chapbook

Rachel Trousdale on laughter and revelation

You teach a wide variety of courses in poetry—lyric poetry, poetry writing, modern poetry, romantic poetry, 19th Century British poetry, and poetry workshops. When you teach, what do you teach about the chapbook, poetry sequences and series, and creating a poetry manuscript?

It depends a lot on the course, naturally. But I really enjoy teaching poetry sequences in both critical and creative writing classes. I think they help students get a sense of how much intentionality and planning go into good writing, as opposed to the very Romantic idea many students have that a lyric poem is a spontaneous effusion.

In my advanced poetry writing class I ask students to write a brief sequence as part of their final portfolios, five poems written around a central theme. What that theme is can vary and is entirely up to them—they can write five poems on unrelated topics all in the same form if they want, rather than, say, five love poems or five poems about sharks or five poems telling a story, etc.; any link they think is interesting is fine with me. The idea is to have them think about their work on a larger scale, identifying what kinds of poetic problems and adventures they like—and then select a coherent subset of those problems to concentrate on. I think one of the virtues of the chapbook for a writer is that it demands that you focus in the most technical sense of the word: you have to take something as broad and diffuse as daylight is and then bring it to a concentrated point.

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I love idea about writing around a theme. I’ve been reading your entertaining and smart chapbook Antiphonal Fugue for Marx Brothers, Elephant, and Slide Trombone (Finishing Line Press, 2015). Talk about your chapbook and your approach to humor writing in poetry.

When I was a senior in high school, my (wonderful) English teacher had us read King Lear, and I ended up getting into an argument with him about the value of comedy versus tragedy. His position was, essentially, that tragedy is cathartic and thus transformative, whereas comedy just makes you laugh. I love a good tragedy, but this struck me at the time, and still strikes me, as a very strange statement—what’s so “just” about making people laugh? Laughter is really mysterious. It’s so basic—babies laugh long before they can talk. But it’s also incredibly complex—when you attempt to explain why a joke is funny, you always find the humor slipping away.

There’s very little agreement among philosophers and neuroscientists about what causes laughter. All of the theories are clearly incomplete. Thomas Hobbes says we laugh when we feel superior to someone else, and sure, that kind of laughter happens. Sigmund Freud says we laugh when we take a brief break from repression, and that happens too. But neither of those theories accounts for the laughter described by other one, and there are many kinds of laughter that neither theory accounts for at all. We all know viscerally what it’s like to laugh, but we have a long way to go in actually understanding it.

So in my poetry (and my research; I’m writing a scholarly book about this subject, too) I’m interested in the laughter that goes along with revelation. In a poem, that humor can take the form of something like a punch line, the moment when you get the joke. But it can also be the way we react to a slow dawning realization, that laugh with pleasure and wild surmise when you get a whole new view of something enormous. The poems in the chapbook aren’t light verse, but I hope they’re funny, because funniness can go hand in hand with discovery. For me, the Marx Brothers are really a kind of instantiation of the sublime.

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Your chapbook Antiphonal Fugue for Marx Brothers, Elephant, and Slide Trombone also mediates on work and the meaning of work. What chapbooks or chapbook poets, do you find particularly funny? What is it about their work that makes your work possible?

One funny chapbook that I love is Why I am Not a Toddler by Cooper Bennett Burt (age one) — transcribed, I guess you could say, by Stephen Burt. The book rewrites famous 20th century poems (Bishop’s “One Art,” Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and of course O’Hara’s “Why I am Not a Painter”) in the voice of a one-year-old. It’s a comic premise and the poems play their allusions for laughs, but they also really get at the comic devices of the originals, even when those originals are totally straight-faced. That combination of undertakings — thinking about what it’s like inside the very different and apparently inscrutable mind of a baby; finding the comedy in high art and the high art in comedy — is very important to me. Some of the best humor and the most important work is about making that kind of intersubjective insight possible. I guess to put it another way, meaningful communication is work and play at the same time.

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How do you define chapbook? It’s little and rich, like a truffle.

What makes a good chapbook? Playfulness and serious purpose.

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What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? Emily Lake Hansen’s The Way the Body Had to Travel. She was my student and I’m kvelling.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? I like this question because it gives me a chance to thank Memye Curtis Tucker, a chapbook poet I admire greatly and who was one of the first editors to publish my work.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Variety and coherence.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? Thinking in the large, medium, and small scale all at once—how to group poems into sequences and how to get those sequences to talk to each other.

What’s next for you? I’m writing a chapbook consisting of the answers in an advice column—no questions, just answers. Some of the people whose questions are being answered are Galieo, Cordelia, and Fozzie Bear. I have some longer projects too.

Current chapbook reading list: I’m always looking for more.

Number of chapbooks you own: Never enough.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Lots!

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. The chapbook writing community has a lot of overlap with the chapbook reading community. I’ve been in the second for a long time and I’m really excited to be in the first. It’s a wonderful conversation.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I teach chapbooks in creative writing classes—and help students put together their own.

Your chapbook credo: Extra words? Cut ‘em.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: A chapbook is a great way to enter the barter economy. I trade for books whenever I can.

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Your chapbook wish: To pass on some of the chapbook pleasure that other poets have given to me.

Residence: Belmont, MA

Job: Assistant Professor of English, Framingham State University

Chapbook education: Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference was a great place to get a sense of how fun and varied chapbooks can be.

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Chapbook Bio: Rachel Trousdale is the author of Antiphonal Fugue for Marx Brothers, Elephant, and Slide Trombone (Finishing Line Press, 2015). She is also the author of a scholarly book, Nabokov, Rushdie, and the Transnational Imagination, and is now working on a book on humor in modern poetry.

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