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Friday, March 27, 2020

TtD supplement #157 : seven questions for Clara Daneri

Clara Daneri is an artist, poet and illustrator, exploring the relationship between digital and traditional media. She is the visual poetry editor at Penteract Press and she tweets @ClaraDaneri.

Her visual poem “The Tyger” appears in the twenty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the “The Tyger.”

A: A lot of my poetry is about distorting classic literature into visual representations of the subject matter. I like to choose pieces that resonate with me and have strong imagery, so Blake’s “The Tyger” seemed perfect for this treatment. The face of a tiger is such an iconic image, and Blake’s poem so evocative, I really wanted to play with the idea of “perfect symmetry” within both.

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

A: My work tends to focus on the relationship between content and form. My first real venture into visual poetry was a triptych of female forms whose skins are made up of romantic poems about feminine beauty. Another work is an erasure palimpsest using text from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Karloff’s iconic Monster. An upcoming piece, due to finish up Penteract Press’ pamphlet series, sees me retell Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit using only emojis. 

Q: What is it about reshaping or erasing text that appeals to you? What do you feel that utilizing the words from other texts allows that might not be possible otherwise?

A: It’s about exploring the relationship between word and form – bridging the gap between literature and the visual arts. By using existing works as my starting point, it gives me a constraint with which to work – I have to find a solution to the “problem”. If I were working with my own words, I don’t think that solution would be as satisfying, as I would have too much control over the outcome.

Q: I’ve heard that as a descriptor for art-making: we create problems that we can then solve. Is this how you see your practice? Who have your models been for this kind of work?

A: I always produce my best work when I have an initial starting point – a blank page/canvas is not a thing of inspiration for me, so I think that statement is true.

My husband, Anthony Etherin, has shown me what can be achieved with the right balance of freedom and constraint. Our founding of Penteract Press together has exposed me to so many great poets, and in the last few years I have taken great pleasure in seeing what can be done combining word and form. I don’t think I have any direct models, but I have taken a lot of inspiration from some of the poets with whom we have worked including Christian Bök, Mary Frances, Chris Warren, Lucy Dawkins, Kate Siklosi and psw.

Q: With a handful of pamphlets and other ephemera under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your working heading?

A: I’m definitely more confident now – at first, I was very nervous about how my work would be received, but feedback has been good, so that spurs me on to keep trying new things. It has been really great that people have started reaching out to solicit work from me – that encourages me to continue. I haven’t created that much output yet, so I am still finding out what my particular poetic practice is. I am really keen on this “Icons” theme of working with well-known pieces that resonate with me, and this is forming into the early stages of a book – I just wish I had more hours in the day (but I guess most poets have the same problem)! Between working full time and helping to run Penteract Press, finding time to work on new pieces is challenging. Most of my poetic work requires a lot of concentration, so I have to have a few clear hours where I’m able to be totally focused. The book will come, in time, but at the moment building up the press takes precedence. However, if I’m feeling particularly inspired, I somehow manage to find the time!

Q: How many “Icons” have you produced so far, and how far do you see the project going?

A: I am looking to produce a short book, so perhaps 30 – 40 in total. So far, I have about seven, so still a way to go… I have had a few frustrating false starts with concepts that didn’t work out in the end – but that’s all part of the process!

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

A: I must admit, I don’t tend to revisit things on purpose for inspiration – it tends to be a more of a coincidental process when it happens.

I find my twitter feed very inspirational as so many of the people I follow are so generous sharing their work, as well as retweeting things that they admire both in poetry and visual art. It’s a lovely thing to scroll Twitter and come across an astounding painting/ visual poem you’ve never seen before, or be reminded of a forgotten favourite.

Outside of Twitter, Anthony helps me a lot. When I am stuck in a creative rut, we talk, and bounce ideas off each other. Maybe clarifying a half-formed idea, or helping me find a point of inspiration (“Aria”, which features in our “Reflections” anthology was a direct response to the bilingual palindrome he had written with Pedro Poitevin).

Monday, March 16, 2020

TtD supplement #156 : seven questions for Zane Koss

Zane Koss is a non-resident alien currently living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. He was raised on the unceded territories of the Ktunaxa and Secwépemc nations. His critical and creative work can be found in the Chicago Review, the /temz/ Review, CV2, Poetry is Dead, and elsewhere. He has published three chapbooks of poetry, Invermere Grids (above/ground, 2019), job site (Blasted Tree, 2018) and Warehouse Zone (Publication Studio Guelph, 2015), with one further chapbook forthcoming from above/ground press. Zane is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at New York University, where he researches Canadian, Mexican and U.S. poetry in the 1960s and 1970s.

His poems “ghosts,” “telephone,” “for marianne moore” and “no theses on poetics” appear in the twenty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “ghosts,” “telephone,” “for marianne moore” and “no theses on poetics.”

A: I don’t often write short, “stand-alone” poems like these – I tend to work best on longer projects where I can slowly chip away at a task, rather than waiting for poems or lines to flutter into my head, which happens so rarely. So, it's kind of weird to publish a bunch of them.

I wrote “telephone” after a phone call with my mom in 2014 while I was living in Montreal. My mom worked as a HCA (health care assistant) and at the time was on “home support,” driving out to all the far corners of the valley to visit people who need assistance from a health care professional to continue living (or dying) independently. Her mind has a wonderful (and at times frustrating) way of cutting back and forth between topics that is, I think, at the very heart of poetry, as well as a tendency to mispronounce or combine words and an incredible knack for storytelling. Both my parents have that. All very poetic. When I first wanted to be a writer, I only wanted to be as good a storyteller as my parents are, as good a practical joker as them. They both have a talent where you can never tell if they’re being serious or pulling your leg, and I don’t mean like for a minute or two, I mean like I feel like on their deathbeds they’re going to wink and go “Gotcha!” and it'll have all been one long joke. About what, I don’t know.

“for marianne moore” was written in summer 2017 in Brooklyn while I studied for my comprehensive exams for my (still on-going) doctoral degree and gardened on our little patio where we grow morning glories which I find endlessly fascinating. I really like Marianne Moore’s work, but hadn’t read any of her poems in a couple years before that summer. I’m always sort of amazed she wasn’t (or at least isn’t considered) more influential than she is. She’s such a generative writer.

“no theses on poetics” was written in response a talk on poetics I attended that rubbed me the wrong way. I wanted it to be a dialogue poem written with a friend who was also slightly perturbed by that talk, but nothing came of it. I don’t think the friend really understood that I was trying to initiate a dialogue. I’m against making poetry “useful” in ways that can be too easily assimilated into the current capitalist organization of society. Better to be useless than to do research that aids in war-making or surveillance or whatever. I also love the manifesto form while finding it inherently ridiculous and often politically awful, so this poem is both a serious attempt at writing something resembling a manifesto and a send-up of that rhetoric.

And “ghosts,” I have a stupid fear of ghosts that keeps me up at night the first time I’m sleeping in a new place if it has any hint of creepiness. If I stay long enough that fades, obviously, as I get used to the creaks and squeaks of a given structure. This poem floated into my head ghost-like in the night after realizing that Kate and I have lived in our current Brooklyn apartment longer than anywhere since our parents’ homes growing up, and the types of relationships one forms with the physical structures you inhabit. And how our time here in Brooklyn is necessarily limited by my visa. It’s both our home and necessarily not. Is this response too long? I think they’re all longer than the poem they’re meant to explain, and also not really about the poems.

