Monday, February 26, 2024

TtD supplement #257 : seven questions for Terri Witek

Terri Witek is the author of 8 previous full-length books of poems and many chapbooks: the most recent, Something’s Missing in This Museum, was published by Anhinga Press in 2023, with another, DOWN WATER STREET, imminent from above/ground press. Exit Island was a Florida Book Award medalist; The Rape Kit was the Slope Editions Prize 2018 winner, judged by Dawn Lundy Martin. Martin calls The Rape Kit “a grand success, the best we’ll get. Fresh, relevant, and heartbreaking” and “a fire in the throat of a culture that has no appropriate language for rape and its aftermath…”

Witek’s visual poetics work is featured in JUDITH: Women Making Visual Poetry (2021), and in the WAAVe Global Gallery of Women’s Asemic Writing and Visual Poetry (2021) as well as in arts venues. The poet’s collaborations with Brazilian visual artist Cyriaco Lopes (cyriacolopes.com) have, since 2005, been shown nationally and internationally: in New York, Seoul, Miami, Lisbon, Valencia (Spain) and Rio de Janeiro. The duo have been represented by The Liminal gallery in Valencia: their most recent collaboration was featured at ARCO, Madrid (2023) where the Liminal won special jury mention. Since 2011, collaborations with new media artist Matt Roberts (mattroberts.com) often use augmented reality technology and have been featured in Matanza (Colombia), Lisbon, Glasgow, Vancouver, and Miami. Recent collaborative work with poet Amaranth Borsuk loops the pandemic and the eco-crisis as a crisis of rain and smoke between worlds; that with weaver Paula Damm combines text/textile. Individual and collaborative work has been featured in a wide variety of text venues, including Fence, The Colorado Review, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, American Poetry Review, Poetry, Slate, Hudson Review, Lana Turner, The New Republic, and many other journals and anthologies.  

With Cyriaco Lopes, Witek team-teaches Poetry in the Expanded Field in Stetson University’s low-residency MFA of the Americas; they also run The Fernando Pessoa Game as faculty in the summer Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon. Witek holds the university’s Sullivan Chair in Creative Writing and is the recipient of both the McInery Award and the John Hague Award for teaching. terriwitek.com

Her poems “Foot Sons,” “Cash Sons,” “Package Sons,” “Insider Suns” and “Wreck Sons” appear in the fortieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Foot Sons,” “Cash Sons,” “Package Sons,” “Insider Suns” and “Wreck Sons.”

A: First of all, thanks for bringing these “double son” poems into space and air, rob!  You are really a nexus of interesting people and poems, and I’m happy to have somehow found my way into your company.   

Anyone from a big Catholic family like mine knows about multiples—the clothes handed through years of siblings, the matched sets, the confusion with names.  As a parent of two very cute small girls (and older kids too), I’m sure you too marvel at how by pairing —as with any ‘rhyme’—you are seduced by similarity into the pleasure of proliferating differences: how could these two things have sprung from the same dna—of language or people?

In my case, putting dead son and live son into the same poems lets a pair remix in perhaps the way my own children’s DNA stays in my body. In my book BODY SWITCH one dead boy (the suicide) is stiff and hieratic: I needed a more fun dead sib to liven things up. That one critiques various wars on boys. But here by bringing the live son and dead son into parity—at the beach, in a taxi, etc. they both can be on the move—they get to talk, to disagree, to slant their eyes at me in similar fashion. It was a relief and a great pleasure to write these poems. I am happy to be the one in the back seat digging in a purse for the right change.

And technically, of course, multiples offer a way to make motion when you have as little narrative skill as I have. That we all stay on the move (even if dead, even in disaster) offers a brief equity, too.

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

A: Thanks for asking this. I have been sorting the double sons into a larger universe and while I started off thinking the kids would stay together, now I’m weaving three different kinds of poems into the mix. One group steps down into tombs as I did last summer with visual artist Cyriaco Lopes in Etruscan Italy (especially Tarquinia): those poems are tiny. Little skinny steps. The third group are 14-liners about the future, spurred by a student’s anguished question. Weirdly these different modes seem to tolerate glancing against/touching noses with each other so far—now I call them all tomb pombs.

But really that's just one thing. Cyriaco and I are longterm collaborators and we are currently making little text-image combos to drop into the ad section of my local weekly newspaper—we’re sending each other 5 images then adding /altering each other’s images with text. Amaranth Borsuk and I are just starting to try a video collab that stands next to our dystopian ms W / \ SH, which you were kind to include part of in your chap series. And Cyriaco and I have 2 new little vids, one made with Urayoán Noel at our winter MFA residency—we hardly slept!

I’d have to have a bigger cloud for an eye to say exactly what all these have to do with the double sons, but my sense is that like these dear friends, the double sons somehow work as collaborators too.  

Q: What first brought you to working these collaborations? And what do you find possible with collaborative work that might not have been possible otherwise? How do you see your collaborative efforts, as well, affecting your solo work?

A: When I was 4 and my family had just moved into a new house, a boy (also 4!) showed up at the door and asked my mom if the little girl inside could come out and play. His dad was a roofer, and we walked down an alley to a huge pile of sand.  Eventually a garage door opened to rolls of tarpaper/stacks of shingles. All much taller than we were.  I was like “what IS this stuff?” That’s one of the joys of collaboration—weird materialities beckon. Plus the combo of intimacy and practicality that’s often the best part of any relationship. Plus miracles, as when I met Cyriaco in Central Florida for the first time and confessed (very hesistantly) to writing about Ariadne and he said—I’VE JUST BEEN TO HER HOUSE. He was still tan from Knossos!  

