Tracy Mishkin on audience, inspiration, and the art of fabulous titles

You are the author of the chapbooks I Almost Didn’t Make Itto McDonald’s (Finishing Line Press, 2014), The Night I Quit Flossing (Five Oaks Press, 2016), and This is Still Life (Brain Mill Press,2018). Talk about audience. When you create your chapbooks, what are your creative strategies to invite readers into your poems? Do you imagine your audience(s) in the writing and revision process? In what ways do you seek to build connections, cultivate dialogue, and invite responses from your readers of your chapbooks?

My first chapbook has a different relationship to audience than the second and third. I put that first manuscript together by sitting down with my two of my best friends and copies of fifty poems I had written in the past ten years. We chose the best twenty poems and I arranged them thematically. In other words, I wasn’t thinking about the poems inviting an audience in or building a relationship with an audience. However, it was important to me to be an accessible poet. With that in mind, I chose a catchy title, I Almost Didn’t Make It to McDonald’s, but I also challenged readers by putting the title poem, which wrestles with the nature of God by way of a Filet O’Fish, right up front.

My call center manager was the first to buy my chapbook, which was very supportive and affirming. Then she dropped my jaw by saying she hadn’t purchased a book since high school. It got better. Her wild teenage daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend stayed in one night and read the chapbook to her mom while she sacked out on the couch.

Around the time I published my first chapbook, I took a class on creating a poetry manuscript as part of the MFA in Creative Writing at Butler University. That’s how my second chapbook, The Night I Quit Flossing, began. My classmates and I discussed how to bring our poems together into a manuscript and how to engage an audience. One of my favorite exercises involved writing down keywords from our batch often to twelve poems and using those words to write a new poem. We also talked about narrative arcs. I decided to make my manuscript move chronologically through the two challenges in my life at that time: my marital problems and my close friend’s battle with cancer.

My third chapbook, This Is Still Life, published in September 2018, is the most political and the most attentive to audience. Several of the poems speak in a voice that’s not mine, whether it’s the voice of a person who has lost a family member to gun violence, a person who voted for Donald Trump, or a person who is recovering from drug addiction. Sometimes the voice is mine, but you may not know that side of me: “my father prays in the forest / where his grandmother was shot.”I’m writing to invite my audience to recognize the complexities and learn the painful details of these lives—the ones they don’t know already from their own experiences.

I also imagine our possible futures: poems in which we’ve had “our last presidential election,” in which we ordinary people arm our selves against “strangers and neighbors,” in which we “burn ourselves in effigy.” I write these knowing that other people have lived them in the past—in the hope that we and our children will not. This Is Still Life has an important message for its audience, and I’m grateful to Brain Mill Press for publishing it.

 In your poem “America, You Make Me Nervous” from This is Still Life (Brain Mill Press, 2018) you invoke Allen Ginsberg’s “America” while considering family and place. Talk about poetic inspiration, muse, and humor. What brings you to a new poem? Do you write towards a series or themes that might interact across a chapbook? Or you write, look at the body of work you’ve created, and then cull a chapbook from what emerges? Or something else?

The Day Mold Ate My Futon. I used to write from one burst of inspiration, usually telling a story, often a funny one. The Recycling Deity. Rime of the Middle-Aged Mariner. Rolling Stop at Ethical Intersections. I didn’t revise much.

My current approach is much slower and richer, less dependent on humor. I collect material over a long time and wait for it to come together in my mind. This method is like treasure hunting while the old way is like winning $3 in the lottery every few weeks. Let me tell you the story of how “America, You Make Me Nervous” was written—and why there is no poem called “The Night I Quit Flossing.”

I came up with the title The Night I Quit Flossing for my second chapbook manuscript during a title brainstorming session. Sometime later, I wrote a poem by that name about a woman, well, on the edge of a nervous breakdown. She drank whiskey-laced coffee while driving, threw bricks off the overpass, and teetered on the rail of the bridge over the aptly-named Fall Creek. It was a clever little poem that would make you worry about me if it was even 10% true. I put it in the manuscript—and later took it out before Five Oaks Press accepted The Night I Quit Flossing for publication because it was a clever little poem, not a really good one.

Knowing the poem could be much better, I printed it out and separated each line with scissors. I also printed about thirty lines or phrases that hadn’t found a home yet in my poems, including the “meat wheel full of teeth.” I threw all these pieces of paper in a bowl and pulled them out one by one. By the magic of poetry and the subconscious mind, the order of these scraps spoke to me of America, which is, well, over the edge of a nervous breakdown.

