Friday, July 3, 2020

TtD supplement #164 : seven questions for Guy Birchard

Guy Birchard, septuagenarian loafer at the sedentary trade—a lay poet. VALEDICTIONS (Ottawa: above/ground press, 2019); MONTCORBIER (above/ground press, 2020).

His poems “Jesus, His Jerusalem,” “Dowsing for Water or Divining a Grave / or Vein or Trove            or None” and “Feet & Hands Eyes Voice / Creatures and Angels” appear in the twenty-fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Jesus, His Jerusalem,” “Dowsing for Water or Divining a Grave / or Vein or Trove            or None” and “Feet & Hands Eyes Voice / Creatures and Angels.”

A: Looks like Jesus, His Jerusalem is from the point of view of the Publican, one hero of mine. Not that I’m any Biblical scholar. It’s too much to suppose it’s from the POV of the donkey herself—but you never know...

Dowsing demonstrates Burton’s thesis that disappointment is the salt of life.

Let’s bear in mind it’s hard enough to write the damn poems without having to explicate ‘em as well—“The only possible explanation of a poem is another poem.” I think Guy Davenport said that. Or was it Billie Holiday? “Hush, now.”

Feet & Hands was written after flâneuring around the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

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

A: Poetry streams, though poems be discrete. Line is a wonderful characteristic not to be wasted, increment of nerve, integer of grace... But these days, actually, paragraphs (though they might not act quite paragraphical) are offering themselves as preferred receptacle for the, um, ectoplasm.

Q: Your response suggests that that your poems are generated through an engagement with shape and sound; is that a fair assessment? How do your poems begin, and what drives them?

A: Art and Craft. Where poetry comes from has always been a mystery to me. Like catching a scent—or becoming smitten; having been taken by surprise, stay alert. I’ve never been prolific. Once your tuning fork hums, that’ll be the supply of art that can’t be faked; then it’s high time to apply the craft—and certainly an earful and a visual treat are two tastes of mine it’s the greatest kick to practice. I never had a teacher—so it’s taking me all my life to figure a modicum. There are complexities. The first and last stroke of luck from which to build was and is a deep sense of poetry, a Sixth, or the heightened sense, or some weird concentration of sense. Then the goal is from that to mold or hew a good read, good to suss, good to look at, good to hear.

Q: You might not, as you say, have had a teacher per se, but I would suspect you’ve had influences. What writers or works have helped you to shape the ways in which you think about writing?

A: To read is everything! Everything happens in writing. And in silence. The first poet: Ernest Dowson. A short hop from fin-de-siècle English Decadents to lazy-ass Beats. A right turn to Anti-Beat Jack Spicer, flaws & all. A mighty corrective via David Jones. High Modernism (upon which I don't really feel there's been any advance). Throwback to Edward Dahlberg. A thing I wish I'd written: Anabase, St.-John Perse, T.S. Eliot lived to translate—Anabasis. Could I write anything half so compelling! Never had a teacher, no, but I salute three Elders: George Johnston, Gael Turnbull, Howard McCord. To name-check particularly influential friends-in-poetry: inaccurate by omission, any such list—necessarily unbalanced. Curtail it. Only caveat: Don't take no wooden nickels.

Q: Despite living and writing, as you’ve claimed, “under the radar,” you’ve published numerous books over the years in multiple countries, from the debut collection Baby Grand (Ilderton ON: Brick Books / Nairn, 1979) to Neckeverse (Newcastle upon Tyne: Galloping Dog Press,1989), Birchard’s Garage (Durham UK: Pig Press, 1991), Twenty Grand (Boston MA: Pressed Wafer, 2003) and Further than the Blood (Pressed Wafer, 2010), to more recent titles such as Hecatomb (Brooklyn NY: Pressed Wafer, 2017) and Aggregate: retrospective (Bristol UK: Shearsman Books, 2018) and Only Seemly (St. John’s NL: Pedlar Press, 2018). How do you feel, over the past forty-odd years, your work has developed, and where do you see your work headed?

A: That phrase, “under the radar,” really only applied to seasons Anne & I stayed in the Shack down near the Montana border in southern Saskatchewan; it had a literal meaning there. Otherwise, I’ve been as much in the world as anyone. I was advised by a wise senior in my teens not to try to publish too soon. Didn’t listen. Nuff said. I was no Boy Wonder. No prizes. (George Johnston said Don’t be a chump. ((Not his words.)) Avoid prize givers. But I could’ve used me some.) In publishers, I just got very, very lucky. Only, our books stubbornly stayed “under the radar.” I don’t care to make it easy to collect my data, no, but we all know full well it’s a-gathering, megabytes at a time where we’d rather it wasn’t. My books, on the other hand, where the true poop actually is, you can trust me on that, would be easy and cheap to collect. There have been so many unsold author’s royalty copies that I’ve actually burned a shitload. Can’t hump boxes of ‘em around everywhere all your days. I hope the contents are a tetch better lately than they were 40 and more years ago. If nothing to crow about. I pledge a slight improvement ahead—but I’m seventy—“under the radar”—like, what are the odds.

Q: How do book-length manuscripts emerge? Is this something that emerges naturally, or have you some kind of loose plan in mind?

A: Shownman was supposed to be much longer. Cold Mine, much longer—though I was happy enough with that. Leo Mirau, much longer. Just serials, I suppose. Grandmother’s Middle Name fell out about right. But Travelling Mercies was supposed to be much more detailed. So wotthehell, they done mostly shrunk. The gods—or convention—dictated that Hecatomb and Only Seemly consist of a hundred bits (or oxen) each. And I thought I had them all okay. But I guess not. Cuz there’s oodles of undistributed copies feeding silverfish and firebrats down the basement. Montcorbier: we’ll see... Right, rob?

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your work? What writers or writing can’t you help but return to?

A: Blake, Borges, Dickinson, Donne, George Evans, Mark Ford, Merrill Gilfillan, Drummond Hadley, Jack Hannan, Susan Howe, Duncan McNaughton, Christopher Middleton, Pound, David Rattray, James Welch, Whitman. More. Other. Away we go...........

Monday, June 22, 2020

TtD supplement #163 : seven questions for Tom Snarsky

Tom Snarsky is a high school mathematics teacher. His chapbook of poems Threshold is available from Another New Calligraphy, and Recent Starred Trash is forthcoming from marlskarx. He lives in Chelsea, Massachusetts with his wife Kristi and their three cats: Niles, Daphne, and Asparagus.

His poems “Song,” “Cult of Mary” and “Something to Do With an Eyebrow” appear in the twenty-fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Song,” “Cult of Mary” and “Something to Do With an Eyebrow.”

A: It’s funny: those poems were written most of a year ago, but they come full circle in a lot of ways. I wrote a poem on New Year’s Eve that also features Alfie Allen (my wife always teases me about my crush on him), and that poem’s “sweetness” chimes with the “sweetness” at the end of the Brigit Pegeen Kelly poem I’m trying to memorize right now (called, of course, “Song”). As for “Cult of Mary”, I think I’ve only ever written about time, and probably only ever will. “Song”—one of my favorite poems I’ve written, I think—was written while I proctored the Massachusetts state test for high schoolers, on an extremely complicit clipboard. That same test is coming up in another couple of weeks for my kids. [Note: at this time of writing, although Massachusetts has canceled school through at least May 4th, they still haven’t canceled this test.]

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

A: My friend jo ianni and I have been talking for a long time about minimalism in poetry. I send lots of screenshots of poems to my friends and directly into the internet; these three poems are part of the ongoing body of things I’ve written that are indebted to the shape & depth of a phone screen, a constraint so ubiquitous it’s stopped feeling like one. They pertain to (but do not solve) the following problem: can we write small poems that still somehow have enough oomph to question, to shake the firmament? Does a minimal poem always have to be a quietist mantra, or can it be more than that—do more than that?

Q: What kind of models have you had for the kinds of minimalism you’re attempting? How does one work to make the poem smaller?

A: There are so many poets who have written great small poems, from the lauded minimalist tradition of like Robert Lax and Aram Saroyan to the demajusculization chez lucille clifton to all the gorgeous short poems written by contemporary poets of every stripe (I’ll always remember Ariana Reines reciting the short first poem of Mercury, “Aria”, to our poetry class when I was in college). These poets taught me how short poems can live whole in the eye, ear, and heart—think about your favorite short poem, and I bet if you have one you know it perfectly—and they’ve always made me want desperately to emulate that plenitude. As for how one works to make the poem smaller, my own poems tend not to go that way; I tend to write lots of shorter poems without much editing, only some of which feel like they hang together in an interesting way. I very rarely find myself trying to take a larger poem down to more minimal measurements, although some of my heroes (like Anne-Marie Albiach, who I recall filled pages/notebooks margin to margin before cutting them down) worked that way. I still lack the perfect knowledge Stravinsky attributed to Webern, so instead I just kinda have to throw little poems together to see what stays, what catches.

Q: I would suggest, also, you look at Canadian poets such as Nelson Ball, Cameron Anstee, Jack Davis and Mark Truscott, if you aren’t aware of their work already. I’m curious: what is it about such short forms that appeal? What do you feel is possible through the short poetic form that might not be possible otherwise?

A: A beautiful reminder, thank you! I love Jack’s book Faunics and all of Mark’s books are amazing; I look forward to getting to know Cameron’s and Nelson’s work too.

I think the appeal of the short poem as a form, for me at least, might lie in how it simultaneously plays nicely with and challenges my fissiparous attention. A screen—in particular a phone screen, as I mentioned before—is one of my primary ways of engaging with poetry now, so poems that fit within that frame (and maybe also play with it a little qua constraint) habitually draw my eye. This certainly doesn’t mean long poems should be discounted in any way—the scroll is as fundamental to us now as the screen—but the poems that I feel like I’m able to take in whole, that become complete glyphs on my heart, are these short poems. (I love that people are working with/in this tablature as a form, too—think Alice Notley’s recent straight-to-Twitter vispo work, or the incredibly innovative ava hofmann (@st_somatic on Twitter).)

Your question also makes me wonder about the long poem’s place right now, too—I’ve only written a few long poems in my life and just sent one out that’s over a hundred lines, and in our moment (at this time of writing most everyone I love is at home social distancing) I wonder if the long poem might be privileged in its own way, as a form of immersion.

Q: With a chapbook in-print and another forthcoming, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work heading?

A: I think if my work develops, it might be in a drunkard’s-walk sort of way, where there’s lots of random movement and some arriving back to places I’ve already been (that hundred-plus-line poem I mentioned earlier is centered on a song—“October”, by Jackson C. Frank—which/who has been an unshakable ghostly presence for me for a long long while). Poetry is and has been my favorite technology for finding ways to be in unknowing, and that means I rarely have plans or trajectories for where the poems will go. It’s wonderful to be able to work at the level of the individual poem, which is sometimes long enough to be a small book (as is the case for Recent Starred Trash) or other times coalesces with others into a little collection, or a bigger one. I have a full-length MS now, provisionally titled Light-Up Swan, that is very much a living document, but it’s in no rush to get out into the world because I still know so little about its shape.

Q: Do you see important differences in working in the individual poem vs. working on more of a larger project or stretch of poems? Is there a difference in the ways in which you might approach either, or what you might hope to accomplish?

A: This is an amazing question! I’d love to know how different poets I admire would answer it, because for me I sort of think the answer is no—sometimes the poem is compact and totally itself, and other times it eeks into seriality or into several different poems, depending on some element of it that I never fully understand. I think the space of the serial most embodies, for me, what it’s like for poetry to be in between the short and the long poem; I love what serialish poems like “Hennecker’s Ditch” or chapbooks/series like Ben Mirov’s A Few Ideas From My Blackbox or sequences like Noelle Kocot’s unending procession of sonnets are able to do, and I think they stay honest in terms of that old Poe dictum of keeping lyricism confined to smaller temporal chunks. This is probably why so many of my early poems—some irredeemable, some not without hope—came out as serial poems. Or from reading too much Jack Spicer.

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

A: At different times in my life I’ve had books that I’d carry around, half to read in the way you’re describing—to reenergize—and half as pure comfort objects. Right now it’s this hardcover of Ashbery’s Flow Chart, but it’s been so many things before: Bronk’s The World, the Worldless in Paol Keineg’s syntactically deft French translation, Noelle Kocot’s Soul in Space, Ben Mirov’s Hider Roser, Camille Rankine’s Incorrect Merciful Impulses, Molly Brodak’s A Little Middle of the Night (all, in one person’s flawed opinion, perfect books)...there’s also a few that live in my car for ease of access, like Ariana Reines’s Mercury and Ashbery’s Houseboat Days and a dogeared Li Po/Tu Fu anthology and the crazily thin Tranströmer Selected and my equally ridiculously overthick Faber & Faber Wallace Stevens paperback Collected and Derek Gromadzki’s Pilgrimage Suites and Monica Youn’s Blackacre. There are surely many more than I can think of right now, but it’d be hard to overstate how much I’ve gotten from clutching each of these books during tough times.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

TtD supplement #162 : seven questions for Naomi Cohn

Naomi Cohn is a poet and teaching artist who works with older adults and people living with disabilities. She’s also worked as a community organizer, encyclopedia copy editor, and grant writer. Her current project, Light in the Hand, explores reclaiming relationships with the natural world and visual art after midlife vision loss. Red Dragonfly Press published her chapbook, Between Nectar & Eternity. Her writing has also appeared in About Place, Fourth River, Hippocampus, Nimrod International, Poetry, and Water~Stone among other places. She’s also been recognized by grants from the John S. ad James L. Knight Foundation, Minnesota State Arts Board, as well as numerous residencies. A Chicago native, she now makes her home in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Connect at www.knownbyheartpoetry.com

Her poems “Being Sick in Summer,” “Memory and its Discontents” and “Ice” appear in the twenty-fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Being Sick in Summer,” “Memory and its Discontents” and “Ice.”


“Being Sick in Summer”
I think I got the first draft of this poem from an online class on flash forms I took with Rochelle Hurt a few years ago. Other than the hippo, it’s all pretty grounded in real life. One summer I was plagued by an endless chest cold punctuated by bouts of fever…I don’t know where the hippo came from, but that is, I guess, the beauty of a fever dream..

“Memory and Its Discontents”
I used to know this one by heart. I’m interested in poetry and other words we care about enough to carry around in our memories, in our bodies.  I run a very occasional series of poetry performances where people present work, their own and that of other poets, from memory. I particularly enjoyed presenting this one live, ending as it does with someone trying to forget, live on stage.

I became preoccupied with memory through watching my father lose much of his memory over a decade living through dementia. That experience was one of the things that spurred me into poetry as a way of making sense of experience. At first I wrote about loss—of memory, of the person I knew—but in this particular piece I was thinking about the ways that memories can be a burden.

This is one of a few pieces I’ve written about ice. Maybe I’m becoming more and more obsessed with ice as Greenland and the Antarctic melt away.  This one came from a snippet I heard on the radio about using ice as a pain test.

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

A: Thanks for that question. I’ve been wondering about that myself.

In terms of themes, these pieces feel like outliers to my current work. My most recently completed project, The Braille Encyclopedia, is about falling in love with braille and re-learning to read and write as an adult as a result of midlife vision loss. The Braille Encyclopedia started as an essay, then morphed into a series of linked prose poems that morphed into something more like a book-length poem-essay.

I think the connection of these three little pieces to my current work has more to do with shape and process. When I wrote these they were more like prose oddballs among the rest of my poetry, which at the time featured not only line breaks, but often meter and traditional forms like villanelle and blank verse (partly just because it was fun to have a puzzle to solve, partly because I was curious about how pattern—rhyme, meter—helped make poetry memorable—and memorizable).

Now a lot of what I write is prose poetry. Or starts there, anyway. I often write chunks of text that feel more or less like poetry. Some of them gel into prose poems, some morph into poetry with line breaks, other things veer into something more like story or essay. But these three pieces might be seeds of my current work in terms of form or practice, prefiguring the ways in which the prose poem block is the home, the starting point for much of what I write.

Q: What is it about the prose poem that appeals? What do you feel might be possible through the prose poem that might not be possible otherwise?

A: What I love about the prose poem is that it feels like a space that welcomes all of my language vices. When I try to write poems, people often note they are like stories or little essays. (Or that they are too wordy or expository.) When I write something I think of as an essay, people say.. “Oh I loved your poem.” (Or they are frustrated by the nonlinear illogic of the thing, want a more nailed down Strunk-ian clarity.) In the prose poem I am better able to accept my linguistic flaws and see what use I can make of them. The prose poem form helps me just settle to the work of helping the words thrive as best they can.

Q: You mention that this trio of poems feel akin to outliers to your current work, especially given your braille-specific project, but linked instead work through “shape and process.” What does that mean for the shape of where these poems might land in a manuscript? Or is that something you even worry about?

A: These poems have wandered in and out of a few draft manuscripts. Each time I end up feeling like they don’t really want to talk to the other pieces. So it’s lovely that they will see the light of day in Touch the Donkey.

I often envision a collection of just prose poems, linked more by shape than subject. But right now, other projects demand my attention more loudly.

I move around a lot on whether I care about collections or book-length projects. I don’t teach in an academic setting, so I don’t need a book as a unit of accomplishment. I love books as physical objects, but with my vision loss, they are not really how I consume poems.

But I do love the possibilities of manuscripts, how individual pieces become a community that does something more than each poem can do alone.

Q: I find it curious that you link “academic setting” with “a book as a unit of accomplishment” (what I’ve taken to term, instead, as “a book as a unit of composition”), the latter of which has been central to my own work for two decades or more, and I haven’t anything to do with academia. Your thoughts on linking poems via subject do open up the question of how it is you do shape manuscripts. How do you shape manuscripts, and how important are considerations, which I would think aren’t mutually exclusive, such as shape and subject?

A: Yes, to the book as a unit of composition! But I tend more toward the individual poem as the unit…In part that’s due to my definition of poetry, as a creation, a made thing, like a painting or a pot. For me poetry is art made with words or sounds, and like a pot, I hope each piece holds water on its own.

Another factor in my focus on individual poems relates to the ongoing degeneration of my eyesight, which made working at book-level, not impossible, but increasingly challenging.

(I was a novelist before I was a poet and one of the reasons I turned to poetry was that smaller scale of composition made it more doable with the sight and tools I had available to me…)

So if there’s not a compelling reason to work at manuscript level I avoid it. As I alluded to above, I don’t have the external motivation or necessity of producing books to get or keep a writing related career (Unlike many of my poetry colleagues who teach creative writing or composition as a way of making a living. For many of them publishing a book or books is helpful or necessary to getting and keeping jobs. For me in the community settings I work in, that’s not such a big deal, so unless there’s a burning reason a large number of my poems need to appear together, there’s a selective pressure in my life toward working at that individual level of a single poem.)

So you are spot on in your question about subject being a way into manuscript for me. Every so often I get grabbed by subject—and sometimes that subject seems to want a larger scope than an individual poem.

And I totally agree about shape and subject not being mutually exclusive. I think, in fact, when those things come together might be when the otherwise overwhelming task of working at manuscript level becomes something I want to take on…

The short answer to how I shape manuscripts is: trial and error. I read over what I’ve got and shuffle the deck of poems and read and re-read. Since I can’t read print on the page, I can’t do this the way I used to—printing things out and arranging and re-arranging physical pages. I get a lot of feedback and opinions from friends…most of which I ignore, but it helps me “see” the shape of the overall thing better than I can do on my own with auditory and braille reading.

Another thing in terms of books as the “unit of composition”: I love scaffolds. For example, back in my novel writing days, I wrote one of the middle drafts as a sort of sestina, arranging chapters according to six themes that followed each other the way end words pattern in a sestina. I didn’t end up using that form in later versions, but it helped me find a shape for the book.

The Braille Encyclopedia
manuscript, similarly, grew out of the scaffold idea of a series of dictionary or encyclopedia entries. The difference was that that scaffold or architecture remains visible in the finished work. In the case of The Braille Encyclopedia, the scaffold helped me arrange the pieces I’d already written and then, as I made lists of “entries” I wanted to write about, gave me a series of assignments to complete. One complication of this shape or scaffold I chose was that re-ordering pieces could be tricky; some of the entries ended up with slightly farfetched titles to keep the fiction of the alphabetical order of the work.

Q: With a poetry chapbook and numerous poems appearing in journals, how do you feel your work has developed? What do you see your work heading?

A: I’m not sure I can answer how my work has developed. I keep learning and learning about what a poem can be or do. Maybe if my newer work has developed in some way, it is somehow more comfortable in its own skin.

In terms of where my writing is heading, I continue to be curious about writing that works both as poetry and prose. That might be my big arc. On a smaller scale I suspect that means a certain kind of see-sawing between poetry and prose as I find my particular kind of hybrid or betweenness. Right now I seem to be leaning more deeply into prose. Since finishing Braille Encyclopedia, I’ve been focussing a lot on an essay collection. Admittedly, a lot of the “essays” might be indistinguishable from many prose poems. I also suspect that after spending more or less time in prose-land, I may cycle back more into poetry, back into line breaks and sound patterns…

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your work? What writers or writing can’t you help but return to?

A: For better or worse I come back to individual poems I’ve memorized or taught. A few of these:
Lucille Clifton “won’t you celebrate with me”
e. e.  cummings “[as freedom is a breakfast food]”
Lisel Mueller “Things”
Ross Gay “A Small Needful Fact”
Donte Collins “What the Dead Know by Heart”
Rita Dove “Heart to Heart”
Naomi Shihab Nye “Supple Cord” “Business” “Two Countries”
Phillip Schultz—“Pumpernickel”
Russell Edson “Adventures of a Turtle”
Charles Simic “Stone”
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou may’st in me behold”…
[One of my “students” a guy in his 80’s who complained constantly of his memory loss, knew that one by heart…)

Each time I present one of these poems to students, I learn something new about it.. and each one becomes a little library of conversations and writing that the poems generate in the groups I work with….

In terms of re-energizing my work….Sometimes I do that by reading far from poetry…for example, I’ve been doing some writing about birds and spend a lot of time on ornithology websites…I get a kind of energy of opposition reading the often dry  prose of scientific accounts.

Perhaps on a more inspirational note, I keep coming back to a few books published by Rose Metal Press—I just re-read The Field Guide to Prose Poetry… It’s got essays about prose poetry, but it’s also a great mini-anthology of prose poems… very energizing to see how many different things a prose poem can do.

Up next—-I am looking forward to reading Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

TtD supplement #161 : seven questions for Khashayar Mohammadi

Khashayar Mohammadi is an Iranian born, Toronto-based Poet, Writer, Translator and Photographer. He is the author of poetry chapbooks Moe’s Skin by ZED press 2018, and Dear Kestrel by knife | fork | book 2019. He is currently working on a full length collaborative poetry manuscript with Toronto poet Terese Pierre, as well as a full length poetry manuscript forthcoming with Gordon Hill Press in 2021.

His poems “Ari Aster’s ‘Hereditary’,” “Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Through A Glass Darkly’,” “Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Sacrifice’” and “John Carpenter’s ‘In the Mouth Of Madness’” appear in the twenty-fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Ari Aster’s ‘Hereditary’,” “Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Through A Glass Darkly’,” “Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Sacrifice’” and “John Carpenter’s ‘In the Mouth Of Madness’.”

A: as an avid cinephile I always tried to unite my love of writing with my love of Cinema. These poems are just a few short examples of how I decided to write poetry exploring the intricacies of international arthouse cinema.

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

A: I’ve been trying much harder to engage with other art forms. I have explored dance, music, fine and contemporary arts; but there is a certain sense of belonging that brings me back to cinema. I have been exploring ekphrasis much more but my personal favorite ekphrastic poems have all been about cinema.

Q: What is it that ekphrasis that appeals? What is it about writing poems through other forms? Is this a way of engaging those forms or working your way towards them?

A: Well, ekphrasis contains many possibilities. A poem about a movie can explore its philosophy, it can explore it as an art form, it can explore it as an experience or even explore the very act of watching the movie. I guess the main aspect of it that attracts me to it is the possibility of dissecting a favorite piece of art and perhaps highlighting its appeal for any readers.

Q: Given you’ve a couple of chapbooks under your belt, how was the process of putting together your first full-length manuscript?

A: It was a lot of fun and simultaneously a new kind of challenge. There are many challenges to structuring a full length manuscript that did not exist at the chapbook length. Structure and flow is always important, but the longer the manuscript gets, the more important it is to structure it correctly. Me and my editor are still experimenting with my full length and hope it'll turn out well. It’s always heartening to work with a great editor like Shane Neilson and I have a lot of faith in the manuscript.

Q: With two chapbooks-to-date, and your forthcoming full-length debut, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I use poetry for expression and developing lucidity in my waking life, so with every stepping stone I see myself heading for more clarity in expression.

Q: Do you have any models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? What writers or works are in your head when you write?

A: If it was 3-4 years ago, I would have said people like Beckett, Paul Celan or Nicole Brossard, all of whom I worship; but at the moment poets who inspire me are mostly friends whom I frequently share a stage with or read along. There is so much great talent in Canadian poetry at the moment and it gets better every year. I would say at the moment my greatest influence is my partner, poet Terese Pierre.

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

A: A few remarkable ones would be Nicole Brossard’s Ardour, Samuel Beckett’s ill seen ill said, Nathanael’s Je Nathanael, George Oppen’s 21 poems, CA Conrad’s The Book of Frank, Paul Celan’s Threadsuns, Rilke’s Book of Images, Klara Du Plessis’s Ekke, Ahmad Shamlu’s Humble explorers of Hemlock and Hoa Nguyen’s Red Juice.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

TtD supplement #160 : seven questions for Hasan Namir

Iraqi-Canadian author Hasan Namir graduated from Simon Fraser University with a BA in English and received the Ying Chen Creative Writing Student Award. He is the author of God in Pink (2015), which won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Fiction and was chosen as one of the Top 100 Books of 2015 by The Globe and Mail. His work has also been featured on Huffington Post, Shaw TV, Airbnb, and in the film God in Pink: A Documentary. He was recently named a writer to watch by CBC books.  Hasan lives in Vancouver with his husband. War/Torn (2019, Book*Hug) is his latest poetry book. His children's book, The Name I Call Myself, will be published by Arsenal Pulp Press in Fall of 2020.

Five poems from his “Umbilical Cord” appear in the twenty-fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Umbilical Cord.”

“Umbilical Cord” is my second poetry collection, a follow-up to War/Torn. In the latest collection, I focus mostly on my new adventures as a dad to Malek with my husband Tarn. There is a mix of letters to my child, with poems that show how we got here, my love story with Tarn and Malek, our child. While War/Torn focused mainly on the struggle of reconciling between religion and identity, “Umbilical Cord” doesn’t mention religion not once. The book highlights the new chapter in my life.

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

A: All of my poems are like parts of my body. So, Umbilical Cord is similar to War/Torn in that the poems are personal, representing certain emotions during certain times of my life. Also, I used the words “umbilical cord” in War/Torn in some of the poems. The umbilical cord imagery itself is repeated again in my second poetry collection. In the second book, I explore with that image further and also focus more on my love story with Tarn and my own parenthood journey and the ups and downs.

Q: Do you have any models for this kind of work? Are there any other parenthood poems or literary works you’ve been looking at or thinking about?

A: Well, last year, I read the wonderful poetry book Q&A by Adrienne Gruber, that’s about her pregnancy and her parenthood journey. I’d say the book inspired me.

Q: With two published books-to-date, a forthcoming children’s book and your recently accepted second poetry collection, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I definitely am so thankful for these opportunities to highlight my literary voice. After God in Pink was published, I would always read reviews on Goodreads because I’m always open to be a better writer. I appreciated all the feedback I received and I learned a lot. With every book I’ve been working on, I’m learning so much through my publishers, my editors, my peers and myself. I can’t express enough how much I appreciate all the book events I attend or I’m part of, all the interviews, collaborations, feedback I receive as author. I feel so lucky to be surrounded by creativity from all aspects which continuously inspire me to be the best I can be. I want to keep writing and work in different platforms to show that I’m a capable, versatile author. I’m also going to get back into one of my old passions of mine which is screenwriting. I went to Vancouver Film School and I completed the Writing program. I focused on my book writing for a while that I had forgotten all about it. So, I’m in talks with producers which will be future screenwriting projects. At the same time, I want to continue publishing stories that explore topics that are often silenced. I'm grateful for what I do and for everyone who has supported me throughout my writing career.

Q: Has your experience with screenwriting had any effect on the way you approach your poetry or your prose?

A: Most definitely, especially in the way I experimented with both prose and poetry. In God in Pink, there are two narrators and the story alternates back and forth, sometimes creating confusion. I wanted to show the assimilation of the voices and when they’re so different. So the novel felt like a screenplay. In War/Torn, the poem Mosque/Internal is in the form of a screenplay. I took a part from a screenplay I had written while attending Vancouver Film School. I turned the excerpt into a poem.

Q: What made you first shift away from the screenplay to fiction, and further, into poetry? What do you feel might be possible through fiction or poetry that might not be possible otherwise?

A: At the time after I graduated from Vancouver Film School, I was supposed to continue writing screenplays. However, I was still attending Simon Fraser University at the time and I was still working on an English BA. I took some time off of my BA when I focused on screenwriting. After I got back into SFU, during then, I was working on God in Pink and War/Torn. With prose and poetry, I am given the opportunities to experiment with form. Generally speaking with prose, it’s not a common to experiment. Poetry allows you to experiment a lot more of course. I experimented with form for both God in Pink and War/Torn and the act itself helped bring new meaning to the stories. Generally, I find it’s a lot easier to experiment with poetry than fiction—but both experiences have been rewarding.

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 reading, whether it’s a poetry book or a novel or graphic novel. I just finished reading Mona Eltahawy’s The Seven Necessary Sins for Women & Girls, a very powerful feminist manifesto that is detailed in showing how women and girls can destroy patriarchy. It’s brilliant on all levels. The passion that oozes out of the book is quite inspirational. I don’t usually re-read books. I only had to during my Academic career for essays and etc. If I’m reading a poetry book, I’ll re-read the poem to grasp new meaning.

Monday, April 27, 2020

TtD supplement #159 : seven questions for émilie kneifel

émilie kneifel is an artist, poet, critic, translator, and co-creator of PLAYD8s, a video interview series about unproductive exploration. find 'em at emiliekneifel.com, @emiliekneifel, and in Tiohtiáke, hopping and hoping.

Their poems “two siblings visit the third in toronto,” “one last august something,” “i read Marie Howe” and “b/rain fog” appear in the twenty-fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “two siblings visit the third in toronto,” “one last august something,” “i read Marie Howe” and “b/rain fog.”

A: hm. they are all summer poems, which i think is significant because during the summer i always feel like the days have already ended, even though they’re really at their longest. the poems’ joy knows its own stakes, i think. the grief in beauty. that sort of thing.

because i often disperse or disappear into my emotional environment, we (the poems and i) are also trying to pry me out, or at least spot me in the goop, give me some grain. we’re trying to figure out how i figure into what happens to me. how am i happening to?

“two siblings” is the kid-greed of burning your tongue on a good thing, “one last” is an attempt to be a reliable narrator, “b/rain fog” tries to catch a symptom that catches me, and i think in “i read Marie Howe” i might be lying to myself. but they’re all wispy for sure. all finite.

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

A: the easiest answer is that they’re distant pieces of a manuscript; the truest answer is that they’re accomplices in my larger life project of trying to make something of this reality, to cup some kind of provisional self. building the manuscript was such a precious, agency-giving endeavour on its own, like playing with healing blocks that only snap into each other when it feels right, that i’m not sure i even want to call it a manuscript, to imply that i want it anywhere but on my shoulder and in nathan and nivi’s inboxes. i think i’m worried that trying to move it would knock the tower over. but i’ve also been trying to ask my fear out. i do want to get to know her better.

by the time this interview is published, a big, big baby will have finally dislodged from my throat: PLAYD8s, a video interview series co-created with nadia davoli where i interview poets, a scientist, an imaginary friend, and my grandmother about how they play. this is related because i feel like it means that my poems can take their dresses off for a while.

Q: Do you have a difficulty in getting work out into the world?

A: probably my greatest difficulty is that i feel so claustrophobic inhabiting anything driven by ego, and “getting work out into the world” feels irreconcilably ego-sticky sometimes. i get the most ooh lala out of the writing itself, so i am always asking myself about the point of the outward step. is it worth it? am i exploiting myself? also a big thing: how can i accomplish something without making others feel inadequate? i guess my for-now reason for doing it despite my doubts is that i want to prove myself wrong. i have to believe there’s a way to do all of this generously. also, well, i think i would like to have the chance of being known. i don’t mean famous; i mean being known, really known. you know? because i think in some ways recognition also often means some form of self-identification. it’s mutual. i daydream about mutually knowing+being known, via art art art.