I’m from a small school in a small town and hanging out with the arts people is definitely my mo. When Katie Baczeski said ‘interact with an animal/not a domestic one’ I ended up thinking about eggs and Clarice Lispector. Not at all on my daily planner. Videoing chickens eating a line from Clarice in seed corn (egg, you are perfect) was such a joy, and the solo book that followed, THE RATTLE EGG, let me turn my lone hometown strolls into something else. I’m forever grateful.

Because Cyriaco and I team-teach in the MFA of the Americas, which we helped found, make gallery shows and interactive work that lives in floating locales, we’ve had some wonderful times. When our gallerist Pablo Vindel, featured our work with another duplo at ARCO in Madrid last year it was surreal (did the king and queen really stop by?) But smaller moments really show how collabs weave into/make lives and are just as terrific: here’s a shot from a new thing we call WOVEN. We were considering doing something else in this black box theater at Atlantic Center for the Arts but then one hand in my studio/closet hit ribbon...

Q: I’m fascinated by the way you utilize writing as but one element of larger projects, incorporating textiles, movement, collaboration. You make it all sound natural and easy, but have there been directions you’ve wished to go with materials that haven’t quite worked yet? What are those material boundaries that have, as yet, you’ve been hitting against?

A: hahaha. Well, I haven’t been able to work the margins for DOWN WATER STREET, my next project with you: literally the end words I need are threatening to fall off the side of the known world!  But this is the sort of thing I never work out alone, thank goodness. Mark Strand once said in a workshop that style is a matter of our limitations: that’s been a comfort as well as an actual accurate description. Materially, my skillset is very limited—don’t draw, not good at sewing, don’t cook etc. So if it's bad I just quit—like the time for some reason I brought turmeric in a bowl to what turned out to be a computer-based project (Breathe the Machine). Usually I wander around looking at things until something occurs to me from what the world is handing out that day. I inherited all the slides from the art dept, for example—just didn’t feel right to consign them to a dumpster. Had no idea what to do with them until I was walking around outside and began lifting one overhead. Those slidesky social media drops were lockdown gifts. Do things resist my getting close? Probably, if I thought that way—but I am not interested in mastery of stuff—more like I like noting their different beings. Meantime, it seems pertinent I run up against actually being lost quite often: last month, on my own street, which was something. So I guess I really don’t know the direction I want to go!  

Q: So perhaps this question is moot, then: with more than a dozen books and chapbooks to your credit, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work heading?

A: Oh not moot! I feel the wind at my back and so much ambition! I do think I’m getting closer to what seemed the next move when I started writing “about” art ekphrastically: that I need to get into the paint somehow. Currently that means I’m trying to make powerpoint poetics that seem their own thing, for instance (not explanatory/not decorative). Usually I’m figuring out something as an art form because it’s so there—like seeing marks for water lines on my street. I’ve really been wondering about different forms of mark-making, too; the false doors painted into Etruscan tombs that look like TT. Not sure if these thoughts have an afterlife. But I do feel as if some new work is ahead, like a shadow the sun will shift soon (I hope!) and make.
Community-wise, I’d like to keep growing into poetry’s expanded field with people who know different things and are happy to throw in together and not worry too much about definitions. My students definitely are great tosser-outers and includers—very bracing! And I’ve had great examples from different spaces—shout out to the visual poetics people who picked me up somehow—Dona Mayoora, Amanda Earl, Kristine Snodgrass, Andrew Brenza, Joakim Norling, Francisco Aprile, Nicola Winborn and all who presented irresistible opportunities even though I’m never quite in the same room. My expanded field MFA poetry faculty colleagues like Jena Osman, Ronaldo Wilson, La Tasha N Nevada Diggs, Laura Mullen, Urayoán Noel and Vidhu Aggarwal (and guests like Amaranth Borsuk, Erica Baum, Tracie Morris, Johnny Damm, Brenda Hillman, Edgar Heap of Birds) all commit firmly to the messy future. I hope to be smart and kind like them and stay face forward.   

Personally, I’d love to be included in more installations—installing is so fascinating—and exhibitions, especially international ones. I loved writing in pencil on a gallery wall. I’d love a publication homebase too.  I know where I’m penciled in to be as a person this year but where my work is actually headed “we shall see,” as mom used to say with half-threat, half-relish. I got married at 19 and had 3 kids by 25, so from that point on my life has pretty much been a matter of necessity+chance and walking through painted doors. I had fun making titles for my new future poems, though:

The Future Won't Calm Us
The Future Makes a Little Money
The Future Will Not Be a Known Language
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: I’m going to take reading as seeing too, as I tangle them. I always open Lispector and Perec and Pessoa and Dickinson (also Howe’s GORGEOUS NOTHINGS showing how what Dickinson wrote on changes everything). Yoko Ono and NH Pritchard. I loved Auden early and that remains. A wooden postcard by Jenny Holzer and paper ones by Ian Hamilton Finlay—these are propped or pinned around. Things people in my family wrote out as children: I CAN BAKE PANCAKES or a crooked list of paint sample hues (Golden Plumeria, Bee Yellow, Icy Lemonade). The sampler my many times great-grandmother sewed without a Q in 1839.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

TtD supplement #256 : seven questions for Michael Harman

Michael Harman lives in Toronto, where he works as a plumbing apprentice and dedicated writer. Beginning with the discovery of modern poets like Stein, Williams, Zukofsky, Harman’s poetry developed alongside a small group of writers, under the tutelage of Michael Boughn & Victor Coleman. His writing in its present state seeks to marry the alliterative flamboyance of Middle English poetry with the innovations of Oulipian, Found, and other constrained methods of composition. His work has been published in Echolocation, Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, COUGH, and Touch the Donkey. His first chapbook, Brittlestars (2016), was published by Shuffaloff/Eternal Network, and subsequent full-length projects arrived as FIRE (2018, Press Press Press), and Pearl (2020, Spuyten Duyvil). His most recent book is Plumbing Techniques, which will be published in 2024 by Spuyten Duyvil Press.

