Monday, December 21, 2015

TtD supplement #42 : seven questions for Shannon Maguire

Shannon Maguire’s second collection of poetry, Myrmurs, appeared from BookThug in October 2015. Her first collection, fur(l) parachute (BookThug), was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. She was a finalist for the Manitoba Magazine Awards in the category of Best Suite of Poems and the bpNichol Chapbook Award for her chapbook Fruit Machine (Ferno House) and her work has appeared in The Best American Experimental Writing of 2014 (OmniDawn), among other places. Other chapbooks include A Web of Holes and Vowel Wolves and Other Knots (above/ground). She collaborates in experimental translation with Finnish poet Vappu Kannas and a chapbook of their recent work, As an Eel Through the Body (One Night Stand), is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in winter 2016.

Her poems “She Insists,” “Swailing 0.005: Expo,” “Heartfreak: Surrealist Invocation,” “Timing, Again” and “On Discovery Walks You Will Engineer Minstrel,” from the work-in-progress “Zip’s File,” appear in the seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “She Insists,” “Swailing 0.005: Expo,” “Heartfreak: Surrealist Invocation,” “Timing, Again” and “On Discovery Walks You Will Engineer Minstrel.”

A: I’ve been gradually working on the third book of my “medievalist trilogy”—right now I’m calling it Zip’s File: Post-Silence. The title changes periodically as I work. That’s where the poems that you’re reading here come from (except “On Discovery Walk,” which I’ll say more about below), and before discussing them, I feel I should say something about the books that precede it, fur(l) parachute and Myrmurs, because all three “projects” tease out different aspects of a larger question that I’m posing, which is something like: How has Western culture influenced (and limited) the literary, cultural, sexual, and political bodies that we’re living inside now and what role did/does the English language play in transmitting, producing, circulating, and maintaining gender, racial, and sexual difference? And how does change come about, linguistically, socially? Since (dammit Jim) I’m a poet and not a social linguist, my research has to be conducted and reported in poetic form... whatever that is!
In fur(l) parachute, I had to confront the substantial problem of writing from a queer orientation to the world, several thousand years into a culture that has very little love or understanding of my position, and in a language that is saturated with literary works that erase my ways of knowing and being in the world. In poetry, it is possible to demonstrate alternate alignments and to break with lines. So, in fur(l) parachute (BookThug 2013), I mined the English language in its earliest form for evidence of women’s lives and bonds. I chose the 19 line poetic fragment “Wulf and Eadwacer” as a source text for several reasons: because it was grammatically inflected as a woman’s monologue (or lament); because it was odd in that it employed a refrain, not to mention a female speaking voice; because of its haunting ambiguity and the fact that it straddles the elegies and the riddles in the manuscript that it was preserved in; and finally because of the human-animal (werewolf) relations. There’s a lot of academic writing on the difficulty of pinpointing what the heck is going on in the poem—does the speaker actually bear the child of a werewolf, or just a human outlaw? Is “Eadwacer” a watchman or a jealous husband? Does the child live or die?—so of course, I was interested in exposing and playing with the latent linguistic and narrative aspects. Since it was my first book, though, I was having a bit of trouble inserting my queer female speaking voice into a poetic tradition that would rather I be an object of language rather than a subject of it. Although the fragment I was working with has a strong lyric quality to it, this poetic option was barred for me, since in my subject-position I am a literary pirate (much like Wulf) rather than an Authorizer. Each poem in the book takes some aspect of the “original” (remember, it comes to us in a manuscript that was transcribed, presumably from an earlier oral tradition) and extrapolated from there to a later period in language and global relations.
bpNichol’s statement (borrowed from Ludwig Wittgenstein and modified) “word order equals world order” is tremendous because it emphasizes the practice based/ processual effects of object-relations. So, modern English is a Subject-Verb-Object language, where the subject is grammatically assumed to have agency and the object is grammatically assumed to be passive. We make it “easy” to tell who is doing and who is being acted upon because it’s built into the spacial dimension of our sentences: they start with the actor and end with the...patient. But Anglo Saxon or Old English grammar was less obvious in terms of how it appeared on the page. Like Latin, the dominant Western language of commerce and authority at the time, Old English was a highly inflected language meaning that it had eight possible cases (or forms) that any noun could take, and a noun’s relation to other parts of speech depended on which form it took. This has several consequences, the most fun being that words had flexibility on the page and often the relations between words had to be thought out more carefully (as any student asked to parse a sentence in front of the group can attest). These are endlessly fun features for the contemporary poet!
I won’t say too much about my second book, Myrmurs (since I’ve talked about it elsewhere), except that it continues the investigation into the consequences of Western ideas, this time at the formal level (I make a book-length exploded sestina) and deals in an extended metaphor between ants and language (living systems/ systems for living). My “word-hord” consists of certain scientific vocabularies as well as historical lesbian and gay vocabularies (or codes). A sestina is a combinatory machine that produces a love-lyric. Myrmurs keeps the impulse and changes the terms: self-organizing systems are the beloved phenomena of this poem.
Arriving at Zip’s File, I’ve chosen to draw out the second major foreign linguistic influence on the budding English language—the French language—as well as the second major narrative influence, the Arthurian Romance. The first major influence was Norse, of course because of the colonization of parts of England during the ninth and tenth centuries—the period that “Wulf and Eadwacer” was being recorded. And the Bible and Old Germanic oral traditions are twin very early narrative influences, but the Arthurian Romance is unique in its blending of secular and quasi-religious themes. I’ve chosen a very odd and somewhat obscure Old French, post-Arthurian romance as my source text: the 13th-century text Le Roman de Silence (The Romance of Silence) as the source text. It’s attributed to Heldris of Cornwall and written in Old French. The Romance of Silence arrived in the 21st century by the skin of its teeth: it comes down to us from a single manuscript source that is held by the University of Nottingham in England. This post-Arthurian romance centers on the gender-bending escapades of Silence (Silentus/Silentia): a poet, a knight, and a girl raised as a boy because her parents want her to be able to inherit their wealth and property—something only boys can do in this story. Another interesting note is that this poem marks an early instance of the nature/nurture debate occupying the narrative centre of a literary text in Medieval Europe. It was all but lost until the feminist literary scholars recovered it (surprise, surprise). Zip’s File explores the limits of 21st-century affection as well as Western categories of gender and species in a book-length sequence of lyric, narrative, and procedural poems. Silence’s counterpart in my book is Zip/Zoe Jones, a nouveau-surrealist and resident of a Toronto that sits just slightly ahead of our Toronto, but in an alternative history.  Moreover, she and an entire urban population of radical thinkers have been classified as biohazards and have lost their status as human beings and are actively being targeted for extermination.  Along with her long time partner, Desirée Gordon, an expert in artificial life and an amateur ornithologist, and a band of post-human rebels, Zip wages a gender revolution that reaches far beyond binary categories of “man” and “woman” as well as the binaries of “human” and “animal” and “machine” and “meat.”  The poems document Zip’s life to the vanishing point of the Western “human subject.”  Far from a presenting a bleak look at the 21st-century, Zip’s File’s has its gaze aimed at the “marvellous” in the midst of turmoil. I work with sf narratives like bio-hacking—science fiction is another genre with strong affinities to the romance—but redistribute the effects so that my text works as language poetry. The poems in question are working drafts from different points in the book. Except for “On Discovery Walks…” which I ended up revising and putting in Myrmurs. This is normal: when working on a trilogy, there are poems that come about in the space between questions and projects, and sometimes a poem moves covers.

Q: I’m fascinated at the thought of all of your work to date being part of a series of ongoing “poetic researches.” Obviously bpNichol is a wonderful model for such, but I’m curious as to what other writers you saw as models or influences for the way you approach your work.

