Nazifa Islam

“I wrote the collection in the exact order it appears in, so the first poem is the oldest.”

niSearching for a Pulse (Whitepoint Press, 2013)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

I’ll admit that I read a lot more full-length collections than chapbooks, though I’m working on getting more familiar with shorter works. Among the chapbooks I’ve really enjoyed are Alphabets and Portraits and Tourmaline by Dorothea Lasky as well as No by Ocean Vuong.

What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?

I’m aiming for balance in my writing—for poetry that is both sharp and pointed in its use of language as well as graceful in how it expresses emotion. I want to write poems that are blunt but thoughtful in how they approach sorrow and fury and grief and joy.

What’s your chapbook about?

The collection focuses on Rosemary as she navigates a life defined by depression. The state of Rosemary’s life and the choices she makes are a result of the depressed lens she sees the world through. The people in her life—both imaginary and real—adhere to the same logic. The collection follows Rosemary’s interactions with the people she loves—who don’t always know how to love her—as well as her attempts to live her life with some semblance of joy. She doesn’t always (or often) succeed, but she tries.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

I wrote the collection in the exact order it appears in, so the first poem is the oldest. I remember sitting down and writing it in about five minutes. I didn’t really know where the collection was going to go from those opening lines, but I knew it was the beginning of something.

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan while I was writing the collection, and was fortunate enough to be in an independent study with Ken Mikolowski at the time. He saw the poems as they were finished and was really central to the revision process. He helped me tighten the language and hone the focus of each poem as well as make sure the collection felt like a cohesive whole. It was long enough ago now that I don’t exactly remember what my approach to revision was. I think it was probably similar to how I approach revision now, but with less perspective. I’m always looking for balance and a strong sense of internal logic in my work. Rosemary’s world is pretty surreal, but it does have its own rules.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

Searching for a Pulse is a story told non-linearly. The narrative aspect made arranging it simpler than it would have been if the poems weren’t so connected. I only realized I’d written it in the order I felt it should be presented when I finished the last poem and it was time to more consciously think about reorganizing. I could tell the narrative’s progression would be stilted and uneven if I tried to rearrange anything. For the title I have to give credit to Lisa De Niscia at Whitepoint Press. I had titled the collection She Wears Grey when Lisa suggested the much more dynamic Searching for a Pulse, which is pulled from a line in the poem “treasure hunting.”

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

Those decisions were left up to Lisa at Whitepoint Press, and she really delivered. I’m a big fan of the cover.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a series of found poems based on Virginia Woolf’s writing. I select a paragraph of text from a Woolf novel and only use the words from that paragraph to create a poem—I don’t allow myself to repeat words, add words, or edit the language for tense or any other consideration. I have over twenty of these found poems written and continue to work on the series. Other writing has been largely put on the back burner for now.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Read. Read often and broadly. That’s how you discover what you like in literature, what inspires you, what makes you pause and go “How did they do that?” It’s also how you learn to write. If you don’t read very much, I don’t see how you can hope to write particularly well.

What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?

While poems in a collection will of course build on one another and amplify one another, they should be able to stand on their own merits in one way or another. Don’t get so lost in the overall project that you don’t focus on making each individual poem shine.

What music do you listen to as you work and write?

I can’t write to music that has lyrics, but I will, on occasion, write while listening to film scores. I often turn to music composed by Dario Marianelli, Danny Elfman, Alexandre Desplat, Phillip Glass, and Howard Shore.

What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?

Elizbeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

We all have to make choices about who we read in our limited free time. Many of us have demanding jobs, a house to keep up, a family to keep happy, a dog to walk. How do you decide which poets (or other writers) you want to read or should read, and how do you begin to understand what your own work might offer to benefit the literary landscape in the context of what else has been done?

I read by author a lot. If I enjoy an author’s work, I’ll generally comb through their other books because I want more of their voice and style. I also read a lot of older books. If a book’s been around for over fifty years and people are still reading it, there’s probably a reason. I’m always up for a book recommendation. You’re very rarely wasting time when you read a book someone else has enjoyed. I think of my own writing as fitting in with other groups of authors. We maybe write about similar subject matter or share stylistic impulses. I don’t know that I think about myself fitting into the larger literary landscape so much as into small specific niches here and there.

Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?

Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats, Dorothea Lasky, Anne Sexton, Mary Syzbist, Tennyson, Rilke, Matthew Dickman, Dorothy Parker

Why the chapbook? What made it the right format for your work?

The story I had to tell was exactly forty poems long. It couldn’t be any other length.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

I’m also a painter. I find it really satisfying to create a physical piece of art that doesn’t at all rely on the intricacies of language. Having to depend on basically color alone is a nice break from writing, and it definitely stretches different creative muscles. It’s also great to be able to pick up a painting and hold it in your hands. Even holding a published book of poems doesn’t recreate that same feeling; words are ephemeral in a way paint and canvas are not.

How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?

I’ve become a bit obsessed with the found poem lately. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I’ve almost lost any sense of ease with the broad spectrum of language—I’ve been leaning on the limitations of found poems for so long now. At the same time, I think the poems I’m writing now are among the most honest that I’ve ever written. I’ve always relied on other writers for inspiration, and with my current found poetry project I’ve taken that reliance to another level.

What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?

It’s a grey world. It’s not a joyful world. It’s a small, narrow, grey world that will be familiar to anyone who’s dealt with depression or watched someone deal with depression. Searching for a Pulse is a bit claustrophobic in its scope, but it dives into the intricacies of the space that it inhabits.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?

I wrote the final poem in the collection, “the room is paneled in black and white tile,” and knew the story was complete. I’d been searching for an ending. I’d been building a conclusion for a few weeks and knew I needed an actual final poem. I remember walking across the Diag in Ann Arbor one evening when the final sentence of “the room is paneled in black and white tile” came into my head. I immediately knew it was the ending for the collection. It brought everything full circle.

What themes and images “bridge” your work? Have you found that composing a chapbook alleviates these inclinations, or amplifies them?

I write a lot about grief and sorrow and loneliness and memory—how those things are interconnected in strange ways. Finishing Searching for a Pulse felt like the end of one chapter about these themes. There are still plenty more to be written though. I’m still writing about these ideas, just in very different poems.

What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?

I read a lot of fiction. I read more fiction than poetry. I know that all types of writing feed into my creation process—not just poems. I’m drawn more to specific themes than genres or mediums when it comes to what I enjoy reading or what I seek out for inspiration.

Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?

The inspiration for the whole collection came from the Interpol song “Evil.” The first line of the song is “Rosemary, heaven restores you in life.” I heard that song one December morning and the first poem in the collection—“he had a peg leg too”—just popped into my head. I then wrote 41 other poems over the course of the next two months. Thirty-nine of those ended up in the collection.

Who do you most hope will read your chapbook (either an individual or a particular group of people)?

Searching for a Pulse is dedicated to “every Sylvia” because I think the collection might strike a chord with Plath fans. I think anyone interested in reading about the experience of mental illness might find something to appreciate in the collection.


Nazifa Islam grew up in Novi, Michigan. Her poetry and paintings have appeared in Anomalous Press, Flashquake, The Fat City Review, and The Harpoon Review, among other publications, and her debut poetry collection Searching for a Pulse (2013) was released by Whitepoint Press. She earned her MFA at Oregon State University. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @nafoopal.


withdrawal is coming

Rosemary’s hands are shaking.
She has beautiful eyes but if you
saw how her hands are shaking
you wouldn’t be envious. She
hasn’t slept in days. That’s what
she told Alice and for once it’s
almost true. She’s had dreams
that are more than dreams for
over a week now and she’s
swallowed pill after small blue
pill for over a week now—first
to try and sleep and then to try
and forget she’s not sleeping.
Nothing has worked as it was
intended though and so her
hands are now shaking. Even if
she could pry the top off the pill
bottle she knows that it’s empty
and that scares her more than
the fact that her fucking hands
won’t stop shaking.

David Hadbawnik

“we’re all links in a chain of other writers….”


The Aeneid [from books 1 & 2] (Textile Series, 2013)

The Aeneid [from book 3] (Textile Series, 2014)

The Aeneid [from book 4] (Textile Series, 2014)

Thank you so much for the opportunity to ask you questions about your work. It is a beautiful thing that you create poems in English that sound casual, and yet still retain the sound of the Latin. I have taken Latin courses both in high school and college, and have translated portions of Vergil’s Aeneid, so I thoroughly enjoyed reading your translations and notes from the text in poetry form.

Thank you for these kind words, and thank you for taking the time to formulate such insightful questions. I appreciate the interest!

In an interview with Kent Johnson about your first chapbook, from Books 1 & 2, you say: “But I am trying to have fun with Virgil and think through some of the really complex issues with narrative and power and image that the poem raises.”

 Is there a place you can note in your chapbooks that you had the most enjoyment creating a poetic form, a place where you found that the poetry flowed more easily than others? 

I think, certainly, somewhere in the middle of Book 2 I stopped focusing so closely on replicating the Latin word-for-word and started looking for a way to make things more fun for me and hopefully the reader as well. There was something freeing about tapping into a voice, the voice of Aeneas telling the story of the fall of Troy to Dido, and the further I got with it, the more risks I was willing to take. There’s a rhythm and drive to the narrative as Aeneas describes the chaotic scene in Troy, and then (I felt) a feeling of space and time in Book 3 as he describes the various “false starts” – moments when the crew sets out on the sea and finds another shore and tries to build another new Troy, only to fail and set out again. If I had to point to one passage it would be Book 3, section 2, titled Mutandae sedes:
________soft southerly winds

Doric seas

________Apollo’s island





_____interprets again—

There the poetry gets pretty telegraphic, there’s a lot omitted, trimmed back, I wanted to give a sense of movement and space, almost like a montage. It was the first time I really felt that I was doing something different, translation-wise….

Did you solely look at the text of the Aeneid or were you also influenced by outside sources?

I was strongly influenced by Thomas Meyer’s Beowulf, which I edited for punctum books in 2012, and the world of translation that Meyer’s work opened up for me. Translating not only the words but the form of the poem became an obsession and guiding principle: how might we think about constructing an epic poem in today’s world, in which readers have totally different expectations than Romans, not to mention different ways of experiencing a text? So – following modernist and post-modernist approaches to long-form verse, I tried to think in terms of things like negative space, the visual arrangement of the words, subtext and intertextuality, ways of seeing and reading, and so on. I didn’t keep any other books in front of me while I was writing, but I would allow the translation to be pulled in various directions based on what I was reading at the time (or had read and absorbed): long-form poems by H.D., Pound, Anne Carson, Ed Dorn, Basil Bunting, Meyer, and others.

You end Book 2 with a note about the morning star rising, dragging day behind it. There are so many nuances and interesting moments that follow the Latin idea closely, and then here, you add a word to the familiar image like “dragging,” and the image of the light and the dawn becomes that much more intriguing. Did moments such as this one kind of just happen or were they more intentional? 

Well, there are so many beautiful, poignant, delicately constructed moments in the poem, and one of the revelatory things to me in working on the translation day in and day out was Virgil’s sense of pacing. Nothing ever feels rushed and nothing ever feels like it’s moving too slowly. And here we get a perfect image of dawn breaking just as the defeated Trojans are leaving the city. So in part I wanted to find a way to capture the feel of that moment, the sense of weariness and defeat, and in part there was a real test of invention in the fact that Virgil has so many different ways of describing dawn, sunset, and moonlight, most of them having to do with metaphors and personification based on mythology (though not really in this passage). I was constantly trying to find ways of hinting at this kind of personified agency in planets and stars and weather, so that readers could get the feel of that without having to unpack the myths.

I found your portion of poetry on page 21 intriguing. You end it with the three elements Aeneas holds dear: “your wife   children   house hold gods RUN.” In your first chapbook of poems, you use RUN, and then you move to including more words in ALL CAPS in the second chapbook. You seem to be more comfortable with taking poetic “risks” in this second chapbook and also in your third. Can you speak to this?

I did grow more comfortable deviating from the Latin the further along I got, as you rightly notice. And, teasing out a thread that I perceived in Virgil, I felt that Aeneas, in retelling the story of the fall of Troy, is invested in showing the extent to which his life was in danger, how often he was warned to flee – fuge – leave – get out – RUN – by various figures, the first of whom is this dream vision of Hector. And how despite that he stuck around (supposedly) until the bitter end. I like the way on that page in particular (21 in the chapbook) the word RUN becomes a sort of anchor for the eye, progressively further down and to the right on the page, and throughout Book 2 it becomes a motif, which even carries over to Book 3; you have to imagine the rhetorical situation of Aeneas recounting all this to Dido, being dramatic, emphasizing the danger and his bravery in the face of that when everyone’s telling him, “RUN.”

How did you give the translations your voice? Was it in small moments and words like this, or did it come through a particular structure you gave each chapbook?


It just came through gradually. I’d been writing poetry for a long time and as I worked further and deeper into the poem, I grew more confident, less tied to the Latin, things started to flow and it felt like a collaboration between my own voice and the voice of Virgil’s poem. Each book has a distinctive feel – that’s especially true, I think, in books 1-6 – and I tried to find a form that would fit that, give the shape and thrust of the verse in the best light. In some later sections (not in the chapbook) I even included some prose-like blocks where I felt the language was particularly concentrated, everything jammed together with little or no punctuation. My guiding principle was to first, introduce some visual variety to the shape of the poem to give a modern reader something less static on the page, and second, to keep things moving. To me, the Aeneid is a page-turner; even though we know that Aeneas is not going to die on his journeys and he’s not going to fail in founding Rome, the amazing thing is that Virgil manages the impossible trick of building suspense into the narrative, and so it was important to me to be true to that feeling of suspense and speed of story.

How did you choose when to include Latin?

