Staring the Red Earth Down (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
I love the poetry chapbook series that Voices from the American Land publishes. I’m not sure how many have been published at this point, but they are each little marvels with deep attachment and poetic perspectives on very particular places within the American landscape. I also love all of the old Jargon Society chapbooks. Both of these also merge with art with words, which adds another dimension to the power of the publication.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
I write primarily about place, and particularly about the place I’m close to – Cowee, North Carolina, and the forests, streams, and inhabitants of the Little Tennessee valley. I first encountered one of the Voices of the American Land several years ago, and became a subscriber. After several issues, a poet friend of mine, Thomas Rain Crowe, approached their editor with a chapbook proposal for our region here in western North Carolina. It was accepted, and we collaborated with Cherokee scholar Barbara Duncan to publish the chapbook, Every Breath Sings Mountains in 2011.
What’s your chapbook about?
Staring the Red Earth Down is a place based collection of poetry that gives voice to several local characters who live here in Cowee, and to the landscape itself. The title is from a line in the poem “Man Pulling Cable,” which is about a boondoggle DOT project that interrupted life in our valley for almost two years. I sat in lines almost every day during this period watching bulldozers and heavy equipment operators move earth and alter the landscape in profound ways, without connection to or remorse for these ancient processes that form both our external and internal landscapes in many significant ways.
If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
Poems from Snow Hill Road (New Native Press, 2007) was my first attempt at expressing the uniqueness of the Little Tennessee River valley and its many interesting characters and places. I had been living here for almost five years at this point, and had been working on some poems regarding stories I had heard from many of the older multi-generational people living here. I showed a few of these to the New Native Press editor, Thomas Rain Crowe, who liked them and asked for me to send him more. I also showed him some of the artwork that my artist friend Rob Cox had produced that I felt was appropriate to the book, and he really like it and used it. This was the result.
A Shout in the Woods (Flutter Press, 2010). I’m not a fast writer, and ideas have to gel and be reworked, forgotten, etc. before anything comes together. After a few years of collecting ideas and noodling around with them, this collection came together. It’s similar to Poems from Snow Hill Road, but with a few years of additional time to learn and experience more of the landscape here, as well as play with writing styles and ideas. Once again the artist Rob Cox came through with a visually compelling cover that Flutter really liked and used.
Every Breath Sings Mountains (Voices from the American Land, 2011) was the result of the proposal mentioned above that Thomas Rain Crowe gave to VFTAL. The poems were all place based and illustrated by the artist Robert Johnson. VFTAL has an interesting contractual arrangement that involves a lot of expectations around publicity. As a result, we pulled off an incredible evening with a lot of western North Carolina writers, including notables such as Charles Frazier and Wayne Caldwell, to launch the book and host a panel on place. There were probably 300 people in attendance and it was a powerful evening with so much creative energy in one place.
Staring the Red Earth Down (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014). Red Bird was such an incredible discovery. I came across them after an internet search on chapbook publishers, and thought they looked really interesting. They pay a lot of attention to what they publish, and care a lot about the design and visual aspects of their books. I sent them about thirty poems with some artwork by Rob Cox, and they accepted twenty two of them, and loved Rob’s art. It’s another place based collection, but stretches out in a few new directions, in some ways seeking to give voice to the land itself.
Hunting for Camellias at Horseshoe Bend (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2015). Red Bird has a non-fiction reading period once a year, and publish several non-fiction chapbooks a year. I submitted this 15,000 word collection, realizing there would likely be a lot of completion, and was greatly honored and pleased when they accepted. It contains three natural history essays, and once again Red Bird made the collection visually compelling and interesting. It contains 18th century map images, and a fold out 19th century map of Cowee in its center. Dana Hoeschen at Red Bird is amazing with the creative energy and commitment she puts into her books.
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 is “The Love Trial of Virgie Arthur.” It’s a poem that began some years ago while I was stranded one winter day for ten hours at the Asheville airport with nothing to do but watch CNN, which covered the trial and numerous legal matters around the death of Anna Nicole Smith. I like the poem, but it was rejected by Flutter. When I sent it to Red Bird, they accepted it with all of the other new poems. But the poem that I think was the catalyst for the rest was “Retiring the Woodpile.” It’s the first poem in the book, and I think it sets the tone. I remember beginning it after working all day splitting wood on one cold winter day and watching all of my work from stacking it neatly on our porch collapse upon a mortuary Buddha that has sat on our porch for years. The poem began with that image.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I keep a notebook with ideas and beginnings in it. I revisit it often, and after it’s been left for a while, I come back to see if anything happens with it when I try to render it into a poem. Of course, sometimes the poems just seem to come on their own, and there’s not a lot of effort into getting something to work. But usually it’s a slow process for me to pull all the poems together into some type of coherent relationship that hopefully works.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook? What was your titling process for individual poems in the chapbook?
Well, I let my wife provide the title for this collection. I was struggling with it, and so she pulled the title from a line in “Man Pulling Cable,” and it worked. Individual poems can be difficult or easy. Sometimes a line or phrase from the poem works, and sometimes I struggle and search for some image or words that add to the poem itself.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I sent Red Bird numerous high rez images of Rob Cox’s work, and they proposed various covers from them. They also chose several images to sprinkle throughout the work that add immensely to the collection itself. Rob’s paintings have always resonated with me, and inspired me greatly.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a full-length collection of poems, which is basically the substance of all four poetry chapbook collections plus some new material, and I’m working on a nonfiction collection. I also have a novel that I have been working on for a few years, currently taking a rest while I pursue these other two projects. My wife says that it is all that I should be working on right now, but it’s a slow process, and I need a lot of time for it, so I’m giving it a break.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Take your time pulling together what you feel are poems that have connections and power and find the right press that will honor them the way you feel they should be.Think visually about them, and pay attention to how they are presented. Chapbooks are such interesting publications because they are small and compressed, and collectible as such, so make the best out of it. I love chapbooks.
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?
Yes, I usually read out loud to my wife, who is my best critic and reader.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
Local histories, Orion magazine, history in general, good non-fiction of all sorts.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
Katherine Stripling Byer, Catherine Carter, George Ellison, Thomas Rain Crowe.
Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?
People who appreciate the power of place, and enjoy narrative in their poems.
Did you set out with the intention of writing a chapbook? Does your chapbook follow a clear arc?
Yes, I felt that it was the best way to get published early on, and I enjoy the process of pulling together a small, intimate collection.
Brent Martin is the author of three chapbook collections of poetry – Poems from Snow Hill Road (New Native Press, 2007), A Shout in the Woods (Flutter Press, 2010), and Staring the Red Earth Down (Red Bird Press, 2014), and is a co-author of Every Breath Sings Mountains (Voices from the American Land, 2011) with authors Barbara Duncan and Thomas Rain Crowe. He is also the author of Hunting for Camellias at Horseshoe Bend, a non-fiction chapbook published by Red Bird Press in 2015. His poetry and essays have been published in North Carolina Literary Review, Pisgah Review, Tar River Poetry, Chattahoochee Review, Eno Journal, New Southerner, Kudzu Literary Journal, Smoky Mountain News, and elsewhere. He lives in the Cowee community in western North Carolina and is currently serving as the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet for the West.
Retiring the Woodpile
Heavy and ascetic the long dead Buddha
sits beside our front porch wood pile
in silent resurrection. Eyes closed,
oblivious to the dried wren shit
staining the folds of his open robe,
he is so unmoved by my afternoon activity
of climbing, splitting, and stacking,
that he remains indifferent
when my body wearies and my work
collapses upon him in sloppy abandon.
I’m tired and unenlightened
and somewhat unimpressed.
I mean, did the Buddha ever split firewood?
The old Zen saying goes something
like this: how effortless I split wood,
how effortless I carry water,
but I admit I would rather become
effortless at staring out at the meadow
while the goldfinches strip the feeder
of sunflower seeds above me,
sleeping at last, giving it all a rest.