Elizabeth Savage

Jane & Paige or Sister GooseJane & Paige or Sister Goose (Furniture Press Books, 2011)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks?

Sarah Sloat’s Excuse Me While I Wring this Long Swim Out of My Hair and Homebodies; Sally Rosen Kindred’s Darling Hands, Darling Tongue; Kelly McQuain’s Velvet Rodeo; Elizabeth Robinson’s Reply; Dean Rader’s Landscape Portrait Figure Form

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?

The oldest poem in the book is “Housekeeping,” which is in the coda section. I wrote it almost twenty years ago, and I include it when I give readings sometimes because it was the first poem I ever wrote as myself—meaning that I wrote it without straining to fit a particular model of poetry. Before “Housekeeping,” I had believed I wasn’t really writing poetry unless I tried to write like Adrienne Rich. The voice of the poem belongs to an artist friend, who was describing the emptiness of cleaning. I think her art and her attitude led me to see my attraction to spare lines and household words as valid.

The oldest of the Jane & Paige poems, however, is the first one in the book, the title poem that I wrote in 2007.  A student I taught in the Governor’s Honors Academy that summer had responded to a writing assignment based on Hejinian’s My Life, and in it, she wrote that in elementary school she had been punished for not learning her multiplication tables by losing recess. This story broke my heart and preoccupied me for days, during which time my mother-in-law happened to mail me a 1932 copy of Parents magazine. I was surprised to see the publication used to be far more progressive and sensible than it has become.

In the back of the old issue of the magazine are pages and pages of advertisements for summer camps (many discreetly offering conditions resistant to tuberculosis) and educational resources. In one, a little girl is rising from her desk as she raises her hand, and the caption reads, “School isn’t hard for Jane.” The image of the precious, confident child entered into my preoccupation with the student, whose name was actually Paige, and in imagining their relationship, the poem arrived to rescue Paige from that awful memory of pedagogical perversity.

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

J&P marked a huge change in my writing. I’d never before work in series, nor had I challenged myself with specific restrictions for more than a poem at a time. After I wrote the title poem, I decided I would write twelve total poems about different pairs of women and girls and that one fourth of the poems had to be about fictional characters. Nine of the poems are about actual humans and their relationship to each other. I suspect that rules beget rules, so I added to my challenges by writing two poems in traditional form, one pantoum and a sestina, and others with challenging formal restrictions I made up.

How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?

Fairly whimsically, as my responses above suggest. The title of the series was always Jane & Paige or Sister Goose—although when I brought the first poem to my poetry workshop group, I wanted my friends to choose between the two titles joined by “or”-and they said to keep the title as is, so I did.  Later, right before I sent the series to the press, I asked several very different (from each other) readers to comment on the poems and suggest order. Even the readers who knew something of the project’s goals—and that the women and girls were not the same despite their names—talked about Jane and Paige as the same women in a long-term relationship. I added “twenty-four women and girls” as a way to clarify that aspect, but I don’t think it worked.

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

I sent it to a few places, but I don’t remember which ones—not many, though. And when I saw the books Furniture Press makes, I honestly decided I didn’t want my girls going to anyone else. The care and intelligence Christophe Casamassima and his artists give every book are what I wanted for this collection that had become so dear to me, although every poem was difficult to write in some way.

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

Christophe had Jodi Hoover read the poems and draw the cover. He sent it to me, and I swooned with delight. A friend of mine described the image as “a kind of retro-grumpiness.”

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

How does your chapbook represent what you think a chapbook ought to be? and I would (and will) answer it: Jane & Paige or Sister Goose represents what I find most satisfying in a chapbook, like brevity and connection –you can read intensely all the poems in one comfortable sitting (the “unity of effect” approach) or visit with the chapbook as you please without worrying about where you are the book or even reading in order. Most importantly, Jane & Paige is a book made for the poems in it by people who cared about them; it is a beautiful thing made of heavy paper and thoughtful handwork. It is a nice thing to have—and I don’t mean any of this as a comment on the poems’ quality, but on the quality of attention given to them in the construction of the book.

What are you working on now?

I finished a full-length book titled Idylliad this past summer. After I sent it to Furniture Press, who will publish it in March of 2015, I didn’t write at all for awhile, which was very strange. Now I am writing for the first time since I began Jane & Paige without a series project, but something seems to be evolving in which I write a tight, five-line poem ending with a rhyming couplet. Then, I write a longer, more open-form companion to or mutation of that little poem. I’ve written a lot of orphans in the past few months, though, and should probably stop thinking about them like that—I had become a series junkie, so the change is likely good for me.

