What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?
Since poets Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar have mentored me for years, I often find myself looking at the shelf in their home where they keep the long, ever-increasing row of students’ books and chapbooks. Mike McGriff, a fabulous poet-of-place from rural Oregon who studied with them, published a chapbook called Choke prior to his full-length collections Dismantling the Hills and Home Burial. I deeply respect his writing and recommend all three. Joseph Millar recently published two chapbooks I own and enjoy: Bestiary and Ocean. Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Women serves as a companion to her full-length collection The Book of Men. Three of my favorite young up-and-coming writers’ chapbooks are Vanessa Jimenez Gabb’s Weekend Poems, Javier Zamora’s Nueve Años Inmigrantes (Nine Immigrant Years) and Ryan Bender-Murphy’s First Man on Mars. All of these writers are part of my “inner-circle” of support and guide me in the writing of my own work. I think they influence me most simply by sharing the journey of writing poems, which is often a tedious, isolating one.
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 oldest poem in Highway or Belief is called “County Lines” and is about a good friend of mine, Carlos Castelan, who joined the military after our time marching together in band in high school. It is perhaps the most important poem I have written to date, as it helped me realize that the possibilities of writing about rural Texas were far greater than a few nostalgic lines. It’s a fairly political poem—about as political as I get—and fairly “talky,” which made it hard to publish. I remember visiting Richmond to do some research on Larry Levis at Virginia Commonwealth University and getting an email from an editor in the middle of the night (I often stay up late writing) who had initially rejected the poem write back and accept it. That may never happen again (an “un-reject” is quite rare in literary journal publishing), and I remain thankful to her for publishing me when I was young, green, and earnest—as well as fairly “talky” in my work. By “talky” I mean I had a tendency to go on a bit too long, which this interview will probably also reflect. . . .
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
Highway or Belief, as you might intuit from the title, is a book concerned with how the
physical world (i.e., highway) dictates and creates the metaphysical world we superimpose on it (i.e., belief). All of the poems address life in my hometown: Llano, Texas. They are especially interested in capturing the stories and perspectives of a variety of the town’s citizens, both living and dead. The poems’ speakers/subjects include: Aron Anderson, one of my high school baseball teammates; military veterans of the War in Iraq and War in Afghanistan; an angel; Christian meth addicts; my junior high football teammates; and several iterations of my “self” (past, present, and imagined future). That is quite a litany, isn’t it? This is definitely a collection interested in the “we” more than the “I,” if that makes sense. While writing these poems, inhabiting other people’s circumstances and experiences proved much more generative and rewarding than plumbing my own subconscious for “smart” things to say. If anything, the “I” in these poems feeds off the “we” in unexpected—perhaps even “spiritual”—ways.
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?
This chapbook was assembled specifically for the first contest I sent it to (Button Poetry’s Exploding Pinecone Chapbook Competition). Since Button Poetry was created to be a bridge between page and stage poetic traditions, I selected the poems in Highway or Belief based both on their facility on the page and their ability to be read aloud to large audiences. They are very much speak-able, approachable, breathing, living poems. Half of them will appear in my first completed book-length collection, Disappearing Town (which still has to win a contest to get published). The other half will also probably have secondary lives down the road, going in either Llano News or G.T.T. (Gone to Texas). I am one of those young writers with lots of aspiration and drive, so I’d like to complete a trilogy of book-length poetry collections that deal specifically with life in rural Texas.
In what ways did your chapbook change between its earliest versions and the version accepted for publication? How did you go about revising it? How did it shift or develop?
Prior to assembling Highway or Belief, I spent a great deal of time putting together Disappearing Town, my first book-length manuscript, which has gone through about forty or fifty versions. Since I already had a sense for how my poems spoke to each other based on that experience, putting together Highway or Belief was one of the quickest and easiest parts of the authorship process. I literally sat down for about an hour with some of my favorite/strongest poems in a Word document and built the chapbook, then sent it to Button that day. And then, of course, I was incredibly fortunate for it to land in front of Rachel McKibbens, who judged the competition—and who has been extremely supportive and complimentary in its aftermath. She has reinforced for me the idea that these rural Llano poems matter, and that they have an important role to play in the contemporary poetry world.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?
The title I submitted it with, Town & Country, was changed after winning the contest—mostly because I didn’t want the full-length book’s title, Disappearing Town, to duplicate “Town” in the chapbook title. I owe the finalized title, Highway or Belief, to Yusef Komunyakaa, who recommended it as a name for one of the poems in the collection that was originally called “Prayer for Unmourned Collision.” Yusef was able to see my poems’ desire to synthesize the physical and metaphysical worlds long before I was. The title change was strongly advocated for by Button’s stellar editors Sam Cook, Dylan Garity, and Michael Mlekoday as well (who, I should add, have been an awesome team to work with). They listen to me when they don’t necessarily have to—and have also kept me involved in the book-making process.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I submit everywhere. When I say “everywhere,” I mean that. And I think it’s important to not beat around the proverbial bush and say that being selective is the best strategy for publishing success as a young writer (especially with something like a chapbook, which is more artifact than literary debut, as print-runs tend to be small and re-printings rare). If you believe in your work, and you have given it the time to develop and mature it deserves, why not see how it fairs in the world? Failure is easy to deal with, I’ve found—but only once you experience it routinely. Submitting widely inevitably insures this. While I only sent this particular chapbook manuscript to a few other places, I currently have another chapbook, Ascension, out at contests as we speak. And I’ve been sending out various versions of Disappearing Town now for the past year-and-a-half.
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?
