Watching Lumia (Winged City Press, 2013)
The Experiment in Morbidity (Grey Book 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 I probably ever held in my hands was Frank Bidart’s Music Like Dirt, which proved to me (before I even asked) that a poet didn’t have to have a sixty page book in order to share meaningful writing. What’s more, sometimes that extra writing detracted from the power of a piece whose form should rightly have been shorter. I published my first chapbook in 2010 with Epiphany Editions, and then started to read more widely from presses like Poor Claudia, and that was when I realized how much invention and difference the form could hold.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
Watching Lumia is one long poem that I wrote over the course of several days spent sitting in front of an art installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I’d never written such a long single piece before, since I have a comparatively short attention span and tend to work in bursts. The Lumia I was viewing mitigated that by taking me into a sort of state-dependent memory; I found I could go back to a previous style of writing or thought even though it had been weeks since my last visit to the piece. The poem proper is really about the artwork, which is a fantastic clockwork mechanism that shines intricate, constantly shifting layers of colored light onto a projection screen. So the chapbook thinks about color and time, as well as vision and language.
The Experiment in Morbidity is a collection of poems that center around imaginations and investigations into the experience of death, although it’s a tiny bit less heavy than that description makes it sound. It ends with a poem/survey that asks readers about their experiences with the book, something that was new for me. I think it’s a form that I’d gotten interested in after I started blogging and found myself constantly asking readers for their thoughts or reactions. At least part of that (largely unsuccessful) supplication to the reader was really just a fear of being alone, so it made sense that a set of plaintive questions to living people would close out an intensive consideration of not living. Probably the funniest thing about the chapbook is that I have to this date not received a single survey returned: in a concrete way, the result of the experiment in morbidity is utter silence. Roll that around in your snifter for a minute.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The cover of Watching Lumia is a still frame from the piece itself, which was generously donated for use by the owner of the artwork, Eugene Epstein. I got terribly lucky in that I visited the piece on the same day that he drove down from Oregon to maintain the mechanism (in addition to being an art owner, he is also a world expert on these pieces, and has built and rebuilt them himself according to Wilfred’s quite precise specifications). When I arrived one day to do a few hours of viewing, he was sitting in front of the piece doing a crossword puzzle, checking on it every few seconds to make sure that everything was in order, and he let me look into the case where the mechanism sits, which is usually locked. I had so many questions I think I followed him out to his car. The editors at Winged City did the design, though, which I think turned out well; the ebook cover is especially nice.
I designed the cover of The Experiment in Morbidity — because there was Dungeons & Dragons in my house when I was growing up, we always had lots of graph paper (which is good for drawing maps), and I think I was visualizing the creepiness of the filled-in or cross-hatched trap squares on those map, and then extending that to think about the way one might record a deceased research subject on a large chart or spreadsheet. I’m not sure how much of that is legible on the final cover, but it was entertaining to think about, and Scott Sweeney at Grey Book was really patient and thoughtful about putting the design into the format required by his fabrication process.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m looking at a 60-piece series of longer prose poems — I’m still trying to solve the problem of the short attention span, and I’ve decided that holding the form stable from poem to poem as I did in my first chapbook might create some kind of connection — or illusion of connection, fine, whatever — between disparate feelings and attitudes. A few pieces from it were in Sou’wester in 2012, and even though they ranged from a Chinese train narrative to a list of postcards, they still got published as a kind of suite, so I hope they’re holding together. It helps to be working with more words than the average free verse poem (I think they were published as fiction); each piece has more of its own gravity, so they take more stable orbits.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
A question from Re’Lynn Hansen: What do you think the connection is between image and language, and how might this connection be seen in your writing?
