the chapbook interview: Michael Skau on God, humor, and art

You’re the author of a two books of literary criticism, a full-length book of poetry, and the chapbook of poetry, Me and God Poems (Brady Press, 1990). What did you learn in school about the chapbook as a genre? As a writing teacher, what did you teach your students about the chapbook as a vessel for poems?

I learned very little about chapbooks while I was at school. I thought that chapbooks were primarily for religious tracts (ironic then that I published a chapbook titled Me and God Poems). My graduate degrees were in literature, not in creative writing. My dissertation was eventually on Themes and Movements in the Beat Generation. As I researched this topic, I became more familiar with chapbooks because the Beat writers published many of their works as chapbooks during the 1960s and 1970s. However, I was also confused about the nature of the chapbook itself. It is usually a short collection of related materials, but how does one define short? Ferlinghetti was publishing his Pocket Poets Series of books beginning in the 1950s with his own short work Pictures of the Gone World. These “books” were 4 3/4″ by 6 1/8″ in size. Ferlinghetti’s book contained 36 pages of poetry. The tenth book in the series, The Love Poems of Kenneth Patchen contains 42 pages of poems. Are these “small”? Are they chapbooks? A later series of works by the Beat-related writers more clearly fit into the category if only because of the title of the series: Published in Heaven Chapbook Series. However, too often for me the nature of the category involves “blurred lines.” Poems by an individual author are often closely related in theme and style, if only because they have the same creator and shaper. Other publishers of small books with Beat titles included Arif, Atticus, Bisbee Press Collective, and Hanuman Books. Many of these and other publishers of Beat works were short-lived, perhaps because of the subterranean and subversive quality of the literature itself.

As for my teaching, I taught courses in literature (the only writing courses which I taught were introductory composition courses and writing courses for English majors, and neither of these lent themselves to discussion of chapbooks).

 

What I particularly admire about your full-length book Me & God (WSC Press, 2014) that collects poems from your chapbook, is your humor and wit and the ways in which the character of god is cast with the expected powers of greatness, ones that work as a delightful foil for the me/I/eye of the poems’ speaker. What poets do you admire who do this same work? What specific collections or styles do you find provocative?

I am glad that you enjoyed the humor in my book. I treat a number of serious issues and themes, sometimes symbolically, in the poems, and I feel that humor, after love, is one of the best balms for easing discomfort and one of the best methods for disarming objections. The poet, however, has to be careful not to let the humor supplant the themes (I discarded many drafts of poems which I felt violated this latter principle). As for the use of foils, as my introduction indicates, “The God that I have fashioned for the poems is one whom I have created in my own likeness.” The advantage here is that I can invest the God figure with my own faults and flaws, and this makes criticism of him much easier. The disadvantage is that the poems encompass a God based on myself, a first person speaker (“I” or “me”) also modeled on myself, and I the poet, who is manipulating the other two: the process can be quite schizophrenic. I try to balance the scales here by sometimes giving God the upper hand, sometimes allowing the I or me to undermine God, and sometimes portraying them both as either right or wrong.

I guess that the poet whom I most admire who is doing anything similar to what I am attempting in Me & God would be William Butler Yeats in his Crazy Jane poems. His Crazy Jane is a wounded figure who tries to assert her own personal voice in the midst of untrustworthy fellow humans and against the representatives of unfeeling authority. Another influence would be Dostoyevsky’s Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, a story which Ivan tells Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov (one of my poems, “Beliefs,” even alludes to Ivan’s conclusion of this story). Finally, the complaints against God find a parallel in Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, to which another of my poems, “Potters,” also alludes.

My style owes something to Yeats, Frost, Eliot, and Auden. I deliberately attempt to cultivate a colloquial voice, a vernacular usage (for example, “me” as part of the compound subject of a clause), but also to work often with form. Thus, sixteen of the poems are in tetrameter, eight in pentameter, two in trimeter, five in a mixture of tetrameter and trimeter, and four in a mixture of tetrameter and pentameter (if you did not notice these structures, that is OK; they are there for me as the poet to maintain control over emotional materials, not for the reader to recognize). That leaves eight poems which are free verse, and I worked doggone hard to set them free.

