Sunday, July 15, 2018

Touch the Donkey : eighteenth issue,

The eighteenth issue is now available, with new poems by Ryan Eckes, Samuel Ace, Stephen Cain, Howie Good, Dani Spinosa, Rusty Morrison, Lupe Gómez (trans. Erín Moure), Allison Cardon and Jon Boisvert.

Seven dollars (includes shipping). It’s ultramodern, like living in the not-too-distant future!

Friday, June 29, 2018

TtD supplement #108 : seven questions for Sarah MacDonell

Sarah MacDonell writes, bakes and scuttles around Ottawa. She is the social media manager for Tree Reading Series and a contributing editor for Canthius. She performs and publishes in vestibules around town.

Her poem “sifting” appears in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “sifting.”

A: I wanted to write about the magic of baking. I wrote sifting when I was working at a bakery. I had exaggerated my abilities and experience because I needed the job, and it surprised me how much I loved the work and loved the womxn I worked with. We chatted all day, and chatted to the cakes and ovens too. I told the batter and dough everything. There was something magical about seeing it turn decadent in a few hours, despite of— or in response to—what I told it. Dressing it up, fluffing it out. The routine of it too. I decorated the cakes and sometimes they looked sad. They were always pretty. But sometimes they looked sad or silly or joyous. I guess it’s like any art. You and your moods shine through it. And when you work so closely with people, they shine through it too. It’s magic to me.

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

A: I’ve been on a bit of a writing break lately, haha so it’s incomparable to anything I’ve been writing lately because I haven’t been writing. I’ve been promoting other poets’ work through Tree Reading Series and Canthius Literary Magazine and that seems to take up most of my writing time, which is lovely. I enjoy promoting other writers and attempting to forge the kind of community I want and respect. Hopefully, inspiration and personal time will strike soon. But if it doesn’t, that’s fine too. I’ve met so many amazing writers in the past few months. I’m learning that writing isn’t a solitary act at all. Nor should it be.

But I would say that “sifting” is much more contained and immediate than my past work. It felt important to remain within the space of the bakery. The oven, the movements of bakers, the sifting, whisking and kneading, all happen quickly. They demand presence. I usually write in longer, breathless lines, but this poem needed more staccato. It would have been dishonest to the baking and magic to drift into histories, thoughts or wordplay, as my other poems sometimes do. (And it was really, really difficult to resist the baggage of yeast: all the stories crafted around fermentation).

Q: Despite the recent break from writing, how have you seen your work developing? Has there been any shift in your consideration to writing through your work at Tree or Canthius?

A: Hm, my writing used to be interested in geologies and landscapes (physical landscapes, landscapes of the body, landscapes of the text). And I’m still interested in those, but I’m writing more contained pieces. Now, I’m more interested in my grandmothers and the lives they lived. How their memories and languages get passed through heritage, how their stories get repeated through my mother’s life and mine. (What closure did my mother experience for my grandmother? What experiences will I live unknowingly for my mother? And what has my grandmother already lived for me? …Among other questions) It’s more personal, and sometimes it feels very narcissistic. But maybe it’s just more upfront about its narcissism. It doesn’t have form to hide behind.

Before I got involved with Tree and Canthius—and to some extent before I got to join a writing group of my peers (hey &co)—I was writing and thinking in isolation. I used to write poetry as a means of exploration. It was good, but it no longer feels possible. Now writing feels social and I feel less certain in what I believe good writing is or should do. I have a lot more reading to do, and a lot more thinking through what space poetry has in a public (and which public).

I also get overwhelmed by the space poetry requires. Or at least how it’s imagined under CanLit. There’s the space of the performance, the page, the audience, the open mic, the sound, the body (that of reader and poet), the press, the publisher, the community, etc. And all of that has to be navigated in real time. Through all its complexities: its permissions and erasures, its joys and violence, its epiphanies and silences. Let alone the historical weight of each word. That’s something I’m thinking through.

Q: Have there been any specific writers that have helped prompt some of these shifts? What have you read recently that has struck a chord with what you’re attempting to do?

