Exploring the art of prose


Conversations Between Friends: Kate Schapira and Erika Howsare

Image is the book covers for LESSONS FROM THE CLIMATE CHANGE COUNSELING BOOTH by Kate Schapira and THE AGE OF DEER by Erika Howsare; title card for the new conversation between the authors.


Seven years ago, we—Kate Schapira and Erika Howsare—published a collaborative volume of poetry, which no one bought. Kate has published half a dozen other books of poetry and teaches writing at Brown University; Erika has one solo poetry book and has worked for years as a journalist and community writing teacher. In 2024, we are both making a big shift to publishing nonfiction. Erika’s book The Age of Deer came out in January from Catapult Books, while Kate’s book Lessons from the Climate Anxiety Counseling Booth came out in April from Hachette. We’ve not only moved into a new genre, we’re now working with larger publishers rather than small literary presses.

What follows is our conversation about these changes. What can poetry and nonfiction each accomplish? What is it like to write a book proposal for the first time when you already have two or more books out? What’s the point of publishing a book anyway—to gratify your ego, start a conversation, convey an urgent message? What place does poetry have in our lives now, and what does it mean to shift the kind of writing one does? We talked through our experiences and our hopes for these new books, starting with some conversation about our small-press poetry projects.

—Kate Schapira and Erika Howsare


Kate Schapira: We both got our MFAs at Brown, and in MFA land, there’s not a lot of “somebody might read this thing I’m writing”—whether that’s a single poem or a book-length work.

Erika Howsare: It would have been helpful, when we were setting out on small-press ventures, if someone had said, “You know this book isn’t gonna sell.”


KS: They probably did say that.

EH: Did we listen?


KS: There was a push to get the work out there, get it published—but then what?

EH: Right, being able to say that it would be published was the apex of the experience.


KS: It’s true that one of the things that I’ve dreamed of since I was very young was having a book with my name on the spine.

EH: I remember you saying, a long time ago, “I always felt like with a book I would have a nice time.” But after my experience of publishing two books of poetry, one a collaboration and one not, I found myself going, “Was that a real book? Did that do anything in the world? I seriously can’t tell.” And it was the same feeling with trying to go out and do readings: “I know nobody’s super interested, but in case you are, I have this book….” The whole process felt very sheepish! I now almost see the kind of poetry I learned to write at Brown as a form of academic writing. Something for a small, specialized audience with years of focused education behind them.


KS: Like you’re writing not just to reach, but to impress, a limited number of people.

EH: Right, delivering insights with precision, but also posturing, in the style. I got this idea to write a book about deer and from the beginning, I pictured a book of prose. I originally imagined it as a collection of short lyrical essays. Then, it became more based in journalism and reporting. It had to be nonfiction because it needed to dig into questions and deal with facts in a way that my poetry doesn’t do—even though my poetry does deal with a lot of facts sometimes, and history, and found language.

My kids have been building these “debris huts” in the woods, these shelters of branches and leaves. They’re very warm if you do it right, and they’re poetic. Writing a book of poetry is more like building a hut, whereas writing a nonfiction book is more like building a house. A real structure—


KS: —that is intelligible to other people. For me the move to nonfiction was a move toward clarity, not necessarily toward simplicity or simplification. I had learned from my teachers, and to some extent I still believe, that poetry is a chance to make an end run around what people thought they thought. And that while people want to be told what to think, telling them directly isn’t always the best way to get them to think it.         

But I also wanted to be more communicative than the poems I had learned to write, and the people who encouraged me to write those poems, seemed to want me to be. The realities I’m asking people to think about and feel—the realities of climate change and how we might transform ourselves and our relationships to meet it—are already pretty hard to think about. I didn’t want a style that would also push people out.

I’m out of the habit of writing poems. And I spent a long time training my brain to write poems. So yeah, letting go of the poem habit was a major shift.

EH: I’m still writing poetry, but not actively trying to publish it at this moment. I may go back to submitting for publication, but for the last few years, it’s become truly just a practice that I do. It’s a way of engaging with a handful of other writers who are in groups with me—an activity, a verb.

