Thursday, May 6, 2021

TtD supplement #186 : seven questions for Sarah Alcaide-Escue

Sarah Alcaide-Escue is a writer and artist living in Florida. She is the author of the chapbook Bruised Gospel (The Lune, 2020), and her work has most recently appeared in The Meadow, *apo- press, Always Crashing, Channel Magazine, and Mud Season Review. You can learn more about her work at sarahescue.com.

An excerpt of her work-in-progress “Season of Hunger” appears in the twenty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Season of Hunger.”

A: Season of Hunger is a project I’ve been working on since I graduated from the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa in 2018. It’s a cabinet of curiosities (of sorts) inspired by my love for folklore and fairy tales. I wanted to create a space where I can rewild my body, where I can be soft and honest with myself about my experience as a disabled woman with invisible illnesses. It’s also a space where my disability is front and center—a lived reality that enables empowerment, self-love, and empathy, but also doesn’t shy away from the darkness that can exist there.

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

A: Over the past several months, I’ve been reading a bit more than I’ve been writing. After grad school, I was stuck in a frame of mind that made reading feel laborious, so for a while, I revelled in non-language and experimented with different forms of expression and creation—mostly gardening, baking, and dancing.

Lately, I’ve had the privilege of time and space to read so I’ve been devouring books day and night. I’ve had a more playful, instinctive approach to reading, which has translated into a playful and instinctive approach to writing too. With Season of Hunger, I’ve been writing from/for/with the body, taking my time, and following the story where and when it leads.

I’ve allowed myself to make seemingly nonsensical leaps and have fun with the process instead of worrying about the end result or what it should look, sound, or feel like. Season of Hunger gives me a vehicle through which I can celebrate my own magic (Amanda Leduc talks about this in her book On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space). Overall, this project feels more spontaneous and unbound by structure, time, and logic than some of my other work. It’s been healing and joyous and challenging all at once.

Q: It is good to know that you’re able to continue to write after your studies completed; I know too many who write as part of a grad program, but then somehow don’t establish their own structures outside of the structure of a writing class or a writing program. Is this something you experienced at all? And if so, how did you manage to find your way through it?

A: I’m grateful that I was able to go to grad school, and the friendships I made during that time have changed my life in the best possible ways. Naropa is a place where collaboration and experimentation are encouraged, so there were always exciting projects to get involved with when I was there.

Before the pandemic, I enjoyed going to writing residencies or having my own “retreat” so I could give myself the time and space to only focus on writing. Though it’s not safe to do that right now, I do miss it and look forward to doing it again one day.

It’s a gift to be surrounded by a supportive creative community, but you don’t have to be in the same physical place/space to be a part of one. The pandemic has made me rethink how to interact with others (what’s possible and accessible) and thankfully many of us have been able to remain connected through the use of technology, despite the distance between us.

Now, there are tons of brilliant online workshops, panels/talks, and readings available. I’m so appreciative of all the people who have made and continue to make these opportunities accessible. For example, Collective Aporia, Emergence Magazine, and Greywood Arts always have wonderful online events and workshops for anyone interested.

All in all, I try to stay connected however I can, and I’m always open to collaborating with other writers—whether it’s on a specific project, exchanging letters and postcards, or free writing together on video chat. These are some of the things that have kept me focused and inspired over the past year, and though it’s not a set structure like a program or residency, it’s helped me a lot.

Q: Are there any particular writers or works that have influenced the direction of this project? And if so, how have those influences presented themselves through your work?

A: Lately, I’ve been exploring Medieval bestiaries and Celtic folklore, but a lot of specific artists have influenced me so far with this project. I’ve been surrounding myself with these people and their works, not only because they’re inspiring, but because they bring me a sense of joy, wonder, and empowerment.

(I think in lists)

Books: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc; The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter; Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés; Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

Writers: Octavia Butler, Gwerful Mechain, Lady Gregory, Carmen Maria Machado, Helen Adam

Musicians/Composers: Joanna Newsom, Peter Gundry, Howard Shore

Visual artists: Valerie Hammond (mixed media), Ulla Thynell (illustrator), Allison May Kiphuth (dioramas), Ellie Davies (photographer), Sarah Nguyen (mixed media and paper), Rune Guneriussen (installation)

Podcasts: Tales, Singing Bones, Feminist Folklore

Each of these artists has made my writing feel more possible, and they connect shape and meaning in such unique ways, even though some of them may not deal directly with specific folktales or myths. There’s still magic and mystery there, and possibility. They also reveal historical and social contexts which have challenged how I think about and experience certain types of fairytales and folklore (I’m studying European currently). I think each of these artists have somehow explored, challenged, and experimented with fantastical stories, and they've created their own. They’re all just brilliant to me, honestly.

Q: How did you get to where you are with how you construct poems? You seem to adhere to the extended fragment, accumulating short sketches into and towards a larger shape. What brought you to working this particular form over, say, a more traditional lyric, or even prose? What do you feel you can accomplish through the extended fragment that might not be possible otherwise?

A: I wanted to create a sensory experience, where the language can be felt in the body, where it can reverberate, ripple, and move. I’ve grown quite fond of the extended fragment, and I think it’s because it gives the words more room to breathe.

I seldom set out thinking I’ll write in a specific form or structure. A lot of times, I write and let it come out how it comes out, and then I use more “control” during the editing process. This project started out as scribblings in notebooks and on my phone, and it expanded from there, and it keeps expanding. Writing Season of Hunger as an extended fragment just feels natural, and I don’t think it could be written in another way. At least for now.

I also love the shape the words take on. To me, it’s visually pleasing, but it also creates a landscape of its own. The positive and negative space tell their own stories. There’s another world there, surrounding the words on the page and stretching past the margins.

Q: You mention wanting to create a sensory experience: how important is shape or sound to the structures of your work, and how do they exist alongside, through or even despite, meaning? Are you working your poems as a combination of the three—shape, sound and meaning—or are you working one consider over either of the others?

A: Shape and sound are very important to my work, and there are times when I follow those things instead of trying to make meaning out of it or with something specific in mind. I think there are times when the meaning emerges, whether I realize it at the moment or not. And there are times when I just get totally caught up in the pleasure of how words sound, feel, and look.

With Season of Hunger, I’m working with shape, sound, and meaning, but certain sections of the project have been more focused on shape and sound. In a way, it’s an experimentation in language as it stands with no expectations, though so much of language inherently holds some sort of meaning. It’s been an exercise in play and experiencing the language in the body first, then the meaning follows, or perhaps meaning untethers itself or surfaces or somehow excavates itself. Sometimes writing this has been similar to when you say the same word over and over again and the meaning somehow gets momentarily lost or misplaced. And other times, it’s like that in reverse.

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

A: Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Ada Limon, Richard Siken, Anne Carson, Ross Gay, Louise Glück, Danielle Vogel. Also, writers I’ve had the honor of attending programs with like Amanda Ingram, Robert Eric Shoemaker, Emily Duffy, Chelsea Dingman, and Kristiane Weeks-Rogers, just to name a few.

I can’t help but return to The Carrying by Ada Limon, Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay, and Wild Iris by Louise Glück.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

TtD supplement #185 : eight questions for Michael Turner

Michael Turner is a writer of variegated ancestry (Scottish/ German/ English, mat.; English/ Japanese/ Russian, pat.) born, raised and living on unceded Coast Salish territory. He works in narrative and lyric forms, both singularly, as a writer of fiction (American Whiskey Bar, The Pornographer’s Poem, 8×10), poetry (Hard Core Logo, Kingsway, 9×11), criticism and music, and collaboratively, with artists such as Stan Douglas (screenplays), Geoffrey Farmer (public art installations) and Fishbone, Dream Warriors, Kinnie Starr and Andrea Young (songs). His work has been described as intertextual, with an emphasis on “a detailed and purposeful examination of ordinary things” (Wikipedia). He holds a BA (Anthropology) from UVic and an MFA (Interdisciplinary Studies) from UBC Okanagan. Currently he is an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences and School of Interdisciplinary Studies and Graduate Studies, Ontario College of Art & Design University and a workshop leader at Mobil Art School, Vancouver.

His poems “A Small Pile of Leaves,” “Adverbs,” “Before and After,” “Conditional” and “I Could Never Leave You” appear in the twenty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “A Small Pile of Leaves,” “Adverbs,” “Before and After,” “Conditional” and “I Could Never Leave You.”

A: These are poems gathered from a small “pile” of documents I keep in a folder called ORPHANAGE. The poems in ORPHANAGE are those that occasionally come to me, out of the blue, beginning as an image, a line or a phrase, or sometimes based on an encounter (a text, a recording, a human interaction). From there I work them up and once done I file them away, returning to them occasionally, tinkering with them, as I myself have been tinkered with by Time and her changes. Only when asked if I have something to submit (“between 3-5 poems”) do I look inside this ORPHANAGE for relationships between the poems – a figure or a sequence. What I am giving you (you asked me for 3-5 poems) is a family that, in every instance but the first, carries explicit evidence of each member’s source (“after,” “for,” epigraphs). Your role in this figure or sequence is crucial: had you not asked me to submit something, these poems would not likely appear as they do. Same if you had chosen three of the five, not all of them. The reader will likely have other ideas, and this is something I have time for, too.

Q: I’m curious about your interest in the solicited occasion and the importance of the relationship between the poems prompted by such occasions. What is it that compels you to consider such relationships for poems in journals, outside of the eventual relationships between such pieces within the possibilities of a finished manuscript?

A: The solicitation is an occasion, an invitation to compose with poems, as opposed to lines within a single poem. That you asked for 3-5 poems implies, at least to me, a figure or a related sequence, which I came up with intuitively, associatively -- how five poems might play well together, support each other, become more than the sum of their parts. Of my first three books (Company Town, 1991; Hard Core Logo, 1993; Kingsway, 1995), the concept was more or less in place before most of the poems were written, all of them based on a starter figure or sequence. After The Pornographer’s Poem (1999) was published, after I kind of ruined myself in the process of writing it, I began to question the way I worked, based in part on how the world was changing – diversifying, picking up speed, the ubiquity of the internet – and what I had learned about myself within a changing cultural ecology. Being in this emergent world meant, at least to me, being available to it in a way that didn’t have me bogged down by deadline book writing, feeding a market that demanded I work on the terms it was dictating to me, as novel writing can sometimes feel like. So rather than wave away those motes (the manner in which poems can first come to us), I stopped for them, absorbed them in an effort to learn something about myself and our moment. The occasional in this instance is not a poem to be read at a ceremonial event, but the time and place in which the poem occasionally comes to me and, of course, the experience of writing it into being.

