25 Sightings of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Firewheel Press, 2012)
What’s your chapbook about?
The chapbook, 25 Sightings of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, is about a very special woodpecker called the Ivory-billed that is extinct. Yet there are a couple dozen sightings of the Ivory-billed reported every year. And no one wants to stop seeing it. So every year there are the sightings and no analysis as to why there’s such desire to see this bird. Finally, the Cornell Dept. of Ornithology sent their scientists into the swamp habitat of the Ivory-billed. And guess what, they saw the bird, or thought they saw the bird. Later, their sightings were challenged by other Cornell ornithologists. All the debate about the bird and the desire to see the bird has captivated me. At the same time, I was experimenting in the lyric essay form and writing mainly about my family. I knew these two subjects–that of the bird and that of my grandmother–might make a good juxtaposition.
My grandmother had been dead twenty years, and yet I could sight everything about her in my mind: her red lipstick and rouge, the crystal perfume bottles that she kept on “her bureau,” the rubber tree plant in the dining room, the dining room buffet, the green upholstered telephone “booth” that she kept for sitting and talking on the phone, the fur coat she’d put on going out the door. I kept seeing things about her.
How is the chapbook similar to or different from your earlier work?
My earlier work is more narrative. Now, the material is more montage rather than linear. I like to work with metaphors, and the lyric essay form lends itself to that. I think a chapbook is a perfect form for prose poems and lyric essays. 25 Sightings of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker was part of a collection of prose poem and lyric pieces that formed a larger manuscript. I sent some of the pieces to Brian Clement at Firewheel Press. I knew that he had published Sentence magazine and that the press focused on prose poems. He wrote back to me and said, yep, this one’s a chapbook. He was talking about 25 Sightings. He had a vision for this chapbook. It’s engraved, it’s letterpressed, it’s printed on linen stock. You feel like it’s a precious thing.
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?
There was this idea that people kept thinking they were seeing this bird–the Ivory-billed Woodpecker–and I was transfixed by this. I began to check the sightings reported on the Cornell webpage. Then I began to write about it and chronicle it. As it turns out, there are so many people who think they have seen it that bird guidebooks have had to revise their pages to include the term “believed to be extinct.”
Essentially, the Ivory-billed was eliminated when John Singer went into the southern swamps and toppled the gum oaks that grew there to make his Singer Sewing Machine cabinets. I think everyone sees the tragedy in that, the irony. I wanted to extrapolate from it. I saw it also as a metaphor for our societal insanity: this desire to slash and burn habitat that subsequently manifests the desire to memorialize what had lived there.
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?
It seems to me that a chapbook isolates a piece not just as a work of literature but as a work of art. The short form tells us that these are crystallized or metaphoric moments. It’s a piece of work that’s been isolated, presented in its own book. It’s rare–that’s what the form seems to be telling us. Also, it’s intimate. It will be experienced if you hold this small book in your hand.
The material I was writing about–that of my grandmother and this rare bird–seemed to have these qualities of being both metaphoric and intimate moments. I was writing about extinct behaviors. For instance, I wrote that my grandmother worked as a “vault lady”–that’s what she was called. Almost no one has that job anymore. My grandmother always carried a patent leather purse to work. It was precious to her. She wore a patent leather belt and patent leather shoes to match. While she was wearing her rouge and purses, the last six Ivory-bills were flying around the gum-oak forests of Arkansas. What worlds were these? What vestiges of it are impressed in our desires to see it again and hidden in our DNA? I hope these are the thoughts raised by the chapbook. Because of the intimacy of the chapbook, it will slow the audience down; the moments are microscopic and expansive at the same time.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook?
The book starts in block paragraphs, but eventually the paragraphs become briefer and run on a long horizontal. We were mimicking the flight of the Ivory-billed. Brian Clement had that vision for the work, and I think that’s what’s wonderful about a chapbook, they become sculptural. I think it’s even more important to produce chapbooks today because the art of the book is carried on here. The whole idea of running the type on a scattered horizontal was to mimic the wings flapping in air. The white space in the book became important too. Then organization and length was created by comparing the 25 sightings of the bird with the 25 memories of my grandmother. Eventually, the woodpecker material was italicized, the grandmother material was set in block type.
There’s small photo of the Ivory-billed on every page of the text. I’m also a photographer and see a lot of intersections between image and word.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
I read up on the history of chapbooks, small books carried from village to village on caravans by the “chaps” who sold them to the households in the 17th and 18th centuries, and I think for better or for worse, the promotion of chapbooks is carried on today much the same as it was in 1742 or whatever. It’s a small product, being sold to a small “province” of people who might know or appreciate the artisan. It’s an artisanal product. That is how I’ve promoted it. And of course, I’ve done readings and facebooked it and linked it in e-mails to many people, without getting too annoying about it, I hope.
