chapbook poetry reading

the chapbook interview: Michael Skau on God, humor, and art

You’re the author of a two books of literary criticism, a full-length book of poetry, and the chapbook of poetry, Me and God Poems (Brady Press, 1990). 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 learned very little about chapbooks while I was at school. I thought that chapbooks were primarily for religious tracts (ironic then that I published a chapbook titled Me and God Poems). My graduate degrees were in literature, not in creative writing. My dissertation was eventually on Themes and Movements in the Beat Generation. As I researched this topic, I became more familiar with chapbooks because the Beat writers published many of their works as chapbooks during the 1960s and 1970s. However, I was also confused about the nature of the chapbook itself. It is usually a short collection of related materials, but how does one define short? Ferlinghetti was publishing his Pocket Poets Series of books beginning in the 1950s with his own short work Pictures of the Gone World. These “books” were 4 3/4″ by 6 1/8″ in size. Ferlinghetti’s book contained 36 pages of poetry. The tenth book in the series, The Love Poems of Kenneth Patchen contains 42 pages of poems. Are these “small”? Are they chapbooks? A later series of works by the Beat-related writers more clearly fit into the category if only because of the title of the series: Published in Heaven Chapbook Series. However, too often for me the nature of the category involves “blurred lines.” Poems by an individual author are often closely related in theme and style, if only because they have the same creator and shaper. Other publishers of small books with Beat titles included Arif, Atticus, Bisbee Press Collective, and Hanuman Books. Many of these and other publishers of Beat works were short-lived, perhaps because of the subterranean and subversive quality of the literature itself.

As for my teaching, I taught courses in literature (the only writing courses which I taught were introductory composition courses and writing courses for English majors, and neither of these lent themselves to discussion of chapbooks).

 

What I particularly admire about your full-length book Me & God (WSC Press, 2014) that collects poems from your chapbook, is your humor and wit and the ways in which the character of god is cast with the expected powers of greatness, ones that work as a delightful foil for the me/I/eye of the poems’ speaker. What poets do you admire who do this same work? What specific collections or styles do you find provocative?

I am glad that you enjoyed the humor in my book. I treat a number of serious issues and themes, sometimes symbolically, in the poems, and I feel that humor, after love, is one of the best balms for easing discomfort and one of the best methods for disarming objections. The poet, however, has to be careful not to let the humor supplant the themes (I discarded many drafts of poems which I felt violated this latter principle). As for the use of foils, as my introduction indicates, “The God that I have fashioned for the poems is one whom I have created in my own likeness.” The advantage here is that I can invest the God figure with my own faults and flaws, and this makes criticism of him much easier. The disadvantage is that the poems encompass a God based on myself, a first person speaker (“I” or “me”) also modeled on myself, and I the poet, who is manipulating the other two: the process can be quite schizophrenic. I try to balance the scales here by sometimes giving God the upper hand, sometimes allowing the I or me to undermine God, and sometimes portraying them both as either right or wrong.

I guess that the poet whom I most admire who is doing anything similar to what I am attempting in Me & God would be William Butler Yeats in his Crazy Jane poems. His Crazy Jane is a wounded figure who tries to assert her own personal voice in the midst of untrustworthy fellow humans and against the representatives of unfeeling authority. Another influence would be Dostoyevsky’s Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, a story which Ivan tells Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov (one of my poems, “Beliefs,” even alludes to Ivan’s conclusion of this story). Finally, the complaints against God find a parallel in Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, to which another of my poems, “Potters,” also alludes.

My style owes something to Yeats, Frost, Eliot, and Auden. I deliberately attempt to cultivate a colloquial voice, a vernacular usage (for example, “me” as part of the compound subject of a clause), but also to work often with form. Thus, sixteen of the poems are in tetrameter, eight in pentameter, two in trimeter, five in a mixture of tetrameter and trimeter, and four in a mixture of tetrameter and pentameter (if you did not notice these structures, that is OK; they are there for me as the poet to maintain control over emotional materials, not for the reader to recognize). That leaves eight poems which are free verse, and I worked doggone hard to set them free.

The poem “Social Network” in Me & God explores the phenomenon of social media sites like facebook, the type of possible social interactions that occur there, and the ways friendings and friends suggest a sociability that is hard to decode. In the final stanza, the poem addresses “liking”: “we hit Like buttons to preen the fur/ of other monkeys’ egos, hoping that they/ will like us in return” (52). Talk about your use of social media. In your answer, talk about inspiration—many of the poems attend to aspects of daily living (e.g. social sites, city streets, video games, TV, sports, etc.) in a world that’s recognizable, even if one of the denizens of the Midwest city evoked is God.

