“…the compact presentation [of a chapbook] gives the feeling that you’ve plucked a tiny treasure out of an oyster shell (which you then devour like a contraband comic during P.E.).”
Men & Beasts (Dancing Girl Press, 2017)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your chapbook?
Since much of this chapbook is centered around my Tlingit roots, which specifically is Raven Yéil moiety, Seagull T’akdeintaan clan, there are many Alaskan settings, often lightly dusted with New Orleans details, such as in the opening poem:
The Old Norwegian
Santa walks down a pier in Ketchikan,
his blue eyes, red-rimmed behind wiry
glasses, his scruffy white poof pulled
back in a bun, the rest tucked under a
hat that looks like it survives on jazz
drifting from Bourbon, he plucks herring
from his beard, his fat fingers brush the
caribou kissing his collar: this is the perfect
shirt to stretch over a belly, light, but his
ankles still jingle under the heft, his dancing
feet scar the planks layered in frosting, his
white rubber boots punctuate the way to his
house: the door there is green & the ginger-
bread red, all of it decorated with lights that
twinkle like salt in the sun
Why did you choose this poem?
Since Alaska and New Orleans are both strange beasts, full of fantastical creatures, it just works. And it really gives you the flavor of the chapbook as a whole.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
I am really, really into small press poetry, which anyone who reads my blog (bonesparkblog.wordpress.com) will tell you. I do a lot of reviews, so many things come through my hands, and not just saying this because they publish me, but I have found consistently good chaps from Dancing Girl Press. One I have loved almost to death is Molly Sutton Kiefer’s City of Bears. Some of the other small presses I stalk are Mouthfeel Press, Red Hen, Tupelo Press, Unicorn Press, Emma Press, Happenstance, Lavender Ink, Black Lawrence, and Negative Capability Press.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
I tend to read mostly women, and particularly women of color. I try to pick up everything by a Native American (NDN) writer, male or female. I also find myself reading a lot of poets out of Ireland and Scotland, as well as the American South. These two regions are inextricably linked in my mind.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
Yes and no, the small format can feel like a political broadside, or one of those tripe government pamphlets they pass out at Indian Health. This idea works well with poems like “You’ll Go Down in History,” which addresses government hypocrisy in light of radioactive contamination and other atrocities that negatively impacted the NDN population in Alaska, while supposedly benefiting the nation as a whole. On the other hand, the compact presentation gives the feeling that you’ve plucked a tiny treasure out of an oyster shell (which you then devour like a contraband comic during P.E.). So, it’s a yin and yang situation, I guess.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
Being a woman of mixed Native and Irish heritage in the Deep South. Lots of threads to pluck at there.
What’s your chapbook about?
Personal, political and cultural landscapes, which in my case means everything is laced with water and beasts, both of the man and animal kind
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?
That would be “Food & Politics,” in which I am chronicling the epic meat and potatoes (Irish mother) vs. fish, fish, fish (Tlingit father) vs. red beans/po-boys (Louisiana-dwelling kids) dinner time battle. Whatever the menu—usually some kind of smörgåsbord that favored my father–the topic of “greens” would send the table into these crazy political discussions that tended to end in some foul tasting warning about the history of governments. I wanted to bring the good and the bad of this sense of the overpowering influence of my father into all the pieces, but still make them my own.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I ran across Dorianne Laux’s collection The Book of Men, and I thought hmmh, something like that title and her arrangement as portraits of strange creatures would work for mine.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“The Bearded Lady” is about an American history teacher I once had, an otherwise very feminine, very dignified gal, who sported a serious mustache and whiskers. Best damn history teacher ever, but she sure made the hipster facial hair decorating craze look bland. I will never forget the bearded lady reading the beloved poems of Abraham Lincoln.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
“Goldilocks Discovers Manifest Destiny” is only a misfit in its Oregon Trail setting. Still has men being beasts. And bears. Bears feature in several poems, as they are one of the Tlingit sub-clans.
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?
I actually wrote the concluding poem “Winter” specifically as a way to close off the dialogue. That image of “deer hung like wet sneakers over the beams” felt like this chapter that I was exploring was done.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I write poetry everyday, sometimes at lunch, sometimes at bedtime. 1 or 2 out of 5 are good enough to keep, or at least there’s something salvageable I can keep working with the next day. When I have a large pool, I group them into themes. At some point, I pare down those piles. I find that doing my painting earlier in the day really helps open me up creatively for writing later on. To get going on the actual writing, I like to use prompts. You’ll find many on the bonespark blog under the National Poetry Month daily roundups. I also have and use Scott Wiggerman’s Wingbeats books, Kelli Russell Agodon’s The Daily Poet, and Diane Lockward’s Crafty Poet series, which have fantastic prompts. Diane has a nifty newsletter, too, with exercises and notes on craft. Do sign up for that.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like?
Kristy Bowen is a fellow artist/poet. I love her work and she really gets mine. We went back and forth with each other on the cover, and less so the text, until we were both happy.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
Why yes, that is a Tlingit tribal mask the girl on the cover is wearing and yes, those are claw marks through the sun. Isn’t is fantastic?
On a more serious note, back to the influences question. Key influences: Joy Harjo, Lucille Clifton, Claudia Emerson, Marge Piercy, Eavan Boland, Dorianne Laux, Denise Duhamel, Anne Sexton. Really into Joan Kane, Layli Long Soldier, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Vievee Francis, and Terrance Hayes right now too.
What are you working on now?
Besides slowly growing my poetry, I am rotating between expanding a novella set in 1960s rural Mississippi and marching through Book Two of a trilogy set in the Carolinas during the American Revolution. Both feature young women trying to keep the various “factions” in their lives from tearing each other apart. One is an atypical Southern belle and the other is a mixed race Cherokee. I drew from my mother’s family tree for each.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
I need painting and poetry to keep me alive. Fiction is a fun by-product, but no less valuable.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Read everything, especially outside your interests. Lots of good work is free on the net, find journals, learn your tastes. Then give yourself permission to write really bad, total crap. You will get better. The Writing Excuses podcast is also a helpful tool.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
What color Octopus would you be? It’s somewhat of a trick question.
C.A. LaRue is a writer/artist working out of New Orleans. She studied creative writing at Hollins University and holds a B.S. from the University of New Orleans. She is a registered member of the Tlingit Nation of Alaska (Raven Yéil moiety, Seagull T’akdeintaan clan), but also has Irish and Cherokee roots. Men & Beasts draws heavily on an NDN (Native American) perspective and is centered around natural, political and personal landscapes.