chapbook poetry reading

the chapbook interview: Barbara Schmitz on spiritual lessons, chapbooks, and learning writing from Allen Ginsberg

You’re the author of a memoir, three full-length poetry collections, Always the Detail, How Much Our Dancing Has Improved, and How to Get Out of the Body, and three chapbooks of poetry. What did you learn in school about the chapbook as a genre? As a writing teacher, what did you teach your students about the chapbook as a vessel for poems?

I studied writing at Naropa Institute but Naropa was just getting started when I went there in the 70’s—it was a combination poetic school, meditation center, Tibetan language and dance.  Chogyum Trunpa was the guru—he was also a poet and Allen Ginsberg was his meditation student. Ginsberg brought many writers from the New York School—most of them were not teachers, although I have to say some of them took on teaching and made a real effort.  Anne Waldman was the co-founder and had lead the poetry scene at St. Mark’s Place in New York in the 60’s.  She was serious, hard-working but also had too much to do—I learned the most from her and also Ginsberg.  Allen realizing most of “the kids” coming here were influenced by the Beats and had read the Beats but not much else, backed up and began teaching classical literature back to Christopher Smart. I’d studied literature.  I had a Masters Degree in literature (from UNO) and was teaching English.  In the classes I took—I never was formally enrolled in a “writing program—just came in the summer when I was off from my teaching job at Northeast—no one addressed publication, chapbooks, et. al. They probably did that when they got accreditation and really offered a degree in writing.  In was the 70’s—much partying going on nightly, many, many readings, students from all over the U.S. and other places gathered together for just a few weeks in the summer—hot tubs, drinking (encouraged by Trunpa) and psychedelics.  Sometimes it was surprising anybody got any serious writing done. I mostly learned about poetry there by going to so many readings and letting the sound just wash over me and not worrying about meaning,

My creative writing students at Northeast were mostly beginners—people who were yearning to write but didn’t know how to get started.  We spent time reading good writing and discussing it, doing assigned attempts in whatever form they wanted to create.  I tried to help them find “their subjects” by having them make a presentation about a significant emotional event in their life and then do some writing about it.  They had to read aloud for five minutes at the end of the semester at a formal reading. My last couple years at Northeast I taught a Polishing, Publishing, Performing class where I addressed publication—they had to search for markets and send work out but we never got as far as collections (chapbooks).  Northeast is a community college—I wanted to build an AA degree in writing but never got it done.

I’ve been reading your spiritual memoir Path of Lightning: A Seeker’s Jagged Journey (Pinyon Publishing, 2012), a book that you note you worked on during a residency in New Mexico at The Mabel Dodge Luhan House. Taos is such a wonderfully, rich place for reflection and writing. How did your time there influence and support the writing of the memoir?

I love Taos.  I have a line in a poem which reads essentially, “God lives there” about descending from the shrine which holds D.H. Lawrence’s ashes on the Donner Ranch.  We started going to Taos in the 70’s to visit Natalie Goldberg who lived in an adobe house without a bathroom. She and her husband showered at the local pool.  We bought land with Natalie on the mesa; she lived in a Michael Reynolds House (made of old tires, ecological materials, and was solar powered).  We eventually sold her our land to build a Zendo.

The Mable Dodge House was wonderful–all the vibes and spirit of all who had lived/stayed there including Carl Jung (whom I taught in my mythology class), Lawrence, Ansel Adams.  I was asked if I would like to stay in the Georgia O’Keefe Room?! I pretty much stayed there undisturbed by Housekeeping who left me an occasional clean towel.  I walked downtown at night choosing from a myriad of fine restaurants for dinner.  The international film festival was on when I was there so I met some interesting artists/filmmakers at a reception Mable Dodge held.

I dreamed and dreamed.  I dreamed a whole poetry anthology with illustrations but couldn’t remember any of it on awakening.  (No tv, no phone) I dreamed the Pope died and was riding an elephant in eternity with Pir Vilayat (the deceased head of the Sufi Order).  When I called home a couple days later Husband told me the Pope had died.  When I talked to my spiritual guide later he told me Pir Vilayat loved elephants.

