Marcescence: Poems from Gahneesah (co-authored with David King)
(Finishing Line Press, forthcoming September 2014)
Everything Turns Away (La Vita Poetica Press, May 2014)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make chapbooks of your own?
My discovery of poetry chapbooks more or less paralleled my discovery of myself as a poet. In large part I owe both discoveries to Thomas Rain Crowe, publisher of New Native Press, who put out my first chapbook (A Conference of Birds, 2012). The first two chapbooks I ever owned are Poems from Snow Hill Road (New Native Press, 2007) by Brent Martin and Every Breath Sings Mountains (Voices from the American Land, 2011), co-authored by Thomas Rain Crowe, Barbara Duncan, and Brent Martin, and these chapbooks remain two of my favorites. Shortly after reading these, I read Quraysh Ali Lansana’s bloodsoil (sooner red) (Voices from the American Land, 2009) and Thomas Rain Crowe’s The Sacred Land (Benevolent Bird Press, 2010), and a few others along those lines—chapbooks that Thomas had either written or published, or had led me to in some way. When my first chapbook was published with New Native Press, John Lane sent me his chapbook Body Poems, which New Native published in 1991 as the first of its “Stewardship Series” that my first chapbook would be part of 21 years later. My chapbook collection has grown in the past few years, of course, so I have several new favorites, but it was that group of chapbooks that Thomas led me to back in 2011 that got things started for me as my own chapbooks go.
What are your chapbooks about?
Everything Turns Away and Marcescence are both place-based chapbooks; geographically and chronologically speaking, neither book is separated by much. They’re sister collections, in certain respects. Both are set in the suburban sprawl northwest of Atlanta, only covering a radius of 15 miles or so. The poems in Everything Turns Away range from Acworth north to Cartersville, and the poems in Marcescence range from Kennesaw south to Smyrna. And both collections emerged from the same period of writing, early 2012 to just a few months ago.
Everything Turns Away is essentially about struggling to find my place and my family’s place—some sense of belonging for us all—in the town and region we call home. The book’s subtitle is Poems from Acworth and the Allatoonas, so we’re talking about a pretty small range. Given that this is Tea Party country and a region where Christian fundamentalism—perhaps more moneyed and “contemporary” than its manifestations elsewhere, but fundamentalism all the same—has a firm hold, the kind of belonging I’m talking about—simply as an empathetic person with a nuanced worldview, to say nothing of my political or religious orientations—has been a difficult thing to strive for. In fact there are times I want to just give up. But there are plenty of small graces here that shouldn’t be overlooked. My poem “Gulf Fritillaries, Allatoona Creek” sits in the middle of the collection and perhaps speaks most directly to this struggle between wanting to belong here and feeling like I’ll never really be able to. I should also say that the story of Icarus weaves through and really holds this chapbook together. I guess I’m casting myself as Icarus, and whether Acworth is Crete or the Icarian Sea or something else, I’m not sure. I am hoping for a better outcome, though!
Marcescence: Poems from Gahneesah is a chapbook about Kennesaw Mountain, which is located between the towns of Kennesaw and Marietta in suburban Cobb County, about 20 miles north of Atlanta. All poems in the book are set on the mountain or within its environs. The Anglicized form of the Cherokee name for the mountain is Gahneesah, from which Kennesaw derives. It means “burial ground” or “place of the dead.” It was the scene of the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain of the Atlanta Campaign of the Civil War, June 24, 1864—150 years ago exactly—and many of the poems in the chapbook reference that battle. Marcescence is a botanical term describing the retention of dead plant organs that normally are shed, as with the leaves of deciduous trees. In displaying marcescence, the leaves of a given tree, such as the beech, will wither during the winter yet remain attached to the tree until replaced by new growth. So it’s a book about death, essentially—or, more specifically, about “what it means to die, yet remain bound to a living thing,” to pull a line from the title poem. It’s also about trying to live creatively and restoratively in a place whose name literally means “burial ground.” I’ve lived within a 10 mile radius of Kennesaw Mountain since I was about 14 (I’m 31 now), so this goes back to much of what I was saying about Everything Turns Away. Acworth is only eight miles from Kennesaw Mountain, and there are several places around here you can see the mountain, so these really are sister chapbooks—two parts of the same story, maybe. It seems fitting that their publications are only a few months apart.
How are these chapbooks similar to or different from your earlier work?
Everything Turns Away is my second chapbook and Marcescence will be my third; my first, as mentioned, is called A Conference of Birds, which was published by New Native Press in 2012. It’s strange to think of my “earlier work” because I’ve only been writing publishable poetry for about three or four years now; still, I think there’s a pretty clear difference in my pre-Birds and post-Birds work. The new work just has more grit. Much less sentimentality. Fewer birds (though of course they haven’t disappeared completely!). The new work engages place and history and my concern for social justice a little more directly than my early work did. But the original fire is still there, I hope.
How did you decide on the titles of your chapbooks? What were some of their earlier titles?
The title for Everything Turns Away came fairly late in the drafting process, though the subtitle Poems from Acworth and the Allatoonas was always there. I recall going through a few titles as I was putting the book together, and the strongest contender early on was Biking Cemetery Road, which is from a poem title in the collection. I favored that title early because to me Cemetery Road, which cuts through an old cemetery on the north end of Acworth, functions as a sort of dividing line between two realms this chapbook engages—suburban Acworth on one side, and what William T. Sherman called the “obscure country” of the Allatoonas on the other, a country that is just as much Appalachia as it is suburbia. For instance, south of Cemetery Road, I don’t imagine many people think of themselves as living in or near Appalachia; in fact this is a place where “Appalachia” is typically mispronounced as “Appalaysha.” It’s not until you get north of Cemetery Road into the town of Emerson that the pronunciation becomes correct, and that tells you something. But as for the title, Biking Cemetery Road began to fade because that dividing line became less important to me in terms of what I wanted to say with the book—plus that word “biking” didn’t seem right as part of the title of the whole collection.
I thought of using Obscure Country for a day or two once I realized Biking Cemetery Road would not last, but, glad as I am that the Union won the Civil War—had I lived during that time, I hope I would’ve had the courage and wherewithal to be a Confederate defector or dissenter or deserter, as many people in north Georgia were—I just couldn’t bring myself to use Sherman’s words for a title. Once I realized Biking Cemetery Road and Obscure Country and a handful of others just weren’t right, Everything Turns Away presented itself plain as day in the epigraph of the chapbook’s leadoff poem, “Icarus at Lake Acworth.” The epigraph for that poem is from Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”: “In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster…” The reference of course is to the painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” where everything in that painting is going about its business, turning away, oblivious to Icarus drowning. That phrase “everything turns away” seemed to fit not only the leadoff poem but the theme of the whole chapbook, and the more I thought about it, the more fitting it became. Since the opposite had happened with previous title ideas, I trusted this one and just went with it.
As for Marcescence, David King (the book’s co-author) and I must’ve tossed around a few ideas before settling on Marcescence, but I don’t recall there ever being any strong contenders other than that. The title came late in the process, though, and up to that point, we just referred to the book as “the Gahneesah chap.” So again, the subtitle was always there, and the title itself just emerged when it was ready. The leadoff poem in the book, one of mine, is called “Marcescence,” and it was David’s idea to use it for the whole book. “Marcescence” is kind of a frontispiece poem, and the meaning of that word—this idea of dying while remaining part of a living thing—is in many ways the meaning of the book itself. Plus David and I had R.E.M. on our minds when writing the book—R.E.M. comes up at least three times in it, if not more—and so we were thinking of their great one-word album titles when making our own. Murmur, Reckoning, Document, Green, Monster. So Marcescence is also an homage to that, in a way.
What are the oldest pieces in your chapbooks? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired each chapbook? What do you remember about writing them?
