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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

TtD supplement #146 : seven questions for Shelly Harder

Shelly Harder is from rural Ontario and has been living and studying in Ireland and the UK, where their work has appeared in pamphlet, podcast, and live performance. A first chapbook, remnants, was published by Baseline Press.

Their poems “from inspirobot,” “bedtime with Proust, while Jimi plays the blues” and “from 96 Quite Bitter Beings” appear in the twenty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “from inspirobot,” “bedtime with Proust, while Jimi plays the blues” and “from 96 Quite Bitter Beings.”

A: The inspirobot pieces came about when I had a wisdom tooth removed. Slightly high on a sedative and bored out of my mind, I remembered an article I’d seen about an AI that had generated some twisted inspirational posters. I typed in inspirobot.me and began to click. A lot of banal and nonsensical stuff came up, but with occasional odd gems (not so different from how I find the process of composition when I’m the one generating the text). At some point I realized that the occasionally interesting sayings of the inspirobot could be arranged into pieces. I’d just finished a big project that had left me dried up and in need of a rest, but I didn’t want to give up writing altogether. Hitting “Generate” and saving the bits I found striking or funny was doable. And the process of composition was fun too. In collaboration with the inspirobot I could voice a grim sense of humour.

Working on these pieces provided something of a turning point. The process of composition involved wedging together disparate bits generated at random and creating meaning through the resonances these fragments developed in relation to each other. At some point it clicked that the process of generating text and the process of composing a piece can be two quite disconnected things, that the context in which a bit of text comes to exist doesn’t need to guide the meaning or use that text can be put to. I started culling through mounds of rough writing I’ve produced over the past few years, pulling out the interesting bits, and using those as the raw material out of which I began to compose some pieces. One day I saw a song title on an album that had popped up in the list of suggestions some algorithm had kindly produced, “96 Quite Bitter Beings.” It’s a work that’s still in process. The difficult thing about trying to find out how random fragments should fit together is that so many combinations could work.

“bedtime with Proust” happened in quite a different manner. I’ve slowly been making my way through Proust’s behemoth the past few months, and one evening I was listening to an album of Hendrix playing blues songs. The piece came out all at once. I think I had the sense that both these works of art are interested in the vulnerability and exposure that’s involved in feeling things. I’d recently eaten stewed apple. I don’t currently have a cat. “Take me from this lonesome place” is a line from a Hendrix song.

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: For a while I’ve been working on zero dawn, a long narrative poem whose speaker recounts her experiences sleeping rough. This piece exists in multiple versions of different length. It’s composed of mobile parts that don’t have to be in any particular order for the story to work, and so I have combined and recombined various versions for particular contexts.

This sense of malleability, of there being nothing inevitable about structure, is the operating principle of a lot of the stuff I’ve been working on recently. zero dawn is a bit different because of the dramatic context of the speaker. Voice usually is something I interact with more abstractly, approaching the composition process more like splashing textures and sounds and ideas until a vibrant sensory and emotional experience has coalesced.

Bits of 96 Quite Bitter Beings are regurgitated fragments of personal experience, but recontextualised by an attempt to come to grips with events in the world more broadly. In contrast to this restless expansiveness, which feels to me to land somewhere between essay and poem, I’ve been working on some shorter lyric pieces concentrated on exploring specific emotional dynamics, often relying heavily on sound and musicality for their effect. I’ve also been doing some play with writing driven primarily by internal sound impulsions that hold together loose strings of reference. A couple pieces in my chapbook, remnants, work this way.

Q: Are these pieces fragments from multiple projects, elements of a singular manuscript or even threads that haven’t yet found any larger structure or tapestry?

A: I’m not sure at the moment about the larger picture. Currently, these pieces are fragments of several unfinished projects, a couple of which may or may not eventually coalesce into a coherent structure. And if that happens, perhaps I’ll have a manuscript.

Q: Has there been a difference in the way you think about putting together a manuscript since the publication of remnants? How did that manuscript first come together?

A: remnants is the first manuscript I’ve completed. One of the main things its process of publication has taught me is that it’s okay for it to take a while for a loose assemblage of pieces to become a well-structured text.

remnants began with travelling in 2015. I was alone and wrote a lot. The writing was a mix of poetry and prose, lucid description and surreal dreamscape. I threw some of it up on my blog. Later in the year I developed and edited those pieces and compiled them into a much larger manuscript than the one that got published. Karen Schindler at Baseline Press read through the sprawling manuscript I’d put together and indicated which pieces she thought were strongest. This feedback was crucial in shaping the manuscript’s development. I more or less followed her guidance on which pieces to include and then was left with the task of structuring them into a coherent text, work I did in short bursts across several months. The intervals in which I didn’t think about or look at the manuscript provided clarity.

So I now think of my process of putting together a manuscript as likely to be a lengthy endeavour, to some degree collaborative, and benefitting from periods of not being given any direct attention. But I’m open for further experience to revise that notion.

I must say, I like the compactness of the chapbook form. It’s taught me the virtues of brevity. remnants is so much better because of the severe selectivity the text underwent.

Q: What might this mean in terms of what you are working towards now? Are you thinking again in terms of something chapbook-sized, or potentially full-length? Or are you simply writing and not worrying about any of that yet?

