If They Have Ears to Hear (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2013)
What’s the oldest piece in the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest poem is “Tonight.” It actually began as two separate poems in 2001: one beginning with the first line “I’ll take a glass of wine—a red,” and the other with “I dread the white/granite day . . .” Several days later, flying somewhere over New Mexico, I realized they were both part of the same poem. When Rosebud published “Tonight” in 2003, it became my first poem in print.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?
From more established poets, I admire The Preacher by Gerald Stern, The Pittsburgh Poems by Gerald Locklin, The Show Must Go On by A.D. Winans, Dark Arcana by Anne Waldman, and Sketches For a New Mexico Hill Town by Keith Wilson, my first poetry mentor. From newer poets I enjoy Oyl by Denise Duhamel & Maureen Seaton, Primo Pensiero by Jacqueline Gens, Burnings by Ocean Vuong, Sex with Buildings by Stephanie Barbé Hammer, and The Art of the Nipple by Michelle Bonczek. Their influence mainly has been as examples of good writing, and the notion that a chapbook does not have to follow any particular theme or format.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
In assembling this collection, I did not strive to make it about anything in particular. I chose what I, along with other poets I respect, thought the best poems not in my previous chapbook. Looking back, many poems deal with struggle or a quest of some sort. The original title of a previous incarnation of these poems was Making Up The Dead. An editor of a press where it placed as a semi-finalist or finalist (I don’t remember which), suggested the title from a line in what is now the title poem. The original title poem, as well as others, was removed as the manuscript evolved.
As far as how it compares with previous work, it covers a wider range of experiences than an earlier chapbook, Altar Call, which focuses on coming of age in a fundamental religious family and community. The poems in that chapbook are more topical and more narrative—although, hopefully, all of my work has its lyrical moments.
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’ve never consciously set out to write a chapbook. I write poems one at a time, without much thought about the last or the next. I only realized that I had a chapbook, whenever they collected themselves into that format.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook?
After laying out those poems on my study floor that I considered my best (not part of a previous collection), they seemed to organize themselves into five loosely conceived sections (childhood, religion, work, love, and death). I culled these sections leaving five poems in each, and ordered them as listed above, with numbered section dividers. After winning the Copperdome Chapbook Award, my editor told me that the section dividers made the manuscript too long, and that I either had to cut some poems or the section dividers. Of course, I chose keeping all the poems in. Cutting the section dividers makes for some interesting turns in the narrative arc of the chapbook, but I’m glad I made the decision to keep in all twenty-five poems.
The title of the chapbook is a reworking of a declaration that appears multiple times in the New Testament after Jesus’s sayings and parables: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear!” It is also embedded in the title poem, referring to the possible encounter between alien life forms and the voices of Carl Sagan and Kurt Waldheim recorded on the Voyager spacecraft: “. . . These beings/ will hear, if they have ears to hear, sounds/ of the surf, humpback whales, greetings in Swahili,/ Akkadian and Wu.”
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
Both. A previous version won second prize in the 2010 Palettes & Quills Chapbook contest under the title, Making Up The Dead, and an almost identical version was one of three finalists in the 2012 Slapering Hol Chapbook Contest. But many many readers and editors saw it over a period of four or five years before it won the Copperdome Chapbook Award by Southeast Missouri State University Press.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Susan Swartwout from Southeast Missouri State University Press was incredible. She asked me to submit images. My first one was totally off, and she told me why, and asked me to submit more. I found some terrific images of antique gramophones, which I sent to her, letting her know my favorite. She immediately agreed, and the decision was made just like that. I like the image on several levels—ideationally, of course, it is perfect, since the word “gramophone” comes from the Greek “phone” meaning “sound,” and “gramma” meaning “written”—quite a correlation with my title “If They Have Ears to Hear.” On the sensory level, I like that the image blends the organic with the mechanical—upon first glance, it is difficult to determine whether the image is a flower (with its green and gold sections radiating out from a central darkness), or the bell to some kind of instrument. Also the bright green almost yellows at the edges, which is satisfying to me because of my love for Larry Levis and his imagery in The Widening Spell of the Leaves. I could not be happier with both the cover’s design process and result.
