Monday, July 15, 2019

Touch the Donkey : twenty-second issue,

The twenty-second issue is now available, with new poems by Julia Drescher, Biswamit Dwibedy, Aja Couchois Duncan, José Felipe Alvergue, Roxanna Bennett, Conyer Clayton and Emily Izsak.

Eight dollars (includes shipping). You haven’t found me work in 12 years.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

TtD supplement #137 : seven questions for Michael Cavuto

Michael Cavuto is a poet living in Queens. His first book, Country Poems, will be published in early 2020 with Knife Fork Books in Toronto. With Dale Smith & Hoa Nguyen, he edits the Slow Poetry in America Newsletter.

His poem “PYRE II” appears in the twenty-first issue of Touch the Donkey. His poem “PYRE III” is scheduled to appear in the twenty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “PYRE II” and “PYRE III.”

Pyre III is a poem that does and does not yet exist. When I started writing the Pyre poems two years ago, it was in the space of a very important poet’s passing, and I was taken up with the poem’s particular capacity for remembering – so in that way, the first Pyre poem was a kind of elegy. In writing through an experience of poetic memory, I engage with a distinct kind of time unique to poetry.

In the poem there is a different time, but it does not come into confrontation with lived experience as contrary to ordinary time. Rather, the poem enfolds time & the past and passing are held in its moment. Change becomes the poem’s capacity for remembering.

Since beginning to write these Pyre poems, I’ve given them over to what seems to me to be a kind of reverent patience. In finding memory to be the force of these poems, I’ve come to understand their movement as an ellipsis, as something that stretches out from absence in the shape of return.

So, perhaps to be more direct, since beginning to write these Pyre poems, I have returned to them each year, one year after the previous poem was written, to experience the poem again as a remembrance, and to record a new memory as I find it there, written only from elements in the original poem. Pyre III will be written in March, and I’m sure that I’ll find these poems quite changed from a year ago, from two years ago.

I began these poems as one would stacking rocks for the dead, and I return to them each year to witness their change.

& now I’m thinking of this as a kind of completeness that poetic memory offers to lived experience
& earlier tonight I heard Will Alexander read and he said the poem must exist in total reality, &
then following him, Cecilia Vicuña :
                                                                          & now we’re aware that everything is going away

The Pyre poems are a record of loss held, of total change as presence. These stones stacked for the dead cling to life as it goes on living.

now I think of Paul Metcalf, in Genoa, of ancient signs of passing time:
and there was Sargasso weed, rumored to trap ships as in a web … detritus, perhaps, of Atlantis …

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


All of my poems exist in sequences, so compositionally the Pyre poems (which will comprise Pyre I ¬– X) relate to the other poems I’ve been writing for the past five or so years. This way poems are always imperfect and incomplete, moving outside of the boundaries of a single poem and in larger resonance with other perceptions. But the Pyre poems are exaggerated across time, tracing the contours of memory as they push out on present experience.

In these poems, too, I continue what I’ve found essential in my writing, to take in no obscured way other poets as my guides, and to follow this hearing as the attentive force of the poem.

Q: What is it about the sequence that appeals? What do you feel you can accomplish through a structure that might not be possible otherwise?


Writing in sequences acts as a detour around some of the more ordinary limitations of the poem – such as completeness. It’s a matter of finding and mixing sources as a way of locating myself, which sequences seem to do inherently through their constellating of many instances at once. Like daily life, sequences are made of fragmentary and divergent gleanings.

The sequence is an alchemical process of accumulation insofar as reading and writing across the poems is transformational. Poems, words, and images change as they come into relation with each other, and new vocabularies emerge. In this way, the structure of the sequence is always in flux. Sequences seem to ask the very question of poetic movement, of the utterance in a continued state of extension and refiguration, insisting on silent boundaries as porous thresholds. 

Q: What influences have brought you to the ways in which you approach writing? What writers and/or works have changed the way you think of your work?

A: Far and beyond, in an incommensurable, entirely incommunicable way, Dale Smith and Hoa Nguyen have been my most important guides, as well as two friends I love deeply and whose works and lives as poets I couldn’t be more committed to. When I moved to Toronto at 20, JenMarie Macdonald told me to get in touch with them. We connected quickly over shared admirations: Baraka, Niedecker, Whalen, Bernadette Mayer – our shared interests in community-making through poetry. At a certain point, I was going for near-weekly dinners at their house in the Danforth, and we’d stay up late talking poetry, music, gossip. Our Slow Poetry in American Newsletter came out of those conversations.

At the same time, Hoa began to influence an important shift in my thinking away from any idea of lineage and to thinking in constellations of writers and artists, of configurations of influences, chance echoes, and engagements in constant motion…. Guides shift in purpose and proximity given the needed attentions of a particular moment. These constellations are a kind of trans-historical community in poetry.

The people who hold the most important places in my life as a poet have been those writers and artists with whom I’ve developed relationships grounded in generative, creative and excessive forms of friendship and affection: the poets Hamish Ballantyne and Tessa Bolsover, Fan Wu, Julian Butterfield, Alex MacKay, Marion Bell (whose book Austerity is an vital gift to the world), the actual angel, Alex Kulick. Poet-turned-gambler, great magic-grifter Iris Liu. It’s really nice to say the names of friends. I think Bill Berkson said I write poems so I can say things to my friends, or I hope he said that.

Q: With a first trade collection forthcoming in 2020, how do you feel your work has developed?

Where do you see your work headed?

