I love your use of punctuation as titles in Six Portraits. You open your chapbook with the epigraph from Jennifer DeVere Brody, “Punctuation marks can serve as both sense and sensibility—as the most human element in certain sentences,” an epigraph that speaks to the tension you create in your poems as you consider issues of family and love. Talk about your interests in punctuation and poetics.
I’ve been working as a copywriter since I finished my MFA, so now I’m more of a grammar and punctuation geek than ever before. Punctuation is so often used incorrectly, but its use—and misuse—can have a tremendous impact on a sentence’s meaning. I always thought of each mark as having its own identity, and these poems were a way of exploring that. I found the “.” poem the most difficult to write because the period is really the king of punctuation. All the other punctuation marks in the book (except the parentheses) are visually derived from the period, and the “.” poem is about the struggle of coping with power. I placed each of the six punctuation poems with two other thematically related poems to create the six portraits in the title of the book. For example, the “.” poem is in a portrait with two other poems about “stops,” or, specifically, deaths: “When the First Father Dies,” and “On Seeing the Bag of John Lennon’s Bloody Clothes.” But it’s not quite as morbid a portrait as it may sound!
Jeffrey Hecker’s chapbook Hornbook and Katrina Vandenberg’s book The Alphabet Not Unlike the End of the World look at the shape typography makes of letters, much like the work you’re doing in your poems “?” and “!”. Likewise, some of the poems in Six Portraits move from the ekphrasis to wonder why and how art was made. Can you talk about your dazzling impulse to approach punctuation as art?
“?” was the first punctuation poem that I wrote, and it was actually inspired by a book that Melissa Khoury, a close friend who is a graphic designer, was writing about typography. Her book explored the history of each letter’s visual representation, and she photographed letters in unusual circumstances, including a “y” frozen in an ice cube. I loved the idea, and I started looking at punctuation in a similar light. Many of my other poems take art as a starting point, so the idea of looking at the question mark as an art object makes sense, although I don’t think it was a deliberate move at the time. In the book, I placed the “?” poem with two poems about art pieces—both of which question whether a work actually is art—to create the first “portrait” of the book. While none of the other punctuation poems focus as explicitly on art, “!” and “,” both also play on the punctuation’s shape. I tried to give each punctuation mark its own persona, and some of the later poems focus more on the use of the punctuation mark than its look.
Many of the poems in Six Portraits address issues of grief and loss, joining the rich tradition of poets writing of these issues, such as Emily Dickinson’s “I measure every Grief I meet” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Were you ever scared to write about such topics?
Absolutely. But I was actually much more anxious about showing the poems to the people I’d written about over the years. About a half hour after I received the incredible news that Slapering Hol was publishing my chapbook, I realized that I had to show some of my friends and family the poems I’d been keeping from them. Many of the poems in Six Portraits about grief aren’t about my own losses. Instead, they’re about the helplessness I feel—that so many of us feel—when someone we love is grieving the loss of a child or parent. And, of course, we can’t help but fear that grief coming to our own door. It ended up being a really good thing to have those conversations with the people I’d written about. They liked the poems, and I felt that I’d said something to them in print that I wasn’t great at expressing in person.
Let’s talk press and publication. Do your poems, in their final form, turn out the way you want them when they reach the readers’ hand on the printed page of the book? How does the form of the book constrain or free your poetic expression?
Because a lot of the poems in Six Portraits are about art, the way the book looked was really important to me. I’d always imagined the cover of my first book being Bombshell, this incredible sculpture by the artist E.V. Day. Made of fishing line, turnbuckles, and fabric, the sculpture looks like Marilyn Monroe’s white dress blowing up in The Seven-Year Itch—if Marilyn Monroe’s dress had exploded. My poem, also titled Bombshell, is shaped to look like the sculpture. I had first seen the work in The Wexner Center for the Arts on the Ohio State campus, but it’s now owned by the Whitney Museum. Margo Stever, co-editor of Slapering Hol, was tremendous in working with E.V. Day to get permission to use the image, which E.V. Day graciously donated.
A lot of the poems in the book have long lines, so the book’s designer—Ed Rayher of Swamp Press—put it in a landscape format that complemented the book’s structure. It’s beautiful, which I can say because I definitely can’t take any credit for it. Slapering Hol is known for putting out lovely chapbooks. So I’d say my poetic expression was freed in ways I never dared expect.
Given that you’ve just had a first chapbook released from Slapering Hol Press, what’s the influence of performing your poems on your writing—does the anticipation of reading or giving readings influence how your work appears on the page?
When I’m trying to decide if a poem is finished, I sometimes ask myself if I’d choose it over other poems to read in front of an audience. If I wouldn’t, the poem either might not be done or it might not be worth finishing. But I also have poems that I just think work better on the page. For example, the punctuation poems in Six Portraits play with how the layout of the poem relates to the punctuation mark, so I do think they come across differently when read aloud.
What is inspiring you these days? How are you trying to get better as a poet?
I always find reading the work of other poets to be inspiring. If I’m in a writing slump, I often realize that I haven’t been reading enough poetry. I also find that being a spectator for other arts—whether by going to an art museum, the ballet, or the theater (all of which I love)—can also help me come up with new ideas. I’m trying to get better as a poet by working more steadily. I believe much more in writing every day rather than waiting for inspiration, but it can be difficult to do with a family and a full-time job. I’ve been better about it this year than I have in a long time, and I find I’m enjoying that time more than ever. My husband, David O’Connell, is also a poet, and he’s an amazing editor. So I’m really lucky to get help with my poems without even leaving the house.
Your chapbook credo: A shorter format offers room to experiment.
Number of chapbooks you own: About 30
Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Probably around 50
Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I support other chapbook poets by buying their work, going to readings, and lending their wonderful chapbooks to other readers. My favorite chapbook to promote is A Better Way to Fall, which is a great collection by my husband David O’Connell.
Where you spend your chapbook earnings: I bought a slice of my favorite Russian Tea Cake, a cappuccino, and some extra copies of my chapbook to sell at readings.
Your chapbook wish: That more people appreciate this unique book format
Residence: Providence, Rhode Island
Chapbook education: I actually learned a lot by losing chapbook contests. My first attempts were more of a collection of my best work than a cohesive, thematic chapbook. I read the chapbooks that did win and realized how to put a chapbook together. One of my favorites was Character Readings by Bern Mulvey, which won the 2011 Copperdome Chapbook Award.
Chapbook Bio: Julie Danho’s chapbook, Six Portraits, won the 2013 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition. Her poems and essays have appeared in Barrow Street, Mid-American Review, West Branch, Southern Poetry Review, and Bellingham Review, among other journals. She received an M.F.A. from Ohio State University and has been awarded fellowships in poetry from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or juliedanho.weebly.com.