Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange: Interview with Melissa Eleftherion Carr

Poetry

Lauren Davis: So what exactly is the Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange?

Melissa Eleftherion Carr: The Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange is a community-curated archive created and developed for poets to convene, correspond, and collaborate via chapbooks: the currency of the poetry community. Our mission is to engage our poetry community by sparking dialogues between the chapbooks in the interest of collaboratively building a community archive.

We began by inviting a select group of poets to be core contributors, and grew our collection in just a few months to feature chapbooks from over forty poets. Currently, there are over fifty chapbooks in our collection.

Contributors are invited to share their chapbooks via upload and as such gain access to the chapbook repository. They are also invited to recommend another poet to contribute to the exchange. The model is “take a chapbook, leave a chapbook.”

LD: Where did the idea of the PCCE come from?

MEC: The model for the chapbook exchange was catalyzed by the need to invigorate poetry collections in public libraries and was eventually expanded to include extant poetry communities. While studying collection development as an Master of Library and Information Science candidate at San Jose State University, I began to look more closely at poetry collections in public libraries and considered how they might be refined to include works by contemporary local poets, to both reflect the currency and community of a given library.

As a poet and former educator with Poetry for the People, I was especially struck by the lack of currency and culturally diverse works by local writers at my public library in the Bay Area that was home to numerous poets of color and substance yet reflected mostly works by dead white males and a few females.

This poor representation of “poetry” to the public confirms the notion, particularly to young students, that poetry is not timely, not reflective of their diversified experiences, not present and certainly not cool. So I became outraged enough to figure out alternatives.

Keeping in mind the space constraints and meager budgets of public libraries, I began to explore virtual collections as a means of ensuring access to timely resources while preserving available shelf space. While the goal is to simultaneously augment print collections, virtual collections can aid in deploying more print poetry books by inciting interest through social media and disseminating awareness of the value of poetry.

Being a highly versatile medium, chapbooks were the obvious format for such an endeavor as they encapsulate the urgency of “impelling messages” and are often sold cheaply or given as gifts which fosters the resource-sharing ethos inherent in the project design.

LD: The function of PCCE seems to imply that chapbooks become lost objects unless they are eventually digitized. Do you agree with this implication?

MEC: Currently, I don’t know that I’d categorize chapbooks as “lost objects,” but they’re definitely ephemeral, both in terms of limited press runs and their predilection for easily going out of print. As a result, chapbooks can be perceived as vulnerable, even endangered over time.

Poets have the cultural agency to ensure access to chapbooks by sharing their print copies with friends and communities, but eventually those limited-edition copies will become worn, lost, possibly stolen, etc. This ephemerality lends chapbooks a unique sense of urgency in terms of the medium’s overall sustainability.

Digitization does not ensure true digital preservation of a given document or cultural record, so it’s not yet ready to ensure sustainable open-access to archival documents over time. What it offers at this stage is immediate access and dissemination of critical works on a global scale, for as long as the files remain readable. The difficulty is that if files are not maintained over time, they are likely to succumb to bit rot. They lose 0’s and 1’s, or become incompatible with newer operating systems.

LD: What do you believe are the benefits of publishing a chapbook instead of a full-length manuscript?

MEC: This is an intriguing concept to me. Many poets look to the chapbook as a stepping stone to the full-length, as I have. Yet the chapbook as form has the capacity to capture, document, and disseminate fleeting movements or ephemeral capsules of time more so than the full-length, due to the relative ease of cost and production. I suppose I’m mostly referring to DIY chapbooks and how that form is perfectly suited to convey urgency in the current, while full-lengths tend to be read in hindsight or after an event has occurred.

LD: You have authored multiple chapbooks. What has that process taught you about the function of chapbooks inside a poetry community?

MEC: Chapbooks can create dialogues and foster affinities and/or arguments between poets. These conversations can also be generative and help build new work.

As much as chapbooks are part of a sharing economy, they are usually traded or swapped. The intimacy of this hand-to-hand exchange is decidedly anti-capitalist and represents a social currency among poetry communities, Also, the most current and radical poetries are often found between the tattered covers of these disarming “little pamphlets.”

LD: You are also a librarian. Do you think you look at chapbooks differently than most poets because of your profession?

