My whole game plan—most of which is a solo effort—was designed around Honest Engine coming out, well, yesterday, April 1st, 2015. When the book showed up in my office in late February, three weeks early, it sent me into a bit of a promotion panic.
I was nowhere near as deliberate with my first three books. To me, those books were all just blessings.The mere opportunity to have them in print was enough for me—everything else was excess good fortune. I never planned any book tours or sketched out a marketing strategy. What came came, and good things came—a review in the Times; write-up in the Star-Ledger or Washingtonian magazine. All that back when, honestly, I didn't know enough to care.
But now I do care. Honest Engine is a different book. The structuring and the writing were conscious in ways that were not true for the other books. I fought for what’s in Honest Engine as one fights against a hard and bitter wind knowing there is a warm place, however far away, where one’s bones might be able to eventually rest. I usually send my manuscripts to one former teacher in particular as they near completion, and, despite her busy schedule as one of the grande dames of American letters, she always found a moment to respond. I did not send her the manuscript for Honest Engine because I knew, in terms of evolution, it was what the other three books had laid the foundation for in terms of revelations and mistakes and the gradual unwinding of what had been, in my other books, a very well-wrapped speaker. I knew she would see that because I’d finally—after ten years—gotten to the point where I could see my poems—their strengths, their holes—as she could.
Since the book has been in print—early—I’ve had three readings. One was, if we are just talking numbers, not that great in Boulder, Colorado. (Though I had a very sincere conversation one of the eight people in attendance who was an aspiring writer.) The other two were at Colorado State University and the University of Virginia (my alma mater)—both great audiences who bought all the books. And while I do remember feeling so fortunate and enthused after those moments . . . one returns to the internet and to the stagnant Amazon sale rank or lack of buzz on twitter and begins to question if the work is connecting with anyone in that broader realm beyond all the hands one can shake and all the eye one can look within. I often find myself buried under that uncertainty, my brain throbbing with the frustration of not being recognized for the work I’ve cared about most.
The best moment of this process thus far has been the ride back from the Virginia Festival of the Book. I stopped a Target in one of the new shopping centers creeping their way north on US-29 and bought the new Kendrick Lamar CD. (Yes, the CD. I needed to be able to play it in the rental car and I was fascinated enough by the project to know I wanted it in a physical form, not just ethereal data.) Listened straight through from the edge of Charlottesville to Gainesville, and by the time I got to the imagined (or rather repurposed) dialogue with Tupac at the end I was so entranced that I also smashed into the a row of cars stopped at an intersection. Not joking. I was wearing my seatbelt, but the car would have gotten totaled. I had to pull off the road for a second and collect myself (read: thank the ancestors for not yet calling me home for my foolishness).
I’d spent so much time in the past few weeks stressing about the marketing and business side of art—my own art—that I’d forgotten or thoroughly distanced myself from the joy of getting lost in the aesthetic forensics of experiencing art that challenges you. Listening to To Pimp a Butterfly over and over for the rest of that weekend gave me some ideas for structural challenges I want to confront in my next collection of poems, as regardless of what happens with Honest Engine there will be a next collection with new challenges. Up—and over a higher bar—is the only direction to go on this path. The ego get the upper hand at times—hell, it might get you all the way into that anxiety arm bar—but as long as you don’t tap out--
So thank you to Kendrick Lamar for releasing something else for me to be invested in while I am in the midst of rolling out my own project. And for simply recording the album. It isn't perfect [he says in response to To Pimp a Butterfly's critics], but no piece of art is. Nor is that the point, I'd argue.What can you and what do you learn from it--about the craft and about yourself? That's how I judge art in this existence we'll never understand, and even when introducing my art to the world, the best thing is being on the receiving end of art.
(This is inadvertently turning into a hip-hop journal, but so be it.)
P.S. Here is the original Honest Engine cover art next to the To Pimp a Butterfly album cover. Would have made for an interesting conversation, huh, America?