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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

TtD supplement #215 : seven questions for Jérôme Melançon

Jérôme Melançon is grateful to be here. He writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. These poems are perhaps part of that larger project. With above/ground he also published the bilingual Coup (2020) and the newly-released Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright (2022). His most recent poetry collection is En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021). He is also the author of two books of poetry with Éditions des Plaines, De perdre tes pas (2011) and Quelques pas quelque part (2016), as well as one book of philosophy, La politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018) and a bunch of stuff in journals and books nobody reads. He’s on Twitter and Instagram at @lethejerome and sometimes there’s poetry happening on the latter. He looks forward to hearing from you.

His poems “On driving to the airport with my father” and “On driving to a place my father once called home with my father” appear in the thirty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “On driving to the airport with my father” and “On driving to a place my father once called home with my father.”

A: When I go back to Ottawa I depend on my father for transportation. Or on public transit, but we all know just how well OC Transpo and the STO work. A few times I've gone back by myself, and spent time with him, much like we used to when I was a child. His radio station, the routes he favours. On road trips, the places where he likes to stop. I don't mind giving up decision-making in that way, and there's something comforting in being driven to these places. That’s the main feeling I wanted to convey in these two poems. But they carry different weights. One is an early morning scene, and is focused on departure – my father driving me to the airport, I can't recall after what occasion now –, and so on change, transition, an epochal shift maybe. The other, about home, has me in the back seat, a cousin of my father’s in the passenger seat in front of me, on that long stretch of Canadian Shield leading up to Mattawa from Ottawa. I didn’t know this cousin, I barely even knew of him. I’ve spent a lot of time in that seat, although in other vehicles, at a diagonal from my father, on that same road going up to Témiscamingue. But there's a sense of deep sadness and loss I wanted to immobilize, not for myself. No, a sense of loss, but for my father, given that we were driving to attend his sister's funeral.

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

A: They're quite akin in tone and theme to a series of poems I'll be publishing as a chapbook with above/ground press, Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright. These two poems are older, although I can’t remember writing them – it must have been quite some time ago, although the only trace I could find was in the file I created in the fall of 2020 when I typed them up. I’ve been reworking them over time, I can’t be sure now how much is left of what I must have written when I last flew out to Ottawa. I do remember that the mood is perhaps their most important aspect, what I tried to get across most clearly. And there’s quite a bit of reflection about family ties, about places I associate with family. Retrospectively all these poems appear as reflection on my own fatherhood, my own family, through my family of origin (and extended family in the chapbook). They deal with the presence of the past, its reappearance – and the chapbook is built around ten years of abandoned poems in English, my going through my notebooks, picking out the best lines and images and writing new poems to salvage them through a new whole. I’ve done something similar for another project in French where I translated and transformed a whole series of poems about the Prairies originally written in English over the same period. I’ve run out of steam on that project, so I’m letting it sit in a binder for now.

In the attempt to grasp a collapsing of past and present at easily identifiable, eventful moments where distancing and dissociation are understandable reactions to my grief and that of others, these two poems are entirely different from what I’m working on at the moment. I think the whole exercise, publishing these two, and putting the chapbook together, helped me put many things to rest, ideas I knew I’d have to get back to, a form I wanted to send out into the world. I could then move on to taking myself seriously as an English-speaking poet, trust myself to really attempt something different and new, unlike anything else I had written. There's a thread to my new work, but only in the sense that a broken necklace dangling and spreading stones or whatever has a thread. There's little form and there's little freedom. It's guided by my response to such enormous works, tied to convictions, in no way autobiographical. So – again quite retrospectively – these two poems mark the beginning of the last part of a cycle in my writing.

Q: Have you noticed a difference in how you approach your work since starting to put together chapbook-length manuscripts? Are you someone who composes poems, or groupings of poems? And is there a difference?

A: As far as I know, chapbooks aren’t very common in French-language poetry circles. There are also far fewer poetry journals. There are zines, but for the most part poetry is a book affair. I have a thing for the Book. So I began by writing books. My first two published collections were in fact written as one longer manuscript, which I split into two separate, mirror image entities. Since then most of my more traditional writing has worked the same: I write a few poems, and the stronger ones end up creating a path for more poems, an approach to themes and topics imposes itself, and I fall in that direction. For En d’sous d’la langue I had about eight or nine solid poems that ended up defining a relatively narrow field of possibilities. This way I can go quite far in one direction, really explore an idea.

