Casualties (RopeWalk 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?
I keep reading that chapbooks are enjoying a big comeback right now, and I think that’s especially true for prose. Mary Miller (who is rip-your-damn-heart-out brilliant) has a 2008 chapbook from Magic Helicopter Press of flash fiction, Less Shiny, that I’ve come back to a half-dozen times or so since I first bought it. I think this was the very first chapbook I ever picked up that wasn’t poetry; I hadn’t even realized that the opportunity existed for prose writing before this.
More recently, I’d point toward my Ropewalk Press cohorts, in particular David James Poissant’s Lizard Man and Soma Mei Sheng Frazier’s Collateral Damage: A Triptych as two examples of really stunning chapbooks. I think a few literary journals honor this form really well too, One Story and Little Fiction are two that come immediately to mind, in offering a sort of revival for the form of a single long story as a publication of its own.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
I’ve been describing the book as war-impact stories (which is rather inelegant), but recently a veteran read Casualties and referred to the collection as homefront stories, which is closer, though perhaps not quite inclusive of all 5 pieces. Much of my work deals with familial relationships and the tension or conflicts or longing that these relationships (some of our earliest or most influential or longest-lasting) create for us, and this informs all of the pieces in my chapbook as well. Then, additionally, the stories are tied together by the added theme of war, whether past or present.
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?
I started writing war-impact stories under the guidance of Courtney Brkic during a war-writing class at George Mason during my MFA. The first story in the collection, “The Silence Here Owns Everything” (now many revisions later), came from that class. But the most significant realization I had during that course was not about my writing, it was the discovery of how not affected by war I was, and that started to really weigh on me.
I was a teenager when 9/11 occurred, and for the stretch of my life during which I’ve most been aware that a world exists beyond, you know, my neighborhood or middle school or whatever, we’ve been at war. And for a long time, I hardly noticed. That comes from a type of privilege – growing up in a Middle Class community where nearly all of my peers went to college instead of enlisting or having lived in any area where there were relatively decent job opportunities, etc. As a result of this, I had only one friend who fought in Iraq, and we didn’t meet until his two tours were over and he was out of the Marines.
When I moved to the Midwest and started teaching, my classrooms were full of veterans, and in listening to them talk about or reading about some of their experiences, their decisions to enlist, their often very compassionate and thoughtful world views, I was floored with gratitude. It forced me to really examine my own privilege and sheltered-ness and to start thinking more critically about the stories I was missing (not so I could write them, just so I could be a more empathetic person and connect with people more meaningfully, though eventually, for me, writing about the homefront or war itself did grow organically out of that process).
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook?
Honestly, I just arranged the five pieces in the order I thought I’d like to read them if this were someone else’s book. But Christopher Lowe wrote an extremely generous review of the chapbook at Friends of Atticus and said this really smart thing about the story order: “One of the aspects of Casualties that I most enjoyed was the trajectory of the collection. From that first story with its significant remov[al] from the war, each story takes us closer and closer to war,” which is not something that I did at all intentionally but am so glad he discovered for me.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
Besides letting my toddler use a copy as a coloring book (Parents everywhere: Take note and buy this!) I’ve mostly been unrelenting on social media. In order not to come across as self-interested and ego-inflated, I think writers/artists basically have to never talk about their own successes publicly, and though that does make you a beautifully humble and gracious person, it doesn’t sell a lot of books.
Once I understood this, I guess I felt like I was afforded a type of permission to speak without reservation about Casualties (or whatever else I’m creating/publishing) through social media. If I’m going to be tacky anyway, I might as well turn it all the way up to 11, right? As part of this, though, it has been truly incredible to see book sales as a reflection of the community I’ve built over the last several years and that I’ve tried to support in kind in every way that I know how.
Until the book is offered in e-format (which should be happening pretty soon!), like most chapbook publication arrangements, I see no profit from these sales – all the money is going back into supporting the press, which is something I believe in very strongly. As an added benefit, Nicole Louise Reid was absolutely awesome in working with me to ensure that $1 from each book sale will be donated to Wounded Warrior Project. We’re close to being sold out of the print run, so I’ll get to send the check to WWP very soon, and I’m super excited about that. So, there’s really never even been a financial motivation regarding sales (and let me be clear that I think it’s perfectly okay even if there was – I love art for the many wonderful reasons it exists but the reality is that people also have to buy groceries). This is purely an exercise in putting my work into the hands of people who want to read it.
Aside from really growing my ego on Facebook and Twitter, I sent out about a dozen review copies to colleagues who expressed an interest in reviewing the collection and was supported very kindly by both the journals in which I’ve previously published work and members of the GMU English Department, who interviewed me for this spring’s newsletter.
What are you working on now?
About a zillion things, and all of them very slowly. The project I’m most excited about right now is a new review series hosted by As It Ought to Be called At the Margins, which focuses on reviews of marginalized or underrepresented work, including chapbooks, self-published books, and small-press publications, authors who are often marginalized due to gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, or books that highlight that type of marginalization within their pages.
I’m also writing a collection of very, very short flash pieces about two little girls, Ava and Lemon, whose mother has recently died. Bodega published one of the earliest pieces in this series, which right now is functioning as a way for me to continue writing throughout the day when most of my attention is being diverted to sidewalk-chalk art, tea parties, and talking a lot (seriously, A LOT) about Elmo.
