Susana H. Case, author of Salem in Séance and Elvis Presley’s Hips & Mick Jagger’s Lips, built her poetry career one chapbook at a time before going on to publish full-length collections. Here, she tells her story and shares her thoughts on the benefits of beginning with chapbooks before branching out to full-length collections.
About a decade ago, I began to research a group of mathematicians in prewar Poland. I wasn’t thinking about material for poetry. It seemed too far removed from what I usually wrote about. But their stories began to inhabit me. When I started to write poems about mathematics in that time and place, the poems emerged as a small series. I hadn’t thought to write a series before. But these worked better collectively than individually. So I wanted to see them published together.
I sent the collection, The Scottish Café, to four chapbook competitions and won the Slapering Hol Press competition (for poets who have not yet published a chapbook or book and taking entries now). When I got the phone call, I said “that’s great” about 3 times spaced out during the call and nothing else. For once, poetry had rendered me inarticulate.
I was lucky in that the Slapering Hol Press was very nurturing. Some presses nurture more than others and it may have also helped that I lived only about an hour away by train. The editors helped me by setting up readings and involved me with other poets. That made a difference. I began to think: I can do this.
I did it several more times. When I realized I had a lot of poems about living in Youngstown, Ohio with my first husband during the decline of the steel mills, and also a lot of poems about the parallel decline of our marriage, I sent another batch of poems to Main St Rag Publishing Co. I didn’t win their competition, but they offered contracts to their finalists as well. This became Anthropologist in Ohio.
I then more deliberately wrote a series of poems based upon my second marriage and my attempt to explore what domestic intimacy has meant for me. Because my husband is an artist, I’ve thought a lot about what it means for two creative types to mesh together well. This series, The Cost of Heat, won the Pecan Grove Press chapbook competition.
I also did an e-chapbook by invitation along the way, called Hiking the Desert in High Heels for Right Hand Pointing. (I used to spend a lot of vacation time in Arizona.)
I had thought by this time to be done with chapbooks for a while, but then I found a 1940s sex manual I had saved when I was cleaning out my parents’ home after they had died. It got me speculating about my parents’ sexual life, in particular that of my mother, because it was filled with some awful advice. I was channeling the doctor who wrote it and talking to him and I decided that this conversation was long enough for a chapbook. This became my last one, Manual of Practical Sexual Advice, with Kattywompus Press, after I did some historical research because I wanted there to be accuracy with details, such as the use of strychnine as an aphrodisiac.
I’d say each project took roughly a year. And I didn’t see a big difference between winning the competition (Slapering Hol Press + Pecan Grove) versus just getting the chapbook accepted for publication, except for the honorarium. I saw bigger differences among the presses in terms of amount of hands-on editing, amount of literary support—that sort of thing (though the burden of promoting a chapbook, or any poetry book, falls largely upon the author and it takes a lot of work).
One of the things Slapering Hol Press taught me was how to get the word out, how to put myself out there. As a result of that, I got an interview with a Polish-language American newspaper, Nowy Dziennik and was contacted by a reader of the article, a translator in California whom I didn’t know, Seweryn Makosa. He wrote, “deep in my soul there is a thought, a dream about the Polish version of your poems.” I thought anyone who wrote to me about his soul was definitely worth responding to.
This led after some years of back and forth with Opole University Press to a dual-language version of the chapbook, Kawiarnia Szkocka, in 2010. Partway through, there was even a book party for the original Slapering Hol Press chapbook in Kazakhstan. The woman who organized it sent pictures and it was as well-attended as any. What did make that book
party distinct was that it consisted of women only and they were all dressed up.
Meanwhile, I was beginning to understand the nature of a longer series. And I started to suffer from full-length book envy. My Pecan Grove Press chapbook is 56 pages, which is larger than a lot of chapbooks but smaller than a book. But from there, I was able to learn how to find publishers for two full-size books released this year (Salem in Séance, WordTech Editions & Elvis Presley’s Hips & Mick Jagger’s Lips, Anaphora Literary Press). I currently have a contract with Mayapple Press for my next book, 4 Rms w Vu, due out 2014.
I think chapbooks are a useful way for an unknown poet to launch a first collection, and they're a good venue for a smaller series anytime during one’s career trajectory. Entering chapbook competitions also helps support the publication efforts of small presses—allowing you to do some good in the larger literary community.
Susana H. Case