Sotto Voce (Main Street Rag, 2008)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks?
Malachi Black’s book Quarantine is a work of pure craftsmanship. He uses form to make a cohesive whole without making form the foremost element of the book; his is a chapbook that is so thoughtfully orchestrated that what he says becomes almost like natural speech, or, more importantly, as if it is a universally lived life. It’s as if he were speaking directly to you. There is vulnerability about this book, which seems to be a theme for many of the best chapbooks I’ve read. And he nails it so effortlessly.
Ron Mohring first introduced me to the chapbook form when I studied with him as a fellow at Bucknell University. He’s a huge advocate for the form, and his many chapbooks show how intimately one can not only provide a sample of one’s work, but how large in scope this smaller form can be. Frank Bidart, and the collaborations between Lawrence Raab and Stephen Dunn, are absolutely stunning. And it makes me happy that the chapbook form isn’t just for emerging poets trying to get their foot in the door, so to speak; but the major poets are turning to this form and providing one of the best examples of how the chapbook isn’t a dying form, but is alive and kicking.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest piece in Sotto Voce escapes my memory, unfortunately. But the piece that inspired the rest of the book is the title poem, “Sotto Voce.” It’s a poem about two lovers, and one of them is afraid his relationship with the other is slowly disintegrating. Several poems in this book speak to that theme, while others deal with actual death, or rather the angst of facing a particular kind of loss. The only thing I can remember about writing “Sotto Voce” is that it went through several permutations before I figured out exactly what it was I wanted to say. I didn’t, however, write this poem first, but I realized that it spoke to previous poems I’d written, and that inspired me to write poems toward that theme.
What’s your chapbook about?
I’d say that Sotto Voce is about loss, a romanticization of how one can deal with it with dignity and grace.
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?
I wasn’t yet prepared to write a full-length book, and I’d already had success publishing The Terribly Beautiful; so when I decided to publish another book, I immediately decided it would also be a chapbook. I feel very comfortable in this form. A full-length book must encapsulate so much, and, quite honestly, I’m not sure I’ve experienced enough to write a full book—meaning the poems haven’t been written yet.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook?
The length of the book is most often decided for you. Certain guidelines the publisher has tend to prescribe how long a manuscript can be in order to be considered for publication. So I had to work within those parameters in terms of length. I arranged the poems according to how one poem spoke to another, for example: having two poems side by side where one poem introduces an idea and the other concludes it. It might not always seem apparent to the reader, but I tend to think the objective is felt. It can all be very allusory, subtly relating to one another. As for the title, that took some time to consider. But once I read through the first draft of the manuscript, I found that I understated a lot when it came to the tone of the book. So I chose the title poem, “Sotto Voce,” as the title for the book. It means, literally, “soft voice.” And it’s also a musical term meaning to play softly, almost as if one were to whisper. There are many musical terms or references to music in Sotto Voce, so I thought it would be a fitting title.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I’ve always submitted to contests.
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 Terribly Beautiful, my first chapbook, was intended to be in sections, but it had to be changed to accommodate the page limitations. Sotto Voce was published as is. I was allowed substantial input on the cover art for both books, as well as with my third book. The publisher didn’t want the cover design I had in mind for The Terribly Beautiful, but he sent me several images he thought would be fitting, and I chose from those. With Sotto Voce, I chose the cover, and the publisher agreed to use it. For the cover for my third book, The Ghost the Night Becomes, which is forthcoming, I was able to convince the editors to use my friend Annie Fletcher’s art on the cover.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
I’ve given readings across the country in various reading series and at several universities.
What are you working on now?
My third book, The Ghost the Night Becomes, is the latest project I’ve been working on. Of course, I’m writing new poems, but the pace is a bit slower. Sometimes you need time to decompress; so I’m just enjoying the news of having another book published and relaxing. But eventually, I’m going to have to kick things into high gear and formulate an idea for a new book, which I have no idea at this point what it will be about.
What is your writing practice or process?