A: Most of the development in my work has been a patient finding, an attunement to right hearing of the poems as they have to be, which is full of imperfection and fragmentation. As a very young poet, I tried more than anything to avoid at all costs any semblance of narrative, and through my first book, Country Poems, I’ve come to realize that telling stories is at the forefront of all of my poetry. Of course, narrative and stories aren’t the same thing, but it’s been a surprise. Country Poems, I hope, begins in some nebulous proximity to the lyric and unravels over uncertain ground into forms of attention and articulation much less discernable. Lyrically, I’ve made my task to decenter the self in relation to the utterance, to locate in the poem a nexus of converging voices and images, receptions and articulations. Most importantly, in beginning to learn the scope of a book of poems, I’ve gotten closer to the transformative force within poetic experience: a distinct vocabulary emerging in echoes and refractions across a group – or in the case of Country Poems, many groups – of poems.

I’m working now on a sequence of poems that tell the tall tale of HB, a shadow of the doomed figure Hamish Ballantyne whose demise is told in a ballad that opens Country Poems. So, in some non-linear way, this new sequence, The Comings of HB, precedes Country Poems. Poems, as far as I can tell, take place in a multitude of nows quite different from our ordinary experience of lived time, so I’m learning about how poems interact temporally, and how to hold these spheres of time in nearness to each other. I think of the title to Joanne Kyger’s collected poems often, About Now. Every poem in that book is happening right now.

I’m thinking a lot about collaboration as an important form of decentering.

Q: What do you mean by “decentering”? How do you see that emerging through the process of collaboration?

A: Thinking about the poem as a nexus of convergences and divergences, as an experience in itself. I’m interested in decentering the self within the poem: finding the self to be only one – and not necessarily the primary – element within the work. Stein comes to mind, but I don’t think this a directly Steinian idea. Duncan’s notion of derivation is important, of a sensitivity to voices and histories that weigh on present lived experience. Kyger talks about the poem as a record of the particularities of a life. If my poems take those stakes seriously, and I hope they do, then they do this through a kind of active locating of the self among many forces that are not necessarily identical, or even clearly in relation, to the self. Decentering as I think of it moves away from expression in the older sense – through literary projection, through stories & images & histories, through secrets & obscurities, it’s a way of searching for entirely new forms of the self that leave behind any essential idea of individuality. It makes me think about the sequence again, and of course, the constellation. Today Tessa said the crystalline, which is exactly it.

I don’t want to theorize it much beyond that, because it’s happening and unfolding in the poems, and I feel there’s a lot of work ahead. But, yes, collaboration, again as a form of community – the very gesture of collective creativity. In this new group of poems, The Comings of HB, which really is a work of dubiously authored songs, there’s an idea for there to be texts from other writers among the poems, texts that only deepen and amplify the questions around this figure, HB, which really are questions posed through poems that try to push on the edges of storytelling. 

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

A: Among the many writers I’ve invoked already, there are so many others that I hold dear to my work: Stacy Szymaszek, M. NourbeSe Philip, John Wieners, Susan Howe, Nate Mackey, HD, Spicer, Paul Blackburn & Ed Sanders, Lucia Berlin. Cesare Pavese. Huidobro, Alejandra Pizarnik, Bolaño… Lezama. Dickinson. These poets take in the world and are taken in by it, so it’s endless…

Mostly, in the intimacy of returning, I read my friends.

Thanks so much for this conversation, rob.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

TtD supplement #136 : eight questions for Michael Sikkema

Michael Sikkema is the author of 4 full length collections of poetry, around a dozen chapbooks or collaborative chapbooks, and can be found most often in West Michigan, migrating northernly in the summer.

His poem “Eleven Possibilities” appears in the twenty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Eleven Possibilities.”

A: “Eleven Possibilities” is one section of a longer work that I wrote while I was thinking a lot about performance / fluxus / the interconnect of poetry and theater and the like. I was hoping to create something more for the stage than the page alone. I wanted a piece that would work if performed by several voices or just one. I wanted a piece that could be performed by someone who never met me, and could even be continued by someone else without me. It’s an open form that can be stretched and pulled and shaped to fit other people’s purposes. I wanted a piece that could have a separate life on its own, rather than being seen as a window into my soul or something. I wrote “Eleven Possibilities” and the larger text while composing a book called Bug Out Bag, which explores the imagination and art as a form of survival mechanism, much more necessary than “escapism.”

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

A: This piece fits into the Bug Out Bag manuscript because there are other pieces that explore and create an intersection between poetry and performance and multiple voices. It’s pretty far afield though from the newest stuff I’m working on, which is more of an opera-novel-thing (in verse and vispo and a cartoon-prose-poem and a kind of silent play and more to be determined by the muse at a later date).

Q: You seem to work on multiple projects simultaneously. Is this the way you’ve always worked? How does one project fit against another, and how do you keep track?

A: When I was first writing poems, I wrote just one poem at a time and they were mostly about a page long and I thought of them as closed off from one another. As I wrote more and stretched out into longer projects, like long poems, lyric sequences, prose poem sequences, chapbooks, etc, my idea of what a poem was started to change and grow. Finally *poetry* became what I wrote and the single poem was just one shape that could take. I almost never write stand-alone poems now because I feel like poems want to talk to other poems and form larger more complex nervous systems. Sometimes what appears as a stand-alone turns out to have been a stalking-horse for some longer thing that happens later.