Q: I’ve always thought that “making” is simply a normal, human impulse. It is each individual’s way of responding, whether to the outside or the inside (or both). To “make” and attempt to put out into the world is simply to engage in a conversation that is already ongoing, between so very many others. Even if one claims that art is insular, and seen only by other artists, it is still a response, so even to ‘make’ is to do so with the possibility of a further response in kind, don’t you think?

A: so, to be clear, i don’t think i’m some solitary figure living in a cabin in a vacuum; i was built and am being built by both the art i consume and the way i have been loved, and everything i make is inherently entangled with that. but i don’t know that i’m always “responding” so explicitly. i don’t know that it feels like a conversation so much as me wandering off with my backpack & tools procured from living and reading.

maybe you’re right, and maybe i’m strange, but – no, you know what, i’m going to stop hedging. as a kid, i built my whole self around the extrinsic. i know art can be just-mine because it doesn’t feel the way the rest of my life did/does, all pulled out by other people and their nebulous expectations. art is one of the only things that, for me, can have and retain inherent value – a value that becomes muddled once i introduce other people into the equation.

that’s not to say all art is like that; i love to write emails, a form that explicitly expects further response, and i guess i should acknowledge the fact that if something exists observably then, yeah, the possibility of someone else seeing it and responding is always there.

i just don’t know that you can ever talk about art in absolutes (except in this sentence, i guess, har-har). what i said earlier about ego has nothing to do with all art or anyone else at all, really. i don’t think i’m better than someone who does want to be famous or does get the most satisfaction out of sharing their work. it’s hard enough to figure out what makes you feel good in this life without being shamed for it. just like i’m not actually saying art is “purest” in isolation. i just think that for me, right now today, art is a relief because it can be like living alone. i can invite people over; there’s a door (the possibility you’re talking about), but i can also close it, and i get to choose what i put on the wall, and i get to decide when to answer a knock.

Q: How, for you, does a piece of writing begin?

A: i will never stop wanting to answer this question. elsewhere i’ve talked about it as a kind of inciting horniness, thanks to a melissa lozada-oliva tweet, but today i was thinking about the rilke quote “the good writer touches life often,” and how sometimes life also touches us. it felt like such a clean way to explain why trauma can be a starting point for art, because it’s life wrecking its way through your spiritual architecture. so today that’s my answer, that a poem begins when i touch life or when life crashes into me. a kind of generative contact, even if it begins in destruction.

like you, i’m also a critic/arts writer by trade but mostly by nature, meaning that art makes me iiiiiitch. that’s always been about the artist’s perceptual sensibility, how they’re experiencing the contact, what they happen to be noticing. case in point: at the montreal launch of her memoir, carmen maria machado said, “you can look anywhere when you watch a movie,” which shifted my skull.

i’m excited about this answer, because i love the image of a palm pressing into like, a giant iridescent membrane. mostly i’m giddy because i know my answer will change tomorrow, which is its own kind of beginning. my friend, the poet sanna wani, talks about the poetic impulse as a kind of mythical creature that she chases through the woods. there are so many ways to begin!!

my final answer, in a word, locking it in, is: a crush, in every sense.

Q: Have you any models for the kinds of work you’ve been doing, and been attempting?

A: yes, but they’re secret (naming names is like opening the oven while the bread bakes). but also, i feel simultaneously model-less; it’s more that my secrets stretch what’s possible.

to be less precious and give an actual answer to your question, rob: one thing i am swimming behind is the way other people love through their work. manahil bandukwala and sanna wani’s world-trembling collaborative work (autocorrected to “world”); billy-ray belcourt’s in-text citations, these little pecks of gratitude to maybe never be found by the citee. the epistolary form in all its iterations: sent and unsent, always a secret keeper. “i am made from you and i made this! this is made from you! this is made for you!”

Q: You mention that these poems are “summer poems.” Is there a difference in the shape or the tone of your poems through different seasons?

A: oh, absolutely. i think of hydrangeas, which are the coolest and bloom blue/pink/violet depending on the pH of the soil (autocorrected to “soul”). season, smell, time of day — it all leaves an imprint. i experience myself as pretty undifferentiated from my environment, so i think i find embodiment by plucking shreds from the world that have turned a specific colour.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Touch the Donkey : twenty-fifth issue,

The twenty-fifth issue is now available, with new poems by Mary Kasimor, Naomi Cohn, Tom Snarsky, Jason Christie, Hasan Namir, Khashayar Mohammadi, Donato Mancini, émilie kneifel and Guy Birchard.

Eight dollars (includes shipping). For the next sixty minutes, we'll be seeing actual film of car crash victims.