“a chapbook evangelist”: the chapbook interview: Allyson Whipple on feminism, festivals, and freewriting for ekphrasis

2014-07-17 12.17.07

At the Midwestern mythmaking panel at the Omaha Lit Fest, panelists discussed how their characters and stories are influenced by the landscape. One of the panelists, Karen Shoemaker, noted that though great books are written about Nebraska every few years, the general reading public forgets about them in the interval and that Nebraskan writers have to continually reinvent Nebraska, because after each great book about Nebraska there is a silence. What I love about your chapbook We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are (Finishing Line Press, 2013) is your attention to place, landscape, and travel, and the people encountered there. Talk about the Texas literary tradition. And, talk about landscape and place in your work.

That’s a hell of a question, and gave me a lot to think about. To be honest, I knew very little about Texas literary tradition until after I moved here in 2008. And while I have learned about some of the big names, like the literary great James Michener and the political brilliance of Molly Ivins, I feel like I have only scratched the surface of our literary history. I still have a lot to learn, especially about minority authors. But I feel very lucky to be part of a dynamic and diverse literary community, based in Austin but stretching out to other cities.

My chapbook is about journey and landscape, but it’s really about falling in love with Texas (despite how I feel about its politicians). There’s Ohio landscape in there as well: the suburbs, Lake Erie. I don’t think I could have put this collection together without acknowledging the state where I lived for the first 24 years of my life. It’s still important to me, and in fact the longer I am away from Ohio, the more I appreciate it. But this book is about learning to love a place and feel part of it, not simply because you were born there, but because you have traveled and explored and found that the place itself resonates with you so much that you want to make it home.

There’s also ambivalence here: about traffic and the way the cities have been constructed, about the heat. But whether you love a person or a place, you can’t really avoid ambivalence. There’s some part of love that requires taking a critical look at your beloved, recognizing the flaws or the things you don’t like, and deciding you accept them anyway.

I love collaborations. I know we both recently participated in the Art & Words Show in Texas curated by Bonnie Shufflebeam, a show that starts with a CFP for art and words. After the art is selected, the curator assigns one short story, essay, or poem to an artist and one piece of art to the writer. The artists and writers then have a few months to create something inspired by the assigned work. I enjoyed hearing all the writers, including you, read their work at the show, as well as walking around the gallery to study the art and writing together. What was the collaborative experience like for you?

The interesting thing to me about ekphrasis is that it’s a collaboration, but one that is a lot more solitary than other collaborations I’ve done. Especially if you’re working with a very old piece of art, you can’t just call up the artist and ask for advice on how to shape your poem. I’ve always felt with ekphrasis, you’re collaborating more with the work of art itself than the artist who created it.

In this case, I spent a lot of time freewriting, and wrote lots of drafts that I tossed out because they relied so heavily on description. I think that’s one of the challenges of ekphrasis: to not rely so heavily on description of the piece, or to use description in a way that doesn’t come across as prose or as a list. The Art & Words pieces all did a terrific job of that.

In the end, I came to the poem through focusing on sound. The “Syncopated Rhythm” painting struck me as quite musical (in fact, I think the slopes in it represent a sort of sound wave), and I came to the poem through playing with the different sounds that were drawn from the vowels and consonants of the title.

I was happy with how it turned out, and the artist who did the painting loved it as well. I was glad I could do something that the artist felt embodied her work. My biggest fear was to write a piece that the artist didn’t like.

In her interview in the March/April 20013 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle Kim Barnes talks a lot about women and violence and when we as a culture allow women to perpetrate violence and when we do not. She says, “It’s hard for us to accept female authors writing violence that is not linked to the victimization of women” (105) and also “trying to change that paradigm is a fascinating exercise and frustrating” (104). Reading your one-act play Hand in Unlovable Hand made me think about the lingering effects of child abuse, gender violence, and addiction, but also the interview with Kim Barnes on women who are violent and how one writes such women into fiction. Talk about depicting complicated violence in a given genre.

When I wrote Hand in Unlovable Hand, I wasn’t even trying to write a play. I was trying to write a short story and come to terms with the abusive relationships I had witnessed as a child. But it was so dialogue-heavy that the critique group I was in told me to just write a play instead!

Although most of my poems are based on life experience, Hand in Unlovable Hand is probably the most personal, intimate thing I have ever written. Although none of the events of the play actually happened, the spirit of mutual destruction is there. I grew up in a situation where the violence was, at least in my perception, mutual. (If my parents see this they might disagree, but that’s how I saw it.) I spent a lot of time as a teenager blaming one parent, and a lot of time in my twenties blaming the other. In writing this play, I got to explore mutual violence on an exaggerated level, and really came to terms what I grew up with.

It wasn’t hard to write. But it was scary to produce and then publish, because in some ways it still makes me feel very raw. It was difficult to rub rehearsals and hear those violent sentiments over and over. But I was glad I did it. The act of getting it off my hard drive and into the world added another level of closure.

The funny thing is, it sat on my hard drive for about three years before I did anything with it. And it was produced just as I was getting divorced. I had so many people assume it was based on my marriage, which was both amusing and unsettling.

Though I was unable to attend, I do have the notes from the “Toward an Inclusive Feminist Poetics” workshop you gave at this year’s Austin Feminist Poetry Festival. What brought you to think critically about feminist poetics? How can feminist poetics be apply to the art of writing a chapbook?

Feminist poetics was something that only recently piqued my interest. While I don’t regret getting my M.A. in English, I will say that it did sour me on academia for a while (though that sourness has subsided and I’m considering going back for an MFA). But now that I’ve spent several years of my life concentrating on writing poetry, I’ve become interested in the ways we understand, study, and write about it. Being interested in the ways in which people understand/receive/learn about poems has become important to me as someone focusing on poetry as my creative mode of choice. And since I’m getting more focused on the intersection of art and politics, it was only natural for me to start considering questions about the ways in which gender and feminism influence approaches to poetry, both in the past and in the present.

I wasn’t really interested in poetics at the time I did We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are, but as I look back on it, I think that the act of organizing a chapbook (or a full-length collection) is about doing the best you can to look at your work from the mind of an outside reader, a stranger who might encounter your book. It involves really studying your work not just to select the poems, but to put them in the best arrangement.

I think that if you’re a feminist poet, and one who is conscious about the fact that you are writing feminist poetry, approaching poetics in your own chapbook or collection is about creating a book that reflects the blending of your artistic and political vision. It’s not just about presenting you as a poet, but about what you envision for art, and for the world.


I know that you’re participating in Choice: Texas, an interactive fiction about reproductive rights in Texas (www.playchoicetexas.com) by writing the last character. Talk about this project, what it hopes to accomplish in terms of addressing reproductive rights in Texas, and creating a character that seeks to represent the complicated issues women face when considering family planning.

Just to clarify: I just finished writing the last character, but have been involved with the writing of all 5. The first two characters, which are currently up online, were 50-50 collaborations on the writing. The third character, Jess, who will be out soon, was all my work. Maria, who will also be out soon, and Alex (the 5th character who I just sent for beta testing this weekend), started with Carly as the author for the first 25%, and I finished the rest.

This started out as Carly Kocurek’s vision. She had originally wanted to do a tabletop RPG about reproductive rights, but had trouble creating a balanced game. She eventually came up with the idea of a text-based computer game, with five characters, each with a different set of financial, emotional, and familial circumstances that can stack the challenges they face in different ways. So Leah is poor, lives in a rural area, and is a rape victim. On the other hand, Latrice is financially stable and lives in an urban area, but choosing motherhood doesn’t mesh well with being an attorney, and she doesn’t have a family situation where the decision to abort is acceptable.

The point of this game is to illustrate the social and financial barriers that women encounter no matter which option they choose. Adoption might be consistent with your moral views, but it gets romanticized in the media, and the emotional trauma of giving a child up gets glossed over. (I’m not saying that all mothers who give up their babies regret it, but the fact is that those who do are often silenced or ignored.) Choosing an abortion might mean more stability, but it’s not an easy way out. And motherhood is fraught with a mix of intense frustration and intense love, even under ideal circumstances. We want to show that women don’t make any of these choices lightly, and that no matter what choice you make, the path is not black and white, not necessarily simple.


How do you define chapbook? A collection of anywhere from 10-25 poems, usually with at least a loose thematic structure.

What is inspiring you these days? Found poetry, the ModPo MOOC, rules and restrictions (both in terms of poetic form and as a subject of exploration in the poems themselves), spiders.

How are you trying to get better as a poet? Attending open mics or giving readings at least once a month; going to critique groups when my schedule allows (I’m testing for my black belt next month so most of my time is spent on that right now), taking workshops/classes when finances permit, applying to an amazing MFA program, studying self-publishing (because I love small presses but feel it’s important to be aware of all of my options).

What makes a good chapbook? Being thematic, but not being too heavy-handed about that theme. I like when chapbooks are unified around a concept, but have some poems that bend the constraints of the overall subject matter.