For the last decade at least, I’ve worked on multiple projects at a time. Sometimes they end up folding into each other completely. Sometimes one takes shape faster and another gets tabled until the first one is done. Sometimes one never grows legs and doesn’t go anywhere and just chills in the notebook. I write as automatically as possible and then listen to the work, to figure out where it goes later. I compose in notebooks, on oversized paper, on notecards and almost never on a laptop, but when I start to type stuff up, it’s usually clear which project a piece wants to be with. I also end up cutting a lot of writing that doesn’t fit anywhere. Sometimes I go back to that and realize it is something all on its own or maybe a few pieces of it want to be sent out to journals or something.

Q: You make it sound as though your projects evolve rather organically. Do you see your work as a series of interconnected threads, or have you begun to see your writing practice as something larger and possibly singular?

A: I’m convinced that poetry happens all the time/poetry is all time and space and we occasionally visit it at the well, or create portals that let it through. I think of it as a living thing, one huge all encompassing thing that we experience in little bits and strings. I work to stay open to it and get out of the way so the work of poetry can happen. A reader might trace some thread through separate pieces or see an obsession on loop, and that’s great. I see a big nervous system sending messages back and forth through itself. I think books talk to each other just like poems do. I love doing a deep read on a poet or fiction writer and checking out many of their books to see what kind of an animal they make together. I’m much less interested in charting a linear beginning-to-end track of what rhetorical strategies they used or what they were obsessed with though.

Q: What influences brought you to this particular point in your work? What writers or writing sit in the back of your head as you write?

A: Lately I find myself thinking about

Kenneth Patchen / Ruth Krauss / Richard Brautigan

Alice Notley / Bernadette Mayer / Harryette Mullen

Emmett Williams / Alison Knowles / Reggie Watts 

Gary Barwin / Lucinda Sherlock / Steven Wright

Sometimes the names on the list would be totally different.

Q: With four full-length poetry titles and a dozen or so chapbooks published to date, how do you feel your writing has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Yay! Now, as of last week, it’s five full lengths. I think my writing has taken on more issues, grappled with a bigger worldview, gone deeper into the imagination, and became fully invested in organic form. I think I’m going deeper into speculative poetry that steals elements from other wonderful and sometimes trashy genres. I’m doing more vispo work and thinking about doing more collages. I’d love to collaborate with someone on a graphic novel. Working on an artist book or two sounds really challenging and fun. I would LOVE to find about 2-4 other people who wanted to write stuff for multiple voices that we could perform and have others perform too. I'd like to experiment with looping pedals and sound effects and compose audio chapbooks too.

Q: I’m curious about your collaborative work, as well as your exploration into vispo. What do you feel these explorations allow that might not have been possible otherwise?

A: Collaborations allow the collaborators access to a third mind, a new form of thinking and being. Not everyone can make a collab work with everyone else. When it works, there is a lot of mirroring, experimenting, way-finding, voice-throwing, and finally a sort of third mind that both people are occupying and writing into being. It can be like learning a new language and discovering all the unspoken assumptions that hide under common phrases. It’s a constant state of discovery and navigation.

Vispo is important because I think it cuts straight to our meaning making minds and short circuits a lot of our schooling, both the public institutional kind but also the corporate marketing kind, and can be really intimate. I work with young kids and end up thinking a lot about sight words and the immediate experience and reaction that those words cause. Vispo works similarly sometimes but not in a comfortable recognize-and-move-along fashion. Often it's much more arresting and invites you to spend time with it. It demands that we rethink what reading is.

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

A: I don’t look for poetic inspiration in works of poetry for the most part. I read rabidly and love it and there are books that work as fuel for the fire, but I don’t usually look to a book of poems if my own writing is lacking. I’ll read fairy tales, myths, folktales, legends, sci fi, horror, or articles about the supernatural/aliens/cryptids/surveillance technology/etc on the internet. I’ll stroll through the oversized art aisles in the library. I’ll watch nature documentaries. I’ll watch trash cinema. I’ll do bibliomancy, erasures, exercises, word games. Tynes and I have a library of probably about a thousand books and I return to those often. I reread C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining once a year or so. I reread Barwin’s Moon Baboon Canoe at least once a year. I reread Tender Buttons pretty often. I reread Mullen’s Muse and Drudge. I reread Patchen’s picture-poems. I reread Descent of Allette once a year. I know I’ll be rereading Jen Bervin's Silk Poems once a year. I adore Micrograms by Jorge Carrera Andrade and reread it a couple times a year.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

TtD supplement #135 : seven questions for Bronwen Tate

Bronwen Tate is an assistant professor of Creative Writing and Literature at Marlboro College, a tiny radically egalitarian educational utopia usually buried in snow in southern Vermont. She is the author of seven poetry chapbooks, including Vesper Vigil (above/ground, 2016). Her poems and essays have appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature, 1111, Denver Quarterly, LIT, TYPO, and elsewhere.

Her poems “REPRODUCTIONS OF FRESCOS,” “I COULD NOT ASK OTHER FLOWERS” and “CIRCUMSTANCES LEGIBLE BEHIND THIS WINDOW” appear in the twenty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.


A: These three poems are part of a manuscript I’ve been working and reworking for years that I’ve recently started calling The Silk the Moths Ignore. The book has three different formal modes of writing in it: prose versets like these three in Touch the Donkey, little five-line poems with rhyme or slant rhyme inspired by Lorine Niedecker, and sonnets. These three poems grew out of a constraint-based practice where I read Proust in French (which I speak fairly well but not perfectly), looked for words that were at least semi-opaque to me, and then used a combination of my contextual guesses and dictionary definitions of these words to generate language and sparks of juxtaposition for poems. I was interested in what might emerge when I started from material (specific words) rather than an idea or feeling. Over time, however, many sentences, phrases, images were cut. And I wrote into what was left with feelings and ideas and pain. But these poems developed a kind of tonal range or force field from that source work that I think they’ve kept.

