Fabulous Beast: The Sow (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013)
A question from Travis Mossotti: What do you find to be the most difficult and/or rewarding part about the writing, revising, publishing, and promotion process?
I find the writing and revising parts the most rewarding. Well, I write that sentence, and it sounds kind of rote to me — the standard humble answer, I think – but it’s really not a false or insincere answer. The publication part of the process is naturally very thrilling and a huge ego boost, and I am so, so over-the-moon excited and grateful every time I manage to publish something. But publication garners you some quick, fast, crazy, loud attention (if that – I mean, especially when you’re talking about poetry, right?) and then things get quiet again and it’s just you and your work. Publication comes so infrequently and the “glory” of it is so short-lived that if you’re going to have any kind of longevity as a writer, you had better find your gratification and satisfaction in the writing process.
And I really do – there’s an adrenaline rush that comes from the act of creation, when you generate work – a poem, a couple of lines to a poem – and you know it could turn into something good eventually. That’s exciting – in a secret-only-I-know kind of way. Revision generally gives a more long-term, lasting satisfaction – it’s like going for a daily run, and exercising muscles that like to be used and expect to be used.
I think it’s really interesting to consider the promotion process as rewarding. Usually I just think of self-promotion as awkward and cumbersome. And yet this interview, for instance, could be thought of as promotion for my chapbook – but instead of awkward and cumbersome, I find that it’s this really unique and wonderful opportunity for reflection. So while putting yourself out there – proposing a reading to a local library, for instance – and trying to sell yourself — “I can guarantee I’ll bring three people to your venue!” – can be really embarrassing and a huge ego check, there are parts of the process that do allow for some growth as a writer.
A question from Curtis L. Crisler: Did your chapbook start out as something larger whose parts you made into a chapbook? Or, if it started out as self-contained, is it something that can be changed into a full manuscript?
Fabulous Beast: The Sow began, consciously, as a series of poems linked by subject matter and theme, but I didn’t think of it as a chapbook or full-length manuscript. I knew with the first poem that I had a character I wanted to explore through multiple poems, but I didn’t really anticipate how long the series would be, and I think I tried to avoid thinking about what the series, as a whole, would look like. In the past I’d worked on projects/series of poems that I anticipated being book-length works, and then when that didn’t happen – when the poems started to feel forced rather than inspired, or when I had too many poems for a chapbook but not enough for a book manuscript, I’d feel cheated and discouraged.
In the end, there was only one poem that I wrote in this series that didn’t make the final chapbook manuscript. And it was just good fortune that the manuscript fit chapbook length. (Although, really, the page length requirements for a chapbook vary a great deal now. I’ve seen some publishers ask for no more than 15 manuscript pages, while others ask for a maximum of 34. So there’s a good deal of wiggle room.)
But while I think of Fabulous Beast: The Sow as a self-contained work, it is also part of a larger manuscript. It functions as the first third of a full-length collection that explores fable, fairy tale, and myth through free and metered verse. So, I won’t be expanding this section of the book into something larger. I said what I needed to say with this particular character.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?
It’s really affirming and soul-nourishing to be printed alongside works like Salt Ballads by Edith Sodergran and Brooklyn Copeland, First Wife by Laura Madeline Wiseman, Sally Rosen Kindred’s Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, and By Fire by Jessica Cuello (all chapbooks published by Hyacinth Girl Press). I just bought (and will read soon) Shake Her by Arielle Greenberg. (Ugly Duckling Presse makes the most gorgeous books and broadsides. They are works of art before you get to the writing.) The Quarternote Chapbook Series by Sarabande Books has published some good work – I’ve used Charles Wrights’ The Wrong End of the Rainbow and Jean Valentine’s Lucy in my classes before. And Dawn Pendergast in Houston, Texas is making the coolest, smallest handmade chapbooks as part of something called the “little red leaves textile series.” I own Brooklyn Copeland’s Ritualists.
But I treasure most my copy of Plea for Tearing with the Running Hours, a limited-edition letterpress chapbook by Nellie Bridge and a tiny collection my good friend Adam Penna printed himself last winter as a Christmas gift for friends, titled In the Fields and Woods. Both are just lovely.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest piece in the chapbook is “The Mother Cannot Ask for What She Needs.” I think. Either that poem, or “The Mother Moves in the Dark.” Both poems were written in the same week, if not the same breath. (It feels like that in my memory.) I remember writing it/them because these poems came about as part of an exercise I’d assigned myself. I’d just come out of a particularly long period of not-writing – or, when I wrote, creating spectacularly mediocre work – and I’d arrived at a couple of conclusions: one, that there wasn’t really such a thing as writer’s block, and that I needed to get my ass in gear and simply generate poems – that I wasn’t going to let the fear of writing mediocre poems or even bad poems prevent me from the act of writing; two, that I needed to write something very different from the first-person confessional form I’d been working in – when I worked – in the past; and three – I was going to practice what I preached as a teacher of writing, and simply force myself to write for twenty minutes, without censoring myself, and without stopping.
