Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Touch the Donkey : twenty-third issue,

The twenty-third issue is now available, with new poems by Robert R. Thurman, Alyse Knorr, Michael Cavuto, Denise Newman, Shelly Harder, Franco Cortese and Dale Tracy.

Eight dollars (includes shipping). You make it sound so sordid.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

TtD supplement #144 : seven questions for Biswamit Dwibedy

Biswamit Dwibedy is the author of Ozalid (1913 Press, 2010), Ancient Guest (HarperCollins, 2017), and Hubble Gardener (Spuyten Duyvil, 2018). A recent series of poems is available on Essay Press as the chapbook MC3. He is the editor of Anew Print and is from Odisha, India.

Four poems “from UNWEDER” appear in the twenty-second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the sequence “UNWEDER.”

A: UNWEDER is a series of poems written in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India. The place is famous for its temples from the 10th to 12th century and their intricate, erotic sculptures. The series is also a part of a larger project, about architecture in medieval India, the first part of which is available at Essay Press, as MC3.

I was in Khajuraho shortly after my mother passed away. I was there for work related to an advertising campaign for a major multinational company. We were shooting a series of videos in that area, unrelated to the temples, and entertaining a very difficult American client. My hotel was very close to the temples and I would sneak out in the mornings and evenings to write these poems over a few days. Then I’d go to the shoots. Doing something related to poetry while on a totally commercial job was a great release! These poems are ekphrastic, are my responses to being in that place, amongst all these tourists and newly-wed couples, everyone gazing at and stunned by the incredible erotic art.

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

A: The work I am doing right now isn’t poetry, which UNWEDER is, but fiction, essay writing, etc. However, all of them deal with historical material.

Q: What is it about working with historical material that appeals? What do you feel is possible through writing through history that might not be possible otherwise?

History is full of surprises. Particularly, Indian history has fascinating, contradictory things happening at the same time in different parts of the country. It makes possible a comparative study of micro-cultures through which new connections emerge, ones that help reimagine what we know about history.

My fiction is on deals with historical characters from Delhi in the 13th century; also during the time that temples that are the subjects of my poems, in Odisha and Khajuraho, were being built. Through my work I am trying to understand the differences and similarities in cultures within the country at any given time. The eroticism of Khajuraho temples is missing in the Delhi sultanate, and the latter is drenched in Sufi philosophy, with a homoeroticism that you do not see in Khajuraho. I like the overlap, simultaneity. Beyond the differences maybe I can get to something that is not just common but universal.

Writing through history also leads to research, which makes known things that we cannot possibly see anymore. There is a balance between the search for accuracy and leaps of imagination. I also think it is the writing itself—what can be made possible by new ways of writing about/through history. How do we use the material we have to learn how to live in the present? How can history make new ways of writing possible?

Q: With a small handful of collections over the past few years, how do you feel as though your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I am surprised by the direction my work is taking. Fiction—historical-fiction to be precise—is not something I ever thought I’d write. But being in India, surrounded by all this history just pushed me in that direction. I started as an “experimental” poet, but now my work has gone way beyond that. I have written/am writing novels and scripts, and working on lyrics for an album. I think my work has forayed into completely unexpected areas, something I am very happy about. I think I want to work in every single genre, as well as the spaces between. That’s where my work is headed. But…with language come unthinkable surprises!

Q: As I am completely ignorant of the history of literary culture in India, how did you emerge, first, as an experimental poet? Was this something that was happening around you, or were you seeking out your influences further afield? What writers were you reading that drove you to doing that kind of work?

A: I lived in India till I was eighteen, during which I had little connection to the poetry communities here. My mother was a poet, and I remember some of the poems she’d recite. As a teenager I was stealing song lyrics (American pop music, thanks to MTV’s Indian invasion in the nineties) and making them my own, and exploring the richness of lyrics in older Hindi movies. I remember encountering the poetry of Mirza Ghalib through a cassette tape my brother owned, a soundtrack for a television show based on the poet’s life.

It was only when I moved to America that I actually encountered experimental poetry. I was nineteen and studying Biomedical Engineering. Serendipitously, I had landed in Iowa, home to the Writers’ Workshop. My first encounters in experimental writing were in the poetry aisles of Prairie Lights, the local independent bookstore in Iowa City. It was there that I came across the works of Cole Swensen, Lyn Hejinian, and Leslie Scalapino. Cole’s NOON was one of the first books of poems I ever bought. I was in love! I sought out the writers whose work Sun and Moon Press published, selecting titles from their back catalog, printed at the end of their books, and thus began my education in poetry.

Coming from a completely different language and culture, I was relieved to see that there was so much thinking that was outside the conventional modes of sense-making and grammar. It was a joy for someone coming from a foreign tongue to know that there was no single, rigid way to read, write, tell your story, or the truth. The wildly fun and experimental works of Susan Howe, Laura Moriarty, Norma Cole, Stacy Doris, and Rosmarie Waldrop pushed me to think about this new language that surrounded me in new ways. And yes—their work drove me to write what I do and the way I do!

Q: How do you feel your time focusing on writing and researching poetry has impacted your approach to writing a novel? Is there a sense of the language or cadence you are aware of while writing prose, or are you attempting to compose something more straightforward?

A: I wouldn’t have ever thought of writing fiction had I not read the fiction/novels of Leslie Scalapino and Fanny Howe. I like Scalapino’s idea of “life as fictionalising”, and both her and Fanny’s work just helped me allow myself to work on these fun projects. Room outside of poetry. Their wildly different works remain crucial to me. Particularly Leslie’s sense of wild fun in the space of a book, using science-fiction, pornography, forms of the essay within the novel.

The two novels I am working on now are historical-fictions, based in 13th century India and early 19th century London respectively. The former is a lot about poetry, music, riddles, the mixing of languages such as Persian and Arabic, and I think that demands a certain cadence that is not just closer to poetry, but of a certain kind, from a particular language. My protagonist is someone who invents new languages, musical instruments. The narrator is gender-fluid, a Captain in the army and a lover to the king. I am trying to articulate an experience of the body that is, I believe, both contemporary and very ancient, and refuses to be labeled.

My protagonist in the other novel is a contemporary and fan of Blake and Shelley. He is an author, the first Indian man to write a book in English, and is later accused of plagiarism. In describing his experience in his own country, he steals passages from travelogues written in India by British writers. He is an entrepreneur, who raises the money to fund the publication of his own book. Like a small poetry press. I find all this very interesting because of my own early work in collage, erasure, appropriation. Which seems like a terrible word nowadays.

Again, poetry was my way into history—through Cole Swensen and Susan Howe—but I am doing something that’s at a great distance from their amazing work, but wouldn’t have been possible without. Though literary, I think I am now writing books that are for an audience that goes beyond the lovely poetry communities I am a part of.

Q: Perhaps you’ve already answered a part of this, but who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Cole Swensen, Leslie Scalapino, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Fanny Howe (Radical Love in particular), Rosmarie Waldrop, Susan Howe, Norma Cole, Laura Moriarty—these are some of the writers whose work will remain with me for life. But Cole Swensen in particular—I take her books everywhere with me. I read Landscapes on a Train on the train; read Park and Ours in gardens. I like reading Scalapino’s that they were at the beach—at the beach. Likewise, Berssenbrugge works wonders in the morning, on a Sunday, in the summer.

Ah, and all summer long I have been reading Swensen’s chapbook Seventeen Summers by your above/ground. Thank you for YOUR attention to that work, and to mine, and for these wonderful questions.

Monday, September 23, 2019

TtD supplement #143 : seven questions for Emily Izsak

Emily Izsak’s work has been published in Arc Poetry Magazine, The Puritan, House Organ, Cough, The Steel Chisel, The Doris, and The Hart House Review. In 2014 she was selected as PEN Canada’s New Voices Award nominee. Her first chapbook, Stickup, was published in 2015, and her first full length collection, Whistle Stops: A Locomotive Serial Poem, was published by Signature Editions in April 2017. Her newest chapbook, Twenty Five, is now available from above/ground press.

Two poems from her work-in-progress “Never Have I Ever” appear in the twenty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Never Have I Ever.”

A: Never Have I Ever is a poetry collection I’m working on based on the sleepover/drinking game of the same name. Each poem in the collection is titled after a different thing that I’ve never done, but some of them are titled after things nobody has ever done (including me) because those things are physically impossible (like knitting a sweater between two continents). I see the collection as a weird subversion of confessional poetry in that by writing about things I’ve never done, I’m breaking that “write what you know” rule, but also, all of these poems are still sneakily about me.

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I like poetry that’s surreal and silly while still being sophisticated in terms of language and wordplay, so this collection fits that description, as does all of my other work. It’s a new topic that I’m excited to explore, but structurally it’s a continuation and an evolution of work I’ve done before, especially Twenty Five and Whistle Stops.

Q: You seem to build projects, having produced both chapbook-length works and a book-length work, each of which was composed around a specific project. What is it about building manuscript this way that appeals?

