the chapbook interview: Alyse Knorr on research, teaching, and inspiration

The Writer’s Chronicle September 2014 issue features Debra Spark’s mediation on research and writing fiction. She writes, “In life, you only get to be one person. You only get to go where you go, and do what you do. Not so in fiction. You get to be many people, to go places you’ll never get to go, and to do things you’ll never do” (98) and “Fiction gives you permission to have a bigger life. To go somewhere you’d not otherwise go, to read endless books about an obscure subject, to achieve a form of expertise in a field you’ll never actually pursue, to ask nosy questions” (99). Your chapbook Alternates (Dancing Girl Press, 2014) explores quantum mechanics, alternative universes, and love. Talk about how research and writing enables you to have a bigger life.

I really love these quotes, and the first one in particular feels so perfect for Alternates, because the idea of being more than just one person and living all of your potential lives is what’s at the heart of this book. When I wrote Alternates, I was experimenting with the lyric sequence form and I was also reading about quantum theory–specifically, the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics. The many-worlds interpretation postulates that every possible future and every possible past are real, and each exists in its own parallel, alternate universe. Basically, there are an infinite number of universes in which everything that could have happened has actually happened.

The profound beauty in this idea blew me away–especially in the ways it relates to love (you actually are happily married to that one person who never loved you back–in another universe!) and the ways it perfectly lines up with the lyric sequence form–distinctly separate parts that sing in chorus together as a whole. Each page of Alternates, then, depicts one of the many different potential life paths of one couple. In one universe, one of them is dead. In another, they have a daughter. In another, they broke up.

I wanted the book to enact the feeling of time as quantum theory (or at least my understanding of it!) interprets it–time as a malleable, all-encompassing experience, not just a linear sequence. All of the past and all of the future are occurring at the same time–right now. That’s how love feels–the people you love are always with you, and all the potential lives you could have had with them are always with you, too–so in a way, they are always happening, forever. Heartbreak contains joy, and vice versa. That potentiality is extremely comforting to me.

As for the second Spark quote, I couldn’t agree more–research is such fun! I conduct research for every project I write. My next full-length book, Copper Mother, converses with NASA’s 1977 Golden Record, launched aboard the Voyager spacecraft, and delves into theories of extraterrestrial intelligence. I’m currently working on another full-length novel-in-verse called “Mega-City Redux” that remixes Christine de Pizan’s revolutionary 1405 proto-feminist text, The Book of the City of Ladies. For Alternates, I read Hawking, Einstein, and Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, as well as a lot of really fun, wacky books like The Physics of the Impossible by Michiko Kaku. My favorite scientist to read is Carl Sagan–he writes with a poet’s love of language, beauty, and metaphor. Reading about another world, another discipline, another set of terminology and another way of thinking–what could be better fuel for poetry?

The February 2015 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle features Jane Hirshfield’s essay “Strange Reaches, Impossibilities, and Big Hidden Drawers: Poetry and Paradox.” In her reflecting on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Map” she writes, “Put flatly: good poems make us smarter” (47). I like that. I like the thinking poetry asks us to do. What poems have made you smarter and how?

Well, as a matter of fact, I’d say that Elizabeth Bishop and her poems have taught me a great deal. Bishop’s combined attention to spontaneity, accuracy, and mystery (she had a toucan named Uncle SAM!) have become a writing mantra for me, and her poems remind me of all the ways that observation is a practice that can be mastered and even queered. Her poems are demanding to me on an intellectual and spiritual level, and every time I read them, I discover something new—new questions, new ways of interacting with people and objects and poetics, and new techniques for probing at the deeper (“rainbow, rainbow, rainbow”-colored!) underbelly of the world.

I have two questions about teaching, a topic you invoke in Alternates in the opening poem. The February 2015 The Writer’s Chronicle roundtable feature on pedagogy asks, Who has time to read? First, how do you make time to read, especially readings that are generative to your own creative process? Second, how does teaching serve your creative work and are there specific activities that you use in the classroom that fuel your own writing?

This is an interesting question! For the first part, I honestly don’t have any kind of special system or anything for making time to read—it usually feels like I end up reading what I absolutely could not live without reading. For the book I’m working on right now, which is a non-fiction researched memoir about Super Mario Bros. 3, I read more than 50 books about video game history and theory during the fall semester. But that’s really ALL that I had time to read, so I’m looking forward to diving into all the poetry I’ve been stockpiling this spring—Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Olena Kalytiak Davis’ The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems, and Matthea Harvey’s If the Tabloids Are True What Are You. I read a really eclectic mixture of contemporary poetry, short fiction, novels, graphic novels, and historical material (usually I’m reading and re-reading alongside my Masterpieces of World Lit class, which covers everything from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Paradise Lost). I also like to read non-literary non-fiction, like quantum theory (for non-scientists, of course!) or cultural criticism (hence all the video game books). So I’m usually reading what I feel like I absolutely must read at that moment—either for research purposes, teaching prep, as language-fuel to feed new poems, or to keep up with the work of the poets I admire most. I read graphic novels when my brain feels too crammed with words and metaphor and I just want to SEE something that’s directly visually stunning.

To answer the second part of the question, teaching plays a big role in inspiring my creative work. I usually teach more than 100 students per semester, so that’s 100 individuals with different life experiences, different perspectives, and different ways of thinking that I get to speak with. Every time I teach a class or sit down to chat with a student during office hours, I’m learning something new and having my brain stimulated by the point of view they bring to the table. So it’s always both broadening and deepening my outlooks on the world. Teaching stimulates the mind and keeps you intellectually alert, which is so important for writing. It forces you to keep your habits of observation, critical thought, and questioning all fine-tuned every single day.

Here’s one specific example—two falls ago, in my Masterpieces of World Lit class, we were reading Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies. A student raised the question, “Why are all the examples of strong, powerful female heroes that Pizan gives us in this text fictional characters and not real women?” I went home that afternoon thinking about the question, and didn’t stop thinking about it. A year and a half later, I have a draft of a manuscript called “Mega-City Redux,” which is a remix of/sequel to Pizan’s work starring my favorite strong, powerful female heroes of our times–Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, and Dana Scully from the X-Files. There’s no doubt in my mind that this book would not have been written if I hadn’t been teaching that class.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? One chapbook I always go back to as an inspiration or model for my own work is Charles Jensen’s The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon. It’s a beautiful love story about a scientist in the 30’s who tries to find a way, through some spooky pseudoscience (no spoilers here!) to save his dying wife. It’s told through snippets of diary, interviews, and shredded documents, and it’s extremely imaginative and compelling–the characters are wonderful and it fits the chapbook form wonderfully.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? I want my chapbooks to feel unified in theme–the chapbook is a great form for projects, series, or sequences–and I want it to fully complete the work it wants to do while also experimenting with radical compression.

What’s next for you? I’ve got a couple of projects in the works–the novel-in-verse I mentioned called Mega-City Redux and the non-fiction Super Mario Brothers 3 under contract. I’m also working on a chapbook called “Epithalamia” full of love poems exploring the concept of marriages and weddings in our time. And I’m lucky enough to be working on a couple of collaborations with some really talented poets and friends, so that’s been a lot of fun!


Current chapbook reading list: I can’t wait to read Jeanine Deibel’s Spyre!


Number of chapbooks you own: Again, too many to count! Some of my favorites are A Conference of Birds by Christopher Martin, Backcountry by Sarah Marcus, and Jane & Paige or Sister Goose by Elizabeth Savage.


Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Again, too many to count! Most recently, I read Anne Carson’s The Albertine Workouts, which is beautiful.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. I have a deep commitment to the chapbook writing community. I serve as an editor of Gazing Grain Press, a feminist chapbook publisher. I founded the press in 2012 with poets M. Mack and Siwar Masannat because we saw the need for a press that would publish chapbooks of poetry and hybrid work by feminists of all genders and sexualities. GGP has published three chapbooks of innovative poetry/hybrid work, and this year, we are expanding by adding a prose contest, which will open in March. Our judges for this year’s contests are Natalie Diaz and Amber Sparks. I believe very strongly in giving back to the literary community in some way.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Gazing Grain promotes the work of our chapbook poets year-round by setting up AWP and Fall for the Book reading events, mailing out review copies of the books, and setting up online promotions such as interviews and guest blogging. We put a tremendous amount of work into making sure our authors’ chapbooks look exactly the way they want them to look (we started hand-binding books this year) and then we throw our full efforts into promoting the work once it’s out.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: HA!

Residence: Anchorage, AK

Job: I teach English at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Chapbook Bio: My chapbook Alternates was published by dancing girl press in the summer of 2014.

“Wanna hold hands and come along?”: The chapbook interview: Nicci Mechler on addiction

The chapbooks, lit mags, and zines that Porkbelly Press makes are gorgeous—beautiful cover art, lovely interior and exterior design, well-made bindings, and an overall press presentation that is smart. I love the way that Porkbelly Press, signs, adds art, and a stamp with a press logo the envelopes for the post. Given the vast area of chapbooks out there and the ways in which different presses produce them, why did you decide to create the chapbook press the way that you have?

Thank you, Madeline, for saying so, and for having us over for an interview. Porkbelly Press was founded to make artful books to feed the happy place nestled deep inside the brain of people with spirit, attitude and a sense of humor—magic helps too. We look for things that spark that little magpie urge to take it home and display it or keep it on hand to page through again. (Or to give it away to a friend, because it makes the pleasure center blush—be that trigger a gorgeous pastoral poem, epistolary rant, or a piece of lyric science.)

We read our submissions with care, accept only a few pieces or manuscripts each year, and produce limited and small editions. I format and arrange chaps into booklet format, print them, curate (or paint or print) cover imagery, use a bone folder to create nested signatures with sharp edges, sew, trim, and affix finishing touches (sometimes hand-cut title flags or press flags, or decorative end papers). The craft and care given to each book is the best way (for us) to show appreciation to the poet (or author) and to the reader.

We’re not the press that’s going to do 5,000 copies, but we are a press that will do our damnedest to make something striking, and to put it into the hands of the reader who needs it most.

If you like the covers, just imagine what’s hidden between the pages.

Writers and poets often talk about advocating for their work, promoting their work, and supporting the work of other writers by giving back, thereby creating a community where literary endeavors of small presses and the writers they publish is celebrated, discussed, and read. What strategies of advocacy and promotion do you think are most helpful?

Of all the methods we’ve tried so far, word of mouth and Twitter seem to work best for us. We use social media platforms to sling promos, excerpts, photos, and FB for process pictures and calls. We re-tweet, reblog, and generally crow a bit whenever we hear of something neat happening for/mentioning one of our poets/writers/artists. We also make mention of interesting articles and calls for submission from other folks. And there may be a few cat and dog photos on our pages, because… because.

We use bright colors to lure in the artsy types, enticing them with our covers into the world of micro fictions and sultry poetic verse. More than a few of our instagrams have been loved on by strangers. We’re not ashamed.

Ultimately it really is about the community, about supporting each other and helping friends to find the words to light up the important parts of their brains. Keeping the focus on why we love what we’ve selected is our approach. We’re passionate about language & so we say, this is why, and, what do you think? We do our best to open a dialogue and ask questions. We always ask for feedback from our readers. We seek out relationships with distros and brick & mortar shops, tracking down advocates with similar interest, and give them a sample.

It all comes back to passion and connection, no matter if the vehicle. Barring FREE PIZZA, we think handcrafted chapbooks are a pretty darn good lure.

(We don’t have free pizza.)

(Yet.)

Alternate answer to this question: Ray Bradbury said, “Find the author who can lead you through the dark.” That. That’s what we’re doing. Wanna hold hands and come along?

Porkbelly Press has released seven chapbooks in it’s first year—including Love Letter to Biology 250 by Chella Courington, The Eighth Phrase by LB Williams, Skeleton Keys by Laura Garrison, Vein of Stone by Sarah McCartt-Jackson, l’appel du vide by Christina Cook, Bodies in Water by P. Andrew Miller. Alex Stoli’s Into the Land of Nod is forthcoming in 2015. The press’s website notes, “There are 5-6 spots remaining in the 2015 season. Our reading period opens in January.” What are your hopes for 2015 and beyond?

We meant to take five chapbooks in our first season, and ended up struggling to narrow it down to fifteen, let alone the seven we eventually accepted & printed. There are so many poets and writers with luscious words to share, and it nearly drove us mad choosing (which is a blessing, thanks!). It’s a dialogue, of course, and it’s an honor to boost the signal for our creative.

There’s something brilliant in each of the books we chose, something arresting, something that said take me home and read me again and again. It’s our hope, moving forward, that we get to 1) print a first-timer every year, 2) say yes to at least five proposals per year, and 3) inspire a few people think the words: holy crap. And promptly revive/continue/take up a chapbook addiction. I suppose you could say we’d like to be someone’s gateway drug to a more open, hungry mind.

One day we might like to publish a few full length collections, and offer monetary compensation in addition to our payment in copies. We’d like to try some letterpress small editions. We’re working on some anthologies in collaboration with the staff of Sugared Water, and are open to other sorts of projects in collaboration with artisans. We’d love to put some poetry/micro fictions on art objects. AWP is on our tabling to-do list. One of these days, we’ll get around to mailing author copies zipped up in the belly of a handmade felt pigasus.

This all boils down to a desire to brighten and enrich the lives&mailboxes we touch. Life’s too short for anything less.

I know you have two chaps coming out—one that is a collaborative chap with three other lady-poets (in these cups) due out soon and another solo endeavor (Deep in Flesh), scheduled for some time in later 2015. Talk about your forthcoming chapbooks.

in these cups is a chapbook of poems (some written together, and some of our own in the same vein too) by poets Nicci Mechler, Hilda Weaver, Wendy Creekmore, and Kristin Koester. We write as Wild Soft, and have some work in mags like Stone Telling, Wild Quarterly, Room, and will soon have a few poems in Still: The Journal. Our work tends to be very much about place and experience, melding pastoral with magic realism, and the sassy, assertive feminine. Our ages span five decades, and we fall at various points along the sexual spectrum, and we grew up in different places, so it makes for some memorable retreat & poetry writing sessions—the bourbon helps. It’s really about exploration and collaboration in a fearless place. More often than not, we compose these poems in person, around the kitchen table, on retreat at retreat space managed by the Kentucky Foundation for Women.

Deep in Flesh is my chapbook of poetry, also forthcoming from dancing girl press (2015). Most of the poems are rooted in the body, often the damaged body—be it a broken wrist or what’s left carved into the flesh after birth or opening the ribcage. There seem to be a lot of body-pieces and bones, eating and sewing in these—damaging and pulling back together the metaphorical and literal flesh—desire and loss and desire again.

