Don’t you sometimes wonder where poets and writers’ characters come from? I do! Several times a day! Especially when I am waiting for mine to appear. Well, Lisa J. Cihlar, celebrating National Poetry Month with me today, is posting here exactly about this matter. And about the gestation, birth and life of her books. Fascinating … Enjoy!
I. A Character Emerges From the Swamp
Somewhere around a year and a half ago I wrote a poem and there was a character in it called Swampy Woman. Who knows where she came from? It happens that I grew up on a farmette in the middle of a swampy area in Door County WI, so I had wetlands always in my psyche, but I didn’t intentionally bring the swamp to my poem. Besides, that was just one poem and I had no design to write any more. But then, months later, who shows up but Swampy Woman. I was hooked after that. At that time I was writing a poem-a-day with a group of online poet friends and I took off with the character and wrote one poem after another. When I had about 25 of them, they just stopped coming.
Now that I had them, I wondered what to do. With the help of my wonderful teacher/mentor Terri Brown Davidson, I revised the poems and shaped the whole bunch of them into a chapbook titled The Insomniac’s House, from a line in one of the poems. I sent them out to a half dozen contests, and had no nibbles. Plus it was expensive. The book was now languishing in a computer file. Then I saw that “Dancing Girl Press” was accepting submissions—no money involved—and I sent the manuscript off and forgot about it.
A couple of months later I got an email saying that Kristy Bowen of DGP loved the book and wanted to publish it. I was over the moon. Kristy hand-makes chapbooks and she does lovely work. When I asked if she would mind if I got my own cover artist she was happy to let me do that. I knew Siolo Thompson through Facebook and thought her artwork fit Swampy Woman perfectly. Siolo read the manuscript and went to work. When I saw the cover design, I knew I had picked the right artist. I love the deconstructing bear on the cover and the woman in red; weird and haughty enough to be Swampy.
I got the first of the books in my greedy hands in January 2012 and it was wonderful holding something I had made from nothing but the thoughts in my head.
The thing about this character is that she seems to have caught the imagination of a lot of folks. Women especially are intrigued. I think it is because the character has sass. She is not Mother Nature as we typically see her, all gauzy and pastel. Rather she is sexy and pushy and apologizes for nothing. Because of this, the book has sold very well.
As a post script to this story of the genesis of a character, I can add that I have written a couple more Swampy Woman poems. She just pops up now and then, kind of showing me that she is still stomping around in the cattails. I’m always excited when she does.
II. A Character Who Remains Unnamed
After The Insomniac’s House poems were done I went back to writing poems on disparate topics. Then I became interested in prose poems. I bought a copy of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry and devoured it. After that I wrote some pretty bad prose poems.
Luckily practice makes better. I was writing a lot of poems and themes were emerging. When going back over the work I noticed I had a bunch of poems written about a character that had no name. They were all about She. And She was losing parts—her voice, her ears, her scream. I didn’t want to look into the psychology of this too deeply, so I just kept writing.
One day I was noodling around on Facebook and John Burroughs who runs Crisis Chronicles Press announced that he was doing a 24 hour chapbook contest. He would publish his favorite chapbook that was sent to him in the next 24 hours. That was too fun to pass up so I threw a book together and sent it in. I expected nothing so when I got an email from John telling me he loved the book and wanted to publish it, I was amazed. After I digested the news, I asked if I could have some time to edit and put the book in better order. John graciously gave me the time I needed. Again I worked with Terri Brown Davidson and made some huge changes to the chapbook: swapped out some poems, wrote new ones, changed the title, and gave the whole thing a loose storyline.
I sent the changed manuscript to John and kept my fingers crossed for two days until he wrote back that he liked the new version better than the first one. Huge sigh of relief on my part. He will publish the chapbook this year under the title “This is How She Fails.” Again I got an artist friend of mine, Lisa Marie Peaslee, to design the cover and I can’t wait to see the final product.
For me there is something special about following a character through a collection of poems. I feel like I know these people like I know my best friends.
Lisa J. Cihlar‘s poems have been published in The South Dakota Review, Green Mountains Review, In Posse Review, Bluestem, and The Prose-Poem Project. One of her poems was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook, “The Insomniac’s House,” is available from Dancing Girl Press and a second chapbook “This is How She Fails,” will be published by Crisis Chronicles Press in 2012. She lives in rural southern Wisconsin.
This blog post is part of the Couplets project, a multi-author poetry blog tour coordinated by Joanne Merriam of Upper Rubber Boot Books “to help promote poetry and poets for National Poetry Month”.