In what ways did your chapbook change between the version you submitted and the final published version? Did you revise, rearrange, or make other changes?
There were very few changes beyond typos. As I’ve already mentioned, the significant changes came in the preceding years when I was extensively revising it, and sending it out to other presses.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
I’ve done several readings locally in the San Francisco bay area and placed it in some bookstores. I have promoted it on Twitter and Facebook, where I have an extensive network of poets and writers. Jen Monroe, a New England poet and teacher, has published an excerpt in her online journal, Extract(s). Stephan Delbos, a Prague poet, teacher, and editor, has reviewed it on B O D Y, an international literary journal based in Prague. It’s available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. And, of course, Southeast Missouri State University Press has done a great job of promoting it on their site. (See below for links.)
How have your goals as a writer changed since your chapbook was published? What are you working on now?
I have two full-length manuscripts that I have been working on for several years. One is entitled Blood Lines, which is a history of my poetic and personal lineage. The other is The Gate, an interpretation of the history and meaning of the Golden Gate Bridge in our culture. It’s a post-modern, repurposing of Hart Crane’s “The Bridge,” tracing the forces working as far back as 1 Million BC, when the ocean was 26 miles to the west of what is now San Francisco’s “Golden Gate.” It charts the rise of the ocean and the flooding of the river that drained a huge inland sea in what is now the central valley of California to form the bay, twelve thousand years ago, when native peoples watched it happen. It culminates in the building of the Golden Gate Bridge over the gate, through which so much history had passed, creating a structure from which more people have jumped to end their lives than any other in the world—over 1500 since it was built in 1937.
My most recent work includes 37 pages of short haiku-like, cross-out poems found in Hart Crane’s work that I’ve added to The Gate sequence, in addition to some random poems that do not yet adhere as a manuscript.
What is your writing practice?
I’m on time for my appointment with the muse every morning at 3:00 am. Sometimes he shows up; sometimes he doesn’t. But I’m always there, just in case.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Not to think of the final form your work might take. Write the best lines possible each day. Revise constantly. Periodically check to see how your work is connecting with itself and with the work of other writers. Let it seek its own final form.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
I don’t often use prompts. But I will occasionally begin with a line from another poem, or borrow an idea from some other text, and then take it in a completely different direction. The work of other poets prompts my writing more than anything else. In that way, I see all of my work as call/response.
As far as revision technique, my most favorite comment about revision I’ve heard this year is from Dorianne Laux—to make each line in a poem better than the previous one, ending on the strongest line. I suppose the corollary to that would be to rework, move or cut any line that follows the strongest.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Do you have a full-length manuscript? If so, describe the relationship of your chapbook to it.
In addition to his chapbooks, Altar Call (published in the San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival anthology Diesel), and If They Have Ears to Hear (winner of the 2012 Copperdome Chapbook Contest), Terry Lucas’s work can be found in numerous journals in print and online, including Green Mountains Review, Grain Magazine (Canada), and MiPO, with recent or forthcoming work in Best New Poets 2012, Great River Review and The Comstock Review, among others. His essay, “Metaphor and Love in the Poetry of Alicia Ostriker,” is forthcoming in a future volume of the Under Discussion Series by the University of Michigan Press.
God spoke to my cousin
of old cars. Waterfalls,
hand saws. Calibrated
in railroad ties, iron rails
singing under boxcars
like strings beneath bows
of a million cellos. God
whispered from the deep
fried oil at Luke’s Café,
taught him how to use a steak
knife, how to remove a rib
from the waitress. Showed him
an escape route through the garden.
In the hospital there were angels
between walls. Sobbing
in the water pipes, the radiators.
They traveled the city in sirens at night,
until his doctors locked them away
behind bars of lithium. Now he stands
by the Golden Gate, listens
to foghorns on the bay, sea lions
billowing up from Pier 39,
prays in unknown tongues, casting
for some lost chord. Only the wind
in the wind. Waves in the waves.
Previously published in Goodreads