The bees are flying: Conversation with co-editor Virginia Konchan about Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems (edited by Sarah Giragosian and Virginia Konchan) curated by Tiffany Troy

Sarah Giragosian is the author of the poetry collection Queer Fish, a winner of the American Poetry Journal Book Prize (Dream Horse Press, 2017) and The Death Spiral (Black Lawrence Press, 2020). Sarah’s writing has appeared in such journals as Orion, Ecotone, The Missouri Review, Tin House, and Prairie Schooner, among others. She teaches at the University at Albany-SUNY.

Virginia Konchan is the author of the poetry collections Bel Canto (Carnegie Mellon, 2022), Hallelujah Time (Véhicule Press, 2021), Any God Will Do, and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2020 and 2018), a short story collection, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017), and four chapbooks.  Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Yale Review, Boston Review, and The Believer.

Sarah Giragosian and Virginia Konchan are editors of Marbles on the Floor, a one-of-a-kind craft book on the theory and practice of assembling a poetry collection featuring contributors Diane Seuss, Heather Treseler, Christopher Salerno, Annie Finch, Stephen Kampa, Alyse Knorr, Harvey Hix, Karyna McGlynn, Philip Metres, Kazim Ali, Cyrus Cassells, and Victoria Chang.

Tiffany Troy: In “Restless Herd: Some Thoughts on Order” by Diane Seuss, she asks, “Might your book’s arrangement, taken far enough, be you?” Can you speak about how this one-of-a-kind craft book on the theory and practice of assembling a poetry collection came about?

Virginia Konchan: Sarah and I participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar at Vassar College in 2017, Elizabeth Bishop and the Literary Archive, and became fast friends and readers of each other’s work. A couple years later, through email, we got to talking about ideas for a collaborative project, and, having discussed the struggle of putting together our first and subsequent poetry collections, landed on the idea for a craft anthology about how to assemble a book of poems. I think this idea was directly influenced by our time in the Bishop archives at Vassar, as we were immersed in the material construction of Bishop’s work and life. Possession by archive fever, and ongoing meditation on Bishop’s books and creative process, which was slow and deliberate (she wrote 100 poems in her lifetime), along with our own poems and books, gave rise to the concept, concurrent with our realization that the topic of how to actually construct a poetry book was relatively undertheorized and unwritten.

TT: And we as readers are so lucky that Sarah and you were able to realize a craft book that demystifies the very nebulous and sometimes trying process of putting together poetry collections. How do you balance the inclusion of poets working in different modes and from different traditions in your curation of the essays in the collection? How do the essays themselves offer advice and counterpoint?

VK: We solicited poets for the anthology based on our admiration for their poetry and poetry collections, as well as prose (specifically essays), keeping in mind that we wanted to have a heterogeneity of voices, styles, and traditions represented, and different approaches to form. So the poet-contributors who agreed to participate sent us their essays, which we together edited, and the book slowly took shape (without the contributors having read the other essays before the anthology’s publication, which allowed for a natural continuity and flow between the essays, such as frequent mentions of Robert Frost, or chance-based manuscript assembly procedures).

The essays definitely capture a wide swath of poetic modes and traditions, as you mention: Diane’s essay draws from Dickinson’s herbarium and fascicles, and discusses the daemonic pull between order and disorder; Cyrus Cassells acknowledges Lorca, Sufi poets, and Orhan Pamuk among his influences; and Philip Metres’ essay, animated by a counterarchival impulse, is a ballast against the nationalist and mnemonic claims of hegemonic discourse. The modes and traditions of each poet in the anthology, for their own work, are as varied as can be, and their essays reflect that kaleidoscope of approach and inheritance in the diversity of forms the essays take: epistolary, lyrical, autobiographical, scholarly, meditative, and even an F.A.Q.