I discovered chapbooks quite late in the game, even though I’ve been reading poetry in English regularly since I've been out West. And it didn’t occur to me to write or compose a chapbook. I only came up with the idea of my first chapbook, Coup, once I got negative feedback on a collection. There just wasn’t enough material for a full collection, but I did want to put it out there because I liked the form of the poems so much, so I whittled the book down and rewrote quite a bit, and sent it off. After that, messing around with responses to other people’s poems, I wrote one poem, then another, and before long I thought I might have enough for a chapbook... except that once I put the work together I was already halfway to a book, so I kept going. Thinking about a chapbook early on made it possible for me to goof around and end up with something serious, and seriously different, whereas I wouldn't have bothered to look down this way for one poem or for a whole book. Now I think that’s just one long poem anyway, I may have decided on the title speechletting, we’ll see if I stick to that.

I still write one-off poems, but it’s rare that I don't have a sense of connection between the poems. So it’s difficult for me to pick some to send by themselves to be published in reviews because I feel many only really work well as part of a whole. That's something I’ve tried to work on, to give individual poems their autonomy. Tomorrow... is like that. Each poem very much has its own life. So that’s new, and again it’s aiming for a chapbook that allowed me to try something out without worrying so much about the overall effect.

Q: I remember having conversations with Louis Patrick Leroux in the early 1990s, when he mentioned that French-language writing in Canada had fewer possibilities for journal publication, suggesting that they weren’t leaning their poems into journal-publishable lengths; how poets in French Canada (at least in his awareness) were publishing younger, and full collections comprised as long poems, whereas their English-language contemporaries were publishing collections of shorter poems after working a few years through the system of literary journals. Given you work in and through both languages, do you see a shift in approach between your English and French writing? How does one language impact upon the other?

A: That’s still very much the case! The balance is easy to feel: with Estuaire and Exit being the only two major journals dedicated to poetry and only a handful of other journals publishing poetry alongside other genres, the proliferation of small presses and medium-size publishers that put out full collections definitely occupy the centre of the poetry scene in Québec. Outside Quebec, it’s even harder to publish individual poems. À ciel ouvert [https://acielouvert.ca/] out West and Ancrages [https://ancrages.ca/] in Acadie both publish poetry, but even the very small French-language presses like Éditions de la Nouvelle plume in Saskatchewan will publish a book of poetry now and then, and we have Éditions du Blé, Éditions Perce-Neige, and of course Prise de Parole, which have very strong and long-standing poetry collections. There might be more venues – I published my first poems in Ottawa U’s student literary journal, Textures – but I haven’t made that inventory. So it’s expected that emerging poets – and often young poets – will publish a full collection before anyone even hears about them at all as poets. I published my first collection before I ever did a poetry reading! And that first reading was with Dany Laferrière!

Also there isn’t the prize institution. That’s how I first began writing in English: I submitted to all these prizes. The upshot is that I got subscriptions to so. many. journals. The downside is that I got quite discouraged, of course, because there, and shortly after, in submitting individual poems, I wasn’t aiming for venues based on style – I had no grasp of the scene at all. The idea of selling a poem, of poetry markets, or even getting paid for a publication is still odd to me. And there are no blurbs on books in French. All that means that writing is a lot more individualistic, until you get it out there. Instead, networks form around live events and around specific publishers, that’s where you get recognition as part of something greater.

I do want to get to your actual questions though, they’re very good, only they’re very difficult to answer. So maybe I’ll just offer a few thoughts without trying to be linear. This is such a huge question, I’ll probably go on for a bit.

I've had to allow myself the right to write in English. There’s enormous pressure to speak French, to breathe French, to be French all the time, to address people in French wherever you go. It’s creating legitimacy for French; it’s claiming the territory as bilingual here or as French in Québec. This linguistic nationalism is a form of resistance against the omnipresence of the English language, but it will allow for separation, resentment, and hatred, or simply disappointment when people who could speak French speak English instead. Thankfully there are people who have always rejected this – Rose Després is a great example – and it’s less of an issue now than it used to be, at least outside Québec. Writing in a second language is also extremely difficult, as anyone who’s tried has experienced firsthand. Because I had already published a book, when I first decided to try writing in English I went ahead and submitted right away, which simply did not work. What I’ve realized since then is that I needed to grow as an English-language poet first, just as I had written so many poems in French, for some time, before anything good came out of it. But there are still things I can’t do, like do anything with accentuation in English – I don’t quite get it, even now.

I’ve brought a lot of elements of French poetry to my writing in English – the French sonnet form, my love for the alexandrine, but also less formally the tone found in Québécois poetry over the last 15 years or so, an irreverent, slang-y, rough diction. And likewise my first two books were full of devices I borrowed from Ginsburg, Kerouac, and Cummings, especially as far as rhythm and placement on the page go. I suppose I have more tools for being familiar with so many more traditions of writing. If I were a more deliberate writer I could do a lot with that.