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

A: So, as I’d mentioned, the poems published here are different from my typical work because of their short length and lack of a processual apparatus. (i.e. I didn’t think out a method of generating form or content prior to beginning any of these poems; they simply burst out of me, much less systematically.) For example, at the moment I’m working on a manuscript in which I’ve been collecting observations – trying to limit myself to sense impressions and perceptual data only – glimpses, glances, and sounds – no conjectures or conclusions – from my neighbourhood in Brooklyn, particularly sense impressions of the appearance of the surface of New York Harbour. I’ll collect this data for a couple months – much of it fleeting, in passing, minor jottings – and then arrange this data into 4 x 4 grids composed the letter “s” repeated and symmetrically space on a page. And each phrase inserted into the grid has to hang itself off an “s,” so that everything is anchored in space to the grid. It sounds very neurotic now when I describe it. (I use the same form, except with a “v,” in my recent above/ground chapbook, Invermere Grids, btw.) I’ve gotten up to three sets of 32 grids each, so it’s a book-length manuscript now. Of course, the observations sort of get away from pure sensation and into politics and history, because sense comes thru the body which is always political – how our bodies experience (space) depends on what those bodies are or how they’re read by the forms of power that structure life (within that space). Anyhow, rather than having a big neurotic apparatus like this, “ghosts,” “telephone,” “for marianne moore,” and “no theses” just appeared to me on a given day, without intention or forethought. Which is fairly unusual for me.

Q: What is it about the processional apparatus that appeals? What do you think is possible through such processes that might not be possible otherwise?

A: I mean, it’s partially because I am interested in process – in seeing how things are made, in seeing things that in their “finished” state are still in the process of emergence, of inchoate-ness – I always love books of poetry that are structured as “rough drafts,” “notes” or “journals,” like Francis Ponge’s The Table, for example. And also because I like how process-based poetics help to undermine the whole myth of the divinely-inspired poet-genius. I want to undermine that idea because I didn't write poetry for most of my 20s because I never felt I was “inspired” enough. It was only in my Master’s degree encountering the work of poets like Louis Dudek – who has poems that are just collections of random ideas and images all collaged together into a whole – or Charles Olson – whose poetry often enacts the process of its composition, picking thru archival materials, and making passing comments on that matter – that I began thinking again “Oh, maybe I can do this.” (This attitude is also why I’ve always loved punk music. You come away from shows thinking, “I could do that,” but no in the derogatory sense of the “Oh, my child could paint that,” but in a very anti-hierarchical sense – the whole do-it-yourself ethos.) Back to processes, I think the other thing too is that poetry is and has always been about the types of freedom that can be found in constraint – whether those constraints are the fourteen lines of a sonnet or rhyming iambic pentameter or forcing yourself to transcribe everything that happens in a single day. And given that rhyme schemes no longer feel innovative – and thus no longer present that same sense of producing new knowledge or whatever – it’s important to find other ways of exploring the limits of language and thought. Using a process or constraint forces you outside the box of standard modes of writing and thinking, which I see as central to the task of the poet.

Q: I find it curious that you moved from studying Dudek to composing using constraint, a line that doesn’t, at least for me, have obvious connectors between them. Without taking anything away from what you absorbed from Dudek and Olson, what other poets and works have assisted in developing your current approach?

A: You know, you’re totally right. When I wrote that, it seemed like an obvious leap, but it’s not. I think maybe a bit about the compositional process of En Mexico (1958), insofar as Dudek wrote a bunch of fragments that he then later arranged into the poem as it was published, there’s something processual there, but you’re right that he was sort of anti-constraint, in terms of his dedication to “organic form,” at least in his mid-career work – though we might argue that “organic form” is a type of constraint, a sort of anti-constraint constraint. There’s no escape.

But yes, in terms of actual writers who provoked an interest in constraint, I definitely think about Lyn Hejinian’s My Life a lot, or Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present. Or Bernadette Mayer. I even would go back to Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” and his other tape recorder poems, how they walk that line between free composition and a compositional process that acts as a sort of constraint. I think that’s what my current grids project is sort of doing, in a way that joins Hejinian to Mayer to Ginsberg to Dudek: the idea of a process that governs both how you collect the raw material of composition, and how that raw material gets arranged after the fact. And that sort of resembles Dudek’s compositional process in En México, anyway.

But in terms of the grid project, there’s one original source and then a second influence that helped shape the project’s direction. The first is the rapper Madvillain, weirdly, because I don’t really listen to him a lot. I’m not sure the order of how this came together, but I wanted to write odes to rap lyrics that would use something of the constrained form of the sixteen bars of the rap verse to give shape to a poem that is more visually than sonically tuned, to pay attention to the visual quality of language in rap music. So, the sixteen point four-by-four grid is a visual corollary to the sixteen-bar, 4/4-time, rap verse. It was something that came to me while listening to Madvillain – the words were just so spatialized and architectural, it suddenly made sense as a visual grid. Everything I know about using sound in poetry was learned trying to write these odes to rap songs while listening to them, trying to borrow rhythms or sounds or words or textures. I’d always thought of my writing as primarily visual until then. which also was around when I started getting more opportunities to perform excerpts from my second chapbook, job site, at readings, which now feels like a very auditory poem.

The second big influence was Stephen Ratcliffe. I stumbled across his book CLOUD / RIDGE at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, and I’d been wanting to do poems out of pure sense perceptions, and he’d been doing it – beautifully – for like two decades, using these incredibly constrained verse forms in a monospaced font. Initially I’d began writing the grids dedicated to rap verses using Times New Roman, which made it incredibly hard to line the grids up with the words. And Ratcliffe’s sort of authorized me to go for it – to do really phenomenological, sensory, observations and to do it using monospaced font, which I’d already seen in Larry Eigner and Robert Grenier, of course, but something about the way Ratcliffe did it in very constrained stanza forms – which Eigner is much more voluptuous and Grenier usually quite minimalist – and suddenly it all clicked: the sixteen point grids, the monospaced font, the really phenomenological observations, the process of gathering and arranging data, etc.

That’s one very teleological reading of my last seven or eight years of my reading and writing (and listening!). Certainly, there are other projects and ideas on the go in excess of the above or that shoot off from the same materials in different directions, but that’s how I moved from Dudek to the grid project. And I think each of those writers (and musicians) adds something along the way.

Q: With a couple of published chapbooks under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your working heading?

A: I don’t know about “developed.” I don’t feel like my current project is necessarily better than my first chapbook, Warehouse Zone (2015). I think a set of interests and concerns has certainly started to cohere – there’s a coherent universe of ideas that I am inhabiting now. I’ve moved from trying to have a signature stylistic tic toward having signature questions, I guess, although I still have certain stylistic tics, but they’re much less at the center of my self-conception as a writer. Well, now that I think about it, maybe I’ve learned a few things since my first chapbook. Refinements of technique, things I would do differently, more deftly, if I had to write that project again. Probably stick closer to the constraint, and play less for humour. I think I wasn’t confident enough to pursue a completely austere vision at the time. Usually, though, I’m more worried by the feeling that my best work is behind me, rather than the feeling that I’ve grown as a writer. The worry is that I’ll never write anything better than whatever is in the rearview mirror – which is unnerving both for the obvious reason, and because that past work isn’t particularly great either. I feel like I haven’t broken out, and yet I’m already in decline. Maybe I’m still inchoate. Time will tell.

As far as where I’m heading, I’ve got the grids project to finish editing, and another thing in the works where I’m thinking about my background – my whiteness, my rural-ness, my blue-collar parents, etc. – through a critical collaging of lyric statement and quotations from country music – my love/hate relationship with country music – which will maybe also be about punk music too. Something similar to “conference report” in tone and concern (published on / temz / Review this past summer), but more formally adventurous. I think my politics emerged out of listening to a lot of radical punk music as a teen, and later exposure to critical theory in academia only gave philosophical background to what punk had already taught me. Mostly, I just want someday to write a poem as compelling as a really good song.

Q: You mention a potential focus on your background – “my whiteness, my rural-ness, my blue-collar parents”; how might something like that look?

A: To be perfectly honest, I have no idea. Which (I hope) is sort of the point of writing poetry. It’s an effort towards getting myself to think more critically about these things – in life not just in art – and I’m hoping to learn something that I don’t yet know through that process. It’s all still so inchoate at the moment that I don’t want to talk about it too much. Like most of my writing projects, I tend to mull something over for a year or so, and then when I reach some sort of understanding about what the project will be, it gets written in a fairly condensed period of time, usually without much editing afterwards. Let’s say the editing happens before the writing part. And I’m still in that stage right now. The only things written so far are a couple false starts that will probably get dismantled before they’re recycled into the final project, similarly to what happened with the grids.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your work? What writers or writing can’t you help but return to?

A: In the last week or so, I’ve been really energized reading Diane Di Prima’s memoir Recollections of My Life as a Woman. What a fantastic book. I think the best book I read before that was Stephen Collis’s Almost Islands about Phyllis Webb. Those two books both gave me a lot of energy for writing poetry and faith in art more generally. As far as writers I return to, I feel like I don’t return to writers much these days, unless it’s for my dissertation. I wish I had more time to read without it being immediately weaponized for my work. And there’s so much poetry that I’m constantly learning about that I find it hard to linger. If there’s anyone I return to semi-regularly, it would have to be William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein. Or Daphne Marlatt, Lisa Robertson and Lyn Hejinian, depending on what I’m looking for. The last book I read that I immediately thought “Oh, I can’t wait to re-read that” was Marty Cain’s Kids of the Black Hole, but I haven’t gotten back to it yet. I’m also always reading work by my buddy, Mike Chaulk. His writing always gives me that “Damn, I wish I’d written that” feeling. And that always makes me want to write more – in case I somehow manage to write something as good as he has. Aditya Bahl too. His expanding “translation” of a single poem by Muktibodh knocks me flat, and just sets my brain whirring! It’s so good!

Thursday, March 5, 2020

TtD supplement #155 : seven questions for Nicole Raziya Fong

Nicole Raziya Fong is a poet living in Montréal. Past work has appeared in publications including Cordite, The Volta, Social Text, filling Station and Poetry is Dead, as well as in a chapbook produced by the Poetry Will Be Made By All project. Her first book of poetry is PEЯFACT (Talonbooks, 2019).

An excerpt of her work-in-progress “FLESH THEATRES” appear in the twenty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “FLESH THEATRES.”

A: “Flesh Theatres” is a series of interactions and exchanges enacted upon the presence (present moment) of a stage, at once diagrammatic and enigmatic in its architecture. “Flesh Theatres” may be described as a series of actions which come to resemble a previous action, or by an exchange in which one referent transforms into an unrecognizable placeholder, shifting in parallelism with the tectonics of stage, character and direction. “Flesh Theatres” represents a process of understanding/dismantling event/belief, an understanding/dismantling which may entertain a world of concept or form, but never both simultaneously.

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

A: Right now I’ve been focusing most of my attention on the manuscript of which “Flesh Theatres” is a part. The work I’m doing alongside is similarly engaged with this transmission/delimitation of present/past, memory and belief. I think of everything I’m working on now, the entirety of this project, as a kind of mapping or cartography. The other pieces differ form-wise from the semi-theatrical structure of “Flesh Theatres” (ie. monologues taking the form of unrhymed couplets, dreams dispersed spatially across a page, the use of endnotes to extend/contest a phrase), but their intentions are very much in line with the pieces included here.

Q: How did you come to this approach of, as you call it, “a kind of mapping or cartography,” and how does this structure reveal itself through the text?

A: At the root of the work I’m doing here is traumatic memory, whose fragmentation will at times disclose glimpses of the real, yet more often than not remains obscured in symbol and abstraction. One cannot navigate this realm without some kind of guide or rule system in place.

The theatrical form of these pieces is useful to me in that they loosely provide this kind of rule-based structure, making physical an amorphous influx of impressions, words, images and fragments of speech. What a character comes to embody, how this character becomes capable of articulating event (symbolic or not), then having multiple characters become able to interact, address one another— these exchanges become a kind of directive map onto memory and therefore the text itself.

So it’s upon this plane, this plane of the real, where these connections or this kind of mapping might occur. The catch is, of course, that the reality of this “plane” is a fiction and these interactions are only “real” within the boundaries of their interaction. This boundary is a limit; it is the stage.

If I can refer to the project at large, this mapping is at work on a few different levels – visually within pieces where text-boxes split existing poems, redirecting a multiplicity of implications within the singular, and through repetition, by which certain images, phrases, motives drive themselves forward, hopefully leading to moment of elucidation, the center of the maze, end point of the map etc. It’s a process.

Q: With a published debut and your current work-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Perhaps you could say that in my first, PERFACT, I was just beginning this process of engaging with language and memory in an exploratory way. The writing I’m doing now is at once a crystallization and expansion of the concerns I had perhaps unconsciously begun broaching in PERFACT but weren’t fully developed there. For whatever reason I feel a lot less constrained by formal expectations now than I did in PERFACT and the ability to see the page as an expansive site of potential rather than a rigid, lineated space by which concept should be conveyed in a particular manner has been exciting for me. I really can’t say where my work is headed as I never know what is coming until it comes. The work changes as I do, in an equally unpredictable way.

Q: Do you see the current manuscript as an extension of the first, or the two manuscripts as a single, continuous project? Or is there even a difference?

A: The two manuscripts are definitely related. The new work, the whole of which I’m calling ORACULE, and PERFACT are not so connected as to form a series, but definitely exist in the same phenomenological world or system. So they share a subjective frame, but do not explicitly speak to one another in the manner one might expect of an extended project.

Q: Have you any models for this kind of project? Are there any authors or works in the back of your head as you work?

A: Chus Pato translated by Erín Moure, Pascal Quignard’s Albucius, Utopia by Bernadette Mayer, Gregoire Pam Dick’s Metaphysical Licks and Alice Notley’s work are all somewhat present in my mind as I work on this project. I’m continually reading Plato; his work at times seeps into my writing in unexpected ways. Most recently, the collection Poesy Matters by Catherine Christer Hennix, specifically her work surrounding Noh theatre. Film, too—the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 film The Ballad of Narayama, Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives all illuminate some kind of phenomenological instability, a fluctuation between supposedly disparate realms through visual means.

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

A: There are so many I could list: Mark Johnson, Erín Moure, Divya Victor, Kaie Kellough, Nora Collen Fulton, Michael Nardone, Eric Schmaltz. Hannah Weiner, Leslie Scalapino, Will Alexander. I repeatedly turn to Plato, Édouard Glissant, Aimé Césaire, Antonin Artaud, Raymond Roussel, Bertolt Brecht… There are so many others, the vastness of which I’ll limit to these.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

TtD supplement #154 : seven questions for Asher Ghaffar

While researching his Ph.D. in Social and Political Thought, Asher Ghaffar worked as a Writing Instructor at York University and in multiple writing centres at the University of Toronto. He is the editor of the Routledge anthology History, Imperialism, Critique: New Essays in World Literature (2018). His research monograph, Muslims in World Literature: Political Philosophy and Continental Thought, appeared with Routledge in 2019.  His most recent published essay on Zulfikar Ghose and Hanif Kureishi will appear in The Routledge Anthology to Pakistani Anglophone Writing: Origins, Contestations, New Horizons, edited by Aroosa Kanwal and Saiyma Masood. His first book of poetry was published with ECW Press, and a second collection, is forthcoming. Asher’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Literary Review of Canada and The New Quarterly.

