What are some of your favorite chapbooks?
No matter how many I list here, I’ll be leaving out some books I love, but here five chapbooks I find essential reading:
A Broken Elevator Is Still Not the Stairs, Chuck Carlise: Part lyric essay, part series of aphoristic prose poems, this collection has wisdom on every page and a crushing ending.
The Kind of Beauty That Has Nowhere to Go, Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney: More wisdom here, in this playful series of “Some Notes on …” various topics.
No Girls No Telephones, Brittany Cavallaro and Rebecca Hazelton: A complicated game of telephone, a call-and-response between these two poets and John Berryman with resulting poems that rise above even this delightful process.
Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, Sally Rosen Kindred: Those poems revisit the Peter Pan story through various, complex, smart, modern lenses – like putting the familiar tropes under a kaleidoscope.
Landscape Portrait Figure Form, Dean Rader: A pleasurable, intelligent wild ride of a collection that is at once all over the place and intricately interwoven with questions about art and identity.
Did these favorites influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own? How so?
Certainly, in the way that reading always influences my writing, and every book I’ve ever read makes me want to write and publish books of my own. There are those studies about how reading changes your brain chemistry, actually rewires how we engage with the world, and the poems in these books have definitely done that for me, in ways both predictable and mysterious.
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 first poem in this book was “The Sword Swallower Wonders What’s the Point.” I was doing the 30 poems in April thing, and I wrote that poem early one day, and that same evening I wrote “The Tight Rope Walker Gets High.” I knew right away that this was a project, that I wanted to write more poems about circus performers with punny titles. I didn’t know how many poems I’d end up with, but it didn’t take long to see that a chapbook was the right shape for the project.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
Well, it consists of poems about the circus with puns in the titles. It’s “about” a lot of stuff: persona, performance, sadness, isolation, connection, desire, etc. I was working on a collection of poems about the blues at the time I started this project, so maybe it was a bit of a departure, content-wise. But I think the voice is not all that different from my earlier poems, and the central themes are pretty normal for me. Maybe it’s a little more cynical than some of my other writing.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?
I wrote just a few more poems than made the final cut, and during the final editing process, Margaret Bashaar from Hyacinth Girl and I decided to take out a couple that didn’t quite hold up. I also wrote a new poem to be the first poem in the collection after it was accepted.
As for arrangement, it was a pretty intuitive process; I can’t point to any specific logic. But I did spend a lot of time on it, doing that thing poets do where you print out all the pages and move them around and read and re-read and shuffle and re-shuffle. I think there’s a bit of an arc there now? I hope? I guess readers can decide.
I tried a lot of titles. I don’t remember any of them except the one I ended up with. There’s a list somewhere, but I don’t even want to go back to look at it. Finally, I narrowed it down to two or three and sent those options to my friend and fellow poet Todd Kaneko, and he showed them to his wife, the writer Caitlin Horrocks, and she immediately said The Insomniac Circus was the best of the options, and that’s what I went with.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
Both. Everything, everywhere. I was sending this collection out all over the place for three years before Hyacinth Girl Press took it during an open reading period.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Sarah Reck, Hyacinth Girl’s rockin’ designer, did the cover. She did a couple of versions, and we all agreed this was the one. I guess if I had really hated it or something, I would have had veto power, but I love it. Honestly, couldn’t be happier with the image, the font, the colors. All of it. Margaret Bashaar hand-binds all the Hyacinth Girl books and ties them with these awesome ribbons. The whole package makes me happy and proud.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
I did a reading with Todd Kaneko when the book first dropped, and I’ve posted pretty regularly about the book on social media. I’m also holding a giveaway of some broadsides, and I have offered to choose three random book-buyers for whom I will write their own, personalized circus poem. I will be seeking opportunities to do more readings soon. I’m doing this interview, and I did one with Laura Madeline Wiseman for her chapbook blog. I’m reaching out to find journals or writers who are willing to review the book.
It’s incumbent on poets to put in the work to promote their own work. You don’t get to write the poems and wash your hands entirely of the process of getting them into the hands of readers. That’s part of the deal. Lots of poets don’t like the hustle, the sales part of it, and it’s not my favorite thing in the world, either, but it has to be done. I’m proud of the poems, I believe in them, so I owe it to them to help them find readership. I also owe it to my editor to help her sell books. Running a chapbook press is a labor of love; the least I can do in return for all that she has done for me is participate in the whole process.
What are you working on now?
Shopping another manuscript. And trying to write the next poem, always.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Write good poems. Then make them better. Don’t let the project overwhelm the poems.
Have you ever written a fan letter to a writer?
Yes. It’s pretty easy to do these days, what with so many writers being reachable through Facebook and email and Twitter and such. I think it’s a really great thing to do. Mostly as writers, we work alone and then send our work out into the world and never know exactly how readers engage with it. It’s a nice gesture to tell someone that what she wrote touched you. I urge all readers to do this when they have the chance.
If your chapbook wasn’t a chapbook — if it was in some other form — what would it be?
It would be a circus poster, all sepia tones and splashy promises, nailed to the side of a hardware store in a small town.
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?
This question is sort of the heart of this chapbook. Performance, persona, self – how much can we separate them? What’s more real: the masks we show the world or the hidden self beneath the mask?
So, both, right? Poems are extensions of the poet-self and autonomous creatures that exist on their own. This sounds more mystical than I mean it. I mean: yes, I pour much of myself into each poem. I make up a lot of stuff, of course, but that imagination is no less myself than any sort of “true facts” that accidentally end up on the page. But then, once the poem leaves my hands, it’s not up to me how a reader feels about it, how a reader engages with it, what a reader thinks of it.
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?
The chapbook is – should be – must be – its own thing. It’s unfortunate that the “PoBiz” side of things has made the chapbook sort of a professional steppingstone to a “real” book. Some projects belong in the smaller form. I’ve read books that have, say, 20 brilliant poems in them along with 28 others that are less compelling. Wouldn’t such a collection be better off as a chapbook?
How do you feel about long poems versus shorter poems? Could a chapbook be a good medium for a long poem?
Of course. Frank Bidart’s Music Like Dirt makes a lovely chapbook, for instance.
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?
To be entirely honest, and speaking as a reader, I don’t love the idea of the e-chapbook. Especially when it’s just a pdf or a series of web pages. I find them clumsy to navigate and hard to engage with. Not a very warm medium. I would be more inclined to read a digital chapbook as a Kindle or Nook thing, but I don’t think they have quite figured out poetry on those devices yet, what with linebreaks and font sizes and all. I find the web an effective, efficient way to read individual poems, but far less effective for reading collections. This could be merely my personal preference.
Amorak Huey is author of the chapbook The Insomniac Circus and the forthcoming collection Ha Ha Ha Thump. A former newspaper editor and reporter, he teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His poems appear in The Best American Poetry 2012, The Cincinnati Review, The Collagist, Poet Lore, and many other print and online journals.
The Unicyclist Wonders If He’s Found the One
Eventually you grow weary of pretending not to care.
You lie in bed, bruised, unable to touch yourself,
wondering: what if you never fall again? Sore ribs
are the least of it, the heart murmur that kept you
out of Desert Storm, though you’ve weathered plenty
of hurricanes, floods, the collapse of every tower
you ever built: slow sound of crash & crash & crash,
the folding in, the rubble left behind – always the leaving,
the mouthy hot & violent freestyle farewells.
The family that burned, the family that stayed,
you sleep for a dozen years through thirty states,
wake to find your body is covered by snow
& in the snow is a hole shaped like an angel.