You’re the author of the full-length collection Millions of Ravenous Creatures (Big Table Publishing, 2016) and the four chapbooks Seeds (Flutter Press, 2017), Hope and Compulsion (Big Table Publishing, 2009), Waking Up on a Sinking Boat (Pudding House Publications, 2008), and Various Ways of Thinking About the Universe (Finishing Line Press, 2005). Your newest collection, Seeds, contains only 15 poems that focus on transitions. Talk about your interest in the chapbook form and what it offers as a distinct genre.
I have always been fascinated by the genre of the chapbook. I think of poems as glimpses, brief insights. The chapbook genre is a large version of that. It’s a genre that allows the poet to open up a concept or a line or a metaphor, explore it for a bit, and then let it go. I like the compactness of the form. The brevity puts certain demands on the poet to be thinking about a coherent through line in the collection. Also as a reader I find chapbooks to be more intimate than full-length collections, and I love picking them up whenever I encounter them. I also love seeing how poems from a chapbook might find their way into a full-length collection in the future. It gives the poems a history, and it gives readers a glimpse of the poet thinking, working through an idea, being flexible and willing to change. But it’s that letting go part that really works for me—that a poet can put pressure on an idea for several poems, from several angles, and then just let it go.
As a writing teacher at MIT, you work with young writers who are building and sharpening their skills. This article by Jeff Selingo discusses the importance of college writing, highlighting the processes of drafting, editing, working with others, audience, and reading good writing. On the necessity of practice, he writes, “Training for any activity in life requires practice that usually exceeds the tasks we will need to handle later on.” This article by Sandra Scofield discusses the writer’s process after the first draft is complete. She writes, “Revision is about analyzing what you have now and considering ways to make it better. The first draft is done, and now you start at a new beginning….” Talk about the ways you guide young writers through the drafting process. How does your revision work as you build, polish, and recreate the manuscripts that become your books and chapbooks inform your approach to the topic in the writing classroom?
Selingo’s point about practice is important. However, there is a difference between practice and good practice. If college writing experiences don’t teach students how to enter new writing situations, then it really doesn’t matter how much students practice. It will just be a waste of everyone’s time. College courses across the country, in writing courses as well as in the disciplines, ask students to write college papers. The assignment instructions are usually a collection of idiosyncratic demands made by a single professor. The result is that students get plenty of practice writing in a genre and for an audience they will never encounter or address after college. They get plenty of practice at writing in this context, and that practice is pretty useless in preparing for writing situations after college. Educators don’t need to teach students how to write in every genre or situation that students might encounter. I’m not advocating for that. We do, however, need to introduce students to the tools that will allow them to successfully engage with any new writing situation, and then we need to create situations for students to practice these skills. That sort of practice—which involves genre, audience, context, and purpose analysis—has benefits that easily transfer into successful writing in the workplace. College writing instruction across the country is moving in this direction. It’s the sort of work we do at MIT, and it is the sort of work they’re doing at the University of Pennsylvania, where I taught prior to coming to MIT.
In terms of my revision process for poems, I lean toward the idea presented in Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns—“The shift between composition and revision is the shift from the imaginative to the analytic, the nondiscursive to the discursive, the expansive to the controlled, from freedom to restraint, license to judgment.” Revision, in this way, requires a different approach and way of thinking than the process of composing. Revision is the use of a number of strategies—considering line length, diction, syntax, syllable stress, among others—to reframe the initial idea generated during drafting so that it delivers the intended message.
When writing poems, I have a reader in mind. Every craft choice I make in a poem to carry the meaning forward is with the hope that it will help to bring that reader closer to some sort of insight. So, drafting is about getting the idea out onto the page. Revision is about employing craft strategies to make the idea mean something for a reader once the poem is sent out and taking its own place in the world. This way of thinking about revision, as a sort of rhetorical study that is enacted by craft awareness, applies to writing poems as well as to students writing journal articles in physics or press releases for internships. It’s transferable into different genres and contexts.
Along with those collected in your book and four chapbooks, your poems have appeared online in From the Fishhouse, The Cortland Review, and The Apple Valley Review. The imagery in your poems is lovely, fresh, and vivid. What’s the most helpful advice you’ve received about writing imagery? What books or authors are your “go-to” when you seek craft advice on direction, inspiration, or motivation?
Thank you! That’s wonderful to hear! The best advice I have received about writing poems, not just about imagery, is to read more poetry. Poets are readers. So, I read a lot. I read everything I can—poems, nonfiction, fiction. I have been rereading Bill Knott’s work again, since his selected poems, I Am Flying into Myself, was recently edited and assembled by Thomas Lux. No matter how many times I have read Knott’s poems, every time I return to them I find myself surprised by his imagination. I love that. For more direct guidance on writing, I turn to Best Words, Best Order and Next Word, Better Order by Stephen Dobyns. Dobyns is a thoughtful, careful writer. He provides in these books wonderful insights about writing and reading poems. If you haven’t read these, then you really should.
Your last chapbook was part of the Boston on the Books on the T Program. What was the best thing about that experience?