A: bpNichol and bill bissett’s work certainly have inspired my sense of what’s possible on the grand canvas. They are both trans-form(ative) poets with one foot rooted firmly in the visual and the other sonorously mapping the contemporary world. But Erín Moure, Lisa Robertson, Margaret Christakos, Trish Salah, Larissa Lai, NourbeSe Philips, Rachel Zolf, Marilyn Dumont, Gregory Scofield, Smaro Kamboureli, Daniil Kharms, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Becket are all very important influences.

Erín Moure has been a longtime mentor and instigator. She’s probably the one I’ve talked to most about the possibilities of poetry-as-research. But long before I worked with her, books like O Cidádan and Search Procedures expanded my idea of what poetry (and language) could do and what extended questions could be fruitfully explored by poetic means. And O Cadorio, her exploration of medieval Galacian-Portuguese cantigas, showed me one way through dialoguing queerly with “dead” languages. I read that book not long after reading Elizabeth Grosz’s double-header meditations on time: The Nick of Time (2004) and Time Travels (2005). Something clicked. And just as I’d finished fur(l) parachute, and was working on Myrmurs, Caroline Bergvall published Meddle English (2011) and, thinking of Angela Carr’s The Rose Concordance, I suddenly felt part of a transnational queer feminist surge in poetic medievalism...

On queering the body and/through technologically mediated embodiments, Margaret Christakos’s and Larisa Lai’s extended work on the subject over a number of books (and even crossing-genres) provides many points of contact especially for my current book. I see Zip’s File as being in conversation with books like Christakos’s Multitudes and Excessive Love Prosthesis and Lai’s Automaton Biographies among others. Trish Salah is a poet whose work I admire greatly, and who offers a very important challenge to outdated modes of feminism that pit themselves against trans people and sex workers.

M. NourbeSe Phillip is one of the models of how to use “avant-garde” techniques to short-circuit the racist and sexists underpinnings of late capitalism. Her ongoing performances of Zong exceed the limits of poetry and enter into ritual.

I’ve also been reading a lot of First Nations writers such as Lee Maracle, Gregory Scofield, Sharron Proulx-Turner, Marylin Dumont, and Leslie Belleau, whose novel Sweat should be widely read. Their work collectively reminds me to pay very close attention to the kind of “mappings” that I do at the very earliest stages of a project. To be committed to a decolonial approach means being very careful not to repeat violent cultural and linguistic structures in one’s work that may be so normalized that they seem invisible. Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia is an excellent example of how to negotiate the minefield of ongoing colonial violence and genocide in the context of contemporary poetics. I’ve been very fortunate to watch Rachel’s process during this project and see the ways that she struggles and faces the nasty entanglements of being a settler (even an unwilling settler) and trying to unsettle oneself and other settlers.

My work is sustained by ongoing provocations and conversations. I find I’m very fortunate to be a “Toronto-based” (I’ve lived in or around Toronto for most of my adult life) poet because Canada is a hotbed of poetry-as-research (be it multilingually inclined or driven more by eco-poetic investigations, or working at the borders of colonialism, gender, and sexuality, or some combination) and there are many vibrant conversations a-go in Toronto. And people pass through and get swept up into them. One very important site of poetic discussion (not just for me, I am sure) was Margaret Christakos’s “Influency: A Toronto Poetry Salon” which ran out of the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies from 2006-2011. I was fortunate to attend two sessions in the last years of its existence and there I met a number of peers as well as established poets whom I’ve had the good fortune of staying in touch with in the years since. In fact, you’re one of the poets that I met there! And Liz Howard, Sonja Grekol, Joan Gunther, Ralph Kelowe are just a few of the participants who I first came into contact with there, and who have become indispensable interlocutors. More recently, I participated in a national group of feminist writers who met online in the “Electronic Garret” and they’ve been very important to my ongoing “queries” and approaches. As has, David Bateman’s wickedly textured autobiographical performance poetry and “queerrealist” paintings.

The last thread I’d like to draw out is the “posthuman” thread. Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott’s collaboration Decomp is a thrilling “try” at getting the environment to write back. a.rawling’s Gibber Bird website is a really interesting attempt at sono-cartogarphy that also attempts to break away from an anthropocentric poetic subject.

There are just so darn many people who’ve provided nourishing conversation (whether in person or through their work) that I feel like my response only picks at the surface.

Q: You mention Zip’s File as being the final book in your “medievalist trilogy.” Given that everything you’ve worked on to date has been part of a single project, how easily do you see yourself simply creating something entirely different? And is this how you see your writing progressing—working from large project to large project—or might your subsequent book be something smaller in scale (but not in scope)?

A: Hmm... I’ve always thought of nets of questions as acting something like colours: depending on the combination of questions you ask, and your methodology, certain aspects of a situation or a dynamic will be absorbed into the framework, and certain other elements will be reflected (or refracted) onto the page. So, um, one can do endless things with colours... Plus, while it is true that my “medievalist trilogy” used three different methodologies with certain overlapping features (the selection of a medieval “source text” or “source form” and the selection of particular vocabularies suggested by and/or extending the chosen text) to approach a small set of interrelated questions, they also swerved away from following just one line of thought... So maybe my next solo project will start from a new set of questions, or maybe it will approach similar questions from the perspective of yet another source text in another language... I haven’t decided yet. But while I’ve been working on my trilogy, I’ve also been engaging in several collaborative projects that have also taken my thinking on new trajectories. For instance, the Finnish poet Vappu Kannas and I have been working on a book length collaborative experimental translation. A chapbook of our work is slated to be published by Kristy Bowen’s Chicago based Dancing Girl Press and will be out by the end of 2015. Our initial manuscript was written with a time constraint (24 hours per poem) and language constraint (Vappu started the sequence by sending me a poem in Finnish, a language that I don’t know from atoms with the one rule that I wasn’t allowed to google translate or use a dictionary or any other means to get at the semantic secrets of the poems). We wrote the initial draft between November 2012 and January 2013 and then let it sit till July 2014 when we met in Toronto to do an intensive editing and regenerating session. We're going to do another one sometime early in 2015 at which point we hope we’ll have a finished manuscript... And then, of course, I’ve been working on a dissertation project... But no doubt what remains the same across the board is that there is a research component and a serendipitous component to every project I’ve done so far, and that likely won’t change. Even if I go micro. Or branch out into new media (which I am hankering to do, but it costs money), or bioart (ditto). We’ll have to wait and see. I’m not there yet, I’m still working on Zip’s File etc.

Q: What do you feel your collaborative projects bring you that your other projects don’t?

A: Each collaborative project in-progress has brought with it the challenge and excitement of watching another embodied mind working its way through a shared inquiry and negotiating ways of remaining in dialogue across vast differences. In the case of my collaboration with Vappu—an entirely mysterious language. I could, however, argue that all of my projects are “collaborative” in the sense that they involve me responding to other peoples’ words—sometimes with a gap of 1100 or so years in response time... But working with real live other poets who can see my response and raise me a surprise with a side of rebuttal can make the difference between nurturing and tending an underdeveloped poem and tossing it aside half-way through because it is easier to start from scratch than it is to prune and groom and build up layers. There is an element of “seize the collaboration,” of showing off a bit for the other person (and being called on it) that allows a space of extra daring in my experience of this sort of thing. Most of the time, anyway.

Q: I like the idea of all of your work being “collaborative,” and I think one could argue that all writing exists in response to something or other, in varying degrees. Robert Kroetsch argued that all writing is conversation, existing in a context far larger than any individual writer or text. How do you feel your writing fits into those larger conversations?

A: I definitely torque the lines of Western literary tradition. Being a person who believes in the self-organization of matter (that is, that inorganic and organic matter are part of a continuum and that dynamism is internal to a system, rather than external to it—making mechanization and vitalism equally untenable), most of the Western tradition of poetry is obsolete, from my perspective. Or maybe a better way to say it is that contemporary conditions invite poets to transform the western literary tradition. We need to rethink poetic tools if the activities of generating and reading poetry are to have relevance as we move into a world where people will be conceived and born in a variety of ways (they already are); where they will have increased opportunities to radically modify their bodies within their lifetimes; where individuals may have more agency with regards to their own deaths; and where the ecosystem may no longer be able to sustain us unless we give up on war and heavy industry. Welcome to the queer 21st century.

