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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

TtD supplement #106 : five questions for Phil Hall

Phil Hall’s most recent books are Conjugation (BookThug, 2016), Notes on Assemblage (JackPine Press, 2017), and (with Erín Moure) The Interrupted (Beautiful Outlaw Press, 2017).

His poem “Steps” appears in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Steps.”

A: Not to make too much of so little…

But I am interested in each word as a creature in itself that has evolved & is evolving even as we show-offs use them.

I want to track social & historical movement using only a creature at a time to see what that minimal focus might reveal.

In the slightest adjustments can be seen enormous affinities & leaps of reference.

These poems are suspicious of the writerly flourish, wary of pop sympathies & prejudices that become tropes.

For instance, using bp’s joke of saints in words—such as St And built from the word “stand,”—one two-step here speaks of how easily we move from what is “unclear”  (Uncle Ar) to what is seen as “unclean” (Uncle An).

The avuncular in criticism still implies that if poems are unclear they are unclean.

These are political poems—I guess—almost political poem pills.

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

A: Whether Steps is a poem or a sequence of poems, we may consider the order of each part or poem & their proximity to each other, as well as their obvious list-isolation.

There is always a relation between the word under the microscope & the word in the field, in the sentence, at the televised debate.

The Other World under the slide—in our tiny poems—has the potential to cure verbiage & lies. I have to believe this, even if it isn’t true anymore, or never was…

I mostly work in sequence forms. These are Spicerian marathons, but the interest I have in proximity as a potential force in such poems is the same as in Steps.

This beside this is not only 1 plus 1—it is tone-change, furtherance (= 3), & a texture shift—or even an irrelevancy that illumes—all of which is not beholden to syntax.

Between sections in a long poem, between single words in one of these Steps poems, (and between the letters in a word if we turn the focus way up), there accumulates (the hope of) a force that is not logical but processional, not telling but assembly.

Q: You’ve been working with the extended suite for some time, working, it would seem, with the book-length poem as your unit of composition. How did you get from writing individual poems to working with such a larger form, and what do you feel you’re able to accomplish through book-length that you might not be able to otherwise?

A: I respect the lone cry of the lyric, but it is rarely pure, & almost always imitative. To be that desperate & alone a cry has to be half crazy.

The cacophony of sequence approaches carnival. The cooperation of chorus involves a displacement of ego. These are good things to invite, so I do.

The book, for me, is a life unit: during these 4 or 5 years, I have invited & welcomed & arranged the following.
All of the preoccupations, distractions, enthusiasms, & revelatory fears of these living years of mine are here…

The book is where the author joins the audience. Maybe I write books so that I can join the audience. The brief silence of being in my own book’s audience is reward enough. A respite.

But soon the next compulsive pull of design & trouble, that lyric desperation, nudges me out of my seat, & I have to find the exit, have to go off on my own again…

I have come to think that for me the only way out of or back from lyric isolation (craziness) is through a multi-valenced widening…

I feel again & again the compulsion to invoke, ISBN by ISBN, the fortifications of harmony & pattern.

Q: With over a dozen full-length collections over the past two decades, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: The first word that comes to mind when I read this question is: landfill.

But that is deflective, morbidly un-funny—& a little interesting: my name is in there…

Hey, I keep looking for that guy! And he keeps looking for legitimacy in polyvocal company.

But the only company I trust is A to Z.

So Steps is (or are) an effort to keep my eye to the microscope of the alphabet.

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

A: Thirty years ago I painted Greek blue a wall in my bachelor apartment & stuck to it 80 white file cards each holding one of Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers poems so I could study them as part of my daily routine.

No blanch witloof handbound dry / Heart to racks a comb

This winter I spent 6 months in Guyana—what I took & studied again daily there was Zuk’s “A”.
Classical anti-classicism crunched & unraveled into housebound song.

Everyone
Will explain to us
How to do
The wrong things
The right way


Crunch or unravel, Z gets me every time.

Ph

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

TtD supplement #105 : seven questions for Valerie Coulton

Valerie Coulton’s chapbook, small bed & field guide, was recently published by above/ground press. Previous books are open book, The Cellar Dreamer, passing world pictures (all from Apogee Press), and the lily book (San Francisco State University Press). Her work has appeared in New American Writing, Front Porch, kadar koli, Fourteen Hills, Parthenon West Review, and e-poema, among other periodicals. She lives in Barcelona with the poet Edward Smallfield and is one of the editors of parentheses, a multi-lingual journal of poetry and fiction.

She has eight untitled poems in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about these eight untitled poems.

A: These have a few things going on: mostly written in summer, experimenting with letting different kinds of language come in, and also meditating a bit on my dad.

Q: Is the suite of poems larger than the eight collected here?

A: Yes, there are more or less 30 pieces in the series.

Q: How is such a suite composed? Do you start at the beginning and move in a linear fashion, or do you begin in the middle and move outwards?

A: That’s a good question. Right now, the pieces are in the order they were written in, and that usually seems to hold for me, but when a series feels truly finished, there could be some movement.

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

A: This project continues, so it’s always there as a possibility for writing, or a home for a new piece. And knowing that means that completely other pieces or projects can emerge. I like the comfort of something ongoing.

Q: Well, as Ondaatje paraphrased Spicer, the poems “cannot live alone any more than we can […].” Is this something you find in your work? Are poems usually composed as part of a larger structure? Is there such a creature as a single, orphaned, unconnected poem?

A: That’s an interesting question. My impulse is to say yes, but at the same time I generally feel that my poems are connected to each other, either by an explicit project or an implicit set of concerns. Work of a time often seems, in retrospect, to share elements. Also, I tend to shy away from wanting my poems to feel absolutely resolved. I do write some that have this quality, but when revising I often try to disrupt the resolution. Poems of a project sometimes appear to me as pieces or fragments of tile from a mosaic: each one should be interesting on its own but contribute to a greater whole.

Q: Where did this impulse come from? Might this suggest that, through your multiple book-length and chapbook-length projects, you are writing a singular, loosely-interconnected, work?

A: There’s a part of my work that could definitely be considered instalments of one long project. There are other series, though, that are linguistically different and seem to me to come from another kind of source; it would be interesting to reconsider them and how they do interconnect.

Q: If your work might be considered all part of a singular, interconnected project, how would you see your collaborative work fitting into that? Are you extending your reach, or working entirely outside?

A: I usually collaborate with my husband and favorite poet, Edward Smallfield. As he is always inside everything I write, and my primary reader, working with him is a natural extension.

Q: What do you feel you are able to accomplish with collaborative work that you aren’t able to with your individual work, and vice versa?

A: In my own work, I’m able to enter a world that is “mine” but which I’m not fully conscious of. In collaboration, I appreciate the sense and respond element, a sense of improvisation together, and of coming up with something beyond what I could do alone.