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

A: These poems are grappling with sound and language as a material, while also trying to participate in the world of actual people and experiences. This is something I’m continuing to explore in new work. I teach creative writing across genres, so I’m constantly working with students on memoir and fiction, as well as poetry. This means that I’m always thinking about the different goals and trade-offs that happen across genre, and it pushes me to really consider what I want to prioritize or emphasize in my work. At the moment, I’m working on some poems that are deeply sound-driven and some other poems that are animated more by documenting details and events and juxtaposing them in search of insight.

Q: I’m curious about your explorations into sound. What originally prompted this, and what are you discovering?

A: I think poetry has always been about sound on some level for me, ever since I first memorized Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” for the pleasure of being able to recite it to myself when I was 8 or 9 years old. Whenever I write poetry, there’s some element of writing by ear, of repeating words or phrases back to myself and sounding my way to the next sentence or line. Sound connects to the body, to the sense that we know things in our bodies and can feel them before we fully articulate them.

Recently, I’ve been reading Gregory Orr’s A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry with a couple of tutorial students, and he discusses poetry in terms of making space for disorder and chaos and then acting on it with “the ordering powers of the imagination” and of form. I’m interested in how sound can be an ordering power—we give shape to poems through alliteration, rhyme, and other kinds of patterning—while also being a sign of chaos or disorder. Puns, homonyms, and similar forms of sound play reveal a kind of instability or anarchy of language. I'm drawn to both the patterning and the destabilizing powers of sound.

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

A: My work as a poet has developed in conversation with my work as a scholar, a mother, and a teacher. These other forms of work often feel in competition for time with my poetry writing, but they feed it as well. Over the course of my PhD, I often worked on poems in between work on dissertation chapters in concentrated little bursts in the summer or around a concrete deadline like those of the various Dusie chapbook exchanges. Writing about Lorine Niedecker and her relationship to haiku got me writing poems in the signature five-liner form she developed from this haiku encounter (like these ones you published before). I’ve often written prose poems, and I learned something about lineation there, as well as about compression. Mothering drains me at times, but it also immerses me in the hands-on language lab of new humans learning to communicate—their strange phrasings that show the cracks in language and their joy in rhyme and word play remind me that poetry is vital and centrally human at moments when I start to think of it as a weird thing off to the side that no one cares about. And teaching is a constant reminder to listen to my own better angels. You can’t constantly urge students to commit to regular writing, trust the process, take risks, be ok with not knowing where a piece is going, look for enabling models, and so on, without internalizing some of that advice yourself.

I get frustrated sometimes because I’ve been writing poetry for a while now, but every time I sit down with a new project I feel like I’m starting all over again. Shouldn’t I know by now what a Bronwen poem does or at least how it starts? But I’m also drawn to poetry because of how open it is. I love how many different ways a poem can make meaning. I love to be surprised in my reading, and I want to be surprised in my writing. Looking forward, I want to make work that holds more, that does a better job bringing different aspects of experience together and showing how they touch each other, like Bernadette Mayer writing about Saint Augustine and chopping vegetables for soup. I want to let more in.

Q: You mention Bernadette Mayer; what other poets have helped shape the way you think about writing? What poets and works have been in your head lately, as you continue to write?

A: Yes, I recently participated in an event organized by Becca Klaver where a group of poets all wrote a collaborative homage to Mayer’s Midwinter Day (on midwinter day, naturally) that mirrored the form of the book. I also mentioned Lorine Niedecker above—she and Mayer often feel like lovely balancing impulses: mess and excess and letting it all in from Mayer and restraint and minimalism and obsessive revision from Niedecker.

Memorizing Baudelaire in French was an early enchantment as a fifteen-year-old exchange student in Switzerland. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red were important for defining possibilities early on. The poets I wrote about in my PhD dissertation—Robert Creeley, Elizabeth Bishop, and Frank Stanford, among others—have continued to linger with me, as have teachers and mentors like C.D. Wright, Forrest Gander, and Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop. I’ve recently been engaging in a sustained way with the poems of Harryette Mullen, both as a scholar, and as participant in one of Hoa Nguyen’s fantastic long-distance workshops centered around Mullen’s work. I loved Jessica Smith’s recent How to Know the Flowers and Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, and my to-read stack at the moment includes Erika Meitner, Cynthia Arrieu-King, Vanessa Angélica Villareal, and Johannes Göransson’s book of essays on translation.

Q: You mention how time spent as a scholar, mother, and teacher has fed your writing. How do you feel each have shifted the ways in which you approach your work?

A: As a scholar, I’ve learned how to really stay with something, to reread it over and over again and look at it from different angles and within a larger context. There’s a problem-solving or method-focused way this shows up in my writing—if I’m struggling with lineation, say, I assign myself focused reading of poets I see doing interesting and intentional work with line breaks, and then I sit with their work, examining its breaks and swerves.