I am in awe of experimental film and experimental music. And I am reading more and more philosophy and scientific papers. I’m in the conversation about emergence and the stakes of theories of “the human” and “the animal” of materiality and embodiment: the politics of matter. The conversation about decolonization is extremely important to me. As is social justice and experimental eroticism.

Q: After your first trade collections, another forthcoming and various chapbooks and works-in-progress over the past few years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see yourself headed?

I am getting better at finding the interesting tensions in language and playing them. More often now I arrive at a poem in fewer drafts: I can do some of the steps in my ear. I’m also really into micro-structures and setting them in motion so that other structures emerge—again, I have a better intuition for such things now than I did three years ago.

I really want to add a layer or two to my practice. I am a noise poet so I have to move into sound art and other new media approaches. I want to write plays for robots and make sound poems with insects and birds and bacteria—others are doing this and there is so much more work to be done. It’s not a matter of moving away from the page in a progressivist way—its rather about taking the practice out into other fields and looping back to the page and out again and again. I’d like also to make full-length stagings of my books so that the micro and macro structures can breathe and be heard. But this is all very expensive to do. So it depends on whether or not I can gain access to the tools and expertise to make these projects happen. Writing poetry is about the cheapest art in terms of cost of materials. It is labour intensive, but paper and a pencil will do. Right now I’m typing on a laptop with a cracked screen. If this computer stops working, there is one at the public library that I can use in a pinch. There is something extremely lovely about the democracy of this.

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

I read widely. I read periodicals such as Scientific American and the online contemporary art archive and journal e-flux. Jacket2 is the go-to for me regarding contemporary poetics. I am currently reading a fascinating collection of essays, The Multispecies Salon, edited by Eben Kirksey. I’m also actively reading Spinoza as well as commentaries on his work by the likes of Henri Atlan and Moira Gatens and Gilles Deleuze. I’ll soon reread Norma Cole’s Spinoza in Her Youth. I’m also astonished by Chantal Neveu’s A Spectacular Influence, which I read in a translation by Nathanaël. But mostly, when I’m writing poetry, I’m reading other things. I return to the work of Donna Haraway and Karen Barad often.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

TtD supplement #41 : seven questions for Sarah Mangold

Sarah Mangold is the author of Electrical Theories of Femininity just out from Black Radish Books and Household Mechanics (New Issues). Her most recent chapbooks include The Goddess Can Be Recognized By Her Step (dusie kollektiv), Parlor (above/ground), and An Antenna Called the Body (LRL Textile Editions), with a new chapbook forthcoming in 2016 via above/ground press. New work appears in: Conjunctions, Kenyon Review, h_ngm_n and Lit. She is the recipient of a 2013 NEA Literature Fellowship and lives near Seattle.

Her poems “The Wolf-Man Recounting a Dream,” “We No Longer Feel Ourselves to be Men of the Cathedral,” “There’s Nothing to Fear Now that Big Foot is Captured,” “The Sad Colossal Yes” and “Where The North Begins” appear in the seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “The Wolf-Man Recounting a Dream,” “We No Longer Feel Ourselves to be Men of the Cathedral,” “There’s Nothing to Fear Now that Big Foot is Captured,” “The Sad Colossal Yes” and “Where The North Begins.”

A: As a set of poems, they are the first poems I worked on after completing Electrical Theories of Femininity. There’s still a lot of technology and the archive lurking. I thought I might be at the start of a “Monster” series with technology and “the other” and classic movie monsters, but it has morphed into a series around the romanticized idea of “nature” and the “natural” through taxidermy and the body. The Monsters were my bridge and still very present. Fun fact: In “We No Longer Feel Ourselves to be Men of the Cathedral,” the line with loudspeaker, touch tone telephone, steering wheel comes from a footnote in A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. In 1999 The MIT Technology Review published a list of the ten most influential interface interventions and those were #1, 2 & 3.

Q: How do you feel they compare to, or even extend, the poems that make up Electrical Theories of Femininity?

A: I think they’re very similar, I thought for a time I might add “The Wolf-Man” to the book but decided against it trying to make a clean break to the next project. Plus things were getting more monster-y and that didn’t fit with Electrical Theories of Femininity. I think they let me move through the transition phase from one book to the next.

Q: How do you feel your work has progressed over the past decade or so, through two published books and a small mound of chapbooks? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I know I’ve been much more conscious about form and printing realities since my first book was published. I was very much a “composition by field” poet, the field being an 8 ½  x 11 page, when I first started writing. After reformatting the first book to fit a standard 6 x 9 book size, I’m much more conscious from the beginning that 6 x 9 might be the ultimate final form. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I do find myself wondering if I’m making more block poems because those will fit without much disruption onto a standard printed page. I also wonder if working in a cube farm for the last seven years has influenced how I structure my work. I do alternate the journal sizes I write in to see if different paper and line widths influence the shape of the poems. I don’t feel like I’m purposely not writing giant spacey poems but I do have that feeling in the back of my mind about space concerns. So in the future, that will probably be something I keep exploring and hopefully stop worrying about. My work has become more thematic, and to my surprise I’ve been enjoying that. I really like doing research and reading deep into a subject so the thematic approach has been satisfying and a continual project. I find myself doing less physical collage, cutting words up and taping them together, and more note taking and reassembling the words by rewriting and then typing it up and deleting and moving things around that way. This might also be a symptom of my current source materials, more rare books and fragile pages. I could see starting to work with visual images within the poems and getting into more book design, starting to compose “a book” instead of individual poems that happen to get along really well.

Q: Do you really feel there is such a vast difference between the ways in which you’ve begun composing “the book,” as opposed to a series of “individual poems that happen to get along really well” in chapbook or book-form?

A: I don’t know that it’s a vast difference really, but with my current writing this is the first time I’ve felt early-on that I’m writing a book instead of a series of poems and we’ll see what happens. I find myself thinking on a larger scale about pacing and the visuality of the pages—if I do x here, I should plan on x in ten more pages etc. In the past I did this in the editing stage and not during the initial writing. I’m wondering how/if this will change my writing process.

Q: Does this shift allow you to work on multiple projects concurrently, or are you able to only work on a single project at any given time? And how do you know when something fits with the current project: is it a matter of subject or style, or something less obvious, such as tone or something within the structure of the line?

A: Hmm good question. I don’t really have time to work on more than one writing project, but I do feel like it would be possible if there were more hours in the day. Right now I’m writing towards this book, so it’s more subject based, taxidermy/nature/gender/body, and I’m constantly taking out poems or reconfiguring them—all things I’d normally do after everything was written and I began to assemble a chapbook or book.

Q: One would presume such a compositional approach would allow you to see the project as a whole, and write to fill perceived gaps. How have you found the composition of such pieces? Do they flow easier, knowing they are there to complete a singular project, or have they been trickier to write than the pieces you wrote without such specific purpose?

A: The singular project seems to flow easier, probably because my intention is always directed towards this bigger picture and subject and not necessarily tied to starting over every time.

Q: Would you say that you regularly compose individual poems and larger projects by way of arranging around subject over structure, or is it a combination of the two?

A: Always a combination of the two.