The poem “Social Network” in Me & God explores the phenomenon of social media sites like facebook, the type of possible social interactions that occur there, and the ways friendings and friends suggest a sociability that is hard to decode. In the final stanza, the poem addresses “liking”: “we hit Like buttons to preen the fur/ of other monkeys’ egos, hoping that they/ will like us in return” (52). Talk about your use of social media. In your answer, talk about inspiration—many of the poems attend to aspects of daily living (e.g. social sites, city streets, video games, TV, sports, etc.) in a world that’s recognizable, even if one of the denizens of the Midwest city evoked is God.

Yes, my poems situate themselves in the late 20th century and the early 21st century by alluding to the artifacts, activities, and interests of everyday people, whether they be sports, popular music, films, television, pinball machines, video games, marijuana, or social media sites. These are various aspects of contemporary cultural life, and they span the rural and urban areas of America. To ignore them would be pretentious and dishonest. The danger of including them is that American cultural life is fluid and often short-lived, and the allusions may well be passé soon, requiring footnotes to explain, for example, The Daily Show, much as Milton’s “Lycidas” may need footnotes to explain his allusions to Arethuse and Hippotades, Shelley to identify his reference to Mænad in “Ode to the West Wind,” and Ginsberg to clarify his use of Bickford’s, bop, and kaballa in “Howl.” However, the writer who limits his references to those which are likely to transcend the fickle finger of time is imposing upon the works shackles which prevent the poems from circulating freely among his or her audiences–and somehow the poems which I mentioned have maintained fame and popularity. I would be foolish to suggest that my poems might last as long as Milton’s, Shelley’s, and even Ginsberg’s. My only defense is that I incorporate into my poems the world in which I live and the cultural features of it. Perhaps this becomes a sorry–and sad–commentary on the flimsiness of my own life.

For myself I am an avid fan of many college and professional sports (though only a fair to middling participant in them), and I probably watch more television than I should. I enjoy movies, and I am especially fond of rock ‘n’ roll. I am on facebook, but I participate there primarily as a lurker: I prefer interactions which are private and personal, rather than social–perhaps because, as a teacher, I spent so many years exposing my feelings, opinions, and beliefs at the front of a classroom. Therefore, my own social interactions are much more restricted than those of most of my contemporaries. In fact, I am such a dinosaur that I do not even own a smartphone. I already have more than enough diversions and distractions in my life.

I recently attended Authorfest at Bellevue Public Library in Bellevue Public Library that included a panel on the topic “How Do I start – becoming a writer” with other local writers such as Cat Dixon, Margaret Lukas, Robin Donovan, Marcia Forecki, and Carol Umberger. A librarian in the audience asked, “How do you know when a poem is done?” Cat Dixion noted she workshopped her poems with her writers group and they helped her listen more closely to her work. Cat also said that not all writers had or wanted writers groups and mentioned that she’d asked you a similar question. I’m curious. How do you know when a poem is done?

How to tell when a work of art is completed is a problem which artists have confronted throughout history. In fact, there is an old saying, “A work of art is never finished; it is only abandoned” (the source of this statement is even much debated; I have seen it attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, E. M. Forster, and W. H. Auden, but the most likely source seems to be Paul Valéry). The point of the quotation is hardly surprising. Like everybody else, artists continue to grow throughout their lives and, more importantly, to learn more their craft. The desire to incorporate newly learned wisdom is a natural one, and this explains why so many poets (Yeats particularly comes to mind) continue to revise their works over the course of decades. I have been working on a new series of poems about poets’ attitudes toward craft, themes, and techniques. I call the series The Old Poets, and one of the poems in the series is titled “Betrayed” (it was published in the periodical Red Owl in 2000) and addresses this very topic: “My poems are former / friends from whom I grew / estranged at publication / for treating me so badly.” The point is that the poet can grow even between the period of composition and that of publication. As a result, poems written even just a few years ago can later seem puerile or limited in their breadth or depth. In fact, in many cases, it would be surprising if poets did not look back at their earlier works with disappointment. All that the poet can provide is an accurate portrait of his/her beliefs and concerns at a particular stage of his/her development. Few poets can create butterflies; most of us must be content to create poetic pupae (which can, nevertheless, have their own beauty, strength, and integrity).

How do you define chapbook? A chapbook is a booklet of twenty (long enough to develop a measure of substance) to thirty-five (staying short of the thoroughness usually associated with full-length books) pages of primary material (excluding foreword, dedication, contents, etc) closely related in theme, subject matter, and/or technique.

What makes a good chapbook? The collection should have a coherence to it, whether that be a traditional beginning, middle, and end or a developed exploration of a particular idea or theme, recognizing the inherent conflicts and contradictions. The collection should not conclude with a cliff-hanger or leave the reader expecting more.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Quality and coherence (which does not exclude variety).

