chapbook pedagogy poetry

Cecilia Woloch on Pedagogy, Sequencing, and Publishing

Photo by Mark Savage

 You are the author of the chapbooks Earth (Two Sylvias Press, 2014), winner of the Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Prize, and Narcissus (Tupelo Press 2008), winner of the Snowbound Series Chapbook Award. You teach workshops in the United States and around the world, including in Paris most recently. When you teach, what do you teach about the chapbook?

First, I’d like to say that, as a teacher of writing, I think the most important thing I do is share my insights into and struggles with the writing process, as I experience the process – to share with the students in my workshops everything I’ve learned along the way about the writing process and the craft of writing, and everything that I’m learning, still. In workshops, I think it’s important that everyone learns from everyone else in the group – although, as the workshop leader, I’m the one who’s steering the ship.

And then it depends on what kind of workshop I’m teaching. I’ve taught workshops specifically on composing the chapbook manuscript. In those workshops, we look at a body of work that each poet has produced and we discuss, not only the individual poems, but how the poems speak to one another, what threads run from poem to poem, how they might be sequenced or otherwise woven into the kind of “whole” that I think a chapbook should be. I love the size and shape of chapbooks, how portable they are, how they invite the reader into an intimate reading experience that can be had in one sitting. So I think we should look at chapbook manuscripts a bit differently: whereas a book-length collection of poems will most likely be read over a period of time, and might be more of a collection of a variety of poems than a sequence, a chapbook manuscript is more like a musical composition, to my mind, more tightly woven, ideally, and has a different kind of integrity.

I also think — and teach – that composing a chapbook manuscript can be a valuable step toward the process of assembling a book-length manuscript, a way to start seeing how a group of poems might behave in relation to one another, what kind of larger shape they might make. And whether that manuscript is published as a chapbook or not, it can serve as a kind of zygote; composing a chapbook manuscript can provide insight into how a book-length manuscript might be structured. It certainly worked that way for me with the manuscript for Narcissus, which provided me with a blueprint for putting together the manuscript for Carpathia, the full-length collection that was published later.

I should say here that I usually, myself, work on poems as individual entities, rather than writing poems with the idea that I’m embarking on a certain sequence or poetic project, addressing certain themes, moving toward a certain objective. Though of course I’m aware, as I’m working on individual poems, that I’m in the grip of certain obsessions, or that I’m repeating certain experiments in terms of strategies and approaches to the composition process – in other words, I’m vaguely aware that the poems I’m writing might be related to one another, somehow, without defining what that relationship might be or aiming toward a final product. I work in the dark, at that stage, and don’t try to control things too much.

In the more general workshops that I lead, my aim is to help each poet bring each poem to its fullest fruition, whatever that might be, whatever skills and daring and magic that might take, and to see her or his own work in the context of, not only the other work that particular poet is producing, but the whole conversation of poetry. It makes teaching a very rich experience for me, and not separate from my own creative work.

earth

Your chapbook Earth is wonderfully lovely as it moves with a sad longing, a finite loss of death, and as it celebrates the natural world in a sort of homage to all things living and fleeting. Earth offers both lineated and prose poetry, often alternating between the two in part I of the chapbook. Talk about the physical acts of weaving the threads of poems into a whole chapbook. When a poem feels “finished” and also feels like it belongs to other poems equally “finished,” do you revise individual poems as they’re collected into a chapbook in the process of making a chapbook into a whole? In what ways do you weave the threads through the poems and are there specific things you consider during this process of making?

Ah, the physical act of putting a manuscript together! I’m always surprised that every poet seems to do some version of the same thing I always find myself doing: printing out all the poems, spreading them out on the floor (usually, though sometimes there’s a table long enough) and then crawling around among the pages, shifting them this way and that into little sequences, little piles, trying to puzzle out how they might fit …

With the manuscript for Earth, I had a first version that I put together without too much anxiety; but after it was awarded the Two Sylvias Prize, I had some time before it was published and decided that I needed to make some changes in the sequencing. I probably shouldn’t reveal this, for the sake of publishers everywhere, because I can imagine that writers who do this could become a real pain in the ass to their publishers. But Kelli and Annette at Two Sylvias were wonderfully patient as I spun myself around and around about what the right sequence should be. For some reason, it got harder instead of easier.

When I started putting the manuscript for Earth together, I chose poems that I considered “finished,” which is always how I begin when I’m starting to assemble a manuscript. But sometimes, in the assembly process, I may see that there’s a “gap” in the manuscript that needs to be filled, and I might go back to poems I hadn’t at first considered including in the manuscript, poems that hadn’t seemed finished to me, and I’ll look at whether or not I can finish them and fit them into the manuscript. And of course, when I start doing that weaving, there are sometimes poems I pull out – either because they don’t seem to fit, when I set them against the other poems, or because they don’t seem strong enough, after all.

And, yes, as I tell students in my workshops, there’s this whole alchemical thing that can happen when you start looking at poems as a body of work; and though I mostly begin with poems I think are “done,” looking at the poems as part of a larger body of work provides a different lens, a sharper lens, so I often do some further revising, some final polishing (I hope!) on individual poems.

I do try to stay aware of that particular kind of anxiety that comes just before something is being published, and try to resist the temptation to make too many or too significant of changes to work that’s already been vetted (i.e. accepted for publication). Because I’ve found that when I make those last minute changes – or make changes out of anxiety – they’re often not in the best interests of the poem.