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

A: I always go back to Barbara Guest and Susan Howe, they let the breath back in. I’m always looking at Guest’s Stripped Tales or thinking I should be reading it again or the Countess from Minneapolis. I’ve also found reading the journals Conjunctions and The Chicago Review particularly energizing for my own practice.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

TtD supplement #40 : seven questions for Kathryn MacLeod

Kathryn MacLeod lives, works, gardens and cycles in Victoria, BC. Her books and chapbooks include mouthpiece (Tsunami Editions, 1996), How Two (Tsunami Editions, 1987) and the more recent Entropic Suite (above/ground press, 2012), much of which was written as part of her dissertation: Transgressing Words and Silence: Aesthetics, Ethics and Education (UBC, 2011), which explores the relationship between ethics, aesthetics and education using the limit case of art created in response to the Holocaust. Her poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Companions and Horizons: An Anthology of Simon Fraser University Poetry (2005), Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology (1999), and East of Main (1989). Recent publications in journals include: ditch (September 2013), dusie (July 2013); seventeen seconds (Winter 2013) and Truck (August 2012).

Her poems “Crows and Gulls,” “Regulus” and “Wandering Star (NYC)” appear in the seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Crows and Gulls,” “Regulus” and “Wandering Star (NYC).”

A: Although these poems were started at different times, in different contexts, I struggled with each of them for a year or more. I didn’t know what I was trying to do with each poem for a very long time—they all went through many versions and were left for months unfinished. At times, I gave up on each of them.

Rereading, I see that “Crows and Gulls” and “Regulus” are related thematically—both having come from exploring grief and loss. “Regulus” was written in response to the death of a young person, not someone I knew well, but as witness to the family’s tragedy. “Crows and Gulls” is an attempt to write a succinct and precise poem about an experience of loss that is imprecise, ambiguous, and, in some ways, irreparable. A poem about change, the dissolution of meaning, the inability to communicate.

“Wandering Star (NYC)” is the second in a series of poems about traveling to other places, both physically and metaphorically. It is a poem about my love for cities and ideas and philosophies. I wrote it for Maxine Greene, a philosopher who lived in NYC until her death at age 96 this year. Her deep love for art and literature and her understanding of their connection to the day to day world of learning continues to inspire me. A “wandering star,” by the way, is a lovely archaic term for a planet.

Q: How do you see these poems in relation to the work you’ve done prior, from mouthpiece and How Two to Entropic Suite?

A: There was a long gap in time between mouthpiece and How Two (written in the 1980s), and Entropic Suite (2012). When I began studying poetry in the early 1980s, my work, and the education I received, was very conservative. I wrote lyrical poetry focusing on imagery and precise language and structure. It was good training, but restrictive. When I was introduced to the Language poets in the mid-80s via the Kootenay School in Vancouver, it opened up my work and I started to experiment with form. The poetry of How Two and mouthpiece was written during that time. I had been introduced to some of the postmodernist philosophers before I became involved with the Kootenay School, so the ideas were not new to me—just the application in art.

Entropic Suite began during the writing of my dissertation, completed in 2011, which focused on aesthetics, ethics and education, using the work of three artists who created art in response to the events of the Holocaust, and viewed through the philosophical perspective of Kant and Lyotard. The poems in this series were part of my scholarly exploration of these ideas. After a long silence, the poems of Entropic Suite seem to me to combine the sensibilities of both schools to which I had been exposed as a young poet. I no longer feel constricted by either content or form or aesthetic schools. I have a better understanding of why I am writing and who I am writing for. My current work, I believe, reflects a much deeper understanding of the nature of art and the practice of poetry.

Q: How difficult was it to re-enter writing after your long silence? Or was it almost a matter of being triggered by, as you say, new sensibilities blending in with the old?

A: It was not difficult at all, oddly. The poems arose naturally out of the research and writing I was doing—the ideas I was exploring and thinking deeply about as I wrote my dissertation. In the process of working on my doctorate I wrote a number of essays examining the nature of art in multiple mediums, and during that time the boundaries between scholarly and creative work began to blur for me. I had very supportive faculty who encouraged me to explore both with form and content. So although I started writing the dissertation in a more traditional format, I was encouraged by my advisor to go outside those boundaries. One of the great pleasures of working on my dissertations was finding the connections between the scholarly work and the poetry, and placing them so that they worked together. There is such joy in those moments of discovery!

I wrote a few of the poems in Entropic Suite afterwards—that is, after having completed the dissertation. So it was rewarding to see the poems stand on their own, in a separate, but connected project.

Q: Do your poems normally emerge from research?

A: My first reaction to your question was to say no, and then I rethought... In fact, my poems often emerge from something I am reading and thinking and wondering about. So while it may not be formal research, in fact I am often following a trail of questions in my reading and thinking. I often don’t know what I really think about something until I write about it—I have read other writers saying the same thing—and I find this to be very true. In different kinds of writing the outcome is expected to be different, of course. In scholarly writing one is aiming for less ambiguity, while in poetry I hope to embrace or at least rest in the ambiguous. A kind of Buddhist approach to meaning. That tension is always there for me when I write, I think—the tension between trying to fix meaning and trying to open it further.

Q: Who have your influences been for this kind of approach to meaning?

A: I think the influence comes from a number of directions. Most obviously, the language writing influence from the 80s, and from particular poets like Susan Howe, whose work will always be extraordinarily important to me. But even before that I was introduced to the French feminists (Cixous, Irigaray), and although I wasn’t able to synthesize it at the time, they were my real introduction to the postmodern focus on language and the contingency of meaning. I still recall first reading their texts, and while I found them difficult and startling, I understood the significance of what they were trying to do.

Also, and certainly more recently, Buddhist philosophy and practice. The way one struggles in meditation is very much about struggling with the impermanence of meaning. Over time, one can see it in oneself—the tension between longing for permanence and watching it slip away, over and over again.

Each of these influences have had an effect on what I understand about the world, and thus have had an effect on my practice. Each felt familiar, and interconnected. Each allowed me, at various points in my life, to articulate a worldview that I did not previously have language for. 

Resting and wrestling in and with the unknown. The writers, artists and theorists who speak to me do so because they struggle in this same way. I mentioned the philosopher Maxine Greene previously. She wrote that “informed encounters with works of art often lead to a startling defamiliarization of the ordinary.” We create meaning in our ordinary lives every day; we want meaning to be solid and real; we are so often sadly reminded that it is not. Meaning fails us, and thus we look for new meaning. I imagine I will always write about this. 

Q: Are you working on anything specific at the moment, or simply feeling your way through the poems as they come?

A: I am working on poems as they come, at the moment. I started a project last year, but having gone back to it recently, I realize that it is too soon to see it as a whole. So perhaps it will come together some time in the future.

Q: I know you touched on a bit of this earlier, but wondering: who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: I mentioned Susan Howe—I go back to Articulations of Sound Forms in Time over and over, and find something new each time. There are two copies of that book in our house.

I read PK Page and Phyllis Webb when I want to go back even further. I read Mavis Gallant and Nadine Gordimer when I crave fiction, and Annie Dillard to be reminded of the power of observation. I read Maxine Greene when I forget why I write. Most of the time, I read widely, and eclectically.

Monday, November 9, 2015

TtD supplement #39 : seven questions for Helen Hajnoczky

Helen Hajnoczky is the author of Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising (Snare/Invisible, 2010) and Magyarázni (Coach House, forthcoming spring 2016). Her work has appeared in a variety of magazines and chapbooks, and in the anthologies Why Poetry Sucks (Insomniac Press, 2014) and Ground Rules: best of the second decade of above/ground press 2003-2013 (Chaudiere Books, 2013). Excerpts from Bloom and Martyr have appeared in Dreamland, Lemon Hound, and New Poetry. A portion of Bloom and Martyr was selected for the 2015 John Lent Poetry-Prose Award, and will be published as a chapbook by Kalamalka Press in spring 2016. She blogs http://ateacozyisasometimes.blogspot.ca/ and tweets @helenhajnoczky.

Her “Four poems from Bloom and Martyr” appear in the seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the “Four poems from Bloom and Martyr.”

