Thursday, May 9, 2019

TtD supplement #133 : seven questions for Hailey Higdon

Hailey Higdon is the author of the poetry collection, Hard Some, available from Spuyten Duyvil Press. Her recent chapbooks include A Wild Permanence (Dancing Girl, 2018) and Rural (Drop Leaf, 2017). She currently lives in Seattle. Find her online at haileyhaileyhailey.com.

Her poems “Upstream,” “Wake Up We Send Trouble to Each Other” and “I’ve Been Told There’s a Roller Coaster” appear in the twenty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Upstream,” “Wake Up We Send Trouble to Each Other” and “I’ve Been Told There’s a Roller Coaster.”

A: Both “Upstream” and “I’ve Been Told There’s a Roller Coaster” were exercises in automatic writing. “Upstream” was the offshoot of a journal entry written on a trip to Hawaii. It sort of pairs with another poem I wrote at the same time while sitting at a café in Pāhoa a few months before the volcano erupted. I watched a man take up an entire table, not order anything and loudly talk to the busy waitress about another waitress who was wasn’t working that day.

“I’ve Been Told There’s a Roller Coaster” was written before bed one night. It’s basically my way of processing samsara. There is this dog that yaps all night in our neighbors yard. I started thinking about how long life is, how much we repeat the same things that make us unsatisfied, and how it erodes the parts of us that are abundant and confident and hopeful and good. I think this is related to consumerism—compulsive consumerism that pushes people away from dreaming big or feeling big outside of the goal of stuff. I know I carry this narrow fatalism around. I count on the people I love to remind me it is there and to remind me of the glimmering margins outside of that space.

“Wake Up We Send Trouble To Each Other” is a poem I have difficulty describing in language outside of itself. I can tell you what I am thinking about now, if that helps. I’m considering the narrowness that grips and bottlenecks our relationship to our interior life, our loves and our community. Someone flushes up next to us and tries to make a connection, and how many times do we miss it? We are so uncomfortable as integrated beings, and it’s not exactly our fault. It’s terribly hard to see both the hard parts about the world (and ourselves) and also see the good parts and the so-so parts. More often than not everyone agrees to be looking at the deficit instead of the dream life. I mean that in several ways—the emotional deficit we carry, the community deficits brought on by systems—systemic racism, our broken healthcare system, legal system, work—we end up paralyzed and staring at these gaps (the trouble) instead of dreaming beyond them. And it’s self-perpetuating because that dream doesn’t even appear to exist when we are inside those broken systems—we don’t even believe we can develop the capacity to visualize it. We think the capacity to dream becomes available only when the gaps are closed. Like an agreement to dream about things later, once the system is fixed, but we can’t fix the system without the dream. And all this—this way of being in the word—it has an impact on our bodies that we carry with us and internalize in a larger multi-generational way.

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

A: Most of my newer work is the product of a very slow, seeped-in process. These poems are much more immediate.

Q: What prompted you to explore automatic writing? In your view, do the resulting poems differ from the poems composed through your “very slow, seeped-in” processes? Is there a difference?

A: Yes, they are quite different. My “very slow, seeped-in” process has led me to write longer, more personal poems. I think this difference can be felt also, when reading these pieces compared to reading some of my other work (e.g., Hard Some or Rural). Honestly, I use automatic writing to remind myself that a poem is usually always there, so long as I take the time to sit down and find it.

Q: With a half dozen or so chapbooks over the past decade, alongside a full-length collection, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I have always struggled with the problem of having too many ideas and not enough persistence. This may be why I have a lot of chapbook length things, but just one book. And why the one book is made up of lots of tiny books. As I get older, I am learning how this operates in me. How I can spin my frenetic energy inward toward one large hovering thing, instead of a million little things. Hard Some was one of those large “things.” Lately, I have been working on a series of essays—my next big hovering thing. They work for me because I can have a sort of loose thread between them, and still feel able to explore separate ideas. They hover around pregnancy, motherhood and the fertility process that accompanies assisted reproduction for queer folx. Oh yeah, and they are also all about trees.

Q: What was the process of putting together your full-length collection? I would argue that it was remarkably coherent, despite being constructed out of chapbook-length sections. What did you learn from the process of putting that collection together?

A: One thing led to another. I wrote the section “Yes & What Happens” first. After that, I couldn’t let go of the form. So I wrote another long poem in the same form (“A Wild Permanence”), then came “Breaker,” then “Children.” Though they were separate chapbook length poems, they were always a part of the same continuous thought process and they remained connected loosely in form—all written in small prose blocks.

The work followed me through a couple of years in my life where I was going through dramatic personal changes. When “Children” was done, I no longer felt tied to that form, so the book felt done too. The most important thing I learned was to wait. It took me much longer than I expected to find the right words for each poem. There was no rushing. Every bit of the book was considered slowly.

Q: What writers or works have influenced the way you write? How did you get to a point where you are writing in sequence, aka chapbook-length units?

A: Here’s what I know: I was and am heavily influenced by my partner, the writer Tanya Holtland. Mostly, it’s the way we manage to build writing into our lives that determines the forms that are available. She also writes very slowly and carefully, and after we met I started to see that way of writing as more valuable than I had in the past.

While writing Hard Some I was reading Will Alexander’s Compression and Purity. I can see his imprint strongly there. I love getting lost in his cosmos. I was also reading Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, Ngugi’s Globalectics, Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, and Eckhart Tolle. I was spending a lot of time with my friend, the former-Seattle poet Maged Zaher, and I know his language trickled into the book. Other influences that come to mind in my writing life—Juliana Spahr, Maggie Nelson, Frank O’Hara, Joanne Kyger, and Hannah Weiner.

Mostly the chapbook length forms come from my inner sense of time, and how much material I decide one poem can hold within a certain time frame. I’m not sure there was a journey to get to that place. It’s just what happened.

Q: Finally, and perhaps you’ve already answered this, but who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: This list hasn’t changed much over the years—Lorenzo Thomas’ Dracula, Joanne Kyger’s Collected Poems, Aime Cesaire’s Collected Poems, John Cage’s Silence, Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation and This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, anything by Vonnegut. And my friends. I read my friends when I’m stuck.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

TtD supplement #132 : seven questions for Emilia Nielsen

Emilia Nielsen’s debut book, Surge Narrows (Leaf Press, 2013), was a finalist for the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Body Work, her second book of poetry, was published by Signature Editions in spring 2018. She is also the author of the scholarly text, Disrupting Breast Cancer Narratives: Stories of Rage and Repair published by University of Toronto Press in 2019. She recently joined York University’s Health & Society Program in the Department of Social Science as a tenure track Assistant Professor in Arts, Medicine and Healing.

Her suite of poems “NOXIOUS SPECIES” appears in the twenty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “NOXIOUS SPECIES.”

A: I’d like to say the primary inspiration for these poems came from a weed manual published by the Government of Alberta, the Alberta Invasive Plant Identification Guide: Prohibited Noxious and Noxious. And this is true, in part.

But these poems also came about because of finding myself newly in Edmonton, Alberta. I had spent three long summers as a fire lookout in northern Alberta years previous but for three years I actually lived year-round in the province and more importantly as part of a neighbourhood. I was spending a lot of time out walking with my very energetic puppy in Mill Creek Ravine. There, neighbours not only get together to clean up garbage each spring, they also participate in weed pulls because plant species like garlic mustard and Himalayan balsam are transforming—and some would say irrevocably changing—the natural ecosystem.

So not only was I curious about the names of these plants and how to identify them, I was implicated in their histories of migration from Europe and settlement into areas just like the one I was walking in. This history maps onto colonial settler migration and with my own ancestor’s obsession with bringing all manner of species from Europe. The best response to invasive plants seemed to be pull them out, as I did with a bunch of creeping bellflowers happily growing in my front yard. (Truth be told I missed them the next spring when only a few remaining plants bloomed, exactly as planned.)

