“I think of chapbooks like mixtapes in hip-hop. There’s room to experiment.”
Mother, Less Child (Paper Nautilus, 2014)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
I feel like a lame for mentioning him because he’s current department chair, but Joel Brouwer’s This Just In really helped me see how much work you can do with the title of a poem. The titles of the poems in the chapbook were written as newspaper headlines, and that really helped create a certain atmosphere for the poems and the book as a whole. Other chapbooks I have really enjoyed in the last few years are Jonterri Gadson’s Pepper Girl and Saeed Jones’ When the Only Light Is Fire.
What’s your chapbook about?
Mother, Less Child grew out of a few inspirations. First of all, I wanted to write about my mom. A lot of my poetry is invested in the idea of legacy and narrative. For better or worse, a lot of my work leans towards traditionally male narratives (pro wrestling, comic books, mythology). Because of that, I noticed that many of my poems mention my father, my grandfather, or other men in my family, but my mother didn’t get the same attention in my work. My mother is great. She deserves attention. So I started writing the book.
Mother, Less Child was also inspired by the tradition of having to watch black mothers grieve over the deaths of their children. It almost feels ceremonial at this point. And for me, as a guy who grew up as an ancient history/ mythology nerd, I see those mothers and think about the goddess Eos grieving for her Ethiopian son after Achilles kills him in the Trojan War. I think of all the pietas showing Mary trying to hold Jesus in her lap one last time. My chapbook is about that tradition, and how I’m damn lucky and damn thankful my mother hasn’t been part of that tradition yet.
If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
Mother, Less Child is my second chapbook, actually. My first chapbook is I Can Explain. It was inspired by the AMC drama Mad Men. When I went to college, I planned on being an advertising major and making commercials for a living. I wanted to be Don Draper, basically. But I couldn’t bring myself to write a one page paper about Vince McMahon for my mass communications course, so I ended up studying classics and creative writing.
But as a fan of advertising, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of manipulation in advertising. When commercials give us emotions, we’re supposed to feel icky about it. When the media manipulates us, we’re supposed to fight back. However, when art manipulates us, we’re supposed to give in, to submit. That seems a bit hypocritical to me. Artists and salesmen have a lot in common, and I Can Explain works with those commonalities and their consequences.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Juan Reyes, who also teaches in the English Department at the University of Alabama, produced the cover image for the book, and I owe him a lot for it. I think chapbooks offer great opportunities for collaboration and experimentation when it comes to design and layout. That’s part of the fun of doing a chapbook project. Juan and I talked about different visual images, and we settled on a battered version of the Virgin Mary’s face to represent the pain and battered bodies I talk about in the book.
When it comes to collaboration, I also have to give a big, big thanks to the editor of Paper Nautilus, Lisa Mangini. She gave me a great amount of freedom in what I wanted for a cover image, and she did a great job putting the book together.
What are you working on now?
I have a few projects on deck right now. I’m co-editing It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop with P.J. Williams. We have great poets in the anthology, and I’m really excited for the world to see the great work we received from the poets who trusted us with their work. The anthology will be published by Minor Arcana Press. We’re hoping to publish in the second half of 2016.
My third full-length collection, Two-Face God, will be published in 2017 by WordTech Editions. I’m really happy about that book because that book focuses on my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, more than I have in other collections. Along with finishing the revisions for that book, I’m starting my next book of poems. The next book will focus on John Henry.
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
Chapbooks are fun. Let them be fun. I think of chapbooks like mixtapes in hip-hop. There’s room to experiment. There’s room to talk to an audience in a way that might not work in a full-length collection. Full-length collection might need three or four threads to feel like a full manuscript. Chapbooks allow writers to focus on one or two threads, and this can create a stronger gravity or density that might get lost in a full-length collection.
If you wrote about one year from your life as a chapbook subject, which year would you pick? Why?
2003, easily. I graduated high school and went to college in 2003. I got my black belt in Tae Kwon Do in 2003. I learned how good it feels to quit a job when I quit Applebee’s in 2003. I bought SmackDown!: Here Comes the Pain in 2003. We had Michael Vick on the Madden cover in 2003. Also, a lot of great albums came out around that time. We had Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below, Trap Muzik, Kings of Crunk, The Black Album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’. I had no idea what was I doing on a college campus or if I really wanted to be on a college campus or if I really wanted to be anything at that point in my life, but I could play Madden and jam to “Rubber Band Man” and pretend I was going to figure things out. It was a great, weird year. Perfect year for a chapbook.
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 never want the Iliad to end. I want them to fight over Patroclus’ body forever. I want Hector to take off his helmet and hold his kid forever. I want Glaucus and Diomedes to discuss their family tree forever while their friends die around them.
Jason McCall is an Alabama native, and he currently teaches at the University of Alabama. He holds an MFA from the University of Miami, His collections include Two-Face God (WordTech Editions, forthcoming), Dear Hero, (winner of the 2012 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize), Silver (Main Street Rag), I Can Explain (Finishing Line Press), Mother, Less Child (co-winner of the 2013 Paper Nautilus Vella Chapbook Prize), and he and P.J. Williams are the editors of the forthcoming It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop (Minor Arcana Press).
If I Had a Son
I’d raise him on Justice
League and Life After Death.
I’d teach him how to wash
his car before prom,
how to hide
a condom in his wallet,
how to crease his khakis and shake
a man’s hand,
how to read
a comic book, a tire gauge.
He would know how to work
a Playstation controller, a word problem.
I wouldn’t let him be
a Jr. or II.
I’d hang the cheesy football
pictures in my office.
He would know about the week
I spent in the psych ward.
He would know it’s ok to cry
when Hector dies in the Iliad.
I’d tell him no son of mine can cheer
for Auburn or New England.
I’d make him promise not to fuck
around in Cullman County or Louisville, Ohio.
He would have to say “I love you”
before he left the house.
We’d spend weekends making waffles
on the George Foreman grill.
He’d have to bring his girlfriend
over during the holidays.
He’d have to bring his boyfriend
over during the holidays.
He would have to wake up
early and go to graduation.
I’d stay awake and hope
he doesn’t end up like Sean, Memnon,
or Trayvon when he decides
to leave home.
I’d give the gods as many necks as they wanted
as long they didn’t take my son’s.