Monday, September 8, 2014

My First Time: Carla Panciera

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Carla Panciera, author of the short story collection Bewildered which received AWP’s Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and will be available from the University of Massachusetts Press in October.  She is also the author of two collections of poetry: One of the Cimalores (Cider Press) and No Day, No Dusk, No Love (Bordighera).  She has published fiction, memoir, and poetry in several journals including The New England Review, Nimrod, The Chattahoochee Review, and Carolina Quarterly.  She and her husband, Dennis Donoghue, live in Rowley, MA, with their three daughters.  Carla teaches high school English.

My Book’s First Public Appearance

The books arrived on a September day saturated with light and sun.  I feel it now–the heat of that moment, the blood rushing to my fingertips as I ran them along a spine with my name on it.  I pored over the ISBN, the copyright, all the things that made me feel not myself, but someone greater!  Someone for whom one slice of shelf space in a library might be reserved!  I picked up several copies, stunned by their miraculous uniformity, before I finally flipped to the poems themselves and thought: Oh god.  What have I done?  In my excitement to finally have a book published, I had forgotten that people–especially people I knew–would, for the first time, actually read it.

The next day, as I walked my dog, my neighbor pulled up beside me.  “I’m loving the book!” she said.  Before I could thank her, she added: “It’s so revealing!” and sped off.

At a signing, a woman told me her husband refused to come.  “He was mad at you for a while,” she said.  “He’s over it now.  That Oak Street Cowboys poem?  That was his father who was shot.”  I had retold my own father’s story about an argument that erupted over whose homemade wine was better; the dead man was a “ghost sitting on the front steps,/in a t-shirt and workpants, the shoes he’d crossed the ocean in.”

An ex-boyfriend’s mother bought a copy and sent me a lovely card that thrilled me until I remembered the Block Island poem in which her son figures prominently.  She would recognize “the scar/below his navel, a cool bowl/you leave your thumbprint in.”  Maybe she had forgotten that trip.  Maybe she thought the beach sex was made up.

I had not changed the name of another old boyfriend, a name that happened to belong to exactly one person in my hometown for the twenty I’d lived there.  The poem itself chronicled part of another relationship, part of a fictional scene, but who would know that?  Oh well, I thought, it’s only about having a crush.  How harmful can that be?  Then, one night, after he had put his colicky twins to bed and drunk some bourbon, my nephew called me.  “I really like your poems, ” he said.  “But I have two questions: #1 – did you really have your first experience with Cameron B –? and (from a poem derived from a friend’s description of her anti-depressants) #2 do you have an addiction to prescription painkillers?  You can tell me,” he said.  “It won’t change how I feel about you.”

When I recounted these interactions to one of my writer friends and confessed my fear of appearing in public to read from this surprising tell-all, my friend said, “Poetry isn’t memoir.  It isn’t history.”

When I had a similar conversation with my mother, she said: “You’re missing the point.  People are actually reading the book.”

Of all the fantasies I’d entertained about the publication of my first book, the one scenario I had not envisioned turned out to be the best part of all: I got to talk to people about poetry, not just my own poems, but poetry itself.  I am grateful for those moments that moved me toward a more complete understanding of what poetry is and what it definitely is not.

I also learned that, for me at least, there is some responsibility I hadn’t previously considered.  Scribbling in my notebooks while the rest of the world slept, sending my work to small and lovely literary magazines that no one in my real world read, I had not applied to my own work what I have always known to be true: words have power.  Meaning is not inherent in the page but discovered by the reader.

Whenever I forget those lessons and begin, again, to obsess about the place my book might secure in some library a hundred years from now, I remind myself of one scene that occurred at a family gathering several months after the book came out.  Distrusting my explanation of my poem “The Crush,” my nephew stood up and read it according to his own interpretation.  He wiggled his eyebrows and winked, mastered the let’s-get-it-on tone he insisted was present.  Okay, so I can never read that poem aloud again to an audience, but my mother was right: he had read the poem and I loved what he made of it.

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