A: Sure! With ideas of family, heritage and archive, I’ve recently read Veronica Gonzalez, Chelene Knight, Hoa Nguyen, Kayla Czaga. More locally: Sarah Kabamba, Manahil Bandukwala, Jennifer Pederson, Mia Morgan, you, Stephen Brockwell.

Q: What do you mean when you speak about “the space poetry requires,” specifically “how its imagined under CanLit”?

A: Oh just that sometimes we write inside communities or alongside them or outside of them. So what does it mean that a poem was written in one space (physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, whatever) and then transported to be performed or published or read. How do we care for that poem outside it’s space, or help create new space for it? And what work goes into creating those spaces. How does the work need to be contextualized? What work do the reader, the audience member, the series facilitator, the MC (everyone who witnesses and participates in the reading/ performance of poetry) have to do to best represent, make space for, the poem? (And maybe that’s unfair to say under CanLit. I just think of the ways publishing has so obviously failed so many womxn and POC.)

But with space so I’m rereading Maggie Nelson’s the argonauts. And that’s a book I think that requires a lot of trust in her reader. She jumps brilliantly and elegantly from subject matters to weave these narrative and questions, but she trusts her reader to jump with her. Maybe it’s an ethics of readership, or a responsibility. Haha I’m not really sure.

Q: What do you feel CanLit should be doing differently? What do you feel should be the response to addressing such failures?

A: Haha believing womxn. Believing POC. I’m mostly thinking of the past year. I really appreciated Lauren Turner's essay On Covered Mouths, but also oppression beyond gender. A community response to bullshit so that gossip isn’t the only legitimate tool many people have. There are series and presses that do this well. That I know of, Desert Pets Press, Battleaxe, Canyon Copper, Tinhouse, and others. I think I’m also still rectifying Canadian politeness. And I’m thinking about Maya Binyam’s Watching the Woke Olympics so I’m not really sure how to help things change. But I’m thinking about it.

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

A: I really love CA Conrad’s Ecodeviance. I find myself returning to it often, sometimes in awe of language, of energy, of poetic ritual ideas. I also find myself returning to Lorine Neidecker for archive, Natalie Diaz and Brecken Hancock for family.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

TtD supplement #107 : seven questions for Janet Kaplan

Janet Kaplan’s full-length poetry books are Ecotones (forthcoming in 2019 from Eyewear Ltd.), Dreamlife of a Philanthropist: Prose Poems & Prose Sonnets (winner of the 2011 Ernest Sandeen Prize in Poetry from University of Notre Dame Press), The Glazier’s Country (winner of the 2003 Poets Out Loud Prize from Fordham University Press) and The Groundnote (Alice James Books, 1998). Her honors include grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Bronx Council on the Arts, fellowships and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Ucross Foundation and the Vermont Studio Center. Her poems have appeared in Arts & Letters, Barrow Street, Cross Currents, Denver Quarterly, Interim, The Paris Review, Pool, The Prose Poem Project, Sentence, The Southampton Review, Tupelo Quarterly and many others, as well as in the anthologies An Introduction to the Prose Poem (Firewheel Editions, 2007), Lit from Inside: 40 Years of Poetry from Alice James (Alice James Books, 2012) and Like Light: 25 Years of Poetry & Prose by Bright Hill Poets & Writers (Bright Hill Press, 2017). She’s served as Poet-in-Residence at Fordham University and is currently a member of the creative writing faculty at Hofstra University, where she edits AMP magazine.

Her poem “A Yellow Dwarf’s Photonegative Capability” appears in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “A Yellow Dwarf’s Photonegative Capability.”

A: “Yellow Dwarf” is one of the poems in Ecotones, due out in 2019. The work deals with our responses to nature and how, as nature, we’ve somehow forgotten that we are nature. In “Yellow Dwarf,” I tell a fairy-tale-like story. Most fairy tales involve a relationship between human beings and animals with special powers. In my tale, the animals are zooplankton, the smallest animals in the food chain; they’re powerless, though, because the human being in the tale can no longer “hear” them—can no longer understand what they really are. In fact, the human being poisons them—and herself—by leading them to the sea to drink water contaminated with plastic particulates. Exposed to sunlight, plastic disintegrates in a process called photodecomposition, but it never fully breaks down. It remains in the water, where it’s consumed by zooplankton—and on up the food chain. I contrast this “tale” with an excerpt from an origin story, “Records of the Grand Historian,” by the Han Dynasty writer Sima Qian (ca. 91 BCE), in which powerful animals help the human-hero defeat an enemy sun god. “A Yellow Dwarf’s Photonegative Capability” (pun on Keats’ Negative Capability intended!) is my depiction of the broken connection between—the decomposition of—humans and the rest of the natural world.

