Tuesday, December 9, 2014

TtD supplement #15: five questions for Emily Ursuliak

Emily Ursuliak is the current fiction editor, and a member of the board, for filling Station magazine and an executive producer for the literary radio show Writer’s Block. This spring she was given the Volunteer of the Year Award by the Alberta Magazine and Publishers Association for her work with filling Station. She recently completed an MA in English at the University of Calgary where she worked on her first novel and collection of poems. You can find her work in Warpaint, Blue Skies Poetry, FreeFall, No Press and the anthology The Calgary Project: A City Map in Verse and Visual. Her chapbook Braking and Blather was recently published by above/ground press.

Her poem “Tourists” appears in the third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Your two-part poem, “Tourists,” originally appeared separately in different places. Do you see the poems working equally well apart as together, or was the goal always to have them appear as a single unit?

A: The two sections of “Tourists” can work separately as they are each individual portraits of people that Anne and my grandmother Phyllis encountered on the road. However, by appearing together the two sections emphasize the road-weariness of Phyllis and Anne at that stage of their journey, and also their sense of irritation at being treated as a spectacle, or tourist attraction, by fellow travellers. I prefer them together as a unit because it demonstrates the repetition of “tourist” behaviour that the two women encountered. They were stopped a number of times so that they could be photographed, or questioned and while the tourists might have thought that these interactions were flattering, they were in fact inhibiting to the women’s progress on their trip.

Q: “Tourists” appears to apply a similar strategy of sketching out short, lyric narratives as your chapbook/poem, Breaking and Blather (above/ground press, 2014). What is it about composing such lyric portraits that appeals?

A: I think the subject of the poem often drives what form it takes, or at least for me it does. “Tourists,” “Braking and Blather” and the other poems in the collection The Diamond Hitch are lyric narrative poems because their source material, my grandmother’s travel diary, has a strong narrative running through it. The poems tell the story of this somewhat rebellious and unconventional journey Phyllis and Anne took. A number of the poems are portraits as well because the two women encountered so many rich and unusual people in their travels and in many circumstances had to rely on the unusual relationships they developed with this people in order to survive. So there’s that reason, and I also seem to be naturally drawn to writing lyric poetry. I think this might be due in part to the fact that I also write fiction. I’m relentlessly attracted to the idea of narrative and it’s interesting for me to explore how I might tell a story through poetry as opposed to fiction.

There have been times when I’ve felt insecure about being a lyric poet. I live in Calgary which is known for being a hotbed for experimental poetry. The work of these poets, many of whom I count among my friends, is intriguing and inspiring to me, but I've always been more interested in bringing experimental concepts into my fiction instead. I’ve heard it said a few times in the experimental camp that lyric poetry isn’t pushing at the boundaries to the extent that experimental poetry is, that we’re becoming too lax and that our poems aren’t doing the real work of poetry anymore. I used to feel insulted and irritated by that sentiment, and while I don’t agree with it, I consider it a friendly challenge now. As a young poet, still in the process of developing, my work might not yet be pushing at any boundaries, but by continuing to tackle topics which for me feel engaging, or at times may push me out of my comfort zone, I hope to do so in the future.

Q: Considering that Erin Moure, one of the more engaged experimental poets in Canada, has repeatedly called herself a lyric poet, I would suspect there’s still far more to be discovered within the lyric. And I think the whole notion of experiment actually begins with the idea of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Given the rich nature of the stories you’re working to tell, I’m curious as to why you chose to tell the story in the form of lyric poetry over, say, fiction or non-fiction?

A: I guess thinking of yourself as being either in the “lyric camp” or the “experimental camp” might be symptomatic of living in Calgary where there does seem to be these separate groups of poets that don’t cross-pollinate a lot, which is something I find frustrating. Each group has something to offer, and while it’s probably natural for literary communities to break off in this way I think it’s unfortunate. That’s not to say that everyone stays within their own little “camps,” there’s plenty of others that feel the same way as I do, but it would be nice to see more engagement between these different groups.

Why is The Diamond Hitch in poetic form instead of the alternatives? That’s a tough one and it’s something that seems to come up quite a lot. I remember telling derek beaulieu about the travel diary once while a bunch of us were out for drinks. He said, “You should definitely write a novel about that!” and then when I told him I was actually turning it into a collection of poems he seemed puzzled, although he’s been very supportive of the work that resulted from it. I’ve also had someone suggest that it would make a great screenplay. Maybe at some point I will pursue telling the narrative in different forms, but I don’t see that happening in the immediate future.

I think it came out as poetry because prior to starting it I had written this small collection of six poems about the residential school just north of Edmonton. After that experience I enjoyed the idea of working on a number of poems that were unified around one topic instead of just “one-offs” and the travel diary had always been something I wanted to explore. I started working on the poems the summer before I got into grad school at the University of Calgary and I don’t think back then that I was as critically aware of what I was trying to do as a writer, it was a lot more instinctual at that point. Now, looking back at the source material the poems came from, I’d say that there’s a lot of poetic moments within the diary that I wanted to use. One of my favourite poems ends with a piece of found text from an interview my grandmother did with a reporter shortly before they left for the trip. It was quite clear from the article that the reporter didn’t take my grandmother and Anne seriously when he heard about them, but came away feeling somewhat intimidated by them. One of the last questions the reporter asks is if they can talk a bit about the 1927 MG Roadster the two of them co-owned and were planning on driving for the first half of their journey. My grandmother rattles off an impressive list of engine specs that seemed like pure poetry to me, it just required shifting a few of the lines around and arranging the text the right way to bring out the natural cadences that were already there.

Q: I’m presuming The Diamond Hitch is the title of the work-in-progress that includes both “Tourists” and Breaking and Blather? How far along is the manuscript? What has been your process of putting your first full-length poetry manuscript together? Was much of it mapped out beforehand, or has it been more of an accumulative process?

A: Yes, The Diamond Hitch is the title of the manuscript that both “Tourists” and Breaking and Blather are a part of. The manuscript is technically completed, and I have been sending it out, but after a very helpful rejection letter that Goose Lane sent me a few weeks ago I think I might be revisiting some of the poems in the collection to give them a bit more polishing. The thing I’ve found most difficult about being a young writer with your first manuscript is knowing when the hell the thing is actually ready to be put out there. When you’re just starting out you’re very reliant on the advice of more experienced writers and what can happen sometimes, and what’s been happening to me, is that I’ve received advice on both ends of the spectrum. Some have told me the manuscript is very strong and I need to get it out immediately, and others have said that I need to go back to the drawing board and spend several more years on it. I’ve realized I just have to trust my gut. I feel that the manuscript is pretty much ready to be out there, but that it could be stronger than it currently is and finding weak points to strengthen is a good plan before resubmitting.

The manuscript came together in a year-long poetry manuscript class that I took with Christian Bök in the last year of my masters degree. That class was pretty transformative for me. Christian and I are very different people and I don’t always agree with him all the time, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a teacher. I’ve tried to think about how I could describe the effect that class had on my writing and the best way I could put it is this: you have an instrument that you fiddle around with because you enjoy music, and maybe you learn how to play a song or two by ear because you have a natural instinct for it, and then someone comes along and teaches you how to read sheet music and the way you look at your instrument and its potential is completely altered.

The manuscript was kind of already mapped out in that I was working from this travel diary that both Phyllis and Anne had taken turns writing, as well as a few newspaper articles and photographs of their journey that were included along with it. They wanted to go on an adventure and at the same time buy some horses, so they drove their 1927 MG roadster from Victoria, British Columbia to central Alberta, bought a horse each plus a pack horse and then rode them back through the mountains. For two women in their twenties to want to do something like this back in the early fifties is pretty outrageous and they were/are both very literary, witty women so the source material was terrific to work with. I basically read through the whole diary once, and then went back through and flagged moments that seemed fitting to interpret into poems. There were a few poems that didn’t make the cut, and a couple more that I might still decide to take out. Basically the process of creating the manuscript in the class involved a hell of a lot of writing and a hell of a lot of intense editing and I felt a bit alarmed that at the end of the class I’d actually produced this manuscript-length thing, and even more alarmed when people told me that it was almost ready to start sending out. There was one last draft of it that I did over the summer after the class had finished that involved adding some new poems and working from Christian’s suggestions on the final version I submitted for the class. He was gracious enough to meet with me over the summer to look over the changes I’d made and make a few more suggestions about the new work that I’d added.

The funny thing is that when I came to the University of Calgary to do my degree I was only planning on writing fiction. I worked on a novel as my thesis, but prior to starting the program I had about ten really rough pages of poems for The Diamond Hitch. I was afraid that if I got too wrapped up in working on the novel that my “poetry muscles” would atrophy and I'd never actually do anything with these poems. Christian was teaching this class and, though I’d never taken a class with him before, I knew him from the writing community and he managed to convince me that I should be in it. It was a lot of work to do both a poetry collection and a novel at the same time, but it ended up working out well. I wrote the novel under the mentorship of Suzette Mayr and thought I enjoyed working on it, and am still enjoying the puzzle of trying pull it together into something publishable, the material I was dealing with for that project was really dark and at times emotionally draining for me, and the poems were a bit more playful and light-hearted so it gave me some balance in my writing life.

Q: Given some of the material you’re working with and from, what kind of responsibilities are you feeling for the original facts? Perhaps this might apply more to the poems you composed about the residential school than to the facts around your grandmother’s trip and her journal entries, but I’m curious if, when dealing with real events and real people, you’ve allowed yourself to shift detail for the sake of the writing.

