Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Touch the Donkey : twenty-fourth issue,

The twenty-fourth issue is now available, with new poems by Mark Cunningham, Lydia Unsworth, Zane Koss, Nicole Raziya Fong, Ben Robinson, Asher Ghaffar, Clara Daneri and Ava Hofmann.

Eight dollars (includes shipping). As an actor, I depend on my remarkable looks.

Monday, January 6, 2020

TtD supplement #150 : seven questions for Denise Newman

Denise Newman’s poetry collections are Future People, The New Make Believe, Wild Goods, and Human Forest. Newman is also involved in video and social practice projects that explore gaps between language and reality, and for many years she has collaborated with composers providing lyrics for choral works and songs. Her videos have been screened at Southern Exposure, The Lab, the AIA in SF, and at the Whitney Museum in NYC in conjunction with a reading by Anne Carson. She has received a Creative Work Fund grant, two PEN awards and an NEA Fellowship in translation. She has served as a juror for the California Book Award since 2014, and teaches at the California College of the Arts.

Her “Six poems from: The Redesignation of Paradise” appear in the twenty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “The Redesignation of Paradise.”

A: The Redesignation of Paradise comes out of a two-year poetry project at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden with poet Hazel White. With staff, visitors and volunteers, we created a public poem in the form of a humongous index. Throughout our time in the garden, people kept bringing up the concept of an earthly paradise, often with a sense of sorrow and even guilt (as in, we’ve blown it). After the project was over, I came across this quote by Kafka:

    We were created to live in Paradise, and Paradise was designed to serve us. Our
    designation has been changed; we are not told whether this has happened to
    Paradise as well.

It got me wondering about what’s happened to paradise. Is it buried under our despair? Does it need redesignating or would obsolescence be better? If we were able to change our thinking about paradise, might we find a more sustainable course? These were some of the questions I was thinking through as I wrote these poems. The final section, the title poem, imagines life on earth as paradise.

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

A: These are the first poems I wrote after we completed our work at the garden. I had been accumulating ideas and images that could not be expressed in the public project and when it ended, the poems came flooding out. The other sections didn’t happen that way. I had no master plan; each section arose slowly out of the concerns of the previous one.

The main way this work differs from earlier writing is that humans are portrayed within a larger context of natural processes. The plant experts, including Hazel, who’s written many books on horticulture, taught me how to see and show the animation of flora, and the inextricable links between humans, flora and fauna. The humility of the gardeners often impressed us; as one told us, “the garden corrects you.”

In the title poem I found a way to decenter the human by using pronouns in a more fluid way. I wanted to disrupt language’s propensity for distinguishing and categorizing to show how enmeshed we are with everything else. An awareness of these interconnections is perhaps the closest we can get to paradise on earth.

Q: Is this the way you usually put together a manuscript? How do your books begin, and how are they shaped?

A: I do months of reading and noodling around before something starts to take shape. How that usually happens is a particular sound or rhythm catches my interest, and once I have this DNA sample, I can build the whole work from it slowly, word by word.

I love the concentration of books with a single focus, but I’ve only been able to write two such collections. I never know what the scope of my questions and concerns will be. Sometimes they need an entire book to excavate, other times, just a quarter of one. It took four years to pull together my latest book Future People. The two long poems needed something else to glue them together, but I felt completely emptied of words. I started making videos of simple forms, like ants carrying letters that I made out of bread. When I finally returned to writing, I felt as if I were beginning over again. I began working with the etymological meanings of words alongside their current usage. These short contorted poems were the glue I was seeking to hold everything together.

Q: What brought you to this point? What authors or works are in your head when you are structuring a manuscript? Is this a process that evolved organically, or have you had templates in mind?

A: My books evolve organically. I never use templates; whenever I place restraints on my writing I rebel immediately—the same goes for diets. One structural element that I’ve used in almost all of my books is a counterpoint poem or section. I’ve found that it’s useful to make a radical shift in perspective or tone to throw the other parts into relief. In the third section of The Redesignation… I write about my native land of NJ. It’s called “Garden State of Total Reinforcement” and circles around a family visit where I consider my own conditioning away from paradise toward private ownership and the alienation of competition.

I’m surely influenced by other writers and their books, but their influence is so deep that I can’t see it myself. The Danish poet Inger Christensen, whose novels I’ve translated, has two single-poem books that perfectly merge form and content. One is called alphabet and is structured by the alphabet and the Fibonacci sequence. She uses numbers and letters to structure a comprehensive view of life on Earth in all its beauty and horror. The other book it focuses on how language mediates reality and the poems are ordered by line and syllable count with subheadings of the different functions of prepositions. Susanna Nied has brilliantly translated both of them. One day I’d like to write a book with a complex structure that’s integral with meaning and yet almost invisible as Christensen does.

Q: I’m curious about the potential influence that translation may have had on your writing. How do you see your translation work interacting with your own writing? Is there a conversation that occurs between the two, or are they entirely separate threads?

