“Part of being a writer is stubbornly going your own way, even if no one else sees yet where you’re going.”
Ghosts of Old Virginny (Aldrich Press, 2015)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
Living in the Netherlands, it’s somewhat more difficult for me to get my hands on chapbooks. Also, we don’t really differentiate between chapbooks and poetry books – in fact, Dutch poetry books are usually the size of chapbooks. I have always been a voracious poetry reader, in all forms. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to name only one poet that influenced me. But, in 2008 I started writing in English, and one of the poets that helped that ‘transition’ was W.S. Merwin.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
Mostly that the chapbook form and size is actually the most natural to me, and that for me, it would be a more conscious decision to write a ‘longer’ collection.
What’s your chapbook about?
My chapbook is about Virginia City, Nevada. I spent 3 weeks there on a writer’s residency to work on my novel, but while there, something happened. The town and its history had their effect on me, and I started writing poems about the things I saw and read. My chapbook is a reimagining of Virginia City’s history and legends and also an account of my time there.
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 piece is ‘Silver Terrace Cemeteries,’ and it’s directly linked with the whole magic that got me writing poems about Virginia City. One day, as I sat writing on the porch, a herd of wild horses had snuck up on the lawn. That was one of the first moments that ‘captured’ me. It was so amazing to see these horses, that come and go as they please. I planned on trying to write some poems. This first poem I wrote during a visit to Virginia City’s cemeteries. One of the first things I saw on the cemetery was a big pile of horse dung and I realized the wild horses hung around there too. That started off that first poem.
Another catalyzing poem was the next one, ‘A Boomtown Love’. The history of Virginia City isn’t my history, and I realized that in order for these poems to work I needed to find my own perspective. So I started with something that always interests me, legends and history and reimagined them. ‘A Boomtown Love’ is a love poem based off the story of how Virginia City got its name (hint: it features a drunken miner and a whiskey bottle).
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I somehow manage to start a lot of poems by reading non-fiction. I read a bit about a certain person or a period and off I go. And walking around proved really inspiring in the case of this chapbook. The things I saw and thought were stored away for later when I’d sit down to write the poem.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
The title was one of the first things I thought of, before most of the poems were written. I find I work really well off a premise, that the idea and the title help to shape the poems I write. The fact that I stayed in a ‘haunted’ town and tried to recreate old stories helped with the title. The ‘Old Virginny’ in the title is actually the drunken miner that inspired one of my poems.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I supplied the picture for the cover and Karen Kelsay, my publisher, designed the book and the cover. She really caught the spirit of the book and I think it looks really great – but I am biased of course.
What are you working on now?
Right now I am again working on something history-related. I’ve just returned from a road trip through the Northwest US, and I’ve started on a long poem that is one part travelogue and one part foray into Native American mythology.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Listen to people commenting on your work and yet be stubborn. I don’t mean you should ignore good advice (and you’ll know what good advice is, it’s the kind of advice you don’t want to follow but know deep down you have to), but part of being a writer is also stubbornly going your own way even if no one else sees yet where you’re going.
What music do you listen to as you work and write?
Either jazz or classical music. To write, I need music that doesn’t ask much from me, and I prefer instrumental music. Jazz can’t be too modern, but some good old hard-bop works just fine.
If you wrote about one year from your life as a chapbook subject, which year would you pick? Why?
I think I’d pick the year in which I was born, because I’m interested in how we develop our sense and our consciousness and it would be interesting to explore that from a poetic angle.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
For me not necessarily, but that’s because I’m from a tradition that doesn’t distinguish between chapbooks and longer collections. In the Netherlands most poetry books consist of about 30 poems, so that amount of poems has always been the amount I aim at for a collection. That being said, I tend to create chapbooks/series in which the poems have strong ties with one another on the level of symbolism and theme, so ‘thematic cohesion’ is something I like to work with within the chapbook format.
We all have to make choices about who we read in our limited free time. Many of us have demanding jobs, a house to keep up, a family to keep happy, a dog to walk. How do you decide which poets (or other writers) you want to read or should read, and how do you begin to understand what your own work might offer to benefit the literary landscape in the context of what else has been done?
I try not to think too much about what my work will contribute to the literary landscape, because I believe it’s hard to do something ‘new’ and that shouldn’t be the main incentive. At least not for me. I want to make something I want to make. I want to enjoy the activity of writing and immerse myself in it without thinking of the things that come afterwards, like publishing. Of course that is on my mind too, but I find that if I think about that too much, it becomes stifling. And deciding on what to read, yes, that’s an eternal fight. In the end, I usually read what I feel like at the moment and try to stick with it – even when something else comes along.
