Twenty years ago, I had my first poem published. That last word requires a bit of criteria. Once, giving a lecture on poetry publishing to a group of college students, I defined a publisher as "a person who brings your work to strangers." Anyone, I pointed out, can go to FedEx and photocopy a piece for friends and neighbors, but publishers are those special (and, often, idealistic) people who bank outside of an author's inner circle. Maybe the payoff goes as far as a few blog postings and a couple of Amazon reviews with unfamiliar user names. It doesn't matter. The first step is to believe in your own work, and the second is to have it believed in by someone else. There's a reason people print literary magazines in their spare time while barely staying in the black: that sense of shared commitment, that notion that all parties -- writer, publisher, reader -- are accomplices to a piece's birth.
My first poem to have an accomplice was "Elegy for a Rhythm Guitarist," which I wrote as a senior in high school. In 1998, it won second prize at a UCI Bookstore contest, and it appeared the following spring in Faultline, the campus' literary magazine. For a long time, it was my only poem. I performed it, eventually from memory, at one campus reading after another, to the point where, when I finally showed up to an event with a new offering, someone in the audience remarked that he had been expecting to hear "the guitar guy" again. I ultimately spent three years at UCI writing poems that could be charitably described as hit-and-miss; one of my problems was that I had convinced myself that, like Mozart in Amadeus, I was an instinctive genius who could churn everything out in a single draft. In 2002, just before graduating, I had a chapbook called Thief After Dark published by FarStarFire Press, whose publisher, Carole Luther, I had met through the local coffeehouse circuit. It consisted of 24 poems, sported a generic clip-art cover, and had staples in its spine. Still, the day I punched its title into Amazon and saw it come up, I felt almost cowed with wonder.
We grow out of that wide-eyed phase. Before long, I realized that Amazon is not exactly selective, that beginner's luck is not a neverending charm, and that poems, like most things, develop better through patience and nurturing than through bouts of frenetic inspiration. But I have never stopped being grateful for Carole, for FarStarFire, for the bookstore contest judges and for the editors of Faultline. Those early encouragements mean a lot, and the more sober times ahead might be less bearable without them.
And then, once in a while, we get to exult again. Next weekend, on Saturday, Sept. 7, my book Tea and Subtitles: Selected Poems 1999-2019 will launch at the dA Center for the Arts in Pomona. (The reading starts at 5 p.m., admission is free, and the venue is at 252 S. Main St. -- I think that covers all the key points, but please email me if you have any questions.) It will be a wide-eyed launch, which is to say, a tribute. Once I overcame my Mozart mentality years ago, I realized that the truest way to improve my craft was to study that of others. Out went the "brilliant" single drafts and in came a stack of books by other poets, young and old, famous and obscure, whose world views and poetic styles pushed me to keep building my own writer's toolbox. (That term, "writer's toolbox," comes from Stephen King. I have never taught an English class where I didn't cite it at least eight times.) At the dA next weekend, I will be joined by a series of other poets, who will present their work alongside mine in a back-and-forth session. Those are the scripted guests. If even more show up wanting to read, I may have to carve out an open reading list.
There are too many people to thank in this space -- twenty years amasses a lot of gratitude -- but I will give a special shout-out to Eric Morago, the publisher of Moon Tide Press, who made Tea and Subtitles and so many other poetry collections possible over the last three years. Eric, a Moon Tide author himself back in the day, is the kind of person who might give hope to a gawky undergraduate with a poem about a guitar player. In fact, he recently gave hope to a much older poet with a poem about a guitar player. "Elegy," which hasn't seen the light of day in years, appears on pages 32 and 33 of the book.