A: This week I did a translation exercise with my beginning-writing students using Bashō’s famous frog haiku. They were arguing over the difference between leap and jump. One said that leap has an up connotation, which didn’t match the following line. I loved that they were getting into the subtle differences between words. That kind of attention to language is the main way translation influences my writing. Also, you’ve got to know a text inside out in order to do it justice; after working so closely with it over time, it becomes part of your consciousness. It’s the same as reading a book over and over. Eventually you begin to understand on a deep level how its form and meaning work together. Maybe you can’t say how exactly, but you know it with your whole being. I have the luxury of working only on books that excite me. I’ve also been lucky to have a personal connection to the authors I’ve translated and have learned a lot from our behind-the-scenes conversations. You might not see a direct relationship between my writing and the translation work, but the influence is significant, like the way living in a big city seeps into one’s writing.

Q: You’ve been working for many years in video, as well, and I have the same question: how do your video works interact with your writing? What does being aware of the visual allow for your text-based projects?

A: My first language is images and so I feel very at home making videos. I’m the kind of writer who writes out of a struggle with words rather than the Mt Vesuvius kind. As with my poems, the videos are tied to observation, of mostly off-to-the-side phenomena. Then I add another element to see what happens, like the bread-letters I get the ants to carry. In another video, I have snails dragging sentences. There’s a lot of trial and error, and the process is very playful; I love the physical part of making videos.

Filming is a lot like writing when I’m away from my desk going about my day with the piece I’m working on in mind. It might influence a conversation or what I notice as I walk around. A few years ago I started inventing little practices, like simply saying hello to everyone who crosses my path. These physical engagements make me more present the same way the camera helps me focus on what I’m filming. Editing is basically the same process for both disciplines. Meaning emerges indirectly through juxtaposition and patterning.

Making videos has made me more aware of what’s special about poetry. Since consciousness is tied up with language, writing can show us how the mind works more directly than any other art discipline.

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

A: One book I read over and over is the Shōbōgenzō by the thirteenth century poet and Japanese Zen teacher Dōgen Kigen. His essays enact rather than explain the mystery of existence. He does this through metaphor and ingenious turnings of phrases. Emily Dickinson and Inger Christensen’s poems nourish me in a similar way and I often carry around individual poems of theirs to read on the bus or waiting in line. I also read a lot of fiction in translation. One writer I often return to is Yoko Tawada. Her books blur the line between reality and fable and because of this, they offer startling insights about our time.

Monday, December 16, 2019

TtD supplement #149: seven questions for Alyse Knorr

Alyse Knorr is an assistant professor of English at Regis University and, since 2017, co-editor of Switchback Books. Her most recent book of poems, Mega-City Redux, won the 2016 Green Mountains Review Poetry Prize, selected by Olena Kalytiak Davis. She is the author of two other poetry collections, a non-fiction book, and two poetry chapbooks. Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Denver Quarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, The Greensboro Review, and The Cincinnati Review, among others.

Her poems “Alyse Knorr,” “Love Poem to a Scattered Deck of Cards,” “Gratification,” “Progressive Exposure” and “Potentiality” appear in the twenty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Alyse Knorr,” “Love Poem to a Scattered Deck of Cards,” “Gratification,” “Progressive Exposure” and “Potentiality.”

A: “Alyse Knorr” is the newest of this bunch—I wrote it using my phone’s predictive text feature and learned a lot about myself and what my phone knows about me in the process. I wrote “Love Poem to a Scattered Deck of Cards” using another digital technology—Google Translate. I started with a poem of mine in English and translated it into another language, then another, then another, again and again until it became much stranger and more interesting. The end of “Gratification” refers to moulins—vertical shafts in glaciers formed by water boring down through the ice. Alaskans really do call them “forever holes,” speaking to the very low survival rate should you happen to fall into one. I learned this fun fact while I was walking around on a glacier during my three years living in Alaska. I wrote “Progressive Exposure” in response to Marianne Moore, attempting to emulate her use of syllabic form and quotations to create interesting tonal shifts and juxtapositions. The source texts for the quotes include Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native and some self-help books about the fear of flying, a phobia I managed to cure during my time in Alaska—perhaps by replacing my fear of flying with a fear of moulins. Finally, “Potentiality” is about the crisis of identity that can occur during an anxiety spiral, and during the transition onto or off of anti-depressants.

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

A: The digital technologies I used to compose “Alyse Knorr” and “Love Poem to a Scattered Deck of Cards” are all also used in a chapbook of poems forthcoming from Ethel. All the poems in that project were written by predictive text or voicemail transcription. The dark tone of “Potentiality” and “Gratification,” and the use of source texts in “Progressive Exposure,” are showing up in some of my recent writing about motherhood and gardening, two endeavors that have become inextricably linked in my mind lately, and both of which I keep relating to death.

Q: What do you see as the appeal in utilizing digital technologies for composing poems, and how did this first begin? What do you feel you are able to do through these processes that might not be possible otherwise?

A: I think that predictive text or Google Translate or my phone’s voicemail transcriber can create a strangeness in language that’s similar to the strangeness in, say, a toddler’s use of language. With both digitally produced language and toddler-speak, there’s often a wonderful internal logic clashing with a totally bizarre surprise—and this clash is really impossible to create without the kind of distance that one can have when one is producing language without any meaningful grasp of what it means. For instance, the phrase “You look like a thing and I love you,” which appears in one of my poems, was generated by a machine learning algorithm that was attempting to write pick-up lines. What I love about it is that it does follow the structural logic of pick-up lines: “You look like....” but then adds in the total bizarreness of “a thing” clashed against the sweet sincerity of “and I love you.”

Q: With a handful of chapbooks and a full-length poetry collection over the past few years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: The main way my work has developed over the last few years is that I’ve expanded out into other genres. My most recent book, Super Mario Bros. 3, is a work of non-fiction, and I've been publishing some short stories and working on a libretto. Poetically, I think my use of form has grown more intentional over time, and I see it continuing that way into the future.

Q: You mention a chapbook of poems composed and assembled as a grouping of poems similarly constructed. Is assembling a group of poems that share structural concerns or themes your usual process of putting a manuscript together? How do your books and chapbooks get built?

A: I put together my three novels in verse by starting with a set of characters and then following those characters on their journeys. Mega-City Redux, the most linearly narrative of the books, is about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, and Special Agent Dana Scully going on a roadtrip together to find a city where women can live safe from misogynistic violence. Copper Mother is about a time-traveling human scientist and a group of aliens visiting Earth, and Annotated Glass is about a character named Alice recovering from a break-up as she re-visits the childhood loss of her sister. My chapbooks have been more linked by theme or form. Alternates follows the same two women through a series of alternate universes, and Epithalamia groups together a series of love poems set in different U.S. states. 

Q: I’m curious about your attraction to the form of the novel-in-verse. Why that form over something more straightforwardly narrative, or even a sequence or suite of more narrative lyric poems? What do you feel the form of novel-in-verse allows or provides that might not be possible otherwise?

A: I like the term “novel in verse” because of the inherent hybridity it implies. I also like how the word “novel” connotes a character-driven narrative, which seems to fit my work since it’s so character-focused. When I think of a sequence or series of poems collected in a book-length project, I think of them as being more thematically linked, whereas when I hear the term “novel in verse,” I tend to picture something like Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red—a more plot and character-driven piece.

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

A: Actually, Autobiography of Red and Anne Carson in general are always favorites of mine, as are Jack Gilbert, Claudia Rankine, Joy Harjo, and Sappho.

Monday, December 9, 2019

TtD supplement #148 : seven questions for Robert R. Thurman

Robert R. Thurman is an artist, musician, and poet. Thurman is the author of SYSTEMS (2015), CONNECTIONS (ZimZalla, 2017), MACHINE LANGUAGE (Spacecraft Press, 2018), SIGNALS (edition taberna kritika, 2018), and DIAGRAMS (2019)

Robert’s work has appeared in The Harvard Advocate, Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion, Coldfront Magazine, Columbia Journal, The MIT Journal of Arts and Letters, and The Monarch Review. His work has been exhibited internationally.

His poems “SIGN LANGUAGE,” “DETECTOR,” “REGULATOR II,” “CONSTRUCT” and “CENTRIFUGE” appear in the twenty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.


A: What really intrigued me was the way geometric forms, numerals and letters could be combined poetically into something unique.

These machines are a combination of those three components without recourse to the word. They are only locked in place until the reader engages them.

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

A: My new work still combines these geometric forms, numerals and letters but leaves a combinatory set of elements that almost resemble mathematical shorthand. I just released DIAGRAMS with introduction by Craig Dworkin.  Available here http://robertrthurman.com/selected-publications.html

Q: What is it that brought you to working these kinds of visual structures?

A: I created a new mode of poetry I hadn’t seen before with a form that is singular and signature and yet, not predictable or repetitive.  I began as a geometric painter and also love schematics.  I’ve always been able to visualize geometric shapes so this type of work came natural to me.

I’m interested in the inner workings of letters and numbers. The physicality of them is something I don’t think is considered enough.

For instance looking around a room and visualizing everything – doors, windows, chairs – made up of the letter Z.  Give the Z real substance but don’t bend the letter. Don’t treat it as pliable, but rotatable, collapsible, from only three sections. Is Z a folding chair? A table? A person sitting in a chair, reaching for something on the table? Z or any other letter is a form or mold in which cognition is poured.

Q: There are many who have worked with letterforms over the years; have you any models for this type of work? Were you attempting to create something entirely out of scratch?

A: With a few exceptions, the works I saw which experimented with letterforms seemed to be recycling ideas way too much, in my opinion.

So yes, I built something from scratch by using exact and accurate schematics which treated letters and numerals as part of the machine and vice versa. Even the title of each piece, the courier font typeface, and the order seen, should be viewed as working parts of these SYSTEMS.

Q: Are you the author of individual pieces that come together to group into chapbook or book-length manuscripts, or are you the author of projects? How do you see your compositional process, and the process of putting together collections?

A: Each work can stand alone or be used in multiples for different projects. Each is also a part of one mechanism. Each work has a specific title but is also known generically as SYSTEMS, both individually and collectively.

I can understand using the terms chapbook, book-length manuscripts, et cetera, as descriptions, but I rarely see my work as such. I approach them as projects.

For instance, my compositional process may involve building several variations or versions of a certain poetic machine which I design with the ability to utilize interchangeable or modified parts (poems). This possible integration can create distinctive works that stand alone or become one more mechanism (poems inside poems) that work as another part of SYSTEMS.

