Marsha Mathews

Hallelujah Voices (Aldrich Press, 2012) Mathews HV

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

Favorites? My tastes are continually changing. A book I was crazy for six months ago may no longer appeal. I keep going back to authors but not so much to particular chapbooks. Poets I return to again and again are K.B. Ballantine because her diction and imagery are full of surprises. Her new book is What Comes of Watching, but I believe it’s a full collection, not a chap. I also admire the work of Diane Gilliam Fisher, author of Kettle Bottom.

What might these books suggest about you and your writing?

I like poetry about people, the human condition. Also, I love the mountains and the beach, so poems with images of forests and red foxes or sea anemones and coral win me over.

What’s your chapbook about?

The book opens with the plight of a pastor being assigned to a rural Appalachian church. In the United Methodist Church, the Bishop assigns pastors to churches. They don’t stay at one church forever. The system requires that pastors be rotated every few years, with the idea that the congregation is less likely to idolize or worship the human instead of God. I’m not sure how much of this comes across in my book, but Pastor Janet arrives at her new assignment, only to find that most of the men and many of their wives and children have quit because they’d heard that “one of them lady preachers was being dumped on them.” Yet Pastor Janet perseveres. She’s there to do a job, and she does it, despite the animosity, and the church builds back, and thrives.

If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?

Northbound Single-Lane, Finishing Line Press, 2010

Sunglow & A Tuft of Nottingham Lace, Red Berry Editions, 2011

Hallelujah Voices, Aldrich Press, 2012

I discuss them in a later question.

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

This question makes me laugh because my publisher, Karen Kelsay said she’d never worked with anyone who had rejected so many of her ideas for a cover. We did go around and around about that cover, for several weeks, looking through hundreds of images.

The problem is that I wanted both themes, Appalachia and Church, on that cover. Not one or the other, but both. And a touch of whimsy. These three components, I thought, would reflect the contents of the book. I had an idea of what I wanted—an old black pick-up truck, with a statue of the Holy Mother Mary propped in the back. There is a  poem in the book, “Kidnapping Mary,” about a few old church women who plot to rid their Protestant church of a statue of Mary because they feel it gives people the wrong idea. This poem was published in The Raleigh Review, and it also was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I knew I had something special with that humorous poem, so to have it resonate on the cover would’ve been my first choice.

Like most things in life, I had to settle, giving up the whimsy. The cover Karen and I  eventually both fell in love with, a church window, reflects the clapboard common to Appalachian church. In addition, a tiny pop of radiance at its lower right subtly yet elegantly suggests the mystery and the glory of everything spiritual.

What are you working on now?

I am writing a full collection, Beauty Bound, with a pun because the work explores globally the human desire for beauty and the entrapment of beauty. It started as a poetry collection and then evolved into a hybrid. One of its flash fiction pieces, “Ride to the City,” won the 2013 Orlando Prize, sponsored by the A Room of Her Own Society (AROHO), and was published in the Los Angeles Review. I never expected that! A few days ago, one of the Beauty Bound poems, “American Women Converse on Middle Ages Flab” was accepted by Southern Women’s Review. Because Beauty Bound is getting good traction, with Gargoyle publishing “Tribal Court in the Bush,” Agave Magazine taking “Tribal Beauty, Uganda,” and “Giraffe Women” going to Wild Goose Review, I’m hopeful I’ll get a publisher with a good-sized distribution and maybe touch some hearts.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?  

Get plenty of feedback from other writers. Get feedback from nonwriters, too. Continually revise and shape, prune and nourish. Then, sit back and let the book blossom. I would suggest that you have at least five of its poems published in literary magazines before submitting the book to a publisher. Also, read your poems where ever you can, even if it’s the local senior center. You may have to take the initiative if your community doesn’t offer readings or writers groups. Yet some publishers make decisions on more than just the manuscript. In other words, consider what you are offering. If you don’t do readings, how will people learn about your book?

What question would you like to ask future interviewees featured at Speaking of Marvels?

Have you found any little tricks along the way for organizing your writing and submissions?

