Bone of My Bone (Blood Pudding Press, 2015)
Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio, 2015)
Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, forthcoming 2016)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
I’ve become such a fan of Blood Pudding Press’s chapbooks, especially Lisa Ciccarello’s At night, the dead and Lisa Marie Cole’s Renegade // Heart. Ghostly, visionary, metaphysical, macabre, haunted, these small but powerful collections make me want to write even more – the poems speak to the concerns my work centers on: the complexities of being an embodied spirit, how the dead still haunt/influence our lives and what we learn from them, but also what does the quotidian in our life mean? Such as: when a woman brooms her floor while feeling a baby move within, when a grandmother slices cabbage in early morning light thinking of her late husband, when I sit near a dusk-lit window and write a list of words that name the chaos in my inner rooms.
These chapbooks are also beautiful art objects: the cover images, the cover and text stock is deckle-edged, the pages are hand-numbered and spider-stamped, and the tomes are bound with decorative ribbon and wrapped in paper and tied with more ribbon when delivered. I was such a fan of how BPP produces artful chapbooks that I specifically wanted to send Bone of My Bone there first for its annual open reading period.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
In my writing, I marry the melancholic and the celebratory, the disordered with the ordered, the grotesque and the gorgeous, what these collections do. My poems aren’t for everyone: they’re self-confrontational and not meant to be comfortable, but I try to create some kind of beauty from what most disturbs us. Poems about the dead – and what haunts us. And also for those seeking what the divine is/ means/ how it speaks and manifests: “What is the divine, but God-light,/ thorn and scourge, blood let, that bone/ shine? What is also the divine: There is no saint/ without a past.”
What’s your chapbook about?
I imagine these poems occurring in a bombed-out cathedral, under cover of darkness, maybe some otherworldly light edging the sky. The narrator is many: women who talk to the dead, mothers who “plant skulls in soil and grow sunflowers,” women suicides, women who cradle premature babies, women who prepare the bodies of the dead, women who exist between the “reliquaria of childbirth” and saints’ incorruptible bodies. These women also live inside themselves, contending with the “wolves within,” asking: “How do I measure the body’s gardens from within its bone fences?” The dead and what is the divine inhabit this collection – they’re looking for kinship, for remembrance, for some kind of communion. They recognize the living as embodied spirits, a type of mirroring. And the narrator, the “she” in many women, goes many places in these poems, even to an uncharted space where the divine’s “name becomes a hand leading me to a place/ where even your name I-am-all-that-is can’t be.” Where does she end up? Existing between this life and the next. She may not have found peace, but she has tried to catch God whole, and let the dead close enough “to smell her mouth’s chancel.”
If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
My first chapbook, Arrangement of Desire, was published in 2007 by Pudding House Press. It’s out of print now and in a way, it’s my baby book – when I look back at it, there are a few poems that I still feel stand up to time. The rest are my child poems still play in the sandbox, and that’s OK. I wrote another chapbook manuscript after that called Necessary Work, and I sent it out quite a bit but had no takers. So early in 2014, I really took stock of my poems, and focused on revising, but mainly on writing a lot of new poems. My work grew a lot, and I let Necessary Work go. That was hard, but now, similar to the title, necessary work for me to move forward in my writing.
This year and early in 2016, I have three chapbooks, the first of which is Bone of My Bone. The second to be released is Absence of Stars, from dancing girl press & studio. Finally, I have a micro-chap (about 10 poems) called Ghost Tongue, forthcoming from Porkbelly Press in early 2016.
Absence of Stars was the first one I wrote, and it’s a small chapbook – 13 poems that are about the narrator’s motherhood, the troubled births of premature children, losing mother figures. It’s about the body becoming a creatrix in a very tangible way – it’s about carrying those children, their bones, growing their shadows long under trees.
I put Bone of My Bone together next and then I started to focus on writing and publishing in journals poems for my first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, that’s forthcoming from ELJ Publications later this year.
In May, I was in a car accident, where another driver went through a stop sign and T-boned my car, hitting right into my door. I sustained some injuries, including a concussion. The two months after the accident were difficult because I was trying to live my regular life with a full-time job and two small children. During that time, I took some of the poems from Arrangement of Desire, reworked and mashed them up, and then wrote some additional poems to form a 10-poem micro-chap called Ghost Tongue. These poems are a conversation between the living and the dead, and also my testament to making art. One of the new poems, “What I Want to Explain Is That I’m Here,” speaks to that: These poems are the artifact of me now, alive, even though somewhat temporarily diminished. Something of me, radiant still.
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 poem that I think really catalyzed the rest of the chapbook was “Marked” (it first appeared in the December 2014 issue of MiPOesias). I worked through many, many drafts of this poem. I read about certain African tribes that singed the skin of women who didn’t bear children. I thought about people who tattoo iconography on their skin, and what that might mean to them. I thought of those of us who cut into our own skin to make our pain visible. We’re all in some way marked, spiritually, physically or both. And yet, we’re spirits in a body. How do we live these two joined forms? These lines address that concern, can we ever get at the spirit part of ourselves: “This is how // the body seems at first, impenetrable – / yet, a woman still sings ghazals // from between your ribs.”
