Celisa Steele

how-language-is-lost1How Language Is Lost (Emrys Press, 2011)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?

Angel Pays a Visit by Carolyn Elkins (Emrys Press, 2006) is a favorite. But I didn’t read Angel Pays a Visit until after my chapbook was out—it was sold out, and I had to borrow a copy to first read it. Luckily, though, it was reprinted in late 2013, and now I have my own copies (yes, plural).

Though I’ve read many chapbooks, I wouldn’t say any one in particular prompted me to make a chapbook. If anything, the tendency for chapbooks to be organized around a tight theme, or even to tell a story, put me off from chapbooks—not reading them, but thinking I might write one. I wasn’t writing poems with a conscious focus on a particular topic or event, so I wasn’t thinking a chapbook was for me.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

The opening poem of the book, “Leaving Arkansas Behind, or Buying Beer on Sunday” is the oldest piece—I wrote it in college. The youngest poem in the book is the last, “For Baby #2,” written a few months before the manuscript was solidified. (The chapbook, though, is not ordered chronologically, it just happened that the oldest piece worked as an opener, and the youngest as a closer.) So How Language Is Lost spans work that I wrote over a period of almost two decades.

What’s your chapbook about? 

Language and loss. But that’s probably true of three-quarters of all poetry, right?

How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?

Ping-Pong and Other Poetica was an early title idea (there’s a poem called “Ping-Pong As Poetry” in the chapbook). I wasn’t crazy about that title, though, and neither were my two editors (the very generous Nancy Dew Taylor and Sue Lile Inman), so we quickly moved on to other ideas. They proposed alternatives, and when Nancy suggested How Language Is Lost (which is the title of a poem in the chapbook), I thought, Yeah, that could work.

As for length and arrangement, my editors and I worked collaboratively on that. I sent them a bigger sheaf of poems than I knew would be in the book, and they helped winnow it down and suggested an order. I’m very grateful to have had such hands-on help with the arrangement and content.

Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?

None of the above. I first attended the Wildacres Writers’ Workshop near Little Switzerland, North Carolina, in 2008, and I’ve been every summer since. I met my editors Sue and Nancy there. Emrys Press uses a rotating two-person editor approach for its poetry series, and Sue and Nancy were assuming the editorship after my third summer at Wildacres. They approached me that summer about potentially publishing a chapbook of my work. How Language Is Lost is the result.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

The editors identified a piece by ceramic artist Glenda Guion they liked and thought would work for the cover. I liked it—but it didn’t feel quite right to me. So I Googled Glenda Guion, found some images of her other art online, and countered with a different piece. Both the artist and my editors were game for the switch, and I really love “Seven Generations Shadows” that’s on the cover of How Language Is Lost.

So I had input on the cover image, but not on other design aspects. It was a little tough on me to give up that control because I’ve worked as a graphic designer before, and I have pretty set opinions about what I like visually. But it all worked out okay in the end.

What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?

Sending out review copies. Scheduling readings. A bit of social media (mostly Facebook). Setting up a Web site. Not as much as I should. And now the book has been out long enough that I’m not thinking about promoting it per se; now it’s about me as poet in general.

What are you working on now?

A full-length collection. And individual poems. I’ve figured out that’s how you get to a full-length collection—one poem at a time.

What is your writing practice or process?

I’m not of the consistency cut. I feel guilty about it, feel like I should be writing diligently at the same time every day in the same chair, but I find that hard to do given other demands (my job and my kids top the list). And, even if I managed it, I think I might come to resent writing if I felt forced to do it. Of course, maybe that’s just my way of rationalizing not having a consistent habit.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

Don’t take unsolicited advice.

Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?

In the Palm of Your Hand by Steve Kowit is a great book of prompts and good poems. You can work through it on your own, but I found working with another poet really helpful. Iris Tillman and I worked through the book over the course of a year and a half, meeting roughly every two weeks to share what we’d written.

What would you do differently next time in the writing, editing, publishing, or promotion process?

I realize now that I have to be marketer and cheerleader for what I write, so next time I’d like to be more thoughtful about promotion and begin it earlier—no need to wait for that book to be in hand.

When (or if) you take your chapbook to readings, how much do you read from the collection, and how much do you read from new, uncollected/unpublished work?

I usually read at least some from the chapbook (say, a two-poem minimum), and I often try to start and end with a poem from the chapbook.

Beyond that, I let myself read what I want to hear. If I’m bored reading the same poems, I think listeners hear that. If I’m excited about what I’m reading, I think my interest can be infectious.


Celisa Steele lives in Carrboro, North Carolina, where she serves as the town’s poet laureate. Her poetry has appeared in Tar River Poetry, The Comstock Review, Inch, Broad River Review, The South Carolina Review, and others. In 2011, Emrys Press published her first chapbook, How Language Is Lost.




Elegy for a Scarf Borrowed from a Mother Now Dead and Left on a Trolley Car in Budapest at Christmastime

Back in the afternoon’s cold wind, I realized my mistake then.
It was too late to do much—watch the old trolley car go.

Is it regret foreshadows loss? We weep for our little lost things.
Guiltily, selfishly mourn, no faith in sure recompense.

Think of the story of Lot’s wife: changed to a pillar of salt,
punished for her rushed remorse. How much less I lost than she.

Statue of snow-white salt, stock-still: frozen in the heat of the desert.
Lonely me, cold to the core, standing in snow blown like sand,

watching in darkening streets the trolley car disappear.
Clanging with my unsettled heart: Systole. Diastole.


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