Ellen McGrath Smith

smith_scatter-feed_web-coverScatter, Feed (Seven Kitchens Press, 2014)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

I’m a big fan of Pittsburgh-born poet Jack Gilbert’s work, which has influenced my writing since my early twenties. In 1984, he published a limited edition chapbook, Kochan, which mourned the death of his wife, Michiko Nogami; it also includes poems by Michiko. I love the texture, vulnerability, and tenderness of that book; for instance, on a transparent leaf at the front of the book, you can barely make out words, which are printed in reverse (from the Japanese Manyoshu, I believe): “If I had known the size of this longing / I would have watched you every day / like looking in a clear mirror.” I am having a hard time finding this book in my library, which makes me a bit sad.

Other chapbooks that have mattered to and influenced me are Peter Oresick’s The Story of Glass, Michael Simms’ The Fire-Eaters, Sharon McDermott’s Alley Scatting, Barbara Edelman’s Exposure, Justin Vicari’s Siamese Twins of the 21st Century, and Julie Parson-Nesbitt’s Clark St. Lullabye. Peter was really young when he wrote that chapbook, and the lyricism and class consciousness is haunting; I love Sharon’s project of writing about Pittsburgh’s many named alleys. I feel like part of a family with Seven Kitchens, and so some of my favorites from that press are Jeff Oaks’ Shift, Michael Hurley’s Wooden Boys, R.J. Gibson’s Scavenge, and Celeste Gainey’s in the land of speculation and seismography.

From among former students, I really like the diction-fission in Alicia Salvadeo’s award-winning Err to Narrow, and I treasure Brian Scullion’s You’ll Search for the Eyes of the Guilty. This latter chapbook was part of Brian’s undergraduate senior project at Pitt, which he completed after a deployment to Iraq; the cover is blank sandpaper, and the lines are so moving that I’ve incorporated them into some of my own poems. And then there’s Sleeping Woman, a self-published chapbook Terrance Hayes published just out of grad school at Pitt (where we work together now); it includes both his poems and drawings, and it shows the bite and edge of his imagery and sensibility—long before he emerged as an important American poet.

What’s your chapbook about?

I wasn’t consciously doing so when working on the poems and pulling them together for this particular chapbook manuscript, but it turns out the chapbook is about love: love of self, love of others, opening to intimacy. Many of the poems come from a longer manuscript that is soon to be published as a book, Nobody’s Jackknife, by the West End Press in Albuquerque. The core project for that book was to juxtapose poems about yoga asanas with poems about drinking/ addiction/ recovery. So Scatter, Feed pulls from that manuscript, and it does thrill me that the overall outcome of that project is an opening-up to love. If I had set out to deliberately write a collection of poems—chapbook or full-length—about love, it would have been contrived, I think.

If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?

The first one, No Hard Feelings, was a limited edition chap put together for a reading I did at the Guild Complex in Chicago; it was nicely done by my then-husband, the poet and lit mag publisher, Frank Correnti, in 1995. I think there’s still one for sale on Amazon! Anyway, those poems dealt with issues of fighting, anger, conflict (mostly with men, especially my father).

In 2002, a Pittsburgh-area publisher, Another Thing Press, kindly offered to publish my chapbook The Dog Makes His Rounds and Other Poems. Like Sharon Olds’ The Father, it is completely devoted to my father, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the week the U.S. entered the first Gulf War and was buried the week Kuwaitis danced in the streets—a five-week period of his coming to terms with dying, and of all of my family coming to terms with it, too. I was pregnant at the time and trying to reconcile feelings of love, anger, and deep sadness. The title poem is a sequence that is set in our family’s house as we all kept vigil in my dad’s final days. The central image is the family dog, a German Shepherd, going around the house to check to see if everyone is okay before going to sleep. These were difficult days. I was in graduate school then, and I was grateful when Toi Derricotte selected such an uncomfortable poem for an Academy of American Poets prize.

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 piece in the chapbook is one called “First Communion.” It was actually a kind of outlier—it didn’t fit in with a lot of the work I was writing at the time I wrote it (in the mid-1990s). It’s a very mimimal, meditative, clean poem where much of my work tends to be noisy and structurally complex. So it serves as a nice counterbalance to one of the busier poems, “The Chemistry Lab of Late August,” whose closing line includes the chapbook’s title: “the nests of insincerity / keep hatching newborn chicks. / And so, the steps are simple: / Stand up. Push your chair in. / Scatter feed.” I was separated from my first marriage and very lonely. In my neighborhood, I’d found a group of people in a similar situation, and we gathered at a coffee shop called Enrico’s Tazza D’Oro. We were all near or already in middle age and searching for a way to reinvent our lives after relationship-related and other perceived failures. One of the people in that group, Ross (whom we lost to heart disease about two years ago), was really funny. Like the nerds in high school, we’d sit around at the café and crack jokes that most people would just have thought odd. He gave me lines and images for that poem, such as the “salmon-shirted sentinel” and “nests of insincerity.” I was trying to write poems at the time where I troped love as hydrogen—I guess because it’s at once so vital and so flammable. “The Chemistry Lab” comes from that.

Name three people you would love to see owning/reading your chapbook.

