An Interview with Chelsey Burden

January 7, 2017

 

Chelsey Burden is originally from Kingman, Arizona. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University, where she also received her Bachelor’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies/Sociology. Her work has been published in Gazing Grain Press, The Ploughshares Blog, 3Elements Review, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Contemporary Ghazals, Literary Mama, Flash Fiction Magazine, Entropy Magazine, White Stag, and The Narrow Chimney Anthology. Her chapbook Thorax Carnival will be coming out through Dancing Girl Press in 2017.   

 

 

Megan “Orion” Dressler: To begin in a very broad way, this is something that I ask people who have either completed or are working on their MFA whenever I get the chance: For many undergrads, there seems to be this stigma that the writing we turn in for class, whether it be poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction, can’t be something we also submit for publication, and it’s a sentiment I’ve never really understood. Do you have any insight as to why that might be, or is this something that you felt once, and what advice would you have for those who do feel this way? 

 

Chelsey Burden: Throughout my MFA program, my professors actually encouraged the opposite and helped us find places to publish our class assignments, so maybe the sentiment of classwork and publishable work as mutually exclusive depends on the professor or program. Although I haven’t been in a class where students have a stigma around publishing classwork, I wonder if part of some students’ reasoning is that something that begins as classwork isn’t as “original” as something you do outside of class. If that is their reasoning, I definitely disagree with it. Nothing is 100% “original” and I think it’s kind of a weird purist ideal to strive for anyway. Even humans aren’t these totally original, fresh-out-of-nowhere beings; we are literally composed of old matter and energy that’s been recycled and transformed. Same with creative writing—all of it is comprised of the same old elements (26 alphabetic letters) and the shared experience of consciousness. Every idea emerges from somewhere that already exists, so it doesn’t matter whether your prompt came from class or elsewhere, it matters how you personally recycle and transform ideas. 

 

MD: Another big broad question—something that interests me as a writer of multiple types of work is how others who also do so switch gears when going between poetry and fiction or whatever you would consider your Misfit Doc. Are there things you only do in poetry, like techniques or diction or a certain voice, that you wouldn’t use in fiction or vice versa? 

 

CB: What’s cool about writing multiple genres is that each kind of writing can inform the others. For example, the spiel I just went on about originality and recycling was actually stuff that had occurred to me while writing a poem, and now I’m using that idea in a non-fiction context. Hence, one genre informing another. Some people might write various genres while in the same headspace, but I tend to compartmentalize more and access my mind in different ways while writing each genre, so the crossover happens after the fact. Other than the structure itself, a big difference when I write each genre is the voice (which is then accompanied by different diction and tone). It’s using imagination to settle into a specific voice—a fictional character, a snarky narrator, a morbid poetic persona, whatever. Each voice has a different end goal of what it’s trying to convey, so naturally it will summon different ideas and descriptions. Another difference is that in poetry, I go into it not knowing what the end goal is, but in fiction and non-fiction I have more of a plan. 

 

MD: I wanted to take a closer look at the Misfit Doc “Instruction Manual: Your Stalker™” (this link: http://queenmobs.com/2016/04/misfit-doc-5/) which I’m not sure is something you’d consider a poem. I’m interested in your thoughts on writing in a very specific form like an instruction manual. I know there are poems like the definition poems that borrow the form of a dictionary entry, but there’s a lot of creativity within that. What was writing the instruction manual like? Were there any issues you ran into where you wanted to write something a specific way but it would have conflicted with the form? If so, how did you think/write your way out of that? 

 

CB: It was pretty fun writing the “instruction manual.” It was easier than writing a regular narrative, and I think that’s because having a specific form made a heavy topic easier for me to approach, and hopefully easier for readers to absorb. I think writing non-fiction in specific forms is similar to writing structured poems in the sense that by using restrictions to narrow something down, you are actually opening up new idea pathways. Using the format of an instruction manual sparked ideas about connections between typical instruction sheets and the topic of stalkers. For example, “troubleshooting,” “flammability warnings,” and “toxicity warnings” are all instruction manual phrases, and those made me think about the stalking behaviors that could be described using the same language. What I appreciated about writing the manual was that at any points where I may have wanted to write something in a different-yet-conflicting way, the form kept things on track. For example, a manual demands concrete descriptions, step by step instructions, and a businesslike tone. So, instead of just describing my emotions or experience, I had to discuss the subject from all these other angles. Recontextualizing a subject can definitely help you or your audience to understand it in a new way. 

 

MD: To follow up, do you consider it to be a poem? Why or why not? 

 

CB: No, I don't consider "Instruction Manual: Your Stalker™" to be a poem because I wrote it more to inform than to discover, and because at least for me personally, structure/form is what differentiates poetry from other genres. If anything can be anything, the definition becomes meaningless.  

 

MD: The ghazal is a form that’s been brought up in classes, and I’ve always admired it for its intricacy, but despised its difficulty. It’s a form I’m both drawn to but intimidated by, so I’m incredibly interested in the process of the creation of your ghazal “Untamed Disintegration” from Contemporary Ghazals No.6 Spring 2016. What inspired you to write a ghazal, and what difficulties did you run into while writing it? 

 

CB: It was actually a class assignment! The ghazal is a great example of how structure helps us to dig deeper and come up with different words, and therefore different concepts, than we normally would. There’s a kind of free association within restriction. In Ravishing DisUnities, Agha Shahid Ali says, “[O]nce a poet establishes the scheme—with total freedom, I might add—she or he becomes its slave. What results in the rest of the poem is the alluring tension of a slave trying to master the master.” It isn’t too hard to come up with a word that has the right syllables or rhyme scheme, but the difficulty is finding a word that also makes sense. The structure allows you to create the “dots,” but you then have to figure out a way to connect the dots so it’s meaningful. It’s kind of a fun challenge to come up with meaning from the opposite direction—starting with the properly rhyming word and then working backwards to discover the story of the line. 

 

MD: There are moments where you leave a little extra whitespace between words, which can be seen in your poems featured in White Stag’s #Neogoddesses issue, such as “The Girl among the Geese” in the line “as if to say,         It is the weight,” and also in “Fletching.” Poems “Thorax Carnival,” and “The Deception of Moths” from your forthcoming book Thorax Carnival also feature this whitespace. What is the significance of these? Are they cues for reading aloud or cues for moments for thought for the reader, or perhaps something else entirely? 

 

CB: I use white spaces as another form of pausing, I guess the same way you could use a line break or punctuation mark, but something about white spaces helps me pause in a different way. And it’s also useful for reading-aloud cues as well! Sometimes the white spaces signal a shift, like a shift in who is speaking, or a shift in how a certain metaphor is being used. 

 

MD: I’m a sucker for a sequence poem, so I’m drawn to “Fletching” and the mystical forest mixed with a deadly precision vibe I get when I read it—elves even come to mind, to be honest. I’ve had some poems where I haven’t intended to write a sequence but they just come out in these parts and they just fall into place as a sequence. Was that the case with “Fletching”? What inspired the poem? 

 

CB: “Mystical forest mixed with a deadly precision vibe”—that’s awesome! “Fletching” began as an exercise. I started with five words to build a poem around, so I had to come up with ways that the words could be connected. I ended up making three distinct scenes out of them, so it made sense to break it into a sequence, sort of as another way to signal to the reader that we are shifting into a new scene, yet the scenes are all within one poem because there are thematic and symbolic threads that run through them.    

 

MD: There are a lot of birds and insects in your work, from small moments like the phoenix that appears at the end of “How to Exit” and the butterflies and their wings in the first stanza of “The Girl among the Geese” to poems that borrow almost entirely from birds and insects like the first two sections of “Fletching” and “The Deception of Moths.” What is it about birds and insects that draws you to them? 

 

CB: I have no idea. Bugs are cool, and birds are convenient metaphors? Maybe it’s because concepts like stagnancy and self-destruction and flight are more obvious when wings are involved. But also... these creatures are just cool to admire. 

