Tara Mae Mulroy

MulroyPhilomela (dancing girl press, 2014)

What’s your chapbook about?

Philomela is, at its core, about disconnection and forms of violence in relationships. Tongues are torn out. Children are eaten. Lovers and husbands die or leave.

Can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook?

The title Philomela is taken from the myth that inspired the poem “Song,” the very first poem in the chapbook. Philomela was a princess of Athens who was raped by her sister’s husband, Tereus. Because she refused to be silent, he tore out her tongue and abandoned her in a cabin in the woods. In response, she wove a tapestry depicting what happened to her and sent it to her sister. The myth is about telling a story, particularly a truthful one about what has happened or is happening to us, and the rest of the chapbook frames this lens.

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

I had been trying to get Swallow, my first full-length collection, published for about a year when I decided to pull some of the poems into a chapbook. Swallow is a mix-tape of mythological adaptations, fairy tale re-writes, and more modern poems. The mythological poems were some of my strongest poems, so I started by pulling those out to see how well they could speak to one another. These poems were written as a series. I was re-reading a lot of ancient Greco-Roman myths and seeing how I might be inspired by them. I came away with a lot of richly dark poems that modernized the myths, told them from a different point of view, or completely changed the happenings.

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

Once I had all the poems, I ordered them first based on their images. I wanted each poem to highlight something in the poems before and after it, so I played a lot with not only order, but also tweaking images in specific poems to resonate off one another. I then looked at story. How could all of these poems work together to tell a narrative? It worked out that the poems already kind of did that. Many were about tough relationships, ones that might not survive, and then others were about sticking it out despite the circumstances. Others were about leaving: fleeing or letting go.

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

Kristy Bowen at dancing girl press designs all of the covers for the chapbooks, and she is a very talented editor and artist. Before we started getting together the final galleys, she sent me an e-mail asking me what I might like the cover to look like, general or specific, colors I like, things to avoid, any images I’m drawn to, etc. Since Philomela was the title, I sent her the story of the original myth and said that I thought a bird or birds, a girl turning into a bird, or just a girl would be perfectly acceptable to me. She came back with the feather image, and it was perfect to me: simple and haunting.

What are you working on now?

I’m still working on Swallow. It changes every time I send it out to another contest or press, and it’s been a labor of love and diligence. I’ve also started a series of persona poems about a couple who are unable to get pregnant for some years and then, once they are finally able to, start having recurring miscarriages. It’s been a very hard series to write, but we never know what voices will call to us to tell their stories.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

It is easier to have too many poems that you can cut or combine than it is to have too few. Remember that small things can look great in small places. What you put in a chapbook will fill it just as water fills any container it’s put in.

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

I, as A.E. Stallings told me most recently at a conference, am a domestic poet. I write a lot about relationships, about home life, and it is because those are issues I struggle against. What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a woman who writes? What does it mean to be a lover? A mother? An almost mother? To have a home? Chapbooks can make themes or images seem claustrophobic. There’s little room to get out. It is good, then, to have something that sucks our breath out and drives us for air once we’re done gasping along the pages.

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

I remember speaking to a poet once whose MFA thesis was a mess of what he called “almost poems.” He felt like he had been trying to build up the courage to write what he truly wanted to write and that it took writing his thesis and years more of writing to get there. I feel like a lot of my own writing has been that too, little half-truths that I’ve laid out as stepping stones to get me to the real truth. I wish someone had told me in a way I could have heard, “Write the poems you were meant to write.” I’ll tell you here in black and white, for myself and for you: Write the poems you were meant to write.

What inspires you? What gets you to the page?

I carry around a notebook with me and write down interesting words or phrases, from commercials, songs, books, the mouths of my loved ones. I often find myself turning them over in my head, trying to find a story that fits them. Or, I might get struck by a story idea, and then I flip through my word collection to find an interesting way to write about it. For example, I wanted to write a poem about a woman who was having trouble conceiving. I flipped through the pages of my notebook and found “low-slung,” and that became a way to describe her belly: “a low-slung home.”


Tara Mae Mulroy is a graduate of the MFA program in poetry at the University of Memphis and a 2015 recipient of the Tennessee Williams scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her poems, stories, and essays are published or forthcoming in Third Coast, CutBank , Waccamaw, and others. She is currently sending out her first full-length collection, Swallow. She teaches Latin at a private K-12 school.



