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Journal, Day Two

By Bill Zavatsky

2: ON PUBLISHING MY FIRST BOOK OF POEMS IN THIRTY YEARS

The year 1985-1986 was filled with humiliating interviews with headhunters and potential employers. Nobody knew which slot to fit me in. “Well, you’re a teacher and a writer and an editor and a publisher. What is it you do?” I made the connection for them: everything that I did had to do with writing or teaching. One sympathetic executive wracked his brain to try to help me. We sat in his office at six one evening, long after we both should have gone home, as he lamented, “There’s something that I’ve got to be able to find for you!” I felt even sorrier for him! I was offered a whole lot of nothing, including a job with a major publisher as a copy editor—no regular salary, no benefits. Finally it was teaching that saved me. I had been teaching poetry workshops in an elementary school, and after deciding that teaching was my strong suit and that I’d better go after a job in the classroom, I told the principal and the head of the language arts department about my dilemma. Bless them, they immediately offered me a spot for the fall of 1986 at their school. (I also had an interview at a prestigious private school in Manhattan. They dragged on and on over the decision, really jerking my chain. When I finally pressed them, and pressed them hard, for a decision, I was told that my devotion to SUN was such that they thought my publishing activities would get in the way of my teaching, even though I told them that I was almost finished with closing down the press!)

In my new job I taught sixth grade English, did the yearbook (including much of the photography), and attended the numerous workshops required by the New York City Board of Education for new teachers. I also caught about six colds during the year, the dues-paying aspect of entering the classroom germ pits. I was exhausted, and wasn’t scribbling very much in my notebook. The money wasn’t great, but it did offer a few thousand dollars more that what I had been making as a freelancer, and I did have a health plan of my own. Then another bolt from the blue split my head open. The principal who had hired me was told that he had one weekend in October to clear out his desk. He and other acting interim principals in the school district had sued the local board for not having appointed them principals in a timely fashion. The acting interims lost, and one of my best friends and supporters at the school was gone. Later on in the year, the new principal told me that she was going to issue me my “separation papers” (a wonderful phrase!). It was clear that she was going to give my job to somebody else, and I had no protection because as yet I had no teaching license. “Oh, Mr. Zavatsky,” she said, “you have a very good education and you’re well qualified. You’ll find something right away.”

Though I didn’t believe her, I took six credits towards my teaching certificate that summer. Lo and behind, there one Sunday in the education employment section of the New York Times, I put my finger on an ad that I could hardly believe. It described a teaching position in the high school at Trinity School, a college preparatory school that was founded in 1709 in the choir loft of the famous Trinity Church. The school needed an English teacher and someone who could advise the school literary magazine. I leaped up as if I had beheld a rainbow in the sky, feeling that the job write-up had my name all over it, and that if I couldn’t land this one, I might as well jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. The chair of the English Department, Jane Mallison, remembered that we had encountered one another some years earlier at the long-gone Salter’s Book Center up near Columbia, and that we had talked for two hours. She had just moved to Manhattan, which is perhaps why that conversation remained memorable for her. This recollection didn’t hurt my chances, and that fall I began teaching at Trinity. This fall I go back for my twentieth year there.

But, of course, I had to learn a new curriculum for three classes and grade lots and lots of student papers. After years of being on my own as a freelance teacher, however, I loved having a home, especially a home like Trinity, with its high-powered, wonderful colleagues and extraordinary, hard-working, bright students. Pretty soon Jane suggested that, if I wanted, I could offer a creative writing workshop—and did I ever! While I continued to write poetry whenever I could, the demands of teaching took me over, and every time I’d think about trying to pull together a manuscript of poems, it didn’t seem to me that I had enough work or enough good work.

I hadn’t left the ground of poetry unplowed, however. Around the time that Theories of Rain appeared, I embarked on two projects with my friend Ron Padgett, two of whose extraordinary books I was lucky to publish with SUN—Toujours l’amour (1976) and Triangles in the Afternoon (1979). Ron and I translated The Poems of A.O. Barnabooth by Valery Larbaud, which came out in 1977. Also in 1977 we published our co-edited compendium of writing ideas and other schemes for creativity, The Whole Word Catalogue 2, which came out of our teaching work with children. Later in the ‘70s I teamed up with poet-translator Zack Rogow to work on poems by André Breton. Earthlight: Poems of André Breton was published in 1993 and that year won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Translation Prize. Translation kept me sharp, I knew. It fed my own work, and I could take whatever skills I had learned as a poet and apply them to the work of foreign poets.

Here and there my poems made their way into a few anthologies, and while I was sending work out in a desultory fashion, I didn’t feel like much of a poet. In fact, I felt like something of fraud, not having published a new book of poems since 1975. I was a little embarrassed to offer new acquaintances a copy of Theories of Rain, with the picture of me on the back with hair down to my shoulders. (By the ‘80s my hair was dwindling. Today there isn’t much of it left.) Yes, I knew about George Oppen, and that he went 20 years without publishing a book of poems, but after all, he was George Oppen, and I was . . . who?

I was, maybe, some kind of ghost of the poet that I might have become. I had to decide if I was going to kick the bucket and leave my desk crammed with poems that other people would probably throw away or if I was going to try to assemble a manuscript and get it published. I can’t put a date on it, but until maybe 2002 I was mostly afraid to see what I had in the poetry bank. That spring I decided to apply to a poetry workshop that Marie Howe was giving that summer at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Marie is an inspirational teacher and one of my favorite poets, which is why I applied in the first place. A friend in Wellfleet loaned me the family summer home, and every afternoon for the week of the workshop I wrote and worked on a manuscript. I brought up with me in my car every poem that I thought worked or might work in it. By the time I left the Cape I had the beginnings of a manuscript that I could feel some pride in. That winter, on my school break, I took this material to Florida and sat for hours over it, trying to see the book. I was getting closer, but I have never been very good at figuring out which poem should go where. I put the titles on index cards and shuffled them around until some kind of order began to emerge. When I decided on a tentative order, I made photocopies of the manuscript and sent it to a number of friends whose judgment I trusted. After receiving their comments, I rewrote, reordered, and dropped/added poems to the manuscript, then sent out copies of it again, this time asking for blurbs.

One of these friends, a distinguished writer, said to me, “This book has three times the number of good poems that most new books of poetry have in them. Why don’t you look for a major publisher?” I said to him, “You know, I don’t want to wait five more years to see if anybody wants to publish this book.” I hoped he was right about the quality of the manuscript, and sent it to my friends at Hanging Loose Press. I knew that if they liked the manuscript, which I was now calling Where X Marks the Spot, they would tell me in pretty short order and publish the book in a year. That year was this one, 2006.


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, August 15th, 2006 by Bill Zavatsky.