Our blog’s ongoing “On the Books” series introduces you to writers from our growing list of Fresno State MFA alumni who are getting their first books published. The 10th installment profiles Stacey Balkun. She serves as the chapbook series editor for Sundress Publications, and her writing has appeared in the journals Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, Iron Horse Literary Review, Gargoyle, Muzzle, and others.
In an August email interview, MFA communication specialist Jefferson Beavers spoke with Stacey about distilling a thesis manuscript into a chapbook, finding a writing community within a writing community, and digging in to what an MFA program has to offer.
When were you in the Fresno State MFA program and what genre did you study?
I studied poetry from 2011-2014, and I got an early start with the 2011 CSU Summer Arts program, where I studied flash fiction and prose poetry with Doug Rice.
What were your first thoughts when you learned that your first two poetry chapbooks, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak and Lost City Museum, would be published? And what was it like having them published so close together?
I was ecstatic! I had been working on Lost City Museum for a while, but Jackalope-Girl came together quickly, and dancing girl press was the first and only place I had sent it!
I was anxious about the release dates being so close together, but in New Orleans, spring and fall can feel years apart from one another. I threw a huge party at Tubby & Coo’s bookshop with local poets for Jackalope-Girl in May 2016, then pushed Lost City Museum to the fall/winter, launching it in my hometown in New Jersey, actually, when I went to visit for Christmas. So I worked hard to separate the two, I suppose.
Did parts of your chapbooks grow out of your Fresno State MFA thesis manuscript, Mapparium, which you described as “a collection of poetry about disconnect”? If yes, what was the process like, taking what was your thesis and making it into something more?
Lost City Museum is very closely connected to Mapparium. Several poems appear in both, though the chapbook ultimately goes further along the narrative timeline. Like Mapparium, it is a book about loss, distance, and growth. Its poems borrow imagery from museum exhibits and the natural world, especially of water.
Creating the chapbook was more of a process of distillation than anything else. I cut away Mapparium to its bare bones, then added some newer poems written post-MFA.
How did you land your publishing deal for Jackalope-Girl with dancing girl press and what about their work was a good fit for your book?
I have always adored dancing girl press. I met editor Kristy Bowen at the AWP conference, where she had a magnificent spread of chapbooks, all by women writers. I instantly knew I wanted to be a part of that community. I finished up Jackalope-Girl and sent it the day the dancing girl press reading period began. I was thrilled when Kristy accepted my book! She’s a fantastic editor and artist, and the art on the cover of Jackalope-Girl is one of her originals.
After reflecting on my poems about Atlantis and Pompeii and their relationship to each other, I began researching other lost cities, and found that there is actually a Lost City Museum in Overton, Nevada, which was created to house and show artifacts from Pueblo Grande de Nevada, a place lost underwater as a result of building the Hoover Dam. Try as I might, I couldn’t write a decent poem for this lost city, so I used it as a book title, which I feel is perfect because so much of this chapbook centers around loss, place, and exhibit.
Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak was named after the poem in the series of Jackalope-Girl poems that I felt was the most about growth and movement forward.
Outside of writing poetry, what work are you doing to make a living?
By day, I write copy for a locally owned women’s boutique in New Orleans, and by night, I teach poetry workshops online at both The Poetry Barn and The Loft. I make a spiritual living by volunteering for One Book, One New Orleans, Books 2 Prisoners, and the New Orleans Poetry Festival, among other literacy and literary initiatives in my community.
[Stacey also serves as an assistant editor for Five Oaks Press, where she recently worked on the editing and design of the poetry chapbook The Politics of Division by fellow Fresno State MFA alumna Emily Jo Scalzo.]
You serve as the chapbook series editor for Sundress Publications. How did that come about, and what do you do there?
Creative Director Erin Elizabeth Smith invited me on board after I visited Knoxville as a writer-in-residence at Sundress Academy for the Arts’ Firefly Farms. She felt that my layout and design skills, understanding of the chapbook form, and previous editorial experience working on The Normal School at Fresno State made me the perfect candidate.
I help organize the Chapbook Prize by finding readers, keeping track of submissions, and ultimately deciding the finalists that go to our judge. Once we have our chapbooks chosen for the year, I create the layout for each book and act as a liaison between cover designers, proofreaders, and our authors.
What about your MFA experience at Fresno State has stuck with you, and what do you wish you might have done differently?
The sense of community, within the university, the city, and the Valley as a whole has stuck with me. Not everywhere has that. I also love that the Fresno State MFA offers so much. While many MFA graduates have only had studio time, I left with experience teaching in my field, running a literary festival, reading for a full-length poetry competition, leading workshops for high school students, editing a nationally recognized literary magazine, and much more.
Sometimes I wish I had spent more time just writing without any kind of workshop or publication audience in mind, but we’d need to add a few hours to the day for that to ever have been possible.
What’s your next writing project?
I’ve been focusing on two larger projects: a series of poems that examine feminism, femininity, and coming-of-age through the lens of fairy tales, and an art history-based collection of poems about the lives and works of surrealist women of the modern era, a group of artists who are under recognized for their extraordinary achievements. This past summer, I focused on this particular project thanks to the support of the Wurlitzer Foundation.
Jefferson Beavers works as the communications specialist for the Creative Writing Program. He is a former journalist, and he is an alumnus of the program in creative nonfiction.