How do you define chapbook? A chapbook is a collection of works (short or micro), in any genre, of up to about four dozen pages worth of content. Most of the chapbooks that I own hover between 15 – 30 pages. The covers may or may not be paper—I can’t even say it has to be a book. I’ve been thinking about attempting small edition sculptural displays for chaps, but I’m still waiting for the right manuscript.

Though some folks think chaps are random samplings of work. I tend think chaps should be focused in some way, with the thread of place, voice, persona, subject, or image. (As soon as I give you a definition, I’ll read a really lovely chap that defies it, you know!)

What is inspiring you these days? Vintage sideshow photos & illos, fables, hauntings, and misty afternoons in the hills of Kentucky, and plant lore. If we’re talking books (aside from everything I’m reading in the slushpile for Porkbelly Press & Sugared Water), I’m currently reading Teahouse of the Almighty by Patricia Smith, one poem a day instead of blazing through them like I usually do. A friend just suggested Seam by Tarfia Faizullah, so that’s next.

How are you trying to get better as a poet? I read—a lot (everything). And I do a lot of thinking about poetry as a teacher as well as poet. I just found a 1992 copy of The Practice of Poetry, and I’m starting with the exercises by Deborah Digges and Rita Dove. I like to think this stuff helps me improve. I’m constantly trying to write a long poem, and fail at it every time. Every failure makes me a little better. I ask questions. It’s probably very annoying to my friends.

What makes a good chapbook? The same thing that makes a good poem or micro fiction or lyric essay—evocative language, command of craft, lines that seem to go together, pieces that talk to each other. A chapbook should feel like an investigation or way through. I like books that have a point of view, teach me something, deepen my understanding—poems or stories I wish I’d written.

What’s next for you? There’s an urban fantasy (novel) manuscript I’m working on—it’s a snarly beast, but we’re coming to terms. I’ve been toying with a couple of chapbook ideas, and am circulating a second collaborative manuscript called how wild & soft you are.

In terms of Porkbelly Press, the first half of this year will see:

Love Me Love My Belly: a body image zine (issue 2)

Sugared Water (lit mag, issue #003)

Emily (anthology of Dickinson inspired works)

Alex Stolis’ chapbook Into the Land of Nod

Words for Worlds, an anthology of speculative poems edited by P. Andrew Miller

& micro chapbooks: Midnight Blue (Vanessa Jimenez Gabb, poetry), Tiny House (Melanie Faith, poetry), Strangest Sea (Ariana Den Bleyker, prose poetry), Mouth of the Rat, (rob mclennen, poetry), and press yourself against a mirror (Janelle Adsit, poetry).

Number of chapbooks you own: 50+ chapbooks, but I sometimes give them away. They’re stored with my zines (hundreds). There can be a very fine line between chapbook and zine.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: I couldn’t begin to say how many I’ve read—most were in progress by poet-friends or grad students preparing them for submission to various small presses. I’m always delighted to find beautiful chaps, and mail order as many as I can. We don’t want to talk about what happened the last time I went to AWP.

In 2014, I read around 300 chapbook & micro chapbook manuscripts for Porkbelly Press. It’s such a gift to read brand new work—work that no one’s published yet. I love it when I get one and find out it’s a first manuscript and I’m thinking why doesn’t everyone know who you are? I imagine that’s how some people feel about really great shoes.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I buy chapbooks when I’m able, share calls for submission, sales, and articles about/by small presses, tweet or link when I read an interesting excerpt, and talk to my students about chaps when I’m teaching, ask everyone which book they last loved. If they won’t lend it to me, I see if I can find a remaindered library copy (love the stamps & stickers). I’ve written a few reviews, and might start posting them to the press blog, or soliciting other reviewers, but will first finish aforementioned novel.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Etsy paper sellers, local art supply stores, and Epson partake in the earnings from the press. That’s another way of saying everything goes back into the press (supplies, postage, promo materials, Duotrope & Submittable fees, etc.). I buy a chapbook or collection of poetry every time I get a big order.

Your chapbook wish: I’d love to read manuscripts rooted in culture, identity, language, and tradition—specific experience written in a way that drags me right into that space. I read two poems from Christina Cooke’s l’appel du vide and knew I was going to say yes, I want to publish this, yes. I want chapbooks that make me say yes before I’ve even gotten to the last page.

Chapbook Bio: Nicci Mechler (MA English & BFA Studio Art, Northern Kentucky University) splits her time between writing, bookbinding, and drawing girls with inky tattoos. Her work has appeared in such magazines as Arroyo Literary Review, The Pinch, Roanoke Review, Stone Telling, and Kestrel.

She edits the lit. mag. Sugared Water, and established Porkbelly Press in 2014 (small press, chapbooks & zines). She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with a cadre of rescue animals and delightful people specializing in troublemaking & joy. Nicci blogs at damnredshoes.wordpress.com.

 

the chapbook interview: David O’Connell on first and best readers

Dave O'Connell photo 2

The Writer’s Chronicle September 2014 issue features Debra Spark’s mediation on research and writing fiction to consider when research overwhelms a work and when research enhances the story the author is seeking to tell. She writes, “you always need to ask yourself what justifies the inclusion of researched material” (97). You chapbook A Better Way to Fall opens with an epigraph on mythology and features several poems that explore myth, as well others on contemporary culture. Talk about research and inspiration in your work.

Though I find research can be very helpful in the revision process, I almost never begin a poem by first reading about the subject material. Whenever I’ve tried to write a poem around a number of interesting tidbits I’ve come across, the language of the poem always seems to fall flat. If I don’t begin with the music of the language as my primary concern, I become too preoccupied with my attempts to work in all the great trivia I have in my notes.

The majority of poems in the chapbook (the non-myth poems) were inspired by my response to things going on in the news. The myth poems began while I was writing my MFA thesis and decided to try my hand at the dramatic monologue. Though I had reread a number of accounts of the myth by the time I wrote “Ariadne,” I just relied on what I remembered of the myth when I began “Icarus.” It wasn’t until later that I decided to juxtapose the two types of poems and began to note parallels between the myth and post 9/11 America.

With both types of poems, however, once early drafts were written, I found it helpful to double check facts (both mythic and historic). Some of what I learned found its way into the final drafts of the poems. For example, while revising “Etymology,” I read up on the Manhattan Project and discovered that Fermi built the first nuclear reactor under the stands of the unused football stadium at the University of Chicago. This found its way into the published draft.

When putting together the chapbook, the last step I took was to choose the Edith Hamilton quote. I thought the epigraph would serve both as a general note, of sorts, reminding readers of the plot of the myth, and also that it would help set the ground for the larger themes of the chapbook. I had read Hamilton’s Mythology in high school, which is why I went back to her book for an epigraph.

dave's book

I was recently listening to an older interview with Billy Collins on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell me in which he says that we are each born with 200 bad poems within us. How many bad poems were you born with and how many are still within you? How do you know what a poem is bad, good, or complete?

It may be true that everyone’s born with 200 bad poems, but I know I surpassed that estimate years ago, and hope to write many more before I’m done. Feeling free enough to write disastrous, embarrassing poems (while hoping that I’m discerning enough to keep them to myself) is the only way for me to get to the ones worth putting before a reader.

I recently began sending out a draft of my first full length manuscript. It contains forty-one poems. The earliest poem in the collection was written before the turn of the millennium.  So. . .that should give you some idea of my own estimate of my good/bad ratio.

