The Heart That Lies Outside the Body (Slapering Hol Press, 2008)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?
I love the paradox that is the chapbook, how it is simultaneously exclusive and ultra-accessible. They’re cheap collectibles (usually), limited, hand-made. You can read through them in a single sitting, but they’re not disposable literature. My favorites are the ones that are clearly hand-made, that have been stitched or numbered by an actual human being.
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 poem that started it all is also the title poem for my chapbook. In 2001 when I was a graduate student at the University of Idaho, I was browsing a bookstore, avoiding work, and I came across the Guinness Book. Flipping through it, the entry for Christopher Wall jumped out at me. He holds the record for the person who has lived the longest with his heart outside his body. Wow, I thought, how do you live like that? And that question initiated a multi-year project that explores, through persona poems, the bizarre endeavors and even stranger superlatives of record-holders.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
Me. It’s all about me, really. But the chapbook speaks through others. My earliest creative work was short fiction, and it wasn’t until later that I came to poetry. I enjoy the freedom of working with characters and other voices. As I continue to write, I feel drawn to writing in voices that are not my own, either through personification, dramatic monologue, or imitation of poets I admire.
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?
The chapbook is a unit of measurement in my writing practice. Rather than saying I’m working on a book, I tell myself I’m working on a chapbook because it’s a lot less overwhelming. By using the chapbook as my organizational framework, I am able to think of my poems as a family conversing around a table rather than as individuals all shouting to be heard. My full-length collection of poetry, Congress of Strange People (Airlie Press 2012) grew out of my chapbook, and I think the process of creating a chapbook trained me for the larger, marathon effort of compiling a book.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?
In the year I won the Slapering Hol Press chapbook contest, I’d submitted my chapbook under the name Congress of Strange People. When they notified me of my acceptance, the editors kindly suggested that I use the title under which I’d submitted the manuscript in previous years: The Heart That Lies Outside the Body. I knew they were right. Eventually, my full-length collection would take the title Congress of Strange People, and it’s a much better match for the book than for the chapbook.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I picked several chapbook contests and presses I admired and submitted to them religiously. The chapbook’s various incarnations received a couple encouraging nods by being named finalist and semi-finalist in several contests, enough so to keep me from abandoning the project. Plus, I really believed (and still do) in the work. While I received a lot of rejections along the way including several from the chapbook’s publisher, I kept pursuing an outlet for my work that was deliberate and beautiful.
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?
This chapbook exists in various forms, but something critical happened during the revision of the final version that helped shape the book. Not only did I lay out each poem side by side on the floor, but I read the poems out loud into a recorder and played back the recording as I made edits. Awkward as it was to hear my recorded voice, it helped me hear the poems with the distance I needed to be able to revise. It allowed me to hear the ones that really didn’t belong or to hear connections I hadn’t yet seen. This is now a part of my process when assembling any manuscript.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
The press invited me out to New York to give a couple readings when the chapbook was published, and at home in Oregon, I used my own money to make postcards and send them out to my Christmas card list. I wasn’t yet on Facebook, so I didn’t do any of the social media promotions that a lot of writers do now. Mostly, I set up readings with any venue that would have me, which is my primary method of getting my work into readers’ hands.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just completed a second full-length manuscript, The Business, which is a project I conceived of as a book rather than as a chapbook. I think creating a chapbook gave me the confidence to attempt a more expansive structure. I’m also continuing with the theme of writing in the other voices of people with exercises I call “offsprings,” in which I take a poem I admire and write an imitative response. These are mostly poems about parenting, marriage, and failure.
What is your writing practice or process?
I keep a journal, usually crammed in my purse, and I try to write, if not every day, most days. William Stafford had a daily writing practice, and I’ve heard that he said, “Once I write the date, I know I’m OK.” I get that.
I like the idea that you just have to sit down and make yourself available to the words, however busy your schedule might be. Start with the known, the date, what’s immediately in front of you, and see where it takes you.
Another practice I’m testing out is taking my four-year-old to coffee shops and writing in journals together. I bought my daughter a journal that looks just like mine, and we write and read together. Other than that, I write in the car, in between classes, during the girls’ bath time, when I should be sleeping, before the household wakes up, instead of doing laundry or mopping the floors, on laptops, on receipts, on post-its and the margins of coloring books. You get the idea.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
If a press prints chapbooks on a copy machine and staples a cardstock cover to your work, why bother? You can make a better chapbook yourself. And maybe you should.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
Revision is really hard for me, so to make it a little less onerous, I came up with an acronym to keep me focused on the task: CARE. I have to CARE enough about my work to change it. Depending on the day, CARE stands for Cut, Add, Reorder, Explain or Clarify, Accept Defeat, Replace, Eliminate or Condense, Ask a Question, Remove, Embellish.
What potentials do you think e-chapbooks have for expanding poetry’s audience?
For me, exclusivity is one of the chapbook’s most appealing qualities. I guess we could mourn that poetry is already exclusive enough, that nobody reads poetry, that the book is already dead and we might as well convert everything into pixels and send it floating out in cyberspace. But those complaints don’t sway me. I love the idea that when you read a chapbook you’re holding 1 of 300 copies that exist in the world. I do believe that chapbooks need to offer a sensory experience, and you lose some of that when you read the same text online. Chapbooks, I think, should be a textured experience with art, hand-details, letterpress printing, and surprises of design and text that don’t translate to an electronic format. And likewise, an e-chapbook should be more than just a way to transmit words; it should give the reader another layer of experience that can’t be had elsewhere.
A question from Darius Stewart: Would you feel comfortable with publishing only chapbooks?
Yes, they’d take up less room in my closet.
Stephanie Lenox is the author of Congress of Strange People (Airlie Press 2012) and The Heart That Lies Outside the Body, selected by Denise Duhamel as winner of the 2007 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Contest. A recipient of an Oregon Arts Commission artist fellowship, she lives in Salem, Oregon, where she teaches creative writing and composition.
Who has brought you into this world, my bird-brained darlings?
Through what breathless corridor did you come rushing?
Stay here and sleep and never leave me.
Dream of the mad architect who conceived your veins,
faint blueprints splayed under vellum skin.
Imagine the sleight-of-hand that produced you,
my tiny two-headed coin. You won’t recall this song
in the morning. Its words will wander away like bad children.
Without legs, little torso, where will you go?
Pigeon-toed girl, your featherless wings will not carry you.
Stay close to me, my lovelies, my silly metaphors.
I will put you in one basket, all my spoiled eggs.
You will not grow stronger or taller or more beautiful.
Beware the song that tells you otherwise.
Leave your simple thoughts. Close your impossible eyes.
The night is dark and it takes away our names.