A: These four poems are taken from the end of a manuscript I wrote last year. All the poems are in the same style, using a discussion of flowers and gardens as a way to explore desire from a feminist perspective. Writing the manuscript was incredibly fun. At the time I had been tinkering with my then manuscript and now forthcoming book for a while, and I had become a bit forestalled while editing. Then in August 2014 in Calgary I had a chance to read with Natalie Simpson whose work I find enthralling, and she talked about taking an approach to writing where she’d write a lot down in a notebook, and then type up the lines she wanted to keep. It had been a while since I’d written something new and I thought, ‘I used to write that way, why don’t I do that anymore?’ So I went back to Montreal and reread Natalie’s book accrete or crumble which is such a dense, rich, and inspiring book that after reading it I wrote Bloom and Martyr in a week and a half, mostly on my phone on the bus to work, on coffee breaks, etc.

Q: How were you working prior to this that caused you to be forestalled?

A: There were a few factors. I started the project when I was in school so it was difficult to dedicate time to work on it. The book, which is called Magyarázni and is coming out in spring of 2016 from Coach House books, is also written in a more narrative style which I hadn’t used much before, so it took a little while to figure that out. The biggest thing though was that the book is about first generation cultural identity and how and to what extent one’s attitude towards and understanding of their cultural background is tied up with their familial relationships and relationships with people in their community, so it was important to me that I get it just right. I wrote it once and it came off unintentionally bitter, again and it came off unintentionally saccharine… I wrote one version that expressed things well but that I found flat so I rewrote it again to make it more engaging. It’s a much more personal work than anything I’d done before and so I got much more caught up in it and focused on making it be exactly what I intended. Bloom and Martyr was the opposite—I didn’t have any plans for it or anything really specific I wanted to capture so writing it was all flow.

Q: I’m curious about the Magyarázni poems: you speak of a difficulty in part, that came from writing out your relationship with your cultural background and community. What prompted you to begin this project, and what were your models, if any? I think of Andrew Suknaski writing out his Ukrainian and Russian backgrounds, for example, of even Erín Moure exploring the language and culture of the Galicians. And might Bloom and Martyr have progresses so quickly, perhaps, due to it being a kind of palate cleanser?

A: Magyarazni germinated for a long time. There’s a wood chest in my parent’s house that my dad carved, and the tulips in his design are what inspired my project originally, particularly the visual poetry in the book. I started doodling tulips in the margins of my school notes with letters at their centre, with the accents used as stamen, long before I had really been introduced to visual poetry. The moment that sparked the project, though, was one night when my dad and I were up late chatting about when he, his sisters, and his mother left Hungary after the ’56 revolution and I thought “I should really write this down.” So, I went and typed up everything he’d said and made a little chapbook of it for him. I wanted to do something more on the topic though, and was fortunate to get a grant for the visual and written poetry book and to travel around Western Canada interviewing people who’d come during or after ’56, or whose family had done so. Originally I’d thought of including the interviews and poems in one book, but the interviews are numerous, long, and detailed and really deserved to be their own thing (which I’m still slowly working on). Though I didn’t use anything from the interviews in this book the people who so generously told me their stories definitely influenced me and the writing of Magyarázni.

For more poetic influences though, Oana Avasilichioaei’s book Abandon, and the way she deals with cultural identity and nostalgia had a huge influence on me. The way Fred Wah’s writes about cultural identity, how that’s tied up with family, and the way he sets all this against the backdrop of the prairie all strongly informed the way I approached writing this book too—there’s a lot of Calgary in Magyarázni. Additionally, in 2007 Erín Moure and Oana Avasilichioaei spoke at the UofC for Translating Translating Montréal, and I have this fuzzy memory of them discussing translating words based on a feeling of the word or based on a word in a third language that the word in the source text reminds you of (I can’t remember precisely what they said and I don’t want to misquote them or misrepresent their ideas, but I believe the discussion was something along these lines), and this idea was key in the writing of Magyarázni. For example, the poem “Belváros”—the word translates into English as “inner city” (so, downtown), but I always hear it as ‘beautiful city,’ because in French ‘belle’ means beautiful. I went to a French immersion elementary school and I started hearing the word that way as a little kid, and I still hear it that way, not as inner city but as beautiful city. Because the project struggles to answer the question of how much one person’s experience of a language or culture can be representative of a community as a whole, I thought it was important to include these little hyper-personal feelings about words in the manuscript.

But to get to the second part of your question, I do think Bloom and Martyr was a palate cleanse. I’d worked on editing Magyarázni so carefully and for so long that I’d become a bit too caught up in just doing that. Then I took the aforementioned trip and did a couple of readings in Calgary, felt energized, wrote Bloom and Martyr super quickly, and then did a final pass on Magyarázni with renewed enthusiasm and was finally able to shape it into what I’d wanted it to be.

Q: You speak of your visual poetry originally being influenced by your father’s tulip design on a wood chest. I suspect that your time in Calgary might have had an influence on such, but how did you get from those original doodles influenced by your father’s work to considering your doodles as visual poetry?

A: Being from Calgary most definitely influenced my visual poetry. The creative writing classes I took at the UofC introduced me to visual poetry as an active area of contemporary writing for the first time, and there are a number of wonderfully talented visual poets in Calgary (or poets who were there when I was). Knowing these writers got me thinking more about visual poetry as another mode of writing that I could use in my own work. Having had the opportunity to become familiar with contemporary visual poetry, I was more inclined to think about the significance of my impulse to make those doodles and how that reflected my feelings about Hungarian language and folk culture, and this fueled my desire to turn these doodles into a larger, more deliberate and meaningful project.

Q: You seem very much to be constructing books as large-scale projects, as opposed to collections of stand-alone poems; projects built around particular subjects and structures. How did this process of building poetry books this way begin, and what writers and books have been your models?

A: I think I end up working on large-scale projects because of my interest in the topics I feel compelled to write about—I want to spend time with those ideas and explore them more fully in longer projects. Bloom and Martyr started out as a set of a few poems, but I enjoyed writing those so much and I was in the right headspace to churn them out, so I followed that impulse until I felt I’d exhausted it and I was holding a finished manuscript. Other projects have taken more planning, but they too start with me writing a poem or two and then if I feel like what I’m doing is working I start thinking about how to expand it into a longer work. I have a stack of stand-alone poems or sets of a few related poems that were published as chapbooks or in magazines, but I often end up thinking about how I could build on these poems and eventually turn them into books too.

Most of the poetry I’ve read has been books of contemporary Canadian poetry, and it seems like a great many of these are based around a single theme or that they have a strong aesthetic, stylistic, or formal unity. This trend has certainly exerted a strong influence on me. I find I gravitate towards poetry books that deal with a single topic or theme, or that have some sort of unifying style or principle to them. I enjoy that reading experience and since it’s a thing I’m fond of as a reader I replicate it in my own work. Because most of the books I really love are written like this, it’s hard to pick a few, but the ones that I find myself thinking about a lot lately are Un/Inhabited by Jordan Abel, The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood, Clockfire by Jonathan Ball, Execution Poems by George Elliott Clarke, Woods Wolf Girl by Cornelia Hoogland, wild horses by uh, you, rob mclennan, Elimination Dance by Michael Ondaatje, Undark by Sandy Pool, MxT by Sina Queyras, Err by Shane Rhodes, accrete or crumble and Thrum by Natalie Simpson, Winter Sports and Summer Sports by Priscilla Uppal, Waiting for Saskatchewan by Fred Wah, Thumbscrews and Doom by Natalie Zina Walschots, and Amphetamine Heart by Liz Worth. There are so many more excellent examples that I’m not mentioning… these are just those that have been on my mind lately.

Q: With a growing mound of chapbooks and two forthcoming titles under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see yourself headed?

