February 11, 2011
Eric Norris is a New York poet, born in Buffalo, and educated in Boston. After studying astrophysics, archaeology, and acting, he settled down to pursue English at Boston University, with a minor in Classics, Latin language and literature. Although he has been writing poetry for twenty years, only within the last three years did he begin submitting his poems for publication. Then all Hell broke loose. Terence, his first book, is not a book of poems, but a love letter to A.E. Housman, author of A Shropshire Lad, humanist, editor of Manilius and Juvenal, and perhaps the most feared and formidable scholar of the 20th Century. Encouraged by Housman, who published A Shropshire Lad at his own expense in 1896, and by the example and success of his friend, and fellow New York poet, Jee Leong Koh, author of Equal to the Earth, and founder of Bench Press, Eric has published Terence, with two other books (one co-written with poet, lyricist, editor, Tom of Finland model and former pornstar, Gavin Dillard) planned for release later this year. The landscape of publishing is changing. The way we connect to one another is changing. The old authorities are dying. New ideas are everywhere. We are re-thinking who we are as writers, as poets, as people—from the ground up. In the following interview, Eric discusses what shape our Renaissance may take and how we can bring our discoveries to the world.
Q: Terence is being officially released today. What is the premise behind the book?
A: Terence asks two very basic questions. What makes us human? What makes us different? I do not think Terence answers these questions. But Terence does pose them to the reader, I hope, in an entertaining way. They are two of the most important questions we can ask. The reader must arrive at his own conclusions.
Q: How did you come to the decision to self-publish it with Lulu rather than find a conventional publisher?
A: I decided to publish on Lulu.com because Terence is an experimental story and I didn’t think it would find a home anywhere else. Poet and Professor A.E. Housman, whose dry, scholarly shade haunts the action in the story, published his first book of verse, A Shropshire Lad, independently, at his own expense, in 1896. It sold very few copies at the time. But it proved to be enormously popular in subsequent decades. Since, in many ways, Terence is my love letter to Housman, as scholar, poet, and self-publisher, it seemed right to me that I should do the same.
Q: How do you plan to market the book?
A: I plan to market Terence on Facebook, on Lulu.com, on Amazon.com, through readings here in New York City, and elsewhere, The Rainbow Book Fair, perhaps a few paid ads on different blogs and websites. Also by giving interviews to online journals like this. Most importantly by establishing networks of friends here and abroad. The English-speaking world is much larger than the United States and the United Kingdom. Right now a copy of Terence is winging its way to Singapore. Marketing will take patience, time and ingenuity. That is part of the challenge of self-publishing. That is part of the fun.
Q: Do you see yourself following an alternative model for publication for all your work?
A: I think so. Publishing is changing, it is evolving. We are the plucky little mammals who will one day inherit the Earth. We move faster. We nurse our young. We can cope with the cold. It is easier now than it ever has been before for an author to compile and publish and market his own work. You begin by building up a small base of readers and branch out, online, at readings, in blog comments. You interact with them. E-mail them back when they e-mail you. Literature has always been a dialogue of great ideas which takes place over time. Now, thanks to technology, that dialogue can take place in real time. Anytime. Now.
Q: What would that model look like?
A: For some it will resemble a military campaign, brutally establishing a beachhead in the imaginations of others. For me, well, I am a better lover than I am a soldier. I would rather woo my readers with a word, with a kiss, like the English King does to the French Princess in Henry the Fifth: “You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate: there is more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the entire Pulitzer Prize Committee.”
Q: Self-publishing seems to be growing in popularity as well as credibility amongst poets and writers who find the orthodox literary field to be increasingly less democratic and difficult to penetrate, in part because of the impact that the Internet and devices like the Kindle have had on print publishing. Do you think that online journals and self-published books are where the freshest work is coming from?
A: There is a lot of inbreeding which goes on in the cocktail party circuit of the respectable world. Academia is probably the worst offender in this regard, probably because the booze is so inferior at most faculty parties. Academia is the Appalachia of the mind, in some ways, incestuous and largely insulated from the universe except for the science and engineering departments.
The liveliest stuff I see is coming from the online world, from all over the planet. In the gay and lesbian pavilion, saucy upstarts like Jee Leong Koh’s Bench Press, Bryan Borland’s Sibling Rivalry Press, and the late John Stahle’s Ganymede, have produced beautiful collections of poetry and prose. I have no interest in penetrating the orthodox publishing world, unless it is to crash the party with a pin and pop a few balloons. Whether a reader buys Terence or downloads Terence to his Kindle does not concern me. That Terence is read and, possibly, enjoyed is all that really matters. If the reader wants to say, “Hey, that was funny!” or, “Son, you should be crucified,” I have included an e-mail address so he or she can do just that. Even on paper, Terence is a fully interactive book.
Q: As well as playing the role of gatekeeper, traditional presses have functioned as the arbiters of taste and quality in the field. As we do away with this convention and self-published books come into the market, how do readers separate the wheat from the chaff? Will there be a new system of critique to go along with the new system of distribution?
A: Taste and quality. Yes. Well, there are many tastes, many piquant and poignant qualities. In the 19th Century, editors redacted Shakespeare’s more peppery passages for the eyes of easily corrupted young ladies. The other day I learned that some well-intentioned moron was trying to do this to Mark Twain. I am not sure this is to my taste.
I would rather decide on what is quality literature for myself, rather than outsource my intellect to some caffeine-addled intern condemned to a slush pile somewhere. In the future, as more and more independently published books tumble forth from the presses, the hardest thing will be for the reader to pick out something good to read. Here, I think the reviewing system on Amazon and Lulu is a help. It is democratic. It is slightly chaotic, as all good democracies are. Any madman can post his opinions. (Look at me.) So can any genius. It doesn’t take long to identify who is who. With practice, one can learn how to skim through the reviews, sample a page or two, and make up one’s mind to click ‘BUY’ for one’s self. And then, there are the blogs, e-zines, sites we have developed a relationship with, friends on Facebook we trust.
Q: How do you intend to help readers differentiate your book from the morass of self-published vanity projects?
A: That’s easy. If you look at the back cover of Terence, you will notice that I got very favorable reviews from William Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, W.H. Auden, and from some spooky, ectoplasmic entity calling himself ‘Terence.’ Working the Ouija Board was a little tricky, at first, I admit. But once I figured out how to connect it to my computer’s keyboard, excellent reasons to buy my book practically flowed from my fingertips.
Q: How do you think the politics of your work comes into play?
A: There isn’t really very much politics in Terence. Though the question of what makes us human, what links us to one another, the principal question asked by the book has the profoundest moral and political implications.
Q: Gay writers, as well as writers from other marginalized groups, have tended to be anthologized more in conventional publishing than they have had their work published as part of the general pool, as it were. Is self-publishing Terence an attempt to break out of that mold?
A: In this particular case, no. There is very little market for stories like this, where one man confuses another man with a cow, so I thought I should take responsibility for Terence myself. Hats are another matter. Oliver Sacks made a bundle of money off a man who mistook his wife for a hat several years ago. I have plenty of hats, but I am not married. Being gay, I am not even able to get married in New York State. So, I had to write a different story. All I had to work with was myself, a man, a carton of milk and a cow. I did the best I could.