What are some of your favorite chapbooks?
That’s difficult to answer, just because when I was first introduced to chapbooks I was inundated with them in the best way possible. The second year of my MFA, I took a poetry workshop with the explicit assignment of writing a chapbook—we read dozens of chapbooks that had been collected over the years. Some of the ones I loved best in that assortment were Scavenge by RJ Gibson and A Thirst That’s Partly Mine by Liz Ahl. I also have an affinity for certain press’s chapbooks. I will pick up and read any chapbook from Ugly Duckling Presse, Bloof Books, Dancing Girl Press, Hyacinth Girl Press, and Black Lawrence Press. Currently on my shelf I have Shake Her by Arielle Greenberg, Windowboxing by Kirsten Kaschock, and The Strangers She’d Invited In by Jac Jemc.
Did these favorites influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own? How so?
The first real impetus for me to put together a chapbook came from my MFA chapbook workshop course. After that class and exploring other chapbook presses, I think seeing the different thematic concerns of each chapbook helped me understand how to create a chapbook-length manuscript and be able to have some kind of organizing principle around it.
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?
Strangely enough, the poems that comprise Not of Their Own Making mostly happened all at once. But I would say that in my first chapbook Shift, the final poem, “York Fish & Oyster Co.”, which addresses a mermaid painted on a local seafood company wall, ended up acting as a natural and unplanned bridge between the two chapbooks, in terms of a poetry-related connection.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
Mermaids. Specifically, retellings and refashionings of mermaid myths. In elementary school, I got my hands on a Scholastic edition of Mermaid Tales From Around the World, retold by Mary Pope Osborne, a fairly popular children’s author, with illustrations by Troy Howell, and became obsessed with the book. I still have it with me. It is on my bookshelf right now.
The subject matter differs pretty drastically from what I have worked on and what I am working on now. I previously wrote about life in my hometown using a lot of received forms, such as sonnets and villanelles, and right now I’m working on a poetic interpretive biography of a 17th/18th century historical figure. There’s not too much of a connection, but I’m happy to have something completely different out in the world. And plus I love terrifying, vengeful mermaids.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?
The length came from the two-week time period I set for myself. Right after the spring semester of teaching in 2013, I sat down with Mermaid Tales From Around the World, re-watched Splash, and began writing mermaid poems. I started emailing them to my friends who were bored at work. They liked them, so I kept on writing. After my time period was up, I revised and sent out the manuscript. The title is directly lifted from the final line of “Millpond,” a poem in the chapbook, while I ordered the poems using brief lyric and abstract poems to create small breaths for the reader.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I submitted Not of Their Own Making to two presses during no-fee reading periods: the first very kindly rejected it, and the second, Dancing Girl Press, picked it up in October of that year.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The cover image and design was completely collaborative. My friend Leah, the first reader of these poems, drew the cover image. I sent the image over to Kristy Bowen at Dancing Girl Press. She loved it and arranged it with the title and my name for the cover. It’s simple and direct, and I love that the image has the primary attention. Leah’s mermaid is exactly what I wanted.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
The chapbook just came out in late October and I don’t even have copies yet, but so far I’ve been promoting the chapbook on Facebook and Twitter, and my friends have even been kind enough to share the link to the Dancing Girl Press website. As soon as I get copies of the chapbook, I will query and see if anyone would like to review it. I currently serve as Book Review Editor at The Los Angeles Review, and so I know the importance of reviewing and the dedication it takes to critically read and assess someone’s work in a meaningful way. If anyone is interested in a review copy, please contact me!
What are you working on now?
I’m in the process of conducting field work to write a more conceptual long poem using the rhetoric and signage of state and national parks — I’ve been traveling a lot to the Ozarks lately, so I believe that’s where I’ll start first on that poem. It’s still in the early stages, though.
My main focus has been on a poetic interpretive biography of Maria Sibylla Merian, a 17th/18th century illustrator and naturalist. I could go on incessantly about her, but needless to say, she merits a full-length project like this.
What is your writing practice or process?
