“I keep myself writing daily.”
The Book of Flight (Essay Press, 2016)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
Some favorite and influential chapbooks:
Darius Stewart’s The Terribly Beautiful (Main Street Rag, 2006)
Charles Wright’s The Wrong End of the Rainbow (Sarabande Books, 2005)
Marc Vincenz’s Pull of the Gravitons (Right Hand Pointing, 2012)
MRB Chelko’s Songs & Yes (sunnyoutside, 2015)
What’s your chapbook about?
Content-wise, this chapbook is about the everyday details of life being handled like gossip. I’ve long been a fan of Olivia Dresher’s work with fragmentary writing, including her anthology In Pieces, which features a wide range of examples. I wanted this chapbook to make use of what Dresher terms the “immediate involvement” that fragmentary writing allows. Whether through a leap of image and imagination about flight, or observations made while in line at the airport or at work, I wanted the feel of gossip and story to permeate throughout. Flight as in flight of fancy, but also flight of attention, flight of breath.
Formally, this project is especially meaningful to me, as it represents the culmination of many of the ideas I have followed and exercised throughout various notebooks and other projects over the past ten years. I see this project also as an homage to Ramón Gómez de la Serna’s greguerías and Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions.
If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
My first chapbook, The Wall (Tiger’s Eye Press, 2012; reprint forthcoming in 2016), centers around how I grew up not knowing my father because he died young, and how that absence has been an influence in both my life and writing. The title poem is my first real breakthrough with a lyric sequence. Each section turns over the idea of death as a wall between people; sometimes the wall is a piece of paper, sometimes the floor one slept on as a child. Each turn brings something new. Looking back, this chapbook was a starting point into writing about my father’s absence in my life, a subject that I still find myself returning. Case in point: in The Book of Flight’s “Writing” sequence, there is this line:
On revision: My art is that of my father surfacing in words that feel different soon as I finish setting them down. (after August Kleinzahler, with apologies)
My second chapbook, Corpus Christi Octaves (Flutter Press, 2014), is made up of two sequences honoring the memory of friends both for what they meant to me but also for the poets they were. It falls under the genre of “descansos,” which are memorials either in verse or art. In discussing Donald Justice’s championing of Weldon Kees one day, I found myself saying: “We gotta keep each other alive somehow.” There’s some of that in these sequences. My model in the spirit of the poems is Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, whose eloquent series on the poet Cavafy never ceases to amaze me in its ability to pay tribute both to the poet and to the craft of poetry. There is an interlude sequence also that delves a bit deeper both into the setting, South Texas, as well as my own role of poet/ elegist. Another thing that marks this collection is the use of syllabics. In each of the eight-line poems, I work out a syllabic pattern, the jolt and jar of which allows for surprises as well as a sense of brevity and preciousness. This project took me back to when I was in 2nd grade and someone had showed me the 5-7-5 count of haiku, which then started me on the path of sitting in silence, wagging fingers in the air, doling out each word.
My third chapbook, Naos: an introduction (Right Hand Pointing, 2014), is a digital chapbook whose poems also make use of a varying formal structure. Each poem follows a pattern of 5 in one way or another: either in the poem being five lines or being in five couplets (and sometimes a combination of the two). I also noodled around a bit with syllabics, each lyric having its own measure. The main fun of this project, however, was getting to work out a persona via the word naos, which I picked up from a dictionary of forgotten words. The word comes from the Greek, and means sanctuary, the innermost chamber of a temple. The persona of Naos is less persona and more personification of thought; not a philosopher, but the philosophic echo (via short lyrics) of the innermost chamber of one’s mind.
My fourth chapbook, Reasons (not) to Dance (FutureCycle Press, 2015), is a collection of prose poems and flash fictions that imaginatively explore moments of hesitation and celebration in the tradition of the Latin American microcuento as practiced by Ana Maria Shua, Eduardo Galeano, and Agosto Monterroso. There’s an assortment of personas and stories explored: Nikola Tesla, the Pied Piper, a nun, a Buddhist priest, etc. Writing these pieces, I gave myself over to the lyric momentum available in the prose poem. This chapbook also holds some of my first formal explorations into what became the main structure of the The Book of Flight. Two pieces in particular, “Clock Ode” and “Intimacy,” consist of a series of one-line poems, infused with the same aphoristic sensibility of Flight.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one piece that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest line in The Book of Flight has to be:
Jobs like these are like holding your breath: do it for too long, and you die.
