What are some of your favorite chapbooks?
Bill Brown’s Tatters, Susan O’Dell Underwood’s From, Sandy Coomer’s Continuum, and Richard Hague’s Greatest Hits 1968-2000 all come to mind.
Did these favorites influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own? How so?
Tatters, also published by March Street Press, definitely influenced my desire for a chapbook of my own. I am fortunate that Bill Brown, who is revered in Tennessee and beyond as a teacher and poet, mentored me during the writing of many of the poems in Heaven Was the Moon. I wasn’t yet thinking about putting a manuscript together until Bill suggested it. Many months later, I submitted to March Street Press first because I liked their perfect-bound format so much. I had several other presses on my list, but March Street said yes pretty quickly. Sadly, the press is now defunct due to the 2012 passing of its owner, Robert Bixby.
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?
One poem was definitely the catalyst. It’s called “The Old-Timer, a Native Southerner, Issues an Environmental Impact Statement.” I wrote it in response to a blog entry that a neighbor posted about my hometown, where I’ve lived since I was six, in which she said all of us natives were pretty much close-minded, backwards-thinking, beer-drinking, pickup-driving, country-music-singing rednecks. I thought that was more than a little unfair, especially given that she was choosing to raise her own family here. As I scrawled a response, it came out as a poem. And then more poems, as I moved beyond my anger and seriously examined the place and the people and the moments that shaped me – into someone who, yes, has been known to happily drive a four-on-the-floor Chevy step-side pickup while singing along with Toby Keith, but who also embraces the diversity of the changing South as well as the complexity of this place and its history.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?
I’m something of a computer nerd, so I made a spreadsheet listing every poem’s title, its theme, the actual people or places mentioned, etc. That helped me organize the poems into sections, see the bigger picture, keep similar poems side-by-side or far apart, as seemed appropriate, and develop the overall arc that I wanted. There might have been color-coding of spreadsheet cells involved, but that sounds kind of overboard, so I’m neither confirming or denying that.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I don’t think Mr. Bixby was planning to collaborate very much, but I really didn’t like the cover he initially proposed – and neither did several of my closest friends and advisors, artists among them. As I was in the process of considering some stock photos to give him an idea of what I would like, Melissa Dickson, a fabulous poet and artist who was a new friend at the time, offered to design the cover. In no time, she sent me an image that was perfect, even though she hadn’t yet read most of the manuscript. Mr. Bixby grumbled a little, but he couldn’t argue – he knew it looked great and suited the book well!
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
My answer to this is a bit involved because I often perform my poetry with roots music accompaniment by my daughter, old-time fiddler Kelsey Wells. Not long after my chapbook was published, we started putting my words and her music together, and the response was very positive. So in a way, she’s my best publicity tool. For several years we performed just about everywhere we had an opportunity:
the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville – a marvelous venue I highly recommend as reader and writer
workshops blending instruction and entertainment
and even a street festival, which I don’t recommend, unless you also have, say, cotton candy or balloon art or goat carts as a side thing.
Street festivals aside, I’ve learned that it’s hard to sell poetry to audiences unless they’re readers of poetry in the first place. It’s a little easier to sell the CD we recorded a couple of years ago, called Decent Pan of Cornbread, since the music – which includes banjo, cello, and more – adds another dimension.
I’m mentioning sales not at all in the vein of commercialism, but with practicality in mind. If, by the time you drive an hour or more to an event, read, and drive back home, is it worth it if you sold only two or three books? Yes, there’s more to the equation than the price of a gallon of gas and the dollar or two you make per book – but it’s something to think about. We’re much more selective about our gigs now: for one thing, Kelsey’s fiddling is in high demand for other events, but more significantly we’ve learned to better recognize what’s really worth our time.
Of course every poet isn’t going to have a musician to easily partner with, but I share what Kelsey and I do as a way to encourage other collaborations. Think about poetry in unexpected places. That’s not just good for you as a writer, it’s good for our culture. And even if you want to stick with traditional readings and venues, I still recommend an online presence, a press release, emails to everyone you know (don’t rely on social media), and approaching your local media to review your book, interview you, etc. I’ll also mention this: Although I’ve had significant success with social media on behalf of my employer and various good causes over the years, I think I’ve sold exactly one book to someone I didn’t know as a direct result of social media. I think it’s great to raise awareness and make connections if you enjoy participating, but if it’s not your thing, don’t worry!
