A Dictionary of Theories (Celery City Chapbooks, 2014)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
Two of my favorite chapbooks recently have been Ghost House, by Hannah Notess and Thirteen Small Apostrophes, by Jonathan Weinert. (Disclaimer: these authors are both friends of mine.)
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
Hannah Notess’s poems often combine pop culture with religion, which is something that I like to do as well. My favorite title of her book, “St. Augustine Enters the World’s Largest Pac-Man Maze” attests to this technique. This book particularly has a lot of video game references, which is not a subject I see poets taking up very often. It’s not a subject I write about myself, but I admire the way she’s able to engage with pop culture in a deep and meaningful way.
As for Jonathan Weinert’s book, I love the way the book holds together as a coherent whole. I’m also an editor for a small press (WordFarm), and I always love to find books that do this. As a reader, it makes the experience of a book feel more cohesive, and thus more meaningful to me. I also love the way Jonathan uses space. There are a lot of one and two line stanzas in the book, which lets in a lot of space/silence and gives the book a meditative feel, and that is something I’ve also experimented with in my work.
What’s your chapbook about?
Most of the poems in my book interact with a theory (scientific, theological, psychological) in some way: thus the title! For example, the first poem, “Sensitivity to Initial Conditions,” is based on a concept in chaos theory better known as “the butterfly effect.” More generally, the book explores the dissolution of a marriage and a moving forward into a new relationship.
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?
I think “Strange Attractors” is the oldest poem in the book. It was published in the Louisville Review Fall 2010 issue. The poem is based on a mathematical theory having to do with fractals. I believe I understood the concept to some degree when I wrote the poem, though I don’t claim to be a mathematician! In any case, I jumped off from the mathematical idea to the idea that attraction between people is a strange and chaotic phenomenon, and involves a kind of push/pull like the two different sides of a magnet. When I first started writing the book, I remember being interested in how different theories could be applied to relationships between people.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook? What was your titling process for individual poems in the chapbook?
The title of the book came first, before I had written any of the poems. My first full-length collection (The Eyes the Window) contains many poems that are inspired by theoretical physics, so I’ve been interested in interacting with scientific theories for quite some time. At some point I saw a reference book in the bargain bin at a bookstore titled A Dictionary of Theories, and I knew I had to write a book of poetry with that title! The titles of the individual poems are often taken from actual names of theories, though I also put some poems in the chapbook that are much more loosely connected to theories, but connect to the relational theme of the book
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I didn’t collaborate on that at all. Luckily I loved the design that the press came up with!
What are you working on now?
I recently finished a second full-length collection of poetry titled Basic Disaster Supplies Kit, which I’ve been sending out to publishers. Now I’ve started on a third book. I’ve got a title for it, but I’m not sure what shape the book will take yet.
What is your writing practice or process? Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique?
My writing practice/process varies from project to project. I wrote most of the poems for my second book in a span of about 9 months. I wrote a new poem or significantly revised a poem nearly every day during that time period. It was an intense and wildly creative time, but I don’t think that level of intensity is generally sustainable for me. I’ve been floundering around for a new process/practice for this 3rd book, but haven’t found it yet.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Be careful what press you go with. Some presses want you to do things like sell the book ahead of time before they’ll print it, or charge a large reading fee. As an editor for a small press, I know that presses struggle for money, but so do writers!
What themes and images “bridge” your work?
Themes include science (especially physics), theology and the Bible, relationships, the apocalypse. I’ve noticed that I have a lot of water images in my poems, which happens I think because I live very close to Lake Michigan.
How do you use computers/digital technologies in all stages of your writing process?
I do a lot of online research. Many of the poems in my second book involved online research, and many were inspired by strange articles and photographs I found online.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
The final poem I wrote for this book is called “Fractal,” and it takes fragments, sentences, and phrases from poems in my first full-length connection and puts them together. The poem fits with the relational and theory themes of the chapbook, but it also provides, I believe, an interesting bridge between the chapbook and my full-length collection.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
Novels, memoirs, books about theoretical physics, Facebook posts, online articles, nonfiction books. I read all sorts of texts and can take inspiration from any and all of them! I’m also inspired by other kinds of “texts” such as art, photography, television, and movies.
Marci Rae Johnson teaches English at Valparaiso University, where she serves as Poetry Editor for The Cresset. She is also the Poetry Editor for WordFarm press. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in The Collagist, Quiddity, Hobart, Redivider, Redactions, Books & Culture, The Valparaiso Poetry Review, The Louisville Review, The Christian Century, and 32 Poems, among others. Her first collection of poetry won the Powder Horn Prize and was published by Sage Hill Press in 2013. Her poetry chapbook won the Friends of Poetry chapbook contest for Michigan authors in 2014 and was published by Celery City Chapbooks.
several poems, including one from A Dictionary of Theories (“Sensitivity to Initial Conditions), may be read here