I can’t really explain why I sense a poem, after a number of drafts, is done, let alone good. Though this might sound silly, I believe it involves more of a physical intuition than cognitive process. If I get a jolt of adrenaline when I read over a draft, I’ve learned to leave the poem alone.  If I still feel that way, more or less, after reading the poem a few months later, I’ll begin sending it out. It helps when my wife, my first and best reader, is enthusiastic about the poem as well.

Six_Portraits Julie Danho

When have you been most satisfied with your chapbook work? I was most satisfied when I first sent the chapbook to contests in the form it was published. I had previously conceived of a chapbook more of a brief “best of” collection than as an organic whole. I had sent out this earlier version to a few contests without any response. Once I began to see the chapbook as a collection that could easily be read in a single sitting, I realized that the myth poems, when interspersed among poems concerned with post-9/11 America, created interesting tensions that weren’t there in the earlier draft.

How do you define chapbook?  A short collection, usually less than 30 pages.

What makes a good chapbook? I’ve found that my favorite chapbooks are centered on a single theme and work as a cohesive whole.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? I recently finished both Jennifer Franklin’s “Persephone’s Ransom” and Tony Hoagland’s “Don’t Tell Anyone.” Both are fantastic.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? As I mentioned before, my wife, Julie Danho, author of the fantastic chapbook Six Portraits, is the first person I show my work. She, more than anyone, has shaped my chapbook. Kathleen Aguero’s work also influenced the way I put the chapbook together. Her chapbook Investigations: The Mystery of a Girl Sleuth taught me how a chapbook can benefit from the ways individual poems are ordered to create a unified manuscript.


How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet?
I think the best thing I can do is to keep reading as many chapbooks as I’m able.

Current chapbook reading list: I’m looking forward to reading Craig Morgan Teicher’s “Ambivalence and Other Conundrums.”

Number of chapbooks you own: Somewhere around 30.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Maybe 50.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Since most chapbooks can’t be found in the library system, I think the best thing anyone can do is put their favorite chapbooks into the hands of people who will appreciate them. I think chapbooks, because they are brief, can be more inviting to people who don’t usually read poetry.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Books.

Your chapbook wish: I hope chapbooks stay affordable. When chapbook prices rise too close to the cost of a full collection, I believe it threatens the viability of the form.

Job: Stay-at-home dad.

Chapbook Bio: After earning my M.F.A. from Ohio State University, I taught high school English for nearly a decade. My poems have been published in Columbia Poetry Review, North American Review, Poet Lore, and Rattle, among other journals. I’ve received two fellowships from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.

the chapbook interview: Michael Henson on class

I’ve just read your lovely, smart Overtime fiction chapbook Timothy Weatherstone and was particularly intrigued with your depictions of class. Ursula K. Le Guin recently gave her acceptance speech for the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Awards. In her speech she said, “Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.” I love the idea of resistance and change that begins in art. Can you talk about issues of class and making art? What work does such depictions of class struggles do to initiate change?

I think of a line attributed to Mother Jones, “I belong to a class that has been robbed, plundered, and exploited down the long centuries. And because I belong to that class, I have an instinct to help break the chains.” She was someone who remembered who she was. For the rest of us, it can be easy to forget. And this is where art comes in. There are forces who want to keep us isolated, deluded, and demoralized and those forces create all these delusional narratives to keep us distracted from who we are and what’s really going on. Class, race, gender: these are the trifecta of American oppression. So we get these narratives about gays or Mexicans or women or rednecks as the Other and once we get these narratives in our heads, then that Other becomes the source of our problems. But art, real art, in whatever form it emerges, can tell a story that captures the truth of our situation, the good, the bad, and the ugly of it, in a manner that can actually transform our sense of ourselves and allow us to understand that the Other is not really other. Intellectuals, academics, historians, statisticians, they all have their places in transforming our way of seeing the world, but what really grabs people and really makes for change is story, getting people to see that there is only one story. Paradoxically, the only way to do that is to tell a story so individualized and true that it rings like a bell.

But there are stories within the story and so often—for women, minorities, working people, for anyone on the margins—their part of the story is silenced or distorted. I remember reading Tillie Olsen’s Silences and thinking, I know that she is speaking mainly about women and how their voices are silenced, but this is how I have felt as well. So I think that the artist has to speak his or her own truth, but always to consider the truths of those who may be otherwise silenced.

In your novels Ransack and Tommy Perdue and in your chapbook Timothy Weatherstone, you’ve created portraits of lives intimately and tragically tied to addiction, and though that might signal the fall of the hero in another story—for certainly some of your heroes do fall—there is this sense of community that enacts a healing, a coming together, a uniting around a situation in an effort and movement towards care. I recently attended the Omaha Lit Fest and Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife, said during her talk on fiction and biography, “Every life is made up of hundreds of stories and I’m only picking one or two.” Talk about the stories you tell about your characters and in your answer, talk about inspiration, the writing process, and how stories unfold to you as you write them.

I have always been drawn, as a writer, to strong, working-class figures, and to figures from out of Appalachian culture. I suppose this comes from growing up so close to my grandparents who were transplants from the rural South and to a whole world of relatives and neighbors whose stories and whose language were so much stronger and more fascinating to me than those of the middle-class types my parents hoped I would become.

As it turned out, I’ve been able to inhabit both worlds and to do so comfortably. But in my writing I find these stories from working-class Appalachian life to be the most compelling. I use that word, “compelling,” consciously, because I feel compelled, commanded, as if an Old Testament angel has come to me and given me the word from God. I worked ten years on Ransack. You could read it in a morning, but it took me ten years and I don’t know how many drafts to write it, just because I couldn’t get that story off my mind and I couldn’t move on to anything else until I had that one down.

A story starts for me with a little germ of story that has to ripen over time. I’ve worked most of my career as a substance abuse counselor and a community organizer and through my work, I have been privileged to meet a number of compelling figures (there’s that word again) who by either their gift of language, or story-telling power, or their personal story, present me with that story-seed I cannot let go of until I have honored it in the way I feel it should be honored. I’ll carry around a notion for years sometimes before I can see how to make a story out of it. Once I can see the story begin to emerge, it becomes a slow, almost sedimentary process of accretion. I’m not a writer who pours out a lot of words onto a page and then has to cut it into shape. I tend to build a story up, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, draft after draft, until I have what I want. It’s all very slow and meticulous. But I think of my father –-he was a postal clerk, but his love was carpentry—and I think of my mother –she was a grade school teacher but she loved to sew and knit—and so I try to keep the joints precise and to keep the needles clicking.

I take a lot of inspiration from song, particularly Carter Family style songs, the Blues, Bluegrass music, the three-chords-and-the-truth John Prine-ish story-teller/songwriter types who can put a whole novel into three verses and a chorus. I aspire, in a story, to get the words to sing. It’s a different sort of music than song, more symphonic, but music is my aspiration. And once I hear that music ring all across the pages, then I know I have my story.

You are the author of three full-length collections of poetry, The Tao of Longing and The Body Geographic (Dos Madres Press, 2010), The True Story of the Resurrection (Wind Publication, 2014), and Crow Call (West End Press, 2006) as well as two poetry chapbooks The Dead Singing (Finishing Line Press, 2010) and the Tao of Longing (Dos Madres Press, 2005). You’ve talked about your impulse to write fiction. Talk about what inspires your poetry.

For years, I thought of myself as a fiction writer who wrote the occasional poem. I might write a poem in a year; some years, none at all.