How many ways has being a mother shifted how I approach my work? So many ways. To describe just one, I sing to my children (3.5 and almost 7) at bedtime almost every night, and I’ve recently been struck by the questions they ask about songs. The current songs on repeat-request are Gillian Welch’s “I Dream a Highway,” “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” and the kids ask things like “How can flowers learn?” or “Do ALL the soldiers go to graveyards?” or “How can the wagon be empty if it’s full of rattling bones?” Now this may just be bedtime stalling, but it’s also a reminder that the urge to notice details and interpret poetic texts is deep in us. I think sometimes we get out of the habit, or encounter this kind of interpretive work as alienating and forced in the high school classroom (the classic “did the author really mean to make the conch shell in Lord of the Flies a symbol of authority?” type question), but humans are fundamentally grapplers with language and meaning. I take heart from this reminder.

As a teacher, I’ve been lucky to work for the past two years at Marlboro College, a very small liberal arts college without typical disciplinary boundaries. We have biweekly faculty meeting as a full faculty, we can co-teach at will across fields, and we work closely with students on intensive capstone projects that almost always draw on methods and practices from across multiple disciplines. We also all eat lunch together in the dining hall, so any given day, I’m talking with colleagues and students about wolf dentition, forest gardening, how writing workshops differ from painting critiques, etc. In fact, I’ve just stepped in from the hallway where I was talking with Amer in Religious Studies and Jean in Theater about a quote from Rumi (the one where he talks about the self as a guest house and urges us to invite our difficult emotions in) and how it relates to theater and the healing of trauma. This ongoing dialogue pushes me to question my own assumptions about teaching and about writing. It also keeps me curious, which I see as a necessary condition for writing.

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

A: Many of the writers I’ve already mentioned are ones I read to reenergize my work. I deeply appreciate books that give a kind of permission or direct my attention towards something that language is capable of doing, like “oh yeah, that’s possible.” I might turn to Frank O’Hara or John Donne for voice, Ross Gay for syntax and ecstasy, Wallace Stevens for lushness, Lucille Clifton for embodiment, Ada Limón for intimacy, Richard Brautigan or Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit for strangeness and nostalgia, Paul Celan for starkness, Anne Boyer or Maggie Nelson or Claudia Rankine or Kate Schapira for the poem as a site of inquiry. I also love discovering new sides of poets whose work I’m familiar with when I read them with students.

I’m a big nerd when it comes to form, grammar, syntax, etymology, and I often find essays and craft talks energizing for how they articulate the challenges of writing and how people have tackled them, or shed light on some particularity of material. Recently, I’ve been enjoying Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form, Mary Ruefle’s short talks in Madness, Rack and Honey, and James Longenbach’s How Poems Get Made. I love a good close reading or exploration of technique that gets me thinking about things differently.

When it comes to works I return to, many of these are prose as well, from novels by Dorothy Sayers or Robin McKinley that are like a comfy sweater and a cup of tea, to essays by MFK Fisher, Joan Didion, or Eula Biss that are like a bracing walk. I love spending time with Ursula K. Le Guin’s spirit and intelligence, whether in novels like The Dispossessed or in her essays. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping makes me want to underline every other sentence. Inspired by some of my colleagues at Marlboro (and by my friend Jillian Hess’s scholarship), I started keeping a commonplace book about a year and a half ago, and I’ve also found that to be a valuable practice that pushes me to select and copy some passages that are speaking to me and articulate what I’m getting from them. I’m hoping to have more time for this kind of slow reading this summer.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

TtD supplement #134 : seven questions for Trish Salah

Born in Halifax, Trish Salah is the author of the Lambda award winning, Wanting in Arabic, and of Lyric Sexology Vol. 1, and co-editor of a special issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly on Trans* Cultural Production. In 2018 she was a finalist for the Dayne Ogilvie prize. She has a story in the science fiction and fantasy anthology, Meanwhile, Elsewhere and poetry in recent issues of Anomaly, Cordite Poetry Review, Prism International and Supplement. She is associate professor of Gender Studies at Queen’s University.

Her poem “Sliding past” appears in the twenty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Sliding past.”

A: “Sliding past” comes out of a feeling of being haunted. They say the unconscious knows neither time nor contradiction, and the poem’s mood is made of several different moments impinging upon one another, or emerging through one another. I think that is what the poem is interested in, the ways in which different temporalities manifest in/as any given present. So there is desire, palimpsest, conflict and contradiction—no contradiction, a bit of all that. It is not a new problem, wondering about how representations of time manifest for consciousness, how much an individual subject can hold, what drops away, what gets written over, etc.

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

A: I have two different manuscripts that I’m working on. The manuscript this will be a part of, and Lyric Sexology Vol 2. For LS Vol 2 I’m reworking the ways in which changing sex, or gender, moving or being in between, have been represented. Lyric Sexology Vol 1 was poetic investigation of archives of sexual minority representation, particularly of the more wildly exotic and often toxic figures and rhetorics of those archives. LS Vol 2 is mainly what I’ve been working of for the two years or so, and it has continued that work focusing upon fantasies of place based (and so cultured, racialized) same sex desires and sex/gender crossing identities, i.e. “exotic” other sexes and sexualities, beyond.... So “Sliding Past” isn’t that. The question about time and memory in “Sliding Past” is also about desire and its capacities, and I seem to be working on a sequence or series thinking about that.

Q: So is Vol 2 a completion of the Lyric Sexology project, or another volume in something more ongoing?

A: Vol 2 is the second part of the Lyric Sexology project, and likely the completion of it, for now at least.

Q: What is it about that? project that prompted a second part? Did you always see it as a multiple-book project? When I became aware of the first volume, for example, I didn’t know if this suggested the first of multiple, or if you were being playful.

