“There’s a world out there just waiting for us to take notice. What better day than today?”
Mesquite Manual (New Delta Review, 2015)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem (or excerpt) from your chapbook? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
Opening lines from “Mesquite Manual”
If every syllable of every word
is an acre of skin in this country,
let the tongue be an emblem
that waves uncontrollably
in the wind. Let it thrash
violently with every groan
from the throat. Let it rage.
Why did you choose this poem (or excerpt)?
I’ve always been partial to this poem, especially when I make selections for poetry readings. While it may be an unwritten rule that poets read the title poem from their collection, for me, reciting the opening lines of “Mesquite Manual” is akin to spellcasting or mythmaking. The speaker proclaims her intentions in these opening lines and rewrites the history of her home place. This theme serves as the primary lens for the chapbook and is carried throughout each section.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
Many of the poems that comprise Mesquite Manual were written during my MFA at Indiana University. As a native Texan, relocating to the Midwest became an exodus, of sorts. Leaving a familiar landscape behind and establishing roots in a foreign place became a fixation. I found myself constantly searching for escape routes—ways back home. The poems in this chapbook function as maps or written records of a place worth remembering.
What’s your chapbook about?
At its inception, this chapbook was designed to commemorate my love of West Texas. The poems inside Mesquite Manual describe a place where winds blow irreverently, rain is gathered in silver spoons, and God is seemingly absent. In this hellish landscape, the speaker learns to navigate her harsh reality and seeks to create new world—a place where survival isn’t a struggle but rather a celebration.
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?
It’s not often that I feel completely satisfied after writing a first draft, but there are a few times (I can count them on one hand) that a new poem left me reeling. “Tender” is one of those poems. It was written after reading Eduardo Galeano’s “Love” in Genesis. I was immediately taken with the idea of using creation myths to describe everyday occurrences, even the comical and mundane. “Tender” employs the language and mythos of origin stories to shed light on the liminality of place and gender. Once I was able to bridge the gaps created by these imagined borders, the rest of the chapbook seemed to organize itself as a guide book or a manual for survival.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
I would argue that the poems in a chapbook are forced to do more work than the poems in a full-length collection. That’s not to say that one mode is better than the other, rather I see the chapbook as a specialized form of relaying an experience, or a moment, or a project. The length ascribed to a chapbook ensures that the poems inside resonate at a similar frequency. Where a full-length collection allows for an extended exploration of subjects and themes, the chapbook provides an avenue for more focalized analyses of select topics and a more immediate method of consumption.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
Organizing a manuscript, no matter the length, is a daunting task. I tried several different organizational methods when organizing this chapbook—color-coded notecards, Post-it notes, bulletin boards, etc.—but the most effective method involved printing each poem and laying it on my living room floor. Being able to read each title and recall specific lines helped me visualize the book and its trajectory. Once I arranged the poems into thematic categories, I braided them together in order to tell a cohesive narrative. That was the hope, at least.
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?
“Abilenian” is the poem that gave me the most trouble during the revision and editorial process. While it’s a vivid portrait of my hometown, I find that it lacks the same emotional register as other poems in the chapbook. It went through many iterations before I felt like it was finished, but once it was finalized I knew that the chapbook could be considered complete. If Mesquite Manual is my love song to West Texas, “Abilenian” is the final verse.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
My writing practice is cyclical. Unfortunately, I’m part of the class of writers who experience bouts of unfettered productivity followed by debilitating periods of inactivity. This might sound a bit dramatic, and of course it is, but the cyclical nature of my process affords me time to revise. The act of revising a poem is the closest a poet can come to getting away with murder, I think. Though in all seriousness, I look forward to the revision process because it allows me to unburden myself of the guilt associated with this inactivity. For me, revision is a form of alchemy that renders raw material pure.
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?
I could sing the praises of New Delta Review forever. No hyperbole. No exaggeration. The team of women who worked to bring my chapbook to life were nothing short of brilliant. Working with Hannah Reed, M.K. Brake, and Laura Theobald was an absolute blast! They kept me in the loop during each stage of production and always welcomed my suggestions and requests.
My favorite part of publishing this chapbook with NDR was being able to commission a cover image based on the work itself. Sarah Leea Petkus (sarahleeapetkus.com) created this stunning (and menacing!) jackalope based on poems from the collection. Being able to hold this chapbook in my hands and admire the work that Sarah created for me is an invaluable gift.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m finalizing my first full-length manuscript. I envision it as a big sister to Mesquite Manual, in that many of the themes explored in this chapbook are expanded upon in the larger collection. It’s my hope that this collection will further disrupt the definitions ascribed to borders, frontiers, and liminal spaces.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
The most fulfilling experiences for me, as an instructor, have been the opportunities to put theory into practice inside the classroom. I aim for my classroom to be a studio where students work together to push against boundaries and ask each other what lies beyond the walls of academia. My work in the classroom has gifted me with the opportunity to explore greater themes in my own work and has encouraged me to take risks—the same risks that I ask my students to take every day with their own work. I encourage emerging poets to focus on the miniature—minute aspects of life which offer brief glimpses into unexplored worlds, scenes, and experiences. I’m also reminded of the advice my friend, Curtis Bauer, gives his students on the first day of class, “Take off your headphones.” Which is to say, look up and listen! There’s a world out there just waiting for us to take notice. What better day than today?
Leslie Marie Aguilar originally hails from the heartland of Texas. She has served as the Poetry Editor of Indiana Review and received her MFA from Indiana University. Her work has been supported by the National Society of Arts and Letters and the Fine Arts Work Center. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bellingham Review, Callaloo, Ninth Letter, Rattle, Sonora Review, and Southern Indiana Review among others. She is the author of Mesquite Manual (New Delta Review, 2015).