chapbook

the chapbook interview: Cati Porter on echapbooks

How did your echapbook what Desire Makes of us published by Ahadada Books in 2011 begin?

Every day in April, in observance of National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo), Robert Lee Brewer of the Writers Digest Poetic Asides blog posts a series of poem-a-day prompts. In April of 2009, on the heels of having written (al)most delicious, which is an ekphrastic persona poem series after Modigliani’s nudes, I was between projects and looking to begin something new. Setting a goal to write a poem-a-day following the Poetic Asides prompts seemed a good way to force myself to commit to writing every day, as well as also a possible way in to another project. The first prompt that I wrote to that month involved writing an origin poem, and what came out of that was “the origin of Desire”. When I wrote that poem, I allowed myself to do some automatic writing; I had no idea where I was going, or even where I was coming from, just that I wanted to birth some sort of character.

I was in the second half of my first year in the MFA program at Antioch University, and had been reading a lot of work by women that were loosely categorized as “Gurlesque”, a term coined by Arielle Greenberg to describe a trend she was seeing in the poetry of many younger women poets including  Chelsey Minnis, Catherine Wagner, Matthea Harvey, Jenny Boully, Brenda Shaughnessy, Brenda Coultas, and Sarah Vap, plus other experimental-ish women poets such as Alice Notley, Ann Lauterbach, Lynn Emanuel, Molly Bendall, Rae Armantrout, Eileen Myles, & Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg, who co-edited the Gurlesque anthology. Most of my writing prior to entering my MFA program had been rooted in a more conventional, semi-autobiographical narrative; with my chapbook small fruit songs I had begun to break free of that, and even more so with the poems in (al)most delicious, but I had made a determination when I entered the program that I wanted to push myself past my comfort zone — way past it — in order to drive my work into new territory.  Simply put, a lot of what the theory of the Gurlesque emphasizes involves is a sort of braiding of aesthetics — the girly with the grotesque, carnivalesque, & burlesque. That first poem, written “The origin of Desire”, birthed the character that became the impetus for the series. Then every day when Robert Brewer posted a new prompt I would write a new poem, keeping that character — desire personified as “Desire” — in mind each time. Some days I wrote multiple poems in a day, I became so involved, so by the end of the month I had enough poems to fill out a chapbook-length project. I mention the Gurlesque not to say that I think this series fits neatly into that aesthetic but to assist with mapping the evolution of the project, with my introduction to some Gurlesque-ish poets as the starting point and the completed illustrated e-chap as its end.

How long did you spend writing it? How many versions did it go through before you reached the final?

I spent the entire month of April that year, with just a couple more written later to provide a more cohesive opening and closing of the series. The poems required very little revision, and none of them changed substantively during the revision process. However, because I realized that the series ended rather abruptly I wrote a final poem that was intended to sort of wrap things up, and because I also wanted there to be a sort of circular feeling I wrote a new opening poem that attempted to mirror the final lines of the closing poem.

Hm. Or maybe it was the other way around? I don’t remember!

How much time did you spend find a home for it?

Well, my circumstances with this manuscript are pretty unusual. I don’t expect anything like this to happen again. But –I hadn’t sent it out at all! In fact, after I completed it I immediately went back to revising the Modi poems, a.k.a. (al)most delicious. To explain: That same April I gave a reading at Skylight Books in L.A., and a poet whose work I’d admired for years — Catherine Daly — was there to listen. Afterward, she mentioned that she was curating an electronic chapbook series for Ahadada Books and she was interested in seeing the rest of the Modi poems. But as happens sometimes, life intervenes and I completely forgot to send them to her. Some months later we were in touch again, but by this time I had found a home for (al)most delicious with Kristy Bowen’s Chicago-based dancing girl press. So I said, “But I do have this other series…”, and Catherine graciously agreed to look at it. It was only days before she wrote back to say that yes, she wanted it for their e-chap series. However, because I had enlisted an artist to create illustrations for the project (more about that later on) and because they were still in the draft stages at that point, quite a bit of time elapsed between acceptance and publication.

What about the publication of the individual poems prior to the echapbook publication? Several of the poems were published during National Poetry Month and in online venues. Did you seek to publish these poems in print, online or a mix? Is there a balance you prefer?

