Kathryn Stripling Byer

TVB-front-coverThe Vishnu Bird (Jacar Press, 2015)

What’s your chapbook about?   

The interweaving of language and memory. David Baker, final judge in the Frost Place Chapbook contest, in which The Vishnu Bird was a finalist in 2014, describes it thus in his blurb: “The Vishnu Bird is above all a book of making—fabrics and lyrics, images and memories—whose textures are richly humane. Kathryn Stripling Byer’s elegiac articulations become, like all true poetry, ‘the hoop / in which we cast our stories’ in order to ‘hold [us] fast.’” This says it all, as far as I’m concerned.

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? 

I’ve lately been reading and re-reading Brent Martin’s Staring the Red Earth Down, from Red Bird Press in MN. Brent is director of our regional Wilderness Society here in the Blue Ridge, and his work out in the field has worked its way into his poetry. Many of the poems continue to haunt me in their evocation of place and the people who live their lives upon it. Another recent chapbook is Julie Brooks Barbour’s Earth Lust. Julie’s poetry is needle-sharp, beautifully detailed. Gibbons Ruark’s Feeling Blue is another of my favorites. A chapbook I bought many years ago by the Finnish poet Paavo Havikko, translated by Anselm Hollo, provided epigraphs for The Vishnu Bird. Betty Adcock’s Widow Poems, recently from Jacar Press, contains some of her best work and shows how a woman poet can renew her voice and craft in the face of personal loss.

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

My belief in how one can, through poetry, bring a place and its inhabitants to life in vibrant detail, to set the sound of a voice resonating, poem by poem, over the course of a poet’s life.

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

I’ve been drawn to chapbooks since I first began writing poetry, and when I look back at my writing and publishing years, I could call them “My Life in Chapbooks.” Each chapbook I’ve published heralded and prepared the way for a full-length collection, helped me focus on the underlying structure and imagery of those collections. Early on, publishing a chapbook was a way to get my work out to an audience while I struggled, and I mean struggled, to find a publisher for my first collection, The Girl in the Mist of the Harvest, an AWP award winner in 1986, republished by Press 53 in Winston-Salem last year.

My first chapbook was titled Search Party, with drawings by New York artist Joyce Sills. It contained my poem sequence by that name, and was later published in my first collection, a sequence that Maxine Kumin awarded the Anne Sexton Prize in 1977.

My second chapbook, Alma, contained the first poems in the voice of my mountain woman’s persona, Alma, and was illuminated with evocative drawings by Sharyn Hyatt Wade. It served to introduce the voice of Alma and was later expanded into the collection Wildwood Flowerthe Lamont-now Laughlin- award winner from the Academy of American Poets.   

In late 1990s I discovered the photographs of Louanne Watley, her Evelyn series, capturing the last years of a woman named Evelyn, living in her large, cluttered family home outside Chapel Hill. These photographs called forth yet another voice, that of a woman in her 80‘s, living through her old age with wit and spirit. Louanne and I put together one very limited edition of poems and photographs, then a smaller edition, pocket-sized, of the same contents. These poems formed the core of my fourth book of poetry, Catching Light.

Chapbook number four was Wake, written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, published by Spring Street Editions, 2002. A couple of those poems appeared in Coming to Rest (LSU Press, 2006) and others will appear in a manuscript now in progress.

In 2010 I collaborated with a good friend, the poet Penelope Scambly Schott, in creating and publishing Aretha’s Hat, an interplay of poems that began with images from Obama’s inauguration.

In 2010, Jacar Press published a  collector’s edition of my sequence Southern Fictions, taking on the subject of the Confederate flag, earlier published in Callaloo. The press used pulped Confederate flags for the handmade cover paper. In my introduction I refer to Shirley Miller Sherrod, who lived a few miles down the road from me during the time to which these poems refer. We were both around the same age then; her father was shot to death by a white man, and protests to which I refer had broken out in her home county, just across the Flint River from my family’s farm. This sequence later appeared in my most recent collection, Descent (LSU Press, 2013).

The Vishnu Bird came together around my desire to enter a manuscript in the Frost Place chapbook contest last spring, and I was pleasantly surprised when it came up a finalist. I usually don’t have much luck in those contests. Richard Krawiec of Jacar Press expressed an interest in publishing this manuscript. His son Daniel did a masterful job with the cover design.

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?

That would be “The Vishnu Bird,” the title poem. It’s not the oldest piece in the book, but it was the vital imaginative center. This poem began with my hearing a bird singing during my morning walk out to our garden, the song sounding like “vishnu, vishnu.” I’m not a birder, so I’ve no idea what the bird was. And it didn’t matter, because the bird became the Vishnu Bird. This name opened up a trove of interesting allusions for me, as you can see when you read the poem.

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. 

Walking along the road beside Cullowhee Creek, playing a poem out in my head. Or waking up in the middle of the night to practice hearing a poem over and over again until it sounded right. And when I’m not doing that, I’m reading, whether poetry or natural history. Right now I’m reading back through one of my favorite books, Scott Weidensaul’s Mountains of the Heart. I keep Barry Lopez’s books at my bedside, too.

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

By mulling over the contents, brooding, re-arranging, walking and listening. This chapbook went through several different arrangements and ended up with a slightly different table of contents from the one I submitted to the Frost Place contest.

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

My collaboration with the cover artist Elizabeth Ellison was close and built on years of friendship. Elizabeth lives over in Bryson City, on the boundary of the Great Smokies National Park; she has illustrated numerous natural history volumes by her husband George, himself a repository of  information about our region, including the life of Horace Kephart, and a fine poet, as well. Most of Elizabeth’s work is in watercolor but this painting, titled “Suffusion,” is in oils and larger than her usual canvases.

What are you working on now? 

I’m working a full-length manuscript tentatively titled Winged, with poems in this chapbook comprising the kernel, along with a couple from Wake. I’m also working on a new chapbook, titled for the moment Ghost Crossings, in the voice of a woman narrator living through the horrors of the civil war here in the southern highlands. I’ve set it up as a song sequence, attempting to approximate the aria/ recitative format. It is dedicated to Charles Frazier, the author of Cold Mountain.


Kathryn Stripling Byer lives in the highlands of western North Carolina. Her work has received the Laughlin Award (Wildwood Flower, LSU) from the Academy of American Poets, the Hanes Poetry Award from The Fellowship of Southern Writers (Coming to Rest, LSU) and Book of the Year awards from the NC Literary and Historical Association and the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. She served for five years as  North Carolina’s first woman Poet Laureate.



The Vishnu Bird

greets me this morning. Vishnu,
vishnu, he calls. No Vedic bird
bearing Lord Vishnu himself on its back,
just a local bird perched in the sarvis tree
unfurling blossoms come Easter time,
calling the faithful to worship.

