This is not a sky (Black Lawrence Press, 2014)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
There are so many fascinating chapbooks I love. Jill Alexander Essbaum’s long poem The Devastation (Cooper Dillon Books) is absolutely stunning. Elizabeth Cantwell’s chapbook Premonitions (Grey Book Press) uses broken and fragmented language in a haunting, anxious way that I hugely admire. Bradley Smith’s Diorama of a People, Burning (Richochet Editions) and Amaranth Borsuk’s Tonal Saw (The Song Cave) both use found text in engaging, effective, and fascinating ways, which was definitely inspiring for my forthcoming full-length collection, Obliterations (Red Hen Press). I was also really impressed by Cody Todd’s To Frankenstein, My Father (Proem Press), which takes what would be a confessional style of poetry and transforms it into tightly lyric, pop-culturally relevant pieces. I would also mention Heather Aimee O’Neill’s Memory Future (Gold Line Press), but since I was editing the press at the time, I don’t want to seem too forward. Still, it’s AMAZING.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
I like games. I like surprises. I like when people take something you think you’re familiar with and do something so new, so exciting. I like bravery.
What’s your chapbook about?
This is not a sky is a book of ekphrastic poems about famous artworks, mostly paintings. There’s a QR code on each poem you can scan with a smart phone to see the corresponding artwork. (I thank Amaranth Borsuk for that idea!) The poems were meant to engage with the art in a seemingly straightforward way, but then there is an italicized voice running through the book that works the way an “outsider” would, commenting upon the art and the speaker of the poem in disjunctive, sometimes wry, sometimes prophetic ways.
If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
This was my first! I’d put together loose chapbook-length manuscripts before, but they were never successful as collections. I think it worked best for me when I found my specific theme and ran with it.
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 oldest poem in the book was from the first group of poems I ever submitted to a journal, “New York Movie,” which The Formalist published literally in the 90s. It was also the last poem I added to the book. I’d written all these ekphrastic poems and forgotten that I’d done one all those years ago that had been successful. I looked it over and edited it so that my italicized speaker had something to say, and off it went into the manuscript. I never thought about it as a precursor to these poems, but in a way I suppose it was my first attempt at the process that would eventually become this book.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I get inspired. I get obsessed. I write and can’t stop writing. The subject exhausts itself for me, so I stop. I edit, grudgingly (but always realizing the necessity of it), refine, submit. I get into a crazy dry spell where I’m not fascinated by anything, which means no obsession, which means hardly any writing. Until the next inspiration. Then: repeat.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook? What was your titling process for individual poems in the chapbook?
This one was easy. All the poems were named after the artworks. As for arrangement, I tried to think of it like the reader is going through a gallery. I didn’t want anything to be too overwhelming at once, so I tried to vary the length and density of pieces as much as possible.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
It was a very collaborative process, though the original idea definitely came from Amy Freels, Black Lawrence Press’s awesome designer. I liked it and we went through a bunch of iterations of it, but mostly playing with color and font. They were really accommodating.
What are you working on now?
Tinkering around with some ideas, but nothing’s sticking in the poetry department yet. I have a series of short stories in meter that I’m thinking of getting back to soon. And I’m working a lot on my website Poetry Has Value (www.poetryhasvalue.com), which I created to spark conversations about poetry, money and worth. It has amazing guest bloggers writing on the subject, as well as interviews with editors of journals that pay poets. I also created a Google document of paying poetry journals that is fully editable and entirely public, which you can find on the site.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Keep it tight. In other words, find a project that fits the length and reasoning behind a chapbook. The biggest problems I tend to see with chapbooks are scope. It feels obvious when a poet tries to stretch an otherwise smaller subject to make it chapbook length, especially when weaker poems rear their heads. But it’s also pretty common for someone to stop when there’s definitely more to explore – make those full-length! Of course it’s totally fair to take a selection of a longer sequence or group and make them into a chapbook. Though I prefer chaps to be separate projects as opposed to smaller samples of a larger work, because in the latter case I feel like the chapbook becomes obsolete once the larger work is published.
Why a chapbook?
I wrote these poems for exactly as long as the subject fascinated me. When I stopped, it was chapbook length.
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?
In this case, it’s me (and my poems) inhabiting the world of the artists. Or, if anything, it’s me creating a hybrid world that includes the visual art I write about, the imaginary worlds in my head, and the voyeuristic world of the viewer of a piece of art.
