Tuesday, July 29, 2014

30/30 Project, Day 29: When Prose Turns Poetry

One more day to go on the Tupelo Press 30/30 poetry marathon. One more poem to write. As usual, I have no idea what it will be.
      But chances are, it won’t be like yesterday’s poem. One thing I’ve noticed while writing a poem every day this month is how much I like variety. Or hate sameness. To keep the writing marathon from feeling like drudgery, I had to mix things up a lot—I wrote not just narrative and lyric poems, but also sentence-based ones, fragmented ones, songs, kit-bash nursery rhymes, long lines, short lines, real and imagined pasts, unvarnished and hyper presents.

Prose me
One thing I especially wanted to write this month was prose poems—I love those when they’re done well, and I perversely enjoy the fact that not everyone considers them poetry. I’d forgotten about prose poems until a couple of nights ago, when an opening line started to feel like a prose/poetry hybrid: “The sky’s burnt blue and the car jerks like a popcorn popper.” Suddenly I remembered, Oh, prose poem!, put down my notebook, and grabbed the little Logitech bluetooth keyboard that talks to my iPad. Usually I write poetry longhand because I like the lag time between when the words form in my head and when my hand writes them down; it gives me a micromoment to do a first edit. But prose comes out of my head faster than poetry, so I tend to write it on a keyboard because I can type much faster than I can write. And it turns out that works well for prose poems too.
      After writing that prose poem (“Bow Season,” below), I was hungry for more. So last night, when I decided to write about a relationship that’s always felt like one of those paranormal tourist traps (Mystery Spot, Oregon Vortex, Confusion Hill) where water supposedly runs uphill and the laws of physics don’t apply, it felt like it wanted to be another prose poem. So I wrote it that way—on the little keyboard, in one continuous paragraph. As usual, I tinkered with it a while, then e-mailed it to myself to take another pass through it in the morning before sending it off to the nice Tupelo 30/30 people.

Break me
But overnight, during a humid and restless sleep, I kept breaking that prose poem into lines. So this morning, when it was time to polish it up and send it off, I tried it three different ways—as the prose poem I’d envisioned, as a square-built sonnet (which it naturally flowed into when I pulled in the margins a little), and then as a skinnier poem with shorter lines and many line breaks. Interestingly, the one with all the line breaks triggered a more rigorous revision process. I could see which lines needed punching up when I broke them down into pieces—the weak phrases stuck up like cowlicks, where in the prose poem, they could hide a little more in the long lines. So I made some revisions and then took out all the line breaks to turn it back into a prose poem—and I didn’t like it as much as that way. So I put the line breaks back in and sent it off. The finished poem, “Confusion Hill,” is below.
      So now I wonder if a useful process might be to compose poems more often on the keyboard in a block of paragraph text first, and add the line breaks later. I’m sure some poets work this way all the time, but I’ve never tried it. I liked the way it felt with this poem, as if I were running it through two different filters—a passionate one first, then a painstaking one.
      Another useful tidbit learned from this poetry marathon, and something to try again later.


Bow Season

The sky’s burnt blue and the car jerks like a popcorn popper on boulder on blitzen on woods rut crag hole. Somebody said there’s a mansion out here but watch for hunters in their orange best, the deer in their stand silent, turkeys all American or sudden explosion of geese. And this road of improbables, bend and lurch and skitter, bare trees reaching all over each other and December cold—gloves don’t know the name of this degree. But we’re driving, a map in somebody’s head, it was here, I know it was up here somewhere and over this rise and out to this field and open and suddenly the view—Berkshire Berkshire Berkshire and that aching arching blue, not a wire not a smoke not even those everywhere mending walls. And then. The house. What godawful tank dragged the stones for that tumbled chimney, what hermits in grand alleys, who said goodbye to everything then knocked a window out of a wall to see so much. But little. But ruins. Tall escarpment of a second story, impudent trees in the kitchen, ground glass ground. Or was that the solarium, north light and a paintbrush touched to the tongue, or was that where the harp. Surely a harp. We wander and dust the filings of ancient weeds off corners of rock that mark the edges of this alone. Only steps to the woods, but we stay close. Do arrows whistle, we wonder, do you ever hear a thing like that coming. Or just fall slow like this, stone sockets with a few ragged larkspurs holding on.


Confusion Hill

Gravity sideways, one leg shorter,
and everything attracts. We walked
on walls and nails backed out
and the farther you got,
the larger. We tried to sip
from that sulfur spring and brought home
the dumbest gifts, a little piece
of magnet, a crooked hat, a cedar box
that still smells—lord—of damp history
and the always shade of the twin redwoods
that grew so close they fused. It isn’t science,
you said, the only thing rolling the wrong way
is coins. But the jackalope, frogalope,
chipalope, whatever their creature was,
just think, it held two things at once. One
you believed; the other you had to see
through a half-forgiving light—the antlers,
quick tongue, the soft tail curled
like a question mark.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tupelo Press 30/30 Poetry Project, Day 24:
Into the Woodshed

I won’t lie to you, folks. The going got tough last week in my poetry-writing marathon for the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project. At about day 14, I got awfully grumbly about having to write a poem every day. My inner teenager, who does not like having to sit down dutifully with a notebook in her lap every night, pitched a fit. That surly mix of boredom, rebelliousness, and laziness rears her pimply face every time I do a poetry marathon, sometimes at the start, sometimes at the end (which is extra frustrating—I mean, come on, girl, we’re almost there!). This time she showed up right in the middle, when I still had a lot of marathoning to do.

Earlier bird
The teenager was fed up with the schedule I was trying to keep: I’d simply replaced my late-night reading time with late-night writing time. That went fine for a couple of weeks, but two problems surfaced. First, writing at the very end of the day, every day, meant that I was writing tired, which made me resent having to concentrate so hard and resulted in some rushed, treat-’em-and-street-’em poems. Second, writing takes more time than reading, and it revs up my brain more, so I ended up staying up later than I normally do. And I’m sorry, but I’m 52 and just can’t do that anymore—I was too grumpy and groggy in the morning, when I had to haul my ass off to work. After two weeks of that, I could see it was not a sustainable writing regimen. And part of this marathon business was that I wanted to figure out how to fit more writing time into my life. (Hence the post two weeks ago about how in the hell people with full-time jobs ever find time to write.)
       So I tried a small adjustment: I started writing earlier in the evening, right after dinnertime, instead of at bedtime. And now, about 10 days into the new plan, it’s going pretty well. I’ve got much more patience and brain power right after dinner, when I’m well fed and ready to shut off the TV following my hour of pathetic-single-person dinnertime watching.* It’s actually enjoyable to write at that hour. Who knew?

Millions of musicians can’t be wrong
Another thing I’m liking about this marathon is that I’m finally doing something I’ve wanted to do for years: woodshed. This is a term musicians use for time spent practicing alone, usually holed up in a room with a guitar, trying to just get better. When I’ve felt frustrated with workshops or sick of my writing, I’ve often wished I could lock myself away for a month or few and just write. It’s a simple concept, but remarkably hard to do amid life and all its distractions. But to give this 30/30 marathon its full due, I cleared my schedule (as much as can be done while working a day job) and devoted a lot of evenings to it. And a couple of days ago, when I looked back through the poems I’ve written this month, I realized, Hey, look at that—I woodshedded! I didn’t even realize I was doing it. For some reason, this marathon was more woodshed-y than, say, NaPoWriMo; because the 30/30 poems are posted in a public place, I’ve put more time into them and ended up with more poems that may turn into something publishable. (We’ll see about that.)

Postpoetry depression?
Now I’m concerned that at the end of July I’ll collapse in a heap and won’t write again for months. But honestly, this marathon hasn’t felt like a chore. It’s been invigorating in ways I hadn’t expected. Plus, I can’t slack off right away—I’ve already signed up to do the August Poetry Postcard Fest, where I’ll have to write a short poem on a postcard each day and send it off to a stranger. But that’s a whole different thing: short poem, one reader. Like whispering in someone’s ear. Kind of the opposite of posting the poem on a site where all can see it. And yet, still poetry. Still writing. Hallelujah.

* These days it’s usually Castle. I am a sucker for Nathan Fillion. For a long time, it was The Mentalist. So it’s pretty much whatever TNT chooses to addict me to.