His two poems “Transmission” and “The Airport” from the work-in-progress “SS Komagata Maru” appear in the twenty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the “Transmission” and “The Airport.”

A: I composed “Transmission” at the Banff Centre during an artist residency in 2010. “Transmission” was the only poem written during the residency that was striking enough in terms of its imagery and lyricism to warrant a new poetry manuscript.  The poem itself was a doorway, a kind of invitation into another book, but it was also clearly a continuation of my first book of poetry, Wasps in a Golden Dream Hum a Strange Music (ECW, 2009).  There are riffs to political theorists whom the persona deliberately misreads, but he insists on a bodily poetic that is also abstract enough to speak through identity to something other, which he/I are not interested in naming or knowing.  The book then began composing itself around that initial poem and the interest in not knowing what the lyric is after.  Can the lyric strive for philosophy—arising out of sensuous matter to reach toward concepts?  One of course searches for a point, a theme, and comes up organizational strategies for a work-in-progress, but I abandoned these. “The Airport” emerged from a dream in which I was trying to catch a plane, but was stuck.  The airport is a kind of psychic space with allegorical significance—a node through which our time can be understood.  There are riffs to Lacan, but the main point is that the narrator is thinking through the meaning of the dream (being stuck at an airport) and that opens up a hallway into the book's rooms.  That is, it provides more justification for me to continuing exploring this world.  When I think of the poets who fascinate me, they are all fundamentally interested in the lyric because in that form one might perhaps document history as it speaks both into and through the body to concepts that are not identical with the subject, but that document something that is elusive and beyond it.

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

A: Those poems are not significantly different from what I am currently writing, but when I further develop this manuscript, I will spend some time archives in Vancouver looking at documents related to The SS Komagata Maru incident of 1914.  I am hoping that archival work will serve to further develop the conceptual significance of those lyrical pieces. The poetry I write tends to guide my scholarly questions.  I am working on a scholarly monograph entitled Muslims in World Literature: Political Philosophy and Continental Thought (Routledge, 2020) in which I develop an approach to reading that draws on aesthetics; the poetry that I am more and more interested in draws its insights and influences from writers and thinkers in that forthcoming work. 

Q: I’m curious at the suggestion that your poetry tends to guide your scholarly questions. What is it that moves you beyond the form of poetry into purely scholarly works? Do you see a limitation in the poetry form, or are you simply moving your thoughts beyond a singular form?

A: The American experimental poet, Bhanu Kapil writes “What are your questions?” by which I think she means what are you here to ask with an intense urgency that is both physical and intellectual.  As I understand it, lyrical writing connects those two necessities.  When I am thinking about works as a scholar, I am thinking with those works and putting them within a conceptual form; I immerse myself in those works and follow their conceptual form with knowledge about the author, the work, the time and place. This critical immersion is similar to what I do as a poet—as such, I do not see a rigid boundary between writing as a scholar and a poet.  As a scholar, I also acknowledge my own experience when interpreting works of art, and seek to grasp my experience artwork historically. Thus, through the mimesis of other works, I can preserve what is creative about the work in the form of the essay.  Through historical understanding of the conceptual form of art, I gain a knowledge that can then be put into practice when writing.  I know what I am striving in poetry when I can philosophically justify works that dislocate me from my routine self.  The essay as a form can be singular and not only explain a work of art, but move us through a work of art in a manner that the work of art often cannot. To edit well then means to enter back into the experience often more effectively than the initial attempt.  The essay helps me to put that experience into a conceptual form, which then provides more clarity and direction to my poetic aims.

Q: Do you consider, then, your scholarly work and your poetry as two separate threads in a singular field of study?

A: Yes, the books are parallel threads in a field of study.  Both books revolve around the question: How does one speak and write about identity without speaking about it? We live in a time when the non-identical has to be brought back into criticism and art—we need to move through ourselves to get to that point. What form could the latter take in poetry and even to some extent in the essay as a form?  In my essays, I am seeking to circle around the works I am interested in rather than grasping them as objects of analysis.  Of course, my ideas about the essay revolve around similar questions in interwar German philosophy, but the literary and poetic traditions that interest me are non-Western, peripheral, and often experimental.   

Q: You mention Bhanu Kapil, but I’m wondering what other poets or works brought you to this point in your writing. What is it that began you on a path to poetry as a critical form, or a form in which to work at all?

A: I can think of my beginnings in my study and practice of religious traditions to conversations with other poets such as yourself. My thinking about an object only makes sense through relations with other poets, and other objects; this mode of thinking puts into question certain kinds of rationalism such as scientism. Without conflating dialectical thinking and poetry, I would argue that both are marginal modes of thinking that give me a much more nuanced understanding of the social and historical dimension of the world I live in and are distinct from other forms of analysis that proceed let’s say (because I spent the last 10 years of my life working in university writing centres) by working out a thesis and then gathering evidence to support one’s principle argument. I ask myself whether we are teaching students to think by teaching the essay in this form. Adorno and others are right to point to such transcendental forms of thinking as not being able to describe objective reality because they are so focused on their own claim to authority rather understanding material objects as accretions of reality that we can only learn about by a kind of critical immersion into their particulars, which allows for an understanding of why we feel what we feel and why we might value certain artworks over others. The poetry that interests me imbibes a critical historical relationship with its form--which is not the same as saying it is traditional. Contrary to Adorno’s famous critique of the lyric, I would argue that the lyric’s drive for unity of subject, experience, history when it encounters fragmented and discontinuous world creates a negative light. In the Canadian context, I would argue that Daphne Marlatt writes a kind of negative lyric. The lyric’s focus on sound is, of course, contrary to all forms of abstraction.

Q: With a debut collection and forthcoming follow-up, alongside your critical work, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Hopefully, after I finish this monograph, I will have the time to refocus on poetry and develop my craft. I would like to experiment with more traditional forms. My first edited scholarly collection came out with Routledge last year, and I would like to work on other collective projects, particularly projects that consider race and poetics but in the manner I suggested before...that invite a conversation rather than mark a territory. I see my work becoming more traditional where the experimental thrust is contained within defined forms. That might sound limiting, but I consider such constraints to be enabling. I commute weekly from Saskatoon and Calgary and run a rideshare in which I have some of the most intriguing conversations with strangers through the prairies.  I am hoping to use those experiences to also begin to write experimental creative nonfiction.

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

A: Gwendolyn Brooks, Daphne Marlatt, Muhammad Iqbal, the Quran, Faiz, Fanon, Zulfikar Ghose, Adorno, Bloch, Vico, Edward Said, Timothy Brennan.

Monday, February 17, 2020

TtD supplement #153 : seven questions for Ava Hofmann

Originally from Oxford, Ohio, Ava Hofmann is a writer currently living and working as an MFA student in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She has poems published in or forthcoming from Black Warrior Review, Fence, Anomaly, Best American Experimental Writing 2020, The Fanzine, Datableed, Peachmag, Petrichor, and Bomb Cyclone. Her poetry deals with trans/queer identity, Marxism, and the frustrated desire inherent to encounters with the archive. 

Her poems “from that i want,” “in a fight” and “at the doctor’s office” appear in the twenty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “from that i want,” “in a fight” and “at the doctor’s office.”

