So I'm Going to Publish a Book...

In November of 2017 my book of poems, The Drowning Boy's Guide to Water, will be published by Autumn House Press. Another way of saying this: I'm on the verge of publishing a lot of my personal information in a very public way.

And although I am immensely excited about it, it would be a lie to say I am not also somewhat terrified. Though this has been, in a very real sense, my dream since my early teens, even the best of dreams are not without moments of tension and apprehension. This will be my first book, but it will not be the first time I've put writing out into the world in a public way, yet it may prove to be the scariest.

Scarier than the time I decided to write a novel of autobiographical fiction in high school about my then massive crush and other teenage drama I thought was super important. I worked on this book from my sophomore to senior years, late into the night, often skipping school work to get another chapter done. I was so proud of it that I got the bright idea to copyright it—which I did, and received a letter from The Library of Congress to prove it. Ten years later, I'm now wondering why in the world I thought it was a good idea to forever enshrine this overly sentimental early work of mine in our nation's records for anyone to find.

 My collection of poetry journals I've acquired over the years. Some are full, some entirely empty, most are partially used. In the bottom left is an example of poems I'd write and deem "finished" by tearing them out and neatly folding in a stack. At the bottom center is the letter from The Library of Congress ensuring my copyright of "Wherever the Sidewalk Takes Me."

My collection of poetry journals I've acquired over the years. Some are full, some entirely empty, most are partially used. In the bottom left is an example of poems I'd write and deem "finished" by tearing them out and neatly folding in a stack. At the bottom center is the letter from The Library of Congress ensuring my copyright of "Wherever the Sidewalk Takes Me."

It's scarier than the time in my senior year of college when I wrote a three-page short story (really just a prolonged and poorly imagined sex scene) for a class, titled it "Hot Sex on a Platter," emailed the draft to myself late the night before (or so I thought), then woke up in the morning to discover I had accidentally emailed it to my fraternity's server, then spent the rest of that day fielding awkward questions from my brothers about why I had sent a sex narrative to the chapter without any context.

Then there was that time in 5th grade when we made our own picture books, and I decided to write "Chicken Big" as a spin on the story "Chicken Little," and my protagonist was a chicken that was wanted by the law, which led to a particularly suggestive illustration choice that now lives in infamy.

 This is a real picture from a real book I made in 5th grade. My innocence level was over 9000.

This is a real picture from a real book I made in 5th grade. My innocence level was over 9000.

Even starting this blog, just over one year ago now, as a place to occasionally share my thoughts, opinions, and experiences, doesn't compare; while there's always some brief anxiety that comes with pushing the "publish" button, The Drowning Boy will feel like pulling a large lever or cutting the rope tied to some very weighty thing. Ever since the initial excitement became normalized for me, I've been trying to pinpoint where this nugget of unease is located. I have some ideas.

In some respects, this book is brand new—the oldest poem in the book is actually a heavily revised version of a poem from freshman year of college, and the next oldest from only a year after undergrad. In other respects, The Drowning Boy's Guide to Water is the realization of a book I've wanted to write since middle school. I recall a day when my mom drove me and my sister home from school and somewhere along the way we started talking about our experiences on the thin line between Black and White worlds. The conversation continued into the kitchen when we got home. At some point I mentioned that I wanted to actually write something about this, and both my mom and my sister had these gut reactions as if I had stolen an opportunity from them. I proceeded anyway. Afton never did write anything (to my knowledge) and my mom began working on a project of her own that's ongoing. There's still a file in my computer titled "Token," the first four pages of what I must have imagined then would be my treatise on Blackness that would forever set history straight. I never finished it. All it ever became was a brief and sudden outburst of quasi-organized thoughts.

 The many versions of my high school novel, "Wherever the Sidewalk Takes Me," which I obsessively edited, combed through, and kept in this box. And yes, that is a Michigan state quarter taped to the table contents—and yes, a Michigan state quarter has to do with the plot.

The many versions of my high school novel, "Wherever the Sidewalk Takes Me," which I obsessively edited, combed through, and kept in this box. And yes, that is a Michigan state quarter taped to the table contents—and yes, a Michigan state quarter has to do with the plot.

