the chapbook interview: Joshua Gray on poetry’s answer to the novella

I’m a little in love with the place you invoke in Mera Bharat, your new chapbook from Red Dashboard. I know you traveled to India and recently lived there for two years. Did you set out to write this collection on your recent inhabitance or did these poems arrive after you returned? Talk about place as inspiration in your work.

A sense of place is so important when writing about experiences in India. For people who have never been there, the country is full of mystery; for people who have, the feeling is usually more nostalgic. But while you can’t escape the importance of place in India, I never had it in mind while I wrote, because it is so intertwined with the overall experience.

There are a couple obvious (at least, to me) exceptions to this. The first is the longer sectional work at the end of the collection. The poem reads as one long experience, but in reality I am telling the story of three separate trips I made to the city of Mussoorie within a seven month period of time. The title of the poem, “Finding Here”, is a nod to that demand for a sense of place. The hill stations are so different from the rest of India, the experiences needed to be explored more when I wrote the poem, both from a physical standpoint as well as cultural. Nowhere else in India would I have heard Led Zeppelin on the loud speaker in a small restaurant and thought so little of it.

The second is my poem “Riding Into Downtown Kolkata”. This poem is completely about place. It describes – in only one sentence might I add – a ride from the outskirts of Kolkata (Calcutta) into downtown, while taking a tour of the city. Just about everything described in the poem was experienced from my seat in the car, looking out the window.

Most of the poems were not only written after coming home from India, they were written up to two decades later. There were experiences I knew I wanted to write about, but never had, so the creative process came very late. I relied on my journal entries for some things, and went on pure memories for others. These poems came from my trip in the mid-90’s when I traveled throughout the north. But there are also other poems, such as “Gaurs”, “Elephant Valley” and others that were experienced while living in the southern part of India from 2012-2014, and written down almost immediately afterwards. So really the collection is made up of a mix of time and place.

The daily maintenance of life infuses many of these poems—food eating, tea and alcohol drinking, pest removal, public transportation, sleeping accommodations—seeming to make urgent the necessary up keep we all keep to in an effort to belong. The act of traveling and living abroad permeates here. What travel narratives and collections of poems that do this same work do you admire?

This is a tough question to answer. It is tough not because there are so many choices, but because there are so few. I am not normally drawn to travel narratives, nor am I drawn to writers who detail the nitty-gritty everyday stuff of life. I am drawn to the classics mostly, and the classical literature delves little into such stuff.

There are three authors who influenced me early and who wrote about the hardships of everyday life. The first is John Steinbeck. From dramatic pieces like East of Eden and Of Mice and Men to the more comical Sweet Thursday and Cannery Row, he had a way of writing about daily life with such emotion and detail that was hard to match. Another author I read only a short while later was Thomas Wolfe, not to be confused with Tom Wolfe – a common and unfortunate mix-up indeed! Wolfe wrote Look Homeward Angel, a novel full of the hardship and details of daily life he experienced as a child. It is so autobiographical it is criticized as not being fiction! But it is, and it is the story is brilliantly told. The third is the master storyteller Charles Dickens. Enough said, there.

From a travel narrative perspective, I am afraid I have little to offer. While I think I would enjoy such stories, interestingly enough I haven’t read much – if any – of them.

But now that I have read much of the classics, I am definitely reading more modern and contemporary works, especially when it comes to poetry. Cameron Conaway wrote a wonderful memoir about his hard and difficult relationship with his father and how that difficult relationship shaped him into the person he is today. He then turned around and wrote a book of poems called Until You Make The Shore, which focuses on three fictitious characters that are based on the real girls living in a girl’s juvenile detention center. Deborah Ager wrote Midnight Voices, a collection of poems that brings out and focuses on the darker side of everyday life. A great poem about a car accident immediately comes to mind. It is too soon perhaps to call these poets influences, but I definitely admire their work.

I am more fascinated in relationships though, and believe relationships – good or bad – are the driving force behind good stories.

In Mara Bharat there’s a musicality and lyric pace that moves through the poems. In your book Principals of Belonging (Red Dashboard, 2013) you write in a new form. Talk about your use of forms and lyric constraints in your poetry.