A: As implied by the title, the poem “from that i want” is from a longer chapbook project of mine titled, yes, that i want. that i want is collection of visual poems in a similar form dealing with the impermeability and revisability of language, gender, and the body – creating the sorts of spaces I have encountered in my own transition, where multiple meanings, multiple voices, exist simultaneously, growing from the same processes. Those poems are about unlearning and relearning my relationship to my own body and its desires.

“in a fight” and “at the doctor’s office” are both poems from another chapbook of mine titled plastic flowers. the poems from plastic flowers are pseudo-comedic poems about the relationship between one’s own interiority and the current regime of biomedical capitalist production, and the ways in which this interiority and exteriority tumble into one another in disorienting and reflexive ways. They’re a miniature mix of dark comedies, journaling, and communist manifestos. 

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

A: All of these pieces engage in the larger interest of my poetic practice in uninterpretability/opacity and the reaching-towards potentiality (namely, a potentiality for a change in the structure of capital, in systems of power and control, in the rotting remains of the bioindustrial directing of desire). More and more, also, my poems have moved to language, the repetition of language, its difficulty, as a vector for creating interesting dynamics of power and collaborative readwriting with my audience. I would say lately the entirety of my poetic interests are in the ways in which poetry could be participatory and interactive, to open up my own author-authority to interrogation so that the reader might also confront themselves.

Q: What is it that prompted this type of direction, towards works that are “participatory and interactive,” and what might that look like?

A: My interest in participatory and interactive writing is, in some sense, both an extension and repudiation of the conceptualists’ critique of authorship. The conceptualists’ interest in effacing or challenging the idea of ‘the author’ in writing is, I think, ultimately a compelling goal for writing—a way to speak to a radical collectivity or cultural memory; however, in so doing, they effaced their own positionality as authors while, in actuality, cemented their own authorship and institutional power through their techniques of collage and re-appropriation. In short, under capitalism, to erase ‘the author’ entirely is to simply have literature turn into another mouthpiece for the present calamity of capitalist imperialism.

This is obviously not anywhere close to a new critique of that movement, but this means my work, vaguely experimental and picking through the crater of the (rightfully) exploded legitimacy of experimental work, has to contend with or salvage usable material, especially as I often find the conventional lyric and where it is right now to often be eaten out from the inside by institutions and tastes and (mis)recognitions which are somehow both too voyeuristic and not voyeuristic enough.

Interactivity, or more generally a writing practice which encourages an audience to become involved in a deeper or more complex method of readwriting, has been kind of my solution to this problem. It gives me a certain capacity to have a steadily unsteady hand on my identity—lacunae and instabilities as pathways and dramatizations of the productive frustrations and opacities within the poems and its operations of certain positions within it. But also, interactivity or nonlinearity is kind of a trap for the reader—they become implicated in the text, and their own position becomes open to confrontation or being implicated in a system of readwriting. Lately I’ve been doing it through the creation of gaps in readerly understanding or the nonlinear arrangement of texts, requiring greater interpretive and speculative effort on the part of the reader. I've even been working in / experimenting with twine, a tool for the creation of genuinely interactive hypertext works. More and more I want to view my readers as collaborators or co-participants; I expect at some point I’ll probably take the necessary plunge and make works directly with my audience (this is maybe what teaching is or should be).

This is a boundary the conceptualists never really crossed (according to my admittedly finite knowledge): instead of effacing authorship to speak culturally about the system of language, I find the value in effacing total authorship as part of my anarchist practice, a potential reduction of the hierarchy between myself and my reader. Maybe I’ve just been thinking about this lately, but for me there’s kind of a draw towards the intermedia writing and event scores of the fluxus movement, a space where something is genuinely asked of you as a reader, an artistic collaboration, a challenge for poetry to move outside the space of the page.

But also, if you want to de-theorize it, my interest in interactivity is in part because of the works which sustained me through the toughest years of my deluded first puberty: weird twine games written and distributed by trans people. But why were trans people writing so many wonderful twine games? We return back to the defending and weaponizing of identity inherent in the interactive exchange.

Q: Is it even possible to erase the author entirely? Any work with an author’s name attached can’t help but refuse complete erasure. And is not language, in its purest sense, a collaborative system? I get the sense that the work you are aiming for simply pushes to acknowledge that fact, and those collaborations; allowing space for the reader to explore. What do you feel are the challenges for attempting this kind of work?

A: Yeah, this is what I was kind of getting at before—I don’t have any illusions that I am somehow really erasing my authorship, my position within language. Pretending there is ‘no author’, even in a readymade, is to lose sight of yourself, your act of language. However, if I imagine space or room or possibility for an encounter with a reader, and I instead almost hypermark my authorship in the space of the writing, to lay bare and frustrate the mechanics of the illusion, then there’s kind of also a demand that someone also recognizes my identity as a trans person, not necessarily in a voyeuristic or confessional way, but one in which they have to do this essential work of untangling and understanding.

In terms of the poets of the past, there have been so many who only later I discovered they were queer; that information had been hidden from me. Authorship is itself a kind of authority, but ultimately the reader has a kind of authority, too, to participate in the words, to imagine and misrepresent that there is some kind of inner life behind the words that is not their own, to suck out the marrow of identity for entertainment.

There’s kind of a way I imagine my interactive work as intensely realist, in that sense—I’m depicting the collaborative matrix of interactions inherent to language, its frustrations, its oppositions, its potential for love and recognition. I think in that sense your assessment of my work is correct—an allowing of space, a depiction of the space that reading is.

I think the challenge for that kind of work is that you have to trust that the reader won’t hate you for the frustration you’re causing them. I think about how some people imagine that there’s a contract between the writer and the reader—I don’t believe such a contract, but if there was one, I think my work is breaking it. I think also, when you have a nonlinear text, the reader might come up with a way of reading that you didn’t think of, and if you’re really committed to this kind of practice, there’s a need to accept that possibility of the unplanned. You have to come to terms with the fact that reading and writing already comes with it the possibility of vengeful counterreadings, critiques, refusals to engage with your identity, rejection.

Q: You’ve been publishing work for some time now, although you’ve yet to release a chapbook or full-length collection. What do you feel your work has accomplished? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I don’t know if two years is all that much time in terms of publishing, but I will say that I do have a chapbook in the works which will be released probably soonish. I’ve only been really sending out the manuscript for my full-length collection for a month now—I finished writing it in October. Publishing can be very slow. I edit and change my poems and projects a lot, even while I’m sending them out. If you look at the poems from my full-length manuscript that got published two years ago, they look nothing like how they do now—that’s why maybe it feels like there’s been a long lead-up in terms of individual poems being published even while there have been no books.

I don’t really have any illusions about my work accomplishing anything. A poem cannot really be the revolutionary vanguard or anything. What my poems have accomplished have been what they have done for me: my writing was the pathway out of my conservative and deeply religious upbringing, out of the confines of the gender I was forcibly assigned. My poems are places where I store what I’ve been thinking about—bad jokes, reflections on my progress as a person, things I like making. The value of the poem is its idiosyncratic particularities, the act of finding possibility within a culture and language of death.

Relatedly, I think my work is headed towards a certain kind of idiosyncratic exploration of syntax, and also the representation of syntax (like sentence diagramming). I’ve been playing around with this concept where one could take a phrase to be a part of speech indexing itself, if that makes sense. You can turn any phrase or any part of speech into another part of speech with quotations and meta-reference. For example, you could take a phrase like “to write this way” and use it as an adjective, verb, or noun:

            I am feeling a “to write this way” emotion.
            This “to write this way” grows into a mossy ecosystem.
            Language is “to write this way”-ing the word.