I really like this question. Given what I’ve said about these being “sister chapbooks” that emerged from the same period of writing—interestingly, I was conscientiously writing Marcescence before I was Everything Turns Away, even though the latter was published before the former—I’ll take both as a whole here.
I think the three oldest are “Second Coming on South Cobb Drive, from Marcescence, and “Revelation on the Cherokee County Line” and “The Wish to Sing with Primitive Baptists,” both from Everything Turns Away. I drafted all three within about two or three weeks of each other, and this was at a time when I thought all of them would be part of Marcescence, keeping in mind what I’ve said about the geographical proximity of both chapbooks.
I believe “Second Coming on South Cobb Drive” is the oldest of those by a few days, and it really catalyzed both collections and got things going for me. The opening line of that poem is “This great blue heron is in rebellion,” and looking back, I think that was an unconscious rebellion of my own against some of my romantic, sentimental early work, much of which was about birds. It was also at this time that I met David King—now a very good friend, back then a teacher—who taught me to avoid the “big endings” and let the imagery of my poetry speak for itself. “Second Coming on South Cobb Drive” is the first poem I recall really applying David’s good advice—and incidentally that poem became one of my first post-Birds publications and my very first Pushcart-nominated poem. It’s now also the title poem of my full-length collection, which hasn’t been accepted anywhere yet, but hopefully will be soon.
Did you submit your chapbooks to contests, open reading periods, or both?
Some of both, and everything in between. As it turned out, Everything Turns Away was directly solicited by Cheryl Stiles at La Vita Poetica, and Marcescence was picked up just a few days after I sent it to Finishing Line’s open reading period. But both saw their share of rejections.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover images and designs of your chapbooks?
There was a whole lot of collaboration with Cheryl for Everything Turns Away. I took the cover photograph of Allatoona Creek, for instance, and I also hammered out and cut the tin that the cover photograph is mounted on. It’s really an artisan chapbook with some beautiful handmade elements to it. Cheryl is a talented publisher and did an amazing job with it, as she does with all her books, and I’m really glad she let me in on the process.
I also designed the cover for Marcescence and took the cover photograph, which is a detail of the Illinois Monument at Kennesaw Mountain. It’s got a kind of R.E.M/Chronic Town look to it, and David and I like that about it.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbooks?
My good friend Kathleen Lewis hosted the launch party for Everything Turns Away a couple weeks ago, and in a couple weeks David King’s neighbors are hosting a sort of “pre-launch” party for Marcescence. I just got back from a week in Tennessee, where I took one night to go to Lexington, Kentucky, to read with Rosemary Royston at a great series called Holler Poets. Then there’s the Decatur Book Festival coming up in September, and I’m hoping to do something with Poetry Atlanta later this fall. Beyond that, I try to get out and do as many readings as I can, even if a given reading isn’t for the specific purpose of promoting a book. And of course there’s word-of-mouth and Facebook and things like that.
What are you working on now?
The main thing I’m working on now, in terms of literary projects, is trying to find a publisher for my full-length poetry collection, Second Coming on South Cobb Drive. A couple years ago, it was a finalist in the Texas Review Press Breakthrough Prize, which Erin Ganaway won for The Waiting Girl—a lovely collection—and shortly after that was a semifinalist in the Crab Orchard Review Series Open Competition, which I believe Dan Albergotti and T.J. Jarrett won for their forthcoming collections. Second Coming is a much better, tighter manuscript now, so I’m hoping it won’t be too long before it finds its place. I’ve got it out at a few presses right now, big and small, so we’ll see. There’s one more section in the book that would work well as a chapbook, so I’m also trying to see if I can get that published before the full-length gets picked up. If the full-length gets picked up before the chapbook, I might self-publish the chapbook, mainly to have something to have on hand at readings that I could actually make a little money on.