MEC: Yes. As a librarian, I often think about issues like copyright, licensing, democratized access and preservation. So, in chapbooks I recognize ways poets can shape the legacy of poetry we’ll leave behind as cultural agents curating the future.

LD: Give us three of your favorite chapbook publishers.

MEC: Having worked with writer & publisher Kristy Bowen on two of my chapbooks, I’d first list dancing girl press based in Chicago. A one-woman operation, Kristy produces beautiful chapbooks by female poets and is incredibly generous and wonderful to work with.

I love Little Red Leaves textile series’ hand-made aesthetic. They really honor the book-art aspect of bookmaking while also featuring great writing. Their chapbooks are beautifully made and feature great authors like Beverly Dahlen, Mairead Byrne, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis among others.

Dusie Kollektiv’s model of energetics is wonderful in that it helps to sustain the sharing ethos surrounding chapbooks and their communities of practice. Created and overseen by Susana Gardner, the Dusie Kollectiv is comprised of poets who are invited to create one-on-one chapbooks to be swapped with the group. Each participate makes enough chapbooks so that all participants receive one copy each per author. While the number of participants varies, a kollektiv is generally comprised of twenty to fifty people a year.

LD: Tell us one of your favorite chapbooks of all time.

MEC: Insect Country by Sawako Nakayasu. Her ability to examine the world in its mundane glory through the lens of insects really helps destabilize this idea of humans as “superior” creatures.

While I admire Sawako’s work a great deal and love this book, it’s also a favorite because it marks a synchronicity I felt in reading it for the first time. Days before, I had begun to write poems from this new interstitial place of a feminsect imaginary, poems that were later published in my first chapbook huminsect. In reading Insect Country, I was simultaneously awed and irritated that I had not been the one to make these poems. This is another example of the conversations chapbooks participate in—despite not knowing Sawako personally, our poems were in conversation by chance. This is what poetry does—it forges connections.

Melissa Eleftherion Carr is a poet and teen & adult services librarian with the self-proclaimed “best job in the world” – creating, developing and implementing programming & services for teens and adults. Her poetry has been collected in various forms and fragments including journals, anthologies, and three chapbooks: huminsect (dancing girl press, 2013), prism maps (dusie kollektiv), and Pigtail DutyBone BouquetDelirious Hem, EntropyOpen Letters MonthlyMenacing HedgeLetterbox MagazineBibliomancy Oracle, and susie.  Melissa also manages the Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange.

Interview with Caroline Zancan

Local Girls

By Caroline Zancan

Riverhead Books, June 2015

279 pages

ISBN 978-1-59463-364-5

Zancan

 

Caroline Zancan, an editor at Henry Holt, is the author of the debut novel Local Girls (Riverhead Books, 2015). Named by PeopleGlamour, and The Huffington Post as one of summer’s best books, this story explores the night three high school graduates are forced to face the reality of adulthood in an unexpected and tragic way.

 

Location plays a big part in shaping the lives of your characters in Local Girls. Do you feel like the places you have lived have shaped your own relationship to not just life but your writing?

Yes, absolutely. I’ve always been enchanted by the baked weirdness of Florida. There are so many unique people and creatures and it’s so damn hot it can kind of scramble your brain. There’s kind of an “anything can happen at any moment vibe” that has always struck me. I grew up going there, and I often thought that it would be a fantastic place to set a novel. As soon as I had the basic idea for Local Girls—a long bar conversation between a movie star and three of his most devoted fans—I knew I would set it in Florida. I wanted the heaviness of the night—of knowing something bad happens by the end of it right up front—to be matched by the sleepy, heavy suffocating humidity that permeates the state in late August.

Is there any part of Local Girls that makes you feel exposed, as if it were closer to a memoir than fiction?

