The Next Big Thing Interview

“The Next Big Thing” asks writers to self-interview about their books with 7-8 designated questions, post somewhere online or in the blog-o-sphere and then “tag” (5) writers for the next week to do the same. Thanks to Debra Bruce who tagged me. Read her wonderful interview here.

What is the working title of the book?

The Map of What Happened

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was in a dry spell with my poetry. I'd finished my first book and there I was, empty-handed with nowhere to go. And because I'm in a poetry group which meets every other week, I felt some self-imposed pressure to bring work. Whenever I'm in this kind of state, I turn to forms, a way to play. I started to write 12-line poems, curtailed sonnets, and also some 11-line anagram poems ala Terrance Hayes. Memories of growing up in Chicago started to be the subject.

What genre does your book fall under?


What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

No clue. The characters in my poems are too real to me to even think of anyone “playing” them. They are their own actors--you know, "all the world's a stage."

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Since, like most writers, it’s nearly impossible to define one’s own work, I’d like to quote David Clewell, who judged the Backwaters Press Prize that the book won:

This book is so much more than a sum of its estimable parts; there is such palpable life here because there are so many human lives in its pages. And this poet has a real stake in showing us the various ways in which they honestly matter. By the sheer power of her down-to-earth empathy and the resilience of her language, she makes her people our people too.
Welcome to the personal mythology of Elbe’s Chicago—the city that begins with a whisper / and ends with “go” (“Coda: the City Says”). ...This poet cannot stop herself from singing, from celebrating–in the richest senses of that word—the mortal lives of that time and place. Susan Elbe is an unflinchingly reliable witness, and this book is her eloquent, haunted, and unabashedly human testimony. It’s a map of so much that happened, but the most amazing thing of all is surely this: how the speaker got away, years later, with her life.

I wanted this book to capture and save a time and place that doesn't exist anymore. Yes, Chicago neighborhoods still exist, but not like they did then. This was before children knew what went on outside their own lives. It was the beginning of television; no internet; no real access to understanding how those more fortunate lived. I always think of it as a time when people thought everyone lived the way they did and so, despite hardship, were often quite happy.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I’m a slow writer. I do not crank out poems each day. I envy prolific writers. That said, I wrote many more poems about Chicago before whittling them down to the ones in the book. It took me almost seven years. There are more poems to be written, but for this book, I really had to hone down to what I thought the story was. I didn’t want to put in poems that did the same work of moving the narrative along. I've seen that too often in poetry books. The author wants every poem he/she has written to get out there in the world. It's overkill. I'd much rather have a shorter book with only those poems essential to it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

This is a difficult question for any author to try to answer. When you say "compare," there is a temptation for the reader to think you are comparing in the sense of quality so I need to disclaim that before I answer. I think this book compares in terms of story to Patricia Smith's Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah. She's a Chicago girl too. I also think of Stuart Dybek's Streets in Their Own Ink and The Coast of Chicago, though it's short stories. There are many other books of poetry that tell the story of place and time. It's not necessarily an unusual subject to take on, but one, I think, that needs to be very close to the writer in order to succeed. I hope that mine does.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Easy question. The time. The place. The people. They're in my blood. Despite all of the current fashion to bury the "I" in poetry, this was a book I had to write. We all have our stories and they need to be told, however obliquely or directly. I agree with Jack Gilbert: "This whole absurdity about doubting the 'I' in poetry I don't understand at all. That's the source of communication of things that matter." I do, however, use "her" quite frequently in the titles of the poems--this was a conscious device to move the poems out from the "I."

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I think there's a sense of Chicago's history embedded in the poems, which might be interesting to some readers. It's also a paean to my working class roots, a rather timely subject for this country as we watch average working people get vilified by politicians. I don't want to mislead readers, however. This is not a political book.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

The Map of What Happened will be published by Backwaters Press in 2013, and I'm thrilled to be published by such a good and long-established small press.

My tagged writers for next Wednesday, February 20, are:

Mari L'Esperance

Cathryn Cofell

Susan Cohen


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