So, I’m also beginning to understand that my own thinking is rather limited—no surprise!—and that we would all be best served by turning to the work of Indigenous scholars like Nicholas Reo who are rethinking how best to understand the problem so-called “invasive species” present. (I recommend listening to Reo’s interview with Rosanna Deerchild on Unreserved and reading a bit more about his work here.)  

I also happened to reread Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris and was captivated all over again by the speakers of those poems. And the acerbic voice of “Witchgrass” especially.

Then there was hateful anti-immigration rhetoric—and actions—coming from the President of the United States, which was in the news and on the radio in constant rotation and was as vile then, a year and a half ago, as it is now.

Somehow all of this bubbled up and into the voices of these plants, these noxious species. (Or at least I think it did!)

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

A: These poems seem pretty different from the other types of work I’ve been doing lately.

I’m just surfacing after going deep into a bunch of university-situated grant writing, and in the biggest proposal directed to SSHRC, I’ve proposed a “research-creation” project that aims to explore illness memoir—through reading, writing and talking—but to do so through more experimental or genre-bending means. I had to really think through what it might mean to employ autofiction (or even autotheory) in trying to get at something that is personal but so quickly can become a bit boring to me unless I’m engaged with some play on the page or play in the mind or play in conversation. I’m not that interested in recounting “the facts.” (And I’m pretty sure only some people are interested in reading work like that.)

In terms of other poetry projects, if I think in terms of book-length works and the kind of poetics that motivated my previous books, Surge Narrows and Body Work, it’s beginning to feel like I start fresh each time I approach a new writing project. This is not something I planned to do. But I’m beginning to understand that it does keep things interesting. It’s like I’ve given myself permission to become a different poet each time I start a new book. I’m not sure that others would agree but that’s what it feels like to me!

Q: You reference thinking in terms of book-length works: how did you get to the point of thinking as the book as your unit of composition? What do you think influenced your evolution to the book over, say, the individual poem?

A: I’m curious about that too because it seems undeniable that I do now think in terms of a much longer unit of composition. On the one hand, I think struggling to put together my first manuscript of poems forever changed my thinking in terms of both the deliberate organization and the culling required. But I also think that reading key books at impressionable times like Lisa Robertson’s The Weather or Maggie Nelson’s Bluets encouraged me to think of how a book can be a sustained exploration of a concept or atmosphere. This probably speaks more to the fact that I enjoy books where all the parts intrinsically belong, even if the inner logic might not be immediately apparent.

Q: When you speak of sustained exploration, do you think in terms of a thesis or argument that your book-length works explore, or more of a pulling apart of an idea, to see from multiple perspectives? What do you see your poems attempting to do?

A: That is such an important distinction! I’d like to think I’m doing more pulling apart than argument-making. In my thinking a “sustained exploration” is actually an open ended and exploratory process. For all my bluster about loving books that have a delicious sort of inner logic that does not mean they must be tidy. Too much tidying up seems to produce writing that can feel a bit restrictive (even didactic.) Generally, I’m disinterested in being told what to think or feel. So, I guess my poems do attempt to present multiple takes on a given situation or reality and to follow that line of thinking until I run out of steam.

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

A: Maybe it is a bit more nuanced? I’m not sure, exactly. Maybe I’m just less committed to certainty.

I do know that throughout the process of writing Body Work I was very interested in playing with form and content. And if an idea took hold, I was keen to pursue it for as long as I could sustain the writing.

So, I’m not sure exactly where my work is headed. I guess I hope not to repeat myself, even though I’m fully aware that each of us has a few preoccupations that we will likely return to time and again. And I take some comfort in that.

Q: You’ve already mentioned Louise Glück, but have there been any other authors or specific works in your head as you’ve been working this particular manuscript?

A: Anne Carson’s Short Talks. First published in 1992—I probably read it ten years after that—it was recently re-released by Brick Books and now includes a gorgeous introduction “Glass, Slag: Short Talk on Anne Carson’s Hewn Flows” by Margaret Christakos which helped me better situate so much of what I first found so arresting. As Christakos says, “Short Talks does not frontally expose the aroused scruff of any one self; it is a book of indirect addresses from a chorus of individual voices gesturing personae” (p. 16). The brevity, and originality, of those prose poems. Those speakers, those voices.

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

A: To re-energize—and to challenge—my own work I read Dionne Brand, Sylvia Legris, Sina Queyras, Lisa Robertson, Rita Wong, and others. (Currently, I’m looking forward to Janet Roger’s Totem Poles and Railroads and Cecily Nicholson’s Wayside Sang.) In addition to those already mentioned, I can’t help but return to Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. And H.D.’s Sea Garden. Also, Brand’s No Language Is Neutral.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Touch the Donkey : twenty-first [fifth anniversary!] issue,

The twenty-first issue, celebrating five glorious years, is now available, with new poems by Michael Cavuto, Michael Sikkema, Bronwen Tate, rob mclennan, Amanda Earl, Emilia Nielsen, Hailey Higdon and Trish Salah.

Eight dollars (includes shipping). But today you'll see me in my greatest role.


And don't forget the fifth anniversary subscription sale, which continues until the end of April, 2019! featuring the entire Touch the Donkey catalogue and the above/ground press backlist.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

TtD supplement #131 : seven questions for Lauren Haldeman

Lauren Haldeman is the author of Instead of Dying (winner of the 2017 Colorado Prize for Poetry, Center for Literary Publishing, 2017), Calenday (Rescue Press, 2014) and the artist book The Eccentricity is Zero (Digraph Press, 2014). Her work has appeared in Tin House, Colorado Review, Fence, The Iowa Review and The Rumpus. A comic book artist and poet, she has been a recipient of the Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, the Colorado Prize for Poetry and fellowships from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. You can find her online at http://laurenhaldeman.com

Her poems “THE LITTLE CENTURY” and “Progress Diary” appear in the twentieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “THE LITTLE CENTURY” and “Progress Diary.”

A: These two poems come from an ongoing project called Team Photograph, which is a mashup of poetry and graphic memoir (comics) that I am working on right now. Much of it revolves around soccer – I played a lot of competitive league soccer in the Washington D.C. area when I was growing up, and we often played in parks near Civil War battlefields. I am investigating the overlap of professional sport and warfare in those strange places, as well as touching on ghosts, forgotten history and hallucinations. These two poems come from a section of the book that examines the ideas of tribalism, brainwashing and group mentalities.

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

A: The work in Team Photograph is a bit darker than my first two books. It is more structured too: it exists in a multi-layered narrative, so it’s much more story-driven than work in my previous books. There are challenges to this, but it also means that I can really streamline and focus the poems from start to finish. And these poems are all paired with the graphic memoir sections – comic book style – so it has been really satisfying to watch it all come together.

Q: What brought about these shifts in structure and narrative, as well as this increase in darker content?

A: I actually think that my first two books, Calenday and Instead of Dying, were a departure from my preferred way of working – I really like to have an obsessively-built structure and scaffolding behind projects. Those first two books came out of a time of disarray, a time of chaos unfurling from new motherhood and the sudden loss of my brother. I love those two books, and they do what they needed to do: they navigated bedlam and turmoil in real time. This new project allows me more space to really orchestrate the framework. This is also the first time I am consciously integrating comic-book-style graphic memoir into the architecture of a book of poetry, instead of just as extramural pieces. Exciting stuff!

Q: How, exactly, are you integrating the “comic-book-style graphic memoir” elements, and what do you feel this allows that might not have been possible otherwise?

A: The manuscript of poetry is divided into seven sections, and there is an underlying “story” – a researched history – for how all the poems fit together. But many of my first draft readers were having trouble finding the connections because, well, it's poetry, and poetry isn’t often outwardly explanatory. So I needed another way to invite the reader in and explain the connections. I had been drawing individual “poetry comics” for my first two books and I just love that medium: sequential-art works incredibly well with poetry. So I decided to take that idea further and create seven illustrated section breaks for the manuscript – little essays in comic form that explain the next movement through the narrative, and through the extensive research that I have done for the book. And so far it has been really exciting! The visual components I am creating really compliment and add to the poetry in a way I never expected. I love it.