Barefoot, I’m walking out to the garden
in nightgown and bathrobe,
my coffee cup half full,
my head brimming over with yesternight’s
bird calls. A yellow eyed battle-crow mocking
my sentiments, bespectacled owl warning Soon,
Soon. No kingfisher diving
for bugs in the silt-strangled creek.
In the darkness, no whippoorwills.
Mourning doves mute beneath
crab grass, returning to dust
to await reincarnation as Vishnu birds,
singing the dharma of compost.

The scent of manure lingers over the pasture below,
though the cows have been gone
since our neighbor’s wife auctioned the farm.
If ever the kingfisher finds his way back
to the mud where the creek waits,
maybe our neighbor will be resurrected
as cow herd and gather his cows
on the hill where they used to graze
until he died of the usual cancer.
I’ll watch him toss hay from his pickup.
His wife will no longer look sad
in the check out lane. Maybe I’ll hear his flute

singing me forth every morning.
A jingle of Gopi bells.
Maybe I’ll dance all the way
to the garden like Lakshmi.
Who knows, I might even be soft spoken
when I behold what the rabbits have eaten,
the dogs trampled. Maybe
I’ll murmur in Sanskrit a blessing.
Or simply stand still and say nothing.

Nathan Poole

Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost (Quarterly West, 2015)

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

The two writers I hold to as masters of this form—the long story, the short novel, the novella, whatever you like to call it—are J.D. Salinger and Katherine Anne Porter. “Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” especially (not to mention being two of the best titles). Those stories showcase the power of the novella as a modern narrative form: you don’t have the length to completely forgo the suggestiveness and idiosyncrasy of a short story, but you also don’t have the extremity of compression to rule out the allegiances that can be developed over a longer period of time with the characters. You get both, which usually makes a novella kind of strange, you know? They’re pretty weird. A teacher of mine, Maud Casey, would often encourage her students to “linger in the strange,” and I’ve come to think about that expression as a gestalt for the novella form in general, and what it’s like to work on a novella. It allows for a more protracted encounter with idiosyncrasy than a story but doesn’t rely on conventional narrative unity in the way a novel might. The form is inherently experimental.

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

While I worked on this novella, I spent some time reading and studying those books mentioned above, and also Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams.” I found that Johnson relies heavily on gesture and vision, two things that I’m obsessed with these days. There’s a paragraph in his novella that has to make a long story short, as my mother might say—it’s the story of how the protagonist comes into possession of a wagon and a team, how he finds his vocation in other words—it’s a sad, necessary little tale about a boy named Hank dying of a stroke—and here’s the problem: Johnson knows he can’t let the book get too bogged down in this side story, but at the same time, if he tries to exposit the story directly, with no scene, the credibility of the move will come into question because of its spurring role in the plot, and the reader will surely think, “oh sure, just kill him off, that’s convenient.” The solution is this very short scene, and all the credibility hinges on a single gesture. Hank removes his hat before he succumbs. I’m convinced it wouldn’t work without that gesture, and that it speaks of the humanity of the character in a way that makes the death not only credible but suddenly tragic. Those are the moves that make novellas work. You could miss them entirely in the hands of a good writer like Johnson.

I also consider Faulkner’s “The Bear” a novella, and one of the best. But again, that’s a weird book. The way time is managed in “The Bear” is an example of the lopsided shape novellas can often take, structurally speaking. The hunt-club sequences that open Faulkner’s novella seem like the heart of the story only to become a kind of preamble. So why all that time and real estate? My novella is similarly a little lopsided.

My first degree was is in psychology and I’m still interested in it, perceptive distortions and the way literature calls into question the reliability of our sensory equipment, that’s fascinating. The opening sentences of Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse…” will always be in my head somewhere for those reasons. I like to think they influenced this book: “In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere…she knew something strange was going to happen, even as the early morning winds were cool through the lattice…”

What’s your novella about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?

The novella is about spiritual encounters, encounters with otherness, the greatest and most trying of which is marriage. It follows two characters, both protagonists, Hugh and Decima, as they enter each other’s lives and have to reckon with their various secrets and disorders.

My story collection, Father Brother Keeper, is full of tighter and more diverse explorations of a similar theme. The novella, by contrast, does not have the same clean line of action as the stories. I really enjoyed having more space to construct a kind of biographical narrative, and to allow the story to wander some with the likeness of life.

How did you decide on the length and title of your novella? What were some of its earlier titles?

The length question for this novella is similar in my mind to a vanishing point in a painting. I was trying to bring two stories together, two lines of action, and so I thought the ending would be somewhere just beyond that meeting place, just a little bit past the central conflict. It was around 90 or so pages when I felt I had arrived at that place.

The title is taken straight from a scene in the second chapter of the book when Hugh’s grandfather is indoctrinating him into a new religion, a curious amalgamation of Christian and Cherokee mythologies that amounts to a kind of ancestor worship. The earlier title was “The Firelighter” and I liked that title, but felt it only spoke for a certain portion of the book.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a novel set in the Cowasee Basin of South Carolina, and also some poems, and always stories. I can’t stop writing stories.

Iris A. Law

Periodicity (Finishing Line Press, 2013)download

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

Here are a few favorites from recent years. Yours, by Kristen Eliason and Paradise Hunger by Henry W. Leung are spare and gorgeous, and they move me. Yours, in particular has given me courage to press deeper into loss and grief in my own work. Jane Wong’s Kudzu Does Not Stop is a wonderful, off-kilter romp through an unruly catalog of invasive species. It delights the closet biology nerd in me. I also love the playful (at times coy) conversation between Lori Larusso’s paintings and Carrie Green’s poems in their collaborative chap It’s Not My Birthday, That’s Not My Cake.

What’s your chapbook about?

Periodicity explores the lives and stories of a number of historical women in science. All of the women in the chapbook either built careers around science, technology, or medicine, or were the wives or daughters of famous scientists. As the daughter of a scientist myself, I’m interested in how the poetry of the natural world and the choreographed music of the scientific method sit within the domestic space. I’m also interested in decay and resilience, in the inheritance of passion and of suffering, and in the condition of being female in a man’s world: what did it mean for these women to be pushing the envelope in heavily male-dominated fields during the periods when they lived and worked?

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

“Marie Curie, Dying” is the oldest piece in the chapbook. I wrote it as an undergraduate, while studying with then-Stegner fellow Andrew Grace. Andy challenged me to write a poem that took the rhythms and imagistic patterns of Charles Wright’s “Clear Night” as its form. I used to get chronic canker sores (huge, festering ones that would also make my face swell up and my glands hurt), and the day I sat down to respond to Andy’s prompt, I had a particularly bad one. As I sat there, mouth on fire and feeling slightly feverish, I couldn’t get Wright’s moon out of my brain. I think something about the electric nature of pain, how its energy strings itself through you and makes you aware of your body at a minutely precise, nearly cellular, level, brought my mind to Marie Curie and to the cratered surface of her mouth as cancer overtook her at the end of her life. There is a bitter irony to her story (as there was for many of the women whose poems followed); she accomplished so much in the field of chemistry, pioneered the study of radioactivity and its uses—and yet, the very thing to which she devoted her life, heart and soul, was what killed her.

