Linda Simone on the poetry of slant truth, archeology, and elevating the ordinary

You are the author of the chapbooks Archeology (Flutter Press) and Cow Tippers (Shadow Ink Publications), the children’s book, Moon: A Poem (Richard C. Owens Publishers), and the forthcoming full-length collection, The River Will Save Us (Aldrich Press). Your first chapbook Cow Tippers opens with the Emily Dickinson line, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—”, an invitation to the reader to wonder and question strange truths. The poem “Root Canal” contemplates the interior life of the dentist and what he sees. The poem asks,

In your mouth, a wide
drain pipe
does he read teeth like tea leaves?

The poem “Cow Tippers” hinges on two maybes as it considers all the actors, before and after, such an event, because “Overturned guernseys/ can’t upright themselves…”. Talk about slant truth in poetry and the ways poems can elevate ordinary events into extraordinary ones.

Slant truth is something that happens suddenly, starting with close observation and using all your senses—how most poems begin. For example, you take a walk in the woods. Unexpectedly your attention is laser-focused on the startling appearance of a crimson cardinal. You take in his song, follow his flight, notice he alights on the branch where his tawny mate waits for him. And, poof! Your mind begins to contemplate family and obligation, beauty and survival. From here, your own experiences and viewpoint mix with what you’ve just seen and alchemy happens—a poem takes shape. The reader and even the poet are surprised at where the journey ends.

In slant truth, you set off on a path, willingly follow the poet’s logic, yet end up in an unexpected place where you might see things totally upside down. Prime examples of this are Billy Collins’s poems.  They often present an everyday experience, like shoveling snow, but contort it, as in his poem “Shoveling Snow With Buddha.”  Is it really about shoveling snow? No way. For Collins, it’s about contemplative action, becoming lost in “sudden clouds of our own making,” “true religion, the religion of snow.”  Now that’s slant. And since he’s shoveling beside the Buddha, he adds humor to boot.

There was no single over-arching theme in my chapbook, Cow Tippers, just the desire to let each poem look aslant at its subject. I took inspiration from Emily Dickinson’s jewel-like poems and the convoluted tour of her thought processes that they present. I strove in my poems to let my mind twist and turn as it wanted.  The title poem literally slants or tips cows, a practice my son told me about, which I’d never heard of. So first I explored the “who” and then considered the tippers’ possible motivations. The poem puns on the farmers who “must raise them” and ends with a warning to both farmer and cow: “Watch out for cow tippers.”  Another poem in the collection,  “Root Canal,” took root (pun intended!) in a dreaded visit to the dentist’s office. The subject procedure has always struck me with fear, so I suppose that day I was hyper-aware of sounds (“…although the whirr / of the drill still gives goose flesh”), and hyper-sensitive to the face of the dentist hovering just above my own (“…masked / and wielding ancient torture tools”).  What was he thinking? With my mouth open, I felt vulnerable. Somehow through free association, the poem takes a hard right turn and closes with a bloated corpse fished from a river whose identity hinges on dental records—obviously pre-DNA!

Other poems in the collection that twist the ordinary into something unanticipated include seeing a fallen old lady in a rotted log, witnessing an exchange of love under the romantic “sky” of a salad, and contemplating menopause in the sights and sounds of a laundromat.  The poet has only to keep her eyes and mind open; inspiration is everywhere!

Your newest chapbook Archeology places the personal by the historical to invite comparisons and contrasts. The poem “Cold Case” wonders about the family who cared about a 5,000-year-old mummified hunter before he froze to death.

What gatherer made him
home-cooked meals?

Whose birdlike mouths
hungered for his return?

Did the woman who shared his bed
stoke the fire, fearing he was dead?

The poem “Dig” considers the digging motivations of a pet terrier-mix while the speaker of the poem holds downward dog. The poem asks, “What drives him?” Talk about the off-kilter work of a chapbook that seeks to juxtapose time and motivation. What does such sequencing of poems offer to the busy, multi-tasking reader?

My chapbook Archeology began with an intense interest in archeological finds and things ancient. I’ve always been fascinated by England’s Stonehenge, so I explored Druid ceremonies in the poem “Solstice.” I’ve wondered what life was really like for the people of ancient Pompeii whose bones were mummified under volcanic ash. What drove them? How do they relate to me? One day, near my upcoming wedding anniversary, I found a story and accompanying photo of a mummified Neolithic couple in Mantova, Italy, frozen in their bed, hugging. I wanted to write a poem for my husband, so I suppose I multi-tasked, used the specifics about the photo—“legs intertwined like ivy. / Fetally curled and facing each other / two bodies, one bony heart.”—and  ended up with an anniversary poem that shows that time has no bearing on true love.

So archeology became the overarching theme, and one after another, each find covered in the book made me question. In “Cold Case,” how did that cave woman feel when her hunter/mate didn’t return home?  And what about those two little mammoths frozen 40,000 years, their genes tested, bodies 3-D mapped?  In “Mammoth Find in Russian Permafrost,” I had to bring it closer to home: “What can be learned from mammoth genes? / What will they say? / What do our own foretell / of death and love thereafter?”

This chapbook also sent me digging into my own family, including trips that led to poems: “Sacre Coeur” in Paris, “Pieve, Liguria” in Italy, the country of my ancestors. But I didn’t have to go farther than my own backyard for fodder to help create the book’s arc. The poem “Dig” saw my dog Charley’s hole-digging as entry into historical exploration: “What drives him? Ossified bone / of a bygone owner’s pet? / Mint Ming vase? / Tut’s gilt-edged tomb?”—but then I was forced to think about my own motivation as, poised in face-down dog yoga position, I “dig to the ohm of sundown” to “unearth / what must remain un- / found.”

Through juxtaposing historical and personal poems, I better understood time, which really doesn’t matter when it comes to people’s lives, loves, and dreams. I also favor short poems, and love to revise and craft until I am able to tell the story in just a few stanzas—a boon to multi-tasking busy readers.

What do you admire about chapbooks? When do you know you’re reading a fabulous chapbook? One that’s not for you? What do you need in a chapbook to keep you turning the pages?

As a writer, the chapbook format gives me the opportunity to review poems I’ve written over time and find connections among them. This involves a literary stepping back and attempting objectively to identify poems connected by theme, image, or form, then making the hard decisions as to which belong together in a collection and which don’t. Sometimes this means removing a poem you love because, even if it’s the best you’ve ever written, you realize it doesn’t belong and you’re trying to shoehorn it into the collection.

As a reader, I love chapbooks that introduce me to a poet I don’t know, or give me the chance to hear more of a voice just whispered in a  single admired poem on the page of a literary journal. Most chapbooks aren’t sold in bookstores—or if they are, they’re hard to find because they don’t have printed spines due to their size. So more often, we’re introduced to a poet’s work from attending readings, or from sharing favorites with friends, or from reading a review published in a journal. I’ve discovered many chapbooks through these means.

For example, I heard about Cindy Hochman’s chapbook Habeas Corpus (Glass Lyre Press, 2015) from a friend. I purchased it, read it, and discovered a small gem of 13 prose poems and one quasi-sonnet. As the title indicates, the poems offer entree into bits and pieces of the body—mostly the speaker’s—and once inside, the reader experiences pleasure, pain, deception, and betrayal. With wit and insight, Hochman guides the reader well beyond the surface of things. Found: one fabulous chapbook.

My friend Ann Cefola is my poetry buddy. We regularly exchange poems and offer each other a careful read and some suggestions for revision. Our writing group of two has withstood many decades and changes including my geographical move from New York to Texas, and growth in our writing styles. So even though I was familiar with individual poems by Ann, I was delighted to see how she artfully crafted and arranged her poems into chapbooks: Sugaring (Dancing Girl Press, 2007), which explores her beloved Vermont from earth to sky; and Saint Agnes, Pink-Slipped (Kattywompus Press, 2011), which explores various losses and ultimately a universal yearning for meaning. Despite brevity, both of these publications hold weight, create an emotional arc, and pack a punch. Found: two fabulous chapbooks.

Since graduate school, I’ve followed New York poet/teacher Kevin Pilkington, author of four full-length collections and a novel. While I love his new work, I enjoy re-reading his early chapbooks, St. Andrew’s Head (Camber Press, 2003) and Getting By (1996 winner of The Ledge Poetry Chapbook Contest). These chapbooks introduced me to poems with a clarity that appeals to me and an urban voice that remains undeniably and uniquely his. Accessible wonderful poetry and more fabulous chapbooks!

These particular examples illustrate the kinds of chapbooks that keep me turning the pages. Each collection offers an overarching theme, organic flow, surprise, and insight. And they accomplish this through language rich in musicality and metaphor.

