Thursday, February 18, 2021
His poems “recedes to soil” and “nerve between song” appear in the twenty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “recedes to soil” and “nerve between song.”
A: I’m going to try to talk about some of what went into these poems for me. It is difficult!
I had set the intention of writing in confined squares with clipped sentences. I was under the influence of P. Inman’s writing, thinking of the one or two word (or even fragments of a single word) “sentences” that appear in his poems. I liked how this density allowed each piece to move in so many directions simultaneously—an intense focus on word that allowed an evasive referentiality to flicker across the poem.
I was also thinking about “landscape” at the time, specifically of the lands near where I live—the lands of the Lenape people—along the Hudson River, both as the present and as a historical continuum. I wanted to write something that remained constrained and denied a feeling of expanse. I felt like I had to follow this urge to counter some sort of gentle, spacious experience of my surroundings. The square form suggested a segment of a grid, one that imposed property line, commodification and death of land. The poems were moving around the presence of settlement—“landscape as corpse”. The short sentences moving rapidly between the environment I was in when I wrote the poem and the references that came into my attention from reading or outside, felt like a means for saturating and short-circuiting the grid—the poem as abundant flowering within constrained space. It suggested for me what was “outside” the square of each poem. Like each poem was just the aperture, focusing the image, but there remains a feeling of continuation outside the aperture. This also is felt always as the tension or edge of failure embodied within writing--that there is so much that overspills the poem, that can't be contained. Both a blissful and a calamitous attention to what goes on through the present.
The idea of Leslie Scalapino’s “seemless anti-landscape” hovered in my mind. I pick up her book R-hu and see I was thinking of the square poems that appear midway through the book. She writes, “it is necessary to be subjectivity/language to be the landscape, though “to be” as thus is not—-yet by that occurring.” Wondering if my poems could hold to that inquiry as intention?
“recedes to soil” refracts around a sort of live/deathscape: I was walking along a creek in the Catskills and I found a skeleton (just the leg and chest bones) of what appeared to be a dog in a small space of rocks just at the edge of the waters. Later, sitting on a rock nearby, I started the poem, thinking of the bones along with the experiences of seeing pigs and horses at an animal sanctuary earlier that day. What emerges for me in that moment (and what happens often for me when I’m writing) is Wadada Leo Smith’s music and his series of suites, Ten Freedom Summers, as moving with my experience in this moment of manifestations of death and life. Music comes through all of these pieces as a sort of stitch across these fragments. Wanting to sketch something along the surge of this music, that is informed by my experience of Smith's music, yet remains outside of the poem. I suppose it ends up being like an echo of another song.
“nerve between song” embodies a similar energy. Trumpet appears among these hopeful expressions (for me) of encountering gentle cows and pigs. That felt social—music moving with this liveliness. It’s there with this sort of nightmare image of my teeth falling out. All of this swirling together like a collective sensation or thought in the action of the poem’s music—nerves between sinews of song.
One thing that troubles me, that I do not know how to resolve with this writing, is the colonial impulse to write about nature—something that recent readings of Ken Belford’s Slick Reckoning and Internodes has illuminated for me. I want for these pieces to hold something similar to what a poet I admire, Nicole Raziya Fong, said in an interview with you about rejecting the colonial impulse: “poetry as maintaining the secrecy of things while also making it extant to others.”
Q: How do these pieces compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve been writing a new series at composed at the fuzzy edges of dawn/dusk. When I stopped going out of my apartment in Brooklyn, back in March, I began to write poems at twilight when I could barely see the page in my dark room. That went for through the spring. I stopped writing once the uprisings began following the murder of George Floyd. I felt there was no place for this writing in that moment and paused what I was working on.
I started writing again at the winter solstice, now at dawn instead of twilight. I have not looked back at these dawn poems yet so I do not yet know what they are. I’m writing with very little light—just the blue glow before the sun.
It’s a process from the poems from the series that includes “recedes to soil” and “nerves between song”, written in these constrained squares. I wrote those poems with a feeling of daylight—that everything was illuminated brightly as it passed across the square of the poem. Now I’m writing in the darkness, in the crepuscular shifts of dusk and dawn. My new poems have more anger and more fear too.
Q: Are you finding the differences in these poems exclusively with content and tone, or are you noticing any structural shifts as well? How are these shifts presenting themselves in what you’ve been writing?
A: They are slower poems, unfolding more gradually over the page. I avoid the clipped sentences of the previous work. The “dusk” poems have a less fragmentary syntax than in much of my work, though the “dawn” poems seem to rely more on clusters of words to propel the poems forward. I want to say they are more like lyric poems, but I also do not think that's an effective way to characterize a poem. Maybe they have that particular shape? Structurally, I was also thinking a lot about Larry Eigner’s work and about allowing a horizontal movement of the line on the page at least inspired by his attention to how the line exists in the space of the page. I wanted to leave the constraint of the square from the previous work.
The “dusk” poems are more new, so it’s difficult to say clearly how they operate, because I still do not know. They seem more chaotic to me. I felt like I was drifting into the dusk poems, but writing at dusk has felt more abrupt and incoherent. It's probably reflecting my inner experience of the present right now. More fragmentary and uncertain.
Q: Given your thoughts around Eigner’s lines, have you experimented at all with the size or shape of your page? And what are you discovering through the process? What are you seeing in your poems that might not have been possible otherwise?
A: No, I have always worked with the same size page when writing. I think it becomes about a particular attention to the open space of the page. I’m interested in that as a sort of improvisation—what floats here? What can be allowed to reverberate and continue? What stops suddenly? This approach allows me to learn what dynamics move in a poem that do not necessitate the sentence. What pulse can exist underneath the language? That seems a compelling way to move with one's thinking: underlying music.
I am drawn to the simplicity of working always with basically the same page sizes. But if “nerve between song” and “recedes to soil” were experiments that came from constraining my lines, then perhaps I need to look at how I handle the possibility of the page with other works. I think thereare new lessons to be found in playing with other shapes.
Q: I know composition shifts within page-limits was something in the short-lined long poems of William Carlos Williams, sketching out poems on prescription pads, or bpNichol, working to attempt up to and beyond the boundaries of the physical page via works such as The Martyrology. Is this something you’re exploring purely within the realm of poem-boundary, or are you exploring poem-length as well?
A: I have not been compelled yet to work with an expanded approach to page. I think that I am drawn to play with poem length, but where the individual poem is generated over a duration of time into multiple discrete “poems”. I think it has to do with a relation to the time of writing. Reading through Eigner’s poems, I find myself experiencing all of these (almost) daily poems as part of one or a series of overlapping pieces. Details and forms reappear throughout. So I think for me it’s never been the individual page as where the experiment unfolds, but over a series. Is there a way I can get at the present, over the momentary surfaces of these feelings and awareness, through that practice? Is that political?
C.J. Martin’s recent book novelppl/practicebk has been incredibly inspiring! I read it as a work that’s generated through attention to the daily, deeply intertwined with his reading, his communication and space sharing with others. Reading that book in the start of 2020 gave me a lot of energy for returning to my writing.
But who knows—maybe I should explore other formats? I’m thrilled by Leslie Scalapino’s work with photographs in Crowd and not evening or light and The Tango (and the oversized page in that book as well).
Q: So, is your sense of “duration” one of time over space, then? Or is it more of an interplay between or even through time and space?