Also, as I’m putting together a manuscript, texture is very important to me, so I like to experiment with alternating prose and lineated poems, shorter and longer poems, to try to create texture and variety and contrast, while also keeping some kind of overall arc going – an arc that might be apparent only to me! – or some kind of trajectory. I like for there to be a sense of movement, from one poem to the next, and also an overall sense of movement that runs through the manuscript as a whole. Again, I think this arc or trajectory is probably something readers are less aware of than I am, but it’s important to me, if for no other reason than that it gives me a way to see what I’m doing as adhering to some kind of inner logic.

october

Are there particular chapbooks, essays, resource books, or other readings you like to teach to demonstrate and spark discussions on the chapbook as well as help your workshop students think though the process of creating chapbooks specifically, or poetry generally?

There’s always a strong emphasis on reading in the workshops I teach, and I always teach using models from the literature – in fact, everything I teach is based on those models. And I encourage students to read — rather than “how to” books or anthologies of work by different writers — individual volumes by individual poets, to delve deeply into the work of other writers, to listen to and learn from those voices, and to read with attention to how other poets have structured their collections of poems, whether chapbook- or full-length.

On a practical level, it’s easy and I think fruitful for me to talk about how I put together my own chapbooks — after all, I was there, so I know what really happened and how it happened  — so that’s often a basis for discussion of possible strategies. And I ask workshop participants to read some chapbooks prior to coming to the workshop, to try to get a sense of what strategies might have been used in putting them together. Two chapbooks I recommend are Louise Gluck’s October, and Kathleen McGookey’s October Again, also Kathleen’s more recent Mended. And Jeffrey Greene has published a beautiful chapbook in the Cahiers Series, Shades of the Other Shore. It includes poems along with prose passages and gorgeous watercolors by the artist Ralph Petty. So that’s an example of the kind of hybrid a chapbook can be, and what it can encompass and bring together.

october again

Have your students been successful in finding homes for the chapbooks they workshopped in your class?

The first workshop I taught in composing a chapbook was more than five years ago and it was a small group – six or seven writers. I know that one woman from that group, Eve Hoffman, published a chapbook manuscript a few years later, and that she’s now expanded on that material and has a book-length manuscript nearly ready to go. Another writer in that group, Nathalie Diaz, turned her chapbook-length manuscript into a full-length manuscript, and her first book was published to great (and well-deserved) acclaim. I’ve only started again, in the past year, leading workshops in the chapbook, so it’s a little too soon to gauge what kind of success participants have had in publishing their manuscripts.

narcissus
How do you define chapbook?
It’s a small gathering of words —  stories, poems — that you can slip into your pocket, hold in your hands. It’s portable literature. I understand that the name “chap book” evolved from “cheap book” — something cheaply and quickly produced, and I like that it makes literature more available, more accessible, more egalitarian, in some ways.

What makes a good chapbook? A good poetry chapbook is made of good poems. The packaging matters less, but nice packaging is nice.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? My sister, Bobbi Buchanan, recently sent me the manuscript for a chapbook she’ll have coming out soon from Finishing Line Press. It’s called Tiny Little Beauty and it’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s comprised of very short lyric poems, intensely observed moments, each one like a jewel, each one carrying so much emotional weight and power; and strung together, the poems make a kind of dazzling necklace. But the poems are also like prayers to the gods and beauties of the natural world, and to the soul that’s forged in the fire of love and suffering. This is going to be my favorite book of poems of the year, and I’d love it, even if the poet weren’t my sister.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? I’m not sure I know what a “chapbook poet” is. The poets I know, and whose work I admire, collect poems into both chapbooks and books, so I don’t see a real distinction.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? I try to listen for what various poems might be saying to one another, to hear if they “chime” when I put them together and make a larger or different  kind of music than each of them might make individually.

portraits were taken by Mark Savage
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a new book-length collection of poems. Some of the poems in Earth will be at the core of it.

Number of chapbooks you own: I’m going through another one of my regular phases of getting rid of things, and this has involved a lot of heart-rending decisions in front of my bookshelves. But I hold onto a shelf full of chapbooks, some going back more than 30 years, because chapbooks are so individual and quirky, and the older ones, especially, have a hand-made quality. I don’t know how many are left on that shelf — fifty? a hundred? more?

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: There is absolutely no way to estimate that accurately! But since I’ve been reading poetry voraciously for more than 30 years, and since, especially in my early days as a poet aligned with the punk underground, of which self- and chapbook-publishing was a big component, let’s say a few thousand. And that’s not even counting the chapbook manuscripts I’ve read in my work as a teacher and editor.

Residence: I’m on the road five or six months a year, mostly in Europe, but my home base has been Los Angeles for more than 30 years.

Job: I support my writing, in every sense, by teaching workshops and mentoring other writers. I had an academic job for eight years, but I’ve gone back to leading independent workshops all over the country and all over the world. In 2016, I’ll be leading workshops in Paris and Istanbul, as well as places like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Seattle, etc…

Chapbook Bio: Cecilia Woloch is the author of six collections of poems, most recently Carpathia (BOA Editions 2009). Her chapbook Earth (Two Sylvias Press, 2014) won the Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Prize. Her chapbook Narcissus (Tupelo Press 2008) won the Snowbound Series Chapbook Award. The founding director of Summer Poetry in Idyllwild and The Paris Poetry Workshop, she has also served on the faculties of a number of creative writing programs and teaches independently throughout the U.S. and around the world.

 ceilia woloch, photo by Mark Savage

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