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The Chapbook Interview: Grace Bauer on the Chapbook Workshop

When I took your graduate workshop in poetry, you framed the class as an invitation to create a chapbook for the final portfolio, though when you teach the advanced poetry workshop it is required. How do you structure the class to make such a project possible?

Creating a chapbook as part of the final project is more than an “invitation” in my advanced poetry workshop; it’s a requirement. The class is also a workshop/seminar on poetic form, so I do frame the chapbook as a kind of book/form or genre, and ask the writers in the class to think about the composition of the manuscript, about how the poems can speak to each other, and a potential reader, in different ways, depending on arrangement. About how the whole can become more than the sum of its parts.

I added the chapbook requirement to this course – which I generally teach every other year – maybe ten years ago, and have continued to include it because it has proved very successful. I originally added the requirement to give the class some kind of focus beyond the poetic forms that students are also required to work/play with in the class. This includes both “traditional/fixed” and “experimental” forms. (I put those labels in quotes, because my mantra for the class is: all poems are, on some level, formal and all poems are, on some level, experimental). I thought that having a larger “project” to work on might ease the anxiety some students – though certainly not all – felt about “working in forms.” Another reason for adding the chapbook requirement was practical. It is often easier – and quicker – to get a chapbook published than a full length book, and I thought it would be beneficial for students to leave the class with a potentially publishable manuscript well under way.

The class meets once a week for two and a half hours, and we divide our time between discussion of formal “exercises” and traditional workshopping of poems – which may originate in the formal exercises or not. I have a sizable collection of chapbooks I share with the students, who are also invited to share any chapbooks they may have. Everyone’s required to review a half-dozen or more of them and share their reviews with each other so we can get a conversation going. The discussion is focused on what they think makes a successful chapbook and what doesn’t.

The general consensus tends to be that a successful chapbook has some kind of unifying principal that holds it together. Because the shorter form of a chapbook (as opposed to a full-length collection) invites the reader to – at least potentially — go through it from cover to cover in one sitting, the reader looks for a sense of cohesiveness, which is why I think chapbooks lend themselves to a poetic series. On the other hand, there tends to be a consensus among the students that there’ something like too much cohesion – or a focus that ends up feeling too singular, a kind of one trick pony. A balance between cohesion and complexity is what seems to work best.

Every few weeks the students bring in their own developing manuscripts and they pair up, or trio up, depending on the size of the group. We end up with pages spread out all over the many tables in the room, sometimes on the floors – whatever it takes. The students have to have a manuscript of about 24 pages by the end of the 16 week semester, which is a bit of a tall order – though I do allow them to include some poems they may have written in previous classes. It’s a struggle for some, but many end up with manuscripts they can begin submitting to publishers, which segues nicely into your next question.

Have your students been successful in finding homes for the chapbooks they created for your workshop?

The short answer is yes. Many students have published the chapbooks they created for the class – or versions of them. Liz Ahl, Karen Head, Benjamin Vogt, Amber Harris Leightner, Mathias Svalina, Megan Gannon, Jeff Alessendrelli, Trey Moody, Lisa Verigin, Christine Stewart Nunez – I’m probably forgetting some and will owe them apologies. Others eventually developed full length books that began with this class project – Zachary Schomburg and Joshua Ware come to mind. So the track record is pretty good. If nothing else, I think doing the work of this course better prepares students to put together their thesis or dissertation manuscripts when it comes time to do that.

When you teach the week-long chapbook workshop at the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference, how does your pedagogy differ?