I was looking for little phrases that would best capture the sequence in question. The decision to separate each book into numbered sections was for my own and the reader’s sake; it helped me keep track of discrete bits of the narrative and (I hope) offers the sense of chapters within each book. At some point I began underlining passages that jumped out at me, turns of phrase that seemed appropriate for those chapter headings. So the first one, aequora tuta silent, reflects the (somewhat ironic) sense of safety and calm Aeneas and his men experience upon reaching the Libyan shore at the beginning of the poem. The next, O dea certe, is Aeneas rightly recognizing the disguised Venus as a goddess without recognizing her as his mother — it’s also a line that Spenser uses as a “motto” in The Shepheardes Calender, so it was meaningful to me in that way as well. And so on.

Was there ever a point in the process of creating these three chapbooks where you felt stuck? Or you lost interest in the overall project?

All the time. A lot of the work was done during my graduate studies at SUNY-Buffalo from 2012-2015 or so. I was working on my dissertation, on poetic diction in medieval-early modern poetry, at the same time, and constantly feeling the guilt (of not working) and frustration (of not being able to work) on that project as time went by. In some ways the translation was a distraction from that, in other ways a welcome relief. Then I would get discouraged just thinking about how much actual work there was to do on the poem ­— ars longa vita brevis, as they say — like, sitting at the beginning of Book 2 and realizing there were 700-something lines to go. How would I ever get there? I came up with an ambitious plan to do 50 or a hundred lines at a whack, but that quickly became too much for me. So instead I eventually got comfortable with the idea of translating 15-20 lines a day, which I could do in about half an hour, making sure that I got the sense of the Latin down accurately and satisfying any confusion I might have about this or that line. At that steady pace I could translate one whole book every six weeks or so. Then a different problem emerged: Would I be able to get back into the groove of working this into poetry? Since I generally waited until I had a whole book translated before writing what I’d consider the poetry, there might be a couple months or more between the actual creative process of this or that book. Sometimes I was not happy at all with the result, but I got into a rhythm and gained confidence as I went along.

What is your hope for someone who reads your work?

I want them to have fun, enjoy the poetry and the story and the images, and hopefully look into Virgil – ideally in the Latin.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing but also humanities and Latin? What are your thoughts on the relationship between literature like the Aeneid and writing poetry?

Well, I think everyone should study languages and try their hand at translating. I don’t think it’s emphasized nearly enough in graduate creative writing programs – no one mentioned it as “real” creative work during my MFA, and even at the PhD level I had to do a lot of extracurricular studying to make it happen. I learned so much from engaging with the Aeneid, and in many ways I now consider it my life’s work, above and beyond whatever other creative projects I might pursue. In reading Paul Strohm’s recent, wonderful biography of Geoffrey Chaucer (Chaucer’s Tale), I was struck by his characterization of Chaucer’s relationship to fame. “Chaucer never actually calls himself an author,” Strohm writes, “nor would he.” Instead, Chaucer refers to himself as a “lewd compilator” – a compiler of others’ works. There’s a bit of the medieval modesty trope in that, but also something I find instructive: we’re all links in a chain of other writers, and that’s true whether we engage with the living (in “networks”) or dead (“tradition”). Something freeing, too; the amazing variety and play of a writer like Chaucer is something we can perhaps tap into once we let go of the baggage that comes with “authorship” and work in less obviously “creative” ways.

What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?

I would say read a lot of chapbooks, look at the history of chapbooks from the golden age of print documents during the twentieth century and the various important presses, go visit an archive like the one at Buffalo, see what’s been done and what’s possible. And make chapbooks yourself. Learn how to run a letterpress machine and mix ink and set type, and make chapbooks for yourself and your circle of poets, because it’s money better spent than entering contests and waiting months and sometimes years to get a response. Then, if you still want to find a press to publish your chapbook, obviously you’ll want to read everything else that press has produced and get to know their ethos and make sure it jibes with your own. I was a big fan of Little Red Leaves – C.J. Martin and Julia Drescher were in San Marcos when I was studying at Texas State – and the Textile Series in particular; Dawn Pendergast does such lovely, and loving, work.

What are you working on now? Are you hoping to publish more chapbooks of this sort? 

I finished books 1-6 and, though some of my friends really loved the form the project was taking in the sequence of chapbooks, with the beautiful textile covers with screen-print images and stitching, I wanted to gather all the material together in one place, and Shearsman published all of books 1-6 in 2015.

Now that I am working on book 7, I’m not sure what shape further books will take in terms of publication, though two sections have been published recently in and seedings and Blackbox Manifold.

Lately I’ve been working through Norton’s Anthology of Poetry as part of a class I taught on poetics, and in doing so I began writing “versions” of some of the more famous poems in the anthology, which I’ve largely posted on my blog as what I call “Palimpsest poems,” though there are getting to be enough for a chapbook, so you never know.

Once again, I thank you for taking the time and effort to engage with my work.

Lisa Couturier

“all the while you are living in language that is entirely yours, you escape to it, it shapes you….”

Animals Bodies

Animals / Bodies (Finishing Line Press, 2014)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

My favorite collection of poems is Snow on a Crocus by Joan Swift. It’s not officially a chapbook, but at 23 pages it “feels” like one. I read it over and over and every time it punches me in the gut. There are too many to say… but another two are Of a Feather by Janine DeBaise and Where the Meadowlark Sings by Ellaraine Lockie.

What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?

I am drawn to chapbooks that offer entrance into a certain heart and soul. If they speak to me, I return to them for inspiration and “writerly friendship.”

What’s your chapbook about?

I wanted Animals / Bodies  to speak about shared experiences between the human and nonhuman—our shared struggles and joys, if you will. I am loyal to empathy and compassion… and feel most called to “justice” for the voiceless.  I do not think the nonhuman is “voiceless”—but since the culture at large often does, I hope to work as a messenger, of sorts, I suppose.  It can be tricky ground—the territory of what I think of as “valid” anthropomorphism that can inspire empathy and compassion. Still, there has to be a tension in the poem.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it? 

The oldest poem in my chapbook is “On Missing a Sun Bear,” which appeared in the anthology, GRRRR, Poems about Bears.  It is about a sun bear I saw in the rainforest of Borneo; everything in the poem is exactly as it happened in the rainforest. Only after it was published did I learn how rare it was to see a wild sun bear and, at the same time, learn that they are captured for bear bile farms in Asia, even though they are threatened by poaching and are a CITES species, which prohibits trade in their bodies and body parts. My poem does not enter the political, but I think it was at this time, after it was published and I saw the chance I’d lost to say something more, that I realized the power of poetry.

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook.  Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

I’m not sure I envisioned a process. I just wrote what spoke to me, what seemed to bubble to the top from the ocean inside. I tend to work in waves. Something grabs me and I work relentlessly on it. Then days of nothing. Or weeks of just little edits… until I am called back. I try to work every day, whether reading, fussing with various projects at once… but there is always one “real” project I’m tending, bringing along, so to speak. It’s almost as if that one project comes to life and then it needs a rest, or it works on me in my mind when I’m not actively working on it, if that makes sense. It’s almost as if once it’s come to life, it speaks through my body and says, go back and make this change, add this, delete this…. Often I have to scribble it down or put it in my “notes” app on the phone… or else I forget it. This is the worst, because it’s often when I’m not “trying” to do something that the work I like most “appears.”

