How Swallowtails Become Dragons (Accents Publishing, 2011)
What’s the oldest piece in the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
That’s a little hard to say. I sort of burned through a lot of these at around the same time and some were floating fragments that later became what I like to call “Franken-poems.” But I am fairly certain that the oldest complete poem in this collection is “Black Market.” I was actually commissioned to write the poem by a colleague of mine, visual artist and professor Kurt Gohde, who was working on a “cabinet of curiosities” exhibition, which blurred the lines between fact and fiction. He asked me to write a poem in the voice of the cadaver of a slave woman to accompany the other period pieces in his upcoming show. I am no stranger to writing in persona, so it really boiled down to the research and making sure that the voice was sincere and authentic. So I learned quite a bit about common causes of death during that time period, and also that the cadavers of slaves were commonly trafficked across the Mason-Dixon line to serve as practice bodies for students training to be doctors to operate on. Even in death, a slave’s body was not her own.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?
I think, at the time of putting together this collection, apart from perhaps Rita Dove’s earliest publications, and Ginsberg’s Howl, and Ferlinghetti’s Pocket Poet Series, I was mostly familiar with chapbooks as a means of the working-class poet’s bread & butter. So most of the chaps that I read were from local and regional poets, printed off at Kinkos and stapled by hand swiftly exchanged for a fistful of ones or a five or a cocktail after an open-mic. The chapbook game has really blown up in the last few years, but I remember my husband giving me a copy of Frank Bidart’s Star Dust around the time I was patching together my chap, and I was inspired by the excellence and success of that collection. It really sort of realigned in real-time how I thought about the potential of a chapbook. Right now I’m reading and thoroughly enjoying Ocean Vuong’s collection, No, which flirts with the length of a full-length collection, but manages to retain the precision of a chap.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
My chapbook is about people, entities, and creatures in various states of transition and transformation. Life to death and back again, bodies that turn into other kinds of bodies, love that turns into possession. Mermaids, dying wasps, cadavers, celestial bodies, legends, myths, tall tales—I think, coming off of my first full-length collection, Kaffir Lily, which is largely autobiographical and seriously concerned with social justice issues, How Swallowtails Become Dragons felt like I was letting off some steam and playing around with form a little more as well as testing and breaking through the limits of my imagination.
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 was working a job that I wasn’t a hundred percent in love with at the time, so working on mixing and re-mixing groups of poems made me feel like I was keeping my creative edge. This round-up of poems sort of burst forth after Kaffir Lily came out. Between the time you have an accepted manuscript and the time it’s actually published, there’s a significant gap, so my voice and interests were in the process of changing and growing towards a different plane. I wanted to see how the new poems worked together and talked to one another. I realized I was working towards a chap when the contest for Accents Publishing was announced. The poems just made too much sense together and I felt so strongly about them, I just submitted the manuscript, perhaps a bit recklessly now that I think about it.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook?
I have an excellent editor. Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, Senior Editor for Accents, swooped in and helped me groom a collection that would have been sort of all right on its own into what I feel is an arrangement that will stand the test of time. She worked very closely with me to make sure the narrative of the arrangement made sense and to help me pare down to the real marrow of the manuscript. When you’ve looked at a manuscript for so long, it just sort of all runs together, so I’m very fortunate she was there to lend her instincts and expertise to the process. I trust her eye implicitly. The only thing I sort of insisted on was the title, even though it’s a little long-winded. The title poem summed up my entire thesis, and I felt like it was kind of catchy as titles go.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
The only contest I submitted to was the Accents contest. I didn’t win the contest, but I was accepted for publication which is still winning to me. I did submit several of the poems within the manuscript before publication.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Katerina had a specific aesthetic that she wanted to keep to unify the chapbook series, so I was totally okay with going along with her vision. That said, she asked my opinion on paper color and cover color, and we ooh-ed and ahh-ed over the cream pages and the gold shimmer cover. I was tickled with what we agreed upon. Her son is the press’s resident artist and I was delighted with his cover image, which I felt and still feel not only stands out, but really captures the organic nature of the chap’s major themes.
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?
Certainly! Like I said, Katerina worked very closely with me on the arrangement for several months. We met many times to go over suggestions for revisions, additions, subtractions. She heard me out—I heard her out. I found that in some places, I really felt strongly about certain words or concepts, and in others, I was willing to compromise. She even called in an outside reader to make notes about grammar and punctuation, and so, it was a thorough revision process. Suffice it to say, I felt a bit spoiled. When an editor cares as much about your work as you, it makes all the difference during this process.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
I’ve done give-aways on social media, which is probably my favorite way of publicizing. I’ve submitted the collection for a few reviews, and have been interviewed online, over the radio, and local television. I’ve done loads of readings, of course, and sometimes give away free copies if audience members can answer certain bits of trivia, just to liven things up. I’ve done signings at conferences, festivals and fairs. Some of these Accents has set up, I’m a working-class poet, so I am not shy about pounding the pavement for my own books. I think, because I feel so strongly about the work still, two years later, it makes it easy to continue to navigate the publicity aspect.
