The Chapbook Interview: Jeff Hecker on heckling, lettering, and liking words

How do you define “chapbook”

I should probably know more about the actual origins of the chapbook. I’m sure at some point in the early 1800’s it was just a catalogue of cowboy clothing. I’ve thought of it a few different ways in our modern times:

1) A chapbook is the second most powerful thing I could fit into a pair of escape pants if my house was on fire.

2) A chapbook is a concentrated soap form of bundling poems. Potent, each poem should either relate closely or smell like lavender.

3) A chapbook is a bedtime story written for an audience of overly medicated bad kids who just took an extra dose. They’ll fall asleep too quickly, so you better get everything down briefly and keep them as conscious as possible.


I find your poetry and your new chapbook Hornbook funny and smart. The conceit is Hornbook is hysterical once readers figure out what you’re doing and how the chapbook is working. Who are your poetic heroes and what is it about their work that inspires your own?

Thanks for the compliment. 90% of my humor and intelligence stems from deprivation of basic needs during my pre-teen years. All the chicanery is really going to hurt once I decide to go super serious in retirement. Wait, Gen X doesn’t get to retire, right?

I wanted Hornbook to be initially confusing. On its surface, the format is a random list of images, many mundane, some antiquated, historical, pop. I wanted people to think it was horrific when they first purchased it. Often, I seem to be commenting on the nature of an object, but it’s not much of a comment. It’s not until the reader realizes that the images are bizarre stretches of imaginary visual descriptions of the actual letters as typography that he or she really starts to like or dislike it. I’ve always been fascinated by how each letter’s visual structure came into being. Each stroke of the Japanese alphabet is, for instance, based on traceable symbolism. That’s not true for the Romance languages. For all we know, capital G could have been a drunken hand-slip. Initially, I wrote the capital letters out, then rested for a month. During that month, on accident, I was reading The Best American Poetry 2000, edited by Rita Dove, and I fell upon Karl Elder’s poem “Alpha Images“. His poem basically does the same thing but with each capital letter commented on visually via haiku. That depressed me for another month, but it inspired me. I told myself “go lowercase too”. That became Hornbook.

As for poetic heroes, there are many. Without going overboard, here are ten: Virgil, Walt Whitman, Charles Baudelaire, Robert Creeley, Frank O’Hara, Julio Cortázar, Gertude Stein, Tim Seibles, Mark Halliday, Dean Young. All of those poets listed inspire me because they take significant risks in their work.

Make it new! You do make it new, but part of your barbaric yawp is that you also make it old. Can you talk about your book title Rumble Seat and chapbook title Hornbook and the impulse to reappropriate mostly obsolete nouns as a frame for what you hope your poems accomplish. Even in Hornbook readers find lovely words like ATARI (I do hope your readers know what an ATARI is) in “DEF” clitellum in “GHI,” or fob and triskelion in “JFL” and like Leslie Adrienne Miller who feels English is a lucky language, even if “its vastness// is urban, lonely: too many people living in its center,/ and the environs are losing population fast” (The Resurrection Trade, 16), I think your poetry helps repopulate the language with necessary verbiage like diptych and portamento. Can you talk about your use of the old to make it new?

I appreciate this question and I like that Miller quote. The answer is I’m obsessed with antiques, planned obsolescence, jive. An automobile’s rumble seat probably seemed like a very innovative idea. Henry Ford was so happy the engine started he was probably willing to entertain any idea. “A monkey trained to change the spare tire? Yes, let’s add that in whenever anybody buys weather-treated leather seats!” Unfortunately, the pop-up rear seat quickly rusted into a terrible object responsible for countless vehicular homicides. The marriage of those notions, the joyous vision versus the horrible result, seemed appropriate for the themes I was playing with in the collection Rumble Seat.



Similarly, a hornbook was an entrenched pedagogical tool in the early days of standardized education. It’s essentially a paddle kids carried to schoolhouses onto which all the letters were displayed. During a long stretch of time, students learned the alphabet by hauling around that paddle all day. They were probably beaten with the same wood. It saved them a trip to the Vice-Principal’s office. I wanted Hornbook to be that school supply, perhaps the delinquent student’s very own chalkboard.


I think it’s our duty as poets to fall in love again with the taste of words nobody uses except Scripps National Spelling Bee. Hopefully, it gives Hornbook a sense that a dispossessed spirit is writing the poems, stuck in transit between epochs. This all stems from my great terror that we all become lodged in our age and can’t get out of it. For instance, I’ve always felt sorry for the 1,017 Roman men who believed everybody was equal — all races, genders, creeds. History has written them over, yes, but they existed.

