how we construct our own mythologies about the things that happen to us and around us. Many of the poems draw on stories my grandmother wrote about her family’s experience of the Holocaust, but they don’t try to “tell” those stories because they are, in some way, un-tellable, overshadowed as they are by the weight of cultural memory. Despite those dark undertones, the poems also revel in the way words slide around under the pen and refuse to stay fixed—they use anagrams, puns, homophones, and numerological constraints to suggest the fruitful potential of language.
3. Can you give us a rough idea of how long it took you to write all the poems in the book?
The first poems that made it into this manuscript were written some time in 2007. You could say the book took 4 years to write, though I spent quite a bit of time writing other things during those years, including my dissertation and a couple of collaborations (with Gabriela Jauregui and Kate Durbin). So some of that time was spent just thinking about Handiwork, and adding poems here and there.
The book was not easy to put together. I started it knowing I wanted to write about a handful of topics that really concerned me—torture, writing, salt, family history, craft—and I let myself explore those different areas, crossing my fingers that the connections between them would emerge.
4. How/when did you come to the realization that your manuscript was finished and ready to be sent out?
I used the fall semester of my postdoc to work concertedly on the manuscript, adding to it and writing into the holes. I also changed my approach to some of the writings-through, which were feeling too rigidly constrained. I embraced the Oulipian clinamen, the moment where you depart from your own constraint, and then they started to work for me. I set myself the goal of beginning to submit the book when I began teaching at MIT in the spring, and I used the winter break to re-order and re-consider the manuscript, which I shared with a couple of friends. I felt ready to send it when it stopped making me cringe, but I can’t say I felt it was “finished.” I continued to tinker with it up until I submitted the pdf to Slope for the printer.
5. What was the process like trying to get it published? How long were you shopping the book before Slope / Paul Hoover picked it for the 2011 Slope Poetry Contest?
The process felt mercifully short compared with how long I’ve been sending out my first manuscript. I had been sending it for 8 months when I found out Paul Hoover had selected it.
6.What was the submission process like for individual poems from the book? Are there certain places you had poems published that you felt generated momentum for getting the book out?
I actually didn’t send out very many poems from the manuscript because I wasn’t sure they made sense in isolation. There are at least 5 different strands to the manuscript: a series of poems where “the hand” is a protagonist, several lyric narratives, fragmented writings-through, a sequence of tiny crystalline “salt gematria” poems, and the final section, “Tonal Saw,” a long erasure. I felt as though they all depended on one another. When the manuscript was accepted, I think only 2 poems had been published—Tonal Saw, which was published as a chapbook by The Song Cave (2010), and “A New Vessel,” which won the Gulf Coast Prize. Those publications didn’t necessarily generate momentum for the book, but they gave me faith in the writing. I submitted other poems for publication in the time between the book’s acceptance and printing, mostly in online journals I admire.
7. Are there other poets, poems, or books that you feel like Handiwork is in conversation with? Either in terms of style or inspiration?
I think it is in conversation with Anna Rabinowitz’s Darkling and M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (though I didn’t learn about the latter until after I had finished writing) in that both books use constraints to write through material that is either intensely personal or historically freighted. Rabinowitz uses Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush” as an acrostic through-line to write about the Holocaust in a way that is both lyrically moving and fragmentary. Philip rearranges and recombines language from a landmark slavery case in which 150 slaves were thrown overboard when the ship carrying them ran off course and the captain feared they would run out of provisions before reaching land. I admire the way she navigates between telling and not telling, and the way she incorporates her own struggle with the material into the text. Handiwork is probably in dialogue with the books about the history of salt that I read while writing it (by Mark Kurlansky and Pierre Laszlo), as well as with the work of Samuel Beckett, from whose brilliant series Texts for Nothing I took the book’s epigraph.
8. Tell us about finding out that Slope was going to publish the book. What was running through your mind?
When Christopher Janke called me and introduced himself, my first thought was something like “Is this the call I think it is?” I was pretty much beside myself the whole time and trying not to betray the total giddiness I was feeling. I’ve been a Slope fan for many years, and I felt incredibly lucky. When we hung up, I felt a combination of excitement, relief, and fear.
9. What was it like working with Slope after they accepted the manuscript? What kinds of things needed to happen on your end from acceptance to print?
Working with Slope was wonderful. Kelin Loe and Janke both read the manuscript closely and gave me wonderful feedback about how they responded to it. They gave me a clear schedule for finalizing the quote permissions, the cover, and the interior, so we used that to keep things on track and get the book published for AWP (which is pretty fast considering the book was accepted in early September). They gave me a lot of control over the design of the book, which I actually did together with my husband. We sent the editorial board drafts of design for feedback, and once we all agreed on a direction, iterated on it until we felt we had it “right” (I have lots of failed stitchings in my closet).
