Karen Schubert on the engaging, concentrated dose of a writer’s work

You are the author of the chapbooks Black Sand Beach (Kattywompus Press, 2015), Bring Down the Sky (Kattywompus Press, 2011), The Geography of Lost Houses (Pudding House, 2008), and I Left My Wings on a Chair (The Kent State University Press, 2014), selected by Kathleen Flenniken for a Wick Poetry Center Chapbook Prize. Your lovely I Left My Wings on a Chair is a smart collection of prose poems that Denise Duhamel notes “stay afloat with sardonic wit and social satire” and Nin Andrews calls “sublime, witty, and surprising.” Kaye Linden, poetry editor of The Bacopa Literary Review and editor of the 35 Tips Series, writes in 35 Tips for Writing Powerful Prose Poems (2017) that prose poems are “driven by poetic language” (57) and explores craft issues of opening lines, length, audience, point of view, unity, descriptions and more. Talk about the magic of crafting prose poetry. Where do your poems begin? What steps do you explore during the process of revision?

Thank you for your kind words. It is an honor to have titles with these presses I love and admire, and I really appreciate your looking at my poems so thoughtfully.

One of the lovely comments Kathleen Flenniken made when she selected my chapbook was that each poem reminded her of a Roz Chast cartoon. I’ll never recover from the happiness of reading that! and it gives a frame to what I was trying for, demonstrating absurdity by illustrating it.

One election cycle I heard someone argue we can’t protect an endangered species because we’ll lose jobs, and that led to “Obsolete Career Camp,” an imagined camp where child-visitors can try out jobs we no longer believe in, like “the historic hunters series,” hunting animals to extinction, or  medicinal bloodletting and amputating limbs Civil War-style. I like to use humor/irony to take a swipe at an argument.

I also like the vignette construct of the prose poem. It makes a place for story and voice in a compact little package, without asking too many questions of the narrative arc, as fiction might. I am often beginning with a thought or idea (O! Wire man! Who do you love?). I revise endlessly, as we all do, looking for unity in voice/pov, clunky or repetitive phrases, natural stanza-graph breaks. I like to zoom in and out. Humor, too, has its risks for offense. I have these unfortunate dueling personality traits: impulsivity and remorse. Maybe that’s one thing I love about writing poetry; unlike in the lived life, there is the time to choose carefully and to revise.

I am a bit in love with the worlds you’ve created in these poems. I want to visit the pastry shop and order a baker’s dozen of Jesus Heels in “Jesus’s Pastries”. I want to attend the Halloween party to find the woman with the chip superglued to her shoulder in “Wings.” I want to see the grocery workers in action in “Food for the Soul Grocery.” It’s a powerful skill to have such fully embodied worlds in poetry. Talk about genre and hybridity. Where do you see yourself working in I Left my Wings On a Chair and in your other collections? As a poet, what compels the poem to life? You mentioned the news and curiosity above, but are there other instances such as characters that compel a poem into life?

Thank you!

I think when I was a kid, I was all What if, what if? Although, as a consumer of books and films, I don’t turn to speculative fiction as I might. But I think those imaged worlds are pulsing with empathy, maybe, trying to see through someone else’s eyes, or wondering, why do we set it up this way?  Nin Andrews, a poet I adore, does this masterfully in her prose poem collection Why God is a Woman, creating an island world where gender roles are reversed. You see the men on the island marching around for equal pay, and the women giving them a token raise, knowing the men will calm down and re-submit to exploitation soon enough. It’s a powerful kind of social critique.

I wrote “Jesus’s Pastries” after seeing a “Jesus Heals” bumper sticker and musing on the different meanings of Jesus, the religious figure and the common name, and heals/heels. I have studied Spanish and to a lesser degree, linguistics, and it’s interesting to contemplate how connotative language is, and how immigrants strive to crack the code.