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

A: I think I’m more accepting now, in the sense that I can allow more things to happen, and to remain, than I might have in the past. I trust my intuition more. I used to be concerned with occluding, encoding and erasing. Now I’m interested in layers of time and how to give them their voices. I don’t know where my work is headed, but I feel enormously grateful to be writing and living with Edward, and to have support for my writing from you and others. Just being able to do it is everything.

Q: Have you any writers or works in mind when you begin to construct new work? How do chapbooks or books get formed? Are the processes different at all?

A: I’m generally inspired by other writers and works, they’re often a departure point or present in some way in a project. Book sections have come from reading Lorine Niedecker and Borges, for example. For me the book and chapbook processes are similar: keep adding pieces to a series until it feels done.

Q: Are chapbook-length works eventually absorbed into book-length manuscripts?

A: Sometimes yes, but usually as a section of a multi-section work.

Q: How early might the size and shape of a particular project make itself known?

A: Usually not until I’m getting pretty close to the end.

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

A: Fortunately, I live with my favorite writer, so I have a constant source of inspiration. I also get very energized by other writers I know; seeing their new work often sparks something for me. From the bookshelf, Archilochos and Niedecker are always there...

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

TtD supplement #104 : seven questions for Dale Smith

Dale Smith is a poet and critic who lives in Toronto, Ontario, where he serves on the faculty of English at Ryerson University.

His poem “from April Ontario” appears in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “from April Ontario.”

A: It’s a follow up to a question-based group of poems I wrote in 2005 called Notes No Answer (Habenicht Press). I like the form of the short question as an organizing principle of the poetic line and stanza. Poetic questions give me room to expand into a range of concerns, particularly, in this instance, looking at time, the experience of temporal duration in both consciousness and the body, and to consider the origin of image-making and language in the deep past of human history. I also look forward from that past to the extinction of life forms we hear about so often. The Bramble Cay melomys, for example, is a kind of rat in Australia that disappeared completely in 2007.

Q: How does the title relate to the activity of the poem?

A: I only sent you a selection of April Ontario. I see it as a kind of poem-essay. Besides cave art and Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the poem is framed around a walk to a park in Toronto with my sons, Keaton and Waylon. Keaton was anxious on our walk because it seemed so suddenly warm for the time of year. He worries about weather catastrophe. He’s sensitive and reasonably aware of his world. So the poem is a place for me to think through my response to him. But yes, literally, the title refers to time and place, the temporal and geographic coordinates of our conversation.

Q: You’ve been in Toronto for a few years now, after having spent more than a dozen years in Texas. With the geographic shift, have you noticed any corresponding structural shifts in your writing?

A: My writing has always acknowledged specific geographic settings. The morphology of the landscape has changed as I have moved from Texas to California to Ontario, and I’ve tried to remain alert to these various realities. I’ve had to learn to see new trees and birds, get to know new ecosystems and variations in those systems according to where I may be looking—whether in the city or the country. The main difference I notice is the verticality of Ontario—the way trees direct attention within smaller confines than, say, Texas, where the sky’s horizontal expanse produces a very different experience of perception.

Q: You’ve already mentioned Notes No Answer, but how does this current project relate to some of the other work you’ve been doing?

A: I’ve worked with the serial form for quite some time. I like the accumulating stanzas and the pathways they open for wandering around in. Thematically, I think for a long time my writing has been informed by the collision of the domestic within larger social, political, and historical frames of reference. And by “social” I only mean to imply a kind of connectivity to people and things. I think more recently I’ve become concerned with the function and feeling—the experience—of time. Or of my sense of inhabiting it both physically and imaginatively. So that’s different. That’s a new thing. And I’m also curious about how other non-human creatures and plants are absorbed into time and how it interacts with my own processes of awareness.

Q: How did you develop your interest in the serial poem, and what do you feel the form allows you to accomplish that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise? And is there even such a thing, in your mind, as the single, stand-alone poem?

A: The formal possibilities of seriality in poetry were advanced after the second world war. It’s a form I like because I’m interested in poems and essays, in poems as essays. Seriality for me allows the kind of open rambling of the essay to take place in the realm of poetry. I don’t think, actually, there’s much difference between the essay and the poem other than a kind of attitude toward language.

As to the second part of your question, I’m not sure anything stands alone—especially a poem. Thematic echoes, syllabic correspondences, intertextual coherences, and other attributes seem always to radiate between poems across time and geographies. Today is the first of May and I’ve been thinking of how Robert Herrick sounds the greeny month in his poem, “Corinna’s going a Maying.” A poem like that seems almost a kind of foliage interlaced into the landscape of English going back to Chaucer and forward to Ed Dorn’s tender, mournful Sousa, where he invokes “the only May Day / of my mind.”

Q: After a handful of poetry and critical titles over the past two decades or so, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A:  I’m not sure where my work is headed. I follow it; it doesn’t follow me. What’s interesting is to see how the work’s movements retain a kind of coherence over those decades. I like to use poetry to think about environments of history and family. I’m not a writer who seeks the highly-wrought, the formally perfect gesture. I use the process of writing to create spaces of arrival.

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

A: I frequently return to Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and the world of writing they helped shape—Robin Blaser, Fred Wah in Canada—Susan Howe and Alice Notley in the States. Joanne Kyger passed away last month, and I’ve been thinking daily of her work and everything it has meant to me for so long.

I never find myself looking again at Language Poetry or Conceptual Poetry—period styles with short shelf lives.

I think recently its Blues Modernism I find most sustaining—Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker. Their work is a mountain—a thicket. I hear in it an America of fragment and desire. It’s important for me to listen to that music and its inflections from both sides of the Second World War. How do we recognize the profound failure accompanying experiences rooted and soiled in North America? 

I also find immense joy in the mostly anonymous ballads and lyrics of the Middle Ages. A poem like “Sing, Cuckoo” is so perfect. A voice, a song, reaching through time. I’m interested in the body of feeling behind such a work—how that body of feeling found shape in Middle English. How my ears receive it now.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

TtD supplement #103 : seven questions for Sean Braune

Sean Braune’s first book of philosophy, Language Parasites: Of Phorontology, was released in 2017 from Punctum Books. His theoretical work has been published in Postmodern Culture, Journal of Modern Literature, Canadian Literature, symploke, and elsewhere. His poetry has appeared in ditch, The Puritan, Rampike, Poetry is Dead, and elsewhere. His first chapbook, the vitamins of an alphabet (2016), appeared from above/ground press and his second chapbook—an excerpt from a novel manuscript called Erosappeared from AngelHousePress, with two more above/ground press titles appearing this year, including the recently-released The Cosmos (2018).

His poems “Minarets of Knowledge” and “Eyez” appear in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Minarets of Knowledge” and “Eyez.”