What’s next for you? I am putting together a manuscript (The Old Poets, to which I referred earlier) to submit as a chapbook. Seventeen of these poems have already been published in a variety of different periodicals.

Current chapbook reading list: Walking the Campus–William Kloefkorn; The Patron Saint of Lost and Found–Greg Kosmicki; Threnody–Laura Madeline Wiseman; What It Looks Like, How It Flies–Steve Langan

greg books

Number of chapbooks you own: Probably about 25.

Number of chapbooks you have read: About 15.

Where do you spend your chapbook earnings: I have published only one chapbook, for which I received no monetary compensation.

Residence: Omaha, NE.

Job: Retired.

 Michael Skau April 2015

the chapbook interview: Barbara Schmitz on spiritual lessons, chapbooks, and learning writing from Allen Ginsberg

You’re the author of a memoir, three full-length poetry collections, Always the Detail, How Much Our Dancing Has Improved, and How to Get Out of the Body, and three chapbooks of poetry. What did you learn in school about the chapbook as a genre? As a writing teacher, what did you teach your students about the chapbook as a vessel for poems?

I studied writing at Naropa Institute but Naropa was just getting started when I went there in the 70’s—it was a combination poetic school, meditation center, Tibetan language and dance.  Chogyum Trunpa was the guru—he was also a poet and Allen Ginsberg was his meditation student. Ginsberg brought many writers from the New York School—most of them were not teachers, although I have to say some of them took on teaching and made a real effort.  Anne Waldman was the co-founder and had lead the poetry scene at St. Mark’s Place in New York in the 60’s.  She was serious, hard-working but also had too much to do—I learned the most from her and also Ginsberg.  Allen realizing most of “the kids” coming here were influenced by the Beats and had read the Beats but not much else, backed up and began teaching classical literature back to Christopher Smart. I’d studied literature.  I had a Masters Degree in literature (from UNO) and was teaching English.  In the classes I took—I never was formally enrolled in a “writing program—just came in the summer when I was off from my teaching job at Northeast—no one addressed publication, chapbooks, et. al. They probably did that when they got accreditation and really offered a degree in writing.  In was the 70’s—much partying going on nightly, many, many readings, students from all over the U.S. and other places gathered together for just a few weeks in the summer—hot tubs, drinking (encouraged by Trunpa) and psychedelics.  Sometimes it was surprising anybody got any serious writing done. I mostly learned about poetry there by going to so many readings and letting the sound just wash over me and not worrying about meaning,

My creative writing students at Northeast were mostly beginners—people who were yearning to write but didn’t know how to get started.  We spent time reading good writing and discussing it, doing assigned attempts in whatever form they wanted to create.  I tried to help them find “their subjects” by having them make a presentation about a significant emotional event in their life and then do some writing about it.  They had to read aloud for five minutes at the end of the semester at a formal reading. My last couple years at Northeast I taught a Polishing, Publishing, Performing class where I addressed publication—they had to search for markets and send work out but we never got as far as collections (chapbooks).  Northeast is a community college—I wanted to build an AA degree in writing but never got it done.

I’ve been reading your spiritual memoir Path of Lightning: A Seeker’s Jagged Journey (Pinyon Publishing, 2012), a book that you note you worked on during a residency in New Mexico at The Mabel Dodge Luhan House. Taos is such a wonderfully, rich place for reflection and writing. How did your time there influence and support the writing of the memoir?

I love Taos.  I have a line in a poem which reads essentially, “God lives there” about descending from the shrine which holds D.H. Lawrence’s ashes on the Donner Ranch.  We started going to Taos in the 70’s to visit Natalie Goldberg who lived in an adobe house without a bathroom. She and her husband showered at the local pool.  We bought land with Natalie on the mesa; she lived in a Michael Reynolds House (made of old tires, ecological materials, and was solar powered).  We eventually sold her our land to build a Zendo.

The Mable Dodge House was wonderful–all the vibes and spirit of all who had lived/stayed there including Carl Jung (whom I taught in my mythology class), Lawrence, Ansel Adams.  I was asked if I would like to stay in the Georgia O’Keefe Room?! I pretty much stayed there undisturbed by Housekeeping who left me an occasional clean towel.  I walked downtown at night choosing from a myriad of fine restaurants for dinner.  The international film festival was on when I was there so I met some interesting artists/filmmakers at a reception Mable Dodge held.

