Earth (Two Sylvias Press, 2015)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
I love Louise Gluck’s chapbook, October. And there’s a less well-known chapbook – maybe influenced by Gluck’s? — called October Again, by Kathleen McGookey, that I love even more. McGookey has a new chapbook out, too, called Mended, which I think is terrific. The way she uses language — very stark and straightforward language, but used to mysterious and startling and lyrical ends — always puts me in a mood to write and seems to alter my approach to the process, so that I enter through a different door.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
That I’m drawn to interiority in poetry; that I want a poem to take me to a place that only words can take me.
What’s your chapbook about?
I don’t think I’m the best person to say what my poems are “about,” but my best guess is that the poems in Earth have something to do with my relationship to the physical world, especially the natural world, which for a long time seemed forbidding to me, mysterious and possibly dangerous, probably because my spirits, my ghosts, are so rooted in earth, and there’s so much tragedy in my family’s history. So it’s an ancestral thing, and I had to wake up into it, if that makes any sense. The earth of these poems is haunted, but in a way that I hope is rich. And of course there’s love in that hauntedness, too, love moving in all directions through time.
If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
I published a chapbook called Narcissus in 2008 with Tupelo Press. Those poems are about the shattering of some illusions about romantic love, and about a deeper love beyond those illusions. In truth, I put together the manuscript for Narcissus in much the same way I put together the manuscript for Earth. I saw the notice for the contest, and that prompted me to think about the poems I’d recently written, and what kind of shape they might make if I tried setting them against one another. So the manuscript arose from work I’d already (mostly) completed, individual poems that were speaking to one another in various ways. In retrospect, at least, it seems as if both manuscripts came together kind of magically, but I think the creative unconscious is hard at work when we’ve been working hard, and it knows what it’s doing. And in both cases, I felt as if putting a chapbook manuscript together was also giving me a way to see how a full-length manuscript might be shaped; the chapbook manuscript became a kind of zygote around which to assemble a larger body of work.
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 poem called “Teta” is a poem I started writing in 1994. I’d put it away and forgotten about it and then only stumbled across it by accident last year. The draft I had was awkwardly written, and thin, but there was something there I felt I could pick up again; there was a spark, some heat, some energy that was still there — mostly in the ending, which seemed to take this leap that I didn’t fully understand. So I went to work. I probably wrote another 70 or 80 drafts. The finished poem ended up with the same opening line and the same ending as that first draft — it was as if I’d had to work toward that ending, to earn it. And I realized, when I’d finished, that I couldn’t have begun that poem today — only the very reckless writer I was 20 years ago could have done that — but I couldn’t finish it until I’d learned all I’ve learned in the past 20 years about that great-aunt, and my family, and myself. I had to absorb all that history, to become, in some way, a different person, but one who could still go back and collaborate with her younger self. It was a very humbling experience, and also a very heartening one. Patience has never been my strong suit, but I’m glad patience came into play in the making of this poem. It’s a poem that feels very necessary to me. And I think it’s emblematic of the poems in Earth, a kind of center.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
No prompts, no strategies, no tricks. I work and I pray. Nothing happens exactly the same way twice, and I probably wouldn’t trust it if it did. I’m the kind of writer who has to write every day, probably out of a kind of anxiety that, if I stop, I’ll forget how to do this thing I really don’t know how to do.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook? What was your titling process for individual poems in the chapbook?