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

A: These projects have not been released sequentially but the evolution and interrelatedness is discernible. The work has evolved by concentrating more energy into designing poetic structures whose parts can initiate a rotating, undulating, almost trancelike animation; with elements that can be later incorporated into other machines.

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

A: First on the list would have to be Charles Wright’s Black Zodiac especially “Apologia pro Vita Sua, III” anything from Breece D'J Pancake Trilobites is a stand out. The Gospel Singer and A childhood: the biography of a place by Harry Crews are excellent as well.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

TtD supplement #147 : seven questions for Franco Cortese

Franco Cortese is an experimental poet living in Thorold, Ontario with his son, Maverick, and wife, Brittany May. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Canadian Literature, The Capilano Review, filling Station, ditch, and others. His recent chapbooks include aeiou (No Press, 2018), uoiea (above/ground press, 2019) and teksker (Simulacrum Press, 2019), with two further chapbooks forthcoming with above/ground press. He also has leaflets, booklets and nanopamphlets published or forthcoming through The Blasted Tree, Penteract Press, and Spacecraft Press. His work has been published both within Canada and internationally, most recently in the anthology Concrete and Constraint (Penteract Press 2018).

His poems “cậušê tǐçk” and “súmêr salt” appear in the twenty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “cậušê tǐçk” and “súmêr salt.”

A: These are selections from a suite of punny prose poems that I’ve been mulling over for a few years now, and which had their origin in that stolen hump between adolescence and adulthood. Thematically, they are (m)any things and (n)one: a dirge to self in melt and in merge, a threnodic pyresong to identity berift of root and left to rot anew in a den undone, and a shameless vivisection the intermeschered paradoxes of selfhood, heritage and inheritance in the fickle face of time and the thorny Mobius crownsong of sex, text and death.

Why sex, text and death, you ask? Well, besides being core staples and steeples of the ever-nascent adolescent mind, it's somewhat hard to say. I suppose because self's the name of the game (the same!), and these three are, at least in the context of this runtimely project, the timeless triad that trialogues and trialects the self along. Sex as change, as generation, and as a flitting, fleetful mixing of self and other through the fleschy three-way mirror of itself. Text as reproduction, as the inherent other, as facsimile flesh and as bestilled and stolen time. Death as itself writ both large and small; as the big dready final one, and as the smaller, daily one that makes the riversliver self dinto itself.

Much of it simply riffs on the timeless thematic of life betrothed to death, of meat to mud and light to dust, and of self as sum khind of unfathered Faust fastened to the petty rind of a dying animal. Some else of it tchurns riff into rift into drift, Frankensteining death on its head by making it into a recursive and reciprocal thing gyring through time, making self into something that becomes, that never is per se, and that is only itself when in hot pursuit of some slightly different and distant version of itself barely convisible on the whereizon.

In being punny, it tries (and flails?) to one-night-strand form to content through push and through melt, bumping things around and along into a browneon mocean of felled angstrom sticks and sickly stardust adams bustling and jostling regen and again along and alinto reachother only to remerge as some kind of rungainly collective writself a little later long the waytide.

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

A: I find them wonderfully messy in their freedom compared to the cleaner constraints I’ve been working with lately; lots of anagrams, constrained lexicons, multilingual lipograms and limit-case lipograms (i.e., those eschewing the use of all letters save one).  There are, however, still a lot of the same themes at play in these newer works; death, essence, identogeny and the like.

Q: Since you mention it, what is it about the constraint that appeals? What do you feel the constraint allows that might not be possible otherwise? And since working the constraint, how does your non-constraint work compare?

A: Well, constraint has always lain at the very heart of poetry. It’s words at their best and their most by virtue of being words at their least, and language at its limits. Procedural constraint, in particular, metastasizes this fundamental heart into the act of composition itself, creating poetry truer to form in a way. It challenges what poetry can do, which is a fundamental part of what poetry is about.

It’s also about the heady, heavy, near-narcotic and ecstatic awe at the kinds of aesthetic value that can be realized under constraints that push meaning and form to their points of dissolution, and this really hits home how unbelievably plastic language is. Besides all that, I’ve personally found that it can be surprisingly liberating, revealing hidden wormholes and unseen side-tunnels of freedom that weren’t visible behind all the open space of unconstrained poetry. We all have shackles underneath the apey flesh, and sometimes constraining yourself into a corner gives you the x-ray vision needed to work past those biases, into something simultaneously alien and true to self.

Since working more with constraints, I’d say my unconstrained work has become more discerning. Working under a constraint really requires you to push things to their limits, and gives you a much better eye and ear for the terrain of the phase-space you’re working in. It makes you bang your head against the wall of your world until things either click or melt, and that has proved to be, for me at least, an excellent training ground for the what-may-come of elsewise and elsewhere.

Q: What first brought you to composing such overtly constraint-driven work?

A: Hard to say. I suppose it must have been work by giants like Bök n’ Betts, and little later folk like Etherin. But once I dove in, I really couldn’t get enough. It became a kind of desperate rapture and frantic joy. Poetry has always held that kind of sway on me (I mean, if it didn’t, why would anyone be so impracticably foolhardy to practice it?), but this kind of work held that sway in a really visceral way.

