Wednesday, July 6, 2022

TtD supplement #219 : eight questions for Maw Shein Win

Maw Shein Win’s poetry chapbooks are Ruins of a glittering palace (SPA/Commonwealth Projects) and Score and Bone (Nomadic Press). Invisible Gifts: Poems was published by Manic D Press in 2018. Win is the first poet laureate of El Cerrito, California (2016 - 2018). Her full-length poetry collection Storage Unit for the Spirit House (Omnidawn) was longlisted for the 2021 PEN America Open Book Award, shortlisted for the Golden Poppy Award for Poetry, and nominated for a Northern California Book Award for Poetry. She often collaborates with visual artists, musicians, and other writers. mawsheinwin.com

Her poems “Thought Log #14” and “Thought Log #18” appear in the thirty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Thought Log #14” and “Thought Log #18.”

A: On Writing Thought Logs

I started writing thought logs in August of 2020.

Response to isolation, scatter.

Dreams & nightmares, observations, thoughts.

I write by hand, later, I transpose.

Listmaking, highlighting, selecting.

Word lists, juxtapositions, found language.

Each thought log has 16 lines.

Four of the lines have patterns of three.

Fish death, coiffed leaders, splash cellar.

Sometimes a question: How can we propel you?

A fragment: Places with the highest daily reported cases per capita.

Observation: They color coded their bookshelves for social media consumption.

Instruction: Check the field notes before entering the rodeo.

Feeling: When I get nervous on Zoom, I start a conversation about hair.

Mantra: Life can’t kill my rainbow.

Thank you for asking, rob mclennan.

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

A: I’ve been working on a new manuscript. In addition to the ‘logs,’ I’m writing pieces about the body’s possibilities and limitations.

Q: You mention your ‘thought logs’ as a manuscript emerging as a single project. Is this the way you normally put together manuscripts? Do you see each of your published books in terms of a sequence of self-contained projects?

A: Ruins of a glittering palace, a collaborative chapbook with artist Mark Dutcher and Score and Bone emerged as single projects. My full-length collection Storage Unit for the Spirit House emerged from the idea of writing about containers and containment. However, Invisible Gifts was a collection of poems over a period of years which I later organized using a color theme. Overall, I’d say I prefer to be open to both.

Q: How does a poem, and subsequently a manuscript, usually begin for you?

A: A poem can arise from an idea, a spark, an observation, a feeling. The manuscript I’m currently working on arose from my thought logs. I am a listmaker and keep several notebooks with different categories. I try to maintain both a balance of focus and openness to anything I’m working on.

Q: I’m interested in your self-description as listmaker. What first brought you to this point of poet-as-listmaker? What is it about the list that appeals?

A: My father was a chronic listmaker, and he insisted that we adopt this practice. The listmaking began as to-do lists which continue to this day. In my early 20s, I began documenting every music show that I attended, including bands, musicians, dates, and locations. These notebooks are somewhere in our storage unit. I keep lists for many things: books I’ve read (or want to read), jargon and terms for various fields (architecture, graphic design, film, etc.), flora and fauna, colors, thoughts, feelings, inspirations. Listmaking appeals to the part of my brain that wants to sort and organize. I appreciate the sounds and rhythms that can emerge from lists. I think I’ll make my evening list right now.

Q: Do poems, and therefore, manuscripts, emerge from similar structures of organization? Are manuscripts organized from works that require a specific order for the sake of a book-length structure, or are the structures already set in mind as you write?

A: Various sorts of logs and lists are on my mind these days as you know. For my current manuscript, I am using the “log” as an organizing structure. However, I may have an idea about a series of log pieces which I discover may not work in the end. I try to allow myself to be open to changing ideas for structures.

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

A: Since the publication of Ruins of a glittering palace in 2013, I feel that my work has developed and evolved in different ways. In Score & Bone, many of the poems are spare and short in length. The poems in Invisible Gifts span almost a decade and range in style from lyrical and narrative to surreal and dreamlike. Since Storage Unit for the Spirit House, I’ve been experimenting with lists as a structure. Over the past two years, I’ve been trying my hand at the braided essay and hybrid forms. Recently, I’ve been writing blood pressure logs.

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


Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
Victoria Chang
MK Chavez
D.A. Powell
Mary Ruefle
John Yau

… off the top of my head.

Monday, June 20, 2022

TtD supplement #218 : seven questions for Genevieve Kaplan

Genevieve Kaplan is the author of (aviary) (Veliz Books, 2020); In the ice house (Red Hen Press, 2011); and four chapbooks, most recently I exit the hallway and turn right (above/ground press, 2020), with a further, Felines, which sounds like feelings (above/ground press) out very soon. Her poems can be found in Posit, Tinfish, Faultline, Oversound, and other journals. She lives in southern California where she edits the Toad Press International chapbook series, publishing contemporary translations of poetry and prose.

Her poems “On cereals,” “The wonder of the eater,” “The problem of the eater” and “Do not feed the animals” appear in the thirty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “On cereals,” “The wonder of the eater,” “The problem of the eater” and “Do not feed the animals.”

A: I am interested in the problem – and wonder – of consumption. Certainly the pandemic has highlighted and changed our patterns of consumption, and in these poems I was thinking particularly about food: what we need, what we want, how we get it, how we respond to it, its complications.

These are some of the food-related poems I drafted during early Covid-19 lockdowns. Thinking and writing about food – reading recipes, watching Top Chef, making inventories of items in the fridge, listing excesses (and scarcities)– felt like a kind of release from the uncertainty of the pandemic. Food is so tactile and sensory and universal and pleasurable! I thought/hoped that writing food-related poems would be fun and pleasurable and would help ease pandemic funk. Though you can see in these poems, there’s still kind of an underscore of funk.

I actually drafted a few poems titled “The problem of the eater,” as there are so many potential fraughtnesses surrounding the act of eating. The one you’ve selected for Touch the Donkey is one I really like – reading it now, I am still drawn to these seemingly straightforward “sauces” that are “glorious” but can’t be wholly celebrated.

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

A: I tend to be most comfortable writing observational poems, poems that interrogate spaces and relationships and logistical arrangements (see, for example, my recent poems in Posit or Can we have our ball back? Of the poems you selected for Touch the Donkey, “Do not feed the animals” feels in my comfort zone, but the others—particularly “On Cereals” and “The wonder of the eater”—come from different, less intuitive places. This, I’m sure, is partially because they were borne out of my specific intention, to write about food. Writing “On Cereals” also invited me to dig into memory and my history of food allergies; writing in conversation with my memories or personal experiences is fairly uncharacteristic for me.

Q: What, if anything, is prompting this recent move to work beyond your usual comfort zone and into more personal experiences? Have you noticed a shift at all in the poems as a result?