I love to publish both online and in print, because I believe they reach different (though often overlapping) audiences. As the founder & editor of two online literary journals, I have a fondness for and a sense of personal responsibility in fostering the success of electronic publications, so I have never shied away from publishing online. One thing that I did shy away from, though, was publishing poems on a blog, because often that disqualifies poems from more formal publication. But because I was writing them so quickly and as part of Robert Brewer’s NaPoWriMo project, and was in fact kind of thinking of them (yikes!) as “throw-away” poems, I went ahead and posted most of them to the comments form on Poetic Asides blog like everybody else. When, at the end of the month, a panel of other poets (I don’t remember who) chose the best from each day, and mine were fortunate to end up in the top five on several of those days, I was a little shocked, but thrilled.

After NaPoWriMo ended, though, I kind of put them away and did not actively pursue publication of any of the poems. One acquaintance personally solicited work for a desert-themed print literary journal so I sent her the couple that mentioned the desert, but beyond that, nothing — at least not until just last month: On a whim I submitted some work to a very cool, eclectic online magazine that includes a weekly poetry feature, The Nervous Breakdown. I sent them a set of poems that included one from what Desire makes of us, along with its accompanying illustration, and to my astonishment that is the one they decided to publish. It will be featured on their website on March 3, alongside a “self-interview”.

Your echapbook is entirely illustrated with art by Amy Payne. Tell me more about that collaborative process. Did you know the artist? Was she suggested to you? How involved were you with the development of each illustration and the overall echapbook layout and design?

I don’t think I could know any artist better than I know Amy Payne: She is my baby sister! Amy has been creating art practically since birth. She began winning awards for her art in middle school, continued with it through high school, and went on to apply to and be accepted by the art school at Virginia Commonwealth University; she recently completed her BFA and is now embarking on a career as a freelance artist.

It was our family’s idea that we collaborate. Because we live on opposite coasts (Virginia & California) we rarely get to interact in person. But on one visit I learned that her art was veering off into strange territory — disembodied gorgeous female forms in odd surroundings — my first thought was, Wow, this seems very much the same sort of aesthetic that the Gurlesque embodies. While it worried our folks (!) and made some of her art instructors cranky, I loved it, and felt that it was firmly rooted in 3d wave feminist theory. So I sent Amy some of the poems from the series and she loved them and agreed to do the illustrations. In most instances her drawings are a response to the poem rather than a literal depiction of the action, which was exactly what I wanted.

As for the layout and design of the e-chapbook, I was not involved in that at all, except to give my final approval. Ahadada has a consistent format that they use for all of their e-chapbooks, so there was very little leeway.

What was the time between acceptance of your echapbook and publication? How much editing of the poems and manuscript did you do during this time? When did you know, really know, it was done and ready for the world?

It was accepted December 17, 2009, the same day that I submitted it. It was released March 10, 2011. I did very little revision, if any at all. And — when does *anyone* really know? I’m still not sure! But there it is. It’s out there. At some point, one just has to let it fly.

It seems there might be a lingering distrust of electronic and online publication and a rigid adherence to print publication among some poets, writers, and editors. Were you concerned at any point with echapbook versus print chapbook publication? What advice would you offer other poets considering epublishing their chapbooks?

A lingering distrust? You must mean people like this guy. But that post was written in 2009, the same year I wrote this series, and I think even in that short amount of time opinions have changed. With the advent of the internet and the proliferation of online literary journals and more and better formats emerging for e-publishing, that fear & distrust is slowly being eradicated. Think of all the e-readers out there — Kindle, Nook, & Kobo being the ones that come to mind, as well as the iPad and other tablets, and even the iPhone and other similar multi-functional products that facilitate reading on the go without having to lug a heavy book (or books) around. Don’t get me wrong, because I love print — I love the feel of a book in the hand, the way I can (and do) dog-ear pages or write in the margins — but I am slowly being won over by the e-reader. My husband has one, my sons each have one, and I have downloaded a number of classics (for free!) onto my iPhone. I do usually carry a physical book with me, but for those times when it’s impractical, I have been glad to have something with me to read.

In the case of my own e-chapbook, my only concern was the fact that it is free; there are those who don’t value a thing unless they’ve shelled out some hard-earned cash. But the flip side is that by keeping it free it frees us from the constraints of a cash-based economy, and makes it available to *anyone* who has a device that is capable of downloading it. I like that. I like that my work can get into the hands of virtually anyone.

If someone is considering e-publishing their chapbook, my suggestion is this: do not treat it any differently than you would a print-publishing press. Do your homework. Make sure your work is a good fit for their list, and when it comes out, promote it as you would a chapbook from any of the fine physical-chapbook-producing publishers, like dancing girl press, Finishing Line Press, Pudding House, etc., *especially* if the press is not charging a fee for downloads. Every press has overhead, and it is a mistake to think that just because it’s in the virtual realm there are no production costs. Whether or not the press pays its staff, the staff pays — with their time, with their expertise — and every one of them wants to see their publications succeed, even if all that means is good word-of-mouth bringing additional visitors to their site.

