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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

TtD supplement #84 : seven questions for Jonathan Ball

Dr. Jonathan Ball writes fiction, poetry, screenplays, and criticism and teaches literature, film, and writing in Winnipeg. Visit him online at JonathanBall.com, where he writes about writing the wrong way.

His poems “EMILY CARR,” “FRANKLIN CARMICHAEL” and “JESSIE & JAMES FRANCO” appear in the fourteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “EMILY CARR,” “FRANKLIN CARMICHAEL” and “JESSIE & JAMES FRANCO.”

A: “Emily Carr” and “Franklin Carmichael” are from a poetic sequence called “Group of Seven,” which is from my manuscript-in-progress, The National Gallery. The book explores the role of art in the construction of our personal, social, and national selves.

At the heart of The National Gallery is a simple question: Why write poems? Each sequence attempts not so much to answer this question as to complicate the question.

“Group of Seven” questions the traditional purposes of poetry and addresses its various failures. Each poem is titled after a member of the Group of Seven (including major affiliates, for a total of 12 poems) but refuses to respond to the work of that artist.

The poem “Franklin Carmichael” is effectively a satire of the worst of our nation’s “Canadian content”-style poems but I try to turn it towards something surreal and disturbing. Gary Barwin’s poems, especially his book The Porcupinity of the Stars, was a massive influence on this manuscript.

With my last book of poetry, The Politics of Knives, I tried to draw influence from filmmakers and I have taken a lot also from David Lynch, who in my view always sacrifices sense for tone. I do that to some degree in poems like “Franklin Carmichael” and “Emily Carr.”

In “Emily Carr” I also take a page from Rilke with the final line — “Take this poem into your heart” — which mimics to some degree the final line of “Archaic Torso of Apollo” — “You must change your life.” A different sequence in the manuscript, about my daughter Jessie, draws heavily on Rilke.

“Jessie & James Franco” is a more straightforward poem about my daughter Jessie. She tagged James Franco in an Instagram post where his photo on her wall was in the background and I thought that was hilarious. A lot of The National Gallery is shaping up to be about my daughters, mostly the older Jessie.

Jessie is 17 now and it has been a difficult few years of late, although that is in no way her fault. We’ve had an interesting life and she’s very much at the age where you find yourself reflecting on life as she nears legal adulthood and you have so many more things to worry about (in the teen years) than you once felt that you had to worry about.

I’ve been very lucky because she’s the best daughter in world history but it’s still an emotional time. So, I’ve found myself writing the kinds of horrible, emotional poems I hate. So I puncture them with humour and horror and surrealistic turmoil.

Q: What do you think it is about the “Why write poems?” question that requires response, even if only complicating more? Is this a question you see currently in the culture, or is this more of an individual query?

A: It’s hard for me to answer this question in an interview, because it is a complex question that I am still thinking through, and the book will be my answer. I will just say that it is a question for the ages, and certainly one for this age, and a constant question for any good poet. (… and also for someone like me!)

Q: I’m curious about your attraction to the book-length project. Did it evolve naturally, or are there specific authors that have influenced that direction?

A: Somebody (I forget who, I think it was derek beaulieu) pointed out that I had done a book about books (Ex Machina) and a book about theatre (Clockfire) and a book that is in many ways about film (The Politics of Knives) and expected I would do a book about visual art next. I brushed the idea off but it stuck, and eventually I noticed that I have a number of poems that mimic techniques from visual art, the way that The Politics of Knives contains some pieces that mimic film techniques. 

I also became very interested in the film Texas Chain Saw Massacre and specifically in how the murderous cannibal family in the film is portrayed as an enclave of creators — they cook, they construct sculptures, decorative furniture, and of course masks from their victims, the film ends with an interpretive dance, and there are odd objects that seem entirely artworks, like a clock with a nail driven through its face that hangs suspended in a tree.

Texas Chain Saw Massacre
is a masterpiece, and was actually somewhat controversially made part of the permanent collection at NY’s MOMA. Anyway, I was thinking a lot when I wrote John Paizs’s Crime Wave about how postmodern art and related aesthetics have vaulted “failure” to the height of something like an artistic value, and seeing TCSM again in a cultural moment awash in controversies made me think a lot about the ethics of art-making, so those ideas started to dovetail towards what I saw myself expressing in poems.