A: I feel a high level of responsibility, and as you suggested, that responsibility felt a lot more heightened when I was working on the poems about the residential school. That project was one that I did a long time ago for a senior level English class for my undergraduate degree when I was at Red Deer College. I was lucky for that project in that I had a good professor who advised me on how to tackle it. It was a class where we could do what we liked for our projects as long as they were responding to the theme of the class which was Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. I decided to write this small collection of poems and then started to have a lot of anxiety about it. Was it something I was allowed to write about if I had no First Nations ancestry? My professor’s advice was to study the angle that I wrote from and be respectful. Doing research for the poems was incredibly difficult. Often my sources would contradict each other and I wasn’t sure who to believe. The poems became more about the impossibility of writing about the tragedies that occurred in residential schools and wrestling with this dark history. I also went and visited the site of the residential school just outside of St. Albert and the mass grave there as well as the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton, which was an abandoned building that they’ve only just started to tear down. The Camsell Hospital played its own disturbing role in the history of the residential school system. There was some indication that another mass grave was located on the hospital grounds, but officials will not address those claims, so it it’s hard to know where exactly the truth lies.

The uncanny thing about that project is that every time I read those poems at different events around Red Deer there was always at least one First Nations person in the audience, and every time I noticed that I’d get very worried about how they’d respond, and at the end of every event the First Nations audience members would come up to me afterwards and were incredibly warm and kind. I spoke to people with both Cree and Blackfoot ancestry and all of them said they were happy that I was writing about it, and that as a white person I’d treated the issue with respect. I think the most meaningful conversation I had was with a man that told me his grandmother had been abused and used as a test subject at the Charles Camsell Hospital and that he didn’t think people even knew what had gone on there and that he was happy I was telling others about it. I’m not happy with those poems anymore because they feel very amateur to me now, but I learned a lot from the experience. I workshopped them in a class I took up in Edmonton about a year after writing the poems and I promised myself that I would visit the site of the mass grave again and pay my respects. So that was a very profound part of the process. After my course was over I bought a bouquet of flowers and visited the site again to honour those that are buried there.

The biggest concern for writing The Diamond Hitch was how I would portray Phyllis and Anne as these characters within the poems when they’re both people that I care about and love very much. I wanted the depictions of them to be as honest as I could. When I was a kid I watched Phyllis and Anne interact a lot, they were like two teenagers constantly teasing each other, making silly jokes and annoying each other. I wanted there to be some of that chemistry in the poems. Also my grandmother could be a bit stubborn and difficult and I wanted to stay true to how she actually was. My grandmother can’t call me out on anything that happens in the poems because she passed away back when I was finishing high school after she fought a second, heroic battle against cancer. I feel like she would be happy with the collection though. Luckily Anne is still with us. I sent her a portion of the manuscript when I was still in the process of writing it. She had a few factual corrections to make, but seemed thrilled that I was writing about it. I've emailed her the manuscript in it’s entirety, but haven’t heard from her. I’m not sure that she still uses her computer much anymore. I’m hoping to have her read everything and get her blessing before the book gets published though, that is very important to me.

As far as the other parts of the narrative there are sections where I’ve invented details that aren’t actually there in journal entries. For instance the stories that Mr. Richter tells Phyllis and Anne in Braking and Blather are invented. The journal entry said that he regaled them with local gossip all the way up the road, but didn’t provide any details. For the most part I stay pretty true to how things actually occurred within the journal and just add a few details or flourishes where they’re needed. 

Q: You say that you’ve “always been more interested in bringing experimental concepts into my fiction.” Why the division between your poetry and your fiction? I’m also curious at the models for your writing. What authors and works influence the kind of writing you’re currently working on?

A: I imagine that the division between the work I do in fiction and the work I do in poetry will probably dissolve more and more as my practice matures. I suppose that right now I still think of them as separate because I approach them differently. Fiction is a place where I can let go and the words flood the page, whereas poetry is a far slower process that involves a lot of ruminating on different combinations of words before I decide what sounds right.

I guess when I talk about wanting to bring experimental concepts into the work I do in fiction I’m thinking about a project I hope to do in the future that’s very inspired by the work of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. The best way I could sum up Miller and Cardiff’s work is that they’re interested in the narrative potential of ambient noise. While I admire their work I find that some of the narratives that they layer over ambient noise aren’t as sophisticated as something a writer could produce. I want to find my own approach into this kind of work with more of a writerly concern driving what I’m doing. At the present moment the project is this delicate fetus and I have other things I need to get done first. The funny thing is that I’ve labelled this project as a “fiction project” and now I’m realizing that’s kind of an arbitrary category to put it into.

In terms of fiction Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace was definitely a model for what I wanted to accomplish with my novel, which is also historical fiction. She has a way of using very evocative, contemporary language while still giving you the feeling of being in the time period in which the novel is set. Suzette Mayr’s work has also been an influence for me. I knew that I wanted her as my thesis supervisor after reading Moon Honey. When I read that book I noticed the physicality with which she explores her characters; you get the sensation of being very rooted in their bodies. That was something my own work used to really lack and I think being mentored by her allowed me to get more into the flesh of my characters, which has been fun, and at times a bit disturbing. I’m a big fan of the work of Miriam Toews and Sarah Selecky as well.

I have to confess that in terms of poetry I’ve been a bit lazy in the past about actually reading that much of it. This is something I’ve made a concerted effort to change, and part of the reason why I decided to take up the 95 Books challenge this year. I think Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid was very helpful for me when working on The Diamond Hitch. I remember someone recommended that I read it while working on my poems and I almost didn’t want to because so many people had gone on and on about how that book changed their lives. I thought it was too over-hyped and the work wouldn’t have any effect on me, but I was wrong of course. The prose poems from that collection informed how I wanted to approach the ones I was working on. Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue is an old favourite of mine. I have the 2004 version of it with the wood engravings by Jim Westergard. It’s probably some kind of cliché now to be an Albertan poet who says they’ve been influenced by Kroetsch, but I feel sincere about it. There’s lines from Seed Catalogue that have stuck with me, and not all poetry has the power to do that for me. The book that I read most recently that really blew my socks off was Robert Majzels and Erin Mouré’s translation of White Piano by Nicole Brossard. The powerful precision of language in those poems is something I long to have.

Monday, November 24, 2014

TtD supplement #14: six questions for Roland Prevost

Roland Prevost has been published by Arc Poetry Magazine, Descant, The Toronto Quarterly, Dusie, Ottawa Arts Review, among many others. He has four chapbooks: Metafizz (Bywords, 2007), Dragon Verses (Dusty Owl, 2009), Our/ Are Carried Invisibles (above/ground press, 2009), and Parapagus (above/ground press, 2012). He won the 2006 John Newlove Poetry Award. His first trade poetry collection, Singular Plurals (Chaudiere Books), appeared in September, 2014. He lives and writes in Ottawa.

His piece “Oh, to What Feeds” appears in the third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: What is your relationship to the poetic fragment?

Depends on the fragment. But in general, I see such fragments as an opportunity to keep the writing ball in play. They stimulate my imagination. I can extemporize 'off' a fragment, sort of like a jazzist can riff off a bass progression, say. Even if keeping the same bass, there are almost endless spontaneous jam arrangements possible.

There's a sense in which poetic fragments have a holographic nature. By this, I mean that a poetic fragment still contains a version of something larger than itself, much like a small section of a holographic plate still contains the whole 3D image, just less sharply defined.

I sometimes like to take fragments from other sources, from the writings of others, my own writings, or even short passages of entirely made-up literature that I then build into poems of their own. For an example of the latter, see the long poem Hat_Pulse (Singular Plurals (Chaudiere Books, 2014)).

Starting from the other end of the spectrum, I sometimes write pieces that seem whole and complete, but whose texts take on additional meanings when woven into the larger context of a chapbook, or book of poetry, or possibly even a life's work. I'd like to imagine that the same holographic principles apply, and that this wider meaning of a poem in a new context was somehow enfolded in it, all along.

Q: Tell me about the impetus of the poem “Oh, to What Feeds.”

A: It’s nearly impossible to be aware of all the antecedents to a poem. So, we adopt a kind of a fiction and name the most likely sources.

Likely, the most salient source of emotional energy behind “Oh, to What Feeds” relates directly to my very recent experience with throat cancer. Without getting into too many unpleasant details, one of the side effects of my treatment was that I had to live for two months entirely on liquid supplements. Nutrition was greatly simplified, and its crucial importance for survival was brought home to me in a visceral way. This poem tries to express that importance, not just for actual food, but in all the different ways we get nourishment for body, psyche, culture, etc.  You can see this in such lines as:

    Oppose the draining charge.  Dimming
    battery.  Endings.

A second side effect of going through that condition has been a palpable increase in feeling “glad to be alive”: a strong realization that I should not take life for granted. This causes a general opening up in a person, which is also an emotional undercurrent of this poem.

            Eyes, windows,
    doors, all open.  Welcome.

So many folks helped me get through this challenge that I also got a strong impression of community, and of our being in this thing together.  This third emotional thread finds expression in the text as well.

    Build what’s greater
      than any one.

There are many examples for each of these emotional veins in the poem, but these quotes should be enough to show the connections.

As for the style of this poem: for decades, when the subject calls for it, I've adopted what I’ve called ‘tight-form writing’. Roughly this results in a kind of telegraphic, shorter version of English. When this text tightness gets applied along aesthetic lines, this results in the type of poetic grammar seen here. It fits the emotional content of the poem in that it praises each individual breath.

Q: What is it about the “telegraphic, shorter version of English” that appeals?

A: Telegraphic or as I now refer to it “tight-writing” developed first while taking notes, as a way of dealing with motor-mouth lecturing professors when I first arrived at University. It seemed impossible for me to catch every sentence they uttered, and tape recording their lectures for later transcription more than tripled the amount of work. So I quickly had to develop a very condensed way of taking notes in order to come close to keeping up with the knowledge stream.

Three examples from Astronomy course notes, 1976:

    Hubble thought: classification system, mistake.
    Big Bang Theory – correlates to Universe expanding.
    Relativity meant: static Universe impossible.