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook? 

The arrangement: I had help from a poet friend who’s published several chapbooks. I have to say, I still don’t feel like I “know” how to order poems. Instead, I sense it. It seems intuitive in some respect.  For example, when I thought I had put together the final ordering/ organizing of Animals / Bodies, I realized I wanted a few more poems. So I slid them in where they seemed to fit.  I guess it worked.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

My super talented daughters helped me, as did a friend who’s a graphic designer. My older daughter, Fossey Mettam, is a photographer. She imagined the cover image and took the photograph of me sitting in the field with my horse, Tully.  Then my younger daughter, Lucienne Mettam, who’s an artist and a singer, drew the reflective image of the photo. The idea being the human and nonhuman reflected in each other’s lives. Then our friend, Stephanie Potter, did the exacting work with lining up the reflection, the tones of the drawing and the photo. My husband, Kirk Mettam, had the brilliant last minute idea of having the title “reflective” as well, in the sense that the word “Bodies” is upside down, under “Animals.”

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?

What are you working on now? Now I am working on a memoir. It’s been a long time in the making. My collection of essays, The Hopes of Snakes, was published by Beacon Press and I thought I would write another collection of essays… but it’s not turning out that way. Even though people said The Hopes of Snakes had/has a lyrical, poetic quality to it, I think my chapbook changed me, if you will. I’m drawn to the merging of poetry and essays, the vignettes, the scenes, the white space, the poetic memoir, or lyric(al) essay, or what have you. I’m interested in how memory works on the work, so to speak. Neither the mind or the universe exist in a linear place/ space and I try to work with that as a “frame”… in that I see the poem/ essay/ writing inside this frame/ idea of the world as a “being”… it gives me a visual of “a somewhere” where the work can be contained but is limitless as well, if that makes sense.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

I think the question I am most asked by students is: how do you determine your audience?  I used to feel bad about saying what I’m about to say, since I was trained as a journalist and was taught repeatedly to think about an audience. But no longer do I think of an audience.  If I think of an audience, it automatically brings to mind the feeling of “being observed, judged, questioned.” I’m not good at any of that. I prefer isolation.

I guess the best example of my advice is this: I wrote an essay called “Dark Horse.” I wrote it over a six-month period of time. It was 10,000 words long. It is about the brutal, dark and greedy world of horse traders, horse racing, horse auctions, horse-slaughter. I wrote it because I met a woman who rescued horses from auction and she took me to the auction one day. The next morning I began “Dark Horse”  —with nothing in mind but to expose the world I’d just come from. I had no audience, no editor, no magazine in mind. I just wrote (and researched and interviewed) on my own time with no money, no assignment, no guarantee of anything. Just the hope that I could bear witness to what I saw.

Long story short: the piece was sold to Orion magazine and went on to win a Pushcart Prize in 2012.  All that. No audience in mind. Big audience now.

What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors? 

Write what you love to write about. Be fearless. Say what you want and then go back and polish, polish, polish. I love to edit. It’s my favorite part. It’s where all the beauty is.  It’s your mind and heart at their strongest and sharpest. There are always many many drafts of everything. And I don’t mean five or ten.  I mean 20 or 30 or 40… it can seem endless but all the while you are living in language that is entirely yours, you escape to it, it shapes you, it assists you in your calling—writing is your worthy opponent.


Lisa Couturier’s chapbook Animals / Bodies is the 2015 winner of the New England Poetry Club’s Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award. She is a Pushcart Prize winner for her essay “Dark Horse” and a notable essayist in Best American Essays 2004, 2006, and 2011.

“Never More Than a Cedar Waxwing”



Aaron Brown

“Journeying back through memory was a way of getting rid of the chaff, finding the pure grain at the core.”

winnower brown

Winnower (Wipf & Stock, 2013)

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

I started to see connections between a lot of poems I was writing at the time—poems about memory, about growing up in Chad and the connections I still felt with the places of my past. It was an obsession like you call it, an obsession with memory, that wasn’t letting me go, wouldn’t let me go until I brought all these poems into a book. I realized that I had a responsibility to speak to what I had seen—I still do—and I was haunted by this line that appears in the poem “Invocation” which opens the collection: “I must wander this road through a land / not fully mine but more of me than anywhere else.” Some days, I’m scared that I wrote that, as if fate were writing itself. I don’t know what to do with a line like that. Writing this chapbook was a bit like wandering around but wandering through uncharted territory where the stakes are raised.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

I knew as I started to shape the collection that the poems would be divided into two parts. The first section would deal with direct experiences, not just poems as remembered things but poems as acts of remembering. These poems were a kind of retelling of experiences I had seen firsthand or had experienced through the eyes of close friends—the morning I woke up in a nomad encampment that I was visiting for a wedding, or the more serious instances when war struck close to heart: when neighborhood streets were demolished by tanks, friends interrogated, when people I had met disappeared and were rumored to have joined the rebels on the eastern front.

The second section of poems is a journey away from home, an effort to find a new home in the wake of war, navigating distance yet finding resonance everywhere: in the bustling streets of Chicago, the quiet churches of Paris, and a dream-like experience I had in suburban Maryland. These poems were writing Chad in them too—even though I wasn’t realizing it and even though the connections might be harder to find. They’re there though.

Regarding the title, I knew this collection would be a kind of winnowing, an ancient image I’ve found so generative, so as soon as I landed on Winnower, the title stuck. Journeying back through memory was a way of getting rid of the chaff, finding the pure grain at the core.

Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?

Because the chapbook is so consolidated, because the narrative arc is so much more condensed, I realized that poems would have to get as close as they could to the actual experiences they were telling. I realized that these would be poems of immediacy with just the beginnings of the disorientation I have felt for a long time and from which I write.

 What are you working on now?

I have a full-length collection, Acacia Road, that I’ve been working on for some time and have started to send out. There’s a lot more distance in this collection than there was in Winnower, and I’ve been challenged as much as I’ve enjoyed writing these newer poems.

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

My first encounter with the chapbook form was with Jamaal May’s two chapbooks, The God Engine and The Whetting of Teeth (Organic Weapon Arts). This was right when May’s career was launching off, and I realized the possibilities of the chapbook form. It was like these two little books were a hot iron that relentlessly pressed against my skin for twenty, thirty pages—such was their rawness and power.

I also see as another huge influence my late mentor and professor, Brett Foster, and his chapbook Fall Run Road, which won Finishing Line Press’s Open Chapbook Competition. There are poems of real elegance in here, married with his trademark insatiable curiosity and wit. I was an undergrad at the time he was publishing it, and he let me “proof” it—though what kind of help I could provide to his great work at the time was next to nothing. I felt as if I was handling something sacred. It’s a wonderful collection.

How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?