I was also commissioned by Gallery 1C03 at the University of Winnipeg to write a poem sequence about Guy Maddin’s collages, and I have already mentioned that the poems of Gary Barwin and Rilke have been stuck with me over the past few years. I found myself writing more personal poems, but also spinning out strange, dark poems that seem to focus on moods and seem more “painterly” in a sense, like this one, which doesn’t have a title yet:
I walk three hallways
In the first I carry
A cup of blood
And seek my name
In the second the moon
Cannot see
What it loves
In the third I hold hands
With a torch
And its shadow
I promised to meet you
But I’m gone
Natalee Caple gave me some great edits on that poem, and her poems in A More Tender Ocean are other ones that I’ve found myself returning to. Of course, there are the standbys that always influence me, like Lisa Robertson.

I consider myself a horror author, and Tony Burgess and Thomas Ligotti are the two great influences on everything I do at the moment.

The manuscript for The National Gallery has grown much more organically than my other poetry books, which were more concept-driven. However, it’s gotten to the point where I am taking control of its growth and directing it more fully, as it nears something like completion.

Q: I’m fascinated by your work in the ekphrastic, especially since it appears to have grown organically, as you suggest, over multiple book-length projects. What do you feel as though you’re able to achieve through writing poetry around other genres – theatre, film and visual art – that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise?

A: The two main things that I achieve through working in ekphrastic modes are avoiding direct discussion of my emotions — so much so that when I actually address an emotion I’ve experienced, it serves as a shocking turn in the poem — and marrying my academic interest in art with my creative art-making.

I love writing a poem that works as a poem and stands alone but also has an interesting and complicated relationship to somebody else’s artwork. It’s a way to inspire yourself and to create and also be analytical and critical in a sense. I have always been ambitious, and it is also a way to associate yourself with your artistic heroes.

Christian Bök once told me something along the lines that if you open your book with a quote by Kafka, now you are in competition with Kafka. You have to be more Kafkaesque than Kafka. I like the challenge of that concept. When I wrote my poem “K. Enters the Castle” in The Politics of Knives, I was very much thinking in those terms. How can I take what Kafka was doing and extend it beyond Kafka? What would Kafka write if he had watched Tarkovsky’s films, like I had?

I have always loved art and my art-making is fundamentally an expression of that love for art. My first “real” poems came out of transcribing song lyrics. I grew up mainly in a small town far away from anything like a music store and I would get “new” (to us) music when a friend went into the city and brought CDs back and then would record unlabeled cassettes for me.

I always wanted to know the words but I went to high school in the age of grunge and everyone mumbled and slurred. I would lay in front of the cassette player and transcribe the lyrics, stopping and starting, rewinding, playing things back. Eventually, of course, the Internet came, and you could look up song lyrics. When I did, I discovered that I was wrong in many instances.

I remember one specific song — Pearl Jam’s “Ocean” — I was almost totally wrong, like 90% wrong. And I looked at Eddie Vedder’s lyrics and “my” lyrics and I liked my lyrics better. Then I started writing original song lyrics to replace the lyrics in my favourite songs, and moved to poems from there. I had been interested in writing beforehand, but this is when I started to seriously write.

So, in a way, my earliest “real” attempts at writing were very much a form of ekphrastic writing and, in many ways, I have just continued that trajectory.

Q: After a handful of books and chapbooks over the past decade-plus, how do you feel your poetry has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I’ve become more interested in poetic sequences and poetic “groups” where you have maybe individual, stand-alone works but also a sense of cohesion or development. I like the juxtapositions between things. With The National Gallery a lot of the poems have titles that don’t relate directly to the content of the poems, and it creates an interesting tension sometimes to puncture or subvert or ironize the more typical title-body relationship. This is something that I stole from David McGimpsey, and in his honour a suite of poems is called “Food Court” and are all titled after fast food restaurants.

I’ve also become more interested in narrative, especially experimental narrative, and I’ve honed in more fully on violence and horror. In many respects my technical approach has broadened and I’ve experimented formally more as I’ve concurrently narrowed my thematic interests.

I find that my work keeps returning to the question of how to live in a world where we feel more and more connected to each other but less and less connected to power. We gain more freedom in our personal lives but feel less free in the world. Then we see violence as a shortcut to connection and control. My work more and more wants to understand that violent impulse as it manifests.