A: I like the idea of interplay through and between time and space! I feel like that’s what draws me to poems—that way the poems unfold over the space of the book. How does the writing that moves through the space of a book set it’s own distortions, magnifications, intensities of time? I feel like there’s always the ghost presence of capital and empire vibrating in the poems, so playing with time/space becomes a way to draw out that presence for better or worse. It manifests mostly in how the poems happen, but I do not find answers through the poems.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I’m always going back to Alan Davies, Brenda Iijima, Leslie Scalapino, Will Alexander, Roberto Harrison—their writing shaped what poetry could be to me. I cannot do without Kamau Brathwaite’s DS 2: Dreamstories, Alan Davies’ NAME, and Leslie Scalapino’s novel Dahlia’s Iris. Everytime I read these books new aspects emerge. I think of them as books that help me be with the world.
Monday, February 8, 2021
Her poems “Along the Grain,” “Decade,” “And Follow It” and “Sleeps of Bronze” appear in the twenty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “Along the Grain,” “Decade,” “And Follow It” and “Sleeps of Bronze.”
A: “Sleeps of Bronze” began with a simple problem: How to describe the feeling of being asleep? In my experience, sleep encompasses rich and varied sensory states, and what sleep introduces to waking life may be a kind of pause, but it’s not empty or blank. In fact, it’s often in falling into and coming out of sleep that my sense of time passing is most physical.
“Along the Grain,” “Decade,” and “And Follow It” are in a suite of poems that attend to porousness. They index various movements through and across, comment on the absorption of information (especially of text and images), and enact shifts between subject pronouns (you/one/I) that happen naturally in everyday speech. I was also interested in making the boundaries between poems more fluid. Certain phrases repeat throughout, ideas and imagery develop across poems, and the last line of “Decade” and “And Follow It” together comprise La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 No. 10, the score for which is “Draw a straight line and follow it” (a famous interpretation is Nam June Paik’s Zen for Head).
Q: How does this piece compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: The language of these poems is spare compared to the poems I’ve been writing recently, which are long-lined and unfold over long sentences rather than clipped phrases.
Q: What prompted the shift?
A: I go back and forth between courting the prosaic and resisting it in poetry. Sometimes full sentences feel spacious and inviting, sometimes they feel too one-directional, and it’s blank space and fragments toward which I’m drawn.
Q: What is it about the blank space and fragment that appeals? What do you feel is possible through such that might not be otherwise?
A: For me, I think it’s a way of making room for the reader in the language. Reticence isn’t always or only withholding; it can be a form of generosity, inviting the reader to think and see and move within the poem. I also use fragments as a way to let language move in more than one direction—a line or phrase can attach to what came before and/or what comes next and/or remain self-contained.
Q: With three chapbooks under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: If I only knew! Some of the poems in the chapbooks are part of a larger manuscript that I’ve slowly assembled, demolished, reassembled, and so on, over years. Another longer manuscript in progress is more of a standalone project, in conversation with a particular set of texts. Whatever I do, even when I think I’m making a big formal departure, I seem never to exhaust questions of dailyness, detritus, and the built environment (which includes not only space, but historical and clock time).
Q: Do you have any models for the kinds of poems, the kinds of structures, you’ve been attempting? Are there particular writers or works in the back of your head as you put poems, and later, manuscripts, together?
A: Reading and writing are deeply connected for me; I might even say that my writing is an extension of my reading. Maureen McLane’s response to the prompt “Why I Write...” included, “I write poetry because others wrote poetry.” She gave many other reasons, too, but this one seems to me fundamental. Rarely if ever do I set out to emulate or otherwise react to another poem (or book), and it would be hard to single out just a few examples, yet what I’ve read defines what I write as much as what I’ve lived.
But for this answer not to sound like a dodge, I need to clarify something I just said, that a new manuscript I’m working on is in conversation with a particular set of texts. That manuscript is comprised of two long poems. One uses only words that appear in the opening passages of the 25 most downloaded books on Project Gutenberg, and the other uses only words that appear in the final pages of those same texts. Those books aren’t models but raw materials and a formal constraint.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I love rereading! The opportunity to do so is one of the main attractions of teaching. Outside of teaching, what I reread changes. Some of the texts I’ve reread lately are Of Being Dispersed by Simone White, Of Being Numerous by George Oppen, Hello, The Roses by Mei-Mei Bersenbrugge, "The Storyteller" by Walter Benjamin, The Country of Planks / El País de Tablas by Raúl Zurita, The Sri Lankan Loxodrome by Will Alexander, and Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. The only books I avoid rereading are those that were important to me as an adolescent, because, lacking adolescent passion but having gained much context, they'll never live up.
Wednesday, January 27, 2021
Their poem “So, Thus a Lilith Squelch (For Skin & Eschaton)” appears in the twenty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poem “So, Thus a Lilith Squelch (For Skin & Eschaton).”
A: I’ve been working on this poem for nearly a decade, which is rather anomalous for me––I usually plunk something out in a day or two and then excitedly scream into the void: “Good mo[u]rning, world, it’s time to submit to and be rejected from large publications!” Nevertheless, “So, Thus” has seen a number of stops and starts over the years because of its sensitive subject matter. It tells, smells, and knells the story of my mother's attempt to steal me away from my bris because she feared our shaky-handed mohel would cut up my tiny baby pee pee real bad.
The poem is ultimately a loving “fuck you” to psychoanalysis that attempts to ask: what makes a Jew? What is a wound? How does the circumcision of a child simultaneously cut them off from a community in the same instance it inducts them into one? How does it cut them off from their body? What does the attempt to steal them from this cut signify, what possibilities could arise from this line of flight? These questions surface in the text through a series of awkward connections I make between eschatology as apocalypse/apokalupsis (disclosure or unveiling) and foreskin; my mother and Lilith (iconic baby-killing badass––a complicated comparison full of joy and sorrow); the cut of the circumcision and the cut that is a comma (according to its etymological root, koptein). I started writing it as a response to Derrida’s meditations on his mother's death in Circumfession, which eventually led me to some really cute scripture, specifically Romans 2:29: “But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter. Whose praise is not of men, but of God.”
TL;DR: Surprise, surprise! It’s about mommy traumy, Jewishness, and being a frustrated non-binary binch who read Derrida once.
Q: How does this piece compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: It’s very different from the manuscript I’ve been working on since the beginning of the pandemic––a book of visual poems made with Adobe Illustrator. My smooth trauma brain found it very hard to read with so many global crises in the background, which prompted me to return to my favey concrete poets. This inspired me to teach myself new software, with which I began rendering Kabbalistic iconography into weirdo vector graphics. Whereas “So, Thus” uses my own squelchy life as an anchoring point, my vispo is all over the place. It’s almost like constraint-based poetry without any constraint––a permafried succession of ‘pataphysical bleep-bloop click-a-dicks, with my silly ass hovering over the glitchy keyboard of my laptop at 4am, as Illustrator eats up all my RAM until everything crashes and I'm left with the autosaved remnants of my non-Euclidean monstrosities. It’s been very therapeutic, and much more energizing than anything I've ever produced.
Q: There’s a physical expansiveness and collage element to your work that I’ve always liked, something your poetry shares with that of Adeena Karasick, another Canadian poet who explores language, theory and Kabbalistic iconography. How did these impulses develop? Were you aware of Karasick’s work, or had you other models for this kind of approach?
A: Hyperaware. I love her and I love her work. Reading Adeena really enlivened my abilities as a poet, really enlivened my life. I even got Mem-themed nail art done after reading Memêwars for the first time.