An excerpt of his “Plumbing Techniques” appears in the fortieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Plumbing Techniques.”

A: Plumbing Techniques is my most recent book of poetry. It documents in dramatic fashion my time in trade school, and uses a form of found text writing where each poem is limited to the vocabulary of 1-4 pages from a source text: most often Thoreau’s Walden. I was reading it when I began school, and its sermons resonated with my own reasoning for trying a trade – (he often proposes something like, if you’re a ‘book’ person, you should probably set down the Iliad and go hoe some beans, ... and vice versa).

I chose Plumbing because it is by far the best word of the different trades. And “plumbing techniques”, the name of the program I entered, was a natural name for the book I wanted to write.

The first poem was an emphatic response to my Nana asking why I wanted (would want) to be a plumber. From there I wrote out the excitement and fear of my first semester in this new world. I tried in my adventures to play the parts of both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, at times unabashedly grandiose, and at others deeply humbled, subdued. I praised things that I thought deserved immense praise, and playfully teased what I felt needed teasing.

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

A: The Serial poems (larger projects) I’ve written have a special feeling to them, and the writing that happens there is markedly different. Usually for me it starts with finding a new method or interaction with the line that becomes in itself the kind of “subject” of the poems. Gestating between these special periods, I try to read more, and write as a means of keeping the muscle warm, often toying around with Oulipian and other constrained forms. Lately I’ve made some playful poems out of novel instances at my job; (I had fun detailing the carnage of my first sewage ejector pit). But overall I’ve never really connected with occasional poems, and only seem to do my best when I have the momentum of a serial propelling me. I think this is reflective of the poets I admire, and have learned from.

As far as comparing Plumbing Techniques to the other books I’ve completed – they relate in the general way that they’ve all used a specific method unique to each, and they’ve all been projects of transformation.

Q: The binary of the serial/occasional poem sits very much in the Jack Spicer vein; what first brought you to the serial poem, and what do you feel is possible through the form that wouldn’t be otherwise?

A: As far as where I got the serial from: when I was 19 I met Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman, at a time when the bpNichol writers group was humming and producing a lot of really interesting poetry. The older writers there shaped my poetics.

Part of the induction was, of course, giving me the writers I love; Spicer was big for me early on, bpNichol, Ginsberg and Williams – and most of what pulsed around the Black Mountain and Berkley circles. Later it was Duncan, Stein, Jack Clarke, HD, Zukofsky, Marianne Moore, Whitman ... I don’t want to get too off track – but most of these poets wrote in a serial way; or, at least, each poem was part of a greater opus. The poets I was around drew from all these writers, and combined their sounds with emergent formal innovations. So “serial poetry” is what I grew up around as a writer.

The second part of the question ... I can try to give a provisional answer, but I sense lingering the very difficult question of “what is poetry”, which only poetry can properly answer.

Something that jumps to my mind is the idea of a poet as someone who sort of waits around for a bolt of inspiration (a special occasion) to hit them; the poet as someone who takes comprehensible feelings and ideas (that could be relayed in conventional speech) and spins them into unnecessarily complicated, fanciful abstractions. It's the erroneousness of the simile that Williams addresses in Spring and All; or Spicer hits with his enigmatic “Not for their Significance. For their Significant”; or Clarke, “I have created the creative.” In short, poetry is not second hand, secondary, or representational. And that, I guess, is, at its worst, what I take the occasional poem to be: aftermath and lifeless.

I guess then the serial is, for me, poetry’s proper form. It takes poetry as a Life’s work. – that’s a spiritual answer. Maybe historically speaking it’s the evolution of the narrative poem.

Q: I’ve long been fascinated by that group that Coleman and Boughn led. How did you get involved, and who else was around for those sessions?

A: I was in Mike’s class at UfT and showed an interest in poetry, though I didn’t really read much, and only wrote teenager-y poems. He was kind enough to bring me in one evening. At first what I heard read there was alien and mesmerizing. I wanted to be a part of it more than anything, so I started reading and writing poetry fervently. I dropped out of school the next year to delve into my new vocation.

There were lots of great people and artists there, some of whom I’m still in touch with – but in terms of the poetry – it was Brad Shubat, Emily Izsak, Oliver Cusimano, David Peter Clarke (and Mike and Vic, of course) whose poems I was in the most immediate contact with, and who I tried most to emulate.

Q: With a couple of chapbook and book-length publications under your belt, as well as your current work-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: It’s taken a long time, but at this point I feel like I have my own tuning and sound; and being able, in my projects, to sink into that sound feels about as good and truthful as anything. One noteworthy change since my early twenties is that I don’t feel I try any longer to be philosophical as a poet (though many of my idols are). I notice also, especially in Plumbing Techniques, that drama and silliness are a big part of my natural voice. I could go into things that have changed aesthetically, but in short I’ve just gotten better.

My reading of poetry keeps going backwards in time, so while I always return to my 20th Century roots, I’ve been really fascinated with ME poetry, and would like to write something longer than what I’ve done before. But generally, going forward, I just want to write the most beautiful thing that I can, and keep growing as a person.

Q: You mention a handful of contemporaries from the bpNichol writers group: are there any other contemporaries that have influenced the ways in which you think about writing, or approach your own work?

A: As far as contemporary poets go, I really haven’t encountered anything locally or popularly that compares to the writers I mentioned. And, as naive as it may sound, I'm not sure I will.

As far as influences, my favourite books always feel contemporary in a romantic way, and close friends who bring out your best voice are invaluable. Then there are people whose poetry comes in another form: comedians, musicians, athletes. I’m happy to take what they do analogically. Most recently, I watched my plumbing mentor dismantle an old radiator valve. That influenced how I think about writing.

Q: Perhaps, then, this question is moot, but who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Off the top of my head: H.D.’s Trilogy, Moby Dick, Shakespeare, Jack Clarke’s In the Analogy, Duncan’s After the War, (recently) Marianne Moore’s The Fish, Mina Loy’s Song for Joannes, lots of Ivan Illich, and anyone and everyone I mentioned above. And Ralph Waldo Emerson, always.
It’s not a particularly surprising list, but it’s who I love.

I do really want to mention Zukofsky’s Catullus translation. It’s immaculate, and so much fun to read.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Touch the Donkey : fortieth issue,

The fortieth issue is now available, with new poems by Ryan Eckes, Dennis Cooley, Michael Harman, Terri Witek and Laynie Browne.

Eight dollars (includes shipping). If a cow ever got the chance, he’d eat you and everyone you care about.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

TtD supplement #255 : seven questions for Alana Solin

Alana Solin is a writer and collage artist from New Jersey. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Afternoon Visitor, TAGVVERK, Dusie, Annulet, Second Factory, Tyger Quarterly, and elsewhere. You can find more of her work at alanasol.in.

Her poems “WRACKS CONCLUSIVE,” “RED,” “SUM” and “CELADON” appear in the thirty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “WRACKS CONCLUSIVE,” “RED,” “SUM” and “CELADON.”

A: I wrote “WRACKS CONCLUSIVE” following sound mainly, but it cohered into a poem about feeling isolated from the past and unable to decipher the future. “CELADON” feels similar, a speaker glassed in and immobilized, watching other objects transform. “RED” I think is about shame. “SUM” is drawn from a number of different unfinished poems, and I think the edges show in it. “WRACKS CONCLUSIVE” and “CELADON” are more or less the same as they were when I first wrote them, while I’ve tried to write “RED” and “SUM” a number of ways.

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

A: Removing line breaks allowed me freedom from the emphases that short lines impose. I could rely on rhythm to create structure and not worry about structures outside of rhythm that would require its rearrangement. I think these poems are similar to my other poems in that they are all quite short. I admire long poems and hope to get there one day, but I haven’t figured out how to sustain anything for longer than a page. When I edit, I tend to add little and remove lots.

These poems are from a period of time last year when I felt unable to write anything but prose poems, something I hadn’t tried previously. Now, once again, I can’t get away from line breaks. Prose poems are harder to escape from because they are coiled and serpentine, but the escape feels more crucial; in my prose poems I always feel like I’m probing for a way out, while my more recent poems don’t feel so concerned with that process. Maybe line breaks are gimmicks because they lead the reader so specifically, but maybe I need gimmicks or at least want them. Maybe line breaks help a poem imitate speech, and maybe I like to give that guidance. Or prose poems started to feel shuttered, and fumbling for exits started to get tiring.

Q: Do you really see such a stark difference between the prose poem and utilizing the line break? What first brought you to the prose poem?

A: I think Elizabeth Willis’s collection Meteoric Flowers led me to prose poems. I’ve seen and written them before, but that book was a turning point for me. I was inspired by the jumps in her poems, the logic she engineers, and the stateliness of the form. By stateliness I guess I mean they felt so put-together and whole. I’ve only been writing poems with enjambment lately; that’s just how they’ve come.

Q: How do poems usually begin for you? Are your poems self-contained pieces that might eventually cluster into groups, or are you deliberately attempting something more interconnected?

A: Pretty often, I construct my poems from bits cut from my other poems. If I like a line but it doesn’t work where it is, I’ll remove it and try to write a poem around it. I take a lot of notes in a lot of TextEdit documents, so I’ll go back through years of those, trying to find bits I can repurpose.

I usually don’t set out with the intention of writing a group of poems. I was writing the prose poems for a little while before it became clear to me that something about the form led to something in the voice that linked them into a series. They feel like landscapes compared to other poems of mine that feel more like gesture drawings; maybe it’s just the form tricking my eye, but they feel like they have more of a backdrop.

Q: With a handful of poems published in journals over the past while, how do you feel your work has evolved? What do you see your work heading towards?

A: My output has flagged in the past year. Sometimes I’ll go two or three months without writing a poem. That habit, which I fight with varying levels of success, makes it difficult to track my writing’s evolution because I feel like I’m always starting from scratch. I’ve just come out of a long quiet phase, and my writing recently has mirrored my older work in some ways; I’m still cutting any word that I suspect of weakness. I think my poems are still recognizably mine. But I’ve noticed that my rhythm has become almost robotic and my tone almost sullen, thanks to an emphasis on weaker syllables/sounds. At first I was put off because I felt like I’d lost dexterity, but now I’m trying to stick with this impulse and see where it brings me. I don’t know where I’m going with my writing, but I’d like to have the stamina to write longer pieces or even a book-length poem. Doing so still feels out of reach, though. I often return to old notes and diary entries when I write, trying to recycle material that hasn’t worked for me before. So while I’m sure my writing is evolving, the path I’m taking feels circular.

Q: You mention Elizabeth Willis’ Meteoric Flowers. Are there any other poets or collections you’ve read recently that have sparked your attention?

A: I’ve recently been returning this book that a student loaned me in the spring called We Lack in Equipment & Control by Jennifer H. Fortin. It’s fixed on the month of February and meets this cold temporal gridlock with steely vulnerability and dark humor. I’ve been very slowly reading Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. I think a lot of it goes right through me in terms of meaning, so I’m reading it more for the experience.