I keep drawing closer to horror. Horror has a clean structure and is ontological in nature. It questions the nature of reality through offering the monster as the truth of reality — a frightful truth that everyone works to deny. The fundamental anxiety that is expressed in horror, at its purest, is Are we wrong? And the answer of true horror is always We are wrong.

In horror, the struggle is less against that monster than against the reality of the monster. The threat in horror is always a symbolic threat, a fate worse than death, and the monster represents the fate worse than death. The challenge of the truly radical horror story is simple and precise but powerful: How do we accept the presence of this monster? How do we accept its truth? How should we suffer the fate worse than death? 

Since I have this increasing interest in narrative, and in horror, all of my writing plans after The National Gallery, and most of my actual writing over that last five years, has been in fiction and nonfiction and screenwriting.

Thematically, The National Gallery keeps asking the question you’ve asked: Where do I see my poetry headed? The answer it keeps returning is Into Oblivion. Maybe that will open a new space, a space of true horror, and I will find that space to be more poetically productive. Or maybe it will be my last poetry book.

Q: Through all of this, what holds you to poetry? You’ve worked in film, and you talk of being drawn closer to horror: why poetry, over moving further into film, or even prose? What is it about the form of the poem that brings you back?

A: Well, in fact I am moving further into film and prose. I’m abandoning poetry. I don’t know if I will come back.

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

A: I read poets, which is perhaps why I have kept coming back to poetry, to follow on your previous question. I feel like poetry is functionally language made strange, defamiliarized, and in poetic works often nothing else needs to happen. There’s a purity of function in some ways. In poetry, I go back to people who surprise me, and who work in long lines and prose poems or sequences, generally. Lisa Robertson, Sina Queyras, Jenny Boully, Erín Moure, Natalee Caple.

That said, there are a few things I keep returning to, often to reenergize, and many of them are not poetry. I have eclectic tastes. This list is going to seem deranged.

I keep returning to a few films: Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Psycho, and In the Mouth of Madness by John Carpenter, for various reasons, and the films of Guy Maddin and David Lynch and John Paizs, who I wrote a whole book about. The Mirror by Tarkovsky as well. A few TV shows, like The Wire and Bojack Horseman and The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development.

There’s a documentary about Jerry Seinfeld called Comedian that I consider one of the great films about the creative process. Comedy in general is something I truly value on a writing level. Steve Martin is my favourite comedian. His act at its height was a brilliant meta-level parody of a stand-up routine where punchlines aren’t the focus or source of the laughs. A lot of other comedians and comedy shows, definitely.

I find rappers fascinating. There’s something about their intensity alongside their wordplay. Poets who don’t listen to rap music are beyond my comprehension. Rappers and comedians are the great poets of our age.

I value intensity. I value tone over sense. I return to a few books and authors religiously. Truly radical horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Tony Burgess, Thomas Ligotti. Melville’s Moby-Dick. Kafka’s work. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a perfect novel.

The single thing I seek the most when I feel like I need something new in my work is something new from an author new to me. Something I have not read and have never seen before. Right now, I’m reading A Void, Georges Perec’s novel that doesn’t contain the letter E. I’m listening to Kendrick Lamar’s album DAMN. I’m going to watch Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

TtD supplement #83 : seven questions for David James Miller

David James Miller is the author most recently of CANT, as well as the chapbooks As Sequence and Facts & Other Objects. His poetry and critical writing can be found in: Jubilat, ATTN:, Jacket2, the forthcoming anthology Precipice: Writing on the Edge, and elsewhere. He edits Elis Press, and SET, a biennial journal of innovative writing. He lives with his family in Saint Louis.

His poem “Notes on Spatial Acoustics” appears in the fourteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Notes on Spatial Acoustics.”

A: “Notes on Spatial Acoustics” is a series which takes as its starting point Pauline Oliveros’ notion of “Deep Listening.” Nearly each part refers to notes I took while listening to particular pieces of music, which I refer to in the footnotes, or they refer to notes I took in response to listening to environmental spaces of some kind—often some kind of ‘natural’ space. I’ve been thinking for some time about how to articulate the act of listening, as it informs so much of my thinking & activity as a poet. These are just a few pieces from a longer series.