I think more than anything, I’ve learned to let go—to realize that not every poem is going to be a great poem. I had a professor once who said that some days you’ll write decent poems on Wednesdays, on Saturdays, but there will always be poems you write on Mondays. That is completely true. So with that in mind, I think I’ve been learning the power of consistency and momentum in the writing life. Get the wheels turning and keep them turning. There’s always something to do—whether that’s to write or revise or brainstorm.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Don’t stop reading, and make sure to be a part of a healthy writing community (which may mean that you need to start one). Read as many literary journals and new poetry collections as you can find. Go to conferences. Attend readings. And don’t be afraid to start sending things out (but don’t get consumed by it). Get a job to afford all of this.

What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?

I wish I had been told to take things steadily: one poem at a time, a publication here and there, and not to feel the weight of wanting to be great, whatever that means. If you rush the writing of poetry, or any writing for that matter, when your head is full of a lot of high-minded nonsense, you’ll wind up with just plain bad poetry. I’ve been realizing slowly how sacred our art is, how so often the poet stands in the way of the poem, and how some sort of self-effacement needs to occur to let the real poem emerge.


Aaron Brown’s prose and poetry have been published in World Literature Today, Transition, Tupelo Quarterly, Portland Review, Ruminate, and Cimarron Review, among others. He is the author of Winnower (Wipf & Stock, 2013) and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. An MFA graduate from the University of Maryland, Aaron grew up in Chad and now lives with his wife Melinda in Sterling, Kansas, where he is an assistant professor of writing at Sterling College.

two poems

three poems

Marjorie Maddox

“I’m particularly intrigued by the intersection of words and belief and how books mark and mirror our lives.”

new Maddox

True, False, None of the Above (Cascade Books, Poiema Poetry Series, 2016)

Could you share with us a poem that introduces the work of the book, or one that invites the reader into the world of the book?

This is a book on what it means to write, read, and teach literature in a world that—at turns—rejects, embraces, or shrugs indifferently at the spiritual. And I think the book addresses this in stages, beginning with the opening poem that simply grapples with defining “education.”


On Defining Education_____

_____“Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond;
_____cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.”
________________________________________-Mark Twain

Isn’t the seed better,
its tough, hard case
beneath the juice?
Flesh? Just so much puffing up,
skin gone soft with too much rouge.
Better to be tossed out than consumed,
lusted after by the colon.

Or what of that lower-class cabbage
shredded to bits, thrown haphazardly in soups?
Whole, she’s the Cinderella that steals the show
for the truly hungry.

Nobody likes cauliflower
cowering on fine china,
the ugly sister decorated
with a sterling ladle’s worth of cheese.

Please, feel free to confront.
I’m not talking about who you should be
but are. Let’s start with the essence of seed
and see what sprouts from there.


Of course, the book embraces not only the process of teaching, but—more importantly—reading and writing as a path of discovery, a way of learning more about ourselves and the world, a way to confront the reality of our day-to-day struggles and joys. What does this story I’m reading have to do with who I am today? With who you are? What does this poem have to do with how we all interact? With what is happening in the news? Literature encourages us to look more closely and see more clearly ourselves and those like and not like us; to rediscover each day the world around us and the world to come. I like to think of these as “everyday epiphanies.”

What obsessions led you to write your book?

I realized that I’ve been writing for decades about the stories, poems, plays, essays, and films that have so impacted my life and the lives of my students. (In fact, I’ve now been teaching for over twenty-five years at the same state university and just recently taught the daughter of one of my early students. Whoa!) I’m particularly intrigued by the intersection of words and belief and how books mark and mirror our lives.

Can you name one poem that captures the essence of the book or has a meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

Because I live in Central Pennsylvania, fracking and the gas industry make headlines often. The 19th-century environmental issues in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur” speak to my students’ Central Pennsylvania reality. When we look together at the problem/ solution structure of this Italian sonnet — where industry sears the earth — we also see local controversies and the desire for something more. In the following poem, I try to capture this yearning for renewal and epiphany. I’ve written more about that here.


And the Topic for Today is Environmentalism. . . .
________________________Teaching “God’s Grandeur”

More politically correct than divine grandeur,
it too flames out in this small Pennsylvania town
where fracking hijacks the headlines. Good reason
and good enough to bring the state students trodding
heavily into a poem piled high with God and earth,
with “responsibilities” they hear each morning
as the gas industry trucks rattle past our windows,
their tired drivers knowing nothing
of iambic pentameter or sestets but much
about food on the table, a steady job.

The freshmen, eager now,
blurt out dilemma, paradox, instress
and all those other new-sounding ideas
suddenly connected to their lives,
their parents, the sonnet
they think was written last week,
even with its 19th century,
sound-packed syllables they don’t get
until slowing down, thinking.

And so—after playing with light, foil, sound;
the way trade “sears,” “blears,” and “smears”;
and how and why shoes separate us from ground—
we detour to Genesis, Cat Stevens, and a heavy metal rendition
that almost drowns out Hopkins with bass.
All this before rounding the terrain-raked bend
to solution, which is what—they are surprised to discover—
we all most want: the eloquent octet, the bright wings,
the ah! that opens the mind to talk,
at long last, about the holy.


How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?

Though sometimes challenging, I actually love the process of spreading all the poems out on the floor and deciding which poem goes where and how the ending of one will best lead into the themes of the one that follows. It’s a giant puzzle, but it’s a thrill when everything comes together and the pieces resonate.

The title emphasizes that teaching—and life, of course!—are not easily categorized into multiple-choice questions and answers. It’s the process of discovery that’s essential.

More specifically, the title stems from the second poem in the collection about a quiz in Time magazine that I essentially flunked.


How Spiritual Are You?

____________Time magazine quiz, 10/25/04

Tallying twenty True or False
answers to wishy-washy visions, I’m translated
from a poet of faith into
“a practical empiricist lacking self transcendence”
according to a noted psychologist
touted as today’s expert.
I don’t like flunking and try again.
Any room for fudging? To insert faith? Even a seed of the spiritual?
________“extrasensory perception”?
________“completely unaware of things going on around me”?
________“I love the blooming of flowers . . . as much as seeing an old friend”?
Though I scan and re-scan, all I can check with confidence
is the final slot—the quizmaster’s definition of extreme?—
“I believe miracles happen.”
A half-dozen more statements I rationalize as “sometimes,”
insulted by society’s synonyms of “spiritual” and “spacey.”
As a poet, I should be used to this
but gain no points from that either.
A sidebar promises to explain a “God gene”
inherent in some of us—a cultural twist on predestination
that leaves me unable to select the first square:
________“I often feel so connected to the people around me
________that it is like there is no separation between us.”
Where is the “stranger in a strange land” line?
Where is the question, “Do you believe
in one God, the Father Almighty…?”


What were the final poems you wrote and how did those affect your sense that the book was complete?

I forget which famous poet said this, but when writing a collection of poetry, the book itself is the final poem. There came a point in putting this book together where I stopped thinking of a group of individual poems and instead focused on that “final” poem, which is the entire book. Thus, in revision, I felt I needed a few transitional pieces that would best bridge themes from one work to another. At the time, I was teaching Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and I remember writing and adding a poem on this that helped link other poems.

