The Man Who Went Out for Cigarettes (Bright Hill Press, 1996)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing and what might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
Two that come to mind right off the bat are Louise Gluck’s October and Alison Pelegrin’s Squeezers. I also remember falling absolutely in love with a chapbook by Leon Stokesbury when I was about 15 years old. The title is lost to me, though I still remember some of the poems, at least one of them still by heart (“If I could open you”).
Which makes me realize: there are chapbooks introducing us to the work of a new poet, and these are important, giving the poet a platform—a little diving board from which to begin. My first chapbook, The Man Who Went Out for Cigarettes, can be described as this kind of work. It also won a prize—one of the first Bright Hill Press Chapbook Awards—and I can’t tell you how much the publication of this book and its re-issuing—that chapbook went into a second edition, of all crazy things—meant to me all those years ago. It was a way of saying, Don’t give up! And I would herein and hereby like to thank Bertha Rogers for that, since without the diving board of that book and that prize, I would have had six more children and/or become a cowgirl heroin addict whatever that is or joined a special convent for devotes of John Prine. I mean, I would have given up.
(And there’s also a funny story about me getting a call from Bertha that she wanted to publish that chapbook: I was making dinner, running around, trying to do seven things at once as usual back then when the phone rang. Bertha said, this is Bertha Rogers from Bright Hill Press and you’ve won the Bright Hill Press Chapbook Award and we’d like to publish your book.
And did I say and I kid you not: what book?
For the whole idea of publishing anything but poems here and there was that alien to me. I wrote out of obsession—out of the love of language—and although I had obviously sent my manuscript off to Bertha at some point, I had apparently then moved on to other things—babies and dogs and cats and such. Perhaps I am writing this antecede to remind myself and all of the rest of us too never to take ourselves too seriously?)
So that’s the first kind of chapbook: chapbook as launching pad. Then there are chapbooks by more established poets that I like to think of as little stones sort of between longer boulders (or books). Bloodline, my second chapbook, can be placed in this category. Here are things that must be done with language sometimes—and with feelings I think sometimes—that need the least amount of commercial pressure put on them. They need NOT to be attended to by the commercial world, but float around instead in rebellious little whispers from poet to poet like that old game Telephone we used to pay as kids. Also sometimes there are sequences of poems that you need to write and release into the world as a kind of flinging out almost—you need to give them away in order to move on to something else. Come to think of it, here again is a process in which and by which you work and fling and forget. I like that. I think it’s maybe important. Richard Hugo says somewhere in The Triggering Town that “you have to be silly to write poems at all.” And of course he’s right. And yet we do write them because we must write them. And I hope to all the Gods in all the Heavens in each and every Universe that we revise them. But at a certain point, you are just going to have to fling them away from yourself in order to survive their writing and to make the space for more. This to me is what publishing a chapbook can sometimes help you do. It’s just one little thing, but it’s a good thing.
What’s your chapbook about?
Bloodline takes motherhood as its primary “subject.” And you will say oh that is boring, give me a break, can I yawn yet. But motherhood as battlefield, as someone says of that book. I love my kids. Don’t get me wrong. But being a mom is depicted in such clichéd terms so often—there are so many aprons and puppies and vans full of Juicy Juice and everyone telling you no matter what that everything you are doing is completely wrong. There’s also the evil mother: she shows up a lot of course—the vain one who’s actually a real witch who gets the woodsman to cut Snow White’s heart out, or tries to. Bloodline tries to find a way to describe how it feels to have to give yourself over completely to your children—how loving your children as much as you do costs you. There are also some poems about an accident my son had that I think of the trauma poems or the PTSD poems. When I spoke of flinging something away or out earlier, that’s what I meant—these are poems I had to write that I hate to think about too. I wish they did not have to exist, though I’m glad they do.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook? What was your titling process for individual poems in the chapbook?
