MARIA S. PICONE, Managing Editor
A Conversation with Erin Little, Poetry Chapbook Contest Winner
This conversation has been truncated. Tune in for more on Erin’s MFA program and thesis, how her work is rooted in place, tips for people who are writing into places and moments in their lives, her next projects, and potential next steps.
MP: Hello everybody. So, I’m here today with Erin Little, the author of Personal Injury. It’s a wonderful chapbook of poetry, but I would say it’s kind of hybrid CNF-y in its essence. When we saw it in the queue we were really struck by the presence of place, the real embodiment of different ways of being around health, sickness, and injury, and the way that this has all come together in a chapbook which I really feel like has the scope of a full-on memoir or novel. It is really a pleasure to talk with Erin today.
So, Erin, tell me how long you’ve been working on this chapbook, and did it start from wanting to discuss these things or did it come together as a cohesive project as you were working on it.
EL: So, great question. Thank you so much for that intro, that was very sweet. I would say that a lot of these pieces have been sort of in various iterations for at least the past five years, if not more. Some of them have been living within me for longer than that, have sort of been in different essays or stories or other poems that I’ve kept. I think that poets like to keep things, and I’ve kept them and redistributed them in this chapbook and it’s definitely the latter of what you just said, the intent was never to go into a poetry chapbook with this content. I’ve been learning a lot recently in my last year of my MFA that we don’t really ever choose, I don’t think, what we write. There’s not a lot of that kind of decision making involved. It just kind of happens. As you mentioned, the places that are involved in this chapbook are kind of pronounced and I think that’s partially because I’ve been working through a lot of these questions around injury and trauma and health for my whole life, and they’ve finally sort of come out in a way that I am comfortable sharing and I’m proud of and that I don’t feel in a quandary about. I feel happy with the way that it has come out.
MP: I’m really glad to hear that. I know that it can be difficult, whenever we are talking about something super personal or something that happened, and we are trying to make into art, and it’s about navigating that boundary. One of the things I appreciate about our chapbooks in general is vulnerability and honesty, but without spin. If you read some of our former chapbooks, they have that: this is what it is and this is how that has affected me, but it’s not played up for drama or sympathy. I really like that element to your work, so that was one of the things that really drew me and some of the people who read it to the chapbook to begin with.
You use a phrase in your answer, “have been living in me” and I think that’s such a gorgeous way to put a description of that and a summation of experiences expressed through poetry and art in general. Now, this chapbook also does a lot of archival work. Could you talk about when and how you decided you wanted to incorporate some of those things into the process of this chap?
EL: Sure, that’s an interesting piece because it’s the most recent addition to this project. I’ll put it this way: I was sick from ages six to about eight or nine, from 1999 to about 2001 or 2002, and that was a time before everything was mass digitized. Lots of paper, lots of hard copy things, and so I realized last year around Thanksgiving—around this time, maybe a month later—that I had never actually seen or interacted with a lot of the materials and files that were given to my parents while I was in treatment or were kept well organized because they were about my care. I had never really thought to ask to look at it. I finally did, I finally asked my mom, who I knew would immediately know where it was, even if she hadn’t looked at it for years. She brought at this giant binder that is literally right over there. I took it last November and I’ve had it for almost a year now, which is crazy to think about.
So, I started to dive into this binder that is basically a parent’s or guardian’s workbook or guide, if there could ever be such a thing, for how your child is going to go through chemotherapy. A lot of it looks like a school binder where there are tabs or handouts or calendars. A lot of it looks like a school binder used by my nurses to keep tabs on me and what was going on. The main material I wanted to work with were these letters that I found tucked into the binder. They weren’t given to my family by the hospital; they were actually written by my parents to inform my community about what was going on. I was in a small Catholic school in Dallas, a very tight knit community, and my parents had to figure out how to communicate this to everyone. That’s the content of the letters that I found, it’s like my parents trying to filter this horrible thing through correspondence. It was so jarring and interesting to find this material because it allowed me to look in the past in a way that I had never been able to.
As a writer and as a person who is still studying and working toward getting better at my craft this was sticky to me, and I wanted to keep going with it. There are pieces in the book that are blackouts of these letters; there’s a xerox of the calendar pages for the first month of chemotherapy. These are all things that are very real and tactile. That’s part of why—I agree, I think that, although they don’t make up a bulk of the pages of the book, everyone I know who has read the current version agrees that they add something really indispensable to it.
MP: Yeah, I agree 100%. Visually and content wise, that was one of the most striking things. From the queue, we receive hundreds of submissions—
EL: I’ve done the chapbook contest thing before and its crazy!
MP: So, what we do is we have some readers go through, and I go through, and I read, and we narrow down a finalist list and present to other people in the org, the EIC and other editors, and we decide what we want to do. It’s crazy to me that these were added so late, but there’s value in that. There’s this mining, excavation, that was done maybe as the last step in putting the chapbook together and coalescing the project, but I agree that these pages made a huge, outsize impression in terms of showing what your intentions were as the poet and standing out from the other finalists that we had narrowed it down to. The content’s different, it’s exciting, its hybrid but not done in a hokey way. Poems like “To the parents” and “Pain Scale” were some of the most visually and poetically striking, especially because they’re in the first section of the chapbook and I think those will continue to impress people who read this chap.
EL: I always forget about the “Pain Scale” poem just because those images just come from life saturation. Anyone who has been to a doctor’s or pediatrician’s office can probably relate to the idea of the face changing and relate that to how much pain is being experienced. That was probably one of the earliest ideas I had when I decided I was going to set myself up to write poems about this experience, and that was something I shied away from for so long.
