What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
The first chapbook I ever read was Susan Yuzna’s Burning the Fake Woman. The poems are intense, and I was a teenager. I needed the book to be short so I could take in each poem carefully, uncrowded, and see its relationship to the other poems. Later, the chapbook became a core of Yuzna’s full-length book Her Slender Dress, and I liked them too, but they read differently somehow.
Two other chapbooks I’m fond of are Kathleen Jesme’s Meridian (she won the Tupelo Snowbound Chapbook prize the year before me) and In Kind, a collection of poems dedicated to poet Philip Booth by his illustrious students.
And now in response to this question, I’m fingering all the chapbooks on my shelves, ones by Mark Vinz and Elizabeth Spires, Marianne Boruch and Tom Hennen, and others; handmade volumes from Red Dragonfly, or small press works from New Rivers. They are so different, some of them as tiny as two inches tall. Some come in sleeves, some look almost like full volumes with glossy covers, one comes in a little box with a black ribbon.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
I think it’s all part-and-parcel of my sense of chapbooks as intimate, intense, and thoughtfully made.
What’s your chapbook about?
Each poem in the book is based on an engraving made for the Webster’s Dictionary in the latter half of the 19th century. These were created by some of the best artists of the time. Their artwork represents the late 19th-century imagination, their preoccupations with the microscopic, the cosmic, the gothic, the mechanical, and taxonomies of each.
This is the description I wrote for the jacket, and it’s pretty concise:
Inspired by nineteenth-century engravings for the Webster’s Dictionary, Engraved explores a fantastic land at the edge of obsolescence and loss. The poems teem with whaling schooners, passenger pigeons, a bayonet, cupola furnace, clavichord—words and objects at the brink of extinction, placed in and around the death of the poet’s father. But these poems also create, or recreate; through illustration, music, and myth, the imagination here allows the dead to reappear, mostly, and sometimes also lets them go. Located at the intersection of art and grief, these poems honor anyone who has set down lines and vanished from the earth.
If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
In college, I studied as a journeyman printer, and with the help of a more experienced classmate, we used a vintage Chandler-Price to print a chapbook of my poems, Familial Places. We used hand-made paper, my friend created an original woodcut for the chapbook, and I hand-sewed the binding. The experience shaped my understanding of chapbooks as a beautiful thing whose every inch is crafted.
Since then, I’ve made little collections of my poems by hand for fun, for family and friends: accordion books, or quarter-sized hand-sewn things.
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?
“Ribcage” is the first poem I wrote in the collection. I knew before writing it, though, that I would write a series.
I thought I’d never write again after my father died in 2007; he was also a poet, and I cared for him in the last 4 years of his life as a fast-moving, early onset Alzheimer’s robbed him of every word. But a year after his death, a friend put a book in my hands, Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities by John M. Carrera. It’s a phenomenal collection of the engravings created for the Webster’s Dictionary in the 19th century, and as soon as I opened it, my mind began spinning. I saw gorgeous renderings, I saw words, I saw the ghost of my father and many others, I saw what gets left behind long after an artist dies.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook.
I started with “Ribcage” and just kept going. Flipping through Pictorial Webster’s, I picked engravings that somehow haunted me. It was a bit of a frenzy, and I wound up with a collection that is twice as long as the one in the chapbook. I do think I could have kept going. But when I came up for air, it was clear that some poems were stronger than others and had a more natural relationship to one another. I didn’t dither too much about what got included; it seemed clear—and my writing group, who watched this whole thing happen, unanimously agreed.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
The original title was Engravings: A Pictorial Dictionary of Visual Curiosities 1851. Cumbersome, overly close to the title of the book that prompted the collection. But I liked the diction of the title, its emphasis on the visual, and the specific history offered. My wonderful editor, Jim Schley, recommended the shorter and ambidextrous title, Engraved, and said he felt the poems already created the environment I was trying to make right in the title. He was very convincing.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The editor and the designer and I were all in agreement that it needed to be an engraving of some sort. Of course, the press wanted something in the public domain to avoid costs. The current cover was the designer’s first suggestion, and it seemed too perfect: a skeleton, standing gesturing to something off the page, its spine in line with letters from the title as if it’s holding up the word.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a series of essays about those last four years of my father’s life—which also happened to be the first four years of my daughter’s life. Words in, words out. It’s tentatively titled Filament and Flicker.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Love every inch. Make a version of it by hand. Experience how the poems speak together on the physical page, and experiment with the physique of the page. Hold onto your vision of what you made.
Then submit to presses and let it go.
(Submit, submit, submit. Who knows why presses take things? I was ridiculously lucky in that Tupelo’s Snowbound Prize was the first and only place I sent Engraved. But that’s never been true of anything else I’ve written and published. And then when your work is accepted and you start working with others—editors, designers–you’re collaborating. That’s a good thing.)
