This essay was published in Open City, Issue No. 22


In the winter of 2004, two of my poems were published in this magazine. I went to the party celebrating the release of the issue where I was to receive my free contributor’s copies.  I had just bought my first pair of big winter boots, I mean gigantic winter boots, the kind modeled after the ones KISS wore in the 70’s.  I thought they would change my relationship to winter, and I could stop hating it and get on with my life.

I was meeting a friend at the party who has enough party spirit for two, which was important because my spirit is deficient in that way. I mention this because it was my secret wish to claim my copies and  leave, but because I wanted to act normally on account of my friend, when I was handed my copy, I looked for my poem. It is not my habit, when my work is published, to read it.

Early in my publishing career one of my poems was published in The Paris Review. I did what I think is the normal thing: I opened the book and looked for my poem. I began to read it. About half way down, a horrible thing happened: a typo! Rather, an omission – of an entire word! It was a spare poem, with a short line.  The missing word made the poem look crippled. I slammed the book shut and never opened it again.

The Paris Review editor called to ask how I “liked the poem.” I have been asked this strange question by editors since. I know what they mean but I always have the impulse to answer the question they’ve actually asked: I hate this poem! I don’t know what I could have been thinking when I sent you this! I wonder what was wrong with me when I wrote it! In any case, when this editor asked me how I liked the poem, I managed to say that there had been a mistake. “Oh,” she said. “I hope it doesn’t change the poem.” “Well,” I said, gathering my courage and reaching for a calm tone, “It changes the appearance of the line.” I paused and continued: “It also changes the rhythm of the line.” I took a slow breath. “And it changes the meaning.” “Oh,” she said.

It was the worst sort of omission: the poem still made sense, so no one would know there was a mistake, it just made a stupid sense now.

When my book came out, the poem appeared in it with the omitted word restored. I thought seeing the poem as I had written it would rehabilitate the poem for me. It didn’t. I flinch whenever that poem comes near. For me the poem is like a child who, once out of my sight, acts like an ass.

A few months before my book came out Poets & Writers magazine published an interview with me. I talked with an intelligent journalist I’d gone to school with. When I was sent my contributor’s copies, I read the interview checking for typos.  There were none!

But there was something much worse: The article contained many lines of direct quotation – from me. But that was impossible! The journalist hadn’t had a tape recorder and took very few notes. Many lines of these “direct quotations” sounded eerily familiar and also quite strange, like the way people’s faces can be changed ever-so-slightly in dreams: “It was you but it wasn’t you.” These quotes were similar to things I said without being things I actually said, off just enough to sound like a bad impersonation. Worst of all, perhaps, was the line the magazine excerpted, enlarged, and bolded: “Right after I finish writing something, I lose interest in it. I’m so through with it.”

That “so” stands out like a big pimple on my words. I don’t speak like this, but if I were from California I might. The journalist had put my words into dialect.

She also said I’m from a beach town on Long Island. When I called to tell my father this he laughed out loud: “Corey Beach?!” he cried, referring to the only part of town in which land and water meet — a yards-wide spit of stones and dirty bay water where I’d spent my summers collecting trash as a depressed employee of The Brookhaven Township.

As an added bonus, the picture of me they printed is off too: they told me it was going to be passport size. The picture is actually much larger. I’d never seen it enlarged. Blown up, it, too, looks like an odd cousin. Worst is my nose, a friend pointed out: “What’s with your nose?she said.  It looks pointy in the picture. My nose in real life is not pointy. In the picture I am looking down; my nose seems to point the way.

Oh well, I consoled myself, at least I didn’t fare so badly as the cover artist, Li-Young Lee. There’s a picture of him inside the magazine sitting in a bathrobe on his curvy sofa with the shades drawn and a long-eared bunny beside him. At least I didn’t look like an angry prostitute.

But the repercussions of the near-quotes in Poets & Writers were harsh. When my book was reviewed unfavorably in Parnassus, the reviewer borrowed liberally from the Poets & Writers interview. One of the things he harped on was a “tossed-off” quality in my work (“…I’m so through with it, I’m so through with it, I’m so, so, so…” I kept hearing). I think this impression of his came more from that excerpted line than from my poems. I felt doubly abused.

Because of these and other incidents, I developed the habit of not reading my work when it’s published: I’d rather not know. It may be behaving badly or mocking me from between the covers of a magazine, but I don’t care. I’m in a comfortable denial. So, imagine my lack of surprise, my calm state of non-plus, when I opened the pages of Issue #18 of this magazine, solely to pretend that I had a normal relationship to the written word for the benefit of my friend, to find the title of my poem, Blue Statuary, and beneath that my name, Priscilla Becker, and beneath that a poem I’d never before seen! I thought for a moment that Open City might be so avant garde, so cutting edge, so open, that they didn’t abide by the normal, boring convention of printing the title of the poem on the same page as the poem itself. I looked before and aft my poem. No Blue Statuary.

The poem which appeared beneath my title and name was about, if I remember correctly, a horse. It had a line in it something like: Blood. Shit. Piss.

In the days following this new publishing disaster, I puzzled over the sanity of giving over my work to second parties. The editor at Open City was mortified, and after some research offered this explanation: The type-setter uses a template to set the type. He then removes the template, substituting the intended poem. But in the case of my poem, he had neglected to remove the dummy-poem. I learned the title of this poem and the name of its author from an apology in the contributor’s notes of issue #19 of Open City – “Against Witness,” by William Wenthe.

At first this error seemed preferable to omitting just one word or changing my words into dialect. This was egregious! No one could think I’d written this poem! As it turns out I was wrong about that. More people have mentioned reading that poem than any other I’ve published. “I saw your poem in Open City,” they say, giving me a strange look. I never tell them what happened, I don’t know why. Something perverse in me enjoys this confusion. Maybe I am trying to change my relationship to the written word.


4 Responses to “Essays”

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  3. MLouise Goodspeed Says:

    Dear Billy W.,
    I heard your reading on The Paris Review web site. The voice there is so so so totally feminine. It’s awesome how you play with gender, what with the domestic themes of your work and all.

    Note on comment: your poetry (PB) knocked me out in a way i am unaccustomed. i am, however, a child born of a beach town, albeit a Pacific Ocean beach town, but awesome none-the-less, and must so let you know, your TYPO… piece made me laugh. Keep the poet in you poeting (please).

  4. Mari Gorman Says:

    Tears are still running down my cheeks from reading this. There is really nothing like a good hard bout of laughter.

    There is also really nothing like Priscilla Becker’s poetry. I love it.

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