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

A: I’m still at work on a number of poems in Ecotones. If and when I can see beyond this book, there’s a hybrid prose collection—part fiction, part memoir, part essay—staring at me from the box I placed it in about three years ago. The subject matter is different from Ecotones’ but the form—or, rather, the mixing of forms—is similar. I think I’ve caught the hybrid bug.

Q: When you say “mixing of forms,” what forms are you exploring?

A: In Ecotones, I mix fictional prose narrative, poetry and sampled text fragments. In my hybrid prose manuscript-in-progress, there’ll be fiction, memoir and very short essays.

Q: What do you feel you’re able to accomplish through the hybrid that you might not be able to otherwise?

A: I’m hoping for a more accurate—meaning, more complete—depiction of a life’s environment. One section Ecotones contains a fictional account of a substance abuser’s life. This account takes place, as all lives do, in an historical time and place—or, rather, in many times and places.  I use different literary shapes—paragraphs, stanzas—a variety of typefaces, irregular spacing and placement of text, and a bit of line art, to depict the voices—some complementing, some contrasting, like odd Greek choruses—that arise from these times and places. And, of course, there’s blank space to represent the silences.

Q: With a small handful of books over the past two decades, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Sometimes I feel like Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese poet who adopted not only pseudonyms but utterly distinct voices for each of his books. With each of my books, I’ve had a different question to answer, a different goal. If someone can find a single “voice” that could be recognized as the Janet Kaplan voice threading through each of my books, I’d love to know about it. But I’ve stopped worrying about it. There’s yet another voice—a fifth? a fiftieth?—in a new poetry manuscript-in-progress tentatively titled “Pitch Light.” This new voice cracks me up; I was howling with laughter as I wrote the first drafts.

In any case, I’m intensely grateful for my “small handful” of books! Each took time and patience in the interstices of a busy, broke (but not broken!) life. Teaching, getting the bills paid, teaching, getting the bills paid....

Q: “Voice” feels less a concern than simply understanding the ways in which your books interact with each other. bpNichol said something once about the work connecting only due to it all composed by the same hand. Do you worry your books each sound like a different writer, thus distancing any ongoing readership you might have?

A: Why should one’s books interact with one another? I absolutely agree with bpNichol here! As for the worrying, to be honest, I worry about having enough money, enough time.... And then, like the poet A.R. Ammons, I go for a walk.

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

A: Actually, in the last few years, I’ve been reading and re-reading the Christian, Sufi, Jewish and Hindu mystics, with Zen haiku masters joining in to intensify the blaze. Thanks for asking!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

TtD supplement #106 : five questions for Phil Hall

Phil Hall’s most recent books are Conjugation (BookThug, 2016), Notes on Assemblage (JackPine Press, 2017), and (with Erín Moure) The Interrupted (Beautiful Outlaw Press, 2017).

His poem “Steps” appears in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Steps.”

A: Not to make too much of so little…

But I am interested in each word as a creature in itself that has evolved & is evolving even as we show-offs use them.

I want to track social & historical movement using only a creature at a time to see what that minimal focus might reveal.

In the slightest adjustments can be seen enormous affinities & leaps of reference.

These poems are suspicious of the writerly flourish, wary of pop sympathies & prejudices that become tropes.

For instance, using bp’s joke of saints in words—such as St And built from the word “stand,”—one two-step here speaks of how easily we move from what is “unclear”  (Uncle Ar) to what is seen as “unclean” (Uncle An).

The avuncular in criticism still implies that if poems are unclear they are unclean.

These are political poems—I guess—almost political poem pills.