Photo by Chris Brown.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Making Time When You Don’t Have Time

For the two people on the planet that I have not told, I’ve been writing a poem every day this month and posting them on the 30/30 Project page, along with eight other marathoners writing like crazy to raise some funds for the wonderful Tupelo Press.
     How’s the marathon going? Actually, better than I expected. My fellow marathoners are a social bunch of accomplished poets, which makes for a supportive and fun environment. And posting my poems on such a public forum sets the bar high for the quality of my work. That means that I’ve have to make some serious time lately—more than usual—to write.
     To keep myself from getting overwhelmed by this project of 30 poems in 30 days, I've cleared my evening schedule and am sticking to a late-night writing regimen. Basically, I took the time when I would normally read before bedtime and turned it into writing time. That’s working well, but two things may make it unsustainable in the long run: 1) It makes me stay up late because writing takes longer than reading, and I’m groggy when I go to work the next day, and 2) I hate, hate, hate routine and figure I’ll get rebellious sooner or later.

What’s a working stiff to do?
This business of making time to write got me thinking about an old conundrum that I often get asked about: How can anyone with a full-time job manage to write and send stuff out and do all the ancillary things a writer needs to do? I’ve worked full time most of my life, and my short answer to this is: I don’t manage. I never feel that I’m writing enough. I’ve got scads of unfinished writing work sitting around—a half-done poetry manuscript, a novel in need of revisions, notes for two or three other novels, blog posts, articles, a nebulous memoir—and it pains me to think I may never have time to get to them all. But I do get to some of them, and the only way I can do that is to guard my evening and weekend time jealously. Luckily, I’m not very social, but I have to make a conscious effort not to book up too many evenings of the week. It’s a bit of a paradox: Social outings provide great material for stories and poems, but by the time I get home from them, I’m too tired to write about them. And the next morning, it’s back to the job—I work as the publications manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a job I’m happy to have but that takes a large amount of energy and brain space, and at least 40 hours a week. And honestly, the job alone makes me too tired to do much writing most nights.
     I got curious about how other writers who work full time tackle this question, so I asked a few writer friends who have busy work lives. Here’s what they have to say on the challenges of finding time to write when you spend eight hours a day in an office.

Pepper Trail works as a forensic ornithologist at the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory and writes regularly for Jefferson Monthly, southern Oregon’s NPR-affiliate magazine. He also serves as a teaching naturalist for tour groups that go to some mighty exotic places. He makes me feel like a slacker; here I am, grumbling about how tennis lessons take up too much writing time, while he’s leading a hiking group across Kamchatka or Patagonia. He says his job provides a lot of material for his writing (five of his poems are here in the fine Cascadia Review). The challenge for him is finding time to revise. He puts it this way:

“I find that my job helps with inspiration, but hinders execution. A significant number of my poems come from my forensic and conservation work, but I feel that I lack the time to make these drafts into the best possible finished work. Of course, this is a convenient excuse, and someday when I retire I will probably find myself no better able to concentrate than I do now. But I look forward to trying!”

That last comment about retiring echoed in my talk with Steve Dieffenbacher, whose latest book, The Sky Is a Bird of Sorrow, won a bronze medal for Book of the Year from Foreword Reviews. Steve has had a long career as a newspaper editor, during which he’s had the added challenge of working nights. Steve has moved into semi-retirement this year, but in his full-time days he was remarkably disciplined about finding time to write:

“Writing is a matter of priorities. Working full time, I had to schedule writing at the same time every day, like an exercise regimen, or I wouldn’t do it. Since I worked nights, I wrote an hour or two every morning just after my coffee because that’s when my creative energies are at their height. Then I’d take my daily walk. I’d supplement the weekday writing with an hour or two of editing the week’s output on Saturday or Sunday, usually in the evenings when I’m at my most relaxed and receptive.”

But Steve added that semi-retirement has presented its own challenges, echoing Pepper’s comment. “These days,” Steve says, “I find it harder to write than when I was working for 40 hours (or more) a week. Somehow the part-time schedule throws me off balance, and I can’t get a rhythm going.” He added that, as with most transitions, it will probably take a while to figure out a new regimen. 

Connie Post is some kind of human dynamo. This former poet laureate of Livermore, California, does more readings in a month than I do in a year. She recently released a well-received book titled Floodwater, organizes Crockett’s popular Valona Deli reading series, is a generous and prolific social media maven, and has kept up this pace for years while holding down a full-time job as a materials manager for a manufacturing company. I asked Connie how in the world she finds any time to write in her busy life. I mean, she’s got to sleep sometime. She says:

“I have poetic thoughts and moments throughout the day, even when I am at work or in the car or brushing my teeth. When the images or ideas finally start to congeal, I find a way to get to a notepad or the computer and at least write the core of the poem down. It’s like being dizzy—you have to stop and slow down and, if necessary, breathe into a paper bag. Stop and listen to what the world is saying.”

You just have to…
Of course, there’s no verdict here. As with religion, no one method works for everyone who spends 40 hours a week working for the man. I’m still searching for ways to fit the writing life around my job (or vice versa), ways to sit down and produce more poems/stories/novels/runaway nonfiction bestsellers without riling my inner teenager, who will walk out in the middle of all that regimentation and head for the beach. But I’m inspired by my fellow worker/writers, whose main message seems to be a Nike-esque “You just have to do it.”

Office photo by Karen Apricot.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, Day 4:
On the Nature of Wallflowers

I’m four days into the Tupelo Press 30/30 poem-a-day writing marathon. Four poems down; twenty-six to go. (Yikes—wish I hadn’t said that.)
  One thing that this well-organized marathon provides is instant camaraderie. Already, we nine July poets have our own “secret” Facebook page, and a lot of good-natured conversation is getting swapped around. They’re skilled poets and witty Facebook buds, and I’m having a good time.
  But it’s early days and, as with so many other poem-a-day groups, I feel a tinge of awkwardness mixed with the camaraderie. Inevitably in these things, as the compliments and comments begin to fly, I always worry that we’ll leave someone out, or that I’ll praise someone’s work too much (because it really kicks ass) and short-shrift* someone else without realizing it. We writers are a sensitive lot—but, you know, we humans are a sensitive lot.
  Of course, the short-shrift phenomenon doesn’t just happen in poetry marathons. Certain groups seem to have a built-in mechanism for producing wallflowers. At a dance, for instance, crowd dynamics usually dictate that a few people won’t get asked to dance, or at least not right away. And it’s not like they can’t dance or anything; they’re perfectly good people, fully realized and talented (though maybe the neon socks were a bad choice). For whatever reason, the school of fish shifts away, and a few people end up alone. I laugh as I write this, because that was so often me, standing there in my new purple dress and swaying alone to “Colour My World,” trying to look like it was no big deal that the rest of eighth grade was dancing without me in a slow-moving, impenetrable whirlpool.
  So maybe that dance trauma is what’s at the back of my mind when I worry about inadvertently making someone into a wallflower, or becoming one myself—good God, I’m standing here again, studying my empty Dixie cup! But now I’ve been to a lot of dances—ones where I was the belle of the ball, and others where I was that shy and awkward girl—and I see that it’s all a pretty arbitrary business.
  Which is a long way of saying: Here’s to you, fellow marathoners. I think you all are dynamite dancers.

* I always thought “short shrift” had something to do with short-sheeting, that old campground prank. Wrong: Its original meaning was much more grave, something to do with “little time between condemnation and execution.”

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Tupelo’s 30/30 Project: Off to the Marathon

Starting this Tuesday and continuing all through July, I’ll be taking part in a public poetry spectacle: Tupelo Press’ 30/30 Project. This is Tupelo’s ongoing fundraiser where a handful of poet volunteers bravely (stupidly? crazily?) write a poem a day for a month and post each day’s work on the 30/30 website. It’s like a literary bike-a-thon, where we poets sweat and huff and risk embarrassing accidents while raising money for a good cause—in this case, supporting one of the most respected literary publishers in the country.

Why on Earth did I agree to do this nutty marathon? Three reasons:

1) Tupelo Press is worth supporting. This 15-year-old publishing company, based in Western Massachusetts and headed by editor Jeffrey Levine*, keeps coming out with beautiful, world-class books—mostly poetry, but also fiction and essays—by stellar writers like Ilya Kaminsky, Geri Doran, Floyd Skloot, and Kate Gale. They’ve just announced upcoming books by my Ashland bud Allan Peterson and the wonderful Tony Barnstone. And, like most independent publishers, Tupelo depends on fundraising to keep its doors open.

2) I’ve become a little bit addicted to poem-a-day marathons. For the past six years, I’ve done NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) each April with a Rogue Valley group, where we write a poem a day and e-mail them to each other. At first, I thought the whole thing was nuts—who wants to see their lumpy first drafts wandering around in the world? And writing, let alone finishing, a poem every day is freakin’ hard. But I decided to give it a try, and you know…it was freakin’ hard. But I came up with a couple of decent poems that I wouldn’t have written otherwise, and I liked the camaraderie of it—the communal kvetching, encouraging comments, and weird little thematic threads that ran through the group’s poems.
            Last year I also joined two postcard-poem groups, where we wrote short poems on postcards every day for a month and sent them to each other. That was even more fun—having to fit a poem into the tiny space of a postcard, then sending it off to someone, often a complete stranger, felt crazy and exotic.

