Gravity (Yellow Flag Press, 2015)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
At university in Victoria, B.C., my friend Heather Simeney MacLeod used to make chapbooks to commemorate readings which featured Canadian authors such as Al Purdy, Lance Blomgren, Patrick Lane, and Rebecca Fredrickson. My favorite chapbook was Pour Your Wine and Bathe Here. I have a copy with most of the poems signed by the authors. It’s very homemade looking (obviously done at the computer lab, photocopied and saddle stapled—I think I might’ve even helped do the stapling late one night) yet so charming. I’ve kept it all these years; I love its simplicity and its provenance!
I first understood the power and beauty of chapbooks when I returned to Seattle (where I was born, and live now) and noticed a chapbook contest through Floating Bridge Press. That year (1997) they chose Donna Waidtlow’s A Woman Named Wife as the winner, and I was hooked. The digestible size, the “themed” content, and the luscious cover paper and design opened my eyes to what chapbooks could be. On and off I entered the competition (never won) and received copies of the winning chapbooks. In 2013 the winning chapbook, and my most favorite chapbook to date, was Ghost House by Hannah Faith Notess. I’ve read it many times.
Other favorite, lovely chapbooks include Agoraphobia by Kristin LaTour (Dancing Girl Press); Shapes of Orion by Heather Simeney MacLeod (Smoking Lung Press); A Certain Hold by Ann Batchelor Hursey (Finishing Line Press); Doll Studies: Forensics by Carol Guess (Dancing Girl Press).
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
I think Pour Your Wine and Bathe Here connected me to the authors and their poems more intimately than, say, their glossy, full-length books. I liked that the chapbook reminded me that poems need paper, and how extraordinary it was that my friend could simply “make a book” and we could access the poets and their words just like that (finger snap here).
The Floating Bridge chapbook series opened my eyes to poets in my writing community (the books are only by Washington State poets). I was suddenly aware of how surrounded I was by poets (really good ones!). I think the books also moved me to think of poetry in more manageable doses both to read and to write.
Hannah Faith Notess’ Ghost House had the effect of forcing me to savor every poem. Something about the continuity of the poems in this small book inspired me to think more seriously about the poems I keep writing and how I can gather them together into a cohesive collection without being too expansive.
What’s your chapbook about?
Gravity is a mini-chapbook (5.5 inches x 4.25 inches) and is a single poem divided into five sections, each section having its own page. The poem is about space and the moon’s pull on wombs. It’s about the Judeo-Christian God’s pull on a person’s spiritual well-being. Though it’s a very feminine poem, I think it’s about the physical, emotional and spiritual weight each of us bear and try to release.
If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them?
Urban Animal Expeditions (Dancing Girl Press, 2013) is my first chapbook. It contains 15 poems, and within a number of these I write about my friends and family marrying or having affairs with various animals. I love thinking about how we humans interact with animals in both the physical and the spiritual world. I also like thinking about how our urban existence separates us from the natural world and how we look for whatever scraps of nature we can find to help us connect with our “inner animals.” The poems in Urban Animal Expeditions are variations on this theme.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
As I’ve mentioned, Gravity contains a single poem. However, the poem “Gravity” came from a small manuscript of about 20 poems, and it happens to be the second oldest poem in that collection. I wrote the poem “Gravity” when I was living on Vashon Island in Puget Sound (a 20 minute ferry ride off West Seattle) back in 2000. The final stanza troubled me for years and years (I’m not kidding!). I fiddled with it, submitted it (it was rejected), put it away, and fiddled some more. Only when finalizing the manuscript to submit to Yellow Flag Press in 2014 did I seem to at last get the last stanza in “Gravity” right.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Bruce Fuller at Yellow Flag Press must have had a vision for this mini-chapbook after he read my poem. I didn’t collaborate at all in the layout and design of the chapbook and, frankly, I’m glad I didn’t! The cover, title pages (complete with floating astronaut) and binding exceeded my expectations because I think they actually enhance the reader’s experience of the poem. It’s a complete, interactive work of art (the hemp binding trails long strings with knots at the end—bringing to mind the tether or cord that ties an astronaut to their ship) and I couldn’t be happier with it.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on quite a few writing projects, including a collection of personal essays. As for poetry, I’m focusing on a manuscript called Anybody’s Animal which is an expanded manuscript of my first chapbook. This collection will include poetry about interspecies relationships but also weaves concepts and images from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairies series with the process of healing and understanding my father’s brush with death when he experienced the rupture of a brain aneurysm in 2012. I like thinking about how we humans belong to each other and about the hierarchies in human/ human and human/ animal relationships.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
I’d advise any author taking on any writing project to read other authors. I think my biggest downfall as a writer has been to not read more. I had bouts of reading lots of different poetry and then I’d get inspired and write a lot and then fizzle out. For some reason I’d forget that reading was the source of that inspiration.
Advice that goes hand in hand with reading other authors is to not compare your writing to that of other authors too much. Sure, you can notice similarities and differences or try the techniques of these writers, but I think it’s important to not compare yourself as better than or worse than another writer. It can really distort and detract from the writing process (at least, that has been the case for me in the past).
Did you set out with the intention of writing a chapbook? Does your chapbook follow a clear arc?
I never saw Gravity as a single chapbook. It was the first poem in the chapbook manuscript called Each Body Holds Its Own Drastic Light, which I sent to Yellow Flag Press. That manuscript was culled from a larger collection of poems that deal with fantastical conception and desire, unexpected losses and adamant hope.
I’ve read somewhere or heard it said that chapbooks should not be parts of a larger manuscript, but that a chapbook should be a self-contained whole. So I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but I combed through a larger manuscript in search of what I felt were the strongest pieces, and ones that I felt worked well together as a whole. Neither of my chapbooks were intended to be chapbooks from the get-go. Both were whittled down from larger manuscripts that already had an overarching theme.
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?
In 2014 I started a reading series called WordWest with poet Susan Rich and novelist Harold Taw here in West Seattle. Our goal was to get writers and readers together to experience high-quality community interaction through the written and spoken word. Each event welcomes a local business owner or employee to read a favorite poem and tell why it’s a favorite. We had no idea how hungry our community was to have a serious, consistent literary series in its own backyard! Attendance has been pretty amazing for a literary series (35-50 humans!—sometimes a dog or two) and people keep saying how much they love to hear poetry (and fiction and creative non-fiction) out loud. I can’t help but feel honored and somehow just plain lucky to have played a role in bringing incredible writers and receptive readers together in my neighborhood. It’s an experience of “winning over readers to poetry” that is outside of my ego, outside of my power, and truly relies on the strength of the written word.
Katy E. Ellis grew up under evergreens and high-voltage power lines in Renton, Washington, and studied writing at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and Western Washington University. Aside from her chapbooks Urban Animal Expeditions (Dancing Girl Press) and Gravity (Yellow Flag Press), her poetry appears in a number of literary journals including Literary Mama, MAYDAY Magazine, Redheaded Stepchild, Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and the Canadian journals PRISM International, Grain, and Fiddlehead. She teaches writing to school kids and lives with her husband and daughter in Seattle, Washington. More at www.KatyEEllis.com
Urban Animal Expeditions – dulcetshop.myshopify.com/products/urban-animal-expeditions-katy-e-ellis
When he entered his old atmosphere,
gravity yanked Valerie Palyakov
through Earth’s blue shroud
and sidewalk clouds
and further down
the skyscraped skin
that holds our breath
__________________until he pierced
another spacious ocean
brimmed in salt