Has being the editor and founder of the online journal Poemeleon: A Journal of Poetry shaped your writing and sense of the publishing industry in some ways?

Absolutely. I love being an editor. I love how connected it makes me feel — to the whole poetry community, to the poets that I publish, and even to those that for whatever reason don’t fit with the issue at hand. Each that I encounter teaches me something new. Every time I publish a new issue it is a love letter to poets everywhere. I want to send a message to the world that poetry is loved, that poets are loved, and that there is value in the contribution that we are all making. I love being a gatekeeper because I love being able to fling those gates wide and let in the lovely — and not just the lovely, also the scary, the dangerous, the absurd, the gross, the sad, and the mysterious; it is all a testimony to the complexity of the human experience. We are all of the same tribe even if we each feel more or less aligned with particular camps, and it is imperative that we strive to support one another.

What current projects are you working on?

My MFA thesis, a full-length collection titled My Skies of Small Horses, has been making the rounds for a couple of years now, so that is a project that I will continually tweak until it finds a home. I also have a number of other projects in various stages of completion. But probably the most exciting of these for me are the new poems that I’ve been writing toward a new full-length manuscript. I’ve had this particular line in my head (which I won’t disclose at this time) that has been informing each of the poems, and the pile is growing. What I will say is that the collection includes whales and I’m not sure why.

Number of echapbooks you’ve downloaded:

I’m not sure I’ve actually downloaded anything… but I have read a few on the web. See below.

Number of echapbooks you’ve read:

Not enough, I’m afraid. I will say that for a while I was very interested in the works being produced by Scantily Clad Press; their blog seems to be gone but the books are still available via issuu.

Ways you promote other writers:

By hosting readings. By publishing. By buying & reading books, and by writing about them. By posting links to things that catch my interest via social networking, Facebook in particular. By posting the good news of contributors on Poemeleon’s blog, which is linked to our Facebook Fan Page so it’s gets double the exposure, and through my blog.

Where you spend your poetry earnings:

Poetry earnings? What are those? Anything I get, which isn’t much, goes back into my poetry one way or another — either by way of contest entry fees or to buy more books.

Inspirations and influences:

I’ve already talked about the poetic school that has influenced me the most in recent years, so I’ll talk about other genres: I love to read, and have recently been reading Margaret Atwood and Susan Straight. I also love art and am especially intrigued by Julie Heffernan’s surrealistic self-portraits with their bare-breasted women wearing dead-animal skirts and featuring gorgeously strange landscapes, as well as Matthea Harvey’s photographs of miniatures. For music, recently I have been compulsively listening to an album by Laura Marling called “Alas I Cannot Swim” which I will forever associate with the Antique Copper paint made by Behr — and the smell of said paint. Also, my interactions with my kids undoubtedly inspire and influence me, reinforcing my tendency toward playfulness and strangeness and the absurd.

Residence:

I live in Riverside, California, home to The Mission Inn and centrally located so that on any given day we are only an hour or so away from the beach, the mountains, Disneyland, Griffith Park, Balboa Park, San Juan Capistrano, the Norton Simon Museum of Art, The Huntington Library and Gardens, and any number of other fabulous places to force-feed my children culture and art and nurture their love of animals and nature.

Job and education:

In addition to being the founder & editor of Poemeleon, I am heavily involved with a local nonprofit dedicated to promoting the literature of our region, the Inlandia Institute; I am currently the Publications Coordinator as well as one of their creative writing workshop leaders.

I have an MFA in Poetry from Antioch University. I do not have a Bachelors degree.

Bio:

Cati Porter is the author Seven Floors Up (Mayapple Press), the chapbooks small fruit songs (Pudding House) and (al)most delicious (dancing girl press), and the illustrated e-chapbook what Desire makes of us. A poem & illustration from what Desire makes of us, along with one of their signature self-interviews, will be live on The Nervous Breakdown on March 3. More work is forthcoming in the anthologies Women Write Resistance (Blue Light Press, ed. Laura Madeline Wiseman) and Fat Gold Watch (Fat Gold Watch Press, ed. Christine Hamm). She lives in Riverside, California, with her husband and two young sons. You can find her on the web at www. catiporter.com.

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