Today, I asked my students to silently read “YZ” in groups until the understood the logic of Hornbook. Some students got it right away and started grinning and snickering. The other half of the class stared at the overhead, eyes squinting and brows furrowing, as they read and reread your poem. Once the trick of “YZ” was revealed, I asked them to write their own poems in groups on just the first letter of their first name. What was interesting to me was observing how some students glommed onto the writing prompt immediately, loving the quirky, funness of matching shape and idea to letter. Others were annoyed and struggled with seeing a letter as more than a letter. (Albeit, when they were workshopping, I passed Hornbook around the class and each student read their letter with interest. I’ve never seen anything, let alone a chapbook, read with so much eager, greediness). I’m wondering if you could talk about your creativity and the process you went through to generate the long list for each letter. Did you write the chapbook slowly over time, adding to each poem as you went or did you write the poems one by one, marching methodically through the upper and lose case alphabet? And how was this creative process different from or similar to writing Rumble Seat?

I’m honored to hear a percentage of the class derived such an endorphin rush from what to me was an exercise in humility. To the students who struggled, I imagine that’s how some eyes are dealing with the book. It’s not easy or maybe it’s too easy. I struggled with that some. I didn’t want to make it easy, even though the concept was simple. I wanted people to feel it was hard to write, because it was. I started with capital vowels. I thought about writing them all as sonnets, but I gave that up rather quickly, the same hour probably. The vowels didn’t take long.

It was relatively painless to come up with images that people could recognize. The obscure images were really fun. I relied on a dictionary that showed pictures. I skipped around all the time. I knew certain letters would kill me, especially the ones whose lowercase partner is essentially the same shape only tinier. (C c W w S s K k M m) Part of the challenge also became stripping certain letters of images to fit the form: nine lines per letter. Hornbook was an experiment in patience and minimalism for me. It’s my Feng shui collection. After writing Rumble Seat, which is written more in my natural discursive speaking voice, I felt I needed to breathe and Hornbook became kind of like a meditation for me. I hope the book is a meditation for the reader as well. I’m currently working on an epic poem. I’m a client of the long poem.

Can you tell me more about the, cover art, cover design and layout of Hornbook and Rumble Seat?

I was fortunate that Jeff Hewitt of San Francisco Bay Press and Michael Sikkema of Horse Less Press personally designed some really killer covers for Rumble Seat and Hornbook respectively. I’m pretty sure Sikkema drew the figure on Hornbook himself.

Number of chapbooks you own: I probably own upwards of 20 chapbooks but I’ve read three times as many. They are harder to find, but as I’m gotten older I’ve found the chapbook often more enjoyable a purchase than a full collection.

Ways you promote other poets: I find facebook is a great place to publicize other poets. I use it often to give “shout-outs”, push other poets’ books, journal successes, etc. I also do local readings with many poets in the Hampton Roads, Virginia area who are all excellent. I’m a big fan of collaborating with writers with much different styles than myself just as much as those who seem to work on my same wavelength. We all learn from one another constantly.

Where we can buy your stuff:

Where you spend your poetry earnings: I’ll let you know when I get any. Sometimes they pay for a lunch. I don’t care about it. I’d write books alone on Mars.

Residence: Olde Towne Portsmouth, Virginia, est. 1752. My apartment building used to be the city’s most frequented brothel.

Job and education: I was accepted at Henniker, New Hampshire’s New England College low-res creative writing MFA program headed up by Chard DeNiord, but a week before I was supposed to get on a plane to leave, a long-term relationship ended abruptly and I decided to mourn and opted against the MFA. At some point if I change my mind about teaching, I’ll finish it, but for now I’m MFA-debt-free. I could take it or leave it at this point in my life.

Bio: Jeffrey Hecker was born in 1977 in Norfolk, Virginia. A graduate of Old Dominion University, he’s the author of Rumble Seat (San Francisco Bay Press, 2011) & the chapbook Hornbook (Horse Less Press, 2012). Recent work has appeared or forthcoming in La Reata Review, Mascara Literary Review, Atticus Review, La Fovea, The Waterhouse Review, Zocalo Public Square, The Burning Bush 2, & Turtleneck Press. He resides in Olde Towne Portsmouth, Virginia.

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