What’s next for you? Testing for my black belt in Kung Fu, getting the Feminist Poetry Festival registered as a nonprofit and planning for 2015; co-editing the 2016 Texas Poetry Calendar; being a featured poet at the 2015 Austin International Poetry Festival; applying to an MFA program; publishing my first full-length collection (possibly self-published, and possibly with a publisher).

Your chapbook credo: Quality of poems, not quantity of poems.

Number of chapbooks you own: I don’t have an exact count, but at least two dozen.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: There are 23 on my shelf, and I’ve read all of those, so the 6-8 I haven’t read are somewhere in my to-be-read shelf.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Even when I was blogging more regularly, I rarely did book reviews, but I do try to promote chapbook authors and presses on Twitter, and buy them whenever I can. Really, I just try to be a chapbook evangelist! A lot of people who aren’t in the poetry community, or who are new to poetry, haven’t heard about chapbooks, and don’t realize how amazing they are.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Most of my sales come directly from readings I do at bookstores or open mic events. So I usually spend most of my earnings either on books from other poets at the event, or on drinks at the bar. Really, I’m just happy when I don’t have to use the cash to pay for parking!

Your chapbook wish: To do another one! I have a full-length collection out for submission, but I’d love for what comes after that to be another chap. I had so much fun with the first one.

Residence: Austin, Texas

Job: Adjunct Associate Professor in the Technical and Business Communication department at Austin Community College
Administrative Assistant at Master Gorhing’s Tai Chi an Kung Fu

Chapbook education: Spending the summer of 2011 working with poet Abe Louise Young to work on revising and assembling. Plus, reading chapbooks!

Chapbook Bio: My bio has changed so much since this chapbook came out! The up-to-date version: Allyson Whipple is the director of the Austin Feminist Poetry Festival and co-editor of the 2016 Texas Poetry Calendar. She is also the author of the chapbook We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are and co-creator of Choice:Texas. In her spare time, Allyson is working toward a black belt in Hung Gar Kung Fu. Her weapon of choice is the staff.

Where we can find your chapbook: Via Finishing Line Press or Amazon (Or, if you’re in Austin, at BookWoman Bookstore)

“necessity is the mother of experimentation”: the chapbook interview: Brenda Sieczkowski on research, experimentation, and goodness


I adore collaborations and couplings of art and poetry. I recently attended the Art & Words Show curated by Bonnie Shufflebeam, a show that starts with a CFP for art and words. After the art is selected, the curator assigns one short story, essay, or poem to an artist and one piece of art to the writer. The artists and writers then have a few months to create something inspired by the assigned work. Can you talk about the collaborative work you did with Chad Woody who illustrated your fabulously titled chapbook Wonder Girl in Monster Land (Dancing Girl Press, 2012)?

Yes! I share your enthusiasm for cross-media collaborations. The type of collaborative process you describe as part of the Art & Words Show is so fertile—as an individual who works primarily in text, I appreciate the ways a compelling piece of visual art can jump-start me from a groove I’m stalled in and propel me in new directions. (I recently reconnected with an old friend who started a press with a similar collaborative mission, Prompt Press: http://promptpress.com/). The collaborative process between Chad Woody and me for Wonder Girl in Monster Land was somewhat different, however, because I’ve known Chad, and his work, since 1999, when we met in the M.F.A. program at the University of Florida. Chad is one of those insanely talented people who excels in a multitude of creative fields—(a vast range of) visual media, poetry, prose, performance art . . .To experience what I mean, spend some time exploring his blog: http://cranialstomp.blogspot.com.

When I wrote Wonder Girl in Monster Land, my process diverged from previous writing projects, was inverted, in the sense that I arrived at the umbrella mood and logic of the chapbook before I had any of its specific text or details. Although Monster Land shifted and adapted as the individual poems in it took shape, the composition felt primarily like a top-down operation. But when I eventually completed a draft of the manuscript, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was an element of its world I couldn’t realize in text; that’s when I first thought about enlisting the aid of a visual artist. Chad was the first person I thought of since I have always felt that, despite differences in our projects or processes, our work shares an affinity for the dark, the irreverent, and the whimsical/absurd. But at the same time, his work commits to risk and doesn’t fold its hand when the emotional stakes are high.

Chad and I have kept in sporadic contact since Florida. A few years before I wrote Wonder Girl in Monster Land, I had sent Chad an (unrelated) email asking if he could build me a bird-sized coffin. His response was classic Woody: “Crow-sized or sparrow-sized?” I wrote back “sparrow-sized,” and a hinged wooden coffin, just what I had wanted, arrived soon after. This anecdote perhaps demonstrates why I had such a high level of confidence that I could just send Chad the chapbook manuscript, and he would come up with brilliant illustrations. I felt more comfortable NOT dictating a lot of instructions or parameters because I didn’t just want to enlist his technical skill; I wanted to enlist his visual imagination and energy. And the results were amazing. My one regret is that I had no clue how labor-intensive the illustrating work I had asked Chad to do would turn out to be. You get a sense from the reproduced illustrations, for example the ones for “On Halloween” and “On the Conditional,” how incredibly detailed the drawings are. But the reproductions don’t even come close to the originals. I have a print from the original etching of “On Halloween,” and the level of detail is unbelievable—you can make out the expressions on the most distant faces in the crowd around the door, and you can see each grain of wood in the kitchen table. I owe him significantly more than one.

I love the poems “Mix Tape (Hypothetically in Love)” and “10 Amendments (An Erratum).” These, like so many in your chapbook and like other poems collected in your full length collection Like Oysters Observing the Sun (Black Lawrence Press, 2014), are funny and smart as they experiment with poetic form. Can you talk about poetic experimentation?

I’m glad you mentioned “Mix Tape” because the background to its composition is particularly funny in the context of your question. As my family can attest, I’ve always had a stubborn streak, so when someone lectures me on why I can’t do a certain thing, my brain immediately starts spinning out how and why I can. If someone tells me I must do x, I immediately begin to transform that x into y/why. I wrote “Mix Tape” in response to the assignment, given in one of my graduate workshops, to write a sonnet. I occasionally do write sonnets of my own volition, but being asked to produce one on command activated knee-jerk evasive maneuvers. For some reason, the translation of sonnet as “little song” was floating around in my head, and I think I was (somewhat subconsciously) thinking, “I’m not giving you that little song; you’re just getting a bunch of little song titles.”

Though I certainly don’t model my poetic vision on Plato, I’m happy to twist his words into a more general response to your question; for me, necessity is the mother of experimentation. If I’m adapting or distorting a particular form or mode of expression, it’s because I can’t work out any other way of communicating what I mutably perceive I might mean. I can’t snap my notions of poetic experimentation into line with ideas of objectively designed experiments or implementations of controlled variables. I have no hypothesis until a discovery is already palpable. And then the discovery sensibly rediscovers itself.

 brenda's chap

I love the idea of knee-jerk evasive maneuvers activated by workshop assignments and the ways they can inspire poems. And too, that friendships started in graduate school can manifest later into collaborations that produce beautiful chapbooks. I’ve been thinking about writing and community, those that foster creative exploration and others. The Writer’s Chronicle September 2014 issue features an interview with novelist Xu Xi who contrasts her business life with the writing life. She explains, “Publishing is a loathsome industry, one that is too much about connections and where you came from and privilege…publishing and the literary life, generally, is a lot about whom you know and even where you went to school…the whole literary scene is a lot more about the one degree of separation than not. In time, you learn to play the game” (73). Xu Xi is a novelist. How true do you think this is for poets? How important is community for a poet, who you know, where you went to school, and learning to play the game?

The question of community, how to cultivate and sustain it, is vitally important for any writer—poet or fiction writer. I think it is crucial, however, to distinguish between network and community. Although networking, making professional connections, overlaps with and can absolutely lead to community, it can also jeopardize the potential for real companionship if it privileges elitism over sincere, mutual respect and support. My suspicion is that “playing the game” is a bigger factor in fiction, where the stakes are (or are at least perceived to be) higher than in poetry. But I am not familiar enough with the intricacies of the publishing industry to make any definitive claims. It does seem clear, however, that the lifeblood of contemporary poetry is in small presses. I can only speak about those with which I have personal experience, but I think that, largely, small presses are building essential channels for community. I’m thinking about Kristy Bowen at dancing girl press, and what she has accomplished, almost single-handedly, towards providing exposure for a huge community of women writers. Jen Tynes, Mike Sikkema, Erica Howsare, and Jennifer Denrow at Horse Less Press; Nathan Hauke and Kirsten Jorgenson at Ark Press; Gina Myers at Lame House Press; Dawn Pendergast at Little Red Leaves; the folks at SP_CE in Lincoln, NE; Bruce Covey and Co. at Coconut—all these people exemplify for me a true spirit of and dedication to community. Diane Goettel and the editorial staff at Black Lawrence Press had likely never heard of me when they plucked my full-length manuscript for publication, but they believed in my work and labored tirelessly to bring it into print. Do editors of small presses sometimes publish people whose work they already know? Sure. This is a problem when it interferes with those presses’ abilities to provide access and range. We all need to push ourselves harder to expand the borders of our community. This extends, in my mind, to pushing ourselves, those of us who are teachers, to expand the communities of writers we assemble in our syllabi. This extends to pushing ourselves to diversify and challenge the community of writers we make a place for on our bookshelves.

