chapbook

Jennifer Hirt on video-poems, titles, genre, and sequencing chapbooks

You are the author of the chapbook Too many questions about strawberries (Tolson Books, 2018) and the author of the memoir Under Glass: The Girl with a Thousand Christmas Trees (University of Akron Press, 2010). As a writer of nonfiction and a collection of prose poetry, talk about craft and technique. Is your approach to memoir and prose poetry the same or different? What methods do you consider as you build a chapbook or a book regarding sequencing, character development, and tension? Talk about the line between genres. When do you know something is a prose poem and when something is prose? In your answer, discuss the development of your new chapbook and steps you followed to write it.

When I think about the steps I took to write this chapbook, I think about a nightmarish staircase where I progress one step every twenty years or so! I say that because two of the poems were written around 1998, and the most recent poem was polished up in early 2018. Which is to say, I was tinkering with poems for two decades and finally had enough decent ones for a chapbook. Some are lyrical free verse, one is an abecedarian, and some are prose poems. When I thought about sequencing and tension, I thought about how each poem approached place, time, and topic, and then I tried to match them up in ways that made for a companionable read between any two or three poems in sequence. I also thought about style and voice and tried to place the poems in a sequence that gave motion to the pendulum of my range. A challenging poem might be followed by a brief poem, for example.

I think sometimes the steps writers take are imperceptible until we can look back and see them all in hindsight. That said, I also think I’m on about ten different staircases at once; I work on multiple projects at a time, sometimes setting one aside for months until I get a new idea for it. My method for building any book, be it memoir or poetry, is that I don’t set goals for the future, I just keep track of what I’ve accomplished in the past. So, for example, I don’t say to myself, “I’m going to write a poem a day for a week.” Instead, I might spend the day writing and reading, then before bed I jot down in my notebook what all I did. I might give myself one task or question to pursue the next day, but I never give myself word counts to write up to or anything like that. I also never, ever get down on myself for not writing. There’s enough of an uphill climb in writing; I don’t need to tie my own shoes together!

How do I know if something is a prose poem versus just prose? I think a prose poem can have very loose associations, whereas a piece of prose has to make stronger connections between ideas. Garden metaphors work for me, so how about this: A prose poem is a bunch of bouquets in a florist’s cooler, all vibrant and contained and packaged, but prose is the path through an English cottage garden.

My approach to these different genres is identical in the early stages (just get the ideas and images down on paper), but it does shift in later revisions. For prose, I flee into research for many mid-stage drafts, so that the bigger ideas in the piece come from a conversation with scholarship and culture, not just a conversation with myself. But for poetry, I set aside my early draft and usually read someone else’s poetry for a little bit. It’s like I have to internalize another poet’s voice in order to find the voice or style for my draft. I don’t do that with prose as much.

Your reflections on the creation of sequence as a “nightmarish staircase” evoke the unexpected turns of inspiration that appear along the creative journey. You’ve created a photo-collage video of a poem collected in Too many questions about strawberries. You’ve also collaborated with a videographer to create a video-poem. Talk about the collaborative process. Is it startling? Inspiriting? Is the timeframe similar or different? How did the collaboration evolve?

The timeframe and emotional commitment for the videos and collages was much, much different. Tina Mitchell did the narration and animation for “Foxes I’ve Seen by Now” in less than a month. We’ve known each other since graduate school, circa 2002-2003, and we co-edited the anthology Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Nonfiction. So we’ve worked together and know each other’s styles and strengths. I basically just asked her to do it, and then about ten days later she started sending me clips and segments that were amazing. She wanted to illustrate some parts from photos that I had, so part of the process was me digging through old photos in search of the family German Shepherd I had in mind for the “guard dog” part of the poem. Funny story: I had no fox photo to give her to work from. But a few days after many text messages lamenting that we had no fox photo for a poem about seeing foxes, I saw one in the middle of the day, by the dog park. And I had my good camera. And I got photos of it. Talk about the creative karmic vibes all coming together!

For “Three Bricks Thick,” I knew I wanted my longtime partner, Paul Cockeram, to narrate it because he’s really in to bricks and masonry, and he was a theater major (so he has a good narrating voice). The images are then just photos and short video clips that attempt to loosely illustrate (or directly reference) the engineering of these old brick walls. While Tina was using a more advanced video editing program, I just dropped my brick ideas into Windows Video Editor, had Paul narrate into a cheap but useful microphone I bought a few years ago. The final version is, I think, the fifth or sixth revision, but it did not take more than a week to get it done.

Your chapbook Too many questions about strawberries has a provocative and playful title. What strategies do you follow for selecting titles for individual poems and collections?

I like long titles, and I guess that comes from my nonfiction background. I read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and I just loved the title and how it prepared the reader for the whole vibe of the book. When I was trying out titles for this one, I’d say them out loud to people, and I noticed that everyone smiled and chuckled with the strawberries title. That’s a good thing! Previous titles were Whisper Satyr, from a poem that I cut because it ended up somewhere else, and Foxes I’ve Seen By Now, which is a title I still like a lot, but I could tell people would not easily remember it. I also like how a long title makes it unique enough that anyone searching online might land on my book and only my book. As I write this, there are no other books in the world with the title of my book. But titles are not copyrighted, so that might change, of course. When it comes to titling poems, I often go through three or four titles based on my favorite line during any given revision. I also like to have the title serve as the first line of the poem.

How do you define chapbook? It is a short and small book that could become an underground collector’s item.

What makes a good chapbook? Style.

What chapbooks inspire you these days? Any with an old-school touch. Letterpress, or hand-bound.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? The Heart That Lies Outside the Body by Stephanie Lenox and The Coastline of Antarctica by Donna Hunt.

 What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Moments of surprise.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? I’m trying to get better at seeing the potential for a concern to have staying power across a sequence of poems.

What’s next for you? Revising an essay collection that has been accepted by The University of Akron Press

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community: This one makes me think of the line from the movie Donnie Darko, where a mom confronts another mom about the girls’ dance team and says “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.” Seriously, though, my English department at Penn State Harrisburg has the students put out a multi-author chapbook every fall. Called Fission, it usually features ten student writers and photographers. The students on the editorial board have to make selections based on the smaller size of the publication and how the words might pair up with photos.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I have samples in my office on campus, and I frequently loan them out to students.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Buying books at our local bookstore, The Midtown Scholar.

Your chapbook wish: That I get up the gumption to get a tattoo of strawberries, done like the cover of my chapbook.

Residence: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, otherwise known as #cherishburg

Job: Associate Professor and Chair of the English Program at Penn State Harrisburg

 

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