Chapbook Confessions is a series in which poets discuss, at length, the writing of their most recent collection of poems, in whatever way they desire. For more information on the series, go here.
When I first read the Chapbook Confessions project, I was intrigued and wondered if I participated would I be able to discover insight into my writing process. The notion of what I might find both allured and frightened me.
Part of me agrees with the brief “Ars Poetica” I heard X. J. Kennedy recite when I was a young grad student in Michigan:
The goose that laid the golden egg
Died looking up its crotch
To find out how its sphincter worked.
Would you lay well? Don’t watch.
The thought of losing the ability to write a poem because I inquired into the process terrifies me. But if I could learn more about writing poetry so that I might write the best poems I can, then this assignment is a thrill I will risk.
Examining the poems in my first collection, Doll God (Aldrich 2015), I remember that I have often been guided by my preoccupations—the subjects and themes that call to me over and over again. I never tire of these bottomless wells. Fairy and folk tales, the archetypal stories of humankind; dolls and other human-created art; and the renewals of nature.
In the poems I’ve selected, the Japanese tale of the stonecutter who wishes for more (and more and more) informs “From Both Sides.” Alice in Wonderland can be found in the surreal world of “Waking Up,” and “Snow’s Locked Box” is about Snow White in her glass coffin. When I was a child, some of the first people I met were characters in nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Their emotions, capacities for good and evil, and the extent of vices such as pride, gluttony, and greed were laid bare to my malleable mind and heart. My family, friends, and teachers hid themselves behind masks and manners, but my literary companions let me glimpse some small understanding of the world around me. By going back to these roots in my poetry, I am both honoring their importance and making use of their accessible paradigms.
Dolls have fascinated me since I was a child, too, for their tiny and sometimes clever replication of humanity and for the eerie quality they instill with their familiar features. They are a form of art and all the ways of viewing and interacting with art hold true for dolls. Additionally, dolls provide physical comfort and stress reduction to some people, much like living pets. Dolls show up in many of my poems—sometimes in a large way, such as in “The Half-Undressed Madame Alexander Doll: A Diorama” and “Marriage Doll” or in a small way, such as one image of nested dolls in “Snow’s Locked Box.”
I hadn’t remembered until I reread Doll God for this assignment that art is such an enthusiasm in my work, but the poems bear witness. In “From Both Sides,” the stonecutter’s chiseling of the mountain is an art that carries more power than the prince, the sun, or the mountain itself. The Madame Alexander doll is art herself, but the diorama has placed her as the subject within a new drama, a shadowbox scene invented by a different artist. The Hakata dolls of “Marriage Doll” are artistic pottery, as the husband is an artist in the garden. The artist finds her own Godlike power in “Tricks” when she realizes that she doesn’t have to draw things as they are, but as she wants them to be.
My work obsessively records moments in nature that speak to me in a spiritual sense. “Motion” is an example of a poem where the persona transcends her own existence as she becomes one with nature. As with my other preoccupations, nature functions best when combined with one or more other subjects or themes. For instance, nature combines with a folk tale in “From Both Sides,” with art in “Marriage Doll,” with fairy tale in “Waking Up” and “Snow’s Locked Box.” The way “Motion” began was with a similar pairing: the poet decided to leave her study and step outside. By going outside with art on her mind, art combined with nature to allow her a special experience. When I revised the poem, the initial movement from inside to outside was cut away to reveal the heart of the poem, but the combining of interests helped to birth the poem.
The strength and trauma bestowed by family is another thread that runs through my poems, and by the time I wrote the poems for my chapbook Kin Types (Finishing Line 2017) that obsession had temporarily taken over the others. The poems and flash prose in that collection are all based on my (especially female) ancestors. But you can see family showing up in Doll God. “The Half-Undressed Madame Alexander Doll: A Diorama,” though about a doll transformed into art, becomes about the life I was bestowed at birth and through upbringing within my family of origin. That same family initiates “Tricks,” but ultimately what becomes more important are my children. “Marriage Doll” was based on my husband’s strength and nurturing nature.
While my combinations of passions create my poems, I am also a sucker for writing constraints. Anything that gives me walls to throw myself against forces me back into the poem where I can mine the images, thoughts, and impressions as intensely as possible. Although I like to write at home in the quiet, I do have one go-to spot to write.
Every couple of months I go to a restaurant in southern California called Magpies. I love the name—and the fried zucchini. Late afternoon the bar is quiet, and the restaurant only has a few occupied tables. I bring a legal pad and pen, decide on a subject, and go. “From Both Sides” was written at Magpies at the same time as “Caught,” another poem in Doll God. Neither poem needed much revision. They came out almost fully formed. I think that in the atmosphere of Magpies I need to hyperfocus—and can’t get too distracted from looking out the window because I have to shut the blinds to close off the unrelenting afternoon sun.
Many of my poems are written as responses to specific writing prompts. I am a sucker for prompts. If you want some good ones, check out Diane Lockward’s Crafty Poet series. I am waiting for my copy of her newest, The Practicing Poet, as I write this. I am blessed to have a poem included—a poem I wrote in response to one of Diane’s poetry prompts. “Marriage Doll” and “Waking Up” were written in response to writing prompts. The Madame Alexander poem is an ekphrastic poem, written to respond to a photo of a diorama I saw online.
A reason that I rely so heavily on writing constraints and preoccupations may be to part the chaos in my head so that I can write. Poems come to me slowly because of the internal noise. I will never be extremely prolific. But as long as I have ways to keep finding poems from the materials around me, I will keep up my turtle’s pace.
From Both Sides
I will remind you
of the mountain
How it falls away
The marrow grasping for
And the stonecutter’s
dream to inhabit its body
His eye on what’s better
He feels it
when his chisel chips
into the hillside
and the inside secret places
The Half-Undressed Madame Alexander Doll: A Diorama
Catalog description: Scarlett O’HaraTM,
an 8-inch bent-knee, Wendy doll, with blue eyes
and wavy, shoulder-length brunette hair.
I peer into the clutter,
the face in the box.
Like me this doll is studious
with thick legs,
has been a victim of potients
and infatuated with love,
though tenderness has nestled close to danger.
I look closely to confirm she’s been martyred.
Forever, she’s part of her parents and brother,
born with a silver spoon, but not
much else. She sees shape in the past.
If I were the artist I wouldn’t remember
wearing nothing but my petticoat
and pop bead jewelry, searching
for a way out of the box. I see
my grandmother’s fingers
on the keyboard while everyone
else closed their eyes. Getting so thirsty
in my travels I vowed like Scarlett
never to be without water again, saving
vessels for this and all the memories
until I could make use of them.
At fifteen, I drew stick figures
of my parents and me,
without flesh or feature,
Dissatisfied, I turned my pencil aslant
adding a tipped smile,
breasts and fingernails.
Knowing the tricks of the graphite then
I saw how easy it was to cause
and not analyze.
I could add apples to a tree’s branches
whether it had foliage or not,
and a peach tree could bear plums.
My drawings of my children are dimpled.
They shine like glazed paper.
This one of my son seems overpopulated,
so I will erase the brain that bedevils him
with pleated thoughts shuffling
like poker cards.
If I rub the eraser across my daughter’s heart
she’ll make her way like a straight-eyed
comet, leaving a wake of hunger.
You step outside
to cross the footbridge.
Something rustles underneath,
It breaks free.
Mourning doves take flight,
swooping their wings against
the powdery sky.
Quail bobble away as one
rabbit like a hunched
warrior lifts his head
over morning ablutions,
The breeze surrounds you only
to unwrap and follow the birds.
This all happens
in one easy-to-miss instant.
Inside your skin your body
departs with them,
all of you linked together.
I spotted it wedged on a dusty shelf
behind a rose-pattern, porcelain trinket-tray.
A souvenir of occupied Japan,
the Hakata doll’s bisque colors had grayed,
the facial expression still intent on a fish
spread below its upraised hand,
the grip empty of the cleaver it once held.
At home, each clay doll carries its value
in what it holds dear: a lantern,
spear, or story stick.
The next day, I washed dishes under
the garden window, watching my husband
watering my vincas, my potato vines.
It’s how I described him in a story once.
He tips the handle—a virtuoso with the spout—
following up with what I’ve planted.
If I sculpted him out of clay, I’d plant
a fixed watering can in his broad hand.
I’d call the piece Marriage Doll: 1 of 2.
The bed folds around me, a clam shell closing on itself. The trigger hairs of the Venus Flytrap tickle my arms. I escape, fighting the neckline of my nightgown, aiming for that flat patch of floor. The knotholes grow like nooses around each footstep. Running to keep from sinking into the pine plank stocks I head to the kitchen and the first cup of tea. The rising steam entices me until I am Alice swimming for my life with no way to climb the slippery ceramic sides. Rounding the perimeter I can’t tell when I’m trapped in the endless loop where nothing begins or ends unless I give in. A single fly on the centerpiece takes flight, releases a dry straw which flutters into the cup and allows me to climb out. I look back at the redgold circle inside the white and notice how the steam has disappeared. Making my bed, I see how flat it is, like the floor, two in a series of angled planes in the house. Round eludes me, and I hunt for it now, no longer fearing its vitality. The cat lies, a pinwheel, inside his basket, the pulsing at its center; the rock outside where the lizard performs his push-ups thrums; soon crockpot sizzles with chicken, basil, wine; my neighbor’s belly shifts, eight months along. The fly lands between us, watching with its large round eyes.
Snow’s Locked Box
There are always oak branches in the clearing
and, underneath, the glass coffin
supported by the gold carved bier.
Inside the girl lies as imagined, her lips
pressed together in a show of force,
an element in a scientific equation.
The clouds move aside like props,
but set, lights, sound surround the body.
Posed, it’s a sort of actor, though lifeless.
And within. Her form encases another
casket, her heart a showcase of death.
Watch now for nesting dolls. Boughs,
box, woman, glass, pump, inertia.
Feet crunch the nut-colored leaves
and decay ripens in our nostrils.
The ground below the girl is bare.
Not even shadows insinuate.
Sunlight scintillates the brown skeletons
above and obscures the contents
by its reflection on glass. Accentuates
dry earth where the leaves are not.
With drag and thrust we’ll push them
under so they stay moist and rot.