CHAPBOOK AUTHOR INTERVIEW
Susan Settlemyre Williams: It’s Thursday afternoon March 9, 2006. I am Susan Settlemyre Williams and I’m at the AWP Conference in Austin, Texas, talking with the authors of three recent chapbooks. So I think it would be helpful for everyone if we’d go around and have each of you introduce yourself, tell us the name of your book, and your publisher.
Dan Albergotti: My name is Dan Albergotti. My chapbook is titled Charon’s Manifest. It won the 2005 Randall Jarrell Harper Prints Poetry Chapbook Competition, and it is published by the North Carolina Writer’s Network who sponsors the prize printed by an award winning printer in North Carolina, Harper Prints.
Mark Yakich: I’m Mark Yakich, my book is called The Making of Collateral Beauty and it’s with Tupelo Press in Vermont.
SW: And that won the Snowbound . . ?
MY: The Snowbound Chapbook Award in 2004. It just came out in January.
Cecily Parks: My name is Cecily Parks. I’m the author of Cold Work. It was published by the Poetry Society of America as part of their New York Chapbook Fellowship and was selected by Li-Young Lee.
SW: Thanks. The first thing I’m going to ask is the obvious question, why a chapbook? One writer that I’ve been in correspondence with tells me she thinks it is the perfect medium for poetry or the perfect length. So is there something about that length that’s basically half a book that particularly appealed to you?
CP: I guess I’ll start. I would agree with your anonymous friend that I think the chapbook length is ideal in terms of being able to work on maybe one set of themes or maybe on one narrative thread in a concise way without exhausting any of those themes or threads. I found that I was able to really narrow my focus without getting redundant. So in that way I felt like the chapbook was ideal.
MY: The Making of Collateral Beauty is a kind of doppelganger to my first book, my first collection. My first collection was about seventy-five pages and I started writing this one as a book because my brother-in-law wanted to know the story behind some of the characters in the first book. He said, “Who’s the invisible man’s daughter? Is that your girlfriend? Is that her dad? Is that the invisible man?”
He wanted to know all these different characters in the book, so I started thinking about who are these people because I didn’t make them up from real people. In any case, I started writing poems that had the same title as poems in the first book and I wrote the back story, the alleged back story to some of these. So there’s lots of truth in there, and there’s lots of fiction. So the book felt like a little subset of the other book. I didn’t want to exhaust it, so I didn’t do every poem with a back story, I did about twenty-five poems out of the, say, fifty.
But I had fun making things fit together in a way that in the first book I suppose is more of a miscellany, but this one felt more encapsulated.
DA: That’s part of the thing about the chapbook is that it’s more digestible not only for the reader but for the writer. It’s easier to see the structure. I put together this chapbook manuscript after having put together, in various forms, a full length manuscript that I’ve been working on and rearranging and trying to get a grasp on for years, and I always found that terribly difficult with the full-length to see the structure I was trying to put together, to hold onto it. I found that putting together a chapbook really taught me a lot about seeing the arc of a book that has since informed how I’ve most recently revised the full-length manuscript, because it’s of such a size that you can manage the arc. You can see it so much more easily than in a manuscript of, you know, forty-eight to fifty-two pages, something around there.
SW: Well, you all have touched on what was to be my next question, which is that it seems to be easier to carry out a thematic collection with this size and there’s some very clear themes and consistent imagery and motifs in all of your books, but I don’t think any one of them could be said to tell a single story. I have some inkling of how a full-length manuscript gets put together, but with this, did you start out with something else that was to be a larger book and pull out a few poems and play with them or did you just write and then say, “Hey, I’ve got a bunch of poems that speak to each other?” Or, how did that work for you?
DA: Well in mine, most of the poems in Charon’s Manifest are in my longer manuscript and I think there’s maybe one or two that aren’t in the longer one. But I’d never put together a chapbook manuscript, and had had this full-length form several years, so it certainly didn’t start out as a plan to write a mid-sized chapbook and then writing poems for it. It was totally a selection, but then again, you know, just doing that, even just selecting the poems, just selecting twenty instead of forty, is so illuminating for the writer, I think, the person who’s trying to structure a book. But no, no real agenda. It helped me see my obsessions better.
MY: They get distilled off, don’t they?
MY: Yeah. I guess in mine, The Making of Collateral Beauty, I saw all the poems as kind of, the new poems, as collateral, something from the first one that didn’t quite make it but actually weren’t, these were all new poems; these weren’t like the B-sides or something. They were things that were spurred on by the first book. So I started writing them, because I knew it was going to be a smaller manuscript encapsulated, but I started seeing ties that weren’t in the first book, so there’s lots of mentions about San Francisco where I lived after the first book was completely finished, and so I kept coming back to it in this book. That seemed to be a kind of running thread . . . San Francisco as a place, physically but also in the mind. You know once you leave a place, where the place occupies in your mind. I didn’t expect that, because I only lived in San Francisco for two years, and I have like a love/hate relationship with the place. And it really came out in ways in the chapbook. I have another book after this, I’m almost finished with, there’s nothing about San Francisco in it. So I felt like I really could push a sense of place which I did in my first book too, which is kind of interesting for me.
