What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?
I’m a sucker for art books. I really love what Tony Mancus and Sommer Browning do at Flying Guillotine. Their books are hand-made and use idiosyncratic materials that often speak to the content in the poems. They are books I want to touch as much as want to read. Morgan Lucas Schuldt’s posthumous, (as vanish, unespecially), for instance, has beautiful hand-painted covers and fabric pages. The cover of Phil Metres’ Abu Ghraib Arias were made from recycled military uniforms. That is just jaw-droppingly cool. I’m teaching a course now in Independent Literary Publishing, so I’m learning a lot about book-making in that process. I would love to have a book of my own work printed on unexpected materials someday.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
A Woman Traces the Shoreline is really one continuous piece, and it was written like that, in a burst of hormonal energy while sitting in an overstuffed chair at a Barnes & Noble while I was eight months pregnant with my first child. I literally sat there with a coffee and a legal pad (both images from the poem) and took field notes on what I was experiencing externally (commodification of various types) and internally (generating a human). I remember feeling a little crazy at the time.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
This piece is a meditation on the fears and expectations I had while I was on the cusp of motherhood. I was trying to capture both the alien physicality of pregnancy as well as the sense of unknowingness I swam in daily. I realize in talking about it now that I can’t separate the poems from the cover art, which Kristy Bowen of Dancing Girl provided. It’s one of those ancient maps of the (un) known world — “here there be dragons” — that sort of thing. This was a perfect metaphor for the poem, which is an exploration, an expedition I got to command. The poem is also, I think, a comment about the trouble of agency over their own bodies that women face in pregnancy, with the medicalization of that natural condition. With people, strangers, who offer unsolicited opinions about what we’re having or when based on how high or low we “carry,” or by how lustrous or dry our hair looks on a given day. People who come right up to your pregnant body and put their hands on it, unbidden and, most often, unwelcome.
I think a lot of my work has to do — perhaps more subtly — with issues of body and agency and connection. I’ve written more explicitly about pregnancy and motherhood in some of my essays.
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?
From the start I knew this piece would stand on its own, but while I was drafting, it wasn’t clear to me if it would end up as a single poem or possibly an essay. Then, one day (many years later — it was written in 2005 and published in 2011), I opened up the file and suddenly it appeared to me as a cycle that would best move over pages. Make no mistake, it’s short! It takes five minutes to read from cover to cover, but something about stretching it out seemed right in terms of form. It’s an epic story and I think it reads that way, even if it’s over before it feels like it’s begun. (An apt metaphor for motherhood, it turns out.)
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I had submitted it to maybe one other chapbook press, but no contests. I had long admired what Kristy Bowen was doing at Dancing Girl, and I realized that this piece might be a good fit for her catalogue, so I sent it and crossed my fingers.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
Probably not enough! When it came out, I was over-the-moon thrilled. It was my first cohesive “collection” — the first bit of bound language with my name on the cover. That was intoxicating. I had a book launch at a local gallery in the town where I was living and tried to promote it via my blog and social media. A couple of people wrote reviews, and I did a couple of readings, but I didn’t really push to get it out there the way I (now) wish I had. It’s nice to be doing this interview now, several years post-publication, because I’d like to think it still has life in it.
What are you working on now?
I have my first full-length collection coming out with Tiny Hardcore Press later this year, so I’m getting excited to begin that editorial and promotion process. I’m sure I’ll learn a ton! As for other writing, I’m working on a couple of different series (one ekphrastic) that could end up as chaps or potentially something larger. Too soon to tell. And I’m always also working on essays. I have a very scattered and catholic attitude to writing in terms of form, subject and even voice.
What is your writing practice or process?
I have young children and this is my first year in a new job running a low-res MFA program and teaching full time. I try to get up at 6 to get in an hour or so before the domestic machine roars to life each day, but I can’t always manage that. Sleep is pretty crucial, too. Sometimes I meet up with some other local writer-friends for intensive mini-retreats where we are not allowed to talk to each other for three hours while we write, but the reward at the end is a delicious lunch. That seems to work well!
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Follow presses whose product you admire to get a sense of what other writers are doing with words. Not to copy them, not because there is a formula to follow or a code to break, but to be amazed at how differently writers approach their projects. I’ve been going through the back catalog of the Dusie Kollectiv works that are available in pdf online and they are amazing for their range. So many voices doing such different things! It’s exciting to see a mind at work on the page. I get inspired that way.
If you could have a soundtrack for your chapbook, what songs would be playing?
When I was pregnant with my son, probably right around the time of my first drafting, my husband and I went to see the remake of War of the Worlds in the theater. This was a mistake for many reasons. If you’ve seen the movie, perhaps you recall the low, reverberating sound the aliens made while they were removing the human scourge from the Earth?
Well, that sound imprinted itself in me, such that it was literally the sound in my head during the long hours of my induced labor and his delivery.
Months later, my husband played some ritual temple music from Tibet for me that incorporates a similar sound. It’s undeniably beautiful and powerfully moving, but it instantly sets me on edge and calls up all the tension and terror of pregnancy and childbirth.
That is the soundtrack to this collection.
Sheila Squillante is a poet and essayist living in Pittsburgh. She is the author of three chapbooks of poetry, A Woman Traces the Shoreline (Dancing Girl Press, 2011), Women Who Pawn Their Jewelry (Finishing Line Press, 2012), and In This Dream of My Father (Seven Kitchens Press, forthcoming, 2014). Her first full-length collection of poems is due out with Tiny Hardcore Press in 2014. Her work has appeared widely in print and online journals like Brevity, The Rumpus, No Tell Motel, Phoebe, Cream City Review, TYPO, Quarterly West, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. She directs the low-res MFA program at Chatham University and is associate editor at PANK.
from A Woman Traces the Shoreline
I stare at my belly and he reads Bahktin. I read about amniotomies and they become potatoes thrown by aliens in my dreams. I’m gonna get you! I dream of old loves, of bears, of circumcision. I dream of women, of my own taut skin. I read around in books. I coexist. I am becoming, they tell me, “wholer.”