So yes, after the poems are written and placed in ORPHANAGE, the occasional invitation to submit something for publication, which, in this instance, was an invitation to gather my poems with the poems of other poets in one of your space crafts, Fleet Commander mclennan! Your invitation to join Operation Touch the Donkey could be based on any number of things, but for me it means there is something I do that is relative to the success of its editorial mission, and that the selection and composition of the crew -- the five or six poets whose poems will appear with my poems -- also constitutes a figure or sequence. I hope that those of us who find ourselves together on this mission will at some point consider each other’s poems in relation to our own. The speed in which the world now travels has it that more and more of us have less and less time to look beyond ourselves when it comes to publishing in journals and anthologies (recall Boris Groys’s recent observation: “Today, everybody writes, no one reads”), that after checking to see that our work is laid out correctly, how it looks in the selected font, we file the book, add it to our resume, then return to our devices -- our platforms -- for more dopamine.

Q: I had noticed a pivot in your work with The Pornographer’s Poem, as though it represented a point one could easily understand a “before” and “after” in how you approached and structured books. I’ve also noticed how, since The Pornographer’s Poem, your work has been composed as shorter, often self-contained, pieces that collaborate into larger, book-length structures, as opposed to those earlier books, some of which would have been far more difficult to excerpt. Was this structural shift part of that same process, wishing to more easily change or shift directions within book-length structures?

A: I think it’s fair to say that I changed the way I do most things after TPP, not just in writing but in the way I structure and participate in my day – a unit of time I have come to savour. It was ten years before I published my next literary work (8x10, 2009), a project designed to be written occasionally, episode by episode, and gathered together in a structural regime based on an 8x10 segment grid, the “8x10 glossy” being a now out-of-date petit genre photography format (to borrow from French painting parlance), which is what it is comprised of: portraits based not on faces but on behaviours, engagements between people in a world where time and space is unclear. These were, in effect, line drawings, or lightly drawn situations that I thought readers could bring something to, rather than watch pass by, as often happens in the Western, Romance, Crime and Espionage subgenres. The book that followed -- 9x11 and Other Poems Like Bird, Nine, x and Eleven (2018) -- began with an eleven-page text consisting of nine prose “lines” each, called “9x11,” followed by a selection of “Other Poems” drawn from ORPHANAGE. My original intention was to repeat the “9x11” structure three times, with the two in-between spaces filled with ORPHANAGE poems, but decided against it because, once again, I was beginning to feel dictated to, beholden to terms that belonged more to harmonic symmetry, in this instance, than the kinds of complexities required to negotiate these post-9/11 years – a time that, on the surface, is one of blinding binaries, but is more complex than the extremes we have come to complain about.

Q: Was it really, you think, that you simply outgrew those prior structures? And what do you feel is possible through these new structures that might not have been possible otherwise?

A: Before he died, the composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was asked what he thought of CDs – specifically, newer audio recordings that use digital tools as opposed to analogue systems like 2” tape. He said he loved the clarity of digital sound, but lamented the loss of the room where symphonic music is often performed and recorded; how in digital recordings the music “just hangs there,” without floors or walls or ceilings; how digital or binary systems are biased towards the source signal, not what seasons it, as hotel ballrooms and opera houses were built to do. I forget what the interviewer said next, but Bernstein went on to say that he was by no means opposed to digitally recorded music, but was eager instead to hear music composed with this digital signal in mind, how it opens up new compositional potentials. Sometimes I wonder if that “absence” is present today, where the confessional is no longer a windowed room with a unilateral dude inside it, but a space-less, instantaneously relational electronic “platform,” which I guess is what social media is, no? Social media seasons everything we produce and consume. Am I on it? Apart from my blog, no. Like Melville’s Bartleby, “I prefer not to.” But like Beckett’s immobile narrator, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Q: I’ve always been curious at how your different solo and collaborative explorations through genre—music, poetry, fiction, criticism, screenplays and visual art—feed into and even play off each other. How do you see that interplay of genre at work through the poems you’ve been generating lately, and how does that differ from any prior work? How have those processes evolved?

A: There’s a lot to say on this topic, if only because I am fortunate to have had many opportunities to work with some remarkable visual artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers, where each experience is particular and relevant to its particular set of problems and conditions. Rather than provide examples, I would reverse the question(s) and state that working collaboratively has required me to renew my relationship with my own beliefs and tendencies, be they ethical or aesthetic, and approach each collaboration with an open heart, mind and spirit. This is easier to do when it is like-minds that have brought the parties together. Only once have I found myself in a situation where my name was drawn and I was partnered with a musician I had absolutely no common ground with. What I learned from that experience is beyond words, which is exactly what we were asked to provide when given the first and last verses of a song that, to this day, is still without a chorus.