I also realized, after putting the entire collection together, that a number of my earlier poems (which I had not yet gathered into a book) suddenly fit very well in this collection. For example, interspersed with poems that respond to specific texts are poems on connected themes: living in an unsafe world, struggles of faith and doubt, my mother’s move to an assisted living facility, my father-in-law’s stroke, raising teens, natural disasters and how they affect our lives, aging, and so on—all issues that obviously also appear in literature. (I am still finding a few earlier poems that I wish I had included. One is “The Night I Hitchhiked Past Walt Whitman.” I wrote it in my twenties and forgot about it, but its humor would have fit very well in True, False, None of the Above. Ah, well.)

There also were poems that I liked but that no longer added to this “final poem that is the book.” And so I took those out.

Did you read straight through your book out loud during the revision process or while finalizing revisions? If so, how was your experience of the poems different? How were your ideas about their individual meanings changed?

Yes. Revising is a long process for me, and in revising a book, I always go back and start reading from the beginning. I also am a very aural poet; the way the poem sounds aloud is particularly important to me, and I revise with that in mind. In reading out loud, I got a better sense if poems were too similar sound-wise and if I needed either to remove a poem or reconsider its placement. The same is true for the numerous humorous poems in True, False, None of the Above. Reading these aloud helped me decide on placement (and, I admit, not take myself too seriously).

Looking at individual poems in context of the entire book does affect the revision process. The poems need to be able both to stand alone and to work with the others. I confess that in rereading this way, I did come across one poem and suddenly thought, “I have no idea what I was thinking when I wrote this one.” And so out went that poem as well!

Describe your writing practice or process for your book. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?

For this particular book, the starting point for many pieces was a quote from literature that became the poem’s epigraph. Here are some examples:

“I like to play euchre. He likes to play Eucharist.”-Robert Frost on T.S. Eliot

“Then she had gone and had the beautiful name, Joy, changed. . . . .” –“Good Country People,” Flannery O’Connor

“I never dared be radical when young for fear it would make me conservative when old.”  -Robert Frost

“…the tempest in my mind doth from my senses take all feeling else save what beats there.”-King Lear, William Shakespeare

“One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”-Hamlet, William Shakespeare

“Memory takes a lot of poetic license.”-The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams

“For there was never yet philosopher/ That could endure the toothache patiently. . . .” –Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare

But there also are poems without an epigraph that respond to Gwendolyn Brooks, John Updike, Lucille Clifton, Virginia Woolf, and many, many others.

What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your book been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?

True, False, None of the Above is my tenth collection of poetry and the first time that I have worked with an editor who took the time to go through the book poem by poem and line by line. What an interesting and very helpful experience this was. D. S. Martin, the series editor, is an insightful reader, and his suggestions indeed made the book stronger.

I also love working with the designers at Wipf and Stock (the parent company). Mike Surber took my idea of a broken pencil and ran with it. The cover speaks perfectly to the tensions within the poems, and the backdrop of ethereal clouds and a school-like grid underscores important themes and questions in the collection. I couldn’t have asked for a better cover for this particular book.

Could you describe the chapbooks you’ve written in chronological order?

One of my mentors at Cornell, Robert Morgan, once told me that the chapbook is his favorite form. I can see why he said this. The chapbook really allows you to focus on a tight series of poems. Most of my chapbooks were written—from day one—as a series. Let me explain.

My first chapbook, Nightrider to Edinburgh (Amelia Chapbook Award) chronicles riding the night train to Edinburgh, then experiencing the city from sunrise until midnight.

How to Fit God into a Poem (1993 Painted Bride Chapbook Winner), which also won Cornell’s Chasen Award for a series, playfully examines both the humanity and divinity of Christ. Thus, the series contains such poems as “God Trick-or-Treating,” “God on a Tightrope,” and “God and Hide-and-Seek.” Some of these poems later appeared in my full-length collection Weeknights at the Cathedral (WordTech, 2006).

Ecclesia (Franciscan University Press, 1997) was written as a poetic response to an Anglican theological exam my husband was taking when he briefly attended seminary. During a reading, I sometimes dare the students to write a poetic response to their own school exams. Try it and see what happens!

In 1993, my father died after an unsuccessful heart transplant. I focused on this in my full-length collection Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (2004 Yellowglen Prize). First, however, I wrote the series (and chapbook) Body Parts (Anamnesis Press, 1999). For an entire summer after my father’s death, I carried around Grey’s Anatomy and wrote about kidneys, spleens, livers, toes, and—yes—hearts. I was amazed at how metaphorical this medical text is, and as I explored with new insight the various organs and parts of the body, the intersection of body and soul became even more central to my writing.

When The Wood Clacks Out Your Name: Baseball Poems (2001 Redgreene Press Chapbook Winner) also was written as a poetic series, this one on various aspects of baseball. I am the great-grandniece of Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who helped break the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson. I also live in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home of the Little League World Series. When my husband and I were first married, we lived in a duplex that overlooked a ball field, and so I would sit in the backyard, watch the game, and write poems about baseball. I expanded this chapbook later for the children’s book Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems (Word Song, 2009).

Finally, I’m excited to say that my newest chapbook, Wives’ Tales, is forthcoming this fall from Seven Kitchens Press. The first section, “The Tales,” responds to various fairy tales; the second section, “The Wives,” is told from the point of view of the wives of famous men named Peter. Interestingly enough, I originally included these poems in my first full-length book, Perpendicular As I (1994 Sandstone Book Award), but decided to leave them out for the sake of the book’s overall themes. Here they are—finally—in their own separate collection.

What are you working on now?

In addition to writing essays, I am doing some final edits on my first short story collection, What She Was Saying, due out in early 2017 from Fomite Press. And, of course, I’m writing poems.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

Oh, I would love to do all of these! My aunt was and my daughter is an artist, so I live vicariously through their work. My father became a photographer after his heart condition forced him into early retirement. I am especially clumsy, and I can’t carry a tune, so dance and music are out, but I wish….

How has your writing and writing practiced evolved?

I write poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and children’s literature. I also teach full-time at a state university and am a wife and mother, so I typically fit in my writing during winter and summer “breaks.” Still, I find that my brain is always writing; the wheels are churning even when the hand isn’t jotting down the words. Although I don’t get to write twice a week as I did in the past, I get almost as much actually written.

What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?

I keep a running list of possible titles for upcoming books. It’s a secret.🙂

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

The obvious ones: read, read, read; write, write, write. Too many students want to become “a writer” without actually reading or writing. In my workshops, I emphasize the interconnection of both.

Whose work helped you in the writing of this book?

True, False, None of the Above is dedicated to all my teachers and all my students, as well as to my husband, Gary R. Hafer (also a teacher, reader, and writer). The most obvious inspirations, however, are all the authors who inspired poems within the book.

What other question would you like to be asked?

I give readings and workshops across the country. Feel free to contact me here!

What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?

I would love to see how they respond to these same intriguing questions.