Q: You’ve had a small handful of chapbooks emerge over the past couple of years. How do you see your work developing? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Most of the time I feel like I’m just along for the ride. I’m not entirely sure, which I think is a good thing. I’m usually tinkering with a number of things at once, which take time to grow into full-fledged, formally and thematically-coherent projects. I would expect to see a lot more constraint-based projects, some less constrained things, and works that play with multiple constraints in synergy.

I’m continuing to go down the rabbit-hole of densely-multilingual poetry, such as the chapbook of mine that you published through above/ground earlier this year, as well as works that utilize diacritics to form multilingual puns out of seemingly English-based words, thereby creating two distinct narratives that to some extent encipher each other, such as the titles of the two poems you accepted for Touch the Donkey, which utilize diacritics to insert a number of multilingual puns into the titles.

For example, “cậušê tǐçk” amalgamates cậu (you), šè (still, yet), tǐ (to weep, to wipe clean, body, typeface, state of a substance, principle, form, and others) and iç (nothing, interior part of something, to smoke, to absorb) into “cause tick / caustic / cậušê tǐçk,” while måkëššéncē amalgamates måke (to shovel) and makë (scum on liquids, pond scum, glue), eš (sky, god), én (self, ego, bird), and sencē (ancestor) into “makes sense / make essence / måkëššéncē.” There may be a few others packed in there; it’s hard to remember at this point. So yes, I would suppose to see more of that kind of thing as well, but who really knows.

Q: Most of what I’m aware of your work so far is project-based, and roughly chapbook-length in size. Do you see the chapbook as your unit of composition, or are you working on something far larger? Do you see your projects connect, if at all, along a continuum, as a sequence of hubs, or as something singular and expansively open-ended?

A: Yes, Ive been lucky enough to have some beautiful chapbooks out these past few years through such havens off conceptual poetics as derek beaulieu's no press, your above/ground press and Sacha Archer’s Simulacrum Press (and a couple forthcoming from Grey Borders sometime in 2020), as well as leaflets, booklets, nanopamphlets and other poetic ephemera from other such havens as Ken Hunt’s Spacecraft Press, Kyle Flemmer’s The Blasted Tree and Anthony Etherin’s Penteract Press, all wonderfully done. I was also lucky enough to contribute to the visually-stunning and titillatingly-heady Concrete & Constraint anthology that came out of Penteract last year. Besides chapbooks and smaller projects, I'm usually always working on a trade-length manuscript or two, although I've yet to publish one.

At the moment, I’m plugging away at two: aeiou (pronounced "I You"), and Root.

aeiou uses poetic forms based on omission to construct a poetics of transition, translation and ablation, exploring hard limits of poetic license through several novel poetic forms including the multilingual lipogram, the multilingual lipogramatic palindrome, the vowel-only and consonant-only lipogram, and the limit-case lipogram – poems that eschew the use of all letters save one. Wedding form to content, the manuscript uses procedural constraints that define permissible modes of being for the poem, and allowable ways of arranging itself in the world, to embody an exploration of self striving toward identogeny against the tide and hide of time, burdened by form, shackled by flesh, but nonetheless extruding a narrative of self-becoming in the face of material and cultural flux. Its poems are both found and stolen, composed of words of the same class, united by some aspect of form, one-half self and one-half brother – a community of individuals alike in quality and quantity, constrained in identity and in space, nonetheless determined to poiesize a tale of descendants in incendant descent and ascendant dissent.

Meanwhile, Root consists of a novel form of constrained poetry that I colloquially refer to as piems: parataxic micropoems composed exclusively of words sharing the same etymological root (in this case, the same Proto-Indo-European root), title included. As such, they are products of severely constrained lexicons, using anywhere from 10% to 100% of the available inventory of words as given by my primary sources. Each core piem is then complemented by four line-unit anagram poems (i.e., poems in which each line forms a perfect anagram of the corresponding line from its parent piem), which permute the letters of each root-piem into new meaning. The PIE language is the linguistic reconstruction of the hypothetical common ancestor of all modern and historical Indo-European languages. Fully simulant, it is a theoretical construction implicitly lacking empirical validation: an unwritten ghost haunting a great many Western language families (among others). Slick with usurpant echoes, and undulant with the cyclical death of essence inherent in becoming, these piem quintets attempt to vivisect, permute and rebuild the evolutionary history of language in order to reveal the ontogenic fundament inherent in etymology, and to prize new, implicit and incipient meaning out of etymontologically related families of words.

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

A: I’m not sure if I read to reenergize, per se. Most of the projects I’m working on have fairly clear directions and offer a constant bevy of conspiratorial surprises that open up new directions and intersections that gyre back round from where they could go to where they’ve already been without a whole lot of noticeable intervention on my part. I’m sure this has almost everything to do with the form and procedural dimensions I’m working with lately, but I often feel as though they’re authoring themselves to a large extent. They show me the possibilities, and I, as some kind of lucky dumbstruck reader, try as best I can to carve trenches into which they can flow, feeling very much the open-mouthed ape aghast and agog at the fiery maw of an open sky or open-eared at the lone primal cut of first thunder. That may seem a bit dramatic, but it’s true, at least for me; the compositional process of poetry is an alien, ecstatic, semi-unparticipatory thing that never ceases to amaze. Maybe that whole authors-itself gestalt will change in time (in which case, woe will be me indeed), but for now, the ideas both within and without my current projects are too numerous to let time and work wear away momentum.

