The “Next Big Thing,” a project of self-interviews that is winding its way through the electronic ether. For the project, authors respond to the same set of questions about a work in progress or forthcoming book and then tag other authors to carry this next big thing forward. I have been tagged by writers Adam Giannelli, Rebecca Hazelton, and Terry Kennedy. Below are my answers, and below those are my tags.
What is the working title of the manuscript?
The book is called Chord Box. The title comes from a poem in the middle section of the book, “Echo,” and its anatomical description of the human voice: “Lungs lift against the chord/box, stir its twin folds.” I tried out several tittles, most of which were more “poetic” than this one, but Chord Box felt the most satisfying: tangible, utilitarian, no fuss.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I didn’t know I was writing a book until I started to arrange my poems in a manuscript for my MFA thesis. I was just writing poems about the things I was obsessed with at the time: music and language, landscape and body, proximity and distance, China and the American South.
For a while, I thought I might be writing two manuscripts: one focused around guitar, and my experience of learning the instrument—as well as the complicated relationship I had with my teacher as a teenager—and then another book about the years I lived in China. At some point during my MFA, my professor, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, pointed out to me that all of the poems shared the common theme of sound: sometimes the subject was music, and sometimes it was the tonal language (Mandarin) that I explore in my poems set in China. With her advice, I tried to write a few poems that filled in the metaphorical gaps between those two subjects. However, before the book was accepted for publication, I was still under the impression that I may have to split Chord Box into two books. The book is very long in its current form.
What genre does your manuscript fall under?
Poetry. But there’s so much narrative, so I also have come to think of it as a bildungsroman in verse. I also think of it as “queer” literature, given my identity, and the fact that so much of the book—especially the first section--is devoted to exploring various kinds of relationships between women.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I don’t think I can allow myself to think about this, ha! I worry it might be kind of self-aggrandizing if I imagined my first poetry book as a movie. Right? I think this question works better when it is directed at a novelist, or playwright.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your manuscript?
In her blurb, Martha Collins called the book an exploration of “the language of sound, and the sounds of language,” which I think it pretty accurate. (Thanks, Martha!)
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Most of the book comes from my MFA years at Cornell, and was written between 2009 and 2011. A few poems come from when I lived in China in the two years before that. And, in the first section, there are actually a number of poems I wrote as a junior at Oberlin College, way back in 2005. I guess this means it took me six years to compete all the poems for the book. But I wasn’t working on the manuscript the whole time. Still, I’m a very slow thinker and writer.
What other books would you compare this book to within your genre?
I’m not sure I should or could compare my book to anyone’s, but I do think there are a number of writers whose books influenced me as I was writing: Linda Bierds, Carl Phillips, Rita Dove, Martha Collins, A. Van Jordan, Alice Fulton. Also, I think that B.K. Fischer, who wrote an amazing debut poetry collection, Mutiny Gallery, influenced me at the latest stages. Most of these poets have incorporated narrative or history into their work in some way, and I looked to them as models.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Because it took me many years to arrive at the full manuscript, I’d say the motivation for writing it changed over time. When I was younger, and writing those first pieces that would become a part of section I of the book, I was struggling to make sense of the teacher-student relationship I’ve described in these poems, and the ways in which my identity as a woman and an artist, for better or worse, sprung out of that time in my adolescence. When I wrote those poems, I was very young, and I had trouble sharing them with others; I was worried about seeming confessional or sensationalist. In later years, however, after I had been an adult for a good while, I became interested, once again, in writing about the complexities of that situation: because of the power dynamics and the age difference, the relationship was obviously abusive. But I’ve also tried to write about the thornier parts of the morality, the ways in which the relationship was also tied up with learning, mentorship, and a love of music. As I’ve often told my students, poetry is a great place to discuss complex moral questions, because language itself is so ambiguous and slippery, and often resists easy conclusions and closure.
In terms of the rest of the book: so much of it is about landscape and place. I write when I feel displaced, geographically or emotionally. When I moved to Ohio for college, and later, to upstate New York for graduate school, all I wanted to write about was the South, where I was raised. When I lived in Shanxi Province, and after I came back to the States, I wrote about China as a way of working through the displacement I felt while I was abroad, and the reverse-culture shock I felt when I returned. In the section of the book that deals with China, I also wanted to explore the idea of language barriers, and humility around language learning, which is why I included so much about Mandarin, as well as the Chinese characters.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
As I just mentioned, I last section of the book contains Chinese characters, an aesthetic and cultural decision that I’ve struggled with at times, but, after much debate and deep thought, decided to incorporate. I can’t imagine writing poems about China without including aspects of the written and spoken language; it would seem reductive to do otherwise.
In addition, there are some non-language “symbols” scattered throughout the book, mostly musical in nature, and also some I’ve sort of defined on my own. For example, there’s a poem that contains a diamond shape that’s supposed to resemble a God’s eye. In our culture, it seems that poetry is not just an aural or oral tradition any longer; it’s also a visual experience. I’m interested in the visual possibilities of poems, in addition to their sounds.
You can read some poems from Chord Box here:
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Chord Box is available for purchase from The University of Arkansas Press directly, in bookstores, and online venues.
My tagged writers for next Wednesday are:
Cori A. Winrock
Cori A. Winrock