I wrote. I rewrote and sat absorbing the gorgeous ambience of creative energy and love (and chickens on the roof).

I’ve read two other spiritual memoirs—Mary Karr’s Lit (Harper Perennial, 2010), Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love (Riverhead books, 2007)and now have just finished yours, Path of Lightning. In reflecting on a moment about your publishing career and when you’d considered giving up writing, you write in Path of Lightning that, “In meditation the answer came to me. I didn’t need to give up writing. Writing brought me many rewards. I got to live my life twice, reliving the events I was writing about, embracing and cherishing them another time. My memory was a lot better than most of my friends’ memories because I was paying attention and taking everything in and then writing it down. Also, I had a wonderful written record of my life. I didn’t want to give all that up, even if I never published a book. The only solution was to give up the suffering. The comparing and the competition, feeling the injustice of others’ work getting recognition while mine was not,” (199-200). After you’ve given up suffering, you begin publishing books and chapbooks and winning awards for your work. What other spiritual lessons transformed your career as a writer since the release of your memoir? Has your writing changed directions since the release of Path of Lightning?

The writing hasn’t gotten any easier.  I still have to sit in front of the blank page but I know if I persist, as William Stafford said, “Something will occur” and, if I keep at it regularly, writing comes more easily.  I wrote a poem nearly every day in April (Poetry Month) and the poems came more quickly and without as much struggle by month’s end.

Let’s see—spiritual lessons:

  • To aid other writers as much as possible.  Their successes do not diminish mine.
  • Becoming more conscious and present.  Then I am able to take my experiences in more deeply and remember “Details.”
  • Love beauty and make as much of it around me as possible.
  • Breathe—slows you down and makes you aware.
  • I find myself remembering old songs (some from the 50’s) and sometimes incorporating snatches.
  • Attempting to be open—even to forms of writing I don’t “get” at immediately.  To look and see what’s there that could inform my work.
  • Sufi practice is basically to try to see the Divine in everyone, everywhere.

Changed Directions? Perhaps more precise and descriptive. I am writing some things I don’t necessarily want to share with everyone.  Ginsberg taught me early not to censor and people remark on the honesty of my work but lately some things I’ve never told anyone have appeared on the page. I want to write more prose, personal essay.  I wrote a whole notebook full about my relationship with my husband, then quit.  I’m not ready to share this or know what will become of it. I am a grandma now and I’m noticing I’m thinking more about what goes into print.

How do you define chapbook? A chapbook is a small book of poetry—usually 20-25 pages, collected around a particular theme—and appeals because it’s small and inexpensive.

What makes a good chapbook? A good chapbook would be alive, skilled writing with a theme threaded through the poems. Most importantly the poems in a chapbook have to play off of each other in some way.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? Several years ago Mark Sanders, when he had Sandhills Press, brought out a whole chapbook series titled Main-Traveled roads with well and lesser known poets, a couple books of essay in there too.  They were wonderful, inspiring—I think I have the whole series—about 18.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Greg Kosmicki and Matt Mason probably have impacted my writing the most as far as chapbook poets—I also have not had access to many chapbooks lately.  Two women from my writing group, Karen Wingett and Lin Brummels have new chapbooks from Finishing Line.

What’s next for you? Next?  I’m wondering about a chapbook collection of my long poems—haven’t seen anything like that.

Current chapbook reading list: I could use a chapbook reading list!  Not had access to newer ones.

Number of chapbooks you own: I probably own about 50 chapbooks—could be more, didn’t go through my whole library…

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: I’ve read all of those—I think I’ll read them again—got them out to answer these questions—they are calling to me.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. My commitment to the community?—if someone has a chapbook, I’ll buy it if I know about it!

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: You must be kidding about how I spend my chapbook earnings?!

Your chapbook wish: I wish all good chapbooks would find a publisher and a wide audience.

Residence: I live in Norfolk, Nebraska

Job: .  I am emeritus professor of English and a writer.

Chapbook education: I have had no chapbook education.

Chapbooks: The Lives if the Saints (Sandhills), The Upside Down Heart (Sandhills), What Bob Says (Pudding House) and I keep thinking there is one more but I don’t find it on my shelves.

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