These impulses developed out of a need to multitask and justify doing creative work in the midst of all the hours I was (supposed to be) putting into my academic work. A stalwart guilt complex regarding my knack for procrastination, coupled with horrible imposter syndrome, led me to write my dissertation on Jewish-Canadian poetry, a canon upon which I continuously impose my own work, as a gag. My interest in Jewishness is a kind of poetic anchor that allows me to speculate on 1) my own dang self and genealogy; 2) a wide range of philosophies and socio-political issues (while staying in my lane). I find real hearty inspo in the work of Rachel Zolf, Maria Damon, Gary Barwin, Denise Levertov, Stuart Ross, and Joe Rosenblatt. The wonkiness of this collage-y aesthetic sensibility is rooted in my love for camp and maximalism and… Instagram. As far as a general attentiveness to the explosive possibilities of language goes, other inspiring artists of this calibre include bill bissett, Eric Schmaltz, Dani Spinosa, Kate Siklosi, Donato Mancini, Judith Copithorne, M. NourbeSe Philip, Petra Backonja, Gustauve Morin, Ry Nikonova, bpNichol, Amanda Earl, and others.
Q: I’m curious: were there particular elements you discovered that are specific to Jewish-Canadian poetry? And if so, how do you feel your work fits in or against those elements? How has your work been influenced by your reading and research?
A: The short answer is you’ll have to be one of the four or five people who actually read my dissertation if you wanna find out! The less short answer is I still have to write like 69% of my dissertation––my research is lacking and lagging. It’s been 8 months since I've opened the folder on my desktop named “DISSERTATION FINAL FINAL,” but I’m trying my best!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! UwU
As it stands, there is very little scholarship on Jewish-Canadian poetry (novels get most of the attention), and the existing work is quite dated and written by critics who obsess over multiculturalism and tolerance––bare-minimum concepts that really do nothing to honour difference except allow it to survive, as opposed to thrive. We can do better.
In the meantime, I’ve really learned to value the fact that there is nothing proper to or definitive of “the” Jewish-Canadian poet––there are only Judaisms to-come, poetic communities to-come, and ever-evolving diasporic subjectivities navigating, for better or for worse, the mechanisms of a settler colonial nation. Each writer I study enacts this anticipatory anxiety through a distinct style, and it is precisely style that opens a space in which new ways of remediating the world can be imagined––poetry as the aestheticization of tikkun olam. Ultimately, when I use hyphenation to connect “Jewish” and “Canadian,” I am not interested in the character of a “national literature”––I’m interested in what Canada has done to/for the Jews, and vice-versa, and how this very material relationship plays out in language.
Q: With a couple of chapbooks published-to-date, as well as your forthcoming full-length debut, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: I’m happy with the free-flowing memetic flarf of delet this and TERSE THIRSTY, and I love the earnestness and anxiety of [SQUELCH PROCEDURES]––it’s absolutely wild that it’s going to be published woweeeeee. I do, however, feel like I’ve been writing the same sappy, esoteric lyric poem over and over again for the past several years, so I’m definitely looking for a change. I want to maintain the trajectory I’m on and eventually hold some kind of vispo exhibit. I love making pieces that feel “frame-worthy.” At the same time, I’m interested in really challenging myself and actually completing one of the many autotheoretical novels I’ve started over the past decade. I’ve been really afraid of prose and the sustained attention it requires, but it’s time for some exposure therapy.
Q: The way you describe the forthcoming full-length against to the chapbooks suggests you work very much in projects, how each of those projects sounds like an entirely self-contained unit. How do manuscripts, whether chapbook-length or full-length, begin? How are they shaped?
A: I’m always working on a manuscript, to some extent. I don’t like writing hermetic poems; it feels cruel. I love Jack Spicer’s assertion that poems are social creatures: “Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.” I write for specific occasions with a particular theme in mind that I intentionally reiterate, embellish, and reecho in subsequent works.
Q: Finally, and you might have answered a portion of this previously, but who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: 100000000% Paul Celan. Especially the Michael Hamburger translations.
Friday, January 15, 2021
Eight dollars (includes shipping). And that would be downright nutty!
Tuesday, January 5, 2021
His poem “CANTO ONE” appears in the twenty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “CANTO ONE.”
A: This is the first poem from an as yet untitled sequence of ten poems that I began over a year and a half ago, for which I have so far written three and one third poems. Two things inspired the sequence. The first was the publication of I Could Have Pretended To Be Better Than You in the spring of 2019. Tim Conley edited this collection, which spans 25 years of my writing, and the first section of the book included a number of works from various micropress publications issued in the 90s – poems I hadn’t thought of in years, or had even forgotten about. Tim included a pair of poems from J: A Metric System, a book-length work that was published in 1996 in an edition of ten copies. J used a form of composition that I hadn’t thought about in years, and was relatively simple. Since I was in a slump with regard to writing poetry (or anything) at the time, I thought I’d revisit the form, but ramp things up for the present sequence – make it far more complicated. I won’t say much about what the form is, since it’s only a structure, and all poetry is about structure. The second thing that inspired the sequence was our present cultural milieu, which had caused in me (and continues to do so) a lapse in my ability to believe that language, and specifically poetic language, or maybe more specifically the poetic language imagined I spoke, is meaningful. This is more or less a personal hunch – I still don't know if that’s true; after all, many people continue to write and publish poetry, and apparently so do I. What makes my particular utterance any more or less significant? Regardless, having a complicated form to deal with allowed me to think about other things – basic prosody over intentional utterance, really. Which not only allowed me to begin writing, it allowed me to continue to work on “Canto One,” and when it was finished, move on to “Canto Two.”
Q: How does this piece compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing over the past few years?
A: I’ve been thinking about this for over a week now. In one sense there isn’t anything different about it since the same person who wrote that other work also wrote this piece, so there are lots of connections/similarities. Rediscovering earlier work, for instance, inspired this piece. But I am also not the same person, and I have not written a piece exactly like this one before, so it is different in that sense. I have trouble seeing any one text separately from everything else – it is all one massive poem that will end when I end – I am “language made meat,” as I once heard someone (Drumbolis?) describe bissett. There is a part of me that is suspicious of these sorts of questions because I think they are about “growth” or “development” or “progress,” which are all pretty loaded terms in an age of devolution and regression. It’s either that or I’ve hit the plateaus of my life – things are fairly flat and day-by-day around here (not that I lack joy or despair or any of the human things that make this plains-work very real and wonderful). Although, now that I say this, I will confess that I am interested in discovering new things. A new language, for instance (hvordan går det?), or even – gasp – prose. I am interested in discovering new ways to talk about writing and poetry. Maybe the most exciting way to talk about it would be not to talk about it at all any more.
Q: Do you regularly go back to earlier work when thinking about new writing?
A: Not deliberately. In fact, sometimes I find it hard to write because I’m trying to “make it new,” as is apparently a preconceived and somewhat pretentious requirement to be a writer of significance in the land of poetry. If I’ve already explored some sort of formal apparatus, to do so again feels less interesting. At the same time, the idea that poetry is at the forefront of some kind of battle (over what I can’t imagine – the imagination?) is a young person’s folly, methinks, and it has become clear to me that “avant garde” writing is an act that relies on looking back on a tradition just as much as when one is inspired by say British Modernism or any other tradition that has been suppressed by British Modernism. Nothing is really new, or at least I hope not, since I am clearly someone suspicious of the notion of progress: We are fooling ourselves when we use militaristic metaphors to suggest we are advancing something. Further to this, the advances we think we are making to poetry or writing as an art form seem far less interesting or necessary than the advances poetry and writing could make in the world, if you catch my drift. Besides, thinking about poetry as a formal battleground feels like to return to how things were in the mid to late 90s – why do that? There is a here and now that I feel I’m operating in, quietly, and pretty much on my own, and as I get older in this ongoing present, and there is more distance and time swirling through me as a person, I find memory has becomes something far more layered and textured and complex. And how that complexity relates to the present is necessary. Time is linear in theory only, or perhaps it is only linear as something that exists outside the self or between selves. Inside time has little respect for linearity at all, and perhaps that is the kind of returning to earlier work that occurs as a natural and organic process of being alive. In the case of these new Cantos I didn’t even realize how similar they are to Lack Lyrics until Mark Truscott pointed it out to me. I don’t think I noticed that because I was building this new work as an echo of a much earlier project. But to answer your question, repetition is an object worth exploring.