Not long after, in the pages of my logbook, I noticed that certain awareness-based experiences were also overloading my capacity to write, if I tried to transcribe them live. As with the University notes, there was simply too much happening all-at-once for me to catch any meaningful percentage of it in ink. So I adapted my note-taking way of writing for ‘live stream capture' in my logbook. I noticed there was quite an important difference with these ‘live in the moment’ texts, with a particular advantage in capturing the core of an experience. Tight-writing had been adapted to logbook writing, in other words, for those cases where I wanted to capture experiences in the stream as they flowed.

Examples from my logbook, sometime in 1989:

    Must drop soul-garbage. Detritus. Past does not bind.
    Accept. Answerless in world of changes. Can be done.
    As inside, so outside. Pile of fragments, not EZ.

At a much later time, when writing poetry, I had to try to capture my picture-imagination. I once again had to find a way to catch very fast - almost kaleidoscopic - image changes, in text. There were many more tweaks and adaptations required this time, since there were many aesthetic considerations to maintain. However, I began to associate this condensed form of writing with imagination. Even when later editing my ‘pixmind stream captures', I tended to keep these pared down tighter sentence fragments, their focused attention to unadorned details. That’s the genesis of my use of a ‘tight-writing’ aesthetic in poetry.

Example from the long poem Parapagus (above/ground, 2012):

    We are reduced to call upon the eye and ear.
    Dicephalic Parapagus: one body, two heads.
    Their locked proximity, a theft of each other's lives.   
    Female adult remains. Survival to maturity
    Suggests an acceptance of strangeness.
    At the root of meanings: like humane, or superstitious.
    Speculations too easy.  These painless imaginings.
    Guards protect the site. Day and night shifts.
    From a global Fame to beat Lucy’s bones. 

This same style was also applied to "Oh, to What Feeds." It seems to fit the immediacy and intensity of the emotions expressed there.

Q: You seem to have developed a comfortable degree of writerly instincts. I know you’ve been working on a daily “log book” over the years, where first drafts of much of your work emerges. How does the daily practice of composing your “log book” translate into finished pieces? Do you consider yourself a writer of poetry, or a writer of a “log book,” some of which might be carved out and reworked for the purposes of publication?

A: My successful logbook journey began at the age of 15, after half a dozen failed attempts to keep a daily journal. Somehow on this particular try, the habit finally took hold. If I were to guess at what made the difference, I’d say it was a sense of exploration. A huge drive to understand the world, this life, and awareness. Though the logbook contained many rough drafts of works of fiction, short plays, short stories or poems, these for many years took a back seat to working out insights, discoveries, and understandings. The creative writings were a means to an exploratory end. Their texts were probes, existential experiments, and not aesthetically meant for public consumption.

At around age 45, that is after 30 years of this, I felt like I'd gotten a decent preliminary look around. Also, along my travels and explorations, I’d discovered that the concept of human culture had taken on a growing importance for me. For the first time, I felt I could and perhaps should give priority to creative work.

I've always considered myself an explorer first. Trying to map out what was mappable, and beyond that, trying to encapsulate what was meaningful in a multitude of other ways. As such, all writing consists of a single thing, for me. Logbook, emails, essays, songs, stories, and poems. All of them: instances of bearing witness in some way or other. It's not exactly that I consider myself a logbook-writer who then catches certain parts to craft them into poems. It's a bit wider than that. I've been an explorer all along, and only some of these explorations end up in written works of various kinds. Some of them in logbook pages, and more recently, others in poems, depending on the subjects and treatments desired.

The main difference between the logbook and a poem is that, whereas they both share my drive to “encapsulate meaningful awareness-tunings,” with poems, I'm trying to do so in an aesthetic medium, and sometimes also, for the purpose of placing the work on River for a potential eventual re-animation by others.

Everything goes into everything else, when it comes to writing. Explorations into ink, and ink into a myriad of forms, including logbook and poetry. In actual fact, in a human mind, everything seems to interact anyways. Might as well put that into one's design for being, and therefore also, for writing. Seems to me.

Q: You make it sound as though you came to poetry and the use of the poem-fragment rather organically, and yet, I know you’ve done an enormous amount of contemporary reading of poetry. Over the years, what writers and works have influenced the way you approach a poem? Who have you been reading more recently that have had an influence on the way you work?

A: Over my entire lifetime, there’ve been quite a few poets of influence I guess. But of particular note “over the years” would be: e.e.cummings for his willingness to play with and re-invent grammar, Charles Olson for his attention to the percussive nature of poetry, Jack Kerouac for his freedom and awesome poetic travelogues, Irving Layton for his in-your-face uninhibited attitude, bpnichol for the sheer fun of word shapes and sounds, Leonard Cohen for the clear and powerful vision of his songs, Robert Creeley for his willingness to kick holes through our typical boxes, William Carlos Williams for the sculpted power and simplicity of his words, T.S.Elliot for the wide modernist grandness of his sight, Margaret Atwood for her mean-but-true fishhook barb end twists, and Robert Kroetsch for his organic experiments with creating better vehicles blending sound and meaning with form. These, off the top of my head, would probably represent my main writing influences, lifelong.

As for more recently, the poets who are clearly influencing me at the writing chair in practical ways: Gil McElroy for his always inspiring and ongoing Julian Days series of poems, Dionne Brand for the mysterious tone of her book Ossuairies, Mary Jo Bang for her seminal mix of grammar and emotion in her poem The Opening, Monty Reid for his ability to find the perfect distance while providing rich multi-levelled perceptions in The Luskville Reductions, anything by Margaret Avison (whom I’m re-reading) for the sheer spark and fresh/gentle wildness of her sensibilities, and rob mclennan for his ongoing willingness to show us finer details, yet still let them speak for themselves. This list of active present influences keeps changing all the time, but this represents my present roster.

Q: How do you feel the poem “Oh, to What Feeds” fits into, or even expands, the rest of your writing? And now that you’ve a first trade collection under your belt, as well as a small handful of chapbooks, where do you see your writing headed? What do you feel you might be working towards?

A: There’s been a progression, to be sure. A gradual re-working of voice and tone, coupled with a paring down of considerations. I’d describe it as a shorter distance between awareness and text. I’ve written a few poems recently that have this character: “Oh, to What Feeds” (Touch the Donkey #3, October 2014), “We Verb Nature” (Dusie, expected online Nov 2014), and “Knack to Promise” (Chaudiere Books, National Poetry Month, April 2014) represent three examples of such works. That’s where my writing’s going, stylistically.

As I’ve written elsewhere, with poetry I’m trying “to create and encapsulate meaningful awareness tunings in aesthetic language, for later re-animation by a future self or others down River.” At the writing chair, I’m attempting to increase clarity, while still “enshrining the mystery.” I’m more aware of eyes and ears other than my own, and I'm starting to feel the writing implications of this.

As an activity, I increasingly see poetry as much more than a transcription of what’s already perceived. Instead, it’s an actual forging of awareness, somehow improving it, making it more rich, increasing its reach, titrating its possibilities. In other words, adding new windows to my dwelling-place. This feels more fully aligned with my life's explorative drive.

That’s why there’s a second – and the beginnings of a third – poetry book manuscript in the works. Certain recent health challenges have honed things down significantly, simplified things, as such challenges often do. I find there’s very little that truly matters. It’s from this fresh and sparser sensibility that I hope to approach future writing and manuscripts. At least, that’s where my compass points.

Friday, November 14, 2014

TtD supplement #13: eight questions for Megan Kaminski

Megan Kaminski’s first book of poetry is Desiring Map (Coconut Books, 2012). She is also the author of seven chapbooks, most recently Wintering Prairie (Dusie Kollektiv, 2014), which was recently reissued by above/ground press. Her current work Deep City explores the body and the city as architectures in crisis. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Kansas and curates the Taproom Poetry Series in downtown Lawrence.

Her piece “Sister // Deer” appears in the third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the extended poem “Sister // Deer.” How did it originate?

A: My second book, Deep City, is going to be coming out next year—I’ll have an official announcement soon—and “Sister // Deer” is part of my new/current project Gentlewomen. The poems in Gentlewomen play around with and revise gendered domesticity through a re-imagining of the voices of female allegorical figures, specifically Natura, Providentia, and Fortuna—giving voice to particularly feminine desires and appetites. The poems consider the kinds of wildness and incivility that arise from a rejection of various forms of cultivation. They also celebrate feral longings and weedy appetites as counterforces to productivity and as a means of reclaiming the wild. As I’ve been working on the project, I’ve become particularly interested in sisters and the idea of sisterhood, in the relation of the allegorical figures to each other and also the relations of the various other women who inhabit the book—lost girls, icy mothers, drowned and ghosted children, and also the two sisters who get their own long poems, “Dear Sister” and “Sister // Deer.” While “Dear Sister” and her correspondences (there’s an excerpt here at Two Serious Ladies) live very much in the suburban domestic sphere, “Sister // Deer” rejects that world. While I think of her poems very much as spoken utterances, as a kind of response to her sister, they are also language eroded through a kind of self-erasure. A resistance to pleasantries and the types of usefulness and meaning that create the language of her sister. The poems aren’t conventional utterances, and they aren’t the type of responses one might expect to correspondence, and “Sister // Deer” herself perhaps isn’t quite human.

Q: Is this a normal part of your composition process: writing around and through a particular subject/idea?