I only taught that workshop one time, and it was a challenge but – based on my own observations and comments from participants – ultimately successful. The challenges were several: having only five days for the group to work together, beginning with a group of total strangers, having students ranging from 19 to 70-something years old in the group. Of course the group was also self-selecting; they wanted to be working on a short collection and they came prepared to spend their five days doing that. I had everyone send me five or six poems ahead of time – things they thought would be part of the manuscript – and we divided our time between critiquing individual poems and working on arrangement. As with my graduate course, people in the workshop served as each others’ readers. We spread out possible manuscripts on the tables and floors and shuffled and reshuffled. For one day, Zach Schomburg, one of the editors of Octopus Press, came in and talked about chapbooks from an editor’s perspective, and also about DIY possibilities. I know at least one person from that workshop self-published a limited edition of the chapbook he worked on. He is, I believe, quite happy with it.

You’ve had three chapbooks published – Where You’ve Seen Her (Pennywhistle Press), The House Where I’ve Never Lived (Anabiosis Press), and Field Guide to the Ineffable: Poems on Marcel Duchamp (Snail’s Pace Press). How did your chapbooks begin?

It’s been a while, so my memory may not be 100% reliable on this. Memory is also complicated by the fact that some of these chapbooks were in-progress simultaneously and at the same time as the full-length books. The House Where I Never Lived and Where You’ve Seen Her even came out around the same time – both in 1993 – so many things overlap.

House is different than the other two chapbooks in that it is not a series of poems, though one will certainly find recurring themes and motifs in the book – much of it about family and the idea of home. The poems in that collection were mostly part of my MFA thesis and part of a first book manuscript I sent around for a very long time. It was a finalist and/or semi finalist in more than a dozen contests – I stopped counting after a while because it became so depressing. So, at some point – out of sheer frustration — I put together a shorter version of that book as a chapbook and it pretty quickly won the Anabiosis competition.

Where You’ve Seen Her is obviously a series – based on Cindy Sherman’s early photographs, her “untitled movie stills” series. The poems aren’t a response to specific images so much as me trying to do a version of what I thought Sherman was doing in those photos – a kind of everywoman series of evocative scenes and scenarios. I sent that manuscript to Pennywhistle after seeing and admiring some of their previous chapbooks, and it was accepted, though they had page limitations and I had to cut several poems from the series when the chapbook came out. These were re-instated years later when I republished that series as a section of my full-length book, Beholding Eye.

Beholding Eye also includes the entire chapbook Field Guide to the Ineffable: Poems on Marcel Duchamp – another poetic series, though this one I never really intended to write. At the time, I was working on what became the first section of Beholding Eye – a series of ekphrastic and persona poems based on women artists and/or famous images of women in art. I decided I had to include a poem on Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, a painting I had seen as a child in the Philadelphia Art Museum and had an almost hallucinatory response to. I went back to the museum one summer to look at the Duchamp collection and ended up spending hours in those galleries. I became sort of obsessed. I came back to Lincoln and read every book on Duchamp I could find and started taking notes and writing all these poems that I knew would be as obscure as all hell to most readers, but I couldn’t not do it. I knew most of the poems would be difficult or impossible to place in journals, but as it turned out, I never had much time to try. Maybe three poems from the manuscript were accepted before the chapbook won the Snail’s Pace contest. So that one came out pretty quickly.

Tell me about the impetus to fold poems from chapbooks into books. Were your poems always part of “the book,” but the chapbook happened to be accepted first? Or did you envision the chapbooks as separate, but the idea of the book arrived later?

Where You’ve Seen Her definitely began as a series from the get-go, and I realized fairly quickly that the Duchamp poems “wanted” to be a series – but I had no idea how long either of those series would eventually be. My experience with working in series is that you just have to see where things go, let the creative impetus run its course. The first full-length book I published (though not the first I wrote) was The Women at the Well, a series of persona poems all based on women from the Bible. That series became a book – pretty much on its own volition. The poems just kept on happening. Until they – or I—ran out of steam. The other two series ran out of steam more quickly and ended up being shorter – mini series, if you will. Conveniently chapbook length.