One of my mentors at the University of Utah, Don Revell, said very early on in my studies that only “a good person can write good poetry.” In typical knee-jerk fashion, I immediately thought to myself, “Nope, obviously not true. I can think of plenty of poets who act like total assholes and write pretty brilliant poems.” But Don’s statement stuck with me. The more I began to let go of worrying about whether I thought other poets and writers met this standard and focused only on how it applied to me, the more I realized it was true. I couldn’t be a good poet if I wasn’t a good person. This realization has been my salvation in some very challenging times.

brenda's chap 2

In your forthcoming chapbook Fallout & Flotation Devices (Little Red Leaves, 2014)—which includes the pieces “Notes,” “Conflated Color Index, Autocad,” and “Memorandum” with subsections of intention, discussion, background, and foreground—gestures towards research, a research that might resist some readers expectations. Let’s talk about research and writing the chapbook. How do you deal with the transition from research to writing? At what point in the writing process do you research and why do you do that research? When do you take notes?

The transition between research and writing in most of my projects—Fallout & Flotation Devices is no exception—is extremely fluid. From the moment I learned to read, my appetite for knowledge and explicit detail has been insatiable. Whatever spare moments I had were lost in books—to the extreme that when I turned 16 and learned to drive, I realized that I really didn’t know how to get much of anywhere in the city I grew up in; all my passenger time had been spent reading. Reading (in a frenetically wide range of subjects—neuroscience is an enduring stimulant) sparks most of my writing. A sheer infatuation with some fact or idea fuels initial lines or sketches. But then those lines or sketches are not sharp enough to satisfy me, so I have to go back and dig up more information on the subject, or basically on the subject, or very tangentially related to the subject. I’ve had to learn to cut myself off from research at a certain point, however; otherwise, I find that the research process often becomes a procrastination technique to avoid the sometimes-difficult generative work that needs to follow.

I also often borrow forms from genres that I, somewhat unwilling, have had to engage with in my professional life. “Memorandum,” for example, opened out from my need to find creative outlets when I’ve been forced to teach technical and business writing classes. (I once made my business students convert William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just to Say” into memo format. They loved it?).

Every aspiring writer who has sat through a creative writing workshop has probably heard that old gem: “Write what you know.” I think this is terrible advice if you interpret it as your cue to circumscribe your writing into the narrow, limited world you ordinarily inhabit. If, however, you take this advice as a challenge to know more, to know widely, then I think it is genius.


How do you define chapbook? I think of a chapbook as the tiny house model (artisanal and/or DIY) in the poetry construction industry.

What is inspiring you these days?


1) Close to home:

When I moved back to Omaha after spending most of my 20s and 30s in other parts of the country, I found myself re-enamored with the Mid-West’s grassy, unraveling spaces, all its rusting mills and factories. Over the past few years, I’ve taken frequent regional road-trips, from Moscow, IA, to Oregon, MO. My favorite of these journeys, however, took me to Monowi, NE, population 1. The sole resident (and mayor, bar-tender, librarian) was unfortunately out of town for the weekend, but I had a great time exploring Monowi’s abandoned frame houses and trailers. It’s a town I definitely plan to revisit. These mini-journeys, coupled with Nick Reding’s Methland: The Life and Death of an American Small Town, provided much of the inspiration for “The Great Plains Alchemy of Weather” (the second section of Fallout & Flotation Devices).


2) Cross-section of more universal pursuits:

Marxist and post-Marxist theory. Dialectic force fields.


Dreamers, self-starters, work-horses scrambling every day to provide and improve the poetry community. In addition to those people and presses I mentioned above: Megan Kaminski and the Taproom Poetry Series, Hanna Andrews and the women of Switchback Books, Zack Haber and the Other Fabulous Reading Series, Lara Candland Asplund’s features on her Girls in a Tight Place blog, this wonderful chapbook interview series (!), MC Hyland at DoubleCross Press, Nate Pritts and H_NGM_N, the folks behind The East Bay Poetry Summit, everyone at VIDA fighting the good fight, Pussipo, 100 Thousand Poets for Change . . .I could go on in this vein for a LONG time.

DIY websites.

The Eclipse archive and UbuWeb.

Neuroscience, phrenology, biology, apiology, gross anatomy, taxidermy, botany, natural history, geology, Victorian sciences . . .

Dada dolls.

How are you trying to get better as a poet?
I’m always trying to increase the depth and breadth of my reading. That’s my abiding longitudinal tactic. But I’ve taken a much different approach in the last five or six years. When my graduate funding evaporated, I had to put my studies on hold to work full time (+). I wasn’t sure if or how I would ever find the resources to finish my degree, and I think the potential for despair or bitterness was there. But, at the same time (this was right at the start of the economic recession), I was acutely aware of how many people’s lives, particularly those who were already extremely underprivileged and vulnerable, were being devastated by the financial crisis. I funneled my employment search into social services and began working in support services for chronically homeless individuals, street kids, prison inmates. Although this may seem paradoxical—because committing to the work I was doing severely limited the time and emotional resources I had left to invest in writing and academic pursuits—struggling every day to combat (in whatever tiny way I could) the enormous heartaches of poverty, mental illness, and addiction was the single most important thing I could have done for myself to improve as a poet. 

What makes a good chapbook? Elliptical vision. Embroidery that curls away from strict linearity.

What’s next for you? I’m hoping to finally complete my PhD in the next year, and I’m very purposefully trying not to think past that hurdle yet. If I do, I may never finish. 

Your chapbook credo: Sew love, not war.

Number of chapbooks you own: 40-50

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 70-80

Residence: Omaha, Nebraska

Job: I recently took a hiatus from working in homeless outreach and support services, and am now employed as a graduate consultant at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Writing Center. I work part time as a free-lance editor and also for Disability Support Services at a local community college. In my spare time, I’m attempting to wrap up my much-delayed PhD in creative writing and literature.

Chapbook Bio: Brenda Sieczkowski’s poems and lyric essays have appeared widely in print and on-line journals including The Colorado Review, Versal, The Seneca Review, Bone Bouquet, Ilk, The New England Review, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Diagram, The Florida Review, Gulf Coast, Poet Lore, Dusie, Sidebrow, and Subtropics among others. Her chapbook, Wonder Girl in Monster Land, was published in 2012 by dancing girl press. A second chapbook, Fallout & Flotation Devices, is forthcoming from Little Red Leaves. Like Oysters Observing the Sun, her first full-length collection, was recently released by Black Lawrence Press.

Where we can find your chapbook:

You can find Wonder Girl in Monster Land here:

Fallout & Flotation Devices will be available shortly from Little Red Leaves’ Textile Series:

If you’re game for a longer ride, my full-length collection, Like Oysters Observing the Sun, is available here:


the chapbook interview: Sandy Marchetti on letterpress collaborations

I recently attended the Omaha Lit Fest and one of the themes I heard repeated among the panelists focused on what we include in our books as writers that work in “service to the book” or in “service to the story.” In the case of the Omaha Lit Fest with its theme of “Warped Historical In/Accuracy” panelists spoke to issues of lyrics, song titles, historical fact, and local and cultural trauma, as well as others. I’m curious about the images by Erika Adams in your chapbook A Detail in Landscape (Eating Dog Press, 2014). Can you talk about the collaborative work and how the art and words are in service to the larger chapbook?

Madeline, thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of your interview series.  A Detail in the Landscape is a true collaboration, so I especially identify with your query here. The sum of the visuals and words being greater than their parts was an equation Erika (founder of Eating Dog Press) and I constantly negotiated in the making of this book. We wanted to work together, after meeting at Vermont Studio Center last year, because we both knew her talent and vision as an artist and master printer could challenge and bloom my words. This is why we decided, early on, to give each other freedom to create our own “sides” of the book–hers the visual, and mine the written. We did give each other suggestions, though. For example, I mentioned a square might be the right shape for the book, and she suggested that I cut the micro-essays that accompany each poem from a paragraph down to one vibrant sentence. We trusted each other and took each others’ advice, but there wasn’t pressure to do so. Ultimately, though, this freedom enhanced the book so greatly. Erika teased out motifs in my poems beyond what I had found. For instance, Erika’s illustrations consist of abstract geometric forms made up of triangles in five colors, mostly shades of green and blue. These forms spread against the spine and could conjure the image of a flock of birds or a cloud. I would never have thought of geometric shapes as a panoramic concern of the book, but the poems really do take on a discussion of symmetry, shapes, and distances. In essence, the illustrations, shape, colors, size, and letterpress design (all executed at Erika’s hand) provide a type of critique or extrapolation of the words right inside the chapbook itself.

