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.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

TtD supplement #97 : seven questions for Catriona Strang

Catriona Strang’s latest book is Reveries of a Solitary Biker (Talon 2017); she recently edited The Gorge: Selected Writings of Nancy Shaw (Talon, 2017). She frequently collaborates with musicians and other writers. She is the former editor of The Capilano Review and Mum to two kids. She lives in Vancouver on unceded Coast Salish territory.

Her poem “On Not Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, gleanings for Louis Cabri” appears in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “On Not Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, gleanings for Louis Cabri.”

A: I was visiting my friends Louis Cabri and Nicole Marcotić last summer here in Vancouver, saw a copy of Chapman’s Homer lying around, and made a weak joke about how I should write “On Not Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”. And then I did. At the time I was reading quite a lot about caring labour and its continued invisibility, and about value and value-formation, which I used in the piece.

I also bike around Vancouver a lot, and often check our network of book exchanges while doing so. I love book exchanges, and got a city grant to put one up on our street, which our neighbour, the sculptor Juga Kitanovic, built. I think it’s the most wonderful book exchange in town. I can send you a picture if you like. Anyway, I’ve found some great stuff in book exchanges over the years, including books on women’s labour in the 19th century and lots of weird old recipe pamphlets with wonderful mid-century graphics. I've been wanting to do something with them for ages. “On Not Looking” is what happened when I combined those book exchange finds with my reading on caring labour and value.

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

A: It’s a continuation of the work I’ve been doing lately; in fact, it’s the epilogue to a larger work entitled Reveries of a Solitary Biker, a response to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker in the form of a deck of cards set to music, which was published by Talon last fall.  I think “Chapman’s Homer” is less sparse and more direct than the rest of my Reveries poems, though, but like them it is also directly related to my experiences as a care provider, whose work is for the most part invisible and undervalued, even by me.

Q: I’m curious in your work composed as responses to other work. Corked (Talonbooks, 2014), for example, was composed as “poetic responses to Proust.” What is it about the “response” that appeals, and why the response to specific literary works? What is it that drives you to respond to such works, in such ways?

A: Isn’t thought embedded in language? Isn’t reading thinking? And aren’t we always in some kind of conversation with our colleagues, our friends, the writers we’re reading? So for me a response is a way of carrying on that conversation, of moving through thinking in writing. With Corked, I had things I really wanted to talk to Proust about directly (I mean, there are issues there, particularly for female readers) so I wrote to him. But my newer work, Reveries of a Solitary Biker, is not solely or primarily a conversation with Rousseau; my Reveries use his as a starting point, and in some ways ape its form – the playing cards in the pocket, the “aimless” wandering, the simultaneous interrogation of the self and of the self’s social construction. But to return to your question, I’d say I’m driven to respond as a way of continuing the conversation, if that makes sense.

Q: Given your four published books, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Progressed, hey? It’s certainly changed, but I don’t know about progression. I’ll have to think about what’s changed and get back to you. But I can tell you that I’ve no idea where it might be headed.

Q: Is that deliberate on your part? Is your writing moving intuitively, then, towards and through what interests you at any given time?

A: Hmm. I don’t really know how to answer this question. Yes, of course, for me writing is a way of thinking through my current concerns. But it also forms them. Lately my writing has also been a means of examining, unpicking, and maybe even defending my life choices, which is new for me. But I think I’m done with that for now. I don’t know what will come next. I'm currently in a lull. They can last for a while. For now I’ll read.

Q: I’m curious about what you mean by that, “defending your life choices.” Can you speak to that at all?

A: Sure. I’m referring to my choice to carry out reproductive and caring labour for the last two decades, labour that remains largely outside the realm of exchange, and is therefore unremunerated and invisible. I’ve been reading a lot about this lately, but I've been living it for much longer.

Q: Do you tend to move quickly from project to project in a linear fashion, or do projects overlap? How do books get made?

A: I don’t move quickly at all! I’m a slow writer, and I read a lot for projects. I’m usually working on one project at a time, for at least a couple of years at a time. I might write the odd bit of occasional verse every now and then, but even those seem to reflect or partake in my current concerns. I tend to gather masses of notes, and then start trying to see what might happen with them, while continuing to read.

I find that deadlines help books get made. My neighbour, the visual artist Kelly Haydon, offered to be my “deadline” when I was writing Corked. I had to show her a new poem every week. If I didn’t, I had to make a donation to the Christian Heritage Party. I had to beg for extensions a few times, but that really got me working steadily! This was after I’d amassed a lot of notes and needed to start working with them, and stop getting distracted by more books, or my garden, or cooking, or knitting, or my kids…there’s always something else that needs doing.

With that threat hanging over me, I never missed a deadline…

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

A: Oooh, I don’t like this question. Answers to it have a tendency to turn into a kind of public performance of self. I read all the time, for solace, for pleasure, for comfort, for research, for clarification, for inspiration, for focus, as a means of thinking through our shared confusion. Late at night I often read 19th century novels.

Monday, February 19, 2018

TtD supplement #96 : seven questions for A.M. O’Malley

A.M. O’Malley’s poems have most recently been published in several print and online publications including Gramma, Poor Claudia, The Nervous Breakdown, The Newer York and The Portland Review. Ms. O’Malley teaches writing and book arts at Portland Community College and is the Executive Director of a small literary arts nonprofit called The Independent Publishing Resource Center (www.iprc.org) in Portland, OR.

Six poems in her work-in-progress “DEAR BROTHER” appear in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the six “DEAR BROTHER” poems included here.

A: The poems are an excerpt from a book length epistolary to my baby brother who was deprived of oxygen at birth and was brain damaged as a result. The poems are each parts of a larger narrative from me to him.

Q: Do you see these poems as a conversation you’re having with him, or as homage? Or even both? What have been your models, if any, when working this project?

A: The poems are a conversation with him that I can’t actually have in real life. A huge inspiration for me was NOX by Anne Carson and Bluets by Maggie Nelson.

Q: How do the poems in this project compare or relate to your other work?

A: I have never written in this epistolary form before but as is true with all my work I find that the form found me. I have never been one to pound language into form. I tend to start writing and let the form take hold.

Q: If not epistolary, what forms have you worked prior? And, given the epistolary is something you’ve only recently begun to explore, have there been any surprises in working with the form?

A: Much of my work defies easy categorization. I am a poet who often writes prose; a memoirist who writes evocative, lyrical passages that can only be called poetry. My first book, Expecting Something Else, was considered by some to be memoir and by others to be poetry. I think that genre is a generality, like gender, and generalities are often boring. The epistolary form provided me with an immediate intimacy and an ability to tell a story from the middle or the end or wherever else I deemed fit.

Q: You mention Anne Carson and Maggie Nelson; what other writers or works have been important to your work?

A: Yes, I am a deep admirer of Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson but I would also want to credit Eileen Myles, Mary Karr, Jenny Boully, Brenda Shaughnessy and Claudia Rankine—all of whom achieve what I want in terms of genre-bending and getting at the personal through means other than memoir.

Q: I’m curious: what made you approach this project as a loose suite of self-contained poems, each sharing the same title?

A: The poems are meant as a one sided correspondence. So, the “title” is really just the salutation one would find on any poem. And, like all letters, the poems meander and go in and out of time and subject.

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

A: The authors I just named (Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine). The particular works I revisit are Bluets, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Nox, Autobiography of Red & Argonauts are all touchstones for me.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

TtD supplement #95 : seven questions for Julia Polyck-O'Neill

Julia Polyck-O’Neill is an artist, curator, critic, and writer. She is a doctoral candidate in Brock University’s Interdisciplinary Humanities program (Culture and Aesthetics), where she is completing a SSHRC-funded interdisciplinary and comparative critical study of contemporary conceptualist literature and art in Vancouver. She has taught in contemporary visual culture in the department of Visual Arts at the Marilyn I. Walker School, and is currently a visiting lecturer at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. She also curates the award-winning Borderblur Reading Series in St Catharines. Her writing has been published in B.C. Studies, Feminist Spaces, Tripwire, Fermenting Feminisms (a project of the Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology, curated by Lauren Fournier), and The Avant Canada Anthology (WLU Press, 2017), and her debut chapbook, femme, was published in 2016 by above/ground press.

Her poems “on not wanting to sink.,” “optics make marks,” “blank Plath,” “new blank” and “for a video against the mythology of everyday life” appear in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “on not wanting to sink.,” “optics make marks,” “blank Plath,” “new blank” and “for a video against the mythology of everyday life.”

A: I’m very interested in the ways that visual and literary texts interact, and how visual narratives or phenomena might be translated to writing. The concepts of intermediality and interdisciplinarity are important in my writing practice more broadly (as someone studying conceptualist art and writing), but in my poetry, I’m often dealing with the challenges of using language to represent visual ideas and phenomena; I’m intrigued by the idea of the indirect path between mediums. (I hesitate to refer to this as translation; it’s more of a conversation. It’s necessarily hazier.) This is at once a simple and frustratingly complicated exercise, as it builds from the history of representational codes and the ways that language and its structures often fail to account for the nuance of the visual, and also for lived experience. At the same time, I’m working through a politics of gender inbuilt within these representational codes, mainly in that I prioritize women’s texts as my primary sources. In my writing, I attempt to encounter the affect of working through theory and poetry in women’s writing and in my own praxis. As well, I pay attention to the embodied struggle of working between visual and literary texts, as recorded in these writings or in my own experience as an emerging scholar and writer. These poems are about the feminine self as a body working, performing. I want to draw attention to the (often visceral) labour inherent to feminist thinking and writing.

My poems, “on not wanting to sink.,” “optics make marks,” “blank Plath,” “new blank,” and “for a video against the mythology of everyday life,” are written in response to texts I’m reading and grappling with, intellectually and emotionally. I encounter books and essays as constellations of ideas, and I attempt to distill these in my writing—often, by writing. I record and translate the work of reading feminist theory and poetics in my poetry, interspersing passages of primary texts with my private reflections on the material. In this, my writing is often dialogical. Poems take the form of short, amorphous dialogues with my readings and my struggle to come to terms with challenging feelings and ideas—feelings and ideas that pertain to feminine autonomy and institutional, structural oppression. “blank Plath,” “new blank,” and “for a video against the mythology of everyday life” took shape as response pieces in this way, and were triggered by a need to signal an empathy for the poetic voice, or the poetics of voice, in the original texts. “on not wanting to sink” and “optics make marks,” which open this suite, emerge from my reflection on how the speaking subject might assume agency within otherwise hopeless situations, particularly from within the structure of the gaze as framed in canonical representational theories, such as the psychoanalytic theories of Freud or Jacques Lacan and their followers, as they pertain to narrative and women’s bodies. This said, I don’t only write within a para-academic frame, but also as a mode of self-sustenance, as a femme woman navigating the world and attempting to reconcile my encounters with complexity in text and visuality.

Q: How do these pieces relate to other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: As I suggest above, these works are part of a larger poetic process adjacent to and intersecting with my academic work and thinking, as well as being a mode for sustaining the creative identity that I more or less actively suppress in my professional life (I originally trained as a studio artist, and have worked as a curator). Last year, I was invited to present my academic work at a concrete poetry conference alongside some of my poetry heroes (Renee Gladman, for instance! And Sarah Dowling! And Jordan Abel! The list goes on…), and I was prompted to begin to think about the possibility of working in visual poetics, instead of simply studying them as a scholar. So, this work is part of a larger project that I’m building in that I’m building towards a visual literary practice from a literary visual practice.

Q: What does that mean in terms of your overall perspective of what you’re attempting, moving from scholar to creator?

A: I understand myself primarily in terms of a doubled-identity that shifts between and/or layers these roles. My appreciation of specific poetics and aesthetics as an interpreter and critic borrows directly and indirectly from my own practical knowledge of making and doing; as a studio artist I used text, language, and collage in my installation work, and was fascinated by artists and writers who prioritized process in lieu of the finished piece. This orientation follows me in my research interests, where I gravitate to the practices of makers, theorists, and critics who think openly and visibly, their thoughts taking on the form of a double helix, often doubling back in a process of revision and/or repetition. The forms that fascinate me are often experimental, self-reflexive, and driven by conceit or constraint, though often not overtly. Intellectually-driven, but without being devoid of politics or heart. Sharp and soft. Affect is important. Coming back to my role as “creator,” I like to assert my agency as a participant, as an active reader in the work, but without erasing the original writer’s autonomy as author, although that’s a risk I recognize I take in using and borrowing from extant text. I think my relationship to text has changed as I’ve started teaching, too, particularly in my current position, as a visiting lecturer in American Studies in Mainz, Germany. Thinking about the intermixing of roles and their various intersections, teaching has taught me a certain concrete responsibility to the text, an ethics, an ethos that was previously atomized and intangible in my approach to writing and making. All of this a work in progress, a process.

Q: You’ve so far published a chapbook through above/ground press. Do you see your work forming into publishable shapes, whether chapbook or book-length forms? Are these even things you see yourself aiming towards, or are you simply allowing your projects to emerge as they will?

A: Publishing and sharing my work with a public is new to me, as I’ve always considered my praxis to be a private method of working through my thoughts, of recording. The thrilling-terrifying phenomenon of my work circulating is something I’m working through in both my creative and academic work; it’s funny to me that both circuits are being activated at the same time. But publishing is important; participation in the conversations, the emanations, that make up a community, whether literary and creative or academic is important, both to the individual voice and to the health of the collective.

The idea of an audience is something I’m coming to terms with. When the above/ground chapbook came out, I was surprised at how many people approached me to share their impressions, or simply show support. (My work was even reviewed in ARC Poetry Magazine by a poet I deeply admire, Nikki Sheppy.) I was similarly delighted by the response to my poem on the Dusie blog (a sort of homage to Eileen Myles). I’ve also been awakened to how poetry can fit in experimental, interdisciplinary artistic contexts, such as when I was invited to contribute to curator Lauren Fournier’s project, Fermenting Feminisms, with the Laboratory of Aesthetics and Ecology, published by Broken Dimanche Press. To address the question less obliquely, though, I do see my work shifting into publishable forms, and am painstakingly assembling a full-length manuscript, written largely in response to research related to my teaching and the slow accumulation of my dissertation.

Q: What was it that finally prodded your work into the public? Is there a difference in the way you see or approach your work now that you’ve been emerging into more public spaces?

A: Engaging with public spaces, for my writing and other creative pursuits, has generally been eased along by specific opportunities and invitations. Although I love performing and am certainly not one to shy away from public speaking (I also curate the Borderblur Reading series in St Catharines, for instance), sharing my creative work at this time in my career has felt quite different from the way it did when I was a young artist, naïve and unafraid of critical response. There is more at stake. In some ways, because I wrote and produced work at a formative age (which is when I uncovered my inclination to work in and with process), then withdrew to explore other dimensions of myself and create a version of stability, then returned to my praxis by means of my all-consuming academic work, I’m more immersed in the critical discussions that gird specific communities and forms. Which is useful in a plethora of ways, but such an awareness intensifies the experience of releasing work into the dense ether. Working with a doctoral supervisor, Gregory Betts, who works creatively and theorizes experimental production, has been extremely useful in helping me to feel comfortable both with the work I produce, and with its circulation. Although I’m fortunate to have several academic and artistic mentors, he was the first person whose attentive reading of my writing garnered a trust that my work might be publishable; he also introduced me to creative and scholarly networks that actively contribute to the shaping and development of my writing and thinking practice, as a means to participate in formal and political conversations. Such introductions have been key to building confidence and opening doors that are otherwise extremely challenging to negotiate from the outside. So, voice, agency, and also feeling welcome have been key in sharing my work.

Q: What kinds of works has he presented that have helped? And how, specifically, have they?

A: Although I had an extant interest in the influence of critical theory and art history on writing, Gregory introduced me to some of the histories, intersections, and controversies inherent to uncreative and conceptual writing strategies, as well as drawing out how a practical and critical interest in curation might be negotiated and applied to my writing practice. Importantly, he also helped me to find how these histories are reflected in Canadian and transnational North American writing communities, which has been tremendously influential in the development of my research. These ‘revelations’ also led to the evolution and expansion of the methods that underlie how my visual and writing practices interconnect, giving my written work a greater sense of personal significance and belonging, or community-orientation.