SW: Yeah, there’s a very cohesive feel to it. How about you Cecily?
CP: Yeah, I mean I think similarly to Mark, I became obsessed with place. My San Francisco is Wyoming; a lot of the poems in Cold Work are definitely Wyoming inspired. Again, a place I haven’t spent a whole lot of time in, but has definitely made itself part of me in some way, obviously in the poems.
MY: That’s a good title isn’t it? My Wyoming is San Francisco, or my San Francisco is my Wyoming. That’s what you said? I like that. I’m going to steal that.
CP: It’s yours. Putting together the chapbook manuscript, I was thinking about my strongest poems and knowing that I was very far away from a full-length book manuscript. And I found that these poems I was pulling, the ones I felt strongest about, seemed strongest to me, were all sort of revolving around this place, both real and imagined. My selection process was partly one of looking for my strongest work, but then the choices started making themselves, I think, as the manuscript grew.
SW: So is the chapbook turning into a full-length manuscript at this point?
CP: I have completed a full-length manuscript, and the latest version of that manuscript has nearly all the poems in the chapbook, not all, nearly all. And I think the grouping is slightly different. When you double the size of a manuscript I think the order changes, and my ideas about the poems themselves have changed with the writing of new poems.
SW: Yeah, I mean that was actually going to be my next question. You guys are so smart, you just keep anticipating me. But I was going to ask Dan also, is the arrangement of your full-length manuscript different?
DA: Quite, quite. As a matter of fact, when Cecily mentioned that, I was just reminded that in my latest revision of the full-length manuscript, the poem that leads the chapbook concludes the full length. It wasn’t by design, really, and I wasn’t really thinking about it. I stepped away and said, “Oh, that’s my lead off poem in the other.” And yet, I think it’s telling that that poem is not buried in the middle or something, that it is an ender, it maybe is some kind of, I don’t know, psychic endorsement of placement; it needs to be either the first or the last.
SW: I’m just curious with all of you, because it seems to me that it’s getting very hard to win a chapbook competition. I mean, more and more people are doing it. You know the stories with the full-length manuscripts about people who’ve submitted year after year after year.
DA: Hey, those people are rewarded. Spencer Reese, The Clerk’s Tale. Nineteen years I think it was.
SW: He is our poster boy for persistence. How many chapbook competitions did you all enter? Did you get lucky the first time?
MY: Well, this was pretty fresh, which is why I was really surprised. In fact, Jeffrey Levine called me at a certain point and he said, "Hi Mark, etc., etc." I didn’t know what he was calling for. He sent me an email; it never made it through. Then he told me I had won the contest.
The thing about the chapbook that I think is really nice is . . . We talked about encapsulated. We meant that as kind of metaphorically—the poems. But I also think as a fetish object, I really think the object is really interesting, and as a book. What I mean is, when I did compose these, and the placement of the first and last poem, and like the last lines of the last poem, the last two sentences, “One thousand times I set down my lines. One thousand times someone else picked them up.” And I really have the sense of a book, more so than with necessarily a big collection. A smart collection felt like a Lunch Poems, or you know, the little . . .City Lights did those small little books. And Cecily’s was really nice this way, you know, I mean, this thing, you just want to put it in your pocket.
CP: You want to make a dress out of it.
MY: It’s very much of a book, you know. That’s an element of the collections. It doesn’t always happen. Lots of times they have nice covers and things, but this one really felt bookish.
SW: It’s a really interesting idea.
DA: I’m very impressed by Tupelo’s presentation of flat, perfect bound, flat-spined chapbooks. Barbara Trans is like this too, I know and I’m sure all of them are; I just have not seen the others. But it’s so much like a full collection, but it’s so much more digestible.
MY: It really is.
DA: You can really take it all in.
MY: I had wanted them to do one more the size of Cecily’s book . . .
DA: Because it is pretty much, dimensions wise, it is pretty much like any other book in the Tupelo catalog. Like you said, you maybe wanted them to do it a little smaller.
MY: I did, but they said no – I guess it would cost more actually to get the press retro-fitted. But I’m happy it did come out like this because I can kind of play this off in various ways. As a chapbook it’s not very long, and yet I teach at Central Michigan University and I can go to my dean and be like, “Look, my second book.”
DA: Right, exactly.
MY: And it looks like my first book almost—a little shorter. So it’s been nice for me to play them off each other. But they did a very nice job. I like how they are pushing them as pretty much regular books.
SW: Tupelo did one interesting thing a couple of years ago with their chapbook. I think David Hernandez was the winner that year, and they liked what he had so much they asked him to put it into—their chapbook winner became a full-length book.
DA: I’m interested to follow up on your previous question. Mark said he won his first time. Cecily, did you submit to a number of these?
CP: This was my first time.
DA: See, this is so strange.
CP: And I must say, I had been on the fence about chapbooks in general.