Working in persona and working with ekphrasis are two things that have always interested me, and still do. I’m not sure why. Maybe I’m part frustrated actor and part frustrated painter, but, for whatever reason, I keep coming back to those two ways of  making poems. At some point it occurred to me that the two chapbook series, combined with the new series of persona/art poems I was working on, might make an interesting collection – a kind of triptych. And that’s how Beholding Eye came about.

Meanwhile, I was also working on other poems – more based in personal experience – which became Retreats & Recognitions. That was a manuscript I almost gave up on. It includes some poems that were written in the mid-1980s combined with work written in the same year it was accepted (2006). The manuscript had seen numerous incarnations, worn several titles, been a finalist or semi-finalist many times. I could barely look at the damn thing anymore. And I couldn’t really see the poems when I did look at them. Sometimes I’d think, “yes, this is definitely a manuscript; it holds together; it’s some good work.” Other times I’d think it was too all-over-the place in both subject matter and style, or that maybe the whole thing was just total crap – though most of the poems in it had been published in journals. I was about ready to put it in a drawer and move on.  Then I happened to be looking at Annie Finch’s book, Calendars — at the end of which she lists a calendar of when the poems in the collection were finished. The dates ranged from 1970 – 2000 — a much longer time period than the poems in my manuscript – so that gave me courage (and I’ve thanked Annie for this). Hilda Raz was also working on a book at the time, so we agreed to exchange manuscripts and provide each other feedback, as we’d done before. Hilda recommended I pull a few poems, rearranged a few others, and helped me choose between a couple of titles I was considering. I took pretty much every piece of advice she gave me and sent it out for what I swore was the last round of contests ever, and voila!, it won the Idaho Poetry Prize and was published by Lost Horse Press. This is a story I often tell to my students – a lesson in persistence. When I give them the old “life is short and art is long” lecture, I’ve got some street cred.

What about publication of the individual poems prior to the acceptance of chapbooks or books? Many of your poems appear in journals —The American Literary Review, Georgia Review, Poetry, Rattle, Southern Poetry Review, and many othersoften in print journals. Do you seek to publish poems in print, on-line, or a mix? Is there a balance you prefer of published and unpublished poems in a collection? What advice do you offer your students?

In my case – and I suspect this is true for many writers – much of this is out of our control. I generally work on individual poems for a long time; I revise a lot. When I finally consider it time to call a poem “finished,” I begin to send it out to journals. Some poems are taken quickly; others take a long time to find a home in a journal. There are so many factors involved in a poem getting published.

I tell my students another story — an experience I had early on in my publishing career: I sent a group of poems out to a certain journal and they were rejected. About six months later, I inadvertently sent the same poems back to that same journal. Not one word, not so much as a comma had been changed, but this time a poem was accepted. Why? I have no idea. I was not about to examine the teeth on that particular gift horse. I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of talent, the hard work of revision, the quality of the poems, etc. – but there’s also the serendipitous factor of the poems finding their way into the right editor’s hands at the right time. I guess that’s where persistence comes in. And what I can only think of as luck.

I don’t have any particular balance in mind regarding published and unpublished poems in a collection. A book can be fully realized, or not, either way – though I suspect having an impressive acknowledgements page may have some influence on the judges and/or editors reading a manuscript. As I’m sending chapbook or book manuscripts around, I continue to send poems to journals, and hope for the best on all fronts. Like most poets, I just want my poems out there in the world of readers, hopefully speaking to them in some way that matters – the way so many poems have spoken to me.

As for on-line and print journals – when I started publishing, there was no such thing as an on-line journal, so initially I was a bit skeptical of the on-line only versions. I’m also somewhat technically challenged, so for a while I even avoided journals with on-line submissions. But, I’m over all of that. I submit both ways and have been published in both kinds of venues – Blood Lotus, PIF Magazine, Switched-On Gutenberg, to name some on-line journals I’ve been in. I have a poem coming out in terrain, for which I also was invited to submit a recording of me reading the poem, which will be a nice addition to seeing it on screen. I certainly respect both kinds of journals. I advise my students to try both as well. It’s simply part of the times we live in – and who knows what on-line publishing will morph into in the future?

