Rachel Mennies

Mennies  No Silence in the Fields 

(Blue Hour Press, 2012)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?

I consider myself lucky: Blue Hour Press published some of my favorite chapbooks before choosing my own for publication. Two that I’ve particularly enjoyed are Elegy for the Builder’s Wife by Nick Courtright and Dopplegänged by Fritz Ward. I’ve also admired, since I first started reading chapbooks, the Poetry Society of America’s Chapbook Fellowship winners’ chapbooks and the chapbook series run by DIAGRAM/ New Michigan Press. I’m drawn to chapbooks with innovative design in addition, of course, to compelling poetry—since chaps can often double as art books, I find this to be a particularly enjoyable part of the “digestion” process for reading and collecting chapbooks (even online).

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

I’m not sure I remember which poem is the oldest in the collection, but the most catalyzing one is most definitely “Miscarriage is Like a Large, Hungry Gull.” I remember sensing, at the time, that the poem presented a new risk for me: imagining a(n absurd) simile driving an entire poem. Once it came together, I found myself interested in hearing more from this speaker. I wanted to know her story. So I kept writing.

What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?

The chapbook tells the story of a couple who move into an old farmhouse in rural Massachusetts hoping to start a family. I’ve never written, before or since, anything episodic or story-driven like this; my poetry usually doesn’t tell a linear story at the “collection” level like this one does. (Though, as my first-ever “collection,” it’s hard to compare it to “earlier” work—this is my “earlier” work!)

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’d say this question, for me, picks up where question #2 left off. Once I explored Violet’s story more, and considered the stakes and consequences of the pair’s vast struggles and small triumphs toward their goal, I realized that the poems written as a result comprised a smaller overall unit—and I liked that. I found that the smallness still granted a complete vision, and that it felt faithful to the scope and feeling of the story. I stopped generating new writing and started a more formalized process of revision at that point.

In what ways did your chapbook change between its earliest versions and the version accepted for publication? How did you go about revising it? How did it shift or develop?

I will never forget a meeting I had with Julia Kasdorf, a wonderful poet and one of my poetry professors during graduate school—she’d read the (at that point, almost) whole first-draft manuscript and we had set up a meeting to discuss her comments. And she said “What a striking postlapsarian story!” and, having never considered the manuscript as such, I nearly fell out of my chair. I imagine she must’ve been able to see the massive lightbulb that materialized over my head. The chapbook was the first “whole” collection I’d ever written, but I’d written it, as we poets tend to do, one poem at a time; I hadn’t yet been able to see a broader vision of it, and this myopia prevented me at first from seeing the collection’s entire argument. This discussion with her catalyzed my revision process, and led me to add a couple more poems to cement this vision of the book, including “The Barn,” which opens the book.

How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? 

Having done so twice now, I think ordering a “complete” collection is my favorite part of the manuscript-creating process. There’s something deeply fulfilling about having all that self-made work sprawled out (in this case, covering my apartment’s living room floor), and seeing which poems communicate where and how so—it feels like reading the tea leaves of your own art, of your own creative mind. I completed this process for the chapbook twice: on either side of the previously described meeting with Julia.

As much as I love this process, I dislike—or have less talent for—titling, especially at the whole-collection level. For the chapbook, I deferred to another wonderful poet, Daniel Story, who knew the material backwards and forwards; he made a list of his favorite possible titles, of which “No Silence in the Fields” (an opening line from the poem “M Works in the Springtime”) was one. Never underestimate the gift of a dear friend who’s also a careful reader. (Hi, Dan!)

Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?

Both: I submitted without preference to contests and open reading periods. Ultimately, Blue Hour Press selected No Silence in the Fields from its summer 2011 reading period, and I received the news from its editor, Justin Runge, over the winter holiday that same year. All told, I sent the chapbook out to ten presses, with a few more on my list still left to try for a “first pass.” It took about a year from my first submission to the acceptance letter from BHP.

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?

Working with Justin/BHP was a joy at all moments—I treasured the emails we sent back and forth to plan the design and release of the chapbook. The poems themselves didn’t go through much editing, if at all. And Justin, who also has a graphic design background in addition to being a knockout poet, did all the design work for the chapbook itself, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Seeing his visual “translation” of the poems proved one of the best parts of the publication process.

