“I wish I had been told that it doesn’t all come at once, and that it shouldn’t.”
Figuring (Bull City Press, 2016)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
I regret that I don’t read more chapbooks—it’s difficult to keep up! But one that I’ve read and reread many times lately is my friend Carrie Bennett’s Animals in Pretty Cages from dancing girl press. I admire so much how she approaches the body, in this case the body of her grandmother who is dying from Alzheimer’s disease, in a way that is both loving and unsentimentally exact: the body is a source of amazement and fear and metaphor. And her construction of narrative is so elegant—she includes only the particular moment and information we need. I find that very brave.
What might this chapbook suggest about you and your writing?
I think Carrie and I share a trust in the image as a tool of investigation.
What’s your chapbook about?
The book contains a series of self-portraits intertwined with a second series of “report” poems. The earliest poems in the book were an attempt at self-location. I’d written most of the poems in my first book while I was in graduate school in New York and in the two or three years directly following that, and my life seemed to me to have changed significantly in the intervening time. I was now, after some struggle, the mother of two young children, and I lived in a different city (Boston) and found myself spending a large portion of my time attempting to communicate with pre-lingual children, going to playgrounds and having long earnest conversations with near-strangers (who eventually became fast friends) regarding napping schedules and feeding idiosyncrasies, and, once my kids were a bit older, attempting to navigate the city public school system. Everything seemed suddenly and radically far away from my writing life, even when I wrote about it. It felt as though I had traded out about 75% of my brain and now was having to learn the world again while simultaneously explaining it to first my daughter and then my son. Initially, the self-portraits came out of this—not so much a portrait of the self as a portrait of how the self now saw the world. This new view includes the often conflicting feelings of motherhood—being completely devoted to and in awe of one’s children while also feeling suddenly hemmed in and even trapped by how our society views and treats mothers (“Self-Portrait with Washing Machine” is an example of this). As the series progressed, it also started to incorporate a sense of unease (evolving, at times, into terror) at the level and types of violence we, as a society, have come to accept in our lives—street violence in my neighborhood, gun violence, geopolitical violence, environmental degradation. I think that having children can have the effect of making one feel more vulnerable to all of this and also more amazed by what can be, and has already been, lost.
The report poems came a bit later. They were a way for the world (through quoted and found text) to speak back to the self—perhaps a mirror to the mirror. The word “report” suggests impartiality, or at least research (I’m thinking of the VIDA Report, for which I’m so, so grateful). While I don’t claim that my report poems are unbiased or bound by statistical analysis—they are poems, first and foremost!—as I began to focus more on violence, I wanted more voices to join mine in the poems. Perhaps this is a way of convincing myself that I haven’t become a completely crazed, paranoid person, but it’s also a way of crediting my sources. And some of the found text that I include is so striking that I didn’t want to touch it; for instance, the lines “sitting in a children’s chair / like he was watching T.V.” in the poem “Drought Report” are quoted directly from a newspaper article I came across online about a sibling murder/ suicide.
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 the book is “Self-Portrait as Smaller Moon.” It was my husband’s and my 10th wedding anniversary, and my parents had taken our daughter and son (then age 4 and 18 months) for the night. I was sitting in a coffee shop waiting for him to get off work so we could go out, and I was noodling around with the idea of writing when I came across a story in The Guardian (I think) about a new theory that there had once been two moons orbiting earth, one smaller and one larger, and that the gravitational pull of the larger one had gradually attracted the smaller one until it crashed into one side of the larger, resulting in our current moon with one smooth face and one rocky, mottled face (the remains of the smaller moon). This suddenly seemed to me an exact description of my circumstance, with me as the smaller moon, and my new life (kids, motherhood, marriage, etc.) the larger moon. Initially, the last stanza read “spread myself against the dark back/ of this other, “ but I changed it to “lovely other” because I do love the people in the new life, but the life is still quite “other.” After that, I gave myself permission to use the idea of the self-portrait in this way, and it seemed to open the door to so many poems at a time when writing a poem was incredibly difficult in terms of temporal and mental resources. I think that I may be done with them now, but it was such a gift.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
Giving myself time to write is almost as much of a discipline as the writing itself. I wish I had a coherent process or strategy, but so much of my writing life is catch-as-catch-can. In addition to having a family, I teach, which uses many of the same resources that motherhood does and can be quite depleting. I’m learning to say no a little bit more to things, though—not my kids, but other commitments that I used to do out of a sense of obligation. Also, I’ve been fortunate to have a wonderful writing group who keep me (just barely) on track through the many upheavals of family, community, and academic life. I also apply to conferences and residencies when I can—two weeks away at a time still feels like my max, which limits me somewhat. But I always get some work done while I’m away and return home with new determination. I just learned that I’ve received a fellowship to Vermont Studio Center for this summer, and I’m already longing for the concentration and space that it will provide.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I’m usually terrible with titles—it took me ages to find a title for my first book—but the title for this chapbook suggested itself to me after I’d finished the poem “Self-Portrait with Arithmetic,” which ends with the line “We sit here, figuring.” The word “figuring” suggests the figure (self, self-portrait) and also a sense of difficulty and discovery. The arrangement of the poems was much trickier and required expert advice from friends and editors. As it is now, the chapbook moves from a sense of discovery (the self-portraits) to an increased sense of the world looking back (the report poems), but the two are still quite intermingled.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I didn’t collaborate at all, and I’m absolutely thrilled with what my press came up with!
