Brent House

SawThe Saw Year Prophecies (Slash Pine Press, 2010)

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

In the years since Slash Pine Press published The Saw Year Prophecies, they have published an impressive collection of chapbooks. From Diary of When Being With Friends Is Like Watching TV by Amber Nelson, the collection they published in 2011, to more recent works, such as Be The Heat by Cindy St. John and Hibernaculum by Sean Patrick Hill, they have published chapbooks I admire, in content and construction.

In my own town of Pittsburgh, Chatham University hosted an Indie Press Fest in which they debuted an impressive number of independently produced chapbooks, including The Pony Express by Clay Matthews, published by Attic Light Press, and Among The Scribes by Philip Terman, published by Out and Back Press.

Some of my favorite chapbooks can be taken for the asking, as they can be downloaded free from presses such as H_NGM_N Books and Sundress Publications, and other chapbooks, such as the Cannibal Books chapbooks printed by Matthew Henriksen, are often gone before they are found by the unsuspecting readers.

As I hold the handmade books from Slash Pine Press, Cannibal Books, or Attic Light Press, or I stare into the screen of the poems and stories from H_NGM_N Books or Sundress Publications, I feel part of the community, my community, and always want to join the conversation, so, I work to respond to their words through my own words, and, hopefully, in the near future, through a new chapbook press.

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 Saw Year Prophecies came together slowly, as does much of my work, and I’m so pleased that Slash Pine Press crafted the pages on which my words are printed with equal care. The outside cover of the collection is printed on a delicate Nepalese handmade lokta paper, and it reflects many of the poems that I included in the collection. The opening line of the opening poem, “Augur of Fired Clay,” begins, “I am frail […] a jar filled with moonshine.”

Of course, these words are a paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 4:7-8 (NIV), verses that state, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

As a native of the rural South, I am crafted by my culture, made of their clay, and, as a result, every day I am frail and vulnerable in the 21st century. Still, I know I hold treasure — the images and the narratives of the community that created my life dwell within me, and The Saw Year Prophecies was an attempt to put those treasures in a vessel outside myself, and “Augur of Fired Clay” was that first vessel of frailty.

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

The Saw Year Prophecies is composed of 18 poems titled “Augur of …”. As a younger writer, I found the word “augur” when I was thumbing through the dictionary. I thought to myself, “Yes, I need to write a poem about the fear I felt when my father and I were using the PTO-driven auger to dig post holes for the fences we raised. As I looked more closely at the word, of course, I realized, the augur I saw was not the auger I knew, but, I also realized, these two augurs/augers were not so different. To dig into the ground is to predict, and I knew I could never predict the future—I wouldn’t want to predict the future — so, I decided to predict the past, a far more successful venture.

And, one day I will write that poem about digging in the soil with my father.

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?

In addition to the series of poems titled “Augur of …”, I am writing a series of poems titled “Pastoral.” These two forms of writing occupy vastly different areas of my mind, and, sometimes my focus leans heavily in one direction. In the months and years before I collected The Saw Year Prophecies into its present state, my mind was leaning toward the augurs. The augurs were ready to be seen, while the pastorals were continuing to develop, so they became my first published chapbook collection. The pastorals have since developed nicely, and, when my first full-length collection appears, it will be a collection of both forms, but the augurs will still be predominant in the first collection.

How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?

The Saw Year Prophecies evolved out of a longer collection, The Prophecy of Pastures, a collection that no longer exists. To create the chapbook, I brought together several poems from that collection and new works I had written since that collection was completed. The process of integrating new and old poems was difficult, and worthwhile.

I often tell my students they can make tables and chairs out of trees, but they can’t make trees out of tables and chairs, hoping they will realize that their work needs to be written beyond their aspirations for the final product, hoping they will realize that it’s easier to take poems away from a collection than to add poems to a collection.

This collection is evidence that my advice to my students is not absolute. Sometimes an artist can place old pieces together with new pieces to create something that stands as a whole new creation.

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

When I saw the call for submissions from Slash Pine Press, I felt compelled to submit my work to them. I believed they were the right publisher for this collection, even though they were a new press, and I had never seen their work.

They were the first to receive this manuscript, and I never submitted the manuscript to a contest.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

After Slash Pine Press accepted this collection, I had some ideas for how the poems might be presented. Luckily, I did not develop those ideas. Patti White, Joseph P. Wood and the student interns at Slash Pine Press did all of the work of creating the physical presentation of the chapbook. I had no input into the design of the chapbook, and, until the chapbook was presented, I had no vision of how the chapbook might appear.

The final product was beyond my expectations. The work of chapbook publishing is a work of love, and when I received copies of the chapbook, I felt I had received a gift of love, love for the art of my poems, love for the art of bookmaking, and love for the work we shared as artists.

