What are some of your favorite chapbooks?
Often, like now, my favorite is the one I just read, in this case, the wonderfully titled I Closed My Eyes to Tell That Story by Erin Veith. Her first chapbook, it’s a fine and haunting debut, and it’s also the debut chapbook by Latham House Press, published in July, 2014.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems is a series of poems presenting a fictional autobiography, a work of imagination based on scrupulous research. The poems portray the felt experience of astronomer Caroline Herschel, who lived from 1755-1848. I stumbled on the original manuscript of her truncated, fragmented, private autobiography while browsing at the Ransom Center at U. T. Austin, and I felt her breath between the lines. This uncanny moment triggered years of research. She went from being her mother’s scullery maid to a woman who discovered eight comets and aided her brilliant brother, William…. The Eye of Caroline Herschel is different from my previous book of poems, which are more self-referential, and different from my short stories and novel, which are about contemporary life.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook?
I delved into Caroline Herschel’s life as far as I could, wrote 66 poems, then honed them down to 21. I arranged them mainly chronologically, since the book is a “life in poems.” The title The Eye of Caroline Herschel came before I had a poem with that title. I wanted to see how she saw. The chapbook title led to a poem with that title–I imagined being behind her eyeballs on an ordinary day.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
Open readings: I submitted to three publishers. I went with the press that accepted it on the first round, skipping one other’s request to see it again during their next reading period. I did not want to wait another couple of years or more to get it out, partly because the chapbook took so long to write. I wanted it out in the world. And I had a novel coming out six months later.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The cover image and design are by Josef Beery, a Charlottesville book artist and designer. We talked but mostly this was Josef doing a fab interpretation. The cover is simple and elegant. Josef freelances and has done many covers for Tupelo Press. He’s also a wonderful and approachable person. You can find his contact info on the web: www.josefbeery.com.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
What do you know now that you didn’t imagine when you began this project? I had no idea that researching Caroline Herschel’s life and times would become so interdisciplinary and I would learn so much about history and science. I had no clue that the quest to portray her would stick with me for years as an evolving project. I can’t write a factual biography–I have to tell lies, or imagine experience to proceed in any given narrative–yet I grew so close to my subject that I could not abandon the facts. I had to honor the facts, and still create life moments that worked as poetry (hence I cut 55 poems I felt were too prose-y). That said, “factual” biographers also rely on intuition and imagination, as Richard Holmes, for one, has well described (he frankly describes having mystical experiences while he wrote biographies). Also, by the way, Richard Holmes wrote the most insightful biography of Caroline Herschel to date as part of his book The Age of Wonder.
What are you working on now?
A second novel, short fiction, and random poetry. May the just-sit-in-the-chair angels bless me! It’s always spiritual grit, habit and the stuff of dreams, to create our webs.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
My favorite prompt to teach is an ode modeled after any by Pablo Neruda, an ode to the everyday that spins, leaps, or clambers along unpredictably. This prompt connects poetic play and vision to the ordinary. I’ve taught it to hundreds of children and adults. It’s fail-proof, and it’s inspiring.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Know that your published work will reach readers, and be meaningful to you, in ways you can’t predict. Keep finding ways–even if slow and step by step–to connect with other writers and artists, those like and different from you. Read and write for pleasure; never forget delight.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful backstory to you? What’s the backstory?
The backstory is horseshit, literally. For a long time, the facts in the poem “My Sublime” bounced around in a back staircase in my brain. After I visited the house where Caroline and her brother William lived in Bath, England, I was fascinated by how they forged telescope mirrors in a workshop adjacent to the kitchen. They used a secret recipe that included horse manure, which (though they didn’t precisely know the chemistry yet) provided uric acid, which enabled the ingredients to cling. The manure was dumped into the bin by the workshop, and Caroline pressed it through a sieve. I thought, how can I get her experience in a poem? Grinding up horse manure isn’t an obvious poetic subject, but I felt it was important not to ignore this, which resonates with so much of her hard-working life. Finally I connected her manual work and her passion for the sky: “No one has more of Earth caked beneath her fingernails and the wink of the universe ghosting through her eyes.”
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?
I love the immediacy of the chapbook– printed especially, and also digital. I love how the chapbook seems both urgent and special, like a combination of a pamphlet that a street crier sold in Victorian England, and a work of art produced as a very intentional, and historically “limited,” edition.
In addition to The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems, Laura Long is the author of a novel, Out of Peel Tree (2014), and a book of poems Imagine a Door (2009). She teaches at Lynchburg College and in the low-residency MFA Program at West Virginia Wesleyan. She previously taught in Austin, Houston, and far west Texas in community and university settings.
Four poems from the chapbook are online at the journal Astropoetica: Mapping the Stars through Poetry. Click here.
The chapbook is available at: finishinglinepress.com/product_info.php?products_id=1816
The Taste of Mathematics: Caroline at 31
After dinner, William cuts the pie into pieces
and teaches me to calculate the Moon’s orbit
when he removes one slice, then another.
Pencil and paper replace my fork and plate.
Which constellation is visible on a certain midnight
from our spot on Earth–the swan, the lynx, the whale?
He teaches me to figure spheres and vectors
already discerned by calculating men.
I am to be a calculating woman. His eyes gleam
as I get more answers right. “One more, Lina,”
he says. “You must get this right or else
you can’t have a slice of pie.” I get it right,
and I could devour a dozen gooseberry pies
a day without him knowing the difference.
Still, this pie tickles my tongue like no other:
cinnamon of logarithm,
___clove of conjunction,
______nutmeg of pi.