I adore collaborations and couplings of art and poetry. I recently attended the Art & Words Show curated by Bonnie Shufflebeam, a show that starts with a CFP for art and words. After the art is selected, the curator assigns one short story, essay, or poem to an artist and one piece of art to the writer. The artists and writers then have a few months to create something inspired by the assigned work. Can you talk about the collaborative work you did with Chad Woody who illustrated your fabulously titled chapbook Wonder Girl in Monster Land (Dancing Girl Press, 2012)?
Yes! I share your enthusiasm for cross-media collaborations. The type of collaborative process you describe as part of the Art & Words Show is so fertile—as an individual who works primarily in text, I appreciate the ways a compelling piece of visual art can jump-start me from a groove I’m stalled in and propel me in new directions. (I recently reconnected with an old friend who started a press with a similar collaborative mission, Prompt Press: http://promptpress.com/). The collaborative process between Chad Woody and me for Wonder Girl in Monster Land was somewhat different, however, because I’ve known Chad, and his work, since 1999, when we met in the M.F.A. program at the University of Florida. Chad is one of those insanely talented people who excels in a multitude of creative fields—(a vast range of) visual media, poetry, prose, performance art . . .To experience what I mean, spend some time exploring his blog: http://cranialstomp.blogspot.com.
When I wrote Wonder Girl in Monster Land, my process diverged from previous writing projects, was inverted, in the sense that I arrived at the umbrella mood and logic of the chapbook before I had any of its specific text or details. Although Monster Land shifted and adapted as the individual poems in it took shape, the composition felt primarily like a top-down operation. But when I eventually completed a draft of the manuscript, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was an element of its world I couldn’t realize in text; that’s when I first thought about enlisting the aid of a visual artist. Chad was the first person I thought of since I have always felt that, despite differences in our projects or processes, our work shares an affinity for the dark, the irreverent, and the whimsical/absurd. But at the same time, his work commits to risk and doesn’t fold its hand when the emotional stakes are high.
Chad and I have kept in sporadic contact since Florida. A few years before I wrote Wonder Girl in Monster Land, I had sent Chad an (unrelated) email asking if he could build me a bird-sized coffin. His response was classic Woody: “Crow-sized or sparrow-sized?” I wrote back “sparrow-sized,” and a hinged wooden coffin, just what I had wanted, arrived soon after. This anecdote perhaps demonstrates why I had such a high level of confidence that I could just send Chad the chapbook manuscript, and he would come up with brilliant illustrations. I felt more comfortable NOT dictating a lot of instructions or parameters because I didn’t just want to enlist his technical skill; I wanted to enlist his visual imagination and energy. And the results were amazing. My one regret is that I had no clue how labor-intensive the illustrating work I had asked Chad to do would turn out to be. You get a sense from the reproduced illustrations, for example the ones for “On Halloween” and “On the Conditional,” how incredibly detailed the drawings are. But the reproductions don’t even come close to the originals. I have a print from the original etching of “On Halloween,” and the level of detail is unbelievable—you can make out the expressions on the most distant faces in the crowd around the door, and you can see each grain of wood in the kitchen table. I owe him significantly more than one.
I love the poems “Mix Tape (Hypothetically in Love)” and “10 Amendments (An Erratum).” These, like so many in your chapbook and like other poems collected in your full length collection Like Oysters Observing the Sun (Black Lawrence Press, 2014), are funny and smart as they experiment with poetic form. Can you talk about poetic experimentation?
I’m glad you mentioned “Mix Tape” because the background to its composition is particularly funny in the context of your question. As my family can attest, I’ve always had a stubborn streak, so when someone lectures me on why I can’t do a certain thing, my brain immediately starts spinning out how and why I can. If someone tells me I must do x, I immediately begin to transform that x into y/why. I wrote “Mix Tape” in response to the assignment, given in one of my graduate workshops, to write a sonnet. I occasionally do write sonnets of my own volition, but being asked to produce one on command activated knee-jerk evasive maneuvers. For some reason, the translation of sonnet as “little song” was floating around in my head, and I think I was (somewhat subconsciously) thinking, “I’m not giving you that little song; you’re just getting a bunch of little song titles.”
Though I certainly don’t model my poetic vision on Plato, I’m happy to twist his words into a more general response to your question; for me, necessity is the mother of experimentation. If I’m adapting or distorting a particular form or mode of expression, it’s because I can’t work out any other way of communicating what I mutably perceive I might mean. I can’t snap my notions of poetic experimentation into line with ideas of objectively designed experiments or implementations of controlled variables. I have no hypothesis until a discovery is already palpable. And then the discovery sensibly rediscovers itself.