My primary editor, Michael Mlekoday, is a fantastic young poet with credentials on both the page and stage. I deeply respect his work and opinions about what poetry is and what it can do in the world. He already has a first full-length collection out called The Dead Eat Everything, which you should definitely read. I anticipated us revising some (he is as much of a perfectionist as I am and has strong ideas about what poems should be and do), but I also liked that he understood my context as primarily a page poet—and had my back as we continued to finalize edits. When a prestigious literary journal accepted a poem that was in the chapbook manuscript, he graciously agreed to let me take it out to avoid copyright issues. Loyalty like that is not always a given in the small-press world. It makes you want to make your editor as happy as he/she makes you. To date, Michael has made me a very happy poet—as have the rest of the Button Poetry team.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
There was a chapbook release show/party for Highway or Belief in Minneapolis on April 27th. Button Poetry has an awesome team of folks who flew me there on their dollar and made all the arrangements for the show. I even got a free couch to sleep on! I also planned two co-book release parties here in New York City: one with poet Vanessa Jimenez Gabb and the other with poet Jason Koo.
What are you working on now?
With Disappearing Town finished, I’ve been working on shaping and organizing my next two books: Llano News and G.T.T. (Gone to Texas). Recently, G.T.T. subject matter (mostly poems about the Texas landscape) has been pulling me toward it, so I’ve been trying to follow its gravity in drafts of new poems while also returning to older work that is salvageable. I write a lot of poems. Hundreds of them will never leave the blog where they all initially live, but there are still quite a few decent pieces worthy of book inclusion down the road—which I am excited to keep excavating. I’m the type of poet who can revise old work and generate new work and submit everywhere more or less at the same time . . . mostly because I can turn off the voice in my head that has doubts and anxieties and fears and dissolve into the surface, situation, and sound of what I’m writing.
What is your writing practice or process?
When younger, I wrote poetry daily in order to try out different styles and get a sense of what I wanted to do aesthetically. I’ve always been a submitter of work, so part of my process is sending out poems that I feel are strong enough to live in the world, have them either rejected or accepted (mostly rejected, even when they are in their finished, eventually published forms), and then continue revising / re-submitting them until luck, statistical probability, and sheer determination win out. Cultivating this habit has taught me that a poem rejected fifty times can subsequently be accepted by a journal, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and then nearly (or actually) win one. Submitting widely has also taught me how to trust my gut instinct about whether or not a poem is “finished,” regardless of what life it finds in the literary world. It may sound ironic and sarcastic, but I really do mean it when I say that I am thankful for what compounded rejection of my work by countless editors has taught me in the long-term: that writing is mostly about hard work, perseverance, and—though difficult to admit but necessary to think about—luck. I have always worked as hard or harder than any other young writer. Even so, I have also been lucky enough to find Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar (who mentored me when I most needed it), to have Sharon Olds advocate for my acceptance to NYU (when many other MFA programs said no), to receive funding that allowed me to publish broadly the past few years, and to be born in a peripheral rural town that had a vision for me long before I had a vision for it.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Don’t be afraid to send your work out, as that is the only way anyone besides you will ever read it (unless you count your parents, close friends, and writing teachers). Through failure you can find a voice that is tempered and earns every word it uses—which is the kind of voice I think all young writers want, at least in theory, to cultivate.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
I honestly think prompts are pretty useless when you get to the point of trying to articulate and execute a book-length aesthetic vision. They are good for generating single poems but not poems that are in conversation with each other—which is what you need to be writing in order to have a life for your work beyond a page or two in literary magazines. If you think about it, publishing poems in even the most prestigious journals doesn’t add up to much beyond a beautiful line or two, whereas I think writing books gives poets an opportunity to not only be read but also to be read and remembered . . . even if only by fellow poets.
Revision, I think, is mostly about returning to a particular poem often enough to let it say everything it needs to say through you. I think most writers’ failure as revisers is more about a lack of time devoted to return than any other more esoteric reason. Going back to the same poem over and over may seem annoying and/or time-consuming, but it’s what makes the crucial difference craft-wise between a poem that is interesting to read once and a poem that is interesting to read a hundred times . . . or a hundred and one.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? Would you answer it?
I would like someone to ask me, “Who is the most important person in Highway or Belief?” My answer would be, “Everyone.”
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Have you found in your writing of poems that they are separate from you—that they have their own lives and desires—or that they are extensions of you without “selves” apart from your own notion of “self” and your imagination?
J. Scott Brownlee is a founding member of The Localists, a new literary movement that emphasizes place-based writing of personal witness, cultural memory, and the aesthetically marginalized working class, both in the United States and abroad. His poems appear in The Kenyon Review, Narrative, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Greensboro Review, Ninth Letter, RATTLE, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Disappearing Town, his full-length manuscript, was a finalist for the 2013 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Originally from Llano, Texas (population 3,033), he is currently a Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at NYU.
Highway or Belief
He inhabits the windshield & sky
& the truck’s grill he merges into.
& though this yearling fawn
dead on cement, bright in the eye-
like headlights of traffic, finds it
impossible to say what he cannot say
—each path taken a sadness—
help him enter & exit the truck’s
momentum as it meets his spirit
collapsed back to fence posts,
fresh hoof prints in caliche,
his breath lessening.
Let his ending be quick
as the mockingbird’s speech
in the oak over him. Watch
his body rot green, insect-rich
now anonymously but still full
of purpose: beetles feasting
on blue entrails with their pincers,
pill bugs curling in spaces
they carve out of skin, nourished
cockroaches, even, nesting
near crickets—here where only
the meek assemble to claim him—
gleaming with communion.
(first published in Ruminate)