Tyler Robert Sheldon on the absolutely necessary theme

In a recent interview Annie Dillard discusses some of her early reading practices. She says, “Whatever everyone read, I avoided. How else have an original voice?” (38). Talk about your reading practices in your teens and early twenties, what you were drawn to, what you avoided, and how might that have shaped your voice.

That really is an excellent interview! I note that Dillard also repudiates her interviewer, Michael Collins, for favoring big cities as writing venues—something like, “Again with your pro-urban bias!” Like Dillard, I think, I read a lot of work from various geographies while in my teens and early twenties (and a lot of rural poetry in more recent years). In my teens, I read literature that others my age weren’t reading, but not necessarily poetry. Though I enjoyed Harry Potter, I also read Tolkien’s Silmarillion, Hemingway, a lot of Cormac McCarthy, and William Golding. Also westerns by Max McCoy, later one of my professors during my time at Emporia State University. I had a love-hate relationship with the stuff my friends read—not out of rebellion, but because I had other, older writing I felt the need to catch up on. While my pals were reading Gary Paulson, for instance, I might’ve preferred Jon Krakauer. I admit that I didn’t read a lot of noir or romance novels.

I think those reading habits were also shaped by my family; my father is a poet and English professor, and my mom teaches English as well, so I was always meeting poets and going to “up the college” as a kid. In this way I was first exposed to the work of William Stafford, Steven Hind, and Harley Elliott, three Kansas poets who’ve had a huge impact on my own poetry process and early subject matter. My tendency to strive for efficient language and short lines comes in part from Midwest poets. The latter two men are now good friends, and I write letters back and forth with them sometimes. I never had the pleasure of knowing Stafford, but talk on occasion with his son, poet and essayist Kim Stafford.

In Jill McCorkle’s essay “Haunted,” she writes, “Writing a poem or story or novel is not unlike building or refurbishing a house; great attention must be applied to the physical structure…. Sound structure is key but that is only half of it. Now there is the search for what haunts it. And so you think of what is invisible to the eye, the history behind this door or that staircase” (60). You are the author of the chapbook First Breaths of Arrival from Oil Hill Press (reviewed here) and Traumas, forthcoming from Yellow Flag Press. Talk about the building of a poetry chapbook. Talk about what haunts a poem.

Jill McCorkle has the coolest knack for apt, apt description—and I think she’s right on the money here. Physical structure IS important to individual pieces—novels and poems alike need arcs and resolution, if on different scales—and in a chapbook or collection this holds true too, but in a larger way. I can’t speak for the other chapbook authors I know and read (and holy smoke are there oh-so-talented folks!!), but when I construct a chapbook, I first attempt to find a theme and subject matter that won’t leave me alone for quite a while. When the idea is a splinter under my nail, I suppose, then I’ve got something—or the start of something—to work with. Thanks for mentioning my chaps; First Breaths of Arrival came about as a collection when I considered my background as a Kansan. The roots of the state touch some hardy people in the history of the country at large—people with sand, you might say. The physicality of the chap explores my connection to that heritage—people who don’t say much, and who live in a sheltered place where not many trees can hide you. The bones of the chap are observations of Kansas nature, and how I felt I fit into the natural flow of it all. The arc starts with general observations, then tightens to personal experience, and gradually widens back out again.

The “haunted” quality, I think, comes in when considering symbolism (at least with this chap). Red-tailed hawks, for instance, are prominent in one poem. Counting them while driving through the state was a game I grew up with. The birds symbolize personal power and growth, as well as finding one’s way when lost—and I think that quality found its way into many poems here.

Traumas (out this summer) deals with the death of my identical twin brother Cody—we were three and a half months premature, and he died when we were three hours old. The chapbook goes from my discovery of my brother and his death—I was told about it when I was six years old—to dealing slowly, slowly with that missing piece of self, to imagining how his life may have been in other circumstances. It took quite a long time to write, through many different genres before settling on poetry, and quite a few false starts. The “haunting” is definitely felt in this chapbook, for me—and I wanted to do him justice as well as I possibly could. I believe Traumas was cathartic to write, and I hope Cody would appreciate my attempts to know him through poetry.

In Viola van de Sandt’s essay “The True Story? How to Deal with Evidential Gaps While Writing a Biography” she suggests, “Instead of constructing a narrative out of evidential gaps, biographers should realize that the gaps are the narrative…The gaps are what makes a life” (98). She also asks, “Is it possible to know a life? What exactly is a life, and can it ever be fully represented in all its complexity?” (98). To write your forthcoming chapbook traumas, how did you tend to the gaps and the imagined life of Cody? Why was this the next chapbook you needed to write?

That’s an encouraging notion, and I think van de Sandt is correct. It’s often impossible to know certain details of a discussed life or narrative, even if we see it for ourselves. These gaps can inform our thinking of individuals and events, leading to research and discussions with those who WERE there/might’ve known a person in question. A clear and ever-present danger, of course, is painting an assumed narrative with too broad a brush—filling in details as we wish them to be, rather than as we would reasonably assume based on educated guesswork and research.