I’m interested in seeing how far one could take this (maybe kind of banal) concept and see how unreadable and bad language might become with multiple deployments and nesting of this technique:

            “To write this way” “to write this way”-s “to write this ‘to write this way’.”

I want to fold this language in half. I want to break it. I want to see what kind of stupid and perspective-shifting things I can get myself and my friends to think about. Books and something like a legacy might be nice, but neither of those things will really matter to me when I’m dead. When I was closeted and hated myself, I cared a whole lot more about what people thought about me when I was dead. These days, I’m a whole lot more interested in the capacity for pleasure now, while I’m still alive, in this short and rare time I get to actually be me.

Q: I like the idea of folding language in half and/or breaking language. Have you had any models for this type of writing? Are there any particular writers or works in the back of your head as you work?

A: I think when I’m thinking about that kind of deforming of language, I’m thinking about quite a few projects by poets about the impossible violence of language, a wish for the pain it causes (and for language itself) to disappear, or be made anew. I think the most recent prominent example I can think of is the work being done in Jos Charles’s feeld (whose language-twisting work is in large part inspired by Paul Celan), the way it is trying to allow for the kinds of spaces of untranslatability that I’ve found my trans identity needs. There is also the way in which M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! twists the actual legal language and slavery outward into a polyvocal inhabitation with the specific violent event of the Zong massacre and its occurrence within the larger genocide of enslavement. Or perhaps I can be cheeky and talk about some of the literal ways in which poets fold language—constructing a mobius strip out of a page in Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, the visual folding and arrangement in most Douglas Kearney’s poetic practice, or the ways in which actual historical poems live their lives within physical objects and manuscripts, the losses and gaps within Sappho’s oeuvre which in themselves language-usurping encounters with non-closure.

I guess I’m talking about a revolt against language generally, which is not an unusual emotion in poets, who obviously have to live with how deeply adversarial language can really be. And I think there’s a certain anarchistic tradition, there, in this idea of a revolt against language. In his Dada manifesto, Hugo Ball asks why he cannot create his own language, and name things in the ways he wishes—the result was his noise poems, and the irrational revolt of Dada in general. I can’t really tell if such a tendency is utopian or nihilistic; in Neon Haze, a piece of interactive fiction written by Porpentine Charity Heartscape, she writes, “I dream of clouds frying and servers crashing and paper burning and language being undone until I can just be a nameless animal.” It is, of course, kind of an impossible dream fulfillable only in, of course, the return-to-material-from-material of death. The character in Neon Haze, Jwlain Seweta, says that line in a way I read as very bitter. Maybe in the utterance it’s an indwelling of bitterness and hope simultaneously. I’m doubtless leaving out tons of people whose writing I love & who influence my kinda-edgy anti-language language stance and who are influencing my practice at one stage or another.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your work? What writers or writing can’t you help but return to?

A: I tend to find myself returning to Hannah Weiner’s work—its relationship with the page, with the thought, of language as a process in one’s body, language being a container for the liquid of one’s thoughts.

Armand Schwerner’s “The Tablets,” too, feels like an important precursor to my interest in the archival gaps, although I fret over that book’s relationship to the colonial museum system, whether it’s doing enough to undo or undermine a certain troubling attitude in relationship with the past. But his work, the capacity it allows for silence, its use of pictorial poetics, its documentation of gradations of silence, is still important to me.

I cannot help also but have a soft spot in me for Gerard Manley Hopkins and his work with language and form. Maybe it’s the ex-Christian in me.

And in general there’s a lot of overlap between the people I mentioned in the previous question and this one. I’d also want to mention the work of Never Angeline Nørth, Caroline Bergvall, Juliana Spahr, Diana Khoi Nguyen, Chelsey Minnis, Sean Bonney, essa may ranapiri, and kari edwards. There is also so much crucial writing from outside the poetry space—alt-comix and interactive art—that they can’t be mentioned here for the sake of time & space.

I would also be lying if I didn’t admit that I often return to the poetic practices of friends. I find that the best lessons about writing have been from people I cared about directly and personally, rather than abstract artists from a nebulous personal canon of authors. What reenergizes my work is not really reading, but remembering how lucky I am to be alive and be me and to have friends and to love. It’s corny, but true!!!

Thursday, February 6, 2020

TtD supplement #152 : seven questions for Lydia Unsworth

Lydia Unsworth is the author of two collections of poetry: Certain Manoeuvres (Knives Forks & Spoons, 2018) and Nostalgia for Bodies (Winner, 2018 Erbacce Poetry Prize), and two chapbooks: My Body in a Country (Ghost City Press, 2019) and I Have Not Led a Serious Life (above / ground press, 2019). Recent work can be found in Ambit, para.text, Tears in the Fence, Banshee, Litro and others. Manchester / Amsterdam. Twitter @lydiowanie 

Her poems “On Not Having Anything to Shatter,” “Plein to see,” “The Absolute Limit,” “Akron” and “Swimming in the Water” appear in the twenty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “On Not Having Anything to Shatter,” “Plein to see,” “The Absolute Limit,” “Akron” and “Swimming in the Water.”

A: At the time of writing those poems, I was very focused on doubt and authority; two forces which often sit on a sort of seesaw from one another, one going up as the other goes down. I like to focus on very specific scenes and images, and associate from there, often with detailed movements of the body (realistic or otherwise) contained within the text. How the body negotiates the environment and the power-struggles of the environment it finds itself in. This then allows me a way to explore the worries of the consciousness proper – somewhat let loose from those events surrounding it – it frees up that voice, those solipsistic concerns, to better understand and, well, have fun with themselves. And to reach outward, bridging the gap. I like to think my poems are playful beasts, rollicking around in their own anxiety – if you’ve got it, flaunt it! so to speak.

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

A: Well, I’ve been playing with line-breaking more lately and allowing the punctuation to fall away. Primarily I’m a prose poet, and that’s my favourite way to write – there’s a certain madness and intensity and clumsy noisy honesty to it – but I’m also writing some softer, more ephemeral pieces lately, words sort of fluttering about in a papery wind. Even my prose poetry seems lighter as a result. Although that could, of course, just be the weight of dragging something from memory and staring at it too long talking. Perhaps newer pieces always feel lighter by way of being fresh.

Q: What is it that originally brought you to the prose poem, and what do you feel the form allows that might not be possible otherwise?

A: Beckett and visual art. That love of a text that seems to explode out from a pure joy of itself. I never want much to happen in a novel, I just want to be swamped in language. I found that in art often, too, in video projections where one thought collides against another – a barricade. That's what prose poetry allows me; a momentum, rough edges, an immersive pool of experience. And it allows me to hide more than conventional poetry does – the words safe in the close huddle of all the others, shyly sticking their arms up and mumbling Here.

Q: With two full-length poetry books and two chapbooks under your belt so far, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I would like my work to become more comfortable in its own skin – it is still learning how to dance with itself. I would like my work to spread its fingers, become brave.

Q: You mention you’ve been deliberately exploring the possibilities of the line-break. What prompted this shift, and what has the shift allowed you to see or do?

A: It happened as a response to a few individual poems, so I decided to pay attention to it. I sometimes wonder if I am bold enough to put one word on one line, for example – so I am perhaps playing with that exposure. It is also interesting to see how the voice changes depending on what shape – and therefore in a sense who – it is trying to be. And then to come back ‘home,’ as it were, to the prose poem and see what has become of me.