I do, however, try to read a lot of poetry, most of it historical and contemporary conceptual poetics. And there are too many contemporary poets to name that I try and keep current on, like (in no particular order, and I’m sure I’m forgetting many) yourself, Adam Dickinson, Gregory Betts, Christian Bök, derek beaulieu, Sacha Archer, Anthony Etherin, Ken Hunt, Kyle Flemmer, Nasser Hussain, Gary Barwin, Sonnet L’Abbe, Jordan Abel, Craig Dworkin, Kenneth Goldsmith, Nick Montfort, psw, Eric Schmaltz, Catharine Vidler, Aaron Tucker, Andrew Topel, Arnold McBay, Luke Bradford, and, dogged-god, many others. The list really does go on, which is a great thing.

In terms of classics, I find myself spinning in and out of Finnegans Wake quite a lot, as I feel one almost must. UBUWEB's a pretty constant point of return for me as well. Against Expression is another instant classic (thanks Sacha). Likewise for Avant Canada, although that’s too new for me to have even left it in the first place at this point. And I try to get my hands on as much Oulipo as I can get my eyes and ears on. Oh, and I’m still a dripping sucker for Shakespeare. I’ve also been increasingly drawn into “world” (isn’t it all?) and ancient poetry lately, which I’ve found incredibly refreshing and eye-opening, although I suppose that has a lot to do with the great filter time, which has kept only “the best,” whatever that might mean.

I also consume and steep myself in a lot of non-poetry as well, most of it science, and most of that biology, which I think is also very important for poets – to cultivate interests in domains other than poetry, which helps with actually having something to poiesize about, around and amid. The sheer, dumbfounding material wonder of the universe generally, but life itself particularly, will never cease to amaze me, and is probably my go-to when I need to feel lost in the explosive, fractal wonder of the world again.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

TtD supplement #146 : seven questions for Shelly Harder

Shelly Harder is from rural Ontario and has been living and studying in Ireland and the UK, where their work has appeared in pamphlet, podcast, and live performance. A first chapbook, remnants, was published by Baseline Press.

Their poems “from inspirobot,” “bedtime with Proust, while Jimi plays the blues” and “from 96 Quite Bitter Beings” appear in the twenty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “from inspirobot,” “bedtime with Proust, while Jimi plays the blues” and “from 96 Quite Bitter Beings.”

A: The inspirobot pieces came about when I had a wisdom tooth removed. Slightly high on a sedative and bored out of my mind, I remembered an article I’d seen about an AI that had generated some twisted inspirational posters. I typed in inspirobot.me and began to click. A lot of banal and nonsensical stuff came up, but with occasional odd gems (not so different from how I find the process of composition when I’m the one generating the text). At some point I realized that the occasionally interesting sayings of the inspirobot could be arranged into pieces. I’d just finished a big project that had left me dried up and in need of a rest, but I didn’t want to give up writing altogether. Hitting “Generate” and saving the bits I found striking or funny was doable. And the process of composition was fun too. In collaboration with the inspirobot I could voice a grim sense of humour.

Working on these pieces provided something of a turning point. The process of composition involved wedging together disparate bits generated at random and creating meaning through the resonances these fragments developed in relation to each other. At some point it clicked that the process of generating text and the process of composing a piece can be two quite disconnected things, that the context in which a bit of text comes to exist doesn’t need to guide the meaning or use that text can be put to. I started culling through mounds of rough writing I’ve produced over the past few years, pulling out the interesting bits, and using those as the raw material out of which I began to compose some pieces. One day I saw a song title on an album that had popped up in the list of suggestions some algorithm had kindly produced, “96 Quite Bitter Beings.” It’s a work that’s still in process. The difficult thing about trying to find out how random fragments should fit together is that so many combinations could work.

“bedtime with Proust” happened in quite a different manner. I’ve slowly been making my way through Proust’s behemoth the past few months, and one evening I was listening to an album of Hendrix playing blues songs. The piece came out all at once. I think I had the sense that both these works of art are interested in the vulnerability and exposure that’s involved in feeling things. I’d recently eaten stewed apple. I don’t currently have a cat. “Take me from this lonesome place” is a line from a Hendrix song.

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

A: For a while I’ve been working on zero dawn, a long narrative poem whose speaker recounts her experiences sleeping rough. This piece exists in multiple versions of different length. It’s composed of mobile parts that don’t have to be in any particular order for the story to work, and so I have combined and recombined various versions for particular contexts.

This sense of malleability, of there being nothing inevitable about structure, is the operating principle of a lot of the stuff I’ve been working on recently. zero dawn is a bit different because of the dramatic context of the speaker. Voice usually is something I interact with more abstractly, approaching the composition process more like splashing textures and sounds and ideas until a vibrant sensory and emotional experience has coalesced.

