Let me begin by saying I checked my mailbox three times a day while I was waiting for a package from Nostrovia! Press to arrive. In said package were the press’ three new chapbooks: “Make a Fist & Tongue the Knuckles,” “i can remember the meaning of every tarot card but i can’t remember what i texted you last last night,” and “I Was Talking About Love—You Are Talking About Geography” by Emily O’Neill, Ellen Nash, and Bob Sykora respectively.
When the chapbooks arrived, I carried them with me, rereading, for days.
What appealed to you about Nostrovia! Press?
Nostrovia’s last run of chapbooks were really beautiful and well-written/edited, while also being really different from one another. I trusted that Chris and Jeremiah were committed to continuing in that vein–that whether my book was chosen or not, the work that came out of the contest would be quality. I also really like the sliding scale payment system for being inclusive of folks who don’t have a ton of money to spend on literature but still want to be reading and supporting indie authors. The flash submission period is an exciting way to set a deadline for myself too. I knew it was coming up but hadn’t really prepared my manuscript in a serious way, but once I knew I only had 24 hours to refine everything, it helped me to make quick decisions about what was working, what needed to be scrapped, and how the book could be its best self. Too often I dance around a project I’m working on, afraid to make an drastic changes, but having only 24 hours made me feel galvanized in my decisions in a way that was really empowering, and when it paid off it gave me a lot of confidence in my instincts.
Oh gosh, all sorts of appeal. Essentially 1) They published my good friend August Smith’s chapbook last year, so I got to see the quality of the final product and the care they put into working with him. It’s scary to hand over your work to some abstract press, but watching August’s experience gave me a lot of confidence in Nostrovia!. August is also the good poet angel on my shoulder always encouraging me to put my work out there, and he definitely encouraged me to submit, so thanks August. 2) I really, really liked the flash entry period. I’ knew I wanted to submit something, and I had a pretty good idea of what it would be, but I loved having the pressure of not knowing when I’d be submitting and then suddenly having 48 hours to feel confident in it. I needed that kind of pressure, because otherwise I would’ve worked on the chapbook for another six months before even considering submitting it elsewhere.
I am a huge fan of all of the people that Nostrovia! has published in their past contests, and I think the way that Jeremiah and Chris dedicate themselves to promoting and pushing the work is admirable as hell. Chris is relentless in ensuring that every line or detail in each chapbook looks perfect and has a good eye for that.
What, to you, is the best part of writing a chapbook as opposed to a full length book?
Having written a few of both now, I think I can say that chapbooks are awesome because they let you throw yourself into a narrower theme without worrying that your area of focus is too specific to sustain itself. When writing a full length, I try to convince myself I’m not writing a book at all, that I’m just writing and if poems start to have conversations with each other that dictate they need to live in the same house later, I’ll take another look at them. A chapbook is almost always a more focused exercise for me–I notice I’ve written a few poems that speak to the same theme and then challenge myself to write as much as I can towards that theme, while also looking through my notebooks for drafts that might connect to what’s happening, then shaping those drafts with a chapbook in mind. I’m a total control freak, and the amount of control I give up when writing a full length manuscript is an exercise in accepting the uncertainty of when a project will find its ending (if ever). When a chapbook starts to happen for me, I run into it full force and usually get through the process in a month or two without looking up. I like the speed and intensity of it, the momentum.
I’m currently working on my MFA thesis, which is theoretically a full length manuscript, and it’s a terrifyingly tall task. The chapbook contains a mish mash of poems I’d been working on for the past few years and when I put them together I started to see a clearer thread tying them together. I knew there were some themes swirling around in my writing, but I didn’t really see how they fit together until I started choosing and ordering the poems. With a full length I feel the need to be much more in tune with what that those threads are and how they’re working because it needs to sustain for so long. And as a reader I find reading chapbooks to be really satisfying. I think a chapbook allows for a reader to get a bunch of poems, a little bit of a narrative, and hopefully a good idea of a poet all in one sitting. That excites me. It seems more accessible to readers that aren’t as comfortable with poetry.
I usually write fiction, so one part that I love about writing chapbooks, at least poetry, is that it definitely takes a lot less time for me. Poetry is like how I procrastinate on my other writing projects and I guess in that way it can be a lot more satisfying to produce 30 pages of poetry rather quickly than say writing 30 pages of fiction which requires a whole different set of structural rules.
What did the process of writing your chapbook look like?
Make a Fist & Tongue the Knuckles came from living through a very weird period in my personal dating history. I had relationships with a lot of people who were emotionally violent, withholding, gaslighting, disassociated from what they were going through themselves.
I also had a lot of tender and valuable experiences with these people, in spite of the fact that we weren’t well-suited for one another. The benefit of being slutty or poly- or open or uncommitted or whatever you want to call it that works for how you see yourself (I’ve been all of the above+) is that you are connecting with lots of people and those connections mean you see yourself through many different eyes in rapid succession. There’s perspective in being seen in intimate emotional spaces by so many folks, and I took that perspective back to my notebook and batted it around and tried to figure out why I was so drawn to it. Do I want to see myself refracted through a spider’s eye? Sure. But not all the time. It’s exhausting.
The poems came from a lot of excitement and turmoil and learning that that was unsustainable for me if I wanted to be healthy. A lot of the drafts for these poems came quickly and without warning. They share a voice, so they ended up in the same book, but I wouldn’t say they were all written at the same time or in the same mental state. I think I needed to convince myself that what I want out of love and friendship and sex and the places those things intersect is valid, that no one else can tell me what will make me feel fulfilled. My heart is Liz Taylor-levels of experienced as far as affairs go, but I still have a hard time believing her if there’s someone else saying “maybe you’re wrong about what you say you want.” I wrote Make a Fist to reassure myself. The poems “Need to Know” and “How to Whistle” are definitely the culmination of that questioning and feel really feverish but certain to read after the fact. I believe myself now. In those poems, the speaker is so sure. I feel proud of getting to that place in my writing.
So I’m doing the MFA thing, and I’m really lucky to have an incredible, incredible cohort to read my work and support me. Most of these poems came from workshopping over the past two years. So I guess the process was really slow and charmed with the support of a lot of talented people taking my poems seriously. It wouldn’t have happened without my cohort and my teachers.
So writing the individual poems was a long process of me spewing words, revising, revising, workshopping, revising more, reading it for people, revising again. I’m a terribly slow writer. If I could, I already know of several revisions I’d make to the poems in the chapbook. It’s really hard for me to say that a poem is finished. But putting it together was a lot of fun. Most of these poems came from an abandoned project, and once I started choosing them and thinking of them as a new unit, a new concept emerged. But on the whole, the process involves a lot of arguing with myself.
I had been writing tarot poems for quite some time, at least once a week, as an ongoing project for Witch Craft Magazine’s website. I also have an evernote folder full of random prose and lines that I was trying to stitch together into something more comprehensible.
How do you interact with the world when you are working on a project?
I’m normally pretty feral to begin with, but when a project is in high gear, I don’t really talk to people. I spend a lot of time on Twitter monologuing my way through the writing process, watching Netflix and reading in bed and ordering takeout and staying up too late in a kind of manic state, figuring out where all the pieces fit. If I do talk to people, it’s usually just to share whatever epiphany of arrangement or editing I’ve just had, and they usually have no idea what I’m talking about or no interest. I’ll tell the ladies at the bagel store if I’ve just had a breakthrough and they just hand me my coffee and laugh. I’ll cancel plans or not make any at all. It helps to live with another writer at times like that. My roommate and I have known each other for ten years and have both been writing seriously for just as long, so we don’t have to explain keeping weird hours or not wanting to speak or only wanting to talk about whatever project to one another. When I need a break we’ll watch reality TV competition shows (Top Model, Drag Race, etc) or murder documentaries. I still go to work and see my boyfriend, but all other kinds of engagement with the world outside my apartment take a backseat to the work.
