“Find your tribe of writers.”
All in the Family (Bottlecap Press, 2016)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your chapbook? Perhaps a poem that introduces the work of the chapbook, or one that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
My father tilled the land,
churned up black soil, a garden
bigger than most backyards.
My mother doled out seeds
and my fair sister and I scampered
down the rows, dropping
peas, corn, cucumbers, hard work,
honesty, beets, potatoes, courtesy,
radishes, obedience, carrots,
zucchini, and dill.
We spent summer afternoons
weeding, we were organic
before that was a thing. The garden
had to feed our family for the year,
had to feed our souls for the year.
Some grew better than others –
dill exploded throughout,
its seeds spreading like dandelions.
The freckles on my sister’s face,
my mother’s shoulders, exploded
in response. Humility stayed buried
in the dirt, refused my mother’s greedy
hands. Zucchini grew unchecked,
gargantuan in size and I struggled
to carry them in my butterfly wings.
Late summer the ground purged
her final offerings and we flitted
down the rows, gathering these gifts,
eating peas straight from the vine
and giggling, drunk on sunshine.
My mother frowned, reprimanded us,
clipped our delicate wings,
hoped to quiet us.
We haven’t stopped screaming since.
Why did you select this poem?
This is the first poem in the chapbook and I feel it both sets the stages and introduces you to the characters who the book focuses on – my mother, my father, and my sister. This poem hints at the intricacies that these relationships hold and hopefully it entices the reader to plunge in.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
My relationships with certain members of my family – my mother, my father, and my younger sister – are very nuanced and ever-changing. I initially wrote a series of poems about my mother and our relationship and considered doing a chapbook of just those poems but I felt it wasn’t enough. I needed to pull in my relationship with my father, and my younger sister to show a fully rounded, accurate picture. The chapbook has three sections – Mother, Father, and Sister – each section features poems that focus on my individual relationship with that person.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
“The Game His Father Played” is by far the oldest poem, I wrote it nearly 12 years ago. It was written at a time when my father was very ill and I was reminiscing on his illness and how vibrant he’d been before he’d gotten sick.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
Once I decided to focus on the three different relationships, and not just on my relationship with my mother, the arrangement and title fell into place. I realized that by dividing up the poems in each section – Mother, Father, Sister – it allowed the reader to view each relationship as singular and independent of the others but at the same time allowing the reader to find the similarities and threads that run through them and string them together.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“Siamese Sister” – when my sister and I were little we would tell my mother we were Siamese twins and refuse to be separated. We are less than two years apart but we swear we were meant to be born twins. To this day we speak nearly every day even though we live across the country from one another.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
“Mother | Father | Daughter” is probably the misfit. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to include it, and I wasn’t sure where to include it. Finally, I realized it was the best poem to end the collection with and once I put it there I loved how it fit and how it wrapped everything up.
What were you listening to when you wrote these poems? Did you have any rituals while writing these poems?
I don’t have a specific writing ritual, rather I just write as much as I can and as often as I can. I’ve even pulled over on the freeway to write down the lines that were circling in my head. (I don’t necessarily suggest this!)
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?
“Butterfly Sisters” was the last poem I wrote for this collection though at the time I didn’t know it would round out the chapbook. My sister had recently been diagnosed with the same kidney disease my father had, and I subsequently went to the doctor and learned I do not have the disease…which means I have a high probability of being a match for my sister if she ever needs a kidney. This poems was a culmination of the weeks of worrying she and I shared, and my realization that one day part of me might be in her. My sister and I both have tattoos, though she has full sleeves and so is a bit more colorful than me, so when I refer to us as “butterfly sisters” it’s meant to indicate the bright ink that graces both our bodies.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Bottlecap Press is a really supportive publishing company, and they are great to work with. When I had questions or concerns, they were good with explanations and communication – something I greatly appreciate. My sister, Kirsten, who the poems are written about, is a graphic designer, so I approached her with designing the cover image and she immediately jumped onboard. I told her my idea and she ran with it
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
Bad Girl, Honey by Megan Falley
The Female Gaze is Cool by Alexandra Wuest
Even Though I Don’t Miss You by Chelsea Martin
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
I think the first thing this shows is I like female writers, particularly strong, feminist writers, and that it’s important to surround yourself with poets and poetry that inspires you.
If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
My first chapbook, Siamese Sister, was published in April 2016 and focuses entirely on my relationship with my sister. Some of the poems from Siamese Sister are included in All in the Family.
What are you working on now?
I have a full length poetry manuscript that I’m shopping around to several publishers. I’m also constantly writing and publishing individual poems at a variety of literary journals and websites.
What is your favorite piece you’ve written? Why?
One of my favorite poems I’ve written is titled “Love is a Lesion on Your Brain,” and it’s essentially a love poem to my husband. I’m not a sappy person and I don’t write sappy poetry, but this poem came out when I was dealing with an 8-month long migraine that neurologists weren’t able to diagnose or stop. Then an MRI showed a lesion on my brain, and this poem came tumbling out. It’s not a love poem on the surface, but by the end you realize that’s really what it was about the whole time.
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?
I used to believe I had to be inspired to write poetry and then I realized that writer’s block is pretty much bullshit. You have to practice writing to make it a habit and to improve. Once I had that view I set about creating a writing practice that worked for me. I write nearly every day and if for some reason I find I’ve gone more than a couple days without writing, I’ll sit down with my journal and my pen and write about what I’m looking at, how the week has been, anything really. Often I find just the act of putting pen to paper gets the creative juices flowing and I can go from there.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Read everything you can get your hands on. Find authors whose styles speak to you and read everything they’ve written. Write daily. Find your tribe of writers – having writers whose styles you like and whose opinions you trust will be key when you start editing your work. And yes, realize that good writing requires editing. Few of us write the perfect poem or paragraph or chapter on the first try – it takes re-reading and tweaking and editing to make it right.
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
Send your manuscript out everywhere. But also make sure you know what the publisher is looking for or usually publishes. If they’re a press focusing on sci-fi, your historical novel won’t be a good fit. Also realize that that process of writing doesn’t end when you put your pen down. Editing your work and then submitting it takes a lot of work. I spend 8-10 hours a week just sending my work to various publishers, presses, and journals.
Courtney LeBlanc loves nail polish, wine, and tattoos. She is the author of chapbooks Siamese Sister and All in the Family (forthcoming from Bottlecap Press). Her poetry is published or forthcoming in Connections, Welter, Plum Biscuit, Pudding Magazine, The Legendary, Germ Magazine, District Lines, Slab, Wicked Banshee, The Door is a Jar, and others.