I think in both languages, so that’s the main reason why I end up writing in one language or the other – unless I’m deliberately continuing on a project I’ve already set out to complete in one language. I like to mess around with bilingual writing, which led to my chapbook Coup, some visual poetry I'm playing with at the moment, French words I’m slipping into my English writing. There’s a kind of easy code-switching in my everyday life I’d like to be able to bring into my writing, and for that I’d need to stop caring whether readers understand the whole poem. Then again, Coup did get published!

In spite of that, I think there are things I can say better in one language or in another. My writing in English tends to be introspective, it’s taken me toward reflections on my family, things I haven’t dared to approach in French, things that are maybe too close to me.

And there’s a question of who I’m writing for. I’ve made my way into English-language poetry networks since the pandemic began, it’s been really wonderful, and it’s allowed me to say new things because I got a sense of who might be reading me. The same goes for becoming acquainted with the Francophone arts scene outside Québec. That's probably where my approach to writing changes the most. I still write for myself, but I also have a general understanding of my potential public.

Q: Given the traditions are so different in each language and culture, how do you see the two sides of your writing co-existing? Talking to Christine McNair recently about American poet Rosmarie Waldrop, I’ve had a far better sense of how deeply Waldrop’s syntax through her English-language poetry is rooted in the diction of her first language, German. Is there crossover between the two sides, or does each side of your language-thinking remain in its own individual camp?

A: I hope my writing in both languages brings together the traditions I draw from. There are proximities: I discovered bpNichol only recently, but I’ve been reading Oulipo work since I first became interested in poetry. The idea of playing seriously and writing expansively is very dear to me; this is something they share, along with the tendency to alternate between traditional and long poems. Likewise I’ve always drawn from revolutionary texts, which themselves often have similar points of reference beyond the language they’re written in. But then again, there are important differences between these parallel traditions and languages.  

I don't know much about Waldrop, other than what I just read: a couple of poems from Split Infinities I found online, and your own 20 question interview. Looking at it, there’s a personal language, it’s striking. Perhaps it has to do with working with a language we weren’t born into. I’d like to look further into poets who wrote in an additional language. I was looking at Spanish-speaking American poets for a while, I still have a stack of photocopies somewhere and a few books, I keep meaning to go back to that project. The idea originally was to look into bilingual writing, but your questions are pushing me to think more about the tension between the languages, and whether as someone who learned a second language as a teenager I can ever find myself within English, rather than approach it through French. I don’t think my writing in English goes through French; it certainly comes directly into English, and I rarely have a word in French for which I seek an equivalent. Maybe my writing settles into one language based on the words that impose themselves upon me, the words that come to me. I usually begin a poem with a line, or a few words that are pulling at each other. My notebooks and note apps are full of lines and sentences or groups of words like that. I just have to follow them, the language is already given to me in a way. If I’m ever read with any closeness by bilingual readers, maybe they’ll be able to answer your question better than I can. But if my prepositions are ever odd, that's just me not mastering this language.

I live in both languages, I go to work in both languages, and I’m constantly code-switching even with certain people around me. And I write, and talk, so much, in both languages, that I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how I do it. I can’t even really think of English and French as only two languages. Raymond Queneau, the French novelist and poet, talks about how written and spoken French are already two different languages. It’s not just that no one would ever speak like people write; it’s that there is a translation of spoken French into written French that people need to learn to do. There’s learning to read and write words and sentences, which school teaches, and then there’s learning written French, which school does more or less well, and mostly for reading knowledge than for writing knowledge. The French I used when I wrote my latest book is not the French I used for the two earlier books of poetry, nor the one I use when I speak to my children, nor the one I use in the classroom, nor the one I use when taking meeting notes, nor the one I use when I write philosophy, nor the one I use when I write op-eds or columns, nor the one I use when I write more sociological work... It’s tone, it’s diction, it’s syntax, it’s vocabulary, it’s grammar... when that much changes, do you even have the same language?

Q: Have you explored much in the way of writings by poets who compose through multiple languages, especially within the same texts? I’m thinking of contemporaries such as Nathanaël, Erín Moure or Oana Avasilichioaei. As you are writing, how do you decide which language best suits your thinking at that particular moment?

A: I’m aware of their work, yes, but I must confess I haven’t looked closely at it. I’ve read some of their essays and translations, and the odd poem. Enough to place them on a list for me to obsess over in the near future. And I’ve been paying close attention to Klara Du Plessis, who is doing some of the most enthralling work I’m aware of at the moment. Plurilingual composition is something I’m keenly aware of, yes, something I’ve sought out too.