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

A: Whether Steps is a poem or a sequence of poems, we may consider the order of each part or poem & their proximity to each other, as well as their obvious list-isolation.

There is always a relation between the word under the microscope & the word in the field, in the sentence, at the televised debate.

The Other World under the slide—in our tiny poems—has the potential to cure verbiage & lies. I have to believe this, even if it isn’t true anymore, or never was…

I mostly work in sequence forms. These are Spicerian marathons, but the interest I have in proximity as a potential force in such poems is the same as in Steps.

This beside this is not only 1 plus 1—it is tone-change, furtherance (= 3), & a texture shift—or even an irrelevancy that illumes—all of which is not beholden to syntax.

Between sections in a long poem, between single words in one of these Steps poems, (and between the letters in a word if we turn the focus way up), there accumulates (the hope of) a force that is not logical but processional, not telling but assembly.

Q: You’ve been working with the extended suite for some time, working, it would seem, with the book-length poem as your unit of composition. How did you get from writing individual poems to working with such a larger form, and what do you feel you’re able to accomplish through book-length that you might not be able to otherwise?

A: I respect the lone cry of the lyric, but it is rarely pure, & almost always imitative. To be that desperate & alone a cry has to be half crazy.

The cacophony of sequence approaches carnival. The cooperation of chorus involves a displacement of ego. These are good things to invite, so I do.

The book, for me, is a life unit: during these 4 or 5 years, I have invited & welcomed & arranged the following.
All of the preoccupations, distractions, enthusiasms, & revelatory fears of these living years of mine are here…

The book is where the author joins the audience. Maybe I write books so that I can join the audience. The brief silence of being in my own book’s audience is reward enough. A respite.

But soon the next compulsive pull of design & trouble, that lyric desperation, nudges me out of my seat, & I have to find the exit, have to go off on my own again…

I have come to think that for me the only way out of or back from lyric isolation (craziness) is through a multi-valenced widening…

I feel again & again the compulsion to invoke, ISBN by ISBN, the fortifications of harmony & pattern.

Q: With over a dozen full-length collections over the past two decades, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: The first word that comes to mind when I read this question is: landfill.

But that is deflective, morbidly un-funny—& a little interesting: my name is in there…

Hey, I keep looking for that guy! And he keeps looking for legitimacy in polyvocal company.

But the only company I trust is A to Z.

So Steps is (or are) an effort to keep my eye to the microscope of the alphabet.

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

A: Thirty years ago I painted Greek blue a wall in my bachelor apartment & stuck to it 80 white file cards each holding one of Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers poems so I could study them as part of my daily routine.

No blanch witloof handbound dry / Heart to racks a comb

This winter I spent 6 months in Guyana—what I took & studied again daily there was Zuk’s “A”.
Classical anti-classicism crunched & unraveled into housebound song.

Will explain to us
How to do
The wrong things
The right way

Crunch or unravel, Z gets me every time.


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

TtD supplement #105 : seven questions for Valerie Coulton

Valerie Coulton’s chapbook, small bed & field guide, was recently published by above/ground press. Previous books are open book, The Cellar Dreamer, passing world pictures (all from Apogee Press), and the lily book (San Francisco State University Press). Her work has appeared in New American Writing, Front Porch, kadar koli, Fourteen Hills, Parthenon West Review, and e-poema, among other periodicals. She lives in Barcelona with the poet Edward Smallfield and is one of the editors of parentheses, a multi-lingual journal of poetry and fiction.

She has eight untitled poems in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about these eight untitled poems.

A: These have a few things going on: mostly written in summer, experimenting with letting different kinds of language come in, and also meditating a bit on my dad.

Q: Is the suite of poems larger than the eight collected here?

A: Yes, there are more or less 30 pieces in the series.

Q: How is such a suite composed? Do you start at the beginning and move in a linear fashion, or do you begin in the middle and move outwards?

A: That’s a good question. Right now, the pieces are in the order they were written in, and that usually seems to hold for me, but when a series feels truly finished, there could be some movement.

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

A: This project continues, so it’s always there as a possibility for writing, or a home for a new piece. And knowing that means that completely other pieces or projects can emerge. I like the comfort of something ongoing.

Q: Well, as Ondaatje paraphrased Spicer, the poems “cannot live alone any more than we can […].” Is this something you find in your work? Are poems usually composed as part of a larger structure? Is there such a creature as a single, orphaned, unconnected poem?

A: That’s an interesting question. My impulse is to say yes, but at the same time I generally feel that my poems are connected to each other, either by an explicit project or an implicit set of concerns. Work of a time often seems, in retrospect, to share elements. Also, I tend to shy away from wanting my poems to feel absolutely resolved. I do write some that have this quality, but when revising I often try to disrupt the resolution. Poems of a project sometimes appear to me as pieces or fragments of tile from a mosaic: each one should be interesting on its own but contribute to a greater whole.

Q: Where did this impulse come from? Might this suggest that, through your multiple book-length and chapbook-length projects, you are writing a singular, loosely-interconnected, work?

A: There’s a part of my work that could definitely be considered instalments of one long project. There are other series, though, that are linguistically different and seem to me to come from another kind of source; it would be interesting to reconsider them and how they do interconnect.

Q: If your work might be considered all part of a singular, interconnected project, how would you see your collaborative work fitting into that? Are you extending your reach, or working entirely outside?

A: I usually collaborate with my husband and favorite poet, Edward Smallfield. As he is always inside everything I write, and my primary reader, working with him is a natural extension.

Q: What do you feel you are able to accomplish with collaborative work that you aren’t able to with your individual work, and vice versa?

A: In my own work, I’m able to enter a world that is “mine” but which I’m not fully conscious of. In collaboration, I appreciate the sense and respond element, a sense of improvisation together, and of coming up with something beyond what I could do alone.

Q: After four full-length collections and a handful of chapbooks, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I think I’m more accepting now, in the sense that I can allow more things to happen, and to remain, than I might have in the past. I trust my intuition more. I used to be concerned with occluding, encoding and erasing. Now I’m interested in layers of time and how to give them their voices. I don’t know where my work is headed, but I feel enormously grateful to be writing and living with Edward, and to have support for my writing from you and others. Just being able to do it is everything.

Q: Have you any writers or works in mind when you begin to construct new work? How do chapbooks or books get formed? Are the processes different at all?

A: I’m generally inspired by other writers and works, they’re often a departure point or present in some way in a project. Book sections have come from reading Lorine Niedecker and Borges, for example. For me the book and chapbook processes are similar: keep adding pieces to a series until it feels done.

Q: Are chapbook-length works eventually absorbed into book-length manuscripts?

A: Sometimes yes, but usually as a section of a multi-section work.

Q: How early might the size and shape of a particular project make itself known?

A: Usually not until I’m getting pretty close to the end.

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

A: Fortunately, I live with my favorite writer, so I have a constant source of inspiration. I also get very energized by other writers I know; seeing their new work often sparks something for me. From the bookshelf, Archilochos and Niedecker are always there...

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

TtD supplement #104 : seven questions for Dale Smith

Dale Smith is a poet and critic who lives in Toronto, Ontario, where he serves on the faculty of English at Ryerson University.

His poem “from April Ontario” appears in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “from April Ontario.”

A: It’s a follow up to a question-based group of poems I wrote in 2005 called Notes No Answer (Habenicht Press). I like the form of the short question as an organizing principle of the poetic line and stanza. Poetic questions give me room to expand into a range of concerns, particularly, in this instance, looking at time, the experience of temporal duration in both consciousness and the body, and to consider the origin of image-making and language in the deep past of human history. I also look forward from that past to the extinction of life forms we hear about so often. The Bramble Cay melomys, for example, is a kind of rat in Australia that disappeared completely in 2007.

Q: How does the title relate to the activity of the poem?

A: I only sent you a selection of April Ontario. I see it as a kind of poem-essay. Besides cave art and Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the poem is framed around a walk to a park in Toronto with my sons, Keaton and Waylon. Keaton was anxious on our walk because it seemed so suddenly warm for the time of year. He worries about weather catastrophe. He’s sensitive and reasonably aware of his world. So the poem is a place for me to think through my response to him. But yes, literally, the title refers to time and place, the temporal and geographic coordinates of our conversation.

