landscape/heartbreak (Two Sylvias Press, 2015)
What’s your chapbook about?
Over the course of a year, I went on walks with twenty-two individuals, who each took me to a place in Seattle where they’d had their hearts broken. These heartbreaks weren’t limited to the romantic kind; as we know, the heart can be broken in any number of ways. My chapbook, landscape/heartbreak, is made up of my responses-in-poems to these walks, along with maps of the walks in Seattle.
If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
Two Sylvias Press released landscape/heartbreak first, on Valentine’s Day, 2015, but I wrote almost all of that manuscript after I wrote my second chapbook, Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes, which was released by Organic Weapon Arts Press at AWP 2015. Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes is mostly comprised of poems which I wrote during my time in the MFA program at the University of Oregon, exploring loss; intersections of race and gender; and the space among and between individual, familial, and national histories.
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 piece is the poem “Custom.” I wrote it during a time before I even moved to Seattle, processing my own broken heart and trauma; I included it because it was one of the first poems in which I began, in process and in content, to engage with the body’s movement through landscape, specifically with walking, in relation to the narrative and processing of trauma.
I remember that poem was sparked by reading about an Eskimo practice in which an angry party walks until his or her anger is exercised/exorcised by the walking; the length of the walk, a manifestation of the depth of her or his anger. I was quite angry and confused at the time and going on many walks myself, trying to make sense of my situation. It made sense to include that poem in landscape/heartbreak.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
As far as my process in ordering the chapbook, I thought about creating a way for the reader to experience the accumulation of narrative, emotion, and discovery that I experienced when people took me on walks. Giving context to the project and my own investment in it—where did this idea come from?—seemed key to the communicating this accumulation and was the impetus for writing the nonfiction essay in vignettes, “Notes From the Field,” which begins the chapbook. I asked myself, “If someone had never heard of the project and just picked up the book—what would they need to know to find the poems meaningful on multiple levels? How could I communicate the breadth of the project?” I also wanted the reader to experience seeing and engaging with Seattle’s mapped, physical landscapes and its storied, emotional landscapes. This led to framing landscape/heartbreak’s text with the two maps—one blank, at the beginning, and one filled with the routes of the project, at the end.
In reference to the order of the poems themselves, I thought about accumulation as well. I wanted to begin with “Pentimento,” a poem in couplets, which works in the mode of layering and accrual—a catalog of simultaneous narratives in different times and spaces within the specific place of Seattle and the surrounding area—to allude to the idea that the stories in the landscape and within this collection are, and have always been, here. From there it made sense to move from my own heartbreak into the various kinds of heartbreak—moving back and forth from the specific to the broad—the order interspersed with what might be expected and what might be a surprise.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
My dear and very talented friend, Tessa Hulls, painted the cover of landscape/heartbreak. Being my good friend, she heard about many aspects and iterations of the project; she was also one of the people who took me on a walk. So, Tessa was pretty keyed into the aims of landscape/heartbreak on multiple levels. I asked her if she’d be kind enough to create an image for the cover, and she asked me to show her book covers I liked and we went from there. Two Sylvias was really wonderful about letting me find my own image and implementing my vision for the chapbook.
Why a chapbook?
I had a sense, at the start of the project, that the poetry that would come from landscape/heartbreak would ultimately be a chapbook. I was open to the possibility of a full-length collection; however, as I continued on the walks, the necessity of a set timeframe became clear. The amount of heartbreak and the number of people who have stories to share are infinite. If I hadn’t decided to limit the walks to happen within the span of one year, I would probably still be walking with people today. I wanted to be realistic about my own capacity and energy; I didn’t want to diminish anyone’s experience or my own or my writing in response to people’s experiences due to my own exhaustion, physical or emotional. I was wary of how the project could become unwieldy, emotionally and creatively, if I took on too much.
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?
I wanted to conclude the chapbook with an all-inclusive, composite piece, which became “Field Notes.” A great anxiety of mine throughout the making of landscape/heartbreak was the task of doing justice and paying homage to the openness and vulnerability of the people who took me on walks. Not every walk inspired a entire poem. Not every attempt to write a poem was successful enough to do justice to a story someone had shared with me. There is a whole pile of attempted stop-starts that did not make the cut, which could make up another chapbook (that should never see the light of day). Yet, I still wanted to acknowledge every walk as a part of the project, as integral to the whole even as some appeared as entire poems, in parts of poems, or only in “Field Notes.” This final poem, which I aimed to also correspond with the final map in its form, is comprised of small pieces—vignettes, details and snippets— arranged in the chronological order of each walk. I conceived of these smaller pieces as “inside poems” shared between me and the people with whom I walked. These small moments may read as more esoteric than the rest of the collection, but my hope is that they resonate for every reader, and taken as a whole, will reiterate the culmination of story and transformation of place in landscape/heartbreak.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
Oh, geez. Everything. Buzzfeed quizzes, tarot cards, people’s Facebook rants, New York Review of Books articles about books I probably won’t get around to reading, graphic novels, short stories.
When I went to Kundiman, Matthew Olzmann led us in this great exercise in which he gave us an index card with several unrelated, random elements—I think mine had some facts about chimpanzees, Niagara Falls, and just the place name, Rahway, New Jersey—and through that exercise, I wrote a poem that got to the heart of something I’d some trouble writing about. So, since then, I’ve taken to being more and more open to finding inspiration in unlikely places.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
Frank O’Hara, WCW’s Patterson, Li-Young Lee, Evie Shockley, Sylvia Plath, Ross Gay, and Susan Stewart were people I was reading at the time.
Does your family read your chapbook? Or are they waiting for you to write a novel?
They do. They are very sweet in their pride of me. I am lucky. I think before landscape/heartbreak, they weren’t exactly sure what I was going for, what my being a poet really meant, but having the book in their hands and the specificity of this project seems to have created a clearer picture of what it means that I am a poet and not a novelist. My mom is very proud; she was really pumped about her mention in the acknowledgements: “I’m the very last one you thank! That means I am the most important, right?” Yup. She gets it.
Michelle Peñaloza grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. She is the author of two chapbooks: landscape/heartbreak (Two Sylvias Press) and Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes (Organic Weapon Arts). Her poetry can be found in Asian American Literary Review, New England Review, TriQuarterly, The Collagist and elsewhere. She is the recipient of fellowships and awards from the University of Oregon, Kundiman, Artist Trust, Jack Straw, the Richard Hugo House, and Literary Arts, as well as scholarships from VONA/Voices, Vermont Studio Center, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, among others. Michelle lives in Seattle.
At first, it’s the meals you remember most:
We had Thai, before.
Beth brought us Pagliacci’s, after.
The nurses give you binders to help you
find funeral homes. They use the word,
cremation. All the while, this body
you can no longer trust, this body still needs
to eat and sleep and so Andy stands in line for food
you will refuse to touch.
Iggy. Ignatius. A name of warmth and fire.
What do you call labor
when you know the baby
inside you is dead?
Birth is not the word.
are not of homecoming,
the calls made not, It’s a boy!
Nor, She’s doing just fine!
You wait. Someone turns down
the light, quietly shuts the door.
And here, you question
how your body could continue
to need anything from you.
Iggy. Ignatius. The name you chose,
a tinder. Tender is the word you think.
Andy dances with him, swaying
his still body, not quite yet a body.
Those tiny, discernible hands.
You look away. Gaze at the window.
Pray for the city to burst into flames.