I’m very different from all of the characters here—I’m not a movie star, obviously, and I didn’t grow up in Florida. And though I was definitely restless at this age, I had already left home. But I share something major with each of the characters. Like Sam, I don’t believe in moderation—I like to stay up all night and then sleep all day; read a thousand page book in a few days without doing much else until I finish; eat an epic meal and then go run seven miles. Like Nina I was once on the losing end of a love triangle. And I definitely had a Nina in my life—a kind of electric alpha girl who seemed preternaturally wise and unafraid of the world. I struggled with leaving home the way Maggie does, even if my path was a little clearer, and I think I have Max’s curiosity and wonder. I think that’s generally how fiction works—you take scraps of your own life and traits you recognize in yourself and those around you and build something bigger from them. But there was no thread or plot twist here that I took directly from my own life.

What was the first thread of an idea for this novel? Was it a character, a location, an event, a theme, or did it seem to come all at once? 

A celebrity very different from Sam Decker died of a drug overdose, and it was reported that the night he died, he was drinking in a bar in a kind of random city by himself. I just kept thinking about how crazy it must have been to be a patron in that bar that night—to go from being excited to seeing him, to sad and haunted by the fact that he had died, and being one of the last people to see him. We all place so much importance on our celebrity sightings these days—we love to trade stories—and it just seemed like such a powerful case of that. I kept wanting to hear the stories people from that bar had. So I started with a long bar conversation between a movie star who was about to die of an overdose and fans in a bar very much off the Hollywood circuit. But the more I wrote, the more intrigued I was by the girls he was talking to—my attention kept going to them. And my hope is that peoples’ reading experience will mirror my writing experience. At first you’re curious what this movie star has to say, but it’s the girls’ story that holds the real drama. It’s their secrets that you’re ultimately leaning forward to hear.

How have you balanced your writing life with your personal life?

I probably didn’t have a very balanced life as I was writing this and revising it for publication—there were a lot of nights with very little sleep and a lot of cancelling very fun plans, and not seeing as much of my friends as I would’ve liked to. I think you can do it all and have it all but not at the same time. So I kind of wrote this in a tornado, at the expense of a lot of my free time and perhaps sanity and quality of life, but in the months since it’s come out I’ve been enjoying life at a slower pace—there’s been a lot of drinking wine in the park in the middle of the day.

What is the most productive criticism you have received so far about your writing or writing life?

When I first got to [the] Bennington [Writing Seminars] my writing was very clunky on a line by line basis—too many adverbs and modifiers. I think I wanted my writing to sound pretty. By the time I finished the program I wanted each of my sentences to convey whatever it was trying to as efficiently and clearly as possible. I wanted to be accurate and say something true simply and straightforwardly enough that most people could identify and perhaps empathize with it. David Gates had me read On Writing by Stephen King my first term, and it was immeasurably helpful.

Do you have any manuscripts or other literary projects you felt you had to abandon before you finished Local Girls?

Dozens of them! But I don’t regret any of them. They all collectively got me to the place I needed to be in before I could write Local Girls. I don’t think most people publish their first major creative undertaking.

Was there any book in particular that helped shape your vision of Local Girls?

I worked with Jill McCorkle my fourth term [of the Bennington Writing Seminars]. I had just started Local Girls, and knew I wanted the entire thing to take place in one night. Jill suggested I read That Night, by Alice McDermott, which also focuses on one night, and its many repercussions. I literally read it in one day, and it remains one of my favorite books. I’m not sure why it was so helpful to my own book, because they’re very different, but the month I read it was a huge turning point for me.

Are there any words or phrases that you loathe?

I hate verbs of utterance—”he snarled”; “she shrieked.” As [one of my professors] Bret Anthony Johnston always said in his craft lectures, really good dialogue speaks for itself. If you’ve written a good conversation, “he said” or “she said” should be enough.

What do you believe is the most beautiful word in the English language?

I love the phonetics and unapologetic drama and fuss of the word “exquisite,” but I love the specificity of the definition of “crestfallen.” It captures such a specific combination of feelings.

Is there any piece of advice that helped you finish and publish your novel when things got tough?

Don’t worry about the end result—who is going to publish it, etc. Write the very best book you can, and worry about the rest only when you’re confident you’ve done that. Once you publish something, it’s out in the world forever. Make sure it’s an accurate representation of what you’re capable of. I think the publishing process intimidates people and trips them up. Just focus on the words on the page, and the rest will come.

 

Book jacket design by Rachel Willey

Book jacket image: Original photo, Audra Luciero (altered)

Author photo: Melanie McLean