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

The manuscript was cobbled together over the course of several years (it began as a short series of poems, then morphed into the center of my MFA thesis, and was then extracted and condensed down into a chap), so the writing practices and processes I employed for different sets of poems varied. However, because all of the poems in the chap interest themselves with real historical figures, my process for most began with a period of some sort of research. In some cases, as with the poems about Beatrix Potter and Emma Darwin, the seed of the poems originated in language drawn from source material like letters, journal entries, obituaries, contemporary newspaper articles. In other cases, I began with some central concept related to the subject’s work (like the lacy shapes of the lichens Beatrix Potter studied or the principle behind Chien-Shiung Wu’s disproving of the law of conservation of parity) and experimented with building the poem out of that.

How did you decide on the title of your chapbook?

The title of the chapbook, which comes from the poem “Periodicity,” refers to a concept in chemistry that describes the tendency of families of elements to share particular repeated properties (think: the periodic table). In the titular poem, the sense of repetition and iteration over generations reflects the strength and complexity of women in the Curie family and especially of the relationship between Irène Joliot-Curie and her mother Marie. I think of the project of this chap as a broader exploration of the same concept: I’m interested in not just the individual stories of the women I’m writing about, but also in the things that connect their stories. So many of these women suffered immense loss and heartache, were denied opportunities, were not taken seriously (often because of their gender), and yet in their lives there was also great beauty and passion and joy, a love for their work, and a dedication to knowledge that defied all odds. When taken together, their stories reflect and reiterate and echo one another; they form, in short, a kind of unique periodicity.

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

The cover illustration and design for Periodicity were done by a talented artist friend, Killeen Hanson. Early on in the process, I sent Killeen the manuscript to read and suggested that something botanical or that featured one of the women in the book might be nice, and she came up with a number of really innovative ideas, the most captivating of which involved cyanotypes inspired by the work of Anna Atkins (who features in two of the poems). The cyanotype process (better known to some as “Sun Prints”) is considered to be one of the earliest forms of photography. It involves placing the object whose impression is to be taken on a sheet of treated paper and exposing the setup to sunlight. After the image is exposed, the objects are removed and the paper is washed to fix the dye. The results are distinctive, brilliant, blue-and-white prints that are marked by beautiful, transparent shadows and watery irregularities, depending on the thickness and shapes of the objects being captured and the conditions under which they were exposed. (If you’re familiar with the cover of Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, the design is actually a manipulated version of one of Anna Atkins’ iconic prints.) Killeen made several cyanotypes, and we eventually decided upon a print of a lilac for the cover. I thought the monochrome blue, almost ghostly, impression spoke to the central motifs of the chapbook very nicely. Not only is it a direct homage to the work of one of the women featured in the chap, but the color blue itself and the ghostliness/ trickiness of narrative, image, light, and the body are central motifs that recur again and again in the book. I loved working with Killeen, and I was incredibly pleased with the cover she designed. We were English majors together during college, and because of her literary studies/ creative writing background, she has a deep understanding of the written word and its complexities. I feel incredibly blessed to have had the chance to work with someone who understood and could interpret my work so well.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

“Anna Atkins,” in which the titular figure grieves the death of her father, comes from a place of deep personal significance for me. Between the time I began writing the poem and the time that I completed it, my own father passed away. My dad was a chemist, and it was through his influence that I gained my fascination with science and the elegance of the natural world. In the wake of his passing, I remember being devastated that the objects he’d left behind didn’t feel comforting to me—they were just things; they weren’t him. As I returned to revise “Anna Atkins,” I began to see it with very different eyes. Originally, the poem was more outspoken, perhaps a bit more angry. But what I eventually came to realize was that the poem needed the exact opposite of my original impulse: it needed silence, not noise; the finality of absence, not ghosts. So I rewrote it, stripping away as much as I possibly could.

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

“Botanical Variations.” It’s a cento, shaped roughly into a crown of sonnets, whose language is taken from an eighteenth century primary source (the field notebook of Jane Colden), and the language and the pace of it are thus substantially different than the syntax and rhythms of the rest of the book. When I write using my own voice, I tend to write with an eye to both sonics and narrative. But “Botanical Variations” is entirely reliant on the sonics to move it forward. The listener has to trust the music of the poem to buy it. So it’s a trickier piece (both to read, and to hear performed) than some of the others in the book. And yet in some ways, it’s probably one of the more important poems in the chap, because it’s the only one that incorporates one of the women scientist’s actual language—the “sound” of her scientific voice, so to speak—in such an integral way. That’s why I placed it in the center of the chap: I wanted Jane Colden’s remixed words to serve as a kind of sonic and textural heartbeat underlying the narrative and lyric that surround them.

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

Lots of things. News headlines, Scientific American articles, scripture, letters and other types of correspondence (both historical and my own). Novels that are important to me (e.g. Cannery Row, Jane Eyre) provide voicings, background ghosts that infuse and inflect the underpinnings of my work. Maps and oral histories are wonderful jumping-off points, especially for historically based poems. I’ve worked with (and borrowed from) medical dictionaries and science textbooks, diaries and technical notebooks, biographies. They keep my language fresh. I work in editorial at a university press by day, and sometimes my responsibilities there also season my poetry in interesting ways, whether through the subject material of the books I work on, or through the influence of the sort of technical head space that I need to access in order to perform my job. I have to turn off my “editor brain” when I’m composing and reading poetry, but the technical attention that is required to make precise and measured decisions about style and grammar has sometimes proved helpful during revision: it gives me a kind of double-vision, a simultaneous sense of both the aesthetic landscape of the poem and the physical scaffolding of the language that enables me to play with the poem on both levels.

Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?

Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris and Jill McDonough’s Habeus Corpus hooked me into persona as a compelling form, and Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia continued that interest. A. Van Jordan’s Quantum Lyric and Kimiko Hahn’s Toxic Flora were also both helpful at different stages, as examples of collections that handle the language of science deftly and beautifully.

What kind of person do you imagine writing to?