The Books on the T is a really cool part of Boston’s writing scene. The mission is to create a sort of traveling library, which is a really awesome idea. I was excited to be included this year, because I love the idea of sharing poetry with people who might not ordinarily read poems. My poems are written to be read and understood by any interested reader. I don’t write for an academic audience, so knowing that my work has been traveling around through the Boston transit has been really exciting. The Books on the T program places poems in front of commuters—maybe nurses or cooks or whoever. That just feels right to me. Most people are too busy trying to grind it out every day to pay their bills to even think about reading poetry. Books on the T brings poetry to them, literally putting books out for them to look read on their way to work. That normalizes poetry a bit. The idea of putting poems into the landscape of Boston and letting them find their way around the city, passing through one reader’s hands into another’s, is the kind of connectedness that we rarely get to have with readers. It’s wonderful! I only hope that if anyone on the T encounters my poems that they think for a moment about how they can find time to read more. They don’t need to read my poetry, though. I would love for them to read Thomas Lux, Stephen Dobyns, Weldon Kees, Bill Knot, Alan Dugan, and a long list of others. I know it’s hard to find time for poetry in our already full lives, but I think we need it, as a community, now more than ever.
You also have another chapbook forthcoming in June. Can you talk about your new collection?
Yes, thank you! This has been very exciting. Flutter Press published my previous collection, Seeds, and will publish my next chapbook, Two Thirds Water. I like working with Sandy Benitez, the editor at Flutter Press, very much. She cares about poems, cares about readers, and appreciates the value and focus of a short collection.
Two Thirds Water extends naturally from, Seeds. Seeds is a collection about transitions. In some ways it’s about planting an idea and hoping that it grows. That sort of sums of transitions to me. Transitions are our opportunities to grow, no matter how uncertain transitional periods in our lives might feel. Two Thirds Water builds off that. Without water, a seed can’t grow. Being like water, being receptive to change, puts us in the most favorable position to come out of our transitional stages stronger. In addition, the collection’s title reflects a series of parallels—the planet and body are two thirds water, and water in various phases appears in two thirds of this collection.
There is another layer to these chapbooks which is not clearly stated in any of the poems at this point. I study and teach Ving Tsun (pronounced Wing Chun) Kung Fu. I’ve been thinking about how the open-hand forms in the Ving Tsun system progress from planting a seed of development (Siu Nim Tau), becoming mobile (Chum Kiu), and then sort of allow us to return to ourselves again at some point later in our journeys (Biu Jee). The forms are physical, but in my training they also act as metaphors, at least to me. I used my interpretation of that sequence of forms as a way of planning this trilogy of chapbooks. These are not Kung Fu poems or poems about Kung Fu philosophy, though. I’m more focused on the structural progression of the forms and what they teach us in this series than I am in writing about the content of the forms or interpretations of Kung Fu philosophy, at least so far.
There will be a follow up to Two Thirds Water that will mirror Biu Jee, a recovery form that trains the hands to return to centerline whenever you find yourself in an unfavorable position. In the Moy Yat Ving Tsun Kung Fu system, we refer to Biu Jee as the standard compass so that our hands always return back to center, the way a compass always points north.
How do you define chapbook? I define a chapbook as a short collection of about 10-20 poems that contribute to a single theme.
What makes a good chapbook? A good poetry chapbook is made of good poems!
What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? I have been rereading Seth Michelson’s Maestro of Brutal Splendor recently.
What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? I loved reading Thomas Lux’s chapbooks. The first of his I encountered was Pecked to Death by Swans.
What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? I don’t look for anything specific. I’ll write a few poems and start looking at them, moving them around, revising. From there I start to think about what I want to make happen. So I always start writing with a sensibility about the craft of individual poems. The poems need to work as poems before they can work in a chapbook.
How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? I’m always reading, which is part of my study of poetry. Before we can become better chapbook poets, we need to be better poets. With that in mind, as I keep writing and publishing chapbooks, my understanding of this genre gets more and more refined. I’m trying to break down the way a chapbook might move from open to close. I’ve given a lot of thought to the wide angle view of the genre. I haven’t, though, really analyzed, for example, what makes a good opening poem for a chapbook collection—that sort of thing. I would like to gather a bunch of really strong chapbooks from other writers and analyze how they are made and how the move into developing a holistic meaning.
What’s next for you? I’m actively working on the follow up to Two Thirds Water. Stringing three chapbooks together like this has been a lot of fun. It’s given me space to look at an idea, let it go, and then move on from it in a related, but equally constrained, collection.
Number of chapbooks you own: Truly, too many to count. I went on a chapbook bender a while back and picked up short collections of poems everywhere I went.
Number of chapbooks you’ve read: See above!
Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I give a lot of my books away—sometimes to friends, sometimes to strangers. If someone looks interested in what I’m reading, I just hand it over. Chapbooks are cool to do that with, since they are short and tend not to intimidate people not accustomed to reading poems.
Your chapbook credo: Open up one idea…then let it go….
Your chapbook wish: That a chapbook collection works as one piece and feels complete is my overall wish. And, I would like to surprise myself more when I write. It would be wonderful to put together a chapbook that keeps me surprised from start to finish.
Residence: Lowell, MA
Job: MIT: Lecture in Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communications
Chapbook education: Sarah Lawrence College, MFA
Chapbook Bio: Rodger LeGrand studied writing at Sarah Lawrence College and the State University of New York at Oswego. He is a lecturer in Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has five collections of poetry in print—Seeds (2017), Millions of Ravenous Creatures (2016), Hope and Compulsion (2009), Waking Up On a Sinking Boat (2008), and Various Ways of Thinking About the Universe (2005). You can reach him at www.rodgerlegrand.com.