Sage Graduate Fellow of Cornell University (MFA) and Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lock Haven University, Marjorie Maddox has published eleven collections of poetry—including True, False, None of the Above (Poiema Poetry Series); Local News from Someplace Else (Wipf and Stock); Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation, (Yellowglen Prize); and Perpendicular As I (Sandstone Book Award); the forthcoming Wives’ Tales (Seven Kitchens Press)—the short story collection What She Was Saying (Fomite, 2017), and over 450 stories, essays, and poems in journals and anthologies. Co-editor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (PSU Press), she also has published two children’s books with several forthcoming.

three poems

“Journey Into Poetry” 

“Take Note: For Father’s Day, Poets Talk About Writing About Their Dads” (interview)

ArtScene (Fiona Powell speaks with poet Marjorie Maddox about Local News from Someplace Else)

“Poet Marjorie Maddox’s love of baseball stems from family lineage”

ArtScene (Fiona Powell speaks with Marjorie Maddox about Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems)

“Learning to Weather” 

Nancy Chen Long

“I cannot emphasize enough what a pleasure it is to work with a good editor.”

ncl images

Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013)

Tell us a bit about how your chapbook came to be.

Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone is the result of my participation in the 2013 Pulitzer Remix Project. The project was sponsored by the fine folks at Found Poetry Review, and so the focus was on writing found poems. Found poetry can be thought of as a literary equivalent of collage, in which words, phrases, and lines from existing texts are refashioned into new poems. The genre includes centos, erasure poetry, cut-up poetry, collage, remix, and other textual combinations.

For the Pulitzer Remix project, eighty-five poets were brought together to write one poem a day from a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction. Each poet had a different source text. All of the participating poets were challenged to create new poems that varied in topic and theme from the original text, rather than merely regurgitating the novels in poetic form. I was assigned the 1949 Pulitzer winner Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens.

Guard of Honor is set in World War II and is packed with military verbiage and jargon and war-related images in its 613 pages. While the poems wrote I didn’t follow the source text’s story line, the vocabulary used came from the source text. So, not surprisingly, one of the primary themes of the chapbook is war.

Describe your writing practice or process for this particular chapbook. Did you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy?

The Pulitzer Remix project was my first major foray into found poetry. While erasure and collage were used to create some of the poems, the method I primarily used was remix. My process for remix is to take an arbitrary selection of a source text, for example the first paragraph of each of the first 10 pages or a specific chapter from a book, and then scramble it. I mix and rearrange individual words chosen out that selection of text. On occasion, I might remix using a phrase. But for the most part I use individual words.

The technique I use for scrambling involves computer programs like Adobe Acrobat Pro (which I use to convert a scanned image into text), Microsoft Word, and Microsoft Excel. First I separate all of the words out of the text so that they are not in context. I do that because I don’t want to simply regurgitate the text in condensed form—I want to transform it somehow. Therefore, it’s better that I not read the text on the page.

Next, using the computer programs mentioned earlier, I create two lists—one in which the words are alphabetized in a single column and another that is randomized with the words scattered in rows across the page. I select words from these two lists to make the first draft poem. The randomized list helps trigger my imagination as my eye scans unrelated words and my mind tries to make connections. The alphabetized list helps me locate a word if I’ve latched onto an idea and want to move quickly to keep the momentum going.

In addition to the word lists, I allow myself to use words that are not in the selection, but that can be discovered by:

  • concatenation, e.g. sun + light = sunlight
  • erasure within a word to form a new word, e.g. erasing “ling” from “sparkling” yields the word “spark”

If I get stuck, I allow myself to return to the source text on the page in order to apply erasure across a phrase to form a new word. As an example, take the phrase “across the.” By erasing the letters ‘o’, ‘s’, ‘s’, ‘t’, and ‘h’, you are left with the word acre.

For each revision of a poem, I go back to the word lists and techniques for finding new words. I keep detailed notes so that I can adequately cite the source text, which is important for these sorts of poems.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

The title is from one of the poems in chapbook. I chose it for a couple of reasons. One reason is simply that I found it interesting. Another reason is that it gives the reader insight into the overarching theme of war in the chapbook.

I originally arranged the chapbook to form a sort of arc that was age-based, opening with two poems that feature a boy and ending with poems of a man in his twilight years. But the poems didn’t form a solid narrative. They were more like character sketches mixed with a few episode-specific poems; for example, there’s a poem about a moment after a battle. I guess in a way, the poems are a bit like those inkblots in Rorschach tests. In this case, the reader fills in the narrative, giving additional meaning based on their own imagination.

My arrangement of the manuscript was subsequently changed by the editor. She saw the arc in a slightly different—and better—way. (I cannot emphasize enough what a pleasure it is to work with a good editor.) She suggested that the manuscript open with an ekphastic poem titled “Lament for Icarus” that was inspired by an 1898 painting of the same name by Herbert Draper. In that way, Icarus and the associated myth would be the guiding force that propels the reader through the narrative. She also suggested ending with a poem called “Seeking Asylum,” which brings the reader back to Icarus at the end through the image of the falling sparrows that end the poem. She also commented that the ending image of falling sparrows alludes to the sparrows in the Hall of Souls (the Chamber of Guf in Jewish mysticism), which, to her, further enforced another thread that runs through the chapbook, that of the dangers/ pitfalls of human hubris.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

Red Bird Chapbooks is a joy to work with. I was allowed to provide my own cover image to the editor for consideration, which I did. The editor then worked with me to make changes to it.

Did you read straight through your chapbook out loud during the revision process or while finalizing revisions? If so, how was your experience of the poems different?

Yes. When I read the poems out loud, I discovered that first arc, which allowed me to get to the point where I felt the manuscript held together as a whole and could be sent out.

Did you set out with the intention of writing a chapbook?

I had no intention of writing a chapbook when I signed up for the Pulitzer Remix project. But after I had a collection of poems, it was somewhat evident, at least with this particular set of poems, to see which poems came together and formed a whole. Of the thirty poems I wrote, nineteen ended up in the chapbook.

What are you working on now?

I have a full-length manuscript that I’ve been sending out to contests. There are a few found and experimental poems in it, but most of the poems are free verse. While it’s been met with some encouraging results, having come in as a finalist in seven contests in 2015, it remains unpublished. I’ve been sending it out for three years now and at the end of each year, I modify the manuscript in hopes of improving it. So right now, I’m in the middle of modifying it again, revising poems and writing new ones to replace those that I’ve removed.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Read. Read deeply in your genre—if you’re a poet, read every sort of poem, even those that you think you don’t like. And read widely—read from every genre.

What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?

Strive towards a cohesive manuscript if you can, for example poems that are tightly themed or that form a narrative arc or that are all in the same form, e. g. sonnets.

Also, don’t be afraid to use some, or possibly even most, of the poems from your chapbook in your full-length manuscript if the poems fit.

Lastly, don’t be shy. Send that manuscript out!

What chapbooks have you recently read or are reading now?

Who Was I to Say I Was Alive by Kelly Nelson (Minerva Rising)

The Almost Sound of Snow Falling by Robert Walicki (Night Ballet Press)

Beautifully Whole by Julie Brooks Barbour (Hermeneutic Chaos Press)

17 Days by E. Kristin Anderson (ELJ Publications)

Comings / Goings by Jenni B. Baker (dancing girl press)

What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?