BHP’s chapbooks existing in primarily digital forms made this process unique, I imagine. Only a few months passed between acceptance and publication, a feat made possible at least in part by its online-focused medium.

What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?

Now that I have a full-length book forthcoming in April of this year, and am learning about the machinations of promotion and publicity on a broader scale, I realize that I could and should have done more for this collection! Justin and I collaborated on distributable postcards for the chapbook, which I distributed at AWP in Chicago (2012), mere days after the chap was released, and I sent queries to some of my favorite places to review the book, which resulted in some great reviews. I also returned to Penn State, my MFA alma mater, to read from the chapbook. Since the book is primarily digital (and free to read/access), I sought more “clicks” than purchases—and I found this aspect of distribution and promotion utterly freeing. Sure, it meant not turning a profit, but I’d argue that, generally, this is an unreasonable expectation of a chapbook anyway. And, since publication, the collection’s been “read,” or at least visited, a couple thousand times: a number which, I believe, was achieved due to its free and online distribution.

What are you working on now?

I’ve got one foot in the finalization-for-publication of my first book, The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, which is forthcoming in April with Texas Tech University Press, and the other foot in a new manuscript—I’m about 30ish poems through this creature. It’s still at its infancy, and I’m greatly enjoying the freedom of taking some new, for me, risks with these poems.

What is your writing practice or process?

Like many poets, I imagine, I write in found moments—an hour here, an evening there. I teach, and in periods with heavy grading loads, I rarely write at all. But the beginnings of semesters are glorious: less grading, and more time for poetry. I exclusively write on my computer, with the rare exception of an idea jotted down on the bus by hand or typed incoherently into my phone in the middle of the night.

I prefer to write at home, especially in the company of our puppy Otto. He’s a fantastic companion during a long writing or revision session—as long as he and I have taken a long walk first. In the four months since we adopted him, he’s never let me forget that this is our deal.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

A chapbook’s a unique unit of measure in poetry: not quite a book, more than just a series of poems. They’re physically beautiful and often allow their writers take more artistic or creative risks. I say: go for it. Enjoy the freedom of writing a small collection, and explore possibilities within your own work that you might not seek otherwise.

A question from Karen J. Weyant: If you could have a soundtrack for your chapbook, what songs would be playing?

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?

I’ll answer these two together, since they overlap in how I’d answer. I listen to music every time I write. I felt myself seeking spacious, mournful music while writing this collection: I needed to get to that place where a relationship stops working, and wallow there, especially as I worked on the latter half of the chapbook. Lots of Bon Iver and Iron and Wine—driving-home-at-night music, stuck-inside-during-a-snowstorm music. Violet, the chapbook’s “protagonist,” is a violinist, so I’d add to those artists some solo violin to complete No Silence’s “soundtrack.”

What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?

At what point in the writing process did you know you were writing a chapbook (as opposed to a longer-scale work, or “just” a series of unrelated poems)?

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Rachel Mennies is the author of The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards (Texas Tech University Press, 2014), winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry, and the chapbook No Silence in the Fields (Blue Hour Press, 2012). Her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poet Lore, Indiana Review, Black Warrior Review, and other literary journals, and have been reprinted at Poetry Daily. She teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Carnegie Mellon University and has served as the reviews editor at AGNI.

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www.rachelmennies.com

nosilence.bluehourpress.com.

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The Barn

Whose red shoebox, whose poisoned apple.
Whose left-behind papers, left-behind
books, piled like firewood-to-come
along the doorframes and the countertops.
Whose mewing cat, whose hissing wolf.

Whose upstairs bathroom, whose downstairs
bathroom, whose hand-laid tile, uprooted
corner by corner. Whose perennials, whose
annuals. Whose saved potatoes, wizened
onions, forgotten and mouse-bitten trash.

Whose constant uphill, whose flame from the stove,
whose lost child, whose tired body? Whose
inert cells, whose frozen guts? The deer who graze
on the foot-long grasses in the yard
look up at a second-story window, remember
an open blind, a closed blind, a map of New England,
a descending scale in intervals of three.

Whose new home, whose impossible
new home, impossible new bodies touching
as if hope could never leave a place for good.

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