A: For a while now I’ve been writing without much of a clue what I’ll do with it. Which feels fine at present. I’m allowing myself space to explore freely where language might take me without feeling constrained by the pressure to make something substantial of it. That said, I do have a couple chapbook ideas in the back of my mind and I’ve made some halting beginnings on that front. The concise scope of the chapbook form is attractive to me. I suspect it will be a while before I’m at the point of thinking about a full-length collection.

Q: How does performance help shape ways in which you write? How do you balance the potential performance aspect of a piece against how it ends up on the page?

A: Because I’m always thinking in terms of sound, I tend not to view performance potential as extraneous, but rather as an integral aspect of the composition process. When wrestling with a line or the structure of a piece, I read it aloud to get a feel for whether it’s working. If that doesn’t give me enough information, I’ll record myself and listen back. It’s an instinctual process, but that’s how I make judgment calls. The words have got to feel good on my tongue and in my ear.

Although I’m interested in the musicality of words as abstract units of sound, I’m also feeling and listening for conceptual elements - for how ideas, images, and emotions play off each other, forming their own tonalities, rhythms, textures, dissonance. And I can only feel how this is working when the words are incarnate on my tongue, in my ears. 

So that’s my process, which is all about private performance. How a piece actually works for an audience is a different question. Some kinds of density can only be absorbed when left to sit with. That’s the great thing about the page. But to me the page often feels flat, insufficient, as though a poem is a score waiting to be animated into sound. That said, I greatly enjoy writing that blurs the line with visual art.

My goal is writing that can be enjoyed as a once-off in a performance context while also providing the richness and complexity that makes the page a place to return to. That sense of rhythm and texture (on both the purely sonic and the emotive/conceptual levels) that I’m feeling for during composition is something I hope comes through within performance. So that even if some of the content might be lost when taken off the page, listeners will find themselves absorbed within an aesthetic and emotive space.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: These days I follow quite a bit of journalism to maintain at least some semblance of awareness of what’s happening beyond my life’s little sphere. Otherwise, I’ve been reading mostly novels the last while, devouring works by Calvino, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and, most recently, Proust. I’m repeatedly drawn to the work of Woolf, George Eliot, and Jeanette Winterson. For short stories, it’s often Borges or Barthelme, though for something completely different, I’ve recently discovered Mary Gaitskill. Philosophy too is an energizing force, whether I’m taking up contest with a mammoth text such as Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, finding grim solace in E.M. Cioran’s pessimistic aphorisms, or diving into Cixous’ gorgeous prose. I also often turn for inspiration and delight to the long tradition of English poetry – the alliterative long lines of the Gawain poet, the gnarled soundscapes of Hopkins, the density and wit of Donne, the exquisite lyricism of Keats or P.B. Shelley. Looking to the present, this past year I discovered Terrance Hayes and Amanda Jernigan, whose work, quite frankly, blew me away. Anne Carson is another favourite contemporary writer, as is Maggie Nelson, both of whom open up potent textual spaces. As for specific works I can’t stop myself from returning to (even if I wish I could) – a few: Joyce’s Ulysses, Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Milton’s Paradise Lost, Beckett’s Not I (as voiced by Billie Whitelaw).

Thursday, October 31, 2019

TtD supplement #145 : seven questions for Dale Tracy

Dale Tracy is the author of the chapbook Celebration Machine (Proper Tales, 2018) and the monograph With the Witnesses: Poetry, Compassion, and Claimed Experience (McGill-Queen’s, 2017). A further chapbook is forthcoming from above/ground press. She lives in Kingston, ON, where she teaches at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Her poems “Gatekeeper,” “This would be the place for you,” “Professionalism” and “Derelict Bicycles” appear in the twenty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Gatekeeper,” “This would be the place for you,” “Professionalism” and “Derelict Bicycles.”

A: These poems are all about power.

“Gatekeeper”
I have a few poems like this one that I would describe as fables (though maybe with ambiguous lessons—the poem suggests the boundaries of the keeper’s options, not some best thing she might do). A situation, mostly its mood, occurs to me, and I follow it into a poem. I’m tempted to think about these poems as speculative or weird fiction, except that they’re not fiction. For me, poetry is a way of theorizing, not telling stories.

“This would be the place for you”
I spend a lot of time applying for jobs because universities now hire mainly on temporary contracts rather than for permanent positions (https://www.caut.ca/bulletin/2018/09/shattering-myths-about-contract-academic-staff). The mechanisms of contract work involve diverse reminders that there is no place for me, entirely regardless of my commitment to my students and studies. I think this poem is a little bit funny, but it’s a dark humour, since it turns opportunities into hunted prey with which the speaker is precluded from forming relationships.

“Professionalism”
I like learning so much, I became a professional at it. By gaining a doctorate, I formalized that aspect of my identity into a title. Formalities highlight ways the world is locked into place. In the foreground, convention is so interesting; in the background, as the accepted structure of life, it makes me want to make things weird. Convention has meaning because we give it, but convention in the background functions as though it has its own inherent meaning, one which often supports the devastatingly and unequally harmful.

To be clear, this poem is nervous about assumptions and habits that attend expertise and authority, not my profession (the opportunity to think with others and to galvanize thinking is what I want my life to be for) or conventions of authority themselves (these are essential for establishing agreement about the reality we live).

