April 17

From the desk of Jared Carter: Braking for Poetry

Jared_CarterJared Carter has received the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, the Poets’ Prize, a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and two literary fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. His newest book, Darkened Rooms of Summer, is a collection of poems that conjures the landscape of the Midwest and the lives of everyday Midwesterners.

I have no prior experience with National Poetry Month, but I did do a bit of promotion for poetry back in the 1980s. In those days I had an old tan-colored Volvo station wagon that I drove around the Midwest, occasionally giving poetry readings to just about anyone who would listen.

This in itself is not remarkable. But on the Volvo’s rear bumper I had affixed a sticker I had found in some flea market that read, in bold capital letters, I BRAKE FOR DELMORE SCHWARTZ. The 1980s was an age of catchy bumper stickers but still, I was convinced that I had one of the most mysterious and at the same time one of the most appropriate bumper stickers an aspiring poet could ever wish for.

Looking back on those days, I realize that my only other attempt to promote poetry in general may have been the choice of location for my various book launches, all of which, curiously enough, took place during the month of April.

In April of 1981 my first book was launched at a cocktail party in Greenwich Village, hosted by my agent. The book was published by Macmillan and my agent got me an advance of a hundred dollars, which wasn’t bad in those days. It was a nice party, too. Courtesy of the publisher, all of my East-Coast friends attending were given free copies of the new book, which I was told was an old New York publishing custom. I can assure you that no freebies are passed out at book launches today.

Back in my hometown of Indianapolis, that same spring a generous independent bookstore owner named Joan Morris sponsored a signing for that first book. It was her idea, and the event was quite lovely and also quite successful.

But that was the last time anyone from the book world promoted any of my books. After that, especially when it came to flogging the product in my home state, I was on my own. Sometimes the publishers lent encouragement, but I had to take the initiative.

Twelve years later, in April 1993, my wife Diane and I launched the second book at what was then the only Borders Bookstore in Indianapolis. I signed about three hundred books in two hours’ time, and if you think this is impressive, let me remind you that Borders went out of business a few years later.

For the third book, in April 1999, I signed copies in a mansion on the west side of Indianapolis. Jim Powell, director of the Indiana Writers Center, allowed us to set up in a sprawling “Gatsbyesque” house built by one of the more prominent Gilded Age families in Indianapolis. By 1999 it had become a cultural center for a local college.

We had a nice time in the mansion and sold lots of books. And a good thing, too, because by the time April 2006 rolled around and my fourth book had come out, we had no money and were unable to pay for any sort of book launch at all. Undaunted, by April 2012 we decided to promote the fifth book at an event held in a brewery.

This was not just any brewery, but a local neighborhood craft brewery called Flat 12, which was then only a year old. The kindly brewers let us use the hall at no cost and passed out free brewskies to any poetry lovers who happened to show up on that April afternoon. Almost needless to say, the signing session in the brewery was a rip-roaring success.

Now April 2014 is upon us and I have a sixth book to promote. Ted Kooser—who contributed a wonderful introduction to the new book—and all the folks at University of Nebraska Press have been superb in nudging the book along nationally. But where in Indianapolis should Diane and I set up our sixth book launch?

The progression of eras seems to be a good guide, as did the sequence of sites. First, with Reagan in the White House, a cocktail party in 1981. Then an upscale chain bookstore in 1993, with Bill Clinton recently ascended. A faded mansion in 1999, when Clinton was on his way out.  Finally, in 2012, with the economy reviving and Obama on a roll, a blow-out in a brewery. Surely there is instruction to be had in this series of events.

For one thing, we couldn’t reenact any of those earlier triumphs, since in the present social climate none of those venues would be sufficiently politically correct. Cocktail parties are passé, chain stores too capitalistic, mansions too robber-baron, and free beer bad for your waistline.

For another, the thirty-year transition from cocktail party to brewery seems to signify not an uphill but a downhill progression. Which is why we thought maybe this time around, to clear the air and to buck the downward trend, we should seek out some sort of compensatory mechanism. Something environmental, perhaps, or something resolutely opposed to global warming. Maybe we should hold an event in, say, a nature preserve?

CarterEureka! Here in Indianapolis we will officially unveil Darkened Rooms of Summer in the airy, sun-filled meeting rooms of the Holliday Park Nature Center, which is located on the far northwest side of our fair city. If the weather is good our guests will be able to purchase a signed copy and then go wandering about a garden teeming with mosses, lichens, perennials, and native trees. Ansel Adams would have approved.

The only catch is that we will not be doing this in April but in May. When I tried to reserve the rooms for April, the rangers told me it was all booked up by nature lovers eager to celebrate the coming of spring. Similarly, the few poetry venues in town had already been booked up in April for—you guessed it—various celebrations related to National Poetry Month.

May it will be, for my sixth book, with no alcohol available and silhouettes of mammoths and mastodons and trees of Indiana hanging on the walls. Fruit punch will be served and small children welcomed. The date is Sunday, May 18, from 2 to 4 p.m., and you’re all invited.

I realize this won’t be as good as scheduling it in July, when we could maybe hold it at the Broad Ripple Ice Cream Company and claim it was partially in honor of National Ice Cream Month. Still, a couple dozen worthy causes and ambitious organizations proclaim May as their special month in which to shine. My hat is off to every one of them, although I will spare you that itemized list.

Here in Indiana we have our own peculiar way of celebrating May, and it’s known as Race Month, or the time when native Hoosiers go slightly batty over events leading up to the annual Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. During every May since 1911 the race has been our excuse for holding parties, parades, beauty pageants, and beer blasts, and for skipping either work or school to go “out to the track” every chance we get. All of that hoopla should fit in rather nicely with my new book and its local debut in mid-May.

I’m thinking, too—since everything in Indianapolis gets so automotive in May—of having a new bumper sticker printed to pass out to those attending the launch. In big bold letters this one would say I BRAKE FOR TED KOOSER.

-Jared Carter