The Chapbook Interview: Susana H. Case on Heat

How did your new chapbook, Manual of Practical Sexual Advice (Kattywompus Press, 2012) begin?

I was cleaning out my parents’ home after they died and found a well-thumbed sex manual from the 1940s in the drawer of a bedroom table. My parents were from that generation of Americans who believed in relying upon manuals for everything. Dr. Spock wrote their household bible on child care. Anyway, I took the manual home, forgot about it, and found it again years later when clearing out my own furniture. This time I decided to read it and it got me speculating about my parents’ sexual life, in particular, that of my mother. The doctor who wrote the 1940s manual was well-meaning, but constrained by notions of gender and female sexuality in the mid-century. His portrait of what was expected for a “normal” sex life was not pretty. I decided to channel him and to also respond to him. In a way, that chapbook is a conversation between a sexual advice “expert” of the mid-twentieth century and a modern woman.

How long did you spend writing it? Was research part of your writing process? How many versions did it go through before you reached the final? How did your peers and readers shape the revision process?

It went through a couple of enjambed versions before I decided that a prose poem structure would work better for most of the poems in the manual. I belong to a writing group that meets weekly and so during the time I was working on the series, I brought parts in for our meetings and took those comments into consideration when revising, though the prose form structure came later. I spent about six months working on the manual, but I usually have a few series going at any one time.

I did research on the period because I wanted there to be historical accuracy. For example, I looked into the use of strychnine as an aphrodisiac and also looked into common but peculiar foods from the period for one of the poems. I’m interested in general in using history in poetry, not only my own social history, but history in the larger sense.

How much time did you spend finding a home for it?

Not too long, actually. I had sent it out a couple of times before changing to a prose poem structure. Once I changed the structure, I found a home for it right away.

Tell me more about the poems and themes in Manual of Practical Sexual Advice. I’m fascinated with the idea of manuals and how-to-books. There’s something so hopeful in a how-to, as if it can offer answers and give solutions to ones problems in a few easy steps. I think Manual of Practical Sexual Advice seems to point to the oddness of such books, especially when certain subjects, have been and still are in certain circles, taboo. How did you go about putting such a sequence together?

I looked to see which topics were commonly covered in advice manuals of this sort. The poems are not an exact replication of topics. I consolidated and changed things around to suit what I wanted to write about and tossed out what I thought was weakest. You know that old aphorism about jewelry—remove one piece after you think you’ve finished putting yourself together? I think it applies to poetry series as well—remove one poem, maybe even two, once you think you have finished. In terms of the taboo nature of the material, a friend and fellow poet told me when another friend of his visited him, she saw Manual and asked him what he was doing with porn in his home! I don’t see it that way, obviously. Perhaps some of the poems seem a bit naughty, but the intent is quite serious.

Desire and heat are also themes in your chapbook The Cost of Heat (Pecan Grove Press, 2010). How are these two collections different?

Both are, in a sense, personal, but The Cost of Heat is more explicitly so. The poems in that series are based upon my second marriage and are my attempt to explore what domestic intimacy has meant for me. Because my husband is an artist, I’ve also thought a lot about the ways in which two creating people mesh together well and the issues that situation engenders. Although Manual of Practical Sexual Advice was generated from my look backward at the early years of my parents’ lives together, there’s more of an attempt in that series to place their lives within a socio-historical context.

What about the publication of the individual poems prior to the acceptance from the press? Most of the poems in The Cost of Heat first appeared in print. Do you seek to publish your poems in print, online or a mix? Is there a balance you prefer of published and unpublished poems in a collection?

There’s something about holding a literary magazine in my hands that appeals to me. On the other hand, there are so many new and interesting online venues that I feel it’s important to explore. Some of it I recognize as economic for publishers. One in-print literary magazine that I very much admire, Cider Press Review started as a print journal and made the switch, I suspect, for reasons of production costs. So, I pursue both forms of publication. In terms of the publication of individual poems, I thought the poems in The Cost of Heat could stand alone and that’s why most of those were previously published. The Manual poems were newer and also most were probably going to be viewed a little strangely as stand-alones–they needed more context. Only one of those was ever sent out to a literary magazine beforehand and that one appeared in Coe Review. It was an older poem, written before I was aware that I was writing a series.

Tell me about the cover art, design and layout of Manual of Practical Sexual Advice and The Cost of Heat. The cover image is just perfect for Manual of Practical Sexual Advice. Too, I love the cover artwork on The Cost of Heat. The artwork is your husband’s right? How involved were you with the selection of cover and the interior layout and design?

