chapbook

Sarah Lyn Rogers on the magic, rituals, and play of language in chapbooks

Photo Credit: Catch Business and Sad Spell Press

Photo Credit: Catch Business and Sad Spell Press

You’re the author of the chapbook Inevitable What (Sad Spell Press), a hand-bound collection with a screen-printed cover and watercolor illustrations by artist Sirin Thada. As an author of a chapbook on spells, rituals, and witchery, talk about inspiration on a theme. What brought you to write Inevitable What?

I wrote several of these poems while living in Bhutan, a country famous for its small size and population, its intrinsic link to Buddhism, and its annual survey meant to measure citizens’ happiness. When my husband was offered a one-year job opportunity there, I was ready to uproot my life, and we went. I carried with me what I think is specifically a Westerner’s fantasy: that being somewhere remote and surrounded by Buddhism could make me wiser/better/more mystical somehow by proximity. It’s an exoticizing fantasy, and a ridiculous one. There, I observed how foreigners (including myself) would get carried away with the solemnity of activities that were routine, even mundane, to people who had been doing them all their lives. Western foreigners tiptoe through monasteries where Bhutanese families let their kids race and run wild.

The mother and aunt of one of my husband’s students told us, red-faced and laughing while we were all drinking together, that they meet regularly with their lama (monk) as a kind of spiritual insurance. They’re “regular” people who party and tell bawdy jokes and also have a spiritual advisor. This made me reconsider my thoughts on ritual: What do I do that’s totally normal for me or my background but might be a subject of fascination for others? What are some non-religious rituals that I take for granted? What are some Western rituals that we do “because it’s tradition” and not because we’re dialed in to their symbolism or origins? Why DO we bring trees into our houses every winter to celebrate Jesus? We don’t—pines and holly and mistletoe are remnants of Yule, a pagan holiday from which Christmas borrows heavily.

I think this collection is my attempt to bring sacred rituals, mundane rituals, and mundane-rendered-sacred rituals together into some middle space where they are all equally magical (or not). There’s also an attempt to shine a light on dogmatic thinking, both religious and secular. The importance of doubt is another thread. I’m attracted to pagan beliefs and witchcraft because of the ad-hoc, individualistic way that many people follow them.

Discuss your interest in the chapbook as a genre. What is it about the compact form that inspires a strong meditation on theme, image, or idea? What chapbook have you been reading that you admire for the creative work they do? In your answer, talk about how this informed the creation of your chapbook Inevitable What.

The shorter form of the chapbook (versus a full-length) makes the themes more concentrated, almost like a music album. Each one by the same author will have its own flavor based on the author’s interest or obsession of the moment. Chapbooks also seem the right length for the writer’s and reader’s attention span on a given topic or experiment.

Prior to compiling Inevitable What, I didn’t have much experience with chapbooks—they’re a subculture I stumbled upon. The first one I ever had was an excerpt of Nature Poem by Tommy Pico, and he was calling them “zines” and mailing copies to whomever asked for one on his Tumblr! That was my first time seeing poetry in this concentrated form, more expansive than a single poem but with room for several approaches spiraling around a central question or problem.

The chap that directly led to Inevitable What was GHOST GFS by Ctch Bsnss. I saw the cover on a design-and-illustration Tumblr I follow, which led me to the chap itself, which led me to Catch Business’s bio, which led me to Witch Craft Magazine and Sad Spell Press. (Thanks for a lot, Tumblr.) Here was an example of chapbook as beautiful object, different from Tommy’s more bare-bones DIY zine. Others I have read recently and really enjoyed include Make a Fist and Tongue the Knuckles by Emily O’Neill, The Garden inside Her by Isobel O’Hare, and Object of Art by Aiden Arata.

 

You have written collaboratively with the poet Isobel O’Hare and have a poem forthcoming in the anthology They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing (Black Lawrence Press 2018), edited by Simone Muench and Dean Rader. Talk about your collaborative process—inspiration, writing, and revision. Do you write in person or online? Does your collaborative work support and inspire the other creative work you’re doing? And if so, in what ways?

Isobel and I wrote this poem through email, starting with individual lines from our own poetry notebooks as prompts—observations like “frost sublimating from the rooftops” and statements like “this is not my beautiful hell,” which ended up being the first line and title of the poem that’s in the anthology. Showing each other pieces of our writing-scrap-notebooks felt a little like sharing glimpses of each other’s diaries, or stumbling upon each other’s livejournals. Working with Isobel was great because we had similar approaches in playing with language for language’s sake. I’d use their lines as inspiration for a chunk of text, and they’d use mine, then we’d mash together and mash up until nothing was left but the pieces that shared a mood, voice, or idea. Our poem feels true to me even though it isn’t factual.

Prior to this, I’d never co-written with anyone before. It was an interesting logistical challenge, and the payoff is something bigger than me and my own voice. This collaboration was also a way to throw myself back into poetry because, after publishing Inevitable What last year, I shifted my focus to finishing writing a novel I’d abandoned. Novels are so huge, with so many moving parts, and wondering if and how they’ll ever really work can feel bleak. Working on this poem reminded me of the more instant-gratification feeling that writing poetry gives me, the sprint versus the marathon.

 

How do you define chapbook? It’s a shorter-than-full-length book orbiting one main theme or idea.

What makes a good chapbook? To me, asking the same question or approaching the same topic from multiple angles. I think so many poems are unanswerable questions, unsolvable equations, that having a few on the same idea is like a cubist approach to writing.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? Leigh Stein’s How to Mend a Broken Heart with Vengeance is a perennial fave.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Poems that talk to each other.

What’s next for you? The second edition of Inevitable What will be released in December in softcover and as an ebook, with seven new watercolor illustrations by Sirin Thada! Meanwhile, I’m looking for a home for my series of On the Road erasures (in Sharpie and watercolor and gouache). I finished them a few years ago, envisioning a full-length collection, but my 20ish favorites are spicier and more concentrated as a chapbook.

Number of chapbooks you own: So far, twelve or thirteen.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: About the same.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. Collecting books by my friends and other great writers is lit.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: When I’m really rolling in it, I like to ball out on boba tea.

Residence: Millbrae, home of the San Francisco airport.

Job: I work for an art collector, and I’m the Editorial Director for Society of Young Inklings, a nonprofit for young writers.

 

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