Q: Have you any models for this kind of work? I know Sommer Browning has been playing with such for years. And then, of course, there was the late Toronto poet bpNichol, who played with just about everything, including poetry comics, producing the first underground comics published in Canada, back in the 1960s.

A: I do. My absolute all-time favorite cartoonist is Chris Ware. I read his masterpiece Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth when I was 19, and I was stunned, intoxicated, completely awed by the book. It still awes me to this day. I consider him a poet as well because of the way he uses the cadence and syntax of language to control the reader’s pace. And the way he pairs the panels and the words, with such considerate coordination, is nothing short of magical to me. I also love Alison Bechdel’s work, Bianca Stone’s poetry-comics, and almost every single thing I find in CAROUSEL Magazine. CAROUSEL is a Canadian mag and I adore it!

Q: I’m curious at your exploration of poetry-comics, over, say, any exploration into the text itself as visual, ie: concrete/visual poetry. Is it the narrative of poetry-comics that compels?

A: It’s strange because I am also using visual text-based poetry in the collection, like erasures. The comic sections act as a counter to those abstractions – they provide a more straight-forward expository function in the book, yes.

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

A: Kiki Petrosino, Shane McCrae, Heather Christle and Sabrina Orah Mark are among my favorite writers right now – and when I want to remember why I write, I read them. I am currently reading Sappho again too, because I have been feeling this almost animal need for ancient thought (a very wintery desire) and, oddly enough, the Twitter Sappho Bot reminded me to return to her!

Monday, March 25, 2019

TtD supplement #130 : seven questions for Marie Larson

Marie Larson’s writing has appeared in GAM, DIAGRAM, Shampoo, Bombay Gin, Fact-Simile, Jacket and Pallaksch. Pallaksch. She is the author of Dendroctonus Ponderosae (Shadow Mountain Press, 2009) and Dromeda (Goodmorning Menagerie, 2013). She lives in Milwaukee, WI.

Her poem “PART TWO: THE STARS” appears in the twentieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “PART TWO: THE STARS.”

A: The project began as a meditation on evolution and heredity, the repeating and mutating patterns (tessellation, honeycombs, etc.), and how those patterns intersect myth, human relationship, family, language and my own ridiculous existence.

In past projects, I wrote through various characters (a whale, a parasite/host, a whole slew of perforated bodies) as a way to approach messy intersections, messy bodies. It felt good to write from behind a curtain. But now, I’m awkwardly figuring out how to write as myself, in my own life.

Three years ago, I lost my mom and became pregnant with my daughter. All at once. The news came that my mom was dying. The next day I found out I was pregnant. Two days later I took a redeye Greyhound to St. Paul to help my mother (and father) through the last three weeks of her life while this tiny, sticky fractal of new life burrowed in. The intensity of that experience (it’s reverberation, syllabus, whatever you want to call it) transfigured this project – became the horse it rode. Losing a mother / becoming a mother.

The first section of this project is titled The Forest. Minnesota and the north woods, where my mom grew up, where I spent much of my childhood, emerge here. I carry those woods around with me. They make me feel like myself and embody my personal mythos, family and language.

God emerged in Part Two: The Stars, which still surprises me. I’m not religious but I do value ritual, the ecstatic, the magic of language. I began writing about stars and constellations. We are the makers of narrative. We connect dots. We look up into a black vacuum and translate pin pricks of light into bulls, crabs and lions. My mother was born under the sign of cancer, which is also the illness that took her (nasty tessellation, another kind of fractal.) All narratives are parallax. I think of “god” as parallax, as a constellation. In that, I’m also interrogating (and exalting in) the value of art and all creative, iterative acts. Life itself, I suppose.

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

A: This is the only work I’ve been doing lately. I’m not the sort of writer who has multiple projects going at once. My progress has been embarrassingly slow—initial scribblings for this series started about 5 years ago. There are large swaths of time inside those years where I haven’t written at all. The project prior to this (Dromeda) was a metaphorical narrative told by two voices sharing one body with central themes of mirage and reflection, mirrors and glass, light and dark, self-love and self-hatred. It was more inward-looking than this new writing but a few threads carry over to this newer work—the phrase “god is a...” I nearly forgot that appears in the last project. Its emergence surprised me then, too. Also, addressing the creative act—the last project used glass-blowing as a metaphor for writing poetry, weaving comes up in this new work as a similar placeholder.

Q: You mention your prior work being more inward-looking than your current project. What do you feel brought about this shift, and how is the difference presenting itself in the work?

A: I already noted how central the birth of my daughter and death of my mother are to this work, and as cliché as it is, I think that really is the pivot point. Where past work has been, mostly, an internal dialogue, I feel like I’m writing to my daughter in this newer work. A bedtime story, maybe – one you tell your child after they’re already asleep. And then there are also passages that act like a sermon or eulogy. A fairy tale and a eulogy. Binary stars. The outward look most clearly presents itself where the work addresses readers directly (“friends, you know that the hours worked here are holy”). There’s more of an invitation into this work.

Q: Were there any other writers whose work might have provided you direction? What poets are sitting at the back of your head as you begin to work on a poem?

A: The opening line is a clear nod to Inger Christensen’s alphabet. That work certainly has impacted this project and how it goes about collecting the world, the power in naming things. Aase Berg’s work, in general, is always clawing around in the back of my head. Lorine Niedecker and Clarice Lispector as well. Those are the big ones. I’m not sure how to draw clear lines between my writing and these other writers (whom I admire so much) other than to say I think my poems share with each of them a similar sense of what’s at stake.

Q: What is it about their works, specifically, that have prompted your own? Is that something you’re even conscious of, or is it more intuitive?

A: It’s intuitive in how anyone’s affinity for another writer is intuitive. I certainly didn’t intend to alphabet and it wasn’t until quite a bit later that I realized (in rereading that opening line) that work was in the background of my thinking. The ways Lispector and Berg write messy bodies was formative for me, how their writing offers a kind of maximalist path to the ecstatic. And, on the other side of that is Niedecker’s vivid restraint in language, both her and Christensen’s attention to the natural world, the zeroing in, the naming of things, transforming the mundane, or maybe wiping the mundane film off the sublimity of the natural world. Rhythm is part of all this as well. alphabet is hypnotic, like a conjuring spell. All of these writers are conjurers in my opinion.

Q: With two trade collections and a work-in-progress over the past decade or so, how do you feel your writing has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Hmm. My initiation was in visual arts and that is still the seed of how I understand myself as a writer. I largely think of my development through the lucky circumstances of community I’ve been afforded, chiefly revolving around Woodland Pattern Book Center and Naropa University. That’s where I began to complicate my understanding of what’s possible. More recently, I’ve become really good at dissolving into the immediate lives of those around me. I’ll go through periods where I write almost every day for a few weeks and then only sporadically for months. I’ve nestled myself into a comfortable warren of family life and, somewhat ironically, back into a community of visual artists and designers as an administrator. I’m relearning some important lessons through watching them work and I get to remain somewhat invisible creatively. That’s how has my writing developed over the last decade or so … Slowly, mostly in secret, often not on the page and, as of late, in near total writerly isolation.

Am I answering the right question? Is this what you are asking me?

Where is my work headed? I plan to keep working on this current series and find out where it takes me. Right now, I’m working on Part Three: The Lake. Someday I’d like to come out from hiding and reinvest in the writing community here in Milwaukee. Woodland Pattern remains a beacon.

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

A: In terms of poets – Aase Berg, as already mentioned, is central. In particular, Transfer Fat, but all of her work translated by Johannes Göransson. As well as Clarice Lispector, Elizabeth Robinson, Stacy Szymaszek, Alice Notley, Roberto Harrison, Selah Saterstrom, Aimé Césaire. This is what comes to mind, but to be honest, I don’t often return to a book once I’ve read it. When I want to gather energy for my own work it’s more about gathering language or ideas that touch where I’m writing from. Right now, I’m reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari which discusses the evolutional leap to fictive language. (conjuration!)