SM chap 1

This process that you and Erika engaged in sounds like it was lots of fun, while also inspiring and motivating—the types of projects all of us need in our lives—not to mention producing a beautiful letterpress book. At the Omaha Lit Fest at one point the director and founder, Timothy Schaffert said, “I always tell my students the difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer is the published writer finishes the book.” Were you ever scared to finish a book? Can you talk about your process of finishing your chapbook The Canopy and your forthcoming book from Sundress Publications?

Really interesting question, Madeline! That Timothy Schaffert quote is making me feel pretty good about myself! I probably should have been scared knowing what I am aware of now regarding the process of finishing a book. I was naive, as many young writers are, of the wherewithal it takes. I was lucky regarding The Canopy. At the time, in 2011, I was working on Confluence, my full-length collection that is now forthcoming with Sundress Publications. I hoped to finish it after two years of hard work. I had blinders on, and never thought of publishing a chapbook from a section of Confluence, but when I heard about the Midwest Writing Center Press contest, my interest was sparked. It was regional–only open to Midwestern poets–and I thought I might have a better chance because of that. After all of the money and time spent on rejections from Yale and the Walt Whitman Award, I took a shot. In one day, I culled a 16-page manuscript from this big book of 60 poems and sent it. I continue to pin it on sheer beginner’s luck that I won! If I had realized at the time what I know now–that a chapbook is an important publication for a poet and a great accomplishment–I might have been more anxious about sending. Really, my ignorance saved me.

After working on Confluence for a couple of years, and just after publishing The Canopy, I began to realize how difficult it was going to be to finish the full-length collection. This was incredibly frustrating, seeing as how the chapbook was picked up straightaway. I was no longer naive at this point, so instead of becoming scared this time, I got angry–more at myself than the publishers, I should note. I overhauled the book at least six times in the next three years, each time I had a crop of new work. I weeded out every lackluster poem and made sure the revisions/replacements shone. I waged a war against that manuscript, taking each poem through 80 drafts. I learned just how badly I wanted Confluence to be a book. If someone had told me it would take five years to complete the manuscript and find a publisher, I wouldn’t have believed them. I’m fairly confident about my work, but contests and publishing in general humbled me. The revision and submission process also made me a better, more tenacious poet, as it called on all of my reserves. I also met the most amazing folks along the way. I realize I have used all of these aggressive metaphors, but the vision I had for this book guided me to keep writing, revising, and sending. Even mentors told me I should move on to other projects. By the time Confluence was picked up, I knew there was nothing else I could do to make the book better. I told myself, “this book deserves to be published,” and once I really believed that, it was.

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I really appreciate your discussion on process for Confluence—the revision work, dedication, and the weeding out of lesser poems. It’s a process many writers go through as they revise—work that can be difficult, but necessary to make it a book. I’ve been thinking and rereading your collaborative chapbook A Detail in the Landscape. I particularly adore the last page—the last words and image of A Detail in the Landscape. Talk about endings. How do you decide where to end a chapbook, a book, a poem?

Great question! I knew I wanted to end Detail on “Never-Ending Birds” because it is the poem that begins my full-length collection, Confluence. In fact, all five lineated poems in Detail appear in Confluence, though the five prose pieces do not. I originally wanted “Birds” near the end of my full-length, but settled on it as the opening poem in service to the manuscript as a whole. A wish of mine was to have this poem end some project, and Detail felt appropriate.  Hopefully “Never-Ending Birds” will lead readers out into the landscape appropriately, as the poem moves from ground-, to eye-, to sky-level. When I wrote the prose fragment for “Birds,” much later than when I wrote the lineated piece, I wanted to reflect on the process of writing the poem itself. I actually did go out and stand in a field of swallows at a local arboretum to draft “Never-Ending Birds,” so I tried to write about that process. I settled on the line, “The birds encircled me, slid close to my legs, my face,” to begin and then realized that the title of the project, “a detail in the landscape” provided a natural metric chime with “my legs, my face.” The final line now reads, “The birds encircled me, slid close to my legs, my face; I had become another shrub–a detail in the landscape.” My words surprised me. As Yeats says, this poem “clicked shut” to my ear, and that’s how I knew it was “done.”

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There’s a tension created with the longer poems and one the one line poems and essays in A Detail in the Landscape. It adds breath and space to the work, while also giving the reader a moment to meditate on the imagery and art. What collaborative work do you admire and what inspired you and your collaborator to structure the chapbook as you have?

Madeline, I appreciate the fact that you picked up on the “breath and space” of the book! That’s exactly what Erika and I were attempting to create. I wanted the book to be square and work diagonally–this book is about angles in so many ways–and I knew some of my shorter lineated poems would leave white space at the bottom of the lefthand pages (“By Degrees” is a good example). I thought that a poem at the top left of each left page and at the bottom right of each right page would stretch the reader visually. Both of us envisioned the illustrations as spread against the spine of the book. We thought this would allow us and the readers to use all of the page without the book appearing cluttered.

I had a chance to look at Erika’s other collections, namely Pickles I Have Known and her collaborative book Wood with poems by Brooks Wright, which helped me to envision the aesthetic of Eating Dog Press not as a publishing house but as a producer of visual art with text. I thought seriously about the collaboration we were entering into with our landscape and environment while making this book. I went out into the woods and the rivers to write these poems and Erika trekked from Montreal to Georgia to Minnesota to make the books. We met in Vermont where the idea was born, and the project took shape over the course of a full year, or four seasons. So, the collaboration that was most inspirational to me was the one we had with the land while making this object.

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How do you define chapbook? A chapbook to me is a poetry book I can read and enjoy in one sitting. In essence, it’s a digestible bite of poetry (or maybe prose as well!).

How are you trying to get better as a poet? I found that once I started mining and honing the voice that I used in my two chapbooks and the bigger full-length book project they came from, Confluence, that it became more difficult for me to try new things. Perhaps this was because I found a modicum of success with these projects. This risk-adverseness dovetailed with my MFA graduation. Although I’ve never been a poet who needs deadlines to write, I often need to be prodded to read new works or experiment a bit, and the MFA often helped me to do this. It’s been tough, but right now I’m attempting to become a bit less perfectionistic with my poems and explore a rawer, more ragged edge in my images. I’m trying to resist my need to totally control my poems before I send them out into the world, I suppose.

What makes a good chapbook? Any chapbook I can read in a sitting that teaches me something about the world that seems true and/or new to me.

Your chapbook credo: Do it with less. Make it count. I want epiphany.

Number of chapbooks you own: Hundreds! They are beautiful and addictive, right? Current favorites include Lucy Biederman’s The Other World, Alessandra Bava’s They Talk About Death, Lynn Emmanuel’s The Technology of Love, Nancy Kuhl’s In the Arbor, and many chapbooks from dancing girl press, Midwest Writing Center Press, Sundress Publications, Hyacinth Girl Press, and of course, Eating Dog Press!

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I do write chapbook reviews, most recently of Alessandra Bava’s They Talk about Death and Lucy Biederman’s The Other World. Prick of the Spindle, The Bakery, Extract(s), Speaking of Marvels, and of course this interview series, Laura, are great online spaces to promote chaps!

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Actually, combined sales of the hardcover edition, softcover edition, and letterpress broadsides of A Detail in the Landscape will fund my trip back to Vermont Studio Center for a writing residency in May of 2015. VSC is where I first met Erika Adams and we hatched the idea of this collaboration. It seems only fitting that I would return there fueled by the success of our project.

Bio: Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a debut full-length poetry collection forthcoming from Sundress Publications, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry from George Mason University. Eating Dog Press also published an illustrated edition of her essays and poetry, A Detail in the Landscape, and her first volume,The Canopy, won Midwest Writing Center’s Mississippi Valley Chapbook Contest. Sandy won Second Prize in Prick of the Spindle’s 2014 Poetry Open and was a finalist for Gulf Coast’s Poetry Prize. Her work appears in The JournalSubtropicsThe Hollins CriticSugar House ReviewMid-American ReviewThrush Poetry Journal,Green Mountains ReviewSouth Dakota ReviewPhoebe, and elsewhere. She currently works as a writing teacher and freelance creative manuscript editor in her hometown of Chicago.

Where we can find your chapbook: Actually, since A Detail in the Landscape was produced in a one-time, limited edition run, the book itself, in hardcover and softcover, is completely sold out. I do still have broadsides available. If you are interested, please message me here:


Also, stay tuned to the above space, as I may release the virtual edition of the chap as an ebook in the near future.


