What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
Three chapbooks that come readily to mind are Erin Veith’s I Closed My Eyes to Tell That Story, Danielle Ryle’s Fetching My Sister and Christina Rothenbeck’s Girls in Art. These are all chapbooks I’ve read fairly recently—say, in the last 1-2 years—either during or right after I was completing my own chapbook.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
That I’m capricious, at best. As a reader at least!
Or, that the state of poetry continues to be inextricably linked to the concept of community—who you know, who has introduced you to whom, who you’ve worked with and who that person has worked with, and so on. I wish I could say I pick up every chapbook that crosses my radar, but I don’t. The girls I listed above whose chapbooks I’ve read are all girls I studied with at some point in the MFA program at WVU. As such, they have influenced my development as a poet (in ways I could go into much more detail about but will refrain from doing) and I’m indebted to them for that!
What’s your chapbook about?
I sometimes struggle a little bit with “aboutness.” Maybe it’s because I feel it will undermine the act of discovery for the reader, or maybe it’s because I fear trivializing the poems somehow, or, finally, maybe it’s a slightly rebellious relationship between my poet-self and the concept of “narrative arc” in poetry, at least with my own work. But I’ve basically separated out the dominant threads of Girl Escaping with Sky (though not necessarily by order of importance) here as:
God and the girl
The mother and the girl
Love and the girl
The girl in a new landscape
Really, this book represents what poetry in general is to me: a way of making sense of the world, my life, one day at a time. The poems here reflect an emotional and physical uprootedness, in part because I had moved away from my close-knit Mennonite community, fallen in love, and taken up residence in the shadow of the Appalachian mountains:—a cornfields and plains girl. I had to re-learn God, the shape of my faith, and how to navigate my relationship with my mother—a relationship that had always been as essential to me as water and air. There is a sort of desperation in these poems that may not be immediately apparent because of their veneer of meadow, birds. I am a nature poet, but (I hope) it is apparent that nature is for me much more than ornamentation. My mountains, trees and birds (and their light) are witnesses to some event, some sorrow. And I think this brings me to what this books is really about (if I can say so without sounding dramatic. Nope, it’s dramatic): it’s an (albeit childlike) attempt to go back, to reclaim my sense of the unshattered, of Eden.
Can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
I think “Landscape after Rain” has always been the entry point for this collection. It represents both a physical and emotional change—movement—that catalyzed and/or crystallized other poems. I remember writing it as a way of saying goodbye to my first home-away-from home. Other than this, I think the process of writing these poems was both pretty organic and jagged. That is, I remember hard living. I wrote these poems, as I mention above, during a period that represented both spiritual turmoil, emotional isolation from my family, and intense light. I moved a lot from apartment to apartment in the same city, so that these poems became the objects I could most easily hold onto.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I had the immense privilege of making the final arrangement of my chapbook while on retreat at the beautiful Sisters of Loretto Community in Nerinx, Kentucky. This is Thomas Merton country, soulful to the core. I had the time and space to put to practice a revision strategy/ book making strategy I’d learned at a writing retreat a few summers earlier. I hung my manuscript on a wash line strung up in a large room. They fluttered there for a day or so—this was at the end of a pretty arduous organization period, when the manuscript had already been yanked about, sifted through, pared down. To be able to walk by the poems as physical objects on that line, to keep moving them around on it, just gave me a better sense of clarity of which poem needed to follow another. This activity was also really great for me because the poet I was retreating with read the poems along with me, and we both wrote notes at random as we passed by that line of poems.
As for my title, Girl Escaping with Sky, it actually comes from a poem called “Boy Spit” that did not make it into the manuscript, but ends: “As long as I can put a mountain here, I said,/ and call it girl escaping with sky.” “Boy Spit” is one of those poems that served a purpose beyond itself. I remember realizing when I wrote it, that I had stumbled onto an emotional clincher—a tiny piece missing for the chapbook manuscript that I was so feverishly working on at the time. The poems in this chapbook easily represent two years’ worth of work, and this, the title, was literally the last piece. I never wavered on or changed it.