In [our teacher] C. D. Wright’s book The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures…, she writes about attrition, how it’s common for writers to identify as poets when they’re young and then give it up. She says something like, “There’s a lot of ways for a poet to die.” But what is lost, and what is gained, if you’re like, “I don’t want to stay with this,” versus, “I insist on staying with this”?


KS: If there’s an idea that you should stick with poetry just because it’s what you’ve been doingwell, I didn’t. How you move from one kind of living to another is partly what my book is about, and how attached or how cherishing we might be, not just to our old things, but to our old identities! Like, someone who thought of themselves as a world traveler might look at climate change and say, “I have loved traveling the world but I’m going to step away from that.”

EH: I think part of my experience in the poetry world was a sense that we were uninvolved with large sectors of real life, including the business side of literature and the conversations that sell books—you’d never go on commercial radio to talk about your poetry book, but I’ve done it for The Age of Deer. So, part of this whole shift, for me, has been some letting go of that identity of being in a coddled space. I still think I’m making art, but it’s not art that keeps itself a secret.

In that academic poetry we were talking about, there’s a positioning of the self as the creator. Which fit, in a way, with what I grew up with, an emphasis on individual expression, the purity and almost sacredness of that ideal. The counterculture when my parents were young was all about the atomized person—express yourself, actualize yourself, and you will have succeeded. Poetry fulfilled this longing to realize the self in a refined way, but then what?

I really think we need to move beyond that moment. It’s gotta be more collective, more about relationships. Both of our new books are trying to speak to real issues in the world, and I think in, some ways, they are pretty universal because they have to do with planetary matters and the material world we live in. Most poets are circling around these themes to some degree, but I’ve started thinking maybe we don’t have time to be too obscure.


KS: As far as the publishing world, small-press publishing is a boutique and bananagrams process. Economics factors into the picture, but a small press has no obligation to make money through selling books.

EH: In fact, it has to be able to absorb loss. With Small Press Distribution suddenly closing, and little presses being imperiled by its disappearance, we can see how economically fragile the poetry ecosystem is.


KS: A lot of small presses, including the ones that published my books, were running off inherited money, grant money, and people working “for love”for free.

EH: And I think that free labor connects to that academic idea of poetry as a public good, a philanthropic object, like the opera. Something on the outer limits of humanity’s capability—what can poetry do that nothing else can do?


KS: But also, how many people can poetry do that for, whatever “that” is?

EH: So it was a change, to write and publish in a different way. The publishing process for a larger mainstream press is more entwined with writing: you write the proposal, you have an agent, all these other people had input into my book before it was even a manuscript. I’ve got a contract, and I need to do what it says in the contract. I was writing with very specific readers on my shoulder—communicating about the writing as well as through the writing, before the book even existed.


KS: The proposal was really challenging for me to write.

EH: I found the constraints difficult: “I’m committing this notion of what this book is to paper, and now it’s codified!”


KS: Editors, agents—all of these people are narrowing down the possibilities based on their needs and their perceptions of what people want to buy. Because—and obviously this obligation is a no-brainer for anyone who didn’t come up in poetryland—they do have to sell books.

EH: Poetry manuscripts are never planned in that way. It would be ridiculous to write a proposal for a poetry manuscript. There is a romantic appeal to being in an attic and writing this perfect thing that no one’s ever seen, and then it gets discovered.


KS: Right, sort of like the zipless fuck, where no preparation or negotiation is required and everything is stupendously wonderful for all parties. But that’s not real.

EH: For this book about deer, I loved talking with people and being in places, which is also what I’ve loved about journalism and many of my poetry projects. It was like a giant newspaper story, which carried the need to be accurate and thorough, mixed with a big unwieldy poem. I recently found myself, at an event, enthusing out loud about how much fun that process was. I definitely want to do it again.


KS: I also loved talking with people and being in places—although the main place was the place I’m usually in: my home city of Providence, Rhode Island. Providence is where a lot of the people I talked with—people with wisdom to share about living within climate change—also are or were. And having these conversations in my own hometown feels appropriate for a book whose goal is to help readers identify and enter into climate action in the way that’s most doable for them, which often means the most geographically close to them.