When I was working through the project that became Coup I was invited to do a reading at an event during a literature conference in Saint John, so I put together a paper too, looking at bilingual writing as a kind of formal or constrained writing. I’m not sure I still agree with the basic idea, but the exploration was a great thing for me. That paper included a look at Rose Després’ Vraisemblable, one of my favourite books of poetry. It’s so angry, it sets fire somewhere in me every time I read it. It’s one of the few books I go back to regularly. She slips English in here and there, repeating the rhythm of code-switching among Francophones outside Quebec, who can safely assume that everyone around them also speaks English.

The main piece for that paper is Patrice Desbiens’ L’homme invisible/The invisible man, which is a classic of Franco-Ontarian writing. It’s made up of prose poems in two versions, French and English, on opposite pages; for the most part there’s a rather strict translation, but here and there the two languages say different things. We hide in languages at times, we let things come out only in one or say things only to those who are part of the same linguistic group, hide things from the others. We don’t live quite in the same way in each language. At least that’s what Desbiens suggests; I can’t say that’s how the two languages work for me.

Much of the time I don’t choose the language I write in. It depends on whether I begin with words, a line, a rhythm that strikes me – in that case the language is already decided upon – or with feeling, an idea, a scene. Because I think in terms of projects I often end up writing in the language of the project the idea would best fit into. As I mentioned there’s a whole series of poems I wrote in English ten years ago that I rewrote in French before the pandemic, because they needed to be transformed and never really worked, but also so that they fit with a newer project that only made sense for a French-reading public. For the most part it’s a question of publics then, of whom I’m speaking to, but sometimes it has to do with the possibilities one language affords. I’m not a natural at languages, so I’m really envious of people who have either the resolve or a facility with languages. The ideal poem would be a movement across languages and forms.

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

A: Rose Després and Phyllis Webb are two poets whose work constantly feeds me anger and indignation as well as love and hope. Until recently – I picked up Peacock Blue for a project I might start working on – I only owned one of their books, and even that’s been enough to gather strength and bring me focus. Dionne Brand is another poet whose work is inexhaustible – inépuisable in French, a well from which I’m never done drawing. Every sentence is an occasion to feel more deeply and add layers to my experiences. What all three have in common is their capacity to help me get into a very active meditative state, where emotions are clear and where I’m full of care for others, either around me or at the greatest distance.

The one writer I go back to the most, the one writer I’ll read over and over or just pick up, knowing I won’t be disappointed, is Raymond Queneau. I get a different kind of energy from his writing: there’s so much work, you can’t necessarily see it right there, which makes it magical, but the thought, the planning, the development, the references to history and literature, the inventivity in the forms, the wordplay, all this work is so expansive. And often it ends on a light note, as if the ending is going to be a disappointment anyway, the ultimate constraint, the one constraint that can’t be broken and that can’t be made up or taken up, and so he might as well just have fun. I’ve taken up some of the forms he’s used, like the elementary morality which shows up alongside (French) sonnets in my first two books. Reading him makes me want to write, and lets me think I can do it. It was reading him, and much of Oulipo, that made me believe it at first, and that often carries me when I just can’t seem to get words in any kind of decent order. I get to decide the order, and I get to decide how I decide on the order. It’s fun.

Monday, May 9, 2022

TtD supplement #214 : seven questions for Benjamin Niespodziany

Benjamin Niespodziany’s work has appeared in Fence, Fairy Tale Review, Sporklet, Maudlin House, and others. Along with being featured in the Wigleaf Top 50, his writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction. His debut chapbook, The Northerners, was released at the end of 2021 through above/ground press.

His poems “Froth and Whip,” “The The” and “Bob Heman” appear in the thirty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Froth and Whip,” “The The” and “Bob Heman.”

A: Both “Froth and Whip” and “The The” are prose poems that focus on the line, the visual, the rhythm. Less about narrative and sense and more about sound and experience. “The The”, in particular, is inspired by the writing of Eric Baus, whose collection The Tranquilized Tongue features poems where every sentence begins with “The”.

“Bob Heman” (after Bob Heman) pays tribute to one of the unsung greats of prose poetry. If you Google “Bob Heman Poetry”, the first search result will be a publication where he showcases 17 poems, all of which are called INFORMATION. It inspired me to write 17 poems called Bob Heman. This is one of them.

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

A: These poems are more nonsensical and abstract than what I’m currently writing. I’m working on two manuscripts that deal with my childhood as well as some domestic fictions, and while the poems within are still absurd and surreal, they’re a bit more grounded in narrative. These poems (which were written in early 2021) are more hallucinatory and atmospheric and free-flowing. More collage and less plot.

Q: How complicated is it working on two manuscripts simultaneously?

A: I prefer it! If I hit a speed bump or a road block, it allows me to step away from one while still being able to work on my writing. I have numerous, numerous manuscripts at various stages in their respective journeys, but these two in particular that I mentioned above are about 95% done.

