(A note: the chapbooks we’ll be examining are by poets. This isn’t meant as a slight to any fiction or nonfiction writers, photographers, or artists also participating in this challenge. It’s simply that poetic chapbooks are both a bit more readily available. It’s also easier to look at a single poem than a story or essay, and for me easier to describe what’s happening in a poem than to detail a photograph or art piece for our purposes!)
No Silence in the Fields
|No Silence in the Fields by Rachel Mennies (Blue Hour Press, 2012)|
In an interview with Hayden’s Ferry Review (see link below), Mennies describes her chapbook thusly:
The chapbook makes a narrative study of two characters as they move into a barn in rural Massachusetts and hope to have a child. “Barrenness” comes early in the collection, providing a chance for the female character to express the depths of her frustrations with her body. This was one of the earliest poems in the chapbook: one of the poems from which many others emerged, one where I realized this character had more to say.There are two things I love about this description of her own work. First, I love how Mennies establishes, in simplified form, that this chapbook is telling a single story. There are many elements to this story, but it is a singular story. Second, I love how she hints at the purpose and play in developing a chapbook. Both in this interview and elsewhere she discusses how the chapbook came together, without her even realizing that a chapbook was what it would eventually become. If you’re sitting with your piles right now, or even if you keep going back to that one piece you know you want your chapbook to be born from, take heart in this! If you build it, the rest will come.
The first poem in No Silence in the Fields is titled simply “The Barn.” Yet there is nothing simple about this poem. The piece does a great deal for the establishment of the chapbook as a whole:
Setting: This poem sets the stage for the landscape of the rest of the collection. Not only does it instantly establish that a barn is the literal setting; it also establishes bodies as the figurative and symbolic “setting” of what’s to come.
Tone: “The Barn” also establishes the tone of the chapbook. One thing you’ll notice if you page through No Silence is the threadbare layout. This poem establishes a landscape that is at once cold (the repetition of the question “Whose” suggests that we are entering a retrospect world, looking back on a story long over) and haunted by warmth. We begin with a “red shoebox,” paired with a “poisoned apple.” Mennies gives us a magical fairy tale landscape in the darkest sense: more of the darker side of those original tales than what we get from Disney. We are set on guard—we know that what’s to come may not end “happily ever after.”
Expectancy: One of the most important “gifts” from this poem is the sense of expectancy for what comes next in the collection. The repetition of “Whose” internally to the poem leaves us wondering, external to the narrative, whose story we will enter. We are met with juxtapositions that call us to question: there is at once a “mewing cat” and a “hissing wolf.”
We will begin to look more at how the first piece in a chapbook is extremely important on Monday … but for now, let it suffice to say that the first piece is your “Crown.” It is the piece that sets the stage, delivers the tone, and prepares your reader with that sense of expectancy for what comes next. One thing you’ll find as you work through the process of creating your chapbook is that not every piece you include is on the same playing field. Some are higher, some are lower. One of the keys to compiling your work is thinking of how to get from one piece to the next, and how to keep your reader going.
No Silence in the Fields is available to view online (see the link for the text below). Your task for this weekend is to check out “The Barn” and see what it does for you. Does it make you want to keep reading? Why? Or does it perhaps do nothing for you? In either case, keep reading. See what comes next. Think about how, and why, Rachel Mennies chose the order and structure and style she did for her narrative. As you do, begin to think about what choices you need to make for your chapbook!
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