Q: You’ve been in Toronto for a few years now, after having spent more than a dozen years in Texas. With the geographic shift, have you noticed any corresponding structural shifts in your writing?

A: My writing has always acknowledged specific geographic settings. The morphology of the landscape has changed as I have moved from Texas to California to Ontario, and I’ve tried to remain alert to these various realities. I’ve had to learn to see new trees and birds, get to know new ecosystems and variations in those systems according to where I may be looking—whether in the city or the country. The main difference I notice is the verticality of Ontario—the way trees direct attention within smaller confines than, say, Texas, where the sky’s horizontal expanse produces a very different experience of perception.

Q: You’ve already mentioned Notes No Answer, but how does this current project relate to some of the other work you’ve been doing?

A: I’ve worked with the serial form for quite some time. I like the accumulating stanzas and the pathways they open for wandering around in. Thematically, I think for a long time my writing has been informed by the collision of the domestic within larger social, political, and historical frames of reference. And by “social” I only mean to imply a kind of connectivity to people and things. I think more recently I’ve become concerned with the function and feeling—the experience—of time. Or of my sense of inhabiting it both physically and imaginatively. So that’s different. That’s a new thing. And I’m also curious about how other non-human creatures and plants are absorbed into time and how it interacts with my own processes of awareness.

Q: How did you develop your interest in the serial poem, and what do you feel the form allows you to accomplish that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise? And is there even such a thing, in your mind, as the single, stand-alone poem?

A: The formal possibilities of seriality in poetry were advanced after the second world war. It’s a form I like because I’m interested in poems and essays, in poems as essays. Seriality for me allows the kind of open rambling of the essay to take place in the realm of poetry. I don’t think, actually, there’s much difference between the essay and the poem other than a kind of attitude toward language.

As to the second part of your question, I’m not sure anything stands alone—especially a poem. Thematic echoes, syllabic correspondences, intertextual coherences, and other attributes seem always to radiate between poems across time and geographies. Today is the first of May and I’ve been thinking of how Robert Herrick sounds the greeny month in his poem, “Corinna’s going a Maying.” A poem like that seems almost a kind of foliage interlaced into the landscape of English going back to Chaucer and forward to Ed Dorn’s tender, mournful Sousa, where he invokes “the only May Day / of my mind.”

Q: After a handful of poetry and critical titles over the past two decades or so, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A:  I’m not sure where my work is headed. I follow it; it doesn’t follow me. What’s interesting is to see how the work’s movements retain a kind of coherence over those decades. I like to use poetry to think about environments of history and family. I’m not a writer who seeks the highly-wrought, the formally perfect gesture. I use the process of writing to create spaces of arrival.

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

A: I frequently return to Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and the world of writing they helped shape—Robin Blaser, Fred Wah in Canada—Susan Howe and Alice Notley in the States. Joanne Kyger passed away last month, and I’ve been thinking daily of her work and everything it has meant to me for so long.

I never find myself looking again at Language Poetry or Conceptual Poetry—period styles with short shelf lives.

I think recently its Blues Modernism I find most sustaining—Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker. Their work is a mountain—a thicket. I hear in it an America of fragment and desire. It’s important for me to listen to that music and its inflections from both sides of the Second World War. How do we recognize the profound failure accompanying experiences rooted and soiled in North America? 

I also find immense joy in the mostly anonymous ballads and lyrics of the Middle Ages. A poem like “Sing, Cuckoo” is so perfect. A voice, a song, reaching through time. I’m interested in the body of feeling behind such a work—how that body of feeling found shape in Middle English. How my ears receive it now.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

TtD supplement #103 : seven questions for Sean Braune

Sean Braune’s first book of philosophy, Language Parasites: Of Phorontology, was released in 2017 from Punctum Books. His theoretical work has been published in Postmodern Culture, Journal of Modern Literature, Canadian Literature, symploke, and elsewhere. His poetry has appeared in ditch, The Puritan, Rampike, Poetry is Dead, and elsewhere. His first chapbook, the vitamins of an alphabet (2016), appeared from above/ground press and his second chapbook—an excerpt from a novel manuscript called Erosappeared from AngelHousePress, with two more above/ground press titles appearing this year, including the recently-released The Cosmos (2018).