I wouldn’t say that any of the essays offer “advice,” per se, in a didactic or teacherly way, but rather offer signal posts and flares relating to their own approaches, as poets, readers, editors, educators, and makers. On a meta-level, Sarah and I arranged the order of an anthology about order so that the essays would follow and speak to each other in interesting, productive ways. Harvey Hix’s essay “Some Assembly Required” is an essay comparing the nuts and bolts of assembling a bookshelf to the structural assembly of a poetry book as its guiding metaphor; that essay was preceded by Alyse Knorr’s “Writing on the Wall: A Mystery,” that advocates for allowing chance, mystery, and the unknown into the manuscript assembly process, questioning also the final product of a published book with the many different iterations it could have been; and Hix’s essay is followed by Karnya McGlynn’s “Leaping Between Seams: What Analog Collage Taught Me About Sequencing a Book of Poems,” which pairs her coming-of-age as a poet with the advice received in creative writing programs, and how her practice of collage has informed her approach to making a book of poems, inviting elements of surrealist and play. I hope the anthology gives the reader a sense of both the vast differences in formal approaches to putting together a poetry book, as well as the intuitive courage, through the wisdom therein, to find that secret magic themselves in their own poems and books: the inner song or magnetism.

TT: Yes! And that inner song in turn can draw from the examples, as you mentioned, that these very accomplished poets can provide. Can you speak about a few of your personal key takeaways in the essays included in Marbles on the Floor? For me, I enjoyed thinking of strategies to turn my “chaos” into a concept with Karnya McGlynn and using a chapbook project to make poetry feel accessible (being tangible) and assessable (as a project, in visual terms and in structure).

VK: Absolutely! Their confidence inspires that in the reader. As for key takeaways, I find that to be a difficult question, because toward the end of the project (almost four years from conception to publication) I had so fully absorbed the essays (memorizing each word, each sentence, each comma), which made it harder to think about them personally, rather than editorially. I admire each essay greatly, in many different ways, and continue to re-read the anthology and glean new insights and appreciation, but my involvement is only now as a reader.

I love that idea of turning “chaos” into a concept in Karnya’s essay, and DIY chapbooks (which allow control over the means of production) as a way to make poetry feel accessible and assessable: that craving she speaks to for a tangible form, something she envied in visual artists at the time, is so compelling. Although my main insights are more editorial, about helping shape a book with many contributors and moving parts into reality, and reflecting critically about the different lenses through which manuscript assembly can be essayed, I always come back to either images or metaphors in an essay (in Heather Treseler’s essay “Poems as Paintings: Life-Drawing in Words,” the chalk and dust in the high school her father taught at, recollected from childhood, and the role of paintings, ekphrasis, and the art of looking in her poetry; in Diane Seuss’ essay, the liberation of inviting chaos, or unbinding into a manuscript compared to unhinging a bra). At other times I think about practical applications, as in Christopher Salerno’s essay “F.A.Q.: From Press Authors, Graduate Students, and Editing Clients,” which contains a wealth of suggestions about such matters as how poems can speak to one another and the “aboutness” of a collection. Beyond that, probably the most salient takeaway for me has been the whole of the anthology, taken together: as a reader, it was the book I dreamed of reading since I was in my early 20s. My current poetry ms. is the first I sent to my publisher without having hired an external editor. While I would have welcomed another set of eyes, it didn’t feel necessary because of what I learned from these 12 incredible poets, internalizing and applying their craft and sagacity.

TT: What are your hopes for this collection? I love how Victoria Chang compared the crafting of a collection to taking care of a bonsai. I thought the metaphor is particularly apt because it demystifies the process in putting together a collection while acknowledging the idiosyncratic qualities unique to each person’s work.

VK:  My hopes are that it reaches as many readers as possible, from all backgrounds, at all stages of life and the poetic vocation, and with every different approach to form conceivable. The collection ends with Chang’s essay, which so beautifully uses the metaphor of bonsai care in relation both to one’s parents and one’s manuscript, as you say, as a method of tending, listening: her final sentence is “Because in the end, so much of poetry is about faith.” Just as most learn best, in any discipline, from example rather than instruction, I hope these essays both provide a roadmap into an often-concealed process as well as light fires of faith and recognition within.

TT: Do you have any closing thoughts for your readers?

VK: Stephen Kampa nailed it: “only you can write your book.”

Tiffany Troy is author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review.