The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Marisa Siegel about her new collection Fixed Stars (Burrow Press, 2022).
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Zeina Hashem Beck, Aldo Amparan, Chen Chen, and more.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Alysia Sawchyn.
Brian Spears: Why don’t we start with how this book came into existence—I know for a long while when you first took over as managing editor of The Rumpus and then later when you became the owner that you were having trouble making time to write.
Emily Francis: I’d love to hear about the decision to include illustrations as well! I teach creative writing at an arts high school, and I was showing students your book today. I wish you could have seen their faces—all surprise and delight—to find pictures in it. Something so freeing about seeing a new way to work with words!
Bethany Ngo: Oh wow, good for you! Yes, great question, Brian. I’d love to know more about your process, Marisa. And yes, Emily, me too! What was it like collaborating with the illustrator?
Marisa Siegel: Sure! I can answer these in one go, I think. Yes, it’s absolutely true that I didn’t do much writing during my time as managing editor, and especially the five years I was owner/EiC of the magazine. The bulk of this manuscript is from my grad school thesis. (I got my MFA from Mills College in 2008, so we’re talking wayyy back.) But there is newer material that was added in during edits. Though I’m getting ahead of myself.
That’s lovely, Emily! Thank you for sharing that (and for sharing the book with the students!). The idea to illustrate the book was part of its inception, actually—my wonderful publisher, Ryan Rivas of Burrow Press, mentioned to me that he was thinking they’d do some of these “weird little art collaborations,” and I mentioned I had a chapbook manuscript. After reading it, he asked me if I had anyone in mind who might work with me on art, and Trisha Previte, whom I knew well from her work as Rumpus illustrator, came to mind immediately. So, Trisha and the artwork were part of Fixed Stars from its beginning with Burrow, which is when I started to see it as a book and not a grad-school thesis.
Brian: Was it a situation where she took your poems and drew in response to them, or were there times when you would add or edit based on what Trisha drew? How did that part of it work?
Marisa Siegel: The writing existed first in all instances, Brian. I spent ten amazing days on a DIY residency (staying at a generous friend’s place in Manhattan) right before the pandemic, and finished up the book there. Once the manuscript was complete, Trisha got to work, and we’d meet periodically to review sketches and develop them further. I didn’t give her much instruction, though—somehow, it does feel like she pulled images from my brain.
Bethany, to answer regarding process: For Fixed Stars, it was almost entirely revision with some new writing toward the end. And for the older poems, I was able to approach them and tear into them because so much time had passed. More generally, I don’t have any one specific process for poetry. I know that the more I write, the easier the poems come, so I try to make space daily for some amount of writing. Most of my poems are tinkered with for years before they’re seen, but sometimes one does come out whole.
Bethany: Thanks, Marisa. With so much time between writing the thesis and putting the book together, did you find that you approached or felt very differently about the poems than when you first wrote them for the thesis? Was the new material you incorporated written as part of the process of putting the book together or written separately and then added in?
Brian: Yeah, what’s an example of one of the poems that maybe changed more than the others given the distance in time?
Marisa Siegel: The entirety of the third section underwent much more revision, and all of the new poems live there. The first section, what I call the “box poems,” were mostly just tinkered with for word choice here and there, and at some point I decided to strip out punctuation. The second section, the “investigation poems,” went through heavier editing but is also entirely material originally written from 2006-2008.
Bethany: If it’s not too personal to ask, I’m curious what gave you the nudge to move it from thesis form to book form. You said you tinker for years before most poems are seen—how do you know when you feel ready to put them out into the word?
Marisa Siegel: I am a chronic over-sharer; no question is too personal!
But I don’t have a good answer to your very good question. Ryan told me I had a book, and I trust him, is the honest answer. And I send poems out on submission but continue to revise them ALL THE TIME. (I also hadn’t been sending work out for many years, and only recently began submitting again as I have these newer poems to share.) But truly, a poem almost never feels “done” to me unless it comes out feeling “done.” “-ning/ begin” is an example of a poem that came out whole.
Bethany: I completely understand!
Brian: Is there ever a point where you don’t send work out because it’s such a pain to do? Asking for a friend who feels that way, who is also me.
Marisa Siegel: I try to submit in batches, to make it more organized and coherent. And I am a long-time user of Duotrope.
Brian: You’ve been doing readings with this book already right? What’s that been like so far?
