“Chasing that voice, the one that seems natural, not of my conscious mind, and lyrical, seems like a lot of how I revise.”
Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti (Tupelo Press, 2015)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
The first chapbook I remember taking time with was Jason Bredle’s A Twelve Step Guide. Around the same time, I was taking a course with the wonderful poetry scholar Ed Brunner about book-length poetry projects, but hadn’t seen a chapbook-length one until then. The idea may have taken hold around then. Since then, I’ve been helped by a number of them, including Joy Katz’s The Garden Room, Anna George Meek’s Engraved, and Kathleen Jesme’s Meridian.
What might these chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
All four of them are chapbook-length engagements with specific things, which mine is, too.
What’s your chapbook about?
It’s about Modernist photographer Edward Weston (and in his persona) looking at his work, his past, and mostly the parts of that past involving Tina Modotti, fellow photographer and sometime partner who also modeled for him. In real life, they were together in Mexico, and then he left her to return to California, where, at some point, poverty led to him having to use some of his glass negatives as windows for the studio. That metaphor doesn’t just show up in the sequence; I think it helped the whole thing happen–that idea contained in it of erasing the old to look at things more clearly.
If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
The first one is Bat & Man: A Sonnet Comic Book, both written first and published first, in 2012. That one is also a chapbook-length persona sequence, in sonnets (the Weston chapbook is all prose poems). A male-female relationship animates that one, too, since the sonnets are dialogue between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, about Batman and related territory.
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?
“Tina mia,” the opening poem of the chapbook, might also be the oldest one–it helped me get into the Weston persona, partly because that greeting, “Tina mia,” was his, in one of his daybooks, or journals. The lyrical quality of those words together, that not-quite-feminine-rhyme of “Tina” with “mia,” helped me get caught up in the persona’s own voice, finding that it just started to come, and turn into poem draft after poem draft.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
It seems like these poems went through a lot of drafts, and I ended up working on them for 7 or 8 years, on and off, trying them in lines and as prose, fitting different parts and observations together, publishing some of them in earlier forms, and then finding that, one day, or maybe over several days, they just clicked into a lyricism, almost a hum behind them or a new quality to the voice, that wove them all into the sequence that’s the chapbook.
Chasing that voice, the one that seems natural, not of my conscious mind, and lyrical, seems like a lot of how I revise. That can mean trying taking poems into and out of rhyme schemes, fitting different images and/or narrative moments in to see if they galvanize the whole thing somehow, reading or watching different things that it seems like that intuitive little voice in me is guiding me toward, and more. And, somewhere along the way, I can hit this blessed point where it seems like the poems are telling me something about me that I didn’t see before.
How did you decide on the arrangement of your chapbook?
It’s kind of mapped from him first leaving her in Mexico to him detaching from the image of her that lived in his pictures, and that he used to avoid intimacy with her. Some details of her life, and its end, come up along the way, so he mourns her death shortly before mourning the loss of that false Tina.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The folks at Tupelo did a wonderful job of selecting a photograph, of Tina Modotti byEdward Weston, and also designing the book, with a typescript kind of a font that’s on the cover and in the text, for me adding wonderfully to the Modernist effect.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
The wonderful questions so far bring the one to me of what I learned from working on these poems, or how I’ve grown from them. They owe quite a bit, I think, to Laura Mulvey’s writing about the male gaze, that can objectify female subjects in film–I reallydon’t know if Weston’s nudes had that effect for him or the women who posed, but it became a helpful way to investigate my own ways of objectifying, including women I have loved romantically and people and maybe other entities I have loved in other ways.
That impulse, or that stance, of “I am an artist, and you are future material for my work,” I realized, can be another objectifying, fearful way of trying to avoid love, maybe its vulnerability. And I think that can also show up in a culture so mediated by technology (which maybe it always has been). But poetry, I believe, works in the other direction, of opening me up to an unmediated world, as much as one is possible, and to love and be loved.
What are you working on now?