Monday, March 18, 2019

TtD supplement #129 : seven questions for David Dowker

David Dowker was born in Kingston, Ontario but has lived most of his life in Toronto. He was editor of The Alterran Poetry Assemblage from 1996 to 2004 (which can be accessed at Library and Archives Canada). He published Machine Language in 2010, Virtualis: Topologies of the Unreal (with Christine Stewart) in 2013 (shortlisted for the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for poetry), and Ma nt i s in 2018.

His poems “CRASH FLOW,” “THUDDITE,” “SENTIMENTAL NECESSITY,” “PROTECTIVE INTIMACY” and “PASTORAL LOGIC” appear in the twentieth issue of Touch the Donkey.


A: The “method” used, if method it be, in these poems (except for “Crash Flow”) is to make use of, or riff on, (some of) the language from the “source” poem(s) to create something new. The result is a derivative, in the mathematical (and poetic) sense, of the original. I suppose one might say that an accidental dialogue of sorts occurs, but I’m not sure that would be entirely accurate (or particularly useful). Then again . . .

So . . . “Thuddite” was derived from “Let My Voice Thud Throughout the Land” (and “Vulgar Marxism”) by Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, and “Sentimental Necessity” from a mash-up of “Sentimental Intervention” and “Historical Necessity,” also by Dorothy Trujillo Lusk. Early versions of these poems were written for a “Pestschrift” (organized by Aaron Vidaver).

“Protective Intimacy” is derived from “the love that is truly a refuge for all living beings” from “Protective Immediacy” by Rod Smith. As I recall, the title came from a misprint somewhere.

Finally, “Pastoral Logic” is derived from “I drove through this old world this afternoon” by Clark Coolidge, and has, I think, a slightly different relation to its “source.”

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

A: Not at all really. Another somewhat related example of this method is “n-chant(s)” (which was published on-line in The Alterran Poetry Assemblage, but revised since then), based upon Lissa Wolsak’s Pen-chants. It is essentially a work of erasure, though (similar to Ma nt i s). Time-Sensitive Material (which I’ve been working on since Virtualis) is something quite different.

Q: With your erasures, as well as your works in “accidental dialogue,” you appear to favour composing pieces that respond to other works. What is it about working these kinds of responses that appeals? What is it about the conversation between poems that attracts you, and what do you feel is possible through such explorations?

A: I wouldn’t say that I “favour composing pieces that respond to other works.” It’s just another approach among many. It all began with the Alterran Poetry Assemblage, I suppose, and probably reflected a desire on my part to interact with the authors that I published. The most successful example, I think, is the transformation of David Hoefer’s “Riot Trousers” into “Griot Trousers” in the second issue, but that is also quite different from the previous examples. Also, the germination of Virtualis dates from then, with Christine Stewart’s “Patience details its follies” becoming “Patience arrays its strategies” and various other examples, mostly from Taxonomy (with a bit from “The Trees of Periphery”). Ma nt i s  arose, in a sense, from the idea of  “root notes of a transient present” in Clark Coolidge’s The Maintains (and, of course, the example of Ronald Johnson’s RADI OS).

Perhaps a couple of quotations might be illuminating:

“The poet and the reader, who if he is intent in reading becomes a new poet of the poem, come to write or to read in order to participate through the work in a consciousness that moves freely in time and space and can entertain reality upon reality.” (Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book)

“The knowledge of the poem is a—psychoanalytically probably not fathomable—shared knowledge with an other; there are invisibly communicating vessels.” (Paul Celan, trans. Pierre Joris, The Meridian)

Q: You mention The Alterran Poetry Assemblage, the online journal you ran from 1996-2004. How did that journal originally begin?

A: It began as an e-mail sent out to a number of people. I can’t remember if it was sent out in installments or as one long e-mail. I soon decided that a “website” was the way to go, so I wrote the HTML (it was very much “early days”) and put it up on the World Wide Web.

All of the work was solicited (at least to begin with). The authors selected came from readings in journals such as Raddle Moon and Talisman, and a special West Coast Line issue featuring new British and Irish writing (edited by Peter Quartermain) was quite useful.

Will Alexander, Caroline Bergvall, Kevin Davies, Stephen Ellis, Allen Fisher, William Fuller, Alan Halsey, Andrew Joron, Karen Kelley, Karen Mac Cormack, Drew Milne, Geraldine Monk, Erin Moure, Bob Perelman, George Quasha, Lisa Robertson, Lisa Samuels, Leslie Scalapino, Christine Stewart, and Lissa Wolsak are some of the over 80 poets published.

Q: What do you think your time spent working on the journal allowed for your own writing? Did you see any shifts in your work during this period that Alterran Poetry Assemblage might have influenced?

A: I suppose that there was an expansion of the possibilities of collaboration, and the idea of the internet as a collective, interactive text. I had contributed to RIF/T at the Electronic Poetry Center, Inter\face, and Juxta/Electronic, as well as (pseudonymously, as required) to DIU (Descriptions of an Imaginary Universe). The Assemblage was a continuation of this activity which, overall, represented a more spontaneous approach to the work.

Q: You’ve furthered that idea of collaboration, working directly with poet Christine Stewart for some time now, such as Virtualis: Topologies of the Unreal, that appeared with BookThug in 2013. What has that experience been like? Has working with Stewart shifted, at all, the ways in which you see your solo work?

A: Working with Christine has been a joy. It has basically been a perpetual back and forth, altering texts, with almost no discussion – just winging it. There was a large gap of inactivity, and then it staggered to life again. Christine’s introduction of the Agamben quotation (from Stanzas) on “Topologies of the Unreal” seemed to crystallize the virtuality. 

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

A: Rimbaud’s Illuminations remains central. Charles Olson is always there somewhere, which means Pound as well, of course. T.S. Eliot and Rilke obstinately continue to influence, and Robert Duncan has been there (with H.D.) for a long time. John Ashbery and Robert Creeley lurk with the furniture.

Among contemporaries, the primary sources of energy would be Lissa Wolsak, Christine Stewart, Lisa Robertson, Christopher Dewdney, Nathaniel Mackey, Susan Howe, and Clark Coolidge.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Touch the Donkey : fifth anniversary sale,

To celebrate the fifth anniversary of the quarterly Touch the Donkey [a small poetry journal] this April: anyone who subscribes (or resubscribes) anytime between now and the end of April 2019 has the bonus option of three (3) items: three Touch the Donkey back issues of your choice, OR three above/ground press (2018 or 2019) titles of your choice (while supplies last) OR any combination thereof.

Issue #21 of Touch the Donkey [a small poetry journal] lands on April 15, 2019.

2018-19 above/ground press titles include chapbooks by: Chris Johnson, Conyer Clayton, Simina Banu, Frances Boyle, Hawad (trans. Jake Syersak), Susanne Dyckman, Jane Virginia Rohrer, Dennis Cooley, Ben Meyerson, Isabel Sobral Campos, Mary Kasimor, Andrew K Peterson, Natalie Lyalin, Kemeny Babineau, Michael Sikkema, Kimberly Campanello, Stephen Cain, kyle kinaschuk, Paul Perry, Gregory Betts, Billy Mavreas, Claudia Coutu Radmore, Stephanie Grey, Alice Burdick, Renée Sarojini Saklikar, Heather Sweeney, Ralph Kolewe, Franco Cortese, Evan Gray, Dale Smith, Virginia Konchan, Joshua James Collis, Laura Farina, Jennifer Stella, Monty Reid, Anthony Etherin, Sarah Mangold, Cole Swensen, MC Hyland, Jamie Townsend, Sacha Archer, Megan Kaminski, Gil McElroy, Emily Izsak, rob mclennan, Sara Renee Marshall, Mark Laliberte, Lisa Rawn, Sean Braune, Michael Martin Shea, Melissa Eleftherion, Ian Dreiblatt, Kyle Flemmer, Uxío Novoneyra (trans. Erín Moure), Stephen Brockwell, Phil Hall / Stuart Kinmond, Billy Mavreas, Stuart Ross, natalie hanna, Miguel E. Ortiz Rodríguez, Natalee Caple, Julia Polyck-O'Neill, Jason Christie, Travis Sharp, Beth Ayer, Jon Boisvert, Jenna Jarvis, Lise Downe, Allison Cardon, Lea Graham, Tim Atkins, Gregory Betts + Arnold McBay, Amanda Earl, Derek Beaulieu, Aaron Tucker, Dani Spinosa, Andrew Wessels, Marthe Reed, Kate Siklosi, Edward Smallfield, Amish Trivedi, Steve McCaffery, Gary Barwin and Tom Prime, Gary Barwin and Alice Burdick, Alice Notley, Stan Rogal, Rachel Mindell, Eleni Zisimatos, Adrienne Gruber, Andrew Cantrell, kevin martins mcpherson eckhoff and Anna Gurton-Wachter. 

