Snake Mountain Almanac (Seven Kitchens Press, 2015)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
My favorite chapbook is Ocean by Joseph Millar, published by Tavern Books. It’s one heck of a poem, and I used to read it at night in New York taking the train back from Washington Square to Bay Ridge. Other chapbooks I’m fond of are Nancy Hechinger’s chapbook Letter to Leonard Cohen, Highway or Belief by J. Scott Brownlee, Nueve Años Inmigrantes by Javier Zamora, and Sea Island Blues by Tyree Daye.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
These books are all deeply rooted in personal mythology, story, and a concern for people. I think I’m drawn to them because they are poems for everyone, they feel vulnerable and completely honest. These are poets who are accessible and have tapped into the music of language and its ability to create empathy.
What’s your chapbook about?
Snake Mountain Almanac is a dialogue between the self and the people and landscape of Southern Appalachia. The people here are often caricatured and largely overlooked by society, and while these poems aren’t directly political, they do speak to the consequences of neglect.
There are also poems addressing my father, who passed away in 2012. It’s as if I’ve been able to superimpose him into this landscape and speak to him.
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 “Black Mountains,” which I wrote sometime in late 2010. It’s gone unchanged for the most part, and it’s one of the shortest poems I’ve ever written (10 lines). When I wrote the poem “Elegy Written in Dust Kicked-Up Along a Backroad,” there was a real feeling of clarity after I sat with the poem for a while. It had so much going into it, which seemed to open up space for the other poems to enter.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I guess my process is the same always: I try to write a few hours every day, and most of the time it’s nowhere near a poem. I was surprised when I had all of these poems that I felt were working together, so the natural thing was to arrange them into a chapbook.
I don’t think I could have written the chapbook if I had set out to do it; instead I feel like the speaker in the Roethke poem who says “I learn by going where I have to go.”
For revision, I’m constantly re-writing the poem and reading it out loud to listen for the right language. I write everything by hand in my notebook, which is full of lines where I’ve scratched things out, and notes that would be indecipherable to most. I love revision and I think the best strategy I have is patience with the poem.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
The arrangement of the poem came about thanks to my friends. First, Scott (J. Scott Brownlee) gave me some great advice on the order. After reworking it, I emailed a copy to my friend and fellow poet Sierra Golden, who had some great insight into individual poems which helped me reshape the order. Last, I sent a copy to Dorianne Laux. Once it got her “seal of approval,” I felt like I could send the chapbook out into the world beyond my friends.
As for the title, Snake Mountain looms in the distance near my house, and I look at it every day. It’s an impressive sloping profile which I’ve gladly given time to gaze at whenever I can. One of my favorite books is A Sand County Almanac by the naturalist Aldo Leopold, and I wanted to riff off that.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I’m lucky to have so many talented friends, and when I saw a photo by Sam Brown, I knew I wanted to use it for the cover. When I sent the image to my friend Valerie Dueñas to work on the layout, she suggested we alter the image to give more depth to the cover. Sam let us manipulate the image, and Val and I talked about the possibilities. She eventually came to the current design, which I couldn’t be happier with. It’s the landscape distorted and broken up.Take from that whatever you like.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a book length manuscript called All the Great Territories. Some of the poems from SMA appear in it, but the chapbook has a good number of poems that are reserved for the chapbook.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Sit down and write.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
In short, yes, I think so. I think in the chapbook, the dialogue of individual poems is extended and as a condition of this, the reader is given more accessibility into the language, and into the world. Because poems are products of the world, they pull in the politics, even if the direction of the poem isn’t political.
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?
I think my chapbook creates a world that is both an observation of the real place and people around me, as well as a world where I’ve built a personal mythology. My friends, family, and neighbors are all in there, going around doing ordinary things.
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 to be added to SMA was “Cold Light.” When I wrote it, and then added it to the chapbook, it felt like I could really move across the landscape of all the poems. “Cold Light” cleared a path through the woods, in a sense. It brought in this story about my father, and this place where I grew up and have lived for most of my life. I also think of that poem as one that leaps out and connects SMA to other poems of mine, which aren’t in the chapbook.
I guess I thought the chapbook was complete when it was in my hand. I could probably revise and tear down forever.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
I can’t really choose one. I hope these poems have a kindness to them, even when there is poverty, suicide, addiction. These are difficult things to write without inflicting more pain. I don’t know if it’s possible not to. I want readers to have a sense of compassion. So the unfair answer is that they are all meaningful and I can’t rank my sense of empathy, or articulate it well enough to point to one poem and say it’s the most meaningful.
How has your writing and writing practiced evolved throughout your career? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?
Now I’m able to manage my time better and have gotten into a good routine of setting aside time to write daily. I’m trying to read more and more, I think that’s a habit I’d like to continue to pick up.
What themes and images “bridge” your work? Have you found that composing a chapbook alleviates these inclinations, or amplifies them?
I could mention a few things but I want to just talk about the stars. I love them; there are constantly images of stars (and trees) in my poems. It can be such a clichéd image, but if you grow up in the country where the night sky is engulfed with starlight, you spend a good part of your life looking up (or I did). So for me, it’s natural that there are always stars. If only loosely, this image places the poems together. I think when the poems are side by side, I notice it much more, so certainly the chapbook amplifies my awareness, at least. But every night sky is a little different, and I hope I use the image not to fill space, but to really push the poem ahead.
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?
I did read it out loud, over and over again. When I got to a poem I just didn’t want to read again, I cut it (though it took time to make myself do it).
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
Larry Levis, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Phil Levine, Dorianne Laux, Joe Millar, Yusef Komunyakaa, and so many of my friends.
Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?
When I’m writing, I sit down and write for myself and don’t really do it for anyone else, though the audience (after the fact) I hope would be anyone, the person who didn’t think they would ever read a poem outside of a classroom.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
I don’t know if anything is more important than sitting down and writing, with the understanding that it’s work. There are plenty of people who have talent, but if you’re not willing to put in the time, you’re not cutting it.
Matthew Wimberley grew up in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. His chapbook Snake Mountain Almanac was selected by Eduardo C. Corral as the winner of the 2014 Rane Arroyo Chapbook Contest from Seven Kitchens Press. Winner of the 2015 William Matthews Prize from The Asheville Review, and a finalist for the 2012 Narrative 30 Below Contest, his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, Narrative, Orion, The Paris-American, Poet Lore, Rattle, Shenandoah, and Verse Daily. Wimberley received his MFA from NYU, where he worked with children at St. Mary’s Hospital as a Starworks Fellow.
find Matthew Wimberley on twitter @mattwimberley
Wreckage of the Moon
The field needs no elegy,
veiled in night’s black feathers.
Frost melting in an upturned snail shell
reflects the dark sky–
how it moves through the trees
and the cold blades of my body.
A bay horse raises one hoof
bringing with it a thread of shadow–
lifting it into himself. Exiled
moonlight sinks into the bare cisterns
of earth. It begins
a quiet disappearance