Yes, my poems situate themselves in the late 20th century and the early 21st century by alluding to the artifacts, activities, and interests of everyday people, whether they be sports, popular music, films, television, pinball machines, video games, marijuana, or social media sites. These are various aspects of contemporary cultural life, and they span the rural and urban areas of America. To ignore them would be pretentious and dishonest. The danger of including them is that American cultural life is fluid and often short-lived, and the allusions may well be passé soon, requiring footnotes to explain, for example, The Daily Show, much as Milton’s “Lycidas” may need footnotes to explain his allusions to Arethuse and Hippotades, Shelley to identify his reference to Mænad in “Ode to the West Wind,” and Ginsberg to clarify his use of Bickford’s, bop, and kaballa in “Howl.” However, the writer who limits his references to those which are likely to transcend the fickle finger of time is imposing upon the works shackles which prevent the poems from circulating freely among his or her audiences–and somehow the poems which I mentioned have maintained fame and popularity. I would be foolish to suggest that my poems might last as long as Milton’s, Shelley’s, and even Ginsberg’s. My only defense is that I incorporate into my poems the world in which I live and the cultural features of it. Perhaps this becomes a sorry–and sad–commentary on the flimsiness of my own life.

For myself I am an avid fan of many college and professional sports (though only a fair to middling participant in them), and I probably watch more television than I should. I enjoy movies, and I am especially fond of rock ‘n’ roll. I am on facebook, but I participate there primarily as a lurker: I prefer interactions which are private and personal, rather than social–perhaps because, as a teacher, I spent so many years exposing my feelings, opinions, and beliefs at the front of a classroom. Therefore, my own social interactions are much more restricted than those of most of my contemporaries. In fact, I am such a dinosaur that I do not even own a smartphone. I already have more than enough diversions and distractions in my life.

I recently attended Authorfest at Bellevue Public Library in Bellevue Public Library that included a panel on the topic “How Do I start – becoming a writer” with other local writers such as Cat Dixon, Margaret Lukas, Robin Donovan, Marcia Forecki, and Carol Umberger. A librarian in the audience asked, “How do you know when a poem is done?” Cat Dixion noted she workshopped her poems with her writers group and they helped her listen more closely to her work. Cat also said that not all writers had or wanted writers groups and mentioned that she’d asked you a similar question. I’m curious. How do you know when a poem is done?

How to tell when a work of art is completed is a problem which artists have confronted throughout history. In fact, there is an old saying, “A work of art is never finished; it is only abandoned” (the source of this statement is even much debated; I have seen it attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, E. M. Forster, and W. H. Auden, but the most likely source seems to be Paul Valéry). The point of the quotation is hardly surprising. Like everybody else, artists continue to grow throughout their lives and, more importantly, to learn more their craft. The desire to incorporate newly learned wisdom is a natural one, and this explains why so many poets (Yeats particularly comes to mind) continue to revise their works over the course of decades. I have been working on a new series of poems about poets’ attitudes toward craft, themes, and techniques. I call the series The Old Poets, and one of the poems in the series is titled “Betrayed” (it was published in the periodical Red Owl in 2000) and addresses this very topic: “My poems are former / friends from whom I grew / estranged at publication / for treating me so badly.” The point is that the poet can grow even between the period of composition and that of publication. As a result, poems written even just a few years ago can later seem puerile or limited in their breadth or depth. In fact, in many cases, it would be surprising if poets did not look back at their earlier works with disappointment. All that the poet can provide is an accurate portrait of his/her beliefs and concerns at a particular stage of his/her development. Few poets can create butterflies; most of us must be content to create poetic pupae (which can, nevertheless, have their own beauty, strength, and integrity).

How do you define chapbook? A chapbook is a booklet of twenty (long enough to develop a measure of substance) to thirty-five (staying short of the thoroughness usually associated with full-length books) pages of primary material (excluding foreword, dedication, contents, etc) closely related in theme, subject matter, and/or technique.

What makes a good chapbook? The collection should have a coherence to it, whether that be a traditional beginning, middle, and end or a developed exploration of a particular idea or theme, recognizing the inherent conflicts and contradictions. The collection should not conclude with a cliff-hanger or leave the reader expecting more.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Quality and coherence (which does not exclude variety).

What’s next for you? I am putting together a manuscript (The Old Poets, to which I referred earlier) to submit as a chapbook. Seventeen of these poems have already been published in a variety of different periodicals.

Current chapbook reading list: Walking the Campus–William Kloefkorn; The Patron Saint of Lost and Found–Greg Kosmicki; Threnody–Laura Madeline Wiseman; What It Looks Like, How It Flies–Steve Langan

greg books

Number of chapbooks you own: Probably about 25.

Number of chapbooks you have read: About 15.

Where do you spend your chapbook earnings: I have published only one chapbook, for which I received no monetary compensation.

Residence: Omaha, NE.

Job: Retired.

 Michael Skau April 2015

You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply