Friday, February 09, 2007

The Story of My Chapbook—by Tim Kelly

I was wandering in the wilderness of the poetry world with a sheaf of poems I thought made a perfectly lovely booklength manuscript; the problem was that publishers didn’t seem to see it that way. Individual poems had gotten warm receptions at various journals, but the feedback I was getting from the publishers was that some of the poems were too “clinical,” and didn’t mesh with the non-clinical ones.

I should explain that I’m a physical therapist. I write about bodies, and many of my poems are set in hospitals or clinics where I work. I love the work, and it has, not too surprisingly, become my primary source for my poetry. And yes, that means many of the poems contain “clinical” details and “specialized” language/jargon which is out of the ordinary. I hasten to add that I try to keep the strange words and jargon to a minimum, and my intent is always to include the reader in what I’m seeing/describing, rather than excluding him/her; I don’t do it to show off, but to be precise, and because there’s a beauty in the precision.

Then I found out about the Floating Bridge Chapbook contest, and went back and read Michael’s winner from the year before. It was a beautiful book beautifully produced. I looked at the work of some of the Floating Bridge poets, and, dang, that was very fine too. It quickly became clear to me that I wanted to give it a try, and the deadline was looming.

What I did was go to my collection of poems and selected the ones which were the MOST “clinical.” I thought that, for a chapbook, it would be smarter to have a clearly identifiable theme which all the poems could orbit around. I excluded poems which were about my family life, my dog, birds, shoes, politics or pop music, all of which feed my writing, on occasion, too. Having a big chunk of material to sort through really helped me in retrospect, because I was able to select only the poems which were water-tight. Oddly, I also began to see some wisdom in the publishers’ earlier feedback, too; it helped me to focus, to see things as an editor rather than a writer.

I submitted the poems and forgot about it; when I received the phone call from the FBP board in the spring, I was astonished and delighted. I was more astonished that the book appeared in a few short months, beautifully done; my experience with publishers previously was that it took a year or two to move from an acceptance to appearance in the physical world. This was more like the blink of an eye.

Is it possible that the most common strong emotion we, as humans, feel is ambivalence? I straddle the world of poetry and the workaday world of physical therapy; I don’t teach poetry, and consequently I spend much more time at the latter than the former. I’m jealous of poets who seem at ease with all of the levers of self-promotion, poets with great connections and great headshots. At the same time, I try to keep in mind my real-life blessings. I love poetry; it does something to me that no other artform can do; its power can still, on a midwinter Tuesday, leave me awestruck. I love the feeling of writing something I think is really good, even if I change my mind a day later (which I usually do.)

Life is good. I feel lucky to be able to work on people’s bodies for a living. I can’t imagine a richer source of stories, astonishment, pathos, hilarity. I’m resigned to the fact that I’m never going to get rich or famous doing either of my types of work, but they both feel very much like my personal “right livelihood.” The chapbook appeared! I’m just grateful that I’ve been able to persevere, to write, to read, to be read.


Blogger Samantha said...

Hey Tim!

This is David Eckles. I'm an old student of yours form Transcendent Practices waaaaaay back in the days. I've often wondered how life has fared for you since. And I found you!'s it going?


12:53 AM  

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