Q: How did you get to the point that you’re working multiple manuscripts simultaneously? And, further to that, do you then see your work as a large, singular project, or a series of related or interrelated threads?

A: BOTH! One large project and many connected threads. I tend to freewrite then edit then later compartmentalize. For example, I have a manuscript of poems that all take place in a library (where I work), I have a manuscript that all deal with faith (and questions of faith, and God turning into a bog witch, etc.), I have a manuscript where every poem is contained within one neighborhood block. I really try to find a through-line when it comes to forming a manuscript (instead of a collection of 'best of' or favorites) or else I won't know where to begin.

Q: Have you any models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? Have you any particular writers or works in the back of your head as you write?

A: The hundreds of books that line my shelves and cover my ottoman constantly circle through my brain.

For the lyric/rhythmic image-based poems featured here, I was drawn to Eric Baus, Bob Heman, Donna Stonecipher (her collection The Cosmopolitan is a favorite). Another to mention is C. Dylan Bassett, whose collection The Invention of Monsters really opened my world and shattered my glass ceiling in regards to what I might be capable of within a prose poem. Pitched as ‘plays for the theater’, these wild prose poems were also sold as a deck of playing cards, with every ‘scene’ appearing on an individual card. I used to keep the cards in my backpack for years, until airport security had to inspect the deck because the thick plastic casing triggered an alarm. They let me have the cards back, but told me to not fly with them again. Mystical, magical poems.

Q: Much of what I’ve seen of your work focuses on the form of the prose poem. How did you land on the prose poem? What do you feel the form allows or provides that might not be possible otherwise?

A: I’ve always loved short stories and microfictions, and discovering the prose poem (first through Richard Brautigan, and then Mathias Svalina) sent me down a rabbit hole of new literature and form. I love how the prose poem can blur the line between a coherent tale and a lyrical headspin. The prose poem allows me to be a storyteller without any set of rules. I don’t need an ending, or an arc, or a moral. The prose poem is a lawless box I love to call home.

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

A: Outside of the books previously mentioned, here are some that are always nearby:

Edward Mullany’s Figures for an Apocalypse. Full worlds packed into one/two sentence poems. Surreal and beautiful, and part of a trilogy that's great from start to finish.

Shivani Mehta’s Useful Information for the Soon-To-Be Beheaded. Some of the best prose poems I’ve ever read. Reshapes how I approach the blank page.

Matvei Yankelevich’s Boris by the Sea. One that always inspires me. The full version from Octopus Books, but also the handmade one-of-one version available digitally on Ugly Duckling Presse’s website.

Lastly! I want to mention Rikki Ducornet’s The Complete Butcher’s Tales. Folkloric myths, twisted fairytales, quick fables. They’re crystalline in their presentation.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

TtD supplement #213 : eight questions for Cecilia Stuart

Cecilia Stuart is the author of HOUNDS (above/ground press 2020) and Mudroom (Anchorage Press 2018, with Adrian Kiva). Her poems have appeared in Plenitude, Bad Dog, PRISM international and elsewhere. She lives in Tkaronto/Toronto with her partner.

Her poem “UPPERCUT” appears in the thirty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “UPPERCUT.”

A: When COVID first hit in 2020, I was living in Halifax and my partner was back home in Toronto. In the early months when we couldn’t travel, I felt so overwhelmed and sad not knowing when we’d be able to see each other again. We’d talk on Facetime every day, but I feel skeptical about most forms of digital communication. I think it’s really hard to have meaningful encounters in spaces that are built to commodify our attention—and having to be so reliant on these forms of communication was also getting me down. This poem reflects on some of the anxieties I was feeling about emotional closeness across distance and the difficulty of conveying meaning through digital space. At that time I also lived near the Halifax Harbour, and when everything was shut down I took a lot of comfort in going on long walks to look at the water and the fog. For probably the first time I felt like I was really embedded in and paying close attention to my natural surroundings. So in UPPERCUT I’m reflecting on that relationship and its communicative structures as well, and trying to think about those two experiences alongside one another.

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

A: Well, right now I’m taking a long break from writing, but in general I’d say that most of my poetry is similar to this piece in that the ideas/images aren’t clearly connected to one another, and the result is (hopefully) fairly fragmentary. Usually I’ll start with a couple of images that have some tangential connection to whatever I’m going through at the time of writing—or even something from a song or book or whatever I’ve been enjoying lately. Then I just sort of patch them together, come up with connectors and play with the aural qualities of the result. Most of the time the resulting poem doesn’t have an obvious tie to my starting point, but I like the way this process helps me to experiment and just get absorbed in the words. I’m not very tied to meaning, and I think that comes through in this poem and many other poems I’ve written.

Q: What prompted this break from writing?

A: The last couple of years have really worn down my body and brain. I have limited energy and I try to use most of it on taking good care of my mental and physical health. And when I am doing creative work I’m usually practicing working with textiles, which is new to me.

Q: How does your work with textiles relate, if at all, to your writing?

A: That’s something I hope to explore more in the future. They're both influenced by my connections to my family and my love of material objects. I have always seen my writing as a tactile process, so I think that there is a lot of opportunity to experiment with their linkages.

Q: You mention you are currently on a break from writing. Have you written much since the publication of HOUNDS? Have you noticed a shift in your writing since the publication of either of your chapbooks?

A: My first chapbook was very different from the rest of my writing because I was working with a collaborator on a very specific prompt—the process we agreed on forced me to focus in on specific ideas, feelings, images etc and took me down a different path than I’d usually take myself. My second chapbook HOUNDS was looser and more characteristic of my writing style. I wanted it to be very rambling. Since I wrote those poems I’ve become more interested in visual poetry and working with combinations of image and text. I’ve been experimenting a little but have not shared much yet. It feels like a natural continuation of the prose work I've been doing for the past few years, so I’m excited to see where that takes me.

Q: Have you any particular models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? Have you any particular authors or works in the back of your head as you write?

A: I don’t have any specific models in mind. When I was in school I read quite a bit of avant garde and visual writing, which definitely informs my conception of what poetry can be and do, but I’m trying to approach this process without any expectations so I can just see what comes out. I’m mainly inspired by things I come across in my day-to-day life—songs, tv shows, shows at galleries in my neighbourhood, etc etc. I also get a lot of inspiration from rave posters. I also read Michael DeForge’s graphic novel Heaven No Hell last year and that was really generative for me!

Q: What is it that engaging aspects of visual poetry allows or provides for your work that might not be possible otherwise?

A: I don’t know that it might not be possible otherwise, but I’d say that right now I’m feeling very image- and motion-oriented and I’m finding that experiments with visual poetry help me feel more grounded and on the earth as I move through life. I’ve been taking a lot of comfort in making and working with physical objects (eg. fabrics, candles, meals) lately and the visual writing feels at home with that desire. Primarily textual work feels a bit too cerebral for me right now—I would rather look at bright colours and cool lines. I still love to read beautiful poetry though!

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

A: Hmm, there are so many, but the ones that come to mind are Anne Carson’s red doc, Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk, Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip and The Weather, Gail Scott’s Heroine and John Thompson’s ghazals.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Touch the Donkey : thirty-third issue,

The thirty-third issue is now available, with new poems by Howie Good, Jérôme Melançon, Genevieve Kaplan, Cecilia Stuart, ryan fitzpatrick, Benjamin Niespodziany, Maw Shein Win, Margo LaPierre, Sarah Pinder and Michael Boughn.

Eight dollars (includes shipping). And don't forget our eighth anniversary subscription sale, happening all this month!
We'll be cutting our first 40 contestants right after this.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

TtD supplement #212 : five questions for David Buuck

David Buuck lives in Oakland, CA. He is the co-founder and editor of Tripwire, a journal of poetics (tripwirejournal.com), and founder of BARGE, the Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics. Recent books include The Riotous Outside (Commune Editions, 2018), Noise in the Face of (Roof Books 2016), SITE CITE CITY (Futurepoem, 2015) and An Army of Lovers, co-written with Juliana Spahr (City Lights, 2013). He teaches at Mills College, where he is the chief steward of the adjunct faculty union, and at the San Quentin Prison University Program.

His poem “Total Persuasion Architecture” appears in the thirty-second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Total Persuasion Architecture.”

A: Well this is an excerpt from a longer series of poems that continue to slowly accrue, currently in a doc titled “AfterJules” which I presume means Jules Boykoff, or more likely in conversation with Jules’ work and that of other contemporaries who work to find ways to articulate the scale work of local-global political economies and cultural politics. In this section, I was trying to find ways to signal the uncanny relations between the individual/subjective biopolitics of self-regulation and the broader global matrices of capital, finance, and infrastructure. How does one’s body attune itself to forces that seem beyond the reach of individual agency? How do the economic metrics of something like a condo’s ‘seaside view’ (e.g., the speculative real-estate that can put a price on a vista) relate to one’s everyday drinking water? I make no claims that the poem is successful in mapping out such relations, but I suppose this might be one way to conceptualize the jumping-off points for trying to language such questions.

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

A: Most of the work I’ve been doing over the last year or two has been in prose, either fiction, essay, or some hybrid of both. Verse poetry – when it ‘comes’ – remains for me a site for a certain kind of thinking in and through language, especially when a kind of highly torqued articulation of concrete and abstract relations seems to the most productive way of working through a set of concerns, be they political or aesthetic or – most likely – both. Form as an extension of content is an old canard, but if ‘content’ can mean something more than ‘subject matter’ but rather a set of pressing questions in need of agitation, disruption, unpredictable swerves of inquiry, etc, then following thought and counter-thought through poetic practice tends to be the formal approach (for me) best suited for certain concerns that cannot be contained and ordered by conventional prose genres.

