Christine Deavel’s first book, Woodnote, has just been published by Bear Star Press and has won the 2011 Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize. Author Rebecca Brown calls Deavel “a kind of Midwest nature mystic whose words call us to see what we see clearly and then to call the things we see by their true names.” There’s an excellent review of the book here.
We know Deavel from her work on the other side of the counter, as a bookselller who co-owns Open Books: A Poem Emporium with her husband, the poet J.W. Marshall.
Deavel is a graduate of Indiana University and the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared in Fence, Talisman, Volt, and other journals, as well as in the chapbook Box of Little Spruce, published by LitRag Press, and in the volume Looking Together: Writers on Art, published by the University of Washington Press. She was raised in North Manchester, Indiana.
We asked her a few questions over email, and her answers, like her poems, took us places that were both unexpected and familiar.
How has being a bookseller—talking with people about poetry every day— influenced your writing? It’s the listening to people that’s had the most influence, the education I receive at the hands of my customers. My second—and ongoing—MFA.
This is an inevitable question to ask a bookseller about her book. Can we hear your handsell? Ah, a challenging question, because it hits on some issues for me. One, a writer doesn’t always understand what she’s done, what the book itself is as opposed to what the process was that made it. Two, the relationship between the bookseller and the bookbuyer is, to me, one that relies on mutual respect and a bit of distance: the bookbuyer has to be able to say no, that’s just not for me. I make it a point to tell folks who ask for recommendations, ‘Please don’t be afraid to say these selections don’t fit; you cannot offend me.’ I don’t want to, in any way, exact pressure on shoppers in the store, particularly by handing them my own book. A rejection in that case would be a bit twinge-making for both of us, I think. But! That’s not to say we’re not trying to sell the book at Open Books—we most certainly are. It’s faced out in two places, and I’ve signed a stack.
So maybe you’re not the best salesperson for your book? This reminds me of the old Volvo in my driveway I’ve been trying to sell. I could use the extra money, and, yet, I really love this car. When people come to look at it, what they hear from me is: The gas gauge is broken. There are no seatbelts in the back. Did you see the hole in the rear floorboard? Most definitely, I’m not the best salesperson for this Volvo. I don’t think I’d point out its flaws— I actually feel pretty good about it and I’m fine by watching it end up in a new garage—but I think I’d be tempted to say, ‘Of course, you might want to take a look at this new book by Alice Notley instead or this one by Mary Ruefle or something by Merrill Gilfillan.’ There’s just too much wonderful poetry on the shelves around my book. I mean ‘too much’ in a good way.
I think I’ve exaggerated your question and that what you’re asking is for me to give a description that booksellers might use. So, to that I would offer, “Woodnote is a collection that haunts and is haunted by place, in this case the landscape of a small town in northern Indiana. It is a meditation on loss and endurance, turning its gaze on both the past and the present. Composed of lyrical poems, fragments, litany-like lists, and prose, it seeks to illuminate its subjects—fragile, transient, common—and so embrace them.” Oh, I don’t know. That might be accurate!
Maybe it’s easier sometimes to open up the book to a poem and let the customer see for herself. Do you do that often? I gave you a description of the book that’s probably more suited to the page. When talking to a customer who’s asked for a recommendation, my first words are always questions. Who do you like? What books or poems? What is it about that work that speaks to you? Are you looking for more of that or something different? If people just want something new, or if the person is new to poetry, I may ask some basic questions: Do you want poems that tell a story? Should they be long or short? Should it be a contemporary author? Man or woman? English-speakers only or is translation OK? When I hand a book over, I usually just give a brief description and explain why I’m picking it. Or sometimes I don’t say anything. I’m picking it because of something that was said, and that’s enough. I rarely point out a poem, I confess, because I’m thinking of the book as a whole. I hope folks will just wander through it. Maybe I should point out more poems!
I loved what you said in this interview about how “books talk to books.” What books would you say are having a conversation with yours? Would they include your list of “texts” that appear in your prose poem Economy? As they appear in the poem, they are: “The Poems of Emily Dickinson, The Granite Pail by Lorine Niedecker, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, tattery collections of Chinese and Japanese haiku, collections of Doonesbury comic strips, of Mutts comic strips, of Peanuts comic strips, The Ether Dome by Allen Grossman, Poems of Paul Celan, Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God.” I’m curious about that list and why you chose to include it there. I’ll answer these two questions together, and reverse their order, if I may. The list of books in “Economy” is almost like a liturgical recitation to me, a declaration of what I hold dear and what shaped me. That’s why I included them without the usual textual formatting (my careful editor and publisher, Beth Spencer, queried this, I want you to know, but kindly accepted my request to leave them unitalicized). Yes, definitely, some of the books in the list are among those I think of as talking to my book—and which my book is, at least for me, responding to. ‘Trying to sing with’ might be a better way of phrasing that. I believe that’s what writing is, a joining of the on-going, never-ending conversation/song. Other books not included in that printed list but certainly on the master are those by Walt Whitman, James Wright, Jean Valentine, Theodore Roethke, Jorie Graham, Fernando Pessoa and Tomas Transtromer, to name but a few.
