Samantha Duncan’s chapbook The Birth Creatures and Katie Manning’s chapbook A Door with a Voice were published by Agape Editions in 2016. The two poets interviewed each other via email.
Manning: Hi, Samantha! I read The Birth Creatures upon its release and again today, and I love the way your chapbook captures the strangeness of pregnancy and motherhood. That strangeness is something I also explored at length in my forthcoming full-length, Tasty Other, and it crept up unintentionally in my Bible word-banking chapbook, A Door with a Voice.
I was afraid when I began writing “mother” poems that no one but mothers—and maybe not even mothers!—would want to read them. I’ve been glad to be proven wrong. Will you tell me about how you began your project? Did you have a purpose and a plan from the beginning? Did you have any fears about writing this?
Duncan: Hi Katie! I’m glad you brought up the strangeness of pregnancy and motherhood, because I think it’s important to dismantle the notion that every part of these experiences is universal or joyful. Part of the motivation for The Birth Creatures came from my desire to share the aspects of childbirth and motherhood that aren’t glowing and perfect, that are messy and bleak. My other purpose for the book was to gain some footing over my own narrative, as my first postpartum experience was not a positive one that I felt in control of.
I do wonder how much truth there is to the idea that “mother poems” aren’t very popular or are only read by mothers. It’s certainly a thought that was in the back of my head while writing The Birth Creatures and trying to get it published. Another reservation or fear I had was that it’s the most personal project I’ve published. Luckily, readers’ reactions so far have been generous and positive!
This question also came to my mind while reading A Door with a Voice, as the Bible is an ambitious text and subject to take on. I love the idea to create art from language in the Bible, instead of, as you say, using the language as a weapon. Did you have any fears or reservations when you began the project? How did you decide on a found poetry approach? Did you have clear themes about the book beforehand, or did they emerge as you wrote the poems?
Manning: Oh, yes, I definitely worried that some people would be offended that I was using the Bible as a word bank, even though I was doing this in part as a protest against misusing the Bible by taking the language out of context. I was so relieved when my writing group members (who are also committed Christians and writing professors) responded to my project poems by saying that they were important and necessary, and I was pleasantly surprised when they found some of them humorous.
I chose the found poetry approach because I’d just had my first baby and I’d just finished my dissertation, and I worried that I’d just let go of writing unless I set myself an intentional assignment. I was exhausted, so it was a relief to use a limited word bank instead of choosing from all of the words I know. This project made me view found poetry in a way that I never had before. It’s not so different from “un-found” poetry really—we’re always working from a limited set of words. Found poetry simply sets tighter strictures.
I did not have any clear themes in mind when I began writing these poems; I just picked out words and phrases and started arranging to see where I could go with them. It was interesting to see what emerged and recurred—for A Door with a Voice, I pulled out the poems from the larger project that especially focus on women and mothers.
The poems in both of our chapbooks tend to have short lines, and your poems often include white space within lines. For A Door with a Voice, I usually broke lines to keep words and phrases separate that I found separately in the original text. How did you come to the short lines and white space for your poems? Did this form arise organically as you wrote and revised, or did you set out to work with that lineation from the start?
Duncan: I don’t know that the lineation fell into place from the start, but it definitely felt necessary as the book came together. Most of it is based on my first postpartum experience, which, as I mentioned, was not a positive one. For me, a large part of the aftermath of giving birth was a loss of control that left me feeling dissociated from myself. My mind felt different, my body felt different (especially during a rough recovery), and this inability to recognize myself was very new and unsettling.
In this way, the poems shaped themselves as I wrote them. The lines having different indents appeared to me as them being strangers to each other, much in the way I felt like a stranger to myself. The white space spoke to an uncertainty I felt, a sort of unfilled space that I, as a new parent, saw being filled with more of a new normal than the old normal I was used to. And it all happens quietly, these changes you have little control of. Overall, I ended up trying to visually represent that unfamiliarity and uncertainty in the shape of the poems, and this was the result that spoke most clearly to that.
It’s great that your writing group partners were supportive of your book. I’m curious about the humor they saw in the poems. My book adopted a sort of darkly comic tone, as I didn’t want it to be too serious. Is humor a tone you sought out for A Door with a Voice, or did it emerge less intentionally?
Manning: Humor was completely unintentional in my first string of first drafts! At that point, I was writing from a place of protest, so I was really caught off guard when I first read these poems and my workshop friends laughed along with them. Their response shifted the way I viewed my project, and I embraced my playfulness.
Speaking of playfulness, you have a recurring rhino in your chapbook that might be disorienting or disturbing to some readers, but I’m completely charmed by it. (Note: When I first saw a rhinoceros at the zoo at age 2, I told my mom, “I want to be one of those when I grow up!” I have a special place in my heart for rhinos.) Would you tell me about your choice to use a rhino? Why that animal? What’s its significance for you?
Duncan: I like that you’re charmed by the rhino! It came partly from a children’s alphabet book called Alphabeasts by Wallace Edwards, which features some oddly pensive creatures taking over a house with their theatrical musings. In other ways, the rhino symbolized the absolute takeover of a family and household a new baby can bring about. Rhinos are large in their presence, hard to ignore, and, in a more surreal moment in my book, swallow you whole. They’re the hulking physical opposite of a tiny, fragile newborn baby, but somehow, this one showed up in my poems and embodied many of the overwhelming, burdensome feelings I had about the new human I’d brought home and was expected to raise.
I’m glad we got to chat about our chapbooks, Katie! What’s next on your plate – any new projects in progress or publications to share?
Manning: My new full-length poetry book, Tasty Other, is being published by Main Street Rag (as the winner of their book award!) in November 2016. It explores my transition to motherhood with poems inspired by anxiety dreams, fairy tales, biblical narratives, parenting handbooks, weekly pregnancy calendars… it’s all there, and it’s all weird. I’ve got readings set up in San Diego, LA, and Kansas City already, and I’m excited to set up more readings and school visits to share this work in the coming year.
I’ve loved chatting chapbooks with you too! Thanks for taking the time. Will you close us out by telling me what’s new and next for you?
Duncan: My poetry chapbook, Playing One on TV, is being published by Hyacinth Girl Press in 2017. The poems are about memorable female TV characters, mostly from the nineties, explored through a feminist lens. It was a fun book to work on and closely study how these characters represent girlhood and womanhood and social norms, as well as how I sometimes struggled to relate to so many white female icons as a woman of color. I also have a flash fiction chapbook, Chaos Theory, that I’m excited about and would love to find a good publishing home for.
Samantha Duncan’s fourth chapbook, Playing One on TV, will be out from Hyacinth Girl Press in 2017, and her recent fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Meridian, The Pinch, The Conium Review, and Flapperhouse. She serves as Executive Editor for ELJ Publications and reads for Gigantic Sequins. She lives in Houston and can be found at planesflyinglowoverhead.blogspot.com and @SamSpitsHotFire.
Katie Manning is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Whale Road Review and an Associate Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She is the author of four poetry chapbooks, and her first full-length poetry collection, Tasty Other, is the 2016 winner of the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. She has received The Nassau Review Author Award for Poetry, and her writing has been published in Fairy Tale Review, New Letters, Poet Lore, So to Speak, Verse Daily, and many other journals and anthologies. Find her online at www.katiemanningpoet.com.