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.

Friday, January 4, 2019

TtD supplement #124 : seven questions for Rob Manery

Rob Manery, formerly of Ottawa, lives in Vancouver with his partner and son. He is the author of It’s Not As If It Hasn’t Been Said Before (Tsunami) and The Richter-Rauzer Variations (above/ground press).

Five poems from his work-in-progress “Equivocation” appear in the nineteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the work-in-progress “Equivocation.”

A: When I was preparing to teach Macbeth, whose plot is driven by the equivocations of various characters, I became interested in a tract written by Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest, called A Treatise of Equivocation. It was discovered by English prosecutors who were pursuing Catholics after the failed Gunpowder Plot which was an attempt to assassinate James I and the entire British parliament. The treatise was used to convict Garnet in an English court and sentence him to death. The treatise explains different strategies for misleading an interrogator without telling a lie, although some of the suggestions would clearly count as lying in any common understanding of the concept of lying. However, the treatise is a remarkable attempt to exploit the ambiguities of language to circumvent an overly restrictive ethical rule, the biblical commandment to never tell a lie.

Poetry is sometimes accused of being misleading. We can think of Riffaterre’s often quoted statement that “poetry says one thing and means another.” He argues that poetry employs “indirection” in its expression. Indirection, in turn, is said to result in three possible outcomes: displacing, distorting, or creating meaning. Ambiguity, in Riffaterre’s conception of poetry, serves to distort meaning, as does contradiction and nonsense. The presence of ambiguity in a poem seems to take on a Jesuitical character. A more positive view of ambiguity sees the possibilities that it affords. Rather than concealing or distorting meaning, it can generate multiple interpretations.

A Treatise of Equivocation, however, sought to use this possibility to conceal a “true” or intended meaning. I became fascinated with the strategies proposed by the treatise, but also by the language used in the document. With the poems, I wanted to rework the language in the treatise to transform the language to make it suggestive of multiple possibilities, to potentially reveal rather than conceal meanings. So that is the basic idea that led to the writing of the poems.

Q: How does this fit in with some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I often use source material to create poems. In the past, I have used archival documents related to the Winnipeg General Strike to construct the poems in It’s Not As If It Hasn’t Been Said Before. In “Equivocation,” I am also using an historical text to create a series of poems. However, with the earlier work I used chance procedures to generate an initial text that I shaped into the poems in the book. With the poems that form “Equivocation,” I did not use any formal procedure to generate the texts.

The use of source texts is a way for me to explore the language used in those texts and to reveal particular usages or patterns that reflect a certain, often political, discourse, which I think might resonate with contemporary political discourses.

Q: What are your models for this kind of work, and what first precipitated your interest in exploring these kinds of discourses?

A: I think I was always (at least since I was a teenager) attentive to how language was used to convey political messages. This attention certainly became more acute when I started reading the Language poets and their ideas about the relationship between form and ideology. People like Charles Bernstein were talking about how form, stylistic choices, vocabulary, syntax, etc. carry political meanings, not in a simplistic manner, such as disjunctive verse is necessarily a critique of capitalism, but suggesting that we need to consider how verse forms resonate with other more dominant discourses, and how form might reify ideologies or offer new possibilities for understanding how meaning is constructed. Jackson Mac Low wrote an essay, included in the anthology In the American Tree, in which he warned against an overly simplified equation of form and any specific political critique. However, as Mac Low and others noted, the texts that were being labeled “language-centred” or “nonreferential,” despite the problematic nomenclature, tended to eschew, or at least problematize reading these works as expressions of the poet’s thoughts, ideas, emotional states. They are not poems that could be easily paraphrased. This disavowal of lyrical self-expression did embody a critique of a dominant discourse, one with relevance that extends beyond poetic expression.

As mentioned above, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets had an enormous effect on how I think about writing. Ron Silliman’s procedural writing is especially important to me as are Mac Low’s aleatorical writing processes and John Cage’s use of chance in his compositions. Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust and Testimony are also models to some degree.

Q: I know you, alongside Louis Cabri and Christian Bök, studied at Carleton University under Robert Hogg, including a week-long seminar he gave through your Experimental Writers Group. How important were those connections to your writing, and do they still provide direction for what it is you’ve been working on?

A: I certainly studied with Bob at Carleton, but I don’t know if Louis and Christian did. Louis had finished his BA by the time I met him. I only met Christian when we started the MA program at Carleton.

Bob certainly was an important influence. He opened up contemporary North American poetry to me. In his courses, we studied the Black Mountain poets and the TISH group, among others. I first read Ashbery and Stein in Bob’s class. Most importantly, he suggested I read the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, which I did and which changed the way I thought about poetry. Later, he taught a class on the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and their antecedents. Bob’s own work also profoundly affected how I thought about language and the line, how words interact spatially, and the possibilities afforded by the short line.

I met Louis when he invited a small group to form the Experimental Writers Group. A friend of mine who was invited asked me to come along to the first meeting. I think I was the only person other than Louis who was interested in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, so he and I would meet to read and discuss these bewildering poems and soon began to organize readings, and then publish a magazine. Louis is an extremely astute reader, not to mention a phenomenal poet, so I learned a great deal from him as well.

Christopher Levenson was another influential figure. I took, I think, six courses with him, including a poetry workshop. While we do not share a similar poetics, I learned a great deal from him about technical aspects of poetry. A lot of attention was paid to textual features of the poems we studied. The close readings we did were invaluable in developing a sensitivity to the possibilities of language.

I also took a graduate course with Seymour Mayne at the University of Ottawa. The course was an examination of the history of the little magazine in Canada. It was a fascinating course and timely for me in that Louis and I were just beginning to publish hole magazine. It provoked a great deal of thinking about the role of a literary magazine and provided models as well as suggested possible directions a magazine could take. Mayne was a wonderfully open teacher who seemed to enjoy serious discussion of ideas, challenging us to take a stance, defend it, but also reconsider our positions. I learned a great deal from his course.

Q: With a decade between your Tsunami title and your above/ground press chapbook, which is, itself, already more than half a decade old, you’ve never seemed the sort of writer in any particular hurry. Do poems percolate for a long time before composition? Does writing come in bursts, or are you working, quietly and slowly, at something for years before releasing it into the world?

A: My preference is to let work sit for a while so I can read it again with a bit of distance and then decide whether I am satisfied with it or not. Although, that practice varies depending on the piece and the circumstances.

The other factor is that I am a slow writer. I often use procedures with which I experiment and refine until I hit upon one that I think is working. The procedures typically are used to develop an initial text that I then work with, experimenting with different forms, moving lines and fragments around, often removing more and more of the initial text, paring it down until, eventually, I arrive at a version I am happy with. Often, this takes time, much time.

Q: Is this current piece part of a larger work, or a stand-alone? Are you specifically working on anything at the moment?

A: “Equivocation” is a stand-alone work, but I also see it as belonging to a group of non-aleatoric poems that use source material to generate the text. There are also some poems that are related thematically to “Equivocation.”

I am working on two separate projects. One is a return to the chess generated poems I was creating twenty years ago and another is a series of poems written for friends.  

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

A: There are quite a few poets I enjoy reading over and over again – Celan, Zukofsky, Ashbery, I could go on and on – but I read them because their work continues to intrigue me. There are many whose work I am happy to revisit. The new collections from Talon of Daphne Marlatt, Phyllis Webb, and Fred Wah have been welcome reading. I am looking forward to Roy Miki’s new collected works. Simply, I am inspired by writing that leaves me a little bewildered, writing that suggests other possibilities for language.

Friday, December 21, 2018

TtD supplement #123 : six questions for Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout has published 13 books of poetry. Her most recent are Partly: New and Selected Poems and Entanglements (a chapbook of poems in conversation with physics), both from Wesleyan University Press. She has retired from UC San Diego and is now living in the Seattle area.

Her poems “CONTINGENCIES” and “HIDDEN” appear in the nineteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “CONTINGENCIES” and “HIDDEN.”

A: In Contingencies an interest in the history of words intersects with observations of the present. I had recently looked up the etymology of the word “contingent” when I saw the two (perhaps homeless) women resting at tables in a supermarket deli. That caused me to look up the history of “askance.” Then, well, I imagine you’ve the story the last section is based on. I saw it in the NY Times. Smart toys now elicit data from children who play with them. I guess someone might also say that the parts of the poem are in one sense or the other “contingent.”

It’s a bit harder to talk about Hidden. I’m always afraid I’m saying too much. The first section comes from having moved north from San Diego to the Seattle area. Seattle may be mild compared to where you live, but it does have an actual fall when the deciduous trees turn colors and drop their leaves. I’ve never lived in a place where that happened! Several trees turn red first on one side or maybe on the top but not the bottom. The second part is more mysterious and I left it that way on purpose. I’ll just say that we moved to this area to help take care of our new twin granddaughters who are now 12 months old. It was interesting to see them begin to relate to each other. If we were around, they would react to us but, if we were out of the way (or out of sight), they had their own ways of communicating. I don’t know how people read the poem when they don’t have that image in mind. I could have told that whole story, but that would have been something else.

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

A: These poems are from a finished manuscript called End Quote. I think my work is pretty consistent, though each book has its own character since each book grows out of inevitably changing personal and social circumstances. Of course, I have some long-term interests and habits of thought. I’m often preoccupied by the limits of knowledge and by the various ways we deceive ourselves or are deceived. My interest in science comes from that, I think.  But my poems also tend to incorporate whatever I happen to see or hear in the world around me at the moment. For instance, the Trump presidency and the disasters brought on by climate change are factors in both Wobble, which is coming out in September, and in End Quote. I think Wobble may be a particularly dark book. The poems in End Quote respond to the toxicity of these time, but are also affected by the experience of caring for two fresh faced babies once or twice a week. “Hidden” is partly a response to watching the twins, who were around 8 months old at the time, beginning to communicate with one another in a way that we adults couldn’t understand and which, in fact, the babies would discontinue any time an adult was visible.

Q: You give the impressions that your books grow organically, but very much sequentially, as well. Is this something that evolved naturally, or was this deliberate? Is there ever overlap between the composition of poetry manuscripts?

A: Hmm. When I started collecting work for my first book, way back in the 70s, I was a very slow writer. I mean seven years passed between the publication of my first quite slim volume, Extremities, and my next, Precedence. (In between I did publish the chapbook The Invention of Hunger.) The idea that I could write enough to have multiple unpublished mss. sitting around would have been really alien to me back then. For various reasons, I write more now. I have more time on my hands, but I am also conscious of having less time remaining, I suppose. Then and now, I collect poems in what has become an old-fashioned black thesis binder. This allows me to order and reorder the poems as I’m working on a manuscript. The process is intuitive. I have some sense of how one poem affects the next, as I do of how one stanza affects the next in an individual poem. Since I seem to be writing more quickly these days, it does happen that the manuscripts overlap at the edges. There will be a period of time during which what I write could go into either a nearly finished book or one I’m just starting. In that case, I hope to identify a new tone or concern in some of the poems and separate them out to be the start of something new. Things have changed, actually, since I answered your last question. Now I no longer consider End Quote finished. I plan to work on it for the rest of the year. Some of the poems I write between now and then will go into it and some will be part of a new ms. I made this decision partly because I think my books are coming a bit too quickly lately and partly because I still seem to be writing what I think of as “End Quote” poems. This ms. seems to focus both on natural growth and development (for instance, the babies) and the general toxicity of the world.

Q. Is this something you’ve done before? Returning to a work you had previously seen as complete?

A. Yes. Although something a bit similar happened when I was writing Versed. For a while that book was two different manuscripts. The section called Versed ended with poems written in the summer of 2006 when I found out I had cancer. Before I had surgery, I mailed it off to my publisher. So I thought the poems I wrote after I came home from the hospital and was undergoing treatment were part of something new. The more I wrote though, the more I saw continuities between the two mss. I decided they belonged together after all. I worked on that book for two more years. All that time I expected my cancer would return and that would be the natural end of the book (and my life). But it didn’t happen. Finally, I realized that as long as I was working on Dark Matter, I would be writing in the shadow of cancer. That’s when I knew it was finished.

Q. You’ve had two volumes of selected poems published to date. Does that change the way you view your writing, and the trajectory of your body of work?

A. The first selected, Veil, brought together books done with small presses, some of which were out of print. It was my first book on Wesleyan – and by far the longest book I had ever published. It felt substantial. The second selected, Partly, came out recently, in 2016. I don’t feel as if it changed anything really. I guess I hoped some people who hadn’t been reading me might find it a handy way to get into my work.  I called it Partly because I didn’t want to jinx myself. I didn’t want it to seem like a final summary.

Q. Who do you read to reenergize your work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A. In terms of poetry, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian. But more often, when I feel stuck, I read non-fiction that I suspect will engage my imagination. I went through a long period in which that most often meant reading books about quantum physics by people like Brian Greene, Brian Cox, Carlo Rovelli. But I’m also, increasingly now, interested in reading about cognitive science, neurology, AI research, etc. I also read a couple of books by the biochemist Nick Lane that got me going. I like reading things that are mind boggling, that raise many more questions (at least for me) than they answer. I can take those questions and run with them.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

TtD supplement #122 : seven questions for Stephanie Strickland

Stephanie Strickland has published 8 books of poetry, most recently Dragon Logic and V: WaveTercets / Losing L’una, and 11 works of electronic literature. Zone : Zero, book + CD, includes the poem slippingglimpse which maps text to Atlantic wave patterns. Recent digital poems include House of Trust with Ian Hatcher and Hours of the Night with M.D. Coverley. A volume of New & Selected Poems, How the Universe Is Made, is forthcoming from Ahsahta Press in 2019. http://stephaniestrickland.com.

Her poems “e=mc2   :  Not the Whole Story,” “Hum,” “Separation of Messages as a Form of Work,” “Black Glass Horizon,” “Solstice” and “Distaff Tech” appear in the nineteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “e=mc2   :  Not the Whole Story,” “Hum,” “Separation of Messages as a Form of Work,” “Black Glass Horizon,” “Solstice” and “Distaff Tech.”

A: I can say that half of them are ancient (unfinished) poems that I suddenly felt called to readdress, as if their time had come, and half were written last summer, part of a possible chapbook, One Sentence to Save In a Cataclysm.

The older ones are “Hum” and “Separation of Messages as a Form of Work,” and “Solstice.”

“Hum” is a poem of rage and grief, oscillating perspectives.

“Separation of Messages as a Form of Work” treats a truth about coding and decoding quite off-handedly—and yet directly, namely that the message can persist. Which is to say that d  s   i   d   e   r   r  o   permutes to “disorder” (it also includes “désir,” “deseo,” etc.); and C. Shannon is both a citation, see Shannon, and his initial:  Claude Shannon, 1916-2001, American mathematician, electrical engineer, cryptographer, “father of information theory”; and Cue E.D. is, of course, also q.e.d., E.D. being Emily Dickinson. “To simulate—is stinging work—” is from Dickinson 443. Between what you hear, what you see, and the number of layers you discern, requisite work reveals a (indeed, many) messages.

“Solstice” is a direct description of the winter solstice in my part of the world, a turning you think will never come.

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

A: I am working on a number of these older poems, ones I only rediscovered when a journal solicited poems from me for a particular issue but did not allow multiply submitted ones.

Other current poems seem to come from a sense of possible cataclysm. I explore what kinds of writing I would want to save, or change, or rely on, in order to face this kind of unknown.

Many poets who write from/about/with science want to affect scientists. Others want to affect public perception. I share with Buckminster Fuller an urgent sense that new lexicon and syntax are required. First of all, because language based on ancient physics—the sun rises, the sun sets—does not convey, much less entrain, our current understandings of mathematics, measurement, or instrumentation. The second reason to re-create a lexicon is to make clear how a powerfully imposed science understanding directly affects social justice and all else.

“Distaff Tech” is a tribute to Maryam Mirzakani, an Iranian mathematician, the first woman to win a Fields Medal (the highest mathematical honor), who died of breast cancer at age 40. Her work explored multiple fields, but in particular questions of geometry and topology. She drew her thinking on large sheets of paper on the floor, working alongside her small daughter. The poem contrasts the opening spaces she envisioned with the knots classified by Morwen Thistlethwaite. It recounts many mathematical achievements of women, often not recognized as such at the time, and the distinctly different perspective the “distaff” contribution brought. It also suggests the danger of certain technological perspectives if they are not opposed by what seem to be “marginal” perspectives, marginal in this case on account of gender.

Q: I’m fascinated by the way you use space, whether with the individual line or word, or simply across the length and breadth of the page. Do you see this as a visual structure, or something akin to breath? Or possibly both (or neither)?

A: For me, a poem is always in motion, flying, floating, pausing, in space and across a spectrum:  from internally spoken, to spoken aloud, to handwritten page, to printed page, to any one of various screens, to an interactive interface, to its place in a physical space of 3 dimensions, to hologrammatic space, to a virtual space of any number of dimensions. There is both a (breath) rhythm and a (visual) architecture at any point. I wanted my book True North to move around a pole of the 5 “True North” poems as if they formed a maypole. Still not possible! The print page is a kind of flash capture of a structure in motion. For me it should recall and be a prompt to its other possible forms and yet be firm enough to remain in the mind as an image.

The calligraphic or printed page has of course been deeply studied over centuries. I just read the magnificently produced essay-catalog for the Frankenstein exhibit at the Morgan. I realized that I had forgotten how rewarding a truly beautifully made book could be to read. A phone screen, by contrast, is a display tailored for ad banners and headlines.

Here is a flying poem that is also still in space and different for every walker:

Yinka Shonibare, Wind Sculpture (SG) I, 2018. Hand-painted fiberglass resin cast. Courtesy Collection of Davidson College, NC, and James Cohan Gallery, NY. Photo: Jason Wyche, Courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY.

Q: How do you approach reworking older poems? Are you simply picking up where you left off, or are you completely tearing apart and rebuilding from a different perspective?

A: These three were very close to their final form when I found them. I think I became more willing to accept them as they were and to know why I wrote them. In other cases, though, I have to do a lot more re-encountering to get my intuition or initial impulse adequately accommodated. Some poems are very resistant, yet I still understand what I wanted, just not how to do it. Some get extensively reworked and are usually shorter and shapelier.

Q: Your published work includes digital collaborations; how do your explorations through both digital and collaboration potentially affect the way you approach your solo text-based works?

A: My sense of the number of ways a poem can be expands with digital means. The affordances e-lit offers and the increasing number of forms it takes, as the technology changes, made a deep impression on me.

My digital collaborations are mostly of two kinds. Sometimes, someone else and I seem to have a kind of mind meld as we feel our way to the realization of a project that excites us both equally. These poems are usually based on texts I have written, but these change and become full in ways we both discover, and the process of joint discovery is intensely enjoyable. Other times, it is more of a negotiation to agree on the parameters of a project, and to discover together how the text will be generated or discovered or written or presented.

Preparing a poem for an installation, or as a performance piece integrated with music and dance, is also a very different kind of text work. Nothing is really “solo” when you think about it. You are always working within a positive and negative tradition and with what is happening in the world. I believe each modality of poetry does something none of the others can do, as well, but choosing or finding the most resonant way of working becomes in a way more difficult the more techniques you command. Some projects are so extensive that they require a crew of collaborators.

Q: How do you approach putting together a book-length manuscript? Are you working on individual poems that slowly begin to shape themselves into something larger, or are you working on a larger structure from the offset? How do your books even begin?

A: The answer is different for every book! Transitions between poems are always important, as well as the overall structure, which in simpler books is a through line. Strangely, How the Universe Is Made:  Poems New & Selected, which is forthcoming in February, does have a through line, even though it is gathered from all the books and even describes the digital works. Dan Beachy-Quick says, “…the selections from the books are making their own true book, a traceable concern that widens and deepens … as it progresses.”

My first book, Give the Body Back, is a single sequence focused largely on historical women and women in my family. My next, The Red Virgin:  A Poem of Simone Weil, is a tribute to the life and work of Weil. The way I acknowledged the welter of views about her—for some she is a mystic, for some a political activist, some see the philosopher, and I see her as a performance artist as well—was to structure the book so you could enter it at any point, read to the end and then turn to the beginning, always making a circle, but a different one depending where you started. The poems were titled in such a way that the table of contents is almost entirely alphabetic, resembling an index.

The next, True North, was a deeper encounter with both history and science, different forms of truth-seeking. As I said before, I saw the parts as streamers round a flag pole (which led me to attempt a digital version in very early beta software). The flag pole is made of the 5 “True North” poems which tell you how find true north using only stick and string. The streamer sections are The Mother-Lost World, Blue Planet Blues, Language Is a Cast of the Human Mind, Numbers Nesting In Numbers-Nesting-In-Numbers, and There Was an Old Woman.

The most adventurous organization was for V: WaveSon.nets / Losing L’una. It is two books in one, bound upside down to each other, with a website URL in the middle. You have to literally  turn the book over and upside down and go online to get a complete view! Each section has a different numbering system, one is the usual and one is based on the U. S. government document numbering system. The Vniverse (Shockwave) website was developed together with the book and published simultaneously. The Losing L’una part also has a separate associated digital poem. The text for the WaveSon.nets was written in one concentrated interval, one long scroll of tercets. I organized it into 15-line “Son.nets” which do not necessarily start or end on a given page, but rather run on, in a wave of course. In 2014, this book was out of print and a small multimedia press, SpringGun, wanted to republish it. By then, in an era of web reading, I knew people would be comfortable with the original long scroll, and we presented that way with headers on each page designating which online constellation the tercets belong to. Called V: WaveTercets / Losing L’una, this book has an accompanying iPad app constructed with Ian Hatcher, in software very different from Shockwave. In this app, you can draw your own constellations, and there is an Oracle.