That question of what’s most doable is also why the book has these exercises for practicing the feelings, connections, and actions that can help us meet this moment. They’ve all been field-tested, and some of them have changed a lot based on the feedback I got. Another way that this writing process differed from writing a book of poems: the amount of not just input but shaping that came from others. If people tried an exercise and said, “This will work better if you do it this way,” I changed it. And everyone who is interviewed or quoted in the book had the opportunity to change or even withdraw their contributions: I sent them the chapters or sections they appeared in and made changes if they wanted them. I really appreciate that Renee Sedliar, the editor who worked on Lessons…, was willing to accommodate those additional revisions.

EH: Now that my book has been published, I appreciate that there’s a professional apparatus getting the books out there, which feels very middle-aged of me. I still have respect for the labor of love, but I also appreciate the way if someone is doing, say, publicity or agenting full time as their career, how good they can be at it, and what they can offer to the book.


KS: My publisher is pretty big, so everybody’s handling a lot of books, not just mine. And it’s an industry full of norms I don’t know. Being a newbie feels like middle school—that insecurity, that fear of rejection, feeling I’m supposed to know what to do. I keep sending these emails like, “I just want to check that I’m doing this the right way.” My insecurities are not their fault—they’re doing a great job for the book, and I know my questions are making extra work for them!

EH: As with poetry, there’s still a lot of unpaid labor involved, which always raises questions about who will be able to participate and who will be left out because of economic necessity. There’s the labor of publicity, for example: writing the synopses, making videos—


KS: I would just as soon not make videos.

EH: Professionalization of the publication process means the writer has to be more professional, too.


KS: Totally. Like most of us, I’m always switching roles among my relationships: being a teacher, a family member, a person who participates in and is organized by community, a spouse, a friend…a mammal? Doing the professional part of publishing this way has added a new role with new activities. But I do feel like more of my roles are overlapping and feeding into each other. Some of the activities in the book that my students helped me to refine are now supporting a community climate response in my state. From another angle, the lessons I learned from writing the book and listening to people at the Climate Anxiety Counseling Booth, I’m sharing with a group of students who are striving to get Brown to divest from companies that fuel the genocide in Gaza. Support for grassroots organizing and agitation isn’t related to professionalization—kind of the opposite—but it is related to who I am, and what inhabiting the world as a writer means to me, and it does feel like a shift.

EH: The Age of Deer represents an evolution for me, too, because it feels so much more integrated into my life and the world. My imagined audience for this book was much broader than for my poetry books, and included more people in my life, and more kinds of people. If my cousin would read it, then there’s a whole class of people who are kind of like my cousin who would read it. And I’ve been hearing from people about it, which never happened with poetry.

That said, I think studying and practicing poetry has given me a certain relationship to language and thought that was absolutely essential to writing this nonfiction book. For me the willingness to leave certain kinds of open spaces in a text, or to think about writing in a collage or patchwork fashion, comes from writing poems. I used poetry as a tool during the process, and I also remain loyal to some of the habits of actually constructing a line or a sentence that I learned through being a poet.


KS: Oh, same, no question. I spent too much time thinking that way for it to disappear, and I don’t think it needs to disappear. I don’t feel any pull to go back to writing just poetry, but it’ll always be part of anything I do.


ERIKA HOWSARE lives in Virginia, where she teaches writing privately and contributes essays and reviews to outlets such as Los Angeles Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, Longreads, Ecotone, and others. She’s published two books of poetry and a number of chapbooks. In 2024, along with The Age of Deer, she also hosted a companion podcast called If You See a Deer. Find her on Instagram @erika_howsare.

KATE SCHAPIRA has been listening to people talk about climate change for ten years, at the Climate Anxiety Counseling Booth and elsewhere. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she teaches nonfiction writing at Brown University and is involved with local efforts toward environmental justice, climate justice, and peer mental health support. Find her on Instagram @schapira.kate.j.