Q: Oh, I would agree completely. I’ve even been thinking on such myself, lately, although I’ve done little to act on it, as yet. You’ve given the impression that you don’t write often, but you did release a selected poems not that long ago. Did that allow you a sense of progression or trajectory in your work over the years that you hadn’t been aware of previously?
A: It certainly presented me with one possible narrative – the linear kind that exists outside of myself, and one that Tim Conley managed to piece together as the mindful reader/hunter/gatherer/editor that he is. Stuart Ross commented to me that the collection reads like a novel, which I take to mean that Tim created a very convincing narrative. That said I am careful not to believe that it is the only narrative, but a possibility, one paradigm that can be said to represent my work, but certainly not the paradigm. To have one thing stand for a self is rather dull. I have my own versions of trajectories that I doubt are convincing at all since they are less narrative and more like swarms of thoughts and ideas woven together as I pass through the world. It isn’t terribly real, or solid, or however you want to define it. At least not by the standards we use to record something. I mean, the only way to make sense of anything is to create structure, to build connections between things, points of reference, moments in time; to impose structure is what allow something to be understandable to others, and even for the self to be understandable to its self, which is perhaps why poetry, being primordially about structure, is so palpable in both positive and negative ways. At least to me. What I did see in the narrative as presented in the selected is a trajectory from the wild abandon of youth, the irreverent and joyful practice of someone who tried things out, emulating the work of others that I found appealing, that eventually shifted into something else: something or someone more guarded, careful, and calculated. Which might explain why I believe I have been writing less and less as time goes by. I’m not sure when the shift happened, but it did – it is otherworldly, in a way, to reflect on work by that youthful poet; even more so to reflect on who he was: someone who is attached to me by linear time and a name only.
Q: When I think of writers such as Michael Holmes or Mike O’Connor, their productivity seemingly ground to a halt as their engagement in publishing increased, although I don’t get the sense that your writing is negatively impacted by your work through Book*hug. How has your writing been influenced by your work as an editor/publisher, and vice versa?
A: Sure, I think about this all the time. There are lots of us in publishing who started out as writers: Alana Wilcox knows the exact date she stopped being a writer; Beth Follett has chosen to close Pedlar Press in part so that she can return to her own writing. If I were to use a baseball analogy, to live in the world today is to play in the American League – we are all specialists, and we are supposed to keep to our own lanes. Publishing and writing, although historically and naturally entwined, have become in many ways incompatible. I have found this particularly so since Book*hug Press has grown to the point where it is marketing and distributing books all over North America and beyond. Some days I even feel less like a publisher, at least in the sense of what I imagined I was getting into when I was starting out, and more like an accountant or data manager. And so I continue to write, even if it is sluggish and far less productive than the output of many others, even the most glacial of writers that I know. Perhaps I continue as I do to combat the imperialism of specialization, but it doesn’t mean that my work as a poet hasn’t been relegated to the state of hobby. But maybe that’s where it belongs: years of publishing have led me to realize that my poetry might not necessarily be something meant for a “public.” And if you work/fight/strive for public attention you are really fighting for something else, something that has very little to do with poetry. Regardless, there are things one gets to see across the literary landscape from the vantage point of a publisher that a writer doesn’t necessarily see, nor should they have to: that’s not their job. One of the interesting things that I have observed over the years is that writers often think they understand how publishing works, which can often give rise to certain grievances, and I can say from experience that I too once thought these things as a writer. Sixteen years into Book*hug, I continue to witness writers sharing things on social media about their relationship with publishers that are just as naive as I was years ago. Which might be why I do my best to be as transparent as possible with the writers I work with as a publisher. One of the most influential aspects of being a writer who also publishes comes from having pulled back the curtain to see the mechanics of literary production and capital as a publisher – knowing how the sausage is made can make it very difficult to write.
Q: I know one of your early influences was Vancouver poet Gerry Gilbert, which seems curious to me, given how expansive his work became, and how, in comparison, carefully deliberate yours has become. What is it about Gilbert’s work that influenced how you think about writing? What other poets or works might be sitting in the back of your head as you write?
A: What attracted me to Gilbert when I was younger was exactly that expansiveness. I loved the idea of writing as expression of time: Gilbert’s practice was an expression of time passing. His totem animal was a slug, which leaves a trail of slime; writing, if you allowed it, could be the slime trail of language. It didn’t necessarily need to make sense, even, since there are moments in our lives that are kind of meaningless. It was thrilling to me that there could be an alternative to writing a poem, like each poem could be part of something larger, that being life itself. Life writing / the writing life. There’s also a passage in The Year of the Rush in which Gilbert commented on art and writing, saying that if what he saw all around him in Canada that was being touted as great art, then fine, he would endeavor to create the worst art possible. His work was messy and unpolished (in a polished sort of way), and as such it stood apart from the more celebrated work that often embraced notions of “craft.” How could that not appeal to a young writer with a serious streak of self-doubt? In terms of his art for art’s sake I don’t give a shit about greatness attitude – and there is a wonderful headlong embrace of the possibility of failure to Gilbert’s practice that was palpable to me – Gilbert just made sense. At the time. But over time I came to understand that he sacrificed all sorts of things that I wasn’t going to sacrifice in my life, such as how he wrote himself out of view, or became less relevant over time as culture changed around him. In particular, he sacrificed his relationship to his own family, and I recall the one time I spoke to him on the phone: I had young children then and he asked about them (they were in the room, so were present on the call) and then said that he hadn’t been too good in the parenting department. After that I started to see kinks in his approach – while he might write a poem about playing a game of Scrabble with family or friends, I’d rather play a game of Scrabble with mine. Writing is a selfish act, and Stephen King has written, I think in Misery (a novel very much about how to write a novel), books are most often dedicated to the person who suffered most from the writer’s selfish act of writing it. Perhaps a poem can exist in what isn’t written, or there is a need to recognize that the art-ifacts we create can be misleading; perhaps this is another reason I don’t write as much as I used to. Maybe there is something to be said about this more generally in relation to the entitlement of the white male poet of the Twentieth Century – that writing, very much a product of the ego, means something in particular when one considers the intersectional relationship of gender, race, class and historical moment of a particular writer. Another early influence of mine is Ted Berrigan – I loved The Sonnets and their controlled chaos, and I loved his poems that were musically constructed and emotionally charged expressions of his days. But at some point I read Ron Padgett’s memoir Ted and realized that this larger than life person who was at the centre of a large community of poets was also a selfish junkie dickhead who was more interested in the poem and substance abuse than existing beyond 48 years on this planet. Like, he left his young kids and Alice behind because of his choices, which were his right to make as a fully conscious American living in the Twentieth Century, I think. But still, selfish. I still read Berrigan’s work, not as much as I used to, and I continue to enjoy it when I read it. But the poets who sit in the back of my head as I write now are those all around me – the poets I work with as a publisher, or friends I have made over the years through our ongoing practice. A community of my mind: it includes writers I’m in communication with regularly, and writers I haven’t spoken to for a long time. And even dead writers.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Lately narrative has interested me. Whether it is a fictional or non-fictional narrative doesn’t seem to matter – I’ve been drawn to it. And it doesn’t seem to matter what it is either: crime fiction, literary fiction, science fiction, books about politics, the economy, natural history, sociology, culture, the anthropocene, extinction, etc etc. If this is because I have a story in me that wants to get out, so be it.
