The “Next Big Thing,” a project of self-interviews that is winding its way through the electronic ether. For the project, authors respond to the same set of questions about a work in progress or forthcoming book and then tag other authors to carry this next big thing forward. I was fortunate enough to be tagged by the lovely Christina Stoddard. Below, I’ve answered some questions about one of my current projects.
What is the working title of the manuscript?
The title of my forthcoming collection (from Finishing Line Press) is Splices, as in film editing, collage, and comma splices (which I am very much given to) . . . But I’d like to take advantage of this interview to talk about my most recent publication, a lyrical evocation of my five years as a student at UC Berkeley back in the early seventies. It is titled Berkeley Prelude and was published by Unicorn Press this last year.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
Almost from the moment I left California to begin my teaching career at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, I felt a strong urge to try to capture in words the profound coming of age experience that Berkeley had been for me. Unfortunately, I have no talent for prose except for the academic sort, and my attempts were dissatisfying to say the least. Only when in 1985 I read Wordsworth’s The Prelude for the first time and admired how he used verse to explore his own spiritual autobiography did it occur to me that I might give a try to doing it that way myself.
What genre does your manuscript fall under?
It is a narrative poem in eight parts, about twenty-five pages long as it came out in the beautiful edition prepared by Andrew Saulters of Unicorn Press. I guess you could say the book is a kind of condensed novel, a love story of sorts—a verse Bildungsroman, in that I have a hero who comes of age under particular circumstance of time and place that I try to evoke as vividly as possible. But since the poetry is shaped from my own life experience, I decided to give it the subtitle “A Lyrical Memoir: 1970-1975,” which seems appropriate for a story which is in the main truthful, if not always factual.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
There’s a pleasant fantasy for you, a movie director picking up a book of poetry and saying, “OMG, gotta option this one right away!” Still, to play along, I can report that my dear friend Fritz Janschka, the wonderful Austrian artist who helped found the Vienna school of Magic Realism, honored me recently by illustrating the first section of Berkeley Prelude. In his pencil and crayon rendering, the hero he depicts looks to me rather like James Franco, who would certainly do nicely, though the young Tobey Maguire would be closer to how I imagine my clever but innocent and tentative protagonist.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your manuscript?
In the sensuous ferment of early seventies Berkeley, California, a college student full of confusion and yearning takes important steps along the path to maturity.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I began writing Berkeley Prelude in 1987. Although there is not a line that has not been rewritten many times over, in a sense there has only been one draft of the poem, since I did not know it was finished until two or three weeks before it was published in 2012. I really never thought that I would find a publisher for the work, and I am very grateful to Andrew Saulters of Unicorn Press for seeing its worth and taking it on. I particularly appreciate the care and sensitivity with which he read the manuscript, making many suggestions for improvement, which I was more than happy to accept. That he also produced a book beautiful to look at and a pleasure to hold, bodes well for the future of Unicorn Press.
What has been the hardest poem to write?
Without question, this poem is the most difficult I have ever written. The hardest part was writing the meditation that ends each section, where the narrator steps out of the story and, from the perspective of many years, comments in the first person on the actions and thoughts of the protagonist. Using this narrative technique, I explore matters of great moment to me personally, which is always dangerous, since it is all too easy to get overly sentimental, or self-serving, or self-deceiving.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The woman the protagonist in the story falls in love with, a brilliant, vivacious, difficult person that was very dear to me, died by her own hand some ten years after I left Berkeley. Not many months later, I began writing the poem.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Berkeley Prelude is the first book that Unicorn Press has put out under the stewardship of Andrew Saulters. The press, originally run by Alan Brilliant and Teo Savory, has quite a distinguished history, having published works by W.S. Merwin, Robert Bly, James Tate, Thomas Merton, Thich Naht Hahn and many other such figures. The press went on hiatus for a decade or so, but Alan has brought it back to life in recent years and is now passing it on to Andrew, who I believe will do great things with it again. I recommend to those who would like a chance to have their poetry showcased in a lovely, carefully crafted edition to enter the first book contest that Unicorn Press is sponsoring this year. Here is the link to the submission guidelines: http://www.unicorn-press.org/submissions/