Canadian subscriptions $35 for five issues / American subscriptions $40 / International subscriptions $50 / All prices in Canadian dollars /

To order, e-transfer or PayPal at at rob_mclennan (at) hotmail.com or the PayPal button at www.robmclennan.blogspot.com or www.touchthedonkey.blogspot.com 

Issues are also available as part of the above/ground press annual subscription. 

Because everybody loves a birthday. Who doesn’t love a birthday?

Touch the Donkey. Everywhere you want to be.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

TtD supplement #128 : seven questions for Michael Boughn

Michael Boughn has published 11 books of poetry, including Iterations of the Diagonal, Dislocations in Crystal, 22 Skidoo / SubTractions, Cosmographia—a Post-Lucretian Faux Micro-Epic (short listed for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 2011), City–A Poem from the End of the World, and Hermetic Divagations—After H.D.  With Victor Coleman, he edited Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book. He is currently working on The Book of Uncertain – A Hyperbiographical User’s Manual while co-editing with Kent Johnson the rambunctious (some say rude) online poetry site, “Dispatches from the Poetry Wars” (http://dispatchespoetrywars.com/). He (the human) and Case (the Border Collie) can be found in or near Toronto hanging out in dog parks or herding sheep together.

His poem “The pragmatics of to belong as not belonging – uncertain ontological whims and communal phantasies from Chapter 4 of The Book of Uncertain – A Manual” appears in the twentieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “The pragmatics of to belong as not belonging – uncertain ontological whims and communal phantasies from Chapter 4 of The Book of Uncertain – A Hyperbiographical Users’ Manual.”

A: Well, this is really the crucial question facing us at this moment of intensifying crisis. Modernity destroyed a mode of being-together that was an intimate proximity, both to other people, to other animals, and to the divine. It wasn’t idyllic by a long shot. It was by all accounts brutish, violent, and horribly intrusive. But it was a different mode of being-together than what awaited us in the cities. Living cheek by jowl, we insulate ourselves from the people who live closest to us for privacy, where the only animals we ever encounter are domesticated pets, where our meat is purchased in cellophane wrapped packages, and where the divine, as Jean-Luc Nancy put it, no longer flutters except exsanguinate and grimacing

What’s missing is belonging in a human sense of being-together. We struggle to live among the wold vagaries of vast markets, including labour markets that force people into motion all the time. Witness what just went down in Oshawa. Society is a place of probabilities and statistically verifiable behaviours among alienated individuals determined by a set of social imaginary significations and governed by imposed norms. We are seeing the result of that process that has been going on now for some 500 years in the rise of reactionary populists like Trump and Bolsonaro who are able to exploit that deep alienation by creating a “movement” in which people experience a sense of belonging to something with others who also belong – a being-together, but one that is finally based on exclusion and violence against those who don’t belong. William Carlos Williams nailed it in that poem in Spring and All that later got called The Crowd at the Ballgame:
It is alive, venomous

it smiles grimly
its words cut—

The flashy female with her
mother, gets it— 

The Jew gets it straight— it
is deadly, terrifying—

It is the Inquisition, the

It is beauty itself
that lives

day by day in them
To belong as not belonging is to find a way to do both at the same time so that the exclusionary violence can’t find purchase in the indeterminacy.

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

A: Well, it’s really all the same work, ever since Iterations of the Diagonal back in 1995. It’s the work of finding ways to weave the complexity and mystery of beinghere in language. Think of the poem as a step transformer in a cosmos that radiates energy at an infinite number of vibratory intensities. The poem receives high-voltage information and transforms it – steps it down – into a gnosis acceptable or accessible within our finitude. Those higher voltage levels can't be processed without possibly burning out the receiver unless they are modulated. Imagine a poem that literally blows your mind, leaves the mind shattered by the sheer intensity of the energy transmission. Something like that, on a less catastrophic scale, happened to me in 1964 when I walked into an enormous lecture hall full of hundreds of students and saw on the green chalk board at the bottom of the bear pit a poem:
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
I got a blast from eternity that shook me profoundly. It wasn't the full voltage but it was intense enough to leave me struggling to come to terms with a whole new dimensional possibility of language. Things looked different. The gnosis transformed me so that the work and the initial knowledge of techné required to fulfill my obligation to poesis began to come into focus. That formation goes on through all my books addressing one necessity after another.

22 Skidoo marked a transition to a new energy level that is still significant in terms of what I'm doing now. In that initiatory book, the incoming energy included encoded instructions on how to proceed that were tied up with two facts of that moment: teaching my five-year-old daughter antique slang, and the imposition of a physical limit dictated by the number of the lines on a page in my notebook. The mystery surrounding chance and fate then become part of the procedure and resonate with that indeterminate knowledge.

Cosmographia, my very own post-Lucretian faux micro-epic, took it to a new level, channeling Lucretius to compose a cosmographical epic outside any current imagination of the possibility of poetry – pretty much limited to either the bio/psychological or the sociological – that I’m aware of.

Great Canadian Poems for the Aged addressed that incoming energy in the context of Canada as continuing composition, and the ways in which that ongoing composition, which, as far as I know is unique in the world, undoes the nationalist obsession with “identity” by continually reopening it to include more and other. The danger is that the past will evaporate completely. These poems address an imagination of Canada that I first encountered in 1966 when I crossed the border as a 20 year old refugee fleeing being forcibly impressed into the USAmerican Imperial War against Viet Nam. The questions that it proposes have to do with cultural memory and cultural composition and Canada's unique contribution to the question of national identity. Identity as non-identity. Belonging as not belonging.

The Book of Uncertain--A Hyperbiographical Users Manual is unique in that it attempts to find a relationship to the material of bios that escapes the usual psychological or sociological reductionism. Jack called me on that years ago and I have never forgotten. How do you open your sense of “the life” to those larger energies that inform us? It’s not easy to get beyond that reductionism because we are inundated with messages asserting the supreme significance and democratic virtue of our feelings which include feelings about our social identity. The whole culture is saturated in it, so it’s easily commodified and sold. A poetry of modular elements rather than intermodal excess. Meubles, Olson called it. Selling the “self”. Copyrighting it. But the question of being resonates at frequencies far beyond that meagre attention. The question is how to compose the language, how to arrange the words so that they receive that gnosis, harbour it at accessible intensities of energetic information that locate it in other ranges of significance, one of which we think of as Myth. It is always a disturbance, and its ordering of language is also always a disordering because it is finally uncontainable.

Q: You mention your work to date as all being part of a singular, extended work. How did this first emerge? Was this something deliberate on your part, or was this something you discovered along the way?

A: I just think that the work of poetry, the mode of knowing that poetry is uniquely capable of manifesting, embodying, because of its particular relationship to sounding, sound’s body, has driven my love of poetry from the beginning. All my books have been addressed to that soundingknowing. Even Iterations of the Diagonal and Dislocations in Crystal which were assembled from single poems or series of poems. With 22 Skidoo the book became the unit of composition, as I said, partly by chance, perhaps with a bit of fate thrown in.