A: I don’t typically start out with a particular subject—at least not an encompassing and defined subject. In this case I started thinking broadly about voice, examining and playing around with the authority of voice and questions about who gets to speak/who gets to be heard. I’m particularly interested in how these questions play out along lines of gender, class, race, and ecological systems. So I guess I had these set of concerns in mind when I started writing. Gradually the voice of Natura came out in the poems—this loving and at the same time brutal mother and sister. That voice developed in the poems, and as I was writing, I started doing research—a whole ton of research. Research into literary history, literatures and theories of the feral, various ecological systems, philosophical explorations of nature and fortune, and allegorical depictions of women throughout history. That research fueled my writing and the project. I guess this is how my compositional process always goes. For me writing poetry is a way of thinking, about the world, about language, about bodies, about architectures, about capital, about how they all fit together. I’m always thinking, and I'm quite often writing, and every once in a while something comes along that coheres into something interesting enough to pursue as a creative/intellectual project. I’m always thinking and writing and doing research—only a small part of the work I create makes its way into the world.

Q: You give the impression that you are very much working within the framework of the book as unit of composition. Is this a fair assessment, or do you focus more on the individual poem, or handful of poems? Are your books constructed as complete units or more as a collection of disparate parts that eventually cohere into larger projects?

A: Sometimes I write a poem or poems and sometimes I work in larger units. I’m always looking for connections, ways in which poems are thinking through something. Sometimes that thought works itself out in the duration of a single poem, though often the initial thread develops into something larger—a series or even a chapbook or book. I’m always looking to raise additional questions and to develop resonances outside of the initial moment or thought. Since I’m hard at work on a book length manuscript, I am currently very much focused on the form of the book. That said, each book manuscript that I work is part of a larger process of inquiry. The book-to-be, Gentlewomen, is only a small part of the larger intellectual/creative project. There are other writings and creations associated with the project, different ways of thinking through some of the material and ideas that are coalescing into the book manuscript. Some of the writing and research associated with the larger project has developed in the form of book reviews, poetics papers and talks, somatic exercises, and even a textile project. And there’s also a lot of research and writing and thinking associated with the project that will never make its way into the larger world. I’m not so interested in being efficient or productive in a way that is readily recognizable, each book manuscript is only a small part of what I am up to.

Q: What else are you up to?

A: Besides the book manuscript I mentioned earlier, I’m working on a few scattered projects. I’m writing some poems about weeds, bodies, connections, and riots and some poems about the prairie. Working on a lost girls embroidery project. Working on a collaborative project with the poet Bonnie Roy. Reading and thinking a lot about the post-human, citizenry, bodies, crisis, incarceration, revolution, and other things for a residency I’m participating in Joshua Tree. And also thinking about all these things in connection with the poems I have been writing about weeds and weedy connections.

Q: Tell me about this upcoming residency: does this mean you’ll be working on a specific project involving “the post-human, citizenry, bodies, crisis, incarceration, revolution, and other things” while there? What are you imagining this project might look like, or are you still in the preliminary research stages?

A: It’s through the Summer Forum for Inquiry + Exchange, which is a roving residency program in its second year/incarnation, this summer in Joshua Tree, California. This year’s theme is “Networks of Belonging: Geographies, Citizenries, and the Masses,” and there will be residents, invited guests, and organizers all getting together to collaborate through readings, discussions, presentations, and art-making. I’ve been working my way through the extensive reading list this spring and summer and also making connections through other research that I have been doing on my own. This coming week, we’ll all be together in Joshua Tree. I’ve never participated in something like this before, and I’m excited about the ways in which the residency connects with my previous and current work. I’m also excited about the generative possibilities of this week-long exchange in Joshua Tree and the ongoing exchange after. I’m guessing that this will be the start of something new for me in terms of a poetic project. Mostly though, I’m excited about being a part of a larger community of artists, philosophers, and writers, with all of us exploring and grappling with these larger questions. Writing can sometimes feel like an isolating experience, even if what drives you in your writing is a desire to connect.

Q: After one poetry collection and a small handful of chapbooks (as well as this current work-in-progress), how do you feel your work has developed? What, if anything, do you feel you are working toward?

A: I don’t really think of my work in a narrative of progress—so there’s not really a goal or an end that I am working towards. When I first start conceiving them, my individual book and chapbooks projects feel like they are doing quite different things—experimenting with different voices, forms, subjects, etc—but as I spend more time with each of them, I see connections. I continue to be interested in various geographies and architecture—of the natural and made world, of the mind, of the self, of language, of larger systems and networks. Though, I suspect that describes a pretty broad and encompassing field of inquiry.

Q: Winter seems to be a thread that exists through your poetry. What is it about the subject that compels?

A: Well, this winter was particularly rough in Kansas, as for much of the country. My recent chapbook, Wintering Prairie (Dusie 2014), is a long poem devoted to exploring the season and how it mediates our relation to place, specifically the prairie that spreads across Kansas. Besides that poem, I’m not sure if winter is more central to my writing than any other season. Though, I am often surprised and startled by the length and intensity of the season, and perhaps summer, too, after spending so much time in more temperate places.

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

A: Oh—there are so many! Some current and sustaining favorites include Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Leslie Scalapino, C.S. Giscombe (especially Giscombe Road), Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series, Fanny Howe, Joseph Massey, Terry Tempest Williams, Bhanu Kapil, Erín Moure, Giorgio Agamben, Michael Palmer, Jennifer Moxley, Gina Myers, Jen Tynes, Ji Yoon Lee, Melissa Buzzeo, Pattie McCarthy, Joshua Clover, Cecilia Vicuña, Michelle Naka Pierce, Stephen Collis, Lisa Robertson—so many wonderful writers. And that’s just who’s on the top of my mind this morning.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

TtD supplement #12: seven questions for derek beaulieu

derek beaulieu is the author or editor of 15 books, the most recent of which are Please, No more poetry: the poetry of derek beaulieu (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013) and kern (Les Figues press, 2014). He is the publisher of the acclaimed no press and is the visual poetry editor at UBUWeb. beaulieu has exhibited his work across Canada, the United States and Europe and currently teaches at the Alberta College of Art + Design and Mount Royal University. He is the 2014—2016 Poet Laureate of Calgary.
His piece “one week” appears in the third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the extended prose piece “one week.” How did it originate?

A: I was invited by Richard Harrison to be a part of the “Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” project with a pair of readings, one in 2011 and one this last spring. Mutanabbi Street is the historic center of Baghdad bookselling, a street filled with bookstores and outdoor book stalls. A car bomb exploded and killed 26 people on Mutanabbi Street on March 5, 2007, decimating this cultural hub. For the 2nd reading I composed a new piece that applies the ideas of conceptual writing. This piece consists solely of press releases outlining the deaths in Iraq during the week that Al-Mutanabbi street was bombed.

Q: Have you utilized this kind of flarf-esque structure before? What do you see as the effect of a piece such as this?

A: Well, I don’t think that “one week” is a flarf poem in the slightest, it works along more Conceptual frameworks. Flarf poetry is written with an eye to what wikipedia says are “rejected conventional standards of quality and explored subject matter and tonality not typically considered appropriate for poetry.” Flarf poems are written to be intentionally corrosive, cute, or cloyingly wacky. “one week” on the other hand is closer to conceptualism whereby it scrapes the internet for language and then presents it back without filter—a means of presenting daily language in a way which draws attention to its poetics—there’s nothing cute or cloying about the reporting coming from Iraq.

Q: Given that such a conceptual framework, as the back cover of Please, No More Poetry: The Poetry of derek beaulieu (2013) suggests, “challenges the very idea of reading,” I wonder about how such a piece is considered in various contexts. For example: an audience in an art gallery reading such a piece on the wall might be more open to its conceptual frameworks, but even a highly-literate literary audience reading the same piece in a poetry journal is still subject to a narrower view. Is part of the purpose of the piece to simply challenge the idea of what “poem” is currently considered?

A: I wouldn’t say that the purpose of the piece is solely to challenge our expectations of poetry, no. That said, Conceptual and Concrete poetry both challenge our reading habits. My friend Christian Bök jibes that the reason why so much text art is unsuccessful is that people don’t like to read standing up. I think that in a lot of ways the reading that we do most often occurs standing up—standing on public transit, walking down the street, waiting in line—and that poetry can only benefit from engaging with this new reading spaces.

Q: Have you composed any other pieces along the lines of “one week”?

A: Yes, for the most part it’s the same strategy I used for the majority of How to Write (Talonbooks, 2010). The internet provides an unending source of material, it’s just a matter of where to look and how to choose.

Q: I’ve always had the impression that you predominantly worked on larger projects. What happens with the small one-offs you create in-between, or are they eventually to be part of something larger as well? I’m curious, too, about the piece “from Extispicium” in the uncollected section of Please, No More Poetry. Was it also constructed using a similar strategy?

A: In addition to larger projects like flatland, Local Colour and The Newspaper, I always have smaller pieces on the go in various stages. Those poems are sometimes occasional and sometimes are incorporated in to larger sequences, depends on the piece. Extispicium is a long-term project that combines personal narrative with harvested testimony and phrases from survivors of abuse and bullying.

Q: I’m intrigued at the political engagement of “one week” and the social engagement of Extispicium, elements I haven’t been aware of in your prior work. Is this a relatively new element you’ve been exploring, or simply one that’s more overt? What do you consider, if any, the social responsibilities of art? Or does it live at the level of honest engagement?

A: Conceptual writing (and Concrete poetry) is often dismissed as apolitical. I think that it is, in fact, highly charged within a political awareness of subjectivity, ownership, theft and formulations of the commons. Rob Fitterman’s No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself (Ugly Duckling, 2014) is a perfect example—in it Fitterman has crafted a deeply intimate, deeply personal, lyrical longpoem crated entirely from phrases and confessions he scraped from chatboards and internet postings. Subjectivity and ownership—poetic property—are charged spaces. I would say that my work has continuous engagement with the politics of reading and theft.

Q: As a writer, publisher, editor and critic, you are extremely engaged with a variety of practitioners of Conceptual writing as well as concrete and visual poetries across Canada and across the globe. Who would you consider are the current writers that should be receiving more attention? What emerging writers would you recommend we watch out for?

