Sister poet Trish Hopkinson sent me a PDF of her very tiny chapbook (called a microchap), Reconstructed Happiness (Origami Poems Project, 2020). You know Trish from her Daily Digest posts that arrive in your inbox, chock-full of information vital to poets; and if you don’t, you should the join the other 16,000 people who do.
I want to tell you about Trish’s book, but first I have to give a shout-out to the Origami Poems Project, whose motto is: Helping the world, one Free microchap at a time!.
The project was established in 2009 and seeks to publish free e-versions of microchap books that you self-assemble, using origami technique. This is brilliant. Learn to fold! (Another motto of this group.) At the website you’ll find this explanation: A microchap presents poems on a single sheet of paper. The paper folds origami-style into palm-sized booklets containing 6 pages of text. Below is a view of the folded microchap printed on Landscape setting:
These little books are designed and published in PDF form, with full-color covers, and with folding directions included. Submissions are free through Submittable, and will re-open in September. They graciously accept donations to keep the “always free” spirit alive.
Back to Trish Hopkinson’s microchap, with the sheepish admission that I didn’t fold it correctly, but I loved it anyway. Reconstructed Happinessenfolds three poems. In “My Matter,” the word matter is bisected into its concrete meaning (as in, “anything that has mass and volume”) and its use in the abstract-concrete sense (bear with me here) of to be relevant or important, sometimes referred to as “material.” The poem reaches for the concept of “we are stardust,” in many forms: dust, pollen, “a dove’s blurred wing,” or dirt “caked beneath toenails.” It ends with string theory:
Pressure peels threads from my skin, unravels
Into streams of floating string.
The title poem is an “erasure in reverse of Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting.”” It is an anaphora of “I am’s” that includes “I am my typewriter” (of course), along with “I am anarchy.”
The final poem in this series is “Offspring.” I read it as an ode, but it may be interpreted in a number of ways, as a good poem often can be. These lines drew me in,
My tendrils pull me taut tether me heavy to the dirt
where I can’t pull free from root or worm.
You can download Trish’s microchap (and many others) and try your hand at origami. If you decide to submit your work, read their instructions carefully first. Not every chapbook earns the right to be a microchap!
Trish Hopkinson is a poet, blogger, and advocate for the literary arts. You can find her online at SelfishPoet.com and provisionally in Utah, where she runs the regional poetry group Rock Canyon Poets and folds poems to fill Poemball machines for Provo Poetry. Her poetry has been published in several lit mags and journals, including Tinderbox, Glass Poetry Press, and The Penn Review; her third chapbook Footnote was published by Lithic Press in 2017, and her most recent e-chapbook Almost Famous was published by Yavanika Press in 2019. Hopkinson will happily answer to labels such as atheist, feminist, and empty nester; and enjoys traveling, live music, and craft beer.
It’s fitting that I needed to sit outdoors amid squirrels and finches and summer humidity, to sweat a little, as I embarked on this review of Nickole Brown’s chapbook, To Those Who Were Our First Gods, a prayer, praise song, and plea that calls on readers to recognize our connection with and responsibility to “the animals with whom [we] share this land.” *
It’s perhaps fitting as well that I would sketch its trajectory while eating potato chips and sipping Sweet Baby Jesus porter. Nickole, who first discovered poetry in a summer workshop midway through high school, describes the surfeit of verse in her childhood this way: “I was raised on the literary equivalent of grease and plastic—if you don’t count the King James, there wasn’t anything to read in the house but Cosmo or maybe a potato chip bag or two.”* That early absence hasn’t stopped her from becoming an accomplished poet, editor, and teacher; her Southern, often hardscrabble childhood providing a wellspring of experiences and insights integral to her success.
I first learned about Nickole’s poetry from poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar Brown who suggested I read Sister, back then in its original edition from Red Hen Press (2007). In this first collection, Nickole navigates the terrain of childhood sexual abuse through a conversation in poems that she’s been unable to have directly with her sister due to the distance between them. It’s a journey she describes as a novel-in-poems but that reads more like a collective memoir-in-poems.
To Those Who Were Our First Gods reflects several stylistic throughlines from Sister and Nickole’s subsequent book, Fanny Says, a biography-in-poems about her grandmother. As was true in those poems, the speaker in First Gods is in constant conversation—with the Lord, with Samson, with Mary Oliver, with the animals she yearns to hear speak to her, and with the readers themselves. This is illustrated in these opening lines of the chapbook’s longest poem, “Against Despair, The Kid Goat,”
Reader, meet the two women who sunk everything they had into taking in broken animals—
This poem combines Brown’s engaging practice of embodiment with what she refers to as “an oral culture of bossy, storytelling women who always had something to tell you or something to tell you to do,” * her speaker leading the reader through the sacrament of imagining their own bodies in the motions of these two women.
Thus the reader is directed “to be / those two,” and “to try, / to always try, despite the odds.” The poem continues, “Reader, I want you tired, every joint / in your body stiff and worn.” And after the kid goat has a seizure, it directs, “Now, use your arms” then “push together the furred slits / of his lids,” and later, “Now, get on your knees”, say his name (Peanut) while you “stroke his scrawny / goat neck.”
The yearning, so much a part of Brown’s poetry and often amplified by repetition, is also here, as it is at the end of the first poem, “A Prayer to Talk to Animals”:
Fork my tongue, Lord. There is a sorrow on the air I taste but cannot name. I want to open my mouth and know the exact flavor of what’s to come. I want to open my mouth and sound a language that calls all language home.
The concept of home is another throughline that persists from Brown’s earlier work. “But now [she’s] writing about animals, who, because of us, increasingly either don’t have a home left or find that home spoiled. *
My favorite poem, the one that made me grin and blush, then stop reading so I could call friends to read it to them, is the middle poem of the nine in the chapbook: “Self Portrait as Land Snail.” As the speaker describes the options the land snail has for both solitary and companion procreation (the latter being the better option, the speaker asserts), Brown’s distinctive voice rises from the page:
I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried—this is no metaphor but scientific fact—a telum amoris—literally, aweapon of love—
Cupid’s got nothing on this mollusk congress, and because you know how snails go, the foreplay is slow— slow, slow, slow—my kind of sex—
This poem is deftly placed at the fulcrum of the manuscript.
To Those Who Were Our First Gods also provides plenty to study in terms of structural elements. There’s the effective and moving narrative arc, the first poem expressing a yearning to speak to animals book-ended by the last poem which asks instead to understand animals and speak for them.
There are a range of forms, from poems in a single verse, familiar vessels for the prayer and elegy they convey, to ones organized in sections, and a poem in couplets. This latter form is perhaps symbolic of the contrasting styles of the two lesbian poets in conversation within its stanzas: Mary Oliver with her quiet reverence of nature and Nickole who “speak[s] in a queer, Southern trash-talking kind of way about nature beautiful, damaged, and in desperate need of saving.” *
But don’t let me mislead you into thinking that To Those Who Were Our First Gods offers only more of the same distinct voice and accessible, engaging poetry you’ll find in her previous books—although that would be reason enough to click “Add to Cart.” There is something new here too: a heightened sense of immediacy, an urgency that pulses from the lines. With this work, Nickole Brown has moved from subjects long known—her sister and grandmother, her Southern upbringing— to a territory she was warned against when she was growing up, that of the animal and wild.
When sharing this chapbook’s origin story with Jen Sammons at Oxford American, * Brown explained that soon after she revealed a long-held wish to have “gone into environmental conservation and worked to save animals,” her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, pointed out that it wasn’t too late for her to fulfill that wish. Nickole started her study by reading books and observing animals at a nearby zoo “from a comfortable remove that’s not too unlike reading”—this from “a girl who left behind her body and became a book, and never had . . . gone outside much until [she] was forty.”
It was not until she immersed herself in the sweaty, smelly, mucky, heart-wrenching, yet rewarding work of volunteering at animal sanctuaries and wildlife rehabilitation centers that these poems surfaced. I suspect that an earlier Nickole Brown, before coming into her sexual identity and fully into her own body—gifted poet though she already was—would not have written these poems with the same intensity she achieves in To Those Who Were Our First Gods. I’m glad she wrote this chapbook when she did and can’t wait to read her related essay-in-poems, The Donkey Elegies—and whatever comes next.
Nickole Brown received her MFA from the Vermont College, studied literature at Oxford University, and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She worked at Sarabande Books for ten years. Her first collection, Sister, a novel-in-poems, was published in 2007 with a new edition reissued in 2018. Her second book, a biography-in-poems about her grandmother called Fanny Says, came out from BOA Editions in 2015 and won the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Poetry. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She was an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for four years. Currently, she teaches periodically at a number of places, including the Sewanee School of Letters MFA Program, the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA, and the Hindman Settlement School. She lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, in Asheville where she periodically volunteers at a three different animal sanctuaries. Since 2016, she’s been writing about these animals, resisting the kind of pastorals that made her (and many of the working-class folks from the Kentucky that raised her) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it. To Those Who Were Our First Gods, a chapbook of these first nine poems, won the 2018 Rattle Prize, and her essay-in-poems, The Donkey Elegies, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2020.
Title: To Those Who Were Our First Gods Author: Nickole Brown Winner of the 2018 Rattle Chapbook Prize 2018 Finalist for the Julie Suk Award ISBN 978-1-931307-39-0
Wendy DeGroat is the author of Beautiful Machinery (Headmistress Press) and is currently revising a documentary poetry manuscript about Grace Arents, a Progressive-era philanthropist and educator, and Grace’s companion, Mary Garland Smith. Wendy’s poetry has appeared in Cider Press Review, Commonplace, the museum of americana, Rogue Agent,Rust + Moth, The Wild Word, and elsewhere.She is a librarian and mindfulness teacher in Richmond, Virginia, where she also curates poetryriver.org (a resource site for documentary poetry and for diversifying the poetry taught in high school and undergraduate classrooms), encourages writers to find inspiration in quirky historical artifacts found in libraries and archives, and serves as a small-group facilitator for Living the Richmond Pledge, a workshop that empowers participants to take an active role in ending racism in their communities.
When I was in Vietnam, I wrote my wife every day. Some letters were long, some short, all filled with the events of the day. The thirty daily poems in Penelope Scambly Schott’s November Quilt (Winner of Second Place in the 2018 Poetry Box Chapbook Prize) are much like those letters, exploring the small things we all share or know of. Following the author’s first-day invitation to think of stitching (“I offer you my fingers / this pieced together quilt.”), these daily offerings are the rich and varied fabrics.
And varied they are. On the 2nd, we consider our parents and how we mis-see them:
Did you mistake your parents for grown-ups? I did. I believed each untruth they told me.
I also thought married people talked only about boring stuff like calling the plumber.”
For November 4th, the poet bids us,
Let’s jump back to fifth grade in New York City where the Russians would bomb first
how can I save us all?”
while on the 15th we remember, “The dog Laika in her tiny Russian space capsule. // For years we were told / how she was euthanized — not that she fried.”
The importance of these scraps of fabric we share, things my great-granddaughter surely sees as the detritus of ancient history, is made clear on the 9th:
We need to tell each other all these small details because after we’re gone,
who’ll care? In this life, I care about you.“
This pattern formed by Life is explicit on the 13th and 14th, where
What will anyone remember about me? Does my sister know how I eat an apple?
The entire apple, core and all the seeds.”
is joined to
What do you know about apples?
I was pulled over for eating an apple — the officer thought I was on my cell phone.”
Just past midway, on the 18th, Scambly Schott cautions us, “You might ask if my writing has a plot. No, none . . .” Perhaps, but there are subtly continuous threads holding the pieces of November together. For example, the 7th ends,
I reheat my coffee before I walk the dog. When we get back from the walk, the coffee is cold.
All day I reheat my same cup.”,
and the 8th picks up the conversation with, “Day after day, sip after sip, we piece together / our lives.” The 15th’s thoughts about Laika and Sputnik begin the epistle for the 16th (“After Sputnik, we were all supposed to study math.”), while the 16th ends, “For a smart girl, / said my mom, how can you be so dumb?”), as the 17th opens by partially explaining, “They taught us long division in May / and I forgot it over summer vacation.”
Somewhere in the third reading, refining my poem-by-poem notes, I realize the bobbin thread anchoring these stitches and pieces is a different commonality: how unknown by, and unknowing of, each other we are. This epiphanal moment, crowning fine, carefully chosen and blended words, is what makes November Quilt so marvelous, so poetic. A tap on the forehead, a pulling aside of a stage curtain, and what is obviously obvious appears. Once seen, it’s impossible to unsee, leading us to a final charge to readers in the last lines of the last poem:
“Please don’t hang this one on a wall or store it safe from moths in a zippered plastic bag.
Spread this quilt to keep another reader warm.”
Penelope Scambly Schott, author of a novel and several books of poetry, was awarded four New Jersey arts fellowships before moving to Oregon, where her verse biography, A is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth, received an Oregon Book Award for Poetry. Several of Penelope’s books and individual poems have won other prizes. Her individual poems have appeared in APR, Georgia Review, Nimrod, and elsewhere. Her most recent books are HOUSE OF THE CARDAMOM SEED and NOVEMBER QUILT.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently,slight faith(MoonPath Press, 2018).
Body of Water Anniversary Interview with Lauren Davis
Lauren Davis: Your debut chapbook Body of Water was published on November 2, 2018. Congratulations on its one-year anniversary! When did you first start to put this manuscript together?
Jeff Santosuosso: Some elements of that book are ten years old, while the most recent, the title poem, is about a year old. That gave me a theme. I generally don’t think in terms of a single-themed work, so that focus was welcome. From there, I browsed my body of work to find similar elements and to tell a story with the chapbook.
LD: In one or two sentences, can you describe the function of a poetry chapbook?
JS: Short story with no overt plot. A flip book of words.
LD: Can you tell me a little bit about how you found your publisher?
JS: I found the publisher via a message board, CRWROPPS and via a referral from another poet. CRWROPPS is a great tool for writers looking for submission opportunities and other things. Clare Songbirds Publishing House is a fine little outfit in upstate New York. They did not require me to presell any chapbooks, as others do, nor did they require a submissions/reading fee. Writers work directly with management.