Music plays perhaps the largest role in my decision-making process as a poet. Elements such as alliteration, sound repetition, word repetition, rhyme and meter all play a significant role in my writing. I do not use them all in every poem, but as I am outlining a poem—especially a longer work—one of the first and last things I consider is how the music will play a part in the overall role.

I actually prefer to write in the received forms. Formal verse forces one to be economical while at the same time writing exactly what is meant. This is especially true when writing in any kind of meter. The choice a poet makes to use this word over the other has a far more serious repercussion in formal poetry. I think this is what editors mean when they say they accept form poetry, “but it’s got to be good.” They don’t really mean they don’t mind bad free verse, but the rules are a little more lenient. I just finished writing a villanelle and easily spent three hours on one line—most of that on one foot.

With free verse, editors warn poets to not submit prose with line breaks and call the piece poetry. And they are correct, in the sense that prose has little if any music. So when writing free verse, one needs to pay an equal amount of attention to music as formal verse.

Let’s talk about some of the poems in the collection. “Mama” is a poem about a stray dog. I wanted to write the poem almost as a love poem, and I felt like what I had to say could be delivered in a short poem, so a sonnet to me was the obvious choice. In the octet I would write about the dog, in the sextet I would bring my own life into the equation. I remember thinking rhyme would take away from what I wanted to say, but meter was necessary, so it is a blank verse sonnet. Further in the collection I write another sonnet, this time in rhyme, metered, and another love song. Why did I choose to rhyme one and not the other? Intuition. No reason I can set down as a rule.

“Finding Here” is written in unmetered Terza Rima – Terza Rima to give the poem some structure and control, unmetered to give the poem so elasticity.

Most of the other poems are free verse, and employ such techniques as alliteration, sound repetition and word repetition. The less formal the verse, the more important these elements become.

Finally, you mentioned my book Principles of Belonging and my created form the sympoe, which is a linked poem. The form was also used for one poem in Mera Bharat. I am glad you mentioned my other book though, because it starts and ends in strict form, while the middle is all free verse, a lot of it rhymed.  The rhyme in the middle part provides the essential music—otherwise the poems risk that criticism of being prose broken up into line breaks. I also have to state that you mentioned the word “belonging” in your previous question; indeed, one could argue a sense a belonging permeates in both these collections. It all comes down to relationship.

How do you define chapbook? Poetry’s answer to the novella.

What makes a good chapbook? Good quality poems live inside them.


What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? 
Sonata Vampirica by Samuel Peralta! 

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Consistent message of subject and flow.

What’s next for you? I am finishing up a book—probably a chapbook—that is an alternate history of Jesus with the premise that he was gay.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community and ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Social media, social media, social media. And attending events whenever possible. Retweeting and sharing other’s successes.

Your chapbook credo: If all else fails, group them into smaller parts.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: What earnings? We get earnings?

Your chapbook wish: That my chapbook gets picked up by The Washington Post for a review—oh wait—TWP doesn’t review poetry. Never mind.

Residence: Down the rabbit hole.

Job: IT Consulting.

 Chapbook Bio: Joshua Gray was born and bred in a briar patch. He now lives down the rabbit hole, and is looking for a way out of the chaos theory.

 

the chapbook interview: Greg Kosmicki on death, work, and the writing life

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In The Poet’s Companion, Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux write, “Each of us has our own relationship to death, a relationship that starts in childhood with our first awareness of it. And throughout our lives, we experience the grief and loss that another death brings,” offering that writing about death can “offer some solace” (39). They also cite poets like Marie Howe, Tess Gallagher, Sharon Olds, Mark Doty, and others who’ve written about death in fascinating ways. I’ve been reading your new book Sheep Can Recognize Individual Human Faces (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2014) and your chapbook The Patron Saint of Lost and Found (Lone Willow Press, 2003). Talk about the themes of death and grief in your work.

It’s Saturday night, or well, now it’s Sunday Morning. this is the day that the time changes to daylight savings time, so I’ve already lost an hour out of my life without even trying. I have been spending the last couple hours talking to my baby sister about how our father died, about her experiences with death and dying people, which is a lot of experiences, maybe hundreds, she can’t even count them, and I tell her that the only experience that I have with someone actually dying in my presence is with our father. Technically, legally, I am drunk. I’ve had about 6 or maybe seven shots of Jim Beam, and she’s had several shots of Bacardi. Even though we grew up in the same family and share all the same genetic material we hardly know each other and we’re just starting to know each other. She’s ten or twelve years younger than I am. She’s a nurse who has lots of experience with dying people (she’s the nurse in the poem “Nope” in the Sheep book) and can tell me how I should go about the process of offing myself (take plenty of anti-emetics—you don’t want to wake up in the morning and be embarrassed) and tells me the way to do it to make the least traumatic experience for the people I love. We talk about bridges, guns, pills et cetera. Death isn’t a parenthesis to me, though she thinks that when you die you go someplace, because she is a “spiritualist,” which is what people call themselves who believe in life after death but not in organized religions. They believe that people who are dead are spirits and can talk to the living through mediums. I think that’s all bullshit and have told her and a lot of people that I’m ashamed of myself for having perpetuated the stories that religions foist off on the general populace onto my children. Still, I am a weak man, and afraid of all that lies ahead, and I have come to realize since my parents died that I am mortal. First, my brother was killed in a car wreck when I was 16, and that made me into a poet. Many of my poems, if not all, have mortality in the background of them, even if I am being funny, or smart-assed, or even comical in the poem. Death is the driving force behind poetry, whether all the happy poets admit it or not. In my poems I try to deal with that force when it comes up, which seems to me to be all the time, and to tell death that I know It’s there, give it its nod, and then to say to death that I don’t care, I am going to love the people I love and live the life I live, and do whatever I can this day, and basically to say “fuck you death.” I know that death wins in the end, whatever Jesus purportedly said, and that is a painful thing to admit, but before it does, I want to say the things that were important to me, and cry out the things that made me have pain, and say the names of the people who loved me and who I loved, and tell what we did, and to live those brief moments in a poem as if we were all shining, every second, every day, even in our shitty lives, as if we would never die.

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I’ve been reading your chapbooks For My Son in a Motel Room (Sandhills Press). I find myself returning to the title poem and to the penultimate stanza that reflects on patience in parenting and how long it takes to learn that lesson. One thing that strikes me about your poetry is the patience, the way something small like a dripping faucet in The Patron Saint of Lost and Found, becomes an opportunity to reflect on the large. Talk about your writing process and the ways you make time and have made time to write. Does patience play part of this process? After all, you’re a fairly prolific poet who continues to put out new books and chapbooks year after year and it would seem that to create so much means you must lie in wait for poems, often.

I hate to quote myself, but a poem from two years ago “When You Get to be an Old Man” talks about this in the last few lines:

like being tangled in a spider web,

like being the spider on the back porch, in the fall,

her web woven, for all to see and admire,

to wait with her,

to know something stumbles by,

to know you’ll take it.

That’s pretty much how I write, or part of the physical process of how I write. To be a writer with the discipline to write every day is the key for me. Now that I am older, I am lazier, and right now I am not writing every day, and my writing is suffering for it. I don’t force myself to sit down each night and write something. Now that I am older, I am more tired at night, or I guess I should say that I feel the effects of being tired, whereas when I was younger, (30’s, 40’s, 50’s,) I would stay up late, get up early, stoke up on coffee, go another day. Now I can’t do that without suffering consequences that are noticeable in my job that I go to every day where they actually pay me money to do the job. I used to be angry at working for pay about 85% of the time; now I know that if I don’t do it there, there won’t be time for anything else because my job is what keeps me alive. Poetry (only) keeps my soul alive, but if I don’t have a body that’s working the soul will go away soon too. So right now I am working to remove all the “clutter” in my life so that I can spend the time I have spent lately on the clutter, on writing poems.

When I was a young poet I would wait until I “got inspired” but that happened all the time, so it wasn’t difficult to wait—it was usually only a couple hours or a day anyway. In those days, all it would take to spark off a writing spree was to sit down and start writing about whatever crossed my mind. In those day, my mind was on fire, and I was reading a lot of poems—which I think is essential to do to be a poet—and something about reading poems would touch off a spark. It was like my mind was a forest filled with tinder, awaiting only a careless poet to come along and toss his burning cigarette. Later, when I graduated from college and (unwillingly) got out into the workaday world, I did not have the luxury of sitting around and reading and writing for hours and hours at a time, and some jobs I had I was so tired at the end of the day all I did was collapse after doing all the family stuff, then reading a bit in the evening. One of those jobs, delivering bread back in 1979, I’d get up at 4 a.m. and not get home until 6 or 7 at night. I’d read a few poems and crash, but I was compelled to write, so once I tried to tape record as I was driving and ran my bread truck off into the ditch driving up the gravel road to a country restaurant, so I quit doing that!

I’ve got probably a hundred notebooks I’ve written stuff in and then abandoned, because usually when I first write something I don’t like it at all. If I get a chance to go back to it, then sometimes I find something that I can keep, and type it up. I think maybe it’s probably better I let it stay there in the notebooks, but I plan to go back through those just for fun when I retire to find scraps that might be good. This practice established my way of writing for forty-plus years: write something, write anything, just write—about the day, the bugs, the flowers, the faces, the houses, the stars, the flies, the people at the store, the stuff we had for dinner, the way I felt about work, something my boss said, my feelings about work, the kids, my neighbors, the trash, the walls, the trees, my wife, the moon—just anything—and then follow where it leads. When I write that way I get into a zone, if I’m lucky, and keep my big crappy censoring self out of it—if I don’t have intellectual control over the words that are coming to me they more or less just happen. Somehow the poem gets into those “large” issues just because it’s busy associating. Looking at that roach running across the floor sometimes makes me realize, though I usually don’t say it directly in the poem, that I am not all that much different than that animal that’s carrying around a very high percentage of my DNA. Seeing the sunset through the trees, sometimes I realize that hundreds of millions of others have seen it too, and many of those have been killed for some stupid reasons. I think it’s something like that drawing technique where you try to shut off the mocking, censorious, judgmental, socially impaired (because inspired by social correctness) part of the brain, and when you get to that point, you do your work by associational leaps. I hate it when I’m writing and the “Boss” side of my brain kicks back in and starts to tell me what I should be writing. Later on when I’m reading back through the poem, I will realize (if I’m reading with my real writing mind) that’s the place the poem ended, and I’ll chop it off right there. I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about this because it seems like it’s better to let it run by itself than to try to dissect it, as though a poem or the writing of a poem were an embalmed frog in high school biology, and make myself so self-conscious about it that I can’t write anything at all. The short answer is: write something every day, write anything, don’t be judgmental of it, keep it, come back to it—maybe you will find a poem in amongst all the cat litter and the smashed tomato cans and the baby diapers you put out on the curb.

I’ve also been reading your chapbooks when there wasn’t any war (The Backwaters Press, 1987), tables, chairs, wall, window (Sandhills Press, 2000), and Greatest Hits 1975-2000 (Pudding House Publications, 2001). You’re the author of seven chapbooks and several full-length books as well. In terms of genre, what’s the difference for you in terms of putting together a chapbook compared to putting together a book? How do you organize, sequence, and explore themes in a chapbook verse a book? Is it the same or different and in what ways?

A person I count as a poetry-friend of mine, Lola Haskins, wrote a book that The Backwaters Press published called Not Feathers Yet: A Beginner’s Guide to the Writer’s Life. Lola is an amazing poet and an extremely talented poetry craft-person as well. Anyone who wants to get good handbook on “What-it-means to-be-a-poet-and-how-to-do-it” should read this book. It is a book not only about writing poetry but about the Zen of living and writing. In it, she talks in one chapter about constructing your book so that it has an arc, and a story line, so that this poem leads to that one, and these are grouped here to do this and so on. It’s phenomenal, and something that I don’t do and have no inclination to do.

Another brilliant poet, Donald Justice, said somewhere something like: you should just toss all your poems together in any order and because one poet wrote them, they will resonate. I fall more into that camp. Judging by Donald Justice’s poems, and by how careful a poet he was, I guess that I don’t believe that he did that exactly, but maybe he did what to him was something approximating that.