A: I think that my work is getting more contemplative as time goes on, and that generally my writing is getting more mature in the sense that I’m getting better at writing in the styles that I’ve been fond of and that I’ve been working in for the past few years. Right now I’m mostly looking forward to the publication of Magyarázni with Coach House and the Bloom and Martyr chapbook with Kalamalka—I’m a fan of each press and I’m thrilled to be publishing with them. For upcoming projects, though, I’m currently working on finishing an older manuscript of visual and constraint-based poetry about Victorian corsetry called Tight-Lacing that I started years ago. I’m not sure what I’ll do after that. What I like most about writing is exploring new topics and ideas as they arise, so I’m just waiting to see what comes next.

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

A: Thrum and accrete or crumble by Natalie Simpson are an endless source of inspiration for me—her language is so evocative, and her bending and fracturing of grammar so fascinating that every time I read either book I feel ready to write. I’ve often gone back to Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein for the same reasons. Finally, I re-read The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood regularly, and I find it particularly helpful to read if I’m working on something narrative.

Monday, October 26, 2015

TtD supplement #38 : seven questions for Suzanne Zelazo

Suzanne Zelazo is a poet and academic currently working in commercial publishing. Her scholarly and creative work engage the modernist Avant-garde. Together with Irene Gammel, she published Crystal Flowers: Poems and a Libretto by Florine Stettheimer, and Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the first major English collection of the Baroness’s poems. She was the founder and editor of the small press magazine Queen Street Quarterly.

Her poems “Ménage à Cinq,” “Brancusi’s Golden Equinox,” “Congruent,” “Under My Dress, A Thousand Startled Moons” and “Cher Ubu” appear in the seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Ménage à Cinq,” “Brancusi’s Golden Equinox,” “Congruent” and “Under My Dress, A Thousand Startled Moons.”

A: Ménage à Cinq
(for Roger Conover)

This poem, and the whole collection explores lines of influence, appropriation, again and always collage, but collage as the rhizome of language and consciousness. The poem is a linking of lines by the poets Mina Loy and Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, but it is also queries how their work has become available to us—so the role of the editor—their editors, is also being probed. The modernist scholar Roger Conovor was the first to bring Loy back into the fray when he re-issued Loy’s poems from her only book, Lunar Baedeker (Contact Editions, 1923) along with previously unpublished work, first in 1982 and then again in 1997. While the Baroness did not publish a book during her lifetime, Irene Gammel and I co-edited a collection of her poems for MIT Press where Conover is an editor. The poem is about the amplification of voice in its contemporary moment and in the future moments and voices it inspires. Where one begins and the other ends may be impossible to discern.

Under My Dress, A Thousand Startled Moons

This is about voices on the fringe worthy of centre stage. It is also about falling in love with art and the creative spirit. How does one negotiate the paradoxical seductive intimacy of experiencing art in the absence of its creator—its weird isn’t it?


Two sets of points are congruent if one can be transformed into the other by a translation, a rotation, and a reflection. Again this is about influence, Loy’s and the Baroness’s on me, but more specifically, it is about their influence on the men they loved or inspired whose own work would become critically recognized well before that of these innovative female modernists. Of course the perception of the direction of influence under those circumstances becomes not simply unclear, but often reversed. Twining is also central to this project—is the recognition of self in another about belonging, solidarity and confirmation, or is it about the loss of self, erasure and dissolution?

Q: How do these poems compare to other pieces you’ve been working on? Are they part of a larger grouping, or an ongoing series of occasionals that haven’t yet cohered into something book-length? And how might they compare to the work in, for example, your first collection?

A: The poems are characteristic of what I’ve been working on for a while now— a modernist conversation between the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven and Mina Loy, and a more general consideration of artistic influence. They are all part of the book length project (minus one occasional here). As in my first book, collage is central, but I think the collection explores voice—the simultaneity of voices—very differently.

Q: What is it about the works of Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven and Mina Loy that speak to each other? What is it about their works that still needs to be discussed?

A: For both Loy and the Baroness, collage enabled a dispersal of self, predicated on language as embodiment. Both women daringly redeployed the art form to critique the conventional sexism and pro-war sensibilities which the masculinist avant-garde disseminated. This collection stages an imaginary, sustained conversation between the two poets who in spite of numerous aesthetic resonances and common artist friends (notably, Djuna Barnes and Marcel Duchamp), never engaged with one another. There is no record of any exchanges between the two poets. Their non-relationship thus figures as a curious “absent presence” in modernist cultural history.

Q: What is it about utilizing collage that appeals? What does collage allow that another compositional structure might not?

A: Collage destabilizes meaning, mobilizes verbal and visual puns, performs a resistance to the ontological fixity or essence of the word or art object—emphasizing instead states of perpetual becoming and constructedness.

Q: How do you feel your work has developed over the past decade-plus, from the appearance of Parlance (Coach House Books, 2003) to your current project? Collage was already an important element of Parlance, but your critical work—specifically Crystal Flowers: Poems and a Libretto by Florine Stettheimer and Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven—have obviously made an impact on how you approach your work. What do you feel your writing has gained through exploring early Modernists such as Stettheimer and von Freytag-Loringhoven?

A: With respect to the Baroness in particular, I spent a few years really immersed in her thoughts, her writings, her manuscripts, her wonderful portmanteau words—themselves mini collages, and I think I came to “hear” differently. The Baroness had a voice and an ear like nothing I’d ever encountered—at once hard and whimsical. She is complex, raw and sharp in her perceptions, but she is also deeply humorous. As for Stettheimer, working closely with her writing allowed me a new entry into her painting. Stettheimer’s is a sophisticated, even crystalline whimsy and I think both have found their way into my writing.

Q: How do you feel this is different from your prior work? What has the shift allowed you to explore?

A: As an identical twin, I have long been intrigued by the moment of shared creativity. This work has allowed me to explore the concept of collaboration more explicitly—imaginary or not.

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

A: Anything by Karen Mac Cormack or Sina Queyras. But, I also tend to go the visual arts—like the work of Toronto-based artist Gord Peteran (in particular, a book of essays on his work Furniture Meets Its Maker edited by Glenn Adamson), or the narrative photographs of Janieta Eyre.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Touch the Donkey : seventh issue,

The seventh issue is now available, with new poems by Stan Rogal, Helen Hajnoczky, Kathryn MacLeod, Shannon Maguire, Sarah Mangold, Amish Trivedi and Suzanne Zelazo.

Seven dollars (includes shipping). My god! It's like you've known me all your life!

Friday, October 2, 2015

TtD supplement #37 : seven questions for Deborah Poe

Deborah Poe is the author of the poetry collections keep (in circulation), the last will be stone, too (Stockport Flats), Elements (Stockport Flats), and Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords), as well as a novella in verse, Hélène (Furniture Press). In addition, Deborah co-edited Between Worlds: An Anthology of Contemporary Fiction and Criticism (Peter Lang) and is working on finding a home for her first full-length novel. Deborah Poe is associate professor of English at Pace University, where she directs the creative writing program and founded and curates the annual Handmade/Homemade Exhibit.

Her poems “Proun (sixth)” and “Letter to B” appear in the sixth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Proun (sixth)” and “Letter to B.”

A: I discovered El Lissitzky’s Proun at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University in March of 2013. The term drew me in, making me think at once of prose and noun. Proun is a term El Lissitzky’s coined, which he once defined as “the station where one changes from painting to architecture.” When I found Lissitzky’s definition, I was thrilled to think of the proun relative to memory and place. Though his definition was fairly ambiguous, it possessed a decidedly spatial quality, and the aspect of “translating” from one medium to another interested me greatly. I decided at the museum to write my fourth section of keep as “prouns,” wherein I attempted to translate the spatial—the canvas of place(s)—to language on the page.

To the extent that a poem can have a beginning (and memory of another can be imagined), I began the sixth proun about a GTMO prisoner, after viewing visual artist and poet Janet Passehl’s ironed cloth works. I had been listening to news on Democracy Now about Guantánamo Bay as well as reading a piece in Al Jazeera by detainee Moath al-Alwi, and Janet’s piece River (2010) immediately evoked both shroud and prayer cloth. The relationship between imprisonment, systems of power, and injustice—relative to our disastrous foreign policy in the Middle East—materialized in a cell on the page.

 “Letter to B” takes much of its language from a 2011 email to Brandon Shimoda. I was preparing for an upcoming trip to Tucson and had started working out the relationship between my concept of the sensual infrastructure and memory. (“Letter to B” was an early piece for keep, my collection based on memory.)

Q: How do these pieces connect to your previous work?

A: In his short piece “Towards a Poetics of Monstrosity,” from Lyric Postmodernisms, edited by Reginald Shepherd, Bruce Beasley introduced me to an Italian expression that speaks to that connection.

Italians have an expression I love: rimanere in force, to “remain in perhaps,” not to know, for a while. Like Keats’ negative capability, it’s a soothing respite from the “irritable reaching’” of the intellect toward knowledge and fact. A dispossession of the experience. To stay in perhaps, to linger with the eroticized body of the temporarily or permanent unknown. (1-2)
I love the openness that this Italian expression demands. I love the “placeness” held by perhaps. To pay attention to the colors, the sounds, the changes, and occurrences beyond the surface is to engage the rational and to revel too in the limitless country of the unknown[1]. “Mind coadunates with world in memory of place,” writes philosopher Edward S. Casey.

The pieces connect to my previous work then in their preoccupation with place and with the relationship of a poem to the unknown, the latter of which I think materializes in the correspondence between the abstract and concrete language of a poem.

Q: I’ve always admired just how lyrically packed your poems are: how you manage to incorporate a great deal of information into your poems without allowing the poems to feel overpowered or overwhelmed. There is, it almost feels, such a light touch to your lines, and your sentences. When it comes to how poems are built, what poets have you been influenced by?

A: I appreciate your question and reading of my work; thank you. Milan Kundera asks at the beginning of his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being,
Weight or lightness? I have thought about that question a lot—how that paradox of lightness and weight gets articulated in life and in literature. I have no doubt this is another way in which my preoccupation with belonging and freedom (home and home-lessness) manifests itself in my work. I read ferociously and across a wide aesthetic range, so there are many, many writers by whom I have been influenced. With regards to “weight or lightness” though, I think first of Bruce Beasley whose intelligence and rigor carries a great deal of information—monstrously rich concrete language—into his poems without overwhelming. Paul Celan and Emily Dickinson come to mind for their unbearable lightness of being. Orlando White and Layli Long Soldier for the simultaneous breath and sink in letter and line. Jorie Graham for her teeth-sunk interrogation into the veiled and underneath.

Q: Much of your work to date seems to exist in that convergence of translation, memory and space. What is it about engaging these elements that attracts you so deeply?

A: I’ve spoken to you elsewhere about preoccupations with place, cultural identity, and notions of belonging and home and how growing up in a military family contributed to those preoccupations. Also, I process the world emotionally very differently from my family and suspect I figured that out pretty early on. I am sure that is foundational to engaging translation, memory, and space over and over again in my writing—trying to speak the same language but knowing often we (the general we) just don’t. For a talk that I gave a year ago for the Equality State Book Festival, “Handmade/Homemade: Between Concept and Making” I spoke about my own process of writing and making books. I discussed how I consider making books as a kind of translation of text into other mediums. Just as we move across multiple grammars when we move between languages, we can move across modes of expression in transforming a text to a book object. We experience different materials and the way those materials manifest in the world. Remaining open to multiple modes of expression is like remaining open to other ways of “speaking.” Thinking about moving between genres like this pleases me greatly. But to get back to your question, I suppose my answer is kind of existential. What attracts me so deeply about engaging translation, memory, and space is how those elements animate my understanding of connection (and lack thereof). I am trying to come to more peaceful terms with that relationship between human connection and ultimately being alone. Dig far enough, I suppose, and we’ll all eventually find that our preoccupations are not unrelated to our limited time on this earth.

Q: How do you feel your work has progressed over the past decade or so, through four published books (three poetry collections and a novella in verse) and a mound of chapbooks? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Over the last ten years, I think my work has become more and more socio-politically oriented with a deeper environmental consciousness. The connections between social justice and the environment have become clearer and more urgent over the last few years. I was reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything early this summer, and this passage about the reason for social movements to exist resonated strongly:

. . . . it means continually drawing connections among these seemingly disparate struggles (my emphasis)—asserting, for instance, that the logic that would cut pensions, food stamps, and health care before increasing taxes on the rich is the same logic that would blast the bedrock of the earth to get the last vapors of gas and the last drops of oil before making the shift to renewable energy. (Part 1: Bad Timing)
Over the past ten years, I have also settled into a poetics that is fairly concept-driven. My last two published books of poetry, for example, were Elements and the last will be stone, too, based on the periodic table and art about death respectively. As I mentioned before, my latest poetry collection, keep, is about memory. Another progression is my accelerated interest in prose. I view Hélène, my novella in verse, as a departure from my poetry. In it is my keen attention to language and the poetic line, but there is some semblance of a narrative arc. Last winter I finished my first novel am now seeking a home for it. As for where my work is headed, we shall see. I’m playing around with more elements this summer (there are only 39 of 118 in the Stockport Flats book). I have been awarded a sabbatical for the spring semester and have mapped out a schedule to work on two books, at least one of which will be prose.

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

A: That is an impossible question. I just learned from Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon that the longest word to appear in an English language document was the word for an important protein, the titin protein, on the tobacco mosaic virus. I could write a list as long (and started to yesterday just for fun). The length of titin—189,819 letters—couldn’t hold all of the writers and works, old and new, which energize my work.

Lori Anderson Moseman Bruce Beasley’s Lord Brain Paul Celan

Haruki Murakami Sherman Alexie Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine

Jorie Graham’s Swarm Michael Palmer Raymond di Palma’s Works

in a Drawer
Harryette Mullen Mei-mei Berssenbrugge Rikki Ducornet

Wallace Stevens William Carlos Williams Bhanu Kapil Judith Butler

Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn Laird Hunt

Jane Miller’s Wherever You Lay Your Head Edward Said Rebecca Brown

Jacques Derrida Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider James Baldwin Marilynne

Robinson’s Gilead Laynie Browne’s Mermaid’s Purse Ta-Nehisi Coates’s

Between the World and Me Anthony Doerr’s The Shell Collector Lydia Davis

Cole Swensen Junot Díaz Yoko Tawada’s Where Europe Begins Jhumpa

Lahiri Marguerite Duras Roberto Bolaño Maggie Nelson Arundhati Roy

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Elfriede Jelenik Lao Tzu Virginia Woolf

Jeannette Winterson Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories Raúl

Zurita’s Inri Cecelia Vicuña Anne Carson Bernadette Mayer Jean

Valentine Etel Adnan Arthur Sze Emily Dickinson Lucie Brock-Broido

John Ashbery Claudia Rankine Kate Greenstreet’s Case Sensitive Meredith

Stricker’s Mistake Zhang Er’s Verses on Bird Michael Ford’s Carbon Elizabeth

Willis’s Address Stéphane Mallarmé Akilah Oliver Elizabeth Bishop Lorine

Niedecker Gertrude Stein Dogen Thích Nhât Hanh Michel Foucault Suzanne

Paola’s and Brenda Miller’s Tell It Slant Suzanne Paola’s Body Toxic Xu Yuan

[1] Hélène Cixous, from “The Laugh of the Medusa:” “Because poetry involves gaining strength through the unconscious and because the unconscious, that other limitless country, is the place where the repressed manage to survive.”

Thursday, September 24, 2015

TtD supplement #36 : seven questions for Jordan Abel

Jordan Abel is a Nisga’a writer from Vancouver. Abel’s work has appeared in numerous periodicals, and his chapbooks have been published by above/ground press and JackPine Press. Abel’s first book, The Place of Scraps (Talonbooks), was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the winner of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Un/inhabited, Abel’s second book, was co-published by Project Space Press and Talonbooks.

