The Chapbook Interview: Laura Goldstein on Prolific Chapbookists

How do you define “chapbook”?

I like starting with the explanation that it is abbreviated for “chapter book”, so it is like a floating chapter of a larger project. However, as a genre, they’ve really taken on a strong aesthetic and cultural identity of their own. As designed objects, there’s so much freedom that the publisher has with materials, colors, cover design, binding and size. Also, I think that poetry can be easier and even more appropriate to handle in smaller doses, so it’s great to have these shorter-format books of poetry out there. Lastly, concept-wise, if you consider this shorter project as a whole, it can become a little, focused, complete entity out there in the literary world, which I think can make a really strong statement.

Many of your poems are prose poems. How would you define the form of “prose poem”?

This has come up a lot lately. I never really endeavored to study or write “prose poems” as separate from “regular poems” and am a little thrown by this distinction. Some of my poems just don’t have line breaks in them and, instead, rely on the sentence rather than the line as one of the components of its structural meaning (along with “stanza” or shape). That right there could be the main different between poems and prose poems. Line break versus sentence. For me as a contemporary writer, this doesn’t seem like enough of a major difference to create a whole separate category that would remain a valuable distinction. For instance, poets who use a lot of imagery are no longer called “imagists”… I think that line break is just one of many poetic choices that a writer can make. Or not.

For you, what makes the project of a chapbook different than the project of a book?

I don’t start off with the idea that a certain group of poems is going to be a chapbook. Most of my poems are longer pieces, and a few (Ice in Intervals, Facts of Light and Inventory) have been turned into chapbooks. Let Her was a bit different. I looked for poems that all conformed, even if somewhat loosely, to themes surrounding gender specifically for dancing girl because of their mission statement. I had been writing about gender for a few years, so it was a great way to look back on that period and then collect those pieces for a shorter, concise publication. So, the project of submitting work to be published as a chapbook can be based on grouping poems according to theme, or submitting a longer work that can be read as a cohesive whole, and makes sense as a bounded object.


Why do you think “books” are given more weight, in some circles, than chapbooks?

Well, it can be a lot harder to get a full-length collection selected and published because of the costs, press runs and process of selection of a larger press. There are various levels of status that are recognized in the poetry world, and perhaps these also coincide with the size of the readership that is made possible by having a full-length collection selected and published by an established press. I think that chapbooks are in a different category. I think that they often function more as art objects because of the smaller run and the freedom of design. However, status aside, I love the fact that people might pick up a chapbook and not have all of that weight attached to it when they encounter and read it. Hopefully it can be a lighter, fun and sincerely enjoyable experience to read the work.

You’re the author of four chapbooks. Can you tell me a little about each?

My first chapbook, Ice In Intervals, (no longer in print) has a zebra on the cover and asterisks in rainbow colors. This was a design choice made by the publisher, Michelle Detorie of Hex Presse, because of my use of asterisks to create boundaries between the individual sections and the rest of the page. Each section occupies a different space on the page, and the asterisks are meant to emphasize the white space because I was very interested in how the page might represent a unique “moment”in the brain and the stark contrast between an idea and then the white noise of total consciousness. The zebra is sort of a deceptive non-sequitur in the poem. I was so happy that Michelle wanted to put a zebra on the cover. The black and white animal contrasts well with the multi-colored punctuation.

My second chapbook was a “micro-chapbook” (available) published by Drew Kunz of Tir Auz Pigeons. I loved the idea of a 3-page chapbook and submitted a strange little 3-page poem that I wrote. I enlisted my friend, poet Amira Hanafi, to design the cover. She’s really an amazing visual poet and makes these great designs with words. She made this kind of word map of one section of the poem. Since that piece (and I am in general) was influenced by Gertrude Stein, the parsing and mapping of the sentence was a great indication of the project within.


My third chapbook was Facts of Light, which was published by Edwin R. Perry who runs Plumberries Press. He makes absolutely gorgeous books, and every one is different. Facts of Light (no longer in print) is only ten pages long, so he had visual poet and designer Melissa Dunkelberger create these truly amazing images that consisted of pieces of an apple and geometric shapes that created an ongoing, shifting record of light and dark arrangements. I think that it creates a really interesting discussion with and commentary on the piece itself, which consists of individual lines of rotating themes throughout the book.

M fourth Chapbook is Let Her (available). Again, I was so thrilled to have Kristy Bowen of dancing girl press accept the work and then read it really carefully to make a decision about the cover. The poem Sisters is about my relationship with my sisters, especially when they were both going through their first pregnancies and my confusion about the boundaries between us, because we are so close, and the boundary between human beings when you are pregnant. I had a strange dream about a fish (it’s in the poem) and then the theme of fish and water and how water creates connections between things became really important in the poem. The poem became the centerpiece of the book. Kristy picked up on the idea of fish and the cover has all of these different fish swimming in different directions. I think that it says a lot about what is going on inside.

