I was privileged to hear today’s guest, Dominique Traverse Locke, read from her graduating thesis. I remember very clearly that I was inspired to laugh and moved to tears by her words.
When I found out her first chapbook of poems was available, I was eager to read it. I’m happy to say, The Goodbye Child did not disappoint. The poems contained in this thin volume explore themes of loss and grief in a way that is both moving, and, ultimately, uplifting. Dominique’s style is comfortable, without being kitschy and her poems are both easily accessible, and full of deeper complexity. They contain that feeling of effortlessness that comes only as the result of great effort.
I asked Dominique to share some insight into poetry in general, and the publication of The Goodbye Child.
Tell us a little about your first poetry chapbook, The Goodbye Child.
The Goodbye Child wasn’t originally a chapbook-length collection. Actually, it began as my MFA thesis at Queens University of Charlotte, and it was three times as long, broken into sections, and had a completely different title.
After graduation, I sat down with my laptop and read through my entire thesis again.
Then, it hit me like a ton of bricks, like a Mack truck, like a ten pound hammer, like a (insert YOUR favorite cliché here): Even though I had wanted my thesis to be parlayed into my first book, it just wasn’t ready yet. Nowhere near it.
By about the nine or tenth read through, I noticed a thematic pattern that I hadn’t noticed before. I pulled those poems, pasted them into another document, and sat back wondering what in the world to do next. I had just butchered nearly 70 poems down to ten.
Knowing that I didn’t want to come limping out of the gate into the literary world, I spent three months revising the ten old poems, writing new poems, weeding out the new poems, and slowly but surely, a new manuscript began to take shape. Twenty poems later, I realized that a full-length manuscript was not going to happen (at least not with the poems I was currently working with) and I reluctantly came to terms with the document saved as “MSS 2” being a chapbook.
What was the process like, once you came to grips with a shorter-length project?
I hate to admit it, but I used to be an anti-chapbook kind of girl. I thought that chapbooks were cop-outs, the fraidy-poet’s easy way out. Boy, was I wrong! I found this out the hard way when I was shopping mine. The same dog and pony show a writer has to put on to pitch their full-length manuscript applies to chapbooks as well: The same reading fees, the same query letter requirements, the same contest anxiety, the same submission process, the same rejection process.
You eventually queried Aldrich Publishing, and they responded positively.
I had several rejections from presses before Aldrich Publishing picked the new manuscript up.
Once the acceptance letter came, there was little time for celebrating. Editing and approving proofs, signing contracts, assisting in cover design, and lots of other things kept me occupied for weeks. Once the buzz died down, I was able to momentarily bask in the glory of publication, but soon the responsibilities of having a book came a’calling – book signings, readings, promotion, etc. And that’s where I currently am.
As a non-poet, I’m interested in how the writing process works for you. Can you talk a little about how you develop a poem from the earliest stages to a point where you feel it is ready to be shown to the world?
A poem for me will begin in one of two forms.
- One block of text in “paragraph” form with no line breaks. (Occasionally)
- Many short choppy lines brought together and set aside for later line integrity assessment. (Predominately)
I prefer the second method. Occasionally, I’ll start with a combination of both of these, but more often than not, I’ll start with many short lines.
What are you looking for as you begin to assess and revise that initial effort?
Line integrity, though I am always striving to get better, is something that I really, really put at the top of the poetry priority list. I try to maintain/create as much of it as I can. A line must be able to pop in content, context, syntax, etc. It has to work alone before, during, and after being placed among other lines.
In order to satisfy that standard, I may end up breaking and re-breaking a line and/or stanza many, many times before I’m satisfied. Sometimes one line is sacrificed at the expense of another, but sometimes it cannot be helped.
I’d love it if you could share an example.
Here’s an example of a poem I’ve written and the many different ways I “shaped” it before settling on the final draft.
Leaving the Nest (Originally appeared in Victorian Violet)
Leaving the Nest 1
We never sat down and passed the potatoes like those good families. We each grabbed on the run, mouths too full to talk of the day. And now, I sit in my own kitchen, scraping the jar’s bottom for peach preserves – your last taste of Earth. There, on top of the biscuit, I see the same deep brown of your eyes. At the head of the table, I set a place for you. Above the absence, the window reveals a crow perched beside a weathered nest, an empty cradle wafting in the tree.
Leaving the Nest 2
We never sat down
and passed the potatoes
like those good families.
We each grabbed
on the run, mouths too full
to talk of the day. And now,
I sit in my own kitchen,
scraping the jar’s bottom
for peach preserves –
your last taste of Earth.
There, on top of the biscuit,
I see the same deep brown
of your eyes.
At the head of the table,
I set a place for you.
Above the absence,
the window reveals
a crow perched
beside a weathered nest,
an empty cradle wafting
in the tree.
Leaving the Nest 3 (Published version)
We never sat down and passed the potatoes
like those good families. We each grabbed on the run,
mouths too full to talk of the day. And now,
I sit in my own kitchen, scraping the jar’s bottom
for peach preserves – your last taste of Earth.
There, on top of the biscuit, I see the same deep brown
of your eyes. At the head of the table, I set a place for you.
Above the absence, the window reveals
a crow perched beside a weathered nest,
an empty cradle wafting in the tree.
Beyond the shifting and swaying of lines, what are you looking for in your work when you transition into editor mode?
After line integrity, I usually look to weed out boring nouns, adjectives, and verbs…especially verbs. It’s important to pack as much into poetry as possible without packing it full of words, all the while remembering that, “If it’s not on the page, it’s not in the poem.” Planting little seeds in the reader’s mind along the way is essential to resonance. A poet cannot wait to tie up the poem with a nice little bow at the end, nor can the poet rely on this. That being said, I rewrite to make sure the ending isn’t doing all the heavy lifting.
For most writers, having a few, respected, early readers is an essential step in refining a new piece, and I have to assume that’s true for you, as well.
There are a few trusted eyes I like to share my work with once I’ve revised. After they’ve looked at it, they usually find things that I could have done better, BUT the most important information they give me is whether or not they “got it.” If I’ve written something close to me emotionally (which is basically all The Goodbye Child consists of) I want to know if I’ve written something so close to me, that it excludes the reader. If I can successfully take a private personal experience and make it “universal” yet remain true to the poem itself, I’ve done my job. Once I get that stamp of approval, I’m content that the poem is “finished.”
In some ways, your poems seem so effortless, though I know you work diligently to get the words “just right.” What aspects of your work do you have to really fight for?
Titles are what I struggle with most. If anyone has a fool-proof quick and easy fix or a copy of Titling Poems for Dummies, I’d pay big for either one.
The Goodbye Child is available from Amazon, or you can order directly from Dominiquefor a signed edition, mailed directly to you for $14, shipping included. (You can also contact her through that link, which is her Author page on Facebook.)
Her first full-length collection, No More Hard Times, will be published by Alabaster Leaves later this year.