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

A: I’m working on a longer project, for lack of a better word, that’s grounded in the act of listening. “Notes on Spatial Acoustics” fits pretty well, in terms of how the poems are linguistically and logically constructed.

Q: Listening can mean a great many things in regard to writing. How do you see the structure of “Notes on Spatial Acoustics” responding structurally or even visually to particular pieces of music?

A: I guess what I was getting at before is more about articulating the act of listening itself, mostly apart from any association with listening for ‘musicality’ or ‘sound’ in rhythm or meter in poetry. Instead, the (musical) pieces I refer to in these poems are all exploratory pieces, very involved with expanding into the spaces around them as sound, through a restrained compositional performance grounded in the act of listening. Listening happens across time, and is grounded in the conscious and bodily experience of and response to sound—often in those particular spaces where sound events occur. Listening remains open, as opposed to passive hearing, and is unique in this way—it’s based in a kind of open consideration that doesn’t insist on asserting a self in the way so much sound does in our current soundscape. This kind of listening recognizes the limits of sound, and it’s a kind of consideration which I also happen to find necessary to several current social and political issues—in this way, listening is a political act. So I do understand the pieces I refer to in these poems to be political, and I understand the poems as reflecting these same formal/compositional earmarks.

Q: How does this compare to some of your earlier work? How do you see your work progressing?

A: I’m still as concerned with listening as I was in CANT, but I think I’m more interested now in also allowing the poetry to articulate the act of listening topically, as much as it also describes the sound events I’m thinking of or encountering when writing.  Which is not to say this next project is only about listening—I’m also very much interested in approaching ecological and political issues more explicitly.  Stylistically, I’m still interested in ways phrasal constructs can generate certain echoic resonances across poems or sections; I think I’m also increasingly interested in bringing in to the poem less condensed language constructs alongside, or maybe contra to, other language artifacts. 

Q: I’m curious about your attraction to the sequence and the longer, book-length project. Did it evolve naturally, or are there specific authors that have influenced that direction?

A: My interest in the possibilities of the serial poem began with lyric poems I found broken into parts—even into only as little as two or three parts. As I eventually began reading longer serial poems (here I’m thinking of John Taggart’s poem “Peace on Earth,” or Leslie Scalapino’s book New Time, for instance), I started thinking of the individual, serial pieces as simultaneous parallels of one another, and also as extensions or expansions of one another. It’s still satisfying to encounter poems incorporating such open possibility, and that challenge the lyric as a limited space. Still, the lyric’s limited space is often as satisfying—I think I try to keep the distance between both of these in mind as I’m writing.

Q: This reminds me of what Michael Ondaatje wrote in the introduction of the first edition of The Long Poem Anthology (Coach House Press, 1979), that the poems can no more live on their own than we can. Given your direction into the serial poem, have you moved away entirely from the single, stand-alone poem? Or is there even such a thing?

A: There’s something to that, which the serial poem explicitly acknowledges. The lyric describes a limit that seriality eludes. My most recent writing is serial mainly because of its subject matter. Although, I do actually write the occasional lyric poem—written from the perspective of a personal “I.” I’m not sure right now that I want to do much more with them other than continue putting them in a folder somewhere. For the past couple of years, I’ve been thinking of the lyric’s particular capacity to describe lived, material experience—this seems more and more important to me, given the trend toward an experience of living that’s increasingly mediated through all things digital. Of course, this is one reason why I’m so interested in the act of listening, which for me is connected with the serial poem (at least for now).

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

A: Gustaf Sobin immediately comes to mind, which is funny to me because his writing is very much grounded in the individual poem, but incorporates the serial, and is also very stylistically and thematically linked—I absolutely love his writing. Also: Etel Adnan, Lorine Niedecker, Leslie Scalapino, Akilah Oliver, John Taggart, Peter Larkin, H.D., Brenda Iijima (I see you just published a chapbook by her, that’s excellent!), JH Prynne, Will Alexander, E. Tracy Grinnell, Michael Cross, George Albon... Also, I really love the recent Chika Sagawa translation...

Thank you rob, it’s great talking with you!