A: I strongly recommend the emerging poets who have been featured in 89+ / POETRY WILL BE MADE BY ALL especially #girlproblems by Victoria Braun and Space Administration by Ken Hunt ... and there’s a tonne more in that great, foreword-thinking series…

Friday, October 24, 2014

TtD supplement #11: seven questions for Susan Briante

Susan Briante is the author of Pioneers in the Study of Motion and Utopia Minus, both published by Ahsahta Press. She is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona.

Her piece “THE PHYSICISTS SAY CONSCIOUSNESS” appears in the third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “THE PHYSICISTS SAY CONSCIOUSNESS” How did it originate?

A: For a while, I wrote poems that intersected with the stock market, then searched for another lens through which to look at my world. I started reading articles about contemporary physics and started writing a series of poems in dialogue with the discipline. I found an article that explained how consciousness could be expressed through an equation. (The actual article is written by a neuroscientist, but the impulse that everything could be mapped by equations struck me as having very much to do with the realm of physics.)

Around the same time, our family dog—a wonderful American bulldog named Moon—passed away unexpectedly. As a result of our dog’s death I was confronted with the problem of explaining mortality to our 3.5-year-old daughter without relying on the tropes of Christianity, no longer part of my belief system. I find Buddhist thought and physics comforting in their world views (not without their own spheres of intersection), but I struggle with how to translate those beliefs and possibilities into a language a child can understand.

Q: I know you’ve been working poems utilizing scientific content for some time, so I’m intrigued to hear that you were working on “poems that intersect with the stock market.” What is the appeal with working on poems utilizing, for a number of readers, might be considered “non-poetic” material? What are the difficulties with attempting to work through such subject matter, and what do you think you bring to the conversation between poetry and science?

A: At the University of California San Diego, Rae Armantrout and the astrophysicist Brian Keating have teamed up to teach the course Poetry for Physicists. At the on-line magazine Jacket2, poet Amy Catanzano has written a series of stunning short essays tracing intersections between poetry and physics or what she calls Quantum Poetics. If you want to read my thoughts about the connections between poetics and the stock market, you can find them in my essay “Notes Towards a Poetics of the Dow” at The Volta (http://www.thevolta.org/ewc5-sbriante-p1.html).

For centuries poets have engaged with the most powerful forces or institutions of their time whether we are talking about the Church or the natural world. Defending poetry against accusations that it had no place in a world dominated by scientific thought, Shelley asserted the poet “beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered.” I find the lyric to be an ideal place to map out connections or to explore what Muriel Rukeyser called “the processes and the machines of process” as a way to understand the human condition.

Q: There is something in your essay that is reminiscent of, say, Picasso incorporating influences of African art into his own, which brings about a wave of new energy and influences into European art, thereby irrevocably altering both. Was it a matter of wishing to incorporate a fresh vocabulary into poetry or the engagement with foreign subject matter that first brought you into the idea? And is what brought you in the same reasons you remain?

A: I think as poets we are always excited by language, so yes there is something in addressing a new vocabulary. I was also very interested in engaging with the economic “crisis” of 2008, which marked the beginning of a new economic normal for many people as well as the beginning of a kind of narrative crisis. We measure of our “health” in the United States through economic indexes like the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Most news broadcasts end with those numbers. But why? That’s not an inevitable choice. The nation of Bhutan, for example, measures Gross National Happiness (http://www.gnhbhutan.org/about/) instead of Gross National Product. I created the many of the poems that make up the manuscript, The Market Wonders, by recording the closing number from the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI), then plugging that number in a variety of search engines that would lead me to texts. I use those texts and closing number of the DJI to inspire or influence the poems I was writing. You can find examples of them here (http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/october-14%E2%80%94-dow-closes-10015) and here (http://atticusreview.org/may-26-the-dow-closes-down-9974/).

The DJI became a lens for me and as I finished that project, I started to look for a lens. For the moment, science, especially physics, has been offering a new viewpoint for me. In the end, it is often about seeing how these perspectives, sets of knowledge, and vocabularies intersect with and inform the quotidian.

Q: When composing poems utilizing either the stock market or physics, how deeply do you need to understand something before you allow yourself to incorporate it into a poem? Or are you learning as you go, and utilizing information as possible bouncing-off points into further possibilities? Or, as you suggest in your first answer, is it all simply a variation on translating ideas, beliefs, and concepts into another series of possibilities, including poetry?

A: I think it is important to treat any subject matter with respect. Naturally one doesn’t want to get things wrong. I tend to read a lot, deeply but also broadly, looking for intersections between fields of knowledge as well as considering the possible blind spots inherent in whatever viewfinder I choose. I’ve always been attracted to poems that offer glimpses into thought processes. I don’t mean stream of consciousness but a recording of awareness. I don’t ever want to colonize material, using it in service of an argument. The poem is not the 5-paragraph essay. The poems need to be a site of active thinking.

Q: That’s the best description of poetry I think I’ve heard yet: a site of active thinking. You’ve already mentioned poets such as Rukeyser and Armantrout, but what other poets influence your work? What writers or writing can you not help but return to?

A: I’m currently reading Lisa Robertson’s XEcologue (which opens with the stunner: “I needed a genre for the times that I go phantom”) and Nilling. Robertson is such a fierce thinker and beautiful writer. I return to and turn to her work when I need to sharpen my mind. I just finished reading Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, an amazing conclusion to a poetic journey that begin with her book Cascadia. A stack of books await me later this summer as I prepare to teach a course on the lyric “I” and experimental autobiographies: Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, Alice Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and of course Wordsworth and Shelley.

I’m also supposed to be reading Capital in the 21st Century for a reading group, but I have not started it yet.

Q: A number of the examples you mention are poets working within the framework of the book as unit of composition. What is your process of constructing a poetry manuscript? Are you aware of the book as your compositional unit, or do you focus more on the individual poem, or handful of poems? Are your books constructed as complete units or more as a collection of disparate parts that eventually cohere into larger projects?

A: I’ve always enjoyed writing poems in series. It’s a way to avoid the absolutely blank page. That said, I think the book as a unit of composition is very fashionable right now. Maybe that’s reason enough to proceed with caution. The danger of the book project lies in its becoming too focused, so that it stunts rather than inspires possibilities. It’s nice to have an “about” when we are writing, but in the end I think it is more exciting and hopefully rewarding to have a “towards” or an “around.” Lately, I have been trying to go to the page with as broad a sense of freedom as I can muster.

Q: Finally, after two trade collections, as well as your current work-in-progress, how do you feel your work is developing? Where do you think you are headed?

A: With each book and book project, I have had a chance to not only explore new intellectual fields but to teach myself something about craft. I’m still an amateur. I am committed to learning something with each new project.

Yesterday I downloaded an undergraduate plan of study for an astronomy major. I’m not sure I’m ready to take calculus again, but I’ve hung the course plan on the corkboard above my desk as a reminder. That’s what I mean about freedom. Every time I go to the page I want to be there not out of habit or obligation, but because there’s something I can do there that I can’t do any place else.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Touch the Donkey : third issue,

The third issue is now available, with new poems by Gil McElroy, j/j hastain, derek beaulieu, Megan Kaminski, Roland Prevost, Emily Ursuliak, Susan Briante and D.G. Jones.

Six dollars (includes shipping). My good looks paid for that pool, and my talent filled it with water.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

TtD supplement #10: seven questions for Catherine Wagner

Catherine Wagner’s most recent book is Nervous Device (City Lights, 2012). Her work has been anthologized in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry (second edition), Best American Erotic Poems and elsewhere. Her performances and poems are archived on the PennSound, Archive of the Now and Poetry Foundation websites, and her work has been translated into German, Norwegian, Slovene and Bengali. A member of the S(W)OP poetics collective in southwest Ohio, she is professor of English at Miami University and lives in Oxford, Ohio with her son.

Her poem “Notice” appears in the second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: In “Notice,” you’ve built a short prose piece specifically for the journal composed in what could be seen as “corporate-speak,” a deliberately “un-poetic” language. It reminds slightly of Rachel Zolf’s Human Resources (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2007), in which she works to engage with the almost de-humanizing language of the business work-space. What made you decide to engage with such language?

A: I like Rachel Z’s work. Human Resources doesn’t accept the instrumentality of business-world phrases, it’s derailing them and mashing them into this or that terrine or vitrine. My piece uses businessy phrasing but it's not derailing anything phrasally, it’s a full-disclosure statement and not even ironic. For the first half of 2014, I sent “Notice” to any journal that solicited my work, just changing the magazine/editor names in the first sentence. I had been feeling weird about the way poem publication gets monetized for a shrinking class (mine) of academic laborers (publications get entered into annual activities reports and considered when salaries are re-assessed). Despite K Goldsmith’s recently saying “money has no value in poetry,” I wanted to think about money gets into the poetry game or doesn’t. I hoped the poem would come out everywhere at once to maximize publicly my ROI [return on investment] from the poem, but you were the first and almost the only sucker to take it. Either the piece is too obvious/boring/bad or it’s not what people thought they would get when they ordered from my atelier.

So the poem is aimed at laborers in the poetry factory or field (editors, readers, plus the less-visible laborers who make the field available and usable—papermill workers, custodians, code jockeys) and I seriously did want to thank them in it. I’m not sure that comes off. The tone feels different published than it did on my screen.

Q: I’m curious about the response other journals have had to the piece. As an editor, my original response was one of confusion, given that it wasn’t what I was expecting when soliciting your work, but in the end I decided to trust your judgment on what wasn’t entirely clear to me. What have other journals/editors said in response?