But if I were to attempt a response to your question – a question I appreciate, btw – I will defer to Tennyson’s line from “Ulysses,” which has remained a keystone for me since I first read it in high school: “I am a part of all that I have met.”

Q: If ORPHANAGE is an occasional project prompted by the occasion, does that suggest you’re working on other projects simultaneously?

A: ORPHANAGE is not so much a literary project as a housing project, a place to shelter that which suddenly shows up and is in need of food and clothing. Back in the mid-1960s, an emerging poet who had just published a poem in Saturday Night magazine might submit a grant proposal to complete “a collection of poems,” and would like to do so “on a Greek Island – where I have use of a typewriter.” The collection “will be called Poems,” and that was enough. (I see books like this all the time in Canadian thrift stores.) Today, in our academy-driven, research-creation moment, granting agencies require a social adhesive to their applications, which, I’ll admit, I am philosophically disposed to, though in its excesses can be just as endless. But to be honest, the first poem I wrote for what is now my current manuscript Playlist: a Profligacy of Your Least-Expected Poems (a selection of which were first published in periodicities) spent time in ORPHANAGE -- but not for long. The methodology behind the creation of that poem was one I knew I would return to.

Q: I suppose my own bias is in play throughout these questions, presuming that you compose with the “book” as your unit of composition. Your published work leans towards such. When putting a writing project together (in terms of your poetry and prose works), how do you see the final result? Are “project” and “book-length manuscript” interchangeable terms? Or is that imprecise (or even missing the point)?

A: I think “project” and “book” are closer to each other than my housing folder (ORPHANAGE) is to either, though it bears mentioning the term “projects” entered the American lexicon in the 1950s to describe massive social housing developments, such as the thirty-three high-rise tower grid that Minoru Yamasaki designed for the City of St. Louis in the mid-1950s. A failure, of course, because it became unsafe for people to live there (drugs, crime, overpopulation, violence -- we’ve all seen The Wire, right?) and was demolished within twenty years of its erection. But yes, the direct-address, documentary poems (a la Dorothy Livesay) that make up my first two books were composed within the morphology of the book, while Kingsway that followed was more of a sight and mind work, the single page stanzas standing in for city blocks (a la la concretistas). As for “the final result,” that is, in effect, decided at the onset – a bookwork. Yes, I would say “project” and “book-length manuscript” are interchangeable terms, despite my decision to forsake the original intention of 9x11 and “people” the remainder of it with those from ORPHANAGE.

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

A: I was thinking about that the other day while putting to bed the room I once used as my study – how for years I have had the same stack of books within reach of my keyboard. Phyllis Webb’s Selected Poems: 1954-1965, Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (1977), Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee (1982), Gail Scott’s Heroine (1987), Margaret Sweatman’s Fox (1991), Tim Parks’s translation of Fleur Jaeggy’s Last Vanities (1994, trans. 1998). As for more recently published books, I have separate shelves for those. Of these books, I find myself returning to Marie Annharte Baker’s formally curious Indigenous Awry (2012); the three by that poet of the deracinated subject, Danielle La France (mostly Just Like I like It, 2019); Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: an American Lyric (2014), for its insights into the injuries and intersections of the Black American experience; and Sachiko Murakami’s Render (2020), which is to my mind the most evolved of the current crop of confessers. All of these books shelter me, clothe me, fuel my hunger to write.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Touch the Donkey : twenty-ninth issue,

The twenty-ninth issue is now available, with new poems by Bill Carty, Michael Turner, Nina Vega-Westhoff, Sarah Alcaide-Escue, Colby Clair Stolson, Robert Hogg, Elizabeth Robinson, Tom Prime and Simina Banu.

Eight dollars (includes shipping). Well, you got some attitude, mister!

Friday, April 9, 2021

TtD supplement #184 : six questions for Douglas Barbour

Douglas Barbour is doing isolation, as all good poets should. Professor emeritus at University of Alberta, & author, most recently, of Listen. If, UoA Press.

His poems “ekphrastic 1,” ekphrastic 2,” “ekphrastic 3,” “ekphrastic 4,” “Rothko’s doors” and “for/from r.a.” appear in the twenty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “ekphrastic 1,” ekphrastic 2,” “ekphrastic 3,” “ekphrastic 4,” “Rothko’s doors” and “for/from r.a.”

A: Well, I like the concept of ekphrasis, though I don’t always like the results when someone tells the story the painting or whatever has already told. Though I see I am responding to particular works here, but through my interest in the work of art, that is the way the artist works at it & the way it works. I can’t remember now what photo I was responding to in #1, but the idea of the patience required for any such artwork came to the fore, & stayed with me in thinking of those Chinese paintings, & then a drawing. By Matisse, & a suite of paintings by Edmonton artist Robert Sinclair; Rothko a long-time favourite, the great abstracts, how they take you away if you have the patience before them. Each time hoping that the poem doesn’t need the artwork to work — as a poem.