LD: Your cover is absolutely stunning. Did you provide this image for Clare Songbirds Publishing House?
JS: I love it too! I’ve received many compliments on it and have forwarded them to CSPH. The artist is Angela Yuriko Smith. She did that on her own, presumably having read all or part of the manuscript. In any case, the result is stunning!
LD: What was the editing process like with your publisher?
JS: Easy. Simple email exchange, quickly reverted by the publisher. High marks for that!
LD: And has your relationship to these poems changed any now that they’ve been out in the world?
JS: Not so much, though I’m fascinated by the feedback I get, what reaches and connects with people. My son read one of them for a college public speaking course and recorded it. Gives me the chills!
LD: That must have been a very special experience, to witness that. Tell me what poem you think best represents this collection.
JS: Probably the title poem and also “The Blue.” The first because it’s personal. The second because it’s universal. I grew up about five miles from Walden Pond, read the book in high school and have always credited it with lasting impact on my outlook. That poem is very introspective, almost a mood poem for me. Separately, I was prompted by the poet and teacher Matthew Lippman to write a poem about the sea/ocean. (What? Yeah, that’s never been done before, I’ve got such a fresh perspective. Uh-huh.) Anyway, that poem is historical and global, a sweep of a piece, if you will. For me, then, the two relate to our personal, internal, finite relationship with water and our universal, external, infinite relationship with it. I’ll always have a soft spot for “New Jersey Nighthawks,” which I wrote on a ski trip when I was reading a lot of Kerouac.
LD: What are you working on now?
JS: Ha! Come to think of it, more than I expected: an adaptation of one of the books of the Bible. A collaborative poetry work with a good friend, inspired by another. A totally killer video collage of Anglophones from all over the world with their luscious local accents reading “Jabberwocky.” Oh, and a novel about tennis, second chances, and redemption that’s finished. What’s the definition of “finished”?
LD: Do you have any advice for poets who are putting together a chapbook manuscript?
JS: Look for a theme. Look for alignment between your theme and what the editor seeks. Have the book tell a story or have some arrangement, narrative or otherwise. Follow the publisher’s guidelines.
Jeff Santosuosso is a business consultant and award-winning poet living in Pensacola, Florida. His debut chapbook, Body of Water, was published at Clare Songbirds Publishing House. He is Editor-in-Chief of panoplyzine.com, an online journal of poetry and short prose.
Lauren Davis is the author of Each Wild Thing’s Consent (Poetry Wolf Press). She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and her poetry, essays, stories, and fairy tales can be found in publications such as Prairie Schooner, Automata Review, Hobart, and Ninth Letter. Davis teaches at The Writers’ Workshoppe in Port Townsend, Washington.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).
Thanks so much to Trish Hopkinson for publishing an interview with me about The Poetry Cafe! You can read it here:
Since it was published, I have heard from more than 20 poets who wish to send me copies of their books! Whew!
Later today I will be publishing my next review: Refugia, by Kristin Berger and onboard is Feed, by Emily Mohn-Slate. I am working on adding all of the books I have received to the list under “Drumroll, Please” and will be linking each book to the place where it can be purchased. I will be adding cover pictures in the future, and perhaps, interviews with chapbook poets.
I am looking for writers who are interested in writing reviews for this website, as I have more books already than I can review alone. If you are interested, send me an email at the address below. Anyone associated with an MFA program who wants to send students my way, I would be happy to connect with them and discuss guidelines for chapbook reviews. If you want to give them credit for writing a review, even better! And, I will send them a book to review!
I was able to meet some of my favorite poets last week at AWPfrom my perch behind the Headmistress Press booth.
I am back home now and re-energized to move forward with this project of reviewing chapbooks. It’s all about the chapbooks! Here is information for interested chapbook writers, readers, lovers and reviewers.
Headmistress Press, publisher of lesbian/bi/trans poetry, is holding our 5th annual Charlotte Mew Chapbook Contest, from May 4th through July 4th. See details here. You can see (and buy!) our chapbooks at our online store.
If you wish to review a Headmistress Press chapbook, on this site or another, please contact me and tell me which book you are interested in, and I will send you a review copy.
If your press is having a chapbook contest, please let me know and I will announce it at The Poetry Cafe.
I have recieived several chapbooks in the mail. Thank you! I am now open to receiving your chapbooks. I don’t promise to review every chapbook, but I will list all of them (see “Drumroll, please”) and I do promise to read every one I am sent. Please mail a copy to The Poetry Cafe at the address below.
If you wish to submit a chapbook review, please query me first, and I will send you the reviewers’ guidelines.
The next chapbook review will be up soon! Sublime Subliminal, by Rena Priest (Floating Bridge Press, 2018).
Contact me on the contact page or via email at: email@example.com
Mail chapbooks to: The Poetry Cafe 60 Shipview Ln Sequim, WA 98382