What are some of your favorite chapbooks?
There are so many, but a few that immediately come to mind, and which I’ve been returning to a lot lately, are Soham Patel’s and nevermind the storm (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs), Anne Boyer’s MY COMMON HEART (Spooky Girlfriend Press), and Brenda Iijima’s going blooming falling blooming (Delete Press).
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
Err to Narrow both is and isn’t about sexuality, gender, politics, globalization, and terrorism—abstract monsters that were only grazing my consciousness by the time I could legally vote. Part of the narrator, the memorialized self, hardly recognizes these invisible strings yet.
I was born in 1990, in Staten Island. In the sixth grade, when I was eleven years old, we ran between the rooms with televisions and the windows, watching the towers burn on screen and the smoke trailing away from Manhattan in the sky out our windows. Trauma of this magnitude was foreign, confusing, and quickly enveloped by automatic patriotism. In comparison, it was still somehow easy, despite the physical proximity to the initial event, to permit the war to unfold far away at the periphery, to “tune in” at will (or not). It was easy to not question that dissonance and go on my way, with all the benefits of my privilege and the safety that appeared to prevail, so long as the aftermath unfolded elsewhere. This book examines that thinking and behavior. I hope it also asserts itself as a challenge to that thinking and behavior.
I wrote most of Err to Narrow during a workshop with Sueyeun Juliette Lee. Early in the semester, she challenged our group to come up with provisional definitions for what “experimental poetry” is—what it might seek to accomplish, where it begins, etc. This exercise lasted throughout the semester (and continues for me still—I’m sure that was the point). We read the “Hegemony” chapter from Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature; and so I wrote Err to Narrow with that discussion in mind, of how to prolong, preserve, or produce anew “experimental” methods and art works within hegemonic structures. I was (and am) trying to locate how I, as a young citizen and poet, could respond and contribute in a way that permits ongoing, open participation as well as the interrogation of anything precluding it. I think this is the underlying hope of the chapbook’s final poem, “Okay Moon.” Many people seem to respond to this poem the most, and I’m grateful for that.
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 first poem in the book, “The Trouble with Boys,” was the first poem I wrote. The draft started with that title as a premise, with little in the way of initial intention, though I quickly relied upon my adolescent years for its content. I had always surrounded myself with male friends growing up; I also lived next door to my cousins, five of whom were boys. I worshipped a compass that spun according to “boys will be boys,” though that never quite aligned with what was still expected of me as a young girl (which at the end of the day took precedence). These irreconcilable frames began to break down as I got older, and I thought with this poem I might look for the crack. Err to Narrow really snowballed from that poem, particularly these two lines:
the something beneath this inheritance
my present tense my ragged banner
This collection is many things (to me), among them an exercise in imaginative time travel. For a long time before that, I found it difficult to effectively incorporate my politics into poems. Maybe it was because I was still negotiating what my role as citizen and witness had been up until that point – I think the poetics that emerges from these poems reflects this. Err to Narrow navigates and interrogates a post-9/11 [and implicitly, female] body within a post-9/11 nation. Guiding the narrative is this recurring present self (in many ways an autobiographical representation), who simply by remembering is actively witnessing the politicization of her adolescent body on local and global scales, suspended in these private and public events.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook?
For a while I thought Err to Narrow might be longer. I have several poems that didn’t make it into final drafts, as well as a few ideas for new poems—personal and historical events I was interested in [re-]visiting. I’ve filed those drafts and notes away for now. Each time I reread the later drafts of the manuscript, I felt more convinced that it conveyed more as a smaller manuscript—an analogy, maybe, for the kind of smallness you feel as you begin to cognize just how small you are, a little blip hardly registering in human history, or how cartoonishly small the earth looks beside the sun in middle school textbooks; but then there’s this defiantly enormous imaginative life in each of us! Besides this, I wanted to shift my work’s focus toward the present moment, in which, of course, there is still the War of Terror, and also: I am still continually changing, my body is continually written upon as a woman, and my body is continually writing itself.
As for the title, there has only been the one, and there is no other title I could possibly imagine. “Err to Narrow” encompasses the time, location, and mien of these poems. It is an anagram for “War on Terror.” It is a marker of physical place, referring to the Narrows in New York—the strait between Staten Island and Brooklyn, where the Hudson empties into the Atlantic. Where little water meets big water. It’s also an acknowledgment of failure: a literal translation of mistakes and transgressions, funneling into a space we often miscalculate as too small for anyone but ourselves. I mean locally, on an individual scale—I speak for myself—and I also mean everything that is outside of myself. There is a spectrum of injury we endure and cause, and it may be the only thing, to me, that seems bigger than that space we want, that we try to claim for ourselves. But there’s an ocean at the end of the strait, and there’s plenty of room after that.
