What’s your chapbook about?
This is a tough question and I don’t even know why I’m even considering answering it, but I am. Here’s my answer: I don’t know what my chapbook is about. Maybe it’s not about anything. Although I can say that most of the poems are love poems. They examine, describe, and interrogate sexuality. Gender roles. Religion. They flirt with sensuality. I feel the chapbook possesses a dreamy, mythical air. Putting it together, I often sensed a Wonderland aspect to it.
If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
I have published one previous chapbook titled Subways (Thrush Press, 2013), and this one is easier to peg. It consists of a series of mostly prose poems set in the New York City subway system. Having lived in NYC for nearly twenty years, the subway is a constant, a lifeline, the proverbial human cesspool in which I wallow, a space of intrigue, wisdom and pathos, source of entertainment and endless fascination.
Can you name one poem that catalyzed the chapbook?
Here’s the story: I had no predisposed intention in writing a chapbook, nonetheless two! What happened was that the chapbooks branched out of a failed second manuscript. I knew I had two incongruent “sections,” these poems in Aviary, and the subways poems. As hard as I tried to mesh them, they just wouldn’t fit. I realized the subway poems are an entity on their own, a followed-through project. I was left with these poems brimming with imagery of animals and birds, and they gravitated toward each other. If there is a poem that anchors Aviary, it is “Threshold of Revelation.” Not only is it an offshoot of Subways—the poem is set on a train—but the final, ultimate image of Pangaea is where I feel the other poems branch out, the fauna and humanity.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
Once I realized “Threshold” is the anchor poem, in length and theme, I placed it in the middle of the chapbook, and worked from there, like water ripple effect. Moreover, I have a triptych of three prose poems each in three sections. I view them as pillars, recurring throughout the collection, holding up the proverbial house. I also tried to weave in poems with more personal narratives, interwoven with lyrics and what I refer to as fairy tale poems. I wanted a progression of varying styles and forms that still grounded the reader.
As for the title, I was first stuck with “Menagerie,” searching for something similar; it was too Tennessee Williams, so I knew I couldn’t use it. I believe I used the word bestiary in one of my poems, but it wasn’t enough. There are also plenty of bird images in the collection, and the opening poem, “Music Box,” plays up the comparison to a cage, an aviary. I particularly like the rhyme and rhythm of the two words, how they roll together on the tongue like rambunctious twins: Aviary, Bestiary.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Jamaal May and Tarfia Faizullah, the dynamic duo at OW! Arts, pretty much gave me free reign in choosing the art work. I’m a huge fan of the artist Edward del Rosario (http://edwarddelrosario.com/), and I jumped at the chance to work with him. The cover image compliments the poems. I love that it’s surrealist, and doesn’t bash you in the head with “aviary!,” “bestiary!” I suppose it would’ve been easy enough for me to just have a picture of a parrot or a cow. I jest. I’m very happy with my chapbook, and it was so easy working with Tarfia and Jamaal on the interior and exterior design.
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?
The last poem I wrote and revised turned out to be the last poem in the chapbook, “In This Bed.” I went through many drafts of that poem, just couldn’t get it quite right. Initially it wasn’t going to be included in Aviary, but as I worked on the poem I realized, thematically and simply, the tone and feel of it makes it a worthy end-poem. Its lack of animal imagery also works for me in that the lovers, the bodies, are the bestiary.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
I read lots of fiction and non-fiction. And I love watching nature shows.
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? Do you think a new poetry reader would have a different reaction to the chapbook format than an established reader?
Witnessing a person fall in love with a poem, albeit for the first time or the thousandth time, is one of the best feelings. I love when it happens during a vibrant discussion, or upon hearing a poem and how it could swoop down and lift.
I think the chapbook form is a good medium to ease in a novice poetry reader. A chapbook is not so intimidating (it’s a pity that in schools, poetry is approached and taught as some kind of difficult puzzle “to solve”) due to its size, to creating a vivid world with less. Isn’t that a function of poems, too: to speak volumes with the fewest words? Compact, compressed, precise?
Joseph O. Legaspi, a 2015 Fulbright fellow, is the author of Imago (University of Santo Tomas Press; CavanKerry Press) and two chapbooks: Aviary, Bestiary (Organic Weapon Arts), winner of the David Blair Memorial Prize, and Subways (Thrush Press). Recent works appear in Poets.org/Academy of American Poets, jubilat, Salt Hill, The Journal, and Painted Bride Quarterly. He co-founded Kundiman (www.kundiman.org), a non-profit organization serving Asian American literature.
Academy of American Poets: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/whom-you-love
From the Fishouse: http://www.fishousepoems.org/?artist=legaspi-joseph
A Love Story
She was the most beautiful
hen, feathers the kilned brick
hue of New England autumn
before I knew autumn,
her radiating heat
the tropics of my childhood.
Summoned by her magnetic,
clucking love I released her
from the coop, cyclone
of fowl drudgery, first
song of farm fandango.
Pubescent eyes met chicken
eyes electric between boy
and his bird. Her crown,
red as overripe strawberries,
flowered down to her
curtains of blood
suspended from her throat.
Then hand traveled the length
of her hen-ness—comb
to wingbow to shank—
compelled to explore under
her tail feathers, fanning
of the pudenda, puckering
like a mouth. What’s a boy
to do, orally fixated as he
was, but press his finger in
against the bristling,
then moist suction
and swallow. Quickening,
his eggshell heart shattered,
his whirlwind self spun
like iron planets
orbiting below a cock
bellwether perched spur
and claw on a stormy rooftop.