A: One said (this was a student editor of Sonora Review) “We very much enjoyed the political inquiry and discussion your piece evoked, which divided our board of 8 readers in a fruitful way” – so nice! they ended up not taking it. Bathhouse, another one run by students, took it and said it was “perfect for the issue”—I don’t know why. But the issue had lots of interesting stuff in it, look at this. I sent to a couple places that asked for prose pieces and that didn’t fly—one said “it’s not quite the right fit for our categories of content (articles, reviews, etc)—though I realize that’s stodgy.” Everybody has been fearsomely polite like you. Was the piece just confusing, or was it confusing because it wasn’t like my other work you’ve seen?

Q: In my case, a bit of both, I’d have to say. There was a part of me that wondered if the piece was meant as a slight to the editor/journal that had requested such. I find it interesting how your work has been moving away from the lyric and more into the conceptual over the past few years, from this current piece to some of the work in Nervous Device. Given your trajectory of over a dozen chapbooks and four poetry collections over the past dozen years, how do you feel your work has developed?

A: So happy you trusted me, yes. I guess I want to explain some more though it’s awk to explain a fail. I wanted the poem to lay out the labor, and the returns on it, that happen when a poem gets published, and to expose how its publication benefits me actually and monetarily, even if it’s not much money we’re talking about. Sending out the poem to a bunch of places was meant to maximize my benefit, so the poem is taking advantage of poetry laborers as it thanks them. It’s trying to be public about the advantage it’s taking, but I don’t blame you for wondering whether it was a slight. The gesture was blurry.

I just read this Sarah Brouillette essay called “World Literature and Market Dynamics” that is helping me think about what I was gesturing at in that poem. Whenever I read her I realize that she’s thought clearly through things that my poems think about in chaotic and clumsy ways and I feel relieved. She is talking about our tendency to ignore the inequities the economy fosters in the literary economy. (Pascale Casanova calls this inattention “the denial of the unequal structure of literary space.”) Brouillette diagnoses an “uneven distribution of...agency and ability to author” as well as “uneven access to reading materials and to the means of publication.” Then she calls out a trend my poem fits right into like a fart in the wind: “In these conditions we can observe heightened consciousness about the compromises, complicities, and constraints on literary work and its valorization, and heightened kinds of circular games with reflexive unease about the extent to which particular individuals have the right to represent certain kinds of experience in their writing.” You can see that self-consciousness in “Notice” and all over the place in the uncomfortably privileged writers I read and know, especially the few tenure-track academics out there. Who are not chilling out, who are laborers overworked, some of them, to the point of nervous breakdown, but who have so much more access to the game than some others do.

Anyway I don’t want to write more poems like this, it’s a cul-de-sac, how long can I stay on a sit-and-spin that loathes itself. Do something else, loathe other stuff like prisons that pay immigrants thirteen cents an hour, imitate cicada sound-architectures. I don’t know what I’m doing now or what I’ll do. I can send you a new poem that’s more like my other stuff if you want. Soundplay, passionately inchoate blurting, line breaks, colors, stinky bits, etc. I do want to say that even though “Notice” has a different linguistic texture, it’s not that different from what I’ve been messing with for a while. It’s a lyric, it’s concerned with matters of address, with a projected addressed other who is often a beloved—in this case the reader and the editor.

I think lyric can interrogate frame. I don’t think conceptualism owns that game. I keep on being interested in lyric and in how lyric hooks into historical and economic systems and is this sort of glinting micro-facet of them or bursting blister.

Q: What I find so very compelling about the piece, especially with the explanation of such, is how you are working to push the boundaries of what a poem should be doing, and playing with. What is really being asked of poets when they’re solicited for non-paying markets? I’m slightly disappointed in myself for having to wait for the explanation to fully understand such.

A: I don’t mind poets being solicited for non-paying markets, any more than I mind being encouraged to sing along when I’m by the campfire. Writing poetry is work but that doesn’t mean I think it ought to be waged. I do want to think about the hierarchies involved in the ways poems get processed for and by the market. Both the symbolic/cultural capital market and the market where digits get altered on a screen and you can buy stuff or not.

You asked about the development or trajectory of my work. I am not sure it develops though it changes. It’s always a response to whatever’s going on, it marks experience so I can look at it. It feels rebellious, I put on my fuck-you hat and play around. But putting on the fuck-you hat is increasingly charged and peculiar because how can I be rebellious while being paid as an institutional writer? I guess we’ll see how I cry glitter. I don’t have to cry diamonds like Lady Gaga on the Simpsons (she says it hurts like hell).

Q: Is the poem “Notice” part of a larger, current project? Will it be included in your next poetry collection, possibly?

A: It’s been a slow couple of years for writing and I usually have no idea how poems will start to cohere into a book until I’ve got a big batch. I’m thinking of including other sorts of writing besides poetry – some criticism and essays – in whatever I do next, and “Notice” could go in. I’ll revise it though.

Q: Do you have any difficulty shifting between poetry and criticism, or is it all part of the same large canvas? Poems and criticism don’t often exist together in single-author volumes, yet some authors such as Anne Carson, Erín Moure, Phil Hall and Susan Howe have all built careers on their own take on the “poem-essay.” Where do you see the two connecting in your own writing?

A: When I’m writing about other texts, it’s easier to see where some idea I’m working with came from. It feels more like “applied research.” Whereas I often write poetry in a truancy (autocorrect for trancy) way and have no clue where something came from. I don’t want to oppose the two though. A friend of mine says it takes many years to mature as a critic, whereas poets can write great poems when they’re young. That seems right, because to develop intuition as a critic, you need to read so much, and eventually the texts you read start to connect to one another and to history and feel like a world to you and then you can swim there and feel the currents. That’s when associations could start to generate themselves intuitively. Great critical writers like Rachel Blau Duplessis or William Empson or Kristin Ross or John Wilkinson or Olson in Call Me Ishmael are working intuitively for sure. Not just the poeticky critics. I think of Chris Nealon or younger critics like Margaret Ronda—I admire good critics on the traditional model so much – it’s glorious work to rigorously demand of yourself that you come to terms with some aspect of a tradition and try to define it or redefine it in some way useful to others.

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

A: Well, that is a good question to hit me with right now – I felt dead as poet while writing most of the above (couple months ago) but writing is starting to come back. So I think I know: going for walks, listening to crickets and cicadas, reading anything that I’m reading just because I feel like it (anti-dutifully), listening to music, having sex, sleeping enough and having a life that lets me remember dreams, not letting job take over, singing, waking up early. Listening to ballads and blues, hiphop. Alice Notley, Suzan-Lori Parks, Larry Eigner. Medieval lyrics. The Tale of Genji and long proto-novels with Russian-doll plots like The Water Margin and 1001 Nights. Rae Armantrout, Gwendolyn Brooks, Bernadette Mayer, Clark Coolidge—these people all have a prosody I can’t figure out and I keep trying. Science journalism. People whose sentences kill me—Carlyle, Nabokov, recently CLR James—I am finally reading The Black Jacobins and James’ prose style is kicking my ass; it’s weirdly Carlylean (despite their political differences) but with less grandeur and pirouetting so the argument moves like a flow-chart instead of a cataract. The Greek Anthology, Catullus, Martial make me remember that people have been writing for a long time all kinds of shit about minor things that loomed large to them, people who weren’t good people, who were horrible to one another especially women and slaves as they negotiated the horrible politics of their world, and they wrote great poems and the poems are here and they are dead, this makes me feel better though I want to be good people.

Friday, September 19, 2014

TtD supplement #9: seven questions for Susanne Dyckman

Susanne Dyckman is the author of a full-length volume of poetry, equilibrium’s form (Shearsman Books), and three chapbooks, Counterweight (Woodland Editions), Transiting Indigo (EtherDome) and Source (above/ground press).  Her writing has appeared in a number of journals, most recently the EtherDome Anthology, As if it Fell from the Sun.  She has been a finalist for the Ahsahta Press Sawtooth Poetry Prize and the EPR Discovery Award, and a winner of the Five Fingers Review Poetry Award. Her home is in Albany, California, where she hosts the occasional Evelyn Avenue summer reading series.   

Her poem “Across the Street” appears in the second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Across the Street.” How did it originate?

A: The starting point was a boo-k of street photographs by Vivian Maier. I often use a visual image as a writing prompt, and am especially drawn to photography, most often urban landscapes. I’d heard of Maier a few years ago and was intrigued by her story and her work.

I find cities, their histories and inhabitants, compelling, so I easily engaged with Maier’s art. My process was to randomly open the book, look at a photograph and respond. I did not intended to describe the visual, but to use it as an entrance into a poem. Focusing on a physical image allows me to move out of myself, before moving back in. A type of tension develops between the external and the internal, and I find that generative. We all bring ourselves to the page, but I don’t necessarily want to start with myself. The image is the beginning, the first “other” with whom I am having a conversation. I allow myself to go elsewhere if I need to do so, and in this work I moved beyond the photographic frame, while still, I hope, holding its sensibility. 

Q: Is response a normal part of your process?

A: It very often is, because to respond is to be engaged with something or someone, and that allows for an interaction through language that is of interest to me. I experience more energy in the process if there is a sense of some conversation/communication taking place through sound, meaning, and placement of words, as well as the blank spaces on the page. The sensed dialogue may actually be a monologue, but the spirit is one of connection.  

Q: Is this part of a larger work that might end up seeing publication as a trade collection? What is your process of putting together a manuscript?

A: It will be part of a longer work (as I’m still writing this project), though I don’t know that it will be book length. I’ve found that trying to extend a series of poems, to continue with a theme or specific approach just to have more pages, is usually unsuccessful. I sense when a group of poems is finished, or, to put it another way, they tell me when they’re completed. I work best when I’m not looking ahead to what might be an end product, but stay in the present, with the writing.

That said, different projects can be combined, and may be more compatible than I would have initially thought when first writing them.   

Putting together a manuscript is a great pleasure, whether it’s my poetry or another’s. I enjoy playing with how various parts might fit together, and how different arrangements alter the reading. Of course, attention to language is a key part of the process. How do the words of one poem lead into those of another? Where does one land and start again, poem after poem? Switching page order can create an unexpected, but no less effective, reading of the work.          

I also think about how the pages appear in sequence. Are longer poems best set off with shorter ones? What’s the density of the words on one page, and what should follow? Just as I often use a visual image as a starting point for writing, I put together a manuscript with the visual in mind. When we pick up a book of poems we are not only reading the words, we are reading the shape of the poem, looking at its placement on the page, noting blank spaces as well as text.

Q: After one poetry collection and a small handful of chapbooks (as well as this current work-in-progress), how do you feel your work has developed? What, if anything, do you feel you are working toward?

A: I have another full-length manuscript that hasn’t yet found a home, and I’ve been working on a collaborative project with the poet Elizabeth Robinson. With the collaboration, there is an interaction of our very different voices and a resulting element of surprise that moves the work outside of the realm of authorship. Though it’s often clear who wrote which lines, it’s sometimes less easy (occasionally impossible) to identify, and that’s pleasing, because the poems then become something other than our individual contributions.  

I’m not sure how to answer the question as to how my work has developed. That’s asking me to be more self-aware than I may be. Over the last year I have been writing in a journal every morning, mostly free-writing. This is not an uncommon practice for writers, but I set myself a goal of being disciplined about it for a full twelve months (I’m now on month eleven). I’ve filled many notebooks and I’m looking at that material to see how I might make poetry of it. I suspect that the work will have a different tone than my other projects, though maybe not. It’s all still very new, so I can’t yet say if I’ll find it successful, but I have many pages of raw material to draw from.

Q: I’m always curious about writers who work collaboratively. How did the project originate, and how, if at all, has the process of collaborating affected your individual work?

A. It began, at Elizabeth’s suggestion, with a plan that we each write a response to the same poem, preferably one of a writer whose work is quite different than ours. As we both happened to have the same edition of Vallejo’s collected, those poems became our starting point. We would alternate choosing one of his poems, each write a response, and then compare the result. The writing has since moved on from that initial prompt.

Has it influenced my work? I think I can say yes, but mostly that it has influenced my writing within the collaboration. In this kind of process there is always the echo of the other when one sits down to write. I am having a conversation with Elizabeth, so her language and sensibilities are on my mind. I will either write in contrast to that, or allow for some blurring, that is, write with a sense of what I think is her voice, though it is not always a conscious decision at the time. When we read our pieces together, it allows me a better understanding of how we each approach our own poetry. And, as I mentioned earlier, there is kind of delight that can result when blending the work.

Q: How far has the collaboration progressed so far, and what are you working towards? Are you attempting a full-length manuscript of such, or something more ongoing?

A: We didn’t begin the project with a full-length book in mind (the initial plan was, simply, to have fun), but the work has progressed, so that’s now a possibility. 

Finding time for it can be an issue, as the collaborative writing has to take place along with our own independent projects and the other needs and distractions of daily life.   Much of the exchange has been long-distance, via email. When we’ve been able to be in the same location and sit together with the poems, the work has come together quickly. Because of these challenges, distance and time, I don’t know when we’ll turn to one another and say “it’s finished”, though I imagine that day will come. The creation of a third voice is such an interesting process I’m not sure I really want to see the work to end.

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

A: I always return to Wallace Stevens. He was the first poet to expand and deepen my sense of what language can do, and I never tire of him. Initially, and I’m talking about early in my poetry reading and writing life, I didn’t always understand him, but his work made me realize that understanding a poem as a traditional narrative didn’t matter. His language sang to me and that was enough.

“The Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales is another favorite, one I revisit often to remember how fun reciting can be, how poetry is a truly physical act as sound forms in the mouth.

There are, of course, many other poems that evoke a “swoon” response, work that makes me wish I’d written it myself. I’m tempted to list them all, to give those poets credit for being an inspiration, but then that wouldn’t be answering your question.

So, Stevens is the one.   

Monday, September 8, 2014

TtD supplement #8: seven questions for Susan Holbrook

Susan Holbrook’s poetry books are the Trillium-nominated Joy Is So Exhausting (Coach House, 2009), Good Egg Bad Seed (Nomados, 2004) and misled (Red Deer, 1999), which was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and the Stephan G. Stephansson Award. She teaches North American literatures and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor. She recently co-edited The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson: Composition as Conversation (Oxford U P, 2010).

Her poems “As Good as I Get” and “Layman’s Terms.” appear in the second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: I’ve always enjoyed your engagement with the deceptively straight narrative line, something that continues in the poems “As Good as I Get” and “Layman’s Terms.” What is your specific attraction to engaging the sentence?

A: I guess the relentless exposure to sentences in our daily lives, with their grammatical orthodoxies and go-to syntactical layouts, make them kind of irresistible to me as vehicles for expansion and play. I love grammar—my favourite essay is Stein’s “Poetry and Grammar” where she lays out her idiosyncratic passions for punctuation and parts of speech—and enjoy the sentence as a unit. Sometimes I riddle the syntax and sometimes, as in these two poems, the syntax is familiar but the terms pop out. Both these poems feature sentences which accumulate, rather than participate in the larger arc of a paragraph. I draw the line there!

Q: What is it about the accumulation that appeals?

A: I think of a traditional paragraph as a dogwalker holding a bunch of leashes, each sentence-dog tethered to the main man.  In a more cumulative structure, dogs just keep running into the park, one after another—you never know when they’ll stop! There are interesting relationships among the units, but they do not involve cause/effect or subordinations so much as resonances—it’s democratic. No alpha dog. And there’s a nice processual, self-generating energy that gets going. A few years ago my students complained that I always suggested they rewrite their submissions into list poems. They were right, I did. It was a way to get them to relinquish some intentional control, see where a series might lead them.

Q: Your books so far appear to be structured less as a grouping of poems than as a series of pieces composed as different answers to a central core of questions. Are these poems part of any kind of larger grouping? What is your process of putting together a manuscript?

A: Wow, I’m excited to hear about a “central core of questions”! So far my process has really been one of writing poems now and then until I have enough for a book (takes about 10 years!), without any overarching project or through line. But it’s true that all my poems share some persistent concerns—when writing I think about how we shape and are shaped by language, about how to invite people in to a more intimate relationship with words, how cultural critique can be animated by defamiliarization’s prodding to sensation/awareness.

Q: Does that mean your process is more a matter of accumulation? After two trade collections over the past fifteen years, how do you feel your work has developed?

A: Yes, I guess that’s right! – the poems pile up slowly, and I don’t know what’s coming next. An interest that’s developed over time is in conceptual work, in organizing more poems using found material. But your question prompted me to look back at misled, and then at the pile of stuff I’ve got on the go now—looks like I’ve always had this penchant for mixing aesthetics. I enjoy reading work across poetic ‘camps’ and hope to be that flexible as a writer, too.

Q: What are some of the writers and works you’ve been engaging with lately? What influences are you aware of in your current work?

A: I’ve been pleasantly overwhelmed of late with spectacular work to be seriously engaged with. As a poetry editor at Coach House, I get to dig into wildly exciting work. Coming out this season were two books I got to edit: Sina Queyras’s MxT and Brecken Hancock’s Broom Broom, both phenomenal. I’ve also been working on an introductory textbook on poetry, so I’ve spent several months revisiting a few ‘classics’ and skipping through the centuries, therefore getting a sense of a kind of inexorable poetic energy in the world that’s buoying. I also have some perennial fonts of influence, poets to whose work I turn and return—Harryette Mullen and Robert Kroetsch, to name two.

Q: What appealed to me about the two poems you sent along for Touch the Donkey are for exactly what you’ve been describing, the combination of accumulation, sentence and list, and the rush that comes from wrapping lines across line breaks, as though each stanza is meant to be seen as a single, extended breath. Is the breath something you’re aware of during composition? Are these poems that would be performed as a kind of breathless rush, a slow and steady stream, or more of accumulative pace, picking up speed along the way?

A: Yes, I do think about breath—probably because Fred Wah was a mentor, and he is so much the brass player, the music a function of the lungs. “Laymen’s Terms” proposes a voice, the ‘expert’ explaining technology using esoteric/odd/poetic analogies. I varied sentence length and compression there to vary the pace.  I noticed that absurdity can be delivered effectively both when it’s adagio and when it’s presto! Either way the listener doesn’t learn much more about broadband, but might enjoy the worlds these laymen’s terms open up. The poem ends by telling us “that’s what you want,” something I was thinking about in “As Good as I Get,” which is a collage of found bits from advertising. These companies name their products so as to imply they’re selling ‘values’, so I used the sonnet (roughly!), traditional conveyer of values. The gentle pacing of sonnet is bombarded by relentless slogans and testimonials so the resulting self-portrait is hyperventilated.

Q: Is utilizing found material something you engage with on any sort of regular basis? Is this one of the structural threads one might find throughout your writing?

A: Yes, in fact the word “found” doesn’t even seem right anymore, because in the digital age we are just swimming in the stuff. Material is calling out to be cut, spliced, reshaped, translated, etc. all the time. It’s kind of a funny experience, now, to start with a blank sheet. Doing conceptual pieces alerts us to the borrowing that is part of our every utterance, so I’m more aware of the citational quality of even my “original” work.

Monday, August 25, 2014

TtD supplement #7: seven questions for Julie Carr

Julie Carr is the author of six books of poetry, most recently 100 Notes on Violence (Ahsahta) and RAG (Omnidawn). Think Tank is forthcoming from Solid Objects. She is also the author of Surface Tension: Ruptural Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry (Dalkey Archive, 2013). She is the co-editor of the forthcoming collection, Active Romanticism, which will be out from University of Alabama Press in late 2014. She teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and lives in Denver where she helps with Counterpath gallery and Counterpath Press.