A: Hmm. I suspect Covid-related isolations, combined with the increased focus on the health of the body (as a society, we were all suddenly thinking more about how to keep our bodies safe, and considering how our bodies—just by being present in a shared space—could be creating dangers for others) contributed to this shift inward. Certainly during this period I became aware of thinking about my body not just as a something I inhabit, but also as a something at stake. I was reminded of other times, and other ways, when my body had seemed othered or beyond my control, which felt useful to think about through poems.

In poems, I always want to push beyond my comfort zone! When I’m drafting or writing I’m not always able to articulate to myself where that shift should take place, but later, during the revision process, I’m always thinking about how to move somewhere new in a poem, how to find a different angle or perspective or action.

I’m not sure that I’m totally comfortable with “On Cereals” in its final state here – the poem feels like a shift in its couplet organization, its breaking punctuation, its leaps in time. My sense is that Touch the Donkey is a safe, engaging place to share poems that feel a little risky, which means it’s also a journal that I’m especially grateful for.

Q: Are there any particular models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? Have you any particular authors or works in the back of your head as you write?

A: I started these poems while I was reading journals and anthologies pretty widely. Some of the journals I love and turn to frequently to look for cool new poems are The Rumpus, Ethel Zine, Waxwing, Conjunctions, Sugar House Review, Dream Pop Press…. I find I especially like reading smaller journals – like Touch the Donkey – which often feel like venues that are willing and able to take some more risks in the writing they present. In terms of poets whose work particularly spoke to me during this period, I think of Matthew Olzmann, Cintia Santana, Brian Teare, and Mónica de la Torre. Right before the pandemic began, one of my students had introduced our class (and me!) to the poet Yone Naguchi, and his work became really interesting for me to explore – I became curious to dig into how his work deals with complexity and simplification and shifting repetitions.

Q: With two published poetry collections, as well as a small handful of chapbooks, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work heading?

A: In some ways my second full-length collection (aviary) was a reaction to publishing my first book. I started writing the poems in (aviary) when In the ice house had just come out and I was doing a lot of readings. At these readings, I realized that writing so many short, spare poems (as I did in that first book) meant that as a reader standing in front of audience, I suddenly had to do a lot of work—and a lot of talking! In the poems that later became (aviary), one of my goals was to write longer poems, to fill the page with words, and to write poems to would specifically resonate off the page and into the room as I read them aloud.

I’m not sure that this kind of deliberate contrast is something I’ll continue in future book projects, but I can say that I’m always excited to do something new, or at least that feels new to me. If I’m not surprising myself as a writer—in the subjects or projects I take on, in the modes or methods of my writing—, then I feel like I’m not trying hard enough.

One thing I love about chapbooks is how they often remain outside conventional publishing practice. I mean, they’re not sold in most bookstores, they don’t often have ISBNs, they can be beautiful and tangible book objects, or they can be inexpensively and quickly produced. I think of chapbooks as excellent venues for veering off a traditional path, for trying new things, and for re-thinking the unit of the project or poem.

I imagine my poetic work will continue to head in many directions. I can’t predict what type of writing I’ll be interested in years from now, but I do know that I’ll continue to write new poems, keep surprising myself and my readers, push myself to try varying forms, subjects, and modes, and continue exploring what a poem—and what a chapbook, what a full-length collection of poems—can be.

Q: It sounds as though you have different structural ideas for collections depending on their potential size, whether the chapbook-length or the full-length. How much of the shape of a structure emerges before a piece or manuscript is written? And would you consider folding chapbook-length works into larger collections, or might that contradict?

A: My general process is that I draft a lot, and I like to explore different forms and presentational possibilities in my drafting. Later, once I’ve gathered a group of poems that feel done-ish, and perhaps similar in theme or structure or approach, I look to see what might belong together, how one poem might fit with another and become something more. I might have a general topic or premise in mind early in my writing process, but I tend not to write toward a project or mode. Instead, I find the through-line later. Even with I exit the hallway and turn right, my 2020 chapbook with above/ground, which consists of a single long poem, I didn’t have any idea during the writing process what form those lines might ultimately take. It was only after I’d finished drafting those pages and pages that I thought about how to best present the lines; it was later on that I realized I might create visual hallways for readers to walk down, and that what I’d written made the most sense as a single long poem. I suspect that if I’d had the form (a chapbook, one long poem, narrow lines, harsh enjambments, etc.) in mind while I was drafting, the poem would have turned out like something else entirely.

I love thinking about books and the various forms that books—and poems—can take! I want to reject a hierarchy of importance, like thinking a full-length book is necessarily “better” or more fully formed than a smaller book or chapbook. Instead, I am glad for some poems or small collections to exist on the edge, in the more ephemeral and informal space of the chapbook or artist’s book. A different expectation from and experience with the reader can be created when poems are encountered in more varied forms. As a writer, too, I appreciate the freedom of thinking that not everything needs to be a book, not everything needs to be a chapbook, certainly not everything needs to even be published or read. That said, I also am excited about the possibilities of an evolution—I certainly think that a collection that first appeared as a chapbook could later transform and be read differently when folded into a larger book, or when presented in another, unexpected form.

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

A: Some of my touchstone poets are Marianne Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks, Wallace Stevens, e e cummings, Emily Dickinson…. These are poets whose work, their sense of form and language and movement, often feels surprising to me, so I choose their poems and other writings to return to when I’m feeling a little poetically lost. I also love reading contemporary writers! When I’m perusing literary journals, or—let’s be honest, the internet—I almost always linger on poems by Mary Ruefle, Sawako Nakayasu, Vievee Francis, Vi Khi Nao, and Lisa Robertson. I’m fascinated by these poets, who often seem to be working on projects that are larger, deeper, or more complex than a single poem; at the same time, they remain very attentive to the poem on the micro level: the word, the line, the potential for strangeness. I find energy and inspiration in tracing how these poets might be thinking through both these macro- and micro- levels simultaneously.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

TtD supplement #217 : seven questions for Sarah Pinder

Sarah Pinder is the author of Cutting Room (Coach House Books, 2012) and Common Place (Coach House Books, 2017). Her writing has been shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Awards, and included in magazines like Geist, Arc and Poetry is Dead. She lives in Toronto.

Her poems “Hide and Seek – Jack Whitten (1964)” and “Beautiful Mourning – Christina Quarles (2017)” appear in the thirty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Hide and Seek – Jack Whitten (1964)” and “Beautiful Mourning – Christina Quarles (2017).”

A: These pieces were generated out of an ongoing ekphrastic writing project I started early on in the pandemic.

