“There’s an almost inexhaustible supply of ways into a poem when you’re translating human experience into the biology and behavior of another animal.”
The Octopus (Gertrude Press, 2016)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your chapbook? Perhaps a poem that introduces the work of the chapbook, or one that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
the octopus goes thrifting
the octopus has never had to say what haven’t you seen
an octopus in a shirt before cashiers take its card
hand hot soup across the counter without a blink
as if their vision can’t distinguish the octopus
from the other customers it makes no conscious attempt
to tuck its arms or flatten its eyes
but wonders at its capacity for reflexive camouflage
you have trouble taking up space says the octopus’s friend
and the octopus starts to notice how it favors corners
defers to raised voices remembers passing the other
in the hallway of the house in the weeks after The Talk
leaning close to the wall to avoid bumping shoulders
that’s no way to move through the world
garments on the thrift rack are grouped by color midnight
to powder blue wine to salmon in smooth spectra
regardless of pattern the octopus touches each one
imagines its wearer getting numbers from strangers
its skin grows paler as it nears the end of each row
Why did you choose this poem?
I hope it’s a fair example of how the octopus attempts to understand itself in the face of separation from the other, and of how the octopus world intertwines with human mundanities in the poems to tell a skewed kind of story.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
I was trying to cope with the dissolution of my marriage. I’d gotten engaged at 19 years old, married at 21. Now I was 39 and mourning a love and routine and projected future that had been essential to who I knew I was. I went from being a full-time stay-at-home dad to a split-custody parent who saw his kids three or four nights a week. I was pushing 40 and had never been an independent adult. In the early, raw days of the marriage coming undone, I had written obsessively about it in a first-person confessional voice that made me skeptical – I worried it was getting maudlin. Imagining my situation from the point-of-view of an octopus helped me sidestep that voice for a while, and afforded me a battery of metaphorical associations to help make sense of what I was doing.
What’s your chapbook about?
Our protagonist, the octopus, is a sad cephalopod who is working through a marital separation from its former partner, the other. The octopus gets an apartment, sees a therapist, researches octopuses online, writes an online dating profile, quibbles with Robert Frost and Ringo Starr, and does its best to make its way in the absence of the other.
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 first octopus poem I wrote is the second poem in the chapbook: “the octopus makes unaccustomed shapes during the TNT halftime show.” I don’t remember deciding to write about an octopus, but once I slipped into the voice and form, it felt like an easy skin to wear. I could put it back on for an hour or so each day and travel a small arc toward sense. I didn’t know if they’d make sense to anyone else, but they felt like steps forward to me. After I had a handful, I read some at a gig in Ann Arbor, and the poet Shira Erlichmann (who is a brilliant badass) suggested there ought to be a book of them. So I kept the poems going.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
Each poem contains a shard of narrative, and I tried to arrange them into a coherent (if not necessarily linear) chronological arc. I wouldn’t say there’s a plot, per se, but the characters should show growth. The title is straightforward. I thought about jazzing it up, making it a sentence like most of the poem titles, but ultimately I opted to avoid letting the title steer too much.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
The last poem, “Not Another Octopus Poem,” breaks from the form and voice of the collection. It’s still in its way an octopus poem, and it picks up threads from earlier moments in the chapbook, but it offers a sharper bite. I hope it both amplifies and interrogates the impression of the chapbook’s narrative.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I got a lot of mileage out of research: each tidbit I discovered about octopuses gave me a new lens for my experience and a new spark for a poem. An octopus has three hearts. Each of its arms has an independent nervous system. Its esophagus wraps around its brain. There’s an almost inexhaustible supply of ways into a poem when you’re translating human experience into the biology and behavior of another animal.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Very little, actually. They preferred to handle it all themselves. I looked over proofs before it went to press; that’s it. I didn’t even see the cover until I got my author copies in the mail. I had felt a little apprehensive when they told me the cover art would be done in blue ballpoint. When I opened the box and saw this rich blue winding arm with hints of red, I was stunned. It’s a lush and gorgeous drawing by a Toronto-based artist named Ray Cicin, and I couldn’t be happier with how it represents the chapbook. And the people at Gertrude Press are kind and lovely, and put great care into the work they do.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
Would you sell us movie rights to The Octopus for the enclosed six-figure sum? Yes, yes I would.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
The two utterly stunning chapbooks that immediately come to mind are Naming the No-Name Woman by Jasmine An (Two Sylvias Press, 2016) and Mammoth by Rachel McKibbens (Organic Weapon Arts, 2014). Jasmine’s chapbook is a brilliant study of Chinese-American and queer female identity, and Rachel’s is a devastating vessel of grief at a beloved child’s death. I also love Crixa by Megan Hudgins (Two of Cups Press, 2014), whose fierce and vulnerable poems riff on Watership Down and Eduardo Kac’s bioluminescent rabbit.
I also appreciate the DIY possibilities afforded by the chapbook, and I love my collection of staple-bound, homemade chapbooks picked up from friends and traveling poets. I once went ten years without getting a poem accepted for publication, and wondered if I ever would again. When I saw people come through town slinging stacks of chapbooks they’d printed at Kinko’s for $5 a pop, I appreciated the audacity of such faith in one’s own work without waiting for a press’s approval. I ended up putting together a couple of DIY chapbooks myself, including a set about gender identity called Pink Parts. That process helped me see my own work in new ways that ultimately taught me how to put together my full-length collection, Wait ‘Til You Have Real Problems.
What are you working on now?
I’m finalizing a full-length manuscript of poems that respond to divorce and post-divorce identity, relationships, and parenthood. There are no octopuses in it, but there are insects, dinosaurs, snakes, polar bears, Ghost Rider, Indiana Jones, and assorted other creatures.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
I miss being in a punk band. But it’s hard to hang onto drummers.
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 used to rail against sentimentality. Now I’ve become a sap. Partly I changed as a writer (vis-à-vis changing as a human being) when I became a parent, and empathy became a newly dynamic practical presence in everyday life. And partly I learned from certain writers I had the privilege of teaching with in the 2000s – Patrick Rosal and Aracelis Girmay in particular – about how to use poetry as a tool for building compassion, both within oneself and out in the world. I suspect anyone could become a better artist and a better person by having a half-hour conversation in a car with Patrick or across a table from Aracelis. But we can also do it by reading their books, which you should start on right now if you haven’t already.
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
If I tell you, I probably won’t write it.
What themes and images “bridge” your work? Have you found that composing a chapbook alleviates these inclinations, or amplifies them?
Once I told a friend that the chapbook I was working on (Pink Parts) was about “femulinity.” I went to say “femininity and masculinity,” and my tongue got tied up. But I decided I like that word, that that’s the right word. And whatever new thing I work on, an uneasy concern with gender and power, and a nagging urge toward femulinity as an ideal, never seems far from the center.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook? What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
One book that probably helped me is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy by Tao Lin, which I first heard about through a review by Ray McDaniel at The Constant Critic. I wasn’t thinking of Tao Lin directly when I started writing octopus poems, but it’s likely that his hamster poems helped trigger the possibility in my imagination of using an animal avatar to cope with human despair.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Wanna swap chapbooks with me?
Scott Beal is the author of the full-length collection Wait ‘Til You Have Real Problems (Dzanc Books, 2014) and one previous chapbook, Two Shakespearean Madwomen Vs. the Detroit Red Wings (White Eagle Coffee Store Press, 1999). He teaches full-time in the Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan and serves as Dzanc Writer-in-Residence for Ann Arbor Open School. He curates and co-hosts the Skazat! monthly poetry series in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he lives with his two children.