Wendy Oleson: The chapbook form beckons

In Robert Talbert’s blog post on The Higher Chronicle “The Social Element of learning about effective teaching strategies,” he discusses the effectiveness of one-on-one interactions with those who use effective teaching practices in the classroom and the importance of the institutional culture that promotes such publications, workshops, and interactions. Talbet writes that “having a robust network of commited [sic] teachers in both the electronic and real-life realms provides the best base of all. Teaching and learning are inherently social activities and it’s no surprise that it takes social interactions to come into contact with the best practices.” You teach in the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension. What sorts of social interactions with educators have supported your work as a teacher to put into practice effective teaching strategies for creative writing, especially those that would help writers develop collections of work such as chapbooks of fiction?

I have such respect for the Writers’ Program (WP) educators. So many are downright literary superstars—Francesca Lia Block, Caroline Leavitt, Antonia Crane, Noel Alumit—I’m grateful to be among the ranks. For folks based in Los Angeles, the yearly publication party and instructors’ retreat provide a great union of social and professional development. Since I’m now living in Eastern Washington, I do my best to take advantage of a great WP-instructor perk: comped courses. I’ve been able to grow my pedagogical toolbox and improve my writing while working with authors I admire. I wrote “Story of a Room” (from Our Daughter and Other Stories) in Tantra Bensko’s excellent Experimental Fiction course, and I’m building my genre muscles through courses with the phenomenal Alyx Dellamonica (I also bow deeply to Alyx’s wife, horror/sci-fi/noir writer Kelly Robson.) Not only is Alyx a prolific sci-fi/fantasy author, she’s a legend among WP instructors for her rigorous and highly in-demand courses. And you, Madeline, may know Yelizaveta Renfro, a fellow UNL alum—I’ve long wanted to take one of her online courses.

In terms of my own teaching, I stress the importance of process over product—particularly because I most often teach ten-week introductory-level courses; that’s not a lot of time to build a chapbook. It’s a different situation entirely when I’m called upon to serve as a WP mentor or manuscript consultant. In those cases, I’m helping my mentee/client hone a body of work for a particular purpose—anything from an MFA program acceptance or landing an agent to preparing a full-length collection for self publishing. Sometimes the hardest part is containing my excitement over the writing—I mentored a writer whose MFA application portfolio (flash nonfiction/lyrical essay) would make a stellar chapbook. I was practically ready to send it out to publishers for her!

In Sandra Beasley’s essay “What We Talk About When We Talk About Voice” in The Writer’s Chronicle, she writes, “Craft decisions can be categorized in six ways: Point of View, Tense-Aspect-Mood, Image, Sound, Structure, and Diction. Every word on the page contributes to these decisions. Your ‘voice’ is the aggregate, the delivery system for your craft decisions. It’s these decisions that express an author’s larger set of thematic, narrative, or formal concerns in a work” (76). Your chapbook Our Daughter and Other Stories is the Winner of the 2017 Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Prize. Talk about voice across these stories.

From my vantage, each piece is tragic at its heart, but the tragedy isn’t what I want to be most visible. The reader’s experience, I hope, results from a kind of triangulation with the tragic in which other elements playfully and surprisingly intervene to provide aesthetic and comedic pleasure; in other words, yes, I can absolutely see “voice” functioning the way Beasley describes it, as that “delivery system” for those interwoven craft decisions. I want the voice to strike the reader as vulnerable and honest—two characteristics that allow the tragedy and comedy to coexist on the same page.

Talk about your chapbook history. What brought you to chapbook making? What is it about the chapbook form that you adore?

Madeline, you were my introduction to the chapbook! Early into my time at Nebraska, I heard you at the No Name Reading Series. Your poetry was daring, direct, unapologetic—I was all: whoa. I knew you were publishing this work in journals—that I could understand—but you were also collecting poems, like teeth, in the mouths of these fantastic creatures, chapbooks. Yet for the longest time, I thought chapbooks were the provenance of poets; it wasn’t until I began reading and writing flash fiction that I realized lots of wonderful presses published prose chaps, too! What really launched my I-want-to-publish-a-chapbook obsession, however, was poet Sarah Chavez’s All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl Press). Those epistolary poems contained such emotional range—exhausting and invigorating at turns—and the chapbook was the vehicle that held them so perfectly.