The Milwaukee poetry bookstore Woodland Pattern had been publishing these weekly ‘Prompts Against Anxiety’ by different poets during the initial shelter-in-place period, and Jennifer Nelson wrote one about ekphrasis (writing about art). (Here’s the link to her original prompt: https://woodlandpattern.org/project/ekphrasis-yourself )

One of the things that I’ve missed most throughout pandemic time is going to art galleries. Nelson’s initial prompt got me exploring different collections online, and back into more active relation with looking at visual art again.

I’m in Toronto, and the public library here has a really great inter-library loan system, so I eventually drifted over to books. I started working my way through the library’s selection of show catalogues and artists’ monographs to take home and pour over. I’d choose pretty arbitrarily, starting with books newest to the collection, and following my nose through the various sub-categories work was sorted under (genre, time period, location, etc). I encountered both of these artists' work through this method, and it felt like such a wild, lucky accident with each of them.

I took on this project to try and get started with writing again, at a time when I was feeling pretty empty. I’d set Sundays aside as my day to sit with my stacks of library books and write – and tried, for the first time in a really long time, to write in pencil on paper, rather than using a computer. I’d look for works that made something in my brain feel crackly and woken up, and try to follow that feeling around a bit. Both of these works gave me that feeling.

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

A: I haven’t been doing a lot of other writing work right now, and have leaned more intently into working on pottery and quilt making during the pandemic. Both of those practices involve assembly and intuitive thinking, or thinking with the body, and orienting towards making shapes. Writing these ekphrastic works also feels like an extension of that assembly and shape-making – what is there on the page of these monographs? what’s here in the room, or going on with my body? how do i make them relate to each other?

Q: Does that suggest you see all of these processes – pottery, quilt-making and writing – as individual threads of a larger, singular practice?

A: I have spent a lot of time feeling like a brain in a jar, in terms of how i relate to my physical self.  pottery, quilt-making and writing all are part of a larger process of getting very granular with the idea of gesture and movement – looking closely at feel.

Q: Part of how I was originally introduced to your work was through your self-published small chapbooks, which felt very much a part of your compositional process in putting together that first collection. I’m aware that you haven’t been producing as many of those small items since, but do you feel your process has shifted since the publication of your full-length debut?

A: An early part of my second book, Common Place, also showed up as a chapbook first, called Salt. I still think of zines and small press as a space for me to experiment, and concretize ideas while keeping things loose and quick. Zines have always felt a little giddy with the tactility of the process – I still lay everything out with tape and scissors. Making a zine of these ekphrastic poems is part of the arc of the project, I think.

With writing book length work, I’m more focused on the idea of the long thought, or keeping the tension of a through line. Knowing that I could take the time and space to think in longer units of measure was a cognitive shift for me.

Q: It’s good to hear I’m not the only one designing chapbooks through scissors and tape! But I’m curious about the ways in which you construct books: were the structural arcs of both collections similar? Were you, each time, working on a collection, or, through the process of chapbook-building, working towards a collection? Or was that all the same thing?

A: i made both books through the process of accrual. with my first book, cutting room, chapbook making was an exercise in thinking of how discrete poems were in conversation together, and then a larger project of figuring out how each of those chapbooks fit together as a book-sized unit. with common place, the project was more intensely constraint based – i had to write a page a day, with the idea that i was writing something long and thinking through a sequence of ideas (about capitalism, ideas of community and togetherness, embodiment, encounters with land) until it felt finished. i put out the chapbook as sort of a stop on the way – my memory is that it’s as much as i had written at the time.

i was in a reading group – the contemporary poetry reading group – for several years where we’d meet once a week and read a whole book of poetry out loud together each time. a lot of what i was writing through the project of common place felt in parallel conversation with things that came up in the group.

the reading group helped me to make the container i needed to think in a long-form poem format. a piece of making a chapbook of the early work from that manuscript felt like it was about documenting the thinking i was doing, to share with the friends and people i’d been thinking alongside with.

i still feel a little hungover after doing something very procedural in long form – i keep looking for the next sequence of constraints that’ll feel like enough of a container that what my next book will look like becomes clear... but i don’t know if it’s going to actually happen that way, this time. the pandemic really wiped every slate for awhile, and i feel more at a remove in my life than i did before. everything feels like a process of trying to assess what’s going on right now - what's the weather? where am i in it?

Q: What initially prompted you to explore the form of the long poem, and what do you feel you learned through the process? Was there a particular work or works you were going through in your reading group that suggested moving in that direction?

A: most of my work had focused on the short form, and the idea of taking things away – i did (/do) a lot of heavy editing of my poems to pare them down. i wondered about the process of adding more in as a way to get myself thinking about what makes a poem feel finished in a new way. anne boyer did this long sequence called ‘money city sick as fuck’, which was a series of 100 poems she wrote and posted on tumblr in one day – that was a helpful catalyst. we also read alice notley’s descent of alette, and i remember it really fucking me up, both in its style and content.

Q: I suppose you’ve already answered an element of this, but who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: julie joosten’s nought, and her deep thinking about cognition and relation. mercedes eng’s work, esp. prison industrial complex explodes. kaie kellough’s magnetic equator. june jordan has a massive collected works called directed by desire – i was in a workshop once taught by alexis pauline gumbs where she used it for bibliomancy, and i’ve returned to that practice a bunch, just opening the book at random to see how jordan changes the landscape. and finally, i’d follow lisa robertson anywhere.

Monday, May 30, 2022

TtD supplement #216 : eight questions for Margo LaPierre

Margo LaPierre is a Canadian editor and author of Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes (Guernica Editions, 2017). She is newsletter editor of Arc Poetry Magazine, membership chair of Editors Ottawa-Gatineau, and member of poetry collective VII. She won the 2020 subTerrain Lush Triumphant Award for Fiction. Her work has been published in the /temz/ Review, Room Magazine, Arc Poetry Magazine, filling Station, CAROUSEL, PRISM International, carte blanche and others. Find her on Twitter @margolapierre.

Her poems “The World’s Most Beautiful Desert” and “Subdued, [a forecast]” appear in the thirty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “The World’s Most Beautiful Desert” and “Subdued, [a forecast].”

A: “The World’s Most Beautiful Desert” started out as a section of a creative non-fiction piece. I was trying out bibliomancy, which is a practice of seeking guidance or predicting the future by randomly picking a passage from a book. I based this poem on a quote from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space in which Bachelard discusses Philip Diolé’s book Le plus beau desert du monde (the title of my poem) in the context of carrying vast spaces within us, how a deep-sea diver walking across the desert transplants the sea through force of the imagination. I like the idea that we are atlases of all the proprioceptive maps our bodies have recorded in our lifetimes. The poem visits the idea of cross-genre pollination. Bonus “trivia”: all the aquatic life in it can be found in the West Edmonton Mall’s aquarium, where I have yet to visit.    

