The Chapbook Interview: Laura E. Davis on First Chapbooks & Coming of Age

How did your forthcoming chapbook, Braiding the Storm, begin?

I was in my last semester of graduate school at the time, so I was already compiling a larger manuscript for my thesis. I decided to submit to Finishing Line’s New Women’s Voice contest, so I just collected poems that fit with the narrative arch I was already working with. I pretty much put it together for a few contest deadlines. Thank goodness for deadlines.

How long did you spend writing it? How many versions did it go through before you reached the final?

These poems were written between October 2009 and January 2011, mostly looking back on the path that lead me to accept that I was a poet. I didn’t think that I was writing a chapbook at that point. I was just writing the poems I needed to write. For me, a manuscript is never really finished. I see poems the same way. We might prefer a version and stop there for aesthetic, personal, or practical reasons, but this particular version has to do with the contest deadline.

Tell me more about the “coming of age” theme. How did you decide upon the order of the poems, the narrative arc, and the various themes such as those introduced in your flagship poem “The Vicenarian or My Twenties So Far”?

The collection is a journey through my late teens to my late twenties. I had some pretty intense emotional experiences during that time: defining my sexuality, dealing with a sexual assault, developing my own political and religious opinions, struggling with mental illness, getting married, getting divorced, moving a lot, losing family to illness. My twenties were turbulent. I’m definitely not alone there, which is why a lot of the themes are universal.

As I was writing a number of the poems in the chapbook, I struggled with fully expressing the weight of my twenties through individual poems. That’s when I read Brenda Hillman’s epic prose poem, “The Eighties”, where she layers the personal with the political and cultural climates of the decade. It blew me away. Sometimes there are poems that change your life. That make you think, “I didn’t know I could do that!” Hillman’s poem did that for me. So I wrote an imitation poem which eventually became “The Vicenarian or My Twenties So Far”. I put everything in this poem. All of the turbulence that characterized my twenties. Writing it was so cathartic, but more surprising were the responses when I read it out loud for the first time. This poem resonates with people, particularly those my age, but not exclusively. My mentor, poet John Oliver Simon, said he could write one for each of the six decades of his life. There is something for everyone to latch onto there, I believe. So it made sense to put this poem at the beginning and have it inform the rest of the poems, which for the most part are organized chronologically.

I should mention that not all of the poems, nor any individual poem, is completely autobiographical.

How much time did you spend to find a home for it?

I was lucky. I sent this to four contests. I didn’t win any of them, but I also never received a formal rejection from Finishing Line after they announced their contest winners, and I knew they considered publishing all contest entries. Still, I was preparing to do an overhaul of the manuscript to include newer poems when I got the acceptance in December 2011.

What about the publication of the individual poems prior to the acceptance from Finishing Line Press? Did you seek to publish these poems in print, online or a mix? Is there a balance you prefer of published and unpublished poems in a collection?

Many of these poems have been previously published in both print and online journals. I don’t really think about a mix of print or online, or at least I wasn’t at the time. I just sent work to publications I admired, who published the work of poets I admire. I wasn’t going for a balance. The individual poems were separate entities until I printed all the poems out last January, laid them on the floor, and sequenced them. That’s when I though, “This is a chapbook.” It was just by chance that I chose some of the poems already published.


Tell me about that cover art, design, and layout. How involved were you with the selection of cover art and the overall chapbook cover and interior layout and design?

The cover art was created by my friend and photographer and digital artist Rose Desiano. I was so happy to work collaboratively with Rose on the cover. I wrote about this process on my blog.

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, Braiding the Storm was done and ready for the world?

The time span seems endless – about nine months from acceptance to publishing – though I had about half of that time to get the final manuscript to FLP. I was surprised and pleased with the flexibility the editors gave me in terms of editing the manuscript. I ended up swapping out one poem with another and making minor edits to a handful of poems, including adjusting the line breaks to fit within a chapbook’s margins. I didn’t really know it was finished. I still don’t. It feels mostly done.

Has being the editor and founder of the journal Weave Magazine shaped your writing and sense of the publishing industry in some ways?

Absolutely. The biggest effect editing Weave has had on me is realizing the importance of community in writing. Even though I haven’t met most of Weave’s contributors in person, I’ve developed relationships with many online and through email. I cherish these connections. They are essential to doing the work that goes with being writer and so many of my contributors have influenced my own writing: Sally Rosen Kindred, Rachel Bunting, Nicelle Davis, Mary Stone Dockery, and many more.

Weave has also helped me realize that editors aren’t scary. They are just people. Very busy people. I do my best to support the publications I really love and believe in. So in this way, it’s made submitting my writing less intimidating. A rejection can mean many things, but almost never means, “you and your poems aren’t good enough.” Maybe I caught the editor on a bad day (this happens). Or the first readers weren’t drawn to my style. Or they already have a poem about fruit flies for the upcoming issue. Or they don’t typically publish sestinas. Whatever. I’ll find a home for them eventually.

What current projects are you working on?

I have a couple of writing projects, though I use that term loosely. It’s more like I’m better now at recognizing the emotional patterns and landscape of the poems I write during a particular time period. Right now I have a first draft of a collection that is very different than Braiding the Storm – mostly second and third person narratives about invented characters or archetypes. My recent move from Pittsburgh to San Francisco really shook me. I couldn’t write anything personal. I was too close to those experiences. Just now, after almost a year of living in San Francisco, I’ve returned to writing poems about myself in this strange place, identity, the displacement I feel, the meaning of home. I’m looking forward to seeing how these poems take shape. I think these will likely be a longer manuscript, while the character poems are probably another chapbook.

Number of chapbooks you own: At least 40.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: I have no idea. At least 40? I just got a bunch of new ones I haven’t opened yet though.

Ways you promote other poets: My blog, Weave, social networking, writing reviews, Submission Bombers.

Inspirations and influences: Brenda Hillman, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Dorianne Laux

Residence: San Francisco, CA

Job and education: Freelance writer, editor, educator, translator. B.S. in Education, M.F.A. in Creative Writing, Poetry and Creative Nonfiction

Bio: Laura E. Davis is the Founding Editor of Weave Magazine. Her poem “Widowing” won the 2011 Crab Creek Review Poetry Contest, judged by Dorianne Laux. Her poems are featured or forthcoming in Sweet Lit, Super Arrow, The Splinter Generation, and Redactions, among others. A native of Pittsburgh, she now teaches poetry writing, translation, and recitation in San Francisco, where she lives with her partner, Sal.

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