All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl Press, 2014)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
My two most recent favorites are Stacey Waite’s the lake has no saint and Laura Madeline Wiseman’s Spindrift.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
I think one thing that they have in common that resonates with my aesthetic and the type of poetry I find most meaningful is the way they explore feelings/concepts we (society?) think we know. For instance, both books question gender binaries and the assumptions that are made based on the presence (or absence) of specific genitalia and what that relationship is to “nature”–both a kind of human nature, but also the natural world. There’s an intensity in the questions the speakers in both collections ask – a desire – that feels visceral. That’s the kind of poetry that I want to produce, the kind that recognizes that desire is not just an intellectual activity, it is of the body. We cannot have a mind without skin, bones, and guts.
What’s your chapbook about?
All Day, Talking is a series of letters from a singular speaker to a woman, Carole, with whom she had an intense and multifaceted relationship. Each letter moves the reader toward deeper insight into their relationship and expresses how the speaker is moving through her grief.
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 chapbook is the first one, “Dear Carole, You never told me.” I was in a poetry forms workshop during my PhD program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and our assignment was to pick any form from the text book and produce something. I was feeling lazy and a bit resistant to the idea of writing in received forms (I really just wanted to work with the amazing poet Grace Bauer, which is why I took the class), so when I happened upon the epistle as a “form” I thought, I can write a letter. No syllabic count! What’s funny about the way it worked out was that I had been struggling to write through these memories and feelings I was having about this person from my life. And these were all tangled up with the changes I had been experiencing going to grad school, and the disconnect I felt with my old self. This just sort of opened the door to what I needed. After the first letter, I just kept writing them.
How did you decide on arrangement and title of your chapbook?
The arrangement for the chapbook was mostly organized around the movement within grief and memory the speaker is experiencing. I wanted the poems as a collection to sort of move the reader forward in understanding while also moving sort of circularly forward with the speaker’s grieving process. Though there is chronology to the events in our lives, I don’t think there is to our memories – or at least not mine. And there isn’t a through line for our feelings either. You know some days are easier than others. One day, the pain seems distant, and the next, it can be crippling.
As for the title, I really struggle with titles normally, but this one came remarkably easy. The last poem in the chapbook “Dear Carole, I wake up like this now” was originally titled “All Day, Talking.” The moment I had that, I knew that was the title poem. It seemed to really encapsulate the incessancy of the letters.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I submitted to both, though not many. I think I sent it to two or three contests and one open reading period, which was Dancing Girl Press. I felt really good about the manuscript, but was shocked how quickly it was accepted somewhere. And I really love DGP, so that was especially exciting.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I am so glad you asked that question! I love the cover so much. It is a reproduction of a painting by Berly Brown (visual artist and yoga instructor out of Lincoln, NE). I knew another poet, Laura Madeline Wiseman, who had worked with Kristy Bowen (editor at Dancing Girl Press), and had used work by a local artist for her chapbook, Branding Girls. That idea really spoke to me. I had seen Berly’s work before and was drawn to her bold lines and use of color, so I asked if she’d be willing to paint something. I gave her a copy of the manuscript and just asked her to do whatever spoke to her after reading the poems. I could not have been happier. We met a few times, first to talk about the poetry, then to take a look at her sketches, and then once when the painting was in progress. It was really exciting to see come to life someone else’s connection to the work, and I think the poem she chose to illustrate (“Dear Carole, It’s Dia de los Muertes) is a nice distillation of the more playful side of the speaker and Carole’s relationship.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
That has actually been one of the hardest parts for me, and the most fun. I’m not too experienced with putting myself out there in a sales-like capacity, but I got a lot of good advice from writers I respect, so I just sucked it up and did the things they suggested, like cold-calling (or emailing) bookstores to see if people would be willing to host me and contacting journals and poet-connections to see if they’d be willing to review the chapbook or give a blurb for the chapbook’s page on my website. I was lucky enough to get some readings out in my home state just after the New Year while I was visiting for the holidays, including getting a solo reading at the library I went to every week when I was a kid. That reading ended up being really emotional for me; practically my whole family showed up! Also, I got to read at an indie bookstore in Oakland, CA (E.M. Wolfman General Interest Small Bookstore) and for Michelle Tea’s RADAR series at the San Francisco Public Library. Each experience, especially those where I was reading with other poets, has been really fun, and such a great opportunity to meet other writers and hear more poetry while also getting my little chapbook out into the world. And of course I’m annoying everyone on Facebook and Twitter with posts announcing chapbook-related info.