At the time, I was primarily responsible in our family for ferrying the kids to their schools and their various activities. I spent a lot of time waiting for the piano lesson or the karate class to end. I had almost no time to sit at a desk and write. So one Saturday at a soccer lesson in the field house at the U of T Athletic Centre, I thought, why not write a book of poems centered on the old slang I was teaching my infant daughter at night before bed. Since there were 22 lines on my notebook page, I decided to do 22 poems of 22 lines each. Then I wrote down all 22 titles—yap, caboodle, golly, etc.. All I had to do then was fill in the poems wherever I was sitting waiting for the kids to come out. Thus 22 Skidoo was born. And SubTractions. It has been a very productive methodology for me, one I still follow to a large degree, even though the kids are now grown. I love titles. And I love the challenge of facing a title like “Myth, Gluten Free Pornography, and Your Health,” or “Axial Ordination: The Calculation of Sublation,” and then having to compose its poem. That’s really fun. And it’s conducive to the process of composition as steady work rather than what Jack Clarke called an irregular momentary incursion.

Q. With eleven trade collections under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: It has become more relaxed, less concerned with the cruelties of perfection, and more at home with its own stuttering forays beyond what it already knows. In that sense, I don’t see it headed anywhere. The question is where does it see me headed? My hope is that it will continue to unfold its surprises and tangled language into forms I didn’t see coming. I love being blindsided by poetry. That could be my epitaph: MB—Blindsided by Poetry. My current work, a book called The Book of Uncertain – A Hyperbiographical Users Manual, consists to 20 chapters (I have the titles!). I am just finishing up Chapters 8 & 9, which leaves 11 to go. Since I am 72 years old, finishing may take what time I have left on this plane. So I guess you could say it’s headed for the cliff like my heroes, Thelma and Louise.

Q: I’m curious about your interactions with Robert Duncan’s work. How has his writing influenced yours, if at all, and how did you and Victor Coleman end up co-editing his The H.D. Book? How did you approach editing such a hefty volume, especially as a pair?

I first came into Duncan’s work through Robin Blaser when I was a student at Simon Fraser University in 1967. Robin gave me the world, including Blake, H.D., Spicer, Williams, and Pound. And Olson. And of course Duncan. At that time Robin and Duncan were on the outs, but whatever was between them, Robin always expressed profound respect for Duncan and his work. He ends up as a Great Companion in The Holy Forest, along with Pindar and Dante. That’s impressive company. So I read with great interest and admiration The Opening of the Field and Bending the Bow. I was never moved to write like Duncan in the way I was by H.D., Williams and Spicer, but his thinking deeply influenced me. After various peregrinations, I went back to school in 1980 after a 10 year stint working in various industrial situations. I ended up in a course on contemporary poetry at UC Santa Cruz with Nathaniel Mackey who was very close to Duncan. I wrote a long essay for Nate on Eros and imagination in Duncan’s work which is when I became aware of The H.D. Book. I learned a ton doing that essay and began piecing together the scattered limbs of The H.D. Book, Duncan’s magnificent quest for a poetics through an intense, prolonged meditation on modernism.
I was supposed to edit that work after I completed my PhD. at Buffalo, but for several reasons it never happened. Later, after I moved back to Toronto in 1993, Victor Coleman and I decided to respond to the continued deferral of the publication of the book by posting a pirated edition on line. I had copies of all the little magazine publications from my stint in Buffalo. Victor, who is an excellent typist, transcribed them. We posted the book online attributed to Frontier Press, and anonymously mailed out 3.5” floppy disks to 30 or 40 poets we knew would keep spreading it around.

The original editor The H.D. Book for some reason couldn’t manage to supply an acceptable manuscript to UC Press. After three shots at it, UC took it away from him, and through a series of unexpected contingencies, eventually offered it to me. Since Vic had transcribed the whole thing, they were persuaded to include both of us as joint editors. We had photocopies of Duncan’s manuscripts with his handwritten changes. The editing was pretty uncomplicated. There was a bit of confusion at some points about which of several different manuscripts to use as copy text, but mostly Duncan had carefully indicated his intention. Vic and I spent a year reading the whole thing aloud to each other a couple of times, interpolating the various versions. Sometimes we’d go up to my cottage near Wiarton on southern Georgian Bay and spend three or four days doing that on the deck. Reading Duncan’s marvelous prose aloud in the presence of Georgian Bay . . . it was glorious.

Q: Did you see any shift in the ways in which you approached your own writing, given how deep you were delving into Duncan’s work? Did any poems emerge from this process of editing, reading and rereading?

A: More confirmation and challenge than any profound shift in approach. I have been close to Duncan’s work for a very long time so editing The H.D. Book wasn’t so much about being inspired, so to speak, as being reminded of my responsibility as a poet. What has always been significant for me is his understanding of poetry as responsible to what he calls What Is. Jack Clarke once told me if I wanted to write poetry I needed to go live in the Air Force Academy and understand what goes on there. Part pun, part metaphor, the challenge was to come into the power of a poetry that is beyond you but integral to the full complexity of the world. Knowing my history as a war resister, his point was that poetry you to move beyond the meagre limits of the self as bios rather than zoë, where bios is a recitation of the events of a life, where zoë is the time of the soul. The self as bios, he said, will only yield what he called antithetical systemic representation. I needed to fully engage with, to immerse myself in, that which I had opposed, or posed myself against. Instead of opposing it, poetry demands that you enter it and find a way to open the work to it. That’s Duncan’s challenge as well, his sense of responsibility, the ability to respond.

In these strange times, we find ourselves caught up in powerful historical currents that seem to continually tear us apart, polarize us into unresolvable warring camps. It’s a ferocious incursion of intense Typhonic energy, and the pressure is on us to hole up behind some impermeable moralist wall and duke it out with the enemy, to make identity – that unification process – the goal of poetry, and to mobilize it against antithetical identities. William Blake called that state Ulro and pictured it as a man and woman tied together back to back. Beyond that he saw two further states of being – three fold vision, Beulah, a “sexual” paradise of the visionary union of opposites in which identity gives way to what’s beyond it by embracing what it has excluded; and Jerusalem, or four fold vision, in which the full spiritual reality of all creation is apparent in every perception. Jack articulated that in terms of a poetics he called the strengthening method of world completion. That is Duncan’s assignment, as well: to never allow your poetry to lose sight of its responsibility to the forces of that larger field of What Is.

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

Good question.  I constantly read to feed my work, but it’s not so much a particular work as it is a writer. And there is no single writer I return to. It’s a bunch of them. Mostly it’s poetry and philosophy. Jean-Luc Nancy, Stanley Cavell, Isabel Stengers, Karen Barad, Giorgio Agamben, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are constants for me, stars in my internal sky. Then there are H.D., William Blake, Robert Duncan, Billie Chernicoff, Jack Spicer, Lissa Woslsak, Charles Olson, Jack Clarke, Gerrit Lansing . . . it’s hard to draw a line, actually, because picking up one thread leads to the whole poetic firmament coming in.

If you absolutely forced me to pick one from each group, I suppose it would be Emerson and Jack Clarke for exactly the opposite reasons. Emerson is the beginning of a mode of thinking that provokes and feeds into all the significant current thinking of our condition, including the Europeans via Nietzsche. The rich, multi-valenced complexity of his language and the extraordinary break he makes into what he calls the “ordinary” or “common” are openings that have yet to be fully grasped and embraced. At the other end, Jack Clarke’s work went about as far as you can go today. From Feathers to Iron remains the most significant work on poetics since Valery and takes Charles Olson’s breakthrough work further than anyone else has dared to imagine. As does his poetry which is a constant source of astonishment. I love Jack Spicer. He is a huge player in my imagination of what poetry can do. But he takes a turn with language that leads down a very dark hole that winds up with him as sacrificial victim to wild logos. Jack’s domesticity, like Emerson’s, saved him from that. He was a motherman, a nurturer, gentle but absolutely incisive. As Al Cook said, he took it as far beyond Olson as Olson took it beyond Pound. And that’s pretty much as far as we have got.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

TtD supplement #127 : seven questions for Taryn Hubbard

Taryn Hubbard’s poetry, fiction, reviews, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in journals and anthologies such as Canadian Literature, Room, The Capilano Review, Canadian Woman Studies, CV2, filling Station, Rusty Toque, Poetry is Dead, and others. She lives and writes in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, and has been a member of Room magazine’s editorial board since 2012. Her first full-length poetry collection is forthcoming in 2020.