I think maybe the real question is how did I interact with the world back when I wasn’t constantly working on a project? Again, as a poetry grad student, I’m living an incredibly privileged, super charmed lifestyle where I can think about poetry almost all the time. Really since I started two years ago, I’ve had the time and space and community to sort of always be in project mode. Whatever project I’m working on becomes a lens for examining the world. When I’m really, really focused, I’m always thinking about it, and suddenly everything I do can become part of my research, and in turn part of my writing process. As much as I am very often hidden away with books and my laptop, I’m also writing and thinking about my writing when I’m out and about.
I feel super anxious all of the time when I’m not working on said project and feel as though I am failing myself somehow, and then I stress out about all the other adult stuff I have to do which keeps me away from my writing. It’s just this weird balance of stress where I pine for like, 8-10 solid hours of alone time (to write) every day and never really get that unless I make serious, strict plans to do so. At which point I’ll sit down at the computer and then stress out about the adult things I’m not doing in lieu of writing.
What is next for you?
I have a collection of short fiction coming out in 2017 that I’m writing the last few pieces for right now and also just signed a contract for my second full length poetry manuscript, which is also nearly done but being tweaked all the time. My first book, Pelican, just won the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Series so at the end of October I’m traveling to Carbondale, IL to give a reading and hopefully doing some writing while I’m traveling in Illinois for a few weeks. I really want to write a novel and need to stop making excuses not to. November will be for getting started on that. I’ve also been writing essays for the first time since college, and just came up with a collection I want to work towards in that vein. So I guess I’m about to spend the winter very feral again. Lots of editing on my to do list, but always more writing to do in between.
I’m working on my thesis manuscript, which is incredibly daunting and I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard on a creative project. It’s focused on 19th century American utopian colonies, which I spent most of my summer researching. I’m living in Boston, but I’m from the west coast, so I’m not used to having physical access to all sorts of history readily available. There’s just so many landmarks and libraries and archives and documents that are accessible to me. I knew I wanted to do something that involved historical research, something more removed from myself and out of my comfort zone. I randomly came across an article about Brook Farm, which was located about a half hour from where I live, and that first idea unlocked something for me. I’m a little obsessed with interconnectedness, and I got really excited seeing how various unrelated threads in my life positioned me to learn about these utopian colonies and get really excited about them. And once I started researching, the rabbit hole seemed endless. This strange part of American history has so much weirdness and so many little stories. And I still have no idea how to make it all work as poetry, but I’ve been stumbling through books and old documents and visiting places trying to write a bunch of poems that explore what the utopian impulse of 19th century Americans can tell us about our contemporary condition.
My novel, Animals Eat Each Other, is coming out from Dzanc Books fall 2017, so I’m working on completing the final edits for that right now.
About the writers
Emily O’Neill is a writer, artist, and proud Jersey girl. Her debut collection, Pelican, is the inaugural winner of YesYes Books’ Pamet River Prize for women and nonbinary writers and the winner of the 2016 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Series. She is also the author of three chapbooks:Celeris (Fog Machine), You Can’t Pick Your Genre (Jellyfish Highway), and Make a Fist & Tongue the Knuckles (Nostrovia! Press). She teaches writing and tends bar in Boston, MA.
Bob Sykora is an MFA candidate at UMass Boston and the editor-in-chief at Breakwater Review. His chapbook, “I Was Talking About Love—You Are Talking About Geography” was a winner of the 2016 Nostrovia! Press chapbook contest. He can be found at bobsykora.tumblr.com.
Elle Nash is a founding editor of Witch Craft Magazine and a fiction editor at Hobart Pulp. She lives in the Ozarks with her husband. You can find her on Twitter @saderotica.