His poems “allegory,” “allusion,” “connotation” and “hyperbole” appear in the sixth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: The poems you submitted are part of, as you wrote, an excised section of what ended up as your second published collection:
All of these pieces are from the same conceptual project as Un/inhabited, but were not published in that book for thematic reasons. Here’s a brief description of the project:
These pieces are constructed entirely from public domain novels. On Project Gutenberg, there are 91 freely available Western novels that I copied and pasted into a single word document. That document ended up being over 10,000 pages. I then searched for words that related to the social and political aspects of land. “allegory,” “allusion,” “connotation,” and “hyperbole” diverge from the main conceptual project, but continue to explore issues of context, textual surface and reading processes.
Given that the work fits so clearly into a specific project, I’m curious about what happens to such material after it has been removed from the finished work. Does it become the ‘bonus’ material of Un/inhabited, or might it fall into a further project? Or might this be the only home it sees?

And how much material was removed? Was this it, or was there more?

A: After I finished writing Un/inhabited, there was a lot of material that essentially fell to the cutting room floor. I had been writing excessively, and knew that there would have to be substantial cuts for the project to be thematically coherent. As a result, there were many threads that had to be removed entirely. Some of those threads (minority, oil, afeared, etc.) were closely related to main conceptual project, but, for one reason or another, didn’t fit perfectly. Those threads were probably the most difficult to cut. Other threads (maps, speakers, urgency, etc.) were interesting explorations and worked individually, but were easy to separate from the main project. However, as the project continued, there were several threads that emerged that had coherent and discrete themes that weren’t dependent on the pieces in Un/inhabited. One of those threads explored the deployment of literary terms, and, surprisingly, seemed to be supported by the source text. That thread included many pieces: allegory, allusion, connotation, denouement, dialogue, flash back, hyperbole, identity, metaphor, motif, narrative, personification, simile, symbol, and theme.

To be honest, after I cut those pieces, I wasn't really sure what to do with them. The pieces in Un/inhabited (settler, territory, frontier, etc.) worked partially because they explored themes of indigeneity, land use and ownership. Those pieces were actively working towards the destabilization of the colonial architecture of the western genre. But what were these other pieces doing? What did an exploration of the context surrounding the deployment of the word “allusion” accomplish?

I think, if I were to guess at an answer to my own question, that the thread of literary terms engages with an aspect of the western genre that is, at the very least, unusual. You don’t often think about the western genre being rich with metaphors or allusions or symbols, and, perhaps, it isn’t. But those words are there. Those words are doing something that we don’t normally associate with the traditional foundations of literary studies. There is an exploration here that, I think, subverts the tendencies of literary analysis by compressing and recontextualizing common analytic diction.

Right now, these pieces are not part of a separate project. But they easily could be. I think there’s more there to dig through. Other approaches that could be taken.

Q: Is this how you have been building your manuscripts-to-date, through experimenting with an expansiveness before cutting away to hone the manuscript as a self-contained project? And what percentage of a manuscript might be cut away before you are left with a finished work?

A: For the most part, yes. When I was writing The Place of Scraps, I made a conscious decision to just write as much as I could and then trim the manuscript back later. I had done this partly because I knew that I needed write in order to figure out what was good, what was bad, what was useable, and what had to go. I like your description. Experimenting with an expansiveness before cutting away. Here, I think the experimentation does accurately describe at least part of my process. There’s a certain amount of trial and error that was required for writing The Place of Scraps, and it was often necessary to write through the error before stumbling on something that clicked. Admittedly, with TPOS, about a quarter of all of the writing I did for that project didn’t work and was cut from the final publication.

Things were a bit different for Un/inhabited. The process of exploration through error was much longer, more tedious, and was often paralyzed by the expansiveness of the source text. Each search query I made (and subsequently each piece that became part of the larger conceptual project) had an indeterminable outcome. And, worse, when I began the project, I had no idea what direction to go in or which ideas to pursue. The process tended towards exploring and querying in any and all directions. The result, with Un/inhabited, was that only about a quarter of all the material I produced ended up in the final published version. Which, of course, left a substantial amount of material unpublished and unused.

Q: How did you arrive at such a collage-construction of writing expansively around and through a conceptual framework? Who or what have your structural models been over the course of your work to date?

A: It’s tough to say exactly how I arrived at this model. I think, at least partly, expansive writing comes from the understanding that the conceptual project could, potentially, be limitless. Or that the full conceptual project could be far too lengthy to publish. But, I think, I came to this model of writing because there were very few other Indigenous writers exploring Indigeneity through conceptual writing. So far, I’ve found that conceptual frameworks can allow for different kinds of understandings, different kinds of readings, and different kinds of engagement with Indigeneity.

I think, also, that the concept, as far as I’ve used it, has really allowed me to shift the focus of my writing away from myself and onto other texts. My personal engagement with Indigenous ideas and issues as a member of the Nisga’a Nation, as an intergenerational survivor of the Canadian residential school system, and urban Indigenous person has primarily been mediated through text and the materiality of books. The concept allows me to put those books front and centre.

As far as structural models go, I’ve learned a great deal from many different writers and artists. And my work itself is entirely dependent on the work of others. But the conceptualists that I find very useful to learn from include Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, M. NourbeSe Philip, and many more.

It’s strange, though. It was only after I finished TPOS that I finally read Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip. I’ve always thought that Zong! and TPOS have a lot in common. And it would have made sense for me to read Zong! before I wrote TPOS. But for some reason I missed it, and stumbled into erasure and found text almost by accident.

Q: What do you feel that conceptualism allows you to explore and articulate that you might not have been able to otherwise?

A: So far I think conceptualism has primarily allowed me to articulate a more complex relationship between Indigenous nationhood, textual surface, and foundational literatures. I'm sure, though, that there are many other things that conceptualism could potentially work towards. For me, I think, the most important aspect of using a conceptual framework in my writing was that it allowed me to imagine Indigeneity outside of the tropes of poetry.

Q: Has your writing changed the way you see or understand yourself as Nisga’a? Have your researches expanded or clarified your knowledge, or are you working already from a foundation that is simply being articulated?

A: That’s an interesting question. I would probably say yes. Often, when I’m writing, I’m thinking about how I construct my identity as a Nisga’a person, and, more broadly, how foundational and popular knowledges inform my identity as an Indigenous person. As I write through those foundational texts, as I readjust, question and subvert them, I am unsettling that knowledge and creating a space where identity can be constructed outside of the colonial apparatus.

Q: I interviewed Armand Garnet Ruffo for Jacket2 a while back (http://jacket2.org/commentary/short-interview-armand-garnet-ruffo), and we discussed the line between writing a resistance and writing a presence. Where do you find your work along that same spectrum?

A: I think Armand Ruffo brings up an important point. That if your writing is only resistant, only oppositional, only focused on decolonization, you kind of end up writing yourself into a corner. That resistance alone is somehow insubstantial and unsustainable. More or less, this makes a lot of sense to me, and I think it’s exceptionally important to balance out that resistance with presence. Or perhaps balance out decolonization with resurgence.

In terms of where my writing falls on that spectrum, I hope that both resistance and presence are there. Primarily, the texts that I’ve focused on as source texts have all been written from a settler-colonial perspective, and, I think, have pointed towards the kinds of foundational knowledges that should be resisted. My challenge, so far, has been to articulate an Indigenous presence from within those texts. TPOS is probably my most accessible example of this. From within Barbeau’s voice comes my own voice, an Indigenous voice. In that resistance and disassembly of Barbeau’s writing an Indigenous presence emerges.

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

A: Usually, I return to poetry. But lately I’ve been spending a lot of time reading non-fiction and returning to non-fiction:

Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition by Glen Coulthard
The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King
Decolonization and the Decolonized by Albert Memmi
Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon
Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back by Leanne Simpson
Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto by Taiaiake Alfred
After Canaan by Wayde Compton