I of course want other poets and lovers of poetry to read my work; I envision my reader as the contemplative sort who loves, like I do, the music of a poem, the movement of its lines, and the pleasure of crisp, clear imagery. But perhaps even more than that, I long for my work to have some point of entry for people who are not poets, and who may not even think of themselves as book people. I want people like my dad, who knew nothing about stanzas or line breaks, but who saw and loved the poetry in the banded spectrum that blooms up the shaft of a chromatography column, to be able to read or listen to my work and find in it something that moves them. Today’s world is full of women who have made their mark in STEM and who are continuing to pave the way for others in what is still a very male-dominated field. They are the legacy of the women I’ve written about in Periodicity, and in some ways, this chap is as much for them as it is for anyone else.


Iris A. Law is the author of Periodicity (Finishing Line Press 2013) and founding editor of the online literary magazine and blog Lantern Review. A Kundiman fellow, she lives and works in Lexington, Kentucky.





for Chien-Shiung Wu

In essence, we are all lopsided. The baseball player,
flexing the tensile length of his body, favors
the smooth parabola of one arm
over the imprecise swing of the other.
The marksman, settling the line of his gun,
fixes his shot with a single, steely eye.

There is no parity in decay. Matter collects
its property to itself in asymmetric heaps.
In this ultraviolet umbrella of a universe,
electrons evacuate their atoms from unbalanced poles.
Cobalt, heavy with grief, drips particles like pearls
snipped too close to the quick of their string. And you,

when wound against the axis of my own unfurling arc,
align to another contour entirely. We do not mirror
one another. Rather, we resist replication, shaping our stories
stubbornly against our chosen vectors: one arm, one eye,
a single plotted quadrant into which we arrange
battered folding chairs and settle in to watch the sun
slide liquidly into the diamond-speckled dark.

Kathleen McGookey

mcgookey-mended-coverMended (Kattywompus Press, 2014)

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

Some of my favorite chapbooks are I Left My Wings on a Chair by Karen Schubert, The Accidental Seduction and Any Kind of Excuse by Nin Andrews, Earth and Narcissus by Cecilia Woloch, Last Hula by Elizabeth Kerlikowske, Against Elegies by Jack Ridl, Her Human Costume by Cynthia Marie Hoffman, and Basil by Katharine Rauk.

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

That I like and write prose poems. My prose poems are grateful to be in the company of the above writers, which is why I like to have those books near my desk when I am writing. I am grateful to have found the work of these writers, and in some cases, their friendship.

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

I’ve published two chapbooks. The first one, October Again, was selected by Mary Szybist as the winner of the Burnside Review chapbook contest in 2011. That chapbook is a series of about twenty short, untitled prose poems. It could be read as one continuous poem. Some readers have also said that reading it is like reading journal entries. I wrote this series of poems after my mom died, so the poems are steeped in very fresh grief and loss.

My second chapbook, Mended, is made up of prose poems that are divided into two sections. When I was trying to organize my chapbook, I looked to those on my bookshelves. I borrowed the structure of Mended from Cecilia Woloch’s Narcissus–that chapbook is also divided into two sections that are approximately the same number of poems. The poems in Mended still deal with lingering grief and loss, but also other subjects as well.

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 think the oldest poem in the chapbook is “Joe.”  I wrote it after my husband and I taught one of his friends–a boy who had had a leg amputated because of cancer–how to water ski. I remember wanting to capture my initial worry that I might feel awkward or do or say the wrong thing, as well as wanting to capture the exhilaration and joy I could see in Joe. And also, really, how ordinary the experience was. I remember the poem perfectly encapsulating some of my worries at the time–we had been considering having a child, and you worry about everything that can go wrong with a baby. But things can go wrong across the whole span of a person’s life.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

I wrote “Like Stars” for my friend Mimi. When she and her husband were expecting their first child, they learned that their baby boy would only live a short time after his birth. Short, meaning minutes or maybe hours. And while she was in labor, I was walking near my house in the afternoon and all the normal insect sounds just fell silent. The silence felt like presence. And then when the noises started up again, I felt the absence of that presence. It was a strange and significant moment, where not much was happening, yet so much was happening. I tried to capture all that in the the poem.

What was your writing practice or process for your chapbook?

I did not set out to write a chapbook, but was searching for a way to get my poems published. At the time I organized it, I had two full-length manuscripts that were getting consistently rejected by publishers. I mean, this had been happening for at least six years. I began to despair of them ever finding their way into print. Because it had been comparatively easier to publish my chapbook October Again, I thought of boiling down each manuscript to its essence, and creating a chapbook in two sections out of the two longer manuscripts.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook? What was your titling process for individual poems in the chapbook?

The title of the chapbook comes from the poem called “Mended.” I liked that Mended suggested something broken but fixed, and homespun, familiar. I thought of my mom sitting with her sewing, and how often I had asked her to fix something small for me–a hole in a sweater, a hem. It seemed like a comfortable title. I also liked that Mended suggested an ending to the grief that some poems in section one deal with. Within each of the two sections of the chapbook, I tried to tell the essence of the story of the longer manuscript. Section one hints at the ache for a child, and the loss of a parent, and section two deals with the daily experience of raising a child with an awareness of grief and loss. At least this is what I think. I am sure I am simplifying.

Titles for the individual poems are always hard for me. When I bring drafts to my writing groups, I always need titles. Lately, most of my titles are suggested by other people. And it always takes a long time to find a title. It was a relief to have a series of untitled prose poems in October Again. Though, strangely, some of those poems did have titles and I had to remove them for the chapbook.

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

Sammy Greenspan at Kattywompus Press was easy and fun to work with. She suggested cover images and asked me to respond. The cover image is the second one she suggested. She was looking for images that were partially unrecognizable–images that would suggest something, but not state it. I love the image she came up with. I love that it is a garment that suggests the shape of a body. (At least that is what I think when I see it.)

What would you do differently next time in the writing, editing, publishing, or promotion process?

I wish I knew more about how to promote a chapbook. Or a book of poems, for that matter.

What are you working on now?

I am still just writing prose poems. I just write, and accumulate poems, and then when I’ve got a bunch of them, then I think about organizing them into a book or a chapbook. So right now, I am in the stage where I generate work.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

Read and write.  And don’t give up.

Have you found any little tricks along the way for organizing your writing and submissions?

I now use Google docs to organize my poems. I love it. I’ve had two computers fail and I look forward to never losing any more work.

To organize my submissions, I keep two little notebooks. In one, I write down the date, the name of the journal or press, and what I submitted. Even if I submit electronically. In a second notebook, I write down the months of the year, one month per page: January 2015, February 2015, and so on. Then in the appropriate month, I write down reading periods of magazines, contest deadlines, or note when an editor invites me to send more poems. I am sure there are more high-tech versions of this. But these two little notebooks work for me.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by beautiful language and, sometimes, surreal art. I love the paintings of Rene Magritte. I’m also inspired by ordinary moments. And also the view from my window. And sometimes the questions that my children ask.