I dreamed and dreamed.  I dreamed a whole poetry anthology with illustrations but couldn’t remember any of it on awakening.  (No tv, no phone) I dreamed the Pope died and was riding an elephant in eternity with Pir Vilayat (the deceased head of the Sufi Order).  When I called home a couple days later Husband told me the Pope had died.  When I talked to my spiritual guide later he told me Pir Vilayat loved elephants.

I wrote. I rewrote and sat absorbing the gorgeous ambience of creative energy and love (and chickens on the roof).

I’ve read two other spiritual memoirs—Mary Karr’s Lit (Harper Perennial, 2010), Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love (Riverhead books, 2007)and now have just finished yours, Path of Lightning. In reflecting on a moment about your publishing career and when you’d considered giving up writing, you write in Path of Lightning that, “In meditation the answer came to me. I didn’t need to give up writing. Writing brought me many rewards. I got to live my life twice, reliving the events I was writing about, embracing and cherishing them another time. My memory was a lot better than most of my friends’ memories because I was paying attention and taking everything in and then writing it down. Also, I had a wonderful written record of my life. I didn’t want to give all that up, even if I never published a book. The only solution was to give up the suffering. The comparing and the competition, feeling the injustice of others’ work getting recognition while mine was not,” (199-200). After you’ve given up suffering, you begin publishing books and chapbooks and winning awards for your work. What other spiritual lessons transformed your career as a writer since the release of your memoir? Has your writing changed directions since the release of Path of Lightning?

The writing hasn’t gotten any easier.  I still have to sit in front of the blank page but I know if I persist, as William Stafford said, “Something will occur” and, if I keep at it regularly, writing comes more easily.  I wrote a poem nearly every day in April (Poetry Month) and the poems came more quickly and without as much struggle by month’s end.

Let’s see—spiritual lessons:

  • To aid other writers as much as possible.  Their successes do not diminish mine.
  • Becoming more conscious and present.  Then I am able to take my experiences in more deeply and remember “Details.”
  • Love beauty and make as much of it around me as possible.
  • Breathe—slows you down and makes you aware.
  • I find myself remembering old songs (some from the 50’s) and sometimes incorporating snatches.
  • Attempting to be open—even to forms of writing I don’t “get” at immediately.  To look and see what’s there that could inform my work.
  • Sufi practice is basically to try to see the Divine in everyone, everywhere.

Changed Directions? Perhaps more precise and descriptive. I am writing some things I don’t necessarily want to share with everyone.  Ginsberg taught me early not to censor and people remark on the honesty of my work but lately some things I’ve never told anyone have appeared on the page. I want to write more prose, personal essay.  I wrote a whole notebook full about my relationship with my husband, then quit.  I’m not ready to share this or know what will become of it. I am a grandma now and I’m noticing I’m thinking more about what goes into print.

How do you define chapbook? A chapbook is a small book of poetry—usually 20-25 pages, collected around a particular theme—and appeals because it’s small and inexpensive.

What makes a good chapbook? A good chapbook would be alive, skilled writing with a theme threaded through the poems. Most importantly the poems in a chapbook have to play off of each other in some way.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? Several years ago Mark Sanders, when he had Sandhills Press, brought out a whole chapbook series titled Main-Traveled roads with well and lesser known poets, a couple books of essay in there too.  They were wonderful, inspiring—I think I have the whole series—about 18.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Greg Kosmicki and Matt Mason probably have impacted my writing the most as far as chapbook poets—I also have not had access to many chapbooks lately.  Two women from my writing group, Karen Wingett and Lin Brummels have new chapbooks from Finishing Line.

What’s next for you? Next?  I’m wondering about a chapbook collection of my long poems—haven’t seen anything like that.

Current chapbook reading list: I could use a chapbook reading list!  Not had access to newer ones.

Number of chapbooks you own: I probably own about 50 chapbooks—could be more, didn’t go through my whole library…

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: I’ve read all of those—I think I’ll read them again—got them out to answer these questions—they are calling to me.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. My commitment to the community?—if someone has a chapbook, I’ll buy it if I know about it!

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: You must be kidding about how I spend my chapbook earnings?!

Your chapbook wish: I wish all good chapbooks would find a publisher and a wide audience.

Residence: I live in Norfolk, Nebraska

Job: .  I am emeritus professor of English and a writer.

