“The poem kept repeating itself in my brain for a full day.”
Yesterday, the Bees (Floating Bridge Press, 2015)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
I admire several chapbooks, many of them from Floating Bridge, which are the ones I’d like to talk about here—Nancy Pagh’s After, Annette Spaulding-Convy’s In the Convent We Become Clouds, to name two. A few years ago, my friend Laura Read published her collection The Chewbacca on Hollywood Boulevard Reminds Me of You through Floating Bridge; her book has a direct speaker and listener relationship that carries through the collection in pieces that follow each other like a novella-in-poems. Laura wrote this book in about a month. The cohesion of Laura’s project made me rethink some of my own choices to present a less-than-linear narrative in my previous chapbook projects; when I re-made Yesterday, the Bees, this desire for more direct cohesion was one of my driving forces. That said, I don’t believe a chapbook has to sustain one singular narrative.
What’s your chapbook about?
Yesterday, the Bees is about pregnancy, birth, postpartum depression, maternal and paternal lineage, immigration, death, and pollination, which, according to the USDA, is “the act of transferring pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma. The goal of every living organism, including plants, is to create offspring for the next generation. One of the ways that plants can produce offspring is by making seeds.”
While there is no literal pollination in the book, offspring and reproduction are at its core, as are questions of native vs. introduced species, including plants and humans, and the ways our lineage influences our roots, our navigation of the world, how that then offers a map for our children. I’m not sure I could do a bee dance—you know, how they return to the hive and dance out directions on where to find the pollen/flowers—but if I could, this book would be it.
If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
This is my only published chap, but some previous manuscripts were: “Ways to Prevent Adultery,” which offered an adulteress, a stripper, a nymphomaniac, a woman who used to be the moon, a prostitute, an unhappy wife, and a mother; “Willapa,” set in the hills and valleys of Southwest Washington, accessing some Lewis & Clark journals, as well as teen angst and the fecund beauty and despair of that area; and “No Human Language,” which was pretty much only about postpartum depression, and contained a series of epistolary poems (versions of which now make up an essay). These were all sad attempts, but the process of compiling them was useful to the revision of the poems and to future understanding about how to order/ create a manuscript.
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 Yesterday, the Bees is either “Naming: First Poem for You” or “She Decides She Prefers Longing over Satisfaction.” I think I wrote them both in the same year (2008; maybe 2009 for “Satisfaction”). “Naming” is the first poem in the book, a direct address in the early stages of pregnancy, in which the mother tells her embryo how she (the mother) was named; about her maternal lineage. This poem was one of those gifts—very quick to write; it changed very little from its earliest draft to the one in the book.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I kept a journal, addressed to her (before I knew her name, her sex), in which I plainly spoke about my life, my days; the journal continued (continues) intermittently as my daughter grows/grew. I think of “Naming” as a kind of journal entry—an intimate speaker-listener moment. The book is meant to be like that, a passing on of memory, genetic coding, directions for the daughter navigating the world.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
My manuscripts often form organically from the poems themselves; I know people who write one or two poems and then realize their manuscript trajectory and write to fill it; I definitely have the poems first and then ask them how they’re speaking to one another.
In terms of prompts/ revision strategies, I like Hugo’s exercises—take any of his “assumptions” or create your own, take someone you emotionally trust through a town or experience, etc. Really, re-reading Triggering Town always gives me a new exercise (or old exercise) to try (again). With a tricky poem, I love Alberto Rios’s exercise of turning the poem upside down—beginning with the last line and ending with the first, cutting/changing as you go. I suppose that would be a cool thing to try with a manuscript, too, though I haven’t done it yet. I think we should try organizing each manuscript in several ways, though, before sending it out.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The artist Rob Nance is designing the Floating Bridge covers right now, and he’s wonderful. He actually read the manuscript of Yesterday, the Bees pre-publication and then sketched FIVE original mock-ups based on the material of the collection. Working with my editor, I was able to choose from these pieces of art, give input on the title font, and proof the final product. I can’t say enough how much I appreciate this level of involvement. I love Rob’s rendition of the caddisfly larva in a stream; I think it provides a nice tension with the book’s title.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on several projects simultaneously: two poetry manuscripts (one on motherhood; one on madness—maybe that’s one book?), several essays (the latest on being part of a homeowner’s association as an adult after growing up, generally, in rural poverty), a book collaboration with a Seattle visual artist (we’re in the very early stages). Outside of my writing, but also in conjunction with it, I’m working on being a better teacher and a better mother. It’s all a very intense balance, but worth it, I think.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Keep an image journal—list all the images you see, hear, smell, taste, feel, that stick with you.
Read widely, in as many genres as you can. Take notes. Imitate the authors and strategies you admire.
Read your own work out loud.
Spend more time doing what you love.
Drink water, eat your vegetables, practice kindness.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
I think most readers will pick out the title poem as the misfit—“Yesterday, the Bees” was written years after the other poems in the collection (five or so years later), and it deviates most explicitly from the narrative of parenthood (birth, baptism, maternal lineage, paternal lineage, etc.). But I also think this title poem offers the collection a lens of human-as-animal, human-as-invasive-species. The poem serves as a sort of credo through which to view the other poems, and a credo for the child-reader. (It also offers a concise counterpoint to the sestina “View From a Bedroom Window,” a poem about postpartum depression that takes place indoors, whereas the title poem is in the field.) Here it is in its full text:
Yesterday, the Bees
in the blueweed.
I’m not going to say
that this plant
is like me, a second
What do I have
for the bees?
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 chapbook went through many revisions, and many titles/containers, including: “The Beautiful Friction of Transitive Things” and “The Earth, That Other Sky.” Both of these versions were finalists with Floating Bridge in previous years, but I knew there was something that had to change. On a run one summer day in the valley below my house, I ended up in a field of blueweed, the visual jeweled color less imagistically resonant somehow than the auditory buzzing of bees in the flowers all around me. The poem kept repeating itself in my brain for a full day until finally I wrote it down. When I was revising the book later, it occurred to me that this little poem-fragment—its content, its title, its little lyric song of questioning, were exactly what the collection needed to feel complete. (That poem is the title poem I mentioned in the last question.)
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?
Yes; reading my work out loud always offers a new relationship to the poems and between the poems. If you’re putting together a chapbook, I suggest reading your whole collection out loud to a friend, if you have a friend who is patient and kind and critical enough to respond when she hears something that merits conversation. If you don’t, you might make a digital recording of yourself and they play it back and take notes.
Maya Jewell Zeller is the author of the chapbook Yesterday, the Bees (Floating Bridge Press, 2015) and the book Rust Fish (Lost Horse Press, 2011). Other manuscripts have been finalists with the National Poetry Series, Brittingham and Felix Pollak Prizes, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere; individual poems and essays appear widely. Maya teaches writing and, together with her husband, raises two small children. She lives in Spokane.
Love Poem for the Flood
After the flood I wanted to lie down in the brown
muck of the field and let the earth swallow me.
I wanted to let the earth swallow me the way it had
the land, water rising up out of the ground,
falling from the sky, flowing from the hills, spilling
out of rivers. I wanted to spill out of rivers
into the mouth of earth. I wanted the mouth of earth
on my mouth, the blue of sky eclipsed by our kiss.
I wanted our kiss, an eclipse, to flow over the grass
like a flood and muck up gravity. I wanted gravity flooding
my body. I wanted my body pressed into the field,
the field pulling my body deeper, the deep of my body
fielded by mud. I wanted to be a flood. I wanted flood
to know how I felt. I wanted the felt blue sky to lie on its back.