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: and


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


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.


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.


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.
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)

“sometimes the title comes first”: the chapbook interview with Amorak Huey

Let’s begin with your (poetic) origin story.

Start with family. I am fortunate enough to come from a family of readers, writers, storytellers. One of those families with bookshelves in every room. My parents read and read to my brother and me, read us more books than I can remember: the ones that stand out in my memory are Treasure Island, Where the Red Fern Grows, To Kill a Mockingbird. Besides Mother Goose, the only poetry book I specifically remember being around was my father’s collected poems of Theodore Roethke. One year we went to a Halloween party where everyone was to recite a poem for the occasion; I memorized Roethke’s “The Bat.”

Place. We moved from Michigan to Alabama the year I was turning four. I grew up in a tiny ramshackle house three miles outside a small town twenty miles outside Birmingham, Alabama. The rhythms and music and weather of the South remain inside me. But I was always acutely aware that I’d moved there from somewhere else. I’ve spent my life feeling like an outsider, like everyone else has a connection that I don’t. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to think that everyone feels this way, that this is just life. I’m guessing my poems are my attempt to come to terms with this sense of disconnection. But that’s just a guess.

Writing. I thought I was going to be a novelist. I still might be someday. I was an English major. I started grad school in fiction writing. I quit and worked in newspapers for more than a decade. I lived in Florida and Kentucky, then serendipitously Michigan again. I did an MFA in poetry, commuting to Kalamazoo for classes, coursework and thesis spread over several years while also working for the sports desk of the newspaper in Grand Rapids. Again, just guessing, but I think my poems are restless. Unsettled. Acutely aware of their own temporariness. Not just my poems; all poems. All art? What else is important enough to create art about?

Now. I teach, I write, I read. At my job, at home, I am surrounded by people who value words. I am reading Ender’s Game to my kids, wondering if this will be the book they remember.

Titles of chapbooks and titles of poems can be so tricky to get right, but offer such an opportunity for the poet. I love the poem titles in your forthcoming chapbook The Insomniac Circus (Hyacinth Girl Press). Reading the table of contents made me laugh with delight. Perhaps pointing to some writers and their work with titles that work, can you talk about your titling process?

This whole chapbook came about because of the title “The Sword Swallower Wonders What’s the Point.” The title led to that poem, and I had so much fun that I wrote “The Tight Rope Walker Gets High” immediately afterward, and the project quickly took on a life of its own. I feel sheepish admitting that sometimes the title comes first, like I’m cheating somehow. Am I the only one who feels this way? Yes, sometimes I write the poem first and then flail about looking for a title until I settle on (or settle for) something. But sometimes, as in this project, the titles come first and lend shape to their poems from the very beginning. The title is the idea, the unifying force, the narrative – then within the poem, I’m free to play with language, to fight against the title or work with it,  to complement and contrast, to confound or fulfill the expectations established in the title. In this case, I was going for punny titles, while the poems themselves are darker, more somber. At the risk of over-explicating my own work, I was hoping this contrast would say something about the circus life itself: glitz and show on the surface while the hours outside the spotlight are much more difficult.

I am drawn to long titles both as a reader and as a writer. I suspect this stems from my previous life and all those thousands of headlines I wrote as a newspaper copy editor. There’s an art to headline writing. You have a finite space, three or five or nine words, whatever the page designer’s assigned, and you have to capture the essence of an entire story, the most newsworthy heart of the piece – and you also have to be clever or creative enough to grab the readers’ attention. This is something I miss about real newspapers that is not replicated online, where the headlines even in allegedly respectable media outlets are more likely to be “25 Things You Will NOT BELIEVE About Fuzzy Kittens.”

Poets whose titles I greatly admire include Catie Rosemurgy (for example, “Miss Peach Returns to High School to Retake Driver’s Ed”); Karynna McGlynn, whose debut collection was called, brilliantly, I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl; Collier Nogues (example, “In My Father’s Father’s Airstream Trailer”); and Timothy Donnelly, whose Cloud Corporation is full of gems like “The Malady That Took the Place of Thinking” and “Partial Inventory of Airborne Debris.”

I adore your poems. There’s a loneliness so exquisitely drawn in this chap. The couples in many of the poems add to the pace, the space, the way those of us who are outsiders—like the circus freak—feel. Why this chapbook right now in your life?

Thank for your kind words. It pleases me to no end that you like the poems. This pleasure fits my answer here, because human connection is a fundamental purpose of art. We seek to understand ourselves and each other by reading, by viewing, by listening, by creating. I write because I want to discover something about myself and the world around me; I write because I hope someone will read my words and recognize something about themselves. This chapbook is about masks, makeup, costumes, performance. The circus. The show we are all putting on for each other every day. We are all lonely.

I’m being melodramatic. I am not actually a lonely person. I have a happy marriage and two active, eager, wonderful kids. I have dear friends and supportive, inspiring colleagues. My life is great, which I say in all sincerity. Maybe, then, that’s why this chapbook right now – because my life is in a good place, I feel safe to explore what the comedian Louis CK calls the “forever empty” we all have inside us but don’t like to acknowledge.


What is inspiring you these days? I am reading so much good poetry these days it kills me. Kills, inspires, whatever. I am freshly in love with Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable and Lucy Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion. I am in an online writing group, and the poets in the group flabbergast/inspire me every month with their prompts and poems. This semester, I am teaching collections by Bob Hicok and Traci Brimhall, a prospect both daunting and inspiring.

How are you trying to get better as a poet? Read every day. Write more days than not. Listen to the world around me.

Your chapbook credo: Now I wish I had one of these. I’ll work on that.

Number of chapbooks you own: Around 20.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 40? Just a guess.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I buy and read their books. Sometimes I review them on Goodreads or write about them on my website. I recently provided a blurb for an excellent chapbook called His Late Wives. I could always do more.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: I have spent so much on book-contest entry fees that my poetry balance sheet will never be in the black. I am fortunate to have a job that means I can afford to write poetry without worrying about earnings.

Your chapbook wish: That lots of people read my chapbook when it comes out. If some of them like it, that would be nice, but mostly I just want them to read it.

Residence: East Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Job: I teach writing to college students at Grand Valley State University.

Chapbook education: I am self-educated when it comes to chapbooks, I’d say. There was a time not that long ago when I didn’t know what a chapbook was, beyond “a book shorter than a regular book.” A conversation with my friend Brian Clements, author of four chapbooks including not meant for you Dear Love (Mudlark, 2012) <>, led me to think of a chapbook as necessarily more unified than a full-length book of poems, cohering around a central idea or question, and by virtue of its brevity, expressing or exploring that idea quickly. Ooh, this is starting to sound like it could turn into a credo.

The non-chapbook portion of my education includes an undergraduate degree from Birmingham-Southern College and an MFA from Western Michigan.

Chapbook Bio: My chapbook The Insomniac Circus is from Hyacinth Girl. I am presently working with my friend W. Todd Kaneko on a chapbook inspired by Slash, the guitarist. The rest of my bio is pretty non-chapbooky: born in Michigan, grew up in Alabama, ended up back in Michigan as an adult; wrote some things, planning to write more things.


“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 ( 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: 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:

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: