Red Flag Up (Kattywompus Press, 2013)
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
Red Flag Up is an epistolary chapbook and in that regard is quite different from anything else I’ve ever written. It’s comprised of a baker’s dozen letter-poems, but a wry little sonnet about repairing my mailbox in a snowstorm opens the book as a playful invocation of the muse. When I read these poems now, most of which were written in one long burst during the spring and summer of 2011, I’m struck by how directly they invoke a confessional voice and by how they attempt to walk the tightrope between two rather distinct modes: the free-verse poem and the personal letter.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
Several years ago, I was Mary Ruefle’s student and she remarked once, rather nonchalantly, that my letters to her were often better than my poems. I don’t think she intended to be flippant or insulting, though at the time I’ll confess it stung a bit. Rather, I think she was trying to teach me that by loosening up—the way one is loose in the act of composing a friendly letter, that is—my poems would be open to organic possibilities in their diction, imagery, and narrative associations. At any rate, one night in January 2011, burned out and frustrated with another manuscript, I caught myself re-reading a letter I had written her. (I think this is a common habit of the writer: re-reading one’s own letters to friends, often by the glow of a computer screen when every other soul in the house sleeps.) Before long, I started playing with the letter—breaking it into stanzas, slashing and rearranging the language until it seemed as if I had a poem on my hands. It was a cathartic process, but I remember not being particularly impressed with the result at first. Over a period of weeks, though, I slowly massaged it into the poem it is now, and quickly the other letter-poems came splashing out once the dam broke.
What made you decide to gather your pieces in a chapbook instead of another format? When did you realize you were working toward a chapbook?
At first I was merely excited that poems of a shared suit were coming in quick succession. As a streaky writer, I try not to over-think what my poems will ultimately become when these streaks occur — sure, I try to maintain my critical faculties and allow myself to revise as I go, but I also do my best to silence the editorial impulse and allay my character defect of impatience. After I had a half-dozen written, of course, it became clear that they didn’t fit with either of the two other manuscripts that I had going at the time, and the idea of making the letter-poems into a full collection all their own seemed silly and self-indulgent. After all, I don’t want to read sixty pages of Adam Tavel’s letters to his friends, full of local color and inside jokes, and I’m him, so I can’t imagine this prospect would appeal to anyone else either. Once I was nearly at the end of the streak and found myself with ten or twelve letter-poems, I knew they had a common energy and style that seemed ideally suited for a chapbook.
Tangentially, it often saddens me that chapbooks are the most neglected children of a neglected art, and I’m not merely saying that because I wrote one. There is an intimacy and immediacy to chapbooks that is difficult to articulate, but perhaps it stems from their modesty. While some chapbooks have bar-codes and glossy covers, most are hand-bound or saddle-stitched on craft paper, and the print runs usually range from a few dozen copies to a hundred. As a book reviewer, I sometimes find it difficult to separate the experience of book-as-product from the experience of book-as-art-object when I’m holding a review copy from a major national press in my hands. With a chapbook, the only thing at stake is the poems themselves.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook?
Once I started working on Red Flag Up as an actual manuscript, the poems fell into place in an order that largely resembled the chronology of their composition. The project went through about a dozen drafts over a six-month span, but I’ll confess that I let intuition guide me without much concern for the reader, apart from trying to alternate the longer poems with the shorter ones. The title came to me one night while washing the dishes — many of my best ideas arrive when I’m sloshing in the sink — and my wife liked it, so it stuck.
I would like to go on the record here by saying that my first full-length collection, The Fawn Abyss, which is forthcoming with Salmon, went through 160+ drafts and several title changes in a three-year span, so the fact that Red Flag Up rode some luck was a happy accident. There’s nothing I hate more than interviews with poets who make cavalier statements implying that they don’t have to work hard because they’re more gifted than the peasantry. If luck is merely a function of quantity and coincidence, as I believe it is, we don’t get much in this life, but we’re bound to get a little with our toil.
What are you working on now? What is your writing practice?
Last year I finished my second full-length collection and I hope it finds a home soon. I’m currently at work on a third collection comprised mostly of elegies. Like many poets who are parents of young children, I often write late in the evenings, or groggily over my bowl of morning oatmeal before the inquisitors realize that I’ve gone missing, or in those torrid little breaks between teaching. I wonder how many of our best poems were written in these little stolen moments, these moments of hiding. Sometimes it comes down to pecking the keyboard one-handed while a little wonder sniffles in my lap.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
There is a rote response so often recycled by poets that it makes one question the creativity of our creative writers: don’t submit something you’ve written until it’s truly ready, only send to presses that you’ve read and admire, be sure to follow submission guidelines meticulously, etc. One might go on to advise that a poet should print her name legibly, too.
While I have a hard time seeing myself in a position to give anyone advice about anything — apart from dish-washing, of course — I would say that a chapbook is a wonderful place to sprint. One cannot sprint through fifty or sixty or seventy pages, but one can sprint through twenty. When sprinting, it is important to pump your arms. When sprinting, each breath burns.
Adam Tavel received the 2010 Robert Frost Award, and his chapbook Red Flag Up was recently published by Kattywompus Press. He is also the author of The Fawn Abyss (Salmon, forthcoming 2014), and his recent poems appear or will soon appear in The Massachusetts Review, Passages North, Quarterly West, Southern Indiana Review, West Branch, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. He is an associate professor of English at Wor-Wic Community College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Letter to My Wife Written on the Walls of a Blanket Fort
We’ve built a city of drool
beneath Aunt Patricia’s afghan.
Gnawing a yellow pop bead
like a corn cob succulent
our monster is the only candidate
for mayor, a job the invisible
charter deems payable
in ice pops. Earlier the sprinkler’s
lethargic rainbow soaked
our cut-offs as I drafted
a petition against petitions.
Our muddy towels reek
like dead yaks rotting
in heaps by wilted basil.
Ground into the plush
mystery of carpet your hair
and mine are indiscernible
at eye level. The mayor
just zonked. Annabelle,
if you find us dreaming here
know this morning I awoke
to the pale wet flash of your back
and named every beading river.