chapbook poetry

the chapbook interview: “I didn’t know that chapbooks existed” Raylyn Clacher on chapbook existence

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You are the author of the chapbook All of Her Leaves (Dancing Girl Press, 2015) and have a MFA from the University of Nebraska. What did you learn during your MFA studies and undergrad degree about the chapbook?

I was first introduced to the chapbook during a summer writing workshop through the University of Nebraska Lincoln with Zachary Schomburg. Before that class, I was kind of writing in this little bubble with no concept of the outside writing world. Honestly, I thought I was a freak for coming home from my job as a manager and working on these little poems that never went anywhere. Drafts kept accumulating but never got completed.

In that class, Zach brought in a bunch of chapbooks the last day. They were beautiful. It sounds silly, but I didn’t know that chapbooks existed. I thought your poetry collection had to be larger to be published. I loved the size of the books, how they felt like these compact little nuggets of power and emotion. During that workshop he also talked about creating continuity in your collection through repetition and naming.

Through my MFA studies, I learned how to actually see my poems through to completion, how to harness the wild imagery into a larger narrative. I learned to give them direction and force. I learned to persevere. These experiences came into play when I started taking a look at the work I’d accumulated the summer before my graduating semester. I started to notice some threads running through my work. I thought about that workshop with Zach and began to play around with the idea of a character who could step into some of the poems to give them a larger narrative.

That’s what I adore about your poetry—the wild imagery. All of Her Leaves offers Laura Ingalls Wilder, tornadoes, owls, cooking and eating, motherships, fire, crows, and worms hefted around your lines with fierce verbs. What poets and collections of work do you admire that have employ imagery in ways you find provocative and inspiring?

Thank you! That’s part of what I love about writing – the permission to let your imagination run free and play. As far as inspiration, it always kind of begins and ends with Sylvia Plath for me. I was introduced to her poem, “Mirror” in Mrs. Borrego’s sophomore English class and have been fascinated with how Plath uses imagery ever since then. Her work has this clear, visceral edge to it that (for me) comes from the startling, exact images. In “Mirror,” I can inhabit the world of this object. I can feel the unstoppable terror of age approaching, this “terrible fish” that she’s becoming. You can’t leave a Plath poem without at least one powerful image pinned in your brain.

I’ve also been inspired by Zachary Schomburg and Patricia Lockwood’s work. Schomburg has this way of inhabiting and animating something unexpected, like a refrigerator in “Refrigerator General” and not only bringing it to life, but giving it emotion and resonance. I love how Lockwood employs imagery in her work and lets her imagination run wild. It’s like each poem of hers sees a string of images or association of words through to their full conclusion. She explores every possibility before putting a poem to bed.

As I revise work, I’ve been trying to think of Elizabeth Bishop more and balance her out with my impulse to run wild. I love how she calmly inhabits an image and gives it it’s full due. There’s this methodical calm to her work – like in “The Weed,” she takes her time to focus on and fully flesh out this weed rather than moving on too hastily. I’m trying to work on this balance.

With all the things in life that conspire against the work of poems, what brings you to and inspires you to write the images and stories you tell in your poetry and specifically in All of Her Leaves?

Ironically, I feel like it’s those things in life that conspire against the work of poems that generate images and stories for me – that kind of chaos and upheaval that makes it hard to sit down and write. The work in All of Her Leaves came out of a really chaotic time for me. Not only was I going through a lot of life changes, but my friends were too. I had a lot of anxiety and uneasiness, which I’ve found usually leads me to look at things differently. I think it’s my brain’s way of making sense of things and neutralizing them.

For example, the poem “My Heart is Overfed” started with the image of the pig’s bladder from the Little House on the Prairie books and this feeling of wanting to go back in time. Then it became this idea of trying to swallow all of the good things of the earth before they disappear. It was this idea of being in love, but also being worried that that love may leave or not work out, this feeling of grabbing everything you can while you can, of savoring the moment.

It’s this kind of disconnect and tension that generates poetry for me. When I’m anxious or struggling with something an image or phrase will pop into my head. Sometimes it happens while I’m driving or at work. I jot it down for later when I can come back to it. The trick is finding the time to flesh out the poem.

Beyond your publishing record and your MFA, I know you work full-time and are an expecting mother. Talk about your writing discipline. How does work and pregnancy make possible moments to flesh out your poetry?

Like all of us, I’ve learned that I have to make time to write – if I wait for a chunk of time to present itself, it’s never going to. My list of to do’s will always be there. The best time for me to write is early in the morning, before the day starts. Otherwise my brain is mush by the end. Sometimes I can sneak some writing or reading in over my lunch break too. I’m trying to get better at making the most of shorter bursts of time, because I have the feeling that’s going to be key once the baby comes. I have no idea what life is going to be like in a few more months, but I know that writing is one of the things that I want to hang onto and make time for.

How do you define chapbook? A smaller collection of poetry, usually tightly focused on a theme or narrative.

What makes a good chapbook? Something that’s tightly woven thematically, that pulls me from poem to poem.


What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Shannan Ballam’s The Red Riding Hood Papers

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? A good story line that will keep people engaged.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? I’m trying to read more and support the chapbook community.

Raylyn Clacher

What’s next for you? Working on getting my full length manuscript out there, hopefully pulling another chap together, ideally putting together a reading series in my hometown of Wichita, Kansas.

Current chapbook reading list: The Girl of My Dreams by April Salzano; Housewifery by Carly Anne Ravnikar; Small Like a Tooth by Carolyn Williams-Noren

Number of chapbooks you own: Not enough. About 10.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: about 10. I need to get to more!

Your chapbook credo: I tell other writers to submit! Gather your poems together and see what kind of story they’re telling. You might have a chapbook brewing that you’re unaware of.

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