Q: You mention Beckett, but what other authors or works have prompted you to do the kinds of writing you’ve been exploring? There are lengthy, and wonderfully divergent, lineages of the prose poem throughout Canada, the United States and England, for example, so I’m curious to know what other threads you might have picked at as potential influence?

A: Well, I’m going to say that most of my early influences were not poetry. I was heavily influenced by Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, by the existentialists, by (of course) Kafka, by Milan Kundera, and later (and to a lesser extent) by books such as Dubravka Ugresic’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender and this wonderful book called Log of the S. S. the Mrs Unguentine by Stanley Crawford. It was the fragmentary I was drawn to, the sentences and moments of experience rather than the whole. I expect I interpreted a lot of things in my own way due to naivety and ignorance, but I think something came out of that too, some way of understanding and writing that came out of my own half-lit path through the maze. I also spent a lot of time with the visual arts, with artists like Christian Boltanski, Sophie Calle, Ilya Kabakov, Louise Bourgeois, Roni Horn; and with films: Sans Soleil, Armacord, Synecdoche New York, ¡Vivan las antípodas!, The Forbidden Room, Distant Voices Still Lives to name a few whose resonance really stays; and lyrics from certain songs ... When you put it all together it becomes a kind of poetry – all that feedback and richness that bounces around and associates in surprising ways. Anyway, finally, I did find out poetry was what I was after, and what I was perhaps already doing; I started reading Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, thanks to a good friend of mine who was more knowledgeable than me in such matters at the time. And now it is also, finally, poetry that influences me. I’ve found some amazing recent collections and made wonderful friends and, with the internet and online literary journals, there is inspiration and influence (and community) everywhere. It is rather impossible (but enjoyably so) to keep up.

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

A: I’m currently going back to Vahni Capildeo and Karen McCarthy Woolf a lot. There’s this collection Nowhere Nearer by Alice Miller that is quiet and lonely and beautiful – like a drifting iceberg in the middle of an abandoned airfield in Berlin. And I’ve been enjoying Crispin Best’s work online for a number of years, and am pleased to hear he finally has a full collection (Hello) coming out in November with Partus Press. His stuff is playful and light and frivolous with just the most amazing profound surprises thrown in – like being punched in the gut by a lollypop. What else? Certain go-to online journals such as Train, Stride, Litter, Blackbox Manifold, Datableed. And prose poetry anthologies like the recent Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry and The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem – those two should keep me happy for a while.

And thank you for these questions. I always find it a useful and engaging way to think about my own processes and practice as well.

Monday, January 27, 2020

TtD supplement #151 : seven questions for Ben Robinson

Ben Robinson is a poet, musician and librarian. He has published three chapbooks – Mumbles in Hollywood, California (Simulacrum Press), The Sims in Real Life (The Blasted Tree) and TALKING GIBBERISH TO STRANGERS (above/ground press) – and has more work forthcoming with The Alfred Gustav Press. He has only ever lived in Hamilton, Ontario on the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas. He is @bengymen on Twitter.

His poems “OPEN4BIZ,” “Democracy Is Just the Name of Another Café,” “Hotdog in a Hamburger City” and “Est. Time Travel to Downtown” appear in the twenty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “OPEN4BIZ,” “Democracy Is Just the Name of Another Café,” “Hotdog in a Hamburger City” and “Est. Time Travel to Downtown”.”

A: These days, for better or worse, I seem to be writing three different kinds of poems, two of which are represented in the poems included in TTD. “Hotdog in a Hamburger City” and “Est. Time Travel to Downtown” work in a narrative mode where something strange happens in my day and then when I sit down to write my imagination runs wild with it, amplifying certain details. “Democracy is Just the Name for Another Cafe” and “OPEN4BIZ” are a little more observational but they use a less linear, kind of collagey structure with short two/three-line stanzas.

HD: I wrote this one after my last visit with Gary Barwin while he was the writer-in-residence at McMaster and the Hamilton Public Library a couple of years ago. There’s a great hotdog cart on the McMaster campus so I got one for the trip home and then when the bus pulled up I wasn’t done eating. I hope some of Gary’s spirit is in this one.

ETT:  This one was an unsuccessful entry in CV2’s 2-day Poem Contest. For the contest, they give you a list of ten words that you need to fit into a poem. I kind of tried to skirt the rules by jamming most of the required words into the monologue in the middle. I imagine the judges were quick to realize that. With the kind of poems I write, I didn’t see any other way to get feckless in there without butting it up against something like pieces of shit. Even though the poem didn’t place in the contest I still liked it and hoped I could do something with it. I pulled a couple of the more obvious ten-dollar words out (commodious and roric) in the hopes of disguising its origins a bit. I’ve spotted other unsuccessful entries from last year’s contest out in the wild as well.

I’m pretty sure there was one in Stuart Ross’ new book. We’re like a secret society of loser poets now, you see the word frisson in someone’s line and you just know.

DEMO: I was waiting for the bus on Halloween morning last year and a guy standing very close to me puked everywhere without much warning so I decided to hold onto that. There’s a cafe downtown in Hamilton that is right across the street from an army barracks so there are always soldiers coming in for coffee in fatigues and berets which is definitely strange. This one also has some elements of what I’ve been calling “social media centos” where I try to redeem some of my time spent on Twitter for poetry purposes. A couple of the images in the poem are loosely based on pictures I liked on Twitter.

O4B: This one is basically all true. I had just moved to a new neighbourhood when I was working on this poem and I was collecting all these little fragmentary images and eventually, a theme started to appear. It can be hard to tell when these ones are done but I try to wait until I get the feeling of the individual pieces beginning to hold together, to congeal. Not that I’m a baker but I think of it kind of like dough, or maybe like good packing snow.

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

A: These pieces are all part of a chapbook manuscript that will be published by above/ground press,
Department of Continuous Improvement, and are also part of what will hopefully be my first full-length collection, tentatively titled The Humans Are Dead, We Are the Humans Now.

These poems are fairly representative of both the chapbook and the collection as a whole. Perhaps the only missing thread is the third of the three kinds of poems that I mentioned above — more realistic narrative prose poems. As a whole the collection focuses on life in the city — the chaos and humour and absurdity — as well as the false divide between the human and the animal, the urban and the natural. There’s a lot of garbage and vehicles and animal life in the poems. Lots of movement both formally and in terms of commuting/transportation.

Q: What has been the process of putting together a full-length collection versus putting together your handful of chapbook-length manuscripts? Is it simply a larger version of the same process? Was there a difficulty in reconceiving work that had been produced as part of a smaller unit into part of a larger structure? What have the differences been?

A: In some ways, the goal has always been a full-length collection. I grew up, like many of us, as a lover of books and so the logical extension of writing poems was to eventually put together a book of them. Lately, I’ve been trying to interrogate this fixation with having a book to my name as a means of legitimating myself as a writer. I’m worried about rushing into the first one and wishing I had been more patient later on. You hear of writers being embarrassed by their first books and trying to keep them out of print, but I also realize that I have to start somewhere.

I don’t know that the collection is a larger version of the chapbook, at least not always. Lately, I’ve been interested in writers who seem to work exclusively within the format of the chapbook and do not seem to be interested in full-length collections. Fracturing that linear understanding of poem >> chapbook >> collection has been freeing for me. Seeing a writer like Amanda Jernigan list her chapbook The Temple alongside her full-length collections at the front of her new book has helped me to value the format more (and why not, those Baseline Press chapbooks are nicer than most trade books).