Friday, January 1, 2021
natalie hanna is an Ottawa lawyer working with low income populations. Her writing focuses on feminist, political, and personal relational themes. From April of 2016 to September of 2018, she served as the Administrative Director of the Sawdust Reading Series and on the board of Arc Poetry Magazine. She is the author of ten chapbooks, including three with above/ground press, with an 11th from Baseline Press in the Fall of 2020. Her poem “light conversation” received Honourable Mention in ARC Magazine’s 2019 – Diana Brebner Prize. For more information, find her at: https://nhannawriting.wordpress.com
Her poems “font of the covenant,” “on the run with the cult of saint cecilia, beheaded unrepentant” and “b/c i was in mourning” appear in the twenty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “font of the covenant,” “on the run with the cult of saint cecilia, beheaded unrepentant” and “b/c i was in mourning.”
A: ‘font of the covenant’ is a gothic mess of feeling like an Orientalized actor in your own life, which is what the stage directions are about (two for a spirit and two for a live person). The first part literally discusses feeling like a visual on which other people read their own meaning without learning context. The second part cycles through some regular experiences of having Arabness used for the amusement of others/be appropriated/exocitized by others. The third part plays on the Orientalized legend of a mummy’s curse, except the narrator's awareness of being fetishized is the curse itself that dulls the pleasure of Orientalizing. The fourth part speaks to literally being ferried between countries as a child, and having Westernized terms for Arab spiritual concepts reinforced over the actual ones. All of the poems are overlaid with the imagery of baptism (the font) and being born “of Christ,” through the covenant of Christ dying to redeem our sins, in the same way that I felt it was reinforced for me to let the Arab in me hide / die out to succeed when I was younger.
I imagined a queer cult around St. Cecilia. She took a vow of virginity to god, but even when she was forced to marry, she convinced her husband to respect her vow by telling him god would kill him if he didn't (and also by showing him an angel to back up her claims). She converted her husband and brother in law. She was martyred after she enraged the prefect by doing charitable work. It was really gruesome- the prefect ordered her to be scalded to death. When that failed, he ordered her beheaded... but she lived three more days converting multitudes and giving away her possessions, which just made the prefect angrier. When I read about her, I thought about a scenario where maybe Cecilia made her vow of virginity to god because she was queer and this would be a likely way to avoid having to sleep with men. it's kind of hard to come across queer heroes in Christianity when you're a kid, so... she's kind of been a transformed queer icon in my head ever since. So I wrote this only slightly racy poem about being a reckless youth in love, for some old flames, as an expression of joyful queer love. It has a loving little secret call out for old Torontonians in it.
“b/c i was in mourning” is the weirdest premised poem I’ve ever written. (I’m a little surprised you agreed to publish it without having any backstory first.) My 22yr old cat, whom I’d had since her birth, had just died in my arms. It was Christmas Eve, and also one of my best friend's birthdays – who was also with me at the vet’s when the cat died and also like a cat-dad to her since her birth, and look – it was just a terribly complicated painful day. We were due to have supper with dear out of town friends we almost never get to see, and see Rise of Skywalker in the theatre. I cried for hours. Then we went to supper not to miss our only chance to see our friends from away, then to the movie to try to salvage some part of my friend’s birthday, and I’m pretty sure we cried through the entire movie in total surreal exhaustion. As a result, I missed that part in the background all the way at the end of the movie when two women characters (one unnamed) kiss - this kiss that was billed to us all as a great step forward in normalizing same-sex relationships in cinema - this total afterthought, this throwaway of a scene, that we were meant to be grateful for... The only person who knew that I was crying uncontrollably because the loss of my cat was sitting right beside me, and I was hoping no one would mistake it for some kind of queer joy over that scene, because that's no way to normalize anything. I ended up seeing the movie again a couple of months later just to be able to witness this alleged breakthrough scene and was just as exhausted with it.
Q: How do these pieces compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: Those are all pre-pandemic poems, so I don't find them falling into the well of strange emotional cocooning / distancing that some of my more recent poems do. It's hard not to veer into poems that are exclusively about loss since March, however, early on in the pandemic, I had the pleasure of seeing Andy Verboom perform (online) his poem 'The Appendectomy of Kenpachiro Satsuma," from his KFB chapbook "DBL". The poem begins:
"Even Hieronymus Bosch at Coachella
couldn't have drafted this rubberneck hydra
swamping the soundstage, this ill-fated tetra
-pak village, scuttled aside, its roach era
I was so taken aback by the beautiful absurdity of just the first two lines that I nearly slid out of my chair laughing. I then drafted three poems in Verboom's style, mimicking the absurdity, for "Salvador Dali at Burning Man...," "Basquiat at Ibitha...," and "Miro at Buckingham..." When I debuted them at the House Party Poetry Series 2, someone suggested I should write one for "Savaldor Dali Lama" next, and I am not opposed to this. Each of those poems reflect in their own way of the absurdity of what we accept as normal and how we create meaning.
Q: How do they fit, then, with the other pre-pandemic poems you were working on? Have you a line at pandemic that separates what you were writing before to what you have been working on since?
A: I don't think that’s a firm line. Or maybe on one side of the line it says “difficult poems” and the other side of the line it says “difficult poems in different ways.” My poems over the last few years have largely focused on social ecology, highly political themes like racism and violence, loss, mourning, our place in the world, etc... I try to temper collections of poems like that with some softness, but I don’t know if I succeed at that.
Since the start of the pandemic I’ve been finding a need for more poems of compassion almost as a defence against despair. Sometimes that compassion looks like what we’ve lost in terms of physical closeness, sometimes it looks like sympathy for the absurdity we’re all sharing, sometimes expressions of love and joy, but there are still difficult poems about identity, isolation, loss, medicalization, my legal work experiences, etc... Maybe is just that the tone is turning more towards consolations.
Q: You mention a shifted focus on “social ecology”: what originally prompted these shifts, and how do you see these shifts display themselves in your work? Have you any models for this kind of work?
A: I've always been very interested in the ways that we relate or fail to relate to 'each other,' but the other doesn't necessarily have to be another person. It could be a group of people, an animal(s), a location, a particular environment, or the world at large. This is what life is - a series of interactions with other entities, us affecting the other, the other affecting us.
I think the shift to writing that is more regularly informed by social ecology is probably a result of needing to express deep exhaustion with the strain of modern life and wanting to get back to a place of gentle joyfulness. I know that probably sounds a bit insipid, but writing is one of the ways we make sense of our contextualized experiences in the world so there has to be a place in which you can craft these kinds of observations. I am unconcerned in the utmost with comments that poetry should not be political, or that poetry should not be therapy, etc.
Most recently, I have been working on finishing up a chapbook length collaboration with Liam Burke. Actually, we've been working on it for six, almost seven years. It looks at a different kind of ecology. It looks at the human body as a machine, interacting with its environment, and how humans create and use machines of industry, science, and health upon the environment and ourselves. It also looks at the way our environments impact the human machine over time. There is an eternity to write about in there.
I feel like I can't point to one particular model for this work. I don't have the benefit of being an academic behind me in this respect. I remember reading Snyder and William Carlos Williams more than 20 years ago, and appreciating the precision of the natural narrative eye. But if you were to ask me about models for social ecology today, I am very interested in two, developed by respected friends. Conyer Clayton and Nathanaël Larochette's collaboration of grieving Clayton's mother, 'if the river stood still,' and Sanita Fejzić's ongoing philosophy around the lack of boundary between the body and other systems. Both of these authors have accomplished beautiful poetic philosophies regarding the interconnectedness of all things that are quite merciful, quite personal, quite honest.
I would also encourage everyone to read Natalee
Caple's remarkable Love in the Chthulucene (Wolsak & Wynn, 2019) .
Everything is there for you, in the details. It is like reading the relation
between place and experience across an emotional globe, turning on the axis of
Q: Since the mid-1990s, you’ve published a small handful of chapbooks, more than I think most folk are aware of. How do you see your work developing since those early publications? Where do you see your work headed?