At the University of Missouri, I took a terrific playwriting class with David Crespy, and found that this drive I have to write in persona can translate into dialogue, and plays. So I’ve been having a lot of fun working on some of them.
Then there are a number of other projects, including this one called, at least right now, Rose Wilder, that came pretty much out of nowhere a few years ago, when I was playing with heroic couplets after reading Keats’s Endymion, and also some conventions from epic poems. Somewhere along the way, I think I had read about Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had a tougher life, emotionally, than the idyllic-seeming one in the Little House books, and suddenly, I started to find this uber-epic-heroic, sometimes brutally violent narrative coming together that seemed to be dredging things up for me that never quite fit in that Americana that I grew up with, or believed was the whole story as a kid. And, somehow, the draft that came around 2010 ended up around 10,000 lines long, or 370ish pages. Recently, I actually was able to sit and read through it all, out loud, and go, well, didn’t plan on writing this, not sure how the revision will go, but there’s a lyricism here that asks to be followed through.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
One of the things Kevin Prufer said, about his own poems, that has helped me since then, is that he gets interested in the voices of their speakers. That jumped out at me–that the poem’s persona can be like a partner in a dialogue, or maybe a linguistic dance, rather than a mask to hide behind, or an escape. In the poems of mine that are more autobiographical, what he said helps me look at the speaker as free of what I think, and what I might worry readers of the poems might think, really with something to offer me, before anyone else.
And following the sounds of the words can really help that happen, for me–looking for how the one word merges into another after it, maybe helped by some form or image, so I can let go from the busy, intellect-inflected kind of drive to arrive at the point, and, I think Derek Walcott wrote in one of his poems, “following the poem, going where it was going.” It might be a spiritual way of engaging language, for me–I get these elements in place that remove my thinking, plotting mind from control of the writing, and what comes after that becomes fun, deep and mysterious at once.
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?
H is for Hawk, the memoir by Helen McDonald, has been kind of like that for me over the last, I don’t know, year or so. The language, the images, and her experiences are just so generous and rich that it doesn’t have the page-turner effect on me; it’s almost the opposite, in a delightful way.
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?
Keats, Shakespeare, Byron, Lucie Brock-Broido, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Robert Lowell, Phyllis Wheatley, & Ovid in Latin and in Golding’s translation.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
Music might be it–I loved to sing as a kid, and learned not long ago that I continue to really enjoy it, along with playing piano. For me, it feels like it’s in a separate sphere from writing, but maybe it comes back to that same way of engaging language–that it’s about finding a sound that helps me let that busy mind stuff go, and maybe see or just experience deeper truths.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
It seems like writing that’s directly related to poetry that I’m working on can help, and also writing or other media that goes deliberately away from it. For a while, for the Weston poems, I was reading his daybooks, absorbing his way of saying things, with musical and image-y aspects, and biographical details, too. And I was looking at his photos a lot, plus doing other things like stopping at Carmel, CA, where he had lived, on a road trip. But then it helped me to step away from that direct engagement with him, to maybe let the project grow into its own, since it’s not really about the historical person–that’s a useful way to get at other things. And I ended up getting more into Shakespeare, into reading some photography theory, and also into streaming Netflix around the time the last drafts took shape.
Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?
That’s always a helpful question for me to consider, because I don’t really know, and it seems, so much of the time, like the poems are talking to me, rather than me talking to anybody else through them. Sometimes I’ve wondered if that’s about narcissism and/or fear, but then I took a great class on poetics where I started to see John Stuart Mill, Yeats, and I think others talking about the same thing. But I do hope others can get something out of the poems, for sure.
Chad Parmenter’s poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, AGNI, Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Spillway, and Black Warrior Review, where one won the Third Ever Poetry Contest. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. Author photo by Anastasia Pottinger.
from Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti
This letter will never be sent–not because Tina has died–but because it’s to you, the Tina made by my gaze. I never knew another. I wish I did. But even that wish comes shaped by my desire for you–the numb one.
Where what she was met my making gaze–are you there? That flash of shadow they made–I lived in it–in you–still do.
Look at–no–through me–and tell me who you see–who I am.