What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?
Bicycle Day by Mel Nichols. Egyptian Sonnets by John Yau. Lisa Jarnot gave me a Summer Key To Tennessee Trees that in the hand felt like a chapbook and thus seemed a kind of poetry. (It would be years before I got to find and love Bill Lavender’s chapbook A Field Guide to Trees.) The intimacy of chapbooks makes them such terrific presents, and how terrific it is to buy poetry and “how terrific it is to ride stars to radios at night,” as Jarnot says. Her Sea Lyrics, with its brilliant ultramarine cover and shape-shifting “I” made me want to gather my poems into conversations with waterfronts and telemarketers and fog and wheel around tomato yards humming the tune they made.
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 Garden was seeded in 1999 when Rod Smith told me he was writing The Good House, a long poem dedicated to me that was published in a beautiful silkscreen chapbook by Spectacular Books and later, in Deed by University of Iowa Press. I promised to write a garden for that house, but it wasn’t until I finished grad school, wrote two other chapbooks, and settled into Tennessee for my first tenure-track job that I stayed anywhere long enough for it to take root.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
It’s about how to thrive under adverse conditions. I had already begun inviting humor into my poems, but with Garden, I started to slide between playful and grave as quickly as stepping across a row of hot peppers to sow a bean.
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?
Garden was always a long poem. I’m just thankful the form of the chapbook allowed me to envision a container for it.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?
I always knew I was working with a response to Rod’s The Good House, so I had a framework from the beginning. I thought I needed an adjective for the garden to mirror his title, but as happens with the best titles, it found me. The line comes in the midst of the poem where I’m imagining that if the garden were more “like the Temple of Dendur in Nubia,” its fruits would be more permanent, but therein lies the central tension of the book. The same garden that yields ephemeral wealth and bounty can fade or bloom or offer up a fat lip as quick as a slip of the tongue.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I submitted that manuscript to two contests, so green it would take some years to fully appreciate the odds and my tremendous luck, considering the numbers of winning manuscripts that are available.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The publisher, David [Baratier] involved me kindly and directly in the design and layout process, for which I am especially grateful since I was diligently tilling and plotting the whole field of the page for this poem.
For the cover, David sent me photos to choose from. The image I liked most, by Ivan Monbrison, evoked for me that violent shift when gardening suddenly becomes a chore. Hopefully the poem evidences there is recovery from that overly adultish sense; when you joy in your work, it becomes a kind of play.
What are you working on now?
Promotion of my fourth chapbook, which is forthcoming this year from Dancing Girl Press. Thanks for helping me spread the word!
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Well, I have lots to say, so fortunately I get that opportunity often as a professor. The key, though, is to figure yourself out. Find out what part of the writing process brings you the most pleasure and what part you dread—and reward yourself with something other than cake for completing the latter.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
I have heard some amazing writing from students using Ron Silliman’s homophonic translation prompt—which translates a poem in another language by sound alone. It helps them turn down the volume on the part of their brain that makes sense and order and tunes them into that part that catches the rhythm inherent in syllables as they rise and fall.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
What would you do differently next time in the writing, editing, publishing, or promotion process?
A question from Justin Hamm: What’s the most interesting concept or design you’ve seen for a chapbook?
The Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange may be the best thing to happen to chapbooks since letterpress, because it creates a digital repository for poets to circulate their work and for an online community to collaborate and find inspiration.
A question from Jane Wong: What are some chapbook presses you admire and why?
Noemi Press makes achingly beautiful books. CutBank publishes great collaborations. Post-Apollo Press finds that sweet spot between chapbook and standard volumes, so I’m including them on this list, even though they’re not a chapbook press per se. Big*Game*Books’ Tiny Sides series finds that dense flash I’ve come to seek out in fiction and nonfiction. I love Black Lawrence Press. Need I offer more as evidence than Charlotte Pence’s The Branch, The Axe, The Missing, which I read in one heady gulp of absorption? And, (drumroll please) Brevity Press is releasing at this year’s AWP brief essay chapbooks. Thrill!
A question from Sara Tracey. If your chapbook was scratch and sniff, what would its scent be?
Amy Wright is Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press, the recipient of a Peter Taylor fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and the author of three poetry chapbooks with her fourth forthcoming in 2014. Her work appears or is forthcoming in a number of journals including Bellingham Review, Brevity, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Drunken Boat, Kenyon Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and Western Humanities Review.
from The Garden Will Give You A Fat Lip
Day one in the bean plant, fondled
from the seed bag, is a pretty good day,
while day seven is equally full of opportunity
_________When the bean plants are old pugilists,
_________the days shake, still in them.
_____Here it comes—the garden—look @ it go,
_________w/ all the seasons.
_______________Elegy for the summer garden
The cabbage flowers are responsible
for the cabbage flowers’ growth,
the gardener reminds herself.
_____What illuminates the gardener’s brow
___is the goddamned tenacity,
_____this sort of requisite waiting,
___watching & weeding—small explosions
of absence, a ready compactness
___being more easily extracted.
Remember how young Marcel Proust was tortured
by his great-aunt’s persecution of his grandmother, Bathilde,
who cannot, even one thimbleful of cognac, prevent her
husband’s drinking? Yeah, the garden will have none of that.