Monday, July 24, 2017

Rusty Priske's Reading List now includes Touch the Donkey #9 + #12

Ottawa poet and organizer Rusty Priske was good enough to mention two different issues of Touch the Donkey at his ongoing "Reading List 2017." Thanks so much! He discusses issue #12 here, and #9 here.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Touch the Donkey : fourteenth issue,

The fourteenth issue is now available, with new poems by David James Miller, Jonathan Ball, Cody-Rose Clevidence, mwpm, Andrew McEwan and Brynne Rebele-Henry.




Seven dollars (includes shipping). I’ll be sleeping downstairs in the visitor’s center.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

TtD supplement #82 : seven questions for Marthe Reed

Marthe Reed has published five books: Nights Reading (Lavender Ink, 2014); Pleth, with j hastain (Unlikely Books, 2013); (em)bodied bliss (Moria Books, 2013); Gaze (Black Radish Books, 2010); Tender Box, A Wunderkammer (Lavender Ink, 2007). The author of six chapbooks, her collaborative chapbook thrown, text by j hastain with Reed’s collages, won the 2013 Smoking Glue Gun contest (2016). Her poetry has been published in New American Writing, Golden Handcuffs Review, Entropy, New Orleans Review, HOW2, Fairy Tale Review, Exquisite Corpse, BlazeVOX, and The Offending Adam, among others. Her poetry reviews have appeared in Jacket2, Galatea Resurrects, Openned, Cut Bank, New Pages, The Rumpus and Rain Taxi. Reed lives in Syracuse, NY, and is co-publisher and managing editor for Black Radish Books.

Her poem “Albany to Syracuse” appears in the thirteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Albany to Syracuse.”

A: Aboard Amtrak, heading home from the city, I awoke outside Albany. The poem makes its way through that corridor, adopts train’s language, a syntax of movement, of inbetween and alongtheway. Travel by train places one in such a strange space, interstitial: present and absent, seeing and being, but only in moments, place-to-place instant by instant. The solitary nature of train rides, each of us pulled down into sealed spaces, defined and separate, delineated by the newspaper, the laptop, the cell phone. The window remains the only conversant, a dialog in flow, in starts and stops, in the conductor’s voice and ticket punch.

Q: How does this piece, if at all, fit in with the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: This piece is of the same character of the work in my Dusie Kollektiv chapbook from 2014, Philip Whalen’s Tulip. It is influenced by reading Whalen’s Collected Poems. I am interested in the simultaneous inward and outward movement of his work, its direct engagement with embodiment and being, the personal fully enmeshed in the quotidian, the political, the environment. His work marries Buddhist mindfulness to a marvelous sense of play. Serious play, playful seriousness: “art as an act of personal delight and as a consolation to solitude.” Solitude, in the aftermath of raising children (staying at home for eight of those years, working while parenting another 15), and as a result of too many cross-continental and cross-Pacific moves, of leaving home-place after home-place, has become an intimate terrain. This poem, like those of Philip Whalen’s Tulip, map a way into a new emplacement. Where am I now? What does that mean to be here?

Q: How does Whalen’s work, for you, connect to that “Solitude, in the aftermath of raising children,” and how does it shift your reading of his work prior to that time?

A: Whalen lived a rather solitary life and that inflects his work. Raising children is very often lonely work, particularly when they are young. All one’s time and attention is given over to them, except when they, and you, are asleep. Though one sees others, all too often it is in the context of the children or navigating their needs. The public library, a play group, swim classes, a playdate. There is little emotional or physical space in which to claim a life of one's own. Nor is this labor particularly valued, further heightening one’s isolation. Knowing now that reality, I would not choose again to live out in the country in a foreign nation with a newborn and a six-year-old! As to how that solitude shifted my reading of Whalen, I don’t think it did. I read him first as an undergraduate as part of a course on the San Francisco Renaissance, but at that point my interests and attention were drawn to poets such as Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. It was only much later, in the context of a workshop with Hoa Nguyen, that I immersed myself in his work over a sustained period. Interestingly, it is the parallels between Whalen and Berssenbrugge, in the quality of their attention, that draws me to their work.

