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The Book That Scares You by Martin Ott

Writers are neurotic about their books, at every level of their careers. Underdays, my fifth book, and second poetry collection that won an award, is no exception. This book, more than all the others combined, makes me feel vulnerable and antsy due to the way I created it. Today, I’m holding the physical copy from University of Notre Dame Press for the first time, but afraid to open it and start reading.  

My first book of poetry Captive, from C&R Press, was created over more than a decade with many different drafts and names for the manuscript. Underdays, in comparison, was written at a feverish clip over a six month period, taking the scraps of poems I’d written before and placing a new layer on top of it in an attempt to make sense of everything wrong that was going on in my life. And there was plenty of it.

In the spring of 2011, all of the wheels came off the bus of my life at once. I moved out of the house away from my wife and children in an intense and stressful separation gave me intense headaches so severe I thought a knife had formed inside my skull. Meanwhile, a bout of whooping cough from a business trip in Mexico City for a global company triggered a chain of health problems that ended in my inability to juggle the normal 12 hours days I’d worked before, and culminated in my entire department being outsourced. Finally, my mother, who’d stopped talking to me, was dying but none of us knew it yet as her health was beginning to decline from a cancer that would be discovered just weeks before her death.

I tried, desperately, to find my own center in the whirlwind surrounding me. One of the things that saved me was writing the manuscript for Underdays. It was therapy. Half the manuscript was new: a combination of introspective poems, persona poems of disturbed men, and political poetry. The other half came from me reworking failed drafts of previous poems, trying to make sense of my past as a way to find a road to my future. I explored a cursive voice in my poetry, sometimes a second voice from my subconscious, at other times snippets from books and songs that had meaning in my past. The result is a manuscript that jolts me every time I read it, afraid that I’ve opened the doors so that everyone can see down into my well of darkness and depression.

The first review of the book just posted online from Spellbound Book Reviews. Here’s an excerpt: “Underdays is a terrifyingly beautiful collection of poems. Some of the poems will reach inside the deepest part of you and rip you apart while others will put you back together and mend you.” I’m grateful that there was redemption for the reader in this case as this book feels very much a part of my own healing process. However, I know that there are dark thoughts and deeds intermixed throughout the book, the muck of life that threatens to bury you if you let it.

This type of charged material in the hands of masterful poets (e.g. Berryman’s Dream Songs,Plath’s Ariel, or Lorca’s Poet in New York) can be transcendent. The subject matter felt unsafe to me while I was writing Underdays. I explored my time in the Army as an interrogator, politics, my own fears and failings in life, rough relationships, bad men, mistakes of all kinds. This journey felt necessary and bigger than myself. My biggest fear, though, is that my craft may not have been up to the task, that people will read this book and think less of me because of the darkness I expose.

Each time I’ve read the manuscript to Underdays, I’ve been overwhelmed with emotions. This time is different. This book I hold in my hands is not about the past. I am a different man than I was several years ago with a new wife, strengthened relationship with my kids and family, and a career with a surprising amount of work/life balance. We all have our underdays, moments that feel too heavy to carry. Every interaction with another human is a risk of sorts, every page turned a window that opens both ways. It’s time for me to open this book and not be afraid.  

A former U.S. Army interrogator, Martin Ott is the author of six books of poetry and fiction, including the poetry book Underdays, Sandeen Prize winner, University of Notre Dame Press and the forthcoming short story collection Interrogations, Fomite Press. Website: Twitter: @ottpops. Blog:

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