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
My master’s thesis manuscript was called Charm School in Exile. The poems within pretty much disappeared or were subsumed by other projects, but I really want to write that book one day.
To what degree is your work with writing about binding to form? To what degree is it about freeing ________ from form? Is there writing, for you, without the work of writing being a form-married requirement? If so, what does (or could) that look like?
For most of my writing years I was some version of a formalist. Formalish, I liked to say. I’m always attracted to traditional form not because it’s traditional but because the tradition works as a useful springboard to play with and subvert expectation. My first full-length collection, Interrobang, is all formal poems that work heavily with rhyme and general soundplay. And fit the form perfectly. But This is not a sky was different. I was very influenced by the art I chose to inspire the poems. Some of it nodded to tradition but moved beyond it, and a lot of it bucked convention entirely, although the artists often had a classical background. All of that appealed to me, so I dropped the traditional forms entirely, though I continued to utilize repetitive metrical structures and rhyme. Mostly because I can’t help it; it’s just too much fun for me to stop.
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? How were your ideas about their individual meanings changed?
When I was in college I interned at The Favorite Poem project for the then-U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. Robert’s stance on reading poetry aloud has always stuck with me. His basic premise is that poetry is fully realized only when it manifests through the medium of the body. Any body, anyone reading it. I always read my poems aloud because sound is so important to me, but also because I buy into Robert’s principle. Poetry is the sum of the written and the spoken. It’s funny, my PhD dissertation was on Cognitive Poetics, specifically on how readers react physiologically and neurologically to the sound of poetic text. In my research I learned that when we read, the neurons that control our jaws actually fire as if we were speaking the words aloud, not just reading them silently. Appreciating the phonics and sonic qualities of a text are an integral component of fully comprehending meaning, and I’m a big advocate of realizing and utilizing that fact. (Nerd rant over.)
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
I did a bunch of research on phobias and philias for Interrobang. I love reading scientific stuff, generally, though the technical stuff is sometimes beyond me. (My husband is a scientist, so that helps.) My reading material often depends on what I’m obsessed with any given moment. But my secret shame is that I read as much (if not more) fiction than I do poetry. I read different genres for different reasons, but it all helps. I believe art is generative; it inspires more art.
Who do you most hope will read your chapbook? (either an individual or a particular group of people)?
Everyone, of course. But for this one, especially visual artists and art lovers. I’m really curious about what they’d think of my interpretations and play with the original artwork.
Does your family read your chapbook? Or are they waiting for you to write a novel?
My family members say they read my work, but I’m pretty sure they don’t. Probably for the best, right?
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
When you write, don’t focus on success. When you edit, mostly focus on success. Once you’re successful, REALLY throw out the idea of success when you write. Otherwise you’ll never be brave enough to grow.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
I teach my poetry students that writing is something we do for ourselves, but publishing is ideally a gift to others. I don’t know. I’m not really sure if my writing is a gift, but that’s the hope. That it moves someone. That it changes something positively. That’s what gets me to the page.
Jessica Piazza is the author of two full-length poetry collections from Red Hen Press: Interrobang—winner of the AROHO 2011 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize and the 2013 Balcones Poetry Prize—and Obliterations (with Heather Aimee O’Neill, forthcoming), as well as the chapbook This is not a sky (Black Lawrence Press.) She holds a PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California, is a co-founder of Bat City Review and Gold Line Press, and teaches for the Writing Program at USC and the online MFA program at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. In 2015 she started the “Poetry Has Value” project, hoping to spark the conversation about poetry and worth. Learn more at www.jessicapiazza.com or www.poetryhasvalue.com.
Adam and Eve
Some say the world will end in fire, a pyre for the best
of us to watch while the worst are purged, already ashen.
The man I loved loves endings of this sort. (No ellipses, small
apocalypses limping one after the other
into the light-washed after-morning healing.)
Imagine us standing silently at the barren
spring lip of a vineyard. The vines are twisted,
mist over them, like charred hands scratching
the background hills. He is giddy. (All this
illness—thrilling.) Branches black, all of it aching.
Overtaken by this goneness (his fingers
in mine soft and white, malicious), everything feels
finished. Fires untying the knot of us. The burn
of our own promise. This torture by interminable
smolder, slow inferno. My only wish: that it would end
for us by ice instead. (But we’re already dead.)