Adrienne Christian

christian chapbook12023 Woodmont Avenue (Willow Books, 2013)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks?

Carolyn Beard Whitlow’s When the Wind Stills.

Crystal Simone Smith’s Routes Home.

Did these favorites influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own? How so?

Not at all. In fact, I wanted to get a full-length collection published. But Willow Books was looking for chapbooks, not full collections. That’s how it ended up as a chapbook. I read the aforementioned chapbooks just for pleasure.

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?

No one poem inspired the rest of the collection. In fact, I did not want to write the collection at all, and resisted doing so for three years. But Dorianne Laux encouraged me to. The poems are so…what’s the word?…pitiful. I mean, the poems aren’t pitiful, but the autobiographical stories the poems tell are pitiful. I didn’t want to represent myself to the world that way. I was ashamed of my pitiful former self, and sickened by my family members who were sick and did sick shit to children. So, no, I wasn’t interested in writing these poems. And I certainly wasn’t interested in publishing them. But Dorianne was my teacher while I was getting my MFA at Pacific University. She, too, writes painful, pitiful stories. And when I told her mine, she told me that I had to write about it, or else be consumed by it. I guess one’s pitiful autobiographical stories are like acid – they burn the vessels in which they’re stored.

What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?

It’s my coming-of-age story – a funky, spunky, gorgeous, precocious child whose mother is her pimp. It’s not similar to any of my other works because it is my first one. Quite honestly, I didn’t know modern-day poetry “existed.” I mean, I didn’t know it was alive and well. I happened upon modern poetry when one day, in December 2008, I took an “Are You a Poet” quiz on Buzzfeed or a site like that. I took the quiz and scored high, which called to mind fond poetry memories from grade school – memorizing Emily Dickinson poems, and what have you. It also called to mind me winning some writing contests when I was a kid. Then I read through some of my journals and discovered I’d been writing poems in them since 2001 when I’d begun doing Julia Cameron’s “morning pages.” Apparently, I wasa poet! That same day I Googled “Top 5 Low-Residency Poetry Programs,” and according to The Atlantic, Pacific University was one of them. (I needed a low-residency program because I would be traveling a lot in the next few years.) I applied that same day, using the poems I’d found in my journals, and miraculously got in. It was miraculous because 1. The semester was starting in two weeks, and PU was only accepting “last minute” applicants because some other would-be students were forced to withdraw at the last minute, and 2. I’d never taken a poetry writing class.

Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?

I meant to submit my manuscript to contests, etc. But I was mostly concerned with publishing it, because I wanted a job in Academia and had been told that having a book published would help to achieve that end. The first publisher I sent it to, Willow, said yes. So, I stopped sending it out after that. It was a foolish thing to do, in retrospect. But submitting is the worst part of the writing process for me. I avoid it when I can. In fact, I just hired a woman to do my submissions for me, since a serious writer cannot afford to not submit. That is the difference between an amateur and a professional, submitting.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

The folks at Willow Books asked me for cover ideas. I chose the “Party Animal” house for two reasons. 1. The house is in Detroit where I was born, and I remember once seeing it when I was a kid. It was a marvel to me. 2. All the happy, smiling stuffed animals nailed to the outside of house are a symbol for my upbringing — inside it was neglected, dark, and mice literally ran the walls. But my mother put on a big circus act to make the neighbors think we were happy inside that hellhole.

What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?

I did readings at AWP Boston and Seattle, courtesy of Willow Books. Mostly, though, I bought a box of 50, and have been giving them away to key people. No one knows who I am yet, so I give them away to make sure I get my name out there.

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?

I wish I would have considered using a pen name. The stories in the book are ones some people use to gossip about a person.

What are you working on now?

I just finished writing A Proper Lover, a full-length collection of sexy, fun ex-boyfriend stories. Now, I’m reading nonstop, filling the well, so that the next time I sit down to write/ tap the well, it’ll be stocked.

What is your writing practice or process?

I write every single day of my life. At least three pages of long hand, which I got from Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way. Journaling is like putting my key in the ignition. It gets me started, and then once I get running, I take off and start writing poems, screenplays, songs, or whatever. But yes, I write every day all the time. If I have no pen on hand, I write in my head. I refuse to let the muscles atrophy. Doing so would be dishonoring the gift, I believe. Like saying, “Hey Universe, thanks for this amazing gift that everyone wants, but no thanks. I can’t be bothered with using it.”

Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?

My favorite prompt is to wake each morning and ask Love, “How can I serve with this gift I have?” Usually Love’s answer is, “Tell your story. People need to hear it and will be helped by it.” So, I write my stories and, again, humbly and stupidly decide they are too “risque” to share. But then along comes some brilliant poet (Dorianne Laux, Kwame Dawes, Cornelius Eady, etc.) who suggests I share my life stories, and boom, I have a collection.

