“I found the back and forth to be exhilarating and addicting – so different from the sometimes torturous experience of writing alone.”
A Study in Spring (Rabbit Catastrophe, 2015)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
Nicole: I’ve only recently become really drawn into the project of chapbooks. Suddenly, for me, they seem the perfect way to encapsulate a chapter in time. Some favorites: Denver Butson’s the sum of uncountable things; Alicia Rebecca Myers’s My Seaborgium; Dawn Lundy Martin’s The Main Cause of the Exodus; and Ada Limón’s What Sucks Us in Will Surely Swallow Us.
Zoë: Gracie Leavitt’s chapbooks Catena and Gap Gardening. Gracie makes me see new things language can do every time I read her work. I’ve also been reading and rereading Debora Lidov’s gorgeously heartbreaking Trance.
What’s your chapbook about?
Nicole: In A Study in Spring, I play the *teacher* and Zoë plays the *student*. The book follows a *semester* of *back-and-forth* between the essay writing teacher and the essay writing student. It’s sort of *about* everything: mangoes, class, love, babies, addiction, desire, but also about the making of things.
Zoë: Yes, all of that. It also works sort of like an examination (a study) of intimacy, of friendship.
If you have written more than one chapbook , could you describe each of them in chronological order?
Nicole: I have another chapbook coming out in July from Deadly Chaps Press. It’s quite different than this, though it also relies mostly on prose poems. The poems, though, are “museum labels” for imaginary artworks hanging in a show called The Deeply Flawed Human, which is showing in the Museum of the Body of the 40ish year-old flesh (i.e. mine). Then, I have one more chapbook, still homeless, which is just a very long 20-plus page poem about wandering the streets of Brooklyn.
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?
Nicole: The very first piece in the book is called “Assignment,” and it catalyzed the book for us. Zoë and I have been in a writer’s group together for many years, and every Monday we are given an assignment, and every Monday we post a poem from last week’s assignment. This particular assignment was “Take a form you often write in (i.e. shopping list, email, etc.) and write a poem in that form.” Being an essay writing teacher, I used the essay writing prompt to create “Assignment.” The next week, Zoë wrote back “Essay.” I was thrilled! So, then, I wrote back “Assignment 2: Revision.” And we kept going and going.
Zoë: When Nicole’s “Assignment” showed up in my inbox, I couldn’t not write back. I found her poems to set up such interesting contradictions – I loved the challenge of trying to do what her poems asked and also pointedly not do what her poems asked. Something about that dynamic made me write my “essays” back often immediately after reading her “assignments.”
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook.
Nicole: We wrote back and forth quite quickly, probably close to every day for several weeks. When we got to the end, we knew we wanted to write the last two together, so I went over to her house and wrote then emailed it to her, and she wrote back. We knew it was over when we were both crying. We were like, whoa, this is our little book!
Zoë: Yes, Nicole emailed me from the other room (where I could actually see her; our apartment is not large). And then I emailed her back. And then we met at the table and cried and ate sandwiches on pretzel rolls with the spiciest ever mustard. I found the back and forth to be exhilarating and addicting – so different from the sometimes torturous experience of writing alone when one can get so frustrated being so constantly confronted by one’s own self. It was great being in the thick of it together.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
Nicole: The arrangement was totally organic. It couldn’t be any other way.
Zoë: It grew like a mushroom. It is mostly arranged as prose poems, I suppose because they are more essay-like – and most of them needed a longer line. The ones that needed shorter lines got them. The footnotes were fun to write – in addition to actually being footnotes, they became a place to talk back to the assignments in a way that’s a bit different from the body of the poems.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Nicole: Rabbit Catastrophe did an amazing job at design. I mean, it’s so, so pretty! They also sent us covers to choose from, and we were both happy with the selection and especially keen on the one we chose.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
Nicole: Q. Was this SO MUCH FUN? A. Uhm, yes. I wish we could do it again.
What are you working on now?
Nicole: I’m working on a new series of Mountain Poems. They’re quite language-y and cerebral and epigenetic. I always just try to ride the wave of whatever comes to me, and this one feels really good.