“Derelict Bicycles”
This evocative phrase came to me through an email giving warning about the date of removal. I thought, what other remnants might be lashed to borders?

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: They all have wonder in them. Wonder is the common element in most of my work.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: Because writing poetry is for me a kind of theoretical or philosophical endeavour, each poem is prompted by curiosity. A poem helps me figure something out (or at least think about it), so it responds to wonder (as in wondering and as in marvelling) and tries to capture that wonder.

Q: Given your poetry is fed, in part, by theory, how easy is it for you to shift between poetry and theory, or do you see them as intricately connected?

A: Poetry is a way for me to sort out how to live or what I am living; at the same time, a poem often theorizes itself, sorting out in an observable way what a poem can do or is doing. In these ways, I think of poetry as being theory.

I’m also influenced by particular literary theories and tools in a way that I’m not always actively thinking about. For example, my scholarly interest in metonymy leads my poetry toward forms of contiguity (associations based in proximity) rather than substitution (as in metaphor).

Q: What poets have helped you get to this point in your work?

A: In the most direct sense, I wouldn’t be at this point in my work without the poets who gave me opportunities or promotion or prompting: Stuart Ross, Michael e. Casteels, Patricia Robertson, Jason Heroux, Allison Chisholm, my secretive writing group, Bruce Kauffman, attendees of Bruce Kauffman’s monthly open mic nights, and you, right now with this interview. (I want somehow to make this acknowledgment without also making a public claim on these people—but I guess we all know that a small act on one end can be a big one on the other.)

Less directly, I need different poets at different times. I’m just going to list all the poets whose work I feel right now has stayed with me. If you ask me again some other time, it might be a different list (well, it definitely will be—I’ll have read more!).

…Valzhyna Mort, Eunice de Souza, Anne Carson, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Dionne Brand, Kaveh Akbar, Ocean Vuong, Chen Chen, Shazia Hafiz Ramji, Emma Healey, Tess Liem, Sina Queyras, Ruth Stone, Joshua Whitehead, Daniel Borzutzky, Rahat Kurd, Elinor Wylie, Frank Chipasula…

Q: How do you feel your work has developed up to this point? Where do you see your work headed?

A: My earliest poems speak more privately—in a more private language. I’m not talking to myself anymore because I can imagine readers now. Reading poetry as a poet (consciously as a poet) has made a big difference.

My poems are headed into more aesthetic joy which I think will enhance whatever political/moral force they might have. More recently, I’ve felt sometimes dragged toward a despairing cynicism that hasn’t been all that helpful for writing or living in the world as it is. I could be more helpful and better at what I do if I can make this emotional/stylistic return to myself.

Q: You might have answered a part of this already, but who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Returning to reenergize had not occurred to me. My returns to poems have usually been to figure something out and to do that figuring in the form of a scholarly essay. Now that your question has prompted me to think about reenergizing, I can see that when I return to other texts—a song, a movie, a clip from a sitcom—it’s a particular mood I’m looking for, one that lets my mind slow down and settle in.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Touch the Donkey : twenty-third issue,

The twenty-third issue is now available, with new poems by Robert R. Thurman, Alyse Knorr, Michael Cavuto, Denise Newman, Shelly Harder, Franco Cortese and Dale Tracy.

Eight dollars (includes shipping). You make it sound so sordid.


Thursday, October 3, 2019

TtD supplement #144 : seven questions for Biswamit Dwibedy

Biswamit Dwibedy is the author of Ozalid (1913 Press, 2010), Ancient Guest (HarperCollins, 2017), and Hubble Gardener (Spuyten Duyvil, 2018). A recent series of poems is available on Essay Press as the chapbook MC3. He is the editor of Anew Print and is from Odisha, India.

Four poems “from UNWEDER” appear in the twenty-second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the sequence “UNWEDER.”

A: UNWEDER is a series of poems written in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India. The place is famous for its temples from the 10th to 12th century and their intricate, erotic sculptures. The series is also a part of a larger project, about architecture in medieval India, the first part of which is available at Essay Press, as MC3.

I was in Khajuraho shortly after my mother passed away. I was there for work related to an advertising campaign for a major multinational company. We were shooting a series of videos in that area, unrelated to the temples, and entertaining a very difficult American client. My hotel was very close to the temples and I would sneak out in the mornings and evenings to write these poems over a few days. Then I’d go to the shoots. Doing something related to poetry while on a totally commercial job was a great release! These poems are ekphrastic, are my responses to being in that place, amongst all these tourists and newly-wed couples, everyone gazing at and stunned by the incredible erotic art.

Q: How does this piece compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: The work I am doing right now isn’t poetry, which UNWEDER is, but fiction, essay writing, etc. However, all of them deal with historical material.

Q: What is it about working with historical material that appeals? What do you feel is possible through writing through history that might not be possible otherwise?

A:
History is full of surprises. Particularly, Indian history has fascinating, contradictory things happening at the same time in different parts of the country. It makes possible a comparative study of micro-cultures through which new connections emerge, ones that help reimagine what we know about history.