“Wings,” too, draws from life. I now find myself friends with creatives who gather, as adults, to dress up in Halloween costumes. Part of my fascination likely comes from the fact that technically, I am at the safety pin level of costume building. But also the idea of partial disguise: no one really embodies their costumes; they are themselves with this other persona draped on. As an aside, I did go to a party as a woman with a chip on her shoulder.  Making people laugh is one of my pleasures.

“Food for the Soul Grocery” likely came from hearing someone say Food is love. Is it just love? Or is it other emotions, too? I like messing around with these cultural assumptions. Like “Death Wish.” We say, He died doing what he loved if he falls off a wine-cork raft crossing the Atlantic, but what if he dies from Big Macs and Diet Coke? Actually, most of us die doing what we love. It’s not that great.

So about genre and hybridity, I like the openness of the writing culture just now. Nin tells a story of a prose poem poet who would stick a teeny dot of glue between his submission pages, and most of the time they came straight back, still stuck together. There was a resistance to hybrid work. Today, I want to write a poem with a lot of story, I don’t worry I’ll get tripped up on the publishing end. It’s more the challenge of writing it tight, following through on the logic of the world I’m creating, upping what’s at stake. Most of my poems are more straight-from-life and traditionally line-broken, but I enjoy these poems for the chance to get out of my own experience.

designed by Amy Freels

We’ve talked a bit about genre, inspiration, and craft. Let’s talk about community. Phenomenal Women: Twelve Youngstown Stories, a publication from Lit Youngstown, is an oral history project that collects narratives from African American women (ages 64-101) in Youngstown, Ohio, that addresses racial segregation, post-industrial community, youth, work and family. You were also a 2017 artist-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center. You teach creative writing at Youngstown State University and in the community. In the Lafayette Writers’ Studio latest newsletter, Melissa Fraterrigo, talks about the importance of workshopping, readers, and feedback from the writing community. She writes, “Insightful readers are a combination of cultivation and luck.” Talk about your various writing communities, the ways you support one another’s work, and some of the work that has been made possible by that support.

I am deliberate about encouraging that beautiful overlap. When I envisioned creating a literary center in 2015, I hoped we could interest people with different experiences and motivations. Youngstown State is one of the four public universities in the consortial Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts, where I studied creative writing, so I know faculty, alumni and students. I also know writers in the local and regional literary community, and really enjoy seeing the cross-pollination at Lit Youngstown’s workshops, readings, and our first literary festival this past fall.

I met writers as a student, at conferences (as I met you, Madeline! at the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference), in residency at Vermont Studio Center and Headlands Center for the Arts, and when I was editor of Whiskey Island Magazine. I made some deep bonds, especially, at the Writing By Degrees conference at Binghamton University. And I have learned so much from other writers, and am excited to bring writers I know to our monthly readers series here. I invite local writers to teach classes, which also builds relationships, and gives new writers a variety of influences. Because those connections were so important to me, I want to be a connector.

The Phenomenal Women project was the brainchild of my founding co-director Liz Hill. Liz was a Big Sister, and was at a history museum with her Little one day, looking at immigrant narratives, and realized her Little’s story wasn’t there. So we set out to make a space for it. We were incredibly honored that the women told us their stories, and fortunate, as we published the book exactly one year ago, and since then, two of the women have died. After the C.D. Wright Conference, I visited my poet friend Christian Anton Gerard at Fort Smith, Arkansas, and his students read the staged reading scripted from the book. It was moving to hear people respond so emotionally to these stories, which are both very specific and universal.

Today I met a lovely young woman named McKenzie, a graduate of Queens University who is applying for MFA programs. She is an intern for an after school arts program, and is interested in working with Lit Youngstown. It turns out that her mom is best friends with a woman in my office, and my work colleague gave me a poem of McKenzie’s, which is on my office wall. A nice coincidence, but also a literary connection.