“Subdued, [a forecast]” was inspired by and structured according to your poem “Subtitled, [a primer]” from Life Sentence, which especially drew me in with its rhythm. The whole book did.  It’s a deeply fluid, liquid collection. Personal and intimate without sounding confessional. I have an affinity for rhetorical questions in poetry, I guess I use them a lot. “Subdued” is one of several medication poems in my collection-in-progress. This poem addresses a specific part in my mood disorder cycle (my own rhythm) — a fallow or gathering stage where I sleep more and become more receptive/reactive. I can edit and read but I can’t really write. I stay away from social media because I have nothing to say and get a fear/block about perceived publicly. After that lifts, maybe after months or weeks, it lifts into lightness and flow and inventiveness. A trick I’ve found works for me re: writing poetry during the low time is to borrow forms from poets I admire and write pastiche poems.

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

A: I’m at the stage of wrapping up a poetry manuscript and sending it out on submission, so these two poems are part and parcel with my other current work, most of which take up themes of disorder and/or community. I play around a lot with various forms throughout the collection but one thing that comes through in these two poems and the manuscript as a whole is the presence of other poets and writers. I’ve been in conversation/communion with other writers through the poems. It’s all porous, heavily influenced by what I’ve been reading and the poets I’ve met.

Q: Has your composition process shifted since the publication of your full-length debut? Do you approach or consider your poems any differently since having put together a first manuscript?

A: Definitely! My first book took several years to compile, as is the case for many first-time poets. Any of the poems I considered “good enough” to go in that collection, written between the time I was eighteen to twenty-five, went into Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes. With my current manuscript, I had a project idea in mind, and receiving grants for this project when I was first starting to write it helped me to pursue the concept in earnest. So I’ve been writing poems with the book in mind, which is the opposite of what I’d done for my first collection. I still write poems outside of the project, and some of the “stray” poems find their way in, like one that was inspired by a WWE match with The Undertaker and his brother Kane. My husband is a wrestling fanatic and I told him to pick the fight most special to him and I’d watch it and do a bit of research and write about it. A big difference in terms of process as well: the second I finish a first draft of the poems, they go into the collection manuscript. Any editing happens as part of a larger whole. I was intent on playing around formally this time too, so there’s more experimentation.

Q: Have you any particular models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting lately? Any particular authors or works in the back of your thoughts as you write?

A: Oh, yes, goodness, many! Probably more than I should list off here. I recently created a series of centos, four of them, each line taken from a poem — so not a single word is my own, just the composition itself. I change capitalization in a few cases, but I don’t touch the punctuation, and the line breaks are the original authors’ own. I borrowed lines from over fifty poets. The longest cento links a line each from 49 poems.

I’ve also been working in pastiche and glosa, and have written poems “in dialogue” with work by Sina Queyras, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Chen Chen, Lisa Robertson, Hoa Nguyen, and yourself, in “Subdued.” And I do have an ekphrastic poem inspired by Canadian visual artist Eliza Griffiths’ painting “Intuition: Oral Roberts pose,” 2003, oil on canvas.

This project I’m working on is kind of a kaleidoscope.

Q: I’m curious about your work in pastiche, ekphrastic and glosa, as well as your engagement in dialogue with works by other writers. What do you see your work in such forms, and such dialogues, accomplishing that might not be possible otherwise?

A: Hm, this is a really good question. I guess it begs another question: What am I hoping to accomplish in my poems anyway — and how are these forms a better way of doing that? The poems in this collection, taken as a whole, are intended to invite readers inside of psychosis, neurodivergence, and traumas and violences associated with womanhood as I’ve experienced it, and to celebrate strength and perception. I want to create something accessible for readers that still manages to tilt perception. Bringing in other voices is part of this prismatic project. The poetry community has kept me alive and connected throughout the pandemic. Community is treasure. Glosa, pastiche, and cento make community visible on the page —inextricable from the poetry, just like poetry has become inextricable from my life. I hope that the poems that engage with others’ work nudge readers towards seeking out those poets. And ekphrasis is pure fun and flavour, and pulls strong feelings out of me in the generation of the work the way my favourite shows, movies, artworks, and books do. In ekphrasis I respond to Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Sicily episode, Euphoria’s Rue Bennett. Mental illness can be isolating. I’ve been looking toward other poets and creators, even fictional characters, who have artfully expressed their own experiences.

Q: With a published debut, and your current work-in-progress, how do you feel your writing has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: When I wrote the poems in my debut collection. I liked reading poems but hadn’t learned their mechanisms. If the left poetic muscle is intuition, then the right one is intention, and I grew into a practice that is now more intentional.

Attending workshops, like Stuart Ross’s workshops and the Tree Reading Series’ workshops, and now attending UBC for a Creative Writing MFA, in which I’ve maxed out the number of poetry credits I’m allowed to take, have been instrumental in my development, as has been collaboration with my Ottawa poetry crew, the collective VII, composed of Chris Johnson, nina jane drystek, Conyer Clayton, Ellen Chang-Richardson, Helen Robertson, Manahil Bandukwala, and myself.

I’m now headed into fiction, writing a collection of short stories inspired by beloved articles of clothing I’ve owned, and a novel of sex, work, madness, and found family. Who knows what poetry will look like for me as I take my foot off the gas (a metaphor, only — I do not drive). Ahoy collabs!

Q: I’m curious about your collaborative efforts. What has collaboration been allowing that might not have been possible otherwise? Do you see the process shifting your work at all?

A: The pandemic would’ve beer far lonelier if it weren’t for VII.

Happiness and a sense of connection might not have been possible were it not for these amazing humans. The pandemic tested my emotional and mental stamina in several ways and VII may have been what’s actually kept me afloat. Our collective’s “birthday” is March 21, 2020. For all the bad of the pandemic, it also brought us friendship. We talk through our group chat every single day, mostly about our lives in general, but also swapping tips and bits of literary knowledge and fluff, helping publicize each others’ events, peer-reading/editing each others’ manuscripts (Manahil, Conyer and Ellen all have full-length books coming out in 2022 and beyond!), and sharing resources, memes, and an excessive amount of raccoon digital paraphernalia.  

We all have different tendencies re: white space, punctuation, capitalization, form and hashing these out together and making a case for one over the other on our collaborative poems has opened me up to more possibilities for writing and revision in my own work. VII’s second chapbook, Holy Disorder, is forthcoming from Gap Riot Press later this year, and we edited that à sept in a Google Doc over Zoom.

