An Interview with Katie Chaple

by SHAWN DELGADO

Katie Chaple is the author of Pretty Little Rooms (Press 53, August 2011). She teaches poetry and writing at the University of West Georgia and edits Terminus Magazine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Antioch Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Crab Orchard Review, Passages North, Southern Humanities Review, Southern Poetry Review, Washington Square, among others.

SHAWN DELGADO: I consider “Pretty Little Rooms” to be a sly title, because they are nowhere as neat or nice as it might imply. Could you talk a little bit about how you chose the title?

KATIE CHAPLE: The title comes from a poem in the book where the “pretty little rooms” refer to, at least literally speaking, coffins of a type: a monk’s cell, Petrarch’s coffin and a couple of skulls. When I chose the title for the poem, I was thinking, in part, of those things, but also of the Italian word, “stanza,” which translates to “room”—playing with a reference to Petrarch’s sonnets via a detour through Donne. As to the choice of the title for the book, a friend and colleague, Chad Davidson, suggested it, and once I heard it, it seemed a perfect fit for the book as a whole. The title is not nice, and I’d like to think that it works on several levels. That the poems have a kind of lyricism to them, but that their subject matter isn’t actually that “pretty,” nor is the outcome. In looking at the poems, literal and figurative rooms appeared over and over again, and so did death. Also, once I looked at the title poem, I began to think it said something about the bigger picture of the book, something about passion and want, the kind which goes unfulfilled, unrealized, or impossible, passion like taking a dead man’s arm back to your cell. I mean, what good is that? He had a relic of passion, dead passion. The other “theme” that runs through that poem that I find important to the book is the element of the female.

SD: As this book marks a milestone in your poetic career, I wondered if you could speak to another milestone or major moment/period in your writing life.

KC: One moment was getting my first acceptance—I’d sent a batch of poems to Antioch Review, and when I got the envelope back in the mail, I thought, “another rejection,” and it came as such a surprise, and you kind of expect something else to happen, like angels singing and a ray of light, but the mailbox is the same, and the street moves on—no difference except to me. I felt lucky that they liked a poem about Nancy Drew enough to take it.

I suppose another big moment would be the moment I decided to go to grad school in writing. My story probably about like a bunch of other writers’. I’d been out of college maybe a year, working at a dead-end, low-paying job, thinking that I didn’t want to enter data or whatever for the rest of my life, and I talked a friend of mine, who also wanted to be a writer, into considering MFA programs. We went to a bookstore, and I picked up a book on the GRE, and I think a book about writing programs. I applied and got accepted to GSU—I had decided that I’d made a decision about the rest of my life right then. I hadn’t really, but I thought I had. I had this feeling that I’d made this decisive step toward being a writer, and I had, in a way, but I didn’t understand at that point that there would be so much more to it than I bargained for. At that point it seemed like a romantic, rash, brave thing to do.

SD: With this being a first book and considering the diversity in the poems and their speakers, I imagine you had an overabundance of poems going in to the project. Was that the case? How did you decide on the poems for the book?

KC: There are a number of poems that were deep-sixed certainly, but many I’d discarded early on in the process. I’m an incredibly slow writer/producer. I think I’m so slow because I get an idea and hold on to it until I feel like I can write it. I don’t like giving up on poems—I think to myself that I can make something work and keep plugging away at the one idea (sometimes for too long and unsuccessfully). “Pretty Little Rooms” was one of those poems I allowed to simmer—it came from a news story about Petrarch’s birthday celebration in Italy. The poem, for a very long time, was simply in paragraph form, just notes. I tend to work that way—prose working its way into poetry—less pressure. I worked on that poem for a year and a half before it really came together.

Almost half the poems in the book are “newer”—there was a core manuscript that morphed over the last six years—those new poems having been written and added during that time. Though, I’d say that the book as it stands now has been in that form for around three years now. There’s something that most poets will tell you about first books, and that’s until the book is published, you’re always writing it. You can’t stop obsessing over it, and its form, the poems, the order, does this poem I just wrote fit into the book? Which one should go? I’d been writing with a kind of energy, anger even for a while there—I wanted the poems that went into the book to have a want and desire in them—not just sexual, but a lust for other things as well, though most of the desire is thwarted or stunted.

In terms of the progression, I think it maybe it could be said that the book moves from the “loudest” to the “quietest” in progression—the end comes to a kind of peace, though I think acceptance perhaps is a better way to describe it.

SD: Something that I enjoyed very much while reading and re-reading Pretty Little Rooms, particularly the personas, was that each poem felt immediate and necessary, the speakers wanted things. Could you talk about how you crafted such narrative urgency into the personas?

KC: It truly is one of the most important things for me—to create an energy, or urgency, as you say, in poems. To make the text that lies on the page move off that page if at all possible. I want a voice in the reader’s head. I want that voice to take over the reader. Not in an in-your-face kind of way necessarily, but a kind of language that insists that the reader listen.

How do I do that? I think it is the need, the driving desire that the personas/speakers have that helps to provide that energy, though anger can do it too. I’m glad you picked up on the need. I do think that desire and want is a very large part of the book. Those desires, unfulfilled desires and losses are simply part of living—they are just particular from human to human, so many of us connect to want or at least remember what it means to want, even if you’ve been lucky enough and disciplined enough to give up such things.

SD: Many of your poems mention famous characters throughout history and span the globe, and while some—Nancy Drew, Charlie Chaplin, Houdini—are fairly recent in history, none are exactly contemporary. Was this a deliberate decision? Do you think it’s just harder to know what contemporary figures will be lasting, or another reason?

KC: To be honest, I tend to write about figures that interest me, folks that spark my interest and that I feel like I can use in a metaphorical kind of way. There’s the possibility also of talking about the self in some ways while talking about others, but I guess most importantly for me, it is character. I like characters—and with Nancy Drew I was able to make her, I like to think, a bit more complex; whereas, with Chaplin and Madame du Barry—there were interesting stories around these figures, sort of smaller, more intimate stories that I wanted to write about. The stories were literally one or two lines, and I wanted to expand them. In terms of the history (and there were many other historically-based poems that didn’t make it to the final manuscript), my father’s a history buff, and I took up the interest myself. There was no intentional intent to avoid more contemporary figures; the only pre-req was that I was interested. Right now, I’m working on a poem about Plato and Aristotle because the relationship is an intriguing one. I think I’m drawn to mysterious figures, and I guess I just don’t find some of the current pop culture folks enigmatic enough for my taste.

SD: You teach creative writing at the University of West Georgia with a number of other fine poets. Who were some of your teachers or the writers you read that influenced your style or helped with the making of Pretty Little Rooms?

KC: I think all poets owe a debt to other poets, or at least should—that we incorporate, like, dislike, react against, move toward other poems and poets is a natural thing, is an expected thing. See Eliot here (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”)—the catalyst analogy.

I think my philosophy is that I think I’ve been influenced by every poet I’ve read—whether my work comes closer to their aesthetic or falls on the other side of the spectrum. Sorry, not to be more specific, but it really is almost an impossible question for me to answer. I try to read work that is both closer to my own aesthetic as well as poets that are completely different. I think that kind of “indiscriminant” reading is important for me—it simply demonstrates the range of techniques that are available—I also find other people’s talents and imaginations inspiring.

In terms of early on, I remember being amazed, enthralled by Bishop, Wilbur, Hecht, Frost, Moore, Dickey, Roethke, Berryman, among many others—I remember thinking, “Oh, this is what it’s like.” I’d realized that my experience with poems had been superficial. I remember pouring over Richard Wilbur, and loving the challenge, amazed by poems that I think of as sculpture, such form and control. I liked the poems’ complexity. I loved Bishop’s precision. Then, when I came into contact with Frank Stanford, I was astounded again. It is like that, coming across poems and poets, and the world just keeps opening and opening and opening, that there are all these doors. I feel like I could just keep listing and listing poets, so I’ll stop there.

I learned to write from David Bottoms, Leon Stokesbury and Beth Gylys—all poets with very different styles and aesthetics, which likely contributed to the range of poets that I love and am willing to love. One of the best things about grad school and one of the things I found extremely influential to my own work was being read to, and being read to by such talented readers. My childhood was filled with my parents reading to me, and so my fondest memories from classes involve those teachers reading poems that they clearly loved. That was the best thing, that how much they loved the poems and the poets could be transmitted to you almost by osmosis—the closest thing I’ve ever encountered to it, at any rate—just their voices and their understanding, and their connections to the poems. I remember David reading Warren’s “Audubon” in class one early Saturday morning, and one time in a meeting with Leon when I was studying for exams, having him read “Fern Hill” to me in his office. I distinctly remember Beth reading Plath’s “Tulips” and Sexton’s “Dr. Martin” in one of my final semesters at GSU. My teachers were rhapsodes. They were so clearly transformed, and moved by what they read that the catharsis was transmitted to me. I wanted to read like that, write poems that made people read like that.

Also, I must say that I’m an avid reader and lover of fiction—I read a ton of novels and short stories.

SD: You are one of the editors of Terminus Magazine in Atlanta. How does reading submissions and assembling a magazine inform your own writing? Does it help to see what trends are occurring, or is it overwhelming?

KC: It is actually something that I hold as separate from my own work—a different chamber of the brain. I don’t know if I see trends as much as I do individual work. I’m an extremely detail-oriented person, so sometimes the big picture escapes me because I’m so caught up in the individual poem.

SD: What was a great reading you saw last year?

KC: I think I’m going to have to make a list here. There’ve been a number of great readings I’ve seen during the past year. Laure-Anne Bosselaar gave a great reading at Sarah Lawrence this past summer—you can’t help but be drawn in by her energy and presence. Just recently, I saw Kate Johnson, Carl Dennis, and Stephen Dobyns read at Poetry @ Tech—a really great reading. Dobyns’ reading to round out the night was charming and engaging. Out where I teach, Erika Meitner just gave a great reading. There are so many writers out there who are great readers, but I think one takes the case for last year because it had great readers and fantastic atmosphere. I saw the Forklift, H_NGM_N, TYPECAST reading at the Lincoln Memorial in DC at AWP—I have to say that was definitely the coolest reading from last year, and Stuart Dischell gave a fantastic reading. Can’t beat freezing your ass off on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in February listening to great poems—no one there will ever forget it.