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

A: Well, I’m not doing that much, but I seem to be working in short forms, a lot of anglicized haiku etc. I like the compression, & find myself thinking in those ways. Of course, the poems you first asked about are somewhat longer, but again, try to keep the personal ego as diluted as possible (if it’s possible).

Q: Throughout your publishing history, you’ve been working with a variety of shorter and longer forms. How do you differentiate how the length of a poem might emerge? Are you aiming for a particular structure before you begin, and allowing the subject matter to reveal itself, or are you working the other way around? Or is it more of an intuitive combination of the two?

A: I’d say the last, a kind of combination, but I’ve long liked working with what George Bowering calls a ‘baffle’ — something already there to play the words against. Could be an acrostic, or say the haiku etc form, which demand you find the words that fit the number of syllables at least. Lately I’ve been thinking in smaller terms, shorter poems, so this works well for me now. Plus, no doubt, the times demand, but the language demands (I hope) more, & all that.

Q: With a wide array of published books and chapbooks of poetry and criticism over the past fifty years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Jeez, that’s a tough question. For awhile recently, I wasn’t writing much at all, but I’m a bit back into it, though not into much critique any more. I like writing these wee poems but they’re fairly separate, no over-riding concept that I can see at the moment. And although I don’t really see another full book in my future, or at least the near one, maybe a chapbook will emerge. There’s so much happening with so many new, younger, exciting writers on the scene, I figure it’s time to let them talk about & to each other.

Q: You’ve always been pretty attentive to the younger writers around you. What younger writers have been catching your attention lately? Who excites you?

A: As to that last question, I really don’t know what to say; I can no longer keep up, & so about the only really younger poets I know are, say, the ones NeWest is publishing, & a few of the later ones on my blog, which is now a few years old, & may not be resurrected soon, if at all. I’ll see what I can do about looking that stuff up, but I get tired a lot more easily now, & that’s one reason I’m not paying so much attention to new poetry, except the bits & pieces published only I came across. So, there’s Bertrand Bickersteth, whose first book is garnering some good attention, & I’m the editor for Carol Steski’s first book, rump + flank, coming soon. Or I’m reading the old guys now (as RK would say). And the occasional book by a contemporary, such as the latest Selected by the fine Scottish poet, John Glenday, who was an exchange poet here at UofA back in the day.

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

Ah, hey, Phyllis Webb first & foremost. But see my last remark above: Olson & his confreres, Kroetsch, & of course Wah, Marlatt, & that group. I rediscovered the early Gwen MacEwen recently, she was unique in her own way, as was John Newlove, both of them not part of any group, but admitted by all of us back then (& now). The late great bpnichol, who was my introduction to Sound Poetry, as well as Visual. Some really interesting poets I met in Australia & New Zealand back in the day.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

TtD supplement #183 : seven questions for Hamish Ballantyne

Hamish Ballantyne is a poet from Vancouver Island. He works seasonally as a mushroom picker and as a mental health worker the rest of the year. He recently published Imitation Crab (KFB) and is translating Luis de Góngora’s Solitudes.

His sequence “from BLUE KNIGHT” appears in the twenty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “BLUE KNIGHT.”

A: The blue knight is a type of mushroom. Without value but very beautiful and hard as a bullet, I’ve only ever found it by accident, frequenting the sort of forests (second growth douglas fir, pine, deep moss or kinnickinic on the ground) one frequents to find the (extremely valuable) pine mushroom. Last fall I started to think about the name blue knight after finding one on a freezing, hungover day. “BLUE KNIGHT” is about sasquatches and all the disappearances that inhere there. It’s about the search, the absurd imagination of an end introduced in the act of circling (like a dying chicken). When you try so hard to find something its image is waiting behind your eyelids whenever you blink. And the act of turning your head to finally find it—this is the very same as turning to find someone already staring at you. Terrible expectancy! So singular an intention conjures a counter-intention. I thought a lot about faith while I was writing the book, the dreadful risk of trying to pursue a thought—the irrevocability of such pursuit. The book is about someone writing themself into a text and dying there. I work in a homeless shelter type place; one of the people that lives there, Greg, a very, very tall man, he recently passed on, used to spend his days lying on a bench in the lobby, cutting deals with passersby for smokes and coffee and idly writing. Every evening I had to clean the lobby and when Greg was around I often found little notes he left on the bench. They were always letters he wrote to an alter-ego or himself, elaborate documents tracing mythical ancestries and negotiating the purchase of his various identities. Characters from old TV shows, historical warlords, pharaohs, etc. I’d been thinking about this book for a few months when one evening I was mopping the lobby and I found a poem he wrote. I asked if I could keep it, and later after I brought it home in my backpack I realized that on the flip side of the paper in huge letters he’d written the title, “BLUE KNIGHT.” So there again you have the name.