The difficulty for me in trying to assemble my first collection has been one of scale. I come to poetry via music and so sequencing ten poems for a chapbook had a clear analogue in the album, whereas I had no frame of reference for putting sixty pieces in order. Because The Humans Are Dead is not built around a discernible sequence, the structure of the collection became apparent very slowly as I have been writing the poems that comprise it. I didn’t consciously set out to write in a certain direction, I simply started writing poems and then, when those poems were finished, I took a step back to see who and what was in there. It has been interesting to see how some poems from three or four years ago that felt like bizarre outliers at the time presage some of the writing I’m doing now and fit seamlessly into the manuscript.

In some ways the distinction between the chapbook and the collection feels analogous to the short story and the novel; there is some relationship between the two though the possibilities are different. Sometimes an excerpt of a novel can make a great stand-alone story, other times not so much. Some of my chapbooks feel like they could swell and deepen to become longer works but sometimes I get to 20 pages and think, this idea has run its course. I have two chapbooks coming out that are excerpts of The Humans Are Dead and if you read the chapbooks together you would have a good sense of what that manuscript is like. I also have a couple more experimental works coming out as chapbooks which I don’t have any plans to try and assemble into a trade book at this point.

Overall, the process has forced me to try and gain some perspective on what it is I have been trying to do in my poems for the past few years, what has been successful and how those successes might connect. I enjoy a more unconscious approach to poetry because it provides a lot of excitement and surprise for me but I’ve had to learn to use my analytical mind in the process of collecting – beginning to interrogate what is happening below the surface, what I seem to be fixated on. Writing my first query letter was difficult for me because I hadn’t been thinking about what the poems were about while writing them, at least not in any overarching sense. Now when I am writing, I try to be more conscious of what I might say about the work so that I have some language to describe it when necessary.

At this point, the process of assembling seems to be ongoing. I imagine, in some sense, the manuscript will continue to change and shift until the book is fixed in print and I can no longer add or subtract from it. Poems are still being added every so often but the process has certainly slowed from the frenzy of about a year ago where they seemed to come one after another. Maybe the fact that the poems are still coming means that the book is not quite done and I am rushing, however, I wonder if that Paul Valery quote that “Poems are never finished - just abandoned” holds for books as well. Regardless, the manuscript is feeling more and more fixed as time passes. Maybe that means it is done, maybe that means I am just tired of looking at it.

Q: Perhaps it’s too early to know, but with a couple of chapbooks under your belt, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: My progression has been an ongoing process of trying to be more comfortable with writing like myself and embracing my particularities. My favourite writers and musicians and artists are the ones who find a way to have their unique personalities come through in their work, who make the kind of work that could only have come from them. I think about someone like Anne Carson who writes so firmly through a classical lens and is unapologetic about it.

Part of that process for me has involved embracing humour. Before I had ever read in public I don’t think I understood the effect humour could have on how a poem is received. At one of my first readings, there was a man in the back with a huge laugh and I guess whatever I was doing was hitting with him and he just kept going off and it messed with me to the point where I was having to pause after certain lines to wait for him to quiet down. Up to that point, I hadn’t been thinking of the poems as particularly humorous so I had to reevaluate things after that reading. Since then I’ve been trying to embrace humour in a way that doesn’t rely too heavily on punchlines or cleverness but instead deepens and broadens the work.

After a reading, someone once told me I reminded them of Dr. Seuss which I was kind of offended by at first because his work is so silly and I had this idea of myself as a serious poet. That being said, I’m learning to embrace elements of children’s literature in my work — the play, the imagination. My grandmother recently told me one of my poems reminded her of a scary children’s story and I like that. Some of the poems start as these seemingly innocent narratives which I then try to take somewhere a little more surprising or complex — subverting the expectations of those simple stories to make them engaging for adults.

Something else I’ve been trying to embrace in my writing has been my upbringing in the church. At the same time that I've been steeped in the musicality and play of children’s stories I also have the rhythms of high religious language in my mind. For a while, I didn’t know what to do with all that Bible inside my head because that’s not something you see a lot of in contemporary literature. For me, it comes through in some of the allusions but there’s also this King James Version prophetic voice that can surface at times. The combination of the two modes, a voice meant for children and a religious voice, makes me think of this illustrated children’s Bible I had growing up where they took these wild stories about plague and war and tried to make them slightly less terrifying for children by illustrating them with colourful cartoons. Maybe what I’m doing is the inverse of that. Poems for adults in the guise of kid’s literature. Regardless of what’s going on, I find that tension of high/low, dark/light, humorous/serious to be interesting.

Q: You mention the Bible, but what other works or authors first brought you to the kinds of writing you’ve been attempting? What other writers are in the back of your head as you write?

A: Early on it was Michael Ondaatje. Poems like “The Cinnamon Peeler” and “The Story” and most of Handwriting had this really beautiful mythic quality that I was drawn to.

Most recently my encouragement has come from:

Kim Hyesoon — “I wept, wondering how I would ever use up all that ink, writing about all the unjust deaths, with my tiny pen as skinny as a butterfly’s hind legs?”

Tongo Eisen-Martin — “By the time craft starts it’s almost too late to accomplish anything that’s outside of your day-in-day-out practice. As long as I’m really getting it in outside of the craft then the politics just plays out naturally.”

Christian Wiman — “There is no clean intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning to be found, and if this is not recognized, then the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment.”

Ali Blythe — “I could say something / beautiful if I only had / until this pencil ran out. / I would be so careful.”

bill bissett — “trying so hard to build we can’t help / but destroy each time.”

Matthew Zapruder — “I’ve heard Bob Hass say, when talking about what to do when a poem feels stuck, to ‘put the problem in the poem.’ Bring the ongoing conflicts you are feeling, the limits of your understanding, into it. Articulate those struggles. Open yourself to the reader.”

Q: You mention working with Gary Barwin during his time as writer-in-residence, suggesting a bit of an influence there. What is it that talking to him allowed for you and your work?

A I’ve been going to see the various writers-in-residence for a couple of years now. I didn’t do the MFA thing so finding ways to approximate that kind of mentoring has been important — people to help direct my reading, help navigate publishing and to critique my work. The WiR program, in particular, is nice because the visiting writers get paid but there’s no charge for the writers who come to meet with them. The idea that these writers are available in this way still kind of blows my mind.

Gary continues to embody a spirit of possibility in my mind. He seems undaunted by the constraints of genre or even medium (something I imagine comes partly from his time studying with bp). I had been thinking about how I might incorporate my other life as a musician into my readings before I saw Gary play saxophone at one of his. I asked him about it recently and he said something like “they’re both just going on stage and making sounds” which is, of course, true and may seem obvious but that helped me relax about it all.

Last year Kate Cayley was in residence and she was also amazing to work with. So smart, so perceptive, so many good questions and reading recommendations. We worked through multiple steps of revision on a particular poem of mine which was helpful. She also put me onto Maggie Nelson which I’ve been taking full advantage of. Kate had different strengths than Gary and that is part of the beauty of the program — each year a new writer, a new perspective. If nothing else the appointments have led to engaging conversations with kind and interesting people.

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 Stuart Ross’s selected Hey, Crumbling Balcony! and You Exist. Details Follow. for the anarchy and refusal to play by the rules and pure imagination. I go to Tongo Eisen-Martin’s Heaven is All Goodbyes for the breadth, for a voice that feels like it could go on forever, effortlessly spreading out over the pages. David McFadden’s selected poems Why Are You So Sad? is a place I turn for reminders about simplicity and clarity, about not getting caught up in the details all the time. Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child for poems that are taut and lean, considered and intricate in ways that I don’t always understand. Mikko Harvey has been a more recent discovery but I’ve already read his collection Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit twice. I love the turns in those poems. They move so quickly in unexpected directions. And what a title.