A: The very first was a collection of micro-poems. They were very tender and I loved them. They were followed by chapbooks that mixed feminist body-politics with love poetry. I wrote about the break-up of my family. Later on, I wrote about the things I’ve mentioned above – social ecologies, medicalization, racialization, (broadly) experiences I’ve had through my legal work, violence against women, gun/war violence, the machine nature of the body, and the role of grieving. As friends recently reminded me, the creative part of my life largely depends on experience and memory. From a thematic point of view, that’s how it happened. Pushing myself to write more about difficult subject matter because it felt important.
Flexing the writing muscle in that way meant being open to sharing experiences, which can be a difficult thing. Some instances, even those that might be common enough experiences, can open in your mind like a devastating flower. There is sometimes a tendency to keep them apart and private. I think, however, it’s necessary to be generous and honest with your reader. I don’t mean that one has to be constantly confessional, or writing from an actual true lived experience, to produce a poem that is effective. I mean that striving for honesty of emotion is key. Whatever it is you feel about the subject of your poem, even if that’s ambivalence, try to capture it without your ego getting in the way - without fear of being thought of as hack. Just get it down on the page and respect what you love about it. Also, get to the work of editing, without thinking that every word is so precious that it can't be altered.
When I started to write with others, to work in writing groups, and to take workshops, it really opened up the notion of unselfconscious play, in terms of editing. I enjoyed creating poems and then breaking up the stanzas to make new poems from the fragments. I liked to learn what was effective and non-effective in the minds of various readers, so that I could offer alternative presentations of some poems. I’d like to think that I have become better at conveying images and sentiment through precisely chosen language, though I know my choices aren't always those of others. I enjoy working with enjambment to hopefully produce an echo of how I would speak something aloud, to produce the meaningful spaces between the words. It’s so freeing to move away from the hierarchy of traditional grammatical presentations for certain types of expression. One of my favourite things to do now is to ask musicians to work with me to develop a “score” for some of my poetry, such as my collaboration earlier this year with Liam Burke on music for my Baseline Press chapbook infinite redress, and earlier collaborations with other brilliant artists like Nathanaël Larochette and Jason Sonier. So from a technical point of view, that's how things developed.
Going forward, I think I’d like to spend some time mixing visual art, music, poetry, prose poetry, and prose, to build long narratives. For some time, there have been things I’d like to write, but to write them entirely as poetry or entirely as prose would be insufficient to convey what I’d like to, probably. My prose already veers heavily towards prose poetry anyway, and I could see an intermingling of the four styles. I think a long way back to Barbara Hodgson’s illustrated novel The Sensualist, which had a tremendous impact on me when I first read it – how entering that book was like entering a completely new universe of physical objects contained within its covers. Or Nick Bantok’s Griffin and Sabine books, in which you could sneak along the correspondences exchanged between characters. I think these can be gleeful and effective ways to enhance a narrative.
Q: You’ve answered a bit of this already, but what writers or works have you in your head as you work?
A: I find it really hard to wholly answer questions of this type. A lot of what is in my head as I'm actively writing is music. A tiny list would include: Debussy, Delibes, Andrew Rose Gregory, Bjork, Mercan Dede, Fairouz, Crowded House, A Silver Mt. Zion, MONO, Musk Ox, Hayley Heynderickx, Chelsea Wolfe, Kamancello, My Brightest Diamond, Om, duduk and ney music, and natural sounds. What they have in common is that they can temporarily take me out of my active scrambled thoughts and allow me the mental space to focus as I construct the lines.
For writers, I tend to think of a bit of mix of old school and new. I could start with Sappho's clarity. I could follow with the longing of Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Leonard Cohen, Michael Ondaatje's sweeping The Cinnamon Peeler. Stephanie Bolster's Three Bloody Words has lived with me a long time. Robin Richardson's dreamy Grunt of the Minotaur joins. Dionne Brand's Land to Light On is so important, as is Lillian Allen's Women Do This Everyday (which she was gracious enough to sign for trembling me at VerseFest one year, right on one of my favourite poems). I'm looking for what's powerful and beautiful in my mind.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: In addition to the above... I go back to things like your own If suppose we are a fragment, and The Uncertainty Principle. I have a soft spot for Shannon Bramer's The Suitcase and Other Poems, and Judith Krause's Half the Sky. Sandra Ridley's Post Apothecary, and Sylvija are little treasures in my shelf. Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythology are always lurking about. The other thing that I'll do is pull the poetry books written by friends off the shelf and sit with them again. It could be the tenth time I've come to a book - there are always more things to discover and learn from. Reading is a richness of textures that you sometimes overlook the first time in your haste to devour and enjoy. These types of questions of who you come back to distress me with nerdy guilt in a way because I feel like they do a disservice to so many wonderful contemporary poets.
When I want to reenergize myself, I will sometimes also turn to fiction by authors who can't help but create a poetic sensibility. Neil Gaiman, for example, has this rich history of visual and graphic and traditional written storytelling that taught me a lot about how to create expectation when I first came to his writing. I love the frantic absurdity of Franz Kafka. I love how the translations of Banana Yoshimoto's novels can't and shouldn't necessarily track with how we might traditionally conceive storytelling, and yet are so charming and engaging. If I want to re-energize on hopefulness, I'm probably reading Toni Morrison. I will never forget reading Barbara Gowdy's The White Bone and witnessing how well Gowdy built to such an effective traumatic conclusion. I think a lot about Naguib Mahfouz's books and how adept he was with contextualizing a reader in physical spaces. I tunnel back in my mind to Anne Marie MacDonald's magic realism in Fall On Your Knees a lot. Gabriel Garcia Marquez can make you feel like you've lived the same lifetime of his characters' 500 page lives.
I really want to encourage people to think of all
of their influences that may not immediately come to mind. We come to poetry in
so many ways and should recognize the merit in this blending of experiences
that helps us compose and distill our poems.
Friday, December 11, 2020
Lisa Samuels works with poetry, prose, sound, film, and visual art. Her recent works include Symphony for Human Transport (Shearsman 2017), Foreign Native (Black Radish 2018), The Long White Cloud of Unknowing (Chax 2019), and a film version of her book Tomorrowland (director Wes Tank, 2017). New theory writings are on soft text, distributed centrality, and luminol historiography. Lisa lives in Aotearoa/New Zealand and is a Professor of English & Drama at the University of Auckland.
Her poems “Hope goes both ways,” “Whether” and “Movies for the blind” appear in the twenty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “Hope goes both ways,” “Whether” and “Movies for the blind.”
A: I’ll start with description, partly to remind myself – they’re each eleven lines of poetic prose; they have titles that serve a little to magnetize the filaments of the words beneath; they enjoy logical, descriptive, narrative, and metaphorical formulations and propositions; they reference affect and agentives from the social nature of language and other planetary features; they suppose time in-poem and out-of-poem. They’re also on the road, in gardens, in institutions; their sensory mechanisms perceive out and are themselves precepted, in ways that maybe decouple normative ontologies with aims of freedom – in constraint, since the formal eleven lines help parallel energy happen across the poems. It’s like trees or waves: you see differently in a forest with like-minded trees or you hear differently when the waves are steady or when they suck and drag in jerky crashes. So the poems have gentle plexiglass containment fields in being held with matching line and margin shapes: each para-sentence enjoys perhaps the reflexivity of its containment. Different sameness without exactly same difference.
If you mean the context of their composition: I was traveling and writing in patterns involved with perception, interiority and exteriority, identity malleability, as experienced in the transnational contexts of that travel. The resulting poems are most likely organic machines meant to record and prompt the subjective correlatives I always value. Such orientations are not choices, really, so much as results and manifests; yet one wants to enjoy the possibilities of their in-betweens as art.