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

A: The substrate for this collection comes from a time I wrote every night while I was incredibly tired, after long days mushroom picking  in the height of summer in Northern BC—a lot of the images come from that although the poems are a couple years and many reworkings removed from what those writings were. the form also has roots there--I fell asleep a lot of nights in the middle of writing those poems so they look pretty wild in the original, lots of letters that blast off the side of the page etc. I guess the extant quality of exhaustion is in the tallness of the poems, a line break every one or two words. these poems express thoughts based in conversations and attitudes developed over periods of doing work in the bush. writing is normally very circumstantial for me. accidents and idiocy are important touchpoints. my practice prior to this book was to read a lot for a few days and then stage an unbearable hangover, then go sit with a friend and write. this writing in “BLUE KNIGHT” is definitely idiotic but I worry it's a little too on the nose, lately I’m trying to slink back to my incoherence.

Q: Is reworking older writing a normal part of your process? Is it a matter of seeing those pieces with new eyes, or are you completely reassembling into new pieces?

A: Yeah, a big part of the process. I usually write things down by hand in a pretty haphazard way, when I’m out and about, working, taking the bus, walking around, in margins of books I’m reading or in a notebook, and then work them over weeks and months. It’s not so much new eyes as accruing a mass of material sufficient to loop through and make connections I didn’t expect.

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

A: As far as these poems go, Don Quixote, Huidobro’s Altazor, Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach, Dale Smith’s American Rambler, Marosa di Giorgio, Claudia Lars, the stories of Juan Rulfo, Philip Whalen.

Q: I’m always curious about poets who translate works by other writers. Do those two sides of your literary activity interact at all? How does your work with translation interact with or impact your work as a poet, and vice versa? Or do you see both as part of a larger, singular consideration?

A: Yeah, translation definitely informs my writing directly. I find translation very generative in developing my own ideas and language—trying to render someone else’s language distorts/destroys whatever rote phrasing and imaginary I’ve settled into. I have more success experimenting in that form, too. So often when I’m struggling to write my own stuff I’ll switch my focus to translating works from Spanish. I like working with really dense, ornate poetry, and also writing that has already been translated—Góngora, Garcilaso, Quevedo. It gives a lot of opportunity to subvert and interrogate the language of the original and to play within the tighter forms. When I was initially sketching this book out I wanted it to include a couple translations, one in particular of a poem by the Mexican poet José Gorostiza that Michael Cavuto showed me, but I guess I worked it over so much it got distilled down to nothing.

Q: Perhaps it might be too soon to know, but has the way in which you approach new work different now that you’ve published a chapbook? Is there a difference?

A: I don’t think there’s much of a difference. It made me orient my writing towards a book, rather than individual poems.

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

A: Alice Iris Red Horse by Yoshimasu Gozo, Bernadette Mayer, Roberto Bolaño.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

TtD supplement #182 : seven questions for Lisa Fishman

Lisa Fishman’s newest book is Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition (Wave Books, 2020). She’s also the author of 24 Pages and other poems (Wave); F L O W E R  C A R T, The Happiness Experiment, and Dear, Read (Ahsahta Press), Current (Parlor Press), The Deep Heart’s Core Is a Suitcase (New Issues Press), and several chapbooks. She directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago, lives on a farm in rural Wisconsin, and has partially relocated to Nova Scotia, where she is currently based in Main-à-Dieu, Cape Breton.

Five poems from her work-in-progress “KASM OF ARACHNY” appear in the twenty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q:  Tell me about “Poems from the Tachygraphia.”  
A:  The Greeks practiced a kind of shorthand they called tachygraphy. Tachy is speed or swift[ness], graphy = writing. I liked their word and coined “tachygraphia” for poems like these that have been emerging by way of a certain (uncertain!) practice. What I’ve been doing in this mode has nothing to do with ancient Greek shorthand or “speedwriting,” but does result in swiftly written poems that could be considered a kind of “shorthand.” I call those poems (such as the ones here in touch the donkey) “swifts,” and the practice itself “swiftwriting.”
It has roots in a Kabbalistic practice centered on the first letters of words, or what you could call the “initials” of each word in, originally, a source text. Each word is changed, very quickly/spontaneously, as one is listening to the “initials” in the source text. It’s hard to describe without demonstrating or walking you through it by doing it. One of my partners in this practice, Lewis Freedman, calls the procedure “initialing.”
There are a few other swifts, or “poems from the tachygraphia,” in the new book, Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition (Wave Books, 2020), but only a few.
Q: How does this piece compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?  
A: It’s very different. That’s why most of it isn't in the new book – it’s too much its own thing.  
Q: Given you seem to work in books, over individual poems, might this piece be the openings of a subsequent collection? And with that, how, exactly, do you build your manuscripts? Is the process more intuitive, or have you a more deliberate structure from the offset?  

A: Yes, it’s been daunting, but I think I’ve found a way for the swifts to be a book without exhausting the reader, which is the challenge of these poems. Partly, that involved explaining the procedure, or laying bare the device. The manuscript is called KASM OF ARACHNY; the title’s an anagram of Shelley’s radical poem of 100+ years ago, his Mask of Anarchy. I’ve noticed that a sort of repressed political content can seep out in my swiftwriting poems, and my relationship with Shelley goes way back, so the anagram seems in tune. There is also a chapbook-length version of this work called “26 Swifts for the Tachygraphia” (circulating).