The next book, Zone : Zero, was published with a CD and incorporates the text version of two digital poems, Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot and slippingglimpse. It is also organized in 5 parts:  Zone ARMORY War, Zone MOAT Else,  Zone DUNGEON Body, Zone RAMPART Logic, and Zone MOTE Else. Finally, Dragon Logic, all text! But still in sections:  e-Dragons, Sea Dragons, Hunger Dragons of Unstable Ruin, Dragon Maps, Alive Inside the Dragons, Codemakers, and Afterword.

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

A: Simone Weil The Notebooks
Marta Werner and Jen Bervin The Gorgeous Nothings:  Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems
Robert Lax Circus Days and Nights
Muriel Rukeyser
Ed Roberson
Mathematics:  the great surprise of 21st c. mathematics, a non-extractive abundance
Sylvia Wynter On Being Human as Praxis
Louise Bourgeois
Susan Stewart’s “The Suggestion Box”
May Swenson
Wallace Stevens
Sha Xin Wei Poiesis and Enchantment in Topological Matter
Hito Steyerl “In Free Fall:  A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective”
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Buckminster Fuller Tetrascroll
Kathleen Jamie
Kees Boeke Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps
Muriel Rukeyser
Lorine Niedecker
June Jordan “Calling on All Silent Minorities”






Thursday, November 29, 2018

TtD supplement #121 : seven questions for Ken Hunt

Ken Hunt’s writing has appeared in Penteract, The Blasted Tree, No Press, Freefall, Matrix Magazine, and in the anthology The Calgary Renaissance. His first book of poetry, Space Administration, was published in 2014 by the LUMA Foundation. Ken has two books of poetry forthcoming from BookThug: The Lost Cosmonauts (in 2018) and The Odyssey (in 2019). Ken also has a book of poetry forthcoming in 2020, from The University of Calgary Press, entitled The Manhattan Project. For three years, Ken served as managing editor of NōD Magazine, and for one year, he served as poetry editor of filling Station. In 2014, Ken founded Spacecraft Press, an online publication venue for experimental writing inspired by science and technology. Ken holds an MA in English from Concordia University, and is a PhD candidate at Western University in London, Ontario.

His poems “UNCLASSIFIED,” “The Autokinetic Effect,” “Sleep Paralysis” and “The Klass Curse” appear in the nineteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “UNCLASSIFIED,” “The Autokinetic Effect,” “Sleep Paralysis” and “The Klass Curse.”

A: These four poems are excerpted from my current poetry manuscript-in-progress, Project Blue Book. The book investigates the UFO phenomenon, its surrounding subcultures, its related conspiracy theories, and its status as a kind of ‘modern mythology’.

The drop poem “UNCLASSIFIED” refers to conspiracy theories that claim NASA has withheld information about its space programs and missions from the public. Some claim that this withheld information deals with extraterrestrial encounters. Others claim, infamously, that this withheld information would prove that one or more of the Apollo space missions were hoaxes designed to act as pro-American Cold War propaganda.

The title of the poem “The Autokinetic Effect” refers to a hallucinatory phenomenon often experienced by fighter pilots, where stationary dots of light outside the aircraft appear to move. This phenomenon is often cited as an explanation for UFO sightings reported by fighter pilots.

The title of the poem “Sleep Paralysis” refers to a common explanation for abduction experiences. Each line in this poem is lifted, verbatim, from abduction narratives written by abductees. In particular, only lines beginning with “they” were selected.

Finally, “The Klass Curse” is a condemnation of the stubbornness and gullibility of UFO conspiracy theorists, made by the late journalist and skeptic Philip J. Klass, which I have repurposed, verbatim, as a found poem.

Q: How do these poems fit in with some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: These poems incarnate my continuing interest in writing poetry that responds to the sciences. I suppose the poems (or rather Project Blue Book as a whole) are similar to my forthcoming manuscripts (The Lost Cosmonauts, The Odyssey, and The Manhattan Project), in that each book represents a link in a kind of chain of texts that I’m in the process of producing. In addition to pursuing a PhD thesis that investigates examples of related works of poetry from the latter half of the 20th century to the present, I find myself compelled to add my own works to the canon as well, in order to address subjects that haven’t yet received the level of poetic attention that I think their continuing sociocultural impact warrants.

Out of the poetry published each year, and out of the catalogue of poetry written over the course of the past few decades, relatively few books have engaged in significant ways with scientific language, events, and ideas. Books that have done so have largely gone unnoticed, relative to books of poetry that have engaged with other subjects.

Like the stereotypical group of nerds inventing intricate D&D narratives in a dim room, I get the sense that many poets with an interest in responding to the sciences with their work (whether they are part of a group of likeminded peers or not), end up ostracized, or perhaps ostracize themselves intentionally in response to an all-too-familiar expectation that little to no understanding, let alone attention, will come their way, despite their best efforts.

I want not only to bring academic attention to the bridges being built (rather than burned) between poetry and science in our politically divisive environment, but also to bring together poets writing about these subjects, in order to create a stronger, more coherent community. Many of us are reticent to share our interests (what poet isn't?) until we feel we have a common space in which to do so.

I think that poets whose work engages with the sciences (whether by way of ‘cosmic mysticism’, ‘ecocriticism’, ‘the necropastoral’, the ‘abyssal sublime’, or some other critical perspective), have a great deal to offer the sciences, not only in terms of how poetry might critique the often problematic practices of the science-focused industries, but also in terms of how poetry has the power to draw positive attention to scientific breakthroughs and ideas that have the potential to greatly enrich the human experience, combat poverty, offer us greater agency over our biology, and restore parts of the environment that industrial practices have damaged.

Although my own work can wax apocalyptic and favour the strange, the mysterious, the unknown, the horrific, the tragic, and the sublime, the vast majority of the science-inspired poetry that I read tackles science from a myriad of tonal, thematic, and narrative approaches. I’m constantly amazed by the new and different ways in which poets are approaching scientific subject matter, and I hope that this eclectic community continues to experiment and innovate.

Q: I’m always fascinated by poets who engage with science, although I’ve become less convinced over the years that the combination is as unusual as popular thought might suggest. What is it about the blending of poetry and science that still manages to maintain, in your view, such a stigma of rarity?

A: C.P Snow’s 1959 lecture The Two Cultures (later published as a short text) describes what the author perceives as a growing rift between the humanities and the sciences. Snow argues that the ‘culture’ of each department has tended to perceive the other as oddly off-kilter in linguistic, philosophical, and moral terms at best and, at worst, in outright opposition to their ‘core values’ (to skirt orthodoxical terms). Snow points out that this rift was not always so pronounced, but rather it seems to have widened sharply over the course of the 20th century.

While increased support for multidisciplinary endeavors has done significant work to productively ‘entangle’ the academic realms of the humanities and the sciences, I think that this perceived rift in academia still reflects a larger perceived rift in culture, a rift between two elements of a false binary consisting of conveniently-constructed actors of two types: those who are generally more skeptical of scientific practices and those who are generally more supportive of them.

Given the oversimplification performed by the aforementioned binary, Snow’s dialectic approach becomes less useful when tackling the question of how such spheres are overlapping today. I think that “The Two Cultures” is most useful in the sense that it encapsulates an oppositional view of science and poetry, a view that many of the poets I am interested in have been working to deconstruct.

Stereotypically speaking, poets are often seen as slaves to passion, while scientists are seen as slaves to reason. I think that these stereotypes contribute to science-inspired poetry’s “stigma of rarity,” as you put it. If one has been exposed repeatedly to these stereotypical characterizations of poets and scientists, one finds it harder to imagine the two working together or drawing from one another’s ideas; criticism is easier to imagine than synthesis.

There is a significant amount of science-inspired poetry being produced, far more than this “stigma of rarity” suggests. Ironically, Snow, in attempting to draw attention to a rift, ends up propping it open in a way by lending attention to the aforementioned false binary, to the burning of bridges rather than the building of them.

Peter Middleton’s book Physics Envy does some important work in terms of highlighting instances of overlap and idea-sharing between science and poetry in America. As recently as the mid-2010s, scholars such as Peter Middleton, Mary Migdley, Joyelle McSweeney, and others have begun to elucidate the complex relationship between science and poetry. Their work does a great deal to dispel the myth that both poetically-inclined scientists and experimental poets are few and far between.

Q: What made you approach exploring these questions and relations through poetry, as opposed to working in more traditional critical forms, such as through academic writing?

A: I appreciate the potential brevity and flexibility of poetry relative to other forms of writing. For me, creative prose and the academic essay, respectively, rely on more rigid formal scaffolding to wedge themselves into their definitions. In contrast, I see poetry as paradoxically both far less constrained by default and yet far more open to the application of customized constraints. For others, prose and the academic essay can offer the same flexibility as poetry does for me (Louis Bury’s PhD thesis Exercises in Criticism, for example, is a series of essays written according to the constraints of the texts they examine.)

Oddly enough and, I suppose, in contradiction to the previous paragraph, I have recently found myself moving towards a kind of prose-poetry in my creative work. I still strive for a certain ‘density of music’ as I’ll call it, but structurally, I've been more and more inclined to emphasize narrative in a given book, both within poems and between them. I've found that maintaining narrative in poetry offers a constraint of its own that has proven productive for me.

Speaking of forms of writing, my PhD thesis at Western will also discuss the relationship between science and poetry, giving me ample opportunity to explore the topic more thoroughly through academic writing.

Q: You’ve mentioned a couple of names and specific works so far, but have you any other models for this kind of work? What works or writers are in your head when you’re writing?

A: I have a kind of ‘critical mass’ model of writing, if you like. I gather and read through materials until I feel like I have a massive enough pile of notes for a book-length project, and then I dive into it, surfacing when necessary to fill in any gaps.

On a side-note, I also make it a priority to contribute to the design of my work; Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typography, a kind of ‘book design bible’, has been tremendously valuable to me since I bought it as an undergraduate. Christian Bök’s books of poetry, all of which he has had a hand in designing, have also served as valuable references for me over the years.

In terms of composition, if my poetry had a mother and father, so-to-speak, its mother would be Gwendolyn MacEwen and its father would be Christian Bök. When I prepare to write, I usually have both of their respective works in mind to some degree. MacEwen is also one of Christian’s favourite poets, so in a way, both he and I owe a deep debt to her. I re-read Christian’s Crystallography and MacEwen’s The Armies of the Moon every so often, but I use these texts more as launchpads than as blueprints. They warm me up by revivifying my appreciation for what poetry is capable of.

When I write, I draw from a variety of sources at once. I take a lot of notes when I read, look at, or watch relevant media, and then I go through those notes when I write. I record impressions from any media I’m exposed to, whenever something catches my eye. For example, because much of my recent work has depended upon digging through historical narratives, I’ve read through various historical texts to get a more broad sense of my subject matter.

Most recently, I’ve immersed myself in the odd and esoteric texts of the ‘UFO subculture’ in order to establish a sense of its most significant figures and events. In my current writing endeavour, Project Blue Book, I’m approaching the subjects of UFOs, alien abductions, etc. as 'modern mythologies' of sorts. I'm currently reading Carl Jung’s book Flying Saucers: a Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, along with various books written by purported witnesses to events involving UFOs and extraterrestrials. Scholar Susan A. Clancy also has a book called Abducted, printed by Harvard University Press, wherein she studies abductee experiences.

Q: You reference working in terms of book-length project. What brought you to this point in your work? How did you decide that the full-length manuscript, over, say, the individual poem, would be your unit of composition?

A: Having the goal of producing a thematically coherent set of poems motivates me to write by giving me a goal to work towards. Creating a kind of conceptual scaffold that wants to be filled with poems and then struggling to fill it makes the process of writing more generative for me. This way I can also respond to material that interests me in a more detailed and complete way by making that material the subject of a book of poetry.

Q: Finally, with a small handful of poetry collections and chapbooks either in print or forthcoming, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I can’t be certain about where I’m headed, but you could say I’m cautiously optimistic in general. So far, my chapbooks have received a fair amount of positive attention. Most importantly, these publications have put me in touch with some brilliant contemporary poets and independent publishers (Anthony Etherin and his Penteract Press, Kyle Flemmer and his The Blasted Tree, derek beaulieu and his No Press, Christian Bök and his Chronium Dioxide [Cr02] press, etc.) Given my forthcoming books, I hope that what I've written will both satisfy those already familiar with my work and also intrigue new readers.

My practice has changed significantly since I started writing seriously, in ways I’ve elaborated on earlier in this interview. I could see myself shifting into writing prose some time in future but, for the next four years, I’ll be focused on academic essays when I’m not chipping away at Project Blue Book.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

TtD supplement #120 : seven questions for Michael Robins

Michael Robins is the author of four poetry collections, most recently In Memory of Brilliance & Value (2015) and People You May Know (forthcoming 2020), both from Saturnalia Books. He lives, teaches, and parents in Chicago.

Six poems from “Philip Says” appears in the nineteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Philip Says.”

A: “Philip Says” is my half of a postcard correspondence with the poet Ada Limón. That exchange took place in 2014, and is part of a larger, ongoing project (since 2005) in which I trade a postcard-a-day each February with a different poet. My most recent collaborators were Kate Greenstreet (2017) and Noah Falck (2018). I’m exchanging postcards with David Trinidad in February 2019.

The 2014 exchange took an unexpected turn when the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman was reported. Even now, all kinds of clichés flood my language when I consider the early, unexpected loss of someone who possessed such exceptional talent and who, despite profound self-doubt, was absolutely committed to his art. “Philip Says” is rather oblique in addressing Hoffman’s death, but the poem remains an attempt to navigate grief and impermanence.

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

A: Lately, I’ve written new poems that may or may not be included in the forthcoming book (People You May Know) and revising a group of thirty poems written this past April as part of an emailed, poem-a-day exchange with Adam Clay. The line lengths of this work are longer than those in “Philip Says,” which probably indicates my distance from studying and teaching Robert Creeley’s poetry.

Reading aloud has been essential in my writing process since the beginning and, in my more recent work, I feel I’m offering even more of myself to accuracy and how to convey it through taste: how the mouth and breath shape the poem. When trading postcards with another writer, there’s just a few hours, at most, to attempt something beautiful, and my own goals for the project include letting the language stand as a pure record of that effort, without revisions down the road. In contrast, the last poem I “finished” took nearly six weeks of revision. After many years living inside couplets, I’m more and more attracted to tercets, and I’m even more attracted (in theory at least) to the idea of letting content dictate form.

Q: What do you feel these collaborations have allowed that your solo work, at least to this point, hasn’t? More specifically, what differences have you noticed, if any, between your work as part of collaborating with Ada Limón over working with Kate Greenstreet or Noah Falck?

A: I’m suddenly suspicious of using the word “collaboration” in describing these projects, although there’s certainly a collaborative spirit in terms of commitment and simultaneity. With the postcard exchanges, I rarely have a sense of what’s going to happen in terms of shape or content until each February begins. Plus, due to the delay and general unpredictability of mail delivery, the first dispatches often don’t arrive for five, six, or seven days, so initially my collaborator and I are working blind. Still, I’ve yet to correspond with someone I haven’t met at least once, and I inevitably rely on some part of our shared history. Examples include invoking the town of Amherst, Massachusetts (where I went to graduate school with several collaborators) or the landscape where I taught last summer with Noah Falck and others at Kenyon College. And to help counter the empty mailbox and unavoidable silence that begins an exchange, I’ll start each day of the month by reading a few pages of the other poet’s most recent collection in order to associate or respond indirectly to a phrase or idea in their writing. In a more direct response to your second question, the direction of my writing in each yearly exchange is surprising, and also very much guided by my reading of, and relationship to, the other writer.

In response to your first question, the time it takes me to finish a poem (one that I’m writing on my own, without a postmark deadline) has slowed over the last few years. This isn’t a complaint as long as I’m satisfied with the end result and, should I feel discouraged by the pace of things, I need only remember that a “quick” poem for Elizabeth Bishop was one that took several months to complete. Few people understand why anyone writes poetry, and fewer people know how much time the poet spends alone, occupied inside a single memory, image, or other moment in the language. Correspondence (i.e. Postcard Poetry) offers relief from that isolation because my audience, when it boils down to it, is a single person who’s anticipating my words in their mailbox. Regardless of its shape or method, collaboration combats the solitary act of writing through intimacy and by connecting one human voice with another.