A: For me, the hardest part of writing a poem is thinking about a conceit or idea for that poem. Once I have the conceit, everything else can fall into place. Building a project out of a single, expansive conceit means that I really only have to think of one conceit per book rather than one conceit per poem in that book. It’s a method that was born out of convenience, but I’ve found that it also allows me create cohesive projects that explore ideas more thoroughly. It also forces me to choose topics that are meaty enough for a whole book or chapbook, and who doesn’t love a thicc topic?

Q: How did you get to a point where you were composing poems as larger projects?

A: After finishing my first chapbook, Stickup, I noticed that it was basically all the poems that I had written up to that point that I thought were half decent. I knew I wanted my next project to cohere better and to have a more complex through-line. I also knew that I wanted to write books, not just individual poems. My poetry friends were writing books or chapbook length projects, and those were fun to read. I think I was exposed to serial poetry and larger projects, and once I knew those forms were out there, I knew I wanted to play with them.

Q: How do you feel this current project extends the work you’ve produced up to this point? You mention this project connecting to Whistle Stops and Twenty Five; how do you see it connecting to and furthering those projects?

A: Whistle Stops in many ways is a response to critiques of serial poems and the men who wrote them. I don’t think we need to do away with forms or modes of writing because certain proponents of those modes were problematic by today’s standards. If Black Mountain was a boys’ club, then I’m going to infiltrate it.

Never Have I Ever in many ways is a response to critiques of confessional poetry. I’ve been fascinated by the lyric I in poetry, and by fascinated I mean I avoid it at all costs. At least, I have avoided it in the past. Somehow, avoiding the lyric I is the difference between a teenage emo diary and serious, grown-up poetry.

I do think there’s also a gendered component to critiques of confessional poetry (at least, that’s what Lynn Crosbie told me once). When women write about themselves it’s confessional, and when men do it, it’s political. I don’t know if I fully buy that, but it’s something worth considering.

The first poet I fell in love with was Sylvia Plath. I do feel like I’ve moved past her now, but I also wonder why we see her confessional poetry as a thing to move past. P.S. it was the “Bastard / Masturbating a glitter” line that did it for me, which should come as no surprise to people who’ve read my poems.

I’ve pushed the confessional and the personal out of my poetry because I wanted to be taken seriously, and it worked for a time, but now I feel like I’ve figured out how to be personal and silly and serious all at the same time. I’ve never done a lot of things. I’ve never done way more things than I have done. If I write about the things I’ve never done I can avoid some of the pitfalls of confessional poetry while still benefiting from its appeal.

Q: Have you read Rachel Zucker? She manages the confessional in a remarkably fresh way. But I am curious: what is it about the confessional, per se, that appeals? What do you feel the contemporary confessional mode allows that might not be possible otherwise? What do you feel you can bring to the form?

A: I am a self-described nosy bitch. It gives me great pleasure to learn intimate details about other people. I think being a nosy bitch is the human condition. I like being in on the secret, even if that secret is published and available on Amazon.

Sharing secrets creates intimacy, which I think is the whole point of the game Never Have I Ever. It’s not really about who gets out first or how many fingers you put down. It’s about facilitating closeness. There’s nothing I love more than a four hour deep chat.

I don’t agree with Wordsworth’s characterization of poetry as “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good cry as much as the next guy— but that’s what Joni Mitchell is for. I’ll cry to music and movies all day long, but I want my poetry sharp and punchy. I want poetry to make me feel something, but not at the expense of linguistic precision. That sounds like I’m throwing shade at Rupi Kaur, and I might be. Ariana’s Reine’s Coeur de Lion is a fantastic example of confessional poetry that’s self-reflexive, precise, and linguistically interesting. Mina Loy’s Love Songs to Joannes is personal and vulnerable while still being a language showcase.

Look, you could say that Whistle Stops is confessional, but it doesn’t announce itself as such. I think that makes a difference in the way readers engage with the work. I’m hoping readers will come to Never Have I Ever for the secrets but stay for the wordplay.

I think a lot of readers might be surprised by all of the things I’ve never done, especially given the sexually explicit content of my previous (and current) work. I always win Never Have I Ever.

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

A: Always Mina Loy. Also Jack Spicer, Lisa Robertson, Michael Boughn, and William Carlos Williams. There are others.

I also find it really helpful to read stuff that is completely outside of my own vocabulary, just to shake things up. Recently, my fiancé, Ariel found this little medical handbook from 1694 at the library. Treatment of bleeding from the nose includes, “Let the patient gradually smell the stink of ass’s dung: nettles, leeks, and camphor draw fluid from the nose: it is useful to apply oxycrat to liver and pudenda, and worth keeping this in the mouth.” 1694 was wild.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

TtD supplement #142 : seven questions for Aja Couchois Duncan

Aja Couchois Duncan is a Bay Area educator, writer and coach of Ojibwe, French and Scottish descent. Her writing has been anthologized in Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Coach House Press), Bay Poetics (Faux Press) and Love Shook My Heart 2 (Alyson Press). Her debut collection, Restless Continent (Litmus Press) was selected by Entropy Magazine as one of the best poetry collections of 2016 and won the California Book Award in 2017. A fictional writer of non-fiction, she has published essays in the North American Review and Chain. In 2005, she was a recipient of the Marin Arts Council Award Grant for Literary Arts, and, in 2013, she received a James D. Phelan Literary Award. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and a variety of other degrees and credentials to certify her as human. Great Spirit knew it all along.

Her poem “Initiate, chapter one from The Intimacy Trials” appears in the twenty-second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the sequence “Initiate, chapter one from The Intimacy Trials.”

A: The manuscript has evolved a great deal over time. However, the architecture of the work has remained the same. It is based on the structure of an actual trial. So Initiate is really conceived of as the beginning of the trial; in this case a trial about intimacy, both romantic and collective. The use of the world trial here is both literal and figurative. It is often `a trial’ to do the work intra and interpersonally to be intimate. And too the judicial system has been designed and used to control the way people connect with one another, whether conferring the rights of husbands to rape their wives, or preventing women from controlling their reproductive lives, or enabling some groups of people to take everything from other groups of people such that their bodies, lives, cultures are radically interrupted and they and their descendants live in enduring precarity. So the notion of a trial felt deep enough to dive into for the explorations I wanted to do in writing The Intimacy Trials

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

A: This manuscript is a sequel to another, yet to be published, manuscript Vestigial. Both are exploring intimacy between people and intimacy with Aki, earth, and her inhabitants. I’ve been presencing the earth as a central voice in my work for some time as I hear her talking to me, to us, to all of us.

Q: How did you get to this point in your writing—to be, as you say, “presencing the earth”—and what does that presencing look like? What does that phrase mean to you, and how does it present itself in your writing?

A: That is such an interesting question. I am deeply connected to the earth, I am part of the earth. We all are. But many people are seriously disconnected from their understanding of our collective sentience, the rhythms of  river, rock, sky. The question that troubles me is what will it take for others to restore this connection and how might my writing be part of what brings them back. I don’t write explicitly for this awakening, but I am always writing toward it.

My writing practice has evolved greatly over time, but the “natural world” has always held both subject and object positions so that the particularities of the English language does not define what is living and what is not. There are actually very few inanimate things in this world. And yet this language that we are bridging one another through (English)reinforces a world view that sentience is limited to a very small number of beings on earth.

Q: With a first full-length collection in print, and numerous works of poetry and nonfiction appearing in journals and anthologies, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I am still hungry for the space and time to finish one of the four novels I have started and stopped. Novels are too big to be written in the margins of life and much of my writing practice resides there. I have also begun an interconnected collection of essays about people and place and the effects of climate change on land, culture, the present tense. I hope to do a writing residency next year in order to complete this project. Amidst these longer works, I plan to write flash fictions, or micro stories, which come from beneath the surface and emit a jubilant spray.

Q: How easy or difficult has it been for you to shift from poems to prose? And what do you feel each form allows that might not be possible otherwise? What have these shifts been teaching you?

A: I am not sure I have ever differentiated poetry from prose. I write almost exclusively in prose. I do hold poetry and fiction differently. And fiction and nonfiction. Although the hands that hold them are the same.

There is a precision to poetry and an expansiveness. So my prose is different in a poetic context. In fiction, and even in non fiction, the meaning is more direct, more closely bound. In these contexts, my prose is more explicit.

That said, I have always written toward a nexus of forms, a confluence of waters. It is the wild and deep waters at the junctions of these tributaries that I want to swim in. The words ebb and flow from this place.

Q: There is something of the blending of prose and lyric I’ve quite enjoyed about your work. Do you consider genre to be fluid? Are there differences in the ways in which you might approach a poem over, say, fiction or nonfiction?

A: Prose creates compression and expulsion. The sentences throb with juxtaposition and movement. I am most at home in the terrain of the sentence. I absolutely adore the period. So terminal. So controlled. And then to overrun it with words.

This too is possible in poetic lines that break. I am assuming this is what you mean by lyric. But my ear is clunky and I often mistrust my breaks. Go back and break and unbreak. It begins to feel like a kind of violence. So I gravitate toward prose.

In fiction or not fiction—forms that tend to be more fixed in the way that sentences can seem fixed—I am drawn to the lyric, to ruptures in form. Alexis Pauline Gumbs does this to stunning effect in Spill: scenes of black feminist fugivity.

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

Ah. So many. Like most writers my home is filled with stacks of books. But one particular stack is my most treasured. Things get added, and sometimes moved. But many have remained in this cherished placed for years. Some of them are Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead, Eduardo Galleano’s The Memory of Fire trilogy, John Keene’s Counternatives (a newer edition to the stack), James Balwin’s Evidence of Things Unseen, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, Chrysto’s Not Vanishing (this book is out of print, which is tragic). There are others. I am finding myself conscious of doing some kind of curation, which isn’t the point, at least not for me. The point is these books, and others, provide worlds I can return to again and again. Because they convey something deeply important about the world and the way words and their arrangement can help us access this in surprising, heartbreaking and soul affirming ways. They break us open again and again. And, in so doing, offer us deeper access to our collective humanity.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

TtD supplement #141 : seven questions for José Felipe Alvergue

José Felipe Alvergue is a graduate of both the Cal Arts Writing and Buffalo Poetics programs. He is the author of gist : rift : drift : bloom (2015) and precis (2017). José lives and teaches in Wisconsin.

His sequence “riot: Scott, King, Long.” appear in the twenty-second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the sequence “riot: Scott, King, Long.”

A: The bigger project, scenery, begins with the premise that all of these sites of national status-as-identity formation have become “scenes.” These scenes include textual scenes, mnemonic scenes, performatic scenes, speculative scenes, etc. I think of “riots” as such scenes as well, given how they live in our cultural consciousness. And “scenes” doesn’t always mean a 2-dimensionality in a bad sense. Merely in the sense of our unpacking. The media life of demonstrations can be emotionally charged, and have long lasting effects on our personal research into who we are in relation to group anger, or the nation state, the police, or place. But there’s no mistaking that unless one is on the ground, we’re getting these scenes through some form of media. In “riot: Scott, King, Long,” I investigate my own conscious awareness of anger, racialization, nation, and action through the Dred Scott decision, the LA Riots, and this photo out of Charlottesville of a man, Corey Long, using an aerosol flame thrower on a white supremacist. My own status as a naturalized citizen is articulated in the Dred Scott decision through the inherent anti-Blackness of premising America’s recognition of “person” in Colonial precedents, and triangulating citizenship against Black being and potentially assimilated beings. The same liberalism is, in fact, established much earlier in Bartolomé de las Casas “In Defense of the Indians.” The LA Riots, for me, bring up a very similar paradigm, where model minoritism played a huge role in how Black anger was mediatized in relation to South Korean American grief and vigilantism. But more than this, there are voices from the LA Riots (including Rodney King’s) that are not asked to weigh-in until much later, after the riots. I include here Kiki Watson and Reginald Denny, in fact. What they say later, in the full volume and dimension of language, about a moment that is compressed into scenery during its happening is really enlightening. And though we don’t have it all yet, I think something similar will come out of the images we have from Charlottesville. That is the speculative aspect of it. Which is why in the book itself I distort the image of Long wielding the flamethrower in defense. That optic distortion of text, I hope, mimics an acoustic speculation, or how it is that acoustics exist in space, bouncing off surfaces, exhausting itself, finding rest in reflection. Of how the acoustic, in poetics, is always an accompaniment to the optic life of language (its own scenery), or the taking it in, the senses and emotions that feel out for language and metabolize it into the thoughts and perspectives that once embossed on our surfaces somehow stand for who we “are” to others.

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

A: I’ve committed more fully into the “document,” or using documents as sources for poetics. A couple of things inform this. I was reading this piece on the Demise of the Nation State by Rana Dasgupta about a year ago, where he cites the inability of “information” to cohere the disparate attributes we previously called “the nation.” And it struck me the extent to which documents work within that network of “information,” and that there must be something latent or explicit in the document worth cross examining against a mode of language resistant to the kind of surface texture, of permanence, “nation” in this paradigm is meant to stand for. But it also seems like a lot of my friends right now are talking about sound and acoustics. And in fact I can remember a really long time ago I actually talked about the “sound of democracy” in a job interview that I don’t think went very far. But my friend, poet, and bookmaker Andrew Rippeon has really been working on the poetics of sound in fascinating ways, including textually material ways, and intellectually, ways that account for able-diversities and thus unsettle conclusions on who makes-listens. I was also at a reading recently where the poet Nick Gulig was talking about his book ORIENT coming together, and hearing him describe listening/watching/reading information, or the news, made him aware of “static” and how we’re all producing “static.” This got me thinking about the cross overs I’m working with in scenery––image, text/document, sound, speculation. But also resolved my commitment to the document in a more current project, asylum : after nation, where I’m textually building a border wall out of found sound/document, which begins to topple in the emergence of static, or acoustic processes that signal the death of cohesive nationality, but nonetheless do cohere in another fashion. I think this particular piece, “riot,” signals the beginning of my full on commitment to this building a poetics out of the facticity of the document that measures out the senescence in the organism that has for so long relied on documents upholding some sort exceptionalism, or supremacy, or dictated power.

I suppose technically speaking, it also signals my preference to work––compose, revise, edit, arrange––in Illustrator. This might seem silly, but I do think the artboard right now, for me, is like a type base. It’s more like a letter press to me than a ‘canvas’ because of how text must still be “set” in it, even if along vectors. It’s become more intuitive for me to move from the acts of reading, or note taking, or scribbling, to Illustrator than to anything else, like Word for instance. I think we have to talk about these technologies, because a lot of things change in terms of how we frame “intentionality” or meaning, or quite simply the ocular performances of reading when technologies begin to confront one another, but are otherwise merged without affair in the preference to just seeing the world as “information” or as cohesion.

Q: How did you get to this point in your work? What brought you to putting together manuscripts as such expansive projects? Or is manuscript even the wrong word for your potential end-point?

A: I think I’ve always been trying to accommodate the “expanse”––I think maybe I’m just now starting to get an idea of the arc an expanse can take, to function as something like a manuscript. But I’ve always been drawn to work that… you put it down, and it’s down, meaning “it” as the particular book or whatever. Finality in other words. But you pick up something else by the same writer and it's new, and at the same time you’re back to where you were, in terms of your own thinking. Your thinking while you read. So maybe I can see “arc” better now, there’s methods for composing that let me see it all at once, like I mentioned before about Illustrator, and I’ve just encountered more and more work that excites me into trying more stuff. I’m thinking really specifically here of Myung Mi Kim for instance.

Q: What is it about Myung Mi Kim’s work that strikes, specifically? And what is her work prompting?

A: Maybe just generally, we are historical beings and are existentially aware. This is a condition poetry is built for. What it means to say “historical being” or “historical subject,” that’s something Myung’s work has always spoken to me on. The room the work spares for leaving that shoreline I guess, that’s something the textuality of the work that also really appeals to me. Atticus Finch put out a chapbook excerpt from her Penury that still just makes me marvel at how expansive poetry is. Commons still does this to me too.

Q: Given you are working, in part, with the document, what do you feel working in poetry and poetics allows that wouldn’t be possible through other forms, whether literary prose, visual art or non-fiction?

A: I think in some ways all of these genres could/sometimes do transcend expected sites of language. Russian Avant Gardists called it “factography.” Maybe what poetics allows for, more fully, is relation. Fred Moten would probably call this an aesthetic “wandering.” I think in work like Divya Victor’s it makes me think of “resemblances.” Craig Santos Perez’s work, which is full on docupoetics, engages the principle/practice of incorporation/unincorporation via the document, and this then resonates with the historical politics of territory and national status his work has us consider. I guess that’s the thing also, if the poetic voice, if lyric, functions via the expectation of voice, and initiates the consequence(s) of recognition as such, then the document is the architecture within which voice must always be an acoustic reality. It’s the walls and others against which voice, in the abstract, must always reverberate in its being actual. Because in other genres, except maybe non-fiction, wherein a lot of creative non-fiction maybe dances a bit closer to lyric nowadays, the document might be in service of the contained narrative, in poetry the consequence remains more embodied in the relationship of voice-witness. I should also add that scenery, where “riot” comes from, really gets into a lot of memoir for me, probably for the first time ever. The particular documents I engage with open that door for me.