What are you working on now?
Currently I’m working on a new series of poems that are a re-envisioning or maybe an extending of the Native American myth of the turtle that holds the world on its back. I have always felt drawn to turtles. There is something serene and deliberate about the way they (Desert Tortoises in particular) move. Turtles hold a sacred position in a lot indigenous tribal cultures, and I just got to thinking about how much responsibility that must be and wondering how it might feel to make that kind of sacrifice.
What is your writing practice or process?
Not as disciplined as I would like it to be! One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that if I could just ride mass transit for a few hours a day, I think I might be prolific. Knowing that I am on my way somewhere and that there is nothing I can do other than be in that space, with just my notebook and thoughts, is very freeing for me. No matter where I end up writing (which is just anywhere, whenever I can), my pattern has been to free write a lot and just write (mostly in the winter months), then come back a few months later (usually in the summer) and start revising and polishing what was accumulated previously. I’m a firm believer in free writing.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
I am fond of list prompts, like ones that ask you to list all the items from your childhood bedroom or your grandmother’s kitchen. Thinking of all those concrete items in reference to their space and relationship to a person almost always leads somewhere productive for me.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Just write and write what it is in you to write. Then look for a pattern or arching narrative. Once you find that, you’re probably on your way to a chapbook manuscript.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Did you read straight through your chapbook out loud during the revision process or while finalizing revisions? If so, how was your experience of the poems different or your ideas about their individual meanings changed?
What themes and images “bridge” your work? Have you found that composing a chapbook alleviates these inclinations, or amplifies them?
The themes that seem to bridge my work are loss and the need for connection. In the case of All Day, Talking, I think those themes might have been amplified. I thought once the chapbook was done, I had gotten these letter poems out of my system, but as it turns out, I have not. They just keep coming.
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 poems I wrote for the chapbook were two or three little tiny, one to five line poems. The manuscript seemed to be missing something, like there were gaps. The little poems that pepper throughout seem to work like glue or maybe like oil, making the ride more cohesive or smooth.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
Believe it or not, literary theory. It makes me think of poetry and literary themes and social constructions differently, which seems often to jar some poetry lose from my brain.
Does your family read your chapbook? Or are they waiting for you to write a novel?
Oh, they read the chapbook, but they are still waiting for me to write a novel! My mom says stuff like, “couldn’t you write a thriller or a romantic novel? Lots of people would pay for those.” She’s not wrong . . .
Do you have experience with winning over new readers to poetry with either your own or others’ poems? If so, what’s that been like? Do you think a new poetry reader would have a different reaction to the chapbook format than an established reader?
Well, speaking of family, when I had the opportunity to read from my chapbook in my hometown, my whole family, their respective partners, and friends showed up, none of whom read poetry. I was terrified. I knew none of them had ever been to a poetry reading (nor did they have any desire to, they were just supporting one of their own, you know, like going to someone’s soccer game or band recital). What was amazing though, is after the reading, quite a few of them came up to tell me how much they loved having images placed in their minds. They couldn’t believe how clear and accessible it was. My partner’s mom even said, “If this is what poetry can be like, I’m going to find other readings to attend.”
And as for their receptivity toward the chapbook form, in some ways I think new readers are more receptive. The chapbook doesn’t get as much respect and attention in many literary or academic circles, at least not as much as a full-length book gets. But for those people who aren’t aware of or affected by those politics, it’s just a nice digestible amount of poetry that often tells a story, which people seem to like.
Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of the chapbook, All Day, Talking published by Dancing Girl Press (2014). Her recent work can be found or is forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry Review and So to Speak: a Feminist Journal of Language and Art, among others. Her manuscript, This, Like So Much, was an Honorable Mention in the 2013 Quercus Review Press Poetry Book Contest. A selection from her chapbook manuscript All Day, Talking won the Susan Atefat Peckham Fellowship in 2013. She is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop.
Dear Carole, There are bugs everywhere
Mobs of tight black bodies,
their imperceptible wings
flapping through the screens
of the south-facing windows.
It’s disgusting how the live
and dead bug bodies mingle
together on the sill, the floor,
moving and multiplying no
matter how often I take the
broom and Dustbuster to them.
I know what you would tell me:
Close the goddamn windows
already. But the sun is shining
in that friendly, far-flung
way that only happens in fall.
There’s a breeze that flits
through those wings. I guess
that was always the difference
between us – what we were
willing to sacrifice for comfort.