Her poems “When You Get Lost,” “Above,” “Moon Schedule,” “In the Afternoon.” “May Be Fantasy” and “Weighted Keys” appear in the twentieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “When You Get Lost,” “Above,” “Moon Schedule,” “In the Afternoon.” “May Be Fantasy” and “Weighted Keys.”

A: These poems are from a project I’ve been working on for the past few years that explores home in the suburb—in the intersections, overlaps, and gaps between urban and rural. These are walking poems and driving poems. In growing suburbs across the country, there is a push to urbanize, to rethink this, often sprawling, space. Urban renewal is foreshadowed all over contemporary suburbs, where vacant single-family lots herald anticipation of redevelopment into something more, something better, something healthier. But before that happens, what do we make of the space as it sits today? What monuments anchor the suburb now? I’m also interested in looking at what creates visual repetitions along superblocks, which in the poems you mention are gas stations, fast food restaurants, flickering flat screen TVs, and cars. Suburbs are sometimes described generically as simply bedroom communities for commuters who work in the city, but I think they’re more than that.

Q: What prompted your interest in exploring the suburbs through poetry?

A: I started reading a lot of poetry where place was at the centre of the work—this inspired me to think about my own experiences in a suburban space through poetry as well. Plus I’ve always been interested in local history and walking around neighborhoods paying attention to text that pops up, such as billboards, handwritten posters, scrap papers, etc...these texts begin to tell a story about a place.

Q: You mention reading a lot of poetry on the subject of place: who have your models been for this kind of work?

A: So many. I’m always so inspired to write about place and memory when I read work by Roy Miki, Cecily Nicholson, Marie Annharte Baker, Jordan Scott, Juliana Sphar, Anne Fleming, Karen Solie, Sandra Ridley, Lyn Hejinian and, of course, Peter Culley, too.

Q: With a debut full-length collection forthcoming in 2020, how do you feel your work has developed? And are these poems part of that collection? Where do you see your work headed?

A: The poems here are a part of this collection. When I started writing them, I had no idea they would end up in a manuscript that I would eventually submit to publishers. I was really just thinking about where I was living at the time and how I experienced that space at present. I’d read other poets do it, so I thought I could try it too. I submitted these poems to literary journals and occasionally one would publish something, and this was a small light of encouragement. Then, I started thinking backwards. I wanted to reflect on where and how I grew up. So my manuscript looks at the suburb in transition with poems exploring suburban spaces as a woman, through the places I have lived throughout my life, and the streets I have walked, driven, and explored. These poems are very personal and draw on growing up in a family of labourers on a street where my neighbours took the form of a bar, a casino, and a bowling alley. Through this, themes of work, luck, family, and nature are explored in different ways in this collection.

As for my writing now, since becoming a parent earlier in 2018, I’ve been incorporating a lot of my thinking on this life change into my poetry. I’ve also been writing a lot more fiction. I’m on mat leave right now so whenever my baby naps, I try to get as much writing in as I can. I think I’ve become much more disciplined at utilizing these short 45 to 60 minute spurts. For me, it’s about getting words down in any which way and worrying about what I will do with them later through the editing process.

Q: Has the shift of attention and energy, given your newborn, altered the structure of your poems at all, or have your poems shifted purely in terms of content? I think of William Carlos Williams scribbling in between patients on his prescription pad, or Margaret Christakos engaging deeper with the fragment.

A: What a great question. Now that I think about it, yes, the structures of these newer poems have changed. I’m writing more in fragments or in prose-style chunks than I have before. Once I get to editing this could change, but for now I’m all about getting it down. Writing for me is a reflective process.

Q: Now that you’ve a full-length book forthcoming, are you noticing a difference in the ways in which you approach how your more recent work interacts? Are you more conscious of how poems might fit in with each other, or are you (with newborn) not thinking about that yet?

A: I think I’m more aware of how my writing fits together than before. With my new project I am interesting in exploring as much about the topic as I can. This includes researching various sources, which in turn opens my work up to more and more. The generative part of a project is always really exciting. Writing at the beginning of something is a feverish process of collecting and thinking and dreaming, and of quiet observation. Whether or not my new writings will become a manuscript, I'm not sure, though I hope it does.

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

A: A few of my favourite books that I can’t help but feel inspired from are Peter Culley’s Parkway, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Suzanne Buffam’s Past Imperfect, Lakshmi Gill’s During Rain, I Plant Chrysanthemums, Harryette Mullen’s Recyclopedia, to name a few poets. When I read work by Chris Kraus, Elizabeth Strout, Zadie Smith or Stephen King, I’m motivated to get writing. King’s memoir On Writing is a great read if I feel I’m starting to lose focus. I’ll also read literary magazines, either ones I subscribe to or frequent online, to get excited about the new things other writers are doing.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

TtD supplement #126 : seven questions for Katy Lederer

Katy Lederer is the author of three poetry collections and a memoir, as well as a poetry chapbook, The Children, through above/ground press. Poems have recently appeared in Lana Turner, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times, and The Recluse. Her new collection, The Engineers, is due out from Solid Objects Press this year.

Her poems “Seldom is He Come,” “Strut,” “Spring,” “Leave People,” “In It Is Still,” and “An Account” appear in the twentieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Seldom is He Come,” “Strut,” “Spring,” “Leave People,” “In It Is Still,” and “An Account.”

A: I wrote these poems when I was experiencing a block. Previous to their composition, I had tended to think of poems as mainly content that determined form. When I wrote these poems, I was having trouble calling up content, so I decided to start with a form and go from there. I had read writers like Gertrude Stein and had written in some of the old obsessive forms, like the villanelle, so I had some sense that words could be separated from meaning per se. In these poems, I allowed myself to remain in that space of material language. I let emotions determine the choice of the words, and then worked with the words—repeating them melodically—in ways that created a subtle sense of narrative.

Q: How do these pieces compare to the other work you’ve been doing?

A: Over the course of my writing life, I have always gravitated toward what I think of as formal experiment. By this I mean that I consider myself experimental, but also highly formal in sensibility. I am interested in the effects of repetition and music, and what they might or might not say about ideation and emotion.

In my most current work, a series titled The Engineers (a selection of which you published last year as a chapbook called The Children), I employed traditional forms—villanelles, pantoums, syllabics, and so on—on a book-length basis for the first time in my writing career. These poems are based on my experience going through in vitro fertilization, IVF, and they are interested in form as a genetic structure. I wanted to think about form as both determinative and generative of pieces or strands of writing.

I see in these earlier poems you are publishing in TtD the prototype of the aesthetic of the poems in The Children. Taking various words, phrases, and rhythms and repeating them in ways that evoke more traditional forms, I see an impulse that I continue to work through now.

Q: What does starting with structure, whether highly formal or otherwise, allow in your work that you might not think would have been possible otherwise? Is this simply a matter of getting the poem started, or is it something larger? And has your form shifted at all mid-point through composition, causing you to move into an entirely other structure?

A: Interesting question. You are prompting me to be a lot more specific about the perhaps unconscious or assumed goals of my process. I think with these poems in particular, I was discovering that poetry could be more than exposition or description; that, in fact, it could be a process by which the writer might discover something they did not already know.