Q: With five full-length books over the past decade or so, as well as a small handful of chapbooks, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: The work has numerous impulses, the collections moving in response to rather divergent aesthetic and compositional concerns. Right now I am finalizing a manuscript of work based in my years in Louisiana, work largely documentary in form, often using found and collaged language, as well as handmade maps and other visual elements. The evolving work the “Albany to Syracuse” poem belongs to is more meditative and personal, composed in direct engagement with and response to the landscape and context in which I find myself now. Environmental concerns and place-sensitivity are active in both projects. My most recent published collection, Nights Reading, is an overtly political and feminist one, robed in the garments of language simultaneously sensuous and ironic. I don’t think there is an arc to my work so much as investigative impulse in dialogue with a profound love for this marvel, the spinning world transiting the heavens. Delight and disgust, wonder and horror, an abiding curiosity and (com)passion about all of it, compose the weft of the work, the question How do we live now? always just beneath the surface.

Q: You mention a shift in, as you say, “direct engagement” in your work since moving from Louisiana to Syracuse, New York. Has your work always been influenced by your immediate landscape, or is this something that has become more overt once you moved north? Is this you working to understand your new home-space through your writing?

A: Developing a sense of place, of centering myself in the flows and forms around me has been important to me for a long time, I suppose since I last lived in San Diego. We moved to a north county coastal neighborhood in ‘89 and it was in that context that my attention to the landscape and its history, its weather, the tides, the geography of mesas and canyons, the nexus of human and other-than-human that defines it became explicitly integrated with my writing. Place, however, has always been a means of grounding myself and locating myself, partly in response to moving around so much as an adult. Whether in Bloomington, Indiana, Perth, Western Australia, Lafayette, Louisiana, or Syracuse, the need to know where I am and what that requires of me in return underlies both the writing and daily life, the foundation from which all else proceeds.

Q: When you say this piece is “of the same character” as other work, does that mean there is work you’ve been doing lately that falls outside of this same character? Does your work, then, consist of a single, steady line of composition or a series of ongoing lines?

A: The documentary work for my Louisiana project is driven by a similar impulse, or at least began that way: to find a way into place. But Ark Hive, the Louisiana manuscript, quickly moved into a more investigatory mode, engaged in research, analysis, and questioning, a project informed as much by the archive as by the intimate. This poem, like those in the chapbook, returns to the latter. Though I already suspect the archival impulse will soon enough enter the writing, as well: the way history insistently levers its way through the present moment, reconfiguring what and how we know, how we are and where.

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

A: Ah, lovely question, especially when restoration and reenergizing are so necessary now, post-presidential election catastrophe here in the U.S. Tonya M. Foster’s A Swarm of Bees in High Court has been important this week. Alice Notley, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Laura Mullen, Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Bhanu Kapil, Claudia Rankine. I have recently been reading the new kari edwards’ collection succubus in my pocket (EOAGH), and that has been invigorating, as well, and writers whose work is breaking through now such as Mg Roberts, Yolanda Wisher, and Kimberly Alidio. These writers return me again and again to the urgency of writing, its potencies as well as the sheer amazon strength and wonder of language in bearing our fraught, miraculous world into vivid focus.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

TtD supplement #81 : seven questions for Sue Landers

Sue Landers’ latest book, FRANKLINSTEIN, tells the story of one Philadelphia neighborhood wrestling with the legacies of colonialism, racism, and capitalism. She is also the author of 248 MGS., A PANIC PICNIC and COVERS, both published by O Books. Her chapbooks include 15: A Poetic Engagement with the Chicago Manual of Style and What I Was Tweeting While You Were on Facebook. She lives in Brooklyn.

Her poems “Oculus Study” and “No Bedrock But In Silt” appear in the thirteenth issue of Touch the Donkey. A further poem, “To protect the world we have, protect the invaluable, our priceless practice” is scheduled to appear in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Oculus Study.”

A: About Oculus Study:

I work in downtown Manhattan, and my commute takes me through the new World Trade Center transit center each day. Called the Oculus, it’s a train station/mall that replaced the train station/mall that was destroyed on September 11th. Its architect is Santiago Calatrava, who also built the Milwaukee Art Museum. I love the Milwaukee Art Museum; it looks like a bird about to take flight over Lake Michigan.

The Oculus design is in that same, signature, style. At its center, is an eye that opens like a gash exposing the new World Trade Center. It is stark white (requiring constant polishing) and the hallways are full of exposed rib-like support beams. It feels like you are physically walking through the belly of a beast in the figurative belly of the beast of capitalism. Or else it feels like a tomb, which it is essentially, since it’s built atop an actual gravesite. Really, the metaphors just trip all over themselves.

