The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2016

All Issues
SEPT 2016 Issue
Books In Conversation


Chialun Chang
One Day We Become Whites
(ND/SA, 2016)

Chapbooks are magic. For those who read them, for those who publish them, for those whose work lives in them—we know this to be true. How exactly to pinpoint that magic or break it down, well, that would be revealing the trick. But even if we could, chapbooks aren’t objects to be explained. They are objects to be enjoyed just as they are—exquisite and radical and ephemeral no matter how they manifest, and able to bring entire communities together in celebration of their particular success.

If this interview feels more like an reunion than a formal exercise, it’s because the participants have all inspired each other to perform this particular alchemy through their small independent presses at some point in the past, and continue to inspire each other as they collaborate and push the boundaries of how small presses and chapbooks can function within their particular communities. As Jen Hyde invited Sonia Farmer to collaborate on chapbook projects with her New York-based press, Small Anchor, Farmer went on to create her own small press, Poinciana Paper Press, when she returned to The Bahamas. Through frequent reunions in New York City, Jen invited Sonia to bind chapbooks with Emily Brandt at No, Dear, a journal featuring writing of New York City poets, which Emily runs with Alex Cuff. Soon enough, magic occurred: Small Anchor and No, Dear have come together to form ND/SA, whose latest offering, One Day We Become Whites by Taiwanese poet Chialun Chang, is a series of poems that, despite their quiet first impressions, provide devastating observations on cultural schizophrenia in the New York space.

Sonia Farmer: What is the particular magic of chapbooks?

Jen Hyde: The best chapbooks are encounters with a writer’s poems, short stories, chapters from novels, or journals that, in some way or another, don’t quite belong in a larger work. The shorter form lends itself toward a more intimate revelation of a writer’s weirdness. And as short form, a reader can more clearly see something that is emerging in the larger scope of a writer’s work, or perhaps as an extraction that is held up as a kind of celebration of strange, delightful, complex thinking. It’s wonderful, as chapbook publishers, to make a book that enables these works to be visible, but the real magic of publishing the chapbook lies in the time and material we devote to what we might also call an ephemeral blip.

Emily Brandt: Jen, I love what you say about chapbooks being a little window into what’s emerging in the larger scope of a writer’s work. When I read Bianca Stone’s chapbook Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, or Monica McClure’s chapbooks Mood Swing and Mala, I felt like I understood the vision that they were working towards. For Bianca, there was a deeply visceral humanity and with Monica a brassy and intelligent feminist lens. When their books came out, I was really excited to see the longer, more fully realized work that their chapbooks introduced me to. In this way, chapbooks are a sort of teaser, while also being a cohesive collection in their own right. I love publishing first chapbooks because it allows us to create this kind of experience for other readers and poets. Isabel Sobral Campos’s work comes with a totally irresistible recording of her reading it, which emphasizes the cadence and musicality essential to her work. Chialun Chang’s chapbook is full of grit and humor and piercing intelligence. David Feinstein’s chapbook is so dark and still tender. I’m so curious to see what happens next for all three of these poets, as well as Shante’ Cozier, Emily Skillings, and Brian Trimboli, whose chapbooks we also published.

Alex Cuff: To build on Jen’s phrase, “ephemeral blip,” there’s something about a chapbook that takes up both more and less space than a full-length collection. For me, the materiality of a chapbook intersects with time and place to create a record of my reading and discovery of the object. I found my way to two writers I admire, Simone White and Jacqueline Waters, through their chapbooks. Lisa Jarnot gave me a copy of Waters’s The Garden of Eden a College and I carried it around reading and rereading for several months, and then got to experience that body of work contextualized in her full-length collection One Sleeps the Other Doesn’t. I came across a copy of White’s Unrest at Saint George’s English Bookshop in Berlin, and though I knew I could easily find it when back in New York, bought it to feel a little closer to home. I rode my bike to the river, opened a beer and read it twice. I’d never experienced a book that did so much for me in so little space. Those chapbooks introduced me to the concerns of both authors’ work through an intimate and focused medium encompassing the magic to which Jen and Sonia refer.

As a publisher of chapbooks, the relationship is layered. The discovery comes at the moment of reading the manuscript, but also happens over and over again through the process of collaboratively building the publication with the author. An ND/SA chapbook that is close to my heart is Sometimes Angels by Shante’ Cozier. Cozier is a visual artist and writer who sent us an extraordinary poetry manuscript. She had a clear vision for the appearance of the chapbook; we harnessed that vision by creating a stamp from an illustration that she shared with us, and using it as the cover design. The process lives visibly in every chapbook, as the hand-stamped design means that no cover is the same. As a high school teacher who employs the creation of chapbooks in my curriculum, I see this repeated unique discovery experience play out for my students as well—the movement from a text document to a handmade object that can be carried around and read.

