Elegy/Elk River (Floating Bridge Press, 2015)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
A couple of my favorite chapbooks actually come from my publisher, Floating Bridge Press; Casey Fuller’s A Fort Made of Doors and Laura Read’s The Chewbacca on Hollywood Boulevard Reminds Me of You are both fantastic reads. Other ones I’ve recently enjoyed (outside of Floating Bridge) are Sonya Vatomsky’s My Heart in Aspic and Kimberly Ann Southwick’s efs & vees. You’ll fall in love with at least one of those poetry books, I promise. And no matter what side of the genre-spectrum you fall on as a reader, you cannot go wrong with the lyrical prose of Justin Lawrence Daugherty. His book Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise is a treasure.
What’s your chapbook about?
Elegy/Elk River is a fractured narrative told through multiple perspectives. It spirals through time around one common tragedy, deconstructing memory, childhood, and shared experiences.
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 entire chapbook stems from the title poem “Elegy/Elk River.” The poem itself began as a writing prompt (the prompt being “give directions to a place”) and took off from there. I hadn’t written overtly about Elk River, Minnesota (where I moved after living in Japan), so I intentionally sought impressions and memories from my childhood. I wanted the poem steeped in a reality tinged with fairy tale. In other words, I wanted to bring readers to Elk River using imaginary roads.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I tried out a few different arrangements for Elegy/Elk River (from chronological to one sorted by speakers) but ultimately went with a shattered narrative, something that would wander–-through time and voice–-as much as lead. What I mean is, I wanted the title poem to introduce the initial loss, characters, and ideas right in the beginning, and from that one point of impact, the other poems would splinter. Think of a windshield hit by a rock. Think of a spider web of cracks. There’s a story there, how some cracks become longer as time goes on, others remain small (but don’t shrink, never shrink). Sometimes the cracks connect. Although the rock is no longer there, no one really forgets it.
Even though the chapbook practically named itself, I did mull over a couple ideas but nothing worked as well as Elegy/Elk River. In considering the origins of the poem, the title itself almost feels directional, like cross streets, an intersection.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Floating Bridge Press and designer Rob Nance handled everything. I had a chance to weigh in on a rough sketch of the cover art. but otherwise they took on all the design work. Normally this would make me nervous (it’s my first book!), but because I had been following the press for many years, I already knew the quality of their books, the general feel and size, etc. I trusted them. And truly, I couldn’t have asked for better results. They did a fantastic job! I am so grateful for their hard work and the encouragement they’ve shown me.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working with Two Sylvias Press to get my debut full-length book ready for publication (forthcoming January, 2016.) There’s also an ambitious project I’m working on that combines memoir, craft essays, and basically whatever else I can throw in there.
But if I were honest I’d say I’m working on playing all the games on the PS4. Where are the grants for that?
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Publication, more often than not, is a measure of longevity/stamina with talent as the understudy. Don’t confuse approval with publication and publication with success (and don’t confuse rejection with failure). Keep reading, keep writing, keep going.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?
The world created in Elegy/Elk River is one of darkness and music, a fairy tale world. It’s a world where the natural/animal collides with people. In many ways, those who find the natural (trees, birds, deer, even death) threatening are the ones who suffer and struggle while the one character who embraces it becomes part of it, is transformed by it into something beyond death.
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
The Sad, Beautiful Theory of Earth.
What themes and images “bridge” your work? Have you found that composing a chapbook alleviates these inclinations, or amplifies them?
The image of birds, hummingbirds specifically, plays a pivotal role in the chapbook. I think somewhere in my head there’s an interplay between freedom and imprisonment. We can think of nests and egg shells as both sheltering and smothering, flight as a form of escape. And the hummingbird in particular fascinates me for their forked tongues, that division (two roads diverged in a wood and all that). Plus the fact that they hover–-an almost limbo state between flight and being grounded, trapped–-is ripe with tension.
Since the chapbook is so compact, I think there’s a quality of magnification throughout. Poetry is already a form of concentrated language on many levels, so collecting several pieces in a chap feels telescopic (or microscopic?) in scope. Every piece, by sheer proximity, communicates with the others. You need to eavesdrop a little more than usual. You need to understand what they are saying to each other.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem “Song” is heavily influential in the writing of my poem “Deep Wound Singing” and probably the overall tone of this book. She profoundly captures beauty and tragedy and innocence and loss. That poem is as perfect a poem as I’ve ever read. I also owe a debt to Meghan McClure’s poem “Split & Frost” for inspiring my piece “A Sound Which Cleaves.”
Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?
I’m downright awful at imagining an audience… at least an audience that exists. I think the book was intended for who I was as a teenager, people I knew growing up. But of course those people are gone, grown old, or passed on. So much of my writing has a Gatsby-like desperation… I’m always trying to change or repeat the past.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
What inspires me, of course, is reading, to see what others can do with language, to listen to other ideas and ways of thinking. That excites me like nothing else. It sparks in me a great curiosity, a desire to know more (about myself, about writing, about others).
What continues to get me to the page again and again is the sheer joy, even amidst writing elegy, that can be found in creation, the continual reexamination of language and memory and emotion that occurs.
Mixed up in all this is my hope that perhaps something I do, say, or publish can help another writer/reader out there find themselves, find comfort, or get them to their next draft. Publication, fame, etc., doesn’t mean much to me. Filling a stadium means nothing if you can’t help people in some way, shape, or form.
What I want more than anything is to be of service.
Michael Schmeltzer was born and raised in Japan until moving to the US. He earned an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. His honors include numerous Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominations, the Gulf Stream Award for Poetry, and the Blue Earth Review’s Flash Fiction Prize. His writing has been published in various journals such as Rattle, PANK, Mid-American Review, and Natural Bridge, among others. His debut full-length is forthcoming from Two Sylvias Press. He currently lives in Seattle.
One Cloud in the Mouth of the Sky
I cried at the sight of a cow heart
seemingly beating on a metallic tray:
the sheer size of its chambers,
the boys too eager to finger them.
I didn’t touch it
though I wanted to.
When the teacher left the room
a pack of students
forced me in the closet
and placed the grey organ
at my feet. While the kids
laughed and laughed
I sat down and listened
to an awful thumping in my ears,
about whose heart I heard.
When the teacher returned
the closet slid open,
and beyond the window
the bright throb of blue sky
with one cloud
marring it, a dead dove
in the mouth of a stray.