“Frozen Charlottes are tiny dolls, with a strange history, as they were used as insulation in the factories in which they were invented.”
Frozen Charlottes, A Sequence (Essay Press, 2016)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
I love all of Essay Press’s digital chapbooks, which is what led me to submit my ms to them, especially most recently collaborative chapbooks by Aby Kaupang and Matthew Cooperman (Disorder 299.00) and also Sandra and Ben Doller (The Yesterday Project: One). I love collaborative chapbooks, the push and pull of the language, the tension between voices, the constantly shifting ground. I love the fact that these chapbooks are digital, can be read on the subway, at night in bed, or used in class. I love that digital chapbooks are free and for everyone.
Also a long time favorite chapbook (print) which I love to teach is Joy Katz’s chapbook The Garden Room, published by Tupelo Press and winner of the Snowbound Prize.
What’s your chapbook about?
Frozen Charlottes, A Sequence explores the histories of dolls, female bodies, teen girls, gender identity and mother/daughter relationships. My chapbook is a work that investigates the rules that govern girls’ bodies and mother/daughter relationships. Frozen Charlottes are tiny dolls, with a strange history, as they were used as insulation in the factories in which they were invented. The doll bodies are nearly always naked, unjointed, with painted hair and faces, and sold by the lot. The dolls and the stories that circulate around them, all about female bodies, desire and shame, are at the center of this cycle of poems.
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?
My chapbook really is one long piece, a sequence. It was sparked by a short poem I wrote about Frozen Charlottes, which was published in Willow Springs two years ago. I was happy with that poem, but I knew I was not done with these dolls. So I exploded the poem, blew it apart, and it became this sequence. Little of that poem is left in the chapbook.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
My writing process is all about tricking myself. Making up exercises and doing them alone in my attic room. Writing on a receipt on the subway. Writing with my eyes closed. Writing on huge pieces of paper on my walls. Writing with my students. Writing a certain number of words a day. I love tricks and don’t believe in inspiration.
For revision, I’ve become increasingly merciless, which is a good thing. I don’t want to just edit and tinker and produce a serviceable poem.
Often, to revise, I cast a cold hard eye on the poem/s and figure out what the central emotional thematics are. Then I find those words in the OED, transcribe those definitions and make poems from them. Sometimes these poems will end up as poems in a book or chapbook; other times they are a way to deepen my relationship to material. Also, they are just very fun to write.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Yes! I adore the cover of my chapbook. I suggested some images from Ebay and Pinterest and the designer worked with versions of them and cut up doll figures and rearranged them. I love the jumble of dolls on the cover, all those bodies.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
Why dolls? That’s my question.
Because they are gorgeous and strange. Because Freud and ETA Hoffman believed they were uncanny. Because the word for doll is loosely linked to the Greek word for “Idol.” Because dolls have amazing histories. Because dolls are a portal to another world, the world of imagination and beyond.
What are you working on now?
Two other collections of poems, one called Mad Money and one called Of Marriage. And a prose book I am just finishing titled My Dollhouse, Myself: Miniature Histories, which is a memoir/historical project examining the role tiny things play in our lives.
And finally a collaborative chapbook, as yet untitled, with my friend, the film and TV scholar, Amelie Hastie.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
To read and read and read as much as possible. Books, on-line work, journals, cereal boxes. I would never write if I weren’t such an avid reader. I want to especially advocate reading books you don’t like, even books you hate. Don’t only read work that confirms your own aesthetic. Read widely. Read everything.
Which piece is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
I would like the whole sequence to be a misfit! The dolls themselves are such misfits.
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?
The new novel by Charles Brock, Alice and Oliver, just published last week, about a young wife and mother’s brutal cancer and treatment, told through her voice and her husband’s. The book is devastating and beautiful, and I could not stop reading and rereading it even though it terrified me.
Without stopping to think, who are ten writers whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?
Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Muriel Rukeyser, Gertrude Stein, Frank O’Hara, Rita Dove, CD Wright, Brenda Hillman, Philip Levine, Yusef Komunyakaa
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
To write badly. To allow myself to write badly. To not care if I write a bad poem because it will not stop the world, no one’s life will be ruined by it.
In addition to her chapbook, Frozen Charlottes, A Sequence (Essay Press, 2016), Nicole Cooley is the author of five books, most recently Breach (LSU Press 2010) and Milk Dress (Alice James Books 2010). She has also published two other collections of poems and a novel. She directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College–CUNY. She lives outside of New York City with her husband and two daughters.
Naked, arms molded to her sides, the doll can’t move.
Drop her, head down, in a cup to cool tea quickly.
Sink her all night in a cocktail glass like a swizzle stick.
A girl to stir your drink! Her feet graze its silvered surface.
Plunge her body in. She can swim and spin
in a bath, or you could drown her in your Dirty Martini.
Come on, no harm done, you’re just playing a game!
Boys only tease if they like you, I was told.
She won’t drown. She’s already dead.