Justin Runge

Plainsight (New Michigan Press, 2012)

Hum Decode (Greying Ghost Press, 2014)

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

A few earlier NMP chapbooks — Rachel Moritz’s The Winchester Monologues and G.C. Waldrep’s The Batteries come to mind; James Brubaker’s A New Map of America, one of the first from The Cupboard; Musica Humana by Ilya Kaminsky, which grew into his first full-length collection, Dancing in Odessa; and Mark Strand’s The Monument, if that counts. All of them feel much bigger than their saddle stitches — outsized, audacious, explorative.

What are the oldest pieces in your chapbooks?

The first piece in Plainsight is the oldest in the chapbook. Just as the book is very much about passage, the writing of it was very sequential. I had to move through it. Hum Decode’s oldest piece, “Math fills the bedroom,” lived in another manuscript, but this phenomenon of “the Hum” created a productive association — one of sensitivity to and interpretation of ambiance.

What are your chapbooks about? How are they similar to or different from your earlier work?

Plainsight is easy enough: it’s a travelogue of Nebraska’s length of Interstate 80. While Hum Decode … well, it’s the attempt to make “poetic ambience” — to verbalize a hum. But they both explore external and internal landscapes, language, image — like most poetry.

What made you decide to gather your pieces in chapbooks instead of another format? When did you realize you were working toward chapbooks?

Plainsight is one section of three that comprise a larger manuscript. Each section is formally distinct, which lends them to a chapbook format. With Hum Decode, I had twice the number of poems than what ultimately appeared in the chapbook. Liberating myself from a full-length expectation allowed me to assemble something smaller, more confident.

How did you decide on the arrangements and titles of your chapbook?

Plainsight’s arrangement is dictated by the journey westward one takes on Nebraska’s slice of I-80; the dividing numbers are mile markers. Conversely, the arrangement of Hum Decode was intuitive; there was a lot of shuffling, reading aloud from one poem to the next, feeling out transitions from image to image to avoid (or encourage) friction.

The title of Plainsight comes from one of the pieces in the book; the compounding is an attempt to forge a term that means a sort of vision specific to the Plains. Hum Decode describes the project of that chapbook: to decipher sound.

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

While it didn’t win, Plainsight was a finalist for New Michigan Press’s yearly chapbook contest. Hum Decode was submitted to Greying Ghost’s open reading period.

To what degree did you collaborate on cover image and design?

NMP editor Ander Monson and I shared a productive back-and-forth regarding Plainsight’s layout and cover, which features a photograph by Kansas City artist Robert Josiah Bingaman. Hum Decode’s cover and design were left entirely to Greying Ghost editor Carl Annarummo.

What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbooks?

For Plainsight, I launched a social media salvo, and Ander sent copies out for review, which a few venues kindly published. I also held a release party at a friend’s gallery in my hometown of Lawrence. For Hum Decode, I hope to do the same, and perhaps add a small Midwestern tour.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m finishing a few full-length manuscripts; 2014 will, hopefully, be the year one finds a publisher. I’m also working on an ekphrasis of Andrew Wyeth’s Helga pictures — all 240+ works. That should keep me busy.

What is your writing practice or process?

I write at night — a day job forces my hand there — and read before I do, to crank the engine. Then I begin with a line or idea that’s been flitting around in my head, respond to another work of art, or use a prompt. I also have so much half-formed work on my hard drive, that I frequently fall down a rabbit hole of revision. Doing this two or three times in a week is a real victory.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

A concept helps — the best chapbooks are small symphonies of theme or form that longer manuscripts couldn’t sustain. Think small at first, then widen the lens. Don’t write to a page limit; edit to one. An imperfect 50-page manuscript might pare down to a stunning 25-page one.

Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?

One fruitful prompt involves paraphrasing: I take a poem I admire, and then rewrite it line by line. About a third or a fourth of the way in, the work takes on its own life as a “descendant,” with shadows of the other work. Follow-up revisions usually erase any trace of the source.

When I revise, I reduce, stripping out superfluity, sharpening the edge. Once the heart of the poem is left, the body can always be rebuilt around it — but usually the heart is enough.

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

For Plainsight, I’d pick something harsh, relentless, with pockets of beauty — Portishead’s Third feels right. Hum Decode would benefit from anything by Tim Hecker playing in the background.

A question from Weston Cutter: Do you listen to anything when you write in general, or is it all silence?

I find it tough writing to music. If something is playing, it’s instrumental — ambient, jazz, classical, post-rock. Because I’m so familiar with and inspired by both, I’ll occasionally play Talk Talk’s last two albums while I write — they sort of sweep the clutter from my mind.

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 toughest part is deciding a project is done — which, in many cases, is arbitrary. Some vital element always seems absent. The solution for me is to see manuscripts as documents of periods of time — to allow time to sometimes be what binds. That, or I write toward concepts, like Plainsight. Hum Decode is more organic; it grew and was pruned and potted and handed over.

A question from Curtis L. Crisler: Did your chapbooks start out as something larger whose parts you made into a chapbook? Or, if they started out as self-contained, are they something that can be changed into full manuscripts?

Plainsight is part of a larger manuscript, which collects three chapbook-length sections, each dealing in specific ways with construction of “home.” Hum Decode’s length is the result of reduction from something full-length. Plainsight grew to its size; Hum Decode shrank to its size.

A question from Jane Wong: What are some chapbook presses you admire and why?

Tons! I’m lucky to be a part of two that I admire deeply: New Michigan Press and Greying Ghost Press. Both make beautiful, challenging books that a reader would want to cherish. Others in that vein: Mitzvah Chaps, Poor Claudia, Slash Pine Press, Bateau Press, Doublecross Press.

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

If your chapbook wasn’t a chapbook — if it was in some other form — what would it be?


Justin Runge lives in Lawrence, Kansas, where he serves as poetry editor of Parcel. He is the author of two chapbooks, Plainsight (New Michigan Press, 2012) and Hum Decode (Greying Ghost Press, 2014). In 2013, his work was selected by Brenda Shaughnessy for inclusion in that year’s Best New Poets anthology. Poems of his have appeared in Linebreak, DIAGRAM, Harpur Palate, and elsewhere.



from Hum Decode


______Men who fall
asleep in libraries.
Little boys
able to make beast
Love is sinking
______into the arm
______chair. Like water
without swallowing.
How dark
feels on the bed.
______Certain songs
______sung best.
The afternoon
is an amateur
to touch blood.
Awe snake charms
______the neck.
______An old poet
______writes near death
many ways.
The words
spend their time
like window breath
______going away.


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