Knockin’ on Heaven’s Floor: How I Became a Poet in Public

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Floor

How I Became a Poet in Public

by Kaya Oakes
illustration by Liz Harris

I HAD ALWAYS imagined it would be like this: One day, I’d come home from work and there’d be a message on the machine from an editor asking me to call her or him back. I’d have a mild panic attack, wait an hour or so, and call back, trying to sound collected, only to find out that after eight years of rejections and losses, my manuscript had finally been accepted for publication.

I had talismans of routine about making this happen. I kissed the envelopes that lofted it off and into the hands of contest judges. I’d kiss my hand, then slap the dashboard and make a wish every time I ran a yellow light (a ritual learned from a high-school friend), and that wish was always, “I’ll get the call about the book today.” A few moving violations later, my car insurance was dangerously expensive, but the call never came.

And then it did, but it was on a Sunday, not a work day, and I was doing laundry in the basement, walking in the basement in bare feet—which is a terrible habit because my neighbor leaves pottery shards and rusty nails all over the floor—and when I got back upstairs and saw the message light, I ignored it because the only person who calls me on Sundays before noon is my mom. I listened to it later, between napping and reading tabloids, and the voice on the machine said something about “press” and “prize” and “editor,” and that’s when I had the mild panic attack and ran up and down the stairs at least five times before deciding what to do. I’d always imagined I’d be cool about it and wait a couple hours before calling this imaginary editor back, but it only took me about 10 minutes, and I was on the phone with a real editor, a nice guy named David who lived in Ohio and ran a small but well-respected press, and he was telling me that he was going to put out my book.

I’d like to say my life changed radically at that moment, but it didn’t. I told my husband, who made a strangely endearing fist-pumping gesture, I called my mom, who asked if Amazon would carry my book, I called my best friend, then my best writing friend, and I emailed everyone in my address book. Then I ate a bagel, and my husband left to go to a funeral for a friends’ wife who had died tragically young from breast cancer. After he left, I drove to the pool to work out for lack of anything better to do, and on the way found myself crying very hard, and it wasn’t just because I felt badly for my husband’s friend (I’d never met him, or his wife), but because the moment was here, and I was completely alone. A day or so later, my mother-in-law, who was severely ill with cirrhosis of the liver, went back into the hospital, and I went back to work, and while my colleagues congratulated me, I didn’t tell my students, because most of them hate writing, so why would they give a shit about my book? I told my shrink, who was unmoved, and then I quit therapy. I graded papers, I made dinners, I drove my mother-in-law to the doctor, I bought a kosher Thanksgiving turkey and stuffed herbs under its skin and roasted it, and it was tasty, I bought Christmas presents; a new year rolled around, and I stood in a backyard in West Oakland and talked with my friends about the trajectory of bullets fired into the air, and then I came home.

I was still writing, and I’d been writing the day my husband called and said he’d found his mother dead in her apartment. It was a few days after New Year’s, and the next month or so was about the business of death. Cremation, memorials, cleaning her house out, sorting her things… and then I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t thinking about the book. The book had become an abstraction, a thing in the future that had a shape and size but was not an entity in any meaningful way; it was a concept of achievement that, weighed against a premature, largely self-inflicted death, was relatively meaningless. And then more weeks wore on, I turned 35 and did not celebrate, and finally things became “normal” enough again, enough to remember there was something coming called a book, and that I was going to be shepherding it into the world.

This is around the same time that my friend began putting on poetry readings at the bookstore where he works. I had stopped going to poetry readings, tortured by the mediocrity of prize-winning poets, yet I knew that going to readings and making my presence known at them, introducing myself to people, was going to matter when the book arrived: Now I was a prize-wining poet, and I did not want to suck. So I went to readings, and I introduced myself to writers I cared about, writers who scared me, writers with weird, wandering eyes, stoned writers, writers who promised to help me get readings, writers who encouraged me to apply for jobs, writers who signed my copy of their book and promptly forgot me. I was trying.

I bought a domain name and paid my friend’s girlfriend to make me a website. I took my blog, which I’d been semi-privately keeping for years, to the public, but forgot to add a site meter and still have no idea if anyone reads it. I had my author photo taken by three different people and cringed at each result. I am cursed to be one of those people with a sad face, even when I am happy, so I looked depressed in a lot of them, and not very sexy. For some reason I imagined my author photo had to be sexy, like some strange man or woman would pick up my book and buy it just for that. Has this ever happened? Probably not, but I imagined it might help. I got asked to do a reading and read well, I think, or people told me I read well, and asked me to send them copies of the manuscript, asked when the book was coming out. I did a podcast, a very strange experience, sitting in an airtight studio and blowing every line reading in one stanza of the poem I like least out of everything in the book, but which the radio producers liked best, and I stuttered and lisped my way through it, and they posted my non-sexy author photo online and people listened to the podcast. I was still making dinners, grocery shopping, going to work.

I started writing again, wrote in spurts while cleaning the house, wrote fragments in my notebook between teaching classes. My friend’s second book came out, many years after his first; I went to his book party and thought how nice he looked, how poised. Like a real writer. I think it’s his hair. I started reading blogs by other poets and found a pocket opera of likes, dislikes, cliques, frustrated sexual overtures, misogyny, hate spam, posing, posturing and self-promotional rants. It was just like graduate school, only instead of being in a class with nine people, there were thousands and thousands of poets out there peeping like baby birds, desperate for a worm of attention. I wondered if keeping a blog was worth the effort. I was interviewed about my book and the interview was never published. I looked at cover art. I made a list of people I wanted to blurb the book; I wrote to ten of them and they never wrote back.

Yet through all of this there were moments I remember accutely. One day, threading my way though tables of student groups on Sproul Plaza, I realized that my late dad would never read the book, and how pleased he would have been to hold it. Sometimes, when I meet people, I feel validated about saying I write: It’s no longer just me, sitting here with carpal tunnel and a bad back from this awful desk chair, tapping out poems; now there may be some sort of audience, still abstract, still mysterious, still more of a potential than an actual thing, and yet, possibly there. And the book was like that too: something that was going to happen, a future event that required foresight and nurturing and thought, yet was ephemeral and remains so, almost two years to the day from when I got the message. It’s a Sunday again, I’m doing laundry, I’ve finally figured out how to polish the floors in my living room (Windex and a dry towel). Last night I rode the train to the city with friends and heard someone read, someone who’d won a national book award, and I introduced myself and said, “My book’s finally coming out, nine years after I first read yours,” and he was totally nice. And I was totally nice, and I was a writer. I am.

Kaya Oakes’ book, Telegraph, received the Transcontinental Poetry Prize from Pavement Saw Press and is forthcoming in 2007.

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