The Coriolis Effect (Bright Hill Press, 2007)
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 remember reading was Gwendolyn Brooks’s The Near-Johannesburg Boy (1986). It’s all of 23 pages, with 15 poems. Here was one of the country’s best poets publishing a chapbook with Third World Press in Chicago, after publishing with major presses and winning major prizes. The chapbook doesn’t include her best poems (those are in In the Mecca, from 1968), but it stuck with me as a powerful medium for presenting a set of poems.
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 oldest piece in the chapbook, “Grandfather’s Groundhog,” helped me figure out what sort of poet I might become. It was my last poem for the first workshop I took and the first I submitted to the second (and last!) workshop I ever took. I had been resisting writing Appalachian poems — though what defines an “Appalachian” poem has expanded in many exciting ways — so I owe my professor, the poet and translator John Balaban, for encouraging me to write in my native tongue. At the time we were studying ghazals, and I was reading Adrienne Rich’s loose versions. “Grandfather’s Groundhog” is my Appalachian interpretation of the ghazal. My grandfather, who didn’t finish the third grade, has the poem’s epigraph: “I’ve been further under the porch looking for eggs than most people have been away from home.” His aphorism rooted around in the back of my mind when I was writing the chapbook’s Ecuador poems, which would have to be humble, earth-bound, and skeptical, not romantic or sentimental travel poems. That’s why one Ecuador poem juxtaposes Tu Fu and Lonely Planet.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
I suppose the chapbook is my early work. The poems were written in my mid-20s—I’m using the passive voice with some hesitation — when I spent relatively little time revising. Many of its poems are somewhat rougher around the edges, a bit less polished, than my recent work. My poems in the years since the chapbook’s publication have become more formal, using a syllabic verse like Appalachian poets such as Ron Rash and Robert Morgan. The chapbook is about the equator, literally and figuratively. On one hand, the country with its name, where I lived in the summer of 2003. On the other, the belt of the earth, the center of the world. The Coriolis effect is the circulatory force produced by the earth’s rotation. It causes bodies in motion to drift imperceptibly; which direction depends upon which hemisphere the body is in. The usual explanation of the Coriolis force—that toilets flush clockwise or counter-clockwise depending upon which side of the equator you’re sitting—is more metaphor than sound science. The force is too weak to operate on such a small scale. In any case, we may have the illusion of standing still but we’re always moving, just as the mountains are. I think of Gary Snyder, who writes about the “the dynamism and slow flowing of earth-forms.”
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’ve always liked slim books that can be held comfortably in the hands, read in a single sitting, put in the back pocket. I’m skeptical of heft. I like intensity in voice that can be difficult to sustain over a long book. More practically, I knew that the chapbook would be about a discrete time and place in my life that nonetheless had centrifugal qualities. I also knew that I wouldn’t write more Ecuador poems. So the chapbook was the right length. At the same time, the chapbook’s Appalachian poems, which form the foundation of my poetic practice, took on a new solidity in juxtaposition to the Ecuador poems. The Appalachian poems are the skeleton, the Ecuador poems the flesh.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?
My wife (and girlfriend at the time) was doing a graduate degree in environmental science and policy, studying climatology and climate change. I was searching for a coherent though flexible title to bring together a selection of poems set in Ecuador, Appalachian Virginia, and, to a lesser extent, New York City. She proposed The Coriolis Effect. The title provided a compelling organizing idea. As a poet I’m fascinated by science. I would be a terrible scientist, but I like how science impresses upon the imagination (and for me science is all imagination.) I like its metaphors and images. This fascination comes out in the chapbook’s “Global Poverty,” which emerged from a bat walk in Central Park with my wife’s class at Columbia.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
As I recall, I submitted to a single contest, Bright Hill Press’s annual chapbook competition. At the time, I was finishing my dissertation and preparing for the academic job market. It’s fair to say that I got a bit lucky. Now I’d have to enter a dozen contests to get a nibble. The po biz is even more competitive seven years on.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Very little. I was given a choice between two covers. I’m often disappointed in the design work for chapbooks, and for full-length collections, for that matter, but Bright Hill Press’s Bertha Rogers did a superb job.