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

The chapbook is an art form. It is a bit easier to work with than a full collection simply because of the shorter length. In graduate school, at Florida State University, I took some workshops in poetry writing, but we focused primarily on individual poems rather than books. My thesis was a mishmash of poems, unified by nothing much, except perhaps voice. Truly, I was stumped on how to put a book together in a way to attract a publisher. For years, nothing. After reading some prize-winning chapbooks, I finally began to see that publishers prefer that the poems within a chapbook relate to one another in a major way.

My first published chapbook, Northbound Single-Lane, follows a woman whose marriage has collapsed, as she travels from Florida north, through Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, where she finally settles with her two small children.

My second chapbook, Sunglow & A Tuft of Notthingham Lace is only love poems because I pulled them together to send to the Red Berry Editions 2011 Chapbook contest, which was on the theme of, you guessed it, love. This impressive artistic press does hand-bound volumes–beautiful.

Similarly, Hallelujah Voices presents poems on the subject matter of church. Although with each poem, the voices change from church member to church member, they are consistently Appalachian voices.

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

Fortunately, I had positive experiences each of the three times. I would and may return to any of these three publishers: Leah Maines of Finishing Line, Marie Dern and Jane Down of Red Berry, or Karen Kelsay of Aldrich. Every press is a little different, but the publishers have all been knowledgeable and professional and kind.

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

I rely heavily on dictionaries and online research. The library at the college where I teach gives me access to excellent databases.

Who do you most hope will read your chapbook? (either an individual or a particular group of people)?

I welcome all people, of all interests and all faiths, or no faith, to my writing and feel honored to be read.

Did you set out with the intention of writing a chapbook? Does your chapbook follow a clear arc?  

Hallelujah Voices did not begin as a book but as individual poems. To create a book, I pulled together poems that I thought might show typical events within a church, such as joining the church, baptism, missions, home visitation, hospital visitation, senior home visitation, youth retreat, funeral, communion, and so on. No, I wasn’t attempting to create a narrative arc in this book. The poems are spoken by various members of a rural congregation in southwest, Virginia, including several narrated by its pastor, the “lady preacher,” Pastor Janet. Southwest Virginia is where I pastored two small churches during the 1990s as an Ordained Minister with the United Methodist Church, Holston Conference.

Does your family read your chapbook? Or are they waiting for you to write a novel?

Well, well! Other poets must have this problem, too. Actually, one of my daughters does read my poetry, even poems that aren’t about her. What can I say? If my parents were alive, I know they would read every word I wrote. But my brother and sister? Not interested. If my novel ever gets out, I don’t think they will read that, either. Maybe my grandchildren will. Let’s put our hope in the future.

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?

People living in the United States often haven’t been taught how to read a poetry book. I’ve seen new readers flipping through one, as they would a magazine. I suppose we need to start the instruction in pre-school, helping young people to learn to love poetry, and continue it through high school. I teach college and have had a few students who have never read a book of any kind.

On a more optimistic note, I have noticed that those students who like poetry are familiar with the poetry slam movement. They also link rap as a form of poetry. Many students are writing poetry, though secretly.

*

Marsha Mathews is an American poet and educator. Her most recent book, Hallelujah Voices, presents the voices of an Appalachian church congregation as they experience  pivotal moments on their life journeys. Marsha’s love poems, Sunglow & A Tuft of Nottingham Lace, won the Red Berry Editions 2011 Chapbook Award, and was published. Her first chapbook, Northbound Single-Lane, was released in 2010 by Finishing Line Press. This book follows the journey of a woman who finds herself suddenly single, with young children to care for. Marsha was awarded the Orlando Prize (sponsored by AROHO) for Flash Fiction.

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Retreat, Camp Brumley, Virginia

Casey

We four-wheel narrow dirt roads
into damp woods,
fly around boulders bent like old folk praying.
At the picnic tables, we hop off,
climb ravines, leap logs. We batter each other
with crisp leaves, six shades of yellow,
and then let them cling like bows to our hair,
badges to our flannel shirts.

No parents! We press our palms to an icy creek,
wade till we shiver, scout for rainbow trout.
With a lighter and sticks, we ignite a campfire
that surges. Smoke loops and rolls
higher than hilltops.

We eat fish and potatoes,
find ourselves strangely home
among chipmunks and gophers.
Our ears the only witnesses
to water anointing rock.

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