I don’t have a writing practice, per se. Usually writers allot a certain block of time when they write. I tend to write when I feel like I have something so say. Though sometimes I do write just to see what I can come up with.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Read as many chapbooks as you can. Some aspiring authors think that the chapbook form is second-rate when compared to a full-length book of poems. This is not true. The fact that there are so many chapbook competitions out there is proof that the chapbook form is a viable vehicle for sharing your verse with the world. I’d also advise that when formulating a chapbook, the writer doesn’t think that putting a bunch of poems together will achieve a successful chapbook. Just because it’s a smaller form doesn’t mean it shouldn’t do the same work that a larger book does. It needs to cohere. It needs to be thematically linked. And when I use the term “thematically,” I mean that the book needs to make sense. The poems need to feel as if they belong in the book because they are in conversation with each other. And lastly, find the right kind of chapbook publisher. Find publishers who publish fine writers and who produce fine books. This may seem superficial, but it will help you to sell these books. I guess, on one last note, don’t think about the chapbook as the beginning of a larger work. Think of the chapbook as a discrete form; it’s just smaller. It’s almost like the difference between a collection of short stories and a novel. Accept the form for all the wonderful possibilities it affords you, and run with it.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
I’ve recently employed the use of writing prompts. If you’re feeling blocked, they can open your mind to ideas you may otherwise not have imagined. One of my more recent poems was borne from a prompt, and I didn’t think I could write from it. But what I did was think outside the box, and along came one of my favorite poems. It helps to know how you write and what you like to write. For instance, if the prompt is to write about how the changing of seasons can coincide with changes in your life, you can write about moving out of your mother’s house after five yours, and are living in an amazing house on top of a hill overlooking the city. That’s what I did.
I revise constantly. I try to write with my heart, and then I use my head to revise. Kill your darlings, as they teach you. I always try to make sure that I’m saying what I want to say. I clean up the language when I find myself being redundant or clichéd or am circumventing the point I want to make. But I also don’t want to edit/revise too much. The obvious mistakes will be obvious. After I correct those, I tend to shelve them for at least a month, and then I go back to poem and see if I like it. If I don’t, I make the corrections. I shelve it again. I repeat the process. It’s when I like it that I send it out. I rarely use outside readers. But I’m not against it.
A question from Karen J. Weyant: If you could have a soundtrack for your chapbook, what songs would be playing?
I’ve been asked this question before, and my choice is different now. I don’t know why. But if I think back to when I was writing Sotto Voce, there was so much musical inspiration. I would say that Corinne Bailey Rae’s debut album, John Legend’s albums, as well as Musiq Soulchild’s, India.Arie’s, Jill Scott’s or any of Anita Baker’s first albums were helpful because I played them so much while I wrote so many of the poems in Sotto Voce. Though, if I were to be completely honest, the more appropriate soundtrack, because of the tone of the book, would most likely be a competition between Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the fourth movement (the “Adagietto”) from Mahler’s 5th Symphony, and Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. The pathos I heard in these classical pieces so consumed me, I couldn’t help but be inspired to write. But what drew me to Mahler and Strauss was that they are romantic composers. You could call them Keatsian. I couldn’t help but emote so much in my poems just listening to them. As for Barber, what artist searching for a dramatic muse doesn’t listen to him?
A question from Weston Cutter: Did you write this chapbook while listening to anything, or do you listen to anything when you write in general, or is it all silence?
There is always silence. It begins with silence; then the machine of the mind takes over and the thoughts begin churning out. I always imagine the moment you begin to write a poem is like startling a flock of birds and they all scatter off in their various directions and you’re watching their wings flapping, how they collide into each other, but somehow they come together in these formations and it captivates you—I think it’s the sound of collision. A scene like this is so much like the germ of a poem—it can be the sound of wings fighting for space to fly; it can be an engine roaring outside while you’re trying to watch t.v.; hell, it can be your dog licking himself so loudly while you’re trying to sleep you kick him out of bed because it gets on your nerves. All of these instances, at some point, become sensory details. Even if you don’t use the actual moment in the poem, the association you have to this moment often becomes apparent to the writer, s/he can hear the music that is the minute particular of one seemingly ineffective moment, and therein lies the poem, or at least the challenge to make a poem of that moment.
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 difficult thing about writing is that I can’t stop revising/editing. I always have to write a poem in one sitting. Then I revise and edit for hours. I wake up from sleep to do this and it deprives me of sleep, which I need in order to see these poems with fresh eyes; but I’m so attached to the poems, I can’t help but think of sacrificing rest as if I were a parent sacrificing rest to take care of a child who’s crying in the middle of the night. But the reward in this is my dedication. The drawback is that sometimes a poem needs a shelf-life in order for it to become what your vision intended it to be. It can take weeks, or months, and maybe even years for a single poem to become what it is you want it to be; being patient is a virtue, and if ever you are to be virtuous, it’s writing a poem.