Q: I’m curious about your work in the hybrid: how do you distinguish between genres, and how do you decide when such arbitrary boundaries require crossing?

A: It’s pretty intuitive though often dictated by the project/animating questions that push themselves into form in the doing. I’m not super invested in genre though at times if I’m writing something more like a ‘story’ I will be thinking about narrativity, the sentence and paragraph, the time of writing/reading, etc – more formal concerns than genre, I suppose; whereas in verse other questions arise which can dictate various choices/directions. I guess I mostly let the writing/content/interrogations dictate the formal approach/process of unfolding, even if at times I will work within compositional constraints (such as sentences-only, stanza length, etc) if they propel the work forward into places I can’t anticipate.

Q: At what point do you allow the hybrid to develop naturally? Do you begin with a sentence, a phrase or a sense of shape? Have there been poems, for example, that have evolved into hybrids?

A: Yes, often I will begin with a phrase or ‘sense of shape’ as you put it – a loose sense of form or occasionally method/concept/constraint within which to explore — but then generally the compositional ‘logic’ (rhythm? propulsion? line of inquiry?) pulls me further into whatever form the work seems to require. Occasionally I may struggle with a sentence that I want to see as poetry (i.e. chopped into linebreaks to slow down reading/comprehension and attend to its sound-parts) and in at least one case have used a sentence in both a prose work and then in a separate poem (and then again in a different prose-context, as a language-memory that emerges out of a different narrative-genre context). But generally the ‘project’ will dictate the form. At the end of the day, really, there are works that ‘insist’ on being poems but otherwise I tend towards more cross-genre prose constructions these days. The ‘poetry’ tends to arise out of certain moments (protests/riots, the temporal contractions of online-mediated life, etc) in which the speed/disruptions/disjunctions of socialized language and its particular musics seem to require more fragmented, intuitive articulations and rhythms.

Q: Where do you see this particular thread of your work headed? What is it you feel your writing is working towards?

A: Not sure yet. I have a number of prose projects in the works, but will no doubt always turn to verse when certain questions or formal concerns seem to demand. I feel (hope!) that I’m more open to new and different directions in my work (vs using the same moves and habits to each new piece) to the point where I can’t really predict how the work might develop, which (I hope) is a good thing!

Friday, March 18, 2022

TtD supplement #211 : seven questions for Emily Brandt

Emily Brandt is the author of FALSEHOOD, as well as three poetry chapbooks: Sleeptalk Or Not At All, ManWorld and Behind Teeth. Her poems have appeared in many journals including BOMB, LitHub, The Recluse, and Washington Square Review, and anthologies including Inheriting the War and Brooklyn Poets Anthology. Her essays appear in Weird Sister and are forthcoming in Electric Gurlesque. Emily is a co-founding editor of No, Dear, curator of the LINEAGE reading series at Wendy’s Subway, and an Instructional Coach at The Boerum Hill School for International Studies in Brooklyn. She’s of Sicilian, Polish and Ukrainian descent.

Her poems “drinking from boredom, a toast to the dead” and “Nothing here today that doesn’t exist yesterday” appear in the thirty-second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “drinking from boredom, a toast to the dead” and “Nothing here today that doesn’t exist yesterday.”

A: These two poems are part of a 30 poem series written daily during a month of meditation on Stein’s essay: “Composition As Explanation.” So each poem is, in part, a quotidian reflection on whatever I was doing that day. And in part, a reflection of an embodied process of integrating Stein’s ideas – which to me feel both impenetrable and wildly intuitive.

The first poem of that series (a series which retains the present tense) is “Nothing here today that doesn’t exist yesterday” – a pretty direct correlative to Stein’s essay. On that day, I had a conversation with a young person who told me that I taught him what it means to be a man. This was interesting and sweet to hear, and something I can’t actually take any credit for. But it did reinforce for me a sense both of connection (in the present to this young person, and across time back to Stein) and of ambiguity/simultaneity – a lack of connection to any set interpretation. So in part, what this kid said might be true (we’d had some cool and deep conversations), and in part, it’s not – only he can be credited with his own learning, as we are all offered a constant stream of infinite stimuli and only attend to so many minutiae.

On the day I wrote “drinking from boredom, a toast to the dead” I was, well, drinking from boredom - and fell down a rabbit hole of wondering what happened to cocktail glasses, which used to be commonly seen. So the poem’s a nod to how there is not difference in how life is across time, but in “the way life is conducted.” Here I am, drinking the same drink as ten or twenty years prior, from a different shaped glass. As if shape matters. And it doesn’t.