Q: With two full-length collections under your belt, as well as your current work-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I think I’m becoming more comfortable in a question based, or problem based poetics, where each book is a sustained meditation of sorts. I used to worry that this model doesn’t really accommodate itself to publishing, including journals, but I’m finding that there’s always a place for different poetries. I’m developing along the lines of this awareness and enjoyment of community I suppose. It’s funny because when I work with students there’s still in them an anxiety over publishing as an industry/profession, and this idea that it’s monolithic. I think a lot of faculty in the “professionalization” of writing are guilty in proliferating this myth. Even at my own institution I don’t think the “creative writers” consider what I do as “writing”––at least not all of them as a group. But I see myself continuing to engage poetics in this way of a question. There are other projects I still want to work on that might turn out differently, like this work I’ve been playing with on the arrival of African music to the Gulf Coast of México, from the Yucatán Peninsula to Veracruz. Who knows what that will be like. I also want to get my hands on a letter press and start doing more handmade things as well. Andrew Rippeon and I, Andrew is at Dickinson right now and is an amazing printmaker and bookmaker, we are going to start working on a small run hand made book soon and I’m excited about that.

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

A: I picked up a copy of Hugo García Manríquez’s Los Materiales a while ago and that helped reenergize me a bit. I also like reading Hanif Abdurraqib. He has a new book, a “love letter,” to A Tribe Called Quest. I’ve been enjoying reading it. Though most of what I read, honestly, are children’s books! I think in terms of thinking of writing and reading (which is kind of like listening), it’s music that often affects how I’m working––literally what I’m doing on the page. Juana Molina and Violetta Parra have been two axes for this project in particular.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

TtD supplement #140 : seven questions for Conyer Clayton

Conyer Clayton is an Ottawa based artist who aims to live with compassion, gratitude, and awe. Her most recent chapbooks are: Undergrowth (bird, buried press), Mitosis (In/Words Magazine and Press), For the Birds. For the Humans. (battleaxe press) and Trust Only the Beasts in the Water (above/ground press). She released a collaborative album with Nathanael Larochette, If the river stood still, in August 2018. Her work appears in ARC, Prairie Fire, The Fiddlehead, The Maynard, Puddles of Sky Press, TRAIN, and others. She won Arc's 2017 Diana Brebner Prize, 3rd place in Prairie Fire's 2017 Poetry Contest, and honourable mention in The Fiddlehead's 2018 poetry prize. She is a member of the sound poetry ensemble Quatuor Gualuor, and writes reviews for Canthius. Her debut full length collection of poetry is forthcoming. Check out conyerclayton.com for updates on her endeavors.

Her poems “Realities,” “Visible Proof,” “Flood” and “Inclement” appear in the twenty-second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Realities,” “Visible Proof,” “Flood” and “Inclement.”

A: These poems are all from a manuscript I am working on of prose poems based on my dreams. Most of the first drafts are spoken into a voice memo app on my phone when I wake up in the middle of the night or early morning, or scratched down in my notebook while I drink coffee on the couch. On some, I’ve added little bits to amplify certain themes and moments of significance, but I really try to stay true to the emotion and mood of each dream.

I have a longtime interest in the realities of alternate states of consciousness aside from our waking one, and this manuscript is my attempt to bring weight to what I feel is often dismissed — weird and seemingly random dreams. There is something to be learned from the places our Self travels when our waking intellect is shut down, and that is what I am leaning into in these poems.

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

A: It is certainly some of the most focused/confined work I am producing right now, as far as direction and form go. Usually my creative process is very unplanned. I tend to lean away from constraints, but given the wild nature of dreams, I think that constraint is necessary for this project. I have another prose poem project on the go as well, but it has a more narrative lean. Quite a different feel, but I am apparently interested in exploring what prose poetry has to offer these days.

I am deep into the editing process on 2 full length manuscripts (one of which, We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite, is forthcoming with Guernica Editions in Spring 2020! My debut! Eek!). Much of my time has been going to that rather than writing new poems. During the nitpicking of the editing process, these dream poems have been a much needed retreat. The freedom of their content and inception is what has been keeping me sane and balanced in the midst of obsessing over commas.

Neither of my prose poem projects are autobiographical, and that is a first for me. All of my chapbooks and both of the full lengths I am working on are intensely so. I had a lot of things to work through in my past by way of my writing. Perhaps now there is some room in my psyche to expand outside of my own lived experience, bodily and otherwise. I feel a bit less clogged.

Q: How has your process of putting together a manuscript evolved? Is there a particular way you assemble a manuscript, and has that shifted now that you’ve a forthcoming collection?

A: My process always involves sitting on the floor with all my poems spread out wildly around me. I need this physical part of the process. I can't wrap my head around a manuscript digitally. So, that has always been my first step (once I realize that most of the necessary poems exist, at least). I don’t think that will ever change.

From there, I require an editor. I tend to get stuck in chronology, and having someone from the outside give me feedback on the order of poems really helps me see the manuscript as a piece of art rather than pieces of my life. I think that this will change over time because (I said in the previous answer) I am writing work now that is not autobiographical. Martha Greenwald, my first university creative writing professor, has wonderfully reordered both of my full length manuscripts in their early stages. It was immensely helpful. My partner Nate has also been lovely and a huge help in this regard.

Working with a professional editor, Elana Woolf, on my forthcoming book has definitely changed how I approach a collection. She helped me realize how poems overlap, what poems, though they may not be the best stand-alone poem, are absolutely crucial for the manuscript as a whole (“hinge” poems is what she calls them, I believe), what poems to cut because another poem does it better, where to recognize gaps, etc. I have taken this experience working with her into the editing of my second full length. It really changed the way I work. I now recognize better when I need to add to a poem, or write a whole new one, or just trash it. I used to feel that if I added lines to a poem written years ago that it somehow detracted from the truth of the poem, as though the moment in which it was written is the only thing that matters. I now realize that while this may be true sometimes, it is certainly not true all of the time, and updating old poems in this way makes their truth feel more potent to me.

Q: What other authors and/or works sit in the back of your head when you write? How does a poem begin?

A: Honestly, I am not consciously thinking of anything at all when I write. But works that resonate with me across genres and stay in my subconscious are those that employ the magical and surreal alongside the real.

I find myself rereading poetry and short story collections by contemporaries like Kaveh Akbar, Carmen Maria Machado, Anjali Sachdeva, and Eleni Sikelianos. I also continually dive back into Leonora Carrington, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf, H.D., John Berryman, and Frank Stanford. I try to read new things, but I wear down the spines on my favourites beyond repair.

Poems begin with the intention to root around inside myself. I always feel slightly transformed, for better or worse, once a first draft of a poem is down, and again once it is completed. All poems begin with a genuine feeling of curiosity.

Q: You speak of your current project as a manuscript of prose poems based on your dreams. What prompted you to write of your dreams, and why, specifically, through the prose poem?

A: I’ve always been interested in the ways our unconscious speaks to our conscious self through dreams and dream symbols, much in the same way poetry (and most art, generally speaking) speaks directly to our unconscious intuitively through symbolism, so the union of dream states and poetry seemed very natural to me. Dreams move with the same nonlinear and intuitive narrative push that all the best poetry does (for my personal tastes anyway). Writing my dreams in a log, or dictating them on my phone when I woke up over the past year, was/is an intentional practice of self-exploration and actualization. This union of our conscious and unconscious self is, in my humble opinion, some of the most important work we can do as humans, because this individuation and self-realization allows us to be the best versions of ourselves — to do good in the world, for ourselves and for others. I think this awareness is also the goal of truly resonant art. So, one day I realized that the goals of my dream analysis and my writing were one and the same, and that these logs were indeed poems, and that was that. I’ve kept at it in a more organized way since then. (Is it incredibly obvious that I am into Jungian dream philosophy?)

I am realizing as a write this that my previous assertion that this project is not autobiographical is directly in opposition to the philosophy I am espousing right now, so, hey, maybe it is autobiographical after all. I suppose I can claim it isn’t autobiographical in a strictly “lived” sense, though I would maintain that the experiences are “real.”

As for why I chose the prose poem: the physical blockiness is how dreams feel to me. Dense. No breaks. No hints. Line breaks, enjambment, and other poetic structures are gestures at significance and meaning. I didn’t want to do that in these poems, because that is not how my dreams communicate to me. They communicate purely through symbol via image, so I wanted the focus to stay with the images rather than the structure. This forces the reader to pull their own emphasis from the block, rather than me laying out through the form what the more “meaningful” moments are. Dream analysis is so so personal, and no image will resonate with one person the exact way it does with another. I wanted the work to lean toward prose because there is a narrative to these poems, as there is in dreams. But since that narrative follows a more intuitive and non-linear one than strict prose would, the in-between world of the prose poem feels just right to me.

Q: Given your explorations into the prose poem, foregoing line breaks and other physical structures, are you noticing any shifts in the way you approach rhythm, the line and the breath? Is the shift in form providing any unexpected changes in the poems you’re writing?

A: I think the main difference I notice is my use of punctuation as the main mediator of rhythm and emphasis, rather than the line break. This form also lends itself to a directness that I wasn't expecting, and a lean towards plain language. But that could have more to do with the subject matter than the form. Since the content is so surreal, I need the diction to be as grounded as possible.