When someone asks me this question, I always say that I just throw them all together in a roughly chronological order of their composition, and the poems will talk amongst themselves and resonate, but I’m probably following some inner process that I don’t recognize and that’s how the manuscripts get arranged. I know that I oftentimes will try to arrange the poems in a full-length book in chronological order of their creation, but I also know that poems get with you and stay with you and that you begin to associate this poem about your daughter picking up a frog with the one about coming home from the war, when they may have been written 35 years apart from each other. Subject matter makes the main difference, and I sometimes realize that I’ve lumped in a poem that I wrote 20 years before with one that was written a year ago because they address the same concern and they feel like they belong together. I know that a friend of mine, Paul Dickey, has poems in the same book that were written years apart, and I think that many do that. People tend to dwell on a few topics and to write about them over and over and over again, although every time you write a poem you usually think that you’re creating this incredible new thing that has never been done before, not by anybody. So that happens.

I do find that when I’m putting a chapbook together that I tend to find all the poems that I can find about one topic/subject and place them together. Because chapbooks are shorter, they force you to leave out the poem about your parents growing old and the one about when Old Shep your dog died if the rest of your chapbook is about all the time you spent in the army smoking dope and lobbing grenades or whatever. A chapbook is more like a short story—you have to have a unified action and everything has to relate to the same theme, all lead to the ending climax, just because it’s short, and you don’t have the space to goof around. In a longer book, you can have a section that’s about your cats and one that’s about your parakeets and it can still be a “collection of poems.” Although nowdays, it appears to me that most poets are following the “story arc” idea that I think Lola talks about (can’t recall if she uses that term), that I think may be emanating out of the writing workshops too—that your poems have a job to do, to get your reader from one place to another, sort of like a novel in a way.

My first book, nobody lives here who’s seen this sky, is actually more like a really long chapbook in this sense, because generally the poems are based upon my life during the time I was a UPS worker and are a reaction to that work, and a record of my struggle to keep myself being a poet when UPS was trying (I thought) to choke that out of me, and to kill my soul so that I would become a UPS automaton that could deliver packages more efficiently and have absolutely nothing else on my mind. I was young, and I wanted to be a poet more than a UPS driver. I wanted to be a poet more than anything. Although I had two children I didn’t care about money. I did write a poem, years after I left UPS— the last poem in the book—purposely to act as a capstone to that book, so that it would have a sense of being tied up and finished, but all the rest of the poems in that book came from that time period. The experience of working for them is still so raw for me that I could probably write another 40 poems about it if I tried. To this day, I still have nightmares about the job; it’s become my default anxiety dream—whenever something, anything, is bothering me, I dream about being stuck in a UPS package car, delivering, not making it, falling behind, lost, late, night, disoriented, pressured, etc. etc.

A book that came out almost concurrently was How Things Happen that was a hand-set letterpress book on beautiful, fine paper from bradypress, and it was, though shorter, more of a miscellany of poems, because the editor of bradypress, Denise Brady, chose 15 poems from a longer manuscript that she liked and wanted to set. Some of the poems were in both books, but they had a very different feel. Most of my chapbooks were collections of poems that centered around one topic—the kids (For My Son in a Motel Room, Marigolds), my mom’s sickness late in life (tables, chair, wall, window), but then, The Patron Saint of Lost and Found was more or less just a chronological collection like a full-length collection. New Route in the Dream was a hodge-podge of old and new poems. Until my last book, Sheep Can Recognize Individual Human Faces, I never actually determined where a poem should go except by chronology as I could recall it—In that one, dealing mainly with coming to terms with death, I put a poem about my mom dying at the beginning and one about my dad dying at the end, like bookends, but that was also chronological. My only real rule in putting together a manuscript is to not lump all the poems that are on one subject one right after the other so as not to become utterly boring. I’ll scatter them throughout the book. My thought is that since the poems were all by the same poet, and written more or less in the same period of that poet’s life, they’ve got to be talking to each other somehow, and I’ll let the reader figure it out.