Think about it – usually when people are in pain, it’s text that they turn to to get them through said pain – a gospel song, the Bible, quotes, Martha Beck magazine articles, poetry, etc. That’s how I’m making peace with telling my stories – remembering that serving the world is more important than the fact that I was “lowborn.”

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

Write well.

What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?

To introduce me to some people. I don’t know many people in the poetry industry because I’m so new at it, and because, in an effort to detach myself from my stories, I’ve been hiding. So, I need to meet some folks.

Have you ever written a fan letter to a writer?

Oh yes, in 2006 I wrote a fan letter to Jennifer Basye Sander, the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Self Publishing. I thanked her that because of her book, I now had the know-how to self-publish my own nonfiction book, and I sent her a copy. Turns out she liked it so much she called me and said, “This book has national appeal. Contact these folks and tell them I sent you…” Next thing I know, I was a twenty-something kid walking into Barnes and Noble and seeing my book on the shelf, and doing readings there alongside famous authors like Mitch Albom. I didn’t feel worthy of being in Barnes and Noble though, seeing my name and face on posters, in store windows, etc. So, I (again, stupidly and humbly) abruptly left the tour. But yes, I always write fan mail – to authors, to teachers, to customer service people who actually know what customer service is. To me, this is another way to use writing to serve. And, to deny someone a compliment when he or she deserves it, to me, is a kind of evil.

If your chapbook wasn’t a chapbook — if it was in some other form — what would it be?

It would definitely be an album. I often write in form and I write in meter, so people always comment that my poems sing. In fact, a fan once wrote me a letter telling me that my poem “a dog in a dead man’s house” inspired her to write a song. And she attached the clip. The song was really amazing, and I was honored to have inspired it.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful backstory to you? What’s the backstory?

The one where I try to burn down the house I grew up in. I set a loaf of bread on fire and left it there in the kitchen on the stove to burn. Sadly, I only succeeded in burning the stove, instead of the house and everyone in it. But it was a turning point for me because I was beginning to take back my power. From that day on, no one would fuck over me ever. I was 15.

Where is the ideal place to read your chapbook? What type of place for reading might antagonize your chapbook?

I love to read my poetry when I have a captive audience, and they have the poems in front of them. So much of poetry is how the words are laid out on the page. When the listeners can’t see that, it weakens the effect of the poem. Reading at cafes and/ or bars where people aren’t paying attention is like trying to converse with someone about a serious matter, but he keeps looking at his cell. You’re like, “I was just diagnosed with X terminal disease,” and he’s like, “Hey! I just got 10 likes on my post.”

As for where readers should read it, I’d say Do NOT read it on the train. I got a letter from a guy who said he read it on a train and could not stop crying. He was embarrassed to be crying because he’s a 30-year-old man.

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?

I am open to any and all publishing opportunities where my poetry is concerned. I’m humbled and honored whenever any publisher wants to put me into print.

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?

Reinvent myself? Nah. I mean, I do that with my hair and dress a lot, but not with my poetry. With my poetry, my mantra is to hone my craft over a lifetime. To me, this isn’t about selling books, but about why all souls contract to come to this planet – to be our best/ highest selves.

How do you feel about long poems versus shorter poems? Could a chapbook be a good medium for a long poem?

I don’t have a preference. But there are plenty of long poems in my chapbook, so absolutely chapbooks are good for long poems.

What would you do differently next time in the writing, editing, publishing, or promotion process?

I would hire a marketing team.

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Adrienne Christian is a Cave Canem fellow who earned her BA in English from the University of Michigan, and her MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University. Her nonfiction has been featured in Jolie, Today’s Black Woman, and African Vibes. Her poetry has been published nationally and abroad in poezia, frogpond, Alimentum, Obsidian, Falling Star, Miller’s Pond, Cliterature, and others. At the Script Writer’s Network, she read and critiqued teleplays for Modern Family, Criminal Minds, The Simpsons, and The Big Bang Theory, and she is an executive committee member of the Haiku Society of America. When she is not writing poems, find her traveling to get inspiration for poems. Adrienne teaches writing at the University of New Haven in Connecticut and lives in New York City. Her first poetry collection, 12023 Woodmont Avenue, is now available from Willow Books, an imprint of Aquarius Press.

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www.adriennechristian.com

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Dog in a Dead Man’s House

I was
a dog in a dead man’s
house. I was
a tooth in a dead man’s
mouth. I was
a rat in a family’s
den. I was
a hog in a horse’s
pen.
She spoke
to me when she wasn’t pissed
off. She got
pissed off when she looked at my
face. I got
my freckles and nose from my
dad. He was
a man set on being a
rat.
She was
a girl with her head in her
hands. She was
a girl who just couldn’t make
ends
meet up
with no support check  from my
dad. I was
the curse of the blood with no
pad.
She said
your dad needs to take care of
you. He needs
to feed you and buy you new
shoes. He’s got
to learn to provide for his
kids. I ate
the roaches I found in the
fridge.

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