Chapbook education: I have had no chapbook education.

Chapbooks: The Lives if the Saints (Sandhills), The Upside Down Heart (Sandhills), What Bob Says (Pudding House) and I keep thinking there is one more but I don’t find it on my shelves.

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CFP BARED anthology on bras and breasts, deadline September 18, 2015

Forthcoming from Les Femmes Folles Books, Bared seeks art and poetry on bras and breasts by women writers and women artists. Poets and artists bare their best breasts clad in bras, bare-chested, or both to boast their barbaric yawps in poems, in paint, in pictures, and art. Bared features artful couplings and dynamic duos, and is double trouble, double the fun, and sometimes in double Ds.

Bared explores the gendered narratives that clothe the body. Considering gender subversion in poetry to critique the traditional male gaze, theories on the gendered body, and feminist reflections on the love/hate relationship women have with fashion and the body, the poets and artists collected in Bared resist narratives on the female body by boldly presenting alternatives. The critical introduction draws on feminist scholarship and poetics of resistance and disobedience to consider how objects that adorn us tell stories about the gendered body and how work across artistic genres offers strategic moments of resistance. Bared presents one hundred poets and artists, including the artists Lee Child, Lauren Reinaldi, Maria Raquel Cochez, Amy Kollar Anderson, Bonnie Gloris, Janet Decker Yanez, and the poets Denise Duhamel, Maureen Seaton, Nin Andrews, Alison Luterman, Jehanne Dubrow, Diane Lockward, Alicia Ostriker, Ellen Bass, and many, many more.

Poetry Submission:

New, unpublished poetry is preferred. Submit 3-5 unpublished poems along with a 50-100 word bio in the body of the email or as a doc to <lesfemmesfollesbooks(at)gmail.com> (replace (at) with @ in sending e-mail) with “Bared Submission” in the subject line. This is the preferred submission. Please also include in your submission a list of your favorite poems and art about bras and breasts by women.

Or: The anthology will accept previously published poems, as long as the author retains the rights to the work or that it can be reprinted at no cost other than acknowledgement to the original source. Submit 3-5 previously published poems along with a 50-100 word bio in the body of the email or as a doc to <lesfemmesfollesbooks(at)gmail.com> (replace (at) with @ in sending e-mail) with “Bared Submission” in the subject line. For this submission, please also include the following: 1) the title of your poem; 2) the name of the book, journal, or anthology where it originally appeared; 3) the name of the press or journal who published it; 4) the year or issue it was published. Please double check to make sure that you as the author retain the rights to this poem(s) or that it can be reprinted at no cost other than acknowledgement to the original source. Please also include a list of your favorite poems and art about bras and breasts by women.

Art Submission:

Submit 3-5 images as a .jpg labeled with your last name and title along with a 50-100 word bio written in the third person in the body of the email to <lesfemmesfollesbooks(at)gmail.com> (replace (at) with @ in sending e-mail) with “Bared Submission” in the subject line. Please include an art information sheet. Please also include a list of your favorite poems and art about bras and breasts by women.

All contributors will receive a copy of the anthology as well as a discount to purchase additional copies. Deadline for submissions is September 18, 2015. Exhibitions, readings, and events are already in the works.

the chapbook interview: Abigail Welhouse on bad babies, color coding poems, and pre-00’s

Bad Baby author

Humor informs the poetics in your chapbook Bad Baby (Dancing Girl Press, 2015). What poets do you admire who do this same work? What specific collections or styles do you find provocative?

I admire poets that can pivot between lightness and seriousness (or inhabit both places at once). Sometimes playing with language can make us jump from something cartoonish to finding out something true. I liked both of Patricia Lockwood’s books, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black and Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals. I heard her read “The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics,” about Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, at the Sarah Lawrence Poetry Festival last year, and she was hilarious in a way that made me think.

I also enjoy work by poets who don’t keep themselves locked into tight genre boundaries, like Joyelle McSweeney’s play The Contagious Knives. She said in an interview with Entropy that her exuberance is “more volatile than her rage.” I identify with that.

Bad Baby jacket

Your sequence addresses issues of gender—violence against women, gender roles, motherhood, sexuality and desire—and of course, the cover is bright pink. How does feminism inform your work?

Those are all issues that I’ve written about much more directly in some of my other poems, like “Immaculate,” a poem about the Virgin Mary that the Heavy Feather Review published. So I’m glad that you can still hear them in this chapbook, which is more playful and aggressive, and I think less direct in its approach to feminism.