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
How do you think we chapbook writers and readers can get more chapbooks circulated to new readers?
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
Sure. Relevant especially to my own book, chapbooks are not really participants in the consumer market, and thus the material inside never has to wrestle with winning the dollar. Knowing that I was writing a chapbook, I felt that I had license to create the strange, the difficult, the experimental. The poems in Engraved are very, very different from the poems in either of my full-length books. And I’ll confess, as I put those two larger collections together, I did ask myself about “readability” and even, to a small extent, market appeal.
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?
A late Victorian world, populated by extinct species, odd machines, strange scientific findings, a sense of wonderment and grief, both.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
“Harlequin Duck.” It’s long, though not the longest, and moves differently from all the others. It’s definitely part of the “family,” but the others don’t talk to it much.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
Oh, I suppose my head was populated by many different voices. My father’s, the work of my writing group (especially that of Becca Barniskis, who was writing a series about Melville at that point), Dickens, a whole mess of strange characters. I tried to keep the images speaking most loudly.
What themes and images “bridge” your work? Have you found that composing a chapbook alleviates these inclinations, or amplifies them?
In regards to the themes and images I’ve described in other responses, absolutely—the chapbook amplifies them. As a small series of related poems, these pieces are isolated. There are no distractions. The engravings and the issues that haunt them even become an obsession, something to be worked through in the course of the book. As one whole collection, there is no world but the one in these pages.
What would you do differently next time in the writing, editing, publishing, or promotion process?
I’d love to know the secrets of promoting books of poems. I’ve given tons of readings, and I enjoy those. Wait–let me revise that first statement: I’d love to know the secrets of promoting poetry volumes in such a way that does not conflict with the resources that also might be used to write. I have friends who go to conventions and shake hands with the express purpose of trying to get gigs; they spend a lot of their money and energies to make their material visible in the larger world. Bless them. I’m exhausted by that work, and my bank account is shaky enough as it is.
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?
I’d always intended the collection as a series. The question was only in the order. Finally, I decided against alphabetical order. Instead, I put the poems in the order for which the ideas seemed to amass most naturally.
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 poem that comes first in the book: “The Engraver.” I knew I had to write that poem, and kept putting it off.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
John M. Carrera’s essays in his own book Pictorial Webster’s are phenomenal. Do have a look.
Who do you most hope will read your chapbook? (either an individual or a particular group of people)?
People I don’t know.
Does your family read your chapbook? Or are they waiting for you to write a novel?
Yes. And yes. Or: they are waiting for me to sell the option rights of a book of poems to Hollywood. More car chases.
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?
My own experience winning over new readers to poetry? I’m a professor at a community college, so regularly, I show poems to people who’d never known anything beyond nursery rhymes and whose imaginations as a result unfurl; I’m proud to say I’ve seen some of them go on to MFA programs. I’m also part of a large arts community here in the Twin Cities, and I know a lot of composers and singers personally. One of the poems from Engraved has been set as a choral work for high school students; I had a chance to talk to the high school students who sang the piece about the poem, and that was fun. I don’t think they had thought before about the poetry of the pieces they sing. Another poem from Engraved was made into a 45-minute ballet, with original music commissioned by the dance company and based on the poem; the ballet was performed as part of the company’s season, and so storms of ballet-lovers were exposed to the poem. I’m not sure what they thought of it.
New readers of poetry and the chapbook format? I think there could be something very appealing about the chapbook format to those who don’t normally purchase whole volumes of poetry. First, there are usually fewer dollars at risk. Second, it’s an easier collection to make it all the way through, and from which to feel that satisfaction of completing. Third, for readers perhaps not used to thinking about poetry collections, it’s an easier thing to wrap one’s brain around.
Anna George Meek has published in Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Yale Review, and dozens of other national journals. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and two Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowships. She has also been a finalist for the National Poetry Series (three times), the Minnesota Book Award, and the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Her first book, Acts of Contortion, won the Brittingham Prize in Poetry; her chapbook Engraved won the Snowbound Chapbook Competition and was published fall 2013; The Genome Rhapsodies will be published in fall 2015 by Ashland Press, from whom she received The Richard Snyder Memorial Prize. Meek lives with her husband and daughter in Minneapolis.
Vampire (True Vampire), Vampire (False Vampire)
Tilted up, the heads of two bats, jaws
open and fangs parted. False:
large soft ears and a glittering eye.
True: a skull. The dangers are real
and imagined. Portraits of these creatures
come by night and break the skin
of my heart as if piercing fruit.
I dream of winged joys, and their images
fly with me by day. Some moods
flicker in and out of shadow. I must draw
distinctions. Perhaps others
have been bitten, have looked through
dictionary illustrations, searching for
how they dive and disappear. Frightening,
to identify the kinds of intensity,
give them names, examine their shapes.
None of this is to scale.