In the essay “Why Publishing a Chapbook Makes Sense,” Jeannine Hall Gailey includes a suggestion by Kelli Russell Agodon on creating chapbooks, “My advice would be to focus your chapbook on one subject, theme, or story. The best chapbooks look deeply at a topic, but also make new discoveries in their poems throughout Garthe book. I suggest choosing only your strongest poems for your chapbook, then determine if there are certain poems you need to write to make the chapbook stronger and more complete.” You are the author of three poetry chapbooks On The Street Where We Live (Standing Rock, 2012), winner of the 2011 Standing Rock Chapbook Contest, Tell Me When it Starts to Hurt (Kattywompus Press, 2013) and The Witness Chapbook, Kattywompus Press, 2016) and a collection of linked stories, Garden for the Blind (Wayne State University Press, 2015). When you’re looking at the work you’ve written, how do you move from individual poems and stories to building chapbooks and books?
I write both fiction and poetry. I write fiction when I have a story to tell and I write poetry when I am obsessed with a topic or overwhelmed by emotion.
In On the Street Where We Live I was interested in the domestic and wrote many persona poems loosely based on people I encountered when my children were small. You know the woman who does yoga obsessively? Or the parent who thinks everything their kids do is GREAT! Or the person who is in an abusive relationship, but covering for the abuser? The one who is cheating or being cheated on? During those years when my kids were young my world felt constricted, but there was actually a lot happening—lives were being upended. I wrote so many poems that I was able to fill two chapbooks and eventually I turned them into a full-length collection, which I am still shopping. In the second chapbook, Tell Me When it Starts to Hurt, I was older; aging had become a theme.
The new chapbook, The Witness, is a complete departure. I wrote it compulsively without any aspirations. I was an altar girl and without going into detail I came very close to some abusive situations. I started out writing one Witness poem and then I just kept going. After talking to victims, I read a portion of the 10,000 pages of victim testimony from SNAP (Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests), which provided further inspiration, although inspiration is not, perhaps, the right word.
My novel-in-stories, Garden for the Blind, started out as an unlinked short story collection. In 2013, I was in a fiction seminar at Aspen Summer Words workshopping a story in which the protagonist does something unforgivable and the instructor, Paul Harding, said: This is a good story, but I don’t like these people. If you want me to keep reading you’re going to have to give me a reason to have empathy for them. So I went home and spent several months writing the backstory of the two protagonists, giving them motivation. The collection became a novel-in-stories now follows the two main characters from 1974-2014. It took me eight years to write it, but it was just chosen as a Michigan Notable Book, so that made me feel a little better about all the time I spent on it.
You’re a teacher of creative writing. You teach creative writing and fiction writing at Springfield Arts, both face-to-face and online. When you teach poetry, do you teach chapbooks and if so, what you do you teach about the chapbook? When you were first considering putting your works together into the chapbook form, how did you learn? Who or what were your teachers?
I don’t teach chapbooks, because most of my students are just starting out, but I think that would be a fantastic class. I like chapbooks because they are the perfect vehicle for my preoccupations. In a full-length collection, one expects the writer to introduce different perspectives, to examine the subject matter from various angles, but with a chapbook the poet can single-mindedly pursue their devotion to dolls or lighthouses or Don Draper (Leah Umansky). A chapbook is like a single Chinese lantern lighting up the sky–different from a full-length collection with all of its pyrotechnics, but also imperative. I often find chapbooks more moving than full-length collections precisely because of that singularity.
The best thing that ever happened to me in terms of poetry was signing up for Vievee Francis’ Contemporary Poetics class via Springfed Arts in the spring of 2010. I am still dumbfounded by the size of the class—there were only two of us! We met in Café 1923 in Hamtramck, Michigan. Vievee lived above the café with her husband, the poet Matthew Olzmann. She was absolutely brilliant. Riveting. She has mentored a lot of amazing poets in the Detroit area. I had not written poetry in many years when I signed up for her class; I was writing fiction at that point. She was the catalyst for me. By the time the class was over six weeks later, I had ten or fifteen poems. I took another class with her in the fall and after that I signed on for private tutorials. In fact, I kept hounding her until she moved out of state two years later! She didn’t speak to me specifically about creating a chapbook, but she edited my full-length collection, and during that period, we discussed the ordering of poems and the fact that a poet should listen for the conversation between poems and try to facilitate it.
Another great influence in terms of chapbooks has been my publisher, Sammy Greenspan, at Kattywompus Press. I love her chapbooks. Some of my favorites are Leah Umansky’s, Don Dreams and I Dream, Deborah Schwartz’s A Girl Could Disappear Like This, Erika Lutzner’s, You Were My Death, and Cornelius Eady’s amazing, Book of Hooks Volumes I and II, both of which come with CDs of his work. Sammy has published a wide variety of artists. Here’s a link to an interview with her.
I also love Sarah J. Sloat’s Homebodies published by Dancing Girl Press in 2012.
In Gailey’s essay “Why Publishing a Chapbook Makes Sense,” she discusses why writers should consider publishing a chapbook. She writes, “A chapbook gives you a way to connect to your reader.” Talk about your chapbooks and the ways they enable you to connect your readers.
When I wrote On the Street Where we Live I was hoping to connect with other women who had been through similar experiences raising children. Writing poems in the voices of imagined neighbors allowed me a vehicle for my thoughts on motherhood, family and certain facets of the domestic experience not often discussed at the park or during playgroup. During the years when my children were young I felt like I was sacrificing a great deal—maybe more than was prudent—and poetry gave me a way to explore those feelings, and to question their authenticity; even argue with myself. The same was true of my second chapbook, which is more of a rumination on aging.
My third chapbook, The Witness, was a chance to start a conversation about what is happening in the Catholic Church. When I was writing it I was trying to capture the voice of someone who has been violated, who is psychically stuck and who cannot escape the horror he’s “witnessed.” My hope is that someone in a powerful position in the church will read the testimony of survivors from the SNAP website or the CCR website or my poems or the many autobiographies by victims and take it to heart. There will always be cover-ups unless church officials recognize that protecting potential and current victims is more important than protecting themselves. I don’t think they are there yet. The movie Spotlight highlights that inclination of parishioners and clergy to go along to get along, to brush things under the table, despite the consequences. For more information, see the link.
What makes a good chapbook? Language, unity of theme.
What’s next for you? I’m working on a full-length collection of poetry and a novel.
Number of chapbooks you own: 15
Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 20-25
Your chapbook wish: A chapbook-centered conference or residency near Detroit.
Residence: Detroit, Michigan
Job: Inside Out Literary Arts Writer-in-Residence, Springfed Arts Creative Writing Instructor
Chapbook education: Self-taught and tangentially working with Vievee Francis.
Chapbook Bio: Kelly Fordon is the author of three chapbook, On the Street Where We Live, which on the 2012 Standing Rock Chapbook Competition, Tell Me When it Starts to Hurt, published by Kattywompus Press in 2013 and The Witness published by Kattywompus Press in 2016. She is also the author of a Michigan Notable Book Garden for the Blind, published by Wayne State University Press in 2015.