Additionally, given the frequency and time constraints established in most of my collaborative projects, the exchanges remind me that there’s no single way to write a poem. There’s also the reassurance that, yes, poets are capable of making something in the smallest window of the day. I work seriously on each postcard, knowing it’s doubtful I’ll permit revision after the fact. And although my side of each exchange settles into a consistent tone and shape, on more recent occasions I’ve given myself the project of writing a singular, month-long work. This culminated in a 174-line poem (sent to Dan Chelotti in 2016), an untitled 200-line poem (sent to Noah this year), and even a book-length sequence of 112 short paragraphs (sent to Kate in 2017).

Q: With four full-length poetry collections and three chapbooks over the past dozen or so years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: As impressive as that publication history might sound, I feel like I haven’t published at all. Maybe it’s a sense that all of the poems I’ve written are working toward a single poem, the ending of which will arrive with my death. Plus, for every book I’ve been fortunate to publish, there’s another manuscript that made the finalist lists at presses X, Y, and Z, but won’t likely see the light of day. I’ve begun to wonder at what point should a writer stop letting editors decide if his, her, or their efforts are book worthy? We forgive Whitman for self-publishing Leaves of Grass. I’m no Whitman, though I’m lucky to have accumulated as much writing as I have. I’m much more interested in the poem started this morning than the one written five years ago. Our job as poets, after all, is to write the next poem.

Ultimately, I hope that each new poem will reflect a broader knowledge of the world and surprise me with its language, subject, and style. But who knows what kind of trajectory awaits. Paraphrasing a line from Noah Baumbach’s first film: you shoot for the stars and maybe you hit the roof. I won’t write a poem if its destination is already set.

Q: You mention that you’re working on a single, life-long poem. Was this something you decided early on, or was this something you realized along the way?

A: Along the way, for sure. Peter Gizzi, with whom I studied at UMass-Amherst, has described book organization and his awareness of the thread that exists between the first poem of a new book and the final poem of his previous collection. He’s not just structuring a book of poems, he’s shaping an ongoing body of work. Here, in the early decades of the 21stcentury, most of us have photographs and curate some record of our lives on social media. When I first stepped into poetry (swept up by its river, you might say), I felt the possibility of language cutting through the noise and a discrete, more accurate record of an existence. When I’m corresponding with friends, even friends who aren’t writers, I’ll sometimes include my most recent poem. For me, it’s the most accurate response to the question, “How are you?” or “How have you been?” The poem is the mental space I’ve occupied, and its creation is a genuine record of how I’ve spent my days. Then the work accumulates and, yes, ideally becomes evidence of a life.

Q: What does that mean for you in terms of building book-length collections? Do these exist as a continuous thread, or are projects constructed concurrently?

A: It’s difficult to work on more than one poem at a time, let alone book-length projects. In the last decade, I’ve tended to write in a certain mode or style (e.g. the couplet or a staggered line) before transitioning to something else. I mentioned writing very short paragraphs in my postcard exchange with Kate Greenstreet, and in a year and a half I haven’t yet returned to the paragraph form. “Philip Says” reflects, to a degree, my reading of Creeley, and my insistence on the short line (a period spanning about four years) is behind me, for now. In terms of book-length collections, that gathering of poems loosely reflects a contained period of my life and my writing. The length of time might span a month or several years. If lucky, sometimes the manuscript becomes a book, which allows me another opportunity for focused revision and re-envisioning.

Going back to style, it was odd when my last book (In Memory of Brilliance & Value) was accepted because the medium-length lines of that work preceded my exploration of shorter lines, and so I found myself struggling to reengage with a form that wasn’t in my immediate wheelhouse. It took considerable effort to reengage with poems that were several years old, though I was eventually able to remove some pieces and offer revisions to others. The origins of those poems remain firmly rooted in 2010 and also reflect my efforts five years later. I mean, Paul Valéry is credited with acknowledging that a poem is never finished (it’s merely abandoned), and with that in mind I found consolation in letting In Memory of Brilliance & Value stand as a record of the best I could do as a writer on the day my final proofs were due. I have zero desire in becoming one of those poets who regrets the past and makes changes years or even decades after the writing has appeared in a book.

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

A: As a parent of two children, my time for reading feels smaller than ever. My library continues to grow (more slowly than it used to) and I’ve managed to extinguish most of my guilt for what I haven’t read. I’ve also grown comfortable thinking of my book collection as a partially explored library where discovery is very much alive. I’m not always intellectually or emotionally ready for the books I acquire. Our tastes as readers change (thankfully) and what sustained me in my early twenties can leave me puzzled in my early forties. There are also books I purchased five, ten, or fifteen years ago that are just now beginning to resonate. For the past several years, sober and sometimes less so, my evening ritual involves searching that library, browsing poems until I find one that hooks my attention, my affections, and then post a photograph of the poem in my social media streams. This might sound like I’m dodging your question, but I’m constantly looking for the undiscovered gem. Maybe it’s a poem by Muriel Rukeyser. Maybe James Schuyler, Gwendolyn Brooks, or a poet whose name I won’t know until I open the latest issue of a literary journal. The energy of such poems brings to mind Whitman’s dictum from Leaves of Grass: “read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life.” Poetry has accompanied the best periods of my life and served as a ballast during the worst. Poetry gives me an essential reason to live and be alive. I hate to imagine a world without the kinship of poets and their work.