I wrote the poem when right after the building had just opened, when it was not well trafficked since all the stores inside were still under construction and not all the trains exited into it. So, I found myself walking through virtually empty corridors (aside from private security, military personnel, and city cops—all of whom are everywhere). Finding private space (albeit inside a privatized space) in New York is a rare thing. I felt like I was inside some kind of militarized church of capitalism. So, I decided to take notes each day to document its early days. I see “Oculus Study” as a kind of soundscape.

And where I landed in the piece, what I came to realize through writing it, was my own lack of engagement/awareness/protestation of the reconstruction of the World Trade Center complex. After 9/11 I experienced— like so many other New Yorkers —to widely varying degrees—a form of PTSD. And part of that was in response to the attack itself and part of it was due to the immediate, rampant, and dangerous nationalism that overtook both the city and the nation at large. So, part of my coping mechanism was to not visit that area of Manhattan. And not until a job took me there 15 years later, and writing this poem, did I realize how deeply tucked into the sand my head was.

Q: How do these poems fit in with the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I have been very focused on the here and now these days and my writing has been taking a kind of day-book form.

This is, in part, an outcome of having just recently published a book that took me four years to write (the book Franklinstein we chatted about in 2016), and the break I needed after completing that capital-P “project.” And it’s also a matter of necessity, in that I have limited time to write since I work full-time and am spending free time resisting my country’s burgeoning kleptocracy. So, observing and writing about my experiences on the way to and from my responsibilities is a way of keeping up with my writing practice.

And practicing this way, through observation, has led me into what I hope will become my next capital-P project: a series of poems about the NYC subway system. I have been riding every train line end-to-end, essentially using the train as studio space, and writing about what I see at a unique time in U.S. history.

The NYC subways reflect the full spectrum of economic and racial diversity in the United States—a spectrum that by extension represents the U.S. at large—and which I draw hope from every day. Solidarity is vital to resisting the current American president and his agenda, and I see my fellow straphangers as a community of power and strength.

Q: You mention your work being project-based. Was this always been the case? How did you get to a point that you were composing book-length projects?

A: Each of my books has taken the form of a book-length project. I envy poets who can create collections of poems, as opposed to series or sequences of poems. But I may have a tendency to perseverate. And series or sequences enable a kind of reiteration, a kind of braiding of poems, which feels more right to me. They give me the freedom and space to work topics through.

Q: What were your models for this particular kind of approach? Have there been specific poets and/or works that led you to composing book-length works, or have even helped you to adapt your approach of the book-length project?

A: Wasn’t it Spicer who said that poets write the same poems all their lives? Something about that sparked my interest in sequences. I think I interpreted that to mean that repeating or reiterating one’s poems enable the work to extend. Then there are Notley’s epics, but particularly Descent of Alette, which showed me how a poet could balance narrative with music. Then there’s Allison Cobb’s Green-Wood, which is a stellar model of investigative poetics, and I take incredible pleasure in its associative flow.

Q: Do you see yourself working on a singular, life-long project?

A: Not exactly. I think I have social and political concerns that will always inform my work. And perhaps my voice will remain similar throughout my writing life. But I think my life-long project is simply to keep writing, to keep thinking through writing, to keep finding insight and beauty through writing. And to continue to evolve over the course of my life as a writer, a thinker, and a poet.

Q: I’m curious as to your mention of the “day-book” form; what is it about the day book that appeals? What can you engage through such that you don’t feel as though you can otherwise?

A: My interest in the day book emerged as I was reading “Studying Hunger Journals.” I was at a writing residency, where I began each day reading Mayer first thing in the morning. For my two weeks there, I followed a pretty strict routine of daily writing, reading, and walking exercises because I wanted to practice behaviors I have a hard time sticking to in real-life. And I found Mayer’s approach to writing about daily life and dreams inspiring.

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

A: I go back to Descent of Alette every few years – its scope, power, and rawness remind me of what poetry can be. I also re-read novels I love because the genre is so different from how I write, it gets me out of my head. There is one I particularly love, a classic Scottish novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It’s one of those gothic novels that tells the story of good and evil from two different perspectives. It supposedly inspired Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; it’s totally awesome.