But after my friend buddy gray was murdered in 1996, I had no other way to get out what was inside me. buddy (he preferred his name in lower case) was an activist for the poor and the homeless who had managed to get on the wrong side of some powerful people. The circumstances of his death will probably never be fully understood, but what got me was the suddenness of his death. One day, he was this powerful physical and moral presence and the next day he was gone. I literally could not speak about it. But I could write these poems, which eventually became the book, Crow Call.

I quickly discovered two things: First, I could say what was on my mind more directly than in fiction where. In fiction, I try to say and do only what the characters would say and do. But with these poems, I could speak as myself and I could range about over any topic I wanted. I wasn’t confined to a setting and a plot.

The second discovery was that I could share the poems much more quickly. Magazines print them more often since they take up less space. And I could go to an open mike reading and, in five minutes, I’ve read three poems. I have stories that have been rejected over twenty times, so nobody ever sees them. But the poems go more readily out into the world, either in print or by voice.

I have this notion that the mission of the poem is to move the soul, either the soul of the poet or that of the reader, from the world of chatter, spite, and trivia to a space that is closer to the center of truth and solemnity. I’m writing a book on the topic which I hope to finish soon, but that’s the essence of it. If I get a notion that begins to take me there, to that place where I feel I’m in touch with some little corner of ultimate reality, then I write that poem.

I don’t have a lot of use for those intellectual exercises which I refuse to call poems because they’re really just essays that they’ve broken up into short lines so that they look like poems. They might move the mind, but for me, the function of the poem, the true poem, is to move the soul.

I also have this notion that the emotional core of all true poems is grief, but then, that might just be the emotional core of everything.

Your book The Way the World Is: The Maggie Boylan Stories just won the 2014 Brighthorse Prize in Short Fiction from Brighthorse Books. Can you talk about it?  When do you anticipate its release? When and where can we hear you read next?

The book should be out any day now. I’m very honored to have been selected. Brighthorse is a project of the authors Jonis Agee and Brent Spencer who decided to initiate their press by way of a competition. There were also prizes in the novel and poetry which were won by Elizabeth Oness and Rick Christman. I’m looking forward to seeing those books as well. The Way the World Is is a collection of ten linked stories that cover nine months in the life of an OxyContin addict in a rural Appalachian county. They can be read as stand-alone stories, but together, they tell a longer story of a community finding a shaky spiritual center. I wrote the book out of my frustration and dismay over seeing the many individuals and families, already hard-hit, who suffered from this corporate-created epidemic. I have some readings scheduled in local colleges here in the Cincinnati area and at the Appalachian Studies Conference, but the one I’m most excited about is at Shawnee State University, which is in Scioto County, the epicenter for opiate addiction in Ohio.

How are you trying to get better as a poet and a writer? I think any writer who understands the art is always exploring, always searching out ways to get at that thing that’s inside you that wants to get out. I find I have to re-invent the process each time I start a new project. I have to re-birth myself over and over again.

What makes a good chapbook? I think we have to remember that just because a chapbook is small, that doesn’t have to mean it’s minor. Think of Blake. His Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are essentially chapbooks that have gotten accepted into the canon. True story: one of my daughters used to work for the Cincinnati Art Museum and she told me they have a stash of original Blake prints in their collection. Apparently, what we see on the walls of a museum is just a part of what they actually have. So she set me up an appointment. They’re supposed to have a docent sitting over you when you look at them, but because I was Liv’s dad, they left me alone with this folder and a set of wooden tongs. I behaved myself until I found they had two copies of Innocence and one of Experience. These chapbooks were printed and bound by Blake himself and colored by Blake and his wife. I thought, this is a thing actually touched by William Blake. I couldn’t resist. I put down the tongs, picked up Songs of Experience, read the poem, “London,” to myself, and felt this surge of spiritual power. They’re tiny little books, by the way. You could easily fit one in a pocket. Anyway, Blake didn’t think his chapbooks were minor works. We shouldn’t either.

What’s next for you? I’m working on a book of essays tentatively titled, The Mission of the Poem, in which I explore issues of poetic purpose. I’m on the downhill side of it and hope to finish it within the next few months. After that, I have a novel and a book of essays on poverty and addiction. I’ve spent most of my life alternating between work as a community organizer and a drug and alcohol counselor and I have a few things to get off my chest. And I always have some sort of poem or song cooking either on the front burner or the back burner.

Residence: I live in an odd part of Cincinnati that is urban on the street side but forested on the back.

Job: retired, thank God. I’m now a full-time writer and musician subsidized by the Social Security Administration.

 

 

collaborative artist interview: Todd Ford on inspiration

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 and seeing all the art. It was nice to see the art and writing together. You’ve participated in other Art & Words Shows, too. What has this collaborative experience been like for you?

This is the second year that I have been part of the Art and Words Show. The only reason I decided to participate last year was because of the challenging nature that forced me out of my comfort zone. I enjoyed it so much that when I was invited again, I  jumped on the opportunity. As an artist, I would say that I am not subject matter driven but certainly gravitate towards compositions and objects that hold visual appeal to me and fit with my aesthetic. The Art and Words show collaboration allowed, or forced, me to work in a different way. I used my sketchbook to write ideas down. I know this is not uncommon, but it is for me. Each idea seemed better than the previous, but many seemed like a good avenue to explore. When I typically start a new painting, I am 100% positive on every aspect of the future piece and my ability to realize it. Not so much on this Art and Words painting. Before I started sketching the composition on the canvas, I felt the urge to sneak up on the easel. A completely irrational approach but I wasn’t sure if the Art Gods would allow me ruin a perfectly good blank canvas with so much doubt in what I had decided to create. That point was the hardest part for me, right before I made the first mark on the canvas. Coming up with the ideas and narrowing down was challenging too, but committing to the first mark was tough. After I sketched it out and started painting though, all was fine.

A thoroughly enjoyable painting to work on and I was pleased with the outcome too. After finishing the painting, I started thinking about how it would be received by you. I knew I liked it, but I also knew that you had probably envisioned very different images when you wrote Kissing Death. I chose to create an interpretation of your piece, and not a literal “illustration”.  To me, that is exciting. I am not a writer, but  I have to believe that a blank canvas and a blank page hold the same possibilities. There is no right or wrong, but degrees of success. A very subjective notion, but it keeps the creative fire stoked.

Todd, I adore the painting you made. It’s so fresh and interesting. Talking to you at the Art & Words show and listening to you explain your inspiration and process was fascinating. I like the way you play with light, shadows, and the texture of glass. I thought the whole process was exciting too, especially the thrill of getting to the show, doing the reading, seeing the entire exhibition, and talking with fellow artists and writers, some from the Texas, and others from across the country. You’re currently working in Texas. What’s that like? How does it influence your art?

This will be a very boring response. Texas is a great state to live in and I really like it here. However, I would say that it does not influence my art at all.

Who were the artists you admired when you first started making art?

I was one of those kids who never lost the desire to make marks. I enjoyed art and took art classes every year at school from 6th grade until I graduated high school.  During this time, there really was not one artist or group of artists who influenced me. It was all exciting and new, and I loved it all. When I started college studio and art history classes, things changed. I quickly discovered what I was exposed to in high school art only scratched the surface. I had always been able to render adequately, but it wasn’t until I discovered Photorealism that I felt a connection. I would say that Richard Estes and Ralph Goings were the two main artists who had the first big impact on me.

 

How do you start a new series—with a theme, an image, a question or with a material, a technique, a color? Or something else?