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?
Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney, Louise Gluck, some poems of Mary Oliver, Osip Mandelstam, Fernando Pessoa, Zbigniew Herbert, T.S. Eliot, Hans Andreus.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
I would hope music, but since I am not really a musical talent, that doesn’t seem likely. Perhaps painting, but something abstract then because my drawing skills are also mediocre. Oh, who am I kidding. I can only be a writer.
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?
I’ve become less dependent on a sudden burst of productivity. I have gotten a more structural writing discipline, setting aside some hours every other day for writing. And most important, I don’t center all my writing on One Sacred Day in which everything has to get done. Instead, I know now that sometimes 20 minutes of writing can be more productive. The essential part is to write often.
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?
I hope that my chapbook transports readers to Virginia City of both past and present. The inhabitants are people who have left behind life as they knew it to follow their bliss, people who try to find a connection to one another and the world that surrounds them.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
I think that would be ‘The Comstock Lasts.’ In this poem I sum up all the things I will miss about the Comstock. I wrote it on my second-to-last day, and what made it meaningful was that I hadn’t expected to form such a strong bond with the area and the nature in particular. I knew beforehand I would like some animals, like the wild horses, but there was one creature I had grown fond of despite myself: the tarantula hawk. This is a big black wasp that preys on tarantulas and does some fairly ugly stuff to do them. Now I have a slight wasp-phobia, but these wasps I actually liked. They have these big, red velvety wings and when they fly about (a tad slow) they make this peculiar humming sound. Later, I realized it reminded me of the sound Disney fairies, like Tinkerbell, make in the movies. I worked that into the poem – as well as my beloved horses, of course.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
I think that I left the misfit out of the collection. It was the ‘try-out’ poem that, just like a first pancake often does, didn’t quite live up to its expectations. But I needed to get it out of my system so I could write the rest of the poems.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
The last poem I wrote, was ‘On The Way Home,’ and I literally wrote it on the way home. I started it on the plane from Reno to Seattle and finished it in Seattle Airport. I felt it was a natural closer for a collection that dealt in part with my stay in Virginia City.
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
What themes and images “bridge” your work? Have you found that composing a chapbook alleviates these inclinations, or amplifies them?
I am working on a series of chapbooks that are centered on ‘place’. So bridging themes between those 3 chapbooks are things connected with place and history. Given that, I have to take care that the 3 books aren’t repeating one another and differ enough. So I work on additional, central themes for each book and try to play on the different settings. A book with poems about the Black Forest is different than one about islands, for instance. But still it’s important to make each of them individual enough and that’s where, for me, the myth and legends of a place come into play. Myth has been a long-standing theme of mine, even before the chapbooks, and it’s one of the things that inspires me. And, as a theme, I find it strong enough to be repeated without losing any of it’s force, exactly because that’s what myths are: a few powerful stories, repeated into countless variants.
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? How were your ideas about their individual meanings changed?
During my revision process, I had someone edit the poems: read through them and ask me questions about stuff that was unclear. Those conversations were extremely helpful and it’s very interesting to see how a discussion about a simple word could really open up new meanings to me in my own poems.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
During my stay in Virginia City, I met David Toll, who has profound knowledge of the history of the area. Talking to him was ‘gold’ for me, especially because his great-grandfather had lived in Virginia City during the ‘bonanza’ (gold fever) and wrote down his memories, which David edited into memoirs. That book gave me a bounty of eyewitness information.
Who do you most hope will read your chapbook (either an individual or a particular group of people)?
I hope young(er) people will pick up the book, just because they aren’t the usual suspects for poetry… or history for that matter.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
Other books, not too long walks, and stories and myths.
Milla van der Have wrote her first poem at sixteen, during a physics class. She has been writing ever since. One of her short stories won a New Millennium Fiction Award. In 2015 she published Ghosts of Old Virginny, a chapbook of poems about Virginia City. Milla lives and works in Utrecht, The Netherlands.
A boomtown love
They’ll settle in on anything, old legends.
Like mountain ghosts. They’ll take
hold of you. Say that night we broke
our bottles like vows upon the path.
All was silent except for your silver
laughter and that sudden rain of glass.
We sat down amidst the shards, counted
their sparks as blessings and the way
the moon swindled off their light edges.
And I remember thinking, this is it,
this is all that will come to mean
something in our days of rest.