All over the place, usually. But when I have a source text to work with, the process becomes a bit more organized. For Not of Their Own Making, I chose a mermaid myth/legend/folktale for the day, read it, spent time taking notes and conducting extra research if needed, and then drafted the poem. I did the same thing the following day. Otherwise, I usually just end up writing ideas for lines in my notebook or in my phone, typing them all out, and seeing what works.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Chapbooks are fun! Go for it! Think about the theme(s) your chapbook revolves around, and then go and see what presses are out there who publish chapbooks that you think are in line or in conversation somehow with your work. I’ve had the best luck submitting to presses that do not require fees, but I think whether or not you want to pay a $10-15 reading fee is up to you. If you don’t mind paying, try to find a press that will give you something in return, like a title from their catalogue or a subscription. That way, you’ll have an ever better idea of what the editors like. Do your research, but also submit to the presses you love and admire. Be nice. Be courteous. Usually rejections have much more to do with editorial tastes than the quality of the work. Keep on trying. When your chapbook is accepted, help promote the book. Send lots of thanks! So much thanks.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?
Have you ever written a fan letter to a writer?
No. But I feel like I should now. I love writing letters.
If your chapbook wasn’t a chapbook — if it was in some other form — what would it be?
It would probably be a performance art piece where my friends and I dress as mermaids and recite intimidating monologues amidst a room filled of glitter and confetti. You won’t be able to get it off you.
Where is the ideal place to read your chapbook? What type of place for reading might antagonize your chapbook?
I don’t know about a setting that would antagonize the reading of the chapbook, but I do suggest going to an aquarium or zoo or somewhere near water. Get really close to the water. As close as you can. If you’re not near any of those kinds of places, find a fountain or decorative pond. Get so close that you might accidentally get wet. The pages could use some warping.
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?
Why not return to the chapbook? Some poems want to be in chapbooks, others want to be in full-length collections. Sometimes the chapbooks combine together, kind of like a Transformer, to create a full-length collection. There’s always a little mystery to what those poems will want to do.
Concerning voice and style: Do you find it something that you consciously think about or do you simply write? Do try to reinvent yourself every few years, go looking for a new way, or do you think that finding a certain language, a certain voice and pushing and honing it over a lifetime is your preferred mode?
I think about voice all the time. In both of my chapbooks, I needed to have a variety of voices, for them to be different. Otherwise, the poems would become boring. Sustaining a singular voice is more difficult for me, but jumping in and out of different personas and voices, that’s the fun part. I certainly think those voices, even as they vary in the chapbooks, also change. I’m really drawn to changing the voices in each “project” I work on.
How do you feel about long poems versus shorter poems? Could a chapbook be a good medium for a long poem?
Yes! Absolutely! Long poems can be for anything. One day I will write a long poem, and maybe it will be a chapbook, maybe it will be part of a longer collection. Who knows.
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?
The thing I love about chapbooks is their handmade quality. I’m very much drawn to texture and design in chapbooks. But that doesn’t mean I don’t read electronic chapbooks, too. I really like the model where the press has limited copies of a chapbook in print form and then puts the chapbook online once all of the copies are sold out. It helps get the writer’s work out there. I’m interested in the dynamic between both the print and electronic form a chapbook working together rather than being in opposition to one another.
Alyse Bensel is the author of two chapbooks, Not of Their Own Making (Dancing Girl Press, 2014) and Shift (Plan B Press, 2012). Her poetry has recently appeared in Mid-American Review, Heavy Feather Review, and Ruminate, among others. She serves as the Book Review Editor at The Los Angeles Review and Co-Editor of Beecher’s, and is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Kansas.
Men who fail their wives dream of suicide,
staring into morning’s still water.
He can see his ruin rippling like a strider
breaking the surface. But she, dark-haired
and beautiful, will save him from misfortune,
give him wealth and riches, all for just
his first-born. Men are easy to seduce,
will give what they do not yet have for what
they can hold. The finest luxuries are worth
more than blood. But women know women.
His wife kept their son away. Yet all little
boys turn into hunters. Soon he stumbles
into the millpond, where thin, white arms
drag his body into a muted world. Only
this hunter’s wife can dream of gold combs,
of flutes and spinning wheels. These things are known
to draw out men from hiding places. Break
the water. Take him as a shepherd
who watches his sheep, even if the surge separates
them for years, even if they must gaze over
the hills, waiting for the sound of a melody
once played for him to rise in a wave
from the pond, enchanted by spells
not of their own making.