My Life as an Island (Moon City Press, 2013)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?
One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes by James Crews
Shepherds of the Mist by James Tate
The chapbook by James Crews left me floored—really showed me what’s possible in a chapbook, how it operates much differently than a full length manuscript. Crews and I did our undergraduate work together at Webster University here in St. Louis, which is to say we’ve been learning from each other for a long time. The James Tate chapbook was published by Black Sparrow Press in 1969, and it reminded me of how fragile an artifact chapbooks really are—especially when the library let me check it out. A signed copy of a hand-sewn chapbook, one of 300, in immaculate condition, just handed over to a guy like me? It was terrifying. Anyway, there is a poem titled “Mercy” published in that chapbook but not included in the subsequent full-length collection, Oblivion Ha-Ha. What’s worse, I can’t find that poem anywhere (because I don’t own the chapbook) and it haunts me. There are these lines, which I’ll try and get right, even though they only exist in my head: “You who write poems are worthless./ No man should be allowed to wallow/ in his own darkness,/ for it is the mark of the traitor.”
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The title poem is the oldest and was originally titled “No Man Is an Island,” after the John Donne meditation. In fact, it’s the only surviving poem out of the first book-length draft.
When I was still in grad school, I handed that first draft to my thesis advisor Rodney Jones, and he ripped out all of the best poems. We took those poems and formed the last section of my first book, About the Dead, which at the time was in dire need of reconstruction.
In the end, the move paid off, but at the time I was heartbroken. I had to completely reexamine what my hopes were for this second manuscript, to see how it differed from my first, and write towards it, or write around it, I should say.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
Family, inheritance, loss, failure, etc. The stuff of all poetry, really. The chapbook has a more singular and personal focus than my first book.
A question from Bianca Spriggs: Which poem is the “black sheep” in your collection and why?
The collection itself is about failure, so it would be tough to pick out a single poem to best represent that failure. Open it to any page, I suppose.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook?
I knew the title because I was a little raw about changing the title of the larger manuscript to Lost Valley, even if it was my decision and even if it was ultimately for the best. The arrangement was already done, and I only made one or two cuts for length.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I submitted it to a single contest, the Blue Moon Chapbook Contest, and it won. I live under no delusions of grandeur about that, by the way. It was just one of those a happy accidents that happen from time to time.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
I have given a few readings, one a few weeks ago with Robert Wrigley, and I have sent out a few review copies. I had just gotten done schlepping my first book when this one came out, and that had taken me all over the country for readings and such. I was tired.
But here we are. I did get one good review of the chapbook and this lovely interview. I’ll call that a victory for a chapbook of poems.
What are you working on now? What is your writing practice?
I’m working on way too many things right now to discuss any of them coherently, poems and prose. I’m shopping three full-length collections of poetry, all of which have been getting through the slush pile of competitions to the final rounds over the last few seasons, but I’m in no rush to start the promotion wheels going again.
With regards to my writing process, that can be summed up quite simply: coffee before noon, beer after five. I write at all times of the day, at any location, whenever I have even five minutes to spare. I stay up late, and I wake up early, but I suppose that’s more-or-less a byproduct of having two small children in the house. I know there are others like me out there working tirelessly, and I use them as my motivation.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Be selective, and don’t rush through the drafting process. A full-length book is less compressed than a chapbook and has more room for “black sheep” poems.
A question from Justin Hamm: What’s the most interesting concept or design you’ve seen for a chapbook?
I’m partial to the design of this one because I actually worked very closely on it with my brother Josh Mossotti (everything down to the customized font with its wispy serifs). The cover art itself is actually a piece he’d been commissioned to produce, which after producing I knew would be the cover. On canvas its dimensions are enormous (“Hills” – Digital Art – 58″ x 28″), and I wanted the cover to capture that scale, as best we could. I think it was fairly successful.
In terms of an interesting concept though, I like the idea of collaborative chapbooks (Traci Brimhall and Brynn Saito, Bright Power, Dark Peace,or Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney, The Kind of Beauty That Has Nowhere to Go).
A question from Kathleen Jesme: If you have a theme or a topic you are working on, in what ways do you approach it?
Regardless of theme, I approach every subject head-on. Then, after that initial failure, I back off and write around the periphery. It seems to work best for me.
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 Life as an Island was ripped from the first half of a full-length manuscript. The larger manuscript has two movements, both about chapbook length, so in this case, the assembly wasn’t exactly rocket science.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
What do you find to be the most difficult and/or rewarding part about the writing, revising, publishing, and promotion process?
Travis Mossotti’s poems appear in recent issues of The Antioch Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and The Southern Review. Mossotti was awarded the 2011 May Swenson Poetry Award by contest judge Garrison Keillor for his first collection of poems, About the Dead (USU Press, 2011), and the Sustainable Arts Foundation awarded Mossotti a grant in 2012. He was named Poet-in-Residence at the Endangered Wolf Center in St. Louis, Missouri in 2012, and his chapbook My Life as an Island was published by Moon City Press in 2013. His second full-length collection Field Study won the 2013 Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize and will be published in 2014 with Bona Fide Books.
Where We Are Going
In this, the thirtieth year of my life
on earth, I look back on my heritage,
which is the crumbled red brick façade
of burned-out warehouses on the edge
of a river that is more American
than I can stand. The men in my family
grow quiet each Christmas when
salamini and cabbage, a peasant’s dish,
goes round the table, and our old Torino
becomes a red wine that soaks up nothing.
It’s easy to believe that something sacred
has been lost. It has. It’s easy
to lean against the headstone of a grave
that waits to be filled with your body
in a cemetery nobody visits more
than once and say that we are not where
we have been but where we are going.
Perhaps this too is a lie. My only birthright
is the Mississippi rising and falling
against a St. Louis that was built
with a brass note which escaped the mouth
of a trumpet and traveled to New Orleans,
where the current slowed to a glass of ice
and bourbon and quickly disappeared.