A Conversation with Reb Livingston
By Lindsey Lewis Smithson, Poetry Editor
Before we even hit the poetry, what about you? Writer, mother, editor, publisher, it all seems like a lot to carry at any given moment, how do you balance it all?
People ask me this question a lot. I’m surprised that so many project these “super human” qualities onto me. Can’t they see how I struggle? When I am trying to “do it all” I don’t balance it. It’s madness. It’s draining. It’s impossible. It’s not smart or healthy. So I make balance by cutting back and my life miraculously improves. I publish fewer books. I only read for the magazine one or two months out of the year. I decline a number of invitations to speak on panels. I host and attend fewer events. I travel less. It’s a huge relief not to try to do everything asked or expected of me.
On your blog you talk a lot about your son, Gideon. There is even a really cute photo of him posing at a No Tell table at LitAtlantic that you posted. He seems like a big presence in your life; tell us a bit about him? How has he influenced your work, or do you try to keep your family life separate from your life has a writer?
I think it’s impossible to be a parent of a young child and keep that separate from any part of your life. That’s something I didn’t realize until after I had a child. Even if it was possible, why would I want to keep it all separate? Life is art, it evolves and only a self-absorbed fuckwit doesn’t change after becoming a parent. People are so worried about major life events “changing” them, as if they’re already specimens of perfection. We all benefit from having our perceptions rattled from time to time. It’s best to embrace these life-altering events as best we can.
The biggest influence Gideon has had on my work (life, same thing) is my perspective. There’s a well known poet who likes to go around challenging other poets with the Kool-Aid test question: “Would you die for poetry?” My response to that is HELL NO, as a busy mom, I don’t have that luxury, thank god.
Gideon is very interested in what my husband (network security engineer) and I do so we both do our best to teach him about our work. It’s not uncommon for me to bring him to a book fair or poetry reading. I can’t say that, as a five year old, he completely grasps what it is that I do, but then again, he has a better grasp than most of the adult members of my family.
I’ve read both of your books, Your Ten Favorite Words and God Damsel, and there is clearly a large difference between the two. In both style and tone God Damsel is a huge departure from Your Ten Favorite Words, was that an intentional move, or something more organic? If it was intentional, what led you towards the material that is in God Damsel?
Yes, it’s intentional. When I finish a project, I don’t want to do the same thing again. The process writing each book was rather different although in both cases when I started to write the poems, I never had any idea where each would go. My process for Your Ten Favorite Words was more conscious; some poems were responses or interactions with other poets’ blogs or poems. In some cases, I would begin by rewriting another poet’s lines, making them completely unrecognizable and then use those lines to springboard into something of my own creation. The process for the poems in God Damsel was more intuitive. I “translated” translations of ancient religious texts and prayers. I use the term “translated” very loosely, I slowly worked through the texts replacing 99% of the words and keeping, for the most part, the rhythm and structure. I didn’t consciously think much about how I was translating these texts, whatever came out, came out. These poems were channeled from someplace either completely outside or hidden very deep inside myself. When I went back to them the next day or week to edit, I rarely remembered what I wrote and was often surprised by what I discovered. Those poems taught me a lot.
There is a strong old world, almost mythical voice, in God Damsel? Did you do any research or extra reading that led to the development of the voice that is found throughout the book?
That was likely influenced by the texts I was “translating” which included Sumerian scriptures, Christian prophecies, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, etc. Every poem in God Damsel began with another text, although I didn’t keep track of which texts I used (there were hundreds) and in most cases I wouldn’t be able to figure it out myself because my “translations” are whatever my psyche morphed, filtered and regenerated. About half way through the process, about a year into writing those poems, it became clear that it wasn’t one “voice” but a series of voices and perspectives addressing an all consuming sadness. I was receiving opinions, advice, consolations and warnings.
Some poets talk about the writing process as being hell, others love the effort that it takes to put something on the page. When it comes to writing, especially first drafts, what is your process and what kind of attitude or emotion to you try to bring to the work?
I develop a new process for each project. I tend to lean more on what I can come up with intuitively because that tends to be a lot more interesting and strange than what I “think” up. The attitude or emotion is the seed of the work. I don’t begin a poem and think, I’m going to write something sad or silly or melancholy—after I write a poem I go back and recognize it’s emotion or attitude. In hindsight, I can often compare and sync my poems to my dreams that I having around the same time. I discover that I struggle with the same themes and forces in both.
Editing can be the toughest part of writing. While working on God Damsel, or even Your Ten Favorite Words, what was truly the toughest part of the process for you?
I don’t find editing to be especially tough. What I find most beneficial with editing is having a buffer of time after I write a piece before I go back and rework it. I need the time to disconnect from its creation to consider it from different angles.
I know for a fact that I have spent more hours staring at a blank page than actually writing anything. How do you deal with those lulls in writing, where nothing seems to be happening, or when you dislike whatever you’ve put on the page?
I’ve been struggling with a frustrating and unproductive block for the past year. When I find myself in this creative abyss I don’t stare at a blank page, I keep writing. I just hate everything I write and scrap it. But I go through the process because I believe it’s necessary to work myself out of it. Sometimes I go back to those scraps after some times has passed to see if there’s something to be salvaged. Like this past summer I had a dream that I found perfectly good fruit tossed on the ground. So I went back to what I had written that month to try to find that perfectly good fruit. I’m probably my harshest critic and frequently sabotage my own divine infants, those new, but not completely formed, potential. That’s why when I write, I do my best not to “think” about what I’m doing else I’d censor or red pen everything.
Many of No Tell’s poets have appeared in the Best American Poetry series, was that something you aspired to as an editor, or did the recognition your writers received take you by surprise? What is the process that one goes though to have their work appear in the Best American Poetry Series?
When I read No Tell submissions, BAP (or any other publication) never crosses my mind. Seriously. To date, No Tell Motel published one poem that David Wagoner selected in 2009: Craig Morgan Teicher's "Ultimately Justice Directs Them.” That was a nice accolade for both the magazine and Craig. A number of other No Tell poets have had poems published elsewhere appear in BAP and that’s wonderful for them—but it’s not a consideration on my end as an editor. I certainly have declined work by poets who appeared in BAPs as well as a number of other “prestigious” publications and winners of fancy awards and degree holders from high-falutin MFA programs. That’s the case for most editors. I’m wowed by poems, not resumes.
As far as I know, there’s not really a process to get into BAP—other than 1. you write a poem and submit it to magazines, 2. an editor publishes it in a magazine, 3. then that year’s BAP guest editor happens to read that poem and makes the very arbitrary decision that it’s one of the 75 “best” poems published that year out of the, presumably, thousands of poems he read. One can also presume that for every poem that year’s guest editor did read, there were likely 20 (or maybe many more) that he didn’t read. If you’re interested in boosting your odds, I suppose you could try and place your poems in publications that more frequently have poems selected. There’s a higher chance that the guest editor would happen to read them if they appear in a place like The Paris Review. But to get into The Paris Review, you have to write the kind of poem The Paris Review publishes and if you do get a poem accepted there, you better hope it makes its ways through the backlog and onto the page before the editor changes and the new guy revokes your acceptance.
The poet, Jeffery Bahr keeps a running tally at: http://www.jefferybahr.com/Publications/
But if you focus too much about the numbers, you’ll likely come to the conclusion that the most effective process to appear in BAP is to become an elderly white male poet.
My advice is to be concerned about the poems and then later, when they poems are ready, be concerned about finding the right homes for those poems, wherever and whatever those homes may be, so they’ll reach readers who’ll appreciate them. If you’re writing the poems you’re supposed to be writing, as far as I’m concerned, you’re a “successful poet.” If your poems are reaching and being appreciated by readers—that’s the true jackpot.
Recently you participated in an interview regarding ebooks. There is so much floating around right now about ebooks and how they are both killing and saving the publishing industry, writers, and even readers. For you, what are the pros of ebooks? What about the cons? Do you think they will kill the paper book as we know it, or is that just media hyped hysteria?