Collaboration can be an event, too! A few months ago, Stuart Ross was down in Ottawa visiting from Cobourg, and he and Conyer and I wrote three poems, collaboratively and simultaneously, using a different approach for each one. I’ve discovered how easy and fun it can be, and it helps to remind me that writing poetry in general can, sometimes, be easy and fun.

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

A: I’m pretty much always reading five books at once: (1) a poetry book; (2) a novel; (3) non-fiction, often memoir; (4) a craft book; and (5) an audiobook on Kindle that might be any one of those genres. But in terms of what re-energizes my writing and what I return to, books of philosophy and psychology are my go-to. I majored in philosophy in my undergrad, which is when I wrote my first collection, and philosophy and poetry are two peas in this particular pod (“knocks skull”). For my current project, some of the books that helped percolate these poems are The Paradoxes of Delusion and Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art by Louis Sass, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio, and The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, all of them highlighted and dogeared.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

TtD supplement #215 : seven questions for Jérôme Melançon

Jérôme Melançon is grateful to be here. He writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. These poems are perhaps part of that larger project. With above/ground he also published the bilingual Coup (2020) and the newly-released Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright (2022). His most recent poetry collection is En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021). He is also the author of two books of poetry with Éditions des Plaines, De perdre tes pas (2011) and Quelques pas quelque part (2016), as well as one book of philosophy, La politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018) and a bunch of stuff in journals and books nobody reads. He’s on Twitter and Instagram at @lethejerome and sometimes there’s poetry happening on the latter. He looks forward to hearing from you.

His poems “On driving to the airport with my father” and “On driving to a place my father once called home with my father” appear in the thirty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “On driving to the airport with my father” and “On driving to a place my father once called home with my father.”

A: When I go back to Ottawa I depend on my father for transportation. Or on public transit, but we all know just how well OC Transpo and the STO work. A few times I've gone back by myself, and spent time with him, much like we used to when I was a child. His radio station, the routes he favours. On road trips, the places where he likes to stop. I don't mind giving up decision-making in that way, and there's something comforting in being driven to these places. That’s the main feeling I wanted to convey in these two poems. But they carry different weights. One is an early morning scene, and is focused on departure – my father driving me to the airport, I can't recall after what occasion now –, and so on change, transition, an epochal shift maybe. The other, about home, has me in the back seat, a cousin of my father’s in the passenger seat in front of me, on that long stretch of Canadian Shield leading up to Mattawa from Ottawa. I didn’t know this cousin, I barely even knew of him. I’ve spent a lot of time in that seat, although in other vehicles, at a diagonal from my father, on that same road going up to Témiscamingue. But there's a sense of deep sadness and loss I wanted to immobilize, not for myself. No, a sense of loss, but for my father, given that we were driving to attend his sister's funeral.

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

A: They're quite akin in tone and theme to a series of poems I'll be publishing as a chapbook with above/ground press, Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright. These two poems are older, although I can’t remember writing them – it must have been quite some time ago, although the only trace I could find was in the file I created in the fall of 2020 when I typed them up. I’ve been reworking them over time, I can’t be sure now how much is left of what I must have written when I last flew out to Ottawa. I do remember that the mood is perhaps their most important aspect, what I tried to get across most clearly. And there’s quite a bit of reflection about family ties, about places I associate with family. Retrospectively all these poems appear as reflection on my own fatherhood, my own family, through my family of origin (and extended family in the chapbook). They deal with the presence of the past, its reappearance – and the chapbook is built around ten years of abandoned poems in English, my going through my notebooks, picking out the best lines and images and writing new poems to salvage them through a new whole. I’ve done something similar for another project in French where I translated and transformed a whole series of poems about the Prairies originally written in English over the same period. I’ve run out of steam on that project, so I’m letting it sit in a binder for now.

In the attempt to grasp a collapsing of past and present at easily identifiable, eventful moments where distancing and dissociation are understandable reactions to my grief and that of others, these two poems are entirely different from what I’m working on at the moment. I think the whole exercise, publishing these two, and putting the chapbook together, helped me put many things to rest, ideas I knew I’d have to get back to, a form I wanted to send out into the world. I could then move on to taking myself seriously as an English-speaking poet, trust myself to really attempt something different and new, unlike anything else I had written. There's a thread to my new work, but only in the sense that a broken necklace dangling and spreading stones or whatever has a thread. There's little form and there's little freedom. It's guided by my response to such enormous works, tied to convictions, in no way autobiographical. So – again quite retrospectively – these two poems mark the beginning of the last part of a cycle in my writing.

Q: Have you noticed a difference in how you approach your work since starting to put together chapbook-length manuscripts? Are you someone who composes poems, or groupings of poems? And is there a difference?

A: As far as I know, chapbooks aren’t very common in French-language poetry circles. There are also far fewer poetry journals. There are zines, but for the most part poetry is a book affair. I have a thing for the Book. So I began by writing books. My first two published collections were in fact written as one longer manuscript, which I split into two separate, mirror image entities. Since then most of my more traditional writing has worked the same: I write a few poems, and the stronger ones end up creating a path for more poems, an approach to themes and topics imposes itself, and I fall in that direction. For En d’sous d’la langue I had about eight or nine solid poems that ended up defining a relatively narrow field of possibilities. This way I can go quite far in one direction, really explore an idea.

I discovered chapbooks quite late in the game, even though I’ve been reading poetry in English regularly since I've been out West. And it didn’t occur to me to write or compose a chapbook. I only came up with the idea of my first chapbook, Coup, once I got negative feedback on a collection. There just wasn’t enough material for a full collection, but I did want to put it out there because I liked the form of the poems so much, so I whittled the book down and rewrote quite a bit, and sent it off. After that, messing around with responses to other people’s poems, I wrote one poem, then another, and before long I thought I might have enough for a chapbook... except that once I put the work together I was already halfway to a book, so I kept going. Thinking about a chapbook early on made it possible for me to goof around and end up with something serious, and seriously different, whereas I wouldn't have bothered to look down this way for one poem or for a whole book. Now I think that’s just one long poem anyway, I may have decided on the title speechletting, we’ll see if I stick to that.

I still write one-off poems, but it’s rare that I don't have a sense of connection between the poems. So it’s difficult for me to pick some to send by themselves to be published in reviews because I feel many only really work well as part of a whole. That's something I’ve tried to work on, to give individual poems their autonomy. Tomorrow... is like that. Each poem very much has its own life. So that’s new, and again it’s aiming for a chapbook that allowed me to try something out without worrying so much about the overall effect.