DA: I had as well.
CP: I was unsure about them, but I had seen the Poetry Society of America chapbooks and had probably already fetishized them and the chapbook magic was working on me and that’s why I submitted, I think. But I got very lucky.
DA: And I did too. This was the first year of sending. I sent it to three different contests, but it was also like a first try kind of thing. And like Cecily, I was hesitant. It’s so funny, there’s no reason for this at all, but there’s this hierarchical thing, historically, about chapbooks. I have a friend who referred to them as “cheapbooks.” But they’re in so many ways richer than so many full length publishers’ books, so many of them are. And I think the chapbook is undergoing this revival or maybe “vival,” I don’t know, of interest and prestige. There’s a Sarabande chapbook series. I think there’s a session right now at AWP about the fact that Frank Bidart’s Muse Collector was nominated for the Pulitzer and then they have Charles Wright who won.
SW: And Louise Glück has won and James Tate has won.
DA: Yes, and so it’s increased the prestige. It kind of took away that fear of, “Am I going to hurt myself in some way by publishing a chapbook?” I don’t feel that at all anymore but I can remember having that worry: “Does this speak well for my work or not?”
CP: I think the revival of the chapbook or the “vival” seems to coincide also with the interest in the old letter presses that we’re seeing. A lot of the chapbooks I bought today have been made on old letter presses. And I think getting back to book arts and focus on fine letterpress printing that we’re seeing in a lot of poetry presses really coincides nicely with the chapbook and those two really complement each other.
SW: Yeah, the production values are really incredible on some of the chapbooks. Someone said they looked like a wedding invitation. That’s definitely the upside of the chapbook competitions. You’ve probably inspired a whole bunch of people to go out and enter chapbook contests now.
DA: I hope so. They deserve to be supported.
SW: Yeah, they do indeed. That’s kind of the other side of it is you hardly ever, unless it’s a Louise Glück or James Tate, you hardly ever see them on the shelves of, at least the chain bookstores. I’m just wondering, aside from talking to Blackbird about getting a review done, what steps do you all take, or does your publisher take, to make sure that the books get out there and get seen?
MY: What I think of right away is those sixty-pence books that Penguin does, They brought those back a few years ago, and they hadn’t them done for years, and they put them up by the cash register. I wish they’d do that with chapbooks, or a press would kind of do that, because everyone looked at those little books. They are small and you want to touch them. And the sixty-pence ones are famous, Mansfield or something, but I wish they’d do something like that. Tupelo has been good about treating this almost as a full-length collection. They publicize it in the same way, journals, and things, but I don’t know. Like Diagram has a chapbook contest, and they do a really nice job on that one, and they sell our pretty fast.
SW: Are you all doing readings? I mean, you have to go out, and beat the bushes yourself on these?
DA: I got a number of chapbooks, along with the award, as the prize, and I bought some more from the press and go around with my box of books, for, you know, giving readings. I gave a reading for The Poetry Society of South Carolina and sold a few books. You know, bringing them around, selling them out of the trunk of your car. For a writer that does not yet have out a first book, but has been giving readings, it’s nice that when you are received well, there’s something that those who are receiving you well can take away. So it’s very nice to have the advertisement for your work further in the form of the chapbook.
SW: What’s the experience been for you Cecily?
CP: The Poetry Society of America has taken really good care of me, I think. We gave a reading in December when the chapbooks came out, and all of the judges read with all the winners and introduced the winners and that was fabulous. And I think all the chapbooks that they had on offer that night sold out. So that was a great event, and I think the PSA does a fantastic job of getting the chapbooks out to reviewers and to PSA members, and at any PSA event in New York that I go to, I feel like the chapbooks are on sale. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do feel like they are ubiquitous. So I feel really fortunate because I don’t think I do a very good job of promoting myself, so they do a great job. They take care of me.
SW: Would you all do this again? Are you thinking about future chapbooks?
DA: Absolutely. My full length has gotten close. In couple of places, I’ve kind of got my fingers crossed that in the next couple of years it might be taken . . . and I feel like I have finally finished that collection, that it’s no more revision necessary. It should be published in its form now. So instead of thinking about working towards the next collection, I actually have thought about chapbook manuscript that I really want to do. Hopefully, after, you know, the first full length.
MY: I didn’t expect to kind of want to do another one, because this is kind of that one off the first book. But I find myself making another small, much more themed . . . And I’m pushing a certain idea, and it can only work for a chapbook because it would be like twenty=five pages. If it were seventy-five pages, it would just feel like overwrought. But I really like it, because it’s going to be very much, if I finish the thing, or it works out, very much an object again, and one of those things that was meant to be kind of carried around because it’s just one topic. I am hitting it from different angles. So, yeah, I didn’t expect to, but I am writing another one.
SW: And you?
CP: Yeah, I would, I would love to write another chapbook. But I do think that’s a ways off. I mean this chapbook is still pretty new to me, but like Mark, I think that for a future smaller project, the chapbook would be the ideal venue, so I just have to come up with that project.
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