To answer the question about publishing and promoting a book, they tend to go hand-in-glove. I don’t take much effort to do either—even when I’m being attacked by friends to do so. I’ve come to realize that if there is a manuscript worth publishing and promoting, it will more often find you than you find it. Sometimes it’s there, but even when it is, and you don’t see it, it’s okay to wait to become aware of the potential it has, and it’s most definitely okay that you don’t see the potential in the pages of poems you have that could form a book. You can be encouraged, as I was, to publish a book, and you can take that advice and successfully publish, but it doesn’t mean there’s a schedule to publish urgently.
Though on a more positive note, what I find rewarding is that I’ve become aware that there are people across the nation who want to read my work. There are people like you, who contact me out of the blue to do an interview and it makes me glad to know that I am, indeed, affecting people. I’ve always said that as long as I can touch at least one person with my poetry, then I can die happy. I don’t need to be famous, nor do I want to be. My reward in this industry is being taking seriously as a member of it, and being an advocate for people to pick up a book of poetry and find themselves in the spaces between the lines.
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?
Sotto Voce was pretty self-contained. I envisioned it as a follow-up to my first chapbook, The Terribly Beautiful. More or less, I had written poems that I would’ve liked to be in The Terribly Beautiful because that book was still on my mind. But the tone of the poems that ended up in Sotto Voce was quieter to me, and the musicality was richer, and this gave me the idea to write toward a “sequel” to The Terribly Beautiful. In terms of turning it into a full manuscript—the idea crossed my mind, but I prefer to leave it as it is. Now I do have another chapbook that is forthcoming that uses poems from the first two books, in addition to new poems, but I wouldn’t consider that an expansion of either of the two books. I just took the opportunity to gather poems from each of those books, poems that I thought really spoke to each other, and I actually wrote the third chapbook based off of those poems.
What are some chapbook presses you admire and why?
Sarabande Books and Tupelo Press immediately jump to mind because they publish fantastic authors and design books that are absolutely gorgeous. Although Sarabande publishes chapbooks by invitation only; this is saddening because they usually publish authors who are majorly established, and I hope one day they will publish so many of the amazing emerging poets. Main Street Rag publishes beautiful books, too. What they did with Sotto Voce was quite stunning in my “unbiased” opinion. The Poetry Society of America publishes some excellent books, too. I can go on and on about all the wonderful presses doing great service to the chapbook form.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
This is a good question because I’ve considered it myself. I would ask: would you feel comfortable with publishing only chapbooks?
Darius Stewart is the author of three chapbooks: The Terribly Beautiful (Main Street Rag, 2006), Sotto Voce (Main Street Rag, 2008), and The Ghost the Night Becomes (winner of the Gertrude Press Chapbook Competition, forthcoming). He has published poems, reviews, and an interview in Callaloo, The Seattle Review, Grist, CutBank, Meridian, Verse Daily, and two volumes of the The Southern Poetry Anthology. He holds an M.F.A. in poetry from the Michener Center for Writers and lives in Knoxville, TN.
Intimacies in Borrowed Light
I’ve chosen a quiet place in this great old house,
wandered the rooms,
gazed out the windows: Spanish moss
tangled like silly string in the cypress,
great mounds of it floating in the pool
where a couple may have taken a midnight
swim, brushed the strands from their arms, maybe
mistook them for exposed veins—fibrous, infected,
relentlessly inescapable. This is where my imagination turns
whimsical to glum, I know, though I can’t help but wonder
if this empty house signals the end of their love,
if the signs were in the sky pockmarked with stars,
as though the cosmos had unleashed its grief
upon the world: Spanish moss and stars: the signs?
No . . . forgive me. It may be the silence is too ingratiating.
I have forgotten what it feels like to curl one’s body into the curl of another
and wait out the night in cathedral silence,
just a kiss or two at the nape of the neck
for assurances, because, after all, this moment
is one of the great palaces of the world: intimacies
in borrowed light of the moon or lamp-like glow
of a hundred fireflies just outside your window, you listening
to wave after wave of latticed sounds filling each room
with possibilities of surviving the night, and waking
the next day eager for the hours to peel away
until you reach the hour when everything repeats.