Her Human Costume (Gold Line Press, 2014)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?
I used to think a chapbook was something you did before you had a “real” book.
Before graduate school, I self-produced two chapbooks of my own work, and those early experiences taught me not just how to arrange the poems I’d already written but how to generate new poems that would work together. In other words, not just how to collect a book, but how to write a book.
I was already busily submitting a full-length manuscript in 2004 when Sarabande released Louise Glück’s October. It caught me by surprise. She’d already published books. She’d already won a Pulitzer. Somehow, for someone like Glück to publish a chapbook seemed brave. I felt that she had chosen form over marketability.
Suddenly, chapbooks seemed not just a stepping stone but a legitimate, culminating art form in and of itself. And that’s how I feel about the poems in Her Human Costume. They aren’t making a pit stop on their way to another book. Although I hadn’t set out with 26 pages in mind, I know that with the publication of this chapbook, these poems have likely met their terminal destination, in their right form.
These days, chapbooks are everywhere. Walking the book fair at AWP this year, I was finding chapbooks left and right—beautiful, various, handmade or perfect-bound, colorful, risk-taking chapbooks. I came home with a pile of them. It’s an exciting time for the chapbook form.
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?
I can’t remember the first poem I wrote in the series, and that likely speaks volumes about my state of mind at the time. I had a baby. I was in the fog of motherhood. I needed to write about it.
But I rarely just sit down and write. I first needed to scope out the manuscript in my mind. I interviewed my mother and sister about their time together. I reached out to my cousins to learn about their time with my grandmother during her final years. I looked for details on which to pin a poem. Tooth marks on a hand, a kitten drowned in a water trough, an unraveling thread, snow.
And then I wrote feverishly, drafting ideas with a friend of mine during several weeks of poem-a-days. And after that, I spent slow months writing new poems and revising.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
This chapbook is deeply personal, and that makes it different from my other books. It’s the first collection of poems I’ve written that didn’t primarily involve communicating with other texts or researching history.
Also, it’s a collection of prose poems. I’m a bit obsessed with the prose poem lately.
The chapbook is about the first few months alone with a new baby, an older mother caring for an adult child, a grandmother losing her memory. Generations of women caretaking and being taken care of. There is an unsettling insistence of the cycle of life threaded through the poems—that just as we hold our first child, we know we will someday die just as absolutely as we were born. But this notion doesn’t change the quiet details of daily life. We must still stir the noodles in the pot or listen to the ladybug rattling across the floor at our feet. We feed the baby, heal from surgery, lie in the nursing home. And all of these things are miracles. I hope these are the ideas that come through.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?
I wrote a lot more than 26 poems. Almost twice as many. But after awhile, I realized that the real heart of what I was trying to say just didn’t fit a full-length book. So I went digging for that heart. The process was less about cutting things out than it was about discovering what was already there. These 26 poems I ended up with said exactly everything I had wanted to say, and nothing more. It was a relief to find them.
In terms of arrangement, I knew I wanted to tell the stories of mothering, healing, and decline, so I identified the handful of poems that formed the narrative scaffolding. The remaining poems simply clung to certain spots and never budged.
Her Human Costume is the only official title the manuscript had. Unofficially, as I was writing the poems, I referred to them as “The Robin Poems,” after my daughter. But the poems were never about her, at least not as I know her now; they are about my inability to know “the baby,” who seemed, as a screeching and bleary-eyed thing in my arms, more spirit or creature than person. She seemed to be wearing the costume of a person.
The title fit the other women in the manuscript, too: the sister whose body betrays her in sickness, the woman who wears her years of motherhood like a second skin, and the grandmother who finally slips out of her human costume in death.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I sent the chapbook to just a few presses, via contests. I chose the presses I submitted to carefully, and working with Gold Line Press has not been a disappointment. In fact, it’s been fun. I said it, fun.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The artist Axel Wilhite created original watercolor paintings for the covers of both the poetry and fiction prizewinning chapbooks. Axel spent several weeks with my manuscript, and then suddenly there was an image waiting in my inbox. When I look at the painting he created, I sense an artist who really lived with my work, understood it, and was moved by it. And that is a unique gift.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
I’ve revised my website to include information about the chapbook and links to poems published online. I’ve rejoiced on Facebook. I’ve sought opportunities such as this to talk about the chapbook. I will soon have a launch party and a small spattering of readings.
Gold Line Press is incredibly supportive of its authors and has also worked hard to promote and publicize the chapbook. They have created a lovely home for it on their website (http://dornsife.usc.edu/goldlinepress/her-human-costume), they’ve sung the chapbook’s praises on social networking sites, and they’ve sent out review copies.
But perhaps my favorite thing of all is that the press sends everyone who entered the contest a copy of the winning chapbook. That means hundreds of people will have my poems in hand. I am so grateful for this. I have this wonderfully comforting feeling that my chapbook will be wrapped in little puffy envelopes and scattered across the country. It’s going to be out there.
What are you working on now?
I am entrenched in a new series of prose poems, a memoir of sorts comprised of obsessions, compulsions, and fabrications of the mind. Writing it feels scary and urgent. Which is a sign that it’s important for me to keep going.
What is your writing practice or process?
I’m not one of those poets who starts with a “line.” For me, words are the last thing to come. In fact, my husband likes to joke about how I, the poet, use the word “thingy” in conversation more than anyone he’s known. And it’s true. I do.
I tend to think visually, and then I spend the rest of the time trying to translate that vision into words. But it is that very grappling with the perfect way to say something that I find most compelling about the writing process.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Imagine your poems are all cramped together in a stuck elevator. What kind of conversation would they have? Do enough commonalities exist among them to strike up and sustain a conversation? Do enough variations of insight exist to stir up tension?
In a full-length book, there’s more room for poems to spread out, find a clique, or even sit in an open space and mumble to themselves. But with only 25 pages or so in the confines of a chapbook, no two poems can ever physically sit too far from one another. This compression intensifies the consequences of their relationship.
Of course simply writing two dozen poems on the same topic does not a chapbook make. This notion of “cohesiveness” we toss around so often is complex and multi-faceted. Embrace it or work against it, but don’t forget it.
Cynthia Marie Hoffman is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, Paper Doll Fetus, forthcoming in late 2014, and Sightseer, which won the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry, as well as the chapbook Her Human Costume. Hoffman is the recipient of a Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, a Director’s Guest fellowship from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Wisconsin Arts Board. Her poems have appeared in Pleiades, Fence, Blackbird, diode, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere.
[As children at my grandmother’s house]
As children at my grandmother’s house, we cupped lightning bugs between our palms and felt their little legs scurrying against the interior of the planet our hands made, new life turning in the womb. And then we dropped them, clink like nuts in a jar, and screwed on the lid. Inside the house, the clock that chimed every fifteen minutes turned the porcelain doll in its bell jar atop the grand piano, a skater pirouetting on black ice. I learned something of being a mother in the house beside the invisible river, the wall that bore its weight the year of the flood. My mother sat with a long wave of knitting rolling out from her lap. My sister and I ran free in the big rectangular yard trimmed with hedges. After a while, we saw the creatures growing tired, and we opened the lid. They were hesitant to approach the lip, but they did, and they did open their wings in the good wind.