Other, foundational decisions that went into the arrangement of this book, the nuts-and-bolts of poeteering are:
I always think of my poems as individuals. Jim Harms always taught us in workshop that even when we are thinking of a manuscript, a poem must be able to stand alone. So I think of these poems as having existed for their own sake first, and for the sake of the manuscript second.
Yes, after all the dithering I did about “narrative arc,” I admit it: this manuscript does follow at least the ghost of one. “Landscape after Rain” represents both a real and emotional opening up, beginning.
What was your titling process for individual poems in the chapbook?
This hasn’t always been the case, but for the past four years or so I’ve come into the habit of always beginning a poem with a title. In the case of my chapbook poems, the titles always came first, then the poems. And while a few of these titles may have been slightly edited (a pronoun here, a particle there), they are essentially as they first appeared on the page.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Kristy Bowen, editor at Dancing Girl Press, asked if I had any ideas—such as moods or colors—to help inspire the cover. She was really wonderful to work with, very open to what I liked. I ended up sending her some Google images as well as photos of my own to get a feel for the mood I wanted and we just went from there. At some point balloons came up—of all things—and they stuck.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
I think I would like to be asked, why a chapbook, and not a full manuscript?
I find this question useful, because in a way this manuscript forced me away from the concept of the chapbook (as a frame, as a thing, whatever you want to call it), and into the realm of a full poetry manuscript for the first time since writing my MFA thesis. My chapbook was, in a way, a learning process and stepping stone toward what is now my first full-length poetry manuscript.
Also, a question I had to deal with, particularly in writing my second chapbook, is: how do poets determine whether a small press is credible or not? My second chapbook was accepted for publication by a press that I thought was credible (I prefer not to name it here, out of respect), but that under scrutiny, particularly of their publication process, proved ethically questionable. After talking with mentor-poets much further along in the publishing process than I, I was persuaded that publishing with this press was not a good career move. However, since saying “no,” I’ve seen that other poets have published with this press. How do I know I made the right decision?
What are you working on now?
I’m actually working on several projects simultaneously right now. Perhaps the most ambitious (or foolhardy, depending on which muse I listen to) is the one where I’ve forsworn poetry for an indefinite period of time (or, until spring) in order to put my creative nonfiction hat on and write a series of essays. I’m teaching myself about structure, and reading a bunch of nonfiction. However, I’m also in the process of putting together my second full-length manuscript of poetry, whose working title is No One Ever Says, ‘Next Year You’ll be Missing a Tree in Your Heart.’
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Write twice as many poems as you need for a chapbook and keep culling until you can reach a page limit where all the poems live up to the strongest poem in the manuscript. Also, take lots of walks.
Charity Gingerich is from Akron/ Canton, OH, but she lived in Morgantown, WV, and taught at WVU for the past six years. This summer found her singing with a Mennonite choral group in Poland for 3 weeks. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Moon City Review, The Laurel Review, Arts & Letters, and Quiddity. Recently,her poem “The Afterlife of Lepidoptera” won 2nd place in Ruminate Magazine’s Janet B. McCabe poetry competition, judged this year by Jeanne Murray Walker. Her poetry manuscript, After June, was a semifinalist in Crab Orchard Review’s poetry series in fall 2014.
How to Bear With It
In the graveyard of the Sisters of Loretto, KY
Lord, I would never sit on a bench away from the sunset,
or bathe my infant niece in a tea-cup.
You are so generous with majesty:
exultant blue-feathered-this, holy mountain-scape-that.
I don’t know how to look away. Just now the sun’s pressing close
to a cloud so it looks like the state of grace—or West Virginia.
The two most important questions in life are
how much is that star in the window, and,
have you followed the red fox to the field of longing.
I want to add something about my mother’s copper-and-gold eyes,
like two small butterflies hovering in the raspberry bush,
something about forgiveness and are these ripe yet?
Thomas Merton wrote “to sing is to begin a sentence like I want to get well.”
I want to leave this place while the light still touches everything:
tombstones, spooky white angels, two fresh graves.