Good question. I consider composition to be the driving force in my art. The subject matter is not nearly as important to me as how it is presented. Sometimes, this type of visual exploration leads to a series. I do have a fascination with static and dynamic relationships in my pieces too. A vast majority of my paintings include some variation of that.

Were you ever scared to experiment in art?

No, not really. Experimentation is what led to my current style of painting. I would say that I probably experiment less these days than in the past. My limited time in the studio is dedicated to producing, so not much time to experiment.

 

What is inspiring you these days?

It may be somewhat narrow minded to say this, but I am sort of creating art in a bubble. I don’t hang out with other artists, regularly attend openings at galleries, or even follow artists. I do enjoy some Pop Surrealism, but that influence rarely inspires my actual work. Although on occasion, when the subject matter is “correct”, you might see a nod to Mark Ryden.

 

How are you trying to get better as an artist?
Every time I place a new canvas on my easel, I feel like I have an opportunity to grow. It is a literal clean slate each time, and I do not take that lightly. I strive to improve my ability to compose, see color, model, and create a painting better than the one before.

Number of art pieces you own: other than my work, about 5

Number of collaborative art pieces you own: none

Number of art pieces you admire: Too many to count.

Ways you promote and serve other artists: Links to other artists websites/blogs listed on my blog.

Ways you help initiate new collaborations: The only collaborations I have been involved with are the Art and Words show in Fort Worth (2013 and 2014). These were both very positive and challenging experiences. As far as collaborating with another visual artist, I am indifferent.

Where you spend your art earnings: Some to perpetuate the art making, some blown on indulgences, most in a saving account.

Your collaborating artist wish: No real desire, but Jackson Pollock if I had to choose.

Residence: Krum, TX

Job: High School Art Teacher and Artist

Education: B.A. Art Ed

Bio Note: I paint in a style that is similar to, but certainly not true photorealism. I am much more interested in creating work that is a synthesis of my own vision and sensibilities without the strict confinements of photorealism. I want to show a familiar object in an unfamiliar way, as something that has importance. I want the viewer to be engaged. That is my goal with every painting I create. More information available:  http://fordsart.blogspot.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/pages/Todd-Ford/241748422539196?sk=wall

 

the chapbook interview: Sarah A. Chavez on craft, revision, the job market, and chapbook advocacy

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The Writer’s Chronicle September 2014 issue features Debra Spark’s mediation on research and writing. In her essay she quotes Lorrie Moore who said, “For the writer, the facts of life are like ingredients in a kitchen cupboard…the cake you make is the fiction. That’s how life and art are related” (87). Talk about your work as a poet, your poems in All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), and your sense of making art from life.

I find this quotation fascinating. I love cake, and I love fiction and poetry. To think of these as being the same makes a lot of sense, even though it never occurred to me before. Cake is made of so many things that on their own amount to little use (flour, baking powder, vanilla extract) but together they create this nourishing, soul-warming, textured experience, much like poetry. What is a word on its own? A letter? A comma? Together though they make meaning, and like the cake, can be simultaneously sweet and nurturing, both comforting and maybe a little bad for you.

When I’ve been asked if the relationship in the chapbook is “true,” if there was a real Carole and if am I the speaker in the poems, I have a hard time giving anything but a convoluted answer. Whether I say yes or no, both are true and both are false. Poems cannot accurately represent the people in our lives or the situations we experience. We are, in essence, forced to pick and choose the ingredients that help us tell whatever particular story we need to tell at that moment.  The first “Dear Carole” poem came to me while working on exercises for a poetry forms class during my PhD program. I was having a hard time deciding on which form to use and a hard time deciding what to write about; so I went for a walk and began to ask myself questions. I realized that half the time I ask these kinds of questions, or narrate my activities (yes, I can be caught narrating my activities, sometimes in song – if I was a better singer, I’d be great in a musical!), I rarely feel as if I’m talking to myself. I’m not always talking to the same person, but I do often go back to those people I have lost. It feels as if they know my problems all the way around, or conversely that they don’t know anything about my life, which makes me wonder if I would seem like a stranger to them.

After the first “Dear Carole” poem was written, what continued to fuel these poems were feelings of loneliness during my PhD program. I have made wonderful friends there that I am still in close contact with and whom I love, but I often felt like the me in this program, the me in this lovely, low-crime Midwestern town, the mean in such a privileged position that I could go walk around a lush and tree-thick park whenever I didn’t know what to write was notreallyme, but an alternate version of myself. A cleaned-up, gentrified version. A lie self, maybe. I knew what was really inside, and it wasn’t what I showed those people who I wanted to respect me, to take me seriously.

So the poems in this chapbook are culled ingredients from the different versions of love I’ve received and expressed in the past, the space for self-reflection I’m afforded now, from the relationships I mourn. They are my attempt to negotiate feeling lost while in the middle of stability, to feel anchored to memory in a way that honors it without losing the present.

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We both recently attended the keynote talk by Barbara Shoup at the Indiana Writers’ Consortium Conference and Bookfair. During her talk, an audience member asked Barbara how she knew when her novel was finished. She quoted Toni Morrison by saying, “All art is knowing when to stop.” Talk about knowing when a poem is finished, about knowing when a chapbook is done.

Barbara Shoup’s keynote resonated for me particularly when she spoke on missteps and revision. She shared with the audience that she had to write her way into a book. She may have a clear idea regarding plot, but it is often necessary for her to experiment then with point of view, character relationships, etc. I feel that is rather representative of my own process regarding the writing of a poem.

I often begin with an image or a feeling and that becomes either a starting or ending point for the writing. Part of my problem with writing is that I rarely know when a poem has ended. My first “ending” usually comes because I run out of fuel (so to speak) and don’t know what comes next. Most of the time, nothing needs to “come next” and in fact, a poem’s real ending is somewhere half a dozen or so lines before my earlier draft’s last line. Of course ending a poem does not mean a poem is finished. Unfortunately for me, I am a slow writer. More accurately, I may write a lot quickly or in a short period of time, but then need a long time for revision. I have learned that in my writing process, I often become attached to the idea I think the poem was going to be, but then need to put it away for a week or so before returning to it. If when I return there is a coherent/cohesive feeling invoked by reading it, I know it’s close to being done. I think of my poems as slivers of an emotional experience expressed through narrative. Even if the emotions are complicated, I want to make sure that the language is precise, and there is nothing extraneous, no images or words that aren’t working toward getting the reader to the end of the poem. Everything must have a purpose.

An integral part of my knowing when a poem is finished is sharing it with a fellow poet and then someone who is not a poet. Often the fellow poet can talk with me about the craft side of the poem and whether or not the devices used are working toward what I wanted to communicate. Then listening to feedback from the reader who is not a poet helps me gauge the poem’s overall success. My main goal with writing is to communicate stories or experiences that represent peoples or situations main stream culture often ignores or presents in shallow, reductive ways.  If the non-poet reader doesn’t get (at least partly) what I am trying to communicate, the poem definitely isn’t finished. I guess in this sense, I rely rather heavily on community for knowing when a poem is done. The writing of the poem is solitary and very internally driven, but the finished product is dependent on a community of readers. This isn’t necessarily because I think I don’t know how to finish a poem, but rather that I want an audience bigger than myself. I want as wide an audience as possible. If I were just writing for myself or for people who were just like me, I think my experience writing would be much easier. But I personally do not see the value in such exclusivity.