A: To answer this, I have to talk a little bit about how I think of my own poetic practice. First, like many of my friends, I am suspicious of a poetry that fully embraces meaning. I think that poetry should always push against the meaningful structures of language in order to add some “disquiet” or “disorientation” to traditional practices of writing and reading. For me, poetry is an activity that is produced by reading. I am working on a series of poetry projects right now (of which “Minarets of Knowledge” and “Eyez” are a part) that all engage with a kind of what I call fractural-reading practice—a reading practice that is fractured by the experience of living in the contemporary world—and I find myself (as a subject) constantly consumed and overwhelmed by the frenzy and bluster of the contemporary cityscape and its bevy of information and narrative. I walk around downtown Toronto (or other major cities) with a notebook and pen and I transcribe the pieces of language that I find and it is all a language in pure disarray. I scribble down fragments of conversations that I overhear. Even while reading traditional books or attending literary events, I write down the odd word or phrase here or there … so I am constantly compiling an ever-growing repository of “harvestable” language. “Minarets of Knowledge” and “Eyez” are two results of that harvesting and pruning process. I just read an article on how capitalism feeds on the body’s stress response and the poetry that I’m working on now is an attempt to capture some of that stress response, or what could be called “how it feels to live in modernity.” The language of this stress response—of this fragmented exposure to a constantly babbling language—is the record of an infinity of words that are trying to interpellate or infect us. Possibly I didn’t answer your question. (I also do not think that my approach with a notebook in the frenzy of modern life is entirely unique—a lot of my friends also scribble down fragments of their everyday language experiences).

Q: How do these pieces fit with the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I’m currently working on several projects at once that cover several different genres: there’s a weird SF novel that I feel like I should keep a secret because it’s still in its embryonic stages; also, I’m in the process of trying to get a film project off the ground. Six months ago I wrote a script about newlyweds who are trapped in their hotel room / bridal suite and they can’t escape and are forced to live through the rather nightmarish undercurrents of their relationship. To expand on your first question, “Minarets of Knowledge” and “Eyez” are part of a poetry manuscript called Dendrite Balconies, which is a collection that explores the frenzy of contemporary reading practices (as discussed earlier), as well as the inevitability of death alongside the ways that language can be understood as an infection. Incidentally, the notion of a language-infection is explored in detail in my recently published book of theory, Language Parasites: Of Phorontology (published by Punctum Books). It all fits together actually.

Q: Can you speak to the idea of language infection? How does one attempt to make one’s poems infect?

A: When I talk about a “language-infection” I don’t mean an infection that infects others with poetry; I mean an infection that is already present in language. Language often has the quality of acting like an invasive and viral process that infects us from our youngest age and begins to implicate us in a larger symbolic and social order. Christopher Dewdney’s essay “Parasite Maintenance” is a good example of a rigorous argument that speculates on how Poets and Authors are more closely aligned with their own, individual parasites of language. Through the rigour of his ’pataphysical speculations, Dewdney offers a mode of writing where the produced text is written alongside an interior parasitic process. My own poetry tries to negate the Author or Poet in such a way that the Parasite speaks its own unique idiolect. Hence, I try to capture the muttering that exists at the limits or boundaries of sense.

Q: You mention Christopher Dewdney; what other authors and/or works have influenced the ways in which you approach writing?

A: That list of writers is ever-growing and ever-changing. Recently, I’ve been loving the experience of engaging with Jordan Abel’s work. David Peter Clark’s recent book / codex Spell was haunting and wonderful. Currently, I am re-reading Robin Blaser, which has given me a lot of ideas. I should say though that nothing is possible without Cormac McCarthy and James Joyce.... Along a separate road, I have the joy of regularly sharing writing ideas or drafts of pieces with Mat Laporte and Fenn Stewart and if either of them nix something I’ve written, then I know it’s not going to work because I trust their aesthetic noses above all. I should add that my creative work has been fully influenced by Fenn and Mat: Mat’s RATS NEST is a wild romp that breaks new and adventurous ground in fiction and Fenn’s chapbooks An OK Organ Man, Vegetable Inventory, and her BookThug book Better Nature are all completely bazonkers good. She’s a master of poetic rhythm. Mat has a masterful ear for surprising textual and semantic collisions and I feel like Mat and I have similar demons: we’re both trying to write ourselves out of a kind of haunting or possession—hopefully, we both manage this “escape procedure.” One hopes. Fingers crossed. Beyond this list of influences, I repeatedly re-read Catriona Strang’s Low Fancy, Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic (because they each have, I think, some of the best SOUNDS that I’ve ever heard), and Paul Celan’s collected works.

Q: You say you’re working your way towards a first full-length collection. What is the process of putting a first manuscript together, and have you any models in mind for the construction? Are you finding the process different than putting together your above/ground press chapbook? Will that material, also, be included?

A: Good question. Yes, much of the material from the vitamins of an alphabet will be included—with some exceptions: the middle section where I was experimenting with my “Poequations (after Smithson)” will not be in that work (they didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the extended manuscript). To re-answer your second question: I find that, regarding poetry, I tend to work on specific small projects all at once; for example, the poequations that build on Robert Smithson’s word heap are one project and I have a lot of other specific constraint-based projects that are ongoing (some traditionally conceptual, some Oulipian, some lyric conceptual, some visual, and some straightforwardly lyric). In this sense, I am inspired by the spirit of passion and genre-bending qualities of bpNichol. Dendrite Balconies (which will include parts of the chapbook) is primarily the result of my fractural-reading process (that I described earlier), and I think that it’s a more “digestible” project than my earlier full-length poetry manuscript called Labyrinthitis (that I’m still re-tooling and trying to find a home for). I find that presses (even so-called “avant-garde” presses) are heading in more conservative directions in these times of economic precarity, which means that a manuscript like Labyrinthitis was, I think, just too “out there” to be published in today’s age. In some ways, I think the new one—Dendrite Balconies—is more “of the now.” Or who knows? We’ll see…

Q: I agree with you on the overall shift in Canadian publishing away from more experimental works, although I’ve been seeing that shift going on for a decade or so now. Apart from simply writing and publishing (even self-publishing) our ways through it, I don’t see much way through or around it. What do you feel has been fueling this shift, and what do you think it means?

A: Yeah, it’s a sad trend. I think of the history of Can Lit as containing this extremely exciting experimental tradition that can be found in the Toronto Research Group, the Canadian ”Pataphysicians, and other places, presses like Coach House or BookThug, or magazines like Ganglia and grOnk. We also have Nicole Brossard and the exciting work being done in Quebec! Unfortunately, I feel like the trail-blazing trends and canons of Can Lit often go unrecognized due to some of the more boring and standard “pop” Can Lit that gets read and represents Can Lit to the rest of the world. I wonder if the market for the avant-garde has really changed—I mean did people ever really buy and read these texts in droves? Really?—or if now we live in an economic era where publishers just can’t take the same kinds of financial risks. Or don’t want to? I’m not sure. I mean most of my friends would buy experimental texts and they’re also hungry for a little bit more adventurousness, but I’m sure that their enthusiasm doesn’t translate to the rest of the market. I remember finding the first John Riddell book I’d ever seen in the stacks at Robarts (hidden away behind some other books!) and I was completely floored. I’d never seen something so gorgeous and nuts! I wonder if someone like Riddell could get published nowadays? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe somewhere. I don’t know. I do think however, to plug your own work and labour for a second, that above/ground press has always gleefully pushed against this trend towards conservatism so there’s still some hope!