My fiction is on deals with historical characters from Delhi in the 13th century; also during the time that temples that are the subjects of my poems, in Odisha and Khajuraho, were being built. Through my work I am trying to understand the differences and similarities in cultures within the country at any given time. The eroticism of Khajuraho temples is missing in the Delhi sultanate, and the latter is drenched in Sufi philosophy, with a homoeroticism that you do not see in Khajuraho. I like the overlap, simultaneity. Beyond the differences maybe I can get to something that is not just common but universal.

Writing through history also leads to research, which makes known things that we cannot possibly see anymore. There is a balance between the search for accuracy and leaps of imagination. I also think it is the writing itself—what can be made possible by new ways of writing about/through history. How do we use the material we have to learn how to live in the present? How can history make new ways of writing possible?

Q: With a small handful of collections over the past few years, how do you feel as though your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I am surprised by the direction my work is taking. Fiction—historical-fiction to be precise—is not something I ever thought I’d write. But being in India, surrounded by all this history just pushed me in that direction. I started as an “experimental” poet, but now my work has gone way beyond that. I have written/am writing novels and scripts, and working on lyrics for an album. I think my work has forayed into completely unexpected areas, something I am very happy about. I think I want to work in every single genre, as well as the spaces between. That’s where my work is headed. But…with language come unthinkable surprises!

Q: As I am completely ignorant of the history of literary culture in India, how did you emerge, first, as an experimental poet? Was this something that was happening around you, or were you seeking out your influences further afield? What writers were you reading that drove you to doing that kind of work?

A: I lived in India till I was eighteen, during which I had little connection to the poetry communities here. My mother was a poet, and I remember some of the poems she’d recite. As a teenager I was stealing song lyrics (American pop music, thanks to MTV’s Indian invasion in the nineties) and making them my own, and exploring the richness of lyrics in older Hindi movies. I remember encountering the poetry of Mirza Ghalib through a cassette tape my brother owned, a soundtrack for a television show based on the poet’s life.

It was only when I moved to America that I actually encountered experimental poetry. I was nineteen and studying Biomedical Engineering. Serendipitously, I had landed in Iowa, home to the Writers’ Workshop. My first encounters in experimental writing were in the poetry aisles of Prairie Lights, the local independent bookstore in Iowa City. It was there that I came across the works of Cole Swensen, Lyn Hejinian, and Leslie Scalapino. Cole’s NOON was one of the first books of poems I ever bought. I was in love! I sought out the writers whose work Sun and Moon Press published, selecting titles from their back catalog, printed at the end of their books, and thus began my education in poetry.

Coming from a completely different language and culture, I was relieved to see that there was so much thinking that was outside the conventional modes of sense-making and grammar. It was a joy for someone coming from a foreign tongue to know that there was no single, rigid way to read, write, tell your story, or the truth. The wildly fun and experimental works of Susan Howe, Laura Moriarty, Norma Cole, Stacy Doris, and Rosmarie Waldrop pushed me to think about this new language that surrounded me in new ways. And yes—their work drove me to write what I do and the way I do!

Q: How do you feel your time focusing on writing and researching poetry has impacted your approach to writing a novel? Is there a sense of the language or cadence you are aware of while writing prose, or are you attempting to compose something more straightforward?

A: I wouldn’t have ever thought of writing fiction had I not read the fiction/novels of Leslie Scalapino and Fanny Howe. I like Scalapino’s idea of “life as fictionalising”, and both her and Fanny’s work just helped me allow myself to work on these fun projects. Room outside of poetry. Their wildly different works remain crucial to me. Particularly Leslie’s sense of wild fun in the space of a book, using science-fiction, pornography, forms of the essay within the novel.

The two novels I am working on now are historical-fictions, based in 13th century India and early 19th century London respectively. The former is a lot about poetry, music, riddles, the mixing of languages such as Persian and Arabic, and I think that demands a certain cadence that is not just closer to poetry, but of a certain kind, from a particular language. My protagonist is someone who invents new languages, musical instruments. The narrator is gender-fluid, a Captain in the army and a lover to the king. I am trying to articulate an experience of the body that is, I believe, both contemporary and very ancient, and refuses to be labeled.

My protagonist in the other novel is a contemporary and fan of Blake and Shelley. He is an author, the first Indian man to write a book in English, and is later accused of plagiarism. In describing his experience in his own country, he steals passages from travelogues written in India by British writers. He is an entrepreneur, who raises the money to fund the publication of his own book. Like a small poetry press. I find all this very interesting because of my own early work in collage, erasure, appropriation. Which seems like a terrible word nowadays.

Again, poetry was my way into history—through Cole Swensen and Susan Howe—but I am doing something that’s at a great distance from their amazing work, but wouldn’t have been possible without. Though literary, I think I am now writing books that are for an audience that goes beyond the lovely poetry communities I am a part of.

Q: Perhaps you’ve already answered a part of this, but who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Cole Swensen, Leslie Scalapino, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Fanny Howe (Radical Love in particular), Rosmarie Waldrop, Susan Howe, Norma Cole, Laura Moriarty—these are some of the writers whose work will remain with me for life. But Cole Swensen in particular—I take her books everywhere with me. I read Landscapes on a Train on the train; read Park and Ours in gardens. I like reading Scalapino’s that they were at the beach—at the beach. Likewise, Berssenbrugge works wonders in the morning, on a Sunday, in the summer.

