chapbook poetry

the chapbook interview: Sarah A. Chavez on craft, revision, the job market, and chapbook advocacy

The Writer’s Chronicle September 2014 issue features Debra Spark’s mediation on research and writing. In her essay she quotes Lorrie Moore who said, “For the writer, the facts of life are like ingredients in a kitchen cupboard…the cake you make is the fiction. That’s how life and art are related” (87). Talk about your work as a poet, your poems in All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), and your sense of making art from life.

I find this quotation fascinating. I love cake, and I love fiction and poetry. To think of these as being the same makes a lot of sense, even though it never occurred to me before. Cake is made of so many things that on their own amount to little use (flour, baking powder, vanilla extract) but together they create this nourishing, soul-warming, textured experience, much like poetry. What is a word on its own? A letter? A comma? Together though they make meaning, and like the cake, can be simultaneously sweet and nurturing, both comforting and maybe a little bad for you.

When I’ve been asked if the relationship in the chapbook is “true,” if there was a real Carole and if am I the speaker in the poems, I have a hard time giving anything but a convoluted answer. Whether I say yes or no, both are true and both are false. Poems cannot accurately represent the people in our lives or the situations we experience. We are, in essence, forced to pick and choose the ingredients that help us tell whatever particular story we need to tell at that moment. The first “Dear Carole” poem came to me while working on exercises for a poetry forms class during my PhD program. I was having a hard time deciding on which form to use and a hard time deciding what to write about; so I went for a walk and began to ask myself questions. I realized that half the time I ask these kinds of questions, or narrate my activities (yes, I can be caught narrating my activities, sometimes in song – if I was a better singer, I’d be great in a musical!), I rarely feel as if I’m talking to myself. I’m not always talking to the same person, but I do often go back to those people I have lost. It feels as if they know my problems all the way around, or conversely that they don’t know anything about my life, which makes me wonder if I would seem like a stranger to them.

After the first “Dear Carole” poem was written, what continued to fuel these poems were feelings of loneliness during my PhD program. I have made wonderful friends there that I am still in close contact with and whom I love, but I often felt like the me in this program, the me in this lovely, low-crime Midwestern town, the mean in such a privileged position that I could go walk around a lush and tree-thick park whenever I didn’t know what to write was notreallyme, but an alternate version of myself. A cleaned-up, gentrified version. A lie self, maybe. I knew what was really inside, and it wasn’t what I showed those people who I wanted to respect me, to take me seriously.

So the poems in this chapbook are culled ingredients from the different versions of love I’ve received and expressed in the past, the space for self-reflection I’m afforded now, from the relationships I mourn. They are my attempt to negotiate feeling lost while in the middle of stability, to feel anchored to memory in a way that honors it without losing the present.

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We both recently attended the keynote talk by Barbara Shoup at the Indiana Writers’ Consortium Conference and Bookfair. During her talk, an audience member asked Barbara how she knew when her novel was finished. She quoted Toni Morrison by saying, “All art is knowing when to stop.” Talk about knowing when a poem is finished, about knowing when a chapbook is done.

Barbara Shoup’s keynote resonated for me particularly when she spoke on missteps and revision. She shared with the audience that she had to write her way into a book. She may have a clear idea regarding plot, but it is often necessary for her to experiment then with point of view, character relationships, etc. I feel that is rather representative of my own process regarding the writing of a poem.

I often begin with an image or a feeling and that becomes either a starting or ending point for the writing. Part of my problem with writing is that I rarely know when a poem has ended. My first “ending” usually comes because I run out of fuel (so to speak) and don’t know what comes next. Most of the time, nothing needs to “come next” and in fact, a poem’s real ending is somewhere half a dozen or so lines before my earlier draft’s last line. Of course ending a poem does not mean a poem is finished. Unfortunately for me, I am a slow writer. More accurately, I may write a lot quickly or in a short period of time, but then need a long time for revision. I have learned that in my writing process, I often become attached to the idea I think the poem was going to be, but then need to put it away for a week or so before returning to it. If when I return there is a coherent/cohesive feeling invoked by reading it, I know it’s close to being done. I think of my poems as slivers of an emotional experience expressed through narrative. Even if the emotions are complicated, I want to make sure that the language is precise, and there is nothing extraneous, no images or words that aren’t working toward getting the reader to the end of the poem. Everything must have a purpose.

An integral part of my knowing when a poem is finished is sharing it with a fellow poet and then someone who is not a poet. Often the fellow poet can talk with me about the craft side of the poem and whether or not the devices used are working toward what I wanted to communicate. Then listening to feedback from the reader who is not a poet helps me gauge the poem’s overall success. My main goal with writing is to communicate stories or experiences that represent peoples or situations main stream culture often ignores or presents in shallow, reductive ways. If the non-poet reader doesn’t get (at least partly) what I am trying to communicate, the poem definitely isn’t finished. I guess in this sense, I rely rather heavily on community for knowing when a poem is done. The writing of the poem is solitary and very internally driven, but the finished product is dependent on a community of readers. This isn’t necessarily because I think I don’t know how to finish a poem, but rather that I want an audience bigger than myself. I want as wide an audience as possible. If I were just writing for myself or for people who were just like me, I think my experience writing would be much easier. But I personally do not see the value in such exclusivity.

As for knowing when a chapbook is done, I try to look for the arc in a larger narrative. The chapbooks that appeal to me most are those that have strong individual poems, but together present a larger narrative. For All Day, Talking, I wanted each letter-poem on its own to further develop the relationship between the speaker and Carole. As a whole though, the letters work together to illustrate grief and the speaker’s attempts to negotiate living with that loss. When I wrote “Dear Carole, I wake up like this now” (which was originally titled “All Day, Talking”), I knew it would be the last poem in the chapbook. The first poem worked to introduce the relationship and the situation between the speaker and Carole, and I wanted the last one to highlight the most important aspect of their relationship, or at least ultimately how the speaker feels about Carole. After I had those two poems in place, it was about filling the spaces in between. When working on a chapbook, I usually try to amass a small store of poems, see how they speak to each other, and then let them show me what the larger, more comprehensive narrative is. Once that story feels full, the chapbook is most likely done.

cover pic from DGP page

I recently attended the Omaha Lit Fest and Karen Shoemaker said during her panel presentation, “Be willing to be an advocate for your own work.” Writers often talk about promotion and book sales, but not advocacy. Some argue that chapbooks are not viewed with the same prestige among some circles as a full-length book, books from university presses, or books that win prizes, awards, and national contests. Do chapbooks need advocacy? Do poetry collections from small presses need advocate work? How are you an advocate for the chapbook work you’re doing?

This question is, and was this past year, so salient for me. I was in the process of graduating and was on the academic job market (a phrase I can only say with a minimum of a quarter of an eye roll – I mean, how much more like a product could we make ourselves sound?) and I was getting advice and warnings from every which way, and specifically a lot of advice about what kind of publications I would need to be a desirable candidate. At that point my chapbook had been accepted by dgp and had a tentative release date, so when asked about whether I had a book or not (this is what makes or breaks your success for many creative writing academic jobs), I would tell people about my chapbook. Sometimes this was met with interest and other times with confusion, like, “wait, I just asked if you had a book, not a chapbook.” And while I understand there is a difference between a full-length poetry collection and the significantly shorter chapbook, it appears that as an industry academics is saying that quantity always trumps quality, and that quality can only be judged by those presses who exclusively publish full-length collections. This is an issue with fiction as well; many fiction writers must contend with whether it is enough to have a collection of short stories (or a chapbook of stories, as is becoming more common) or does one need to publish a novel. This bias not only effects academic environments, but also literally what texts are available to the public at large.

Because of the mixed reactions I encountered about the legitimacy of the chapbook as something that “counts” on one’s CV, I would most certainly say that the chapbook as a legitimate form needs advocacy. It is no coincidence that many presses that publish chapbooks have feminist mission statements or actively seek the work of writers of color and queer writers. The chapbook form and independent presses are addressing the dire need for more diversity within literary publishing. Each year VIDA exposes the disturbing statistics regarding the continued imbalance of male to female writers being published in the “top” literary journals and magazines. I can’t imagine that the diversity of race/ethnicity fairs any better. If as readers we want to have access to different voices, we must support the small presses and alternative publication models, such as the chapbook. It is important for readers to have the possibility of different narrative structures (and narratives). Frankly, the truth of the matter is that many of the national awards and university presses have established identities, established relationships with certain regions or economic environments, which can translate into a particular type of writer being published. I am not implying that these established relationships are purposeful necessarily, but rather that when something has been functioning in one way for fifty or a hundred years, it is difficult to look outside that aesthetic (both in writer and writing). Like the debates regarding the literary canon in educational institutions, it is important to ask ourselves, who are the gatekeepers, and what are we being kept from?

At this point, the advocacy I’m doing for my chapbook work is to get the word out as much as possible, which currently that means doing readings, interviews, writing book reviews of other chapbooks and small press books, as well as teaching chapbooks and small press collections in the university creative writing and literature classes I teach. Next semester I am privileged to be teaching two sections of an introduction to poetry literature course and an intro to creative writing class. These are students who have a very limited idea regarding where “good” (read validated) literature comes from, and I see this as a perfect opportunity to introduce them to alternative texts and writers. The current overwhelming popularity of shorter mediums (Twitter, Facebook status updates, journals like Brevity, etc.) seem to make this historical moment the perfect time for the chapbook to really assert itself and the potential it holds.

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How do you define chapbook? A chapbook is contained and complete. The poems work on their own, but tell a more complicated/nuanced story together. Also, I think the industry consensus regarding length is somewhere between 16 – 40 pages, so you know, like a largish snack: something small enough to eat on the train, but substantially filling.

What is inspiring you these days? Seeing the successes of writers that I admire. It is immensely gratifying to see writers who are hard workers, whose work I think is amazing, have the successes (large and small) they so rightly deserve. It fills me with hope and excitement for the future landscape of contemporary poetry.

How are you trying to get better as a poet? By writing of course, but equally important, reading. Reading and copying lines from poems that stand out to me, then free writing on what about the line makes it stand out, whether it’s an idea presented, the musicality, the word play, etc. I want to feel the line, but then I want to understand how it functions.

What’s next for you? Well, I don’t want to say too much about this because my idea isn’t fully formed, but I’ve been doing some writing about turtles. I’ve always loved the sort of practical beauty of their shells and tough skin, the deliberate way they move. They are very important to indigenous mythologies of the Americas and I’ve been doing some reading on that. There’s a simplicity in the physical body of the turtle, as well as the structure of mythological origin stories and oral tradition that I’m feeling drawn to.

Talulah with chapbooks

Number of chapbooks you own: More than I remember! I don’t know, thirty-five maybe? Enough that they required their own box(es) when my partner and I moved.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Less than I want. I’ve read most of the ones I own, and certainly peruse chapbooks at indie book stores or book fair tables at AWP. Do those count?

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Other than reading and purchasing other poets’ chapbooks, I’m excited to be able to assign them to my poetry lit and creative writing classes. That not only presents the form in an institutionally validated environment, but it also shows young readers and writers the possibility of the chapbook and hopefully encourages them to want to read more and/or write their own.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Ha! Well, at this point, with my modest earnings, I’m mostly reinvesting, as it were, by buying other chapbooks and paying for cups of coffee at the coffee shop where I like to write in the late mornings on non-school days. If I am (p)lucky enough to make more, I want to use it to fund a DIY chapbook tour.

Your chapbook wish: Is this a wish for my own chapbook or for chapbooks as an art form? Though I guess my wish for both is the same: more visibility.

Residence: Huntington, WV.

Job: Visiting assistant professor at Marshall University where I teach literature, creative writing, and composition.

Chapbook education: My most influential chapbook education came from the wonderful poet Grace Bauer at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. In her forms poetry workshop we were asked to assemble a chapbook for the final project. That’s what really got me thinking more about seriously about chapbook structure and its many options.

Chapbook Bio: Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of the chapbook, All Day, Talking published by Dancing Girl Press (2014). She holds a PhD in English with a focus in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry Review, So to Speak: Feminist Journal of Language and Art, and Acentos Reciew, among others. Her manuscript, This, Like So Much, was an Honorable Mention for the 2013 Quercus Review Press Poetry Book Contest. A selection from her chapbook manuscript All Day, Talking won the Susan Atefat Peckham Fellowship in 2013. She is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop. www.sarahachavez.com
pic with glass from July 2014 (1)

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