What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?

Slash Pine Press is exemplary in their promotion of the authors they publish. They provided me an opportunity to send publication announcements to potential readers, to have my collection presented at conferences they attended, and to read my work at the annual Slash Pine Poetry Festival. During the year after the publication, I read at several addition venues, and, as a result, all of the 125 copies that were published were taken.

What are you working on now?

The Saw Year Prophecies is now part of a larger collection, The Lightered Prophecy, a collection that has been a finalist for the First/Second Book Award from Tupelo Press and the Colorado Prize for Poetry. The Lightered Prophecy took over a decade to complete, so I don’t want to think about another full-length collection soon.

At the moment, I am writing a series of poems based upon the imprecatory Psalms. I believe they will come together at the lovely chapbook.

What is your writing practice or process?

My writing process isn’t a model to emulate. It’s painful, and consuming.

Word, wait. Line, wait. Poem, wait. Wait.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

Returning to the wisdom of ancient scripture, I would suggest writers need Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the [collection will] perish.”

I would suggest also that the vision of a poet/writer must be wholeness.

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

As a teacher, I often ask my students to bring in three items that represent important moments in their life. Then, the students will write about each of these items. Finally, they write a longer work that explores the connection between these three objects.

I believe this prompt was inspired by Brenda Miller’s essay, “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” but I’ve used this prompt for many years; I can’t recall its origins. I do recall that the last time I used this prompt, it was well received in the classroom, and I’ve used this process successfully in my own writing life. Every writer knows E. M. Forster’s epigraph of Howard’s End, and, those writers who study in my classroom learn this phrase quickly: “Only connect.”

As writers, we connect ideas, events, and people with words. This process of connecting is central to our literary life, and it is central to our human life.

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

Chapbooks have historically been small, handmade paper productions, but, in our current time, chapbooks can be produced as digital files. How does the physical/digital reality of a chapbook affect your relationship to the text? As a reader? As a writer?

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

Along with the chapbook presses I mentioned earlier, BatCat Press produces chapbooks with innovative content and construction. From their home at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, Pennsylvania, they consistently produce intricately beautiful book. BatCat Press publications such as Snowmen Losing Weight by Noah Falck (2012) and Your Attraction to Sharp Machines by Matthew Mahaney (2013) top the list of chapbooks I want to hold as my own in the upcoming year.

A question from Sara Tracey: If your chapbook was scratch and sniff, what would its scent be?

Pine.

A question from Darius Stewart: Would you feel comfortable with publishing only chapbooks?

The chapbook provides an important venue for emerging and established writers to present their voice to an audience, but the venue provided by the chapbook is, by its very nature, limited. The chapbook introduces readers to the voice of the poet, but, as a poet, I want more than an introduction to my readers.

I want a developed relationship, and I want my readers to hear the range of my voice. The chapbook can’t provide a reader with the full range of the poet’s work. As I work toward my future, I hope to have a full-length collection, one that allows the augurs and pastorals to come into dialogue. Chapbooks provide a place for authors to introduce their voice, to reach new audiences, but full-length collections provide a place for authors to increase their volume, to sustain the attention of their audiences.

That being said, the publication of my chapbook allowed me the opportunity to introduce myself to readers while I continued to work on my full-length collection. As a result, I could take more time to develop the collection, and, ultimately, I believe, I developed a stronger full-length collection than I would have developed otherwise. Because of that opportunity, I’m grateful for the existence of the chapbook.

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Brent House, a contributing editor for The Tusculum Review and an editor for The Gulf Stream: Poems of the Gulf Coast (Snake Nation Press, 2013), is a native of Necaise, Mississippi, where he raised cattle and watermelons on his family’s farm. Slash Pine Press published his first collection, The Saw Year Prophecies (2010). His poems have appeared in journals such as Colorado Review, Cream City Review, Denver Quarterly, The Journal, and Third Coast. Poems are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review and elsewhere.

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“Augur of Cleavage,”  originally appeared in Anti-

“Augur of Pendant,” originally appeared in Steel Toe Review

from “Augur of Magus,” originally appeared in Tupelo Quarterly

“Augur of Familial Scenes,” originally appeared in Switchback

Three Augurs, originally appeared in Free Verse

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Augur of Illuminated Manuscript

Puncture turned to tear

the pull of my father’s arm on the ream of wire

steel unstrands across a line

field with the smoothness of vellum

frail into the hard-red clay

staple into blackened posts

leather of glove worn in the curl of grip

taut then tie wire to corner

fabric of his shirt dries on a nail embedded

run threads through the sloping manuscript of hills

This will be here long after I’m gone.

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