chapbook poetry

the chapbook interview: David O’Connell on first and best readers

Dave O'Connell photo 2

The Writer’s Chronicle September 2014 issue features Debra Spark’s mediation on research and writing fiction to consider when research overwhelms a work and when research enhances the story the author is seeking to tell. She writes, “you always need to ask yourself what justifies the inclusion of researched material” (97). You chapbook A Better Way to Fall opens with an epigraph on mythology and features several poems that explore myth, as well others on contemporary culture. Talk about research and inspiration in your work.

Though I find research can be very helpful in the revision process, I almost never begin a poem by first reading about the subject material. Whenever I’ve tried to write a poem around a number of interesting tidbits I’ve come across, the language of the poem always seems to fall flat. If I don’t begin with the music of the language as my primary concern, I become too preoccupied with my attempts to work in all the great trivia I have in my notes.

The majority of poems in the chapbook (the non-myth poems) were inspired by my response to things going on in the news. The myth poems began while I was writing my MFA thesis and decided to try my hand at the dramatic monologue. Though I had reread a number of accounts of the myth by the time I wrote “Ariadne,” I just relied on what I remembered of the myth when I began “Icarus.” It wasn’t until later that I decided to juxtapose the two types of poems and began to note parallels between the myth and post 9/11 America.

With both types of poems, however, once early drafts were written, I found it helpful to double check facts (both mythic and historic). Some of what I learned found its way into the final drafts of the poems. For example, while revising “Etymology,” I read up on the Manhattan Project and discovered that Fermi built the first nuclear reactor under the stands of the unused football stadium at the University of Chicago. This found its way into the published draft.

When putting together the chapbook, the last step I took was to choose the Edith Hamilton quote. I thought the epigraph would serve both as a general note, of sorts, reminding readers of the plot of the myth, and also that it would help set the ground for the larger themes of the chapbook. I had read Hamilton’s Mythology in high school, which is why I went back to her book for an epigraph.

dave's book

I was recently listening to an older interview with Billy Collins on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell me in which he says that we are each born with 200 bad poems within us. How many bad poems were you born with and how many are still within you? How do you know what a poem is bad, good, or complete?

It may be true that everyone’s born with 200 bad poems, but I know I surpassed that estimate years ago, and hope to write many more before I’m done. Feeling free enough to write disastrous, embarrassing poems (while hoping that I’m discerning enough to keep them to myself) is the only way for me to get to the ones worth putting before a reader.

I recently began sending out a draft of my first full length manuscript. It contains forty-one poems. The earliest poem in the collection was written before the turn of the millennium.  So. . .that should give you some idea of my own estimate of my good/bad ratio.

I can’t really explain why I sense a poem, after a number of drafts, is done, let alone good. Though this might sound silly, I believe it involves more of a physical intuition than cognitive process. If I get a jolt of adrenaline when I read over a draft, I’ve learned to leave the poem alone.  If I still feel that way, more or less, after reading the poem a few months later, I’ll begin sending it out. It helps when my wife, my first and best reader, is enthusiastic about the poem as well.

Six_Portraits Julie Danho

When have you been most satisfied with your chapbook work? I was most satisfied when I first sent the chapbook to contests in the form it was published. I had previously conceived of a chapbook more of a brief “best of” collection than as an organic whole. I had sent out this earlier version to a few contests without any response. Once I began to see the chapbook as a collection that could easily be read in a single sitting, I realized that the myth poems, when interspersed among poems concerned with post-9/11 America, created interesting tensions that weren’t there in the earlier draft.

How do you define chapbook?  A short collection, usually less than 30 pages.

What makes a good chapbook? I’ve found that my favorite chapbooks are centered on a single theme and work as a cohesive whole.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? I recently finished both Jennifer Franklin’s “Persephone’s Ransom” and Tony Hoagland’s “Don’t Tell Anyone.” Both are fantastic.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? As I mentioned before, my wife, Julie Danho, author of the fantastic chapbook Six Portraits, is the first person I show my work. She, more than anyone, has shaped my chapbook. Kathleen Aguero’s work also influenced the way I put the chapbook together. Her chapbook Investigations: The Mystery of a Girl Sleuth taught me how a chapbook can benefit from the ways individual poems are ordered to create a unified manuscript.


How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet?
I think the best thing I can do is to keep reading as many chapbooks as I’m able.

Current chapbook reading list: I’m looking forward to reading Craig Morgan Teicher’s “Ambivalence and Other Conundrums.”

Number of chapbooks you own: Somewhere around 30.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Maybe 50.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Since most chapbooks can’t be found in the library system, I think the best thing anyone can do is put their favorite chapbooks into the hands of people who will appreciate them. I think chapbooks, because they are brief, can be more inviting to people who don’t usually read poetry.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Books.

Your chapbook wish: I hope chapbooks stay affordable. When chapbook prices rise too close to the cost of a full collection, I believe it threatens the viability of the form.

Job: Stay-at-home dad.

Chapbook Bio: After earning my M.F.A. from Ohio State University, I taught high school English for nearly a decade. My poems have been published in Columbia Poetry Review, North American Review, Poet Lore, and Rattle, among other journals. I’ve received two fellowships from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.

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