3) My good friend Amy MacLennan did the 30/30 Project in February and seems to be physically unharmed.

Useful addictions
Aside from thrills and philanthropy, I’ve found some practical benefits in these poem-a-day marathons, new habits that help strengthen my writing practice the rest of the year. For instance:

• It pays to keep a little notebook of ideas. In every marathon, there comes a time when I’m sitting there, completely stuck for an idea and sweating the midnight deadline. That’s when I grab the little notebook that I keep for such emergencies—the one with lines from movies and bits of conversation and conundrums that I’ve jotted down at odd moments. Sometimes one will pop out and hit the right chord just then.**

• Having to write a poem every day fine-tunes my poetry antennae. After a few days, I find I’m automatically sifting through each day’s experiences—sights, phrases, stories, puns, tragedies, questions—and asking myself, “What kind of poem would this be? What would be a surprising way to approach writing this?” That’s a handy habit to get into. And the leftovers go into the little notebook (see above).

• The pressure of cranking out a finished piece every day makes me take risks that I would probably be too lazy to try otherwise. It might be a persona that I think is silly, or a rhymey-dimey thing with nonsense lines, or an angry rant. Whatever it is, it goes into the assembly line and comes out…however it’s going to come out.*** Sometimes it comes out kind of cool.

Not quite cheating
The side benefits are all fine and well, but to do this kind of marathon, the hardest part is just sitting my ass down every day and doing it. There’s no shortcut to that, but I’ve found a small trick that helps: I write the poem the night before I have to post it. It still works out to a poem a day, but I take full advantage of the 24 hours. This way the poem can percolate overnight before I look at it again the next day, type it up, and post it. Having that extra time takes some of the pressure off, which, for me, results in less anxiety and better poems. Of course the system breaks down now and then when something—work, apathy, beers with friends—messes up the schedule. Then I have to cough up the poem the same day as the midnight deadline. And that’s fine, I can do that, but the marathon is less of a grind if I can keep to that night-before groove.

You can help me out—and win a prize!
Just like a bike-a-thoner, I’m looking for sponsors to make this thing a success. So I’m asking everybody—cohorts, co-workers, co-conspirators, and kind strangers—for donations (see instructions below). How much is up to you; $1, $10, $20 or more will make my toil in the poetry salt mine that much happier, and will help keep Tupelo Press alive. My goal is to raise $350 for them.
      And to sweeten the deal, I’m offering a prize: At the end of the marathon, I’ll randomly draw the names of two of my sponsors. If you are one of the winners, you’ll get your pick of: a) two Tupelo books of your choice, or b) three hours of my time as an editor or publishing/writing consultant to do whatever you like—help you put together a chapbook, do a Kindle version of your book, copyedit or critique anything from poems to your manuscript to your resume, or just talk about your writing. I work fast. I can get a lot done in three hours.

      It’s easy to donate. Here are two ways:

1)   Go to Tupelo’s donation page to donate using a credit card or PayPal. Important: In the box that says “Is this donation in honor of a 30/30 poet?,” put my name. Again, you can donate any amount from $1 up.

2)   You can donate by check (made out to Tupelo Press) or cash by sending it straight to me; I’ll forward it on to Tupelo. If you need my address, just e-mail me at amymillerediting[at]gmail[dot]com.

Whether you donate or not (and there is no obligation), I hope you’ll check in with the 30/30 site throughout July to see what my co-marathoners and I are coming up with. And keep looking in on this blog for periodic updates, whinefests, and thoughts on poetry blisters, similes for carb-loading, and metaphorical watering stations.

* For a funny and informative read, check out Jeff’s article about putting together a poetry book manuscript. (Item 9: “Weak poems. You know which they are. Don’t include them.” Jeff has also taught at the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference, which I wrote about on this blog last year.

** Case in point: “We flowers all sleep in the winter,” a line from Bambi that I love. But that’s about all I love about Bambi. I saw it for the first time a few months ago, and I guess you have to see when you’re six—before you learn words like “sanctimonious.”