Gregory was also the first person to recommend that I look at Lisa Robertson’s work in my MA project about postmodernism and Vancouver’s geographies and creative economies, which has led me to continue working with her, both for my academic work and in my creative writing. Occasional Work and Seven Walks for the Office of Soft Architecture (2004) represents one of the first prose poetry works I encountered in a meaningful, sustained way, revealing to me how interdisciplinary creative and critical work can be combined, how language can be simultaneously evocative, agile, unremitting, and beautiful. And how feminist praxis can be all of these things.

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

A: In addition to the works I study academically (and admittedly, the gap between my academic and non-academic selves continues to narrow), I tend to return often to texts by feminist philosophers and theorists whose work speaks to me on an intimate level. I remember learning to find a path through dense works by reimagining them as therapeutic texts, designed to walk the reader through problems or phenomena and propose new ways of conceptualizing these problems or phenomena, rendering specific intellectual and/or emotional-affective challenges productive. Sara Ahmed and Rosi Braidotti come to mind most readily, as their writings bridge concerns of the mind and subjectivity with physical realities, or experiences of embodiment, and also weave together and challenge intellectual traditions and inheritances with contemporary queries about feminist survival. Or survivance; I’ve also recently been writing about feminist Indigenous media practices in Canada, and have found that Indigenous feminisms address related ideas from the perspective of land and body, often in relation to legacies of settler colonialism. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s essay “Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation” (2014) provided one of my first introductions to these ideas, and the work remains inspiring.

I was lucky to study one-on-one, in a directed reading course, with feminist existential philosopher Christine Daigle, and she and I put together a personalized (and rigorous!) syllabus with the aim of tracing the relationships between continental philosophy and avant-gardist poetics. The experience helped me to realize, by means of building a specific lexicon and testing ideas by writing, how my seemingly-eccentric way of simultaneously thinking through concepts and responding emotionally can be approached by means of theory, thought, and argumentation. And so reading philosophy can be tremendously energizing and affirming, especially in relation to poetics and self. Returning to poetry as a reading and thinking practice while actively contemplating such ideas helps generate writing that reflects particular moments in the development of a sense of agency and autonomy, and this feels important at this particular moment.

Monday, January 29, 2018

TtD supplement #94 : seven questions for Kyle Flemmer

Kyle Flemmer is an author, editor, and publisher from Calgary. He founded The Blasted Tree Publishing Company in 2014 (theblastedtree.com). Kyle’s most recent chapbooks are Astral Projection (above/ground press, 2017), Lunar Flag Assembly Kit (no press, 2017), and PRAY/LEWD (The Blasted Tree, 2016).

His poems “White Dwarfs,” “Yellow Dwarfs” and “Blue Giants” appear in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “White Dwarfs,” “Yellow Dwarfs” and “Blue Giants.”

A: There is something about the nuclear processes at the heart of a star which I find fascinating – the outward push of an explosion set against the star’s own collapsing weight, these two unfathomably violent forces inextricable from the life of a star. Fission and fusion reactions can be reduced to the interaction of mere atoms, tiny particles colliding, combining, and dividing. There is a necessary and powerful interplay between the individual particles of any star, the characteristics of that star, and its ultimate fate. Some stars die very slowly while others burn bright and explode relatively early. Put simply, the contents of a star determine its manner of living and eventual death.

These poems draw parallels between various stellar classifications and some particular archetypes of human mortality. Like stars, human beings have distinct pressures that lead to different ways of living and dying, and we eulogize them in certain familiar patterns: the religious martyr, the war hero, the tragic suicide, the hanged convict, and so on. I’ve approached these patterns through the language of astrophysics (laced with allusion to various texts of historical import) in an attempt to bridge the gap between a scientific understanding of the physical universe and the fundamental causes of human life and culture.

Written first, “White Dwarfs” most clearly situates humanity within the rise and fall of the cosmos. The manner of living and dying it speaks to is cultural canonization (especially that of white, Western thinkers to the exclusion of everyone else) by tackling thinkers with a tendency to universalize, like Hegel and Kant. “Yellow Dwarfs” speaks to religious violence and martyrdom, suggesting that the ‘cosmic oneness’ espoused by many religious institutions is undermined by the inherent divisiveness of their language. Lastly, “Blue Giants” is about a very particular type of suicide; the seemingly unavoidable suicide of young, successful figures like Curt Cobain, Sylvia Plath, or Dido, Queen of Carthage. These stars burn fast and bright, explode furiously, and scatter traces of themselves across time and space.