How a manuscript comes to be? 100% intuitively. Nothing related to writing or the making of a book is deliberate for me – even the swiftwriting practice is intensely intuitive, even though it’s technically a procedure. I don’t write with a book in mind and I encourage my students not to think in terms of “projects.” Improvisation and intuition are much more likely to allow work that’s alive to emerge. Just happened to come across something Charlie Chaplin said about a performance of his that he thought was no good: “I was stiff. I took all the surprises out of the scene by anticipating the next motion.” That seems to happen a lot in poems and is all the more likely to happen when someone has an idea in mind beforehand—either for the poem or for a whole book.

Q: Do you have any models for the kinds of work you’ve been doing over the past few years? What writers or works sit in your head as you write?

A: As for the swifts, or poems from the tachygraphia, there's a lyric intensity (at least that’s how it feels in the blind process of writing them) and insistent strangeness that for me summon certain extremes of Hopkins and Shakespeare and Césaire and Dada––yep, that natural quartet. Plus Lewis Freedman (see Residual Synonyms for the Name of God, Ugly Duckling Presse), Andy Gricevich, tons of musicians, and other secret Kabbalists. I have a familial/biographical connection to Merce Cunningham’s improvisational way of working and the chance procedures he and John Cage undertook, and I think maybe the swiftwriting brings some of that influence forward a bit.

As for other writing, such some of what’s contained in the new book, some writers hovering over that are Joanne Kyger, Fredericke Mayröcker, Robert Grenier, Bernadette Mayer, Leslie Scalapino, Brenda Hillman, in their various ways practitioners of dailiness to an extent. Others working in that mode now who are important to that book are Richard Meier, Jordan Dunn, Amy Lipman, and Chuck Stebelton. Present-moment awareness is very much at the fore in Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition – in some ways, the book is “anti-poetic.” But that depends on what one thinks poetry is or can be.

Q: With a handful of books and chapbooks produced over the last two decades, how do you feel your work has progressed? Some of your early work, for example, was linked to an influence from the British Romantic poets and the pastoral tradition. Where do you see your work headed?

A: Changes over 7 books and 4 chapbooks have been unpredictable, and surely will continue to be so. If not—that is, if one can see where one’s work is headed, then that could be a signal not to go there. Be careful if you think you know what you’re doing. In fact, maybe turn around and start over.

On the Romantics and the pastoral traditions, btw, I have these thoughts:

Anything one reads and studies with very close attention over a sustained period of time is likely to be influential, but I think that people who connect me with the Romantics are noticing that engagement in the form of critique, revision, interrogation, conversation. (I wrote a doctoral dissertation on Shelley, which required a deep immersion in that period.) Other and equal influences from the beginning have been the Black Mountain School, Language poetry, the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School and the Beats to an extent. Also, the modern novelists and contemporary experimental fiction and prose writers.

It's good to discovered any work from the past by coming to it backwards, via modern and contemporary poets whose own work is rich with echo, allusion, layers. A complicated engagement with the past paradoxically carries the work forward and ensures that it will continue to change. Martin Corless-Smith, Jenny Mueller, and Cathy Wagner come to mind as peers I see this awareness in very actively, too. The mystery is: You can’t read Stevens without reading Keats; you can’t read Modernism without reading the Romantics, and so on. Of course whenever you’re reading with time-parameters around something, or categories of any kind, you’re leaving a lot of stuff out. With all of the blind spots in mind, the great thing is that modern and contemporary poets can teach you how to read the older bodies of work—as well as how to find what was missing.
The term “pastoral” is almost always misused and/or misunderstood, so forgive me for wanting to contextualize that term first. Even 2500 years ago when Theocritus sang about shepherds at rest in the countryside, he was not sentimentalizing them or being nostalgic. A scholar says: “The predominating tone of Theocritus is one of ironic detachment and allusive cleverness; the country setting figures mainly as an element of coarse realism and occasional barnyard vulgarity, never as an ideal of lost innocence.” I’ve always been much more interested in “coarse realism” and even “barnyard vulgarity” than in idealizing the rural, and nostalgia has no place in poetry. I happen to live on a farm, so when people know that part of my biography, they assume I write about the countryside, which they assume = pastoral. The point is that even what has become associated with the pastoral long after Theocritus’s Idylls and Virgil’s Ecologues can only be (and probably always was) an active questioning, interrogation, revision, contestation with whatever is signified by, or mistaken as, “pastoral.” Shepherds resting in pastures in the 3rd century BCE don’t exist anymore, so pasture-poetry doesn’t exist anymore—but even then, the work was never hearts-and-flowers “nature” poetry.
All of that said, the “coarse realism” of my work is grounded in paying attention, and if what’s around me is a rural place, there will be things in it I’m paying attention to, such as what an apple looks like frozen on a tree from which you can still suck out the juice. If I’m riding the Red Line in Chicago, I pay (or rather, give) attention to that. Ditto wherever. I do live in different places, primarily the farm and Madison, but also downtown Chicago. Prior to the farm, New York City, Utah, Los Angeles. And now Nova Scotia in part. Any environment that has shaped one by being present in one’s thinking and attentiveness may inform (in-form) a poem at any time. Not predictable, not unitary, never a matter of intention.