Mandeleev’s Mandala by Jessica Goodfellow is an amazing book. Goodfellow is one of my favorite poets. Her poems in this book are an irresistible mix of religion and science, myth and math, fact and fable, speaking and silence, dark and light, chaos/ randomness and order. Those who might be interested can read my review of the book here.


Nancy Chen Long is the author of the chapbook Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013). You’ll find her recent and forthcoming work in Alaska Quarterly Review, Bat City Review, Pleiades, Superstition Review, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. Nancy received a BS in Electrical Engineering Technology and an MBA, worked as an electrical engineer, software consultant, and project manager, and more recently earned an MFA. As a volunteer with the local Writers Guild, she coordinates a reading series and works with others to offer poetry workshops. She lives in south-central Indiana home and works at Indiana University.


poems from the chapbook

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Christopher McCurry

“I was a different writer and person when I finished writing the poem.”


Nearly Perfect Photograph: Marriage Sonnets (Two of Cups Press, 2016)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

Tina Andry’s Ransom Notes. Patty Paine’s Feral. Sarah Freligh’s A Brief Natural History of an American Girl. There is a crown of sonnets in Jeremy Paden’s Broken Tulips that I love; actually the entire chapbook is good. Oh, Nettie Farris’s Communion. I also enjoy all the work from Two of Cups Press.

What might these chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?

I like short poems. Poems that are about relationships. I value accessibility and humor, as well. I like knowing that the writer has considered a reader like me and what we may and what we may not need to know. I like to be entertained.

What’s your chapbook about?

It’s about marriage, specifically my marriage and exploring the circumstances and emotions that come along with being with someone for the long term. It’s also about confronting your mistakes, meanness, selfishness, and other flaws within the confines of the form of marriage. That’s why they are sonnets, I think.

If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?

Splayed was first. Many of the poems are about new relationships, misrepresentation, and miscommunication. Romanticized desire. Nearly Perfect Photograph is about marriage, trying to put a form to the passion and all the difficulties and heartache that goes along with that.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

The oldest piece is actually the first piece. It started the series and the success of it inspired me to continue writing them. Not just that it was a successful poem, as far as poems go, but that I felt something click inside me, something change or fall into place. I was a different writer and person when I finished writing the poem and that transformation created energy for more.

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?  

To a fault, my writing and my thought process are highly linear. Once I think of an idea or a line, I try to follow it through to a conclusion. I often get trapped in a rhythm or metaphor or can’t think my way out of a concrete description. Usually, my revision process is to condense and cut. I’m trying to break those habits some and grow in my writing.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m just trying to work on my craft. To find areas of growth, which is not too hard to do, and work on strengthening my writing. I want to stretch my use of metaphor and grow my imagination. So giving myself permission to do that in my writing is important to me now. At the same time, as a writer from the South, I want to explore my connection to faith and belief and the church. I also think every serious writer should be confronting their own blind spots and difficult subject matter, so writing about race and teaching and family, even if I don’t ever share it with the world, is one of my projects.

What music do you listen to as you work and write?

Terrible pop music. Like the worst of the weekly top forty. My wife thinks it is hilarious. I otherwise don’t like music all that much. I’ve never listened to it actively and I just recently got a car with a radio in it. My first truck had a CD player but it was stolen. For some reason, listening to Miley or Maroon 5, or whatever, creates a noise I don’t have to listen to and allows me to focus.

What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?

At the end of last year I read Blue Is the Warmest Color. It about ripped me in half. Such a moving love story. A real love story.

We all have to make choices about who we read in our limited free time. Many of us have demanding jobs, a house to keep up, a family to keep happy, a dog to walk. How do you decide which poets (or other writers) you want to read or should read, and how do you begin to understand what your own work might offer to benefit the literary landscape in the context of what else has been done?

I like to read a lot and read widely. Pretty much the only way to sustain that habit and not get overwhelmed with the wealth of options is to build in goals and rules. My goal every year is to read one hundred books. My rule is to read a book in a genre different than the one I just finished. This helps with diverse forms, and being aware of the authors I’m reading and supporting helps to make sure there is a diversity. I like to support writers close to home every chance I get.

As for the second part of this question, I don’t really know if that is up to me to decide. I think there may not need to be a benefit to the literary landscape, though I hope I’m making the argument for an accessible and reader-oriented poetry that inspires others to reflect and respond to this life with thought and words.

Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?

Katerina Stoykova-Klemer

Ross Gay

Sylvia Plath

Stephen Dobyns

Wislawa Szymborska

Rebecca Gayle Howell

Sharon Olds

Patty Paine

Lucille Clifton

ee cummings

Czeslaw Milosz

I’d carry these poets anywhere.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

Definitely dancing. Something with movement and visible force, kinetic energy. I like the idea of getting lost in the body. And collaboration is more natural in dancing.

How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?

For a while now I’ve wanted to make a habit of writing every day. When writing Nearly Perfect Photograph, I just sat around and waited until a poem came to me. I think a lot of people write like that and I think good poems can come that way. You can definitely make a book, but for the sake of my craft, pushing myself to write everyday was necessary. So with a friend, Dave Harrity, I write a poem and share it with him every day of the week. But we don’t just send it, we have to read it, which puts a little bit of pressure on the language right out of the gate. I also participate in this thing called the Poetry Gauntlet with ten other poets. We read a book of poems, an essay on craft every month, and attempt to write at least 100 poems in the year. It’s been highly rewarding and habit building so far.

What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?

A honest, human(e) world where mistakes are made and forgiveness is sought and readily given in the name of love.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

“Marriage Sonnet # 3” stands out the most in form and tone, I think. Leigh Anne (the editor at Two of Cups Press) and I cut a lot of the playful ones from the collection and rightly so, but I couldn’t bring myself to let go of this one. It’s basically an anthem to my wife’s hair, which she started to grow out after our daughter was born.

Who do you most hope will read your chapbook (either an individual or a particular group of people)?

Close friends and family. Those who are struggling with their marriage or relationship. Fans of form, of humor. People who are interested in the way our daily actions and words shape our relationships with one another.

What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?

I really enjoy the Dean Young quote, which I won’t put into quotations because I don’t know if it is exact, but goes something like: let us forgive ourselves for not writing a poem that is better than every other poem that has ever been written. That forgiveness is crucial to a lifetime of writing.


Christopher McCurry is the author of two chapbooks, Nearly Perfect Photograph: Marriage Sonnets and Splayed. His poetry has appeared in Diode, The Louisville Review, Rabbit Catastrophe Review, Rattle and elsewhere. He’s an editor at Accents Publishing and the co-founder of Workhorse, a literary collective whose mission is to provide opportunities for writers outside of the academy. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky with his wife and daughter where he teaches high school English.


Marriage Sonnet # 34 

You ask me if you look stupid

and there’s no doubt in my mind

the answer is yes. And it is

such a relief to find you grateful

that we hug each other and are

happy. Truth, for once, didn’t turn

us rabid in a room overexposed

with light and nowhere to lay

our heads but a cold slab of metal.

It’s true they cut off the head,

to test for rabies in animals.

But at least you know before

the symptoms show and

you’re thirsty but scared of water.