I love being able to read a chapbook in one sitting…and then read it again without getting up. Even with full-length story collections I’ve read multiple times, I struggle to fully wrap my brain around the way individual stories speak to each other. And as a writer, working on a chapbook manuscript makes me happy in a way that working on something longer (a book, so freighted with academic job-market significance) doesn’t. The anxiety lifts, and it’s fun.

You write work that is hybrid or genre-confusion. What does such work offer to the writer? The reader? Talk about the chapbook form as a place that embraces such work.

The chapbook offers the writer the opportunity for playful, joyful exploration. This comes with the ability to turn off the editor, to experiment and frolic mischievously, naively, extremely. To be curious and curiouser. To question. To provide contradictory answers or no answers at all.

I like to think people are willing to try most things once, and the chapbook lets the reader dip a toe in, no pressure. A friend told me her husband, an exquisitely talented custom carpenter, read my chap cover to cover. She said it was the first book he’d read in its entirety since college, and I know that’s not because I’ve written the only book worth reading in the last decade-plus. The chapbook form beckons. It’s the invitation of the short forms, the variations, the alien flecked with the recognizable, the Well-this-is-kinda-weird-but-kinda-fun-and-maybe-I-should-keep-going-why-not?-Okay-sure.” That’s what the chapbook offers.

How do you define chapbook? I tend not to. When I tried to explain it to a parent, I Googled the term, which seemed silly. In my head a chapbook’s a zine/book hybrid.

What makes a good chapbook? Surprising cohesion—however that happens.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? Kara Vernor’s Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song and Haunting the Last House on Hollow Island, Fallen into the Bay, by Sarah Ann Winn.

What chapbooks or chapbook authors have impacted your writing the most? Laura Madeline Wiseman’s My Imaginary was my first chapbook, and for years I’ve enjoyed The Cupboard pamphlets (many with the feel of tiny chapbooks)—Sarah Norak’s We’re Here, in particular, blew me away. The chapbook force is strong with Joe Aguilar’s Half Out Where and Megan Martin’s Nevers, both books from Caketrain (oh, Caketrain.). I can’t underestimate how much I’ve learned from studying Joe Aguilar’s hybridity. Meg Pokrass, Kathy Fish, Leesa Cross-Smith, and Tara Laskowski are all prolific flash fiction writers who’ve influenced me and stoked the chapbook flames. Poet Stacey Waite’s the lake has no saint has stayed with me as well.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Thematic cohesion without sacrificing variety/surprise.

Current chapbook reading list: Jacqueline Doyle’s The Missing Girl, DeMisty D. Bellinger’s Rubbing Elbows, SJ Sindu’s I Once Met You but You Were Dead, Kimberly Ann Southwick’s effs & vees, Michelle Menting’s Myth of Solitude, Sam Cohen’s Gossip, Sean D. Henry-Smith Body Text, Rebecca Meacham’s Morbid Curiosities, Adrienne Celt’s Apocalypse How?, Lauren Eggert-Crowe’s Bitches of the Drought, and Laura Madeline Wiseman’s Threnody.

Number of chapbooks you own: I’d guess seventeenish.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: At least seventeen. I love that lots of chapbooks are downloadable pdfs, though the physical object is certainly special.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook authors: Besides buying chaps when I can, I volunteer for a couple of literary journals, a sort of an indirect form of support. I’m always excited when we publish work by authors with chapbooks!

Your chapbook credo: Obsess.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Buying chapbooks! And, on the less-fun side, paying submission fees (I was lucky and so very grateful that the contest I won was free to enter thanks to a generous donor)! I know submission fees prevent a lot of great writers from having the opportunity to submit their work, and that stinks. At the same time, I know many chapbook publishers are just trying to make their own ends meet and submission fees make their labor of love possible.

Your chapbook wish: DJT resigns, retires, and reads chapbooks while soaking in the tub.

Residence: Walla Walla, WA (beginning late July—currently, Pullman, WA)

Job: Adjunct instructor, freelance writer/editor, dog fancier.

Chapbook Bio: Wendy Oleson Wendy Oleson’s stories, poems, and hybrid texts appear/are forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Passages North, Calyx, Copper Nickel, Carve, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing online for the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension and is an Associate Prose Editor for Fairy Tale Review and Memorious Magazine. Wendy lives in Eastern Washington with her wife and their ridiculously manipulative dog.

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