A Letter

Mother, he is a gentleman.
He is a builder with bricks of moonlight.
He knows the secret places of the earth.
He washes the sleep from the eyes of the souls.
He lets me tell him I hate him.
In the mornings, I gather berries and apples.
I scrub his back with rind,
spider-spit, and eyelash.
He talks in his sleep pudding, fire, disc,
the things he misses.
He breathes, Your body is my orchard.
I am the undulating grass.
I am a field of wheat he parts with his fingers.
Poppies bloom in my veins.
When he kisses me, he tastes grenadine.
The night crawls nearer.

Deborah Flanagan

or_gone225Or, Gone (Tupelo Press, 2015)

What’s your chapbook about?

My book, Or, Gone, is populated by famous historical figures — George Washington, Emerson, Casanova, Houdini, Peggy Guggenheim, Francis Bacon, to name a few — dealing with the struggle between faith and science and our common  challenge to “connect the body back to the earth / with the soul’s light.” I love exploring the hidden, less well-known aspects of these famous personalities and how they inform our own search for meaning. I think poetry allows us to revisit our connections to the past in ways the study of history can’t.

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

The oldest piece in the chapbook is the opening poem in the collection, “The Voynich Manuscript.” I read an article in Lingua Franca (magazine) about this mysterious, undeciphered manuscript from the 16th century. It’s filled with beautiful illustrations and continues to puzzle cryptographers. This was the jumping off point for exploring the ways we attempt to interpret the world around us and find meaning.

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

I like to think of the poems ordered the way you might figure out who should sit next to whom at a dinner party. Sometimes it’s based on people who actually knew each other, for example, Peggy Guggenheim dated Samuel Beckett and Max Ernst. Other poems are ordered more thematically —the box Houdini escapes from is followed by Wilhelm Reich’s orgone box. There’s a sense of play involved: wouldn’t it be fabulous to be at a dinner party with Nikola Tesla seated next to Diana Vreeland?

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

What do you find fascinating about blending history and poetry in your work?

I love writing about historical figures not so much for what they are traditionally known for, but rather the secret aspects of their lives—the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that we all have that make us human. For example, not many people know that Emerson jumped into his dead wife’s coffin months after she died, or that Tesla was romantically obsessed with a pigeon.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a full-length manuscript.

I tried for a while to stop writing about historical figures in my work, but poet Jeanne Marie Beaumont gave me wise advice years ago, telling me to let it run its course rather than worrying about what I should or shouldn’t be writing about.

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

“According to Heraclitus” has the most meaningful back story for me. One of my closest friends, Lisa, heard it at a reading and pointed out that I referenced the wrong cemetery in the poem. I love the huge old cemetery that you see driving to or from LaGuardia Airport in New York City — thanks to her, I now know that it’s the Calvary Cemetery. Lisa recently passed away unexpectedly. We both loved old cemeteries (morbid, I know!) and had talked about exploring that one together. I’m so sorry that we didn’t get a chance to do that.

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

I love getting ideas for poems from other kinds of writing and media: The New Yorker, Mental Floss, Lingua Franca, novels, descriptions of art on museum walls, NPR, and Wikipedia.

Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?

I love the way Charles Simic’s work is both playful and dark. I think that’s such a magic combination.

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

I hope people who don’t normally read poetry will read the chapbook and be surprised that poems can be different than what they might expect—they can be funny and dark and make them think about things in a new way. And of course, I would be thrilled if other poets and poetry lovers read and enjoy it as well.

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

For many years I tried not to write, and I wish I had realized sooner that I have to write regardless of whether anything comes of it or not. It’s just a really good, healthy thing for me to do.


Deborah Flanagan’s chapbook, Or, Gone, was the winner of Tupelo Press’s Snowbound Series Chapbook Award, and AGNI recently nominated her work for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in journals including The Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, Pleiades, FIELD, The Southern Review, and Drunken Boat, among others. She served as Director of Development for the Academy of American Poets before establishing the Center for True Health. In addition to working with patients at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, she has appeared as a wellness expert on national television, in print, and online. Deborah lives with her husband in New York City.



“The Voynich Manuscript” (poem)

“Figures of the Fabrick’d” and “The Mysterious Disappearance of Agatha Christie Or The Case of the Missing Novelist” (two poems)


Deliverance of Samuel Beckett

I           Samuel Beckett is stabbed in the chest on a side street in Paris, by a notorious pimp

______named Prudent. A stranger finds him, gets help, visits him in the hospital. I can’t go on,

______I’ll go on, he murmurs, delirious. Soon after, he marries the stranger. The sun shone,

______having no alternative.

II         Beckett later asks his attacker, “What was the motive behind stabbing me?” Prudent

______replies, “Je ne sais pas, Monsieur. Je m’excuse.” This answer knocks the breath out of

______him, provides hours of inspiration. We’re not beginning to…to…mean something? He

______drops the charges, finding Prudent personably likeable and well-mannered, finding the

______arithmetic of emotional fidelity extremely private. Only a small part of what is said can be


Chelsea Biondolillo

Ologies (Etchings Press, 2015)

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

The first two nonfiction chapbooks I ever held in my hands were Amy Monticello’s Close Quarters (Sweet Publications, 2012) and Donna Steiner’s Elements (also Sweet Publications, 2013). I had seen poetry chaps and flash fiction chaps, but never nonfiction. They were hand-bound gorgeous objects and the essays in them were thematically linked, but each stood on its own. Later, I got two chapbooks from Rose Metal Press that seemed to blur the fiction/ nonfiction boundary in ways that I found exciting (Shampoo Horns by Aaron Teel and Betty Superman by Tiff Holland) Those four books were game changers. I’ve since tried to collect a few CNF chaps each year at AWP, but those two will always stand out for me.

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

I secretly longed to be solicited by Sweet Publications for years! Okay, I still long for that. But mostly, they showed me that what I wanted to do was possible. I can and do write lengthily, but I love writing shorter nonfiction, and the chapbook is a great showcase for that. At any given time, I have around three different configurations of short essays out for submission.

What’s your chapbook about?

Ologies contains four essays that use scientific and pseudo scientific lenses to explore human relationships. I always felt awkward as a kid and have had trouble ever since with some of the relationships that should be the closest — in Ologies I look at that phenomenon specifically. Rather than narratively and narrowly focusing on the personal, from school yard ostracizing to uncomfortable exchanges with my estranged father, break-ups and loneliness, I examine natural phenomenon, perform detailed tasks (of research, of taxidermy). In this way, my narrator can step back from her personal discomfort and see a greater world at work.

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

“Phrenology” is the first piece in Ologies, and it was the piece that took the longest to write. That essay went from second to third to first person. It went through about five different “organizational” stages—chronological, by sense (touch, taste), etc. I would print it out and cut it apart so I could move the fragments. I played with justification and fonts before settling on floating boxes, and then the boxes shrank and grew a few times. It was simultaneously the most frustrating process and the one closest to the collage work that I did in art school in undergrad. The third essay, “Pyrology,” was written as a direct response to the first, a kind of “grown up” voice responding to the earlier child-scientist. Spoiler: the grown up is still an uncomfortable outsider when it comes to most affairs of the heart.

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

I just write. Eventually shapes in the essays I’ve completed begin to appear. They become more like blocks than separate stones. So, then I might start pushing pieces together to see what they look like side-by-side and also to see what gaps appear that I can yet write into. It’s a slow process, and not an especially well-organized or comforting one, but it’s mine.

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

The first essay was part of my master’s thesis, which was titled “Careers in Science,” and in it, all of the essays were supra-titled after an “ology”—phrenology, geology, mnesiology, tautology, etc. Originally, the three new essays in the chapbook were going to be a part of an expanded manuscript, so they too became ologies… I didn’t want to re-use the manuscript title, and I toyed with a half a dozen names before I settled on what seemed the most obvious.

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

I did not even know what would be on the cover until after the book had gone to the printer. I’m learning to love it.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a collection of lyric essays that might become a memoir project, and I am processing hours of research for a book on vultures.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

Read chapbooks. They are easy to collect, and there are some really great presses doing wonderful work for writers and literature. Reading chaps is the best way to find which editors and presses might be amenable to your own work. My favorite presses include the aforementioned Sweet Publications and Rose Metal Press, but also Curbside Splendor, Origami Zoo Press, Tiny Hardcore Press, Ugly Duckling Presse, and New Michigan Press. Work through their catalog pages, or do like I do and stalk their tables at book fairs like a creepy creeper.

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

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


Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of Ologies (Etchings Press, 2015). Her prose has appeared in a variety of places including Orion, Passages NorthBrevityDiagramHayden’s Ferry ReviewRiver Teeth, Sonora Review, and others. She is the recipient of an Olive B. O’Connor nonfiction fellowship and the Carter Prize for the Essay. She has an MFA in creative writing and environmental studies from the University of Wyoming and currently teaches writing workshops at ApiaryLit.org and keeps a journal at RoamingCowgirl.com.

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.