I suggested the cover of The Cost of Heat. I wanted to use a detail of one of my husband’s works, because the poems referenced my life with him so much, and I wanted a cover that evoked heat, so although much of Eric Hoffmann’s work is monchromatic, he has used red in a very few paintings, and I was interested in using one of those. I had a lot of discussions with Pecan Grove Press about cover font as well. With Manual, the chapbooks of Kattywompus Press all have a similar signature in terms of cover art, so Sammy Greenspan, the publisher, had her own clear vision for the cover and checked to make sure I was okay with it. I’m happy about how both covers worked out. The inside layout was largely in the hands of both presses.

What was the time between acceptance of your chapbook and publication date? How much editing of the poems and manuscript did you do during this time? When did you know, really know your chapbook was done and ready for the world?

I think each chapbook took about a year from acceptance to publication. During that time, I did not do a lot of editing of either. But then I got page proofs and got a bit more sniggly. I’m not sure they’re ever really done, but to the extent that they’re treated by me as done, when I send them out for consideration, I feel they’re substantially done.

Once you’d sent the final version of your chapbook to the press, how long did you wait until you had the chapbook in your hands? What did you do during this time?

I think it took several months in both cases. Kattywompus does their printing in-house, but puts out more chapbooks per year than Pecan Grove Press. I continued to work on other poems.

It seems there might be a lingering sense among some poets, writers, and editors: poets must win prizes. Even the May/June 2012 Poets & Writers discuss the necessity of contests to bolster memberships for journals, covering part of running and managing a contest, and creating opportunities for writers of poetry and short story collections a venue for publishing their books and chapbook. You’ve won a couple of chapbook prizes. What advice would you offer other poets considering contests and open reading periods for their chapbooks?

I consider it a useful way for an unknown poet to launch a first collection. And it’s a good venue for a smaller series anytime during one’s career trajectory. It also helps support the publication efforts of small presses. I had won a chapbook contest years earlier—that of Slapering Hol Press, for a manuscript titled The Scottish Café, so I knew what to expect. That one mushroomed into a Polish-English translation published by Opole University Press. My experience has been that the experience leads to other opportunities. I’ve gotten to know a number of other Slapering Hol Press poets and for many, their chapbook competition win was the beginning of further successes.

Has winning a chapbook prize changed the way you approach the business side of writing?

I realized that the burden of promoting a chapbook–any poetry book really–falls upon the author and takes a lot of work. I also had another chapbook published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company before these two more recent ones. So I’m used to the process. I did think, however, that it was time for a full length collection. Or maybe I felt internal pressure because it seemed almost everyone I knew had a full-length book coming out. I have one forthcoming now from WordTech Editions: Salem in Séance. It’s based upon personalities from the Salem witchcraft trials and is due out in January, 2013.

Given that both you and your husband are artists, does that influence your writing?

Absolutely! Aside from the fact that it provides subject matter, there’s a way in which living with someone who is equally obsessed about their work makes it easier to explain why I can’t talk right now and I can’t listen either because I am shutting myself up in my workspace and you’ll see me later. It’s nice to have that and not have domestic conflict over it. The other person understands the obsession.

What current projects are you working on?

I’m working on a series of poems inspired by rock and roll. I have an interest in labor history as well and I’ve been working on a series based upon copper mining.

Number of chapbooks you own: I don’t know exactly–100?

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: I’ve read at least as many as I own and others I decided not to keep.

Ways you promote other poets: After Slapering Hol Press published my first chapbook,  I was invited to join their Advisory Committee. One of my volunteer activities is working in an e-newsletter that gets sent out three times a year.

Where you spend your poetry earnings: You’re joking, right? If there’s prize money involved, I’ll treat myself to a bauble.

Inspirations and influences: I love the postwar Polish poets, but also enjoy a range of contemporary poets. I’m studying Italian, so I’ve had the opportunity to read a number of contemporary Italian poets in the original. Their poetry seems very different–often more abstract and of course, the sound is different because there’s more internal rhyme because of the nature of the language,

Residence: New York City

Job and education: I work as a university professor and have a Ph.D., in sociology. That probably accounts for my interest in certain subjects.

Bio: Susana H. Case, professor at the New York Institute of Technology, has recent work in many journals, including Hawai’i Pacific Review, Portland Review, Potomac Review and Saranac Review. She is the author of the chapbooks The Scottish Café (Slapering Hol Press), Anthropologist In Ohio (Main Street Rag Publishing Company), The Cost Of Heat (Pecan Grove Press), and Manual of Practical Sexual Advice (Kattywompus Press).  An English-Polish reprint of The Scottish Café, Kawiarnia Szkocka, was published by Opole University Press in Poland. Her book, Salem In Séance (WordTech Editions) will be released in 2013. Please visit her online at:

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