Can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
One summer afternoon, while browsing the shelves at Half-Price Books, I picked up Van Gogh: Letters from Provence, and immediately, I got hooked on Van Gogh’s voice in the letters. I bought the book on the cheap, took it home, and read through it over several days. The artist’s passion for his work was infectious, and I began to imagine a speaker who was able to stand next to Van Gogh, follow him, listen to him, ask him questions, and get lost in her own art the way he did. The first poem I wrote in that series, “Vincent, in Arles” became the catalyst for this chapbook:
Last night he arrived in Arles to / two feet of snow, the rocky Arpilles lilac/ in the distance. I couldn’t get at why. / My head fallen into the white down of / forgetting
How is the work in the chapbook similar to or different from your earlier work?
Prior to writing these poems, I’d written a successful series of poems on the JFK assassination. Those poems were based, in fact, on eyewitness accounts from people I knew while I was growing up in Dallas. So writing poems on a topic, as an organizing principle, was familiar to me. What is different in the chapbook poems is that I imagined a persona who is not quite me, someone who would risk so much artistically that she might not be able to come back and live in the real world. I had great fun working with this character, really exploring her aesthetics, and watching her develop her passions.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?
The title is derived from two lines in “Man Carrying Thing” by Wallace Stevens:
We must endure our thoughts all night, until
the bright obvious stands motionless in the cold.
I’d copied these lines into one of my journals some months before I began writing the Van Gogh poems. I liked imagining what “the bright obvious” might be. For the speaker in the chapbook poems, “the bright obvious” became the impetus to make art, an impetus she learns from her time with Van Gogh.
One thing I kept in mind was length. I wanted to be able to use some of the poems in a book-length manuscript later. Many first-book contests require that a poet hasn’t published a text longer than 28 – 32 pages. For any emerging writer, I think that’s a good thing to remember. With that said, the chapbook is a great way to get your work out to the reading public.
Arrangement of the poems became the most difficult task for me. The decisions a poet has to make are tough—which poems to include, which to leave out. How should one poem follow another? I tried a number of arrangements, but having created that persona finally gave me a way to arrange the poems as if the speaker were making a journey.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I submitted the chapbook to a contest at Finishing Line Press—which I didn’t win. However, the press contacted me a month or two after the contest to say that they would like to publish the manuscript. What a nice surprise! This was the first time that I had submitted the chapbook manuscript.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
A good friend of mine and writer, Addie Tsai, took the photograph for the cover—golden koi in a green pond, with one stark white koi that stands out from all the rest. For me, the photo gives some clue about what the bright obvious could be. Finishing Line liked the photograph, and so the editors used it for the cover.
What are you working on now?
I have a book-length manuscript that I am shopping around now, “At Auvers, Ever Yours,” which includes the Van Gogh series of poems, woven into a longer look at the actual world and the world of aesthetics—what it’s like to live between the two. I’ve written many more poems to go into the series, so that at least a third of the manuscript addresses Van Gogh and his aesthetic practices.
It’s a little hard to categorize the newest poems that I am writing, but I am looking at designs and patterns—in relationships, in landscapes, in our thinking. One poem is called “A Theory of Forms”; another is “Design of a Bookstore.” One poem that is forthcoming in Crazyhorse is titled “Field Design.”
What is your writing practice or process?
Every morning, early morning, for at least an hour I like to write. But I teach for a living, so sometimes when I get up early to write, I feel a pressing need to work on something related to curriculum. . . and I will give in to that. This is a problem for writers, I think—the pull to write creatively must always be balanced against the actual need to make a living. (I am, however, grateful to have a living to make.)
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
Here’s one creative technique that works for me: I keep notes in journals of images, words, sometimes a line or half a line that I’ve thought of. Periodically, I go back through my journals and just jot down what looks like doodling on a blank page. Then I try to shape all those disparate pieces, these desiderata and ephemera, into a poem.
