Bird in the Head (Center for Book Arts, 2005)
A question from Curtis L. Crisler: Did your chapbook start out as something larger whose parts you made into a chapbook? Or, if it started out as self-contained, is it something that can be changed into a full manuscript?
My chapbook began as my MFA thesis, but my choice of the form was more a reflection of getting a chance, after graduating, to sit with the material more. Both its subject and its aesthetics made it feel more chapbook-like than full-length collection.
It relies a lot on silence and white space, a kind of gestural impulse, very influenced by silent black-and-white films, and Japanese aesthetics. Its material is also emotionally dense, and intense. I wanted a book form that would serve the reality of all of those things.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?
I didn’t really know a lot of chapbooks, but I did know a lot of “slim volumes” of poetry—a form that seems to be lost, yet one that I continue to appreciate. I don’t know—they’re certainly more often seen on the so-called smaller presses; maybe it’s being dominated by 21st century commodity culture now. Sometimes, I want pleasure that’s also a little irritating—want to be sated, and yet have room for more. To me that’s a classic chapbook quality.
But Frank Bidart’s Music Like Dirt, Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III, a volume of Akhmatova’s (20 Poems) translated by Jane Kenyon, and Eavan Boland’s In a Time of Violence, all really bothered me in a good way, if you know what I mean. Got under my skin. Also, my friend Thomas Sayers Ellis’s first chapbook, The Good Junk.
In that way, other books and films, Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark, Franz Masereel’s Story without Words, which are all short-shorts or vignettes or image-series in this same aesthetic vein, little gesture-and-emotion-driven shorts, glimpsed as if by candlelight; and the silent films of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and others, of course, were also very chapbook-like influences, too.
Maybe what they all have in common is a kind of attention to the sublime. To me, the chapbook form is a good container for that.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
My chapbook was my first manuscript; my next one, Dark~Sky Society, a full-length collection, will be out in fall 2014 on New Issues. In both cases what came, ultimately, to be the subject, was the thing I thought was a small part—a small part that I wanted like hell to avoid—as in, “Oh, $%^&—no—”
In the case of the chapbook it was focusing on the poems about my father, who was brain-injured. I didn’t want to reveal myself, my pain or my ignorance; and I didn’t want to dishonor him. And, maybe more than all that, I didn’t want to have to sacrifice my aesthetics—didn’t want to have to tread in confession, or over-reliance on narrative, which, maybe given the novelty of the subject, many early readers of the work really demanded. I gave in to some extent—and learned a lot from that. How sometimes, you have to. And yet, that it’s also okay to be “difficult,” to challenge and play a little with a reader.
In the case of Dark~Sky, it’s race and the color line. I didn’t want that to be my subject, because I didn’t want to risk being called a racist—And, again, didn’t want to have to do the things I’d already seen, use the forms I’d already seen. For these poems, many or most of my influences weren’t even poetry. Or, correction: weren’t even poems. They were definitely poetry.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook?
There was a point where I realized that a number of thematically- and formally-similar poems were a series, and once that fused, and I had a sense of where it belonged, it was just a question of seeing the two spaces on either side. Not easy, but at least it was progress.
What I really suffered over was both the opening and the final arc; I sent it to a small circle of friends for feedback, and its final shape definitely bears their influence, especially Jenny Factor and Sharan Strange, who both had very helpful questions and challenges.
I kinda feel like I cheated on the title; Bird in the Head is borrowed from the title of a Three Stooges short film. It just fit. I also—not that anyone would know—liked that the film was made right after Curly had had a series of strokes; though it’s pretty well-hidden, his speech is blurred and his behavior a little off, like my dad.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
Just The Center for Book Arts contest; I didn’t get to the stage where I did a lot of research about other places. I was also feeling kind of timid, and focused on other things right then (I’d just had my first child).
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?
Part of the deal with The Center for Book Arts is that they are making art from your work. It was a collaboration, in which I did the poem part and then Barbara Henry, a letterpress printmaker who designed and made the incredible book, did her thing. When she sent me the image that she came up with for the book’s facing page, I actually cried. I felt like she’s seen through to the heart of the book, even in ways I hadn’t, yet.
I made no changes, other than punctuation, to the final work compared to what I submitted. I didn’t submit until the book really felt done, felt “set” on the page. Cooked. I still hold that as a standard for sending work out, whether to journals or book contests. Deep down, I always know whether something is done or not. The question is whether I’ll have the courage to stick to that. To wait.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
Not much! Unfortunately, also part of the deal with Center for Book Arts is that, being a letterpress book, it comes in a very short run (100). It sold out, and fairly fast. I would love to reprint it, and circulate it, but haven’t found a chapbook publisher who will do a chapbook that’s already been done elsewhere. I’m very open to suggestions, though.
What are you working on now? What is your writing practice?
I’m now working on poetry manuscript number three, which I’m calling Voluptas. And a book of essay-things, some of which are lyric essays, some actually drawings, and at least one, fiction. And a third thing, something else, whose form I can’t tell. I also haven’t yet figured out a way to describe my subjects for these, except that the essay-things are about social change, and the “unthinkable.” The poems riff on some questions I’ve been asking about paradise.
My writing practice is to write like hell, as well and as often as I can. I look for questions or formal dilemmas—preferably the two are intertwined—that I can’t keep away from. That I’m afraid will get me in trouble, and that I feel fully and bodily—I look for the experience of being a captive in some way. In other words, what began as a “mistake”in my writing, that “oh, $%^&, no,” I have actually come to see as one of my natural tendencies, to seek that. For good or for bad.
Once I find those subjects and formal dilemmas, I start researching and absorbing. At some point in that process, poems or, right now, other forms, start coming out of the side of my head. My job is to make time and space in my life to get to them, start working with them, find the forms for them.
The newer poems might be following a slightly different form, looser and more of the seams showing. Or, not. I don’t know what will happen when I start really looking at them all as a book, and begin to be constrained—and inspired—by form and theme in a slightly more focused way. In any case, I don’t rush unless the poem tells me to. It tells me, “write me, write!” and then, I need to notice when it says, “give me space.” Which is just a personification of my own exhaustion or dullness, probably.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Take risks, listen for what is yours and only yours—and bring it! And, especially since the chapbook forces subtraction, don’t be afraid to throw things out. But remember that the choice cuts another way, as well: be bold in what you do bet on. There is so much that is familiar, not only out there in the book world, but in our own minds and imagination. Beware of the recycled or shop-worn. Let your chosen work reflect your weirdest or most authentic or freaky-deke way.
Ailish Hopper is the author of Dark~Sky Society (New Issues), selected by David St. John, and Bird in the Head (Center for Book Arts), selected by Jean Valentine. Individual poems have appeared in Agni, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and many other places. She’s received grants and residencies from Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, MacDowell Colony, and the Baltimore Commission for the Arts and Humanities. She teaches at Goucher College, in Baltimore.
Poetry has the chapbook’s title poem, “Bird in the Head,” online:
Agni online has “15 ½,” a poem from the next book:
And there are some other links to poems and essay-things at my website: