Making a Book By Hand: Curtis Smith Interviews Erin Dorney

Erin Dorney is a writer and artist based in Pennsylvania. She is the author of I Am Not Famous Anymore: Poems After Shia LaBeouf (Mason Jar Press) and her writing has appeared in various publications including Hobart, HAD, Passages North, and Juked. Erin’s literary artwork and installations have been exhibited at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art; Hennepin Theatre Trust; the Minnesota Center for Book Arts; and Susquehanna Art Museum. She is a co-founder of Fear No Lit, home of the Submerging Writer Fellowship and Notebooked.

Curtis Smith: What a beautifully packaged collection. I could feel the love behind it. I’m guessing you produced these yourself—can you talk about that process—the physical making of it and the motivation behind it?

Erin Dorney: I made 100 copies of Accept/Reject by hand, all during the month of January 2021. I had been working on these poems for a few years, and I needed a social media break. I planned this project specifically to keep my hands busy and get offline, something that’s been difficult for me to do during the pandemic. I had learned about zines, handmade books, and artist books a few years ago, but this was the first large, editioned project I have tackled.

I think all writers should experience making a book by hand. There’s a self-publishing stigma we’re up against, but zines (and historically, pamphlets) are one of the most accessible forms of publishing. The creator has control of every aspect, from the content to the typography, cover design, number of copies, assembly, and distribution. It can be done cheaply (or expensively), with a lot of forethought or relatively little. To look at a book and know that you did every step yourself—to remember that feeling of pushing a needle through paper—is an incredible thing. I value Accept/Reject just as much as I value my full-length, perfect-bound book of poetry (perhaps more, even).

CS: So not to give too much away, but these are erasure poems—and the structure is a split zine—one half acceptances for your own work and the other half rejections. Each side starts with its own epigraph from Anne Truit—and each ends in the middle where you have an author’s note. Can you tell us about the content? Were you already writing these poems and the idea came to you to bring them together in this way? Or did the idea of the whole project come to you first?

ED: This idea was actually sparked by the Kickstarter Fear No Lit ran back in 2019. We were fundraising for the Submerging Writer Fellowship and one of the rewards we offered was called “Fear No Poem.” For $50, I would write backers an original blackout poem from the source text of their choosing. Two people picked this reward, and one of them asked me to write an erasure poem from an acceptance or rejection email I had received. I loved it and just kept on writing them.

I didn’t know until much later what the final form would be, but I did keep the acceptance poems separate from the rejection poems as I worked. As every writer knows, getting a rejection email feels drastically different than getting an acceptance email—I was curious to see if that energy would carry through into the poems. Accept/Reject really helped me transform that gut-punch of a rejection. I printed them out, re-read them a bunch of times, and tried to find something of value inside them. Some people might consider that masochistic, I guess, but for me it was more motivating than anything.

CS: What about the erasure form intrigues you? In the form you use, there’s a single word on each line—but there are other forms of erasure that use blackout—so it looks like a redacted document. Have you used that form before? If so, what about the form you use in this collection appeals to you more?

ED: I tend to re-write most of my erasure poems, but they always start on paper. My process is to print out the original source text, and then use a pencil to circle words, draw lines, and make notes. If I go right in with a Sharpie to redact, I mess it up right away—going over a word I need or something like that. Retyping the poems after I’ve gotten messy on the page gives me a little more control over the poem—I can add line breaks, punctuation, etc. It also helps get me off of my computer. Once I have the source texts printed, I also bring them places with me to work on, compile them in a folder. It’s very hands-on.

CS: I read this in one sitting—I’m guessing that’s your intention—and then I read it again—and I don’t know if I can properly explain it, but there’s a certain feeling in experiencing it back to front in its totality—almost like I’m overhearing parts of a conversation—or like watching boulders in a stream. I’m not explaining it well, I’m afraid—but I’m wondering if that was in your mind from the start—creating a kind of overall mood when the pieces were read together rather than just reading a piece here and there?

ED: I like the image of boulders in a stream. I’m so glad you said this because it makes me feel better about something I find extremely difficult—ordering pieces in a collection. I had a really hard time ordering in my full-length collection, and ultimately left the final decisions up to my (amazing) editor Michael B. Tager. Since then I’ve been trying to get better at creating that overall mood through ordering. What helped with Accept/Reject was that I had a lot of poems to choose from. I had upwards of 30 poems and ultimately picked 16 that I thought worked best together for this collection.

CS: May I ask about the erasure process? You don’t change word order, correct? As you go through, are you looking for certain kinds of words in a certain sequence, or are you playing it by ear and seeing what strikes you?

ED: Correct—all of the words are still in the same order that they showed up in the original source text. There aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules with erasure (beyond the very important ones of citing your source text and considering your privilege when erasing other voices) but I find that many of us adopt certain stylistic choices. This is one of mine. What I’m always looking for when writing erasures are interesting word combinations and unique language. That’s the beauty of using a source text—you never know what you’re going to find.

CS: What’s next?

ED: I’m looking forward to attending some zine fests, where I can share Accept/Reject with other people who make their own books. It’s also available for sale on my website. This summer I’m working on the first draft of a creative nonfiction book about the Goo Goo Dolls and I’ve also got a hybrid project that relates to Adriene Mishler of Yoga By Adriene (some poems from that manuscript can be read at HAD). Ultimately, I’m always accruing more acceptance and rejection emails (usually more rejections than acceptances, as my personal policy is that everything is worth a shot), so maybe there will be another installation of Accept/Reject someday.

Seeing, Believing, and Other Things

In Seeing, Believing, and Other Things, PC Scheponik employs eager pen and abundant heart to explore the sublime interstices of quotidian existence. Whether pausing over the beautiful brutality that makes us sigh the moment the truth bleeds into consciousness or losing himself—and us, his readers, along with him—amidst the helixed emptiness that all living species share, the poet approaches not only the world but the universe at large with a curious blend of wide-eyed wonder and world-weary experience. Evoking shades of Whitman, Scheponik’s poetic eye spots the divine majesty in all of creation as he sings of the delicate balance between life and death with joy and reverence. Here is a poet with humor and heart, at home among the silken protein notes of a spider web as he is partaking in the beautiful dance of the galaxy across the field of infinity. His poems are self-described love letters to God, family, and all of creation, and although—spoiler alert—everything falls to pieces in the end, we are fortunate to have the poetry in this collection to shine a light on all that is beautiful and wondrous in our universe until then.

What I Saw

In an essay titled “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that in nature, “We return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Throughout his latest collection of poetry, titled What I Saw, Jack McCarthy partakes in the same miracle of transubstantiation, becoming a transparent eyeball himself as he floats through the material world and records his observations with precision and clarity. From this perspective, McCarthy bears witness to a myriad of events: Adam and Eve inventing the concept of love, chipmunks making booty calls, elephants gone mad, a child drifting away on a leaky boat, a red sweatshirt gone missing, Hannibal Lecter singing the praises of fava beans and chianti. His poetry evokes our humanity and frequently draws attention to the mortality that we all share. He writes of animals and literary figures, poetry and wandering. He’s profound without being pretentious, a plain-spoken observer of the human animal. From McCarthy’s perspective, we’re all traveling somewhere, even when we appear to be stalled or meandering.

Women on Poetry – Review by Christine Redman-Waldeyer

Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching is the handbook every poet and teacher of poetry should carry. This book brings awareness to not only the art of poetry but also to the voice of women.  It is a tool for both the seasoned poet and for the new poet trying to make their way.  Jenny Sadre-Orafai challenges the poet to enrich their writing life and consider other genres. Others guide us through family and career demands to make time for writing.  We are nurtured to find our writing tribe as Kate Chadbourne suggests and given the tools to promote experimental poetry.  It’s about finding voice, digging into life experience, and as Tracy L. Strauss suggests knowing how to “take the truth of tragedy and turn it into an art form.”  Doris Lynch instructs how to cast our fishing line into the pool of ideas and begin our poems.  Bonnie J. Robinson prompts us to “write a poem of protest; then, write a poem reconciliation.” Women on Poetry is an invitation to introspection and creative self-actualization, inspiring us to be both practitioners and mentors.

Christine Redman-Waldeyer, founder and editor of Adanna, a journal about women’s topics and issues is the author of two books of poetry, Frame by Frame and Gravel, Muse-Pie Press.