Eventually, I can see web permutations. For instance, one publisher, shebooks, publishes short memoir and short fiction for Kindle. The submissions cannot be more than 10,000 words–that’s a 40 page max that they’ve set. Perhaps the final Kindle product shebooks produces is not a chapbook, but that sort of begs the question–what is the chapbook form? And they’re platforming these short pieces on Kindle for $2.99. I think some of them are marketed as Kindle Singles. It’s inexpensive and this is in the spirit of the original chapbook vendors of the 18th and 19th centuries. But having said this, maybe we should say that a chapbook is something that is uniquely designed as an artistic object that can be paged and felt as paper in your hand. Maybe comparing a Kindle short piece to a chapbook is like comparing computer tennis to playing tennis on the centre court at Wimbledon.
What are you working on now?
All the themes that I established in 25 Sightings of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker have evolved. Those ideas now sit in other pieces. In particular, I have a soon-to-be-published manuscript of homages to women I have known. This work will be published by White Pine Press. The book will be called Some Women I Have Known. They are essays with a memoir bend to them, but written more poetically and lyrically.
My second project is about everything that came to light while I had cancer recently. Having breast cancer enter your life is going to translate as a highly illuminating time. Listening becomes very acute when you have cancer. Everything’s a gift–every word, every look someone gives you–and if you have a second to write about it, you’ve stolen more time, more gifts. I’m thinking of calling the book about this period in my life Artifacts of an Age–everything becomes something you want to keep.
What is your writing practice? Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
I used to just write everything, anything that came to mind, with the idea that I would find some use for all these excellent sentences scattered about, eventually. But as I got older, I became less of a journal keeper and more of a product developer. Since I am a memoirist or a nonfiction writer who uses poetic forms, I will begin by tossing out a name or an image or event that I’d like to write about, something that’s been sticking with me. I’ll toss it out there, just like a sculptor tosses out a piece of clay, and then I’ll write various impressions of that event or character, and I’ll begin to build it; I keep tossing more clay on. When I think I have a huge towering essay thing in front of me, I’ll begin to take words and sentences away. A shape and order begin to emerge. Once the form and theme emerge, I begin to work quite consciously to craft the piece. There’s a point late in the writing when I know what it’s about and I know how to steer it there.
A few times I’ve known the shape and order ahead of time, that’s nice too, miraculous even, when a moment succinctly writes itself–but lately I have to sit, I have to toss things out, see what emerges.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
What do you think the connection is between image and language, and how might this connection be seen in your writing?
Re’Lynn Hansen’s work has appeared in Hawai’i Review, Rhino, New Madrid, Water~Stone Review, New South, PMS poemmemoirstory, and Contrary, where her essay was named one of the ten best of the decade. She has received the New South Prose Prize, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook, 25 Sightings of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, was published by Firewheel Press. Her book of nonfiction prose poems, Some Women I Have Known, is forthcoming from White Pine Press. Her novel, Take Me to the Underground, was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. She works in hybrid art forms, combining image and word. This work has been featured in Calyx and Fifth Wednesday. She is a past editor and faculty advisor for South Loop Review: Creative Nonfiction + Art.
“City of a Million Lights” (essay), featured on Contrary’s Top Ten in Commentary
25 Sightings of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, published by Firewheel Press
Some Women I Have Known, to be published by White Pine Press in 2015
author webpage forthcoming
from 25 Sightings of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
The Singer Sewing machine company arrived at the turn of the 19th century and set up camp beneath the flight track of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and spent the next twenty or thirty years whacking trees in the swamp for sewing machine cabinets. The bird’s homeland was then sold to Chicago Mill and Lumber which continued to whack its way through. It built shipping crates, and coffins, in a factory in Louisiana. It also sent the lumber upstream to Chicago where it was used to replace homes lost in the Chicago Fire. By 1940, it was estimated there were six Ivory-bills left in the Singer Tract.
The Ivory-billed is known as “The Lord God Bird,” the name eponymous with the phrase people called to each other when they saw the flashing white crests of the bird in the air.
It is one of the largest woodpeckers in the world. Six of the last twenty birds were shot by collectors who wanted them as specimens.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is unique in the annals of American extinctions in that people keep thinking they see this bird. The bird has taken over much of the website at the Cornell School of Ornithology because the scientists want, themselves, to find the bird that people keep thinking they see. Cornell’s Department of ornithology sent its scientists to the swamp to investigate the more probable reports. Finally, the ornithology team itself reported a sighting of the bird.