Q: I remember having conversations with Louis Patrick Leroux in the early 1990s, when he mentioned that French-language writing in Canada had fewer possibilities for journal publication, suggesting that they weren’t leaning their poems into journal-publishable lengths; how poets in French Canada (at least in his awareness) were publishing younger, and full collections comprised as long poems, whereas their English-language contemporaries were publishing collections of shorter poems after working a few years through the system of literary journals. Given you work in and through both languages, do you see a shift in approach between your English and French writing? How does one language impact upon the other?

A: That’s still very much the case! The balance is easy to feel: with Estuaire and Exit being the only two major journals dedicated to poetry and only a handful of other journals publishing poetry alongside other genres, the proliferation of small presses and medium-size publishers that put out full collections definitely occupy the centre of the poetry scene in Québec. Outside Quebec, it’s even harder to publish individual poems. À ciel ouvert [https://acielouvert.ca/] out West and Ancrages [https://ancrages.ca/] in Acadie both publish poetry, but even the very small French-language presses like Éditions de la Nouvelle plume in Saskatchewan will publish a book of poetry now and then, and we have Éditions du Blé, Éditions Perce-Neige, and of course Prise de Parole, which have very strong and long-standing poetry collections. There might be more venues – I published my first poems in Ottawa U’s student literary journal, Textures – but I haven’t made that inventory. So it’s expected that emerging poets – and often young poets – will publish a full collection before anyone even hears about them at all as poets. I published my first collection before I ever did a poetry reading! And that first reading was with Dany Laferrière!

Also there isn’t the prize institution. That’s how I first began writing in English: I submitted to all these prizes. The upshot is that I got subscriptions to so. many. journals. The downside is that I got quite discouraged, of course, because there, and shortly after, in submitting individual poems, I wasn’t aiming for venues based on style – I had no grasp of the scene at all. The idea of selling a poem, of poetry markets, or even getting paid for a publication is still odd to me. And there are no blurbs on books in French. All that means that writing is a lot more individualistic, until you get it out there. Instead, networks form around live events and around specific publishers, that’s where you get recognition as part of something greater.

I do want to get to your actual questions though, they’re very good, only they’re very difficult to answer. So maybe I’ll just offer a few thoughts without trying to be linear. This is such a huge question, I’ll probably go on for a bit.

I've had to allow myself the right to write in English. There’s enormous pressure to speak French, to breathe French, to be French all the time, to address people in French wherever you go. It’s creating legitimacy for French; it’s claiming the territory as bilingual here or as French in Québec. This linguistic nationalism is a form of resistance against the omnipresence of the English language, but it will allow for separation, resentment, and hatred, or simply disappointment when people who could speak French speak English instead. Thankfully there are people who have always rejected this – Rose Després is a great example – and it’s less of an issue now than it used to be, at least outside Québec. Writing in a second language is also extremely difficult, as anyone who’s tried has experienced firsthand. Because I had already published a book, when I first decided to try writing in English I went ahead and submitted right away, which simply did not work. What I’ve realized since then is that I needed to grow as an English-language poet first, just as I had written so many poems in French, for some time, before anything good came out of it. But there are still things I can’t do, like do anything with accentuation in English – I don’t quite get it, even now.

I’ve brought a lot of elements of French poetry to my writing in English – the French sonnet form, my love for the alexandrine, but also less formally the tone found in Québécois poetry over the last 15 years or so, an irreverent, slang-y, rough diction. And likewise my first two books were full of devices I borrowed from Ginsburg, Kerouac, and Cummings, especially as far as rhythm and placement on the page go. I suppose I have more tools for being familiar with so many more traditions of writing. If I were a more deliberate writer I could do a lot with that.

I think in both languages, so that’s the main reason why I end up writing in one language or the other – unless I’m deliberately continuing on a project I’ve already set out to complete in one language. I like to mess around with bilingual writing, which led to my chapbook Coup, some visual poetry I'm playing with at the moment, French words I’m slipping into my English writing. There’s a kind of easy code-switching in my everyday life I’d like to be able to bring into my writing, and for that I’d need to stop caring whether readers understand the whole poem. Then again, Coup did get published!

In spite of that, I think there are things I can say better in one language or in another. My writing in English tends to be introspective, it’s taken me toward reflections on my family, things I haven’t dared to approach in French, things that are maybe too close to me.

And there’s a question of who I’m writing for. I’ve made my way into English-language poetry networks since the pandemic began, it’s been really wonderful, and it’s allowed me to say new things because I got a sense of who might be reading me. The same goes for becoming acquainted with the Francophone arts scene outside Québec. That's probably where my approach to writing changes the most. I still write for myself, but I also have a general understanding of my potential public.

Q: Given the traditions are so different in each language and culture, how do you see the two sides of your writing co-existing? Talking to Christine McNair recently about American poet Rosmarie Waldrop, I’ve had a far better sense of how deeply Waldrop’s syntax through her English-language poetry is rooted in the diction of her first language, German. Is there crossover between the two sides, or does each side of your language-thinking remain in its own individual camp?

A: I hope my writing in both languages brings together the traditions I draw from. There are proximities: I discovered bpNichol only recently, but I’ve been reading Oulipo work since I first became interested in poetry. The idea of playing seriously and writing expansively is very dear to me; this is something they share, along with the tendency to alternate between traditional and long poems. Likewise I’ve always drawn from revolutionary texts, which themselves often have similar points of reference beyond the language they’re written in. But then again, there are important differences between these parallel traditions and languages.  

I don't know much about Waldrop, other than what I just read: a couple of poems from Split Infinities I found online, and your own 20 question interview. Looking at it, there’s a personal language, it’s striking. Perhaps it has to do with working with a language we weren’t born into. I’d like to look further into poets who wrote in an additional language. I was looking at Spanish-speaking American poets for a while, I still have a stack of photocopies somewhere and a few books, I keep meaning to go back to that project. The idea originally was to look into bilingual writing, but your questions are pushing me to think more about the tension between the languages, and whether as someone who learned a second language as a teenager I can ever find myself within English, rather than approach it through French. I don’t think my writing in English goes through French; it certainly comes directly into English, and I rarely have a word in French for which I seek an equivalent. Maybe my writing settles into one language based on the words that impose themselves upon me, the words that come to me. I usually begin a poem with a line, or a few words that are pulling at each other. My notebooks and note apps are full of lines and sentences or groups of words like that. I just have to follow them, the language is already given to me in a way. If I’m ever read with any closeness by bilingual readers, maybe they’ll be able to answer your question better than I can. But if my prepositions are ever odd, that's just me not mastering this language.

