Blood Creek (Longleaf 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?
The first chapbook that comes to mind is Stephen Benz’s American Journey, which won the Longleaf Press Chapbook Contest in 2006. At that time, I was working as assistant editor for the press as part of my undergraduate work study, so I got to help see the book through the whole process of judging, editing, and publishing. American Journey has a beautiful sense of continuity, and it sparked a lot of ideas for me about how poems speak to one another. I also greatly admire Nausheen Eusuf’s What Remains and Brad Johnson’s The Dichotomy Paradox.
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?
The oldest poem in the chapbook is “Stray,” and I remember sitting in the Methodist University library, scrambling to finish the first draft before my undergraduate writing workshop met. Originally, it had a very terrible opening that my wise professor, Dr. Michael Colonnese, immediately axed.
The poem that catalyzed the rest of the chapbook was “Butcher.” That was the first of the slaughterhouse poems, and it was the first poem in which I figured out how to say what I needed to say in the third person. That was liberating. I’m still drawn to the first person, too, but I think there’s a kind of tyranny of the “I” that it’s useful to be able to get away from.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
The book is about growing up in a renovated slaughterhouse with a pedophile father and a sister who died of cancer, so it’s definitely more uplifting than my earlier work. Just kidding. It 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 tricked myself for a long time into thinking that I was working on a full-length collection, mainly because I had to give myself permission to write the poems I needed to write without having to worry about putting them into the world. Eventually, though, I decided it would be a huge disservice to myself to stall my career on account of fear or shame.
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?
The earliest versions of the manuscript did not contain any poems dealing with my father’s pedophilia. I was very hesitant at first even to write those, so I coped with that anxiety by focusing on the slaughterhouse poems, which provided a convenient metaphor to grapple with until I was ready to contend with the more difficult subject matter. Ultimately, I decided that my impulse to protect someone who had shown so little regard for me was detrimental to my writing, my emotional health, and society in general, so I gave myself permission to write about it. I also felt a great indebtedness to poets like Dorianne Laux, Marie Howe, and Afaa Michael Weaver, who had the courage to write about their experiences of abuse. It was such a lifeline to know that other people had been through a similar kind of hell and had managed—I suspect, through poetry—to remain somewhat intact. I needed those poems terribly, and I felt obliged to try and contribute something to that necessary dialogue.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?
The length of the book was basically determined by how many decent poems I could write and revise in the time it took to prepare myself emotionally to publish work that vulnerable. (So 31 years = 27 pages, apparently. Let’s hope the next one comes easier!)
As far as arrangement goes, there were a few things that were incredibly helpful. The first is that when I was arranging my graduate thesis and had no clue what I was doing, my sage adviser, Dorianne Laux, said, “You’ve gotta make that creek wind through the whole collection.” That advice was invaluable. The second is that when the book developed from thesis-stage to embryo-stage, my friend Trish Murphy took me down into a basement library at the Vermont Studio Center and told me to spread it out page-by-page around the room so we could walk around and look at it. Something about being able to see it all at once like that not only opened up possibilities for how the poems might interrelate, but also made it easier to see the kind of writing ruts I needed to try to get out of. (“Quit using complex verbs when simple ones will do,” Trish said—again, excellent advice). The last really helpful thing was Katrina Vandenberg’s essay “Putting Your Poetry in Order: The Mixtape Strategy.”
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I got really lucky in that I was mentored during my time as an undergraduate by Robin Greene and Michael Colonnese, who run Longleaf Press. Much later, when I showed them my manuscript, they offered to publish it. I’d come to trust their editorial expertise so much over the years that there was no one I would have rather worked with. They’re amazing.
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 changes weren’t too drastic, in part because I had already edited the poems rigorously. On my editors’ advice, I switched the order of the last two poems and altered or cut a few words. In regard to the cover, my friend Michael Duprey is a graphic artist who happened to be mapping satellite imagery of a river when I was looking for an image, so he colored the river red, cast it on white, and chose an equally stark font for the text. I am incredibly fortunate to have had so much input, and I was stunned by how beautifully the whole thing turned out.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
I have given a few readings and a couple of interviews, but I am definitely no publicity expert. I will be reading at the Southern Writers Symposium at Methodist University on February 22.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a full-length collection that takes some of the material from my chapbook and intersperses it among poems about my ancestors, including Artemas Ward, who was the first general in the American Revolution. Additionally, there will be some poems about my experience as the spouse of a former soldier. Among other things, I am hoping that juxtaposing poems about past and present military life might reveal some insights about history’s influence on the current American culture of violence and sacrifice. We’ll see what I wind up with, though.
What is your writing practice or process?
During the academic year, grading papers takes most of my mental energy, so honestly, I am lucky if I write a few poems. I make a mad dash for it over winter break, though, and during the summer. I am on winter break now until January 6, and I have been waking up incredibly early (like 4 or 5 a.m.) every day and writing until at least noon. It feels good. Additionally, I have been incredibly fortunate over the last few years to have had summer residencies at The Anderson Center, The Holly House, and Yaddo. I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am for these opportunities, as I’ve gotten the bulk of my work done then.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Write your heart out. Then cut it open, rewire, and suture.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
I don’t have the books in front of me, but in general, the prompts in Jack Myers’s Portable Poetry Workshop are incredible, as are those in Dorianne Laux’s and Kim Addonizio’s Poet’s Companion.
If your chapbook was scratch and sniff, what would its scent be?
Raised in a renovated slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Wilmington, Ohio, Shannon Camlin Ward is the author of the poetry chapbook, Blood Creek (Longleaf Press, 2013). She was a winner of the 2013 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize, and her work has received support from Yaddo, The Anderson Center, and The Holly House. Her poems have appeared in Great River Review, Superstition Review, Tar River Poetry, and others. Under the direction of Dorianne Laux, she received an MFA in Poetry from North Carolina State University in 2009; she currently teaches composition at her undergraduate alma mater, Methodist University.
How could he have ever been satisfied—
the sharp steel pressed to the pink
skin of the pig’s throat—one quick slit,
and then the shrill squeals’ screeching halt?
How strangely silent it must have sounded
before the last hot breath bubbling with blood
fell into the bucket below to be carried
off with the flesh-stripped bones
to the creek behind the house. Perhaps
pouring slowly, he found himself consoled
by how, before the color bled to a dull, red cloud,
the blood looked like a hundred satin ribbons
floating downstream. And to see those bones sink,
what a relief it must have been.