Ah, and all summer long I have been reading Swensen’s chapbook Seventeen Summers by your above/ground. Thank you for YOUR attention to that work, and to mine, and for these wonderful questions.

Monday, September 23, 2019

TtD supplement #143 : seven questions for Emily Izsak

Emily Izsak’s work has been published in Arc Poetry Magazine, The Puritan, House Organ, Cough, The Steel Chisel, The Doris, and The Hart House Review. In 2014 she was selected as PEN Canada’s New Voices Award nominee. Her first chapbook, Stickup, was published in 2015, and her first full length collection, Whistle Stops: A Locomotive Serial Poem, was published by Signature Editions in April 2017. Her newest chapbook, Twenty Five, is now available from above/ground press.

Two poems from her work-in-progress “Never Have I Ever” appear in the twenty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Never Have I Ever.”

A: Never Have I Ever is a poetry collection I’m working on based on the sleepover/drinking game of the same name. Each poem in the collection is titled after a different thing that I’ve never done, but some of them are titled after things nobody has ever done (including me) because those things are physically impossible (like knitting a sweater between two continents). I see the collection as a weird subversion of confessional poetry in that by writing about things I’ve never done, I’m breaking that “write what you know” rule, but also, all of these poems are still sneakily about me.

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I like poetry that’s surreal and silly while still being sophisticated in terms of language and wordplay, so this collection fits that description, as does all of my other work. It’s a new topic that I’m excited to explore, but structurally it’s a continuation and an evolution of work I’ve done before, especially Twenty Five and Whistle Stops.

Q: You seem to build projects, having produced both chapbook-length works and a book-length work, each of which was composed around a specific project. What is it about building manuscript this way that appeals?

A: For me, the hardest part of writing a poem is thinking about a conceit or idea for that poem. Once I have the conceit, everything else can fall into place. Building a project out of a single, expansive conceit means that I really only have to think of one conceit per book rather than one conceit per poem in that book. It’s a method that was born out of convenience, but I’ve found that it also allows me create cohesive projects that explore ideas more thoroughly. It also forces me to choose topics that are meaty enough for a whole book or chapbook, and who doesn’t love a thicc topic?

Q: How did you get to a point where you were composing poems as larger projects?

A: After finishing my first chapbook, Stickup, I noticed that it was basically all the poems that I had written up to that point that I thought were half decent. I knew I wanted my next project to cohere better and to have a more complex through-line. I also knew that I wanted to write books, not just individual poems. My poetry friends were writing books or chapbook length projects, and those were fun to read. I think I was exposed to serial poetry and larger projects, and once I knew those forms were out there, I knew I wanted to play with them.

Q: How do you feel this current project extends the work you’ve produced up to this point? You mention this project connecting to Whistle Stops and Twenty Five; how do you see it connecting to and furthering those projects?

A: Whistle Stops in many ways is a response to critiques of serial poems and the men who wrote them. I don’t think we need to do away with forms or modes of writing because certain proponents of those modes were problematic by today’s standards. If Black Mountain was a boys’ club, then I’m going to infiltrate it.

Never Have I Ever in many ways is a response to critiques of confessional poetry. I’ve been fascinated by the lyric I in poetry, and by fascinated I mean I avoid it at all costs. At least, I have avoided it in the past. Somehow, avoiding the lyric I is the difference between a teenage emo diary and serious, grown-up poetry.

I do think there’s also a gendered component to critiques of confessional poetry (at least, that’s what Lynn Crosbie told me once). When women write about themselves it’s confessional, and when men do it, it’s political. I don’t know if I fully buy that, but it’s something worth considering.

The first poet I fell in love with was Sylvia Plath. I do feel like I’ve moved past her now, but I also wonder why we see her confessional poetry as a thing to move past. P.S. it was the “Bastard / Masturbating a glitter” line that did it for me, which should come as no surprise to people who’ve read my poems.

I’ve pushed the confessional and the personal out of my poetry because I wanted to be taken seriously, and it worked for a time, but now I feel like I’ve figured out how to be personal and silly and serious all at the same time. I’ve never done a lot of things. I’ve never done way more things than I have done. If I write about the things I’ve never done I can avoid some of the pitfalls of confessional poetry while still benefiting from its appeal.

Q: Have you read Rachel Zucker? She manages the confessional in a remarkably fresh way. But I am curious: what is it about the confessional, per se, that appeals? What do you feel the contemporary confessional mode allows that might not be possible otherwise? What do you feel you can bring to the form?

A: I am a self-described nosy bitch. It gives me great pleasure to learn intimate details about other people. I think being a nosy bitch is the human condition. I like being in on the secret, even if that secret is published and available on Amazon.

Sharing secrets creates intimacy, which I think is the whole point of the game Never Have I Ever. It’s not really about who gets out first or how many fingers you put down. It’s about facilitating closeness. There’s nothing I love more than a four hour deep chat.

I don’t agree with Wordsworth’s characterization of poetry as “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good cry as much as the next guy— but that’s what Joni Mitchell is for. I’ll cry to music and movies all day long, but I want my poetry sharp and punchy. I want poetry to make me feel something, but not at the expense of linguistic precision. That sounds like I’m throwing shade at Rupi Kaur, and I might be. Ariana’s Reine’s Coeur de Lion is a fantastic example of confessional poetry that’s self-reflexive, precise, and linguistically interesting. Mina Loy’s Love Songs to Joannes is personal and vulnerable while still being a language showcase.

