“I cannot emphasize enough what a pleasure it is to work with a good editor.”
Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013)
Tell us a bit about how your chapbook came to be.
Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone is the result of my participation in the 2013 Pulitzer Remix Project. The project was sponsored by the fine folks at Found Poetry Review, and so the focus was on writing found poems. Found poetry can be thought of as a literary equivalent of collage, in which words, phrases, and lines from existing texts are refashioned into new poems. The genre includes centos, erasure poetry, cut-up poetry, collage, remix, and other textual combinations.
For the Pulitzer Remix project, eighty-five poets were brought together to write one poem a day from a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction. Each poet had a different source text. All of the participating poets were challenged to create new poems that varied in topic and theme from the original text, rather than merely regurgitating the novels in poetic form. I was assigned the 1949 Pulitzer winner Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens.
Guard of Honor is set in World War II and is packed with military verbiage and jargon and war-related images in its 613 pages. While the poems wrote I didn’t follow the source text’s story line, the vocabulary used came from the source text. So, not surprisingly, one of the primary themes of the chapbook is war.
Describe your writing practice or process for this particular chapbook. Did you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy?
The Pulitzer Remix project was my first major foray into found poetry. While erasure and collage were used to create some of the poems, the method I primarily used was remix. My process for remix is to take an arbitrary selection of a source text, for example the first paragraph of each of the first 10 pages or a specific chapter from a book, and then scramble it. I mix and rearrange individual words chosen out that selection of text. On occasion, I might remix using a phrase. But for the most part I use individual words.
The technique I use for scrambling involves computer programs like Adobe Acrobat Pro (which I use to convert a scanned image into text), Microsoft Word, and Microsoft Excel. First I separate all of the words out of the text so that they are not in context. I do that because I don’t want to simply regurgitate the text in condensed form—I want to transform it somehow. Therefore, it’s better that I not read the text on the page.
Next, using the computer programs mentioned earlier, I create two lists—one in which the words are alphabetized in a single column and another that is randomized with the words scattered in rows across the page. I select words from these two lists to make the first draft poem. The randomized list helps trigger my imagination as my eye scans unrelated words and my mind tries to make connections. The alphabetized list helps me locate a word if I’ve latched onto an idea and want to move quickly to keep the momentum going.
In addition to the word lists, I allow myself to use words that are not in the selection, but that can be discovered by:
- concatenation, e.g. sun + light = sunlight
- erasure within a word to form a new word, e.g. erasing “ling” from “sparkling” yields the word “spark”
If I get stuck, I allow myself to return to the source text on the page in order to apply erasure across a phrase to form a new word. As an example, take the phrase “across the.” By erasing the letters ‘o’, ‘s’, ‘s’, ‘t’, and ‘h’, you are left with the word acre.
For each revision of a poem, I go back to the word lists and techniques for finding new words. I keep detailed notes so that I can adequately cite the source text, which is important for these sorts of poems.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
The title is from one of the poems in chapbook. I chose it for a couple of reasons. One reason is simply that I found it interesting. Another reason is that it gives the reader insight into the overarching theme of war in the chapbook.
I originally arranged the chapbook to form a sort of arc that was age-based, opening with two poems that feature a boy and ending with poems of a man in his twilight years. But the poems didn’t form a solid narrative. They were more like character sketches mixed with a few episode-specific poems; for example, there’s a poem about a moment after a battle. I guess in a way, the poems are a bit like those inkblots in Rorschach tests. In this case, the reader fills in the narrative, giving additional meaning based on their own imagination.
My arrangement of the manuscript was subsequently changed by the editor. She saw the arc in a slightly different—and better—way. (I cannot emphasize enough what a pleasure it is to work with a good editor.) She suggested that the manuscript open with an ekphastic poem titled “Lament for Icarus” that was inspired by an 1898 painting of the same name by Herbert Draper. In that way, Icarus and the associated myth would be the guiding force that propels the reader through the narrative. She also suggested ending with a poem called “Seeking Asylum,” which brings the reader back to Icarus at the end through the image of the falling sparrows that end the poem. She also commented that the ending image of falling sparrows alludes to the sparrows in the Hall of Souls (the Chamber of Guf in Jewish mysticism), which, to her, further enforced another thread that runs through the chapbook, that of the dangers/ pitfalls of human hubris.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Red Bird Chapbooks is a joy to work with. I was allowed to provide my own cover image to the editor for consideration, which I did. The editor then worked with me to make changes to it.
Did you read straight through your chapbook out loud during the revision process or while finalizing revisions? If so, how was your experience of the poems different?
Yes. When I read the poems out loud, I discovered that first arc, which allowed me to get to the point where I felt the manuscript held together as a whole and could be sent out.
Did you set out with the intention of writing a chapbook?
I had no intention of writing a chapbook when I signed up for the Pulitzer Remix project. But after I had a collection of poems, it was somewhat evident, at least with this particular set of poems, to see which poems came together and formed a whole. Of the thirty poems I wrote, nineteen ended up in the chapbook.
What are you working on now?
I have a full-length manuscript that I’ve been sending out to contests. There are a few found and experimental poems in it, but most of the poems are free verse. While it’s been met with some encouraging results, having come in as a finalist in seven contests in 2015, it remains unpublished. I’ve been sending it out for three years now and at the end of each year, I modify the manuscript in hopes of improving it. So right now, I’m in the middle of modifying it again, revising poems and writing new ones to replace those that I’ve removed.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Read. Read deeply in your genre—if you’re a poet, read every sort of poem, even those that you think you don’t like. And read widely—read from every genre.
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
Strive towards a cohesive manuscript if you can, for example poems that are tightly themed or that form a narrative arc or that are all in the same form, e. g. sonnets.
Also, don’t be afraid to use some, or possibly even most, of the poems from your chapbook in your full-length manuscript if the poems fit.
Lastly, don’t be shy. Send that manuscript out!
What chapbooks have you recently read or are reading now?
Who Was I to Say I Was Alive by Kelly Nelson (Minerva Rising)
The Almost Sound of Snow Falling by Robert Walicki (Night Ballet Press)
Beautifully Whole by Julie Brooks Barbour (Hermeneutic Chaos Press)
17 Days by E. Kristin Anderson (ELJ Publications)
Comings / Goings by Jenni B. Baker (dancing girl press)
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?
Mandeleev’s Mandala by Jessica Goodfellow is an amazing book. Goodfellow is one of my favorite poets. Her poems in this book are an irresistible mix of religion and science, myth and math, fact and fable, speaking and silence, dark and light, chaos/ randomness and order. Those who might be interested can read my review of the book here.
Nancy Chen Long is the author of the chapbook Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013). You’ll find her recent and forthcoming work in Alaska Quarterly Review, Bat City Review, Pleiades, Superstition Review, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. Nancy received a BS in Electrical Engineering Technology and an MBA, worked as an electrical engineer, software consultant, and project manager, and more recently earned an MFA. As a volunteer with the local Writers Guild, she coordinates a reading series and works with others to offer poetry workshops. She lives in south-central Indiana home and works at Indiana University.
poems from the chapbook