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

A: As I indicated in a previous answer, I am naturally most drawn to fabulist, surrealist, and magical realist short stories and novels. All the writers I listed above, I continually revisit. But I also find myself returning to Natalie Shapiro’s Hard Child and Lyn Heijinian’s My Life. I reread Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway every few years. It inspires me on every level.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

TtD supplement #139 : seven questions for Roxanna Bennett

Roxanna Bennett is a poet living with disability in Whitby, Ontario. She is the author of The Uncertainty Principle (Tightrope Books, 2014), unseen garden (chapbook, knife | fork | book, 2018) and unmeaningable, forthcoming from Gordon Hill Press in Fall 2019.

Her poems “Empress of Cups,” “The Reflecting Skin” and “Feast for the Yellow King” appear in the twenty-second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Empress of Cups,” “The Reflecting Skin” and “Feast for the Yellow King.”

A: All three poems are from my book “Unmeaningable” forthcoming from Gordon Hill Press in the fall, and all three poems are part of a larger crown of “crippled” sonnets. The book is about my lived experience as a mentally ill, non-neurotypical person who is also physically disabled. As the sonnet sequence progresses, the language and form become more chaotic and less intelligible, to echo the experience of living with chronic, fluctuating conditions in an unstable bodymind.

The poem “Empress of Cups” stars Dr. Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter, whom I have reimagined as an avenging angel who eats people who have been mean to me. “The Reflecting Skin” takes its title from the film of the same name. While not technically a horror movie, it’s both an horrific and beautiful film. It’s stacked with references to films as a tribute to my partner who is a massive horror movie fan, but horror is a genre that I have complicated feelings and ideas about. Horror is inherently ableist but is one of the few genres that does engage with difference, albeit usually in grossly offensive ways. Still, I am a sucker for the aesthetics of most horror-themed art. “Feast for the Yellow King” was written right after the American election; I was trying to keep myself as mentally healthy as possible by not thinking about Trump but he leaked out anyway. It felt post-apocalyptic, culturally, and I kept thinking of “The King in Yellow” from the Robert W. Chambers stories, and “Carcosa” from Ambrose Bierce. And I was watching season one of True Detective so of course the cosmic horror spilled over into the work.

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

A: I’ve been working on longer and less formally constricting poems recently, but I love sonnets and usually return to them if only to argue with the form.

Thematically, my recent work is similar to these poems, but maybe with a little less cannibalism. Slightly less. I’m lying, Hannibal ‘the cannibal’ keeps popping up even now. But I am always writing about disability in some form as that is the lens through which I experience the world.

Q: What keeps you returning to argue with the sonnet? What kind of arguments do you mean?

A: Why must it be a box? Why must it be fourteen lines? What is iambic pentameter? I struggle with the auditory component of poetry, I don’t grasp the concept of stressed syllables. I can’t really hear it and don’t understand it. I can grasp fourteen lines on a page though, and how the rhyme scheme is meant generally to work. It’s like the meat and potatoes of poetry, the sonnet. Or a block of wood, uncarved. I like constraints because I like taking them apart to see how they work, and because creative constraints are much like living with disability. One must be creative to exist within the bounds of the constraint. The sonnet will always elude me because I am not able to ‘hear’ it. I approach poetry visually, and the compactness of those fourteen lines appeals to me, as does the deconstruction of those fourteen lines. So I guess I keep coming back to it, arguing with it, because it’s symbolic to me, personally, of feeling shut out of the poetry world, and the world. My arguing with sonnets is also me arguing with oppressive structures like systemic ableism and sanism. But those oppressive structures exist within a larger framework of culture, and are complicated, and I don’t see the value in burning down existing things but re-working them to be more....workable for all. Arguing with sonnets is also me wanting to feel as though I can be part of a poetic lineage by using a traditional form but feeling as though the form is beyond me because I don’t understand the auditory component. Sheer bloody-mindedness, really.

Q: With two full-length collections (including your forthcoming Gordon Hill Press title) as well as a chapbook under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I think it’s developed less concern with being ‘correct’: are all the commas and periods in the right place, is it coherent, is it logical, which I think was strangling some of my earlier work. I was trying very hard to make the work ‘fit’ into what I believed was ‘poetry’. And now I don’t give a fuck. I don’t fit in the world but I was trying to make my poetry fit. As I grow into a deeper understanding of myself, become more accepting and comfortable with myself and my many and various afflictions and ailments, my work has become, I think, more fluid, less (f)rigid. I’ve been taking workshops with Hoa Nguyen and she has a magickal knack for allowing freakiness into the work, she encourages the weird. “I myself am strange and unusual” but have often felt like I had to be closeted, so to speak, with how different I am, trying to pass or having passing privilege as “normal”: straight, sane, able-bodied, neurotypical, when I’m none of those things. I think my work reflects that and will continue to get weirder.

Q: Apart from working with Hoa Nguyen, have you had any models for this type of work or approach?

A: I don’t have much experience with formal instruction. I don’t have any post-secondary education and have taken a handful of poetry workshops. If there are other workshops that sort of, kind of, blend poetry with Jungian alchemy, rhetorical devices, academic essays, and divination, with a side order of art history and magick, I’m not aware of them. But highly recommend!

Q: Are there any other poets you are aware of working in similar ways?

A: Do you mean using similar techniques to write or writing the same sorts of poetry?

A: I have been reading more work by D/deaf and disabled poets, poets who are writing from madness, chronic illness, etcetera, like Shane Neilson, Dominic Parisien, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Ally Fleming, Adam Pottle, San Alland, and the two anthologies of disability poetics that I’m aware of: Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Mike Northern, and Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back edited by San Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman.

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

A: All of Karen Solie’s work, but I think I’ve owned three copies of Modern and Normal that I have loaned or lost or loved to pieces.

Monday, July 29, 2019

TtD supplement #138 : seven questions for Julia Drescher

Julia Drescher is the author of Open Epic (Delete Press, 2017). Recent work has appeared in Entropy, Likestarlings, Aspasiology, The New New Corpse, & Hotel. She lives in Colorado where she co-edits the press Further Other Book Works with the poet C.J. Martin.

A selection of pieces “from LOUD OBJECT” appear in the twenty-second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the sequence “LOUD OBJECT.”

A: I once thought of it as “failed-essay-as-poem” but that’s not *quite* right…

Generally, I am always thinking about (troubling) reading/being a (troubled) reader. So it splayed out from initially (mis)hearing a kind of “broadcast” between 1. readings of various texts of Frances Boldereff (particularly the letters to Olson & Let Me Be Los), which I was thrown back thru by 2. readings of Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. & stories like “The Message” & “The Egg & the Chicken”.

Parts of the book On Hysteria: The Invention of a Medical Category between 1670 and 1820 by Sabine Arnaud are also present (as making up most-but not all- of the direct quotes in the poem).

“Loud Object” as a title is borrowed from Lispector, but (apparently!) filtered through the kind of mistake I am always making which is conflating things I have read: I had it in my head that this was Lispector’s working title for The Passion…. but actually it was for Água Viva.

Also, I didn’t realize it at the time, but Lisa Robertson’s “Time in the Codex” absolutely accompanies/is a vital haunting of “LOUD OBJECT”.

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: Hard to say. Repetition with difference? (hopefully)

I mean, collaging, sound (& the mishearing of things), a fraught relation with the sentence/essaying, will probably always be the spit in the instrument, so to speak.

I’ve been thinking a lot about (tip)trees & dilative (dispersive) movements lately.

Q: There are plenty of examples of those who use poems as their thinking forms, composing works that could easily be described as essay-poems or poem-essays, from Erín Moure to Elisa Gabbert to Lisa Robertson to Jennifer Moxley, among so many others. Why would you think “LOUD OBJECT” as a “failed-essay-as-poem”?

A: I guess what I mean is that where “LOUD OBJECT” might exceed what I think, it refuses any desire for subjectivity in a de/generative way. I want to say that the poem(essay) uses me, thinks through me (when, that is, I don’t refuse this refusal)—which is how “poem” & “essay” muddle/get muddled. I’m also just thinking of/trying to think through the feeling that reading gives where there is an inability (a “failure”) to distinguish the object (the text that is read? the reader? etc.) from the “agencies of observation” (the text that is read? the reader? etc.)--a physics formulation that I am very much mishandling I’m sure.
So I wasn’t necessarily saying “failure” in the “traditional” sense I suppose?

Q: I like the idea of a poem exceeding what the author might think, which is reminiscent, slightly, of Jack Spicer’s belief that he was merely a conduit for poems. Where do you see yourself on such a spectrum, between “author” and “conduit”? Are your poems collaborations between your hand and where the poem itself wishes to go?

A: At the best of times, [Julia] is a wave of tendencies the poem makes use of.

At the best of times, anything like “my hand”—which would probably also be “in spite of my hand”—would be a legion of other hands—a Niagara effect (you know, impossible to list). I guess that’s closer to conduit—author as revered subject-state doesn’t interest me (& would—for me—perhaps be closer to an idea of “failure” in that traditional sense).

When I think about this question, the formulation—which could only ever be a fluidity—that I would want to work under would include, but not be at all be limited to; Moten, Robertson, Dickinson, Spicer, Mendieta, Hampton, Bess, Lispector, Boldereff, Arsić, Howe, Weil, Eastman, Kafka (via Paul North) Niedecker, Bower birds….

That is to say (at the best of times) the poem as how you somehow “collaborate” —in spite of yourself— where you somehow are in this “intimacy without proximity” conversation going on.

However/also I feel Spicer’s “all hook, no bait” very seriously—so the only caveat I think I have to the conduit/radio/more+less would be: same as ‘the muse’ formulations, I don’t think this means that you’re completely “off the hook” for the shit you say or do. You know, when it exceeds—again—is when it does so despite your individuation, & when it doesn’t—that’s when you’ve got to “answer for it”, be response-able, etc etc.

Q: With a handful of chapbooks and a full-length collection under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: To stay a beginner, an amateur. All belts are off.

Q: How do poems/projects usually begin for you? Do you work with loose ideas of what you wish to accomplish, whether thematically, structurally or with an idea, or do you begin with collage and feel out where the poem goes?

A: I generally wait (which is a listening/looking for) things to strike me—this can usually be anything/anyone--any text: an encounter with reading I am led to, with “the natural” world, an artwork, music, etc. These would be encounters that “show me the door” – in all the valences of that phrase. Who & what I want to think with (which is to feel with) I suppose. But any of this always has any other encounters that came before, so it’s all mixed up. This isn’t to say I don’t start with “my own idea”, but it seems like I do so *in order to* be thwarted—I don’t know if this is just temperament or what, but I don’t necessarily have an accomplishment in mind—except maybe to continue to be shown the door.

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

A: Other than the people I mentioned above, really it is impossible to list as it is expanding all the time—not to be facetious, but it would just have to be pictures of my bookshelves! I will say, too, that I go in & out of consciousness of this, but in terms of energy & return & just all over my work, I have always been--or also always returning to--my immediate family. In such wonderful de/generative ways, both my parents can really twist some language up!

Monday, July 15, 2019

Touch the Donkey : twenty-second issue,

The twenty-second issue is now available, with new poems by Julia Drescher, Biswamit Dwibedy, Aja Couchois Duncan, José Felipe Alvergue, Roxanna Bennett, Conyer Clayton and Emily Izsak.

Eight dollars (includes shipping). You haven’t found me work in 12 years.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

TtD supplement #137 : seven questions for Michael Cavuto

Michael Cavuto is a poet living in Queens. His first book, Country Poems, will be published in early 2020 with Knife Fork Books in Toronto. With Dale Smith & Hoa Nguyen, he edits the Slow Poetry in America Newsletter.

His poem “PYRE II” appears in the twenty-first issue of Touch the Donkey. His poem “PYRE III” is scheduled to appear in the twenty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “PYRE II” and “PYRE III.”

Pyre III is a poem that does and does not yet exist. When I started writing the Pyre poems two years ago, it was in the space of a very important poet’s passing, and I was taken up with the poem’s particular capacity for remembering – so in that way, the first Pyre poem was a kind of elegy. In writing through an experience of poetic memory, I engage with a distinct kind of time unique to poetry.

In the poem there is a different time, but it does not come into confrontation with lived experience as contrary to ordinary time. Rather, the poem enfolds time & the past and passing are held in its moment. Change becomes the poem’s capacity for remembering.

Since beginning to write these Pyre poems, I’ve given them over to what seems to me to be a kind of reverent patience. In finding memory to be the force of these poems, I’ve come to understand their movement as an ellipsis, as something that stretches out from absence in the shape of return.

So, perhaps to be more direct, since beginning to write these Pyre poems, I have returned to them each year, one year after the previous poem was written, to experience the poem again as a remembrance, and to record a new memory as I find it there, written only from elements in the original poem. Pyre III will be written in March, and I’m sure that I’ll find these poems quite changed from a year ago, from two years ago.

I began these poems as one would stacking rocks for the dead, and I return to them each year to witness their change.

& now I’m thinking of this as a kind of completeness that poetic memory offers to lived experience
& earlier tonight I heard Will Alexander read and he said the poem must exist in total reality, &
then following him, Cecilia Vicuña :
                                                                          & now we’re aware that everything is going away

The Pyre poems are a record of loss held, of total change as presence. These stones stacked for the dead cling to life as it goes on living.

now I think of Paul Metcalf, in Genoa, of ancient signs of passing time:
and there was Sargasso weed, rumored to trap ships as in a web … detritus, perhaps, of Atlantis …

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?


All of my poems exist in sequences, so compositionally the Pyre poems (which will comprise Pyre I ¬– X) relate to the other poems I’ve been writing for the past five or so years. This way poems are always imperfect and incomplete, moving outside of the boundaries of a single poem and in larger resonance with other perceptions. But the Pyre poems are exaggerated across time, tracing the contours of memory as they push out on present experience.

In these poems, too, I continue what I’ve found essential in my writing, to take in no obscured way other poets as my guides, and to follow this hearing as the attentive force of the poem.

Q: What is it about the sequence that appeals? What do you feel you can accomplish through a structure that might not be possible otherwise?


Writing in sequences acts as a detour around some of the more ordinary limitations of the poem – such as completeness. It’s a matter of finding and mixing sources as a way of locating myself, which sequences seem to do inherently through their constellating of many instances at once. Like daily life, sequences are made of fragmentary and divergent gleanings.

The sequence is an alchemical process of accumulation insofar as reading and writing across the poems is transformational. Poems, words, and images change as they come into relation with each other, and new vocabularies emerge. In this way, the structure of the sequence is always in flux. Sequences seem to ask the very question of poetic movement, of the utterance in a continued state of extension and refiguration, insisting on silent boundaries as porous thresholds. 

Q: What influences have brought you to the ways in which you approach writing? What writers and/or works have changed the way you think of your work?

A: Far and beyond, in an incommensurable, entirely incommunicable way, Dale Smith and Hoa Nguyen have been my most important guides, as well as two friends I love deeply and whose works and lives as poets I couldn’t be more committed to. When I moved to Toronto at 20, JenMarie Macdonald told me to get in touch with them. We connected quickly over shared admirations: Baraka, Niedecker, Whalen, Bernadette Mayer – our shared interests in community-making through poetry. At a certain point, I was going for near-weekly dinners at their house in the Danforth, and we’d stay up late talking poetry, music, gossip. Our Slow Poetry in American Newsletter came out of those conversations.

At the same time, Hoa began to influence an important shift in my thinking away from any idea of lineage and to thinking in constellations of writers and artists, of configurations of influences, chance echoes, and engagements in constant motion…. Guides shift in purpose and proximity given the needed attentions of a particular moment. These constellations are a kind of trans-historical community in poetry.

The people who hold the most important places in my life as a poet have been those writers and artists with whom I’ve developed relationships grounded in generative, creative and excessive forms of friendship and affection: the poets Hamish Ballantyne and Tessa Bolsover, Fan Wu, Julian Butterfield, Alex MacKay, Marion Bell (whose book Austerity is an vital gift to the world), the actual angel, Alex Kulick. Poet-turned-gambler, great magic-grifter Iris Liu. It’s really nice to say the names of friends. I think Bill Berkson said I write poems so I can say things to my friends, or I hope he said that.

Q: With a first trade collection forthcoming in 2020, how do you feel your work has developed?

Where do you see your work headed?

A: Most of the development in my work has been a patient finding, an attunement to right hearing of the poems as they have to be, which is full of imperfection and fragmentation. As a very young poet, I tried more than anything to avoid at all costs any semblance of narrative, and through my first book, Country Poems, I’ve come to realize that telling stories is at the forefront of all of my poetry. Of course, narrative and stories aren’t the same thing, but it’s been a surprise. Country Poems, I hope, begins in some nebulous proximity to the lyric and unravels over uncertain ground into forms of attention and articulation much less discernable. Lyrically, I’ve made my task to decenter the self in relation to the utterance, to locate in the poem a nexus of converging voices and images, receptions and articulations. Most importantly, in beginning to learn the scope of a book of poems, I’ve gotten closer to the transformative force within poetic experience: a distinct vocabulary emerging in echoes and refractions across a group – or in the case of Country Poems, many groups – of poems.

I’m working now on a sequence of poems that tell the tall tale of HB, a shadow of the doomed figure Hamish Ballantyne whose demise is told in a ballad that opens Country Poems. So, in some non-linear way, this new sequence, The Comings of HB, precedes Country Poems. Poems, as far as I can tell, take place in a multitude of nows quite different from our ordinary experience of lived time, so I’m learning about how poems interact temporally, and how to hold these spheres of time in nearness to each other. I think of the title to Joanne Kyger’s collected poems often, About Now. Every poem in that book is happening right now.

I’m thinking a lot about collaboration as an important form of decentering.

Q: What do you mean by “decentering”? How do you see that emerging through the process of collaboration?

A: Thinking about the poem as a nexus of convergences and divergences, as an experience in itself. I’m interested in decentering the self within the poem: finding the self to be only one – and not necessarily the primary – element within the work. Stein comes to mind, but I don’t think this a directly Steinian idea. Duncan’s notion of derivation is important, of a sensitivity to voices and histories that weigh on present lived experience. Kyger talks about the poem as a record of the particularities of a life. If my poems take those stakes seriously, and I hope they do, then they do this through a kind of active locating of the self among many forces that are not necessarily identical, or even clearly in relation, to the self. Decentering as I think of it moves away from expression in the older sense – through literary projection, through stories & images & histories, through secrets & obscurities, it’s a way of searching for entirely new forms of the self that leave behind any essential idea of individuality. It makes me think about the sequence again, and of course, the constellation. Today Tessa said the crystalline, which is exactly it.

I don’t want to theorize it much beyond that, because it’s happening and unfolding in the poems, and I feel there’s a lot of work ahead. But, yes, collaboration, again as a form of community – the very gesture of collective creativity. In this new group of poems, The Comings of HB, which really is a work of dubiously authored songs, there’s an idea for there to be texts from other writers among the poems, texts that only deepen and amplify the questions around this figure, HB, which really are questions posed through poems that try to push on the edges of storytelling. 

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

A: Among the many writers I’ve invoked already, there are so many others that I hold dear to my work: Stacy Szymaszek, M. NourbeSe Philip, John Wieners, Susan Howe, Nate Mackey, HD, Spicer, Paul Blackburn & Ed Sanders, Lucia Berlin. Cesare Pavese. Huidobro, Alejandra Pizarnik, Bolaño… Lezama. Dickinson. These poets take in the world and are taken in by it, so it’s endless…

Mostly, in the intimacy of returning, I read my friends.

Thanks so much for this conversation, rob.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

TtD supplement #136 : eight questions for Michael Sikkema

Michael Sikkema is the author of 4 full length collections of poetry, around a dozen chapbooks or collaborative chapbooks, and can be found most often in West Michigan, migrating northernly in the summer.

His poem “Eleven Possibilities” appears in the twenty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Eleven Possibilities.”

A: “Eleven Possibilities” is one section of a longer work that I wrote while I was thinking a lot about performance / fluxus / the interconnect of poetry and theater and the like. I was hoping to create something more for the stage than the page alone. I wanted a piece that would work if performed by several voices or just one. I wanted a piece that could be performed by someone who never met me, and could even be continued by someone else without me. It’s an open form that can be stretched and pulled and shaped to fit other people’s purposes. I wanted a piece that could have a separate life on its own, rather than being seen as a window into my soul or something. I wrote “Eleven Possibilities” and the larger text while composing a book called Bug Out Bag, which explores the imagination and art as a form of survival mechanism, much more necessary than “escapism.”

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

A: This piece fits into the Bug Out Bag manuscript because there are other pieces that explore and create an intersection between poetry and performance and multiple voices. It’s pretty far afield though from the newest stuff I’m working on, which is more of an opera-novel-thing (in verse and vispo and a cartoon-prose-poem and a kind of silent play and more to be determined by the muse at a later date).

Q: You seem to work on multiple projects simultaneously. Is this the way you’ve always worked? How does one project fit against another, and how do you keep track?

A: When I was first writing poems, I wrote just one poem at a time and they were mostly about a page long and I thought of them as closed off from one another. As I wrote more and stretched out into longer projects, like long poems, lyric sequences, prose poem sequences, chapbooks, etc, my idea of what a poem was started to change and grow. Finally *poetry* became what I wrote and the single poem was just one shape that could take. I almost never write stand-alone poems now because I feel like poems want to talk to other poems and form larger more complex nervous systems. Sometimes what appears as a stand-alone turns out to have been a stalking-horse for some longer thing that happens later.

For the last decade at least, I’ve worked on multiple projects at a time. Sometimes they end up folding into each other completely. Sometimes one takes shape faster and another gets tabled until the first one is done. Sometimes one never grows legs and doesn’t go anywhere and just chills in the notebook. I write as automatically as possible and then listen to the work, to figure out where it goes later. I compose in notebooks, on oversized paper, on notecards and almost never on a laptop, but when I start to type stuff up, it’s usually clear which project a piece wants to be with. I also end up cutting a lot of writing that doesn’t fit anywhere. Sometimes I go back to that and realize it is something all on its own or maybe a few pieces of it want to be sent out to journals or something.

Q: You make it sound as though your projects evolve rather organically. Do you see your work as a series of interconnected threads, or have you begun to see your writing practice as something larger and possibly singular?

A: I’m convinced that poetry happens all the time/poetry is all time and space and we occasionally visit it at the well, or create portals that let it through. I think of it as a living thing, one huge all encompassing thing that we experience in little bits and strings. I work to stay open to it and get out of the way so the work of poetry can happen. A reader might trace some thread through separate pieces or see an obsession on loop, and that’s great. I see a big nervous system sending messages back and forth through itself. I think books talk to each other just like poems do. I love doing a deep read on a poet or fiction writer and checking out many of their books to see what kind of an animal they make together. I’m much less interested in charting a linear beginning-to-end track of what rhetorical strategies they used or what they were obsessed with though.

Q: What influences brought you to this particular point in your work? What writers or writing sit in the back of your head as you write?

A: Lately I find myself thinking about

Kenneth Patchen / Ruth Krauss / Richard Brautigan

Alice Notley / Bernadette Mayer / Harryette Mullen

Emmett Williams / Alison Knowles / Reggie Watts 

Gary Barwin / Lucinda Sherlock / Steven Wright

Sometimes the names on the list would be totally different.

Q: With four full-length poetry titles and a dozen or so chapbooks published to date, how do you feel your writing has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Yay! Now, as of last week, it’s five full lengths. I think my writing has taken on more issues, grappled with a bigger worldview, gone deeper into the imagination, and became fully invested in organic form. I think I’m going deeper into speculative poetry that steals elements from other wonderful and sometimes trashy genres. I’m doing more vispo work and thinking about doing more collages. I’d love to collaborate with someone on a graphic novel. Working on an artist book or two sounds really challenging and fun. I would LOVE to find about 2-4 other people who wanted to write stuff for multiple voices that we could perform and have others perform too. I'd like to experiment with looping pedals and sound effects and compose audio chapbooks too.

Q: I’m curious about your collaborative work, as well as your exploration into vispo. What do you feel these explorations allow that might not have been possible otherwise?

A: Collaborations allow the collaborators access to a third mind, a new form of thinking and being. Not everyone can make a collab work with everyone else. When it works, there is a lot of mirroring, experimenting, way-finding, voice-throwing, and finally a sort of third mind that both people are occupying and writing into being. It can be like learning a new language and discovering all the unspoken assumptions that hide under common phrases. It’s a constant state of discovery and navigation.

Vispo is important because I think it cuts straight to our meaning making minds and short circuits a lot of our schooling, both the public institutional kind but also the corporate marketing kind, and can be really intimate. I work with young kids and end up thinking a lot about sight words and the immediate experience and reaction that those words cause. Vispo works similarly sometimes but not in a comfortable recognize-and-move-along fashion. Often it's much more arresting and invites you to spend time with it. It demands that we rethink what reading is.

Q: Finally (and you might already have answered a portion of this), who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: I don’t look for poetic inspiration in works of poetry for the most part. I read rabidly and love it and there are books that work as fuel for the fire, but I don’t usually look to a book of poems if my own writing is lacking. I’ll read fairy tales, myths, folktales, legends, sci fi, horror, or articles about the supernatural/aliens/cryptids/surveillance technology/etc on the internet. I’ll stroll through the oversized art aisles in the library. I’ll watch nature documentaries. I’ll watch trash cinema. I’ll do bibliomancy, erasures, exercises, word games. Tynes and I have a library of probably about a thousand books and I return to those often. I reread C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining once a year or so. I reread Barwin’s Moon Baboon Canoe at least once a year. I reread Tender Buttons pretty often. I reread Mullen’s Muse and Drudge. I reread Patchen’s picture-poems. I reread Descent of Allette once a year. I know I’ll be rereading Jen Bervin's Silk Poems once a year. I adore Micrograms by Jorge Carrera Andrade and reread it a couple times a year.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

TtD supplement #135 : seven questions for Bronwen Tate

Bronwen Tate is an assistant professor of Creative Writing and Literature at Marlboro College, a tiny radically egalitarian educational utopia usually buried in snow in southern Vermont. She is the author of seven poetry chapbooks, including Vesper Vigil (above/ground, 2016). Her poems and essays have appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature, 1111, Denver Quarterly, LIT, TYPO, and elsewhere.

Her poems “REPRODUCTIONS OF FRESCOS,” “I COULD NOT ASK OTHER FLOWERS” and “CIRCUMSTANCES LEGIBLE BEHIND THIS WINDOW” appear in the twenty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.