A: The archives Lyric Sexology plays in produced figures of sexual otherness that are vast and varied. So it is not about completion. However, within those archives, there are different problematics that stand out.  In particular the second book revisits writing that imagined sexuality and gendered behaviour to be strongly place based, driven by geography and climate. So there is a particular way of writing, about sex and race, that had its roots in imperial travel, the movements of amateur folklorists and sexologists, colonial adjuncts and tourists...and I wanted to give a book to thinking about that.

Q: I’m curious as to why you decided to work this kind of archival study through poetry, over, say, a more traditional essay format or any other kind of critical prose. Was it a conscious choice, or did the form of the project evolve more naturally? And what do you think working such a project via the poem allows that might not be possible otherwise?

A: Before I decided to rewrite these archives with poetry I was working on a dissertation and I sometimes describe Lyric Sexology Vol 1 as the b-side of that work. That said, some poems interested in this kind of inquiry did show up in my first book, Wanting in Arabic, which was finished before I wrote the dissertation. The second volume of Lyric Sexology takes inspiration from Western sexologies of the so-called “Orient” and in that way it has roots in both of my first two poetry collections.

Q: Given this current project is concurrent to Lyric Sexology Vol 2, how do the two manuscripts relate to each other, and how are you able to keep them separate? Does the current manuscript have the sense of being post-Lyric Sexology, once that other project is complete?

A: Great question. This poem, “Sliding Past” belongs to a project that has been evolving along side the Lyric Sexology books. For a while I was calling it Solidarities, and thinking it would mainly be poems of, well, solidarity, that performed the action of being in solidarity, and poems that were about how one makes political commitments. Now I’m thinking Solidarities, maybe? because the more I work these poems about solidarity, the more I see that they are also about complicity and desire and phantasy and other questionable, less certain things.

In terms of keeping the manuscripts separate, it is not an issue most of the time. I do know what I’m writing and can see if it is in dialogue with other pieces that also clearly belong in the same book. And the Lyric Sexology Vol 2 poems are mostly written out of/about four different sites, Toronto, Dawson, Beirut and the moon. However there are occasional exceptions, poems which could equally belong in either book. Then it is a more difficult call.

Q: How did you first began working on book-length poetry projects, over, say, crafting individual, stand-alone project? How did you get from starting to think about writing to working on the book as your unit of composition?

A: I don’t know that I work with the book as a unit. I mean, for a long time, you’re just writing poems, and seeing what they say to one another happens after. But I will say that at a certain point in my writing poems with 19th and early 20th sexological source material, I knew they not only belonged to one another, but also needed other poems to be written, poems that engaged with ethnography, autobiography and later discourses on transgender. Some of which I was writing anyway and already. So I saw in the relationship between these poems, written and unwritten, the outline of a possible book. Then I was invited to submit my manuscript to Roof, and it needed to be finished, to have some coherence...I wrote a lot that year, got rid of a lot too, but in the end I knew that the book would necessarily be incomplete, would need to be continued. And so Vol 1 and Vol 2.

Regarding, Solidarities, maybe I would say that the taking shape of the manuscript is a little different. I’ve been writing all this work, for years, that is NOT Lyric Sexology, and that begs the question, what is it? Does it have its own coherence, its own set of interrelations? And I’ll be honest, I’ve wondered whether these poems that I’m gathering under that title, whether they are one or two things themselves, or possibly more. For now, though, I’m leaning towards their interconnectedness.

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

A: Oh, so many. I suppose, among my contemporaries I could say especially Ching-In Chen, Sina Queyras, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Margaret Christakos, Dawn Lundy Martin, Nathanaël, kari edwards...and more broadly, Phyllis Webb, Gregory Scofield, Agha Shahid Ali, Edmond Jabès, Dionne Brand, Paul Celan, Etel Adnan, Mahmoud Darwish, Erin Mouré, Édouard Glissant.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

TtD supplement #133 : seven questions for Hailey Higdon

Hailey Higdon is the author of the poetry collection, Hard Some, available from Spuyten Duyvil Press. Her recent chapbooks include A Wild Permanence (Dancing Girl, 2018) and Rural (Drop Leaf, 2017). She currently lives in Seattle. Find her online at haileyhaileyhailey.com.

Her poems “Upstream,” “Wake Up We Send Trouble to Each Other” and “I’ve Been Told There’s a Roller Coaster” appear in the twenty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Upstream,” “Wake Up We Send Trouble to Each Other” and “I’ve Been Told There’s a Roller Coaster.”

A: Both “Upstream” and “I’ve Been Told There’s a Roller Coaster” were exercises in automatic writing. “Upstream” was the offshoot of a journal entry written on a trip to Hawaii. It sort of pairs with another poem I wrote at the same time while sitting at a café in Pāhoa a few months before the volcano erupted. I watched a man take up an entire table, not order anything and loudly talk to the busy waitress about another waitress who was wasn’t working that day.

“I’ve Been Told There’s a Roller Coaster” was written before bed one night. It’s basically my way of processing samsara. There is this dog that yaps all night in our neighbors yard. I started thinking about how long life is, how much we repeat the same things that make us unsatisfied, and how it erodes the parts of us that are abundant and confident and hopeful and good. I think this is related to consumerism—compulsive consumerism that pushes people away from dreaming big or feeling big outside of the goal of stuff. I know I carry this narrow fatalism around. I count on the people I love to remind me it is there and to remind me of the glimmering margins outside of that space.