I love the idea of knee-jerk evasive maneuvers activated by workshop assignments and the ways they can inspire poems. And too, that friendships started in graduate school can manifest later into collaborations that produce beautiful chapbooks. I’ve been thinking about writing and community, those that foster creative exploration and others. The Writer’s Chronicle September 2014 issue features an interview with novelist Xu Xi who contrasts her business life with the writing life. She explains, “Publishing is a loathsome industry, one that is too much about connections and where you came from and privilege…publishing and the literary life, generally, is a lot about whom you know and even where you went to school…the whole literary scene is a lot more about the one degree of separation than not. In time, you learn to play the game” (73). Xu Xi is a novelist. How true do you think this is for poets? How important is community for a poet, who you know, where you went to school, and learning to play the game?
The question of community, how to cultivate and sustain it, is vitally important for any writer—poet or fiction writer. I think it is crucial, however, to distinguish between network and community. Although networking, making professional connections, overlaps with and can absolutely lead to community, it can also jeopardize the potential for real companionship if it privileges elitism over sincere, mutual respect and support. My suspicion is that “playing the game” is a bigger factor in fiction, where the stakes are (or are at least perceived to be) higher than in poetry. But I am not familiar enough with the intricacies of the publishing industry to make any definitive claims. It does seem clear, however, that the lifeblood of contemporary poetry is in small presses. I can only speak about those with which I have personal experience, but I think that, largely, small presses are building essential channels for community. I’m thinking about Kristy Bowen at dancing girl press, and what she has accomplished, almost single-handedly, towards providing exposure for a huge community of women writers. Jen Tynes, Mike Sikkema, Erica Howsare, and Jennifer Denrow at Horse Less Press; Nathan Hauke and Kirsten Jorgenson at Ark Press; Gina Myers at Lame House Press; Dawn Pendergast at Little Red Leaves; the folks at SP_CE in Lincoln, NE; Bruce Covey and Co. at Coconut—all these people exemplify for me a true spirit of and dedication to community. Diane Goettel and the editorial staff at Black Lawrence Press had likely never heard of me when they plucked my full-length manuscript for publication, but they believed in my work and labored tirelessly to bring it into print. Do editors of small presses sometimes publish people whose work they already know? Sure. This is a problem when it interferes with those presses’ abilities to provide access and range. We all need to push ourselves harder to expand the borders of our community. This extends, in my mind, to pushing ourselves, those of us who are teachers, to expand the communities of writers we assemble in our syllabi. This extends to pushing ourselves to diversify and challenge the community of writers we make a place for on our bookshelves.
One of my mentors at the University of Utah, Don Revell, said very early on in my studies that only “a good person can write good poetry.” In typical knee-jerk fashion, I immediately thought to myself, “Nope, obviously not true. I can think of plenty of poets who act like total assholes and write pretty brilliant poems.” But Don’s statement stuck with me. The more I began to let go of worrying about whether I thought other poets and writers met this standard and focused only on how it applied to me, the more I realized it was true. I couldn’t be a good poet if I wasn’t a good person. This realization has been my salvation in some very challenging times.
In your forthcoming chapbook Fallout & Flotation Devices (Little Red Leaves, 2014)—which includes the pieces “Notes,” “Conflated Color Index, Autocad,” and “Memorandum” with subsections of intention, discussion, background, and foreground—gestures towards research, a research that might resist some readers expectations. Let’s talk about research and writing the chapbook. How do you deal with the transition from research to writing? At what point in the writing process do you research and why do you do that research? When do you take notes?
The transition between research and writing in most of my projects—Fallout & Flotation Devices is no exception—is extremely fluid. From the moment I learned to read, my appetite for knowledge and explicit detail has been insatiable. Whatever spare moments I had were lost in books—to the extreme that when I turned 16 and learned to drive, I realized that I really didn’t know how to get much of anywhere in the city I grew up in; all my passenger time had been spent reading. Reading (in a frenetically wide range of subjects—neuroscience is an enduring stimulant) sparks most of my writing. A sheer infatuation with some fact or idea fuels initial lines or sketches. But then those lines or sketches are not sharp enough to satisfy me, so I have to go back and dig up more information on the subject, or basically on the subject, or very tangentially related to the subject. I’ve had to learn to cut myself off from research at a certain point, however; otherwise, I find that the research process often becomes a procrastination technique to avoid the sometimes-difficult generative work that needs to follow.
I also often borrow forms from genres that I, somewhat unwilling, have had to engage with in my professional life. “Memorandum,” for example, opened out from my need to find creative outlets when I’ve been forced to teach technical and business writing classes. (I once made my business students convert William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just to Say” into memo format. They loved it?).
