Flood Letters (Argos Books, 2011)
What’s the oldest piece in the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
Flood Letters was written in one intense burst, during March and early April of 2010. I’m still not sure where the voice of the poems came from; that was a very personally difficult year, and I was at a really painful point in my life in many ways. So this apocalyptic voice and scenario kept emerging in my writing—a combination of my own psychological state at the time and the news of so many destructive floods and storms all over the world.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
Flood Letters is a narrative sequence of epistolary poems, written in the voice of a woman isolated in her home during a devastating flood. Many of the poems are addressed to the ordinary things around her, a kind of farewell to domestic objects and comforts. She’s also in conversation with the violent and extreme forces at work in nature and her own mind: weather, loneliness, fear, etc. She imagines herself as Noah at times—I’ve always loved flood myths—but while she has a kind of faith, she’s unsure of where or how to apply it in the horror of the situation.
The book is very different from anything I’d written before. Strangely, it feels like my most personal work, even though the voice is a persona and the situation is a kind of fantasy. It also seems formally shaggier and rangier than work I’d done before. I guess that many of the themes I’ve taken up in much of my work are present, though: loss and loneliness, of course—but also where solace can be found in situations that seem unbearable, and the weird, constant surprise of being alive and conscious at all.
What made you decide to gather your pieces in a chapbook instead of another format? When did you realize you were working toward a chapbook?
I think I’d written about ten or twelve poems before I realized I was writing what would end up being a chapbook-length manuscript. It helped me shape the sequence, once I figured that out. I was able to pace the narrative and say what I urgently needed to say within that framework. It felt like a solid structure within which anything was possible—but since I always seem to tend toward shorter forms in whatever I write, the compactness of the chapbook length was a comfort.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I decided early on that I didn’t want to submit Flood Letters to contests. I went that route with my first full-length book and I’ve been in the process of doing it with my second, and it can be so very painful. I knew it was an odd book and might be hard to place, and honestly I just couldn’t bear to go through all of that. I’m grateful for the opportunity contests offer—but it just didn’t feel like the right path for Flood Letters, to me.
Not long after the manuscript was completed I found out about Argos Books, an independent literary press based in Brooklyn. My friend Paige Ackerson-Kiely had written a series of gorgeous poems for their Side-by-Side folio series, and I also loved Bianca Stone’s chapbook with them. I felt a really personal connection to their mission and to the work they were putting out, and I loved the books as objects, too. I sent my manuscript off to them and just kind of felt like it was meant to be. I felt like the stars had aligned in some very special way when the editors wrote back saying they wanted to publish it.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Mårten Wessel, who does the design for Argos, is really great—I knew the book would look good, so I didn’t get too involved with the design. I did choose a cover image—the silhouette of a raven, which came from a woodblock print by my friend Ray Hudson. The cover design is completely different from the original image, though; Argos did a great job of making the silhouette fit the context of the book and the press’s aesthetic. Every time I look at it I feel like it was just the most satisfying collaboration between myself and craftspeople whose work I admire.
I feel humbled and grateful every time I think about the fact that Argos’ chapbooks are hand-sewn. It’s time-consuming, and seems like such an intimate process. The fact that the editors at Argos felt strongly enough about my work that they would want to spend that much time with it, handling and interacting with it over and over again—it’s really amazing and rare.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
I’ve given many readings since Flood Letters came out. I like reading from the book a lot, because even though it’s kind of bleak the voice is fun to inhabit, and there are some moments of humor. It’s fun reading a narrative sequence, because I can see that people are involved in a sustained way which is different from the way listeners engage with a series of unconnected lyric poems.
When the book first came out Argos held a launch at Camel Art Space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I got to read with my friend Claire Hero, the author of several chapbooks I love. During the reading the funniest thing happened: it had to do with my lines, “There it is // again: death” and a huge squeaky metal door at the front of the gallery that slowly and mysteriously opened just as I said those words. It was only someone arriving late, but it couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.
How have your goals as a writer changed since your chapbook was published? What are you working on now?
My main goal is really just to continue living a life which is conducive to writing poems, and to do what I can to ensure my work will reach readers who find it meaningful. I’ve got a second full-length manuscript that I’ve been working on for a few years, and individual poems from it have found homes with many journals I’m proud to have a place in. Several poems from the book’s current iteration will be in another chapbook I have forthcoming with Argos, called Swan.
I would love to have another experience like the one I had with Flood Letters: that intensity was really unique in my life, and everything around it felt kind of urgent and charged. But I’m not sure it would be good for me to write like that all the time. I do love the feeling of being caught up in a narrative and expressing myself through the voice of a character, and I’ve satisfied that sometimes with writing short stories. I suppose that’s another of my goals: to continue writing short fiction, and perhaps a novel.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Well, first I’ll answer Lisa Ampleman’s question: “What is your own experience of reading a chapbook like? Do you read through it in one sitting or pick and choose pieces to read?”
I think I generally do read chapbooks in one sitting. That’s one thing I especially love about chapbooks: they’re just the right length for reading in a coffee shop or a train station, and so many of them feel so good to hold.
My question for the next person is: have you ever fantasized about starting your own press?
Karin Gottshall is the author of Crocus (Fordham University Press, 2007), winner of the Poets Out Loud Prize. She has written three chapbooks: Flood Letters (Argos Books, 2011), Almanac for the Sleepless (Dancing Girl Press, 2012), and Swan (Argos Books, forthcoming). Her poems have appeared in Crazyhorse, FIELD, The New England Review, and many other publications. She lives in Vermont and currently teaches poetry writing at Middlebury College.
from Flood Letters
The livable world subdivides
infinitely. At last the two
damp rooms of my lungs
will be the only sustaining
space. If like you they were concert
halls, dear Broken Radio, small
as they are but capable of holding full
orchestras…that’s the kind of paradox
that troubles me, these days. A rotary
phone with which I once called
the Netherlands dangles useless hook
from receiver. Imagine the fish
I could catch with that: electric
eel. Lungfish. I hope they will finally
be caverns for prawn or baby
squid, if the water still supports
such creatures. My love
used to breathe with me, in unison,
whole nights, and those delicate
mechanics whereby his body
came into contact with mine,
synched to my inhalations, seem
as unlikely in this ruin as concertos
or stethoscopes. Such gossamer—
how were we made to believe
the habitable world was true?