*** There’s a line from ER that I find useful for a lot of things: “Treat ’em and street ’em.”

Bike sprint photo by I, Kuebi

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Case Study: Publishing a Chapbook
with Amazon’s CreateSpace

All those nights when you can't reach me?
I'm making these things.
When it comes to poetry chapbooks, I’m a DIY gal. So far I’ve self-published nine chapbooks at home using InDesign or QuarkXPress, a couple of desktop printers, and a huge stash of paper from a print shop that went out of business*. I edited books for a living for many years, and I still get a creative rush out of designing and assembling them. So if it means giving up a few evenings to print, fold, staple, and trim chapbooks while listening to Bollywood music, that’s OK. I like it. It’s fun.
        But recently I went a different route and published a chapbook through CreateSpace, Amazon’s print-on-demand program. A client had asked me to help him marshal his book through the CreateSpace process, so I decided to use one of my own chapbooks as a guinea pig first. I figured if things went badly, I could steer the client away from the mistakes I’d made. And if it went well, it would be smooth sailing for him…and I’d get a spiffy new book at the same time.

Something for nothing?
In a nutshell, CreateSpace works like this: You design the book (either by yourself, or with the help of their online templates and design services), and then Amazon prints and ships copies of the book whenever customers order them. If you design it all yourself and simply upload your PDFs to their system, it’s completely free and seems almost too good to be true. You do pay for any copies of the book you order for yourself—say, a few dozen for your own readings or book shows—but you buy them from Amazon at such a deeply discounted author price that it works out to about what you’d pay a local print shop to do them (for most chapbooks, a little under $3.00 per book, including shipping). And, unlike with a local print shop, your book gets listed on Amazon and is handled and shipped by them, which means your readers can find it easily and buy it while they’re shopping for frying pans, yoga balls, and Breaking Bad DVDs. I’ve got to admit that, even for an independent-bookstore lover like myself, it was all weirdly attractive.
The CreateSpace portal.
        To back up for a moment, let me repeat one point: CreateSpace is only free if you can design the whole book—interior and cover—either completely by yourself, or by using their simplest templates. (They also have fancier templates, for a fee.) Obviously it’s great to have InDesign or Quark to do the interior layout, but you could probably use Word, assuming you’re good at it (which I’m not) and your book is something simple like poetry or fiction. For the cover, you might be able to figure out how to lay it out in Word (again, if you have more prowess with Word than I do), but just about any graphics program will work, as long as you can save your final design as a PDF.
        If you don’t want to wade into the world of design on your own, CreateSpace can do that for you too, but this is where it can get pricey. They offer all sorts of professional services and packages, ranging from design and copyediting to help with marketing and publicity, costing anywhere from a hundred dollars to several thousand. And judging from the online forums that I’ve scoured over the past few weeks**, many authors do use these services, and some are perfectly happy with them. But I didn’t wade too deep into that; I figure that thirty years in publishing should have taught me a few skills. And besides that, I’m a cheapskate. I was going it alone or bust.

Enter the guinea pig
Editing—in my house, anyway—
still takes paper and patience.
For my test case, I decided to do an expanded version of my book Beautiful Brutal: Poems About Cats. I chose this baby for one reason: I sell a lot of copies of it. Now, I pride myself on being a real poet, but this little novelty book has turned out to be surprisingly popular—it always sells well at book shows and writers’ conferences, and people contact me out of the blue to order five or ten to give away as gifts. I spend a lot of time printing those little books.
        Beautiful Brutal started life four years ago as a palm-size nugget of a book, 5.5 inches high by 4.25 wide. So I took a couple of weeks to add a few new poems to it, revise some of the old ones, and do a little re-ordering. I also gave it a larger, airier trim size (6 x 9), fancied up the interior design, and built a new cover around a 17th-century painting*** by Georg Flegel that I particularly love and that is firmly planted in the public domain. Finally the files were ready, and I followed CreateSpace’s easy directions and made the PDFs.

The next step was to register the book with CreateSpace. This is where you let them know what you want your book to look like—page count, trim size, paper color (white or cream; I chose cream), cover finish (glossy or matte; I chose matte). At this point you also set up the book’s Amazon page, which entailed a couple of curveballs I didn’t see coming, such as deciding on a cover price and where to send the royalties, and that brought the process to a grinding halt while I pondered them. The toughest was the “book description,” that little marketing paragraph that you see on the book’s Amazon page. I tinkered with that thing for a long time, trying to make it descriptive but not dorky.****
        Filling out the online forms was fun, but then came the meat and potatoes: uploading the PDFs of the book. That part went quickly. I clicked through a few windows to send the files, their system processed them in just a few minutes, and then a digital proof of my book appeared on my screen. Many printers use online proofing systems, and CreateSpace’s is particularly attractive and realistic, with animated pages that appear to turn. My book looked fine—nothing had shifted or reflowed, and the fonts looked the way they were supposed to. The one hiccup was that the system froze up twice while I was sending the files, and I had to quit out of my browser and go back in. Also, they didn’t process the cover file right away, I presume because I asked them to insert the UPC barcode on the back (another free option). They finished it the next morning and sent me an e-mail; I looked at an online proof of the cover and it looked fine too.