10. How have things changed now that you’ve got a first book under your belt?
I have received more direct solicitations for submission in the past few months, which has been very cool, though I don’t know if it’s because of the book or the Gulf Coast prize, or just because I’m getting to know more people. One of the big changes has been that I am now really dissatisfied with my first manuscript and I am both looking for ways to revise it dramatically and considering throwing it away. I am working on several collaborations right now, though, so I am holding off on decisions about the first manuscript for the time being.
11. Describe how you felt holding your printed, bound, and finished book for the first time.
I felt incredibly amazed and proud. And then I felt very very afraid. When the book became real, that meant that not only I (and a few close friends), but anyone else with the interest and inclination, could read it. I think when the book is printed you have to face the idea that you’ve known all along—the work is written for a reader, and without a reader to complete the loop, it isn’t finished. Having to stop revising and trust that the book was doing the things I wanted it to do was a scary moment for me.
12. Do you have a favorite poem from the book? If so, which one and why?
I’m not sure I do, but if forced to pick one I might choose “A Show of Hands” because of its simplicity. It is a list poem in which the same term is missing from each entry. It’s procedural and seemingly monotonous, but I find it moving for the very absence of the personal in it. I like to perform it because I appreciate the challenge of making those absences felt (I use the gaps as breathing points, and when they come in quick succession I feel as if I am going to hyperventilate. I like that the poem can affect the reader in such a physical, visceral way).
13. Do you have a piece of advice for poets still shopping their first book? What’s your take on open reading periods vs. first book contests vs. open contests?
My advice is to send the book to presses whose books you love, either during open reading periods or contests. I think the most important criteria for someone trying to publish right now is deciding which conversation they want to be part of, since there are so many wonderful small presses out there and so many different conversations about the shape of poetry and poetics. Contests confer a small amount of prestige, but they don’t necessarily build relationships for you, and what I have found most rewarding in the publishing process is feeling connected to a community of writers. The gang at Slope is part of a wonderful enclave of writers in western Mass, and I’ve had the chance to hang out with them at AWP, at the bookstore Flying Object, and virtually by phone and email. Their friendship and support mean as much to me as the prize and publication. They are just plain awesome.
14. What’s the most memorable response you’ve gotten to the book?
The most memorable response was my grandmother’s. She called me a week after I gave her a copy and said she was deeply touched by it. She sees the book as a tribute that turns tragedy into poetry. I think the book fails to do that, but it means the world to me that she appreciates it, and that she continues to read and re-read it.
One of the first people I gave a copy of the book to was Linda Reinfeld, an important thinker and critic of Language poetry who is also a talented poet herself. She had ordered copies of my collaboration with Brad Bouse, Between Page and Screen (www.betweenpageandscreen.com), and since Handiwork had just arrived from the printer, I included a copy as thanks. Between Page and Screen has gotten a lot of attention because it uses augmented reality to play with the space between print and digital media—you have to have both the paper object and a computer in order to see the poems, which pop up off the page when you open the book in front of a webcam. The poems are themselves a series of love letters between P and S as they attempt to define their relationship, so it’s highly self-reflexive. Anyway, Linda was the first person outside of my immediate family to see Handiwork, and she wrote back a couple of weeks after receiving it that she liked it even more than Between Page and Screen, which was incredibly affirming for me. I value her opinion greatly.
15. Can you recommend a first book by another poet you’re loving right now?
Several friends whose work I adore and admire have had their first books published in the past 6 months, including Genevieve Kaplan, whose book In the Ice House is haunting, and Andrew Allport, whose Body of Space in the Shape of the Human is deeply moving. I recently revisited Jessica Bozek (also a friend)’s Bodyfeel Lexicon and it just floors me. The poems are presented as an assemblage of documents—including letters, notes in matchbooks, and exhibits in plastic bags, to name a few—that document a romance and a “collaborative mythology” created by the two people involved. The emergent narrative threading through and her use of an array of interconnecting forms are brilliant. I just read what I think was Matvei Yankelevich’s first book, Boris By the Sea and loved its blend of humor and surrealism. I’ve got Julia Bloch’s Letters to Kelly Clarkson on my desk right now and have really enjoyed those bits I’ve read so far.
16. If someone asked you “why is poetry important?” what would you say to them?
I think poetry is important because it’s an art form that reminds us that the language we use every day is not transparent. It is a constant interplay of sound, sense, and association that forces us to reckon with the question of how meaning is made and to acknowledge how much our experience of the world is constructed by and through words. It also gives me great pleasure to read an amazing line of poetry and wish I’d thought of it myself. Pleasure is important too.
Amaranth Borsuk’s books include Handiwork, winner of the 2011 Slope Editions Book Prize, and Between Page and Screen, a book of augmented-reality poems created in collaboration with Brad Bouse. A co-founder of the Gold Line Press chapbook series, she has a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California and is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at MIT. This fall, she joins the faculty in the MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics at the University of Washington Bothell.