the chapbook interview: Kristina Marie Darling on publishing, unity in a manuscript, and the undependable literary marketplace

How do you define “chapbook”? And what is your sense of the history of the chapbook, its evolution, its current place in the poetry community, and its future iterations?

I’ve always defined chapbooks in terms of their production quality.  A book, for me, is something that’s quite expensive to produce, whereas a chapbook is something that’s easy and inexpensive for anyone to make.  In my opinion, chapbooks represent an impulse to democratize poetry, as well as the ways in which literary texts are disseminated.  The increasing availability of technologies like WordPress, Blogger, and relatively inexpensive print-on-demand publishing services like renders publishing more accessible for social groups who reside outside the mainstream of contemporary culture.  And this allows for a greater diversity of voices within American print culture.  I’m always thrilled by the proliferation of chapbook presses devoted to women’s writing, writers of color, GLTB issues, experimental poetry, visual poetry, hybrid genre work, collaborations, etc.  I look forward to seeing a greater range of voices and projects represented in the American literary landscape as a result of chapbook publishing.

I too think that chapbooks democratize poetry. In Tim Kinseth’s essay “The Wide, Wide World of Chapbooks” he writes that “most of my encounters with chapbooks were mildly disagreeing, if not embarrassing” (4) and that “most of what you’ll find in chapbooks written today” are most likely not “stimulating…but there’s always a needle in every haystack” (6). As someone who has had many chapbooks published and someone who has started a press, I’m wondering if you could talk about your experience with the chapbooks you’ve encountered? Do you agree with Kinseth’s take that chapbooks tend to be embarrassing and disagreeable?

I think that chapbooks, and the relative ease of publishing and disseminating material, makes it easy for anyone to become a cultural gatekeeper.  This can be good and bad.  What’s great is that the power to choose texts for publication, which once resided in the hands of the few, now rests in the hands of many.   It’s bad because sometimes, as Tim Kinseth observes, there’s a great deal of material to sift through.  The reader now has a greater responsibility.  He or she can’t trust the cultural gatekeepers to bring them great literature, but rather, the reader needs to learn the literary landscape for herself.  With that in mind, I think its good that readers are being asked to assume a more active and discerning role when it comes to their own reading life.  Some chapbook publishers are certainly much better than others, and it’s merely a process of learning where to look to find stimulating material.  Many of my favorite chapbook presses, like Dancing Girl Press, Cinamatheque Press, and Greying Ghost Press, are very consistent when it comes to delivering finely crafted writing.  But others I don’t trust nearly as much.  With that said, this process of discovering what you love can be great fun, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wayne Miller writes in “Chapbooks: Democratic Ephemera” that chapbooks have an “anti-establishment” democratic past and that the Beats “began printing chapbooks as an affordable way to broaden the poetic playing field.” I agree with you in your take that there are wonderful new chapbook presses that offer different aesthetics and new voices, a realm the reader has the opportunity to explore. If Miller and you are right, and chapbooks have broadened the poetic playing field, why do many still believe that chapbooks are not equal publications to books? Certainly, length is an issue. But, I’ve often wondered, how many chapbooks equal a book? After all, there are great and wonderful chapbook presses out there and fantastic chapbook prizes? What are your thoughts regarding publishing hierarchies? And how does a writer, who might easily find a home for their work in the widen field of chapbook presses, find a home for their book in the current press world?

I don’t think it’s possible to create equivalences between chapbooks and books, since they serve such different purposes.  For me, a chapbook is a way to disseminate work and build audience, all the while subverting the power structures that make these things difficult sometimes.  Publishing a book, on the other hand, is all about establishing legitimacy and situating one’s work within a complex system of hierarchies.  Although books and chapbooks serve different purposes, a chapbook can lead to a book, since a book often depends on an audience existing for the work.  My advice to a chapbook writer seeking to transition to a book publication would be to disseminate work and build a following for your writing, however you wish, whether it’s through blogging, chapbook publishing, online magazines, etc.  But be sure to establish oneself as a legitimate poet in the eyes of the academy as well through print publications, grants, and writing contests, as well as the chapbook prizes that you mentioned, Madeline. Chapbooks and books might serve somewhat different ends, but they can certainly work in tandem as well.

I’ve read four of your seven chapbooks—the creative nonfiction chap Strange Gospels (Maverick Duck Press, 2008), the poetry chap The Traffic in Women(Dancing Girl Press, 2008), the hybrid chap of fiction, flash fiction/prose poetry, poetry Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006), and the experimental prose chap Errata (Mud Luscious Press, 2011). I’m curious about genre. The chapbook is a genre. It’s a box or container for a set of writing, and too, within that there are genres of chapbooks (flash fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, hybrid) and aesthetics within those—a box, inside a box, inside a box. I’m wondering two things. First, can you talk about putting together your strictly poetry and creative nonfiction chaps verses your hybrid and experimental chaps and talk about your process of placing them with a press? Did you create your chap with a specific press in mind? Or did you create chaps first and then examine the chapbook market until you found a place you thought might publish your chap and submit? Second, do you think the genre of the chapbook and the number of chapbook presses out there restricts or invites the possibilities of more experimental work?