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

A: Cedar Sigo is a writer I’ll always return to; I think particularly Stranger in Town and Selected Writings. I like reading Bunny Rogers’ tumblr. Susan Howe’s Debths and now That This. And reading my friends always makes me want to write.

Monday, December 18, 2023

TtD supplement #254 : seven questions for Anselm Berrigan

Anselm Berrigan’s books of poems include Pregrets, Primitive State, Come In Alone, and others. He is the poetry editor for the Brooklyn Rail, and also hosts the Rail’s online Wednesday afternoon reading series.

His poems “*****,” “Binge Better,” “Theories of Influence,” “Poem written during a zoom meeting” and “Still Here” appear in the thirty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems ““*****,” “Binge Better,” “Theories of Influence,” “Poem written during a zoom meeting” and “Still Here.”

A: They're a strange brew to me. "Binge Better" was written on a nyc subway not too long after some time I got to spend in Kenya at a kind of roving student-based but somehow international open mic bussing from situation to situation -- and then I'm on the train heading to one of my jobs thinking about pigeons and zebras as my affinities. The other poems are a little harder to talk about, or type about -- I think because the writing of Binge Better and the present in Binge Better are overlapped in a state of active remembering as writing. The other poems aren't so conducive to me to locating as writing so exactly.

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

A: “Still Here” is maybe close to some of what I’ve been able to write lately. I was in a lot of arthritis-based pain the last few years, and was able to have a surgery done in May that helped alleviate a lot of that pain. Then I had a burst of writing – none of which I’ve typed up – that I think “Still Here” maybe made room for – treating an impulse as a lead and following it and letting things get said then leaving it alone.

Q: When you say “leave it alone,” are you suggesting not typing up those particular pieces, but allowing them to inform some of what followed?

A: Yeah. Not never typing them up, but waiting a good long while, and reading them frequently, including at readings if one arises. I’ll do some shaping around the edges when I type things up, if needed, but I seem to wait longer and longer to get to the typing. “Binge Better” is not an example of that. I wrote that one in 2017. “Still Here” was written this past February.

Q: Do your pieces usually emerge from handwritten first drafts? And what kind of distance exists between those handwritten first drafts and the eventual finished poem?

A: I write almost everything by hand. And then I wait a long time to type things up. Waiting makes me change things less. And now I believe I get it in the writing. But that’s after millions of years of fucking around with every micro-bit of space and sound.

Q: With a small mound of published titles over the years, including your current works-in-progress, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A. On some level I’m just glad to get to write at all – I wrote a ton in 2020 during the first half-year of the pandemic, and then went blank for 2021 and most of 2022. Getting back around to very up on the surface experience and reconnection with friendship as a core has been what’s happening on one level. On another, maybe, I think I did a lot of work in the last ten years to really stretch my relationship to language – it’s resulted in books like Pregrets and Come In Alone, the former a set of slabs, very dense, and written in relation to painting and sculpture compositionally (not ekphrastically), and the latter a run of rectangles written out at the end of the page, clause by clause and totally on the outskirts of sense. That anyone reads these things amazes me sometimes, though I do aim for pleasure for readers on the sonic beat, which sometimes means people have to hear the work out loud to feel like they can get into it. I don’t mind living with that, but I am finding myself in this other kind of autobiographical space lately that feels like a dance between memory and temperament, with the present pressing the issue of being present, if that makes sense.

I've been thinking lately about this good-hearted teacher I had in 5th and 6th grades who also very cruelly abused me emotionally after my father died in the summer between those two grades. I think I really stopped trusting teachers after that, and it’s almost bizarre to me right now to know I became a teacher after all of that. I’m saying this because I think maybe I’m working up to write either out of or back into that experience or both. I had this other really disturbing experience a couple years ago, where a student ended a thesis performance by pulling out a big toy gun, finding me in the audience, and unloading it. Everyone seemed to assume I was in on this, and so mostly didn’t react other than with applause. It was the culmination of a lot failure – institutional first and foremost, but also a kind of collapse of trust in the face of the pandemic that just seemed to infect all of us in that particular program. I just this summer wrote a poem called “Fake Assasinated” that tries to get into it a little bit, though it’s a just a drop in the ocean.

Also, I had to have my right hip replaced this past May after discovering I was severely arthritic – I thought maybe I had a muscle injury that never healed properly, but once I had the diagnosis things seemed to get worse pretty fast. I feel like I had a six-month crash course on living with a disability, and doing that in a big city – walking hurt every step, and I had to rely on a cane and make it to work and so forth. Now the arthritis pain is gone, and I’m in better shape and figuring out what this ceramic hip I have has to say to me. So I’m saying all of this because I think my writing has changed in tenor since the surgery, and I’m still trying to figure that out. I can’t see that far into the future, writing-wise, and this is not meant to be a mournful preface (I am borrowing “mournful preface” from Fred Moten’s interview in his book B. Jenkins). The ongoing experience of renewal and decay is one of the lines I seem to be walking.

Q: It does sound as though you’ve experienced an enormous amount of shifts over the past few years, which can’t help but affect the tone of the writing. Do you consider yourself a different kind of writer now, or are you working similarly with a variation on approach? Or does it all come down to tone?

A: I feel freer. That may not make the work read as very different, but the whole experience of writing and making work does feel different in me. I don't have the measure of what I’m doing.

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

A: That’s a harder question to answer, for me, than maybe it should be, because I don’t ever feel like I can stay on top of reading everything I might like to be reading. That’s probably because reading is a big part of my jobs as part-time teacher and part-time editor. And then I always feel behind on those things. Plus when I don’t or do feel pressure I read real dorky things like comic book message boards, fantasy baseball chats, and plot summaries of shows I think I’d like but don’t want to take the time to watch.