“Wake Up We Send Trouble To Each Other” is a poem I have difficulty describing in language outside of itself. I can tell you what I am thinking about now, if that helps. I’m considering the narrowness that grips and bottlenecks our relationship to our interior life, our loves and our community. Someone flushes up next to us and tries to make a connection, and how many times do we miss it? We are so uncomfortable as integrated beings, and it’s not exactly our fault. It’s terribly hard to see both the hard parts about the world (and ourselves) and also see the good parts and the so-so parts. More often than not everyone agrees to be looking at the deficit instead of the dream life. I mean that in several ways—the emotional deficit we carry, the community deficits brought on by systems—systemic racism, our broken healthcare system, legal system, work—we end up paralyzed and staring at these gaps (the trouble) instead of dreaming beyond them. And it’s self-perpetuating because that dream doesn’t even appear to exist when we are inside those broken systems—we don’t even believe we can develop the capacity to visualize it. We think the capacity to dream becomes available only when the gaps are closed. Like an agreement to dream about things later, once the system is fixed, but we can’t fix the system without the dream. And all this—this way of being in the word—it has an impact on our bodies that we carry with us and internalize in a larger multi-generational way.

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

A: Most of my newer work is the product of a very slow, seeped-in process. These poems are much more immediate.

Q: What prompted you to explore automatic writing? In your view, do the resulting poems differ from the poems composed through your “very slow, seeped-in” processes? Is there a difference?

A: Yes, they are quite different. My “very slow, seeped-in” process has led me to write longer, more personal poems. I think this difference can be felt also, when reading these pieces compared to reading some of my other work (e.g., Hard Some or Rural). Honestly, I use automatic writing to remind myself that a poem is usually always there, so long as I take the time to sit down and find it.

Q: With a half dozen or so chapbooks over the past decade, alongside a full-length collection, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I have always struggled with the problem of having too many ideas and not enough persistence. This may be why I have a lot of chapbook length things, but just one book. And why the one book is made up of lots of tiny books. As I get older, I am learning how this operates in me. How I can spin my frenetic energy inward toward one large hovering thing, instead of a million little things. Hard Some was one of those large “things.” Lately, I have been working on a series of essays—my next big hovering thing. They work for me because I can have a sort of loose thread between them, and still feel able to explore separate ideas. They hover around pregnancy, motherhood and the fertility process that accompanies assisted reproduction for queer folx. Oh yeah, and they are also all about trees.

Q: What was the process of putting together your full-length collection? I would argue that it was remarkably coherent, despite being constructed out of chapbook-length sections. What did you learn from the process of putting that collection together?

A: One thing led to another. I wrote the section “Yes & What Happens” first. After that, I couldn’t let go of the form. So I wrote another long poem in the same form (“A Wild Permanence”), then came “Breaker,” then “Children.” Though they were separate chapbook length poems, they were always a part of the same continuous thought process and they remained connected loosely in form—all written in small prose blocks.

The work followed me through a couple of years in my life where I was going through dramatic personal changes. When “Children” was done, I no longer felt tied to that form, so the book felt done too. The most important thing I learned was to wait. It took me much longer than I expected to find the right words for each poem. There was no rushing. Every bit of the book was considered slowly.

Q: What writers or works have influenced the way you write? How did you get to a point where you are writing in sequence, aka chapbook-length units?

A: Here’s what I know: I was and am heavily influenced by my partner, the writer Tanya Holtland. Mostly, it’s the way we manage to build writing into our lives that determines the forms that are available. She also writes very slowly and carefully, and after we met I started to see that way of writing as more valuable than I had in the past.

While writing Hard Some I was reading Will Alexander’s Compression and Purity. I can see his imprint strongly there. I love getting lost in his cosmos. I was also reading Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, Ngugi’s Globalectics, Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, and Eckhart Tolle. I was spending a lot of time with my friend, the former-Seattle poet Maged Zaher, and I know his language trickled into the book. Other influences that come to mind in my writing life—Juliana Spahr, Maggie Nelson, Frank O’Hara, Joanne Kyger, and Hannah Weiner.

Mostly the chapbook length forms come from my inner sense of time, and how much material I decide one poem can hold within a certain time frame. I’m not sure there was a journey to get to that place. It’s just what happened.

Q: Finally, and perhaps you’ve already answered this, but who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: This list hasn’t changed much over the years—Lorenzo Thomas’ Dracula, Joanne Kyger’s Collected Poems, Aime Cesaire’s Collected Poems, John Cage’s Silence, Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation and This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, anything by Vonnegut. And my friends. I read my friends when I’m stuck.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

TtD supplement #132 : seven questions for Emilia Nielsen

Emilia Nielsen’s debut book, Surge Narrows (Leaf Press, 2013), was a finalist for the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Body Work, her second book of poetry, was published by Signature Editions in spring 2018. She is also the author of the scholarly text, Disrupting Breast Cancer Narratives: Stories of Rage and Repair published by University of Toronto Press in 2019. She recently joined York University’s Health & Society Program in the Department of Social Science as a tenure track Assistant Professor in Arts, Medicine and Healing.

Her suite of poems “NOXIOUS SPECIES” appears in the twenty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “NOXIOUS SPECIES.”

A: I’d like to say the primary inspiration for these poems came from a weed manual published by the Government of Alberta, the Alberta Invasive Plant Identification Guide: Prohibited Noxious and Noxious. And this is true, in part.

