Pray, Pray, Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the night (Porkbelly Press, 2015)
What’s your chapbook about?
Pray, Pray, Pray is not about Prince. I feel like I should put that out there. It alludes to his celebrity, his work ethic, his music, his life, but it’s not about him. The quirk is that it’s very much about me and my struggle with bipolar disorder and a very rough low in the summer of 2014 during which, for whatever reason, Prince’s music was the only thing that made me feel anything. I clung to it. And I started responding to it, on paper. And later I realized I’d written enough that there might be a chapbook.
If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
I have several chapbooks under my belt, both already available and forthcoming. The chapbook that came out before Pray, Pray, Pray is A Guide For the Practical Abductee, and it’s a series of speculative poems exploring paranormal phenomena and cryptozoology. Next month the “B-Side” to Pray, Pray, Pray, is coming out from ELJ’s Magpies series, and it’s a long poem, also written to Prince, partly in response to his song “17 Days.” I also have a few experimental chapbooks coming out next year. Acoustic Battery Life (ELJ Publications) is a series of found poems written by applying oulipo-style prompts to the daily newspaper; Fire In the Sky (Grey Book Press) is a series of three poems in parts, each mining the language of a Lana Del Rey album, first scrambled and then erasured; and She Witnesses (dancing girl press) collects some of the poems I wrote for Found Poetry Review’s PoMoSco projects, in which poets completed challenges using various source texts and prompts throughout the month of April 2015. There might be some Prince stuff in that one, too.
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?
I think “This Summer, All Those Songs” is the oldest poem that ended up in the final draft. I mostly remember that I wrote it in the middle of the night, like pretty much the rest of the book, while battling insomnia. I scribble out most of my first drafts into a notebook and leave them there at least overnight, if not for a few days, before typing them up. I know this poem was no exception, since I’m kind of stuck on this method. I have been told that one of the more interesting things about my first drafts is that they don’t really have line breaks—or at least, nothing set in stone. The linebreaks tend to show up as I’m typing up the drafts, whether I wrote the first draft in a notebook, or on the back of an envelope. For some reason, I have a lot of poems that were written on the back of junk mail.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I always go to critique partners. There’s a point for me where I can’t see the poem anymore, it’s so ingrained in me that even reading it aloud doesn’t help. So I send it to critique partners. Longtime friends Amber Beilharz, Chauncy Perry, and Sonja Johanson always have amazing suggestions. And having these three very different points of view is crucial to me. I don’t know how any writer revises in isolation.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I originally had it arranged in the order I wrote them. Mostly because as I was writing, I found themes in the poems that repeated themselves and referenced back to each other. My editor, Nicci Mechler, suggested putting “How an Echo Feels” first and cutting a large portion of the initial manuscript. And we did make a bunch of cuts. But for the most part, we moved “How an Echo Feels” to the front and most of the remaining poems are in an order that allows them to have the relationship they had with each other when I first wrote them.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Nicci is the editor, publisher, designer, Wonder Woman, etc. at Porkbelly Press. I knew I wanted some semblance of Prince on the cover, but I didn’t know how much we could get away with in terms of copyright. The funny thing is, my initial idea went totally to the wayside after Nicci made me an image for some bookmarks to take to AWP in Minneapolis. That image stuck. I asked for some doves on the back because, obviously, it’s Prince. But I don’t think I could have envisioned a better cover for this book. The monochromatic design makes it extra special. Not everyone can pull that off, but, like I said, Nicci Mechler is some kind of Amazon.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a series of erasures using vintage issues of Nintendo Power Magazine. A few of them have popped up in journals (notably Noble / Gas Qtrly) and in the anthology Goddessmode. But I’d like to do a chapbook and possibly, later, a full-length. It’s really interesting language to work with. And, at times, very limiting. But I like a challenge.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Make sure that your chapbook is tight, that the poems are all there for a reason. You can’t just pick your 20 favorite/ best poems and put them in a manuscript. A cohesive thread has to run through each piece. I’ve found that starting with a theme in mind helps. But sometimes that theme finds you anyway.
Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least, your clothing, to take with you at all times?
Emily Dickinson and Prince. That’s pretty much it.
How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?
Writing is now much more of a job than it used to be, and that forces certain things. When you aren’t looking to publish (or perhaps are trying to, but aren’t expecting much to wind up published), there’s a lot more time to not write. I think that as a poet with an actual sort of career going on, I don’t wait to feel like writing. If I haven’t written in a few days, I just go get a magazine and work on some found poetry. Freewrite. Try a prompt. I think I’m much more productive, and perhaps half of what I’m producing is crap, but the other half could turn out to be something of value. And that’s a lot more than I’d be producing if I waited around for “inspiration.” I also gave up on that e. e. cummings never capitalizing anything hipster bullshit like ten years ago. Because I’m not e.e. cummings.