I started writing Bad Baby after I heard a “This American Life” episode about babies gone bad. How do we know if that could happen to us? Maybe we don’t. Maybe we know very little about what’s going to happen to us in our lives. So part of what I want to address is uncertainty, and how everything, especially love, is a risk.

The cover design is based on a retainer that I had made on a recent trip back to Appleton, the town in northeast Wisconsin where I grew up. The orthodontist told me that the technology had changed a lot since I’d gotten my previous retainer, and that he could make it look however I wanted. I asked him to make it hot pink, with a black skull & crossbones, and the words “Bad Baby.” I sent a photo to Kristy Bowen, my publisher, and she found that gorgeous bright pink cardstock that you see today. I love that it reminds me of a zine in the punk or riot grrrl traditions. We also thought about putting glitter on the cover, but ultimately decided it was too much trouble to figure out how to make it not get everywhere.

Bad Baby is your first chapbook. What did you learn in your MFA program about the chapbook as a genre?

I most often heard about chapbooks as an end-of-semester portfolio that contained all of the final revisions, thoughtfully ordered, with a title page, and maybe with a photo of a French bulldog wearing a monocle on the cover (okay, maybe that was just mine). I was in a few workshops that exchanged chapbooks at the end of the semester, whether physical copies or electronic.

I remember feeling panicked when I was first encouraged to figure out how to order poems in a manuscript. David Groff, one of my professors at CCNY, was exceptionally patient, and encouraged me to look at what poems speak to one another, and whether I have poems that ask questions that others start to answer or otherwise explore.

Michelle Valladares, another CCNY professor who was also my thesis advisor, had a useful suggestion. She told me to print out a tiny version of my manuscript, with four pages fitting on one page, and cut it up to have an easily-rearranged physical version of my manuscript. I taped the miniature pages to the wall in a tiny room in my apartment that I call my Poetry Room. (When I say tiny room, it’s in the way that people in New York sometimes call their fire escapes “balconies.” It’s about 25 square feet, which is just enough room to have a wall for poems in progress, and another wall for my friends’ broadsides. Right now I have some from Elaine Equi, Lisa Marie Basile, Anthony Cappo, Gregory Crosby, and Joanna Valente — and the last three of those include art by Ted Chevalier.)

In addition to using these miniature printed copies to rearrange poems, I ended up doing a lot of color coding. Certain poems felt blue, others red, sometimes both — so I marked the sheets with crayon scribbles. I don’t have synesthesia, but I find that trying to apply one kind of art to another is useful. I think of how I used to arrange tracks on mix CDs for my friends. That’s a similar skill to putting chapbooks together.

Myth, whimsy, popular culture, and the unexpected juxtaposition of imagery fills Bad Baby. I should say, specifically, thank you for including Lite-Brite in your poem and the many references to the pre-00’s era. Talk about your writing and inspiration process.

When I wrote Bad Baby, I was writing a poem a day for National Poetry Month for the first time ever. I wrote the title poem, which was first published in the Cross Review, on April 1, 2014. Almost every poem in this chapbook is a revised version of something I wrote that month. I also started sending out Secret Poems — what I call poems that haven’t been sent out for publication yet — on tinyletter.com/welhouse.

I wrote the poems with pre-00’s references while watching all six seasons of Dawson’s Creek on Netflix. I never watched this show when it was on the air.  I was (and still am) one of those chronically over-scheduled people who can’t commit to watching a show in real time. But I started watching it, and before I knew it, I was hooked on what’s essentially a Greek play of a teenage drama, with the players contractually clad in American Eagle.

Michelle Williams, who plays the “bad girl from New York,” is a national treasure. In lesser hands, that character would be a complete cliché, straight out of a reductive madonna/whore dichotomy. But Michelle Williams gives her nuance, and she’s so luminous that you can’t help but watch. (This is still true — I got to see her in Cabaret on Broadway last fall, and she gave Sally Bowles a real sense of vulnerability.)

I also kept thinking, as I was watching, how strange it must be to start out relatively unknown, and transition to being huge celebrities while still playing the same characters. You always hear about teen celebrities wanting to break free and make people notice that they’re not children anymore. Maybe in some ways, teen celebrities are the ultimate “bad babies.”

How do you define chapbook? A short book, sometimes focused around a particular theme.


What makes a good chapbook?
I like to read books that make me see things differently than before. The same as a longer book, I think.