It’s something I’d say on the clock at a job. As for the catalyzing piece, I have been adding to the title sequence since 2011, just writing down quick one-liners centered on this idea of a book of flight which would redefine the world around me in terms of flight. For about as long as I was collecting those, I also found myself gathering short, aphoristic phrases and sentences, fragments not exactly prose poems, not exactly journal entry.
I work by always writing all the time, at least a new page per day, along with some revision. My revision strategy is made up of filling up notebooks and leaving them alone for at least a year or more. That way, I forget what I wrote and can come back to it able to see into an old poem and beyond it if necessary. I keep myself writing so that when I have an idea for a project, I have material to pull from and work with. That’s how Flight came together. I saw Essay Press’s call for submissions and their description of “manuscripts that extend or challenge the formal possibilities of prose” made me think of the book of flight series, and of possibly putting together an actual “book of flight.” Then it was a matter of finding material that fit the theme of flight directly and indirectly.
Mind you, not all projects work out for me in this manner. Sometimes a project idea arrives and requires immediate reactions. The Wall and Corpus Christi Octaves were both projects that came out of fresh drafts.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Essay Press has a wonderful and generous staff who allowed me to continue working with an artist, Andrea Schreiber, whose work is featured on Corpus Christi Octaves and Reasons (not) to Dance. Andrea, who is also my wife, allowed me to look through her notebooks to see if anything called to me. I then sent a few files of her ink sketches to Essay Press, who selected one and then proceeded to add their own design around it, adding colors and images to Andrea’s black and white sketch. They sent me a few mock covers and allowed me to select which one felt right to me. One could say the cover was a collaboration on three fronts.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Do it for the love: the love of reading, the love of writing and rewriting. Do it because you can’t not do it. And shake off the haters!
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
Read chapbooks by others to experience other minds at work as well as to find inspiration. Then give yourself over to your obsessions.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the pieces that appear inside it?
What this question brings to mind for me is the politics of aesthetics. In some ways, each of my chapbooks has been born out of an argument with what I feel comfortable doing as a poet, and what I feel compelled to try to disrupt that comfort. When the poems for The Wall began pouring out during breaks at work, I had to face the doubt I had in me of whether I could write about my dead father in an engaging manner. The poems about him, in that chapbook as well as those in my other projects, are never elegy or simply elegy; they are attempts to work out of the knowledge and experience of his absence what metaphors and art there are to share with others. A similar argument was enacted in my other chapbooks on a formal level: any doubts I had about my ability to work in syllabics and prose poems in order to find what needs to be said was answered in my working through those projects. The Book of Flight, in this light, is born out of the argument about how much a sentence, that is one of my own sentences, can imaginatively convey. Ultimately, it is my job to move words around and to suss out the form something wants to be said in. This involves a lot of patience and, again, arguing, but a joyful, insightful arguing.
How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?
As I mentioned, I keep myself writing daily. This means not just in lines, but also daily entries on my life, notes on something I’ve read, quotes from books, movies, songs, etc. I got into the habit of daily writing years ago after reading Charles Simic in an interview talk about the need to maintain a certain kind of sensitivity to language, that writing everyday allows you to develop attention and focus. Combining this daily writing with the practice of letting material sit in notebooks for a year or more has been the real gift because it forces me to edit, reconsider, and revise. No one’s going to do the hard work (that is, the loving work) of seeing your poem to its completion for you. While there are no new habits, there are things I wish I could return to. Like, I wish I had more time to write poems out by hand and memorize them. It’s something I did during the long stretch between my MFA and PhD. I’d walk to and home from work reciting Yeats, Millay, and Auden to myself. But only to myself. Reciting to others leads to a unique sort of embarrassment. Ask me how I know.
Which piece is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
This question brings to mind one line in particular from my chapbook:
¡Oye! No hay palabras, si no musica.
I find this line is the misfit of the collection not only because it’s the only line in Spanish (it loosely translates to: “Listen: There are no words, only music.”), but also because it’s the kind of thought that if I think about it too much could lead to another kind of manuscript.
Born and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow. Author of six chapbooks and the collection Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence. He is the winner of the Rhino Poetry 2015 Editors’ Prize, and his recent poems appear in Prairie Schooner, Huizache, and Salamander. He is a Ph.D. student in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati.
The Book of Flight (two sections)
In the book of flight, the butterfly is a rumor.
The moth, a theologist.
In the book of flight, the mosquito embodies guilt, goes from body to body burdened with life.
The moth flails like a kite at a funeral.
In the bread aisle, a moth like a label flying off with its expiration date.
Steal and starve, petals on the plant of need.