We both recently attended the Indiana Writers Consortium Conference and Book Fair. I was able to catch the last of Kate Collin’s talk on dialogue. One question during the Q&A bought Kate to discuss the hook at the beginning of the novel, the necessity to get the reader (or acquisitions editor) to turn the first page and then the second and then the third. She also noted that the job of the first three chapters of a novel is to create enough tension and enough drama, to give the reader enough curiosity to finish the book. What I admire about your poems in Rotary Phones and Facebook (Dancing Girl Press, 2012) is how you hook the reader into finishing each poem with opening lines and images that compel one to finish the poem to its last word. Talk about craft and shaping poems. Talk about invite a reader in.
Thank you so much—I’m so happy to hear that the poems were so engaging. I not only write poetry, but also novels, so what Kate said is exactly what I strive for—cutting to the good stuff and keeping the language fresh, the action enticing, to make the reader (but before that, the editor) want to keep going and going. I think the technique of fiction also applies to poetry—I’m not sure if I should argue that it’s easier or harder in poetry though. Poetry has less space, so every word has to be precise and count. A mentor of mine recently said that as poets, we can’t afford mediocre words or ideas. Everything has to be justified and necessary. Economical, you could say. With prose, you have more real estate, but with that, there’s also an expectation from the reader (at least with mainstream presses) for lots of plot and action. I suck at this. So in poetry, I feel like I probably succeed at this more because I can keep things engaging with bizarre images and insights, but don’t feel like I have to be forced into some notion of plot. So yes, my poems are crafted to only maintain the images and ideas that contribute to the larger whole of the poem—I guess you could say that’s the poem’s equivalent of the narrative plot skeleton of a novel—and through these images and ideas, I can build up to a realization. If there are images that are interesting but don’t contribute as well, or are less relevant, I stow them away for another poem. I hope that sort of answers your question.
Maybe it’s a little different to talk about what invites a reader in. I sort of talked about this with the novel industry. Editors are obsessed with plot. I think this is stupid, because there’s much more to life than plot, and what typically engages me is an interesting character. Everyone is drawn in by something different, but what I’d propose that some general things that invite a reader in are:
- accessible language
- Incongruent/bizarre images
- Some sort of personal connection
- Some sort of aha! Moment (for me, this is usually in the form of a realization from the speaker in the poem)
The poems in Rotary Phones and Facebook were sort of thrown together as a hodge podge to be honest—I loved Dancing Girl Press and wanted to submit, so I went through my “Woman Poems” folder (yes, I literally had a folder that was called “woman poems”) and picked some stuff that I thought was strong. I do not advise this sort of strategy for a submission, but what’s so interesting is that these actually came together as a cohesive narrative. I think it worked because the poems were so honest—I should probably explain what I meant by “woman poems” since that can be easily misinterpreted… These were the poems where I explored my female identity and dove into female experiences that are typically verboten to talk about publicly, and it was the first time I was really exploring vocalizing those ideas from my experience. This was in college when I started writing these poems, so I think what tied these poems together, and what I think might make them engaging, is that when I was writing them, they were all incredibly honest about my experiences and there was a sort of freedom in that. When I find poems that deal so bluntly with experiences, both good and bad, I find that very inviting as a reader.
The Writer’s Chronicle September 2014 issue features Debra Spark’s mediation on research and writing fiction. She writes, “Once an idea has arrived, no matter how, the challenge is to embody the material authentically. This is indeed the challenge even if the inspiration for a novel comes from a more personal place” (91) and “this essay is my way of thinking about the rewards and dangers of purposeful research, not the general research that I suspect we all do merely by being curious about the world, but the book learning, the interviewing, the immersion journalism, the purposeful trip-taking and even the endless Googling that can be part of the writing process” (90). Can you talk about your research process in writing a chapbook?
Research process…I think it really depends on what the story needs. My biggest research influencers are photos, places, and google searches. Google searches for things less intimately familiar to me. My chapbooks are usually very focused in theme—so like for The Girl Who Came Back, the research involved going to what remains of Enchanted Forest, talking to my mother, and lots of googling of images. Images are a huge inspiration for my poetry. For something more intimate like Your Son, the research I guess you could say was just living with my parents, and recalling that experience.
I recently attended the Omaha Lit Fest’s panel on Mixtapes and Jazz Standards: Exploring the past through music. In talking about her use of music and the era of the 1980s in her book Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell said, “It’s all about trusting the reader.” I was particularly fascinating by your chapbook Your Son and the tension you create in the father-daughter relationship, a topic that evokes a series of questions on gender norms and expectations that would resonate with readers without having to offer readers a complicated backstory. Talk about trusting your readers. How do decide what to tell them and what to assume they’ll likely know or understand without being told?
Thanks, Madeline. I’m encouraged that you say this, because I often feel like I’ve grappled with trusting my reader. I think for Your Son, that father-daughter tensions is something many people can relate to. But I’m not sure this is something I really actively thought about. I guess trusting your reader is a sub-conscious act—if you think too hard about it, it’s probably not trust. When we write not thinking about audience, but just relaying the experience in the terms of the experience, that usually translates over effectively. I think where I struggle with the last question you ask, knowing what to tell and what they’ll assume, is more in my recent work, where I am inspired significantly by biblical archetypes. Using something like that, it gets trickier for what people will know/not know coming into the poem. But the father-daughter experience, so many people come in with that experience already, which makes it much easier.
Beyond your chapbook from Dancing Girl Press, you are the author of two addition chapbooks, The Girl Who Came Back (Red Bird Chapbooks) and Your Son (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award). You have a forthcoming chapbook as well. What draws you to write in the chapbook genre?
I want to get a full-length manuscript out, but chapbooks are much more self-contained, so much easier. In a chapbook, you can have a much smaller idea, and wrap everything up so neatly. In a full-length manuscript, the space requires you to be more complex. There’s much more investment on the page.
How do you define chapbook? A series of poems (~20-30pg) effectively working together on one central theme.
What is inspiring you these days? The Bible—particularly Job and Genesis (namely the Rachel/Leah story)
How are you trying to get better as a poet? Meeting lots of people. Learning from their work and experiences. Reading a lot. I have more time right now, so I’m trying to read as much as I can.
What makes a good chapbook? When every single poem is up to par, and there’s not those few weak “throw in” poems making you wonder, how the heck did they get in there?
What’s next for you? I’m working on a few projects right now. I have a chapbook manuscript “Living with Outsiders” that I’m shopping around, and I’m really trying to strengthen some full-length manuscripts, namely one that’s currently called “Things Girls Don’t Talk About”, which are largely autobiographical poems about those socially unacceptable things to talk about if you’re a woman, beginning with periods.
Your chapbook credo: Write, write, write!
Number of chapbooks you own: maybe 20?
Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 40 or so? Not sure
Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Through my facebook page Meg Eden Writes Poems. I love giving a shout out to poets and their chapbooks that I love. If you’re a chapbook poet and would like to share what you’re doing, let me know! I love meeting chapbook poets.
Where you spend your chapbook earnings: more chapbooks!
Your chapbook wish: That they would be accessible in mainstream bookstores, and that the general public was more aware of them
Residence: Just on the cusp of Washington DC
Chapbook education: Trial and error
Chapbook Bio: Your Son (NFSPS), Rotary Phones and Facebook (Dancing Girl Press), The Girl Who Came Back (Red Bird Chapbooks), (forthcoming) A Week With Beijing (NEON)