The title, for me, plumes from the event that initiated much of America’s youngest generation into an uncomfortable knowledge of large-scale human suffering. This was certainly the case for me. I was (am) white, middle class, educated, well-cared for and well-loved. I had a very thin awareness of discrimination and poverty. Until 9/11, the petty offenses of grade school heralded the end of the world. Unlearning that lack of awareness and acting upon those lessons are among the most important social responsibilities I feel I have. A dangerous alternative is the kind of acceptance—out of defeat, distraction, or disengagement—an anthem like “Okay Moon” seems to suggest. That poem is supposed to make the reader feel unsettled, and hopefully arouses a desire to take and encourage social responsibility.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I must have stood beneath some incredible planetary alignments when I finally decided to send out this book—I only submitted it to the Poetry Society of America’s Chapbook Fellowship contest, and am beyond grateful to Nick Flynn, who selected it for final publication.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The PSA chapbooks are designed by Gabriele Wilson. I work in a busy office space; so when Brett Fletcher Lauer, PSA’s deputy director, e-mailed me the cover draft, I kind of had to duck under the desk with my happy tears. The design of these books is really gorgeous. Julianna Goodman made the cover art for all four chapbooks in the 2014 series. I think what impressed me so much, seeing the images for the first time, was that these rough shapes—swatched, torn, sheared from former materials—mimic crudely the perfect geometries of circles and rectangles we learn to recognize as children; but they are also Manhattan, the rivers and skyscrapers, the pink New York geography, the pink sun. I knew I was looking at Err to Narrow. The cover art for the PSA chapbooks is the illustrators’ reaction to the poems; so that’s really the extent to which I participated in my book’s design, by offering the poems.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
What other texts influenced your chapbook?
“Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir; “Ring Out, Wild Bells,” Alfred Tennyson; Osama bin Laden’s Dispatch before 9/11 (translated for the New York Times by Capital Communications Group and Imad Musa); various interviews and press statements given by George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld; The Amazing Spider-Man #36; “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Louis Althusser; “Hegemony” (from Marxism and Literature), Raymond Williams; The Online Etymology Dictionary; this image.
If your chapbook wasn’t a chapbook — if it was in some other form — what would it be?
I thought about this, prior to hearing my chapbook was accepted for publication. I considered constructing graphic collages to accompany it. (This isn’t an idea I’ve abandoned altogether, though I’m focused on other work at the moment.) I think most of these poems already present themselves as textual collages, especially the title poem.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful backstory to you? What’s the backstory?
The first poem that comes to mind is “America Loves Jessica Lynch.” I don’t actually have much to contribute in terms of backstory, as much of the poem responds to an historical event (through the cracks of more personal moments). I was thirteen at the time of the retrieval mission and Jessica Lynch’s return to the U.S. from Iraq, so what I remember is limited to her image in the news that year, with stars and stripes forever behind her. I was still too naïve to really process the details concerning her rescue, and more fascinated by the fact that she was a girl (“little girl Rambo” was an epithet she fought to distance herself from) not so much older than me. What resonates with me, reading about her much later, are the differences between the story that the military and media presented and her own account of what happened, and how the former was often privileged in conversation. There is something paradoxically heroic about Lynch, about her challenging their fabrication of national heroes (i.e. herself).
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m reading the poems of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (collected in Body Sweats), and am writing a poem in response. I’m planning to eventually adapt it into a set of postcard-sized collages.
Otherwise, I’ve been working awhile on a long poem that is kind of about art and spring and war and the economy (in other words, I am being totally undisciplined and unselective at the moment); but mostly, it’s about friendships and how such relationships facilitate and endure one’s being-in-the-world. Its sections are connected by recurring meditations (and distortions) of “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” a painting attributed to Brueghel that has been several times the subject of poems (not to mention Icarus’s exhaustion as the subject of art).
Alicia Salvadeo lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where she studied poetry and history as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of two chapbooks, Memory Milk (Diamond Wave Press, 2012) and Err to Narrow (Poetry Society of America, 2014), which was selected by Nick Flynn for the National Chapbook Fellowship. Her poetry and criticism has appeared in Bodega Magazine, Bombay Gin, DIAGRAM, Phantom Limb, The Portable Boog Reader, Sentence, and The Volta.
A majority when asked what
they would give up
to be care free The teacher
counts our heads
on the field day bus
each spring; I miss it
when it’s so dark
in winter I pick
the skin off my lips
My mother corrects me
the studio audience—
final answer divided
between moon and elephant
My only major fear is
space aliens singing beside us
with glimmer guns
disintegrating my body
when it’s so dark:
sum of my night vowels
and sometimes the sun
there’s a god in it
warrior or worrier
(first appeared in The Portable Boog Reader 7)