I live in both languages, I go to work in both languages, and I’m constantly code-switching even with certain people around me. And I write, and talk, so much, in both languages, that I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how I do it. I can’t even really think of English and French as only two languages. Raymond Queneau, the French novelist and poet, talks about how written and spoken French are already two different languages. It’s not just that no one would ever speak like people write; it’s that there is a translation of spoken French into written French that people need to learn to do. There’s learning to read and write words and sentences, which school teaches, and then there’s learning written French, which school does more or less well, and mostly for reading knowledge than for writing knowledge. The French I used when I wrote my latest book is not the French I used for the two earlier books of poetry, nor the one I use when I speak to my children, nor the one I use in the classroom, nor the one I use when taking meeting notes, nor the one I use when I write philosophy, nor the one I use when I write op-eds or columns, nor the one I use when I write more sociological work... It’s tone, it’s diction, it’s syntax, it’s vocabulary, it’s grammar... when that much changes, do you even have the same language?

Q: Have you explored much in the way of writings by poets who compose through multiple languages, especially within the same texts? I’m thinking of contemporaries such as Nathanaël, Erín Moure or Oana Avasilichioaei. As you are writing, how do you decide which language best suits your thinking at that particular moment?

A: I’m aware of their work, yes, but I must confess I haven’t looked closely at it. I’ve read some of their essays and translations, and the odd poem. Enough to place them on a list for me to obsess over in the near future. And I’ve been paying close attention to Klara Du Plessis, who is doing some of the most enthralling work I’m aware of at the moment. Plurilingual composition is something I’m keenly aware of, yes, something I’ve sought out too.

When I was working through the project that became Coup I was invited to do a reading at an event during a literature conference in Saint John, so I put together a paper too, looking at bilingual writing as a kind of formal or constrained writing. I’m not sure I still agree with the basic idea, but the exploration was a great thing for me. That paper included a look at Rose Després’ Vraisemblable, one of my favourite books of poetry. It’s so angry, it sets fire somewhere in me every time I read it. It’s one of the few books I go back to regularly. She slips English in here and there, repeating the rhythm of code-switching among Francophones outside Quebec, who can safely assume that everyone around them also speaks English.

The main piece for that paper is Patrice Desbiens’ L’homme invisible/The invisible man, which is a classic of Franco-Ontarian writing. It’s made up of prose poems in two versions, French and English, on opposite pages; for the most part there’s a rather strict translation, but here and there the two languages say different things. We hide in languages at times, we let things come out only in one or say things only to those who are part of the same linguistic group, hide things from the others. We don’t live quite in the same way in each language. At least that’s what Desbiens suggests; I can’t say that’s how the two languages work for me.

Much of the time I don’t choose the language I write in. It depends on whether I begin with words, a line, a rhythm that strikes me – in that case the language is already decided upon – or with feeling, an idea, a scene. Because I think in terms of projects I often end up writing in the language of the project the idea would best fit into. As I mentioned there’s a whole series of poems I wrote in English ten years ago that I rewrote in French before the pandemic, because they needed to be transformed and never really worked, but also so that they fit with a newer project that only made sense for a French-reading public. For the most part it’s a question of publics then, of whom I’m speaking to, but sometimes it has to do with the possibilities one language affords. I’m not a natural at languages, so I’m really envious of people who have either the resolve or a facility with languages. The ideal poem would be a movement across languages and forms.

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

A: Rose Després and Phyllis Webb are two poets whose work constantly feeds me anger and indignation as well as love and hope. Until recently – I picked up Peacock Blue for a project I might start working on – I only owned one of their books, and even that’s been enough to gather strength and bring me focus. Dionne Brand is another poet whose work is inexhaustible – inépuisable in French, a well from which I’m never done drawing. Every sentence is an occasion to feel more deeply and add layers to my experiences. What all three have in common is their capacity to help me get into a very active meditative state, where emotions are clear and where I’m full of care for others, either around me or at the greatest distance.

The one writer I go back to the most, the one writer I’ll read over and over or just pick up, knowing I won’t be disappointed, is Raymond Queneau. I get a different kind of energy from his writing: there’s so much work, you can’t necessarily see it right there, which makes it magical, but the thought, the planning, the development, the references to history and literature, the inventivity in the forms, the wordplay, all this work is so expansive. And often it ends on a light note, as if the ending is going to be a disappointment anyway, the ultimate constraint, the one constraint that can’t be broken and that can’t be made up or taken up, and so he might as well just have fun. I’ve taken up some of the forms he’s used, like the elementary morality which shows up alongside (French) sonnets in my first two books. Reading him makes me want to write, and lets me think I can do it. It was reading him, and much of Oulipo, that made me believe it at first, and that often carries me when I just can’t seem to get words in any kind of decent order. I get to decide the order, and I get to decide how I decide on the order. It’s fun.

Monday, May 9, 2022

TtD supplement #214 : seven questions for Benjamin Niespodziany

Benjamin Niespodziany’s work has appeared in Fence, Fairy Tale Review, Sporklet, Maudlin House, and others. Along with being featured in the Wigleaf Top 50, his writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction. His debut chapbook, The Northerners, was released at the end of 2021 through above/ground press.

His poems “Froth and Whip,” “The The” and “Bob Heman” appear in the thirty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Froth and Whip,” “The The” and “Bob Heman.”

A: Both “Froth and Whip” and “The The” are prose poems that focus on the line, the visual, the rhythm. Less about narrative and sense and more about sound and experience. “The The”, in particular, is inspired by the writing of Eric Baus, whose collection The Tranquilized Tongue features poems where every sentence begins with “The”.

“Bob Heman” (after Bob Heman) pays tribute to one of the unsung greats of prose poetry. If you Google “Bob Heman Poetry”, the first search result will be a publication where he showcases 17 poems, all of which are called INFORMATION. It inspired me to write 17 poems called Bob Heman. This is one of them.

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

A: These poems are more nonsensical and abstract than what I’m currently writing. I’m working on two manuscripts that deal with my childhood as well as some domestic fictions, and while the poems within are still absurd and surreal, they’re a bit more grounded in narrative. These poems (which were written in early 2021) are more hallucinatory and atmospheric and free-flowing. More collage and less plot.

Q: How complicated is it working on two manuscripts simultaneously?

A: I prefer it! If I hit a speed bump or a road block, it allows me to step away from one while still being able to work on my writing. I have numerous, numerous manuscripts at various stages in their respective journeys, but these two in particular that I mentioned above are about 95% done.

Q: How did you get to the point that you’re working multiple manuscripts simultaneously? And, further to that, do you then see your work as a large, singular project, or a series of related or interrelated threads?

A: BOTH! One large project and many connected threads. I tend to freewrite then edit then later compartmentalize. For example, I have a manuscript of poems that all take place in a library (where I work), I have a manuscript that all deal with faith (and questions of faith, and God turning into a bog witch, etc.), I have a manuscript where every poem is contained within one neighborhood block. I really try to find a through-line when it comes to forming a manuscript (instead of a collection of 'best of' or favorites) or else I won't know where to begin.

Q: Have you any models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? Have you any particular writers or works in the back of your head as you write?

A: The hundreds of books that line my shelves and cover my ottoman constantly circle through my brain.

For the lyric/rhythmic image-based poems featured here, I was drawn to Eric Baus, Bob Heman, Donna Stonecipher (her collection The Cosmopolitan is a favorite). Another to mention is C. Dylan Bassett, whose collection The Invention of Monsters really opened my world and shattered my glass ceiling in regards to what I might be capable of within a prose poem. Pitched as ‘plays for the theater’, these wild prose poems were also sold as a deck of playing cards, with every ‘scene’ appearing on an individual card. I used to keep the cards in my backpack for years, until airport security had to inspect the deck because the thick plastic casing triggered an alarm. They let me have the cards back, but told me to not fly with them again. Mystical, magical poems.

Q: Much of what I’ve seen of your work focuses on the form of the prose poem. How did you land on the prose poem? What do you feel the form allows or provides that might not be possible otherwise?

A: I’ve always loved short stories and microfictions, and discovering the prose poem (first through Richard Brautigan, and then Mathias Svalina) sent me down a rabbit hole of new literature and form. I love how the prose poem can blur the line between a coherent tale and a lyrical headspin. The prose poem allows me to be a storyteller without any set of rules. I don’t need an ending, or an arc, or a moral. The prose poem is a lawless box I love to call home.

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

A: Outside of the books previously mentioned, here are some that are always nearby:

Edward Mullany’s Figures for an Apocalypse. Full worlds packed into one/two sentence poems. Surreal and beautiful, and part of a trilogy that's great from start to finish.

Shivani Mehta’s Useful Information for the Soon-To-Be Beheaded. Some of the best prose poems I’ve ever read. Reshapes how I approach the blank page.

Matvei Yankelevich’s Boris by the Sea. One that always inspires me. The full version from Octopus Books, but also the handmade one-of-one version available digitally on Ugly Duckling Presse’s website.

Lastly! I want to mention Rikki Ducornet’s The Complete Butcher’s Tales. Folkloric myths, twisted fairytales, quick fables. They’re crystalline in their presentation.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

TtD supplement #213 : eight questions for Cecilia Stuart

Cecilia Stuart is the author of HOUNDS (above/ground press 2020) and Mudroom (Anchorage Press 2018, with Adrian Kiva). Her poems have appeared in Plenitude, Bad Dog, PRISM international and elsewhere. She lives in Tkaronto/Toronto with her partner.

Her poem “UPPERCUT” appears in the thirty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “UPPERCUT.”

A: When COVID first hit in 2020, I was living in Halifax and my partner was back home in Toronto. In the early months when we couldn’t travel, I felt so overwhelmed and sad not knowing when we’d be able to see each other again. We’d talk on Facetime every day, but I feel skeptical about most forms of digital communication. I think it’s really hard to have meaningful encounters in spaces that are built to commodify our attention—and having to be so reliant on these forms of communication was also getting me down. This poem reflects on some of the anxieties I was feeling about emotional closeness across distance and the difficulty of conveying meaning through digital space. At that time I also lived near the Halifax Harbour, and when everything was shut down I took a lot of comfort in going on long walks to look at the water and the fog. For probably the first time I felt like I was really embedded in and paying close attention to my natural surroundings. So in UPPERCUT I’m reflecting on that relationship and its communicative structures as well, and trying to think about those two experiences alongside one another.

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

A: Well, right now I’m taking a long break from writing, but in general I’d say that most of my poetry is similar to this piece in that the ideas/images aren’t clearly connected to one another, and the result is (hopefully) fairly fragmentary. Usually I’ll start with a couple of images that have some tangential connection to whatever I’m going through at the time of writing—or even something from a song or book or whatever I’ve been enjoying lately. Then I just sort of patch them together, come up with connectors and play with the aural qualities of the result. Most of the time the resulting poem doesn’t have an obvious tie to my starting point, but I like the way this process helps me to experiment and just get absorbed in the words. I’m not very tied to meaning, and I think that comes through in this poem and many other poems I’ve written.

Q: What prompted this break from writing?

A: The last couple of years have really worn down my body and brain. I have limited energy and I try to use most of it on taking good care of my mental and physical health. And when I am doing creative work I’m usually practicing working with textiles, which is new to me.

Q: How does your work with textiles relate, if at all, to your writing?

A: That’s something I hope to explore more in the future. They're both influenced by my connections to my family and my love of material objects. I have always seen my writing as a tactile process, so I think that there is a lot of opportunity to experiment with their linkages.

Q: You mention you are currently on a break from writing. Have you written much since the publication of HOUNDS? Have you noticed a shift in your writing since the publication of either of your chapbooks?

A: My first chapbook was very different from the rest of my writing because I was working with a collaborator on a very specific prompt—the process we agreed on forced me to focus in on specific ideas, feelings, images etc and took me down a different path than I’d usually take myself. My second chapbook HOUNDS was looser and more characteristic of my writing style. I wanted it to be very rambling. Since I wrote those poems I’ve become more interested in visual poetry and working with combinations of image and text. I’ve been experimenting a little but have not shared much yet. It feels like a natural continuation of the prose work I've been doing for the past few years, so I’m excited to see where that takes me.

Q: Have you any particular models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? Have you any particular authors or works in the back of your head as you write?

A: I don’t have any specific models in mind. When I was in school I read quite a bit of avant garde and visual writing, which definitely informs my conception of what poetry can be and do, but I’m trying to approach this process without any expectations so I can just see what comes out. I’m mainly inspired by things I come across in my day-to-day life—songs, tv shows, shows at galleries in my neighbourhood, etc etc. I also get a lot of inspiration from rave posters. I also read Michael DeForge’s graphic novel Heaven No Hell last year and that was really generative for me!

Q: What is it that engaging aspects of visual poetry allows or provides for your work that might not be possible otherwise?

A: I don’t know that it might not be possible otherwise, but I’d say that right now I’m feeling very image- and motion-oriented and I’m finding that experiments with visual poetry help me feel more grounded and on the earth as I move through life. I’ve been taking a lot of comfort in making and working with physical objects (eg. fabrics, candles, meals) lately and the visual writing feels at home with that desire. Primarily textual work feels a bit too cerebral for me right now—I would rather look at bright colours and cool lines. I still love to read beautiful poetry though!

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

A: Hmm, there are so many, but the ones that come to mind are Anne Carson’s red doc, Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk, Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip and The Weather, Gail Scott’s Heroine and John Thompson’s ghazals.