Women Write Resistance reading at the Indiana Writers’ Consortium’s 2014 Creative Writing Conference and Book Fair


Women Write Resistance Poets read at IWC

Reading of Women Write Resistance
with Shevaun Brannigan, Sara Henning, Laura Madeline Wiseman, Larissa Shmailo, Jill Khoury, Meg Day, & Mary Stone Dockery
Indiana Writers’ Consortium’s 2014 Creative Writing Conference and Book Fair
4:00-5:10 PM, Saturday, October 11, 2014
Salon A, Hilton Garden Inn, 7775 Mississippi Street
Merrillville, Indiana

Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013), edited by Laura Madeline Wiseman, views poetry as a transformative art. By deploying techniques to challenge narratives about violence against women and making alternatives to that violence visible.  Poetry of resistance distinguishes itself by a persuasive rhetoric that asks readers to act. The anthology’s stance believes poetry can compel action using both rhetoric and poetic techniques to motivate readers. In their deployment of these techniques, poets of resistance claim the power to name and talk about gender violence in and on their own terms. Indeed, these poets resist for change by revising justice and framing poetry as action. This IWC Conference reading will include an introduction by the editor and feature Women Write Resistance poets who will read their poems and others from Women Write Resistance.

WWR going to STR 2

The featured Women Write Resistance poets

“When you sit down to write a poem, I think you’re making a really brave and bold statement that is at once insistent upon your own existence and also wildly generous in the sacrificing of that existence to the possibility of a reader. To be a person—to insist on personhood—is a right we see refused to the majority of the people in this country (and other countries, with our country’s help) on a daily basis, even when we aren’t hearing about it on the news or social media.” – Meg Day, Blotterature

Meg Day, selected for Best New Poets of 2013, is a 2013 recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Poetry and the author of Last Psalm at Sea Level, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize (forthcoming 2014), When All You Have Is a Hammer (winner of the 2012 Gertrude Press Chapbook Contest) and We Can’t Read This (winner of the 2013 Gazing Grain Chapbook Contest). A 2012 AWP Intro Journals Award Winner, she has also received awards and fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Hedgebrook, Squaw Valley Writers, the Taft-Nicholson Center for Environmental Humanities, and the International Queer Arts Festival. Meg is currently a PhD candidate, Steffensen-Cannon Fellow, & Point Foundation Scholar in Poetry & Disability Poetics at the University of Utah. www.megday.com

“I also do not think of poems or poets as static—just because someone writes poetry, does not mean they cannot be an activist. In fact, poetry, which is a vital form of connecting with others, may predispose someone to be more in tune with the world’s injustices.” – Shevaun Brannigan, Blotterature

Shevaun Brannigan is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, as well as The Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House at The University of Maryland. She has had poems appear in such journals as Best New Poets 2012, Lumina, Rhino, Court Green, and Free State Review. She has been an Arts & Letters Poetry Prize finalist, received an honorable mention in So to Speak’s 2012 Poetry Contest, as well as a Pushcart nomination by Rattle.

“Sometimes, the attempt at truth is all that one can muster, and that is its own truth.” – Sara Henning, The Conversant

Sara Henning is the author of A Sweeter Water (Lavender Ink, 2013)as well as a chapbook, To Speak of Dahlias (Finishing Line Press, 2012).  Her poetry, fiction, interviews and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Willow Springs, Bombay Gin and the Crab Orchard Review.  Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for The South Dakota Review.

“Poetry has been revolutionary and transformative for me since I became interested in poetry.” – Jill Khoury, Blotterature

Jill Khoury earned her Masters of Fine Arts from The Ohio State University. She teaches writing and literature in high school, university, and enrichment environments. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Bone Bouquet, RHINO, Inter|rupture, and Stone Highway Review. She has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net award. Her chapbook Borrowed Bodies was released from Pudding House Press. You can find her at jillkhoury.com.

“Poetry transformed me… into a powerful woman…Poetry continues to mold and shape my life by offering new possibilities each day.” – Larissa Shmailo, Blotterature

Larissa Shmailo is the editor of the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry, poetry editor for MadHat Annual, and founder of The Feminist Poets in Low-Cut Blouses. She translated Victory over the Sun for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s landmark restaging of the multimedia opera and has been a translator on the Bible in Russia for the American Bible Society. Her books of poetry are #specialcharacters (Unlikely Books), In Paran (BlazeVOX [books]), A Cure for Suicide (Červená Barva Press), and Fib Sequence (Argotist Ebooks); her poetry CDs are The No-Net World and Exorcism (SongCrew).

“There have been times in my life where poetry gave me all the answers about myself and about the world and about what it means to be a woman.” – Mary Stone Dockery, Blotterature

Mary Stone Dockery is the author of One Last Cigarette and Mythology of Touch, and two chapbooks, Blink Finch and Aching Buttons. Her poetry and prose have appeared in many fine journals, including Mid-American Review, Gargoyle, South Dakota Review, Arts & Letters.


“As I wrote in the critical introduction to Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, I believe poetry is power. Poetry is action.” – Laura Madeline Wiseman, Blotterature

Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of more than a dozen books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her recent books are American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012), and the collaborative book Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, and Feminist Studies. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com

More recent interviews with poets from Women Write Resistance:

An Interview with Poets from Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence,” Blotterature, October 2014

“‘To make a new whole of the fragments’: A Roundtable Discussion with poets in Women Write Resistance,The Conversant, October 2014

“‘We invent the forms of resistance we wish to see‘: A Roundtable Discussion with Poets in Women Write Resistance,” Les Femmes FollesSeptember 2014

“Blot Lit Reviews: An Interview with Writers from Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence,Blotterature Literary Magazine, by Julie Demoff-Larson with Sarah Chavez, Tyler Mills, Jennifer Perrine, Carly Sachs, Monica Wendel, and Margo Taft Stever, May 2014, Part I & Part II

“‘their words make this possible‘: A Roundtable Discussion of Poetics of Emplacement with Poets from Women Write Resistance,” Spoon River Poetry Review, April 2014

Women Write Resistance: Poets to read at Purdue University Calumet

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Women Write Resistance: Poets to read at Purdue University Calumet Press Release

Women Write Resistance Poets Reading Event at Purdue University Calumet
with Sara Henning, Mary Stone Dockery,  Laura Madeline Wiseman, Larissa Shamilo, Sarah Chavez, & Rosemary Winslow
2200 173rd Street, Hammond, IN 46322
October 10, 2014 at 6:00 p.m.
Contact: Indiana Writers’ Consortium at 219-750-1200 ext. 203

Hammond, INSeptember 19, 2014— Indiana Writers’ Consortium, in conjunction with Purdue University Calumet’s Department of English and Philosophy and student organization First Friday Wordsmiths, are hosting six nationally known poets featured in the anthology Women Write Resistance: Poets Against Gender Violence. The six featured readers are: Laura Madeline Wiseman, Sara Henning, Mary Stone Dockery, Larissa Shamilo, Rosemary Winslow, and Sarah Chavez. The event, which is free of charge and open to the public, will take place in YJean Chambers Theater in the Student Union Library Building directly north of the 173rd Street parking lot. The reading will begin at 6:00 p.m. and there will be a book signing in the Founders’ Study after the reading. Free refreshments will also be available during the signing.

Indiana Writers’ Consortium inspires and builds a community of creative writers. We are the premier group in Northwest Indiana dedicated to educating writers from the ground up through speakers, seminars, and children’s programs. IWC provides educational and networking opportunities for writers in all stages of their careers. We also sponsor an annual children’s project, where we partner with local schools to bring poetry into the classroom. For more information please visit our website indianawritersconsortium.org or contact the IWC at 219-750-1200 ext. 203. The Indiana Writers’ Consortium is located at 5209 Hohman Ave., Hammond, IN 46320.

Featured poets from Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence

Sarah Chavez

“As much as possible, I try to allow my poetry to embrace and inhabit conflict and conflicting truths…” – Sarah Chavez, The Conversant

Sarah A. Chavez is a mestíza born and raised in the California Central Valley completing her PhD in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found in various publications such as Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place, the journals North American Review, The Fourth River, and others. Her chapbook All Day, Talking has just been released from dancing girl press.

“The knowledge expressed in poetry has infinite organizing power on a subconscious as well as conscious level.” – Larissa Shamilo, Blotterature

Larissa Shmailo is the editor of the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry, poetry editor for MadHat Annual, and founder of The Feminist Poets in Low-Cut Blouses. She translated Victory over the Sun for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s landmark restaging of the multimedia opera and has been a translator on the Bible in Russia for the American Bible Society. Her books of poetry are #specialcharacters (Unlikely Books), In Paran (BlazeVOX [books]), A Cure for Suicide (Červená Barva Press), and Fib Sequence (Argotist Ebooks); her poetry CDs are The No-Net World and Exorcism (SongCrew).

“Poetry taught me how to search for understanding, how to empathize, and how to define myself at different stages throughout my life.” – Mary Stone Dockery, Blotterature

Mary Stone Dockery is the author of One Last Cigarette and Mythology of Touch, and two chapbooks, Blink Finch and Aching Buttons. Her poetry and prose have appeared in many fine journals, including Mid-American Review, Gargoyle, South Dakota Review, Arts & Letters.

“Poetry is suffering, lovemaking, the body at its limits demanding to be heard. Poetry is also a place to exorcise cultural paradoxes.” – Sara Henning, Blotterature

Sara Henning is the author of A Sweeter Water (Lavender Ink, 2013)as well as a chapbook, To Speak of Dahlias (Finishing Line Press, 2012).  Her poetry, fiction, interviews and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Willow Springs, Bombay Gin and the Crab Orchard Review.  Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for The South Dakota Review.