Did you set out with the intention of writing a chapbook? Does your chapbook follow a clear arc?
I didn’t mean to write a chapbook. I thought I might have a suite going, and then it kept going. So I had maybe five poems when completing a chapbook became a goal. I think it does have an arc. There are maybe some poems that could move around and still give the reader the same experience, but I’d like to think that the themes that you find in Pray, Pray, Pray, the ones that call you back to other poems in the book, create the kind of arc that’s satisfying when you get to the end poem. And the last poem in the book, “Every Salted Breath,” was very much the end. It had to be. It hasn’t moved from where I first put it in the manuscript.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
“Birds on a Wire” stands out, perhaps because it isn’t broken into stanzas. It’s also a lot more literal than some of the other pieces in the book. But it’s kind of this fat little thing amidst several longer poems, many of which are in couplets and tercets.
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
The Summer of Unraveling. Which I should be working on right now. It’s a memoir in verse and I sold it on proposal. So… it’s mostly not written. Yet.
What themes and images “bridge” your work? Have you found that composing a chapbook alleviates these inclinations, or amplifies them?
Oh, it absolutely amplifies the need for themes and bridges. I think pigeons and doves are a strong thread in this book. Even non-Prince-fans know “When Doves Cry.” But not everyone knows that doves and pigeons are basically the same thing. It’s the sort of mind boggle that’s been sticking with me for years. There are also lots of musical references, and allusions to lines and ideas in Prince’s music. And I really wanted to explore the idea of faith, as well, as I was writing these poems to a man who believes in a savior (Prince was a Christian before becoming a Jehovah’s Witness later in life, and Christian themes are reflected in most of his albums, usually in surprising ways), and I’m not a person of faith. I hit on a lot of the same themes, but hopefully in a different way, in my next book, also written to Prince, 17 Days
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
I read pretty much anything I can get my hands on. And I listen to a lot of pop music. And I watch a lot of TV. There’s something in each of these media that adds to my writing, I think.
Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?
A lot of folks have told me that they weren’t sure they’d like my book because they weren’t into Prince, or didn’t know much about him, and were surprised to discover that the book wasn’t really about Prince. It’s very much an homage to his work, but it’s basically straight-up confessional poetry with a specific person on the receiving end of the confession. So I’d imagine that folks who like confessional poetry and are interested in poems that reference pop culture would like it.
Who do you most hope will read your chapbook? (either an individual or a particular group of people)?
Prince. Very much. I would love to put a copy of this book in Mr. Nelson’s hands.
Kristin Anderson is a poet and author living in Austin, TX. She’s the co-editor of the Dear Teen Me anthology and curates the corresponding blog. Her poetry has been published worldwide in many magazines and anthologies, and and her YA memoir in verse The Summer of Unraveling is forthcoming in 2017 from ELJ Publications. Kristin is the author of seven chapbooks of poetry, including A Guide for the Practical Abductee (Red Bird Chapbooks), Pray, Pray, Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the night (Porkbelly Press), 17 Days (ELJ Publications), Fire in the Sky (forthcoming from Grey Book Press), and She Witnesses (forthcoming from dancing girl press). Kristin is an editor at NonBinary Review, helps make books at Lucky Bastard Press, and is a poetry editor at Found Poetry Review. Once upon a time, she worked at The New Yorker. Find her online at EKristinAnderson.com and on twitter at @ek_anderson.
This Summer, All Those Songs
I tried to imagine dancing—how yesterday
my muscles understood sunshine. I tried
to hear the music, the grace in your voice,
the sex and the uncertainty. I laid in blue
sheets, waiting for the elevator. Waiting
to shake the dust from my hair. Trying
to remember how those notes on that guitar
made me shiver. I turned up the AC.
Wiggled my toes. Killed a spider in my kitchen.
I broke my fast with a tuna salad sandwich
and stayed up all night reading poetry,
listening for grace, the voice
on the elevator. Chains wrapped around gears. Stuck.
Dearly beloved, I killed myself in my kitchen, sun blazing
past the window glass. I drank peppermint tea
and imagined dancing. I imagined Coca-Cola
and your voice and laid in blue sheets, writing
a letter. I heard bells, just over the air conditioner.
Bells and a voice and a dance that said, Wait.