Elements (Sweet Publications, 2013)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?
My favorite chapbook is one I don’t own and only had in my hands briefly about 30 years ago. It was Jack Gilbert’s Kochan, and I came across a copy in a bookstore in Syracuse, New York. I think it might have been called the Syracuse Book Center and it was a great place – tall stacks, lots of poetry, clerks that we had secret crushes on. My college roommate, the poet JoEllen Kwiatek, and I would go there just about every day and look at books we couldn’t afford. I remember sitting on the floor reading Gilbert’s chapbook and loving it. I had no money but was expecting my work-study paycheck soon, so I hid the chapbook behind some books I hoped nobody would be interested in. I planned to return and purchase it, but when I went back, it was gone. All these years later, I still regret not figuring out some way to acquire that book.
The chapbook itself didn’t directly influence me, but its author, Jack Gilbert, has been a great influence and has endured over the decades as one of my favorite writers. I was lucky enough to hear him read once in Tucson, Arizona, and then attended a talk where he answered questions from graduate students. He was incredibly generous and inspiring. To hear that writing mattered was very important to me at the time. I was in my late 30’s and had gone back to school for a degree in writing poetry. It’s pretty easy to think you’re crazy when you do something like that, and Gilbert told all of us, flat out, that what we were doing mattered. We sat under that desert sun and I, at least, believed him.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest piece is an essay called “Sleeping with Alcohol.” I wrote it in graduate school at the University of Arizona. My personal life at the time was very rich, and one of its complexities (and joys) was my relationship with an alcoholic. I wanted to write a smart love story, an essay that used a kind of emotional distance to examine a very common situation.
That essay didn’t directly inspire the others, but it was the first piece of nonfiction I wrote that received quite a bit of attention. At the time, however, I was really nervous about showing it to anyone. My good friend, the writer Susan Fox Rogers, read it and told me not to worry, but I remember being quite reluctant to walk into the classroom where my peers would be discussing it. I used to think that that degree of worry – fear, really – meant the work was good. I’m not so sure that’s true any more, but I do think the writer needs to care deeply about the work. If not, what’s the point?
A question from Travis Mossotti: What do you find to be the most difficult and/ or rewarding part about the writing, revising, publishing, and promotion process?
The most satisfying part is the writing itself, which for me includes revision and research. All of that is quite absorbing, and there are few things I enjoy more. Publishing, I think, is a kind of acknowledgement that someone else appreciated what you created, and so I like hearing that an essay or poem has been accepted by a literary journal. It’s a nice little thrill, but I don’t linger on it, just as I don’t linger on rejections. Promotion – readings, interviews, etc. – are equal parts anxiety and gratification. Or perhaps not really equal – days or weeks of anxiety, then perhaps an hour’s worth of deep gratification. When I’m alone with my keyboard and a sentence clicks into place, and then another and another – that’s the best.
When did you realize you were working toward a chapbook?
I’d always thought that the chapbook format seemed ideally suited to poetry. But Ira Sukrungruang, the founder and publisher at Sweet, contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in putting a nonfiction chapbook together. This invitation came out of the blue, so it was quite delightful. I had some essays that weren’t coalescing in a full-manuscript format, so I thought a chapbook could be a fun project.
I had never planned on creating a chapbook, and therefore had given no thought and experienced none of the anxiety that might go into such a thing, but I was onboard immediately. The five essays that ended up in the chapbook were borrowed from two separate full-length manuscripts.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook?
Ira gave me some general page guidelines, but I selected the five essays and the order, which was largely intuitive and based, to some extent, on subject matter. If a reader wants to read the essays sequentially, I think there’s a good rhythm established by the arrangement, but I think plenty of readers probably just pick a title they like or find a good opening line and read from there. Hopefully it works either way.
The title, Elements, is taken from one of the essays, “Elements of the Wind.” I thought the word conveyed the idea of pieces, as in pieces of writing. Most of the essays are loosely segmented, so “elements” seemed to fit as a structural reference as well.
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?
The material didn’t change at all except for my own editing. The production staff at Sweet was very creative and collaborative and they did a fantastic job of designing the book. Several ideas were sent to me, over time, and they were very patient in explaining various features and showing me templates of how the book might look. The book has a unique design – it’s square, and the cover has a cut-out “window” through which you can see part of a drawing. That drawing was initially something I was hesitant about – I didn’t think the designer’s first idea for the subject of the drawing was right for the book. I proposed a drawing of a train beneath a full moon, instead, and that became part of the book. The image of the train comes from the title essay, and the moon is a reference to at least one other piece. As an art object, it’s a gorgeous work.
What are you working on now?
I’m revising a collection of linked, place-based nature essays that I think will be called Studying the Trees: Life in a Northern Town. I’m also working on a collection of poetry. Both are very close to being complete.
What is your writing practice or process?
I try to write on a regular basis, which isn’t necessarily every day. I teach, and that often takes up more of my creative energy than is ideal. That being said, the writing is pretty steady. I usually read some poetry first, hoping to find a word or image that will trigger a line or two. Other times, I might just look out the window for a while until I see something that prompts a line, or I’ll take a walk. It’s rare that I just sit down and have something to say. A kind of mental and emotional preparation is needed and, frankly, sometimes it doesn’t work. Off days are part of the process, so I let them go without feeling too defeated and take another crack at it the next day. I almost always start with an image, however, and description plays a big part in what I do. It’s rare that I know where I’m going. The language takes me on a ride, and I drift in stops and starts. Often there are long periods of research, which may or may not end up being relevant to the final product. If someone filmed the process, it would look like this: staring at a screen. Looking out a window. Pacing. Flipping through pages of various books. Getting something to eat or drink. Repeat.
A question from Weston Cutter: Did you write this chapbook while listening to music, or do you listen to anything when you write in general, or is it all silence?
Listening to music often inspires me to write, but I don’t listen and write simultaneously. I tend to pay close attention to lyrics and therefore get quickly side-tracked if music is on, so when I’m writing, the house is usually quiet. Before I write, however, I might listen to music for an hour or so. I like many different kinds of music, and if I’m home alone I like it loud. Sometimes I play along on my desk – I pretend I’m a drummer, and just slap the wooden surface for a song or two. It’s physically exhilarating and makes me laugh, and then I turn the music off and get serious.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Do you remember the first time you showed someone your writing, and what was the experience like?
Donna Steiner’s writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, The Bellingham Review, The Sun, and Stone Canoe. She teaches at the State University of New York in Oswego and is a contributing writer for Hippocampus Magazine. She recently completed a manuscript of linked, place-based essays and is working on a collection of poems. Sweet Publications released her chapbook, Elements, in 2013. The chapbook can be ordered here:
“Bones” in Flycatcher
“Orbits” in Connotation Press