Marisa Siegel: Yes, Brian! That’s the best part of all this book stuff for sure. I was really lucky to do one IRL reading, in Philadelphia. I didn’t attend AWP proper (I’m moderately immunocompromised) but did go down to Philly for a small offsite reading. It was AMAZING to be in a room hearing poetry with humans, let alone beloved ones.
I also had a virtual launch and am still starstruck by the lineup I was fortunate to grab for that. The video lives here, if you want to hear some really phenomenal readings. (I was SO intimidated to read after these folks.)
And last week I had a very special chat with Trisha about how we made the book, moderated by Lidia Yuknavitch. I’m hoping to set up summer and fall events as soon as I find a place to live in Evanston!
Brian: Which section did you focus on for your readings? You don’t need to give us a setlist, but some idea of what went into your selection of poems to read aloud? Some of these poems I imagine would be challenging to perform given how they appear on the page.
Marisa Siegel: I like to read those four parenthetically titled poems from the middle section as a group, so I’ve done those at 2/3 events thus far. Those poems aside, I mostly read from the third section, and usually read at least two new poems. The first section has a few poems I’ve read aloud in the past, but is the most challenging to do.
Brian: I want to ask a question about form. In those poems from section two, you do this thing with digression, where you sort of change the action in steps. I really liked that move and I’m curious what you were thinking when you came up with that. Like from “Skeleton Collector”: “and the brush, she’d had it in her hand just a moment ago / just yesterday / ten years ago it’s gone.”
Marisa Siegel: That middle section is kind of meant to feel frustrating, like the theoretical investigation isn’t getting anywhere/we aren’t really being given much new information, just reconsidering the same information again and again. Pushing and pulling at the language, over and over, if that makes sense.
Brian: You mentioned that you’d written the 30 for 30 in April. I know these are early drafts, but do you feel like anything has changed in the way you’re approaching language with this new work?
Marisa Siegel: The answer is, sometimes, I think? A lot of the newer poems are a return to a more narrative “I,” although that’s maybe only true in the context of my own work—I wouldn’t say they are narrative poems. But there is a “project” happening, and that’s new for me. I’ve always written individual poems without a larger project in mind, ever jealous of my peers with clearly envisioned projects. So, these poems share connective tissue, because I have a specific idea about this maybe-manuscript.
Tl;dr is: I hide a little bit less in language in the newer work.
Bethany: Are you enjoying writing with a specific idea in mind for this new project? Are you finding that helpful as you write? Or does it just feel strange or maybe a little extra challenging since it’s not your usual process?
Marisa Siegel: Yes, I do enjoy having a specific idea in mind for this new project. It gives me something to write toward. It does pose a challenge when the work stops fitting what I thought the shape of the project was, but I am trying to make my editor brain be quiet in these early drafts!
Bethany: Quieting the editor brain is a big challenge but I think it’s wonderful that you’re trying something new. I look forward to seeing how it turns out!
Brian: Who have you been reading lately? I mean outside of the job (or inside if you want to sneak preview some forthcoming books).
Marisa Siegel: Ooh, my favorite question! I’m this close to finishing Lidia Yuknavitch’s forthcoming novel Thrust, which is as wonderful as you’d expect. And next up in the prose pile are Jesse Ball’s forthcoming memoir Autoportrait (Catapult, August) and Chelsea Bieker’s new story collection Heartbroke. But for poetry, I’m usually reading a few collections at once, and that’s been especially true lately. Victoria Chang’s new collection, The Trees Witness Everything, is a stunner. I literally read it in one greedy sitting, and then read it twice more over the following week. I cannot recommend it enough. I’ve also been reading Ada Limón’s new collection, The Hurting Kind, out next week from Milkweed, and she’s as brilliant as ever. I’ve also been re-reading a TON of Dickinson, and old favorites like Plath, Cummings, Oppen, and Stein.
Brian: What future readings/events do you have set up for the book? And is there any plans to print more of them? This was a limited run, right?
Marisa Siegel: I’m planning to be at Printer’s Row, Brooklyn Book Festival, and Portland Book Festival in the fall, hopefully with readings timed around each of those festivals. And at least one IRL Chicago event once we’re in IL.
The hardcover run was a limited-edition of 300 copies, and we did sell out just ahead of pub day, yes! But the paperback is available in perpetuity from Bookshop and other booksellers.
Emily: It is a little treasure.
Marisa Siegel: Thanks so much for having me, and for reading the book!
Brian: Have a great night everyone!
Author photograph courtesy of author.