I will admit that I’m one of those people who still prefers the physicality of a book. I find it easier to curl up on the couch with a book than a screen of whatever kind, but that may also change as technology develops.

What advice would you offer other poets considering chapbook or book publication?

Do your best work. Revise and polish – both the individual poems and the manuscript as a whole. If you can, find a few readers you trust to be supportive but demanding critics/readers of your work, people who may see things with a fresh eye and offer you useful feedback. The beauty – and a great deal of the usefulness – of creative writing programs is that, for a certain period of time, they provide writers with that willing group of readers. It’s a good place to practice the old “do unto others” rule, a place to foster a community you may take with you when you go out into the so-called “real” world.

Once you think you’re ready to send a manuscript out, do your homework. Don’t waste time and reading fees sending to presses where the kind of work you do doesn’t have a prayer of being accepted. See what kinds of books the press has published, how they’ve promoted them, etc. Consider who the final judge is, if that information is available.

Of course, many – perhaps most – university and literary presses have limited advertising budgets, so a certain amount of responsibility for promoting a book always falls to the author. That used to mean mostly readings, but now there’s all the social media that can be utilized. I must admit to not being very good at this part of po-biz. I love to give readings; I love hanging out and talking to other writers, but I’m not very good at out-and-out schmoozing. It’s like behind my big mouth there’s a little bit of Emily Dickinson wanting to select my own society and shut the damn door on the rest of it, but I try to resist that urge.

Humor plays a big part in your poetry – and even in your author’s bio, your notes to the poems, your epigraphs. Why humor?

I’m not sure any writer can decide to try to be – or not to be – funny. It’s more a matter of temperament. Or perspective. I think humor – often of the dark variety – is just part of my world view I don’t know how to look at some of the things one witnesses every day and not see them as funny. Human beings are odd and quirky in such an infinite variety of ways – our interactions with each other, and even the “natural world,” are destined to a certain quota of absurdity, I think.

A few years back, for instance, I spent part of the fall living and writing at the Jersey Shore. This was nothing like the Jersey Shore of T.V. infamy, but a lovely little town – very quiet, fairly isolated out of season. I was looking for peace. I was looking for transcendence. I was reading A.R. Ammons and writing a response to his poem “Corsons Inlet,” an inlet which happens to be in the area I was staying. I’d take long walks on the beach several times a day, do a lot bird watching. I’d read a lot, talk to very few people, except on the weekends when I had visitors. One morning I was taking my morning walk after an overnight storm and the beach was covered with jelly fish – thousands of them — all small and clear and perfectly round (and totally gross to step on) — and all I could think of was how much they looked like silicone breast implants! I half expected to run into a gang of Pamela Anderson types, clutching their now under-filled double- D bikini tops as they side-stepped all the fake boobs littering the sand. This was not exactly a Mary Oliver kind of epiphany or a Wallace Stevens’ pondering of singer, song and sea! This was more absurdity than transcendence.

I did manage to write my Ammons’ tribute (that’s the poem coming out in terrain), which is suitably meditative in tone, and I have written a lot of poems that are perfectly serious, even somber, in tone and would not evoke so much as a smile from most readers, but now and then, absurdity continues to present itself – something to amuse my muse.

Or maybe it’s like the old bluesmen used to say – sometimes you gotta laugh to keep from crying.

Finally, can you talk about current projects you are working on.

I don’t like to talk about too many specifics early on, because sometimes the talk seems to dissipate the energy from the writing, but I do have both a full-length collection and a chapbook manuscript I’m sending around at the moment, and a longish abecedarian poem I think might make an interesting chapbook. I have other poetry projects in the works, and I’m also working on some prose – both creative nonfiction and fiction. The challenge is always finding the time for my own work amidst the tons of grading, advising, recommendation writing, etc. I have to do. That’s why god made summer vacation.

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