Every aspiring writer who has sat through a creative writing workshop has probably heard that old gem: “Write what you know.” I think this is terrible advice if you interpret it as your cue to circumscribe your writing into the narrow, limited world you ordinarily inhabit. If, however, you take this advice as a challenge to know more, to know widely, then I think it is genius.
How do you define chapbook? I think of a chapbook as the tiny house model (artisanal and/or DIY) in the poetry construction industry.
What is inspiring you these days?
1) Close to home:
When I moved back to Omaha after spending most of my 20s and 30s in other parts of the country, I found myself re-enamored with the Mid-West’s grassy, unraveling spaces, all its rusting mills and factories. Over the past few years, I’ve taken frequent regional road-trips, from Moscow, IA, to Oregon, MO. My favorite of these journeys, however, took me to Monowi, NE, population 1. The sole resident (and mayor, bar-tender, librarian) was unfortunately out of town for the weekend, but I had a great time exploring Monowi’s abandoned frame houses and trailers. It’s a town I definitely plan to revisit. These mini-journeys, coupled with Nick Reding’s Methland: The Life and Death of an American Small Town, provided much of the inspiration for “The Great Plains Alchemy of Weather” (the second section of Fallout & Flotation Devices).
2) Cross-section of more universal pursuits:
Marxist and post-Marxist theory. Dialectic force fields.
Dreamers, self-starters, work-horses scrambling every day to provide and improve the poetry community. In addition to those people and presses I mentioned above: Megan Kaminski and the Taproom Poetry Series, Hanna Andrews and the women of Switchback Books, Zack Haber and the Other Fabulous Reading Series, Lara Candland Asplund’s features on her Girls in a Tight Place blog, this wonderful chapbook interview series (!), MC Hyland at DoubleCross Press, Nate Pritts and H_NGM_N, the folks behind The East Bay Poetry Summit, everyone at VIDA fighting the good fight, Pussipo, 100 Thousand Poets for Change . . .I could go on in this vein for a LONG time.
The Eclipse archive and UbuWeb.
Neuroscience, phrenology, biology, apiology, gross anatomy, taxidermy, botany, natural history, geology, Victorian sciences . . .
How are you trying to get better as a poet? I’m always trying to increase the depth and breadth of my reading. That’s my abiding longitudinal tactic. But I’ve taken a much different approach in the last five or six years. When my graduate funding evaporated, I had to put my studies on hold to work full time (+). I wasn’t sure if or how I would ever find the resources to finish my degree, and I think the potential for despair or bitterness was there. But, at the same time (this was right at the start of the economic recession), I was acutely aware of how many people’s lives, particularly those who were already extremely underprivileged and vulnerable, were being devastated by the financial crisis. I funneled my employment search into social services and began working in support services for chronically homeless individuals, street kids, prison inmates. Although this may seem paradoxical—because committing to the work I was doing severely limited the time and emotional resources I had left to invest in writing and academic pursuits—struggling every day to combat (in whatever tiny way I could) the enormous heartaches of poverty, mental illness, and addiction was the single most important thing I could have done for myself to improve as a poet.
What makes a good chapbook? Elliptical vision. Embroidery that curls away from strict linearity.
What’s next for you? I’m hoping to finally complete my PhD in the next year, and I’m very purposefully trying not to think past that hurdle yet. If I do, I may never finish.
Your chapbook credo: Sew love, not war.
Number of chapbooks you own: 40-50
Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 70-80
Residence: Omaha, Nebraska
Job: I recently took a hiatus from working in homeless outreach and support services, and am now employed as a graduate consultant at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Writing Center. I work part time as a free-lance editor and also for Disability Support Services at a local community college. In my spare time, I’m attempting to wrap up my much-delayed PhD in creative writing and literature.
Chapbook Bio: Brenda Sieczkowski’s poems and lyric essays have appeared widely in print and on-line journals including The Colorado Review, Versal, The Seneca Review, Bone Bouquet, Ilk, The New England Review, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Diagram, The Florida Review, Gulf Coast, Poet Lore, Dusie, Sidebrow, and Subtropics among others. Her chapbook, Wonder Girl in Monster Land, was published in 2012 by dancing girl press. A second chapbook, Fallout & Flotation Devices, is forthcoming from Little Red Leaves. Like Oysters Observing the Sun, her first full-length collection, was recently released by Black Lawrence Press.
Where we can find your chapbook:
You can find Wonder Girl in Monster Land here:
Fallout & Flotation Devices will be available shortly from Little Red Leaves’ Textile Series:
If you’re game for a longer ride, my full-length collection, Like Oysters Observing the Sun, is available here: