Monday, March 18, 2019

TtD supplement #129 : seven questions for David Dowker

David Dowker was born in Kingston, Ontario but has lived most of his life in Toronto. He was editor of The Alterran Poetry Assemblage from 1996 to 2004 (which can be accessed at Library and Archives Canada). He published Machine Language in 2010, Virtualis: Topologies of the Unreal (with Christine Stewart) in 2013 (shortlisted for the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for poetry), and Ma nt i s in 2018.

His poems “CRASH FLOW,” “THUDDITE,” “SENTIMENTAL NECESSITY,” “PROTECTIVE INTIMACY” and “PASTORAL LOGIC” appear in the twentieth issue of Touch the Donkey.


A: The “method” used, if method it be, in these poems (except for “Crash Flow”) is to make use of, or riff on, (some of) the language from the “source” poem(s) to create something new. The result is a derivative, in the mathematical (and poetic) sense, of the original. I suppose one might say that an accidental dialogue of sorts occurs, but I’m not sure that would be entirely accurate (or particularly useful). Then again . . .

So . . . “Thuddite” was derived from “Let My Voice Thud Throughout the Land” (and “Vulgar Marxism”) by Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, and “Sentimental Necessity” from a mash-up of “Sentimental Intervention” and “Historical Necessity,” also by Dorothy Trujillo Lusk. Early versions of these poems were written for a “Pestschrift” (organized by Aaron Vidaver).

“Protective Intimacy” is derived from “the love that is truly a refuge for all living beings” from “Protective Immediacy” by Rod Smith. As I recall, the title came from a misprint somewhere.

Finally, “Pastoral Logic” is derived from “I drove through this old world this afternoon” by Clark Coolidge, and has, I think, a slightly different relation to its “source.”

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

A: Not at all really. Another somewhat related example of this method is “n-chant(s)” (which was published on-line in The Alterran Poetry Assemblage, but revised since then), based upon Lissa Wolsak’s Pen-chants. It is essentially a work of erasure, though (similar to Ma nt i s). Time-Sensitive Material (which I’ve been working on since Virtualis) is something quite different.

Q: With your erasures, as well as your works in “accidental dialogue,” you appear to favour composing pieces that respond to other works. What is it about working these kinds of responses that appeals? What is it about the conversation between poems that attracts you, and what do you feel is possible through such explorations?

A: I wouldn’t say that I “favour composing pieces that respond to other works.” It’s just another approach among many. It all began with the Alterran Poetry Assemblage, I suppose, and probably reflected a desire on my part to interact with the authors that I published. The most successful example, I think, is the transformation of David Hoefer’s “Riot Trousers” into “Griot Trousers” in the second issue, but that is also quite different from the previous examples. Also, the germination of Virtualis dates from then, with Christine Stewart’s “Patience details its follies” becoming “Patience arrays its strategies” and various other examples, mostly from Taxonomy (with a bit from “The Trees of Periphery”). Ma nt i s  arose, in a sense, from the idea of  “root notes of a transient present” in Clark Coolidge’s The Maintains (and, of course, the example of Ronald Johnson’s RADI OS).

Perhaps a couple of quotations might be illuminating:

“The poet and the reader, who if he is intent in reading becomes a new poet of the poem, come to write or to read in order to participate through the work in a consciousness that moves freely in time and space and can entertain reality upon reality.” (Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book)

“The knowledge of the poem is a—psychoanalytically probably not fathomable—shared knowledge with an other; there are invisibly communicating vessels.” (Paul Celan, trans. Pierre Joris, The Meridian)

Q: You mention The Alterran Poetry Assemblage, the online journal you ran from 1996-2004. How did that journal originally begin?

A: It began as an e-mail sent out to a number of people. I can’t remember if it was sent out in installments or as one long e-mail. I soon decided that a “website” was the way to go, so I wrote the HTML (it was very much “early days”) and put it up on the World Wide Web.

All of the work was solicited (at least to begin with). The authors selected came from readings in journals such as Raddle Moon and Talisman, and a special West Coast Line issue featuring new British and Irish writing (edited by Peter Quartermain) was quite useful.

Will Alexander, Caroline Bergvall, Kevin Davies, Stephen Ellis, Allen Fisher, William Fuller, Alan Halsey, Andrew Joron, Karen Kelley, Karen Mac Cormack, Drew Milne, Geraldine Monk, Erin Moure, Bob Perelman, George Quasha, Lisa Robertson, Lisa Samuels, Leslie Scalapino, Christine Stewart, and Lissa Wolsak are some of the over 80 poets published.

Q: What do you think your time spent working on the journal allowed for your own writing? Did you see any shifts in your work during this period that Alterran Poetry Assemblage might have influenced?

A: I suppose that there was an expansion of the possibilities of collaboration, and the idea of the internet as a collective, interactive text. I had contributed to RIF/T at the Electronic Poetry Center, Inter\face, and Juxta/Electronic, as well as (pseudonymously, as required) to DIU (Descriptions of an Imaginary Universe). The Assemblage was a continuation of this activity which, overall, represented a more spontaneous approach to the work.

Q: You’ve furthered that idea of collaboration, working directly with poet Christine Stewart for some time now, such as Virtualis: Topologies of the Unreal, that appeared with BookThug in 2013. What has that experience been like? Has working with Stewart shifted, at all, the ways in which you see your solo work?

A: Working with Christine has been a joy. It has basically been a perpetual back and forth, altering texts, with almost no discussion – just winging it. There was a large gap of inactivity, and then it staggered to life again. Christine’s introduction of the Agamben quotation (from Stanzas) on “Topologies of the Unreal” seemed to crystallize the virtuality. 

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

A: Rimbaud’s Illuminations remains central. Charles Olson is always there somewhere, which means Pound as well, of course. T.S. Eliot and Rilke obstinately continue to influence, and Robert Duncan has been there (with H.D.) for a long time. John Ashbery and Robert Creeley lurk with the furniture.

Among contemporaries, the primary sources of energy would be Lissa Wolsak, Christine Stewart, Lisa Robertson, Christopher Dewdney, Nathaniel Mackey, Susan Howe, and Clark Coolidge.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Touch the Donkey : fifth anniversary sale,

To celebrate the fifth anniversary of the quarterly Touch the Donkey [a small poetry journal] this April: anyone who subscribes (or resubscribes) anytime between now and the end of April 2019 has the bonus option of three (3) items: three Touch the Donkey back issues of your choice, OR three above/ground press (2018 or 2019) titles of your choice (while supplies last) OR any combination thereof.

Issue #21 of Touch the Donkey [a small poetry journal] lands on April 15, 2019.

2018-19 above/ground press titles include chapbooks by: Chris Johnson, Conyer Clayton, Simina Banu, Frances Boyle, Hawad (trans. Jake Syersak), Susanne Dyckman, Jane Virginia Rohrer, Dennis Cooley, Ben Meyerson, Isabel Sobral Campos, Mary Kasimor, Andrew K Peterson, Natalie Lyalin, Kemeny Babineau, Michael Sikkema, Kimberly Campanello, Stephen Cain, kyle kinaschuk, Paul Perry, Gregory Betts, Billy Mavreas, Claudia Coutu Radmore, Stephanie Grey, Alice Burdick, Renée Sarojini Saklikar, Heather Sweeney, Ralph Kolewe, Franco Cortese, Evan Gray, Dale Smith, Virginia Konchan, Joshua James Collis, Laura Farina, Jennifer Stella, Monty Reid, Anthony Etherin, Sarah Mangold, Cole Swensen, MC Hyland, Jamie Townsend, Sacha Archer, Megan Kaminski, Gil McElroy, Emily Izsak, rob mclennan, Sara Renee Marshall, Mark Laliberte, Lisa Rawn, Sean Braune, Michael Martin Shea, Melissa Eleftherion, Ian Dreiblatt, Kyle Flemmer, Uxío Novoneyra (trans. Erín Moure), Stephen Brockwell, Phil Hall / Stuart Kinmond, Billy Mavreas, Stuart Ross, natalie hanna, Miguel E. Ortiz Rodríguez, Natalee Caple, Julia Polyck-O'Neill, Jason Christie, Travis Sharp, Beth Ayer, Jon Boisvert, Jenna Jarvis, Lise Downe, Allison Cardon, Lea Graham, Tim Atkins, Gregory Betts + Arnold McBay, Amanda Earl, Derek Beaulieu, Aaron Tucker, Dani Spinosa, Andrew Wessels, Marthe Reed, Kate Siklosi, Edward Smallfield, Amish Trivedi, Steve McCaffery, Gary Barwin and Tom Prime, Gary Barwin and Alice Burdick, Alice Notley, Stan Rogal, Rachel Mindell, Eleni Zisimatos, Adrienne Gruber, Andrew Cantrell, kevin martins mcpherson eckhoff and Anna Gurton-Wachter. 

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

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

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

Because everybody loves a birthday. Who doesn’t love a birthday?

Touch the Donkey. Everywhere you want to be.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

TtD supplement #128 : seven questions for Michael Boughn

Michael Boughn has published 11 books of poetry, including Iterations of the Diagonal, Dislocations in Crystal, 22 Skidoo / SubTractions, Cosmographia—a Post-Lucretian Faux Micro-Epic (short listed for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 2011), City–A Poem from the End of the World, and Hermetic Divagations—After H.D.  With Victor Coleman, he edited Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book. He is currently working on The Book of Uncertain – A Hyperbiographical User’s Manual while co-editing with Kent Johnson the rambunctious (some say rude) online poetry site, “Dispatches from the Poetry Wars” (http://dispatchespoetrywars.com/). He (the human) and Case (the Border Collie) can be found in or near Toronto hanging out in dog parks or herding sheep together.

His poem “The pragmatics of to belong as not belonging – uncertain ontological whims and communal phantasies from Chapter 4 of The Book of Uncertain – A Manual” appears in the twentieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “The pragmatics of to belong as not belonging – uncertain ontological whims and communal phantasies from Chapter 4 of The Book of Uncertain – A Hyperbiographical Users’ Manual.”

A: Well, this is really the crucial question facing us at this moment of intensifying crisis. Modernity destroyed a mode of being-together that was an intimate proximity, both to other people, to other animals, and to the divine. It wasn’t idyllic by a long shot. It was by all accounts brutish, violent, and horribly intrusive. But it was a different mode of being-together than what awaited us in the cities. Living cheek by jowl, we insulate ourselves from the people who live closest to us for privacy, where the only animals we ever encounter are domesticated pets, where our meat is purchased in cellophane wrapped packages, and where the divine, as Jean-Luc Nancy put it, no longer flutters except exsanguinate and grimacing

What’s missing is belonging in a human sense of being-together. We struggle to live among the wold vagaries of vast markets, including labour markets that force people into motion all the time. Witness what just went down in Oshawa. Society is a place of probabilities and statistically verifiable behaviours among alienated individuals determined by a set of social imaginary significations and governed by imposed norms. We are seeing the result of that process that has been going on now for some 500 years in the rise of reactionary populists like Trump and Bolsonaro who are able to exploit that deep alienation by creating a “movement” in which people experience a sense of belonging to something with others who also belong – a being-together, but one that is finally based on exclusion and violence against those who don’t belong. William Carlos Williams nailed it in that poem in Spring and All that later got called The Crowd at the Ballgame:
It is alive, venomous

it smiles grimly
its words cut—

The flashy female with her
mother, gets it— 

The Jew gets it straight— it
is deadly, terrifying—

It is the Inquisition, the

It is beauty itself
that lives

day by day in them
To belong as not belonging is to find a way to do both at the same time so that the exclusionary violence can’t find purchase in the indeterminacy.

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

A: Well, it’s really all the same work, ever since Iterations of the Diagonal back in 1995. It’s the work of finding ways to weave the complexity and mystery of beinghere in language. Think of the poem as a step transformer in a cosmos that radiates energy at an infinite number of vibratory intensities. The poem receives high-voltage information and transforms it – steps it down – into a gnosis acceptable or accessible within our finitude. Those higher voltage levels can't be processed without possibly burning out the receiver unless they are modulated. Imagine a poem that literally blows your mind, leaves the mind shattered by the sheer intensity of the energy transmission. Something like that, on a less catastrophic scale, happened to me in 1964 when I walked into an enormous lecture hall full of hundreds of students and saw on the green chalk board at the bottom of the bear pit a poem:
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
I got a blast from eternity that shook me profoundly. It wasn't the full voltage but it was intense enough to leave me struggling to come to terms with a whole new dimensional possibility of language. Things looked different. The gnosis transformed me so that the work and the initial knowledge of techné required to fulfill my obligation to poesis began to come into focus. That formation goes on through all my books addressing one necessity after another.

22 Skidoo marked a transition to a new energy level that is still significant in terms of what I'm doing now. In that initiatory book, the incoming energy included encoded instructions on how to proceed that were tied up with two facts of that moment: teaching my five-year-old daughter antique slang, and the imposition of a physical limit dictated by the number of the lines on a page in my notebook. The mystery surrounding chance and fate then become part of the procedure and resonate with that indeterminate knowledge.

Cosmographia, my very own post-Lucretian faux micro-epic, took it to a new level, channeling Lucretius to compose a cosmographical epic outside any current imagination of the possibility of poetry – pretty much limited to either the bio/psychological or the sociological – that I’m aware of.

Great Canadian Poems for the Aged addressed that incoming energy in the context of Canada as continuing composition, and the ways in which that ongoing composition, which, as far as I know is unique in the world, undoes the nationalist obsession with “identity” by continually reopening it to include more and other. The danger is that the past will evaporate completely. These poems address an imagination of Canada that I first encountered in 1966 when I crossed the border as a 20 year old refugee fleeing being forcibly impressed into the USAmerican Imperial War against Viet Nam. The questions that it proposes have to do with cultural memory and cultural composition and Canada's unique contribution to the question of national identity. Identity as non-identity. Belonging as not belonging.

The Book of Uncertain--A Hyperbiographical Users Manual is unique in that it attempts to find a relationship to the material of bios that escapes the usual psychological or sociological reductionism. Jack called me on that years ago and I have never forgotten. How do you open your sense of “the life” to those larger energies that inform us? It’s not easy to get beyond that reductionism because we are inundated with messages asserting the supreme significance and democratic virtue of our feelings which include feelings about our social identity. The whole culture is saturated in it, so it’s easily commodified and sold. A poetry of modular elements rather than intermodal excess. Meubles, Olson called it. Selling the “self”. Copyrighting it. But the question of being resonates at frequencies far beyond that meagre attention. The question is how to compose the language, how to arrange the words so that they receive that gnosis, harbour it at accessible intensities of energetic information that locate it in other ranges of significance, one of which we think of as Myth. It is always a disturbance, and its ordering of language is also always a disordering because it is finally uncontainable.

Q: You mention your work to date as all being part of a singular, extended work. How did this first emerge? Was this something deliberate on your part, or was this something you discovered along the way?

A: I just think that the work of poetry, the mode of knowing that poetry is uniquely capable of manifesting, embodying, because of its particular relationship to sounding, sound’s body, has driven my love of poetry from the beginning. All my books have been addressed to that soundingknowing. Even Iterations of the Diagonal and Dislocations in Crystal which were assembled from single poems or series of poems. With 22 Skidoo the book became the unit of composition, as I said, partly by chance, perhaps with a bit of fate thrown in.

At the time, I was primarily responsible in our family for ferrying the kids to their schools and their various activities. I spent a lot of time waiting for the piano lesson or the karate class to end. I had almost no time to sit at a desk and write. So one Saturday at a soccer lesson in the field house at the U of T Athletic Centre, I thought, why not write a book of poems centered on the old slang I was teaching my infant daughter at night before bed. Since there were 22 lines on my notebook page, I decided to do 22 poems of 22 lines each. Then I wrote down all 22 titles—yap, caboodle, golly, etc.. All I had to do then was fill in the poems wherever I was sitting waiting for the kids to come out. Thus 22 Skidoo was born. And SubTractions. It has been a very productive methodology for me, one I still follow to a large degree, even though the kids are now grown. I love titles. And I love the challenge of facing a title like “Myth, Gluten Free Pornography, and Your Health,” or “Axial Ordination: The Calculation of Sublation,” and then having to compose its poem. That’s really fun. And it’s conducive to the process of composition as steady work rather than what Jack Clarke called an irregular momentary incursion.

Q. With eleven trade collections under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: It has become more relaxed, less concerned with the cruelties of perfection, and more at home with its own stuttering forays beyond what it already knows. In that sense, I don’t see it headed anywhere. The question is where does it see me headed? My hope is that it will continue to unfold its surprises and tangled language into forms I didn’t see coming. I love being blindsided by poetry. That could be my epitaph: MB—Blindsided by Poetry. My current work, a book called The Book of Uncertain – A Hyperbiographical Users Manual, consists to 20 chapters (I have the titles!). I am just finishing up Chapters 8 & 9, which leaves 11 to go. Since I am 72 years old, finishing may take what time I have left on this plane. So I guess you could say it’s headed for the cliff like my heroes, Thelma and Louise.

Q: I’m curious about your interactions with Robert Duncan’s work. How has his writing influenced yours, if at all, and how did you and Victor Coleman end up co-editing his The H.D. Book? How did you approach editing such a hefty volume, especially as a pair?

I first came into Duncan’s work through Robin Blaser when I was a student at Simon Fraser University in 1967. Robin gave me the world, including Blake, H.D., Spicer, Williams, and Pound. And Olson. And of course Duncan. At that time Robin and Duncan were on the outs, but whatever was between them, Robin always expressed profound respect for Duncan and his work. He ends up as a Great Companion in The Holy Forest, along with Pindar and Dante. That’s impressive company. So I read with great interest and admiration The Opening of the Field and Bending the Bow. I was never moved to write like Duncan in the way I was by H.D., Williams and Spicer, but his thinking deeply influenced me. After various peregrinations, I went back to school in 1980 after a 10 year stint working in various industrial situations. I ended up in a course on contemporary poetry at UC Santa Cruz with Nathaniel Mackey who was very close to Duncan. I wrote a long essay for Nate on Eros and imagination in Duncan’s work which is when I became aware of The H.D. Book. I learned a ton doing that essay and began piecing together the scattered limbs of The H.D. Book, Duncan’s magnificent quest for a poetics through an intense, prolonged meditation on modernism.
I was supposed to edit that work after I completed my PhD. at Buffalo, but for several reasons it never happened. Later, after I moved back to Toronto in 1993, Victor Coleman and I decided to respond to the continued deferral of the publication of the book by posting a pirated edition on line. I had copies of all the little magazine publications from my stint in Buffalo. Victor, who is an excellent typist, transcribed them. We posted the book online attributed to Frontier Press, and anonymously mailed out 3.5” floppy disks to 30 or 40 poets we knew would keep spreading it around.

The original editor The H.D. Book for some reason couldn’t manage to supply an acceptable manuscript to UC Press. After three shots at it, UC took it away from him, and through a series of unexpected contingencies, eventually offered it to me. Since Vic had transcribed the whole thing, they were persuaded to include both of us as joint editors. We had photocopies of Duncan’s manuscripts with his handwritten changes. The editing was pretty uncomplicated. There was a bit of confusion at some points about which of several different manuscripts to use as copy text, but mostly Duncan had carefully indicated his intention. Vic and I spent a year reading the whole thing aloud to each other a couple of times, interpolating the various versions. Sometimes we’d go up to my cottage near Wiarton on southern Georgian Bay and spend three or four days doing that on the deck. Reading Duncan’s marvelous prose aloud in the presence of Georgian Bay . . . it was glorious.

Q: Did you see any shift in the ways in which you approached your own writing, given how deep you were delving into Duncan’s work? Did any poems emerge from this process of editing, reading and rereading?

A: More confirmation and challenge than any profound shift in approach. I have been close to Duncan’s work for a very long time so editing The H.D. Book wasn’t so much about being inspired, so to speak, as being reminded of my responsibility as a poet. What has always been significant for me is his understanding of poetry as responsible to what he calls What Is. Jack Clarke once told me if I wanted to write poetry I needed to go live in the Air Force Academy and understand what goes on there. Part pun, part metaphor, the challenge was to come into the power of a poetry that is beyond you but integral to the full complexity of the world. Knowing my history as a war resister, his point was that poetry you to move beyond the meagre limits of the self as bios rather than zoë, where bios is a recitation of the events of a life, where zoë is the time of the soul. The self as bios, he said, will only yield what he called antithetical systemic representation. I needed to fully engage with, to immerse myself in, that which I had opposed, or posed myself against. Instead of opposing it, poetry demands that you enter it and find a way to open the work to it. That’s Duncan’s challenge as well, his sense of responsibility, the ability to respond.

In these strange times, we find ourselves caught up in powerful historical currents that seem to continually tear us apart, polarize us into unresolvable warring camps. It’s a ferocious incursion of intense Typhonic energy, and the pressure is on us to hole up behind some impermeable moralist wall and duke it out with the enemy, to make identity – that unification process – the goal of poetry, and to mobilize it against antithetical identities. William Blake called that state Ulro and pictured it as a man and woman tied together back to back. Beyond that he saw two further states of being – three fold vision, Beulah, a “sexual” paradise of the visionary union of opposites in which identity gives way to what’s beyond it by embracing what it has excluded; and Jerusalem, or four fold vision, in which the full spiritual reality of all creation is apparent in every perception. Jack articulated that in terms of a poetics he called the strengthening method of world completion. That is Duncan’s assignment, as well: to never allow your poetry to lose sight of its responsibility to the forces of that larger field of What Is.

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

Good question.  I constantly read to feed my work, but it’s not so much a particular work as it is a writer. And there is no single writer I return to. It’s a bunch of them. Mostly it’s poetry and philosophy. Jean-Luc Nancy, Stanley Cavell, Isabel Stengers, Karen Barad, Giorgio Agamben, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are constants for me, stars in my internal sky. Then there are H.D., William Blake, Robert Duncan, Billie Chernicoff, Jack Spicer, Lissa Woslsak, Charles Olson, Jack Clarke, Gerrit Lansing . . . it’s hard to draw a line, actually, because picking up one thread leads to the whole poetic firmament coming in.

If you absolutely forced me to pick one from each group, I suppose it would be Emerson and Jack Clarke for exactly the opposite reasons. Emerson is the beginning of a mode of thinking that provokes and feeds into all the significant current thinking of our condition, including the Europeans via Nietzsche. The rich, multi-valenced complexity of his language and the extraordinary break he makes into what he calls the “ordinary” or “common” are openings that have yet to be fully grasped and embraced. At the other end, Jack Clarke’s work went about as far as you can go today. From Feathers to Iron remains the most significant work on poetics since Valery and takes Charles Olson’s breakthrough work further than anyone else has dared to imagine. As does his poetry which is a constant source of astonishment. I love Jack Spicer. He is a huge player in my imagination of what poetry can do. But he takes a turn with language that leads down a very dark hole that winds up with him as sacrificial victim to wild logos. Jack’s domesticity, like Emerson’s, saved him from that. He was a motherman, a nurturer, gentle but absolutely incisive. As Al Cook said, he took it as far beyond Olson as Olson took it beyond Pound. And that’s pretty much as far as we have got.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

TtD supplement #127 : seven questions for Taryn Hubbard

Taryn Hubbard’s poetry, fiction, reviews, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in journals and anthologies such as Canadian Literature, Room, The Capilano Review, Canadian Woman Studies, CV2, filling Station, Rusty Toque, Poetry is Dead, and others. She lives and writes in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, and has been a member of Room magazine’s editorial board since 2012. Her first full-length poetry collection is forthcoming in 2020.

Her poems “When You Get Lost,” “Above,” “Moon Schedule,” “In the Afternoon.” “May Be Fantasy” and “Weighted Keys” appear in the twentieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “When You Get Lost,” “Above,” “Moon Schedule,” “In the Afternoon.” “May Be Fantasy” and “Weighted Keys.”

A: These poems are from a project I’ve been working on for the past few years that explores home in the suburb—in the intersections, overlaps, and gaps between urban and rural. These are walking poems and driving poems. In growing suburbs across the country, there is a push to urbanize, to rethink this, often sprawling, space. Urban renewal is foreshadowed all over contemporary suburbs, where vacant single-family lots herald anticipation of redevelopment into something more, something better, something healthier. But before that happens, what do we make of the space as it sits today? What monuments anchor the suburb now? I’m also interested in looking at what creates visual repetitions along superblocks, which in the poems you mention are gas stations, fast food restaurants, flickering flat screen TVs, and cars. Suburbs are sometimes described generically as simply bedroom communities for commuters who work in the city, but I think they’re more than that.

Q: What prompted your interest in exploring the suburbs through poetry?

A: I started reading a lot of poetry where place was at the centre of the work—this inspired me to think about my own experiences in a suburban space through poetry as well. Plus I’ve always been interested in local history and walking around neighborhoods paying attention to text that pops up, such as billboards, handwritten posters, scrap papers, etc...these texts begin to tell a story about a place.

Q: You mention reading a lot of poetry on the subject of place: who have your models been for this kind of work?

A: So many. I’m always so inspired to write about place and memory when I read work by Roy Miki, Cecily Nicholson, Marie Annharte Baker, Jordan Scott, Juliana Sphar, Anne Fleming, Karen Solie, Sandra Ridley, Lyn Hejinian and, of course, Peter Culley, too.

Q: With a debut full-length collection forthcoming in 2020, how do you feel your work has developed? And are these poems part of that collection? Where do you see your work headed?

A: The poems here are a part of this collection. When I started writing them, I had no idea they would end up in a manuscript that I would eventually submit to publishers. I was really just thinking about where I was living at the time and how I experienced that space at present. I’d read other poets do it, so I thought I could try it too. I submitted these poems to literary journals and occasionally one would publish something, and this was a small light of encouragement. Then, I started thinking backwards. I wanted to reflect on where and how I grew up. So my manuscript looks at the suburb in transition with poems exploring suburban spaces as a woman, through the places I have lived throughout my life, and the streets I have walked, driven, and explored. These poems are very personal and draw on growing up in a family of labourers on a street where my neighbours took the form of a bar, a casino, and a bowling alley. Through this, themes of work, luck, family, and nature are explored in different ways in this collection.

As for my writing now, since becoming a parent earlier in 2018, I’ve been incorporating a lot of my thinking on this life change into my poetry. I’ve also been writing a lot more fiction. I’m on mat leave right now so whenever my baby naps, I try to get as much writing in as I can. I think I’ve become much more disciplined at utilizing these short 45 to 60 minute spurts. For me, it’s about getting words down in any which way and worrying about what I will do with them later through the editing process.

Q: Has the shift of attention and energy, given your newborn, altered the structure of your poems at all, or have your poems shifted purely in terms of content? I think of William Carlos Williams scribbling in between patients on his prescription pad, or Margaret Christakos engaging deeper with the fragment.

A: What a great question. Now that I think about it, yes, the structures of these newer poems have changed. I’m writing more in fragments or in prose-style chunks than I have before. Once I get to editing this could change, but for now I’m all about getting it down. Writing for me is a reflective process.

Q: Now that you’ve a full-length book forthcoming, are you noticing a difference in the ways in which you approach how your more recent work interacts? Are you more conscious of how poems might fit in with each other, or are you (with newborn) not thinking about that yet?

A: I think I’m more aware of how my writing fits together than before. With my new project I am interesting in exploring as much about the topic as I can. This includes researching various sources, which in turn opens my work up to more and more. The generative part of a project is always really exciting. Writing at the beginning of something is a feverish process of collecting and thinking and dreaming, and of quiet observation. Whether or not my new writings will become a manuscript, I'm not sure, though I hope it does.

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

A: A few of my favourite books that I can’t help but feel inspired from are Peter Culley’s Parkway, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Suzanne Buffam’s Past Imperfect, Lakshmi Gill’s During Rain, I Plant Chrysanthemums, Harryette Mullen’s Recyclopedia, to name a few poets. When I read work by Chris Kraus, Elizabeth Strout, Zadie Smith or Stephen King, I’m motivated to get writing. King’s memoir On Writing is a great read if I feel I’m starting to lose focus. I’ll also read literary magazines, either ones I subscribe to or frequent online, to get excited about the new things other writers are doing.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

TtD supplement #126 : seven questions for Katy Lederer

Katy Lederer is the author of three poetry collections and a memoir, as well as a poetry chapbook, The Children, through above/ground press. Poems have recently appeared in Lana Turner, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times, and The Recluse. Her new collection, The Engineers, is due out from Solid Objects Press this year.

Her poems “Seldom is He Come,” “Strut,” “Spring,” “Leave People,” “In It Is Still,” and “An Account” appear in the twentieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Seldom is He Come,” “Strut,” “Spring,” “Leave People,” “In It Is Still,” and “An Account.”

A: I wrote these poems when I was experiencing a block. Previous to their composition, I had tended to think of poems as mainly content that determined form. When I wrote these poems, I was having trouble calling up content, so I decided to start with a form and go from there. I had read writers like Gertrude Stein and had written in some of the old obsessive forms, like the villanelle, so I had some sense that words could be separated from meaning per se. In these poems, I allowed myself to remain in that space of material language. I let emotions determine the choice of the words, and then worked with the words—repeating them melodically—in ways that created a subtle sense of narrative.

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

A: Over the course of my writing life, I have always gravitated toward what I think of as formal experiment. By this I mean that I consider myself experimental, but also highly formal in sensibility. I am interested in the effects of repetition and music, and what they might or might not say about ideation and emotion.

In my most current work, a series titled The Engineers (a selection of which you published last year as a chapbook called The Children), I employed traditional forms—villanelles, pantoums, syllabics, and so on—on a book-length basis for the first time in my writing career. These poems are based on my experience going through in vitro fertilization, IVF, and they are interested in form as a genetic structure. I wanted to think about form as both determinative and generative of pieces or strands of writing.

I see in these earlier poems you are publishing in TtD the prototype of the aesthetic of the poems in The Children. Taking various words, phrases, and rhythms and repeating them in ways that evoke more traditional forms, I see an impulse that I continue to work through now.

Q: What does starting with structure, whether highly formal or otherwise, allow in your work that you might not think would have been possible otherwise? Is this simply a matter of getting the poem started, or is it something larger? And has your form shifted at all mid-point through composition, causing you to move into an entirely other structure?

A: Interesting question. You are prompting me to be a lot more specific about the perhaps unconscious or assumed goals of my process. I think with these poems in particular, I was discovering that poetry could be more than exposition or description; that, in fact, it could be a process by which the writer might discover something they did not already know.

I believe that starting with form can often lead one to places of surprise. In these poems, words like “seldom” and “strut” and “leave” bring heavy connotation to the meaning of the poems. Instead of proceeding in a linear or even in a lyrical manner, these poems proceed iteratively from the content of their keystone words. Lexicon lays the groundwork. Meaning accretes as the musical phrases and lines—the iterations—are laid down. These read as highly lyric poems, but they are at their foundation operational in structure.

As for abandoning a structure or changing the formal trajectory part way through: I can’t say I do this often, no. I almost always complete poems that I start. That said, I sometimes return to certain operations or forms more times than I might have expected. In my most recent work, The Engineers, for example, I found the pantoum form highly generative. Several poems from the forthcoming book are in that form, which is not something I planned.

Q: You mention working through and past a block, and the different ways you approached the poem previous to that. Are the shifts in your work as straightforward as that, i.e.: the writing that occurred pre-block vs. the writing that has occurred since? Could even the most casual of readers of your work spot the differences between pre-block and post-block Katy Lederer poems?

A: I think if readers—if they sat down and read through my whole body of work, which is not available publicly, but which I keep for myself—read through the poems, they might notice several points at which things shifted, whether in response to a block or an interpersonal situation, or to some other internal or external driver. In this, my body of work is like the vast majority of other writers’ bodies of work! That said, I think I have always been more of a composer than a writer; or: the music has always wanted to be on equal footing with the meaning, even sometimes surpassing or contradicting it. I think that a reader of the body of work would be able to see an increasing comfort with this balance over time.

Most poets and writers do focus on music. Rhyming poets are making a particular sort of music, as are free-verse poets who are aiming primarily for emotional expression or confession, as are intellectual or polemical poets who propound theses. Music infuses most creative writing, but in my case I think it’s even more of a driver than is typical, and I think it took me many years to become aware of and comfortable with this fact. These poems you are publishing in this issue mark a turning point for me in terms of my openness to music—to, in some sense, the sonic syntax itself—as a form of inquiry or learning.

Q: Given your suggestion that you have a large body of unreleased or unpublished work, how do you decide what work is ready to be released against what work isn’t? Is it a simple matter of what has been accepted for publication vs. what hasn’t, or are there other factors?

A: This is an interesting question that gets at a lot of very deep issues that all writers face.

As likely most other poets have, I have had many stages when it comes to both my writing and my publishing. When I was just starting out, I took my cue from Sylvia Plath, who used to systematically send work out, putting submissions back in the mail often on the same day that they had been returned to her. I was very achievement-oriented and also rather literal. I sent out anything at all that seemed like it might possibly be “publishable.”

During graduate school and several years afterward in New York, I became very disillusioned and discouraged. I sent poems out, but it was a push and pull. Sometimes I cared immensely, not only whether they were published but in which venues and whether or not my friends would be impressed. Other times I retreated completely, deciding that I just didn’t care about publishing or that rejection was too painful. I think, over the years, I have come to a more sanguine place. I greatly prefer placing poems in magazines, whether large or small, that have a lot of energy and that include writers I admire, especially if those writers happen to be friends. I love interacting with editors like you, and with readers at group readings and other events in support of exciting magazines. I know from my own experience that all editing is a terrific labor of love.

Since I have been getting my body of work together in one place and looking critically at individual poems or series of poems, I have been occasionally sending older pieces out. I also published a full-length series of older poems that I had significantly revised on Atelos Press in 2017. I am returning to this work, in part because with more distance, I feel more comfortable with many of these pieces. It is also in part because, when I look back over all of my work, it is surprisingly consistent. It is difficult to tell what was written twenty years ago versus what was written this year. I have to admit, when I first started critically appraising my own work, I was shocked by the consistency. I really hadn’t expected it. In some ways it was disappointing because we all like to think we have the run of the whole field—that we can become a different person or different poet at any time that it might strike our fancy; but, at least in my work, that is not the case. I have always been a very lyrical poet. I have always been a composer. I have always had a tendency to write in certain rhythms and with certain tones—very much in a minor key.

In some ways, it has been hard to accept that I have such clear limits as a writer, but in other ways it has been wonderfully liberating. When I send out older work now, it is usually because it speaks to the magazine where I am sending it. It is also usually because I dismissed the work too readily when it was originally composed. At times I conceptualize sending my old poems out as a feminist practice. As I have come to a more confident place, I have had to grapple with the fact that I have sometimes been too tentative or too much of a perfectionist about my work. But that’s probably true of most of us.

Q: What does this fresh perspective on your older work mean for your current practice? Has it altered the ways in which you approach or consider new poems? Where does one go from here?

A: I honestly believe it’s all one poem. The body of work is a poem. Individual poems placed in magazines by an editor with others’ poems—this is a poem. A historical period in poetry is a poem.

This does not mean I don’t believe in style or that I don’t have an ego—not at all. But it does mean I believe that poems are something else—a kind of satellite that floats away. It would be easy to critique most poetry practices these days—at least those in the public sphere—as mimicking the keyboard-clicking, capitalist culture of spectacle in which we live. Everything is so of-the-moment and so present-tense, and I think we don’t quite absorb the extent to which this is the case, even in something as non-remunerative as poetry. I don’t think of poetry as a posterity sort of thing, but I also don’t think it’s disposable. I mean, why put anything down on paper if its currency will be only a day or a week or a year? The point is that it stays there, apart from its creator, in material form, yes? So I see my old work as just this: words on paper, structured by music and style, and very alien.

Does the old work affect my work now? Absolutely it does—in the sense, as I articulate above, that it gives me a feeling of grounding, but also in the sense I can see the evidence of the strangeness, the sheer mysteriousness of poetry. For instance, when I was younger I was often depressed. I fell in love easily and it was often very painful. Before I put my poems together, I just assumed the old poems would seem very depressive! I assumed they would be drab, unhappy, fretful, and sad. But they were not! They read as energetic for the most part—enthusiastic, even happy. One friend to whom I showed all my poems remarked: “this a document written by a person who has really enjoyed having a body on this earth!” How could this have been when I was often so unhappy? It is because the poem is, ultimately, alien. It is because our insides and what comes out of them as language are not the same thing. It is because sadness can actually be a form of happiness and happiness, sadness. What is the expression? The opposite of love is not hate; it is lack of interest. My old work influences my new work in that, on the one hand, it shows me my limits, but on the other it assures me that I have no actual control over what I write, that the poem will be alien—surprising, at times even disconcerting. And this is very liberating! The process for me is a form of inquiry—the way one might inquire of a person or a program, I inquire of the blank page. To know that that inquiry has resulted in surprises in the past is very reassuring in the present for my writing.

And the poem of the life: when I die, will I have been the sad person of my memory or the excited, lively person of my poems? It is fascinating to examine the proverbial lives of the poets relative to their poems not because the poems are a transcription or autobiography, but precisely because they are not.

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

A: Oh gosh, this is a hard question to answer succinctly, but it’s always fun for me to read about others’ enthusiasms so here goes: there are a lot of poets whose work I know well and love. Donne, Dickinson, Stein, Stevens, Plath, Hejinian, Wheeler, Spahr, and Claudia Rankine. I love my friend Prageeta Sharma’s work. And I have been loving lately work by Simone White. Other peers who influence me a great deal would include Robyn Schiff, Cathy Park Hong, and Timothy Donnelly. I have been majorly impacted by these writers, but in terms of what is generative on a more ongoing basis—and this will sound perhaps very strange—it is highly technical writing. I love reading technical explanations of things: fertility, genetics, financial markets, energy, and climate change. I am interested in what Timothy Morton has called hyperobjects—entities or systems that are outside of human scale.

I feel that my interest in the work of the poets I list above is also related to this proclivity for more systematic thinking and writing. I am very interested in and piqued by seemingly ordered or organized work that is in fact completely irrational! Schiff’s work, for instance, is highly formal, but it is also utterly deranged—about the disorder of art, or the disarray of nature; the sadness in death and decay, and our efforts, so beautiful and futile, to contain it. There is a poignancy to language, all of us trying so hard to put our experience of this life into words. That language has its own ideas about who and what we are is what is generative for me.

Monday, January 28, 2019

TtD supplement #125 : seven questions for Adam Strauss

Adam Strauss lives in Louisville, KY.  He is the author of one full-length collection: For Days (BlazeVox). Most recently, poems of his appear in The Arsonist Magazine, Fence, Brooklyn Rail and Interim.  Ones are forthcoming in Dream Pop and Spork.

His poems “1.64 [Rustgreen Degrees],” “1.15 [Reds Revere Charcoals],” “1.14 [Silvers and Grays Upwelled],” “1.49 [Cabernet And Caramel Swatches]” and “1.10 [ Yellows And Taupes Fringed By Corals]” appear in the twentieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “1.64 [Rustgreen Degrees],” “1.15 [Reds Revere Charcoals],” “1.14 [Silvers and Grays Upwelled],” “1.49 [Cabernet And Caramel Swatches]” and “1.10 [ Yellows And Taupes Fringed By Corals].”

A: All of these poems are extremely influenced by Cole Swensen—both her sense of syntax and of ekphrasis—and they all embody my interest in faux ekphrasis: I like to think of the pieces as presenting paintings that don’t actually exist, and the syntax I tend towards thinking of as like whorls of paint or more specifically the act of stroking on paint, the movement as brush touches canvas. Put another way, they function, to borrow a great term from Douglas Kearney, as “preemptive ekphrasis.” More technically, the poems work with “syntactic doubling,” a term Christanne Miller helpfully uses when discussing one of the syntactic elements of Emily Dickinson. As for the space gaps: I don’t intend them as caesurae, but rather as sluiceways or sites of acceleration. I want the poems to happen quickly. I aim for kinetics not meditative arrest. 

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

A: Over the past several years, I’ve been interested in hypotaxis, in writing really long somewhat conventional sentences which do not, for example, make use of “syntactic doubling.” The poems in Touch the Donkey are comparable in that they are driven by syntax, but I’m currently less interested in using extra white space. Too, I find myself currently trying for more and more rhyme, so that’s an obvious departure (though rhyme has been, in fits and starts, a consistent thread through my work). For the past several months I’ve been rather relentlessly trying my hand at Petrarchan sonnets, albeit sans measured lines; they probably don’t work, but I hope the practice yields something. My most recent manuscript imitates the poetry of Reginald Shepherd, and thus represents departure from anything I’ve done before, and also some continuity: I find myself always needing to find a syntax for an engine, and often write like pulling tissues from a box in the sense that I write a word or two, and then try and observe properties in that word or phrase and further push it in the next phrase.  Put another way, this recent work works via appositives—great chains of them!

Q: What do you feel is possible with working more formal structures that might not be possible otherwise?

A: I’m not really sure—it may be I simply have a predilection. Ultimately, my only desire for poetry is energy. I suppose I think writing in as many modes as possible—ultra formal included—means I can maximize expressing energy. I strive to be a virtuoso, and that means practicing multiple modes, not finding one and concentrating on it for manuscript upon manuscript. I think, too, my interest in, for example, the Petrarchan sonnet stems from, to crib from Yeats, a “fascination with what’s difficult.” Too, some ultra formal modes are so fitting for certain emotions: the villanelle does yearning and heartbreak so well with its obsessive repetition and dynamic change within that repetition. On a grumpy note: it endlessly bugs me when writers write unrhymed sonnets, unrhymed villanelles; rhyme possesses its own particular energy, so I absolutely believe it should not be abandoned. As well, to return to heartbreak and yearning, I often find myself feeling—well, maybe a reader doesn’t give two figs about my longing, but they still might be interested in seeing how I work rhyme and repetition. I think it can make for more engagement on a reader’s behalf—give them the chance to, like with gymnastics, judge (and hopefully enjoy!) the performance. I often wish poetry had a gymnastics system, with points given for difficulty levels. I think this could push people to some amazing feats—or stunning almost successes (Zukofsky’s “A-9”!!!!). 

Q: You mention Louis Zukofsky and W.B. Yeats, among some other names; what other poets have influenced the ways in which you write, and approach writing? How did you get to where you are now, and where do you see your work headed?

A: My relationship to influence is somewhat vexed: many writers I adore I do not count as influences— Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop. I love-love-love Gwendolyn Brooks, but don’t feel good enough to call her an influence. This applies to Melvin Tolson’s astonishing Harlem Gallery as well; it’s a touchstone work for me, but hardly—to my knowledge—an influence. I cited Yeats, but don’t, one or three aside, particularly care for his poems. I am in love with the poems of George Herbert and do think they have influenced my interest in hypotaxis. I do adore Harryette Mullen and count her as an influence because she makes of word-play an engine and that certainly applies to some or much of what I’ve done and do. I think Zukofsky could count as an influence because he believes in such basics as counting words, and I certainly enjoy focusing on primaries: syllable, line-length, number of lines in a stanza, etc.  As well, he has tremendous range, writing everything from sonnet-sestina hybrids like “A-7” to the overt experimentalism of 80 Flowers. Rosmarie Waldrop has definitely influenced how I approach writing via her interest in serial work and syntactic doubling—she doesn’t call it that but she does, in her early lineated poems, make use of it. I would count Jorie Graham as an influence, even as I don’t believe I absolutely adore her work the way I do others—indeed, it’s through attempt at parody that I’ve come to be influenced by her.  Years ago I wrote a bunch of poems which could be said to have Plath as their tutelary spirit: every now and again her timbre surfaces in my poems. As for the future, I’m not quite sure: I’d love if Donne’s “La Corona” infiltrated my poetry, though I’d be surprised if I get this lucky! Finally, sometimes influences come other than via individual author: the now defunct blog Montevidayo greatly influenced me.  

I should add that the major example of not particularly liking a poet’s work but nonetheless finding them a huge influence would be Robert Creeley: my idea of a Creeley poem, if not any actual Creeley poem, has certainly yielded scores. Too, I find my sense of linebreaks influenced by William Carlos Williams, a writer it took me years to finally love.

Q: How do you approach the line-break? Is it a break of space, of breath, of thought? How do you approach the spaces between your words and lines?

A: Most recently, my line-breaks have been lackluster, and it’s larger sweeps of lines that matter. In general, though, I try and have linebreaks be quickening agents and/or ones which via enjambment multiply sense. I do not mean to have a reader pause; if anything, I want linebreaks to function like glottal stops—merest halts which actually function as springboards to further articulation. As for stanza breaks, I’m less sure how to answer; I suppose it has to do with how I want to pace the poem, with how I want a reader’s eye to move down the page, tracking what occurs. Overall, it’s speed I’m after. I think poetry should happen at the speed of sound and/or light, or rather the intersection of the two. Too, I try and avoid linebreaks which seem choppy even as I adore sharp enjambment: I love the idea of breaks producing a kinetic pull, of producing an energetic drag—like hydraulics! Williams, at his best, does this so well! In some ways every linebreak is a part of one greater line, so that it’s all of the breaks together which constitute the actual motion.

Q: Your poems in this issue of Touch the Donkey suggest a far larger structure than what is presented here. How do you balance your attempts at speed against these longer, sustained structures?

A: You’re correct: these poems in Touch the Donkey come from a series of twenty one pieces. In part I think speed gets maintained because no one piece is very long, so a reader can move through the whole structure fairly quickly. Too, the titles constitute a kind of declension of color: blues move to greens, to reds and caramels, to yellows, to taupe and grey and white, and finally to the very contours of color, to properties and no actual hue—so there’s a kind of prismatic continuity in the titling which may, again, make for speed. I like to think of each poem in the series as being a painting in a display space, and sometimes galleries have wings—so hopefully I've ended up with a bird ready for lift-off...or already in flight!

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

A: I am seemingly always reading Cole Swensen. I love Gertrude Stein’s work. Gwendolyn Brooks is pretty much always in my mind. I have lately enjoyed the Joyelle McSweeney poems I’ve read. I look forward to yet again reading Harlem Gallery. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Claudia Keelan’s new and selected We Step into the Sea and her book of essays Ecstatic Émigré, so hopefully those works burble through what I do next. Emily Dickinson always proves freshening and I’ve been loving rereading Cesar Vallejo’s Trilce. I probably ought to binge on the last ten years of Susan Howe’s writing though I have yet to get the books. I’m permanently in love with Jay Wright, though again I’m years behind on reading his work. For years I’ve been meaning to read Jayne Cortez: I don’t know her work well but suspect it might help enliven me—Harryette Mullen has a poem titled “Fancy Cortex” in homage to her and anyone Mullen pays homage to equals someone I really need to check out! Finally, it may well be time to start reading Nathaniel Mackey again! And I should definitely get my hands on the Joris’ translations of Paul Celan's later works!  I’d love if I started working with compound words!  

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Touch the Donkey : twentieth issue,

The twentieth issue is now available, with new poems by Michael Boughn, David Dowker, Roland Prevost, Adam Strauss, Marie Larson, Lauren Haldeman, Katy Lederer and Taryn Hubbard.

Seven dollars (includes shipping). While you're enjoying our Hall of Wonders, your car unfortunately will be subject to repeated break-ins.