I’m not certain that a life CAN be fully represented in all its kaleidoscopic complexity—though several authors do a right good job. I think of Geraldine Brooks in her historical fiction plague-years novel Year of Wonders. By the end we know Anna Frith to be not just a conflicted housemaid, but also the book’s bravest character, who also goes through the most grueling suffering. The context we’re provided on her life informs the magnitude of her hardship, and all of this is reinforced through Brooks’ exhaustive research.

To the question “what exactly is a life,” I might say an individual life is a serious of mushrooming events that complicate each other, for better or for worse. Context—backstory—is needed for any accurate depiction, so a world-building of the individual is necessary. And it takes a lot of work, as I’m finding out.

In Traumas, I thought of my own life and what Cody’s might have been like, had he made it. How we would’ve reacted to one another as siblings and friends, and whether his interests would’ve been opposed or parallel to my own. A lot of the chap deals with the actual historical events of his short life: his birth, cremation and scattering—fittingly, in a place called Peter Pan Park—and how I’ve reacted to events in his absence. As to those gaps, again, educated guesswork became necessary—but given that we were twins, I felt that drawing from some of my own impulses could serve as a starting point. For instance, he too may have been a musician, though perhaps he wouldn’t have shared my love of the guitar.

I also felt the need to compose Traumas to address the fortunate ways my life has turned. Not only have I been shaped by my brother’s death, but I have been made a more fulfilled person through the love of my wife, Alex, who is a skilled visual artist. A Fred Rogers quote at the beginning of this chapbook reads, “The people we trust with important talk help us know we are not alone.” This idea holds true in my relationship with my wife—she is the person I trust with all my important talk, as it were, and she helped me clarify my relationship to Cody, giving me the impetus to work on this chapbook. Our relationship figures into the chap as well—as I work through the loss of my brother, I show the deepening of my early relationship and marriage, a sort of season change. So as a shorter answer, I’d say this chapbook serves to delineate two major relationships, both of which have helped me become a more realized person.

How do you define chapbook? I’d say chapbooks are shorter, themed collections—that theme is absolutely necessary. Like with a piece of instrumental music, variations are acceptable and often helpful, but a tight focus is important. As far as binding goes, anything seems fitting. I’ve seen perfect-bound, eyelet-bound, and ribbon-bound chapbooks, and the list of methods goes on.

What makes a good chapbook? I’d say that a good chapbook focuses on personally affecting themes that also have universal applications.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? Bruce Fuller’s Flood (Swan Scythe Press), Lisa Marie Basile’s war/lock and Dalton Day’s To Breathe I’m Too Thin (both Hyacinth Girl Press), and Daniel Spees’s Michelangelo’s Snowmen (Oil Hill Press).

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? I’m probably a bit biased, but my dad (William Sheldon’s) Into Distant Grass, and then Fuller’s chapbook Flood. The latter deals with the 1927 Louisiana flood that wiped out large portions of the state, as well as the after effects of 2005 in that state

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Depends on what my goal is–my first two are highly specific in their themes. I have another out to a press right now (fingers crossed) that deals with my teaching, so I’d say thematic significance is huge.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? I’m reading a whole lot of poetry! Albert Goldbarth, Chloe Honum (anther excellent chapbook author), Ted Kooser, Patricia Traxler, and others. I’m also attending readings whenever I can.

What’s next for you? I’ll be working to complete my MFA at McNeese State, and then traveling and writing more. Perhaps I’ll pursue my PhD. We shall see!

Current chapbook reading list: Right now I’m hoping to get my mitts on a copy of Fox Frazier-Foley’s chapbook Like Ash in the Air After Something Has Burned.

Number of chapbooks you own: About 15.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Around 30.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. I buy, review, and promote friends’ chapbooks, as well as those I see on social media and when I’m out and about, such as at a reading or a library.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I suppose the previous response answers this question, but I’d say I also try to encourage friends and others I know to write (or continue writing) themed work.

Your chapbook credo: Tight subject matter and adherence to theme(s) is everything.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: On poetry when possible, but also on other practical matters. Groceries, or a night out, are both great uses for those chapbook returns.

Your chapbook wish: To create more of them—and have those chaps be significant, cathartic, and beneficial for a large audience.

Residence: Louisiana.

Job: English instructor.

Chapbook education: A.S. (Hutchinson Community College); B.A. (Emporia State University); M.A. (Emporia State University); M.F.A. (McNeese State University, expected 2019).

Chapbook Bio: Tyler Robert Sheldon is a Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of First Breaths of Arrival (Oil Hill Press, 2016) and Traumas (Yellow Flag Press, 2017). His poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared in Quiddity International Literary Journal, The Midwest Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, The Dos Passos Review, The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, Coal City Review, The Big Nasty Press, and other venues. He loves good coffee, blues, jazz, and classic rock.

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