 “America, You Make Me Nervous” is one of the best poems I have written. Instead of disguising my personal problems in exaggeration, it shines a light on our country’s problems. Instead of being funny, it’s real. Yes, over 30% of Americans responded to a Pew Research Center survey something like “Only Christians are truly American.” Yes, my father has traveled to the former Soviet Union where his grandmother was shot in the forests of what is now Belarus. He has prayed in those woods outside of town. He has seen the bones that lie under a few inches of soil.

I enjoyed my previous incarnation as a funny, accessible writer with some serious notes, but when I started the Butler MFA program, the instructors encouraged me not to settle for the laughs and push my poems deeper. It took the entire five years that I was in the MFA program to learn how to do that, but it was worthwhile. When my third chapbook was published this fall, one of the blurbs said, “these lyrics are urgent without shallow or callous bids for the reader’s attention.” I used to be merely clever, but now I am “dangerously clever.”

You have a Ph.D. and an MFA in creative writing and you are the author of three chapbooks. You give readings from your collections and practice and deepen your craft. As a poet, what are some important recent and upcoming events in your life? What hopes and dreams do you have for your future creative works?

I published my third chapbook, This Is Still Life, two months ago, as we approached the 2018 midterm elections. This chapbook speaks in different voices from different political perspectives. While I am thrilled to have published another chapbook, I feel that this one is bigger than just me. It has a message for America and for the world, a message about trying to understand each other–and what may happen if we cannot. I very much appreciate Brain Mill Press selecting this manuscript for their Mineral Point Chapbook Series. They are very good about sticking to a schedule and promoting their authors’ work, and they feel the same way about this chapbook that I do. I have attached one of their promotional pictures, which is based on the cover of the chapbook and pulls a quote from the poem “After Setbacks, We Go Sideways.”

My goal is to publish a full-length book of poetry, and if it plays a role in creating world peace, that would be even more fabulous. (Hey, a woman can dream!) I am entering contests for first books such as the Agnes Lynch StarrettPoetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press and The Lexi RudnitskyFirst Book Prize for a female poet from Persea Books. I was a semifinalist last year in the latter. I have taken second place two years in a row in ConcreteWolf’s contest for a first book by a poet over 50. My full-length manuscript is currently called America, You Make Me Nervous. Earlier versions were called The Ire Barn and Return to the Purgatory Café. I’m all about catchy titles but I want them to be more than merely funny.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? I know of several journals and publishers that are doing very interesting things with the chapbook form. The Origami Poems Project publishes microchaps made from one sheet of paper. They are free to download at and the site has good directions for folding them. Each origami chapbook has six little pages, so a writer can include six relatively short poems, one longer poem, or a mix. Submissions are free. I think that creating a chapbook manuscript with a limited, specific number of pages is a good challenge for a writer who has never put a collection together before. Which poems would you choose? How do they work together? Why this order?

The trouble with chapbooks is that they have a limited audience, unless you are Kaveh Akbar (my former classmate at ButlerUniversity and current famous poet!). Rattle has figured out a way to get chapbooks to a larger audience. They include the winning chapbook(s) with your subscription to Rattle, and by entering the chapbook contest, you get a free year’s subscription. Other journals have similar chapbook-promoting moves, such as Iron Horse dedicating an entire issue to some lucky person’s chapbook. Right now I am trying to stay away from chapbook contests and focus on my full-length manuscript, but I will make an exception for the awesome opportunities afforded by these journals.

My newest chapbook is part of the Mineral Point Poetry Series from Brain Mill Press. Every other year they publish 4 chapbooks in this series. Promoting a series of four chapbooks that arrive between August and November increases the amount of attention that each one gets. I have bought the other 3 chapbooks in my cohort, too. Brain Mill Press used to call itself a “radical love publisher,” which is an excellent fit for my work. They recently updated the website with a mission statement (and a better homepage font). It says that their ideal reader is “voracious, looking for books that provide a mirror and a window, and who reads widely across genres.” This is also an excellent fit for my work!

I don’t mentally separate chapbooks and full-length poetry books, so I don’t have a favorite chapbook, a stack of chapbooks waiting to be read, or a chapbook wish to make when I throw a penny in a fountain. I think the most important difference between a chapbook and a full-length book is that by being shorter, a chapbook is more accessible to hesitant readers. Yes, a writer can use the broader canvas of the full-length book to present a more ambitious project, but one could also say that the chapbook author can target a question or issue more precisely.

Chapbook Bio: Tracy Mishkin is a call center veteran with a PhD and a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Butler University.  She is the author of three chapbooks, I Almost Didn’t Make It to McDonald’s (FinishingLine Press, 2014), The Night I Quit Flossing (Five Oaks Press, 2016), and This is Still Life (Brain Mill Press, 2018). She used to enjoy saying that her work had been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Parodymagazine–twice!–but this year her poem “Falling” was nominated by Brain Mill Press. You can read more of her work at

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