I’m also starting to think of and draft poems that will go into my second full-length collection, which I’m calling Rabbit Tobacco. (I know some folks would say I’ve just jinxed myself, but I like talking about this stuff!) Whether any chapbooks will emerge from this collection as they have from Second Coming on South Cobb Drive, I’m not sure. I am working on a chapbook inspired by the music of R.E.M. and Nirvana, called A Less Peculiar Ground, but I’m not sure at this point how or if it will fit into Rabbit Tobacco.
Poetry aside, I’ve got a collection of essays that I’m trying to get published. I haven’t quite settled on the title—it goes between Native Moments and a few other ideas—and that may well be the problem. I might see if I can get part of it out as a prose chapbook first and see if that helps my vision for it. And I’ve got to do something to revitalize my blog at New Southerner. A few other things along those lines.
So now that I think about it, the short answer is a lot, I guess!
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbooks? How would you answer it?
Q: Did I really handle a snake in that one poem? A: Yes, I did.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful backstory to you? What’s the backstory?
The chapbook is to the full-length collection as the EP is to the LP. Discuss.
That sounds about right—and I guess one could extend that analogy and make the broadside the single. Thinking of and engaging with music on multiple levels has helped my poetry along, and I’m sure quite a few poets would say the same thing. So I tend to like music and poetry comparisons, and often the arrangement of a poetry collection will owe as much to music as the musicality of the individual poems in that collection. Of course the “industries” are different, but I think that’s beyond the scope of this analogy. If someday somebody were to say Marcescence is to Chronic Town as Second Coming on South Cobb Drive is to Murmur, I’d be happy!
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
I think so. I mentioned my poem “Gulf Fritillaries, Allatoona Creek” from Everything Turns Away, for example. That poem has a pretty significant political element to it. There’s a reference to Trayvon Martin in it, and also to the NRA, and to an extremely pro-gun, anti-Obama politician named Paul Broun, who seems pretty popular around here. All these references would make sense on their own, of course, were the poem to stand alone—and it does stand alone, in fact, in the current issue of Sugar Mule. But the chapbook sets up the mood of this place as the poem by itself cannot, so by the time you reach the poem at its position in the chapbook (roughly in the middle), those references carry a little more weight, and as such they have a further impact on the poems that follow.
Christopher Martin is author of three poetry chapbooks: Marcescence: Poems from Gahneesah (Finishing Line Press, forthcoming), co-authored with David King; Everything Turns Away (La Vita Poetica Press, 2014); and A Conference of Birds (New Native Press, 2012). His work has appeared in The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume V: Georgia (Texas Review Press, 2012), Shambhala Sun, Waccamaw, Ruminate, Thrush, Still: The Journal, Buddhist Poetry Review, Town Creek Poetry, Loose Change, and elsewhere. The editor of Flycatcher, a contributing editor at New Southerner, and a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Chris lives with his wife and their two children in northwest Georgia, between the Allatoona Range and Kennesaw Mountain.
Gulf Fritillaries, Allatoona Creek
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…
—Gerard Manley Hopkins
As we drove to this place, we noticed
more than one church sign that spoke of Satan.
NRA decals mocked a dead young man,
beckoned us to Stand and Fight.
A Confederate battle flag beat in wind
rushing a suburban lawn where political signs
for a man who has linked the president to Hitler
proclaimed allegiance from clipped grass.
All this and every imaginable chain
asserted their names on this corridor
now split by 41, once by exile and war.
Whether this world is charged,
whether this is its time of flaming out,
are questions we cannot afford to ask here,
walking these trails through a county park,
ducking spider webs, tangles of muscadine,
stepping over logs and mud puddles,
watching our children wade, splash,
throw rocks in Allatoona Creek
where it runs along a sewer line.
In the clay sand, coyote scat marks this place
unknowable to us, not our own or anyone’s,
draws a gathering of butterflies:
gulf fritillaries, alighting on excrement,
flaring flame wings in midmorning,
sucking the marrow of the waste,
consuming such redemption
as I have missed.
(from Everything Turns Away)