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Publicity: Touring - Cynthia Arrieu-King

I remember reading about Annie Dillard’s first book coming out and her cautionary words about the fact that the day arrived, and nothing happened. She did not get a parade of delivered flowers. She did not get a Presidential appointment. She might have gotten a phone call from her mom. In retrospect, this set my expectations very low about all aspects of what might happen when my book would eventually come out and this was actually a gift.

I think when I told my mom that I was going to have a book published, she said, “That’s great,” and went back to enthusing about how my brother had single-handedly hauled away the family’s 20 year old microwave and helped her buy a new one all in one afternoon. I didn’t actually mind so much, but it was noticeable.

“Wait until there’s an actual object. Wait until there’s a book,” a friend told me.

Fortunately, more than nothing happened and a lot of that is because you can do readings and tour with your book. I especially recommend touring with other writers.

There is a whole universe beyond the Barnes and Noble or extremely unattainable seeming venues that you might imagine are the place to read your book. There are coffeeshops and basements and bookstore reading series and in-house reading series and poetry center and open-air festival series. If you are on Facebook and know any poets, you’ll be sure to receive invitations to readings all the time. But also look into local listservs that report readings, and ask friends for ideas about where to read and where your book would “go”.

I know the poet Matt Hart who tours as a poet just as regularly and fervently as he has as a musician in the rock band Travel. He told me to schedule poetry tours about a year in advance, to make my bio and photo materials ready to send via e-mail, and to hit as many readings in a row as possible. I think in Matt’s universe this means twelve or twenty readings in a row, possibly on another continent as in his recent adventures in China, but in mine, I thought four readings in a row would do.

Last winter when my book came out from Octopus, I had already planned on touring with two other poets in California (Lily Brown and Claire Becker) and in New England (Lily Brown and Julia Cohen). Four days in California with a reading a day and time to drive Highway 5 in a rental. Four days in New England with a reading a day and time to stop and visit friends and my tour-mate Julia’s grandmother. We made sure to read in towns that made a line of some kind instead of a zig-zag. We up and asked people we kind of knew, or knew very well, or did not know at all; bookstores that sold our books, bookstores that had poetry series, etc. We looked them up or knew them or asked our friends. We tried to have one of us be the local pull in some cases.

This worked out. It required about 150 g-mails, a google.doc of all of our bio and photo information, some conference Skyping, some researching on-line and on Facebook, and a lot of persistence. And I’m not simply referring to all this technology that makes it so easy to investigate a venue, sense who your audience is, reach out and touch someone. You have to persist in the idea that your book needs to meet the world. The difference is that once you get out there and read, you instantly hear from the audience – something Dillard admits happened to her after a while. How many times did a beaming couple come up to me and say that they were really moved by my poems? Or the older woman in Santa Cruz who clutched my arm and said that I truly had something to say? Also, people bought our books with actual spendable money that we used to buy gas and that a nameless member of our party used to buy some of the last legal Four Loco, but that is another story.

How could you afford this? If you’re a student, ask for the money for plane tickets and gas. If you work at a school, ask for travel funds. We paid for some expenses out of our own pockets and also lucked out by getting a paycheck that we split.

Which brings me to my last point. So many authors travel alone on their book tours. They have great strategies for never getting tired or overtaxed socially. Always leave the scene by nine p.m.and read before bed. Or some always find the party, hanging around after the reading and asking who wants to get a drink. But when you travel with other poets, you get to have the long necessary conversations about life that you just can’t get into in the 30 minutes before or after a reading. You have another couple of drivers if you want to take a nap. It’s always better to get lost with some buddies. And not to be too hard-nosed about it, but their fans will be exposed to your work and vice versa, so it’s a good idea to travel with poets whose work complements yours in some way.

Other tips: be willing to trade your book for other people’s work or to give it away. This is poetry. Not many of us are rich and you’re probably already paying out of pocket to get where you’re going. Pay attention when you’re signing people’s books so you don’t sign the wrong name. Know what your voice sounds like on a hot mic and a weak mic and with nothing at all. Know what pieces of your writing get the reaction you can count on, or decide to surprise yourself every night with some new mandalic poetry performance.

This is the inside-out phase where you, the introverted writer, will be out in the world broadcasting, bleeding, exposing the guts of your deepest visions. It can be so exhilarating and tremendous. You get the chance to tell people that you see them, that you see this particular world. They in return will tell you that they can see you which is a thrill.

Cynthia Arrieu-King is an assistant professor of creative writing at Stockton College and a former Kundiman fellow. Her book People are Tiny in Paintings of China was published by Octopus Books last year. Her work has appeared this year on the PEN Foundation Blog, in Boston Review, and Forklift, Ohio.

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