Or, Gone (Tupelo Press, 2015)
What’s your chapbook about?
My book, Or, Gone, is populated by famous historical figures — George Washington, Emerson, Casanova, Houdini, Peggy Guggenheim, Francis Bacon, to name a few — dealing with the struggle between faith and science and our common challenge to “connect the body back to the earth / with the soul’s light.” I love exploring the hidden, less well-known aspects of these famous personalities and how they inform our own search for meaning. I think poetry allows us to revisit our connections to the past in ways the study of history can’t.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest piece in the chapbook is the opening poem in the collection, “The Voynich Manuscript.” I read an article in Lingua Franca (magazine) about this mysterious, undeciphered manuscript from the 16th century. It’s filled with beautiful illustrations and continues to puzzle cryptographers. This was the jumping off point for exploring the ways we attempt to interpret the world around us and find meaning.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I like to think of the poems ordered the way you might figure out who should sit next to whom at a dinner party. Sometimes it’s based on people who actually knew each other, for example, Peggy Guggenheim dated Samuel Beckett and Max Ernst. Other poems are ordered more thematically —the box Houdini escapes from is followed by Wilhelm Reich’s orgone box. There’s a sense of play involved: wouldn’t it be fabulous to be at a dinner party with Nikola Tesla seated next to Diana Vreeland?
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
What do you find fascinating about blending history and poetry in your work?
I love writing about historical figures not so much for what they are traditionally known for, but rather the secret aspects of their lives—the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that we all have that make us human. For example, not many people know that Emerson jumped into his dead wife’s coffin months after she died, or that Tesla was romantically obsessed with a pigeon.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a full-length manuscript.
I tried for a while to stop writing about historical figures in my work, but poet Jeanne Marie Beaumont gave me wise advice years ago, telling me to let it run its course rather than worrying about what I should or shouldn’t be writing about.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“According to Heraclitus” has the most meaningful back story for me. One of my closest friends, Lisa, heard it at a reading and pointed out that I referenced the wrong cemetery in the poem. I love the huge old cemetery that you see driving to or from LaGuardia Airport in New York City — thanks to her, I now know that it’s the Calvary Cemetery. Lisa recently passed away unexpectedly. We both loved old cemeteries (morbid, I know!) and had talked about exploring that one together. I’m so sorry that we didn’t get a chance to do that.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
I love getting ideas for poems from other kinds of writing and media: The New Yorker, Mental Floss, Lingua Franca, novels, descriptions of art on museum walls, NPR, and Wikipedia.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
I love the way Charles Simic’s work is both playful and dark. I think that’s such a magic combination.
Who do you most hope will read your chapbook? (either an individual or a particular group of people)?
I hope people who don’t normally read poetry will read the chapbook and be surprised that poems can be different than what they might expect—they can be funny and dark and make them think about things in a new way. And of course, I would be thrilled if other poets and poetry lovers read and enjoy it as well.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
For many years I tried not to write, and I wish I had realized sooner that I have to write regardless of whether anything comes of it or not. It’s just a really good, healthy thing for me to do.
Deborah Flanagan’s chapbook, Or, Gone, was the winner of Tupelo Press’s Snowbound Series Chapbook Award, and AGNI recently nominated her work for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in journals including The Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, Pleiades, FIELD, The Southern Review, and Drunken Boat, among others. She served as Director of Development for the Academy of American Poets before establishing the Center for True Health. In addition to working with patients at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, she has appeared as a wellness expert on national television, in print, and online. Deborah lives with her husband in New York City.
Deliverance of Samuel Beckett
I Samuel Beckett is stabbed in the chest on a side street in Paris, by a notorious pimp
______named Prudent. A stranger finds him, gets help, visits him in the hospital. I can’t go on,
______I’ll go on, he murmurs, delirious. Soon after, he marries the stranger. The sun shone,
______having no alternative.
II Beckett later asks his attacker, “What was the motive behind stabbing me?” Prudent
______replies, “Je ne sais pas, Monsieur. Je m’excuse.” This answer knocks the breath out of
______him, provides hours of inspiration. We’re not beginning to…to…mean something? He
______drops the charges, finding Prudent personably likeable and well-mannered, finding the
______arithmetic of emotional fidelity extremely private. Only a small part of what is said can be