Two poems from her work-in-progress “REAL LIFE: AN INSTALLATION” appears in the second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the work-in-progress “REAL LIFE: AN INSTALLATION.” How did it originate?

A: Like a lot of poets, I found myself in a situation where I had a number of manuscripts sort of lined up, ready to send out or even slotted for publication, and it seemed to be happening too fast. It was the summer of 2011, and my partner Tim said to me, you need something to write that will take you at least five years. In response I created a process for myself – I would write every day from labor day to labor day to labor day, beginning in 2011. I did not allow myself to read back what I’d written, except at three-month intervals, and then I could do only very slight cleaning for spelling and stuff. That way I was always writing into an unknown, forgetting what I’d done the day before, keeping it strange and off-balance. Of course themes and forms emerged, but they’d shift pretty regularly, and I had to allow that, since I was not editing at all. At the end of the two years, I had twelve sections and a total of almost 600 pages. Now I am editing, forming, shaping, and cutting most of it. The editing process will take as least as long as the original writing took. Probably longer.

The title came from my daughter, who was four when I started. She’d often refer to things and events as “real life,” in order to distinguish them from stuff that was happening in her imagination, in her dreams, or in stories and movies. For kids at that age it’s important to clarify, since so much is going on all the time that is not “real life” (and they are often unsure what is and what isn’t real). I started to notice that when adults use the phrase “real life,” they usually mean work, or the mundane, the everyday, as opposed to art, sex, love, illness, dreams, play – pretty much anything that is any fun or has any intensity attached to it qualifies as not real life! I thought I’d trouble the term, while also thinking a lot about labor, work, economics – throughout the writing.

I began thinking about installation art first because I always am, but second because of a talk Fredric Jameson gave in which he claimed that the artists of the future will all be installation artists, or something like that. I can say more about that if you like.

Q: Certainly!

A: What I remember from Jameson’s talk (and I think this is a talk he’d been giving a lot that year around the country) was the idea that 1) we are in a time of rampant presentism with no clear or even muddy vision for the future and no memory of the past, and 2) that all artists are now curators or installation artists, gathering materials and arranging them, rather than making them. I don’t agree with either of these ideas, though certainly I can see where they come from. Instead I see a lot of people struggling to imagine new futures and working toward them (in art and activism), and I see a lot of really relevant art that is in no way “just” a gathering together or curating. Nonetheless, the idea struck me enough to make me want to explore directly what it might mean to think of my writing as installation art. Often, long before hearing this talk (and this is probably because of my theater/dance background) I've imagined or dreamed my poems happening in spaces – I hear the voice recorded, see some kind of event or dance or architectural structure that illuminates, supports, or otherwise IS the poem.

When I was little I used to love, almost more than anything 1) amusement parks and 2) the plaster Easter eggs where you can peer into one end and see a little scene of bunnies and kids in spring clothing, or whatever. Both of these are installations – big and small – created worlds. I think I want my writing to act like that.

And so, Real Life has many imagined installations running through it, some that could be constructed, and others that could not. My friend Christina Battle, a filmmaker, is collaborating with me on a work that will bring these written installations into conversation with moving images.

Q: Your five poetry collections, including RAG (Omnidawn, 2014) are each constructed as large, expansive book-length projects as well. How does this current project relate to what you’ve produced before? How is it different?

A: You’re right about that! One day perhaps I’ll write a book of discrete poems – what Spicer called one night stands. But for now, this is how my mind works. Right now I’d say that Real Life is different because of the process of creating it. I want to hold off on understanding for as long as possible – to keep it unstable and unknown. So far that has been the case – it is too long and too wide for me to be able to see the whole of it. Eventually I assume that won’t be true, but for now it seems important to be patient, to let it unfold to me very slowly. There are certain topics that I find urgent and modes of expression that I’ve explored in relation to those topics. Here I want to push myself to find a way to not settle too quickly. I should say that there are two other books coming out before this one – and I’ve been working hard on these as well – so Real Life has also been a kind of background project at times. A form of meditation. A practice. Ongoing and continuously strange – as I’ve also been writing these other things with very different modes of attack.

Q: I like that you’re allowing your uncertainty to develop, and not letting the conscious mind interfere with what the unconscious mind is creating. I’m curious about your development into utilizing the book as your unit of composition (as opposed to the poem). How did this evolve? You mention Jack Spicer, but who (else) are your models?

A: I’d say my first influence in working this way was Lyn Hejinian. I read her first when I was about 27, and she blew my mind. Before reading My Life I had a very different idea of what a book was and what it could do. I was into minimalism, abstraction, the odd meditations of Rene Char, Tomaz Salamun, Denise Levertov, Emily Dickinson. My Life broke something open for me, even though I still love all those authors! Also, early on I read Michael Palmer quite a lot, and his sequences were a big influence as well. Cole Swensen’s work was a huge influence on my first and second books – especially her Noon, which I read constantly for at least a year.

After that, Zukofsky’s “A” and Vallejo’s Trilce – both of which I read with others over long periods of time – and these reading experiences were so rich, unprecedented in their slowness and depth – I’m so grateful to the people in that reading group for the time we spent with those authors. Williams’ Paterson is one of my favorite works to teach and reread. I love it for its struggles and all that is unresolved there. And Olson’s Maximus has also been wonderful to spend time with, to teach, to attempt to get inside. More contemporary writers that have influenced me in this way include Eleni Sikelianos – her California Poem especially (in terms of form – I love all her work), and Anne Carson for how she blends genres and forms throughout books.

Q: A number of the works you mention engage with narrative and personal information in rather interesting ways. How conscious are you about including your personal and domestic life in the conversation of your writing? Is this something you think might change as your daughter ages, and begins to gain awareness of how she is being depicted? What are your boundaries?

A: Well, first, there are three kids, and the oldest is 16. Just for the record.

I feel like there’s a question inside your question. Maybe something like – is it ethical (or polite) to depict one’s kids in one’s work? So, yes, I think it is fine, inevitable, and important. Because I’m interested in the human – in all of life, which must include relations, especially those most intimate (but not only), it would be entirely false of me to somehow exclude children from writing.

I’m not at all interested in writing that places boundaries around what can and can’t be written about. That said, I would not reveal someone else’s secrets, or willfully embarrass a child or anyone else. When I’ve had questions about my material – about whether it embarrasses a person or reveals something they don’t want revealed, I simply show it to that person and ask them directly. So my boundary is exactly that – I let the person decide and only one time has a person said “No. Please don’t include that.”

All three kids are aware that “they” appear in poems – and sometimes, in fact, their own poems have appeared in my books – credited of course. I think they understand what others also understand – that all of “real life” is filtered when written. It is and isn’t truth. It is and isn’t them. They write about me too! And even when they say things that are not true to me, I understand that what they write is true to the writing. I’m pretty sure everyone around here has a healthy understanding of writing as complex in its relation to truth.

As for the first part of the question – there are so many issues that this brings up, I hardly know where to begin. First, I’ll say that the question is loaded for me with concerns around gender. Women have historically been shamed out of writing the “personal,” or shamed for writing about “domestic” issues (read Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh for a great satirical attack on the way women’s writing has been mocked for being too involved in intimate matters). I resist that shaming and I resist any division between the personal and the political or the private and the public, because all of these divisions are gendered, and have been for hundreds of years. My personal and domestic life is my civic life, is my political life, is my public life. There is no way that my house is not political – it speaks about class, it speaks about education, it speaks about race. There’s no way my work as a teacher or a publisher is not intimate. That work speaks about love, desire, friendship, emotion.

One of the thrusts of Real Life: An Installation is to put pressure on the very question you are asking – but I’ve been putting pressure on that question ever since my first book, and I suppose I’ll always be doing that.

Q: I like hearing that your children are writing, and that you are including – credited of course – some of their poems in your books. What do you think you’ve learned about writing, whether generally or your own, from your children? What have you discovered through seeing your own work through their perspectives?

A: I learn from them that it’s great when you can write each letter in a different color.

And here’s an anecdote: when my middle daughter was about six she drew a self-portrait around which she wrote the words “There is no escaping me.” My youngest’s first written sentence was “I like myself” (I lak m sef). This has something to do with their personalities. But also, both of these statements are useful for writing. Whatever and whoever we are, that’s always going to be in the writing no matter how hard we might try to depersonalize it. There is no escaping the self, so you might as well face it. On the other hand, as I was saying to some friends yesterday, writing is this strange process of constantly coaxing ourselves to fall back in love with ourselves (or at least to like ourselves), because if we are too disgusted we just can’t do it. So there’s this facing and this forgiving that have to happen all the time.

Q: After five published poetry collections (as well as this current work-in-progress), how do you feel your work has developed? What, if anything, do you feel you are working toward?

A: This is a hard question to approach. One doesn’t like to sum up one’s work or to claim goals that will inevitably shift anyway. Also, I resist narratives of progress in relation to making art. But I do know that for a while I’ve been setting a goal, in one way or another, of more range, freedom, or wildness. At the same time, I’m also interested in how each book creates its own boundaries, whether those be in terms of form or content – a book ends up describing itself and I’m trying to be aware of what each given project wants to do or be.

To be a bit more specific, I'm working toward a couple of prose books right now (in addition to Real Life, and another book of very short poems, Think Tank, coming out soon from Solid Objects). I’m trying to teach myself to write essays I’d want to read. And, to that end, I’m studying various writers who push the essay form. One of these books is on the topic of confession (literary confession, more or less). The other is a collection of essays about poetry and affect, which will take me a long time to finish.

I guess if I could say anything about what I’m reaching for I’d say maximal range, maximal intensity, and more patience. And one day I’d like to write a novel – maybe when I am very old.