Zoë: I had twins six months ago. I’m working on making sure I have pants on before I go outside. And trying to contribute to our poetry group at least once a month. And I recently unpacked all of my poetry books onto these lovely shelves my husband built – it’s so nice to see them again. So I’ve been reading poems, lately. It’s great nursing reading. I feel like this busy time in my life is one of absorption – there have been times like this in the past, too, so I know that on the other side of the absorption can be more creation.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Nicole: (This is from the book:) “Find what it is that only you can say in the way only you can say it, and say it.”
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
Nicole: I’m most drawn to chapbooks which are projects and deal with *one* thing. I’m less interesting in a chapbook that is just a collection of someone’s 25 *best* poems. Find a compelling project. Run with it.
Zoë: One thing I loved about writing this chapbook was how totally un-torturous the experience was – it was such fun. That had a lot to do with the collaborative aspect, but also a lot to do with the shorter form and the fact that the project had a focus, a pull towards its own conclusion. I know I’ve wrangled poems for years to try to make them fit into something book length, and some of that has felt less than fun. As N. says above – find a compelling project. When you have an idea, just keep writing it until it’s done. I want to take our advice and make another one!
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Nicole: Poems or hamburgers?
What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?
Nicole: The Elena Ferrante novels.
Zoë: I’m reading them now. I’m on the second one. Reading really slowly for that precise reason. Also Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies.
If you wrote about one year from your life as a chapbook subject, which year would you pick? Why?
Nicole: 13. Because, well, 13.
Zoë: Maybe 7. My eldest daughter is 7 and watching her be 7 is reminding me of what it felt like to be 7. Such a transition year – out of early childhood and into real girlhood.
Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?
Nicole: Jean Valentine, Mary Ruefle, James Wright, Anne Sexton, Rilke, CD Wright, Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams, Lucille Clifton, Marina Tsvetaeva
Zoë: Jack Gilbert, Elizabeth Bishop, Lorca, Jean Valentine, Hopkins, James Wright, Rumi, Seamus Heaney, Dylan Thomas, Claudia Rankine
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
Nicole: Maybe cooking. So I wouldn’t consider turkey meatballs & Skittles dinner.
Zoë: I’d like to be able to build/make beautiful useful things. Bowls, chairs.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
Nicole: Probably the joke poem. It’s a whole joke!
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
Nicole: Summer: A Study
Zoë: Let’s write that!
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
Nicole: Tweets, status updates, letters, essay writing prompts.
Zoë: Science articles. Kids’ books. Nonfiction books that make things I’m not really interested in completely fascinating. Wikipedia.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
Nicole: William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Pat C. Hoy III, Kristin Dombek
Zoë: Besides Nicole, yes, WCW and Gertrude. And Virginia Woolf.
Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?
Nicole: Teachers. Students. Mothers. Wives. Lovers.
Zoë: And friends.
Nicole: Always friends.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
Nicole: The page itself inspires me. I find if I just keep going back to it, I’ll find what I’m looking for.
Zoë: Randomly remembering with what seems like great clarity (but who knows, right?) an image, a time. Being immersed in natural beauty. Being away from the thing I want to write about. Reading something written by someone else that makes me gasp, pisses me off, makes me jealous.
Nicole Callihan’s first collection of poems, SuperLoop, was published by Sock Monkey Press in early 2014. Her chapbook A Study in Spring written with Zoë Ryder White won the 2015 Baltic Writing Residency Chapbook Prize and was published by Rabbit Catastrophe Press. Her chapbook The Deeply Flawed Human is forthcoming from Deadly Chaps Press in summer 2016. Author photo by Amanda Field.
Zoë Ryder White writes poems and edits books for educators about the craft of teaching. She is the co-author, with Nicole Callihan, of the chapbook A Study in Spring. She is the author of a book for teachers about using poetry to teach reading, Playing with Poems: Word Study Lessons for Shared Reading, and she is a co-author of One to One: the Art of Conferring with Young Writers.