Kathleen McGookey’s work has appeared in journals including The Antioch Review, Boston Review, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Epoch, Field, The Laurel Review, Ploughshares, The Prose Poem:  An International Journal, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Seneca Review, West Branch, and Willow Springs.  She is the author of Whatever Shines, October Again, and Mended, and the translator of We’ll See, prose poems by French writer Georges Godeau. Two books are forthcoming: Stay from Press 53 in September, and At the Zoo from White Pine Press in 2017. In 2014, she received a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which supports artists who are parents.








I Wait

like an egg for you. You do not come through the field, boots soaked and dark. You do not crouch in the dusk or the mist that rises to the horizon. I’ve unlocked my window and put on my red scarf. I’ve wrapped up my nightmare and left it by the door. Here’s a candle. Here’s a sandwich. Here’s your antique dresser in the garage, drawers jammed with photos and silver trays. What do you make of it? What do you make of me now? Your journey can’t be easy. Let your fingers grow eyes, let all those eyes fill with tears. I am flying a bright flock of kites so you can find your way back to me.

JeFF Stumpo and Logen Cure

Villains (Finishing Line Press, 2015) by JeFF StumpoStumpo Villains

Still (Finishing Line Press, 2015) by Logen Cure

JS: Let’s kick this off with a question to you. Any of the poems in your chapbook are strong. So how did “Still” get to be the title song, as it were?

LC: The poems in the chapbook are unified by a voice, a single speaker. The speaker is struggling, at odds with herself, and deeply concerned with particular things: relationships, desire, memory, place, the body. I think “Still” shows how all of those elements are in play. Also, the word “still” can mean so many things: motionless, hushed, lasting, nevertheless. I wanted to select a title poem from the collection, and out of everything, I felt the word “still” could shed light on every piece in different ways. Still - Smoke Cover
What about you? Villains is clearly a play on “villanelle,” but what else went into selecting the title for you?

JS: For me, it was basically a process of “how thickly do I want to lay on the puns?” I started off calling it Heroes & Villanelles, realized it had no heroes, started calling it Villainelles, thought that was just too much, looked up the etymology and found that villain/villanelle actually do share a root (they refer to common folk), and kept it to just Villains. I’m a little worried that people will assume that means I consider all my characters to be bad guys, but some (most? all?) are not bad, they’re villagers of a sort – the Blues man, the kid playing football in a podunk town, the woman working a 9-5 that doesn’t want to let her go, the rapper strutting his stuff. A lot of the characters are at the precipice where they either interact with or are turning into the more popular conception of villain.

I have to come back to “still” have many meanings. Do you feel like there are movements to the collection? That is, do we have a period of time in which we’re experiencing still(ness) as motionlessness, then a few poems of being hushed, or anything of that sort? Or how did you otherwise decide to arrange things?

LC: The arrangement follows an arc. The speaker is definitely experiencing a coming-of-age. The opening of the collection raises a lot of questions, somewhere in the middle we take a difficult turn and things get pretty bleak, and by the end, things are much more optimistic. I think “still” is the through-line of all of that. The speaker is definitely changed by the end of the collection. I think she achieves a sort of stillness, or tranquility perhaps, but not without acknowledging the lasting effects of trauma. I think there’s also a struggle between silence and voice happening in these poems, particularly in that middle section. These are not easy poems. For those, I see “still” as an insistence.

How did you manage the arrangement for Villains? And as a follow up, what was the first villanelle you wrote that’s included in the collection? Which is the last?

JS: The first poem was the first poem. I didn’t have a name for it; my friend Lisa N. Edmonds-D’Amico came up with “Villanelle in royal blue.” I let it sit there for a couple of months, and then wrote 30 villanelles in 60 days as sort of a personal challenge. These are the 20 I liked best. But as to ordering them? I’m still not super-confident about the order. I “managed” is probably the best way to say it.

When you say your poems aren’t easy… weren’t easy to write? aren’t easy to read? aren’t easy to deal with?

LC: I’d argue that writing poems is difficult in general. Some are more emotionally difficult to write than others. I can’t imagine those poems are easy to read or deal with. The poem in the collection I wrote first would probably be “To Shed.” That poem was also one of the first accepted to a journal, Sundog Lit. They like “earth-scorching” work. When I told my mother, she said that it certainly isn’t one of her favorites but “the ugliest thing at the garage sale always sells first.” I’ll never forget that. I was touched. That really is just about the most optimistic thing you can say about that poem.

Speaking of difficult, can you talk a bit more about the process of writing 30 villanelles in 60 days? Why the villanelle?

JS: I had a period of time when I was in the car a lot. Driving to referee soccer. To my psychiatrist. And it would be at least half an hour in each direction, often an hour. So I started trying to write in my head. And one night I sat down and produced “Villanelle in royal blue” while listening to Howlin’ Wolf on repeat, and I memorized it enough to revise it a bit while driving the next day. My friend Lisa gave it its title, incidentally. I had this compulsion to keep trying to succeed, to write a villanelle in an hour. And the music helped. One to two songs on repeat for 30-60 minutes, plus a little mental revision while driving. It was kind of a healthy obsession, to be honest.

You ever get like that? Where you’re writing, but it’s not the surface you that’s doing it? It’s some deeper you that understands what you are doing better than you do?

LC: Yes. I think all writers have obsessions. The poems in Still weren’t written with the idea that they would occupy a book together. When I decided to make a chapbook with the best of the disparate poems I had, I was surprised at how many common threads I found. Poetry works in subconscious ways, for both readers and writers. That’s the magic, I think.

So Villains is influenced by music? Can you expand on that? What about literary influences?

JS: Every poem has a soundtrack. I don’t necessarily draw from the lyrics of each song (although I use the chorus of The Cranberries’ “Zombie” as an A1/A2 in “Villanelle questioning a pop culture phenomenon”), but the feeling of the music should be present somehow in each piece. Some of the poems are attempts to marry villanelles with the Blues, another form based on repetition and variation. Some are straight-up hip-hop (“Villanelle to all you sucka MCs” and “Villanelle enlisting the ACLU”). There’s one that’s about listening to Mumford and Sons. Some just draw from the tone, like “Villanelle that is not now nor ever has been.”There’s a list in the back of the chapbook that tells you what to match with each poem.

For literary influences, there aren’t many direct allusions this time around, like in a lot of my previous chapbooks. But the lyrical play and formalism owes a lot to one of my favorite poets, Terrance Hayes, who also digs down obsessively into an old style or form and makes it do new things with the culture at hand. In retrospect, it owes something to Patricia Smith’s Blood Sonnets, a little bit to Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Meditations on the South Valley (not in form but in subject matter). I’ll address it directly – despite being an old French form, these villanelles don’t speak much to their white predecessors, the Dylan Thomases and such. They’re far more interested in the amazing formal work being done by nonwhite poets.

I know you have another chapbook on the way, Letters to Petrarch, that directly addresses one of the Old Masters and reinvents what he had done. Can you comment on the differences between dialoguing with a literary influence, like LtP, and writing poems that may have influences but don’t go seeking them head-on like in Still?

LC: That’s a great question. Yes, Letters to Petrarch is an entirely different sort of project. It’s a series of epistolary poems in direct response to a single influence. Still definitely has many influences: Richard Siken, Lynda Hull, Anne Sexton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Andrea Gibson. I actually worked on both projects in the same years, during and right after my MFA program. I think in some ways, the poems from Still were a mental break from the focus of Letters to Petrarch. Like I said, the poems in Still weren’t originally written as a cohesive project. I’d dedicate my time to LtP for a while, then my mind would get restless and I’d write other poems.

It’s interesting that you used the word “seeking” because I think that’s a good descriptor for what you’re doing when you write poetry. I think with LtP, I was looking at particular things, trying to shed light on certain connections and emotions. I think the poems in Still look for something. The process is different for each type of seeking. I think shifting gears over time helped me maintain momentum.

You’ve written other chapbooks as well. Can you describe those and talk a bit about the differences in creating them?

JS: Not letting you off the hook yet. I like your idea of using different kinds of seeking to maintain momentum. When you’re stuck – writer’s block, depression, life just plain full – do you find your poetry looking for something or looking to shed light on something? Is there a default position from which you can regain momentum?

LC: For me, one type of seeking is conscious and one is more subconscious. The poems in Letters to Petrarch were an intentional endeavor. The project was research-heavy. I had a plan. I was drawing energy from an outside source. The poems in Still just happened. They surfaced from within, from whatever work my subconscious was doing. The brain is an incredible thing in that way. You’re right that writer’s block happens for various reasons. Either type of seeking can help me break out of it. I can choose to carefully look at something and try to shed light on it with my work. Alternatively, looking for something usually means getting out of my own way, mentally or emotionally, and allowing the work to surface. It can be much more difficult to do the latter, as you can imagine.

How about those other chapbooks of yours?

JS: Similar to yours, in that seeking/ shedding respect. OsSerp (El Océano y la Serpiente / The Ocean and the Serpent) was me trying to out-Wasteland Eliot for the 21st Century. Up until I did a 64-page poetic sequence in rhyming verse and visual poems for my dissertation, it was the most ambitious thing I’d attempted. Riff Raff just kinda happened, and I lucked into getting it published by Unicorn Press. The Icarus Sketches is often the chapbook that people come back to as a favorite, another obsessive mining and turning over of a particular stone, but I’m happy above all that I got to really work with the editor of Seven Kitchens Press to make it a dual-author collection with Crystal Boson, who is by far my superior as a poet but hadn’t been looking to publish at the time. I’ve got samples and more on all of them on my website, www.jeffstumpo.com.

I just ordered five copies of Still. Seriously. It’s partly the former bookstore owner in me, partly because I want to hand them out to people later. It’s something I started doing after I opened Wonderland Books & Games – I’d order extra copies of something I loved and just give away some of them to people who would appreciate them. Not great business sense, but it felt right.

What comes next for you? You’ve got readings galore on the horizon, workshops, all that. Is there going to be a Still tour?

LC: Thanks for ordering Still! I love giving things away, too, so I think you’ve got a great idea. I’ll have to get myself some extra copies of Villains.

I do have so many events coming up. I’m fortunate to keep busy. You never know, maybe I’ll string together enough appearances to call it a tour. In other news, I’m writing a full-length manuscript about my hometown. I’m working a narrative arc and also making poems about the town itself: environment, creatures, history, weather. So far this project has been fun and difficult, both seeking something and shedding light, so to speak. You can find my next readings, workshops, and publications at my website, www.logencure.com.

What comes next for you? Readings, events, works-in-progress?

JS: I’m trying to book some gigs around the Northeast. We just moved to Pennsylvania, and I’m within reach of my old stomping grounds from a two-year stint in Portsmouth, NH while Kate did a postdoc. I love the open mics and slams in this region. I’d like to contact some universities as well – I’ve done university readings and workshops before (they’re the best-paying of the gigs I’ve done), and I feel like Villains lets me talk about a lot of craft issues in a workshop setting. Maybe I should see if the Poetry Festival at Round Top is looking for poets from afar – I was a regular speaker there for about three years, and I miss it greatly. And I could see you while I’m there!

As far as projects, I have all these doodles of lines and stanzas and concepts that I’ve been kicking around for a series of poems I want to give to my daughter, Ellery, someday. The manuscript is definitely called Dove, and I know some of what’s going on in it, but I haven’t been able to nail it down. That’s partly because I’m trying really hard to resist the urge to turn everything she does into a poem. The stuff that comes out of her mouth is fantastic and ends up on Facebook a lot, but there’s this (strangely?) sincere part of me that doesn’t want to be her translator, that wants to just be her dad. I think I’m trying harder at that than at anything I’ve ever done.

Presale: June 22 to August 21, 2015
Release: October 2015


JeFF Stumpo has been a bookstore owner and a part-time professor, a slam poet and an apologetic telemarketer. His wife is the smart one. His daughter is three going on thirteen. His dogs are nuts. He has a website with samples and ideas and occasional blog posts at www.jeffstumpo.com.

Villanelle to all you sucka MCs

This is my track
meet. You trippin’ on cracks in the street.
You just backin’ that

fat beat. I’m 175 of man
and muscle. You empty cuz you hustle. Please,
this is my track

record: I don’t lack records. I make black
records like Glasper makes radio, G.
You just back in that

saddle, addled, same horse, same stream. I got a knack
for innovation, always addin’ to my team.
This is my track,

my trade, just call me Jack.
You fade. You lose. You got a two-bit dream.
You just backin’ that

bad play, MC. This is my track,
my way, home free.
This is my track –
you just backin’ that.


Presale period: May 19 to July 17, 2015
Release: September 2015


Logen Cure is a poet and teacher. She is the author of three chapbooks: Still (Finishing Line Press 2015), Letters to Petrarch (Unicorn Press, forthcoming 2015), and In Keeping (Unicorn Press 2008). Her work also appears in Word Riot, Radar Poetry, IndieFeed: Performance Poetry, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She lives in Texas with her wife. Learn more at www.logencure.com.


From now on, I will
tell people that you died.

I will say it calmly, without tears.
It is not that I want pity
or take pleasure in lying.
I have simply grown tired of
mapping the perforations we made,
intolerant of questions
concerning who-broke-what.

I officially excuse myself from this exercise.
I am not interested in people’s opinions
of my victim or villainhood.

The only thing people should be allowed
to say to me about you is
____________________I’m sorry for your loss.

And when they ask me
what happened to you, I will tell them
without hesitation that one day
your heart just stopped.

Joseph O. Legaspi

Aviary-Front-FinalAviary, Bestiary (Organic Weapon Arts, 2014)

What’s your chapbook about?

This is a tough question and I don’t even know why I’m even considering answering it, but I am. Here’s my answer: I don’t know what my chapbook is about. Maybe it’s not about anything. Although I can say that most of the poems are love poems. They examine, describe, and interrogate sexuality. Gender roles. Religion. They flirt with sensuality. I feel the chapbook possesses a dreamy, mythical air. Putting it together, I often sensed a Wonderland aspect to it.

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

I have published one previous chapbook titled Subways (Thrush Press, 2013), and this one is easier to peg. It consists of a series of mostly prose poems set in the New York City subway system. Having lived in NYC for nearly twenty years, the subway is a constant, a lifeline, the proverbial human cesspool in which I wallow, a space of intrigue, wisdom and pathos, source of entertainment and endless fascination.

Can you name one poem that catalyzed the chapbook?

Here’s the story: I had no predisposed intention in writing a chapbook, nonetheless two! What happened was that the chapbooks branched out of a failed second manuscript. I knew I had two incongruent “sections,” these poems in Aviary, and the subways poems. As hard as I tried to mesh them, they just wouldn’t fit. I realized the subway poems are an entity on their own, a followed-through project. I was left with these poems brimming with imagery of animals and birds, and they gravitated toward each other. If there is a poem that anchors Aviary, it is “Threshold of Revelation.” Not only is it an offshoot of Subways—the poem is set on a train—but the final, ultimate image of Pangaea is where I feel the other poems branch out, the fauna and humanity.

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

Once I realized “Threshold” is the anchor poem, in length and theme, I placed it in the middle of the chapbook, and worked from there, like water ripple effect. Moreover, I have a triptych of three prose poems each in three sections. I view them as pillars, recurring throughout the collection, holding up the proverbial house. I also tried to weave in poems with more personal narratives, interwoven with lyrics and what I refer to as fairy tale poems. I wanted a progression of varying styles and forms that still grounded the reader.

As for the title, I was first stuck with “Menagerie,” searching for something similar; it was too Tennessee Williams, so I knew I couldn’t use it. I believe I used the word bestiary in one of my poems, but it wasn’t enough. There are also plenty of bird images in the collection, and the opening poem, “Music Box,” plays up the comparison to a cage, an aviary. I particularly like the rhyme and rhythm of the two words, how they roll together on the tongue like rambunctious twins: Aviary, Bestiary.

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

Jamaal May and Tarfia Faizullah, the dynamic duo at OW! Arts, pretty much gave me free reign in choosing the art work. I’m a huge fan of the artist Edward del Rosario (http://edwarddelrosario.com/), and I jumped at the chance to work with him. The cover image compliments the poems. I love that it’s surrealist, and doesn’t bash you in the head with “aviary!,” “bestiary!” I suppose it would’ve been easy enough for me to just have a picture of a parrot or a cow. I jest. I’m very happy with my chapbook, and it was so easy working with Tarfia and Jamaal on the interior and exterior design.

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?

The last poem I wrote and revised turned out to be the last poem in the chapbook, “In This Bed.” I went through many drafts of that poem, just couldn’t get it quite right. Initially it wasn’t going to be included in Aviary, but as I worked on the poem I realized, thematically and simply, the tone and feel of it makes it a worthy end-poem. Its lack of animal imagery also works for me in that the lovers, the bodies, are the bestiary.

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

I read lots of fiction and non-fiction. And I love watching nature shows.

Do you have experience with winning over new readers to poetry with either your own or others’ poems? If so, what’s that been like? Do you think a new poetry reader would have a different reaction to the chapbook format than an established reader?

Witnessing a person fall in love with a poem, albeit for the first time or the thousandth time, is one of the best feelings. I love when it happens during a vibrant discussion, or upon hearing a poem and how it could swoop down and lift.

I think the chapbook form is a good medium to ease in a novice poetry reader. A chapbook is not so intimidating (it’s a pity that in schools, poetry is approached and taught as some kind of difficult puzzle “to solve”) due to its size, to creating a vivid world with less. Isn’t that a function of poems, too: to speak volumes with the fewest words? Compact, compressed, precise?


Joseph O. Legaspi, a 2015 Fulbright fellow, is the author of Imago (University of Santo Tomas Press; CavanKerry Press) and two chapbooks: Aviary, Bestiary (Organic Weapon Arts), winner of the David Blair Memorial Prize, and Subways (Thrush Press). Recent works appear  in Poets.org/Academy of American Poets, jubilat, Salt Hill, The Journal, and Painted Bride Quarterly. He co-founded Kundiman (www.kundiman.org), a non-profit organization serving Asian American literature.


Academy of American Poets: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/whom-you-love

From the Fishouse: http://www.fishousepoems.org/?artist=legaspi-joseph


A Love Story

She was the most beautiful
hen, feathers the kilned brick
hue of New England autumn
before I knew autumn,
her radiating heat
the tropics of my childhood.
Summoned by her magnetic,
clucking love I released her
from the coop, cyclone
of fowl drudgery, first
song of farm fandango.
Pubescent eyes met chicken
eyes electric between boy
and his bird. Her crown,
red as overripe strawberries,
flowered down to her
epiglottal wattles,
curtains of blood
suspended from her throat.
Then hand traveled the length
of her hen-ness—comb
to wingbow to shank—
compelled to explore under
her tail feathers, fanning
the pinkness
of the pudenda, puckering
like a mouth. What’s a boy
to do, orally fixated as he
was, but press his finger in
against the bristling,
then moist suction
and swallow. Quickening,
his eggshell heart shattered,
his whirlwind self spun
like iron planets
orbiting below a cock
bellwether perched spur
and claw on a stormy rooftop.

Michelle Peñaloza      

landscape heartbreaklandscape/heartbreak (Two Sylvias Press, 2015)

Whats your chapbook about?

Over the course of a year, I went on walks with twenty-two individuals, who each took me to a place in Seattle where they’d had their hearts broken. These heartbreaks weren’t limited to the romantic kind; as we know, the heart can be broken in any number of ways. My chapbook, landscape/heartbreak, is made up of my responses-in-poems to these walks, along with maps of the walks in Seattle.

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

Two Sylvias Press released landscape/heartbreak first, on Valentine’s Day, 2015, but I wrote almost all of that manuscript after I wrote my second chapbook, Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes, which was released by Organic Weapon Arts Press at AWP 2015. Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes is mostly comprised of poems which I wrote during my time in the MFA program at the University of Oregon, exploring loss; intersections of race and gender; and the space among and between individual, familial, and national histories.

Whats 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 the poem “Custom.”  I wrote it during a time before I even moved to Seattle, processing my own broken heart and trauma; I included it because it was one of the first poems in which I began, in process and in content, to engage with the body’s movement through landscape, specifically with walking, in relation to the narrative and processing of trauma.

I remember that poem was sparked by reading about an Eskimo practice in which an angry party walks until his or her anger is exercised/exorcised by the walking; the length of the walk, a manifestation of the depth of her or his anger. I was quite angry and confused at the time and going on many walks myself, trying to make sense of my situation.  It made sense to include that poem in landscape/heartbreak.

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

As far as my process in ordering the chapbook, I thought about creating a way for the reader to experience the accumulation of narrative, emotion, and discovery that I experienced when people took me on walks. Giving context to the project and my own investment in it—where did this idea come from?—seemed key to the communicating this accumulation and was the impetus for writing the nonfiction essay in vignettes, “Notes From the Field,” which begins the chapbook. I asked myself, “If someone had never heard of the project and just picked up the book—what would they need to know to find the poems meaningful on multiple levels? How could I communicate the breadth of the project?” I also wanted the reader to experience seeing and engaging with Seattle’s mapped, physical landscapes and its storied, emotional landscapes. This led to framing landscape/heartbreaks text with the two maps—one blank, at the beginning, and one filled with the routes of the project, at the end.

In reference to the order of the poems themselves, I thought about accumulation as well. I wanted to begin with “Pentimento,” a poem in couplets, which works in the mode of layering and accrual—a catalog of simultaneous narratives in different times and spaces within the specific place of Seattle and the surrounding area—to allude to the idea that the stories in the landscape and within this collection are, and have always been, here. From there it made sense to move from my own heartbreak into the various kinds of heartbreak—moving back and forth from the specific to the broad—the order interspersed with what might be expected and what might be a surprise.

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

My dear and very talented friend, Tessa Hulls, painted the cover of landscape/heartbreak. Being my good friend, she heard about many aspects and iterations of the project; she was also one of the people who took me on a walk. So, Tessa was pretty keyed into the aims of landscape/heartbreak on multiple levels. I asked her if she’d be kind enough to create an image for the cover, and she asked me to show her book covers I liked and we went from there. Two Sylvias was really wonderful about letting me find my own image and implementing my vision for the chapbook.

Why a chapbook?

I had a sense, at the start of the project, that the poetry that would come from landscape/heartbreak would ultimately be a chapbook. I was open to the possibility of a full-length collection; however, as I continued on the walks, the necessity of a set timeframe became clear. The amount of heartbreak and the number of people who have stories to share are infinite. If I hadn’t decided to limit the walks to happen within the span of one year, I would probably still be walking with people today. I wanted to be realistic about my own capacity and energy; I didn’t want to diminish anyone’s experience or my own or my writing in response to people’s experiences due to my own exhaustion, physical or emotional. I was wary of how the project could become unwieldy, emotionally and creatively, if I took on too much.

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 wanted to conclude the chapbook with an all-inclusive, composite piece, which became “Field Notes.”  A great anxiety of mine throughout the making of landscape/heartbreak was the task of doing justice and paying homage to the openness and vulnerability of the people who took me on walks. Not every walk inspired a entire poem. Not every attempt to write a poem was successful enough to do justice to a story someone had shared with me. There is a whole pile of attempted stop-starts that did not make the cut, which could make up another chapbook (that should never see the light of day). Yet, I still wanted to acknowledge every walk as a part of the project, as integral to the whole even as some appeared as entire poems, in parts of poems, or only in “Field Notes.” This final poem, which I aimed to also correspond with the final map in its form, is comprised of small pieces—vignettes, details and snippets— arranged in the chronological order of each walk. I conceived of these smaller pieces as “inside poems” shared between me and the people with whom I walked.  These small moments may read as more esoteric than the rest of the collection, but my hope is that they resonate for every reader, and taken as a whole, will reiterate the culmination of story and transformation of place in landscape/heartbreak.

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

Oh, geez. Everything. Buzzfeed quizzes, tarot cards, people’s Facebook rants, New York Review of Books articles about books I probably won’t get around to reading, graphic novels, short stories.

When I went to Kundiman, Matthew Olzmann led us in this great exercise in which he gave us an index card with several unrelated, random elements—I think mine had some facts about chimpanzees, Niagara Falls, and just the place name, Rahway, New Jersey—and through that exercise, I wrote a poem that got to the heart of something I’d some trouble writing about. So, since then, I’ve taken to being more and more open to finding inspiration in unlikely places.

Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?

Frank O’Hara, WCW’s Patterson, Li-Young Lee, Evie Shockley, Sylvia Plath, Ross Gay, and Susan Stewart were people I was reading at the time.

Does your family read your chapbook? Or are they waiting for you to write a novel?

They do. They are very sweet in their pride of me. I am lucky. I think before landscape/heartbreak, they weren’t exactly sure what I was going for, what my being a poet really meant, but having the book in their hands and the specificity of this project seems to have created a clearer picture of what it means that I am a poet and not a novelist. My mom is very proud; she was really pumped about her mention in the acknowledgements: “I’m the very last one you thank! That means I am the most important, right?” Yup. She gets it.


Michelle Peñaloza grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. She is the author of two chapbooks: landscape/heartbreak (Two Sylvias Press) and Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes (Organic Weapon Arts). Her poetry can be found in Asian American Literary Review, New England Review, TriQuarterly, The Collagist and elsewhere. She is the recipient of fellowships and awards from the University of Oregon, Kundiman, Artist Trust, Jack Straw, the Richard Hugo House, and Literary Arts, as well as scholarships from VONA/Voices, Vermont Studio Center, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, among others.  Michelle lives in Seattle.




The Announcement

At first, it’s the meals you remember most:
We had Thai, before.
Beth brought us Pagliacci’s, after.

The nurses give you binders to help you
find funeral homes. They use the word,
cremation. All the while, this body
you can no longer trust, this body still needs
to eat and sleep and so Andy stands in line for food
you will refuse to touch.

Iggy. Ignatius. A name of warmth and fire.

What do you call labor
when you know the baby
inside you is dead?

Birth is not the word.
The arrangements
are not of homecoming,
the calls made not, It’s a boy!
Nor, She’s doing just fine!

You wait. Someone turns down
the light, quietly shuts the door.
And here, you question
how your body could continue
to need anything from you.

Iggy. Ignatius. The name you chose,
a tinder. Tender is the word you think.
Andy dances with him, swaying
his still body, not quite yet a body.
Those tiny, discernible hands.
You look away. Gaze at the window.
Pray for the city to burst into flames.