Ok, so I have FIVE chapbooks now- my chapbook Inventory (was available by subscription only) was just released by Sona Books, which is run by Jill Magi. That was a full-length project, clocking in at 26 pages, because it was initially inspired by the structure of the alphabet. Jill actually really helped me with the editing process of that poem and we worked really closely on the design. She asked me to write out the list of words that I had started with when first beginning the project about 7 years ago and printed it in my handwriting across the cover. For a much more detailed explanation about that project, please read my statement about it on her blog.

Some poets, myself included (e.g. Julia Cohen, J. Hope Stein, Grace Bauer, Kristy Bowen, Cati Porter, etc.) have several (three or more) chapbooks published before they have a book accepted. Some chapbook poets are so prolific! Given that you too are a prolific chapbook poet, what’s that about for you? What is it about your work that lends itself better to the chapbook form?

I think that the cohesive nature of my poems as longer projects definitely lends itself to the chapbook form in the literary/world. I sometimes worry that having several longer poems in a full-length collection might be a drawback when seeking publication, but I’m pretty confident that my particular structure and format will find a home.

The chapbook has become a distinct form in the literary world from the full-length collection. There is some crossover, like a chapbook really will represent a chapter of a later full-length book, but the longevity of the genre to this point has developed new constraints and possibilities for poets that make the requirements for each type of publication (chapbook and full-length) very different. Some poetry definitely lends itself better to the chapbook format, and I think some poets now specifically write towards producing chapbooks. For instance, with my work, the longer nature of most of my pieces (10-50 pages) make them prime material for a shorter format literary entity- they just match up really well.

I also think there’s a component of how publisher and poet find each other that works its way into the equation. Publishers, whether of full-length works or chapbooks, have different ideas of who their communities are and how they want the work they publish to reach them. Each poet may fit various publishers’ philosophies and format better than others, and some are perfectly suited for the sometimes quirkier and more artistic chapbook form.

What current projects are you working on?

I’m currently working on a full-length project (75 pages) called five, which was initially inspired by the structure of the Five Books of Moses. I’m very curious about the importance of this number  as the books solidified into the canon of cultural and sacred texts. I have a theory that Moses himself is just a personification of the number five since his name in hebrew is very, very close to the hebrew word for five. So, structurally I am using the number five to direct the poems. Each poem is five pages long. Conceptually, I am interested in the period of time when Moses and the Hebrews are wandering the desert, between the past and the future, becoming a nation. I am curious about this fundamental notion that the identity of being a nation is still necessary to being organized for the best for people. What went along with establishing an identity as a nation was developing a hierarchical structure. At first, Moses, who was a very reluctant leader from the beginning, is just exhausting himself by addressing every concern that people bring to him during the day. At some point, his ex-father-in-law tells him that he needs to delegate. I think that’s an interesting moment. Family and tribal relationships are detaching to form a national structure. I also think that it is interesting that Moses is eventually not allowed to enter the promised land. He is a failed leader, and therefore another beautiful example of the paradoxes of being human that the Torah offers, perhaps the necessity of failure, a new kind of sacrifice. I’m interested in this notion of wandering and diaspora before hierarchy and settlement, and displacement rather than integration. I’m interested in the alternative power of associative thinking and constant flux. Every time I want to write a poem for this project, I choose a subject that I think might help to illustrate those ideas. However, I want the central piece of the poem to be a 25-page reading of the story of Moses in the desert with the Hebrews in association with the modern problems of our stalled hierarchical democracy.

Number of chapbooks you own: at least 50!

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: at least 50!

Ways you promote other poets: Buy their work, read it, comment on it in various places, curate for them as part of the Red Rover Series, which I co-curate with Jennifer Karmin

Where you spend your poetry earnings: snacks

Inspirations and influences: Ah! So many! From all sorts of contemporary conceptual poetry and art by famous people and friends, that is just constantly ongoing from reading more and going out to see more art that is happening in the city. I realized lately that the biggest influences on my writing style are Gertrude Stein, Harryette Mullen and Richard Brautigan. However, I am also extremely influenced by performance, installation work, and really good film. I am a big fan of the text/performance work of Caroline Bergvall as well as artists Mark Jeffery and Judd Morrissey, filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Charlie Kauffman, and video installation artists Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke. Any work that considers and uses its own material conditions as part of the process and final result, not merely as a transparent vehicle for content. I really value experience in the moment and how it can change you in ways you don’t realize. I also attempt to create that kind of nebulous space on the page and by provoking the more uncanny effects of language. I write about Caroline Bergvall here, Mark and Judd’s work can be found here, I write about it here, and Yoni and Meredith’s work can be found here.

Residence: Chicago

Job and education: Full-time Instructor at Loyola University. MFA from School of the Art Institute  of Chicago, MA from Temple University, BA from University of Pennsylvania

Bio: LAURA GOLDSTEIN’s poetry and essays can be found in American Letters and Commentary, kill author (August 2012), MAKE, jacket2, EAOGH, Requited, Little Red Leaves, and How2. Her chapbook Let Her was released from Dancing Girl Press earlier this year, and her newest chapbook, Inventory, was just released by Sona Books at the beginning of June. She currently co-curates the Red Rover reading series with Jennifer Karmin and teaches Writing and Literature at Loyola University.

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