But these poems also came about because of finding myself newly in Edmonton, Alberta. I had spent three long summers as a fire lookout in northern Alberta years previous but for three years I actually lived year-round in the province and more importantly as part of a neighbourhood. I was spending a lot of time out walking with my very energetic puppy in Mill Creek Ravine. There, neighbours not only get together to clean up garbage each spring, they also participate in weed pulls because plant species like garlic mustard and Himalayan balsam are transforming—and some would say irrevocably changing—the natural ecosystem.

So not only was I curious about the names of these plants and how to identify them, I was implicated in their histories of migration from Europe and settlement into areas just like the one I was walking in. This history maps onto colonial settler migration and with my own ancestor’s obsession with bringing all manner of species from Europe. The best response to invasive plants seemed to be pull them out, as I did with a bunch of creeping bellflowers happily growing in my front yard. (Truth be told I missed them the next spring when only a few remaining plants bloomed, exactly as planned.)

So, I’m also beginning to understand that my own thinking is rather limited—no surprise!—and that we would all be best served by turning to the work of Indigenous scholars like Nicholas Reo who are rethinking how best to understand the problem so-called “invasive species” present. (I recommend listening to Reo’s interview with Rosanna Deerchild on Unreserved and reading a bit more about his work here.)  

I also happened to reread Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris and was captivated all over again by the speakers of those poems. And the acerbic voice of “Witchgrass” especially.

Then there was hateful anti-immigration rhetoric—and actions—coming from the President of the United States, which was in the news and on the radio in constant rotation and was as vile then, a year and a half ago, as it is now.

Somehow all of this bubbled up and into the voices of these plants, these noxious species. (Or at least I think it did!)

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

A: These poems seem pretty different from the other types of work I’ve been doing lately.

I’m just surfacing after going deep into a bunch of university-situated grant writing, and in the biggest proposal directed to SSHRC, I’ve proposed a “research-creation” project that aims to explore illness memoir—through reading, writing and talking—but to do so through more experimental or genre-bending means. I had to really think through what it might mean to employ autofiction (or even autotheory) in trying to get at something that is personal but so quickly can become a bit boring to me unless I’m engaged with some play on the page or play in the mind or play in conversation. I’m not that interested in recounting “the facts.” (And I’m pretty sure only some people are interested in reading work like that.)

In terms of other poetry projects, if I think in terms of book-length works and the kind of poetics that motivated my previous books, Surge Narrows and Body Work, it’s beginning to feel like I start fresh each time I approach a new writing project. This is not something I planned to do. But I’m beginning to understand that it does keep things interesting. It’s like I’ve given myself permission to become a different poet each time I start a new book. I’m not sure that others would agree but that’s what it feels like to me!

Q: You reference thinking in terms of book-length works: how did you get to the point of thinking as the book as your unit of composition? What do you think influenced your evolution to the book over, say, the individual poem?

A: I’m curious about that too because it seems undeniable that I do now think in terms of a much longer unit of composition. On the one hand, I think struggling to put together my first manuscript of poems forever changed my thinking in terms of both the deliberate organization and the culling required. But I also think that reading key books at impressionable times like Lisa Robertson’s The Weather or Maggie Nelson’s Bluets encouraged me to think of how a book can be a sustained exploration of a concept or atmosphere. This probably speaks more to the fact that I enjoy books where all the parts intrinsically belong, even if the inner logic might not be immediately apparent.

Q: When you speak of sustained exploration, do you think in terms of a thesis or argument that your book-length works explore, or more of a pulling apart of an idea, to see from multiple perspectives? What do you see your poems attempting to do?

A: That is such an important distinction! I’d like to think I’m doing more pulling apart than argument-making. In my thinking a “sustained exploration” is actually an open ended and exploratory process. For all my bluster about loving books that have a delicious sort of inner logic that does not mean they must be tidy. Too much tidying up seems to produce writing that can feel a bit restrictive (even didactic.) Generally, I’m disinterested in being told what to think or feel. So, I guess my poems do attempt to present multiple takes on a given situation or reality and to follow that line of thinking until I run out of steam.

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

A: Maybe it is a bit more nuanced? I’m not sure, exactly. Maybe I’m just less committed to certainty.

I do know that throughout the process of writing Body Work I was very interested in playing with form and content. And if an idea took hold, I was keen to pursue it for as long as I could sustain the writing.

So, I’m not sure exactly where my work is headed. I guess I hope not to repeat myself, even though I’m fully aware that each of us has a few preoccupations that we will likely return to time and again. And I take some comfort in that.

Q: You’ve already mentioned Louise Glück, but have there been any other authors or specific works in your head as you’ve been working this particular manuscript?

A: Anne Carson’s Short Talks. First published in 1992—I probably read it ten years after that—it was recently re-released by Brick Books and now includes a gorgeous introduction “Glass, Slag: Short Talk on Anne Carson’s Hewn Flows” by Margaret Christakos which helped me better situate so much of what I first found so arresting. As Christakos says, “Short Talks does not frontally expose the aroused scruff of any one self; it is a book of indirect addresses from a chorus of individual voices gesturing personae” (p. 16). The brevity, and originality, of those prose poems. Those speakers, those voices.

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

A: To re-energize—and to challenge—my own work I read Dionne Brand, Sylvia Legris, Sina Queyras, Lisa Robertson, Rita Wong, and others. (Currently, I’m looking forward to Janet Roger’s Totem Poles and Railroads and Cecily Nicholson’s Wayside Sang.) In addition to those already mentioned, I can’t help but return to Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. And H.D.’s Sea Garden. Also, Brand’s No Language Is Neutral.