“Whether it’s my own work or the work I publish at Ghost Ocean, I want to feel like it’s reaching people and they’re engaging with it, and, hopefully, being moved or changed by it in some form or another.”
Mole People (BatCat Press, 2016)
In your interview with Joseph Dante for The Review Review, you described how you prefer poems that just come to poems that are forced. How did that approach work for Mole People?
I began writing Mole People while studying abroad in London through my MFA. Luckily, those first poems—the lists and prose poems—came easily and dominoed into others. Two narrative threads dominate the chapbook, so much of my writing was to satisfy my own curiosity about who these characters were, how their stories overlap, and what motivates a person or a people to uncover and protect mystery, respectively.
What inspired Mole People?
London. The Tube, Hyde Park, attempting to navigate the city without a smartphone after midnight, disorientation, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Observatory, Tate Modern, and many other places certainly left their mark on the page. There’s a sense of order and history in London that’s awe-inspiring. So many sites and spaces call for reverence, which is powerful, but for Mole People I was more interested in approaching London with a healthy dose of discord in order to rewrite certain famous events in the city’s history and forge a new mythology that informs London’s past, present, and future.
Did writing your other two chapbooks, Magnificent Desolation and Echolocation, influence the way you wrote Mole People?
I think each chapbook influenced another in the sense that I’m always pushing against impulses from my last project when I begin my next. Echolocation, which is the most formally consistent of the three, followed Mole People, which is the most formally diverse. Magnificent Desolation, which chronicles a couple’s adventures on the moon, spans just a few weeks, while the scope of Mole People is, well, vast: “Before there were people, there were mole people. Before there were mole people, there were no people.” But more than just pivoting from previously occupied space, I think writing each chapbook taught me to ask more questions, and, hopefully, I became a little more restrained in terms of knowing which ones are worth answering.
You use a variety of structures for the poems in Mole People. Five of the poems are lists, while the others include short, punchy sketches that vary from blocks of prose to verses. How did you decide which structure worked best for each piece?
In most instances, the content dictated the form, and as I began to revisit certain approaches to storytelling within the chapbook, it made sense that form was self-organizing the narrative. All of the historical poems—whether centered on Thomas or the mole people—are prose poems, and each poem that reveals something—modus operandi, backstory, desire—about the mole people is either in list form or couplets (sometimes both!). Committing to those forms and trusting the pairing of form and perspective, that propelled the narrative in ways I couldn’t fully appreciate until after the chapbook was finished.
How did you decide on the two quotes that form the epigraph for your chapbook?
I selected one quote for the mole people and one for Thomas. I wanted to set the tone for the conflict of/with/within the mole people, and I wanted to touch on the yearning and searching that drives Thomas.
The Joshua Poteat quote (“A new kind of evening began, / […] and we did / what we could to keep the world ours.”) is one that I’ve had bookmarked for some time, that I was waiting for the right time to use. If the mole people had tattoos—and wouldn’t they?—I imagine those lines from Poteat would be inked somewhere.
The Sam Sax quote (“what a safe horror, to skin a beam of light and only find / more light.”) I came across just before the chapbook was printed, and my publisher was kind enough to make a last minute switch. I’m so glad I read Sam’s chapbook in time, because that quote is perfect for Thomas and his struggles. I did have a really nice line from Brian Barker’s The Black Ocean before I came across Sam’s, though—sorry, Brian!
Three of your poems are titled the same thing, “Under the Thames,” but each has a different year attached. Further, the second poem, “10 Things Mole People Would Never Tell You,” speaks from a modern perspective. How did you choose the order of the poems and their particular chronology?
I had just finished writing a chapbook that was completely linear, and it was important for me that time felt less rigid in Mole People. The mole people have this omnipresence in the chapbook—in the history of humankind, if you were to believe the chapbook’s suggestions—which the ordering, a sort of narrative roulette, feeds into. I knew early on, though, that it would be necessary to begin the chapbook with a clear, bold introduction to the mole people (or The First People, as they prefer to be called) since so many of the events catalogued in the following pages are littered with their fingerprints. Other than those first two poems and the last poem, which felt secure in their positions from the get-go, ordering the poems came down to emotional texture, degree of revelation, building a time-stamped narrative for Thomas, and ensuring either thread was pursued just long enough to have some stable footing and burning questions before flipping the switch.
The main human character of your poems, Thomas, is deeply affected by his experiences fighting in World War II. What interested you in writing about war and this war in particular?
I wanted the characters to creep into modern times, so having Thomas serve in WWI didn’t feel realistic in that sense. With WWII: The Blitzkrieg. A persecuted people, often hiding to survive. These ideas were already part of the mole people’s history, so the overlap in the emotional landscape fit. I was also drawn to Hitler, the idea of connecting him and the mole people, their deviance and terror somehow intertwined.
Do you have any tricks for finding inspiration when you face writer’s block?
I don’t know that I deliberately seek out solutions when struggling with a poem or a project, but most of the beginnings of my poems are floating around in my head during or after time spent walking or reading. Walking is a proven creativity booster, and reading shows me what’s possible in writing—either has the capability to open doors previously closed.
Working with almost every aspect of the writing and publishing world as a poet and editor of Ghost Ocean and Tree Lights Books, is there an aspect of the process that you prefer or that engages you most?
I think it changes. I love discovering new writers and having the opportunity to promote lesser-known writers, hopefully elevating their status a bit within the literary community but most importantly getting their words into more people’s hands. My interaction with writers is fulfilling and helps writing feel more social and connected than it does when I’m sitting at my desk, alone, working on my own writing. I think design work challenges me most, but perhaps I’m most engaged while editing. There’s something magical and humbling when you look at a piece of writing as an editor and understand how even the smallest changes can transform the entire fabric of a poem or a piece of prose.
What do you prefer about working with chapbooks and online publishing as opposed to more traditional publishing outlets?
I love chapbooks, because they entertain ideas that aren’t always suited for 70-100 pages. From the perspective of a reader, it’s hard to get bored and easy to get sucked in. From a writer’s perspective, there’s the freedom to explore something (style-, content-, form-, voice-wise, etc.) without feeling pinned down or backed into a corner. And from the perspective of a chapbook publisher, it is an absolute joy to design and assemble tiny little books, pocket-sized art, that aren’t and couldn’t be mass-produced. When they’re made with care, it’s a manifestation of love.
With online publishing, it opens up a conversation that I feel like print publications just do not start. I buy print journals, I submit to print journals, and I publish in print journals, but it often feels like print journals are where my poems go to die. Whether it’s my own work or the work I publish at Ghost Ocean, I want to feel like it’s reaching people and they’re engaging with it, and, hopefully, being moved or changed by it in some form or another. Even poems I’ve loathed have left a mark on me, and that’s an opportunity I’m afforded daily with work being published online.
Heather Cox is the author of Mole People, Magnificent Desolation, and Echolocation (dancing girl press). She edits Ghost Ocean Magazine and Tree Light Books and is also on staff at Chicago Review of Books. She is the recipient of a Luminarts Fellowship, and her poetry has been published in Indiana Review, RHINO, Bodega, Pinwheel, Nightblock, Oxford Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Colorado with her wife and their two dogs.