The title comes from the poem itself “Bloodline,” which is one of the PTSD poems. It’s the only time I’ve ever used just one word for a title; usually I like to throw in the whole dictionary.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Oh, the cover of Bloodline is a marvelous, wild thing! My husband and I found a series of these cartoon-esque looking things at an Art Walk in Gardner, Maine by University of Maine, Augusta student Adrienne Beacham. I think the press had mostly done covers in black and white, but Ian Wilson agreed that the images were striking. I have others too that aren’t on the book—we bought three of Adrienne’s pieces there on the spot in the middle of the street in Gardiner. They hang in my study now.
There is something else to say too about Bloodline re: the author image on the back. I am twenty-four in that picture, and the son of the title poem—he’s twenty-eight now—is in my lap. I don’t think I could get by with using an old photo for a full-length collection, but because of the subject matter of Bloodline and the sense I have that a chapbook must be or can be made as a whole thing to be apprehended-in-an-instant—as a coherent artwork from front cover to back without the hoopla of the need for marketing and promoting and so on—I thought an old photograph of me as a young mother might be more appropriate than a photo of me now at fifty. And I still agree with that. The chapbook is to me off-a-piece. A case study of sorts. A long sad song. A wound.
What are you working on now?
I have edited a collection of essays with the writer Karen McElmurray called Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia, forthcoming from Ohio University Press in 2015. It contains some wonderful essays by the likes of Lisa Lewis, Aaron Smith, bell hooks, Jayne Anne Phillips, Chris Offutt, Dorothy Allison, Connie May Fowler, and many others. It bridges many gaps. Working on this collection was a huge struggle and challenge, but an important one for me for many reasons. Among other advantages, it gave me time to rest to wait for the next book to come. And I am working on that now—a collection of new poems tentatively called Trigger Warning. Dare I admit that this book feels at least right now a little apocalyptic? Also more political. They take up some issues I have about how people from Appalachia are depicted, and even how we depict ourselves sometimes. Rebellious of course like everything I write, but who ever heard of a poet who towed the line? And who would want to read one?
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Don’t. Give. Up.
Adrian Blevins is the author of Live from the Homesick Jamboree (Wesleyan University Press, 2009), The Brass Girl Brouhaha (Ausable Press, 2003), and two chapbooks, The Man Who Went out for Cigarettes (Bright Hill Press, 1996) and Bloodline (Hollyridge Press, 2012). She is the recipient of many awards and honors including a Kate Tufts Discovery Award for The Brass Girl Brouhaha, a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Foundation Award, a Bright Hill Press Chapbook Award, and, more recently, a Pushcart Prize, a Cohen Award from Ploughshares, and a Zone 3 Poetry Award. A collection of essays she edited with Karen McElmurray—Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia—is forthcoming from Ohio University Press in 2015. New poems are forthcoming or have been recently published in American Poetry Review, North American Review, Florida Review, and Zocalo Public Square. Blevins’s work is also being included in Best Creative Nonfiction of the South, forthcoming from Texas Review Press in 2015.
When in doubt grow more hair
is one of the sayings I am full of.
As if a petty part of a person could be
thicker than but almost exactly like
long streams of fast water. As if
one might even get addicted to
the bodily aspects of certain sentences
and even somewhat drown in them
as though they were a bona fide
cascade. O yes a fibrous veil
of dirty blonde cells can beckon
an erstwhile child’s rotten old psyche
to call to mind the rice-cracker aspects
of hair that can make a kind of box
one might jump behind to be a
kitten for. I mean, to hide in
and to peek out of when the coast
is clear. O yes I admit I think this
though I am a gun-toting renegade
from algebra. And was for some time
a teenage fugitive in a teenage redneck’s
redneck truck. Oh and a sad little degenerate
set loose for a day down Wild Cat Holler
in jeans ending in the too-blue
blue shape of a bell. O fuck
how the mountains would hang over us
like the wide brows on the faces of kings
while we built our fires by the creek
that was so gauzy and meek
we would walk in it sometimes
if we wanted to and always we wanted to
and so always we did: we were
the free children of Appalachia
and disliked wearing shoes
and thus would take them always off
and toss them here and there
to wander shaggy nowhere together
down that twisted stream.
(first published in North American Review)