“Teaching a junior level course to majors from every discipline at the university last spring, I noted a sea change in greater understanding of the experiences of gendered cultural forces.  The evidence was most marked in responses to Adrienne Rich’s essay, “When We Dead Awaken.”  To my great surprise, and counter to my experiences of previous decades, students understood, with palpable compassion, the violence to the self as Rich considers having no place or voice for a female self.” – Rosemary Winslow, Spoon River Poetry Review

Rosemary Winslow lives in Washington, D.C., and teaches at The Catholic University of America. Her book Green Bodies expressed and grappled with the complexities of love in troubled families, and sought understanding, forgiveness, and compassion for the wide circle of humankind. She has taught in shelters for women, and now enjoys yoga, hiking, swimming, kayaking, and singing in a choir.


“Early in college I was introduced to writers such as Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Sandra Cisneros. These writers and others allowed me to explore the rich world that poetry offered, to see how poetry was a work worth doing, and that art could be made from life, that such a writing life was possible.” – Laura Madeline Wiseman, Blotterature

Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of more than a dozen books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her recent books are American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012), and the collaborative book Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, and Feminist Studies. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com

Women write resistance banner

More recent interviews with poets from Women Write Resistance:

An Interview with Poets from Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence,” Blotterature, October 2014

“‘To make a new whole of the fragments’: A Roundtable Discussion with poets in Women Write Resistance,The Conversant, October 2014

“‘We invent the forms of resistance we wish to see‘: A Roundtable Discussion with Poets in Women Write Resistance,” Les Femmes FollesSeptember 2014

“Blot Lit Reviews: An Interview with Writers from Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence,Blotterature Literary Magazine, by Julie Demoff-Larson with Sarah Chavez, Tyler Mills, Jennifer Perrine, Carly Sachs, Monica Wendel, and Margo Taft Stever, May 2014, Part I & Part II

“‘their words make this possible‘: A Roundtable Discussion of Poetics of Emplacement with Poets from Women Write Resistance,” Spoon River Poetry Review, April 2014


the chapbook interview: Lynn Schmeidler on research, the brain, and humor

Lynn Schmeidler

Reading just the first few lines of the opening poem in Curiouser & Curiouser (Grayson Books, 2014) and especially the poem “The Switch,” reminded me of Richard Power’s novel The Echo Maker, a book that follows a neurologist as he seeks to help a man after a traumatic brain injury. Can you talk about your research process to write such a chapbook?

It’s interesting you bring up Power’s novel. Years ago I wrote a short story about a character who suffered a traumatic brain injury and no longer had any sense of who he was. The idea for that story, like the idea for “The Switch” (the first poem I wrote for the collection that became Curiouser & Curiouser) originated from an article I read that discussed a rare neurological condition—one I could not stop thinking about; these situations haunted me. I first learned about Capgras, not from Powers’ novel, but from an article in Psychology Today (my husband is a psychologist, so we had the magazine hanging around the house). I then did a lot of googling to find out more about Capgras Syndrome and to find the various other disorders that became the focus of the book. Each source led me to another and soon I was reading case histories and sufferer’s accounts of their experiences. I love researching. To the point that it can become an excellent procrastination technique (I can’t possibly write about this topic when there’s so much more to learn about it). So the trick for me was not to over-research—not to let the true facts, the scientific and the medical explanations take over the imaginative experience of putting myself in the place of one who is suffering from each condition. I wanted this book to be about what we share, all of us in our various afflictions. My interest in these conditions was never to explain them scientifically, but to embody them artistically and to use them to meaningfully represent what it means to be human and flawed—the ways in which we are all separated from ourselves and placed uneasily on this earth.

I love that research is part of your process. At the Omaha Lit Fest this year, one of the panelists said she places a sticky note on her computer that reads “Research is not writing” and she quoted a friend who often said of writing that became too research focused—as if it were a slip—“Your research is showing.” It’s such a hard balance and you’ve done it well.

I’m going to post “your research is showing” as a cautionary note above my work space. I love that!

There is a delightful absurdity in Curiouser & Curiouser, in part by the shifts of point of view as one moves through the chapbook. Talk about your use of persona as a vehicle to explore humor.

Thank you for seeing the humor here. After the book came out there was a brief neurotic period of time I was afraid people might find it too dark and then my father read it and told me he laughed out loud. I wasn’t always conscious of using humor—I was conscious of not depressing myself, not making myself cry again like I had in college while forcing myself to read the entire Abnormal Psychology textbook for the final exam.

I like your idea that the humor comes in part from my choice to write these as persona poems. I write fiction as well as poetry and so it was a natural impulse for me to take on other voices. I have always loved persona poems—poetry as ventriloquism. And of course, it would have been impossible for me to write these poems as confessional poems. The persona vehicle was my way in. It became my project to see the ways in which I could relate to the confusion or disorientation each condition presented.

The question of humor in the face of the tragic interests me a lot. What makes something humorous? When is humor appropriate, even necessary? And when is it just avoidant? Humor has always been one way humans have dealt with the scary and the disappointing and the sad. Seeing the strange in the familiar and vice versa, as William James says of philosophy is also what humor does (and what poetry is often about). Here humor became a way to help me look at what might otherwise have been unbearable. So in answer to your question, you could say I used persona to approach the painful from the inside and that led me, defensively perhaps, transgressively maybe, to humor. The material, too, taught me that nothing is only one shade of emotion. I knew I wanted the book to be more than a pessimistic examination of all that can go wrong with a brain. And isn’t that what humor is for, after all? Freeing us from being only what we are; enabling us to be greater than our losses?

Yes, I agree and what you do here, too, is offer humor as a gateway to connection, to connect to larger mysteries of life, such as the inner workings of the brain. The September 2014 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle pays tribute to Nadine Gordimer and offers her words, “To me, what is the purpose of life? It is to explain the mystery of life.” Curiouser & Curiouser does that, offers passage via persona into the mystery of the brain. Another poem of yours that I adore is “Valentine Aubade.” It’s such a lovely, fun, and sensuous way to write about synesthesia. Can you talk about inspiration in your poetry?

I’m so glad you like “Valentine Aubade.” Synesthesia is the least rare of the conditions I wrote about (up to as much as 4% of the population is estimated to have one form or another) and it’s also the one condition I wrote about that I wish I had. (Writing enables me to pretend that I have it.) One theory of synesthesia holds that since we’re born with more nerves connecting different parts of our brain than we need, perhaps in those with synesthesia, some of the “extra” connections don’t get pruned away. I love the idea that this extra sensory input may come from a sort of superpower we are all born with.

I’m inspired by the weird, the strange, the inexplicable. I’m inspired by the questions. And by the view out my window—right now lots of leaves that I know will soon fall and reveal a view of the busy street, but not before they turn brilliant shades of red and flood my house with a warm filtered light. I’m inspired by reading other poets’ work—I’ve just read Mary Ruefle’s Trances of the Blast and am halfway through Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night. I find inspiration in New Yorker articles and in This American Life radio stories and in dreams (greenery growing out of my palms) in my kids (my daughter posting a sign on her bedroom door entitled, “Long Term Memory,” my son telling me what to do when a bear approaches—act bigger than you are and wave your arms). The oddities in life that I try to explain to myself. The confusing. The out of place.

Arts.mic recently ran an article discussing the healing and therapeutic effects of writing by documenting scientific studies in which those with physical injuries and/or emotional trauma showed a quicker healing time if they spent time writing about their experience. Did you find writing Curiouser & Curiouser a healing endeavor?

That’s fascinating and also not surprising. I find writing is always a healing endeavor for me, in that when I am not writing or working out something related to my writing, I suffer. In the case of this chapbook, one could say I wounded myself each time I entered a different patient’s persona, and each poem was a way to heal that wound, if only temporarily. A few of the poems I wrote for the sole purpose of healing a sort of misery that would sometimes settle in during the immersion in these neurological ailments. “Litany with Inflections from Other Native Languages” comes to mind in particular. I remember coming across Foreign Accent Syndrome and finding it so funny (in that dark humor sort of way) that writing about it was irresistible.

And then sometimes writing heals inadvertently and abruptly: I’m currently writing what I thought would be my next full-length collection about a years-long, unrequited romantic crush. Only barely halfway through, the writing seems to have healed me of this longing I’ve had since I was ten. I hadn’t meant for the poems to cure me, and now I find myself searching for another “seduction” for my inspiration to ride.

How do you define chapbook? a small, beautiful book of poems that too few people are familiar with filled with wonderful surprises.

How are you trying to get better as a poet? by reading as much as I can: poetry, fiction, nonfiction, bumper stickers, license plates, minds, signs… I’m also trying to do whatever I can to be as receptive as possible. This includes but is not limited to: meditation, yoga, long walks, long baths and the occasional cocktail.

