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The Chapbook Interview: J. Hope Stein on Invention

How did your chapbook, [Talking Doll], begin?

[Talking Doll] is an exploration of one of the characters from my full-length manuscript The Inventor’s Last Breath, which is about an inventor, loosely based on Thomas Edison. One of Thomas Edison’s inventions was the talking doll – an evolution of the phonograph.  I took advice from one of my mentors, Carol Frost, who read a few Talking Doll poems I had written and suggested I write more of them and imagine her more completely.  For my process, chapbooks are a playground for this sort of creative exploration.

How long did you spend writing it? How many versions did it go through before you reached the final? How did your peers and readers shape the revision process?

When this was accepted I think I had been working on the Inventor project for a little less than 3 years – but there are several working parts to the full book manuscript.  The poems that made it into [Talking Doll] were written in 3 or 4 spurts.  My peers, readers and mentors, know much more about poetry than I do– I learn so much from their feedback.

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

Dancing Girl Press was the first place I sent it– I was very lucky.   But don’t worry, I have a lovely history of rejection.

Tell me more about the poems and themes in [Talking Doll]. I’m enamored with the idea of inventor and inventions. There’s something so hopeful and haunting in the idea of creating something never to be seen before. I love how this comes out in your poems like “The Inventor’s Last Breath” and “Invention of the Talking Doll.” I’m equally thrilled by the sass in the second section of [Talking Doll]. How did you go about putting such a sequence together?

The second section — Half of it was the first thing I wrote over 3 years ago when I started this project.  It was very influenced by an article I read in an archived newspaper about “Light’s Golden Jubilee” – the celebration in honor of the 50th anniversary of the light bulb.    It was a huge party thrown by Henry Ford in 1929 in honor of Thomas Edison – all the luminaries of the day were there- Edison, Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Orville Wright, J. P Morgan, Charles Schwab, Herbert Hoover, Will Rogers, etc.  It seemed like an interesting intersection of American history, because 4 days later, the stock market crashed leading into the Great Depression.

At the celebration, there was a “let there be light” type of re-enactment of Edison inventing the light bulb.   The newspapers wrote about Edison as if he were a magician or a religious figure and that made a lot of sense to me.   So, the Talking Doll attempts to tell the story of her maker, who invented the light bulb, phonograph, moving image, electric chair, etc.  And, linguistically she borrows from Genesis and Whitman (a contemporary of Edison’s) to do it.

Titanic_poster

The “sassier” half, I wrote much later, after I randomly found myself at the 90th birthday party of an American film icon.  The décor of the room was early 1900’s elegance and many of the luminaries of our day were in the room and it was at a time when the economy was crashing.   There was a man I was sitting next to at dinner and I was telling him that I was feeling claustrophobic and that the room reminded me of the Titanic and that I could feel it sinking.  He responded – I was IN The Titanic.  Turns out he was an actor with a pretty prominent role in the film The Titanic.

The essence of the evening reminded me of what I was responding to in the article about the “Light’s Golden Jubilee” celebration that I read about in the 1929 newspaper.  I went home and wrote that night and what came out was a 1929-styled orgy involving Edison, Hoover, Rockefeller, J. P Morgan, Charles Schwab, Madame Curie and Will Rogers.

What about the publication of the individual poems prior to the acceptance from Dancing Girl Press? Some of these poems first appeared in print. Do you seek to publish your poems in print, online or a mix? Is there a balance you prefer of published and unpublished poems in a collection?

I haven’t published too many individual poems.  I keep meaning to do that.  Invention of the Talking Doll was published in Ping Pong and The Inventor’s Last Breath was published in Poetry International.  Both are publications I love.  It’s a good question- online vs print.  For me it depends on the piece.  For instance, I published my chapbook Corner Office with H_ng_m_n as a digital chapbook because I think the content lends itself to digital.

Tell me about that cover art, design and layout. I love Sara Lefsyk’s cover artwork. How involved were you with the selection of cover and the interior layout and design?