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

A: Well, the last few months I haven’t been making poems. I’ve been focused on creating a video about people’s sleep and waking rituals, with support from the video art collective Temp Files.

Q: What prompted this shift from poems to video production?

A: I love making photographs, and though I have less experience with video, I find it really exciting. So I’m thrilled to be back for my second year with the collective. I wouldn't exactly call it a shift from poetry to video art. It’s more pragmatic – we’re on a tight production schedule with Temp Files, and my video goes live in early March. So everything else got put on pause. During Covid, it’s been particularly supportive to work with a true collective – since there has been so much less in-person engagement with poetry communities, this video collective has been a real gift. I think ultimately I approach making a video the same way I approach making poems. But with a lot more equipment.

Q: What do you mean when you say you approach both forms in the same way?

A: I tend to start from an intuitive, meditative space and collect a lot. Then I look for patterns and attend to language to find an intentional and intelligent shape for the piece.

Q: Are these poems part of any larger grouping or thinking? Have you done much writing since the poems included in your full-length collection, FALSEHOOD, for example?

A: Yes! This series is one of three sections in a new manuscript, one which reckons with the ghosts of place. That’s been the bulk of my writing since FALSEHOOD – though I’ve also written some random things and have been dipping in and out of a sonnet series I’ve been working on for a decade now. I’m looking forward to taking some time this spring to write without a particular project in mind and see where that takes me.

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

A: That’s maybe a better question for my readers! I can say that for a long while, I felt like I was vacillating between very formal hyper-revised constructions and very intuitive/associative constructions that I was reluctant to revise at all. Now, in my work I feel confident in balancing intuition and precise intention. I’ve done a lot of poem revision and visual art-making in the last two years, and have only drafted five, maybe seven, new poems since the pandemic began. I’m ready to dive back in to writing this late-winter/early-spring, so more on this soon.

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

A: I recently loved and felt energized by Jennifer Nelson’s Harm Eden, Ted Dodson’s An Orange, and Jordan Abel’s Nishga. I return often to Muriel Rukeyser and William Butler Yeats, because I can’t not, and I read the Tao Te Ching over and over again endlessly.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Touch the Donkey : eighth anniversary sale,

To celebrate the eighth anniversary of the quarterly Touch the Donkey [a small poetry journal] this April: anyone who subscribes (or resubscribes) anytime between now and the end of April 2022 has the bonus option of three (3) items: three Touch the Donkey back issues of your choice, OR three above/ground press (2021 or 2022) titles of your choice (while supplies last) OR any combination thereof.

Issue #33 of Touch the Donkey [a small poetry journal] lands on April 15, 2022.


2021-2022 above/ground press titles include chapbooks by: Rob Manery, Lillian Nećakov, Amanda Earl, Karl Jirgens, df parizeau, Wanda Praamsma, Lydia Unsworth, Michael Schuffler, rob mclennan, Natalie Simpson, Nate Logan, Stan Rogal, Sean Braune and Émilie Dionne, Urië V-J, Sarah Rosenthal, Andy Weaver, Simon Brown, Mayan Godmaire, Phil Hall, Kevin Varrone, Susan Rukeyser, Barry McKinnon, Benjamin Niespodziany, Ken Norris, Terri Witek and Amaranth Borsuk, George Bowering, Franklin Bruno, Gary Barwin, Emily Izsak, Jen Tynes, Valerie Witte, Robert Hogg, Ken Sparling, Jessi MacEachern, Nathan Alexander Moore, Katie Naughton, Summer Brenner, Monica Mody, Kōan Anne Brink, Gregory Betts, Michael Sikkema, M.A.C. Farrant, Jamie Townsend, Conor Mc Donnell, Adam Thomlison, Alyssa Bridgman, James Lindsay, David Miller, Amish Trivedi, Ava Hofmann, JoAnna Novak, Sandra Moussempès (trans. Eléna Rivera), Helen Hajnoczky, Edward Smallfield, Valerie Coulton, James Hawes, Anik See, David Dowker, Shelly Harder, Alexander Joseph, Joseph Mosconi, Brenda Iijima, Al Kratz, Saeed Tavanaee Marvi (trans. Khashayar Mohammadi), Jason Christie, katie o'brien, N.W. Lea and Andrew Brenza.

Canadian subscriptions $35 for five issues / American subscriptions $40 / International subscriptions $50 / All prices in Canadian dollars /

To order, e-transfer or PayPal at at rob_mclennan (at) hotmail.com or the PayPal button at www.robmclennan.blogspot.com or www.touchthedonkey.blogspot.com


Issues are also available as part of the above/ground press annual subscription.

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