What are you working on now?
I’m putting the finishing touches on a collection of poems. The collection includes a handful from the chapbook, which might suggest how long it’s taken to put together, given my focus on scholarly writing in the interval. The collection orbits around the concept of provenance (and its haunting echo with providence) and a persona, the Urbilly. The book works in a southern Appalachian tradition but one beamed in from Brooklyn and influenced by Latino and Latin American poets. I’m polishing up a long poem of prose fragments that tentatively serves as the title poem. It explores both my own provenance and provenance as a concept that has become fetishized — in regard to the derivation of our foods, neighbors, and presidents, among other things. I find the fragment an especially compelling form for autobiographical writing because it resists wholeness and resolution. After living in New York for eight years, the mountains of my provenance are disappearing, in memory’s fog but also through dynamite and draglines.
What is your writing practice or process?
Like most writers, I juggle competing responsibilities — teaching, myriad professional duties, and my primary work, writing scholarship. I also have a toddler, so I fit poems in whenever and wherever I can. I revise on the subway, sitting or standing. I write in the fifteen minutes wedged between…well, all sorts of activities. I’m awed by the number of poets who are also scholars, critics, editors, translators, bloggers, and so on. The aggregate productivity astounds.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Embrace the form. Because of its size, a chapbook underscores that it is a thing made by human hands. It’s often considered a form in doubt of itself, a diminished thing. Yet it can be something else, perhaps liberation from the full-length grail. Latino (especially Chicano) poets have long published chapbooks; they’re cheaper, quicker to produce, easier to distribute, and you can put them in your back pocket. They’re great for those of us (the multitude) who have increasingly less time to read. Wouldn’t many full-length collections be better as chapbooks? Isn’t that what a Selected Poems does (or might do)? Cull each collection to chapbook length? If collections of poems primarily collect that which is scattered, chapbooks present. The Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco calls a Collected Poems a sarcophagus; in contrast, the chapbook is a seed or a bassinet.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
Recently I’ve been resurrecting fragments of poems I wrote and abandoned five or even ten years ago. The cast-offs usually have a few lines or images worthy of revival. Three old poems give me a ready-made to rework.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Where is the ideal place to read your chapbook? What type of place for reading might antagonize your chapbook?
What are some chapbook presses you admire and why?
Momotombo Press publishes great chapbooks by Latino poets, with a focus on writers who have not yet published a full-length collection. In that sense, their chapbooks serve as introductions to talented Latino writers and launching pads for their futures.
If your chapbook was scratch and sniff, what would its scent be?
Would you feel comfortable with publishing only chapbooks?
This question throws a dart at the elephant in the room. It’s an uncomfortable question, as the author’s word choice illustrates, prodding us to think about ambition, status, prestige, and self-worth. My answer is no. That’s in part the market speaking, which tells us that a full-length collection (or two) is the benchmark for having arrived as a poet. A chapbook doesn’t have the cultural currency of the book. It’s viewed as a supplement, I’m afraid, though there’s no reason that this perception can’t change. Case in point: Speaking of Marvels provides the chapbook with greater visibility and legitimacy.
Born and raised in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, Michael Dowdy teaches American poetry and Latino literature at Hunter College in New York City. His publications include a chapbook, The Coriolis Effect, and poems in Appalachian Journal, Blueline, Broad River Review, Crab Orchard Review, Kestrel, Pembroke Magazine, and Town Creek Poetry, among other journals and anthologies. As a scholar, he has published two books on American and Latino poetry, and his articles appear in Appalachian Journal, Callaloo, College Literature, Hispanic Review, MELUS, and Popular Music and Society. He misses green mountains and hills; the scum floating on the Gowanus Canal doesn’t count.