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.

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