What are you working on now?
I’m writing more in form – especially sonnets – and also collaborating with Kelsey, writing poems in response to the lyrics of some of her favorite old-time tunes. There are a few of those on our first CD, and we have fun with them. I’m also immersing myself in the work of three very different poets I admire – Wendell Berry, Lisa Coffman, and Bobby Rogers. I have specific things to learn from each of them.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
I actually need a favorite revision technique, now that you mention it. In fact, I’m going back to Speaking of Marvels right now to see how everyone else answered this question. As for prompts, I noticed that Steve Kowit’s In the Palm of Your Hand has been mentioned here before. That book is one of my favorites, too.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Do you have experience with winning over new readers to poetry with either your own or others’ poems? If so, what’s that been like? Do you think a new poetry reader would have a different reaction to the chapbook format than an established reader?
Do you think that in the course of your present and/or future career, having written and published a full-length book, you’ll come back to the chapbook, publishing them (or attempting to) as you see fit or as the work seems to elect, or do you see the chapbook as a breakthrough collection to longer works?
While I hope to publish a full-length collection, I think the chapbook format can well serve certain situations, irrespective of the size and scope of an author’s oeuvre. I find that so many readers – and even fellow prose writers– are intimidated by poetry. If a shorter collection for some reason makes my poetry more appealing or accessible, then I think that’s a consideration to keep in mind.
What would you do differently next time in the writing, editing, publishing, or promotion process?
I would definitely ask more questions of a prospective publisher about their distribution process. My publisher used an academic distributor rather than a commercial one, and ultimately that made it impossible to get my book in my local bookstore, which happens to be a chain. I’ll give them credit – the local store tried. But the store couldn’t request a book that wasn’t in the distributor’s warehouse, and the distributor wouldn’t warehouse a book unless they had a store order for it. While it’s not like I was expecting to sell loads of books there, it was frustrating and disappointing to not be represented in my local store.
Chapbooks have historically been small, handmade paper productions, but, in our current time, chapbooks can be produced as digital files. How does the physical/digital reality of a chapbook affect your relationship to the text? As a reader? As a writer?
Although I love reading prose on an electronic device, I continue to prefer a physical book of poetry for the complete design and tactile experience. Despite improving technology, it concerns me that both the words on the page and on the line are vulnerable to changes the author didn’t intend in some electronic formats. That said, I return to my earlier comment about accessibility – if poetry can become more widely read and popular because of its availability in digital format, and the multimedia enrichment possible, then I’m all for it. I hope my next book is available in both print and digital.
Kory Wells grew up on the stories of her southern Appalachian family and the wonder of the Space Age, diverse influences that have shaped her life’s work and writing. Author of the poetry chapbook Heaven Was the Moon (March Street Press), she often performs her poetry with her daughter Kelsey Wells, an old-time musician. The Tennessee duo’s first album is Decent Pan of Cornbread. Kory’s novel-in-progress was a William Faulkner competition finalist, and her “standout” nonfiction earned praise from Ladies’ Home Journal. Her work appears in Christian Science Monitor, Ruminate, Rock & Sling, Now & Then, and other publications.
a Native Southerner,
Issues an Environmental
Some say this is hardly the place
to raise a family anymore.
New houses spreading across the county
like flu, schools and strip malls springing up
in places you wouldn’t run goats.
Everybody’s crowding in. Mexicans.
Minnesotans. Laotians. Californians.
Even some Buddhist monks
have a place out by the mall,
right next to the Civil War battlefield.
The city fathers can’t keep up
with all this growth, so you be careful:
a stray Minié ball from a front-loading musket
could fly out of the past and hit you
right in the eye, blind you
to the sameness of Pier One and Starbucks,
where the old men who used to whittle
on the courthouse grounds never gather.