On the other hand, if you have hung with me this far, and you are looking for advice on how gather a collection together, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, for all of my publications, I think, have come about by accident, chance, knowing someone, and dumb luck. In the end, I have no advice for any poet serious about his or her career, because in the end, I have no career as a poet. I work as a government functionary, more like Franz Kafka than Billy Collins. Few people have ever heard of my poems outside of a small circle of friends. I am locked out of the mainstream of American poetry (as are most poets) measured by any real measure of success in the poetry-biz: prizes, awards, winning contests, jobs, tours, appointments, speaking engagements, grants, etc.—I’m not complaining, just stating a fact. There are thousands of poets out there doing the same thing that I do. (That you do). I only write because writing poems, plus my family, is what keeps me alive, but I couldn’t win a contest if my life depended upon it. Listen to somebody else, study other poets who have poetry careers, because this poet can win no contests, nor tell you to do anything anywhere nearly as important as what your own spirit can say to you when you are writing a poem.

How do you define chapbook? A short collection usually composed of thematically closely-related poems, (nowdays fiction too) usually about 15 to 25 pages long, usually folded over and stapled, or “saddle stitched,” but not necessarily so. Often hand-made, on more expensive papers, with hand-set type— oftentimes more art-quality printing that a standard paperback. Usually, limited editions of a couple hundred maximum.

What makes a good chapbook? I get it—this is a trick question. Good poems?

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? I still draw inspiration from the chapbook series that Greg Kuzma did back in the 70s at The Best Cellar Press. He did all the typesetting by hand on beautiful papers. He published such poets as Albert Goldbarth, Wayne Dodd, Ted Kooser, Wendell Berry, Richard Shelton (whew! I just noticed—all guys!) and many many others. I still get a kick out of Don Wentworth’s itty bitty Lilliput Review that’s filled with tons of itty bitty poems.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Barry Macdonald’s The Pink House from the Best Cellar Press.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? To have all the poems related to the same subject or theme.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? I’m stuck in the way I write. I don’t think I’ll ever get better. Maybe by accident. Maybe I’ll fall and hit my head and become a poetry savant.

What’s next for you? Keep writing, mainly. I’m putting together a short collection that will be a short book but too long to be a chapbook, of poems about my brother who was killed in a car wreck when I was 16. These are poems written over the course of 40 years. I guess that his death and my relationship to that is one of the themes that is found in my poems frequently. It’s called The Sun Has Stayed Where it is. I was awaiting for a lost poem from the center of it (center chronologically and psychologically) that my sister, thank you Jesus! had kept for the last 20 years that was the only copy of it I know of. I also have a short collection (but longer than a chapbook) of poems from the last couple years called “It’s as good here as it gets anywhere,” that I have out to a couple presses and contests. Actually, I’m thinking of maybe pulling some poems out of it if the book doesn’t get accepted and publishing the ones that are similar to each other as a chapbook—so there you have it—my chapbook technique!

Number of chapbooks you own: 150 approximately. Maybe more—they can blend in a bit.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 150 approximately. Maybe more—they can blend in a bit.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. Aw heck, I don’t really have a community. Is there someplace I can retire to where all they do is write and publish chapbooks? Sounds fun—let me know!

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: You are funny!

Your chapbook wish: I wish I had the time to start another chapbook series at The Backwaters Press, but I’m retiring from it so I can spend more time writing so that wouldn’t make sense. I wish that the press had done more with chaps, because they are fun and cool, but one can only do so much.

Residence: Omaha, Nebraska

Job: Human Services

Book Reading and Art: The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters, Paradigm Gallery + Studio, March 22, 3 pm

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The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters Book Reading & Art presents a themed reading on girlhood, coming of age, and the female body with Lauren Rindaldi, Dawn Lonsinger, Laura Madeline Wiseman, Kimberly Rinaldi, Elizabeth Akin Stelling, Shevaun Brannigan, Marion Cohen, and Elliott batTzedek, 3-5 pm, Sunday March 22nd, 2015, at Paradigm Gallery + Studio, located 746 South 4th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147.

 

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Elliott batTzedek holds an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University; her translation manuscript of “Dance of the Lunatic” by the Israeli Jewish lesbian writer Shez won the 2012 Robert Bly Translation prize, judged by Martha Collins. She is the events coordinator for Big Blue Marble Bookstore, cofounder of QuillsEdge Press, and founder of Poetry Business Manager. Her work appears or is forthcoming in the journals: American Poetry Review, Massachusetts Review, Naugatuck River Review, Lambda Literary Online, and Sinister Wisdom, and in the anthologies: Passageways: the 2012 Two Lines Translation Anthology, and Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence. She blogs about poetry and translation at thisfrenzy.com.