Farmer: I’m really feeling this idea of a chapbook as an “extraction” of “strange, delightful, complex thinking.” Some of my favorite chapbooks aren’t even necessarily straightforward collections of poetry or a short story or even a manifesto, but the kind of “writer’s weirdness” that wouldn’t find a home if not for the equally strange publishers who love this sort of weirdness, themselves. I’m thinking of such projects as Jen Bervin’s Nets, Erica Baum’s Dog Ear, or Karen Reimer’s Legendary, Lexical, Loquacious Love, which each engage with found text or the book as material for further exploration. I think the particular magic of chapbooks lies in its ability to be a platform for any kind of writerly exploration—and also any kind of publishing exploration, too. Some of the most beloved chapbooks in my collection come from authors themselves and not through any press, such as you were vast unto others—, a gorgeous chapbook Jen Bervin created on a typewriter in only thirty copies, and gifted to me as payment for assisting her in her studio. I think that’s an example of the “ephemeral blip” you refer to, Jen. And those are magical moments. I love how forgiving and how expansive chapbooks can be to encompass all of these creative experiences.

Hyde: Sonia and Emily, I think you’re highlighting the difference between 21st-century ephemera (GIFs, tweets, e-cards) from chapbook ephemera. Reading chapbooks feels personal, in no small part because so many of them are objects of handiwork, and because it is hard to not think of both the production of their writings and of their physical productions. Of course there are some digital projects, like 7×, that operate as both literary magazine and chapbook. Because they feature a single, collaborative project that is both written and visual every week, they activate intimacy between story and authors, and authors and reader. I remember when Nathaniel Otting gave me a copy of Uljana Wolf’s my cadastre / mein flurbuch, a slim collection of her poems that he’d translated, printed bilingually, and bound with his press, Nor by. Years after he gifted it to me, I passed it on to a dear friend on her birthday. Because the poems were published bilingually, and because they are about daughters and fathers, it was the only thing I could think to give my friend, who is also a German poet and who is working on a book about her father. My reading experience of Wolf’s chapbook is still very clear in my mind. When I later encountered her poems that move between English and German, I remember immediately thinking of this chapbook, and its (beautiful) limitations as just an intimate introduction to her poems.

Farmer: Yes! Chapbooks are my favorite gifts to give! I don’t really give traditional books as gifts anymore, but my friends certainly have collections of chapbooks that I read and then gave to them, or chapbooks I’ve made. I’m pretty sure I only sell a small fraction of my chapbooks, which makes me a terrible business person. But I love knowing they are in the book collections of people who appreciate their blend of writerly and artistic exploration. And I think when you give them away or trade them for another chapbook, you embrace their ephemeral nature and acknowledge that magic with another person who understands how special it is. Hopefully. I hope everyone gets the same Christmas morning feeling that I do when I receive a chapbook or piece of ephemera as a gift. If chapbooks are magic, small presses are their magicians—or perhaps, more accurately, alchemists of the written word and the book object. How was No, Dear born? I’m always interested in why and how certain press names exist—what is the story behind No, Dear?

Brandt: No, Dear was born out of an ever-evolving poetry workshop in Brooklyn that began in 2003. The name was originally “No Deer,” as in “this magazine will have no wolves, no bears, no deer.” We were critiquing a particular hip aesthetic at the time, and came up with a silly title, which we immediately changed, to the more nuanced “No, Dear.”

Farmer: I love that. Why did you begin to work with Small Anchor Press to expand into a single-author chapbook series? How would this offer something different from the poetry journal?

Brandt: After years of publishing the journal, Alex and I were dreaming up different approaches to making chapbooks. We knew and admired Small Anchor and Jen Hyde’s brilliant work, so we invited her to join us for a first chapbook project.

Hyde: As work takes a lot of emotional labor and results in emotional satisfaction, I think we came together out of admiration for one another’s work as separate presses. At the time No, Dear approached Small Anchor, the press had unofficially retired. Revitalizing it in the form of a collaboration, under the premise of a contest, seemed like both a manageable and fun way to keep the anchor afloat.

Brandt: We were so excited when Jen agreed to collaborate. We’d been huge admirers of Small Anchor’s work, and were honored to help catalyze it back into action. We spent a lot of that first book trying to rein in Jen’s rapid-fire creative ideas to keep the project manageable, which is one of the many reasons why the collaboration was so fruitful: we each brought different strengths and perspectives. The first project went so well that we kept going, and we intend to continue the collaboration and see how it evolves with each experience.

Farmer: Jen is so fun to work with for that reason. She has this uncanny ability to recognize the creative potential in other people as well as projects, and I think that’s an important quality to have in the small press and chapbook world. I love that she is always up for pushing projects further and takes inevitable design setbacks in stride. Anything is possible when it comes to the chapbook form for Jen, and I appreciate that she ingrained that sensibility in me. One of my favorite collaborative chapbook experiences is when she invited me to help out with Kimiko Hahn’s A Field Guide to the Intractable. This book had so many design components including being wrapped in silk cloth and used about three different printmaking processes, but at the end of the day, every tactile element successfully created a special physical context for the reader to more fully engage with the thematic weight of Hahn’s text within.

Hyde: Oh gosh! Small Anchor only lives on because of No, Dear. Our friendship and relationship is, as Emily, says, so productive because of our different strengths, and it is also what enables us to continue on as chapbook publishers. When Small Anchor started, I was a very excited, overly energized undergraduate who was both resistant to and confused by digital literary spaces. I think I felt that chapbooks functioned differently than online magazines and journals, but that the difference between digital space and book-length works relied on handmade papers and elaborate bindings and printing methods. Sonia, I remember being so moved by your first hand-set chapbook, which you gave me as a parting gift when you left New York. I remember thinking, yes, this is what a chapbook is. I’ve loved watching you publish Bahamian literature in this book form because your mission has made you a lifetime explorer of book arts. This is something that I will never be, and around 2012, something I realized Small Anchor could never be as well. When No, Dear and Small Anchor partnered, Emily and Alex helped me see that the function of the chapbook was not that different from these other modes of publishing, and that the distinction could be both conceptual and material. This, I think, is the direction our projects are headed in now.

Farmer: That’s really encouraging to hear. Often personal projects, I think small presses are no strangers to short lifespans and long hiatuses, but I think their strength lies in their adaptability. We may have a mission, but we also clarify that mission with each new project we take on because most of that time, the project involves collaboration in some form and expanding the limits of your alchemy. Even the straightforward act of publishing a chapbook is a collaboration between a press and an author, let alone the amazing collaboration you two have embarked on with ND/SA chapbooks. What do you think it is about the nature of small presses that offer such a rich opportunity for collaboration, and how important is that within the function of ND/SA?

Brandt: Well, at small presses, you have total artistic freedom, so you can really grow something from the ground up and have a sense of how integral each person’s vision, intellect, and labor are. Small presses are less concerned with money and branding, of course, but in almost every way you can imagine, they run by their own rules and processes. It’s really much more like a family collaborating to birth a child than colleagues laboring to make a marketable text.

Hyde: I think that also, as writers, collaborating on a book for another (and in our case, emerging) poet inspires new conversations about form, context, politics, and identities. Without marketing obligations, as Emily says, these conversations can be very freeing and less about a form of literature we already know and more about a form of literature that surprises us. Last April I observed a panel on small press publishing at the NYC/CUNY Chapbook Festival at the Graduate Center on which Emily and Alex spoke, and in which the conversation turned toward the necessity to read beyond one’s own community. This is something that we discuss a lot when thinking about new projects to take on and new writers to work with. What community are we entering into a conversation with through this chapbook? What writing community in New York is new to us? What are their values? How do those values change ours?

Farmer: I wish I had seen that panel, because these kinds of discussions are so important when we think about the responsibilities that small presses have to their communities, which I consider our most important collaborator. I felt it was appropriate when you said No, Dear came out of a poetry workshop, because I see the press as an extension of that exercise, all with the endgame of building community. Why is it important for No, Dear to cultivate contributors firmly rooted in New York City?

Cuff: We hope each issue of the magazine can, in a small way, document the extraordinary poetry that is responding aesthetically and politically to life in New York in the early 21st century as well as give voice to the concerns that traverse the larger and smaller inter-related communities of poets here. Building community is at the heart of No, Dear. Because we only publish local writers, our launch readings usually include all, or almost all, of the poets in the issue, so everyone gets to meet or reconnect face to face.

Brandt: The in-person connections that No, Dear poets make with each other are so exciting to witness. We create as many opportunities as we can to bring poets together, who may not know each other well, or at all, but who are part of the larger community of NYC writers. It’s always fascinating to read submissions. We read pretty much every poem aloud, often several times. And you start to hear repeated concerns and poetic moves. There are threads that tie the works together, even as each poem is doing something unique. This is a big city—we need all the face-time we can get. So bringing the poets from each issue together to speak their work aloud creates a powerful dynamic. And we follow that up with a variety of other encounters.