I believe that starting with form can often lead one to places of surprise. In these poems, words like “seldom” and “strut” and “leave” bring heavy connotation to the meaning of the poems. Instead of proceeding in a linear or even in a lyrical manner, these poems proceed iteratively from the content of their keystone words. Lexicon lays the groundwork. Meaning accretes as the musical phrases and lines—the iterations—are laid down. These read as highly lyric poems, but they are at their foundation operational in structure.

As for abandoning a structure or changing the formal trajectory part way through: I can’t say I do this often, no. I almost always complete poems that I start. That said, I sometimes return to certain operations or forms more times than I might have expected. In my most recent work, The Engineers, for example, I found the pantoum form highly generative. Several poems from the forthcoming book are in that form, which is not something I planned.

Q: You mention working through and past a block, and the different ways you approached the poem previous to that. Are the shifts in your work as straightforward as that, i.e.: the writing that occurred pre-block vs. the writing that has occurred since? Could even the most casual of readers of your work spot the differences between pre-block and post-block Katy Lederer poems?

A: I think if readers—if they sat down and read through my whole body of work, which is not available publicly, but which I keep for myself—read through the poems, they might notice several points at which things shifted, whether in response to a block or an interpersonal situation, or to some other internal or external driver. In this, my body of work is like the vast majority of other writers’ bodies of work! That said, I think I have always been more of a composer than a writer; or: the music has always wanted to be on equal footing with the meaning, even sometimes surpassing or contradicting it. I think that a reader of the body of work would be able to see an increasing comfort with this balance over time.

Most poets and writers do focus on music. Rhyming poets are making a particular sort of music, as are free-verse poets who are aiming primarily for emotional expression or confession, as are intellectual or polemical poets who propound theses. Music infuses most creative writing, but in my case I think it’s even more of a driver than is typical, and I think it took me many years to become aware of and comfortable with this fact. These poems you are publishing in this issue mark a turning point for me in terms of my openness to music—to, in some sense, the sonic syntax itself—as a form of inquiry or learning.

Q: Given your suggestion that you have a large body of unreleased or unpublished work, how do you decide what work is ready to be released against what work isn’t? Is it a simple matter of what has been accepted for publication vs. what hasn’t, or are there other factors?

A: This is an interesting question that gets at a lot of very deep issues that all writers face.

As likely most other poets have, I have had many stages when it comes to both my writing and my publishing. When I was just starting out, I took my cue from Sylvia Plath, who used to systematically send work out, putting submissions back in the mail often on the same day that they had been returned to her. I was very achievement-oriented and also rather literal. I sent out anything at all that seemed like it might possibly be “publishable.”

During graduate school and several years afterward in New York, I became very disillusioned and discouraged. I sent poems out, but it was a push and pull. Sometimes I cared immensely, not only whether they were published but in which venues and whether or not my friends would be impressed. Other times I retreated completely, deciding that I just didn’t care about publishing or that rejection was too painful. I think, over the years, I have come to a more sanguine place. I greatly prefer placing poems in magazines, whether large or small, that have a lot of energy and that include writers I admire, especially if those writers happen to be friends. I love interacting with editors like you, and with readers at group readings and other events in support of exciting magazines. I know from my own experience that all editing is a terrific labor of love.

Since I have been getting my body of work together in one place and looking critically at individual poems or series of poems, I have been occasionally sending older pieces out. I also published a full-length series of older poems that I had significantly revised on Atelos Press in 2017. I am returning to this work, in part because with more distance, I feel more comfortable with many of these pieces. It is also in part because, when I look back over all of my work, it is surprisingly consistent. It is difficult to tell what was written twenty years ago versus what was written this year. I have to admit, when I first started critically appraising my own work, I was shocked by the consistency. I really hadn’t expected it. In some ways it was disappointing because we all like to think we have the run of the whole field—that we can become a different person or different poet at any time that it might strike our fancy; but, at least in my work, that is not the case. I have always been a very lyrical poet. I have always been a composer. I have always had a tendency to write in certain rhythms and with certain tones—very much in a minor key.

In some ways, it has been hard to accept that I have such clear limits as a writer, but in other ways it has been wonderfully liberating. When I send out older work now, it is usually because it speaks to the magazine where I am sending it. It is also usually because I dismissed the work too readily when it was originally composed. At times I conceptualize sending my old poems out as a feminist practice. As I have come to a more confident place, I have had to grapple with the fact that I have sometimes been too tentative or too much of a perfectionist about my work. But that’s probably true of most of us.

Q: What does this fresh perspective on your older work mean for your current practice? Has it altered the ways in which you approach or consider new poems? Where does one go from here?

A: I honestly believe it’s all one poem. The body of work is a poem. Individual poems placed in magazines by an editor with others’ poems—this is a poem. A historical period in poetry is a poem.

This does not mean I don’t believe in style or that I don’t have an ego—not at all. But it does mean I believe that poems are something else—a kind of satellite that floats away. It would be easy to critique most poetry practices these days—at least those in the public sphere—as mimicking the keyboard-clicking, capitalist culture of spectacle in which we live. Everything is so of-the-moment and so present-tense, and I think we don’t quite absorb the extent to which this is the case, even in something as non-remunerative as poetry. I don’t think of poetry as a posterity sort of thing, but I also don’t think it’s disposable. I mean, why put anything down on paper if its currency will be only a day or a week or a year? The point is that it stays there, apart from its creator, in material form, yes? So I see my old work as just this: words on paper, structured by music and style, and very alien.

Does the old work affect my work now? Absolutely it does—in the sense, as I articulate above, that it gives me a feeling of grounding, but also in the sense I can see the evidence of the strangeness, the sheer mysteriousness of poetry. For instance, when I was younger I was often depressed. I fell in love easily and it was often very painful. Before I put my poems together, I just assumed the old poems would seem very depressive! I assumed they would be drab, unhappy, fretful, and sad. But they were not! They read as energetic for the most part—enthusiastic, even happy. One friend to whom I showed all my poems remarked: “this a document written by a person who has really enjoyed having a body on this earth!” How could this have been when I was often so unhappy? It is because the poem is, ultimately, alien. It is because our insides and what comes out of them as language are not the same thing. It is because sadness can actually be a form of happiness and happiness, sadness. What is the expression? The opposite of love is not hate; it is lack of interest. My old work influences my new work in that, on the one hand, it shows me my limits, but on the other it assures me that I have no actual control over what I write, that the poem will be alien—surprising, at times even disconcerting. And this is very liberating! The process for me is a form of inquiry—the way one might inquire of a person or a program, I inquire of the blank page. To know that that inquiry has resulted in surprises in the past is very reassuring in the present for my writing.

And the poem of the life: when I die, will I have been the sad person of my memory or the excited, lively person of my poems? It is fascinating to examine the proverbial lives of the poets relative to their poems not because the poems are a transcription or autobiography, but precisely because they are not.

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

A: Oh gosh, this is a hard question to answer succinctly, but it’s always fun for me to read about others’ enthusiasms so here goes: there are a lot of poets whose work I know well and love. Donne, Dickinson, Stein, Stevens, Plath, Hejinian, Wheeler, Spahr, and Claudia Rankine. I love my friend Prageeta Sharma’s work. And I have been loving lately work by Simone White. Other peers who influence me a great deal would include Robyn Schiff, Cathy Park Hong, and Timothy Donnelly. I have been majorly impacted by these writers, but in terms of what is generative on a more ongoing basis—and this will sound perhaps very strange—it is highly technical writing. I love reading technical explanations of things: fertility, genetics, financial markets, energy, and climate change. I am interested in what Timothy Morton has called hyperobjects—entities or systems that are outside of human scale.

I feel that my interest in the work of the poets I list above is also related to this proclivity for more systematic thinking and writing. I am very interested in and piqued by seemingly ordered or organized work that is in fact completely irrational! Schiff’s work, for instance, is highly formal, but it is also utterly deranged—about the disorder of art, or the disarray of nature; the sadness in death and decay, and our efforts, so beautiful and futile, to contain it. There is a poignancy to language, all of us trying so hard to put our experience of this life into words. That language has its own ideas about who and what we are is what is generative for me.