I’ve read Harryette Mullen’s book-length poem “Muse & Drudge” aloud in writing classes – group readings, where everyone reads a page at a time as we go around – maybe thirty or forty times over the past twenty years, so that has to be imprinted on me. Actually just read it again yesterday with a class of poets. And Kevin Davies’ long poem “Karnal Bunt” I’ve probably read a couple dozen times, and read aloud with groups too.

In order to work through this internal agonistic space that had to do with approaching my father’s age when he died, back in 2019, I used Frank O’Hara’s poem “Joe’s Jacket” as a model for a poem I was asked to write for a performance series – we were asked to consider the word “proof” but with no particular constraints. So I decided I’d try to start by listing some things I knew to be true but couldn’t prove, and was able to get to some places and say some things. I love “Joe’s Jacket”.

But I love a lot of poems, and I think I get energy from those poems whether I’m thinking about them or not, because they’re permanently with me. There’s a poem by Hoa Nguyen that she's never put in a book that has become, like, my best secret friend. I think about individual poems that way much more often than books, which makes me wonder if we don’t have the role of books all wrong somehow. I just got to hear Dana Ward sing, with his band The Actual Fuck, live in Cincinnati, and that was completely amazing and inspiring. I am, in fact, quite capable of being inspired. And I’m sort of saving Dana’s long poem “Typing Wild Speech” to reread a little later this fall.

And all that said, I have been tremendously energized by a bunch of new books  that I’ve gotten to read in the last few years – books by Claire Hong, Charles Theonia, Courtney Bush, Chime Lama, Claire de Voogd, Kendra Sullivan, Jed Munson, Tse Hao Guang, LaTasha Diggs, Cliff Fyman, Ari Lisner, and George Albon, in particular. I’m leaving some stuff out. My old friend John Coletti has a new publication out – it’s called Attachment Simply – and it’s unbelievably great. I have a new book in the works, that will come out next year – it’s called Don’t Forget to Love Me – and it has sections, and one of those sections is called “John Coletti Imitation Racket”. So that should tell you something.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

TtD supplement #253 : seven questions for Dessa Bayrock

Dessa Bayrock lives in Ottawa with two cats, one of whom is very loud and almost always nearby. She ran post ghost press for two years and has published three chapbooks: IS IT ABOUT RUINS AND GHOSTS?, The Trick to Feeling Safe at Home, and Worry & Fuck. She recently completed a doctorate about Canadian literary awards. You can find her, or at least more about her, at dessabayrock.com, or at @dessayo on Instagram.

Her poem “Winter Poem” appears in the thirty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Winter Poem.”

A: Years ago I read a post online from a stranger that said something like I beg you to find ways of marking time that do not rely on the calendar, which link you more deeply to the natural world. It said something like notice the way the trees and flowers respond to the changing seasons. Mark the patterns of birds floating north for the summer and south for the winter. I chewed this idea over and over and to be honest I'm still chewing on it, but I've come to the conclusion that this stranger was describing a kind of personal almanac, which is an idea that really appealed to me. After all, I've always been interested in the idea of time as a palimpsest, with every year laying over the previous one. Sometimes these layers allow things to leak through; sometimes it's like jam soaking into the edges of a book, and sometimes it's more like a greased piece of paper through which I can see the shifting figures and shadows of my previous years as I overlap them.

All this to say: one of my favourite additions to my personal almanac is my habit of writing a new year's poem, which happens at a funny kind of crossroads: the year turns over, according to the calendar, but the season is hitting its stride in earnest. It's a strange little intersection where the season says I'm only just hitting my peak while the calendar says we are starting something new. It's a continuation; it's an interruption. It's an interesting time to write a poem.

As with most of my poems, many parts of this are metaphorical but also quite literal, and specifically the central image of the boots: at the beginning of the season, I broke the zipper on my heavy duty winter boots and also ripped open the side seam on my traditional autumn / early winter Blundstones. Both went to the cobbler, who lost them for months, and in the meantime I had nothing to wear on my feet. I spent the first half of the winter in three different pairs of borrowed boots, each of which failed me in their own way: I wore a hole through the bottom of the first pair, slipped around in the too-big second pair and had a dramatic fall that I think fractured something in my elbow, and the third pair fit well and stayed water-tight but had absolutely no insulation, and I froze my feet over and over again every time I stepped outside.  

Winter has never been my favourite season; I hate feeling trapped inside when the weather is bad, and I forget to eat, and every year I have at least one major slip and fall that leaves me gasping breathlessly up at the sky like a beached fish. Writing this poem was a way to write out all the ways the season was trying to trip me up, to rip me up, and all the ways I was still, nevertheless, relentlessly moving forward. And sure, it's not all good; spring means the revelation of everything that's been rotting under the snow before it means flowers. I guess I tried to write this poem in a way that felt sympathetic to winter, that tried to relate the season back in a way that winter would recognize — but also in a way that felt hopeful in a way that winter rarely does, to me. It feels a bit like a compromise, I guess — the same way that new year's seems to be a compromise between the season ramping up and the year ending.

When I wrote this poem, it felt like it had been the hardest winter of my life. And it had been — but it was a winter before Covid, and several winters in lockdown showed me how much more difficult and strange a winter season could be. All the same, in all the hard winters I've experienced since, this poem has felt a bit like a loving road map from my past self. See? She says. Spring always comes. And sooner or later the cobbler will find your boots in the back of the shop and call you to pick them up.