On the flip side, chapbooks that don’t speak to me usually lack a thematic connection and seem to slap unrelated poems between a cover. I also don’t favor books where I find the poems inaccessible. Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t mind the challenge and satisfaction of working at understanding a poem, but if after several readings I’m still frustrated because I fail to gain insight (and I fully understand that this might just be me), I put the book down and likely won’t revisit or recommend it.

How do you define a chapbook? Chapbooks generally refer to small, inexpensively produced collections of poetry, usually by a single author. Even in their brevity, however, chapbooks truly satisfy.

What makes a good chapbook? Well-crafted poems in the poet’s unique voice assembled with some logic into a beautifully designed jewel of a book.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? I look for linkages in poems that I may not have realized existed when I first wrote the poems. I also look for recurring themes or phrases that subconsciously sneak into my poems. Understanding all this helps in the naming of the chapbook.

What chapbooks/chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Besides the ones mentioned in my previous answer, I check out poets who publish with presses I admire and who offer a unique world view  Too many to name.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? What’s next for you? After having just completed my first full-length collection (another learning experience!), I’d like to finish my collection of poems about Sideshow characters, which I’ve been working on for years. The subject appeals to me, but as a collection it still doesn’t feel quite ready. So I keep reading any poets who’ve written on the subject to see how they’ve approached their collections so I can understand what is unique about my treatment.

Current chapbook reading list: I want to read more chapbooks by diverse writers both new and notable. On my short list:

Anima by Ana Prundaru (Dancing Girl Press, 2018)

How Much We Must Have Looked Like Stars to Stars by Alysia Nicole Harris,  Winner of the 2015 New Women’s Voices Chapbook Contest

Chromosomory by Layla Long Soldier (Ave Press, 2010)

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen (BOA Editions, 2017) (not a chapbook, but I really want to read it)

Number of chapbooks you own. Number of chapbooks you’ve read. I buy and read a lot of chapbooks—probably hundreds over the years. And I always borrow any chapbook I come across at the library—this has introduced me to a lot of local poets. However, because I live in an apartment and have limited space, I currently only own seven; the rest I’ve passed along to friends or donated to libraries.

Your commitment to the chapbook writing community. In New York, I was an administrator and adjunct professor for a graduate writing program and often helped advise students on how to transform their work into chapbooks. I would read their collections, offer suggestions, and point to resources such as the excellent book Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems by Susan Grimm (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2006). I’ve also taught poetry classes at local libraries and I’m always willing to give advice to poets asking about publishing their first chapbook.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I write reviews on Good Reads, Amazon, give poets a shout-out on social media, and write book reviews that I work at getting placed in literary journals. I also share chapbook contest information to friends, and on Facebook to writing groups to which I belong.

Your chapbook credo: Write deep until you surprise yourself.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Ha! Ha! Ha!  That’s an oxymoron! What little I might earn, I put back into buying more chapbooks.

Residence: New York born and bred; currently living in San Antonio, Texas.

Job: Retired, so I spend time writing poetry, creating watercolor paintings, cooking, and enjoying life with my family.

Chapbook education: Not entirely sure what you’re asking. I earned a Masters in Creative Writing from Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY, so I suppose I learned a lot about poetry and chapbooks there. As with any subject, most learning comes from voracious reading.

Bio: Linda Simone’s debut poetry collection, The River Will Save Us, is forthcoming from Kelsay Books/Aldrich Press. She is the author of Archeology (Flutter Press, 2014); Cow Tippers (Shadow Ink Publications, 2006); and Moon: A Poem (Richard C. Owen Publishers, 2002). Her 15-poem sequence, “Stations of the Cross” appearing in Alternatives to Surrender (Plain View Press, 2007), was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is honored to be among 30 poets selected for publication in San Antonio’s 2018 Tricentennial celebration chapbook. Other honors include poems in Poet Laureate Laurie Ann Guerrero’s signature “Love Poems to San Antonio” project, and on public buses in San Antonio and Norwalk, CT. “The Stubborn Poem: Tackle or Trash?” is forthcoming in Black Lawrence Press’s anthology Far Villages: Welcome Essays for New and Beginner Poets. New York born and bred, Simone moved to San Antonio in 2015.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Sarah Bracey White
    July 18, 2018 at 2:29 am

    What an interesting, insightful and honest interview! The author offers readers great advice on what to look for when reading chapbooks. She also provides a seasoned teacher’s advice – along with concrete examples – to poets about how the process of writing poetry evolves from every-day life and the poet’s personal interests. Job well done, interviewer and poet!

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