chapbook poetry

the chapbook interview: Joshua Gray on poetry’s answer to the novella


I’m a little in love with the place you invoke in Mera Bharat, your new chapbook from Red Dashboard. I know you traveled to India and recently lived there for two years. Did you set out to write this collection on your recent inhabitance or did these poems arrive after you returned? Talk about place as inspiration in your work.

A sense of place is so important when writing about experiences in India. For people who have never been there, the country is full of mystery; for people who have, the feeling is usually more nostalgic. But while you can’t escape the importance of place in India, I never had it in mind while I wrote, because it is so intertwined with the overall experience.

There are a couple obvious (at least, to me) exceptions to this. The first is the longer sectional work at the end of the collection. The poem reads as one long experience, but in reality I am telling the story of three separate trips I made to the city of Mussoorie within a seven month period of time. The title of the poem, “Finding Here”, is a nod to that demand for a sense of place. The hill stations are so different from the rest of India, the experiences needed to be explored more when I wrote the poem, both from a physical standpoint as well as cultural. Nowhere else in India would I have heard Led Zeppelin on the loud speaker in a small restaurant and thought so little of it.

The second is my poem “Riding Into Downtown Kolkata”. This poem is completely about place. It describes – in only one sentence might I add – a ride from the outskirts of Kolkata (Calcutta) into downtown, while taking a tour of the city. Just about everything described in the poem was experienced from my seat in the car, looking out the window.

Most of the poems were not only written after coming home from India, they were written up to two decades later. There were experiences I knew I wanted to write about, but never had, so the creative process came very late. I relied on my journal entries for some things, and went on pure memories for others. These poems came from my trip in the mid-90’s when I traveled throughout the north. But there are also other poems, such as “Gaurs”, “Elephant Valley” and others that were experienced while living in the southern part of India from 2012-2014, and written down almost immediately afterwards. So really the collection is made up of a mix of time and place.

The daily maintenance of life infuses many of these poems—food eating, tea and alcohol drinking, pest removal, public transportation, sleeping accommodations—seeming to make urgent the necessary up keep we all keep to in an effort to belong. The act of traveling and living abroad permeates here. What travel narratives and collections of poems that do this same work do you admire?

This is a tough question to answer. It is tough not because there are so many choices, but because there are so few. I am not normally drawn to travel narratives, nor am I drawn to writers who detail the nitty-gritty everyday stuff of life. I am drawn to the classics mostly, and the classical literature delves little into such stuff.

There are three authors who influenced me early and who wrote about the hardships of everyday life. The first is John Steinbeck. From dramatic pieces like East of Eden and Of Mice and Men to the more comical Sweet Thursday and Cannery Row, he had a way of writing about daily life with such emotion and detail that was hard to match. Another author I read only a short while later was Thomas Wolfe, not to be confused with Tom Wolfe – a common and unfortunate mix-up indeed! Wolfe wrote Look Homeward Angel, a novel full of the hardship and details of daily life he experienced as a child. It is so autobiographical it is criticized as not being fiction! But it is, and it is the story is brilliantly told. The third is the master storyteller Charles Dickens. Enough said, there.

From a travel narrative perspective, I am afraid I have little to offer. While I think I would enjoy such stories, interestingly enough I haven’t read much – if any – of them.

But now that I have read much of the classics, I am definitely reading more modern and contemporary works, especially when it comes to poetry. Cameron Conaway wrote a wonderful memoir about his hard and difficult relationship with his father and how that difficult relationship shaped him into the person he is today. He then turned around and wrote a book of poems called Until You Make The Shore, which focuses on three fictitious characters that are based on the real girls living in a girl’s juvenile detention center. Deborah Ager wrote Midnight Voices, a collection of poems that brings out and focuses on the darker side of everyday life. A great poem about a car accident immediately comes to mind. It is too soon perhaps to call these poets influences, but I definitely admire their work.

I am more fascinated in relationships though, and believe relationships – good or bad – are the driving force behind good stories.

In Mara Bharat there’s a musicality and lyric pace that moves through the poems. In your book Principals of Belonging (Red Dashboard, 2013) you write in a new form. Talk about your use of forms and lyric constraints in your poetry.

Music plays perhaps the largest role in my decision-making process as a poet. Elements such as alliteration, sound repetition, word repetition, rhyme and meter all play a significant role in my writing. I do not use them all in every poem, but as I am outlining a poem—especially a longer work—one of the first and last things I consider is how the music will play a part in the overall role.

I actually prefer to write in the received forms. Formal verse forces one to be economical while at the same time writing exactly what is meant. This is especially true when writing in any kind of meter. The choice a poet makes to use this word over the other has a far more serious repercussion in formal poetry. I think this is what editors mean when they say they accept form poetry, “but it’s got to be good.” They don’t really mean they don’t mind bad free verse, but the rules are a little more lenient. I just finished writing a villanelle and easily spent three hours on one line—most of that on one foot.

With free verse, editors warn poets to not submit prose with line breaks and call the piece poetry. And they are correct, in the sense that prose has little if any music. So when writing free verse, one needs to pay an equal amount of attention to music as formal verse.

Let’s talk about some of the poems in the collection. “Mama” is a poem about a stray dog. I wanted to write the poem almost as a love poem, and I felt like what I had to say could be delivered in a short poem, so a sonnet to me was the obvious choice. In the octet I would write about the dog, in the sextet I would bring my own life into the equation. I remember thinking rhyme would take away from what I wanted to say, but meter was necessary, so it is a blank verse sonnet. Further in the collection I write another sonnet, this time in rhyme, metered, and another love song. Why did I choose to rhyme one and not the other? Intuition. No reason I can set down as a rule.

“Finding Here” is written in unmetered Terza Rima – Terza Rima to give the poem some structure and control, unmetered to give the poem so elasticity.

Most of the other poems are free verse, and employ such techniques as alliteration, sound repetition and word repetition. The less formal the verse, the more important these elements become.

Finally, you mentioned my book Principles of Belonging and my created form the sympoe, which is a linked poem. The form was also used for one poem in Mera Bharat. I am glad you mentioned my other book though, because it starts and ends in strict form, while the middle is all free verse, a lot of it rhymed.  The rhyme in the middle part provides the essential music—otherwise the poems risk that criticism of being prose broken up into line breaks. I also have to state that you mentioned the word “belonging” in your previous question; indeed, one could argue a sense a belonging permeates in both these collections. It all comes down to relationship.

How do you define chapbook? Poetry’s answer to the novella.

What makes a good chapbook? Good quality poems live inside them.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? 
Sonata Vampirica by Samuel Peralta! 

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Consistent message of subject and flow.

What’s next for you? I am finishing up a book—probably a chapbook—that is an alternate history of Jesus with the premise that he was gay.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community and ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Social media, social media, social media. And attending events whenever possible. Retweeting and sharing other’s successes.

Your chapbook credo: If all else fails, group them into smaller parts.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: What earnings? We get earnings?

Your chapbook wish: That my chapbook gets picked up by The Washington Post for a review—oh wait—TWP doesn’t review poetry. Never mind.

Residence: Down the rabbit hole.

Job: IT Consulting.

 Chapbook Bio: Joshua Gray was born and bred in a briar patch. He now lives down the rabbit hole, and is looking for a way out of the chaos theory.


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