Look, you could say that Whistle Stops is confessional, but it doesn’t announce itself as such. I think that makes a difference in the way readers engage with the work. I’m hoping readers will come to Never Have I Ever for the secrets but stay for the wordplay.

I think a lot of readers might be surprised by all of the things I’ve never done, especially given the sexually explicit content of my previous (and current) work. I always win Never Have I Ever.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Always Mina Loy. Also Jack Spicer, Lisa Robertson, Michael Boughn, and William Carlos Williams. There are others.

I also find it really helpful to read stuff that is completely outside of my own vocabulary, just to shake things up. Recently, my fiancé, Ariel found this little medical handbook from 1694 at the library. Treatment of bleeding from the nose includes, “Let the patient gradually smell the stink of ass’s dung: nettles, leeks, and camphor draw fluid from the nose: it is useful to apply oxycrat to liver and pudenda, and worth keeping this in the mouth.” 1694 was wild.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

TtD supplement #142 : seven questions for Aja Couchois Duncan

Aja Couchois Duncan is a Bay Area educator, writer and coach of Ojibwe, French and Scottish descent. Her writing has been anthologized in Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Coach House Press), Bay Poetics (Faux Press) and Love Shook My Heart 2 (Alyson Press). Her debut collection, Restless Continent (Litmus Press) was selected by Entropy Magazine as one of the best poetry collections of 2016 and won the California Book Award in 2017. A fictional writer of non-fiction, she has published essays in the North American Review and Chain. In 2005, she was a recipient of the Marin Arts Council Award Grant for Literary Arts, and, in 2013, she received a James D. Phelan Literary Award. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and a variety of other degrees and credentials to certify her as human. Great Spirit knew it all along.

Her poem “Initiate, chapter one from The Intimacy Trials” appears in the twenty-second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the sequence “Initiate, chapter one from The Intimacy Trials.”

A: The manuscript has evolved a great deal over time. However, the architecture of the work has remained the same. It is based on the structure of an actual trial. So Initiate is really conceived of as the beginning of the trial; in this case a trial about intimacy, both romantic and collective. The use of the world trial here is both literal and figurative. It is often `a trial’ to do the work intra and interpersonally to be intimate. And too the judicial system has been designed and used to control the way people connect with one another, whether conferring the rights of husbands to rape their wives, or preventing women from controlling their reproductive lives, or enabling some groups of people to take everything from other groups of people such that their bodies, lives, cultures are radically interrupted and they and their descendants live in enduring precarity. So the notion of a trial felt deep enough to dive into for the explorations I wanted to do in writing The Intimacy Trials

Q: How does this project relate to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: This manuscript is a sequel to another, yet to be published, manuscript Vestigial. Both are exploring intimacy between people and intimacy with Aki, earth, and her inhabitants. I’ve been presencing the earth as a central voice in my work for some time as I hear her talking to me, to us, to all of us.

Q: How did you get to this point in your writing—to be, as you say, “presencing the earth”—and what does that presencing look like? What does that phrase mean to you, and how does it present itself in your writing?

A: That is such an interesting question. I am deeply connected to the earth, I am part of the earth. We all are. But many people are seriously disconnected from their understanding of our collective sentience, the rhythms of  river, rock, sky. The question that troubles me is what will it take for others to restore this connection and how might my writing be part of what brings them back. I don’t write explicitly for this awakening, but I am always writing toward it.

My writing practice has evolved greatly over time, but the “natural world” has always held both subject and object positions so that the particularities of the English language does not define what is living and what is not. There are actually very few inanimate things in this world. And yet this language that we are bridging one another through (English)reinforces a world view that sentience is limited to a very small number of beings on earth.

Q: With a first full-length collection in print, and numerous works of poetry and nonfiction appearing in journals and anthologies, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I am still hungry for the space and time to finish one of the four novels I have started and stopped. Novels are too big to be written in the margins of life and much of my writing practice resides there. I have also begun an interconnected collection of essays about people and place and the effects of climate change on land, culture, the present tense. I hope to do a writing residency next year in order to complete this project. Amidst these longer works, I plan to write flash fictions, or micro stories, which come from beneath the surface and emit a jubilant spray.

Q: How easy or difficult has it been for you to shift from poems to prose? And what do you feel each form allows that might not be possible otherwise? What have these shifts been teaching you?

A: I am not sure I have ever differentiated poetry from prose. I write almost exclusively in prose. I do hold poetry and fiction differently. And fiction and nonfiction. Although the hands that hold them are the same.

There is a precision to poetry and an expansiveness. So my prose is different in a poetic context. In fiction, and even in non fiction, the meaning is more direct, more closely bound. In these contexts, my prose is more explicit.

That said, I have always written toward a nexus of forms, a confluence of waters. It is the wild and deep waters at the junctions of these tributaries that I want to swim in. The words ebb and flow from this place.

Q: There is something of the blending of prose and lyric I’ve quite enjoyed about your work. Do you consider genre to be fluid? Are there differences in the ways in which you might approach a poem over, say, fiction or nonfiction?

