You are the author of a chapbook of poems, Glass City Blues: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2018) and chapbook novelette, A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here (Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, 2017). Talk about form and the creative process of building a chapbook.
I’ve always loved the idea of chapbooks as well as micro-edition books. Usually, chapbooks are published by small presses. Having been a filmmaker, I tend to equate small press books with indie films. There is nothing like discovering an indie film, or an underlooked book or author, and feeling as though you’ve discovered a gem. I once took a class with the poet and teacher Tim Geiger who ran a letterpress at the University of Toledo. His class often published chapbooks, which was my first exposure to this form. The more I started to dig around, the more I discovered chapbooks. Sometimes they’re created by loving publisher hands, such as on a letterpress. I published a book like this; it was an anthology of poets from Toledo. I printed every page by hand. While this method is not used for much anymore, as far as I know, I still love the aesthetic of short works. For example, I know that certain publishers such as Black Lawrence Press and Rattle do chapbooks. Reading one is like this private, secluded experience that you can’t get when reading a book in the mainstream canon.
From a writer’s perspective, creating a chapbook is more of a formal choice. With my novelette, A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here, it wasn’t long enough to be a novella, and it was too long to be a short story. The publisher opted to run it as a novelette chapbook. With the poetry chapbook, Glass City Blues, I knew that my concept was on the micro-level. I wanted to keep it short and sweet.
What steps informed your process?
It depends. I think the size or portion of a book project can be compared to an artist choosing a canvas size. If an artist decides to paint a field of poppies, they have chosen to paint a field of poppies. But whether they decide to paint the field of poppies on a twelve inch by sixteen-inch canvas or seventy-five inch by eighteen-foot canvas is a big difference (I’m thinking specifically of Bohemia Lies by the Sea by Anselm Kiefer, which is enormous). With Glass City Blues, I had some themes and experiences I wanted to explore about Toledo and Los Angeles and the body on a smaller level. However, I may one day explore the same things on a larger level. For me, the size of the canvas tends to come to mind once the idea has been planted. Now that I’ve explored many different mediums, I feel as though I have a good sense of which of my ideas require a large canvas or a small one.
Were they similar or different for both chapbooks?
With A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here, I tried to write that story in many different ways. I had a piece of journalism published about the piece (because it is based on a lived-experience). I tried to write the fictionalized version as a screenplay, which didn’t work out. Earlier versions of the fictional version were much larger and needed to be pruned.
With Glass City Blues, I wrote dozens of poems that never made it out for publication, though I certainly tried. That book was essentially ten years in the making. I suppose you could say the same thing about A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here, because the experience it is based on happened in 2008, around the same time I started to generate Glass City Blues.
How does genre influence the way stories and themes emerge across a chapbook?
While I tend to see more poetry chapbooks, I’m always intrigued by fiction chapbooks. It seems that theme is more important to linking together independent pieces within a poetry chapbook. In fact, theme is probably the most significant tethering element. I say this about poetry compared to fiction because generally there will be more poems in a poetry chapbook than fiction pieces in a fiction chapbook, unless the prose is flash fiction. While theme is important in a full-length book, I think that it is more prevalent in a chapbook due to the smaller scope. This sense of scope is crucial to the way stories or narratives playout in a chapbook; since it is shorter than a full-length book, the reading experience tends to feel more definitive.
What was the organizing force(s) for your collections?
Glass City Blues is broken up into three sections: 1. Glass City Blues 2. How to Build a Heart 3. From Los Angeles with Love. I knew that the first section dealt mostly with poems about Toledo (the Glass City), the second section is comprised entirely of visual poems, and the third section contains poems about and set in mostly Los Angeles.
A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here is a standalone story. It is actually thematically linked to other stories in a full-length book that has yet to be published. Some of the characters in that story appear in other stories.
Your chapbook Glass City Blues collects visual poetry and you also teach about visual storytelling, most recently here. Talk a bit more about the visual space of the page and how it informs the possible stories one might tell. When you teach storytelling for the screen, what tools, strategies, and activities do you bring into the classroom to help students think visually about story?
So much can be done with one page! With the visual poetry, I wanted to explore themes of geography, local, the body, and language within the page. We often think of writing in linear forms, for example: In English we write prose from left to write and down the page. However, it can be quite liberating when we break free of that norm. A lot of poetry already explores the space of a page; however, it is still generally confined to black text against white space within the parameters of a page. It is interesting when this mode is challenged. The canvas of a page offers so much potential.