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

A: This poem is honestly one of my favourites from the last few years — a piece that feels pretty representative of what I try to do in my poems, and what I’ve been trying to do for a while, which is namely: unlock the universal through the specific. Sometimes, as I said above, this makes them much more literal than figurative, and I know this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea — I once got a rejection from a well-known Canadian literary mag that basically (and kindly) said: have you tried being less literal? And yeah, I have, and I don’t like it. My favourite poems have always had a clear narrative path, a reliance moreso on simile than metaphor or other abstract imagery, and take on a kind of “braided” form where a central image spins out into several different paths before coming back together at the end. I like my poems to feel conversational, and honest, and this poem accomplishes that goal in a way that I, personally, find satisfying. Which in the end is what I think poetry has to be: first and foremost for myself, and whether or not other people like it is up to them.

Q: What first drew you to this kind of conversational approach? And what do you feel might be possible through this that might not be otherwise, say, if you were “less literal”?

A: I first started thinking and working in this conversational approach because of Kayla Czaga, whose poems are likewise conversational narratives in a way. I was immediately struck – and immediately in love with – the way that she inserts the names of real people from her life into her poems, which seemed to unlock something for me. I’d read poems for ages where poets would reference someone they knew but obscure the name, in a Poem for A___ kind of way. For a long time I respected that utility, but seeing the way that Czaga ignored it or defied it broke things open for me: You don’t have to obscure or hide from the reader. I use this kind of conversational narrative approach to build intimacy, leaning into the idea of telling a story rather than building literary impressions the reader is left to interpret themselves. I think it’s important, maybe now more than ever, to show the reader that the poet is a real person on the other side of the poem. Poems aren’t just thought experiments or art created in a vacuum – they’re moments in time that have been pressed between waxed paper like flowers so they can be saved, seen from all angles, studied, remembered. And, like Czaga, I now use the real names of my friends (with permission!) when they appear in my poems. The poem wouldn’t exist without them, so why would I hide it? It feels like another way of being open with the reader and coming to them in good faith: listen, I’m telling you the truth here, as best as I can. There are other places where truth becomes foggy in poems – but there’s no need to invent places for that to happen. I think it’s stronger if it happens naturally.

Q: You mention Kayla Czaga: have you any other models for this kind of work?

A: Ada Limón comes to mind; Sabrina Benaim maybe, although she plays with space on the page much more than I do; Chloe N. Clark, although the worlds of her poems are often a little unsettling rather than the more straight-forward worlds of my poems.

Q: With three chapbooks under your belt, as well as your current works-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: My first chapbook (IS IT ABOUT RUINS AND GHOSTS?, Ghost City Press 2019) is still very dear to me, but feels very representative of my poetry when I was just starting out – like Conyer Clayton’s but the sun, and the ships, and the fish, and the waves, those poems were a way to reckon with the jungle of literal nightmares that descended every night for almost two years. When I return to these poems, I’m struck – especially given what we’ve been talking about – about my use of you in these poems -- a figure that the reader slips into, but a slippery you that refers to six or seven different people throughout the chapbook. I don’t use anyone’s name, except in the acknowledgements, which feels like a way of creating distance between me and the reader. You can't know what I’m talking about for sure, these poems tell the reader, as though to pass the confusion of my nightmares onto them. I still use you in a fair number of poems – but for quite some time now it has meant me, as though I’m writing a poem to myself. (Which, to be fair, I usually am.) So this is an interesting evolution, to me – instead of using you to create distance (I’m over here and you are over there and you don’t even know who you are), I’ve started using you to create intimacy (You, by which I mean me, by which I invite you into me, because we are the same, and here is what we are feeling).

In some ways these poems feel tentative to me, even as they feel fierce – I was pushing into new ways of writing in response to these nightmares, but also felt like challenging them on the page was giving them more power. Poems felt then to me like songs in a musical: a necessary expression of something that refused to be curtailed by mere dialogue alone. These poems say: I have something to write about and I don’t know what it is just yet. They feel a bit like dumping a tote bag on a table and saying does anyone see my keys in here? I think that’s valid, and that’s useful to some extent, but now I’m looking forward to how I might imagine poetic projects differently. I’m in the early stages of formulating a project on a theme that I can trace through others’ works and through historical records and wrestle with in different modes of writing and thinking, kind of in the vein of A Pillow Book by Suzanne Buffam, which feels like a meaningful and interesting way of levelling up my work. Poems responding to the poet’s own emotions can only go so far, I think – it’s time to find other frameworks and ideas to build into.

Q: While you do reference “songs in a musical,” I wonder about the music of your lyric, even within the first-person conversational. How aware are you, if at all, of sound and flow and music as you write?

A: Oh, yes. Very aware! I generally draft quickly, and try not to be precious about line length or flow or things like internal rhyme, but once I start editing it’s all about the flow of a piece – any story has a good flow. I read my poems out loud over and over and over again while I’m working on them, trying to make sure it sounds the way I want. I have a pretty good sense of meter, or at least I think I do, because I come from a background of sonnet-writing; sonnets were all I wrote for years and years and years, deadly formal, iambic pentameter, the whole nine yards. There’s something so beautifully insistent about the flow of a sonnet, about the math and structure of it, and while my poems now are decidedly less formal I really try to retain that sensibility of rhythm and flow. Sometimes I’ll work on a poem for ages, and it looks great on the page – but it gets stuck in my mouth when I try to read it out. So back in the box it goes until I can make it line up with my sense of what it should be.

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

A: A poem I turn to over and over and over again is the first poem in Tara-Michelle Ziniuk’s collection Whatever, Iceberg, which is called “What if love existed but you didn’t have your notification settings turned on?”. It’s basically just a series of playful questions which take on a kind of urgency as the poem progresses, as the questions become rephrased, as the meaning of the poem both develops and devolves. The last stanza goes: If a relationship happened but one party fell off the face of the earth? Was the earth love? Was falling? Was soil? Was traffic? Was a plane? Was a face? Was your face love? It was to me.