What is your writing practice or process?

To make myself write something nearly every day since the weeks away from writing has been important, but even more important is reading. I’m disinclined to speak in absolutes, but I absolutely believe one must read a lot in order to write anything of worth, even if one reads only one thing all the time, like Moby-Dick or Walden or Niedecker’s poetry. Essays about contemporary and modernist poetry help me tremendously to think through and about poetry. Writing criticism also helps me to write more and better poetry. I think I’m trying to say that my writing practice works best when I’m doing lots of different kinds of writing and reading while staying in touch with writing poetry.

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

Keep cutting it until there’s nothing left to cut. But now I sound like Pound.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

Care about your book more than you care about publishing it.

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

What kind/s of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that isn’t /aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?

True or False: The chapbook is to the full-length collection as the EP is to the LP. Discuss.

False. Well, true, sometimes. Sally Rosen Kindred’s Garnet Lanterns expanded gracefully into No Eden, but Sarah Sloat’s chapbooks are so perfectly packed; the poems don’t need more company.  The chap need never join a longer work, though it is resistant to airplay.

Have you ever written a fan letter to a writer?

Oh hell yeah. Writing can be such a lonely office, and publishing shockingly anti-climactic. I write almost everyone whose work I love, creative and critical writing—if I can find an email address, I’ll try to track them down. Two of my dearest friends I met through their poetry.

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

A long prayer about women and the ways they matter to one another.

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

Probably “Difficult Honey.” I’m one of the women in this poem; the other is my beloved friend Debbie. We met while in grad school at a big conference when we were assigned to a panel for which the third presenter and the chair were MIA. Their absences meant there would be lots and lots of time for questions, which held little appeal for nervous grad students in a room full of luminaries like Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Robert Von Hallberg, Lynn Keller, and Alan Golding. But we managed to answer some pretty touchy questions together and were forever bonded because of it. We’ve had a friendship founded in almost daily correspondence for almost twenty years.

Have you found in your writing of poems that they are separate from you—that they have their own lives and desires—or that they are extensions of you without “selves” apart from your own notion of “self” and your imagination?

That they have their own lives and desires, absolutely, especially Jane & Paige poems. They were often belligerently separate. But I think the two choices of this question are the same choice.

Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?

I think it did originally and could, but chaps now tend to be more, not less, expensive to make—which makes the answer “yes” again, only with different political imperatives and appetites.

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

A small room crammed with feminists, superb cheeses, and excellent wine. A big room housing people annoyed by thinking about gender.

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 think chapbooks are a discrete form that may or may not improve by extension or inclusion in a longer book of poems. I have returned to the chapbook as a way to think about writing in series and think I probably will continue to do so. Some series demand more room, but I don’t think a big book is necessarily a better one or a mark of poetic progress.

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

I tend to prefer short lyrics, but I absolutely think that the chapbook is a powerful medium for a long poem (depending on what we mean by “long” of course).  Like a picture in a fine frame.

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

I would have skipped the chap contest rodeo, but I had no idea then there was any other thing to do with my work.

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 materiality of the book matters greatly to me, down to the font and the texture of the paper. I know many people find reading on a screen very satisfying, but I don’t. I prefer my poetry offscreen.

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Elizabeth Savage is a professor of English at Fairmont State University and poetry editor for Kestrel: A Journal of Literature & Art. She is author of Grammar (2012) and Idylliad (2015), both from Furniture Press. Verse journal features her portfolio-chapbook Woman Looking at a Vase of Flowers in its fall issue.

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furniturepressbooks.com/books/savagegrammar/

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jacket2.org/reviews/drenched

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 Difficult Honey

Paige stood green as lotus leaves
Jane had turned just barely bold
pinstriped pants and ironed sleeves
they flexed their minds aloud

Jane had turned just barely bold
on heavy stockings ticking down
they flexed their minds aloud
two strangers match a curious crowd

On heavy stockings ticking down
silver buttons sewn up their spines
two strangers match a curious crowd
together clasped the years combine

Silver buttons sewn up their spines
girls glitter while slapping palms
together clasped the years combine
ink to ink they take up arms

Girls glitter while slapping palms
pinstriped pants and ironed sleeves
ink to ink they take up arms
Paige stood green as lotus leaves

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3 thoughts on “Elizabeth Savage

  1. Pingback: Elizabeth Savage: Speaking of Marvels | Kelly McQuain

  2. Pingback: Elizabeth Savage: Speaking of Marvels | Kelly McQuain

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