Finding time to do this was a bit formidable, between working and raising young children – but I stopped making excuses about that, too. I waited until everyone else in my household was asleep at night, and I walked out on to my deck with a notebook, and in the porch light I sat and wrote. I decided to write about a character, but in the third person (not persona poems) in an attempt to move far away from that first-person confessional. I tried to make the character as different from myself as possible. My train of thought went something like: Animal. Farmyard. Pig. Sow. And I thought that I could sympathize with the sow.
And then, for fun, I thought, I’ll make her magical. So she became a shape-shifting sow, a magical animal with the ability to change into the form of other animals, and it wasn’t until I was many poems into the series that I realized her shape-shifting had meaning: that this wasn’t simply the random parameter of a writing exercise.
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
The poems work as a narrative – I’ve been thinking of it as a fable – about a female character (the Sow) and her struggle with motherhood and identity (both in animal form and human form). It’s similar to my earlier work in that I often write in the “project” or “series” form – one poem on a particular subject just doesn’t do it for me. If I’m really using poetry, the act of writing poetry, as a way of thinking and feeling my way through a meaningful and important topic, I have to do so over time and from various attempts, and through multiple drafts and revisions. I’m probably never going to write a sonnet on something and then just walk away, dusting off my hands, saying, “Done!”
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?
I knew when I was 20 poems into the series that I was also 20 poems out of the series. I knew it was drawing to a close. The form of the chapbook was kind of chosen for me, dictated by the work itself. I knew it wasn’t going to be a full-length book.
But it wasn’t until I wrote the second section of my full-length manuscript that I knew Fabulous Beast: The Sow worked also as a part of something bigger. It always stood as its own entity, to me, but I believe it gains – and gives – something alongside the other sections in my full-length manuscript.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
These poems are arranged, more or less, in the order they were written. One or two poems may have been shuffled a bit, but the narrative felt more coherent when I arranged the poems as they’d come to me.
I attempted to rearrange the poems in an order other than the way they were written, chronologically, and the result was . . . not good. The narrative thread became a tangled, unnatural mess – so I went back to the order in which they were written.
As for the title, I think that for a while I was calling the series “Fable,” but I didn’t really want readers to concentrate so much on how this collection does or does not fit that genre. Also, once I knew it would be a section of a longer work, I had two titles to contend with. The entire full-length manuscript deals with women who contend with multiple, sometimes-conflicting personas inside them (it’s sounding fairly schizophrenic, isn’t it?), so I’d focused on the idea of the Chimera as the central image/title for the manuscript. And then I changed it to the definition of Chimera, Fabulous Beast, because I like the way the word “fabulous” can mean both wildly impossible and wildly good. Then I couldn’t think of the sow poems as anything other than Fabulous Beast, too. So I tacked on the subtitle, The Sow, which feels true to the fable format as well.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I submitted this chapbook to contests and to open reading periods. And it was thrilling and fulfilling when Margaret Bashaar accepted it.
In what ways did your chapbook change between the version you submitted and the final published version? Did you revise, rearrange, or make other changes? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I really didn’t change much from the submitted version to the final published version. One or two small word choices here and there, and one poem had some shifts to the line breaks, but other than that it was finished when I began submitting it. But – unlike in the past – I really sat on these poems for a long time before I began submitting them to magazines, and even longer before I submitted them as a chapbook manuscript. They went through extensive revisions and then I waited to make sure those revisions were the final versions. I didn’t want to send out poems – as I had in the past – that I’d end up changing. And it worked. (And lesson learned! I don’t rush to send out my work anymore.)