I have a novel in the works too, but that sucker is on the five-year plan right now.
What is your writing practice or process?
I’m really fortunate to have a partner who’s generous with his time and a baby who sleeps until at least 10 in the morning every day, so on good weeks I’m up at 6:30, around the time my partner leaves for work, writing or editing. But sometimes, especially toward the end of the semester or in the middle of a freelance project or both, all of that well-intentioned scheduling devolves to look something like this: Drink all the coffee; acknowledge that all the coffee in the world is really just not going to be enough coffee; sneak in the writing of one paragraph or one single sentence at a time, usually on the back of a random envelope or the notepad of my phone with one hand while simultaneously inventing brief toddler distractions; pledge to use nap-time or play-time or bed-time as dedicated writing time, but read the Internet instead; remain optimistic as I crawl into bed far too late for how early I’m going to wake up that I will work on doing all of this just a little bit better tomorrow.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Keep going. And that’s true whether someone is writing chapbooks or anything else. The world is full of distractions: Work through them.
Did you write this chapbook while listening to anything, or do you listen to anything when you write in general, or is it all silence?
This is such a great question, and it’s one I never have a good answer for. I see it asked all over the place, and I love reading about the way music intersects with writing for other people. Listening to music is almost always a kind of event for me, though, either because I’m really trying to follow the story/be in the moment of the song (cue The National or Bon Iver) or because I’m singing/dancing around my apartment like I’m giving a concert (Miley Cyrus? Yeah, I’ll own that all day long). There are always lots of distractions when I’m writing – I have a toddler – but music is rarely one of them.
What do you find to be the most difficult and/or rewarding part about the writing, revising, publishing, and promotion process?
Time management has always been a huge area of opportunity for me – I’m not very disciplined, but I’m working on it. In addition to adjuncting a few classes each semester, I pay the bills by freelance writing and editing, ghostwriting, and tutoring. This affords me the opportunity to be at home with my daughter during the day, for which I’m extremely grateful, but it also challenges me to be a better boss of my schedule. It’s easy to get caught up in doing work for other people and forgetting to focus on my own writing. Plus, you know, Facebook.
Okla Elliott and Matt Bell are two writers whom I really admire as artists who are dutifully putting in consistent hours toward their craft, and that’s definitely to the benefit of the rest of us within the literary community. And that is the most rewarding part, no question: The community. I love reading and writing and even all of the nitty-gritty that comes with that (researching journals, managing submissions, spending an hour trying to get a single sentence to sound right), and even though the self-promotion element is a little bit gross and awkward, I understand that it’s simply a part of putting my work into the world, and so I’m even on board with that too. But far and above any of those things, what I really love is the people—the other writers and readers who bring a palpable energy and enthusiasm and genuine care to what they – we – are doing.
What are some chapbook presses you admire and why?
Not to be obnoxious, but I really love ALL chapbook presses because I think the work they’re doing is so fundamentally important in providing a space for emerging voices within the literary community. It’s tiresome to hear people (even as the minority) talk about smaller presses or newer journals as “paltry,” as if writing (or a publication as a whole) is only valuable once it’s nationally recognized or has a huge readership, as if readers are only deserving of being moved by strong writing if thousands or tens of thousands of other people are reading along too.
I’m extremely indebted to Nicole Louise Reid at Ropewalk for publishing Casualties; Reid runs the press by herself in addition to teaching and managing the Ropwalk Reading Series – the University of Southern Indiana is quite lucky to have her – and she’s a stalwart advocate of the writers she publishes in a way that is unendingly generous and admirable.
Other noteworthy presses that top my list include Gazing Grain Press, Dancing Girl Press, and Rose Metal Press, each of which contributes something great to the literary landscape in terms of advocating for voices or forms that both need and deserve to be read but don’t always have a clear platform for doing so.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
What’s the most delicious or interesting real-life detail you felt absolutely couldn’t be left out of a story or poem you’ve written?
Kirsten Clodfelter’s writing has been previously published in The Iowa Review, Brevity, Narrative Magazine, Green Mountains Review, and The Good Men Project, among others, and is forthcoming in storySouth. Her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published last October by RopeWalk Press. A regular contributor to As It Ought to Be and Series Editor of the small-press review series, At the Margins, Clodfelter lives in Southern Indiana with her partner and young daughter.
From “What Mothers Fear”:
But what did it mean, we wondered, that she felt a duty to help Hamas, men who fought righteously for us, who would protect us even when their methods were not always pure, but that she was not willing to sacrifice her daughters. That after she had washed and dressed to perform Salah with us, we were ordered to stay home. She would go, our strong, brave mother; she would do her part, but her children? No, no, we imagined she might protest. They are progressive, the future; they will be taught to champion for compromise; they will know a different Palestine.
But who in this moment, as my neighbor’s home is obliterated into a missile crater, wants to hear my thoughts on compromise? Who is interested in learning that, honestly, I don’t care how exactly the boundaries are redrawn. I would like to learn of the bulldozers’ retreat from towns in the West Bank instead of hearing again how they’ve claimed our land mile by mile. Yes, I would like to see the wall torn down. But I don’t want those things more than I want to sleep a whole night through without waking clutched in the grip of panic each time a supply truck rattles past the house. I would like to walk along the rocky beaches of the Dead Sea with my son, but I would rather have a son. No one has asked me.