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

A: There is a pile of these works on the table next to my bed and I repeatedly re-read them before sleep so that, as my “faith” wanes, it is rejuvenated before I dream. This “pile” currently consists of Fenn Stewart’s An OK Organ Man, Kevin Davies’s Lateral Argument, and Harryette Mullen’s Recyclopedia.... Yeah, these texts keep my hungry.

Monday, May 7, 2018

TtD supplement #102 : seven questions for Suzanne Wise

Suzanne Wise is the author of the poetry collection The Kingdom of the Subjunctive (Alice James Books) and the chapbooks The Blur Model (Belladonna Books) and Talking Cure (Red Glass Books).

Her poems “I’m Talking to You, Space,” “I’m Still Talking to You, Space,” “Leave Me Alone, Space,” “Space Inside” and “Space Ode” appear in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “I’m Talking to You, Space,” “I’m Still Talking to You, Space,” “Leave Me Alone, Space,” “Space Inside” and “Space Ode.”

A: These poems grew out of traveling to and from a writing studio in Brooklyn that I shared with fiction writer Matt Sharpe for a while. I’d work in it on the weekends and he would be there during the week. I was stalled out on a number of projects and isolated in my work. I consciously tried to move my attention outward from that insularity, and I began to take notes on my commute and my surroundings. Then I found a book in the closet of the studio about architectural theory, which I didn’t exactly read but became a browsed source for language and images, heightening my awareness of built environments.  I gathered these bits together in a series of poems that address Space—linguistic, urban, architectural, intergalactic. Space became a sort of god that I turned to—often indifferent or oblique, but a force that connected me to other human beings and beyond.

Q: How do these pieces differ from some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: The Space poems take on the form of emphatic direct address to an entity that is clearly outside the self (way outside), unlike my other recent poems in which the speaker is more or less talking to herself or eavesdropping on other people. The Space poems also range around, collaging different landscapes, busting up the idea of isolation from others. Meanwhile, other poems that inhabit the same manuscript (or what I believe is the same manuscript) are claustrophobically locked in. Sometimes literally. (For example, the speaker often crops up in an ominous No-Exit waiting room or a hideous social space like a convention hall.)

Q: What is your process of constructing a full-length manuscript? Is the process of putting this manuscript together much different than when you built your first?

A: My process is a wandering one. I seem to heave out a clump of work—a bunch of poems—that is clearly related.  Sometimes it is a series like these Space poems and eventually the series expires. Then I heave out other clumps that might seem unrelated at first glance but I try to stay alert to possible connections. If I see some, then I build bridges—writing new poems, torqueing certain poems to bend toward its compadres. Though sometimes those other clumps need to go in other manuscripts or into the ether. . .  it can take some time to discern. That has been my experience with my first book manuscript and with the others I am working on.

Q: With two chapbooks and a trade collection over the past decade or so, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: From the perspective of my publication output, I would say my work has developed slowly and sparsely. Meanwhile I have a great deal of work that has been published in magazines and has not been collected into book form. And I have a great deal of work that I have not submitted anywhere yet. I am not sure what all that means, however, as regards where my work is headed. Hopefully not deeper underground . . .

Q: How easy was it for you to shift from constructing chapbooks to constructing a full-length book? And which do you see as your main unit of composition? Or does it matter?

A: I didn’t consciously try to construct chapbooks. My two chapbooks were extracted from larger manuscripts and came about because I was asked for work by the editors of the respective presses—Rachel Levitsky at Belladonna and Janet Kaplan of Red Glass Books. Rachel had heard me read from a prose work in progress and wanted to publish some of it, and Janet knew my first book. I think I incline generally ultimately toward a full-length collection, with ideas that sprawl even as my thematically-related poems seem to arrive in clumps, and some work is required to build the bridges between the clumps. In answer to your question: Does it matter? In an egoic way, I confess I’d like to take up more room on the shelf, but I think my best self would just want to find the appropriate container (length) for the given set of ideas.

Q: Who have some of your models been for your work so far? What writers or works are you thinking of when you are constructing a work?

A: I love a wide range of poets and poetries but I think, as regards models for my work, it depends on the project. This question makes me think I should think more about what other people are doing when I am constructing a work! I am aware that these days I am drawn to books that are concept-based but are not strict within the confines of the concept—those that don’t mind a little mess, looseness, diverse forms, and even mixtures of genres. . . . Books by Kathy Ossip, Renee Gladman, Anne Carson, Kate Greenstreet, Shane McCrae, Claudia Rankine, Matthea Harvey, C.A. Conrad, Bhanu Kapil, Monica de la Torre, Sarah Messer.

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

A: The folks I return to for re-energizing tend to be women writers—although not exclusively—who have over many years taken liberties with form and have generally brought together formal daring-do with personal risk and political/social engagement. Who are, in the words of Alice Notley, “disobedient,” They would include many of the aforementioned writers plus such luminaries as Eileen Myles, Harreyette Mullen, Alice Notley, Fanny Howe, and Alice Fulton, among others.

I have also been recently re-energized by Lisa Sewell’s poems on reading/literature as a portal to personal and political upheaval; Josh Weiner’s darkly hilarious anti-Trump poems; Christine Hume’s lyric essays on  gender violence; Anne Boyer’s lyric essays that critique capitalism, meritocracy, and the pathologizing of illness; Hafizah Geter’s poetry of witness, examining racism and immigration experience; and Lauren Clark’s poems of grief, trauma, love, and queerness in 21st Century America. Re-energizing seems to come with new discoveries each week, so ask me again next week and I would have more to add to the list. A testiment to the richness of contemporary poetry now!


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

TtD supplement #101 : seven questions for Laura Theobald

Laura Theobald is from in the Florida Keys and has lived various places in the South. Her poetry collections are What My Hair Says About You (Metatron, 2016) and Kokomo (forthcoming, Disorder Press) and the chapbooks Edna Poems (Lame House Press, 2016), The Best Thing Ever (Boost House, 2015), and Eraser Poems (H_NGM_N, 2014). She has an MFA in poetry from LSU, and designs books for BOAAT and OOMPH!. Her recent poems have appeared in The Wanderer, Hobart, Sink, The Atlas Review, Pinwheel, Witch Craft Mag, Everyday Genius, and Black Warrior Review, and the Anthology Women of Resistance (OR Books, 2018). Her website is lauratheobald.tumblr.com.

Two poems in her “Dear Birds,” series appear in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the “Dear Birds,” series.

A: They’re from a collection titled Imaginary Conversation in Which You Are a Flock of Birds. It’s about a specific loss, a death, other things, therapy—in this epistolary form. It’s about loving someone who is emotionally unavailable, and also physically unavailable. Someone who becomes abstract and unreal. The speaker also is sort of unreal. Which is a theme that’s a lot more present in my last book (What My Hair Says About You).

There was more reasoning behind it—something about how birds congregate and move as a mass. How they are individuals but also, like, a single observable phenomenon. Um. It’s about shared experience, about writing for an audience, about/to several people at once, confusing the subject. It has gotten some positive comments, but no publisher yet. I have already picked out a cover for it.

Q: Would you consider this work, then, an extension of your previous collection?

A: The tone and form are different, but I’m bound to notice my nuance more than others. There is less humor. There is a section specifically about death... Yes and no. It isn’t consciously an extension. It exists on its own. But it is still my voice talking about the same things I always want to talk about.

Q: With three published chapbooks and a trade collection over the past few years, where do you see your work headed? What do you see your work heading towards?

A: I think I’ll be working with a press to get my first book back into print. And then I have another full length coming out it looks like. Then there’s the collection that I’m looking for a publisher for. I’ll just keep writing and putting out books with whoever will have me. Maybe one day a bigger press will notice me. Maybe not. I keep writing, so that’s all that matters to me. Maybe the world will end soon and we won’t have to worry about any of it anymore.

Q: What writers or titles are in your head when you’re putting together a manuscript? Given this work-in-progress will end up being your third full-length title, how did you learn to put together book-length collections? Was it a process of trial-and-error, or were you influenced by any specific works?

A: Birds I began writing for my thesis in grad school a couple years ago now. I was really influenced by Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. That, to me, is like an untouchable text. I honestly can’t think of anyone else really in particular who I was reading really closely at the time. My peers in grad school were very encouraging. A few poets I really admire—Monica McClure, Natalie Eilbert, CA Conrad, Lara Glenum—have been encouraging.

I learned how to put books together kind of in grad school, because I had to, but also I had already put together three chapbooks and published one before I got to grad school (one never got published, which is good). I guess just by reading. That is probably the answer to most questions about writing. Like, you observe basically how it’s done. But I have usually been pretty lucky in having a clear sense of when a project is over, and where it should end.

Actually with Birds though it’s a harder time than with the others. Probably because of the way things happened in life, and the way things happen in life. Sometimes you’re just taken out of a certain generative space. Like, I don’t have the luxury of going away somewhere and and writing. So, you just wander out of a project, or something happens, and you have to figure out how to go and put the thing back together. Anyway I would prefer to just keep going.

Q: I’m curious: what was it about Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely that resonated so deeply? How did that particular book assist in the poems that make up the manuscript of Birds?

A: It’s so personal, and personal in a way that matters to everyone. And “unflinching,” as they say. A poet looking hard at herself and at the world and making judgements. Speaking very confidently about scary subjects. In a way that makes you feel, like, safer and less alone. We’re indebted to her, and to writers like her, who put in so many extra hours to talk about hard stuff—and to make it appear beautiful, even the ugliest moments.

Rankine did an AMA one time, probably after Citizen, and I asked her something, like how she accounted for parts of the poems that were, you know, maybe embellished or even invented for effect, or for aesthetic reasons. That sounds like a rude question, and it is actually… I had something specific in mind at the time. Anyway, her response became a line in the book.

Q: Perhaps this relates, but what is it about the epistolary form that appeals? What do you feel you can explore or achieve through such that you might not be able to otherwise?

A: The form developed gradually over time. Maybe it’s not even a good idea. I remember while I was writing it, bringing versions to class, the form was changing, towards what it is now, and one of my peers got a little upset. She didn’t like the way the poems were changing. Maybe I should look into that. But I think the form helps make the poems seem more real. Like to make it an address—like there’s a real person here missing. I think it’s good for these poems to be more grounded in that way.

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

A: Chelsey Minnis, Jenny Zhang, Kate Greenstreet, Derrick Austin, Steve Roggenbuck, Kim Yideum, Jiyoon Lee are some poets/writers I am happy to return to again and again. A few recent favorite books are Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison, which I just realized, going back to it, must have informed the poems in this collection; In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse by Carolyn Zaikowski and Caca Dolce by Chelsea Martin.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Touch the Donkey : seventeenth issue,

The seventeenth issue is now available, with new poems by Victor Coleman, Dale Smith, Suzanne Wise, Sean Braune, Phil Hall, Sarah MacDonell, Laura Theobald, Valerie Coulton, Nelson Ball and Janet Kaplan.


Seven dollars (includes shipping). Are you sure it’s on!? I can’t hear a thing!

Friday, April 6, 2018

TtD supplement #100 : seven questions for Sacha Archer

Sacha Archer is an ESL instructor, childcare provider, writer, and visual artist, as well as being the editor of Simulacrum Press (simulacrumpress.ca). His work has appeared in journals such as filling Station, h&, illiterature, NōD, Timglaset, UTSANGA, Matrix, Word for/Word and Otoliths. Archer’s first full-length collection of poetry, Detour, was recently published by gradient books (2017), followed by Zoning Cycle (Simulacrum Press, 2017). His most recent chapbooks are, The Insistence of Momentum (The Blasted Tree, 2017), and upROUTE (above/ground press, 2017). He has a chapbook of visual poems forthcoming from Inspiritus Press entitled TSK oomph. He reviews, interviews and writes what he pleases at sachaarcher.wordpress.com. Archer lives in Burlington, Ontario.

An excerpt from his work-in-progress “Sites of Contemporary Meat” appears in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Sites of Contemporary Meat.”

A: The first seeds of Sites was my project The Complete True Biographies of Artists and Writers. In that project, which I am concurrently publishing in journals (I have a pretty big backlog), I first began my investigation into the biography and the distorted idea of the artist apart from the civilian. Biographies, presenting the information which is the most intense, entertaining, and relevant to the careers of the subjects, in my opinion and experience, lead the reader away from a knowledge of person as presence by focusing on the aspect of story (which, of course, is much more interesting). So, in The Complete True Biographies I attempt to counter the mythic aura, aura of fame, of the artist by attributing brief quotidian micro episodes to the artists/writers I included--episodes which could and, in most cases, likely do happen to everyone, i.e. tying one's shoes.

In Sites of Contemporary Meat, I wrestle with some of the same themes, this time looking at the poet’s bio which accompanies their work in publications. The writer’s bio is a strange animal. An advertisement, definitely a form, a very small window into an individual's life—a communication which both gives and does not. How each writer tackles the form of the writer bio reveals something of their personality. The information one decides to include can be revealing, or not revealing at all. What is there of person in the writer’s business-card-BIOGRAPHY? What is left when the information which makes it an advertisement is redacted? So, it is an erasure work, in a sense. Personal names, titles of publications, names of publishers, etc. are redacted—and replaced by (in most cases) [name redacted]. Interestingly, this comes to unify the biographies, which have only so much to give in the first place. Where one person stops and another begins becomes blurred, and this text of holes produces a music of absent information, [name redacted] repeated until it burns itself into your dreams.

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

A: Well... my first impulse is to say that it doesn’t. Of course, as I just mentioned, The Complete Biographies is related thematically; they are sister projects. But, the majority of The Complete Biographies was composed in 2013. For the past three years I’ve found myself pretty steeped in visual poetry, especially where it works hand in hand with conceptualism—so, this is a break from that route. I guess Sites relates, at least formally, to a number of shelved projects. One is an erasure work. I used the prisoner’s constraint while reading through a fairly dated children’s book on Jumbo (Dumbo) the elephant. Any word which broke from the prison’s constraint was erased, leaving that constraint satisfied. Also, there is a huge project I have abandoned and restarted numerous times (currently abandoned) in which I replace each word in James Joyce’s Chamber Music with their dictionary definitions. This project relates both in the mass of text and the employment of plagiarism as a literary technique.

Q: You speak of working on multiple projects at any given time. Is this how you normally work? How do you keep each project straight, and how, if at all, does each project interact with each other?

A: Projects flair up and die down; one takes prominence while another recedes. I find it fairly easy to keep track of multiple works in progress, but to aid me, just in case, I have three large sheets of paper hanging on the wall of my kitchen acting as an open notebook. I take notes on themes and developments and further ideas. I have a number of pretty clear cut concerns which my projects return to, as I see it now. Though, of course, there is much which I am unconscious of, which I cannot map. Each project encourages the other, not so much in relation to subject, but perhaps just as an index of quality. The projects can differ, and usually do, greatly. A visual poetic project floating half-finished while I focus on a conceptual text, while at the back of my mind an unfinished project (which doesn't know what it is) continues to assert itself with questions as to attention and possible avenues of execution. The holes which persist in unfinished work might end up being informed by projects that come to the forefront. Usually I have a very clear idea of how a project is to be executed. I don’t really have to compartmentalize each individual one in order to retain my understanding of them. Each project is a clear cut path, and it’s in the doing, the actual work, where the thinking happens.

Q: You’ve had a small handful of chapbooks emerge over the past year or so. How do you see your work developing? Where do you see your work headed?

A: My work has been increasingly focused on the visual. Vispo is not my main concern in poetry, but for some reason that is what I have been producing. Certain curiosities, I suppose, have led me into investigations into what visual poetry is and can be. I enjoy testing the limits of forms. I have a couple visual poetry projects which I have finished, and for both projects I have continued a train of thought concerning reduction and a focus on materiality which have led to or are leading to further projects directly related to those recently finished works. It seems like I have a number of projects that will become triptychs (consciously using the visual term, rather than trilogy).

Where I have been producing work that is not visual, again, it is the testing of formal limits. My recently released work Zoning Cycle which I published through my new small press Simulacrum Press, is a conceptual work which locates the words of the poem not on the page, but directs the reader to the world outside, the speech of us, as it happens. I don’t know where my work is headed. I have a vision, but it is a vague one, one which is unveiled with time—which is very exciting.

Q: I’m curious about your influences; what works or authors have influenced the shapes of your current work? What or who are you thinking of when you’re attempting to craft new poetry?

A: That’s a rather long list... but seminal moments in my life in art are: Listening to Bells by Albert Ayler (I couldn’t make sense of what I was hearing so I listened and listened and listened until -POP- I got it). This particular moment in music was a threshold I crossed where art, for myself, became no longer necessarily an engagement with compassion/ empathy/ enjoyment, and was re-positioned as a pedagogical method where one engaged with new modes of being (in space, in the body). Later... Jake Kennedy gave me a copy of Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault’s The Magnetic Fields (I couldn’t get over this book for a long time). Then found Rimbaud. Then Gertrude Stein (read and read and read till red). William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit. Duchamp, Cage, Sun Ra........ Oulipo, Situationism........ the concept of psychogeography..... Robert Grenier’s Sentences and Cambridge M’ass.... Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter, and her sumptuous VOX. The list, of course, goes on....

It is very difficult for me to explain, not the thought process, but the process of becoming, which leads to a work. I have a feeling of a place that I am moving toward, and either the work that I take up confirms my proximity to, or my remoteness from, that place. I will likely never get to that place, the arena of the actual.

I think sometimes it is just a series of misunderstandings. Take Artaud’s scream. This was a method of deterritorialization, for him. But, from here where I stand, each time, the scream was a poem. Of course, a knowledge of performance art aids in that laconic misreading of a gesture. But... what were we speaking about?

Q: You mention fragments and misreadings; what do you feel they allow in or for your work that might not have been possible otherwise? What is it about the structures of accident that appeals?

A: How one reads. Do I read well? What does that mean? I am always envious when I read erudite analysis of art work. It seems so far from me, even now as I assert myself at the center of creation (in my own little world). If I am creative, it is that I steal very badly. I read, observe, listen, and come to understand a concept—one which may very well be quite off the mark—(but what of that?) and sometimes I act on that understanding, or misunderstanding. This is so common, it is the subjective experience of art. In the end, I usually find that a misreading of a work is a subconscious assertion of my creative desire which modifies, sometimes so far as to make it unrecognizable, the work or works at hand. So, Artaud’s scream was not a poem, but that’s not to say it shouldn’t be. I continually see artists manufacturing the lineage of their practice. Visual poets are prolific manufacturers of lineage. They will draw from every corner—and rarely were the sources they pull into their wake ever intended as part of any literary lineage.

As to accident, I tend to agree with Pollock’s There is no accident.

Q: If you are only creative in that you “steal very badly,” what is your take on “uncreative writing” (as Kenneth Goldsmith calls it)?

A: It’s just another mode of composition. It takes the root of influence and exposes it. I have been heavily influenced by the work of Goldsmith and other conceptualist writers. I love the effect of such work as his Soliloquy, for instance, or some works by Rob Fitterman. I have no issue with plagiarist techniques. They are boldly so, and they are not passing as something else. The effect they have on me (this is a general description) is to push me as far away as possible from the notion of poetry, push me far enough away that I can recognize it re-energized. I’ve come across this also with early works of Bernadette Mayer and recently, David Anton. People who didn’t/don’t need poetry to be poetic (at least in any traditional sense) and who arrived at a poetry which is alive.

Some uncreative writing leaves me wanting. Of course, that is to be expected, isn’t it? But I believe that it isn’t, or needn’t be, as boring as it is said to be. If you hear Kenneth Goldsmith reading The Weather, he reads it well, it is a performance, and the audience responds to it, they are engaged by the performance, they laugh (not at) and are really listening. That’s more than can be said for most readings. Some of the conceptual work I have published is very dead and boring on the page—but performed, it opens a latent energy its holes leave room for: how does one read this? It can be given this way, and this way is wonderful.

Q: You might have answered much of this already, but who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: I come back to Gertrude Stein, Anne Carson, Rosmarie Waldrop, Bukowski, Hart Crane, Kenneth Goldsmith, Kafka, Andre Breton, Ron Silliman, Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, Rimbaud, Perec, Susan Howe, Julio Cortazar, Roberto Bolano, Italo Calvino.... and more. Specific works that draw me back are The Magnetic Fields by Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault, If Not, Winter by Anne Carson, The Alphabet by Ron Silliman, Tender Buttons by Stein, Lawn of Excluded Middle by Rosmarie Waldrop, the Against Expression anthology edited by Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje, the Yi Jing (I Ching), The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen's Three Hundred Koans, and those mentioned in previous questions.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

TtD supplement #99 : seven questions for Claire Lacey

Claire Lacey is a Canadian writer currently living and working in Hull, England. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Calgary. Her first book, Twin Tongues, won the 2013 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Her work has appeared in publications including The Windsor Review’s Best 35 Under 35 issue, Dandelion Magazine, Filling Station, Dusie, Poetry is Dead, and Dreamland. Claire is currently working on her second book, which is about her recovery from a brain injury and subsequent (or is that consequent?) move across the Atlantic.

Her poem “Hull 2017” appears in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Hull 2017.”

A: Hull 2017 is a lament and a blossoming. It’s an ecopoem imagining the archeology of the future – as the oceans rise, rivers flood, coastal cities disappear. Will future archeologists shift the water the way we shift sand? What would they find on the riverbed of the Humber? The Hull? I watch at low tide and see the rubbish that lines the mud. There is litter everywhere here, a careless disposal of plastics, metals, glass. I worry for our world, I howl for our ecosystem, but at the same time there is beauty & even wonder in urban detritus.

In 2017 Hull was the UK City of Culture. It was a huge boom for the city, bringing funding, arts, tourists, and pride to the city. Some of the artwork has been staggering, amazing, provocative. Some has been mundane. Some has been thoughtless. I question, for instance, a newly refurbished town square filled with Lego daffodils for one week. Many of the shops surrounding the square sit empty, and have been decorated to make them appear less vacant. The flower installation brought colour and joy to passersby, and then the daffodils were auctioned off for people with enough money to take home and keep as a souvenir. Remember that time the city was beautiful? Remember when we made a temporary effort? Is there anything so capitalistic as a branded plastic flower? The square is now beige and wants for a garden, a bit of real greenery for not only people, but also insects and birds to enjoy... Hull has a few public green spaces, but could certainly use more. I was tempted to plant a flower bed myself. Maybe a shrubbery or two. Imagine an apple tree bearing fruit in the city centre!

But because of ever present CCTV, and the precariousness of committing a crime (is planting a garden really “antisocial behavior”?) on a temporary work visa, I am hesitant to engage in renegade gardening in England’s urban spaces. So this poem is my renegade garden, planted safely away from city council’s planning permissions process.

Q: How does this piece fit into the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I have been writing and rewriting the same poem since September 2014. Eventually, maybe, it will express what I need it to, or maybe form a manuscript that will. I have been writing around the dislocation of identity that accompanies a traumatic brain injury and chronic pain, the attempt to claim a “recovery process,” the desire to return to a former, more potent self. This text is situated in my own experience with a life-altering concussion sustained while playing roller derby.

More and more I am seeing an ecopoetics of riverbeds and injured bodies as a parallel text. Rivers collect detritus, but can appear clean from the surface. My injury manifested much the same way: cognitive impairment not immediately visible to the outside observer. Like the brain, a river can heal itself, but it needs the time and the resources to do so. Like the spine, a river communicates to the body of land around it, and when the signal is cut off, there is atrophy. But there is the potential for repair or rerouting, in some cases. The (my?) body is situated in and projected upon the surrounding landscape, both in sympathy and in defiance.

Q: Have you any models for this kind of work? And how did the injury change the way you approached writing? Did the shape of your writing alter as well?

A: I have many models, actually. Margaret Christakos comes immediately to mind, particularly her explorations of her mother’s post-stroke language in Multitudes. The unraveling of coherence, combined with an unrepentant personal lyricism, has been like scaffolding for my own thought process. Recently I encountered the work of playwright Shannon Yee, whose immersive multimedia production Reassembled: Slightly Askew deals with the subject matter of her own recovery from a brain injury caused by a sinus infection. It fascinated me largely because it is so very like audio work I created immediately after my head injury: raw, emotional diary recordings that I layered to echo the maddening noise and nonsense in my mind. Yee places the audience in a hospital setting – you lie down, blindfolded, to listen to a play recorded in binaural audio. It’s a dislocating experience, one that actual triggered physical symptoms in my body – headache, dizziness, pain – as my body related back to its own memory.

The way I approach writing has changed: it is more internal and troubling. While Twin Tongues was very political, it was also largely a work of fiction. Now my poetry is more autobiographical, and that is much more difficult for me, in an the-author-is-dead kind of anxious way. Which is ridiculous, as much of what I enjoy reading is deeply personal, narrative, dare I say confessional poetry. I am getting comfortable being less sly, less oblique, although I think even at my most melancholy & totes serial self on display the poetry remains a bit tongue-in-cheek. At readings the reaction has been staggering – very positive, and I've had others tell me how much they relate their own experience of stroke or concussion or mental illness to what I have written.

My writing is also less concerned at present with visual presentation, and is perhaps more performative in nature. I am very interested in sound & recording at present, and less with the book as an object. That said, I’ve just started some cut-up & collage work, so I might have to take back this statement by the time I have completed the manuscript. But hopefully my approach has grown & matured, and will be different than what I have produced before. If I repeat the same experiments enough times, eventually I’ll achieve a result, yes?!

Q: How does your more recent confessional strain interact with these collage experiments? Do they interact at all, or are they completely separate?

A: They are completely interactive, as I am currently chopping up old horror novels (in particular Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and layering them with both diary entries and medical texts related to concussion. I have also been working on a collage self-portraiture, trying to recreate the image of myself that I experienced through my concussion: a distorted, lopsided, Francis Baconesque self. These are not the eyes I remember having, but here they are in image after image...

Q: What do you feel the inclusion of text from old horror novels allows in your work that you wouldn’t be able to articulate otherwise? What is it about the language of classic horror, over more contemporary options, that appeals?

A: Horror, particularly classic horror, provides a familiar language to share an unfamiliar experience. The pervasiveness of the genre, with a handful of stories repeated across different mediums (books, movies, children’s cartoons, podcasts, etc), acts as a landmark from which to relate the less universal experience of traumatic brain injury. Horror also constantly examines identity and the body, the relationship between ethics and medicine/science, and probes into the nature of fear – it becomes a useful shorthand for these discombobulating questions.

Q: Do you see this poem as book-length? How does this process compare to putting together your first collection, Twin Tongues?

A:  I do see it as a book-length poem at the moment, though I reserve the right to change my mind on that front. Twin Tongues, which is some ways is also a book length poem with several interlocking sections, was written while I was in my Masters’ program. The book itself encapsulates my own processing of the theories I was studying – linguistic theory, post-structural theory, translation theory, post-colonial theory, pedagogical theory...and so the text is part research project, part ethical struggle. I was lucky enough to have a lot of input from peers and professors (a billion thank yous still owed). On the other hand, the current project starts with the interior and works outwards, trying to understand a massive life-changing event by reaching out – sometimes into pop culture, sometimes into theory. And it has been largely a solo project, as I have in many ways isolated myself from my communities – not on purpose, but leaving the academy, moving across the ocean, experiencing a massive injury all make it hard to stay in touch & discuss the projects & processes of writing. This actually makes publication much more intimidating, a more vulnerable experience because I am trusting my own judgement about what is ready enough, what is interesting enough for exposure.

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

A: This is a difficult question considering I gave up my poetry collection when I moved across the Atlantic, and more and more I find myself missing those books. But I find myself returning again and again to Margaret Christakos, Erín Moure, and NourbeSe Philip, and every time I carry away a new thought process, a new take on writing, reading, and the world. Recently I got into a beautiful little book by angela rawlings called Si Tu, which reflected a lot of my own thinking about embodiment and gave me a little feeling of affirmation. I’m also reading Suzette Mayr’s new novel, and her work always makes me want to get writing, get writing, and maybe someday write with such poignant and sarcastic insights into the people and places who make up this weird little world of ours.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

TtD supplement #98: seven questions for Anthony Etherin

Anthony Etherin is a UK-based writer of constrained, formal and experimental poetry. His poems have appeared online in The Account, Cordite Poetry Review and Nagari, among others, and he has had leaflets or chapbooks published by No Press, Spacecraft Press, Timglaset, and The Blasted Tree. He runs Penteract Press, a small press publishing poetry with an emphasis on structure. Find him on twitter, @Anthony_Etherin, and via anthonyetherin.wordpress.com.

His poems “Dracula (Palindrome-Sonnet)” and “Frankenstein (Anagram-Sonnet)” appear in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Dracula (Palindrome-Sonnet)” and “Frankenstein (Anagram-Sonnet).”

A: Over the last few years, I’ve experimented with a variety of styles of anagrammatic and palindromic poetry. Combining these constraints with the sonnet form is a particular favourite—its metrical and formal requirements make it a real challenge, but it’s not so lengthy or complex that it becomes unwieldy.

The palindromic sonnet, “Dracula”, was pieced together from a number of words abstracted from, or relating to, Stoker’s novel: Vampire, Mina, castle, etc. In general, I like my palindromes to exploit their subject’s unique vocabulary: Distinctive proper nouns, for instance, can, upon reversal, offer up phrases not otherwise palindromable. They keep things interesting.

Similarly, with “Frankenstein”, whose lines are perfect anagrams of each other, I began with a set of letters carefully chosen to feature specific words and phrases: Frankenstein, Prometheus, creature, and so on. It was then a case of taking these phrases and, using the remaining matter, stitching together a fitting commentary on the subject.

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

A: I do seem to have been writing a lot lately about nineteenth-century literature, for some reason: I had a small chapbook of poems based on the romantic poets published by No Press in January 2017, and my leaflet “The White Whale” presents two anagrammed palindromes on the subject of Moby Dick. “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” continue this (mostly unintentional) trend.

Stylistically, I am currently exploring how palindromes and anagrams interact with different traditional forms, and with each other. In addition to “The White Whale”, my leaflets via Penteract Press present a palindromic rondel and a palindromic sestina. My chapbook from No Press features mostly anagrammatic triolets. My current trajectory appears to be toward increasingly severe restrictions of this kind.

Q: What is it about working with such constraints appeals? I’ve at least a few friends who claim that the sonnet, for example, is an endlessly mutable form. What is it you feel working in such forms allow that wouldn’t be possible otherwise?

A: I enjoy the interplay between freedom and restriction, between what I intend to say and what I’m forced into saying—that is, between creation and (in a sense) discovery. I find it fun, and I think it produces interesting results: moments of uncanniness; curious images or turns of phrase that I would otherwise not think up.

The greatest constrained poems are always those which, despite themselves, manage to produce moments of melody and meaning. With simpler, non-combinatorial constraints, it is, in fact, quite possible to produce meaningful, lyric works—to, in a sense, ‘hide’ the constraint. Naturally, the more severe the rules, the harder this becomes, and one must make compromises between the traditional virtues of poetry and the more conceptual aesthetic of the restriction itself. It’s not always easy abandoning lyricism in service of the constraint; however, neither would I be satisfied abandoning the latter for the former. (Lyrical ‘flaws’ are, one might argue, not necessarily flaws when in service of a structural ideal.) So, at least in more advanced combinatorial constraints, there’s an aesthetic negotiation between concept and content going on, which I find compelling.

You mention the mutability of forms like the sonnet, and the same is true of stricter constraints. Despite the strictures of palindromism (for example) every palindromist I know has a different and distinctive “voice”—which is quite remarkable: No matter the limitations we impose, individuality finds a way through.

Q: With a small handful of leaflets and chapbooks under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I’ve been very prolific over the last two years, and that’s mostly down to the confidence I’ve gained from the way people have responded to my work. It has allowed me to take more risks—to see how far I can push things structurally. That said, I feel that some of the things I am currently working on are taking lettristic restrictions about as far as I am willing to go—so, my plan, when this particular journey ends, is to loosen my shackles a little. I’d also like to compose more concrete poetry.

Q: Who have been your models so far for creating work? What authors have prompted you to rethink the ways in which you compose?

A: I enjoy most styles of poetry, and I have many influences, both avant-garde and traditional. Thematically, I like the scientific and the metaphysical—Borges is a huge influence. However, I also have a fondness for romantic and pastoral themes. Stylistically, I am influenced by writers willing to take those more daring excursions into formal experimentation. Georges Perec immediately comes to mind.

Among current writers, my biggest influence is Christian Bök, who continues to produce fascinating and brilliant work. I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know him, over this last year, and it’s great how supportive he’s been of my poetry. Another Canadian poet, Derek Beaulieu, has been very supportive and influential too, in particular while establishing my micropress, Penteract Press—a venture that has itself had a surprisingly significant impact on how I approach and compose poems.

Q: After putting together pamphlets and chapbook manuscripts, what is your process of putting together a full-length manuscript? What are the challenges?

A: I like working on short and detailed projects. I’m able to concentrate for long periods of time; however, I’m always in a rush to get things finished. I’m obsessive, but I’m also very impatient. In this regard, pamphlet-sized projects suit me well. I guess, the challenges of writing a full-length manuscript are to avoid becoming too distracted by new ideas, and to commit to creating a set of thematically similar or interconnected works, rather than a loose assemblage of disparate projects.

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

A: I’m reenergised by interesting ideas; theories of art and science are a constant source of inspiration, as are poems and novels of a meditative or philosophical nature—I’ve already mentioned Moby Dick, which is a good example. I’ve also mentioned Borges: While maybe not Borges’ best work, Dreamtigers, his collection of concise meditations, is a book I frequently dip into.

Other times, I’ll turn to the work of other constrained poets, such as Bök and the Oulipo. (Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is, like Dreamtigers, rarely out of reach.) There’s also the work of contemporaries elsewhere in the avant-garde, and the poetry flowing through my twitter timeline. I don’t lack inspiration, these days.