A: Prose creates compression and expulsion. The sentences throb with juxtaposition and movement. I am most at home in the terrain of the sentence. I absolutely adore the period. So terminal. So controlled. And then to overrun it with words.

This too is possible in poetic lines that break. I am assuming this is what you mean by lyric. But my ear is clunky and I often mistrust my breaks. Go back and break and unbreak. It begins to feel like a kind of violence. So I gravitate toward prose.

In fiction or not fiction—forms that tend to be more fixed in the way that sentences can seem fixed—I am drawn to the lyric, to ruptures in form. Alexis Pauline Gumbs does this to stunning effect in Spill: scenes of black feminist fugivity.

Q: Finally, who do you read to re-energize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

Ah. So many. Like most writers my home is filled with stacks of books. But one particular stack is my most treasured. Things get added, and sometimes moved. But many have remained in this cherished placed for years. Some of them are Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead, Eduardo Galleano’s The Memory of Fire trilogy, John Keene’s Counternatives (a newer edition to the stack), James Balwin’s Evidence of Things Unseen, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, Chrysto’s Not Vanishing (this book is out of print, which is tragic). There are others. I am finding myself conscious of doing some kind of curation, which isn’t the point, at least not for me. The point is these books, and others, provide worlds I can return to again and again. Because they convey something deeply important about the world and the way words and their arrangement can help us access this in surprising, heartbreaking and soul affirming ways. They break us open again and again. And, in so doing, offer us deeper access to our collective humanity.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

TtD supplement #141 : seven questions for José Felipe Alvergue

José Felipe Alvergue is a graduate of both the Cal Arts Writing and Buffalo Poetics programs. He is the author of gist : rift : drift : bloom (2015) and precis (2017). José lives and teaches in Wisconsin.

His sequence “riot: Scott, King, Long.” appear in the twenty-second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the sequence “riot: Scott, King, Long.”

A: The bigger project, scenery, begins with the premise that all of these sites of national status-as-identity formation have become “scenes.” These scenes include textual scenes, mnemonic scenes, performatic scenes, speculative scenes, etc. I think of “riots” as such scenes as well, given how they live in our cultural consciousness. And “scenes” doesn’t always mean a 2-dimensionality in a bad sense. Merely in the sense of our unpacking. The media life of demonstrations can be emotionally charged, and have long lasting effects on our personal research into who we are in relation to group anger, or the nation state, the police, or place. But there’s no mistaking that unless one is on the ground, we’re getting these scenes through some form of media. In “riot: Scott, King, Long,” I investigate my own conscious awareness of anger, racialization, nation, and action through the Dred Scott decision, the LA Riots, and this photo out of Charlottesville of a man, Corey Long, using an aerosol flame thrower on a white supremacist. My own status as a naturalized citizen is articulated in the Dred Scott decision through the inherent anti-Blackness of premising America’s recognition of “person” in Colonial precedents, and triangulating citizenship against Black being and potentially assimilated beings. The same liberalism is, in fact, established much earlier in Bartolomé de las Casas “In Defense of the Indians.” The LA Riots, for me, bring up a very similar paradigm, where model minoritism played a huge role in how Black anger was mediatized in relation to South Korean American grief and vigilantism. But more than this, there are voices from the LA Riots (including Rodney King’s) that are not asked to weigh-in until much later, after the riots. I include here Kiki Watson and Reginald Denny, in fact. What they say later, in the full volume and dimension of language, about a moment that is compressed into scenery during its happening is really enlightening. And though we don’t have it all yet, I think something similar will come out of the images we have from Charlottesville. That is the speculative aspect of it. Which is why in the book itself I distort the image of Long wielding the flamethrower in defense. That optic distortion of text, I hope, mimics an acoustic speculation, or how it is that acoustics exist in space, bouncing off surfaces, exhausting itself, finding rest in reflection. Of how the acoustic, in poetics, is always an accompaniment to the optic life of language (its own scenery), or the taking it in, the senses and emotions that feel out for language and metabolize it into the thoughts and perspectives that once embossed on our surfaces somehow stand for who we “are” to others.

Q: How does this piece compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I’ve committed more fully into the “document,” or using documents as sources for poetics. A couple of things inform this. I was reading this piece on the Demise of the Nation State by Rana Dasgupta about a year ago, where he cites the inability of “information” to cohere the disparate attributes we previously called “the nation.” And it struck me the extent to which documents work within that network of “information,” and that there must be something latent or explicit in the document worth cross examining against a mode of language resistant to the kind of surface texture, of permanence, “nation” in this paradigm is meant to stand for. But it also seems like a lot of my friends right now are talking about sound and acoustics. And in fact I can remember a really long time ago I actually talked about the “sound of democracy” in a job interview that I don’t think went very far. But my friend, poet, and bookmaker Andrew Rippeon has really been working on the poetics of sound in fascinating ways, including textually material ways, and intellectually, ways that account for able-diversities and thus unsettle conclusions on who makes-listens. I was also at a reading recently where the poet Nick Gulig was talking about his book ORIENT coming together, and hearing him describe listening/watching/reading information, or the news, made him aware of “static” and how we’re all producing “static.” This got me thinking about the cross overs I’m working with in scenery––image, text/document, sound, speculation. But also resolved my commitment to the document in a more current project, asylum : after nation, where I’m textually building a border wall out of found sound/document, which begins to topple in the emergence of static, or acoustic processes that signal the death of cohesive nationality, but nonetheless do cohere in another fashion. I think this particular piece, “riot,” signals the beginning of my full on commitment to this building a poetics out of the facticity of the document that measures out the senescence in the organism that has for so long relied on documents upholding some sort exceptionalism, or supremacy, or dictated power.

