Pure Elysium (Palettes & Quills, 2010)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?
Ha, looking over your past interviews, I see that nearly all my favorites have either been mentioned or directly interviewed. I like Justin Hamm’s stuff, plus Stealing Dust by Karen Weyant, Saint Monica by Mary Biddinger, Superman: the Chapbook by Dorianne Laux, Water Never Sleeps by Lynne Martin Bowman, and Split by Colleen Powderly. Big fan of The Heart That Lies Outside the Body by Stephanie Lenox, too (which I was happy to just rediscover on my shelf with every other page dog-earred). Lots more I’m forgetting, I’m sure. I don’t recall what first got me interested in chapbooks, but I love the energy and variety you find in them.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest piece is probably “For Tanya, Whose Fate Remains Unknown,” which I originally drafted back in grad school about eight years ago. It started because somebody kept dialing the wrong number and leaving me frantic messages about somebody named Tanya. I was struck by the awkward intimacy of it, plus the anti-climax of never actually knowing who Tanya was or what happened to her. That felt like a metaphor for the human condition, but it also made the poem very difficult to end. I remember 90% of the poem came out pretty quickly, but the ending took me so many drafts that I eventually shelved the poem, then returned to it years later.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
Even though most of my poems tend to favor narrative, I work to make them as lyrical as possible. I did that with this one, too, though I also think this chapbook is a little more playful, a bit more sardonic, than my previous chapbooks. The confessionalism and social commentary are still there, but Pure Elysium also contains some tongue-in-cheek poems like “Father Time and Baby New Year,” “Wisdom of the Ancients” (which was inspired by a story I heard from a friend), and “Ode to Coprolite” which is about… well, look it up.
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?
For me, at least so far, chapbooks have been an invaluable way to help me put full-length books together. I tend to think of my full-length books as three or four act plays, with the poems in the chapbook constituting maybe one of those acts (I say maybe because by the time I’m sending out a full-length book, I may have changed the original structure and order about a hundred times).
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook?
In terms of length, I usually aim for 30 to 35 pages for a chapbook. As for the arrangement… that’s tough because unlike my full-length books, which I tend to divide into sections (here’s a biographical section, now here’s a kind of political section, now here’s a section that lets me geek out on history), I kind of fly by the seat of my pants when it comes to chapbooks. For me, it’s not so much the order of the poems as figuring out how well the poems transition from one to the next, then making sure I start and end on something like a signature poem, something the reader can use to get their bearings.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
For this particular one, I only submitted it to a couple contests, one of which was with Palettes & Quills. I lucked out. In general, I only submit chapbook manuscripts to contests, though that’s not so much a rule as a that’s-just-how-it’s-worked-out kind of deal. It’s not really about the prize money so much as the little extra boost of publicity you can get with a contest, though there are obviously plenty of great chapbook presses out there with open reading periods that are worth looking into.
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? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
In the case of Pure Elysium, the poems ended up pretty much where they started, though the contest judge (Dorianne Laux) did offer a few small but excellent pre-publication suggestions. The press, Palettes & Quills, was great to work with. For the cover, they let me select a cool painting by my friend (also a great poet), Peter Davis. Once we had the cover, I worked closely with Donna Marbach and Tom Holmes on the layout, text font, the color surrounding the painting, etc. I had final say, but they gave me a lot of wonderful options.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
I was fortunate in that Palettes & Quills brought me out for a couple readings, which were great fun. Besides that, I’ve advertised the book on my website, Facebook, and Twitter, and usually have a stack of copies to sell at readings. That’s about the limit of my publicity knowledge, though.
What are you working on now? What is your writing practice?
I’m currently trying to find a home for a couple new poetry manuscripts (one of them pretty experimental) and editing a couple new fantasy manuscripts. In an effort to drive myself insane, I’m also working on a new book, as well. My writing practice is a little sporadic. I try to work on a poem or two a week (usually between teaching classes during the regular semester), but I go on these long, six or twelve hour writing kicks from time to time—ironically, usually when my schedule is the least friendly towards them.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Be patient. Really work on the poems. It’s great to publish a chapbook, but I think it’s dangerous to view them as “easier” than a full-length book. They’re their own thing. They need to have a certain feel to them, a feel of self-containment rather than just being a sampling of a bigger collection.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
Lately, I’ve been trying out this new revision technique that I came up with after reading “Read This Poem From the Bottom Up” by Ruth Porritt. Basically, I reverse the lines of a draft so that the last line is the first line, the second-to-last line is the second line, and so on. Then, once I’ve tinkered with the prepositions and switched a few words, I either end up with an entirely different poem that I like better, or at the very least, I have a more conscious understanding of the original draft’s leaps and rhythms. Less radical revision ideas include taking out all the line breaks, editing the language, then putting line breaks back in. And of course, as old-fashioned as it sounds, there’s always the ol’ read-it-out-loud thing.
A question from Bianca Spriggs: which poem is the “black sheep” in your collection and why?
“Parable” is probably the strangest poem in the collection because it’s the most surreal, and one of only a few that don’t have an “I” in them. The poem started out as this random thought about knights putting on armor, wondering what would happen if they dressed in reverse—“metal first, then cloth, then flesh….” When I was done with it, I didn’t consciously know at first what the poem was trying to say, but it felt right and, along with “Dedication,” is probably my favorite from the collection.
A question from Justin Hamm: what’s the most interesting concept or design you’ve seen for a chapbook?
Not to sound like a broken record (bad pun alert!) but I’m a big fan of Justin Hamm’s The Everyday Parade/Alone with Turntable, Old Records. I like that halfway through the chapbook, you have to turn it over, like you’d turn over the record. It’s a fun, simple way to add a little extra energy to a chapbook that’s already bristling with great poems.
A question from Lisa Ampleman: 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 usually read book-length collections of poetry a little at a time, but when it comes to chapbooks, yeah, I almost always plow through them all in one sitting. Part of the reason, sure, is that they’re not as long. More than that, though, they have an extra energy and cohesion (like Hamm said in his interview), kind of like comparing the pacing of a short film versus a regular movie.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Want to team up for a reading sometime?
Michael Meyerhofer’s third book, Damnatio Memoriae, won the Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. His previous books are Blue Collar Eulogies (Steel Toe Books) and Leaving Iowa (winner of the Liam Rector First Book Award). He has also published five chapbooks (most recently Pure Elysium, winner of the Palettes & Quills Chapbook Contest), and is the Poetry Editor of Atticus Review. He has a fantasy series forthcoming in 2014. He currently lives and teaches in Indiana. For more information, plus at least one embarrassing childhood photo, please visit his website.
On the morning of the great battle,
the knights woke in such a fuss
that they dressed themselves backwards—
metal first, then cloth, then flesh
and last of all, their organs, hung like
ripe apples from the war-tree.
Well, this is embarrassing, they said,
then saw their enemies had done likewise.
How to fight once you’ve seen
the contents of your foe’s stomach,
the sad obstructions around his heart?
Peace spread across Europe
which led to boredom, which led
to war. Except the men’s sons rebelled
and wore their armor on the outside.
Their fathers gathered on the road
to watch them ride off. The old men’s tears
rusted their insides. Outside,
though, they still looked
as always like they were blushing.
It seems we’ve left skin
in each other’s lungs. I should have
looked under your bed skirt
for my wallet, but how
could credit cards compare
to the sneeze after we’ve parted?
Gone and still you make me
reach for a tissue—still my palms
turn circles in the red
breakwater of your heartbeat.
I want to tell you, I have nothing
but respect for your ribcage
now that we both know
it’s not big enough to hold us.