However, reading it now I realize the spark that ignited "Token" never dampened, but rather leapt to light other fires in me. In the opening paragraph I wrote: "You see me as black, but think of me as white. I’m not what you’re used to, so you change me. You make me what you want me to be. But the me I know and the me you know are two different people. To you I’m white, unless it’s convenient, for you, that I be black." That direct language is the fire carried forth into my book. But what is also carried forward is the second-person address, the calling out of the addressee of the work, but in The Drowning Boy that addressee is sometimes a second person, and sometimes the speaker of the poems.

Most of my life I never felt like I could write poems about being black. It wasn't until a conversation with poet Yona Harvey early in grad school that I felt like I could—that I should, even. All she had to do was point out that by virtue of being black, my experiences indeed fall under the umbrella of Blackness, and that there was no one correct or "true" narrative that had to be followed. If this seems painfully obvious, that's because it was, and it was also just what I needed to hear. This was the beginning of my book in the form it has taken.

And while this is the most apparent layer to The Drowning Boy, there are others that also land close to my heart, some tied up in notions of race, and others more plainly stated. Though love poems had been my de facto speed through much of college, grad school pointed me toward newer love poems—namely, of family. It's one thing to write honest work, and a whole other thing entirely to publish it.

Perhaps there's a simpler way to put this. I've always been a person with a healthy concern of his own image. This isn't unique to me, but it is a challenge to balance that with the drive to write honest and worthwhile poetry at the same time. When I say that publishing a book is the scariest thing I've ever done, there's a good degree of hyperbole involved, but what I'm really talking about is risk. There's the risk that a critical audience may find my debut work to be only decent; there's the risk that my work of trying to complicate and critique a "middle ground" sort of Blackness in my poems will fall flat with both Black and White readers alike; there's the risk that poems involving family members may take my loved ones by surprise; there's the risk my love poems will be trite, bitter, sappy, or all of the above. Cliché, sentimentality, and mushiness are ever-present pitfalls when writing about things that matter deeply to you.

[caption id="attachment_1953" align="alignnone" width="4032"] On a whim, I came up with this quote at the end of a yearlong poetry time capsule project with students this past year. The more I look at it, the more I believe in it.[/caption]

 On a whim, I came up with this quote at the end of a yearlong poetry time capsule project with students this past year. The more I look at it, the more I believe in it.

On a whim, I came up with this quote at the end of a yearlong poetry time capsule project with students this past year. The more I look at it, the more I believe in it.

I like to think that all good writers are trying to knock some sort of truth against readers in a way they haven't felt it before. There's only so much humans can say and express—eventually we have to reinvent our expressions and approaches to emotions. This means langauge itself must be reinvented, and this means poetry. To pull it off is to be poetic (regardless of your writing discipline), and to fail is the risk all writers face. To fail with your most personal writing is the biggest risk of all, but success can be beautiful.

This makes me think of Sylvia Plath. Even though Plath, in pop culture, is now a punchline on a Cards Against Humanity card that maybe only 1 out of 3 people even get, there is so much courage behind lines like "...no not/Any less the black man who/Bit my pretty red heart in two./I was ten when they buried you./At twenty I tried to die/And get back, back, back to you./I thought even the bones would do." The risk to write that, to publish it, to believe that it will connect with an audience, is inspiring.

 A graduation gift from my friend Kim at the end of my MFA. I mentioned once that I needed to read more Plath, and Kim came through with a solid present.

A graduation gift from my friend Kim at the end of my MFA. I mentioned once that I needed to read more Plath, and Kim came through with a solid present.

And so this is where I've landed, this current landscape of perpetual excitment punctuated by pangs of insecurity, of doubt, of exuberance mixed with timidity. Maybe this is nothing special, maybe this is the path of all first-time publishing authors. There's nothing secure or sexy about that notion, though. Perhaps the hardest part isn't the poems about lovers or family, but the more poignant work centered around social justice. There's no relief in having written poems about the many violences that Blackness endures that makes it any easier to bear news of yet another police officer acquitted in killing a Black person in America, or the pain of the family broadcast all over the world. There's no relief in poems that call out systemic, internalized, foundational racism when every day in Trump's America we see a rapid increase in episodes and presences of hate, hate groups, and racially motivated crimes perpetuated on people of all marginalized backgrounds.

Are my poems capable of thrwarting these injustices? Are my poems capable of rupturing friendships and families? No. But they dare to have that kind of fire, and offering that work to the public is the biggest risk I've taken to date. Come November 7 we'll know their effect. Until then, things will just continue to be scary.

Cameron BarnettComment