A: These three poems are part of a manuscript I’ve been working and reworking for years that I’ve recently started calling The Silk the Moths Ignore. The book has three different formal modes of writing in it: prose versets like these three in Touch the Donkey, little five-line poems with rhyme or slant rhyme inspired by Lorine Niedecker, and sonnets. These three poems grew out of a constraint-based practice where I read Proust in French (which I speak fairly well but not perfectly), looked for words that were at least semi-opaque to me, and then used a combination of my contextual guesses and dictionary definitions of these words to generate language and sparks of juxtaposition for poems. I was interested in what might emerge when I started from material (specific words) rather than an idea or feeling. Over time, however, many sentences, phrases, images were cut. And I wrote into what was left with feelings and ideas and pain. But these poems developed a kind of tonal range or force field from that source work that I think they’ve kept.

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: These poems are grappling with sound and language as a material, while also trying to participate in the world of actual people and experiences. This is something I’m continuing to explore in new work. I teach creative writing across genres, so I’m constantly working with students on memoir and fiction, as well as poetry. This means that I’m always thinking about the different goals and trade-offs that happen across genre, and it pushes me to really consider what I want to prioritize or emphasize in my work. At the moment, I’m working on some poems that are deeply sound-driven and some other poems that are animated more by documenting details and events and juxtaposing them in search of insight.

Q: I’m curious about your explorations into sound. What originally prompted this, and what are you discovering?

A: I think poetry has always been about sound on some level for me, ever since I first memorized Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” for the pleasure of being able to recite it to myself when I was 8 or 9 years old. Whenever I write poetry, there’s some element of writing by ear, of repeating words or phrases back to myself and sounding my way to the next sentence or line. Sound connects to the body, to the sense that we know things in our bodies and can feel them before we fully articulate them.

Recently, I’ve been reading Gregory Orr’s A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry with a couple of tutorial students, and he discusses poetry in terms of making space for disorder and chaos and then acting on it with “the ordering powers of the imagination” and of form. I’m interested in how sound can be an ordering power—we give shape to poems through alliteration, rhyme, and other kinds of patterning—while also being a sign of chaos or disorder. Puns, homonyms, and similar forms of sound play reveal a kind of instability or anarchy of language. I'm drawn to both the patterning and the destabilizing powers of sound.

Q: With a handful of published chapbooks over the past few years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: My work as a poet has developed in conversation with my work as a scholar, a mother, and a teacher. These other forms of work often feel in competition for time with my poetry writing, but they feed it as well. Over the course of my PhD, I often worked on poems in between work on dissertation chapters in concentrated little bursts in the summer or around a concrete deadline like those of the various Dusie chapbook exchanges. Writing about Lorine Niedecker and her relationship to haiku got me writing poems in the signature five-liner form she developed from this haiku encounter (like these ones you published before). I’ve often written prose poems, and I learned something about lineation there, as well as about compression. Mothering drains me at times, but it also immerses me in the hands-on language lab of new humans learning to communicate—their strange phrasings that show the cracks in language and their joy in rhyme and word play remind me that poetry is vital and centrally human at moments when I start to think of it as a weird thing off to the side that no one cares about. And teaching is a constant reminder to listen to my own better angels. You can’t constantly urge students to commit to regular writing, trust the process, take risks, be ok with not knowing where a piece is going, look for enabling models, and so on, without internalizing some of that advice yourself.

I get frustrated sometimes because I’ve been writing poetry for a while now, but every time I sit down with a new project I feel like I’m starting all over again. Shouldn’t I know by now what a Bronwen poem does or at least how it starts? But I’m also drawn to poetry because of how open it is. I love how many different ways a poem can make meaning. I love to be surprised in my reading, and I want to be surprised in my writing. Looking forward, I want to make work that holds more, that does a better job bringing different aspects of experience together and showing how they touch each other, like Bernadette Mayer writing about Saint Augustine and chopping vegetables for soup. I want to let more in.

Q: You mention Bernadette Mayer; what other poets have helped shape the way you think about writing? What poets and works have been in your head lately, as you continue to write?

A: Yes, I recently participated in an event organized by Becca Klaver where a group of poets all wrote a collaborative homage to Mayer’s Midwinter Day (on midwinter day, naturally) that mirrored the form of the book. I also mentioned Lorine Niedecker above—she and Mayer often feel like lovely balancing impulses: mess and excess and letting it all in from Mayer and restraint and minimalism and obsessive revision from Niedecker.

Memorizing Baudelaire in French was an early enchantment as a fifteen-year-old exchange student in Switzerland. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red were important for defining possibilities early on. The poets I wrote about in my PhD dissertation—Robert Creeley, Elizabeth Bishop, and Frank Stanford, among others—have continued to linger with me, as have teachers and mentors like C.D. Wright, Forrest Gander, and Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop. I’ve recently been engaging in a sustained way with the poems of Harryette Mullen, both as a scholar, and as participant in one of Hoa Nguyen’s fantastic long-distance workshops centered around Mullen’s work. I loved Jessica Smith’s recent How to Know the Flowers and Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, and my to-read stack at the moment includes Erika Meitner, Cynthia Arrieu-King, Vanessa Angélica Villareal, and Johannes Göransson’s book of essays on translation.

Q: You mention how time spent as a scholar, mother, and teacher has fed your writing. How do you feel each have shifted the ways in which you approach your work?

A: As a scholar, I’ve learned how to really stay with something, to reread it over and over again and look at it from different angles and within a larger context. There’s a problem-solving or method-focused way this shows up in my writing—if I’m struggling with lineation, say, I assign myself focused reading of poets I see doing interesting and intentional work with line breaks, and then I sit with their work, examining its breaks and swerves.

How many ways has being a mother shifted how I approach my work? So many ways. To describe just one, I sing to my children (3.5 and almost 7) at bedtime almost every night, and I’ve recently been struck by the questions they ask about songs. The current songs on repeat-request are Gillian Welch’s “I Dream a Highway,” “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” and the kids ask things like “How can flowers learn?” or “Do ALL the soldiers go to graveyards?” or “How can the wagon be empty if it’s full of rattling bones?” Now this may just be bedtime stalling, but it’s also a reminder that the urge to notice details and interpret poetic texts is deep in us. I think sometimes we get out of the habit, or encounter this kind of interpretive work as alienating and forced in the high school classroom (the classic “did the author really mean to make the conch shell in Lord of the Flies a symbol of authority?” type question), but humans are fundamentally grapplers with language and meaning. I take heart from this reminder.

As a teacher, I’ve been lucky to work for the past two years at Marlboro College, a very small liberal arts college without typical disciplinary boundaries. We have biweekly faculty meeting as a full faculty, we can co-teach at will across fields, and we work closely with students on intensive capstone projects that almost always draw on methods and practices from across multiple disciplines. We also all eat lunch together in the dining hall, so any given day, I’m talking with colleagues and students about wolf dentition, forest gardening, how writing workshops differ from painting critiques, etc. In fact, I’ve just stepped in from the hallway where I was talking with Amer in Religious Studies and Jean in Theater about a quote from Rumi (the one where he talks about the self as a guest house and urges us to invite our difficult emotions in) and how it relates to theater and the healing of trauma. This ongoing dialogue pushes me to question my own assumptions about teaching and about writing. It also keeps me curious, which I see as a necessary condition for writing.

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

A: Many of the writers I’ve already mentioned are ones I read to reenergize my work. I deeply appreciate books that give a kind of permission or direct my attention towards something that language is capable of doing, like “oh yeah, that’s possible.” I might turn to Frank O’Hara or John Donne for voice, Ross Gay for syntax and ecstasy, Wallace Stevens for lushness, Lucille Clifton for embodiment, Ada Limón for intimacy, Richard Brautigan or Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit for strangeness and nostalgia, Paul Celan for starkness, Anne Boyer or Maggie Nelson or Claudia Rankine or Kate Schapira for the poem as a site of inquiry. I also love discovering new sides of poets whose work I’m familiar with when I read them with students.

I’m a big nerd when it comes to form, grammar, syntax, etymology, and I often find essays and craft talks energizing for how they articulate the challenges of writing and how people have tackled them, or shed light on some particularity of material. Recently, I’ve been enjoying Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form, Mary Ruefle’s short talks in Madness, Rack and Honey, and James Longenbach’s How Poems Get Made. I love a good close reading or exploration of technique that gets me thinking about things differently.

When it comes to works I return to, many of these are prose as well, from novels by Dorothy Sayers or Robin McKinley that are like a comfy sweater and a cup of tea, to essays by MFK Fisher, Joan Didion, or Eula Biss that are like a bracing walk. I love spending time with Ursula K. Le Guin’s spirit and intelligence, whether in novels like The Dispossessed or in her essays. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping makes me want to underline every other sentence. Inspired by some of my colleagues at Marlboro (and by my friend Jillian Hess’s scholarship), I started keeping a commonplace book about a year and a half ago, and I’ve also found that to be a valuable practice that pushes me to select and copy some passages that are speaking to me and articulate what I’m getting from them. I’m hoping to have more time for this kind of slow reading this summer.