What makes a good chapbook? a unifying concept, an involved editor, a supportive press, a receptive reader

What’s next for you? I am currently working on a few different writing projects: finishing a full-length collection of poems, midway through either another chapbook or a second collection (it has yet to show its form), and two thirds of the way into a collection of short stories.

Your chapbook credo: write yourself into a perfect, little place

Number of chapbooks you own: 20 or so

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 19ish

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I try to buy other poets’ books whenever I can especially at readings and literary events. I swap chapbooks with other poets. I tell my fiction students to buy and read chapbooks and I give my fiction students poems from chapbooks to study.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: on fees for poetry contests

Your chapbook wish: that chapbooks be as widely recognized and as often coveted as chapstick and playbooks

Residence: Dobbs Ferry, NY

Job: I teach fiction workshops to adults and at-risk youth.

Chapbook education: learning all the time

Chapbook Bio: Lynn Schmeidler’s Curiouser & Curiouser won the 2013 Grayson Books Chapbook prize. Her poems and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Mid-American Review, Night Train, Southeast Review and Opium among other journals, as well as in Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books (Minor Arcana Press), Mischief, Caprice and Other Poetic Strategies (Red Hen Press) and Out of Sequence: The Sonnets Remixed (Parlor Press) among other anthologies. She teaches privately and at the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY.

Where we can find your chapbook: http://www.graysonbooks.com/pr/curiouser__curiouser.aspx


the chapbook interview: Jennifer Franklin on myth, autism, and pedagogy


The myth of Demeter and Persephone is such a rich story to retell, a task taken up by other poets such as Louise Gluck, Alicia Ostriker, Rita Dove, and others. Talk about your interests in myth and why the Homeric Hymn to Demeter was particularly evocative and inspirational to your work.

Although I knew that poets have explored the Persephone and Demeter myth for centuries, it was the story to which I kept returning when I sat down to transform my grief about my daughter’s illness into poems. The use of myth in literature has always fascinated me. When I was a child, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology was a crucial book for the development of my imagination. In high school, The Iliad and The Odyssey were two of my favorite texts, and as an undergraduate, one of my first classes was a comparative literature course devoted to a semester long exploration of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Literary Theory. Louise Gluck, my favorite living poet, used the Persephone and Demeter Myth to great effect in Averno. The power of the complex and all-consuming love depicted in the myth is universal. Gluck, Rita Dove, another influence (Thomas & Beulah was the model for my undergraduate thesis), and Laurie Sheck all wrote full-length collections using the Persephone & Demeter myth within a few years of each other. Gluck’s Averno, Sheck’s The Willow Grove, and Dove’s Mother Love were all seminal collections for me and although I did not go back to read them when I decided to write my series, I know that they inform the poems in the collection because of the impact they had on me in my twenties before I became a mother and felt the power of the myth even more strongly. All three include Persephone’s sexuality as a central component of their retelling of the story. As a feminist and a reader, I am interested in that part of the myth, but it is not one that I chose to tackle directly in my appropriation. I focus on Demeter’s suffering in response to Persephone’s suffering as well as the “loss” of her life as she knew it, which includes her loss of freedom.

I recently re-read Gregory Orr’s thoughts on the use of myth in lyric poetry, and I agree with his thesis that one of the things that continues to compel poets to retell myths or to use myth to tell their own stories is that our collective consciousness already knows the “plot” and the poet can hone in on the aspects of the myth that are most relevant to the poets’ individual messages. As both a mother and as a writer, one of the most painful things about my daughter’s autism is that she cannot use language to express how she feels and what she thinks. As an empathic person, the thing that hurts me most is the extent of my daughter’s suffering because of her autism and epilepsy. As much as I try to imagine the lives and emotions of others (I am a fan of reading and writing persona poems) I did not want to imagine her interior world. Even though I believe that one never “knows” another “person” or the multiple and layered selves and personas that make up a “person” (we are lucky if we ever really know ourselves), one of the great tragedies of autism is that the afflicted person is in many ways even more “unknowable.” These poems were written towards the end of a long grieving process. I would argue that the process of writing the poems was the greatest tool in achieving understanding of the nuanced feelings surrounding my “loss.”

In your poems “My Herculaneum” and “The Tulips are Dying” and others, you bury the turn and revelation halfway through the poem. In these poems it’s the revelation of grief that turns. Can you talk about your sense of the placement and power of the poetic turn?

That is a very interesting observation. I was not aware of how often the turn resides in the middle of the poems in Persephone’s Ransom. I find it particularly interesting given the prevailing notion, in criticism, that the turn is the center or the soul of the poem. When I was reading about mid-course turns, I discovered that most often they represent drastic or sharp shifts in meaning. I believe that most of the turns in my chapbook are “retrospective-prospective” turns that examine the past and the present/future. I believe that this was the unconscious choice that I made while writing most of the poems in this series because the before and the after that I am describing in the poems are so jarringly different. There is an urgency, a need to get to the heart of the matter—on which all of these poems rest—the devastating recognition that nothing is ever going to be the same again. These poems, which were written in a great burst over one month in the summer of 2008, while riding in the back seat of my daughter’s “bus” on the way to pick her up from her year-round school, are essentially elegies for the loss of the “normal” lives that I knew neither of us would be able to have. Although no one literally dies in the pages of Persephone’s Ransom, there are hundreds of figurative deaths. To me, the turn is always a crucial part of the poem, no matter where it is placed, since it is where the most important ideas or revelations appear.

Your chapbook and forthcoming book address via myth the emotional impact autism has on a family. Were there other literary sources that enabled you to consider how a writer might make art of grief?

My beliefs on the power of lyric poetry are similar to those of Gregory Orr, as he presents them in the critical work Poetry as Survival. Lyric poetry contains an abiding power to transform deep experience into something transcendent. Some of the most important books for me have been works of art and literature that center of the exploration of great emotion, including deep suffering. When I was a New Jersey Scholar in the summer program at The Lawrenceville School, my poetry teacher, Clayton Marsh, sparked a love of Keats that has continued to this day. When I was in college, my mentor, Arnold Weinstein, a great humanist and scholar, taught all my favorite classes. The first class I took with him was called, “Exile and the Conditions of Writing.” The entire course focused on poets who were literally or figuratively exiled. We read poets including Tu Fu, Dickinson, Ovid, Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan, Baudelaire, and Anna Akhmatova. What I love most about Dickinson’s poetry is that she plumbs the great depths of human emotion in all of its authentic forms. Nothing is taboo or off limits; every emotion is given its due. That course was a master class in the power of poetry to give voice to deep suffering. Some of the modernist novels of Woolf, Faulkner, and Jean Rhys have influenced me a great deal. The plays of Sophocles and Ibsen, especially Antigone and Little Eyolf, also informed my idea of how the topic of suffering can be transformed into literature. The contemporary poets who influenced Persephone’s Ransom and my project of transforming my grief into something more are: Mary Jo Bang (particularly her book Elegy), Marie Howe (especially What the Living Do), and Emily Fragos (Little Savage), as well as the work of Jane Kenyon, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, and Sylvia Plath. Perhaps, the most powerful example I know of a writer devoted to transforming his grief into song is Miklos Radnoti. In 1946, when his wife found his body, which had been exhumed from a mass grave, she retrieved a notebook that contained all of the poems he wrote during his imprisonment in a work camp in Yugoslavia. Surviving prisoners smuggled copies of his poems out of the various camps in which he was interned, but the five he wrote in his last days of the death march before he was shot were unknown, until his wife found them in his pocket.

Another book that I think is a masterpiece of transforming pain into poetry is Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen. It won the Walt Whitman Award from The Academy of American Poetry and was published after Persephone’s Ransom, so it did not influence my collection but I teach it in my classes. I think that it’s a very brave book. It looks at a bother’s tragic suicide from different perspectives, and it grapples with how one goes on living after the unthinkable has occurred. As the philosopher Heidegger wrote, “The Terrible has already happened.” I have read excerpts from Edward Hirsch’s long poem Gabriel about the death of his only child, but I am planning to teach it to my students this autumn. I have always admired his poetry, and I have read several reviews of the book. In the interview on NPR, he said something that resonated with me: “One of the things that happens to everyone who is grief-stricken . . . is there comes a time when everyone else just wants you to get over it, but of course you don’t get over it. You get stronger; you try and live on; you endure; you change; but you don’t get over it. You carry it with you.” This is something that I experienced as well. I suspect that only people who are willing to authentically mourn are able to prevail.

Like Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris, flowers in Persephone’s Ransom speak in ways that humans in the collection cannot speak. Talk about the use of flowers as a trope in your poetry.