Reading also serves as a prompt for me. A writer needs to be a hungry reader. I am always reading books and journals as part of my aesthetic practice. Actually, I may not always be reading poetry. But reading in a wide range keeps me in the poetic mind, and the writing becomes easier, as if I am in a call-and-response relationship with books.
Where is the ideal place to read your chapbook? What type of place for reading might antagonize your chapbook?
In Houston, one of our local, independent bookstores—Brazos Bookstore—is an ideal venue. The manager, Jeremy Ellis, is a generous host to local, regional, and national writers. So when I approached him about a chapbook reading there, he was agreeable. I invited two other chapbook authors to share the reading time with me. I like having company—that’s an ideal situation for me—although I have read at venues where my work was the featured work. We invited our friends and fellow writers, and Jeremy promoted the reading on his website and at his store. We had a very good turnout.
Where don’t I like to read? At readings where everyone is reading something funny and getting lots of laughs . . . and I don’t have any humorous poems with me. So I sidle up to the mike and just read my dour poems. I may try to make a few funny remarks in-between reading the poems.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Start putting the poems together in sequences of 5 – 10 at a time. Then you will start to see “holes”—where you need to write more poems to make the sequences stronger, so that they will cohere. I have a friend who suggests printing out hard copies and pinning the poems to a wall where you will see them every day. That method serves you well because (a) it helps you see on a daily basis that you have a project in mind, and (b) it helps you come up with different ways to sequence the poems.
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?
Even if I have published a full-length book, I can see myself submitting work as a chapbook again. Actually, some big-names poets have done that recently, if I recall. Not too long ago, poet Ann Lauterbach published a long “meditation” in chapbook form, The Given and the Chosen. I enjoy long poems in chapbook form, short poetry collections, essays, stories. I think the chapbook form is flexible; and for publishers, it may be more cost-effective. Certainly, it’s easier to publish a chapbook than a longer collection. So yes, I would consider submitting work for a chapbook again. With that said, I kept in mind the length of my own chapbook—because I did indeed want to be able to use the poems in the larger collection of a first book.
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?
Wow, I am old school! I am not a “digital native.” I love the weight and heft of a book in my hands. I love the smell of the paper. I love being able to flip from page to page to page. I love to drift off to sleep with a book falling from my hands as they relax. Then the text that I’ve been reading often enters my head and my dreams.
It has taken me a while to actually use a computer for my own creative processes. But gradually I have learned how to write on a computer. Now I prefer making notes in my journals and doing the actual writing on my laptop. By the same token, it has been a process for me to learn to read digital texts. I read digital texts every day, but honestly, how can anyone cozy up to a laptop or a tablet?
What would you do differently next time in the writing, editing, publishing, or promotion process?
I would promote my work more and organize more readings. I have been too timid in promoting my own work. I would also suggest to other writers, as well as to myself, to keep writing regularly and keep submitting the work. If writing is your passion, then keep at it.
Rebecca A. Spears, a poet and instructor from Houston, Texas, has an MFA from Bennington College. She is the author of The Bright Obvious (Finishing Line Press). Other poems and essays are included in The Blanton Museum Poetry Project (Univ. of Texas, Austin), Improbable Worlds (Mutabilis Press), TriQuarterly, Calyx, Crazyhorse, Ars Medica, Minnesota Review, Nimrod, Relief, Borderlands, Texas Review, and other journals and anthologies. She has received awards from the Taos Writers Workshop, Vermont Studio Center, and The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow; she has been a finalist for the Iowa Review Poetry Award.
Vincent, in the Fields
In mistral and mosquitoes, the linen canvas
trembles and must be weighted. He is lucky to generate
of a sower in the wheat fields and in late summer
the gleaning, then the drying sheaves.
At noon, sun blazes
and wearies every son of the soil. He labors quietly
without shadow, quickly in coppers, gold-greens,
gold-reds, a cicada chirring.
The task is to color without much thought to system.
Unorthodox in practice, his hands helter-skelter
to the work, quietude to still his locust mind.
The light has become too much. Theo, I will
finish this work later.