The moment of truth
Sharp yet velvety.
The last step in the approval process was to order a print proof of the book. This is the only part of the process that cost me money, and the total was $5.74—about $3.00 for the book, and the rest for shipping. You don’t have to order a proof; you can just have them print the books without seeing a sample, but I wouldn’t recommend that no matter what printer you’re using. And I especially wanted to see how the matte cover and cream paper looked, since I’d chosen both sight unseen.
        The proof arrived in my mailbox about three days later. Just like in my book-editor days, I opened the package with a mixture of excitement and dread. I pulled the slim volume out of its little box, leafed through it and sniffed it. I scrutinized the cover: handled its silky matte finish, pressed my thumbs on it to try to make fingerprints, and lightly scratched it to see if it got easily marred. It passed all the tests. And I’ve got to say—it was beautiful. The matte cover felt velvety, the type was clear, the cream paper robust, the perfect binding elegant and crisp. I was pleasantly surprised. This system actually worked.

Next up
So now Beautiful Brutal has a new home on Amazon (see its page here). I like the way it holds its own alongside the Hawthornes and Lemony Snickets—there’s a wonderful sort of democracy at work*****, not unlike the internet itself. I also did a Kindle version (which you can see here) while I was at it—it was like, I’m in the hospital already, so while they’re fixing my knee, I might as well get my gall bladder out too. That’s a whole other story, which I’ll write up at a later date. And Amazon is a world unto itself, with author pages and analytics and keywords and search engine optimization, which I will also write about later. For the time being, I’m just trying to figure out how to get the print and Kindle versions on the same page. Apparently the Amazon robots, which take care of such things while patrolling the system like so many Skynet terminators, haven’t figured it out yet.

* That was like some crazy-sad dream garage sale. A local print shop, which had been in business for decades, was closing its doors and needed to get rid of a warehouse full of supplies. It was down to the stuff that they couldn’t sell—literally tons of paper, envelopes and hand tools—and they asked people to just come and haul it away. They even had two letterpresses, which broke my heart. Each was about the size of a Cabriolet convertible, and probably weighed more. I wished I had a house big enough for one of those beasts. Hopefully somebody did.

** There were many, many points in this process where I had to stop and look things up online. Amazon has plenty of instructions, but sometimes they get bogged down in legalese and make things overcomplicated. Plenty of bloggers and internet writers out there have used CreateSpace and have good advice, available at your Googling fingertips. This makes me a little misty-eyed about the democratic nature of the internet. I mean, look at us right now. I have written something that you are reading! And we’re real people with no editors or agents between us, like we just bumped into each other on the street. Doesn’t that just make your head go pop? Nutty good.

*** With this title of characteristic German precision: Zitronen in einer Schale, welche auf einer K√§seschachtel steht, ein Korb voller Wal- und Haseln√ľsse, eine aufgeschnittene Zitrone, ein Messer, eine Maus, die von einer Walnuss nascht und eine Katze auf einem Holztisch. (Translation: “Lemons in a bowl standing on a cheese box, with a basket of walnuts and hazelnuts, a sliced lemon, a knife and a mouse eating nuts on a wooden table, and a cat.”)

**** It was late and I was tired, so I was tempted to stick something flippant in there, like, “These 22 poems are the best ones I could write.” But you know, thumbing your nose at Amazon on Amazon does not hurt Amazon; it just makes you look like an idiot. I ended up with “This graceful, unflinching collection of 22 poems explores the real cats in our lives—the companions, the hunters, the strays, the kittens who grow up and grow old with us. Beautiful Brutal turns the ‘sentimental cat poem’ upside down, reminding us of the deep, wild mysteries we seek in cats—and see reflected in ourselves.” It still feels over the top. But I can change it later.

***** I know—I’m totally missing the capitalism angle, the consumerism and instant-gratification culture and big-brother apocalypse. But I just had a baby (book). I'm emotional.