What chapbooks are inspiring you these days?  
When Bad Baby was first accepted by dancing girl press, I read a bunch of other dancing girl press poets. I particularly loved Twos by Emma Aylor, Undressing by Nicole Steinberg, Mesmer by Joanna Penn Cooper, Talking Doll by J. Hope Stein, In the Way of Harbors by Alexandra Mattraw, and S by Sarah V. Schweig.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? I look for which poems have something to say to one another.


How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet?
Writing a lot, and getting older.


What’s next for you?
I’m working on a full-length manuscript, Immaculate, and another chapbook, Too Many Humans of New York.


Current chapbook reading list:
Nicole Steinberg’s Clever Little Gang, Lisa Marie Basile’s war/lock, J. Hope Stein’s [Mary]:, and many more.


Number of chapbooks you own:
Let’s see. I own five chapbooks from the Operating System (Spooky Action at a Distance by Gregory Crosby and all four from the woodcut series), 7 or 8 from dancing girl press, The Ice Poems by Paige Taggart, The Heart That Lies Outside the Body by Stephanie Lenox, and various others from friends and poets I’ve seen read over the years. Oh, and I also have about 50 copies of Bad Baby under my desk right now. I ordered them for a reading I’m doing with Bushwick Sweethearts at Mellow Pages in Brooklyn on Saturday, May 9th and for the Poetry Festival in Cedarmere on Sunday, May 17th.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Buying more copies of my own chapbook.


Your chapbook wish:
I would love if a teenage poet from the Midwest, like I was once, read Bad Baby and was inspired to write a poem in response. Wouldn’t that be nice?


Residence:
Brooklyn, New York
Job:
Book publicist and horseback riding instructor

Chapbook Bio:  Abigail Welhouse is the author of Bad Baby (dancing girl press, 2015). Her writing has appeared in The ToastThe Morning News,The RumpusLyre LyreYes Poetry, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the City College of New York, sends Secret Poems at tinyletter.com/welhouse, and would like to talk to you on Twitter: @welhouse.

the chapbook interview: Lindsay Lusby on the mother-beast of a poem

Lindsay Lusby

Your work as an editor and poet gives you the opportunity to work with several different genres of publication—literary journal, anthology, broadside, letterpress—as well other venues of literary culture such as writer-residencies, salons, readings, and launches. What do you admire about the chapbook form as a genre and vessel for poems?

I don’t think there is anything else that does just what a chapbook does for presenting and shaping poems. When I began writing Imago, it was a huge experiment for me. It was the first time I ever attempted writing poems in a series, interconnected pieces that create and continue a lyric fairy-tale narrative. Although it’s almost impossible to sustain this over 40-60 poems, a length of 10-20 poems is just right—the Goldilocks quotient. These parameters also gave me the freedom to explore narrative possibilities in a way that I never had previously when my focus was on the smaller frame of the individual poem. Where one poem ended, I could pick up the lyric thread and continue to push it further. My chapbook experiment forced me to push past the mystery that I like to leave my poems suspended within. I had to find answers to the poetic questions I posed. The interconnectedness of these poems also made them very dependent upon each other for meaning and context, which meant that they lost some of their potency if presented as individual poems (say in a literary journal or anthology). This could be considered a weakness in the poems, but gathered together in their intended sequence in a chapbook, they seem to form one bigger and stronger poem. That’s what I think the chapbook does best, when it works: assembles a group of poems into one larger mother-beast of a poem.

 

Imago (Dancing Girl Press, 2014) is your first chapbook. What did you learn in the writing classes and workshops you took in college about the chapbook as a genre? Talk about your classroom experiences that informed your thinking about the chapbook.

Of all the creative writing workshops and classes I took as an undergrad, I don’t really recall much mention of chapbooks, sadly. There was plenty of focus on how individual poems work (and don’t work) and on analyzing full-length collections, but no chaps. My introduction to chapbooks actually came through the letterpress printing and bookbinding workshops I took during that time. So I learned about the history of chapbooks as folk art, as object. Their intersection with the publication of contemporary poetry just served to draw me in further. Because of this introduction, I will always think of chapbooks as both physical artifact/art object and vehicle for poetry.

 

Your chapbook Imago is a coming-of-age story of fairy tale and myth. What are the strategies you admire of other contemporary writers who do similar work in the genre? Talk about your interest in retellings.