His poems “Minarets of Knowledge” and “Eyez” appear in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Minarets of Knowledge” and “Eyez.”

A: To answer this, I have to talk a little bit about how I think of my own poetic practice. First, like many of my friends, I am suspicious of a poetry that fully embraces meaning. I think that poetry should always push against the meaningful structures of language in order to add some “disquiet” or “disorientation” to traditional practices of writing and reading. For me, poetry is an activity that is produced by reading. I am working on a series of poetry projects right now (of which “Minarets of Knowledge” and “Eyez” are a part) that all engage with a kind of what I call fractural-reading practice—a reading practice that is fractured by the experience of living in the contemporary world—and I find myself (as a subject) constantly consumed and overwhelmed by the frenzy and bluster of the contemporary cityscape and its bevy of information and narrative. I walk around downtown Toronto (or other major cities) with a notebook and pen and I transcribe the pieces of language that I find and it is all a language in pure disarray. I scribble down fragments of conversations that I overhear. Even while reading traditional books or attending literary events, I write down the odd word or phrase here or there … so I am constantly compiling an ever-growing repository of “harvestable” language. “Minarets of Knowledge” and “Eyez” are two results of that harvesting and pruning process. I just read an article on how capitalism feeds on the body’s stress response and the poetry that I’m working on now is an attempt to capture some of that stress response, or what could be called “how it feels to live in modernity.” The language of this stress response—of this fragmented exposure to a constantly babbling language—is the record of an infinity of words that are trying to interpellate or infect us. Possibly I didn’t answer your question. (I also do not think that my approach with a notebook in the frenzy of modern life is entirely unique—a lot of my friends also scribble down fragments of their everyday language experiences).

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

A: I’m currently working on several projects at once that cover several different genres: there’s a weird SF novel that I feel like I should keep a secret because it’s still in its embryonic stages; also, I’m in the process of trying to get a film project off the ground. Six months ago I wrote a script about newlyweds who are trapped in their hotel room / bridal suite and they can’t escape and are forced to live through the rather nightmarish undercurrents of their relationship. To expand on your first question, “Minarets of Knowledge” and “Eyez” are part of a poetry manuscript called Dendrite Balconies, which is a collection that explores the frenzy of contemporary reading practices (as discussed earlier), as well as the inevitability of death alongside the ways that language can be understood as an infection. Incidentally, the notion of a language-infection is explored in detail in my recently published book of theory, Language Parasites: Of Phorontology (published by Punctum Books). It all fits together actually.

Q: Can you speak to the idea of language infection? How does one attempt to make one’s poems infect?

A: When I talk about a “language-infection” I don’t mean an infection that infects others with poetry; I mean an infection that is already present in language. Language often has the quality of acting like an invasive and viral process that infects us from our youngest age and begins to implicate us in a larger symbolic and social order. Christopher Dewdney’s essay “Parasite Maintenance” is a good example of a rigorous argument that speculates on how Poets and Authors are more closely aligned with their own, individual parasites of language. Through the rigour of his ’pataphysical speculations, Dewdney offers a mode of writing where the produced text is written alongside an interior parasitic process. My own poetry tries to negate the Author or Poet in such a way that the Parasite speaks its own unique idiolect. Hence, I try to capture the muttering that exists at the limits or boundaries of sense.

Q: You mention Christopher Dewdney; what other authors and/or works have influenced the ways in which you approach writing?