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m working on a full-length version of the chapbook. My first chapbook, Hawk Weather, led to my first full-length book, If a Storm, although with quite a few stops along the way. I’m sure that my current project will go through many, many more revisions before I’m ready to see it as a book, though.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
I offer students the same advice that I offer myself: read as much as you can (not just poetry, but anything that nourishes your work) and go to readings. Also, try to find your community. Writing is a very social act, despite the fact that we mainly do it in solitude. But we need readers and editors (and friends in the bar) in order to keep going.
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
For me, a chapbook has been a great way to see if a project is working; if it can stand up to critical revision as a chap, maybe it can then expand into a full-length book. I also read chapbooks that are beautiful coherent collections that won’t get any bigger, although they might become a discrete section in a larger work. That’s true of Carrie Bennett’s book, The Quiet Winter, which includes as a section the chapbook I mentioned above. I also think that chapbooks are the perfect length. You can sit down and read them in one go, and this isn’t often the case with full-length books. There’s something concentrated and rare about a good chapbook. That isn’t so much advice as an ideal to shoot for, I guess.
What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?
I have a pile of these on my desk, including (but not limited to): The Spokes of Venus (Rebecca Morgan Frank), Garments Against Women (Anne Boyer), Voyage of the Sable Venus (Robin Coste Lewis), Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates), Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude (Ross Gay), Loop of Jade (Sarah Howe), Admit One (Martha Collins), Hive (Christina Stoddard), The World Before Snow (Tim Liardet), Roll Deep (Major Jackson), and Hyperboreal (Joan Kane). And that’s just the crop from the last few weeks!
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
I think perhaps thinking in chapbook form allows me to experiment a bit more, which might affect my willingness to be more forthcoming about politics in my work. I don’t know that it impacts the politics themselves, but I’m always wary of being didactic, and a chapbook lets me try things out and see how people respond.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
I studied voice quite seriously when I was in college and in my early 20s, and I sang semi-professionally with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus here in Boston. Eventually, I decided to go to graduate school for writing, not music, but I do still look back on that decision sometimes and wonder “what if.” I’m co-teaching a course now on Poetry and Song at Emerson College with a wonderful composer, Scott Wheeler, and I suppose I’m thinking about it more than ever now. I do miss music—it was always such an emotionally freeing experience for me—and I’ve been told that my writing can sound quite musical. Maybe when my kids are a bit older and I have more time, I’ll go back to it somehow.
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?
This is a hard question for me to answer, as I’m so close to it right now, but I’ll quote my good friend and masterful poet Melissa Range, who says that the poems are “tensed between the daily and the disastrous.” I don’t think I could improve on that!
Who do you most hope will read your chapbook (either an individual or a particular group of people)?
I’m distrustful of the idea of choosing an audience, and it’s not possible, in any case. My hope is that my work offers entry to anyone who comes across it.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
I wish I had been told that it doesn’t all come at once, and that it shouldn’t. I’ve been very down, at certain points in my life, about what I had or hadn’t achieved. I’m a fairly slow writer and cautious about sending my work out, and if you spend any time at all on social media, it can seem as though the entire world is out there publishing, winning, patting each other on the back, etc. But when I look to the poets I admire most, I notice that they took their time and considered every word. Elizabeth Bishop is one of my earliest and most enduring poetry loves, and she spent years, even decades, “hanging her poems in air” (to paraphrase Robert Lowell). Emily Dickinson, another love, is another example, although her reasons for not publishing were more complicated that Bishop’s. But these women kept writing because of what it gave them, not because of the world’s applause, and that’s a lesson I try to keep learning.
Anna Ross is the author of the chapbooks Figuring (forthcoming from Bull City Press) and Hawk Weather (Finishing Line Press). Her full-length book, If a Storm, was selected for the Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize. Her work has appeared recently in The Southern Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Salamander, and Pangyrus, and she has received grants and fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop. She teaches at Emerson College and lives with her family in Dorchester, MA.
Self-Portrait with Arithmetic
White 1, yellow 5, red 10—at school,
my daughter’s learning math with colored blocks.
She sorts and measures, measures and sorts—
How many ways to make a 10?—rewarding same
with same. On the rug, the children rush to say
that she is 5 and so is he and she and she…
all except the boy who’s 6
and wonders if he’s turned another animal.
At home, my daughter says her skin is pale—
paler than mine—but mine is
paler than Jasmin, who’s paler than Jaziyah, who’s paler
than Aniyah, who’s paler than Laray, who’s darkest of all.
I watch her adding and subtracting.
Outside some kids are kicking ball.
We hear them through the window—
the last few leaves gold on their branches,
the sky already softening towards dusk.
How many ways to make a 10.
The light comes in to us translucent, cool.
We sit here, figuring.