Bits of 96 Quite Bitter Beings are regurgitated fragments of personal experience, but recontextualised by an attempt to come to grips with events in the world more broadly. In contrast to this restless expansiveness, which feels to me to land somewhere between essay and poem, I’ve been working on some shorter lyric pieces concentrated on exploring specific emotional dynamics, often relying heavily on sound and musicality for their effect. I’ve also been doing some play with writing driven primarily by internal sound impulsions that hold together loose strings of reference. A couple pieces in my chapbook, remnants, work this way.

Q: Are these pieces fragments from multiple projects, elements of a singular manuscript or even threads that haven’t yet found any larger structure or tapestry?

A: I’m not sure at the moment about the larger picture. Currently, these pieces are fragments of several unfinished projects, a couple of which may or may not eventually coalesce into a coherent structure. And if that happens, perhaps I’ll have a manuscript.

Q: Has there been a difference in the way you think about putting together a manuscript since the publication of remnants? How did that manuscript first come together?

A: remnants is the first manuscript I’ve completed. One of the main things its process of publication has taught me is that it’s okay for it to take a while for a loose assemblage of pieces to become a well-structured text.

remnants began with travelling in 2015. I was alone and wrote a lot. The writing was a mix of poetry and prose, lucid description and surreal dreamscape. I threw some of it up on my blog. Later in the year I developed and edited those pieces and compiled them into a much larger manuscript than the one that got published. Karen Schindler at Baseline Press read through the sprawling manuscript I’d put together and indicated which pieces she thought were strongest. This feedback was crucial in shaping the manuscript’s development. I more or less followed her guidance on which pieces to include and then was left with the task of structuring them into a coherent text, work I did in short bursts across several months. The intervals in which I didn’t think about or look at the manuscript provided clarity.

So I now think of my process of putting together a manuscript as likely to be a lengthy endeavour, to some degree collaborative, and benefitting from periods of not being given any direct attention. But I’m open for further experience to revise that notion.

I must say, I like the compactness of the chapbook form. It’s taught me the virtues of brevity. remnants is so much better because of the severe selectivity the text underwent.

Q: What might this mean in terms of what you are working towards now? Are you thinking again in terms of something chapbook-sized, or potentially full-length? Or are you simply writing and not worrying about any of that yet?

A: For a while now I’ve been writing without much of a clue what I’ll do with it. Which feels fine at present. I’m allowing myself space to explore freely where language might take me without feeling constrained by the pressure to make something substantial of it. That said, I do have a couple chapbook ideas in the back of my mind and I’ve made some halting beginnings on that front. The concise scope of the chapbook form is attractive to me. I suspect it will be a while before I’m at the point of thinking about a full-length collection.

Q: How does performance help shape ways in which you write? How do you balance the potential performance aspect of a piece against how it ends up on the page?

A: Because I’m always thinking in terms of sound, I tend not to view performance potential as extraneous, but rather as an integral aspect of the composition process. When wrestling with a line or the structure of a piece, I read it aloud to get a feel for whether it’s working. If that doesn’t give me enough information, I’ll record myself and listen back. It’s an instinctual process, but that’s how I make judgment calls. The words have got to feel good on my tongue and in my ear.

Although I’m interested in the musicality of words as abstract units of sound, I’m also feeling and listening for conceptual elements - for how ideas, images, and emotions play off each other, forming their own tonalities, rhythms, textures, dissonance. And I can only feel how this is working when the words are incarnate on my tongue, in my ears. 

So that’s my process, which is all about private performance. How a piece actually works for an audience is a different question. Some kinds of density can only be absorbed when left to sit with. That’s the great thing about the page. But to me the page often feels flat, insufficient, as though a poem is a score waiting to be animated into sound. That said, I greatly enjoy writing that blurs the line with visual art.

My goal is writing that can be enjoyed as a once-off in a performance context while also providing the richness and complexity that makes the page a place to return to. That sense of rhythm and texture (on both the purely sonic and the emotive/conceptual levels) that I’m feeling for during composition is something I hope comes through within performance. So that even if some of the content might be lost when taken off the page, listeners will find themselves absorbed within an aesthetic and emotive space.

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

A: These days I follow quite a bit of journalism to maintain at least some semblance of awareness of what’s happening beyond my life’s little sphere. Otherwise, I’ve been reading mostly novels the last while, devouring works by Calvino, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and, most recently, Proust. I’m repeatedly drawn to the work of Woolf, George Eliot, and Jeanette Winterson. For short stories, it’s often Borges or Barthelme, though for something completely different, I’ve recently discovered Mary Gaitskill. Philosophy too is an energizing force, whether I’m taking up contest with a mammoth text such as Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, finding grim solace in E.M. Cioran’s pessimistic aphorisms, or diving into Cixous’ gorgeous prose. I also often turn for inspiration and delight to the long tradition of English poetry – the alliterative long lines of the Gawain poet, the gnarled soundscapes of Hopkins, the density and wit of Donne, the exquisite lyricism of Keats or P.B. Shelley. Looking to the present, this past year I discovered Terrance Hayes and Amanda Jernigan, whose work, quite frankly, blew me away. Anne Carson is another favourite contemporary writer, as is Maggie Nelson, both of whom open up potent textual spaces. As for specific works I can’t stop myself from returning to (even if I wish I could) – a few: Joyce’s Ulysses, Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Milton’s Paradise Lost, Beckett’s Not I (as voiced by Billie Whitelaw).