I cannot say enough about Sara Lefsyk. She is a rare artistic soul and I am very thankful she exists.  Look up Sara’s poems!

We’ve been trading work over the last 3 years or so and she sent me a handmade postcard in the mail with a line from my manuscript – “There are the things you can see and the things you can’t” with the illustration of the phonograph which appears on the cover with musical notes floating from the horn.   I just took an IPhone picture of the postcard and sent it to Kristy Bowen at Dancing Girl Press and she did everything else, including layout, choice of paper, etc.  I was really happy with the choices she made.

What was the time between acceptance of your chapbook and publication date? How much editing of the poems and manuscript did you do during this time? When did you know, really know [Talking Doll] was done and ready for the world?

It was accepted in the fall of 2011 and published in February or March of 2012.  I didn’t edit too much in that time.

Once you’d sent the final version of [Talking Doll] to Dancing Girl Press, how long did you wait until you had the chapbook in your hands? What did you do during this time?

It was in my hands a month or so after my final draft.  In that time, I focused on new work.

It seems there might be a lingering sense among some poets, writers, and editors: poets must win prizes. Even the May/June 2012 Poets & Writers discuss the necessity of contests to bolster memberships for journals, covering part of running and managing a contest, and creating opportunities for writers of poetry and short story collections a venue for publishing their books and chapbook. Were you ever concerned with this when considering where to submit [Talking Doll]? What advice would you offer other poets considering contests and open reading periods for their chapbooks?

Regarding where to send things and why – I think that is a very individual thing.  For me personally, as I mentioned, chapbooks are a playground to try things.  I feel very lucky to have publishers who support creative exploration – H_ngm_n, Dancing Girl Press and Hyacinth Girl Press.  I am thankful for what they do and they publish wonderful poets.

What advice would you give a poet about to promote their chapbook?  What advice would you offer to someone in giving good readings?

The thing that makes me write the way I do is the same thing that makes me uncomfortable in front of people.  But recently I found something powerful about reading in public that I can’t shake.  My goal in reading in public is to try to forget the audience and be alone with what I wrote in front of people.  There’s something unexplainable that I gain when I am able to do this.  It is so rare that I am able to do it but it’s enough to keep me seeking.   This is not advice, obviously, everyone has a different motivation for reading work in public, and my suspicion is that the best way for one to read is connected to the reason you wrote what you wrote in the first place.

What current projects are you working on?

The next installment of The Inventor’s Last Breath is [Mary] and it’s from the perspective of the Inventor’s wife, Mary.  It will be published this summer by Hyacinth Girl Press.  Also – a digital project – another installment of The Inventor’s Last Breath   – will appear on my blog sometime this summer.   And – I’ve been working on a new chapbook called Henry Miller’s Bathroom, which is comprised of pornographic shorts and playlets.

Number of chapbooks you own: not as many as I would like

Number of chapbooks you’ve read:  there’s no way to know

Ways you promote other poets:  poetrycrush.com

Where you spend your poetry earnings: cotton candy

Inspirations and influences: Byron, Whitman, American archived newspaper, Wallace Stevens, Beckett, Christopher Smart, May Swenson, Chester Brown, Henry Miller, Alice Notley, Ilya Kaminsky, The letters of Emily Dickinson, Kanye West.

Bio: J. Hope Stein is the author of the chapbooks [Talking Doll]:  (Dancing Girl Press), Corner Office (H_NGM_N BKS) and [Mary]:  (Hyacinth Girl Press).   Her full length manuscript The Inventor’s Last Breath was a finalist in the Alice James Books 2011 Kinereth Awards and her chapbook Light’s Golden Jubilee was a finalist in the 2011 Ahsahta Chapbook Contest.  J. Hope Stein is also the author of poetry/humor site eecattings.com, editor of poetrycrush.com. Her short film, The Inventor’s Last Breath, based on her full-length manuscript about Thomas Edison, was screened at the 2011 Cinepoetry Festival at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur and will be screened in several venues in 2012.

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