This afternoon, I met with a teacher who is working with me on our upcoming Winter Writers Camp. Meg brought her AP students to our November reading which featured essayist Kevin Haworth of Carlow University and poet Steve Reese of the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts. Kevin was also a Headlands fellow, and Steve was a professor of mine. At the open mic, Meg’s students read an original piece they wrote after “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” It was terrific! Meg told me today that after they got in the car, she asked them, What did you think of the reading? It was quiet and then a student said, Damn!  I agree—it was that good.

I love all of these connections, all the encouragement and inspiration, the ways the connections un-separate us. I am now planning our Fall Literary Festival for 2018, and thinking of writers to invite who will reflect us back to ourselves. Does that make sense? Who will tell us, Look at you, being in community, when really most of us are just racing around by ourselves in our cars trying to get everything done. It’s a powerful understanding of people in relation. But it’s something I think about all the time: Who is not yet at the table? How can we use the literary arts to promote understanding and creative problem solving?

For the reading series, I’ve invited a therapist who uses storytelling with trauma survivors, a poet who uses a wheelchair, the Poet Laureate of Erie, editors, a Vietnam veteran, Kevin Haworth who writes on Judiasm, a writer in addiction recovery, NEA fellows, a nurse, a minister, a food policy writer, a self-published novelist, high school and college students, so many. After all, writers are everything. We will add a storytelling night this year, and a world poetry night which will give me a means to reach out to the many immigrants here. It’s the same amount of programming, but with many voices, to foster connection.

photo by Ralph Malmer

How do you define chapbook? A tightly organized collection of 24 pages or fewer, folded and side-stapled or sewn.

What makes a good chapbook? A good chapbook press! I am a big enthusiast of the fearless Kattywompus Press, and the Wick Poetry Center chapbook series. Diode, as well, and who doesn’t miss Pudding House and Accents? There are some terrific small presses in Ohio, as well.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? These are my recent drop-everything-and-read-this chapbooks. The Witness by Kelly Fordon (Kattywompus Press), Poppy Seeds by Allison Pitinii Davis (Wick Poetry Center), Ode to Oil by Phil Metres (Kattywompus Press), How Swallowtails Become Dragons by Bianca Spriggs (Accents Publishing).

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Some kind of beating heart that brings the collection alive in one body.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? Revision, revision, revision.

What’s next for you? I’m working on a chapbook centered around Youngstown. I will send it first to Dianne Borsenik, editor of Night Ballet Press in Cleveland.

Current chapbook reading list: Flood Year by Sara Tracey (dancing girl press), A Concordence of Leaves by Phil Metres (Diode), Fellow Traveler by Robert Miltner (Pudding House).

Number of chapbooks you own and have read: So many! They are all in Lit Youngstown’s lending library.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. I buy books, including chapbooks, every time (unless I’m broke-ass-broke), at readings, conferences, book stores. Never Amazon.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Buy chapbooks, read and share chapbooks, talk them up on social media, invite the authors to read and teach. We need to host a workshop on chapbooks.

Your chapbook credo: Chapbooks are an engaging, concentrated dose of a writer’s work.

Residence: Youngstown, Ohio.

Job: Coordinator of Power of the Arts (an arts advocacy nonprofit); Director of Lit Youngstown (a literary arts nonprofit)

Chapbook education: When my friend Sal and I were thinking about publishing chapbooks, we exchanged big piles of poems. He sorted mine, and then handed me a stack that were all about houses. I never would have seen that thread, and those poems became The Geography of Lost Houses. The first press I sent it to was Pudding House, and it won 2nd prize. I knew that was a miracle of sorts, but it was pure oxygen exactly when I needed it.

Chapbook Bio: Karen Schubert is the author of the chapbooks Black Sand Beach (Kattywompus Press, 2015), I Left My Wings on a Chair (The Kent State University Press, 2014), Bring Down the Sky (Kattywompus Press, 2011), and The Geography of Lost Houses (Pudding House, 2008).

photo by Melanie Rae Buonavolonta

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