Tuesday, June 6, 2017

TtD supplement #80 : seven questions for Oliver Cusimano

Oliver Cusimano’s writing from an hour before his bedtime, in the basement where he’s lived the last two years, with his things.

His poem “Sautéed” appears in the thirteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Sautéed.”

A: “Sautéed” is the last poem in an invention I began about three years before. It could be because I grew up more in movies than books, but, however, I’d been frustrated with how little I could thicken my writing’s texture. As though nothing I’d written could tolerate a re-reading. The invention: I’d weave three strands of text into the same letters. They are... (1) My vocabulary limited to words drawn from a source text.  So that text’s sound shakes mine. (2) The sequential words of my text. And (3) at least one letter of each of those words is displaced onto its horizontally parallel line. Read these displaced letters sequentially, and they spell a message. At first these messages were quotations from books. Once I became serious, I started a series: words from Jack Spicer’s Language, and displaced letters to spell the names of doughnuts or coffees or coffee shops. Four more of these series, until, just before leaving the invention for something else, I made a few kitchen recipes. The four poems of “Sautéed” store ingredients and equipment for making sautéed onions: “Gallo olive oil,” “T-Fal frying pan,” “Seven white onions,” and “Simply Bamboo cutting board.” That’s a gist of the formal definition. 

Making the poems was just a matter of setting a date with the materials. There, then, I wouldn’t make simply whatever, but whatever I wanted. It was a way I had some time ago to query what I wanted. “Sautéed” is a record of its passage one certain night. ...The hope: the invention’s intersections, most basically, the horizontal of my desire and the vertical of the form, would witness something that could tolerate re-reading...

Q: How does this differ from some of the other work you’ve been producing lately?

A: I turned the page.  For the last eight or so months I’ve been writing something now titled CRITTERCISM. It began with an intention to write a mirror book to Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness – an essay addressed to each of the seven Hollywood Comedies of Remarriage. That explicit content has been completely effaced, although recently rereading parts of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale has helped me to take another step (Cavell chooses it as offering early insight into the remarriage genre). But my growing thing’s vocabulary’s now mostly elsewhere: mammals and feathered dinosaurs; critters and bodies of light/late; rivers and rivals; to spore, score, and pour; arrows and eros; veer/steer, career, queer, near & dear; the para-bolic, sym-bolic, meta-bolic, hyper-bolic, dia-bolic; stupidity, idiots, dummies, being stupefied; the templum and the pro-fane; considerate contemplation and dis-aster...  If the poems were duende-work, this thing’s with an angel…

Q: You’re currently a member of the bpNichol Lane writers’ group. How did you first get involved, and how do you feel it has shifted the way you see your writing, if at all?

A: The writing group has disbanded, although many friendships from then continue, and continue to lead my way in writing and reading. I was first invited to the meetings by Michael Boughn, after being a student in one of his classes, “Contemporary Poetry,” summer 2011. It’s profoundly shifted my relation to writing. Maybe most basically, it exposed me to the experience of readers. I mean, some of the others would hear in whatever text I brought that night to share lines of sense I hadn’t intended, or detected, or meant, or thought could be meant. That’s dynamite. Who knows what it’s done, but because you asked, I’ll say, it shifted where I’d imaginatively located the field of writing and has accelerated my complication of its materials.

Q: What writers and/or works have influenced the ways in which you approach writing?

A: Most significantly, friends in Toronto. Some I first met at the bpNichol thing. Some from U of T classes I’ve audited. Some from neither of those places. 

Q: You’ve published at least one chapbook so far. Are you thinking much about larger groupings of poems as you write? Might there be further chapbooks, or even something larger?

A: The thought of gathering poems from the invention I've already mentioned to as much as a book has been in mind, and if I did, Swimmer's Group would publish it, a marvelous small printing/publishing company in Toronto.  I seriously recommend whoever reads this to look them up.  But at least for now a book of the poems exists only in the thin conditional spheres.  My energy to do with writing in the last few months has concentrated on the work now underhand, CRITTERCISM...

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

A: Emerson and Thoreau again and again. And there are friends in Toronto – I leave our conversations energized. Thanks, rob.