“Economy” is one of the poems that sticks with me the most from your collection. It’s about you being the keeper—somewhat ambivalently—of volumes of diaries that belonged to a distant relative who you did not know. It leads to these existentialist questions about desire and how we live. Will you talk a little about the poem? “Economy” was written for a reading I was asked to give as part of a long-time series in Seattle. That invitation shaped not only the length of the piece (I had 30 minutes to read—it takes exactly that) but in a way the rhetorical journey within it. I felt a need to “show my hand.” That piece is one of my most overtly autobiographical. I made a decision as I was creating it to risk exposure, not so much of personal detail, though there’s plenty of that in it, but of, as you point out, the existential questions that I struggle with—primarily, Why write things down? Why make art? Is it worth it? What does ‘worth’ mean in this case? Those questions came to the fore as I thought about the diaries, decades of them, that I was given, pages filled with brief entries about weather, chores and church. I wasn’t sure I’d ever include these diaries in my writing in any way. I knew for sure I would never try to co-opt them—to create a persona piece in the diarist’s voice. What I felt called to do was to stand next to her, to have her stand next to me, our goods around us. “Economy” is a record of that, I guess. It’s hard for me to write about this piece. It was a pile of scraps that are now stitched together.
You write: “How can her text be my text? / I am the keeper of her text. // . . . You can read me here, can’t you.” What does it mean to you, “to be read?” What relationship with the reader would you wish for, if you could shape it any way you wanted? Reading is such a private act—the reader enters the little room of the book—yet it is a portal to the experiences of infinite others. Reading means feeling that intimate vastness. So maybe being read means a kind of vast intimacy. I think my wished-for relationship with the reader might be like the one that forms when two strangers witness something startling together—they are instantly a community, bonded.
That’s a great way to describe the connection a reader feels with an author she’s reading. The way you talk about strangers witnessing something startling together feels ominous to me, though. Was that intentional? Well, I guess anything startling is ominous, in a way. It’s a diversion from the norm, an unsettling of the usual. That can be caused by pleasure or pain, something beautiful or something horrifying. I’m remembering an amazing moment I had while walking back to the store after running errands in the neighborhood. I was waiting for the light to change, and I heard some crow excitement. I looked up to see an eagle a mere 15 feet above me. None of my fellow pedestrians looked up or responded. That was a reading experience I had longed to share, to feel that another’s mind held what mine had just held.
Woodnote is your first book, at 53. Will you tell us a little about the process that led you to publishing it?
It was a long one. I am a slow writer and go through years of quiet. I would send out work sporadically and had some publication in journals but little encouragement on the occasions I sent out a manuscript. I know a lot about the poe biz, as it’s called, yet I could not figure out my place in it, or more accurately the place of my work. At least that’s what I thought. Now I believe I was figuring it out; it just took me 30 years to do it. I needed that time to find my true voice, my mature voice, I think, and then to learn where that voice would be welcomed. My experience at Bear Star has been deeply satisfying, and I am pleased and grateful that Woodnote has made its home there.
There’s something about you being a poetry bookseller that, before I read your work, made me think, Oh, she really knows what she’s doing; I know this is going to be good—even if I don’t “get it.” Do you get that sort of preemptive respect often from non-poetry readers? If I do, I think folks are hiding it well. If respect comes out of fear, then it’s a curse and a dismissal (I’m thinking more about the art than the artist). Confusion is not a sign of an inadequate experience with art— it may in fact be quite the opposite. The more poetry I read, the longer I live with it, the more comfortable I am with being lost for awhile in poems.
You’re right, it is a reaction that’s based on fear. And it’s one that’s alleviated when I spend time with poems. Getting lost in them, as you describe, that’s something that doesn’t come easy—turning off that “figuring it out” part of the brain. I agree; it is so hard to quiet that part of the mind. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask for a rewarding reading experience from poetry. We most definitely should. It should be enjoyed! I’m just thinking that sometimes that enjoyment comes in sideways or upside down.
The reward does come in unexpected ways sometimes—and I think the same could be said in other genres. Maybe you can’t speak to this question, but I wonder how selling poetry is different than general bookselling. My husband and long-time bookstore partner, John W. Marshall, and I had a general bookstore for seven years. While we stocked a fair amount of backlist then, we do so even more now. Poetry customers often come into the store with knowledge, and they want to see not just the latest but years-old titles, too, books even less likely to be on a general bookstore’s shelves. We also seek out more micro-publishers, a lively and important part of the poetry world.
Being a poetry bookseller seems like an especially endangered subset of an endangered species—or at least what some say is an endangered species (We have our doubts), but maybe the rarity of your breed helps protect it. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the future of bookselling and especially poetry bookselling. Well, my thoughts are often dark ones. Not for the existence of the book, and of poetry books in particular. But I can’t see that bookstore culture will ever again be what it was when I became involved with it full-time in 1989. We are still in the book business because we became a specialty store. Not only did it allow us to play to our strengths, it made us stand out from the chains. We are a tourist destination. Bless tourists! Perhaps, as more bookstores close (Seattle lost two in the last few months), a bookstore will be more of a novelty, a destination stop no matter if it’s a specialty store or a general one. Some days John and I obsess about what will happen. But mostly we just let it go now. We will not be all things to all people, and there won’t be as many people who want what we have and in the way that we have it. But there is a poetry-book buying community out there—here—and that will never end, I believe. We’ll stay a part of it as long as we can and be grateful for the life it gives us.