Q: Do the shifts of geography provide shifts in your work as well? If writing is a matter of paying attention, do landscape or geographical shifts figure as part of those attentions? And if so, how might those shifts present themselves?

A: Yeah, they do. Especially in places where I can be outside and moving physically in some way. But that’s just one circuit of attention, so to speak. That’s the attention one gives (with one’s body) to the physical environment in that time and space, while one is in it.

There is also attention in the form of learning about the geography and environment one is in, both geologically and geopolitically: historically, writ large. Layers of history and layers of geologic change start to be part of what one is perceiving in a place. So then the shifts are multi-layered too, and encompass the indoor work of digging through historical records, reading geologic studies, and so on.

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

A: Stevens’ Collected, Hopkins, and work by my mentors, Michael Palmer and Robert Creeley – as well as by notional mentors: Kyger, Mayrocker, Niedecker. Novels and prose by Elizabeth Bowen, Lawrence, Woolf, Calvino.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

TtD supplement #181 : seven questions for JoAnna Novak

JoAnna Novak’s debut memoir Contradiction Days will be published by Catapult in 2022. Her short story collection, Meaningful Work, won the 2020 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest and will be published by FC2 in 2021. Her third book of poetry, New Life, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press, as is the chapbook Knife with Oral Greed, with above/ground press. She is the author of the novel I Must Have You and two previous books of poetry: Noirmania and Abeyance, North America. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other publications. She is a co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher, Tammy.

Her poems “Nothing to Lose” and A Kind Living Room” appear in the twenty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Nothing to Lose” and A Kind Living Room.”

A: These poems are borne of: staying with one's in-laws and looking around at a lifetime of stuff; clinging to elementary French lessons in the early days of sheltering-in-place; and reminiscences of days in restaurant kitchens, heaving sheet trays and forming infinity signs of filo dough.

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

A: There’s more absurdity or surrealism in these poems. And I’m playing with the appearance of narrative, its false comforts.

Q: How did these shifts develop, and how do they display themselves in your work? And I’m curious about what you mean by the “false comforts” of narrative. What do you mean by that?

A: The shifts result from a restlessness towards myself. I get tired of my default modes of expression, and I try to do something different—in the case of these poems, work with characters, create a façade of narrative logic. I think of narrative as having false comforts, especially as of late, because of the ongoingness of the pandemic. (And these poems were very much a product of the early days of quarantine.) I bristle when I hear people say, “When COVID is over” or the like. This idea that there will be a resounding “The End” seems false in this context. This resonates with my own sense of the world, I suppose, tinged by neuroses or compulsions, where repetition upends the notion of causality. But also, in a vastly different context, my son—who is fifteen months old—doesn’t seem satisfied by “The End.” He points again at whatever we’re reading (Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?) as soon as I close the back cover.

Q: I know that Brown Bear book well (I think we’ve gone through a couple of copies over the past few years). With three published books-to-date, and three further forthcoming, how do you feel your work has progressed? What do you see yourself working toward?

A: I know how I work more. Two of the forthcoming books—a memoir, a book of poetry—were drafted in very deliberate, concentrated periods of time. (The third, a short story collection, is filled with stories that were also drafted in very deliberate, concentrated periods of time—albeit over more than a decade.) In the Afterword to his first novel, A Painter of Our Time, John Berger writes, reflecting on his career: “Work well. We have little else. Trust your imagination a little more.” I live by the first two sentences, and I am always working toward the third.

Q: Given you’ve worked in poetry, fiction and memoir, how easy has it been for you to shift between not only projects but structures? Does each project feed off the others as individual threads of a larger, all-encompassing consideration, or are they entirely separate?

A: They’re entirely separate, structurally, though thematically there’s crossover. Desire, appetite, ornamentation, fashion, food, submission and discipline—I return to these very general ideas again and again and again.

Q: How are your poems, and by extension, your poetry collections, constructed? Are you the author of poems that accumulate into something that develops into something book-length, or have you a sense of a larger structure in mind closer to the beginning?

A: I draft poems impulsively, quickly, unfussily. In revision I tear them apart and reassemble them, still trying to keep that more focused process unfussy. I write individual poems, but when I’m working on a project (often, it’s just the title for a book that I’m excited about) I use form and/or motif to string me from poem to poem. An example: With my forthcoming collection New Life, I titled everything I was drafting “New Life” and worked with a matrix of imagery—islands, infants, fertile things—throughout the writing process. When I’d amassed 60 or 70 pages of poetry, I began editing and structuring the book.

Q: Given the subject matter of New Life, then, has becoming a parent shifted your outlook on writing, or on the writing itself?

A: Writing is more integrated into all aspects of my life now—it has to be. The times when I can be at my desk, solely focused on work, do exist, but they’re precious. I try to make space to be writing, or reading and taking notes towards writing, even when I’m being a parent. The chapbook you’re publishing, actually, was composed while my son flipped through a book of Grimm fairy tales.

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

A: The writings of Agnes Martin. Teresa of Ávila. M.F.K. Fisher. Audre Lorde. Anne Sexton. Sylvia Plath. Ted Berrigan. Junot Díaz. Gary Lutz.