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I enter my writing mind often by reading others’ work. I have shelves of poetry and other books, and I rotate the stack that sits near my laptop. Every few days, I select different piles of books, chapbooks, anthologies and journals, and then rifle through them, reading snippets of poems and whole poems. I write down words or phrases or things that occur to me so I can find that day’s entryway into my own writing. Audre Lorde is one of my perpetual favorites, as are Rainer Maria Rilke and Anne Carson. I have a weird revision strategy: I email myself drafts of a poem over and over. It comes to my email in a different font and I read it aloud as if I’m seeing it for the first time. When I hit on a problem spot, I revise and then email again. In a sitting, sometimes I’ll email myself 50 times. I also read the chapbook in this way, emailing myself poem sequences to see if they worked.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook? What was your titling process for individual poems in the chapbook?
I put together the final version of the chapbook that I submitted for the Blood Pudding Press prize shortly before the contest deadline. I’m not the poet who puts together a chapbook that’s wound around a tight theme (like say your theme is archangels and then each poem’s title is named after one), so for me the sequencing is more of an organic process, like does it feel right reading after reading. One of the movements through the chapbook is parts of the Christian canonical hours prayer (so “Lauds” is the predawn prayer, “None” is the noon prayer, and so on), so I selected those poems to be anchors along the way. I arranged the rest of the poems along the idea of a journey, the search for God, the possibility of God, who is this God. And there are repetitions throughout the chapbook, images, themes, concerns that I felt moved it toward its conclusion, of a suspension between this life and the next. As far as titles, I don’t fancy myself as the best title writer; there are many poets whose titles I admire and feel they have a real talent for it. I chose the title Bone of My Bone after one of my favorite poems in the collection – a poem that speaks to my maternal lineage, and the idea of returning to my grandmother’s birth, more than a century ago. That passage back through time to relive with the dead. Also, that part of my grandmother created me – and I pass some of her onto my daughter.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Blood Pudding Press publisher Juliet Cook is also a fantastic artist and she creates these amazing painting/ collage hybrid art pieces. I really wanted to feature her work on the cover, so when she asked me what ideas for the cover, I told her I’d love to use her work and I described my dream imagery as the “ghostly and bone-filled, the grotesque mixed with the glittery and beautiful.” Juliet sent me a few choices, but the one the resonated most with me with the skull and bone beside it, and adorned with beads, feathers and bits of yarn. When I visited Paris, I went underground into the catacombs, and I loved being surrounded by the skulls and bones of people who had lived in the city for hundreds of years. There’s something lovely in honoring the dead, and in spending time with the most durable parts of their physical selves. I wanted the chapbook cover art to be a type of artifact, something enduring that we can revere.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
Why does God figure so largely in this chapbook?
This collection is also about seeking and carpe diem. Seeking some sort of life purpose, but also living furiously. I love the God in Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems – the creator, but also a shade vulnerable, the God who is waiting for our friendship. That’s the God I tried to portray in this chapbook:
Yet if my God is a mother who would fall on a sword
to save me, if it’s you who blows the dark from above my bed,
if it’s you who warms the milk and plated bread I wake to,
if it’s you, tiger-mother who swallows my suffering,
then I swaddle you, Lord,
and rock you.
What are you working on now?
My first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, will be out later this year from ELJ Publications, so I’ve been working with my publisher, Ariana D. Den Bleyker, on the final ordering and poem tweaks and the like. Also, looking at cover art. It’s very surreal and so exciting that this book will be coming into the world soon.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Just that there’s no one way to write a chapbook. You can write 10 poems around a tight theme, like archangels or types of vegetables or states. You can write a longer chapbook, say 22 to 25 pages, that has a loose narrative arc. The best advice I have is to understand best practices, by reading advice from editors and other writers on ideal page length, for example, and to scour lots of other chapbooks. Then, take a leap and create something that you haven’t seen before. You need to believe in the work and hone it until others will. Live with it until when you read it, you feel your own spine tingling.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Without stopping to think, write a list of 10 poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least, your clothing, to take it with you at all times.
Nicole Rollender is editor of Stitches. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, West Branch, Word Riot and others. Her full-length poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications. She’s the author of the chapbooks Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio), Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She’s the recipient of poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Ruminate Magazine, and Princemere Journal.
The Preparation of the Body
Maybe this is just a form
of sleep. Your fingers curled around an oar.
We’d have to break metacarpals and phalanges
to separate your hand from the waves
and the stones. The sinking
under the moon, the overturn,
dirt still underneath nails. Your ceramic
tongue, your ruined eyes, three lost ribs. One summer
you left your paper
dolls on a train in Amiens. Your fingers weren’t
like leather. They moved like lace
against the windows. The fields
were miraculous. Now, we gather your teeth
in a jar, plait your hair like women
knotting a doll’s hair, tie you
to the earth with a kind of vine
to create order. But, the world widens
inside your skull. Soon
you’ll split into many dark shapes.