Like Gluck, who has said that she was shy and withdrawn from her peers as a child and that she regarded Blake and Keats as her friends, I felt the same way about writers I admired. I was a year and a half younger than everyone else in my grade, and my social skills had not caught up with my reading ability. I spent most of my childhood with family or alone reading books. My mother had a garden she loved and tended that I always admired, but it wasn’t until I read The Wild Iris that I wanted to plant my own garden. Having lived in Providence and New York City most of my adult life, this posed a challenge but for two years, I lived in a house in Central Massachusetts. It was there, for the year and a half before I became pregnant, that I planted my garden. I visited Emily Dickinson’s home and toured her gardens that are restored to include all of the flowers she planted in her lifetime. I bought her herbarium and poured over it as well as a book on flowers and their meanings. Tulips have always been my favorite flower and I planted hundreds of bulbs in the autumn before my pregnancy. So, those flowers and the loss of them when I returned to the city before my daughter was born were inextricably linked to all of the losses surrounding my daughter’s illness. Demeter’s long depression during which she wanted to stop the beauty of the world by turning it to winter is something that resonated with me. I am always struck by natural beauty, during times of tragedy, and how shocking and jarring that disconnect is. It seems to make the pain all the more palpable. When people recount their escapes on 9/11, many of them talk about the stunning beauty of the weather that day. In almost all of the accounts I have read about life in Auschwitz, the survivors mention the shocking natural beauty of the place. Something in us wants life, wants beauty so much that when we are propelled into the tragic, we cannot connect the two. The life cycle of nature is something to which I have been attuned since I was a small child. Growing up in the suburbs, I often read under a special crabapple tree that has long since been cut down to make first a soccer field and then a lacrosse field. My mother, a great seasonal decorator, marked the months and seasons with care.

Flowers in my chapbook represent all the beauty of the natural world as well as everything constant, unchanging, permanent in the uncertainty of our great cosmos. They also represent God’s presence as well as the power of the human soul to look in the face of great suffering and great pain and choose life, to choose beauty. Their seeming fragility and delicacy—their improbability to survive the elements is a constant source of inspiration to me. The snowdrops in the fields, the bulbs that emerge from the ground in spring, even after the most brutal winter, mirror the human will to continue against adversity. Thoreau wrote, “the most attractive thing about flowers is their beautiful reserve.” In cultures throughout the world, flowers represent love and my daughter loves looking at them and even labeling them and their colors. One of the things for which I am most grateful, despite my daughter’s autism is that she is able to show love and affection for me, my family, and for her teachers. She is deeply intuitive, and she knows who loves her and who does not. With people she doesn’t love, she is very reserved. The use of flowers in the collection began with the myth—Persephone was picking flowers when she was abducted. I then began thinking of the flowers as the loss of innocence. The way Demeter turns on the flowers in her grief and anger represents the rejection of life in the initial stages of shock and trauma.


What is inspiring you these days?

The autumn has always been my most creative season for writing poetry so I am working on several new pieces for both a chapbook and my second collection. I am putting my syllabus together and reading the new collections by Mary Ruefle and Louise Gluck. Other literature and art are always my greatest sources of inspiration. I just saw Cate Blanchet in Jean Genet’s The Maids and I have been seeing many dance performances this summer. Yesterday, a friend and I saw a fantastic exhibit called “Strong Language” by Mel Bochner at the Jewish Museum. It’s particularly fascinating for people interested in language because most of the paintings in the show consist entirely of words—a list of synonyms compiled from Roget’s Thesaurus. One of my students, Gillian Cummings, shared a draft of her forthcoming chapbook that is based on Ophelia. The power of her language and the homage to, as well as the departure from, Shakespeare deeply impressed me. I cannot wait for it to be published and to reach its audience.

How are you trying to get better as a poet?

I believe, as Mary Oliver instructs in her book, A Poetry Handbook, that one only becomes a better poet by being a copious reader, especially a reader of other poetry. I am also listening to poets reading their own work. Thanks to The Poetry Foundation, poets.org, and YouTube, one has access to thousands of recorded poems. My uncle has been listening to Eliot on his iPod while walking in the countryside of Southwest France, where he lives. After he mentioned that to me, I started listening to Eliot again, and it is truly mesmerizing. Listening to poets read can be even more useful than reading. It helps to train the ear to focus on the language, each word. During the summer, I taught books by Gluck, Szybist, Fragos, Merwin, Seshadri, and Rasmussen, and we all wrote a poem inspired by the collections we were reading. The fascinating thing is that although we could all see the influence of the target poet on our work, we were still writing our own voice. The students came in with attributions, “after W.S. Merwin” and by the end of class, more often than not, we had voted to remove those attributions. It is always exciting to see growth and change in the work of one’s students and colleagues as well as in one’s own. I am lucky to be part of a weekly workshop with some of my colleagues at The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. Their work inspires me and their feedback has been invaluable to the revision of my new work.

Your chapbook credo: Good things come in small packages. No book is more beautiful than a handmade letterpress chapbook.

Number of chapbooks you own: I own about 70 chapbooks. Most of them were published by Slapering Hol Press (designed by the amazing Ed Reyher of Swamp Press in Northfield, Massachusetts) where I have been co-editor since January 2014. Other chapbooks in my collection date from my first semester in college; these were all published by Burning Deck Press in Providence, founded and run by Rosemarie & Keith Waldrop. I had never heard of a chapbook before I was enrolled in my first poetry workshop at Brown. The teacher, a graduate student in the MFA program, put the chapbook My Name Happens Also by Elizabeth Robinson on the syllabus. I was stunned when I went to the bookstore to buy it and saw the artistry of the design of these limited edition collections. Many of my chapbooks are signed copies of those written by friends and students. Still others were purchased at AWP, readings, and the annual CUNY chapbook fair. Although I sometimes have to sell books at The Strand or give books away to friends because I live in an apartment, I have never parted with any of my chapbooks.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: I think that I’ve read over one hundred published chapbooks and hundreds of chapbook manuscripts.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I am co-editor of Slapering Hol Press, the small press imprint of The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, a chapbook publisher; we publish two chapbooks per year and host readings for emerging poets. One chapbook is selected through a national competition for poets who have yet to publish a chapbook or a full-length collection. The other chapbook is a “Conversation” between an established woman poet and an emerging woman poet chosen by the former. I also help emerging poets and students edit, revise, and order their chapbook manuscripts. So far, I have written blurbs for two chapbook poets and have been asked to write blurbs for two more.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: I use my chapbook earnings to buy more of my chapbooks to sell at readings, and whatever is left—I spend on entry fees for book awards.

Your chapbook wish: I am currently working on collaboration with the amazing self-taught photographer, Arnaldo Reyes. He is from the Dominican Republic and has been my daughter’s bus driver for the past six years. His other job is delivering specialty cookies all over Brooklyn and Manhattan so he sees the people of the city—really sees them—the way Marie Howe instructs us all to do. He shows me his photographs each week and I write ekphrastic poems for the ones that speak to me. Sometimes, I see something and write a poem and then he takes a photograph that literally or figuratively matches what he believes to be the intention of the piece. It can be difficult to get poems published beside other art forms, which seems particularly archaic in 2014, when technology and multidisciplinary art is so prevalent. I hope that we find a press for this chapbook soon.

Residence: I live in New York City.

Six_Portraits Julie Danho

Job: I teach at The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow. We own a beautiful restored train station and it’s a wonderful place for our community of writers of all ages, from all walks of life, to come together to help each other become better in our craft. It is a supportive environment for writers at every stage of his or her career. I love teaching poetry workshops; I feel like it’s what I was born to do. I am blessed to be working with such interesting, talented, and inspiring students. I can’t wait to read their new poems and spend two hours with them in class each week.

Chapbook education: I was first introduced to the concept of chapbooks in college but my real education came from working with Margo Taft Stever and Peggy Ellsberg, my wonderful co-editors. Margo founded HVWC in 1988, and she has been supporting emerging writers since then. She began Slapering Hol Press in 1990, and while I helped her copy edit Seven New Generation African Poets box set, in collaboration with The Poetry Foundation Poets of the World Series, Prairie Schooner, and African Poetry Book Fund, she shared her vast knowledge of the importance of continuity and theme in writing and arranging a chapbook.

Jennifer Franklin concentrated in English and Creative Writing at Brown University. She was the Harvey Baker Fellow at Columbia University School of the Arts where she received her MFA. Her poems debuted in the Paris Review’s “Ten New Poets” issue #141. Her first full-length collection, Looming, won the 14th Annual Editor’s Prize from Elixir Press and will be published in January 2015. Her poetry has appeared widely in anthologies, literary magazines, and journals such as Antioch Review, Boston Review, Gettysburg Review, Guernica, The Nation, New England Review, Pequod, poets.org, Poetry Daily, Salmagundi, Southwest Review, Western Humanities Review. Her chapbook, Persephone’s Ransom (Finishing Line Press) was published in September 2011. Her work has been translated into Romanian and Portuguese. A selection of her poetry is featured in Andrew Solomon’s award winning book, Far From the Tree. Franklin is co-editor of Slapering Hol Press, the small press imprint of The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. She teaches poetry workshops and seminars at The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and lives in New York City. Her website is jenniferfranklinpoetry.com and she can be reached at jenniferfranklinpoetry@gmail.com