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: Well, a new work that happened in the first lockdown here is titled Breach and is quite different from the TtD poems – it arrived unexpectedly across a few days of intense writing in relation to pandemic feeling. I had started a formal imitation exercise model for my poetry students and it turned into a book-length poem with very short lines, the kind of line brevity characteristic of the poet Pam Brown, whose style I was setting the students to imitate, though I suppose the Breach lines are closer to Tom Raworth’s in style. I almost never compose in such short lines, and I found the extreme enjambments and lexical parataxis delicious. Happily, Boiler House Press plans to publish Breach in the new year.
My most recent book, The Long White Cloud of Unknowing, is poetic prose: it’s a punctuationally single sentence focused in a scene, a room, with an anchoring figure, a woman. Its meditative urgency and interest in heresy and other patterns of thought and memory are differently directed from the TtD poems, but there are probably some lexical touch points between the two, since the TtD poems were composed in late 2019 when Chax Press published the Cloud book and I was performing it. I also included five pivot photos in the Cloud book – taken in various places – and they do symbolic work in relation to the language.
I’ve been taking photos too for a manuscript titled Livestream, whose conceptual feeling partly responds to the Christchurch shooter using a wearable camera to record his violence and also to identity and authenticity anxiety in online immediacy/social media activities – these situations seem related. Also Livestream is involved with ecological carrying, for example resources streaming human activities (without being asked – and then being imagined as askable, as with the Te Awa Tupua Act here in 2017 granting legal personhood rights to the Whanganui river). The Livestream photos are harbingers, black & white ghosts of observations of stuff like city angles, street wiring, and printing and communications devices such as a lighthouse beacon. They splice between the poems as melt-downs or electrifications. The Livestream poems – since I’m here in your question – are also different from the TtD poems: sometimes they are spectral arrests of violence: symbolic, fictive, actual. Sometimes they’re like sculptural moment evocations, fractal chiaroscuro on bitumen stages.
I’ve recently made other visual art, from glass vials filled with text slices (Foreclosure Series, 2019) to a large piece, Tenter (2019), made with a wide abundant green cloth draped on a big easel and flowing down on the floor. Next to that I set a small pitcher of water on a short stand. The water has a paintbrush in it that viewers can pick up to write on the cloth in water, to make water writing. So it’s collaborative and ephemeral, materially and socially. I’ve had the lovely chance to discuss this work publicly and I plan to make more such art. Even though the poetry I write is always committed to multiple potentialities of interpretation – not because I plan it that way, but because I am that kind of artist – the print poems have to contend with page/screen areas holding words that are not necessarily instantly recognizable as departing from instrumentality. With the visual art writing I’ve just described, the scene of representation is different in terms of expectations and permissions.
I’ll demur from any detail about my theory writing, but I’m writing more about distributed centrality and newly about luminol historiography – and withness, which I played around with years back and am exploring in an essay. I’m also investigating an idea called wild dialectics. This theory writing is different from the TtD poems because it participates in economies of explanation. I always, apparently, prefer to make art, since I’ve never yet managed to concentrate my rare research time on an essay collection to bring it to fruition.
Q: I’m curious about the relationships between your writing, performance and visual art. How do the individual threads interact or interrelate? Do you see them as separate threads, or as elements of a larger, ongoing, singular process? Are there ideas you wish you could engage with in one form, for example, that you end up exploring through another?
A: There are ways of being with language that I want to cross-pollinate, for sure. Many people approach language as though it’s a solar system: at the center there is meaning, the “clear statement” work that language can be made to do directively and indexically, with the deepest centre of the solar-lingual the performative power to incarcerate appoint wed etc. This civically-enforced performative power, this deepest centre of the solar-lingual, is part of what binds some ideas of effectual language use to “clarity” in the notional sun of this solar lingual system. After all, some people might say, language is regularly used to incarcerate appoint wed etc., so there is a zone where that happens. When someone hitches their discourse to this centralized power idea, they are generally trying to make something happen in terms of a stable structure: a professional argument or a genre expression, etc.
As one moves further from this central solar lingual, the ideology is that one moves from clarity to obscurity. At a symposium I attended last year, some of the poets asked aloud why they didn’t just write clearly about their experiences, why they felt the need to be obscurely poetic. I found this discouraging to hear, because it indexes the strength of this solar lingual model. As though expressivity, ethics, or descriptions of planetary realities have one zone where they most effectively happen, with everything else further from the light.
Language happens everywhere it happens with equal distribution of possibilities of message, method, identity, representation, beauty, trauma, communication, and expressivity. It’s just that the modes and performative contexts are different in each case. It’s habit – and the enforcement of habits – that leads people to accept the dominant narrative of the lingual solar. And even then, people regularly perform very separately from that ideology: shouting in surprise, using lingual semaphores for affective communication far from any notional clarity. So everyone knows and performs, at least sometimes, in zones away from solar lingual suppositions.
I’m engaging your last question here, though I hadn’t intended to imagine this solar lingual image when I sat down to respond on this chilly southern spring morning. I want to write in any zone of the lingual and have the language able to be imagined from the point of view of any other place in the lingual. A poem can be an argument or an expression of love, even if it doesn’t seem to be – though not, for me, as a secret code: I have fairly automatic ethical signage limits that spring up in my feeling whenever a composition is making a too-controlled undecideable. I don’t seem to want to make those, though I can perceive and enjoy them when I read, say, some OULIPO texts.
Anyway so you could say I make things “out there” in the lingual distal and perform them always in the proximal, insisting always on radical equality. Proximal materials are always distinct. That doesn’t obviate the chance to articulate a poetics that may well be in evidence. And that in turn doesn’t obviate the unknown in its many permutations, from inspiration to hovering.
It’s great you use the term “threads” since I find myself recurrently drawn to cloth though I’ve not done – anyway. Threads are never without discontinuities to enable their pliancy. But you are using the term threads more symbolically, so I’ll consider that part of your question in terms of an example: if I take a poem to perform, say “The first of the last wings” from Foreign Native, ideally I print it out and place the paper sheets on a music stand or similar support object. This allows my hands to be free to use sonic materials. Often I source local stuff, for example I had a great time in Boston last year – the first time I’d performed in that city, where I was born – because it was raining before my reading and I went in to a bicycle shop to stay dry. I started playing with the bells and then really desiring the sound of one of them. Then I had to figure out how to be able to play it in the reading coming up the next hour. One of the bicycle shop technicians kindly and expertly fixed the bell on to a sawn-off bike handle, so I could ring the bell on a handle that was entirely disconnected from any particular bike.
I took this bell with me and read with it: I was so happy to have a regional sound whose pure high extended tone became a differential echo accompaniment to my voicework. It enabled the sonics to be more multiple and involved with more bodies and timings. So the imbrication of the “threads” there performs multiplicity, differentiation, spontaneity, site-specifics, somatic exponentializing, and cross-species sound in relation to the senses, semantics, expectations, cadences, tones, and body politics of me standing there in a bookstore reading space in front of mostly people I didn’t know. All those multiplicities can in turn encourage a scene of participation in the listeners and viewers. They too can glide on differential aspects of the performance: they don’t have to prefer semantics in the poems. The bell-tone is like a hovering word. The multiple materials multiply uptake and redistribute potentials of feeling and meaning.
I think this response leaves unaddressed only (well, “only”) the matter of non-lingual visual art. Here I’d say that creating material bodies that are free from the pressures of instrumentalized language is definitely a draw. To allow signage its own accords. Yet all the visual art I’ve made includes the lingual too. It’s like taking a magnet to the filaments of the lingual and drawing them in multiple directions. I probably thought of the earlier poem example (“The first of the last wings,” whose title’s from a Paul Celan line) because I always shift its orders around in performance. A poem is an n-dimensional event structure open to different instantiations; a work of visualingual art keeps its signage variants company.
Q: With a handful of published books and chapbooks over the past fifteen or so years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: This is an intense question! It’s funny how its language reflects ideas about the Growth and Journey of the artist. I suppose it is a bit like that, though I might swerve rather than develop, maybe. Anyway so we’re talking from Paradise for Everyone to The Long White Cloud of Unknowing, because from 2005 to 2019 I published fifteen books as well as the CDs I made of Tomorrowland and – other work.
In terms of change, there has been a lessening of individual Poem Visitations and an increase of sustained Desire Projects. This trajectory is familiar though not ubiquitous in writers – larger sweeps start to look more possible, apparently. The first event like that for me was Tomorrowland (Shearsman 2009) and its partner/follow-on Gender City (Shearsman 2011). The draft material for both was composed in a compressed half-year, during my first research sabbatical in 2008. So that’s one change. Mama Mortality Corridos (Holloway 2010), Anti M (Chax 2013), Tender Girl (Dusie 2015), and the Cloud book are all sustained projects, even as each is distinct from the others.
The drive to expand my genres and styles, for example to compose a memoir and a novel, is also a change in that time. With Anti M I wanted to create an experimental memory machine for responsive imaginings, so I carried out omissive work with my memoir of childhood, retaining only some of its words positioned across the pages. And with Tender Girl I wanted to unfold a phenomenological and humanimal novel, a picaresque vision through the body of Girl, the invented daughter of Maldoror and the shark. These genre expansions might go along with my revivified return to more theory writings.
So you could say those fifteen years feature increases in the types of signage I deploy and desire. My commitment to and participation in sound work has increased. And the performance work has intensified over the last decade particularly. As has my understanding that I could make marks that participate in the urges of poetry yet carry and report more-than-lingual signs. That started with the drawings I made for Mama Mortality Corridos, which was the first time I put images together with my writing – as I did also for Anti M and the Cloud book and now for Livestream.
As to where my work is headed, or bodied, I’ve mentioned two current poetry manuscripts: one strips out full-page activation (I mean things like float clusters, omissive work, accompanying visuals) in favour of an excoriated continuous line attention. That’s Breach. The other includes photographs and builds an interrupted stream of ecological violence and response. The TtD poems are part of something I’ve set aside for now but will come back to. I’ve also recorded the whole of Tender Girl – six hours of audio! – and need to decide how to platform that work. I will probably make occasional sonic interludes rather than the continuous soundscapes I composed for the Tomorrowland CDs. Meanwhile Tender Girl is being translated into Serbian, and I’m working with the translator on that interesting adventure.
I’m also working with performance studies collaboration, and I hope to do more of that. It’s partly a matter of time and contexts – my graduate supervisions are almost all writerly, and I don’t have a movement studio as part of my direct job. So I stay open to other pathways. I was to go to Greenland and Copenhagen in November and December to pursue and develop my interest in darkness thinking, but those trips disappeared because of the pandemic. The vision of seeing without eyes, of perceiving without norm apparatus, darkness visible, of interruptions of the digital and stable talking face and of the idea that illumination is best for observations and ideas, voicing in the dark, are probably extensions of my long-held interest in “imagining what we don’t know” and of my commitments to forces like soft text and other magnetisms on the other side of the apparent. Also of my increased attention to body rights in imaginal spaces. So yes – in the end I find I can answer your question, articulate some legible expansions in my ways of making art!
Q: When moving out into soundscapes and translation, how do these experiences and explorations return to impact upon generating further text-based works?
A: I’m definitely a lingual imaginer, so the words never leave – if anything they are more material in their evidences when I am engaging with modes that are not only writing. I’m surprised when people say that my vocalizations and soundwork help them hear the sound-forwardness of my writing and, by implication, better understand the work. Sound-fixations feel to me so evident when I write and then on the page. In a way everything is sound, as in the synesthetics of the Wallace Stevens line “Music is feeling, then, not sound”; so in my poetry meaning is sound, then, not reference, though of course that’s an exaggeration since these matters are mutually supporting and co-constituting. Sound makes meaning in many directions: it’s rhythm, volume, patterns, pacing, breaks, silences, phrasing, labials, echoes, sibilance – these sound effects happen in printed as well as spoken language. And since I lost my hearing in a near-fatal childhood accident, then got most of it back, and finally got hearing aids as an adult, I know what it means for sound to be something other than the human norm. Maybe in these comments, “sound” stands in for language’s simultaneously abstract embodiment. Maybe it isn’t surprising, then, when sound can remind us how meaning is situational and embodied and transactive.
In terms of translation: it’s hard to write only in English, because Englishes are so variable yet so often interpreted as though from a target-frame, as though Englishes write back to an English. This source-target frame is part of the historical discussion of translation, often described as tricky or impossible, when arguably all language happens in the very in-between of the “across” from situations and tongues to other situations and tongues. The target range approach to translation is allied with the instrumental approach to language, at least when it is treated as though univocal “clear” and “direct” communication is what’s needed, or is lacking if it isn’t there: that’s a homogeneous expectation, whereas global Englishes are heterogeneous. This situation is exacerbated for those who have learned different human languages and whose literate minds are steeped in the multilingual – then, any one language is a facet of the multilingual: of potential and other versions of itself.
So all writing is translation. As others have said for centuries in one way and another. It’s a topic with constancy because, among other things, there are such strong cultural urges to stabilize signs and such strong human urges to have the closest possible connections across signs, between oneself and an other.
To answer your question with respect to my books, you could say that my work in extra-lingual modes has given my writing permission to be more multiple. Not only in forms – the inclusion of images and soundscapes, the making of visualingual art – but also in languages, as in the multilingualism of The Long White Cloud of Unknowing, which wreathes Spanish, French, Latin, and Māori among its Englishes. Even when I am writing only in Englishes, other letter combos, other languages whether established or potential, are trembling in the page. Another somewhat increased register for me is sound response poems: e.g. in Foreign Native the poems “Mercy Proof” and “Summons” were composed as/during listening to sounds.
Overall then my work is freer over time in making shapes for variances. Although there are many approaches to and rationales for making what gets called art, for me there is no point making art that does not feel free.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I’m in a prolonged state of mind in which author-centered work as such is not what I look for. I am drawn to discourses that jump wires among contexts. When I find language moving in relation to other language - to possibility, energy, gesture, the transplace, the more-than-social-human - I am glad to be alive and creating. Languages are like water from multiple sources moving along and you step into it and write with it and it flows around with your activity blended in and then bends to continuing changed circulations.
The lingual work that moves me to respond expresses, one way and another, freedom, insouciance, egalitarianism, performed ethics, and resistance. It doesn’t worry about who wants to read it or whether it’s publicity-oriented or on trend. It doesn’t worry about whether it’s fresh or original. It just exists in adamancy, intense feeling and mindful contingency, ideational pleasure, and openings out from fixedness toward relation. I never know when I am going to pick up or open up or listen to something that has those properties. It can happen anywhere with anything.
One challenge is to find those materials, since the writing pushed as exemplary usually focuses an idea that some socius, with variant media powers, wants to push at that time. Such information is important in terms of thinking about what a culture is looking at, but I can’t count on its energizing my own imaginaries. So I have to find ways to look elsewhere, and it seems like I am always looking slant to find something that might be speaking in freedom. Of course such work needs to be findable, so fostering plenitude, and making archives accessible, and being grateful for the work that small press publishers do, are all commitments I value. And when the present feels fuzzy, I can always turn back to the beautiful struggles of Charles Peirce.