 

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Shevaun Brannigan is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, as well as The Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House at The University of Maryland. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in such journals as Best New Poets 2012, Rhino, Court Green, and Crab Orchard Review. She is the first place recipient of the 2015 Jan-ai Scholarship through the Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway. Her favorite poetry gig is the workshop she leads at her local Domestic Violence Shelter, and her work can be found at shevaunbrannigan.wordpress.com.

 

Marion Cohen

Marion Deutsche Cohen‘s latest poetry book is “Lights I Have Loved” (Red Dashboard Press). Her books total 24, including “Still the End: Memoir of a Nursing Home Wife” (Unlimited Publishing) and its prequel memoir, “Dirty Details: The Days and Nights of a Well Spouse” (Temple University Press), as well as “Crossing the Equal Sign” (Plain View Press), poetry about the experience of mathematics. She teaches math and writing at Arcadia University in Glenside PA, where she has developed the course, Truth and Beauty: Mathematics in Literature.

 

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dawn lonsinger is the author of Whelm (winner of the 2012 Idaho Prize in Poetry). Her poems and lyric essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, Best New Poets 2010, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Cornell University, a PhD from the University of Utah, and is Assistant Professor at Muhlenberg College where she teaches courses in Creative Writing and Literature & Film of Apocalypse and Monstrosity. She, like other organisms, has a thing for light.

 

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Kimberly Rinaldi is an animal lover, fit model, and local art supporter who lives and works in Philadelphia PA.

 

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Lauren Rindaldi is originally from Brooklyn, New York. She received her BFA in Painting from Tyler School of Art in 2006. She is a painter, illustrator and has worked on various projects with The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Her most recent visual works have been exhibited at Paradigm Gallery + Studio in Philadelphia and Scope Miami Beach – International Contemporary Art Show in Miami. She currently resides in Philadelphia with her husband and son.

 

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Born in Fort Worth, and raised in Carrollton, Texas, on Stockyard Rodeos and Pioneer Days in the 60-70s—Elizabeth Akin Stelling is a wife, mother, chef, a writer, activist for CHD and grief counselling, after losing her daughter to heart disease in 2000. She is also the brain child behind dis*or*der, Mental Illness and its Affects, a yearly anthology published by RedD, and is dedicated to her deceased mother who sufffered from various mental disorders. Elizabeth is managing editor of Red Dashboard LLC, Z-composition, Annapurna and Cowboy Poetry, and has works published in The Texas Observer, vox poetica, Referential Magazine, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Curio Poetry, Wordgathering, River Review, Tuck Magazine, CrazyLitMag, 2014-San Angelo College Anthology, Literary Mamma, and various culinary trade magazines. Chef E’s food poetry has been heard on CroptoCuisine Radio, out of Boulder, CO. She is also studies Southwestern history for her wild west revivalist writing/poetry, and is a current member of Texas State Historical Association.

 

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Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of twenty books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press). Her recent books are Drink (BlazeVOX Books), Wake (Aldrich Press), American Galactic (Martian Lit Books), and the collaborative book The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters (Les Femmes Folles) with artist Lauren Rinaldi. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, and Feminist Studies. Currently, she teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com

 

“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

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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.

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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.

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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: 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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 brenda's chap

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

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

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

brenda's chap 2

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

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

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

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

 tiny-house-movement

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?

monowi_signMonowi_mason

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).

methland

2) Cross-section of more universal pursuits:

Marxist and post-Marxist theory. Dialectic force fields.

marx

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.

hoch_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:
http://dulcetshop.ecrater.com/p/14189202/wonder-girl-in-monster-land-brenda

Fallout & Flotation Devices will be available shortly from Little Red Leaves’ Textile Series:
http://www.textileseries.com/

If you’re game for a longer ride, my full-length collection, Like Oysters Observing the Sun, is available here:
http://www.blacklawrence.com/like-oysters-observing-the-sun/