I can’t remember what I had in mind when I put together the version of the chapbook I submitted for the Two Sylvias prize; but later in the process, I decided that sequence needed to be revised, and I drove myself a little crazy trying to work it out. I just kept shuffling and reshuffling the poems, wanting there to be a kind of flow from poem to poem, and wanting the repetition of certain images and words to seem purposeful and cumulative. As to titles, I’ve always thought that I’m terrible with titles, so I try to just keep things simple. Often a poem comes with its own title. After I put the initial version of the manuscript together, I saw that it centered around this notion of being “earthed,” so the manuscript seemed to have chosen this title for itself, whether I liked it or not.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The publisher allowed me to solicit art for the cover from an artist whose work I love, Jonde Northcutt. Jonde has provided the art for the covers of most of my books. She and the designer at Two Sylvias were enormously patient with me as I tried to make up my mind; everyone just kept saying they wanted me to be happy with the cover. Finally, I settled on this image that Jonde had made quite a while ago, and the designer loved it, too, and I think it turned out beautifully. This was the most input I’ve ever had on a cover, and it was kind of nerve-wracking for me, since I’m not not an especially visual person and tend not to trust my judgement about visual things, but the results well worth it, I think. The interior design was all the work of Two Sylvias — I think I made one suggestion about a font — and I’m very happy with how that turned out, too. I’d have to say that this whole process with Two Sylvias was a joy. The women who run the press are poets — really fine poets — and they seem to have struck a wonderful balance between the business side and the artistic side of things.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a full-length manuscript of poems, with poems from Earth at its center. But I’m working on that in a sort of peripheral way; it’s a project on the corner of my desk, and I’m not in any big rush about it. For some reason — maybe as a reward from the gods for having walked away from a future-less academic job? — a lot of the work I’ve done over the past 20 years is finding its way into print right now in a way that seems almost effortless. (Of course, I remind myself that there are 20 or 30 years of constant effort behind that.) And that’s had the effect of making me patient, making me think that everything has its time, will have its time, so long as I consistently put my shoulder to the wheel and don’t get too caught up in judgments about the work — my own or other peoples’.
And I need that patience especially now, because I’m coming near to the end, I think, of a project I’ve been working on for at least ten years, and the project I think of as my true “life’s work.” It’s a long prose work that recounts my search for clues to the life of my paternal grandmother, who was murdered before I was born — as was my paternal grandfather. It’s turned into a kind of geopolitical murder-mystery, but it’s also, at heart, the story of a family and its woundedness.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Don’t aspire to be a chapbook author. Aspire to make the best poems you can make and then see what happens. Things will happen. The poems and the process of writing them will teach you things you didn’t even know you needed to know. Put other aspirations, like publishing a book, aside, at least for a while; get them out of the way. The late, brilliant James Baker Hall said, “Don’t let your worldly ambitions drive a wedge between you and the work that’s most sacred to you.” Publishing a chapbook matters much less than doing the work that’s most sacred to you.
Why a chapbook?
I love the size and shape of a chapbook, how portable it is, how it fits into the hand. I think the chapbook may even be a more perfect vehicle for poems that the full-length book. I love how tightly woven the poems in chapbooks mostly are, how the chapbook can seem like a very compact jewelry box.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
I think the chapbook form, because its a tight-knit form, makes a demand that the poems in it speak to one another, and I think that’s an excellent thing and makes the chapbook in some ways more democratic and populist than a full-length book, where poems have more space to move away from one another.
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?
A world in which the veil between worlds is thin, and in which the dead and the living coexist in close proximity. A world full of mud and flowers and birds and spirits.
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 title poem, “Earth,” which I wasn’t even sure was a poem. It’s a small piece of prose that I wrote from deep in a meditation about the above-mentioned family history, about who we’ve been, as a “people,” and how we’ve had to keep moving to remain who we are, and how I’ve finally understood my own place in that continuum I’ll have to call “soul,” and in the soul of the world. Waking into the realization that my small soul is part of a larger soul. It seemed to me like a very strange piece of writing, but true. I asked two of my closest and most trusted writer friends if it should be included in the manuscript, and both of them said yes. I pretty much knew right then that this small collection of poems would have to take its title from that poem and be called Earth.
Which poem is the “black sheep” in your collection and why?
All my poems are black sheep. I come from a family of nothing but black sheep — bootleggers, bookies, fortune-tellers, Communists. I think all the best poems, like all the best people, are outside the law.
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
Dwell. A book about finding my home, at last.
To what degree is your work with writing about binding to form? To what degree is it about freeing ________from form? Is there writing, for you, without the work of writing being a form-married requirement? If so, what does (or could) that look like?
Hmmm, I don’t think I understand the question, but I write formal poems as well as free-verse and prose-poems. I think the material determines what kind of vessel will carry it.
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?