When I teach storytelling for the screen, I’m generally catering to students who want to learn the traditional practice of screenwriting. When I do this, I like to draw comparisons between storytelling in the form of prose and how that might translate to the screen. In my recent class, I showed three different versions of the Red Room scene from Jane Eyre and then provided students with those pages from the novel. We listened to an audiobook of the novel and read along with that scene. This helps to explicate the interiority needed within prose that we cannot get from films and television. I also discuss things such as visual metaphor, or metonymy, to get students thinking in terms of what kinds of opening images can be suggestive of the story’s theme. Still, the screen–like the page–offers unlimited opportunities. There are plenty of visual artists who utilize the moving image and sound for innovative forms of storytelling. It can be interesting to draw parallels between the page and the screen and how our eyes and our minds attempt to decipher meaning from them differently.
Talk about your creative process. What are some of your favorite ways to generate new work?
It seems like when I generate new work, I first type rapidly, monstrously, until I have reached the end of a first draft. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Anne Lamott have spoken of the necessity of writing shitty first draft. Quite literally, I believe in this process of closing one’s eyes and typing until the story is out of the psyche, out of the system. I did this with my current novel-in-progress. The novel began as a short story, and my MFA mentor back in the spring of 2017 told me that the short story wasn’t working as a short-length piece; he told me that the idea needed a novel to flesh it out and make it authentic. I took that to heart. I sat at the keys and pounded out as much as I could. This process took from approximately April of 2017 to December of 2017. I wrote approximately 50,000 words (or more). I knew that this draft was not what the finished novel would be. My final mentor in my MFA program informed me that the draft I had just written would be my notes for the next few drafts. He was right. He told me to start the novel again from scratch, and I did. I’m still working on it. I started it again in January 2018 and am currently at 42,000 words of a third draft. I’m trying to reach 50,000 (which, apparently, is the standard length of a novel). When I pounded out the first draft, there were scenes in there that would never, ever work. Now, the novel is much more eloquent, at least in my opinion. I have seen it in a new light, and at different angles. I think this will be my process from here on out. I will pound out a shitty draft. I will let it sit for a while. I will start it again from scratch. This is true for fiction, poetry, non-fiction, a screenplay—whatever I happen to be writing. I think it is important to release what the mind and body think the story is and then to reexamine it or approach it again after the passion has been extinguished. Also, it is necessary to note that a few months, maybe more, should be exhausted between this (ideally, while having written different material). Then, after putting space between the self and the written work, I can approach the material with a new mind.
What makes a good chapbook? I think a chapbook is good if it is sufficiently linked by a central theme.
What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? Ligatures by Denise Miller. Black and Not Sorry by Michelle Dodd. Little Black Dress by Elizabeth Thomas. 3Arabi Song by Zeina Hashem Beck (one of my dear favorites). The Egg Mistress by Jessica Poli. Families Among Us by Blake Kimzey.
What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Well, I can’t deny personal connections. A friend of mind, Nicholas Bruno, printed a chapbook by a writer I adore, Kyle Minor. Similarly, a group of student publishers printed a version of a chapbook by Rane Arroyo that I somehow still possess. Rane’s chapbook, Weekends in Ohio with Ghosts, still exists on my bookshelf in a tattered state. I received it nearly a decade ago, though it was printed in 2000. The chapbook is composed of Rane’s poems as well as black and white photographs he took himself, of mundane things like his cat and a plant in his apartment. I’m holding this chapbook now. it is a bit larger than the size of my hand. It brings tears to my eyes.
What’s next for you? In November I have two stories being published: “Halcyon” by Drunk Monkeys and “Love Drugs” by Barnstorm. These two stories will be the last from a collection called The Cost of Love to be published. I have been shopping around this collection while finishing my novel. I hope to have the novel finished in January 2019.
Number of chapbooks you own: Currently: Approximately 30.
Where you spend your chapbook earnings: There are none! I had a reading at The Studio@620 in St. Petersburg, Florida last week. I read from Glass City Blues. I sold about three copies and gave just as many away (one of them was a trade for a piece of art). There is no money in this. There is probably no money in poetry. If I hit the jackpot and land a deal selling my collection of short stories and the novel, it will still probably be less than a traditional few years’ salary. That is fine with me. I’m happy to give away my chapbook to libraries from my hometown and beyond. All I want is for people to read my work. If they enjoy it, then I’m more that ecstatic.
Your chapbook wish: I have tried to have a few speculative stories compiled into chapbooks, but they weren’t accepted. I wish that authors are able to exist beyond chapbooks and reach full-length collections. I’m not talking about myself. There are plenty of authors who deserve mainstream recognition, and I truly wish that they achieve it. I wish that they are able to sustain themselves on book sales alone (with potential income from teaching, which is a great way to pay it all forward).
Residence: Tampa, Florida.
Chapbook Bio: Nathan Elias is the author of the novelette A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here (August 2017) and the chapbook Glass City Blues: Poems (September 2018). He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and has served as Fiction, Art, and Flash Fiction editor on the literary journal Lunch Ticket. He has taught a variety of creative writing classes, including fiction, poetry, and screenwriting. He is currently working on a novel. www.Nathan-Elias.com