As for the cover image and design of my book, the experience was incredibly meaningful and precious to me, because it involved family. Margaret Bashaar asks her authors if they have particular artists they’d like to solicit for chapbook covers, and when she asked me, I suggested my sister, Amanda Kain. Mandy designs book covers for HarperCollins and freelances for other publishers, but this was the first time she’d designed for a chapbook, and I think she enjoyed the challenge of designing for a publisher who makes handmade collections. Poor Margaret – the vellum of the cover was (and continues to be, I suspect!) quite a challenge! But I think the concept and final product is gorgeous. I couldn’t be more grateful or more pleased.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
Facebook has been an immense help. Facebook can be a time-suck and plague to personal growth, and I am guilty of spending far too many hours on it, but it’s wonderful and beneficial, too. The “word of mouth” aspect of Facebook has been cool, and mostly because I have a group of incredibly generous family members and friends who have done a huge amount of promotion for me. My friend Lawrence J. Epstein interviewed me about Fabulous Beast: The Sow for The Best American Poetry blog, and I have a small rinky-dink author web site.
One of the things that I’m doing in support of the chapbook that isn’t linked to the web, though, is a talk with Adam Penna and Margaret Bashaar titled “Poets on Childlessness and Parenthood.”
Last year Adam and I were talking about trying to schedule readings in support of our books, and about how it’s such a painful part of the promotion process (the scheduling, not the actual readings), and we brainstormed this idea to make it a little more tolerable. We felt like there’s some resistance (and maybe deserved resistance) to the “Hey-I-had-a-book-published-come-listen-to-me-read-from-it-and-buy-it” approach – and giving a reading where you feel like you’re just pedaling your wares is so gauche – so we framed our author readings as a part of something bigger. Doing a focused, subject-driven reading, such as “Poets on Childlessness and Parenthood,” we’re giving context to our work immediately, so that our audience knows what they’re getting into when they attend. Also, the dynamic of the readings is totally different from others we’ve given. There tends to be more conversation, more audience participation, and this is thoroughly rewarding. The experience is more useful to everyone, and less self-congratulatory, than any other reading I’ve done as the poet-author. It’s been pretty cool.
What are you working on now? What is your writing practice?
Right now I’m working on these questions! That’s not a facetious answer, either! I gave birth to our third child last spring, and I’m only now, in January, getting time in the mornings to write again. Mornings are when I must write: once the kids are awake and out of their rooms, the house is incredibly noisy and full of movement; this provides for a happy home life, but is decidedly bad for the reflection and interior space a writer needs to create. Also, I work during the day, so even when the children aren’t present I have to focus on my job, not my writing. This means I must write when at home, and when the kids sleep, and nighttime just doesn’t work for several reasons. One, that time belongs to my husband – we can finally talk to one another without being interrupted! (If we’re both conscious and not falling asleep ourselves, that is.) And two, my brain works best immediately after a good night of sleep. I love my quiet mornings. If I can get a good hour (sometimes two!) of writing done before the kids wake up, my world is so much better. I feel more relaxed and fulfilled after a morning of writing.
Once I finish with these interview questions, I plan on working in earnest on a verse play that I’ve been writing, piecemeal, over the past few years. Also, an article/essay about contemporary poets who are writing work that we read as the Poetry of Witness.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Put the same effort and love into your chapbook as you would a full-length manuscript. A chapbook isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a shadow version of a full-length manuscript. It should be a vibrant, self-contained work of art unto itself. And read other chapbooks! There are so many really interesting, beautifully made collections out there. Seek out different publishers, buy samples of what they produce, and judge both the quality of the writing and the quality of the books they make. Then submit your work to the people with whom you share a similar aesthetic. And keep your fingers crossed. They receive many submissions.
Sarah Kain Gutowski is the author of Fabulous Beast: The Sow, a chapbook published by Hyacinth Girl Press in May 2013. Other poems have been published in The Southern Review, Verse Wisconsin Online, The Gettysburg Review, Verse Daily, and The Threepenny Review. She teaches writing and literature at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island, where she lives with her husband, three children, and two large dogs in a house that now feels a wee bit too small.
The Mother Makes Time For Herself
When her body does what she wants,
her cloven feet grow long and dexterous.
The splitting hurts, but the sow gives herself to this pain.
Newly formed she lets herself – now a girl, complete
with long, nimble fingers – into the farmer’s house.
Then at the family piano, she sits because she can bend –
actually bend – at the waist. And she begins to play –
not with hesitation, but with all the energy surging
through this new female form. She pummels the keys
with her soft, smooth finger-pads: no noise!
Just each hammer hitting the strings like rays of light,
the pedals sighing and stretching clear, resonant notes.
The bellows in her heart pumps the music,
in and out, in and out – nothing nasal,
no braying or porcine grunt – and she plays
until she hears the farmer’s step on the porch.
When he enters, he finds only a sow in his living room.
Distraught and wild over her sudden weight returned,
she fractures the piano stool, her hooves slam the keyboard,
and she falls to the wide wood planks of the floor.