Farmer: That’s really inspiring and important work. When I started out, I wanted to share voices from the Bahamian and wider Caribbean community. I remember thinking, “This is going to be way easier than trying to do this at the New York level with its hundreds of presses and writers.” But the Caribbean is such a fragmented space and the need for literary community so great that I become overwhelmed that I can’t be all things to all people. At the same time, I struggle with a larger audience that I feel doesn’t value literature at the level I want to engage with it—or even literacy. So perhaps New York offers the perfect opportunity for many small presses to exist because you can focus in on certain unmet needs in such a large community hungry for literary opportunities. This is probably the perfect example of the grass always being greener on the other side, but is that true? How does the No, Dear magazine offer a different platform for writers than what is currently out there in the literary magazine world—especially in such a flush setting as New York City?

Cuff: I am more than often overwhelmed by the abundance of literary happenings and publications in New York but I suppose what feels overwhelming is also the beauty and richness of the city’s literary communities. One way in which No, Dear tries to traverse the literary landscape is by bringing together writers who might not otherwise be in dialogue: both emerging and established poets from diverse backgrounds who are all living and writing in the five boroughs. Each issue of the magazine, published biannually in spring and fall, is representative of a particular season of a particular year in which poets respond to a common theme giving voice to contemporary concerns around both content and form. Each publication creates a critical conversation that we try to continue by following each launch with a published dialogue between two poets in the issue, which gives them a chance to deepen the conversation that began by their poems finding a home in the same issue of the journal. And then, a couple months after each issue launches, we host a reading curated collaboratively by all poets in the issue, again widening the circle.

Brandt: I especially love the follow-ups to each issue that Alex mentions. It’s often at the Poets Who Love Poets reading—the collaboratively curated reading—that we are introduced to writers who might appear in a future No, Dear or whose work we otherwise will keep following. And while those readings generally include only NYC poets, sometimes people will invite a friend from out-of-town too. And we recently published the dialogue for our “Popular” issue, in which Bridget Talone and Chialun Chang discuss the obsession with popularity and how it evolves across one’s lifespan. We have plans in the works for one more post-issue community-building platform, which we’re excited to announce—hopefully soon! And we’re collaborating with #BlackPoetsSpeakOut for our next issue, which we’re really excited about too.

Farmer: That does sound awesome and brings up an important point about who we as publishers decide to give a platform to, and what kind of community we wish to grow. What do you look for in a manuscript being considered for an ND/SA chapbook?

Cuff: The style and concerns of the writers that ND/SA publishes are varied. We look for manuscripts that are heartful and innovative and where there’s something at stake. Work that we feel needs to be in dialogue with an audience and the larger community. Working in a field that has historically privileged white patriarchal perspectives, we prioritize publishing the writing largely representative of women-identified poets, non-gender conforming poets, and poets of color.

Farmer: What was it about Chialun Chang’s collection of poems, One Day We Become Whites, that drew you to select it for publication?

Cuff: Chialun Chang’s poems are direct, wild, vulnerable, self-effacing, and intimate. The language shows tough love and the poems teach the reader how to read them. We fell in love with the poems she’d submitted for the issue and once she sent us her manuscript, we knew it would be the next ND/SA chapbook. This was the first time we didn’t open submissions for a chapbook contest because we knew we wanted to publish her manuscript.

Brandt: Her poems are so vivid, and feel extremely careful even as they take tremendous risks. We had published two of them in an issue of No, Dear, and at every encounter with Chialun’s poems in the editing and the production process, Alex and I, and Monica McClure who was our guest editor, just expressed shared joy, really, at how good they are. When we asked Chialun if she had a manuscript, and she sent us ONE DAY WE BECOME WHITES, we were over the moon. Jen loved it too and the bookmaking process was a dream. At this point, I really can’t imagine life without Chialun’s words.

Hyde: When Emily and Alex shared Chialun’s poems with me, I heard a powerful voice, and I wanted to know more about the mind behind it. The project of collaboratively publishing Chialun’s book prompted many varied conversations about writing, the immigrant experience, “Chinese” identity, and the freedom of writing in a second language. A big reason I think Chialun’s poems are so great is that they are fearless, charged with dynamic images that challenge how we think about race, love, longing, and New York.

Farmer: Totally. I had what I can only refer to as immigrant déjà vu reading the collection and remembering what it was like moving from The Bahamas to live in Brooklyn for five years. Some lines absolutely killed me, like, “The day you drop your tears by feeling nothing, that day you are a member” from “Post Cities”—I remember having that moment and I remember thinking, “This is what it’s like to live in New York, to cry in a public place without gaining attention.” And how empowering and relieving and also lonely that realization is. I also remember being very observant my first year there and living a very internal life, as if I were an extra in other people’s very important New York City lives, and I was struck by that perspective in Chialun’s poems. She had an extra hurdle to grapple with in terms of language, which I found reflected in heartbreaking but also powerful moments in the collection. How do you think the emotional core of Chialun’s poems is firmly rooted in the “New York Experience” while also challenging that experience?

Brandt: Well, Chialun is working as both an insider—an active participant in NYC life and literature—and an outsider as an immigrant artist, living here without family or roots. So many New Yorkers can identify with this position, which brings a really astute ability to observe what some other folks take for granted in NYC/American living. The emotional core is extremely strong in Chialun’s work. There is so much love and desire there, such tension between observing/accepting what seems unfair and navigating a way towards voice and change. Plus she has this caustic, yet warm, humor that feels distinctly New York, a unifying trait shared by New Yorkers from a multitude of backgrounds.

Hyde: Because Chialun identifies as Taiwanese, her chapbook also invites conversations about this experience and other experiences of what we call huaren (people of “Chinese” ethnicity who do not come from Mainland China). This version of identity is not often talked about outside of Asian American communities, and it is one of many themes that Chialun explores in her chapbook. In this way, her chapbook highlights the innumerable New York experiences that are so easy to miss because they are nuanced, or not written in English (though English has enabled Chialun to explore this space). I also hope that her chapbook reaches my other huaren friends who, like me, question their identity all the time. Her poems, as Emily says, navigate the very real desires, hates, and tensions that people operating between spaces can feel.

Farmer: Jen, I’m glad you are clarifying this because another facet of immigrant or diasporic experience that this brought up for me is never feeling like you truly belong in one place or another; moving will change you, and your relationship to “home,” especially—as in Chialun’s case—if that relationship with home was already fraught with its own identity tensions. I felt that in her poems, especially in the last, “Gypsy,” even though I had no idea about the dynamics of huaren. It’s really powerful that this chapbook gives space and voice to that experience. I’m also really interested in your point that “English has enabled Chialun to explore this space.” Her use of English in the collection felt defiant, even in the face of the most despairing subject matter or devastating emotional experience, and I felt really energized by that because I think that language is the best ammunition poets have against the injustices of life.

I want to bring back this idea of alchemy and magic in the chapbook making and reading process. Even though we aren’t supposed to “judge a book by its cover,” I particularly love that chapbooks often turn that phrase on its head by including structural elements that contribute to the overall storytelling experience. What are you most excited about in the design of Chialun’s chapbook and how it relates to her work within?

Brandt: I love the simplicity of the cover. We wanted a stark white background. And the title is letterpressed, from a polymer plate made from a scan of the handwritten title. It’s the first chapbook we’ve made by letterpress in a while. Chialun’s work has so much happening that we wanted the design to be clean and simple, to let the words have the space they need to do the work they’re doing. Chialun also decided to include her Chinese name, written in her father’s hand, included on the title page. It’s beautiful to see her name in both languages when you open the book, and of course sets the psychic space for the pages to follow, which are navigating between cultures and their overlapping and conflicting ideologies.

Farmer: Bringing us back to community, how did you find the launch of One Day We Becomes Whites strengthened the ND/SA community? How do you see the project moving forward?

Brandt: We launched at the Taipei Cultural Center, and much of the Taiwanese audience was being introduced to No, Dear/Small Anchor for the first time—possibly to chapbooks for the first time too.

Hyde: At her launch, Chiaun’s chapbook became a text that explicitly advocated for a visible Taiwanese voice, both in New York and in Taiwan where people’s voices are often compromised by colonial and postcolonial identities. I think to specifically contextualize a work of poetry that holds as many themes as One Day We Become Whites does is to reach readers who might not otherwise see the necessity for poetry in their lives.


Sonia Farmer

SONIA FARMER is the founder of Poinciana Paper Press. Her work often engages with contemporary Bahamian society through the lens of history and mythology, specifically in the realms of feminism and the tourism industry. Her artwork has been exhibited throughout Nassau including at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, Doongalik Studios, The Hub, & the Central Bank Art Gallery. Her poetry has won the 2011 Prize in the Small Axe Literary Competition and has appeared in Tongues of the Ocean: Words and Writing from the Islands, The Caribbean Writer, Poui, the WomanSpeak Journal, and Moko Magazine. She holds a BFA in Writing from Pratt institute and is currently pursuing her MFA in Book Arts at The University of Iowa.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2016

All Issues