I won’t name him, but probably a particular ex from the 80s; Fanny Howe; Dan Rather; Baron Baptiste. Everyone, really!

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

I was writing a lot of the yoga-alcohol poems during this time, as well as other poems sounding out past love, present loneliness, who I wanted to be, who I was. A neighbor at the time, the poet Deb Bogen, would have a group of us over every Monday night and throw out prompts. I strongly recommend this sort of writing group—one that is more like a writing “jam session” than a workshop. Even with very different prompts given each week, you can still forge ahead on issues you’re working through with your writing, but the variation and even the randomness of the prompts keeps you from getting stale or redundant. For revising, I’ve been fortunate to have a go-to group of 4-5 poets living in Pittsburgh for stern feedback. During that time, at least three of them told me the same thing about my writing in different ways—and I think that it finally got through to me to do “that thing I do” and not to overthink my style too much. I’m like an influence sponge and my biggest weakness as a writer is over-absorbing other voices in a way that throws off my own voices (if there is such a thing as “own voices”).

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook? What was your titling process for individual poems in the chapbook?

I kind of threw the chapbook together over the course of a week because I was, frankly, tired of working on the book-length manuscript. I wanted it to have some of the yoga/alcohol poems, but not for it to be entirely focused on yoga (as the manuscript, at the time called Bender, was). I had fallen in love, too, and began to sprinkle a few love poems in—sweet ones like “Pantoum” and neurotic ones like “Extra Virgin Olive Oil.” The chap was arranged pretty intuitively, with a spontaneous sort of energy.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

My dear friend, the Chicago poet Julie Parson-Nesbitt, introduced me to the art of Tony Fitzpatrick in the early 1990s, when she used one of his wild collages for the cover of her book, Finders. Much later, I was on a group e-mail list for Tony, and an image he’d sent with a blue rooster (entitled Azul) caught my eye. I asked Julie to ask him if he’d be okay with letting Ron Mohring of Seven Kitchens use the image for the cover. Very luckily for me, he said yeah. Then the publisher Ron—who does all the design, typesetting, and assembly of the Seven Kitchens chapbooks—worked his magic, and it was just a question of choosing the background color. It was between this rich royal blue and the red. I was torn. He was torn. People I asked at work were torn. But I finally went for the red with the yellow cover text, and I’m really glad I did. Lots of boldness in the cover!

What would you do differently next time in the writing, editing, publishing, or promotion process?

I think I would have worked on a chapbook draft sooner and not waited for the spirit to move me. When you’ve got long manuscripts sitting around, pulling out poems to make chapbooks helps you to see different possibilities in your work. My work en masse can be messy and overwhelming, but often, when I put together a chapbook, the “less is more” principle kicks in. And I need that principle in my life more—not just in writing!

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?

If your chapbook were to be turned into a CD, who would be the musician to do it? I think Elvis Costello or Joan Armatrading.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been working for some time on a project called Shaken: A Recycle, in which I work with the opening lines of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I’m on about 105 out of the 154, and a couple of them have been published. I’m trying now to herd some of these poems together to see what some of the dominant threads are.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

Try not to think of a chapbook as a full collection. A chapbook is, perhaps, to a book-length collection what a short story is to a novel. I’ve written a few failed short stories whose reason for failure is that I approached the story draft novelistically. A chapbook should be a sort of limited experience for the reader. There should be a sense of completeness, but not of satiety.

Have you found any little tricks along the way for organizing your writing and submissions?

I use the index card in the shoebox method! I love it because it keeps me from taking it all too seriously (which I might if I had a spreadsheet). It reminds me of the days when I was young and obsessed with baseball—I kept my baseball card collection in a shoebox. It’s a Dr. Martens shoebox under my desk.

What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?

Writing about yoga—BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, Baron Baptiste’s Journey into Power.


Ellen McGrath Smith teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Carlow University Madwomen in the Attic program. Her writing has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Los Angeles Review, Quiddity, Cimarron Review, and other journals, and in several anthologies, including Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Smith has been the recipient of an Orlando Prize, an Academy of American Poets award, a Rainmaker Award from Zone 3 magazine, and a 2007 Individual Artist grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her second chapbook, Scatter, Feed, was published by Seven Kitchens Press in the fall of 2014, and her book, tentatively titled Nobody’s Jackknife, will be published this fall by the West End Press.





Because love must be given, the cats get unwarranted attention,
and the highrise, demolished to half-hearted heaps of gray rubble, brings tears
that dismember the windshield. Because love sits like dough undigested
if it isn’t sliced and served, there is always a daily special with a new combination
of all the old ingredients. Because, as with water, there is Heavy Love and Light
Love (the former being more reactive), one brain suspended in the liquid yellow
light of the empty café continually recalculates the date of the mother-ship’s return,
and one squat mug, through an act of sheer will, re-fills the instant it is emptied.
So, what of the aging quiz-kid in Magnolia who had so much love to give
he couldn’t sell appliances? What of the kitten rebuffed by the tomcat
who used to let her suck on his virtual nipples? Why an extra hydrogen,
an extra Y chromosome? Can a phone replace a heart, and if so, for how long?

(Part One, “The Chemistry Lab of Late August”)


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