As for knowing when a chapbook is done, I try to look for the arc in a larger narrative. The chapbooks that appeal to me most are those that have strong individual poems, but together present a larger narrative. For All Day, Talking, I wanted each letter-poem on its own to further develop the relationship between the speaker and Carole. As a whole though, the letters work together to illustrate grief and the speaker’s attempts to negotiate living with that loss. When I wrote “Dear Carole, I wake up like this now” (which was originally titled “All Day, Talking”), I knew it would be the last poem in the chapbook. The first poem worked to introduce the relationship and the situation between the speaker and Carole, and I wanted the last one to highlight the most important aspect of their relationship, or at least ultimately how the speaker feels about Carole. After I had those two poems in place, it was about filling the spaces in between. When working on a chapbook, I usually try to amass a small store of poems, see how they speak to each other, and then let them show me what the larger, more comprehensive narrative is.  Once that story feels full, the chapbook is most likely done.

 cover pic from DGP page

I recently attended the Omaha Lit Fest and Karen Shoemaker said during her panel presentation, “Be willing to be an advocate for your own work.” Writers often talk about promotion and book sales, but not advocacy. Some argue that chapbooks are not viewed with the same prestige among some circles as a full-length book, books from university presses, or books that win prizes, awards, and national contests. Do chapbooks need advocacy? Do poetry collections from small presses need advocate work? How are you an advocate for the chapbook work you’re doing?

This question is, and was this past year, so salient for me. I was in the process of graduating and was on the academic job market (a phrase I can only say with a minimum of a quarter of an eye roll – I mean, how much more like a product could we make ourselves sound?) and I was getting advice and warnings from every which way, and specifically a lot of advice about what kind of publications I would need to be a desirable candidate. At that point my chapbook had been accepted by dgp and had a tentative release date, so when asked about whether I had a book or not (this is what makes or breaks your success for many creative writing academic jobs), I would tell people about my chapbook. Sometimes this was met with interest and other times with confusion, like, “wait, I just asked if you had a book, not a chapbook.” And while I understand there is a difference between a full-length poetry collection and the significantly shorter chapbook, it appears that as an industry academics is saying that quantity always trumps quality, and that quality can only be judged by those presses who exclusively publish full-length collections. This is an issue with fiction as well; many fiction writers must contend with whether it is enough to have a collection of short stories (or a chapbook of stories, as is becoming more common) or does one need to publish a novel. This bias not only effects academic environments, but also literally what texts are available to the public at large.

Because of the mixed reactions I encountered about the legitimacy of the chapbook as something that “counts” on one’s CV, I would most certainly say that the chapbook as a legitimate form needs advocacy. It is no coincidence that many presses that publish chapbooks have feminist mission statements or actively seek the work of writers of color and queer writers. The chapbook form and independent presses are addressing the dire need for more diversity within literary publishing. Each year VIDA exposes the disturbing statistics regarding the continued imbalance of male to female writers being published in the “top” literary journals and magazines. I can’t imagine that the diversity of race/ethnicity fairs any better. If as readers we want to have access to different voices, we must support the small presses and alternative publication models, such as the chapbook. It is important for readers to have the possibility of different narrative structures (and narratives). Frankly, the truth of the matter is that many of the national awards and university presses have established identities, established relationships with certain regions or economic environments, which can translate into a particular type of writer being published. I am not implying that these established relationships are purposeful necessarily, but rather that when something has been functioning in one way for fifty or a hundred years, it is difficult to look outside that aesthetic (both in writer and writing). Like the debates regarding the literary canon in educational institutions, it is important to ask ourselves, who are the gatekeepers, and what are we being kept from?

At this point, the advocacy I’m doing for my chapbook work is to get the word out as much as possible, which currently that means doing readings, interviews, writing book reviews of other chapbooks and small press books, as well as teaching chapbooks and small press collections in the university creative writing and literature classes I teach. Next semester I am privileged to be teaching two sections of an introduction to poetry literature course and an intro to creative writing class. These are students who have a very limited idea regarding where “good” (read validated) literature comes from, and I see this as a perfect opportunity to introduce them to alternative texts and writers. The current overwhelming popularity of shorter mediums (Twitter, Facebook status updates, journals like Brevity, etc.) seem to make this historical moment the perfect time for the chapbook to really assert itself and the potential it holds.

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How do you define chapbook? A chapbook is contained and complete. The poems work on their own, but tell a more complicated/nuanced story together. Also, I think the industry consensus regarding length is somewhere between 16 – 40 pages, so you know, like a largish snack: something small enough to eat on the train, but substantially filling.

What is inspiring you these days? Seeing the successes of writers that I admire. It is immensely gratifying to see writers who are hard workers, whose work I think is amazing, have the successes (large and small) they so rightly deserve. It fills me with hope and excitement for the future landscape of contemporary poetry.

How are you trying to get better as a poet? By writing of course, but equally important, reading. Reading and copying lines from poems that stand out to me, then free writing on what about the line makes it stand out, whether it’s an idea presented, the musicality, the word play, etc. I want to feel the line, but then I want to understand how it functions.

What’s next for you? Well, I don’t want to say too much about this because my idea isn’t fully formed, but I’ve been doing some writing about turtles. I’ve always loved the sort of practical beauty of their shells and tough skin, the deliberate way they move. They are very important to indigenous mythologies of the Americas and I’ve been doing some reading on that. There’s a simplicity in the physical body of the turtle, as well as the structure of mythological origin stories and oral tradition that I’m feeling drawn to.

Talulah with chapbooks

Number of chapbooks you own: More than I remember! I don’t know, thirty-five maybe? Enough that they required their own box(es) when my partner and I moved.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Less than I want. I’ve read most of the ones I own, and certainly peruse chapbooks at indie book stores or book fair tables at AWP. Do those count?

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Other than reading and purchasing other poets’ chapbooks, I’m excited to be able to assign them to my poetry lit and creative writing classes. That not only presents the form in an institutionally validated environment, but it also shows young readers and writers the possibility of the chapbook and hopefully encourages them to want to read more and/or write their own.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Ha! Well, at this point, with my modest earnings, I’m mostly reinvesting, as it were, by buying other chapbooks and paying for cups of coffee at the coffee shop where I like to write in the late mornings on non-school days. If I am (p)lucky enough to make more, I want to use it to fund a DIY chapbook tour.

Your chapbook wish: Is this a wish for my own chapbook or for chapbooks as an art form? Though I guess my wish for both is the same: more visibility.

Residence: Huntington, WV.

Job: Visiting assistant professor at Marshall University where I teach literature, creative writing, and composition.

Chapbook education: My most influential chapbook education came from the wonderful poet Grace Bauer at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. In her forms poetry workshop we were asked to assemble a chapbook for the final project. That’s what really got me thinking more about seriously about chapbook structure and its many options.

Chapbook Bio: Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of the chapbook, All Day, Talking published by Dancing Girl Press (2014). She holds a PhD in English with a focus in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry ReviewSo to Speak: Feminist Journal of Language and Art, and Acentos Reciew, among others. Her manuscript, This, Like So Much, was an Honorable Mention for the 2013 Quercus Review Press Poetry Book Contest. A selection from her chapbook manuscript All Day, Talking won the Susan Atefat Peckham Fellowship in 2013. She is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop. www.sarahachavez.com
pic with glass from July 2014 (1)

the chapbook interview: Meg Eden on inviting the reader in


We both recently attended the Indiana Writers Consortium Conference and Book Fair. I was able to catch the last of Kate Collin’s talk on dialogue. One question during the Q&A bought Kate to discuss the hook at the beginning of the novel, the necessity to get the reader (or acquisitions editor) to turn the first page and then the second and then the third. She also noted that the job of the first three chapters of a novel is to create enough tension and enough drama, to give the reader enough curiosity to finish the book. What I admire about your poems in Rotary Phones and Facebook (Dancing Girl Press, 2012) is how you hook the reader into finishing each poem with opening lines and images that compel one to finish the poem to its last word. Talk about craft and shaping poems. Talk about invite a reader in.