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

A: When I close my eyes and imagine the coolest book I can think of, I picture a comprehensive astronomy textbook written in poetry. I’m interested in how our understanding of the cosmos shapes the way we understand ourselves. We know more than ever about the universe, and we’ve begun to reach out and touch the heavens we have only observed until now. Poetry is closely associated with the expression of cosmic understanding, and when there is a paradigm shift in that understanding, we must also see a shift in how poetry communicates that new knowledge. To my mind, these discourses belong together. I fear there is a gap widening between our scientific and poetic understandings of the universe (and our place within it), and my work in this vein endeavors to address and close the gap.

The above project is more a prime directive I’m chipping away at in the background all the time than it is a discrete objective, so I try not to force it, and a lot of my day-to-day practice lately has involved visual poetry, or some other form of writing I can generate more spontaneously. This takes some of the internal pressure off the long-term project, and I can enjoy both approaches more fully.

Q: How big is this project? Is this something you see as book-length, potentially?

A: It’s hard to say precisely how large a project on space exploration should be – perhaps it is unbounded. I think of it as a pursuit that encompasses multiple sub-projects which will grow alongside the development of our space programs. Events like the Cassini spacecraft’s intricate flight around and death spiral into Saturn are happening with some frequency these days, and each of these encounters with the unknown is a human accomplishments worth enshrining in our discourse.

I’ve already published two chapbooks along these lines, the first being Lunar Flag Assembly Kit (The Blasted Tree, 2016; reissued by No Press, 2017), which uses statements of fact like building blocks to unfold the story of each American flag deployed during the Apollo program. Then I wrote Astral Projection (above/ground Press, 2017), a series of fragmented poems about specific asteroids and their classification, simulating the process astronomers undertake when studying the history of and relationships between these projectiles. So yes, there is potential for book-length works within the scope of the project. What’s most important for me at that stage is be the proper arrangement of sub-projects into cohesive volumes; I’m not totally convinced that the above two chapbooks belong in the same book as each other, nor with poems from the star suite appearing in Touch the Donkey. There is so much rich material in each sub-topic of astronomy (and our ever-changing relationship to this information) that I could ever exhaust their potential.

Q: This suggests you’re not even thinking about a book yet, but in simply letting the project expand organically, allowing potential chapbook-sized and/or book-sized manuscripts to evolve as they will. What kind of models, if any, have you had for this project?

A: How could I not be thinking of books!? I do every day. The problem is one of sufficient development. I don’t see many of the trajectories I’ve established for myself, trajectories that might neatly be encapsulated into books, as properly fulfilled yet. But the wheels are turning. I would peg myself halfway between a programmatic and an organic writer, meaning I have laid down the bones of books, but they shall take some time to flesh out satisfactorily.

As models, I have taken poets such as Sina Queyras and Christian Bök, both of whom employ conceptualist or process-oriented techniques to explore specific ideas or lines of inquiry. Bök’s Xenotext has been particularly influential on my thinking, so far as the need to predetermine experimental goals and write toward them. Queyras taught me that several well-developed lines of inquiry must intersect in and amplify through a lyric body, which is a good approximation of what a poet is doing as they write a book. Ken Hunt has two forthcoming poetry collections about space exploration that look really exciting, and I can’t help but follow his lead. Actually, our poetry was quite similar even before we met, and I’ve thought about how I should distinguish my projects from his in the future. Otherwise, I try to emulate poets who take on technical or otherwise specialized language, using these restrictions to articulate some wider human understanding; Helen Hajnoczky’s Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, Larissa Lai’s Automaton Biographies, and Josef Kaplan’s Democracy is not for the People leap to mind.

Q: What is it about the restriction that appeals? What does it allow you to articulate that you might not have been able to otherwise?