I always read my work out loud and, yes, I read the whole chapbook manuscript out loud to myself several times as I was trying to determine the final sequence of the poems; the way the poems sounded in concert, in sequence, was a determining factor in my final decision. I think when we listen to our own poems, when we hear them, we engage the body as well as the mind; and, when we’re not privileging the mind, we get a better sense of the music and the dance.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
I read sort of obsessively, but I mostly read books — nonfiction with my coffee in the morning, poetry throughout the day, fiction at night before I go to sleep. I’m very particular about language, but anything that’s well written is a joy and an inspiration to me.
Whose work helped you in the writing of the chapbook?
I wrote the poems that are in Earth over such a long span of time — as I mentioned, at least one of the poems was something I’d started twenty years earlier; other poems had been written ten years ago; and some were very new — that I think it would be impossible to pin down or even remember what I was reading and where I was finding inspiration. But the poems written more recently owe a lot to Lucie Brock-Broido’s latest collection, Stay, Illusion, which is wonderful, on many levels — most importantly, to me, the sheer, unabashed beauty of the language and imagery, the swerves the poems take, and their deep interiority. When so much poetry has become clever and facile and monotonous, to come across the strange beauty of the poems in Stay, Illusion felt like being given permission by a wise older sister to say just what I needed to say and didn’t know how to say.
Does your family read your chapbook? Or are they waiting for you to write a novel?
Yes, my family reads my work, even those family members who aren’t at all “literary.” My older sister, who’s a retired hairdresser, is one of my biggest fans and most astute critics, and I value her responses as much or more than anyone’s. But she’s also waiting for me to finish this “big” prose book about our grandmother — in fact, she’s helped with a lot of the research and helped by sharing her dreams with me — so she’s there, cheering me on, gently encouraging me, and that means a lot to me. I have six siblings and, before our mother died, we were all very close, and all of my siblings and my mother were great supporters of my writing. My father had had a series of strokes before my first book was published, so he never saw my work in print, but I think he understood what I was doing, and I think he’s listening when I write to him now.
Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?
If I think about an audience at all, I hope for a general audience, not an exclusively academic or literary one, and not one composed primarily of my peers. Maybe the best moment in my life as a poet happened when my second book, Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem, had just come out. I walked through the screen door of my mother’s house in Kentucky one evening after dinner; my mom was leaning back in my dad’s old recliner; my teenaged niece was sprawled out on the living room rug; my sister was curled on one end of the couch, reading my book aloud to them. When I started to say something, I was promptly shushed. “We’re listening to this,” my mom said. That’s my ideal audience, right there. I don’t think winning the Pulitzer Prize could beat that. I know that a lot of poets are writing for their tenure committees, or for the editors of journals where they want to be published, and I think they’re making a grave mistake. I’ve never written with my mother or sister in mind — that would probably lead to some heavy self-censorship and really bad poems — but I do write in the hope of making that connection from soul to soul.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
Language, and human stories, and love.
Cecilia Woloch is the author of six collections of poems, most recently Carpathia (BOA Editions 2009) and Earth, winner of the 2014 Two Sylvias Press prize for the chapbook. Tzigane, le poème Gitan), the French translation of her second book, Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem, was also published in 2014. A novella, Sur la Route, is forthcoming from Quale Press in 2015. Recent honors include The Indiana Review Prize for Poetry and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Cecilia teaches independently throughout the U.S. and around the world.
In the year of the poppy year of the cornflower
year of the meadow of yarrow and buttercup
year of the thistle and ox-eyed daisy
in the spring of the year of our lord
of the train the engine the ticket the map
of the landscape of leaf shadow willow white birch
blurring past in the smoke of the burning fields
in the blue mist of evening the ringing of bells
ringing out for the living the living the dead
of the last great war which is one long war
of the ancient soldier come in his uniform
to stand hopefully at the door
of the house of no mirrors swept of ash
(in which I was a guest of the dark bread and rain)
to ask Have the Germans already left?
sixty years after the forests were flushed
of the last of our enemies last of the partisans
of the holy republic of mud
of the blood mixed with earth of the bones of itself
of which no one knows but the trees anymore
of which no one speaks but the child made of grass.