Foreclosure (Back Pages Books, 2013)
What are some chapbook presses you admire and why?
H_NGM_N, Flying Guillotine, Sixth Finch, Hell Yes, and Thrush have done some lovely stuff, so far as I’ve seen. But I’m an author-centric reader, for the most part, and I follow individual writers more than presses. My own publisher (Back Pages Publishers) is quickly becoming an important CB press. Check out Jonathan Weinert’s Thirteen Small Apostrophes or Peter Ramos’s forthcoming Television Snow for examples of their good work.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?
I love Kristin Hatch’s chapbook from Cutbank, Through the Hour Glass, as well as CB’s by Tony Mancus, Nate Pritts, Brad Liening, Leigh Stein, Rob MacDonald, and Jonathan’s book, mentioned above.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The first “Notebooks” poem is the oldest, and it was the catalyst for the whole shebang. As for inspiration, I remember feeling a certain way when I wrote it more than having any conceptual preoccupation at the time. I knew I wanted to work with a permissive form, a chunk of short-margined prose, which would allow me to flash from perception to speech to image without fretting over geometry, but the poem itself seemed to manifest and cohere because of a sort of inner speed I felt at the time. The rest of the early poems in the chapbook felt the same way.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
My chapbook is about the weeds and abandoned houses in northeastern PA, north of Anthracite PA (Scranton and its neighboring towns) and south of the New York state border. It’s about the economy and landscape there as seen in things and places where there are few or no people. Most of us like to crowd around important ruins and contemplate the vanished civilizations that spawned them when we take our ten-day bus tours to Greece, etc., but civilizations, especially small ones, are vanishing all the time, and some places are better at showing it than others. I think this stretch of northeast PA is really good at being gone. There’s so much figurative, and plenty of literal, abandonment there, brought to you by decades-long economic stagnation, but also by the sinkholes of the new world economy: Strangely, after all the coal mining so many years ago, a new energy empire has disastrously manifested in the form of gas pipes, water trucks, cheap hotels, rising rent, and bar fights, thanks to fracking. If you’ve ever read about or visited boomtowns that have de-boomed, then it’d be easy for you to see through the flurrying capital and exploitation to the gutted, pockmarked future. I wanted and tried to write about all that.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I only submitted it once or twice before talking with my publisher, Alex Green, whom I knew from shopping his bookstore in Waltham, where we both live. Alex was really generous and made the whole process simple and easy. He’s been amazing.
In what ways did your chapbook change between the version you submitted and the final published version? Did you revise, rearrange, or make other changes?
Just some proofreading was all that was needed. The book was basically finished when I gave it to Alex.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
Some interviews, readings, and reviews. All of which has worked wonderfully, and the book is selling really well.
What are you working on now?
I have a new book coming out, Dreamburgh, Pennsylvania, and a new manuscript, which I’m shopping around, and a I’m working on a new MS, besides.
What is your writing practice or process?
Whenever I can and feel up to it. I have a nearly-two-year old, so I spend my time a lot differently than I used to, and have less energy than I did two years ago.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Find a chapbook you love and respond to it. Write a full-length collection and take out every extraneous poem—if you’re honest, what’s left will usually be a chapbook.
If you could have a soundtrack for your chapbook, what songs would be playing?
I’m not sure the book could weather songs. These are quiet pieces. So the soundtrack would have to be spare and continuous—something that sounded like getting lost in the woods. The Dead Man soundtrack would work, or the score to some spaghetti western played at ¼ speed.
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?
I don’t listen to anything while I write, and, usually, I can’t. I repeat and mutter everything as I go, and my own murmurings are all I can handle when I write.
I used to listen to music before writing, to generate a kind of emotional premise for poems. I would play Joy Division, The Flaming Lips, stuff like that, but I’m skeptical of this kind of thing now. I’d rather be alone and quiet a little uncomfortable to start out. That is, I’d rather have a problem—loneliness, restlessness—that the poem might appear in order to address.
What do you find to be the most difficult and/or rewarding part about the writing, revising, publishing, and promotion process?
The most difficult thing is not knowing until later, if ever, whether or not I was just wasting my time. I almost never regret reading something, but I look back in disgust whenever I’ve detonated a free afternoon writing nothing or something awful.
I’m not sure what satisfaction writing affords. I don’t think it should offer much beyond structuring an otherwise dull life as a kind of secret adventure—a quest, or at least a diverting errand. I appreciate having this kind of mission but rarely the labor and only occasionally the result that goes with it. Even when I look back on poems I still like, I feel mocked by them. No matter how many there are, they all seem lonely and accidental after the fact.
Publishing offers a momentary release, a quick catharsis, some validation, but sometimes more confusion: why did they like that one and not that one?
Self-promotion, for me, means letting my friends know about what I’ve written so they can read it if they want to. I impose myself here and there, scoping out some reviews and interviews from time to time, but that’s about it.
Did your chapbook start out as something larger whose parts you made into a chapbook? Or, if it started out as self-contained, is it something that can be changed into a full manuscript?
The latter. I wrote about thirty pages of…stuff in the space of roughly two months about two and a half years ago. Over the following year or so, I finished the manuscript (called I’ve Seen Thee Far Away, which I finished this spring) that has wound up engulfing Foreclosure. But the poems themselves started off as a search for a new way of speaking and were all part of that personal experiment.
Gregory Lawless is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the author of I Thought I Was New Here (BlazeVOX, 2009) and Dreamburgh, Pennsylvania (Dream Horse Press, forthcoming). He is the winner of the 2013 Orphic Prize for poetry. His poems have appeared in such places as Pleiades, The Journal, Third Coast, The National Poetry Review, Sixth Finch, and others. He lives in Waltham, Massachusetts.