Thank you so much—I’m so happy to hear that the poems were so engaging. I not only write poetry, but also novels, so what Kate said is exactly what I strive for—cutting to the good stuff and keeping the language fresh, the action enticing, to make the reader (but before that, the editor) want to keep going and going. I think the technique of fiction also applies to poetry—I’m not sure if I should argue that it’s easier or harder in poetry though. Poetry has less space, so every word has to be precise and count. A mentor of mine recently said that as poets, we can’t afford mediocre words or ideas. Everything has to be justified and necessary. Economical, you could say. With prose, you have more real estate, but with that, there’s also an expectation from the reader (at least with mainstream presses) for lots of plot and action. I suck at this. So in poetry, I feel like I probably succeed at this more because I can keep things engaging with bizarre images and insights, but don’t feel like I have to be forced into some notion of plot. So yes, my poems are crafted to only maintain the images and ideas that contribute to the larger whole of the poem—I guess you could say that’s the poem’s equivalent of the narrative plot skeleton of a novel—and through these images and ideas, I can build up to a realization. If there are images that are interesting but don’t contribute as well, or are less relevant, I stow them away for another poem. I hope that sort of answers your question.

Maybe it’s a little different to talk about what invites a reader in. I sort of talked about this with the novel industry. Editors are obsessed with plot. I think this is stupid, because there’s much more to life than plot, and what typically engages me is an interesting character. Everyone is drawn in by something different, but what I’d propose that some general things that invite a reader in are:

  1. accessible language
  2. Incongruent/bizarre images
  3. Some sort of personal connection
  4. Some sort of aha! Moment (for me, this is usually in the form of a realization from the speaker in the poem)

The poems in Rotary Phones and Facebook were sort of thrown together as a hodge podge to be honest—I loved Dancing Girl Press and wanted to submit, so I went through my “Woman Poems” folder (yes, I literally had a folder that was called “woman poems”) and picked some stuff that I thought was strong. I do not advise this sort of strategy for a submission, but what’s so interesting is that these actually came together as a cohesive narrative. I think it worked because the poems were so honest—I should probably explain what I meant by “woman poems” since that can be easily misinterpreted… These were the poems where I explored my female identity and dove into female experiences that are typically verboten to talk about publicly, and it was the first time I was really exploring vocalizing those ideas from my experience. This was in college when I started writing these poems, so I think what tied these poems together, and what I think might make them engaging, is that when I was writing them, they were all incredibly honest about my experiences and there was a sort of freedom in that. When I find poems that deal so bluntly with experiences, both good and bad, I find that very inviting as a reader.

The Writer’s Chronicle September 2014 issue features Debra Spark’s mediation on research and writing fiction. She writes, “Once an idea has arrived, no matter how, the challenge is to embody the material authentically. This is indeed the challenge even if the inspiration for a novel comes from a more personal place” (91) and “this essay is my way of thinking about the rewards and dangers of purposeful research, not the general research that I suspect we all do merely by being curious about the world, but the book learning, the interviewing, the immersion journalism, the purposeful trip-taking and even the endless Googling that can be part of the writing process” (90). Can you talk about your research process in writing a chapbook?

Research process…I think it really depends on what the story needs. My biggest research influencers are photos, places, and google searches. Google searches for things less intimately familiar to me. My chapbooks are usually very focused in theme—so like for The Girl Who Came Back, the research involved going to what remains of Enchanted Forest, talking to my mother, and lots of googling of images. Images are a huge inspiration for my poetry. For something more intimate like Your Son, the research I guess you could say was just living with my parents, and recalling that experience.

I recently attended the Omaha Lit Fest’s panel on Mixtapes and Jazz Standards: Exploring the past through music. In talking about her use of music and the era of the 1980s in her book Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell said, “It’s all about trusting the reader.” I was particularly fascinating by your chapbook Your Son and the tension you create in the father-daughter relationship, a topic that evokes a series of questions on gender norms and expectations that would resonate with readers without having to offer readers a complicated backstory. Talk about trusting your readers. How do decide what to tell them and what to assume they’ll likely know or understand without being told?

Thanks, Madeline. I’m encouraged that you say this, because I often feel like I’ve grappled with trusting my reader.  I think for Your Son, that father-daughter tensions is something many people can relate to. But I’m not sure this is something I really actively thought about. I guess trusting your reader is a sub-conscious act—if you think too hard about it, it’s probably not trust. When we write not thinking about audience, but just relaying the experience in the terms of the experience, that usually translates over effectively. I think where I struggle with the last question you ask, knowing what to tell and what they’ll assume, is more in my recent work, where I am inspired significantly by biblical archetypes. Using something like that, it gets trickier for what people will know/not know coming into the poem. But the father-daughter experience, so many people come in with that experience already, which makes it much easier.

Beyond your chapbook from Dancing Girl Press, you are the author of two addition chapbooks, The Girl Who Came Back (Red Bird Chapbooks) and Your Son (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award). You have a forthcoming chapbook as well. What draws you to write in the chapbook genre?

I want to get a full-length manuscript out, but chapbooks are much more self-contained, so much easier. In a chapbook, you can have a much smaller idea, and wrap everything up so neatly.  In a full-length manuscript, the space requires you to be more complex. There’s much more investment on the page.

How do you define chapbook? A series of poems (~20-30pg) effectively working together on one central theme.

What is inspiring you these days? The Bible—particularly Job and Genesis (namely the Rachel/Leah story)

How are you trying to get better as a poet? Meeting lots of people. Learning from their work and experiences. Reading a lot. I have more time right now, so I’m trying to read as much as I can.

What makes a good chapbook? When every single poem is up to par, and there’s not those few weak “throw in” poems making you wonder, how the heck did they get in there?

What’s next for you? I’m working on a few projects right now. I have a chapbook manuscript “Living with Outsiders” that I’m shopping around, and I’m really trying to strengthen some full-length manuscripts, namely one that’s currently called “Things Girls Don’t Talk About”, which are largely autobiographical poems about those socially unacceptable things to talk about if you’re a woman, beginning with periods.

Your chapbook credo: Write, write, write!

Number of chapbooks you own:
maybe 20?

Number of chapbooks you’ve read:
40 or so? Not sure

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets
: Through my facebook page Meg Eden Writes Poems. I love giving a shout out to poets and their chapbooks that I love. If you’re a chapbook poet and would like to share what you’re doing, let me know! I love meeting chapbook poets.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: more chapbooks!

Your chapbook wish: That they would be accessible in mainstream bookstores, and that the general public was more aware of them

Residence: Just on the cusp of Washington DC

Job: Educator

Chapbook education: Trial and error

Chapbook Bio: Your Son (NFSPS), Rotary Phones and Facebook (Dancing Girl Press), The Girl Who Came Back (Red Bird Chapbooks), (forthcoming) A Week With Beijing (NEON)