I don’t see approaching the issue in the vein of pros versus cons to be very useful. The fact is that millions of readers have ALREADY embraced ebooks and that number is growing exponentially. Does that mean print will die out? I don’t know. Probably no time soon, but who can say for sure? I envision the next decade to be predominantly a mix of ebooks and print-on-demand copies—after that, I can’t fathom. There’s too many unknowns and possibilities for me to say with any confidence. Hysteria is not useful to me either. Shit is changing. That means I have to change how I do things if I want to continue participating. That’s not to say that it’s not incredibly daunting or frustrating to change. It certainly is. But I grew up in Pittsburgh and remember when all the mills closed in the 70’s and early 80’s. People waited around, unemployed, in squalor, for years for the mills reopen. Sorry, but I’m not holding my breath for print to make it’s big comeback.
What I am concerned with right now is that there is no easy way for publishers to properly format poetry (line breaks, spacing, etc.) in ebooks. That’s why so many poetry books aren’t available as ebooks. If poetry isn’t available as ebooks, a substantial number of readers are being excluded from our already diminished readership. The big poetry publishers haven’t figured out how to format ebooks properly (check out HarperCollins’ horrific attempt at Allen Ginsberg’s Howl for just one example) and the smaller, independent publishers (who publish 90% of poetry in the U.S. right now) don’t have the resources or access to the software developers. The issue isn’t that poetry publishers are being technophobes (although there certainly are poetry publishers that are), it’s that ePub (the ebook standard) doesn’t take into account the need for forced line breaks or precise spacing. The Poetry Foundation (who was responsible for the article you mentioned) has written several articles about this problem, so clearly they recognize that it is indeed a problem, but what else are they doing about it except pointing out the obvious? They’re the ones with the paid staff, millions of dollars and the mission statement: “to raise poetry to a more visible and influential position in American culture. Rather than celebrating the status quo, the Foundation seeks to be a leader in shaping a receptive climate for poetry by developing new audiences, creating new avenues for delivery, and encouraging new kinds of poetry.”
Who else is in a position to help out the hundreds of poetry presses and thousands of poets develop new avenues for delivery of poetry? I can’t think of any other organization with the resources and influence. If they’re waiting for some micropress publisher, spending her own limited time and pennies, to get the attention and opportunity to work with the developers at Adobe, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. to hash this all out and come up with a solution—well, that’s going to be a long time coming and in the meanwhile the audience for poetry will be even smaller than it already is now.
No Tell Books has several titles that are mostly prose or short-lined, minimally formatted poems. In 2011 I will focus on converting those titles into ebooks. The rest are just going to have to wait until it’s possible to format them properly. Maybe I’ll make them available as PDFs and folks using iPads and laptops can read them that way. It’s the best I can do with the current circumstances.
On the No Tell Motel website you publish a weeks worth of poems from each poet, so you only end up with a very select 52 poets a year to publish. How do you choose which ones to run? What, for you, are deal breakers in a poem? And what is something that you really love to see a poem do?
I often make the (sort of) joke: “Ask yourself, did my poem earn its penis?” The reason being is that No Tell Motel received a deluge of penis poems and it’s a huge turn off. While over our 6 years of publishing, we have published a few, we certainly did not corner the market, yet for some reason poets keep sending. The message I get from that is those poets have no idea the kind of work we publish but instead project their own ideas based on the design and name of the magazine. To me the name and design of “No Tell Motel” conveys fabulous, playful, sassy, a bit mysterious and unknown. To others it seems to convey a place that will publish their blowjob poems.
Like with most editors, the poems I choose are the ones I really adore. My tastes are relatively broad, but clearly I’m not attracted to everything. Every editor has an aesthetic—any magazine that purports to publish “only the best” is full of shit. I lean towards the strange, subversive, off-kilter, but there are certainly poems published in NTM that don’t fit that description but I admired them for other reasons. I prefer poems that aren’t easily categorized. When I select a poet to feature for a week, I’m selecting her because I’m impressed with the poems, there’s at least 5 that present well together and they are somehow distinct from what I’ve already published.
As The Coachella Review is tied to an MFA program, I have to ask, any tips, advice, warnings, etc. for students who are just now earning their MFA’s and looking towards publishing?
I wrote a piece about this at We Who Are About to Die: Advice to (m)other(f)ucking ho(a)rd(s): http://wewhoareabouttodie.com/2010/10/28/advice-to-motherfucking-hoards/
1. Review books. Review literary publications. Interview authors. Write about contemporary literature.
2. Buy and read contemporary books. Subscribe to literary journals.