Thursday, October 31, 2019

TtD supplement #145 : seven questions for Dale Tracy

Dale Tracy is the author of the chapbook Celebration Machine (Proper Tales, 2018) and the monograph With the Witnesses: Poetry, Compassion, and Claimed Experience (McGill-Queen’s, 2017). A further chapbook is forthcoming from above/ground press. She lives in Kingston, ON, where she teaches at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Her poems “Gatekeeper,” “This would be the place for you,” “Professionalism” and “Derelict Bicycles” appear in the twenty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Gatekeeper,” “This would be the place for you,” “Professionalism” and “Derelict Bicycles.”

A: These poems are all about power.

I have a few poems like this one that I would describe as fables (though maybe with ambiguous lessons—the poem suggests the boundaries of the keeper’s options, not some best thing she might do). A situation, mostly its mood, occurs to me, and I follow it into a poem. I’m tempted to think about these poems as speculative or weird fiction, except that they’re not fiction. For me, poetry is a way of theorizing, not telling stories.

“This would be the place for you”
I spend a lot of time applying for jobs because universities now hire mainly on temporary contracts rather than for permanent positions (https://www.caut.ca/bulletin/2018/09/shattering-myths-about-contract-academic-staff). The mechanisms of contract work involve diverse reminders that there is no place for me, entirely regardless of my commitment to my students and studies. I think this poem is a little bit funny, but it’s a dark humour, since it turns opportunities into hunted prey with which the speaker is precluded from forming relationships.

I like learning so much, I became a professional at it. By gaining a doctorate, I formalized that aspect of my identity into a title. Formalities highlight ways the world is locked into place. In the foreground, convention is so interesting; in the background, as the accepted structure of life, it makes me want to make things weird. Convention has meaning because we give it, but convention in the background functions as though it has its own inherent meaning, one which often supports the devastatingly and unequally harmful.

To be clear, this poem is nervous about assumptions and habits that attend expertise and authority, not my profession (the opportunity to think with others and to galvanize thinking is what I want my life to be for) or conventions of authority themselves (these are essential for establishing agreement about the reality we live).

“Derelict Bicycles”
This evocative phrase came to me through an email giving warning about the date of removal. I thought, what other remnants might be lashed to borders?

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

A: They all have wonder in them. Wonder is the common element in most of my work.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: Because writing poetry is for me a kind of theoretical or philosophical endeavour, each poem is prompted by curiosity. A poem helps me figure something out (or at least think about it), so it responds to wonder (as in wondering and as in marvelling) and tries to capture that wonder.

Q: Given your poetry is fed, in part, by theory, how easy is it for you to shift between poetry and theory, or do you see them as intricately connected?

A: Poetry is a way for me to sort out how to live or what I am living; at the same time, a poem often theorizes itself, sorting out in an observable way what a poem can do or is doing. In these ways, I think of poetry as being theory.

I’m also influenced by particular literary theories and tools in a way that I’m not always actively thinking about. For example, my scholarly interest in metonymy leads my poetry toward forms of contiguity (associations based in proximity) rather than substitution (as in metaphor).

Q: What poets have helped you get to this point in your work?

A: In the most direct sense, I wouldn’t be at this point in my work without the poets who gave me opportunities or promotion or prompting: Stuart Ross, Michael e. Casteels, Patricia Robertson, Jason Heroux, Allison Chisholm, my secretive writing group, Bruce Kauffman, attendees of Bruce Kauffman’s monthly open mic nights, and you, right now with this interview. (I want somehow to make this acknowledgment without also making a public claim on these people—but I guess we all know that a small act on one end can be a big one on the other.)

Less directly, I need different poets at different times. I’m just going to list all the poets whose work I feel right now has stayed with me. If you ask me again some other time, it might be a different list (well, it definitely will be—I’ll have read more!).

…Valzhyna Mort, Eunice de Souza, Anne Carson, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Dionne Brand, Kaveh Akbar, Ocean Vuong, Chen Chen, Shazia Hafiz Ramji, Emma Healey, Tess Liem, Sina Queyras, Ruth Stone, Joshua Whitehead, Daniel Borzutzky, Rahat Kurd, Elinor Wylie, Frank Chipasula…

Q: How do you feel your work has developed up to this point? Where do you see your work headed?

A: My earliest poems speak more privately—in a more private language. I’m not talking to myself anymore because I can imagine readers now. Reading poetry as a poet (consciously as a poet) has made a big difference.

My poems are headed into more aesthetic joy which I think will enhance whatever political/moral force they might have. More recently, I’ve felt sometimes dragged toward a despairing cynicism that hasn’t been all that helpful for writing or living in the world as it is. I could be more helpful and better at what I do if I can make this emotional/stylistic return to myself.

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

A: Returning to reenergize had not occurred to me. My returns to poems have usually been to figure something out and to do that figuring in the form of a scholarly essay. Now that your question has prompted me to think about reenergizing, I can see that when I return to other texts—a song, a movie, a clip from a sitcom—it’s a particular mood I’m looking for, one that lets my mind slow down and settle in.