 

MD: To expand a little more on the phoenix at the end of “How to Exit,” that’s such a strong way to end that particular poem, with that image. I’d just like to hear more about that ending and how it came to be. Was the phoenix a device you knew you wanted to use or did it just, for lack of better phrasing, fall into place for you? 

 

CB: The image of the phoenix at the end of that poem didn’t emerge until probably a fifth or sixth draft of it. In The Flexible Lyric, Ellen Bryant Voigt talks about the “modularity”—the way that knowledge is the accumulation of little parts working together that collude to form a knowledge that is bigger than the sum of all those parts. She compares it to ants. You have to read it. But basically, the phoenix image is the result of my brain ants. Some of the ants in my mind were thinking about bridges and burning them, some ants were pitching in thoughts about self-sacrifice and “burning out,” so when the phoenix imagery randomly crept into my thoughts, it was able to collude with what was already there to make a relevant connection. 

 

MD: Some themes like the insect imagery and qualities are consistent between what we see in the White Stag pieces and the work from Thorax Carnival, but the structure is a bit different with the indentations of lines, specifically in “The Deception of Moths.” We also see those small white spaces between words in this poem, but more often than in the White Stag poems. Do you find that the poems in Thorax Carnival in general are doing noticeably different things than your previous work, or were there any new techniques you found yourself using when writing the poems for Thorax Carnival? 

 

CB: A lot of these poems were written around the same time, but some techniques I've been enjoying include repetition, recontextualizing a subject within one poem, and playing with structure, such as using the rhyme scheme of a sonnet. I also think internal rhymes and near end rhymes can help bond ideas together to enhance the connection between words or between thoughts. I also like shifting metaphors, creating a meaning for an image and then subverting it in the next line. 

 

MD: How did you go about choosing what poems you wanted in the book? Are they centered around a theme or idea, and if so, what do you consider that theme to be? If not a central theme, what do you see is the common thread among the poems in Thorax Carnival, if there is one?

 

CB: Thorax Carnival began as a section of my poetry thesis. As you mentioned, certain images seem to creep into a lot of my poems, so I compiled them based on similar imagery. When I looked for potential connections between the poems, I realized that each poem alluded to the thorax in some form. Either “thorax” in the insect sense, or “thorax” in the human anatomy sense (the area between the neck and abdomen). Some people have critiqued female poets for writing “too much” about the body, but for most of human history females have been reduced to their body and oppressed because of it, so it makes sense to speak out about it, not invisibilize it. I think there's power in reconceptualizing the body for yourself. So that's one of the threads I see in this collection. 

 

MD:  Is the idea of women being criticized for their bodies/for writing about their bodies something you talk about within your work in Thorax Carnival, or are the poems' bodily imagery and their unabashedly being about bodies doing that work in a more "implicit" way, or a bit of both? 

 

CB: I think it's more implicit. It's present in the sense that I'm writing from a place of occupying my body rather than trying to transcend it into some false kind of superior objectivity. I don't believe there's an objective point of view, so I embrace the subjectivity and don't really care if body imagery is cliché or too "feminine" of a topic. 

 

MD: The poem “Thorax Carnival” seems to play with the juxtaposition of dark and light, or happiness and sadness, or something more grave even, sort of this two sides of the same coin idea. The whole of the poem is doing this work, but I also see this same idea in the phrase “Christmas tree skeletons” from your poem “How to Exit.” What are your thoughts on this juxtaposition, or where two conflicting concepts rub up against one another? Is that a space you seek to work in? 

 

CB: Maybe it’s an illusion that these concepts are conflicting, or that they are even separate entities. The Christmas tree skeleton is an inherent part of the Christmas tree. My brother is always reminding me that there's a spooky skeleton inside each of us RIGHT NOW. I do see how things like carnivals have innocent or cheerful connotations, so any darkness seems like a juxtaposition. Poetically, that can help create a grotesque effect. But I think that the darkness is always there, it's just a matter of whether you pay attention to it. Morbidity also probably just shows up because I can’t deal with mortality. I think I use poems to grapple with it, to force myself to acknowledge it. I understand that mortality is what gives value to time, but I also see it as a huge terrible threat. I guess it's a huge terrible threat that gives value to time

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