How have your goals as a writer changed since your chapbook was published? What are you working on now?
My goals now are more long-term. I feel, even though I’ve had a full-length and a chapbook published, that I have only just cracked the door open and can see a little light filtering through from the other side. It is a strange realization. I sometimes panic that the muse will never return. I feel like sometimes she’ll never leave. That I have so, so, so much work to do. Or sometimes maybe I should just relax and go learn how to make terrariums for awhile or something. Overall, I am taking more care with my work than I did several years ago. Although the lure of publication is always tempting, I’m not thinking in terms of building up towards a product as much or churning out material with the intent to publish. I just want to be a better writer. I want to dabble, experiment, to write through pieces instead of towards them, if that makes sense. Once you’ve decided a piece is finished, that’s it. It’s pinned down like a dead butterfly. I enjoy the imagining and daydream process so much more now. Writing has become more of a way that I synthesize information and work out problems. Of course, my experiences inform the work, but I feel like writing is a lens through which I can examine the world. The more I write, the more I see. That said, putting work into collections helps me to think at a macro level and orient ideas while monitoring overarching themes. So, right now, I’m primarily working on two poetry-specific projects. A full-length that is filled with poems about some truly wild women who showed up on my doorstep one day and haven’t left me the same since. Amazons, deities, priestesses, bartenders, seers and oracles, they have mentored me through some truly sticky situations in the past few years. And another manuscript which examines matters of the heart through meditations on the cosmos and the natural world.
What is your writing practice?
I write as often as I can, but I have to admit, even though they don’t work for everyone, I heart marathon challenges. I am a steadfast practitioner of NaPoWriMo. I feel like a mad scientist. I love starting the month and not knowing what the hell I’m going to come up with every day for thirty days or if I even will. I love ending the month and having up to thirty more poems than I did when I started. I’ve done two marathon challenges this year and have maybe a handful out of those crops of poems that are usable. Actually, that’s not too shabby. The rest end up in the Franken-poem pile to be harvested from later. I suppose, then, along those lines, that my writing practice right now is reduce, re-use, recycle.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Treat your chapbook arrangement like a mix-tape to an ex-lover. Don’t be afraid of end-notes. One rule that I got from Nikky Finney: Make sure your epigraphs are not more interesting than your poem. One rule that I got from A.J. Verdelle: Repetition is holy. One rule that I got from Joyce Dyer: Sometimes you must let the whale swallow you.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
Time is the best editor.
Here’s a question from Karin Gottshall: have you ever fantasized about starting your own press?
I have totally fantasized about starting my own press! I just know too many wonderful writers I’d love to help midwife into the world. I have a name for my dream press in mind and everything! In terms of what I’d publish, I’d love for my press to be a home for speculative poetry and flash fiction. And this may sound sort of strange, but I also imagine operating more along the lines of a micro-press, and focused more on creating works of art in terms of quality and collectibility as opposed to high turn-out. So, think an imagined trip to Saturn printed on really gorgeous paper
And here’s a question from Soma Mei Sheng Frazier: Have you considered donating a portion of your sales toward an urgent cause?
I haven’t considered it, mostly because I do quite a bit of social justice work anyway, which involves fundraisers for natural disasters and regional issues like mountaintop removal, workshops in jails and prisons, and book-drives for incarcerated women. I have donated copies of my books before to certain causes when approached about it, so it’s certainly not out of the question to donate a portion of sales if it ever came up.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Which poem is the “black sheep” in your collection and why?
An Affrilachian Poet and Cave Canem Fellow, Bianca Spriggs is a multidisciplinary artist who lives and works in Lexington, Kentucky. Bianca is the recipient of a 2013 Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship in Poetry, multiple grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and a Pushcart Prize Nominee. In partnership with the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association, she is the creator of The SwallowTale Project: creative writing for incarcerated women, and the creator and Artistic Director of the Wild Women of Poetry Slam featured annually at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. Bianca is the author of Kaffir Lily, How Swallowtails Become Dragons, and the managing editor for pluck! the Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture.
How Swallowtails Become Dragons
_____Having opened to their fullest, they opened further.—Carl Phillips, “Distortion”
Too early, we grow teeth.
Too early, we are not content,
not knowing the longer
we remain one way—steeping—
the more brilliant we become.
And so harvest comes early.
We cannot help that the resin
running through us is so hot
and so sweet it overwhelms,
We cannot help the one day
we desire to open another’s flesh—
to know it better—and our own.
Here in a world of blood
(not so far below some hazed,
veined sky we do not remember
the sun), we wish to breathe fire.
Too early, though we do not know it
yet by name, we wish for alchemy:
water to blood
_____ blood to gold
_________gold to flesh
_______________ flesh to wings
_____ wings to wind.