This was one of the entertaining parts of writing Watching Lumia — the acts of translation from the mechanical into the visual, the visual into the experiential, and the experiential into the linguistic. I wanted to make all these processes as visible as I could in a short space, so what you get is not only a description of what’s happening in the machine or on the screen, but what’s happening to me while I am watching the machine through the screen. To me, making those layers explicit produces a more dimensional version of the art piece, which of course never exists in a vacuum and is always being watched by some person in some place. The fun part is that my work to think about translating the things I see into the things I write mirrors the way that Wilfred (the artist of the piece) was able to turn mechanisms into visions, or even the way he could turn mechanisms into daydreams. I felt improbably connected to him by the end of the project. He saw his Lumia pieces as a music made of light, and that project seems really similar to making sentences out of images.
I’m actually a translator in my academic life, so I’m often compelled to consider how much invention and innovation is required for good translation. The Lumia piece I watched runs on an extremely long cycle (hundreds of days), so it’s not possible to see the same piece twice. There’s certainly never been anyone who watched the particular hours of the piece I watched in the particular arrangement I watched them (because I only did about 10-3, and would go at most once a week, on an irregular schedule). So what I’ve rendered from the artwork is actually a totally arbitrary, completely unique subset of the possible artwork — and that unique creation had its own shape before I even put the pen to the page. This sort of thing is why I don’t feel like my language replaces the image, or is a pale version of it; if you go see a Lumia yourself, it’s not going to be the same one, and in any event it’ll be you seeing it and not me.
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?
I always considered Watching Lumia a chapbook project, and it coheres as much as anything I’ve ever written at length. The Experiment in Morbidity is a portmanteau-style grouping of pieces from my (unpublished) first full-length manuscript, my (stillborn) second full-length manuscript, and once I had those pieces put together, I realized that some other poems that I’d always given snarly side-eye made much more sense in the newly created context.
To zoom out a little bit, though, during my MFA and for a few years after I’d been extremely focused on full-length manuscripts, contests, and journal placements in service to getting a Real Book out. While I was failing to succeed at that, two things happened: one, I was in graduate school for Chinese literature and was beginning to feel like that job would be just as satisfying as teaching creative writing, which had been the ostensible goal of having my own Real Book. Two, I had a really good experience publishing a chapbook called Movie Plots with Jeffrey Gustavson, Martin Rock, and the rest of the editors at Epiphany Editions. There was something about the humility of the book — tiny little thing you had to staple yourself after you bought it — that I still like. So I had the realization that not only did I not care so much anymore about finishing a full-length book, but also that I really enjoyed working in a smaller, more flexible form. I say this knowing full well that I just admitted I’m writing a full-length manuscript right now.
A question from Jane Wong: What are some chapbook presses you admire and why?
I like the production, art and poetic daring of Poor Claudia (I reviewed their book Don’t Let Me Forget to Feed the Sharks for Horseless Press), but the press I usually by the whole run of is New Michigan Press, which is run by the people at Diagram magazine. I really enjoyed a chapbook of theirs called Slur Oeuvre, and I think I’m kind of chasing the high of Slur Oeuvre, although I’ve read some interesting work along the way. I have a couple of their books with me whenever I go to work or ride the bus.
Nick Admussen is an assistant professor of Chinese literature at Cornell University. His poetry has appeared in Fence, Boston Review, and Kenyon Review Online; he currently blogs on Chinese poetry in translation for Boston Review. An active translator, his recent translations include the poetry of Ya Shi and Zang Di, and fiction by Na Zhangyuan and Zhu Yue.
Watching Lumia can be ordered here
The Experiment in Morbidity can be ordered here
From WHITE VAN DREAMS, originally published in The Experiment in Morbidity
The detectives have gone home and the second shift’s arrived,
the detectives have found their wives and their rest and left
off tracking for the evening. I am stroking the dashboard
of my old car and murmuring please more as the white van
ripples around corners in my trail.
I am touching the car as if intimate hair in sleep.
I’m feeling very far, if I were closer now perhaps I would
maneuver myself into air because it is water, the white
van, changing course like water, so smart about the low road
that is present at all times.
I can’t feel the cracked speedometer against my palm:
it ticks to zero. The detectives are twitching before sleep,
wondering how so much can be lost at night. I’m watching
from outside, now, too far even to imagine the sound
of the van door sliding open, of tools offloaded.