My two favorite retellers of fairy tales and myth are Angela Carter and Kate Bernheimer. They completely embrace the inherent weirdness of fairy tales, and then they amplify that weirdness. Carter takes it to the carnivalesque and Bernheimer to dark and visceral whimsy—both nurture the tales’ grotesqueries. I think I favor Bernheimer’s approach more in my own writing; although in my reading, I love both equally. In her fabulous and insightful essay in The Volta, Kate Bernheimer called all of this the “fairy way of writing,” after Dryden. She articulates so many of the qualities of fairy tale that were previously inexplicable to me: everyday magic, intuitive logic, flatness, abstraction. These are the things that make fairy tales and myth such fun to play with and rearrange.

Link to Bernheimer essay: http://www.thevolta.org/ewc30-kbernheimer-p1.html

 

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 for the chapbook?

I think this will always be a difficult area because the audience for chapbooks is even smaller than the audience for poetry in general. But I think the presses themselves have a great way of forming an instant sisterhood among the poets they publish, even if they haven’t met before. There’s a certain something about our writing that makes it Dancing Girl Press material, so we’re already more likely to have a natural affinity for each other’s work. And because of that, our audiences also naturally overlap a bit and every DGP poet I’ve met online or in person has been so generous about supporting my chapbook and the chaps of other DGPers, even sharing their own spotlight. I mean we are each other’s audience! It’s a connection that feels much more familial than it does competitive, so our instinct is to cheer on each other’s successes because any DGP win feels like a victory for each of us individually, too. Maybe that’s just me? But I don’t think it is. I think reading and thoughtfully reviewing each other’s chapbooks is a great strategy. Because who knows and appreciates the art of chapbooks better than we do? We are the ones who can best explain to the uninitiated what is so important and beautiful about chapbooks. Holding collaborative events—readings and salons, especially events that bring in a second medium like music, visual art, etc.—is also a fantastic way to simultaneously support and celebrate each other’s work while presenting it to an audience of potential readers. The most successful and engaging events I’ve held or attended feature a meeting of connected but separate arts media. For celebrating chapbooks, what about an event that is both a reading from chapbook poets and a demonstration of bookbinding or printing techniques? I would love to attend that!

 

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days?  Try a Little Time Travel, by Natalie Lyalin (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010) is one of my all-time favorite chapbooks. It is perfect in its sense of play. Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, by Sally Rosen Kindred (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013) is also a fantastic chapbook discovery of a few months ago.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? I look for poems that need to be alone together. Those poems that really need to get a room because they’re making the other poems around them uncomfortable with how intimate they are with each other.

 


What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on building my first full-length poetry collection, which I’ve called Catechesis. I’m also working on a collaborative chapbook with my poet-friend Emma Sovich, called Women’s Work. We’re both letterpress printers (she’s actually just completed her Book Arts MFA at the University of Alabama!) and proud feminists. For such an industrial art, the letterpress printing renaissance that we’re living right now is also largely populated by women (you can check out this awesome group called the Ladies of Letterpress here: www.ladiesofletterpress.com). And all of these awesome women in the print shop has us feeling like the proper granddaughters of Rosie the Riveter—at home amid the smells of lead type and rubber-based ink, working to the hum of the motorized proof or platen press. Our collaborative chapbook will attempt to use the cast-iron imagery of the print shop to create a contrast with the traditional notion of softer, domestic tasks as “women’s work.” Emma and I hope that, in the end, the fifteen to twenty poems we write for this chapbook manage to construct a kind of printers’ feminist manifesto (or even a feminists’ printing manifesto).

 

Current chapbook reading list: I picked up a stack of new chapbooks at AWP Minneapolis that I’m excited to begin: The Greenhouse, by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet (Bull City Press, 2014); Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike, by Emilia Phillips (Bull City Press, 2015); No Girls No Telephones, by Brittany Cavallaro & Rebecca Hazelton (Black Lawrence Press, 2014); Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens, by Ross Gay & Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Organic Weapon Arts, 2014); and Should Our Own Undoing Come Down Upon Us White, by Jill Osier (Bull City Press, 2013).

Number of chapbooks you own: 35 (I think!). At least, those are the ones I can find right now.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 21 (that I can remember right now!). I still have a good amount in my stack to get to reading.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: The little I make from my chapbook goes toward the lofty goal of helping to pay down my credit card balance, which is primarily a healthy mountain of vet bills for my dog and two cats.

Residence: Chestertown, Maryland

Job: Assistant Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College

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

greg

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.

greg books

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