That last four-word statement is the only non-question in the poem, and I cried abruptly when I first read it, the same way your body knows to immediately physiologically shoot out exactly two tears from each eye when you get your nose pierced. Although TMZ writes a more abstract narrative in this poem than I would, there’s something so beautifully shifting about its colours and impressions. And then that last line – whew. Like watching dancers whirling across a stage and suddenly, beautifully all stop in the same moment. Finally you can see the image – but also the image has disappeared, because the true image was its motion. I think this poem is exactly like that. I think a lot of good art is like that.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

TtD supplement #252 : seven questions for Andy Weaver

Andy Weaver’s fourth book of poetry, The Loom, is forthcoming from the University of Calgary Press. Recent publications are the chapbooks So/I (above/ground; longlisted for the 2022 Nelson Ball Prize) and Ligament/Ligature (Model Press). He teaches creative writing, contemporary poetry, and poetics at York University.

His poems “Still,” “Earworms and Eye Rhymes” and “The Language of Obsolescence” appear in the thirty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Still,” “Earworms and Eye Rhymes” and “The Language of Obsolescence.”

A: These three poems come from my forthcoming book, The Loom (U of Calgary Press), which is comprised of three long poems about becoming a father and raising two sons. These poems are from the third poem, “The Bridge,” which is written to/about my youngest son. Like many of the parts of the poems, these pieces meditate on the interrelationship of language and experience in relation to love, parenting, and identity.

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

A: I’ve been working over the last 7-8 years to reconnect more to lyric poetry. Starting out back in the 1990s, I was trained almost exclusively in lyric poetry. Then grad school exploded my understanding of poetry and I became really interested in experimental poetry. Over the years since, my work had moved away from lyric to a pretty abstract investigation of language and other abstractions—my third book, This, went pretty far in this direction. I’ve been working to move back closer to the lyric. At the same time, I’m not very comfortable with writing lyric poetry, and I find that discomfort interesting and productive. So these poems are part of my recent attempt to be more lyrical but without trusting all that much in the lyric I.

Q: What is it about writing lyric that makes you uncomfortable? And if you are uncomfortable, why not simply move into another direction entirely?

A: Lyric poetry doesn’t have to foreground the I, and it doesn’t have to be a veiled discussion of the writer’s personality/opinion—but I think it still often does both. I tend to like poetry that foregrounds ideas and investigation over emotions and certainty, and I generally think that the world has had enough of white straight men writing about the life of being a straight white man. So, the challenge of writing about the experience of becoming a parent was, for me, about trying to write something that was generalized and intellectualized but not completely abstract or cold. At first, the project wasn’t going to be lyric at all, but the poems were too dry and emotionless, so the lyric provided an access point back to emotion and actuality that the poems needed—but I have been trying to make sure that the poems don’t give in to emotion or personal actuality too much.

Q: Do you have any models for the kind of work you’re attempting?

A: When I first started the project, my guiding principle was trying to write something that combined John Ashbery and Robert Duncan—Ashbery’s refusal to really discuss anything directly with Duncan’s political interest and open use of his life (Duncan is my favourite poet, but I tend to like his politics and wordplay—his mysticism can go too far for me). The last few years, I’ve been reading a lot of Ann Lauterbach and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and I like how they write what I think of as meditative poems that never really say what they are meditating on. I think they manage to do that more deftly than I can—for better or worse, I find that I need to have some central idea or concern or experience to function as a kind of central spoke that structures the piece. For these poems, it’s parenting, love, and language.

Q: When I was first thinking overtly of composing parenting poems, I drew on work by poets such as Margaret Christakos, Pattie McCarthy, Rachel Zucker and Farid Matuk, among others. Have you any specific models for this kind of work?

A: I’ve read Christakos, McCarthy, and Zucker, but I didn’t have specific models. Originally, I thought of the poems as meditations on a specific type of love, rather than specifically parenting poems; I still tend to think of them that way, though there ended up being a lot more specifically “parenting” moments included than I expected there would be.

Q: You present the impression that you compose poems, and poetry manuscripts, as full-length projects. How did you land at this particular approach?

A: My last few projects have been book-length in scope, yes. At first, it was a challenge I set myself, to see if I could do it (the result was my third book, This), and I liked the opportunity to keep looking at an idea or issue from multiple perspectives. The Loom presented itself because I had kids, and I was fascinated by them but also by the change to myself and to my worldview by becoming a parent. Since that book has been completed a few years ago, I've mostly gone back to smaller poems that work individually.

Q: With three published books and another forthcoming, as well as your current works-in-progress, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I'm really not that sure how I’ve progressed as a writer. I’ve definitely progressed as a reader of poetry—I read much more widely now than I did years ago, and I hope that breadth has complicated my own writing and keeps it from settling into easy patterns. I think the lyric/experimental divide that has been in my work from the start is still there. I’d like to work to at least partially bridge that divide and find a more successful middle ground that incorporates aspects of both. At the same time, I also still want to write pieces that are more firmly one or the other. I have a few longer projects that are in progress, so I hope those will continue well. For the moment, at least, I like that I don’t really know how to categorize my writing.  

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

A: In my day job, I tend to focus on Black Mountain, especially Duncan, Creeley, Olson, and Cage. Those four seem to stay evergreen to me. I also love H.D., and perhaps surprisingly, Pablo Neruda.

I like to read Dianne Seuss, Maureen N. McLane, Jordan Abel, Erin Mouré, Dionne Brand. More recently, I’ve been going back multiple times to dip in and out of Helen Hajnoczky’s Frost and Pollen and Nicole Markotic’s After Beowulf, both of which are just confusingly excellent. But when my own writing is stalled, I tend to head to philosophy and literary criticism to kickstart my brain and get it back to focusing on language and its possibilities.