A: That list of writers is ever-growing and ever-changing. Recently, I’ve been loving the experience of engaging with Jordan Abel’s work. David Peter Clark’s recent book / codex Spell was haunting and wonderful. Currently, I am re-reading Robin Blaser, which has given me a lot of ideas. I should say though that nothing is possible without Cormac McCarthy and James Joyce.... Along a separate road, I have the joy of regularly sharing writing ideas or drafts of pieces with Mat Laporte and Fenn Stewart and if either of them nix something I’ve written, then I know it’s not going to work because I trust their aesthetic noses above all. I should add that my creative work has been fully influenced by Fenn and Mat: Mat’s RATS NEST is a wild romp that breaks new and adventurous ground in fiction and Fenn’s chapbooks An OK Organ Man, Vegetable Inventory, and her BookThug book Better Nature are all completely bazonkers good. She’s a master of poetic rhythm. Mat has a masterful ear for surprising textual and semantic collisions and I feel like Mat and I have similar demons: we’re both trying to write ourselves out of a kind of haunting or possession—hopefully, we both manage this “escape procedure.” One hopes. Fingers crossed. Beyond this list of influences, I repeatedly re-read Catriona Strang’s Low Fancy, Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic (because they each have, I think, some of the best SOUNDS that I’ve ever heard), and Paul Celan’s collected works.

Q: You say you’re working your way towards a first full-length collection. What is the process of putting a first manuscript together, and have you any models in mind for the construction? Are you finding the process different than putting together your above/ground press chapbook? Will that material, also, be included?

A: Good question. Yes, much of the material from the vitamins of an alphabet will be included—with some exceptions: the middle section where I was experimenting with my “Poequations (after Smithson)” will not be in that work (they didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the extended manuscript). To re-answer your second question: I find that, regarding poetry, I tend to work on specific small projects all at once; for example, the poequations that build on Robert Smithson’s word heap are one project and I have a lot of other specific constraint-based projects that are ongoing (some traditionally conceptual, some Oulipian, some lyric conceptual, some visual, and some straightforwardly lyric). In this sense, I am inspired by the spirit of passion and genre-bending qualities of bpNichol. Dendrite Balconies (which will include parts of the chapbook) is primarily the result of my fractural-reading process (that I described earlier), and I think that it’s a more “digestible” project than my earlier full-length poetry manuscript called Labyrinthitis (that I’m still re-tooling and trying to find a home for). I find that presses (even so-called “avant-garde” presses) are heading in more conservative directions in these times of economic precarity, which means that a manuscript like Labyrinthitis was, I think, just too “out there” to be published in today’s age. In some ways, I think the new one—Dendrite Balconies—is more “of the now.” Or who knows? We’ll see…

Q: I agree with you on the overall shift in Canadian publishing away from more experimental works, although I’ve been seeing that shift going on for a decade or so now. Apart from simply writing and publishing (even self-publishing) our ways through it, I don’t see much way through or around it. What do you feel has been fueling this shift, and what do you think it means?

A: Yeah, it’s a sad trend. I think of the history of Can Lit as containing this extremely exciting experimental tradition that can be found in the Toronto Research Group, the Canadian ”Pataphysicians, and other places, presses like Coach House or BookThug, or magazines like Ganglia and grOnk. We also have Nicole Brossard and the exciting work being done in Quebec! Unfortunately, I feel like the trail-blazing trends and canons of Can Lit often go unrecognized due to some of the more boring and standard “pop” Can Lit that gets read and represents Can Lit to the rest of the world. I wonder if the market for the avant-garde has really changed—I mean did people ever really buy and read these texts in droves? Really?—or if now we live in an economic era where publishers just can’t take the same kinds of financial risks. Or don’t want to? I’m not sure. I mean most of my friends would buy experimental texts and they’re also hungry for a little bit more adventurousness, but I’m sure that their enthusiasm doesn’t translate to the rest of the market. I remember finding the first John Riddell book I’d ever seen in the stacks at Robarts (hidden away behind some other books!) and I was completely floored. I’d never seen something so gorgeous and nuts! I wonder if someone like Riddell could get published nowadays? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe somewhere. I don’t know. I do think however, to plug your own work and labour for a second, that above/ground press has always gleefully pushed against this trend towards conservatism so there’s still some hope!

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

A: There is a pile of these works on the table next to my bed and I repeatedly re-read them before sleep so that, as my “faith” wanes, it is rejuvenated before I dream. This “pile” currently consists of Fenn Stewart’s An OK Organ Man, Kevin Davies’s Lateral Argument, and Harryette Mullen’s Recyclopedia.... Yeah, these texts keep my hungry.