For me, what makes the chapbook a distinct genre, whether it’s a poetry, nonfiction, or hybrid genre chap, is the highly focused nature of the project.   When looking at full-length collections of poetry, you’ll usually see three or four distinct thematic sections.  Although these sections may be loosely related to one another, poetry collections as a whole are often unwieldy and they progress though a kind of wandering, associative logic.  This is true of short story and essay collections as well.  You’ll see numerous loosely connected prose pieces, and the writer sometimes struggles to unify them.  This definitely isn’t the case with a chapbook, and that’s why I think they’re great.  Chapbooks allow the writer to pursue a more focused project, to fixate on a single theme, imagistic motif, or literary form.  This is often something that couldn’t be sustained for a full eighty pages, so the chapbook presents a unique opportunity for writers.  With these ideas in mind, the writing process for a chapbook is fairly similar when thinking of experimental work and more traditional literary forms.  It’s all about creating a sense of unity within the manuscript through carefully chosen images, as well as through one’s formal decisions.

When thinking of publishing chapbooks, I never write towards publication in a specific market.  While it’s important to be aware of what’s being published today, I always evaluate my options once the project is completed.  I say this because it’s dangerous to allow oneself to become too invested in attaining publication with a particular press.  The literary marketplace isn’t very dependable or predictable, so it’s important to be open minded.  With that said, there are so many presses out there, I really believe that it’s possible for any carefully crafted manuscript to be published, however traditional or experimental it may be.  And the diversity of the chapbook marketplace really opens up the possibility of connecting more conceptual work with readers.

You say in your Pank Interview that your new press, Noctuary Press, seeks “to give visibility to, and create a record of, women’s writing that happens across (and beyond) traditional genre categories.” Tell me about some of your forthcoming titles—F IN by Carol Guess, Drawing Water by Eva Heisler, and the shared properties of water and stars by Kristy Bowen—and the authors and why their works fits into the vision of NP? Why wouldn’t these books find homes in traditional publishing houses? Why not encourage these authors to publish chapbooks to “disseminate work and build audience” and “a following for your writing”? Why are you, as the editor and founder of NP, building NP?

All three of these forthcoming titles work across existing genre categories.  Carol Guess’s F IN is an erasure of a novel, incorporating elements of genre fiction, literary fiction, and avant-garde poetry.  Along these lines, Eva Heisler’s Drawing Water draws from the conventions of poetry, memoir, and art criticism; Kristy Bowen’s collection adeptly blends poetic and scientific discourse.  Noctuary Press strives to grant legitimacy to hybrid genre works like these by publishing them as perfect-bound paperbacks.  This is one of the most important parts of Noctuary Press’s mission.  More often than not, texts that work across genre categories, because they’re difficult to classify as poetry, fiction, nonfiction, etc., become difficult to disseminate to readers.  And the undisseminated text becomes the illegitimate text.  By starting Noctuary Press, I hope to create a public space where cross-genre experiments are not only “legitimate,” but exciting and aesthetically beautiful experiences for readers.

Many poets and readers know the head-over-heals feeling of falling in love with a book. Have you given any thought to what makes that happen for you?

I love books that surprise me.  And work that undermines my expectations of what should happen in a poem, essay, or story.  More than anything, I love when writers make me reexamine what I thought was possible within a literary text.

Can you talk about the difficulties and triumphs in starting a press? Who and what are your mentors and models on how do this well?

One of the most difficult aspects of stating a press is raising awareness about your mission, your goals, and what you’re interested in publishing.  It’s great that there are already so many woman centered presses out there, since I feel like I have some great role models that I can look to for guidance:  Switchback Books, Patasola Press, Dancing Girl Press, Birds of Lace Press, and Sundress Publications.  One thing that I’ve learned from these presses is the value of social media as a promotional tool, and the importance of getting directly involved in the literary community through interviews, reviews, and collaborations with other presses.

What current projects are you working on?

I’m currently in the final stages of completing a second collaboration with poet and novelist Carol Guess.  The manuscript, entitled Instructions for Staging, deals with a husband and wife who are selling their house in the aftermath of a divorce.  The manuscript uses a wide range of literary forms, including flash fictions, prose poems, footnotes, and mysterious legal documents.

Number of chapbooks you own:  Around 50.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 100+

Number of books you’ve published:  Ten.

Where you spend your poetry earnings?  I love to travel to artists colonies, so most of my poetry earnings go to airline tickets.  I’m heading to Scotland this summer to spend some time writing at the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico.

Inspirations and influences:  Although I’m an avid reader of contemporary poetry, Modernist literature, and feminist literary theory, I’m most inspired by visual art.  This is one of the reasons I love going to artist colonies.  I always find out about great painters, sculptors, and installation artists who I might not have otherwise known about.

Residence:  Buffalo, New York.

Job and education:  I’m currently a Ph.D. student in the Poetics Program at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo.  Before coming to Buffalo, I earned an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Missouri, as well as an M.A. in Cultural Studies and a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Washington University in St. Louis.

Bio: Kristina Marie Darling is the author of ten books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and (with Carol Guess) X Marks the Dress: A Registry (Gold Wake Press, forthcoming in 2014). Her writing has been honored with fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo, the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Ragdale Foundation, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation.

Selected Works Cited

Kinseth, Tim. “The Wide, Wide World of Chapbooks.” American Book Review, Vol. 26, Issue 3, March/April 2005. 1-4.

Miller, Wayne. “Chapbooks: Democratic Ephemera.” American Book Review, Vol. 26, Issue 3, March/April 2005. 1-6.

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