One of the entry points I had for content that’s hard is latching onto the images and archives. I’m working on an essay right now that deals with these themes, and something that I called to mind that I haven’t thought of in years is that my parents were sent home with a Charlie Brown VHS special, and it’s the episode where Charlie Brown befriends a girl that ends up having cancer. And the doctors gave the VHS to my parents saying, “I think this might comfort her,” and they showed it to me, and I remembered it viscerally. So I’m starting to write this essay about something completely different in a CNF class and I end up at this Charlie Brown special. I think it’s like, when something is hard, we try to cut it with something else. That’s what humor is, and there are moments of that in the chap as well where my voice goes from being more amazed and in wonderment kind of vibes to a harder edged “I’m going through heartbreak and pain” but especially with trauma, it’s a survival mechanism to cut that with something that is external.
For me, writing about a prose way about this experience, which is hard in its own way, my brain wanted to ping-pong back and forth between the actual grit of it and the cartoon because seeing that was so nice; it was such a nice reflection. That’s another thing that I’m excited for, for this to be out in the world. There are more people than we realize that have gone through cancer or a significant (childhood) medical trauma, and it’s not an easy thing to talk about in conversation or at the bar or at the party. I’m hoping that, with finally writing this stuff, it reaches people that need it.
MP: I hope so too, and I think that’s a great goal, it’s a great mission. One thing that really strikes me about this chap, I like that it’s in sections that grow with time. I read a lot of work about childhood trauma or something that happened in childhood, and the entire chap is that. There’s nothing that’s wrong with that, but when reading your chap there’s a sense that the speaker is living, and that’s something that’s often absent from these narratives of illness and trauma that I feel is necessary. It almost feels like a work in progress, and the speaker’s experience is a work in progress that doesn’t end when the chap ends. There’s a life there. Was that a conscious choice or was there some other way that you played around with organizing it into sections?
EL: I’ve always loved sections. I love sections across genres. If you read a short story by me, it’s section breaks, it’s space breaks. I think that there’s this inclination toward compartmentalizing for me, at least with writing, because I think it’s such a useful tool. One of the reasons I love poetry in general is that it teaches you how to read it. You read a poem on its terms, not on your terms. You come to a poem, and you have to surrender yourself to a poem, and for me I love the vulnerability in that. But as the author you have to create the optimum conditions for someone to do that, to come to the text and lose themselves in it.
I love doing editorial work; it’s been a year and a half I think since I was EIC of New Delta Review which runs a contest every year, and we do that it teams and it’s a lot of work. I can remember and relate to things you’re saying when you’re looking at the work and thinking, there are poems in here and things that I love, but the organization is not there, or the presentation is not there. It’s not as simple as being sloppy or organized—it’s that you can’t just write the content; you have to find a way to deliver it. I think that’s so fascinating when it comes to comedians or standup. They’re just saying the same old BS, they’re talking about lives and kids and sex and pain and whatever. Its comedy but what makes a standup good is the way that they deliver it and the cadence and performance of it.
A lot of people get bogged down in the idea that the content needs to shine which it can—that’s why I’ve had so many pieces from the chap published—but there are certain ones that I know better than to submit because they need the structure of the book. They need the juxtapositions around them to work. That’s an aspect of putting the book together that you don’t know until you read. And the kids are not reading anymore—I can now say that because I’m in my thirties—but you also don’t get it if you don’t stick with it. I have submitted this chapbook in all its iterations. By the time it got picked up, I had been submitting it for a year. And I know that’s not too long—novels can take decades (and story collections), a play can take a decade, it’s just that I really resonate with what you’re saying in that I’ve read the slush pile and fallen in love with singular pieces, a story or novella, but the whole thing is not there yet. That’s why when you’re the editor it can be easy to turn that kind of project away because it’s like you’re onto something but you’re not there yet. Before CR picked up the book, I was on one or two finalist lists, I was on one for Variant Lit, and it can be so affirming and very nice. The first contest I submitted this project to I was on the semi-finalist list, and I was over the moon, but then over the year, over the months that pass, I was like how many finalist lists, how many longlists do I have to be on before somebody just wants it, you know?
MP: I feel you on that, that’s happened to my chapbooks as well and I think that what you said, from an editorial standpoint, it’s really gutting. Sometimes these chaps have something really valuable to say and you know that and feel what the author intends but there’s just stuff around it, and that doesn’t mean that it’s not good stuff, but it’s not the right stuff to bring out those contrasts. I think juxtaposition is a good word because sometimes when we get childhood trauma or familial trauma or something that’s trauma-centric you can’t make the whole chap trauma-centric because then it’s all the same. This chap does a fantastic job of balancing how important that is to the speaker with other things that are going on in the speaker’s life. There’s romance, there’s friendship—I want to steal the way that you write friendship by the way—and it really is embedded in place—Brooklyn, Lake Charles, maybe somewhere else in Louisiana?—that struck me because the speaker is going through this experience and processing their surroundings in a similar way to how we’re being introduced to the hospital wing, the hospital bed, yet at the same time we’ve moved on from the hospital wing, the hospital bed.
EL: I’m so grateful to you, Maria, to everyone—thank you!
Erin Little is a writer and editor from Dallas, Texas. After graduating with a B.A. in English from Loyola University New Orleans in 2015, she moved to New York to pursue a career in publishing. Over six years Erin worked as an editorial assistant for Columbia University Press, Routledge Research, and Penguin Random House. She will graduate with an MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University in 2024. Her poems and essays have appeared in Chestnut Review, Hobart After Dark, Juxtaprose Magazine, New Orleans Review, Prelude Magazine, The Shore, and trampset. Find her online @little__erin.