A: Writing of any kind involves choices on behalf of the author: what to write about, in what style, how the ideas should be arranged, what effect one hopes to achieve, etc. Restrictions are nothing more than clearly articulated decisions made about the writing beforehand. The main reason I establish a few significant constraints is so they can act as my roadmap and program. Consciously adopted restrictions are controllable variables – helpful during both the writing and editing processes. A blank page offers very little toward making your decisions, but a well-devised set of constraints tells you where the poem begins and when it is fulfilled. Instead of closing off potential, they define what is possible within the space of the poem you have choosen to inhabit. Practically speaking, if the big decisions are already made (about form, for example), then I feel free to focus on minutia, or even better, to lose focus and allow associative leaps, imaginative detritus, and spontaneous inspiration to fill out the structures already in place.

Q: How did you first become engaged in merging your interests in science and poetry? How does such an expansive project begin?

A: It’s difficult to pinpoint where my interests in the overlap between science and poetry began, but the earliest memory I have of this link is of learning a mnemonic device in elementary school for remembering the order of the planets. We were taught that science, literature, art, math, and so on were discrete subjects, but I remember thinking this sing-song mnemonic from Science class was essentially like the poetry we read in English. And yet, by the time high school rolled around, the distinction between science and literature had been firmly entrenched in my mind. In fact, I had an English teacher who actively discouraged challenging the boarders between subjects (I wrote her prose poems about the solar system she flatly denied were poetry), and this left in me a sort of mental sliver I’ve been trying to work out ever since. Why the stubborn resistance to mixing traditionally separate subject matters? Why the forced distinction between left- and right-brained people?

Of course, I’m nowhere near the first to raise concerns with the false dichotomy between art and science, but it took repeated exposure to critiques of the split before I was able to articulate the problem for myself. On the Nature of Things by Lucretius was the first sustained meditation on scientific understanding I encountered couched in verse. His method of encoding difficult ideas in an easily digestible form left a deep impression on me. I began to think more seriously about how a similar project could be undertaken in the present. Once sensitized to this idea, other authors lent validation to my thinking: Levi-Strauss and the notion of anthropological bricolage; Bök’s fusion of minerology and poetry in Crystallography; a whole host of science fiction authors making bold satirical statements about our world. Then, finally, Heidegger’s equation of the Greek terms “techne” and “poiesis,” offered as congruent methods for revealing truth, transformed my preoccupation with this project into an imperative.

As to undertaking such a scheme, I have chosen to start close to home. My earliest poetic experiments in this area were concerned with the moon, our closest neighbor, and with the cultural and political significance of the lunar landings. I’m particularly interested in how our relationship to these most impressive feats of human engineering have changed over time. That interest has spread rapidly to other unsung feats of space exploration; the extraordinary success of the four Martian rovers, Voyager’s entry into deep space, the modular evolution of the International Space Station, and so on. “White Dwarfs” and the other stellar poems in Touch the Donkey are my first attempt to move outside the solar system, addressing our place within the universe as a whole.

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

A: Plato. I always come back to Plato. Honestly, to reenergize my creative practice I feel I need to get as far away from poetry as possible. So I read political history, critical theory, philosophy, mathematics, and so forth, subjects which demand the same mental rigor as poetry, but without foregrounding their aesthetic dimensions. Excursion into this stuff not only enriches my own work with new material, it helps train my brain to keep up with the brilliant, boundary-pushers working in contemporary poetry, very few of whom pull their punches when it comes to deep thinking. Which is where Plato enters my picture; his dialogues don’t present a cohesive philosophical system, and I don’t think they’re meant to. Rather, he leads us through a series of complicated (and often inconsistent) mental gymnastics. The problem when confronting Plato is not merely to grasp his version of truth, but to follow each maneuver and variation in his conversational approach through to its logical conclusion, to think your way around the corners he leaves you at. Essentially, reading Plato teaches you to spot the lie. Practicing this skill may not explicitly help your poetry, but I’m of the mind that a tradesperson must keep their tools sharp, and the nonfiction shelves are where I turn when I feel my practice getting blunt.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Touch the Donkey : sixteenth issue,

The sixteenth issue is now available, with new poems by Sue Landers, Kyle Flemmer, Donato Mancini, Anthony Etherin, Catriona Strang, A.M. O’Malley, Claire Lacey, Sacha Archer and Julia Polyck-O’Neill.

Seven dollars (includes shipping). If you ask me they're all winners.