I suppose technically speaking, it also signals my preference to work––compose, revise, edit, arrange––in Illustrator. This might seem silly, but I do think the artboard right now, for me, is like a type base. It’s more like a letter press to me than a ‘canvas’ because of how text must still be “set” in it, even if along vectors. It’s become more intuitive for me to move from the acts of reading, or note taking, or scribbling, to Illustrator than to anything else, like Word for instance. I think we have to talk about these technologies, because a lot of things change in terms of how we frame “intentionality” or meaning, or quite simply the ocular performances of reading when technologies begin to confront one another, but are otherwise merged without affair in the preference to just seeing the world as “information” or as cohesion.

Q: How did you get to this point in your work? What brought you to putting together manuscripts as such expansive projects? Or is manuscript even the wrong word for your potential end-point?

A: I think I’ve always been trying to accommodate the “expanse”––I think maybe I’m just now starting to get an idea of the arc an expanse can take, to function as something like a manuscript. But I’ve always been drawn to work that… you put it down, and it’s down, meaning “it” as the particular book or whatever. Finality in other words. But you pick up something else by the same writer and it's new, and at the same time you’re back to where you were, in terms of your own thinking. Your thinking while you read. So maybe I can see “arc” better now, there’s methods for composing that let me see it all at once, like I mentioned before about Illustrator, and I’ve just encountered more and more work that excites me into trying more stuff. I’m thinking really specifically here of Myung Mi Kim for instance.

Q: What is it about Myung Mi Kim’s work that strikes, specifically? And what is her work prompting?

A: Maybe just generally, we are historical beings and are existentially aware. This is a condition poetry is built for. What it means to say “historical being” or “historical subject,” that’s something Myung’s work has always spoken to me on. The room the work spares for leaving that shoreline I guess, that’s something the textuality of the work that also really appeals to me. Atticus Finch put out a chapbook excerpt from her Penury that still just makes me marvel at how expansive poetry is. Commons still does this to me too.

Q: Given you are working, in part, with the document, what do you feel working in poetry and poetics allows that wouldn’t be possible through other forms, whether literary prose, visual art or non-fiction?

A: I think in some ways all of these genres could/sometimes do transcend expected sites of language. Russian Avant Gardists called it “factography.” Maybe what poetics allows for, more fully, is relation. Fred Moten would probably call this an aesthetic “wandering.” I think in work like Divya Victor’s it makes me think of “resemblances.” Craig Santos Perez’s work, which is full on docupoetics, engages the principle/practice of incorporation/unincorporation via the document, and this then resonates with the historical politics of territory and national status his work has us consider. I guess that’s the thing also, if the poetic voice, if lyric, functions via the expectation of voice, and initiates the consequence(s) of recognition as such, then the document is the architecture within which voice must always be an acoustic reality. It’s the walls and others against which voice, in the abstract, must always reverberate in its being actual. Because in other genres, except maybe non-fiction, wherein a lot of creative non-fiction maybe dances a bit closer to lyric nowadays, the document might be in service of the contained narrative, in poetry the consequence remains more embodied in the relationship of voice-witness. I should also add that scenery, where “riot” comes from, really gets into a lot of memoir for me, probably for the first time ever. The particular documents I engage with open that door for me.

Q: With two full-length collections under your belt, as well as your current work-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I think I’m becoming more comfortable in a question based, or problem based poetics, where each book is a sustained meditation of sorts. I used to worry that this model doesn’t really accommodate itself to publishing, including journals, but I’m finding that there’s always a place for different poetries. I’m developing along the lines of this awareness and enjoyment of community I suppose. It’s funny because when I work with students there’s still in them an anxiety over publishing as an industry/profession, and this idea that it’s monolithic. I think a lot of faculty in the “professionalization” of writing are guilty in proliferating this myth. Even at my own institution I don’t think the “creative writers” consider what I do as “writing”––at least not all of them as a group. But I see myself continuing to engage poetics in this way of a question. There are other projects I still want to work on that might turn out differently, like this work I’ve been playing with on the arrival of African music to the Gulf Coast of México, from the Yucatán Peninsula to Veracruz. Who knows what that will be like. I also want to get my hands on a letter press and start doing more handmade things as well. Andrew Rippeon and I, Andrew is at Dickinson right now and is an amazing printmaker and bookmaker, we are going to start working on a small run hand made book soon and I’m excited about that.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: I picked up a copy of Hugo García Manríquez’s Los Materiales a while ago and that helped reenergize me a bit. I also like reading Hanif Abdurraqib. He has a new book, a “love letter,” to A Tribe Called Quest. I’ve been enjoying reading it. Though most of what I read, honestly, are children’s books! I think in terms of thinking of writing and reading (which is kind of like listening), it’s music that often affects how I’m working––literally what I’m doing on the page. Juana Molina and Violetta Parra have been two axes for this project in particular.