Tuesday, February 24, 2015

TtD supplement #20 : seven questions for Kirsten Kaschock

Kirsten Kaschock is the author of three books of poetry: Unfathoms (Slope Editions) and A Beautiful Name for a Girl (Ahsahta Press), and The Dottery, winner of the Donald Hall Prize for poetry from AWP (University of Pittsburgh Press). Her debut novel, Sleight, a work of speculative fiction, was published by Coffee House Press. A chapbook WindowBoxing is out from Bloof Books. She has earned a PhD in English from the University of Georgia and a PhD in dance from Temple University. She is on faculty at Drexel University.

She has six poems—“Pissing on Tombs,” “Succubus Instructions,” “Equalize,” “Abandon the Tower,” “Working up the Courage for Good Prose” and “By Chocolate”—appear in the fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the six poems that appear in the new issue: “Pissing on Tombs,” “Succubus Instructions,” “Equalize,” “Abandon the Tower,” “Working up the Courage for Good Prose” and “By Chocolate.”

A: A few of these started as argument poems—poems I wrote in an attempt to convince myself of something. They have a touch of the polemic. That’s a tone I adopt playfully... a remnant of the failed debater in me. I’ve felt this desire to try on a different voice for awhile—a more formal voice who cares about what I care about but is also more steeped in the canon (the one I was assigned to read as an undergrad) more than I have ever wanted to be. I am lately wrestling more with the influences I’ve rejected... or at least pushed toward the back of my lineage. So, in “Abandon the Tower” I allude to Charlotte and Emily and J.J. and J.R.R. and in “Pissing on Tombs” it’s Poe and Pooh. 

I also try on personae. In “Equalize” I imagine myself a would-be gun moll (which I am not), and in “Succubus Instructions” I instruct female demons on how to correctly manifest (and protect themselves from their victims). “Working up the Courage for Good Prose” is a piece I wrote in Canton, NY, when I was there for ten months as a visiting professor at St. Lawrence U. and separated from my life partner and much of my life. There’s a romance in such a retreat, but it is worn as a protection from the often lonely reality.

Most of these poems are written in triads. Because truth. There’s a first line, a second—there’s negotiation. And then there’s often a bleeding into the next when what you are searching for isn’t right there, or when it’s too much.

“By Chocolate” is about the dessert imagined as a literal end. It’s got it all—the allusion to Shakespeare, the stilted diction, the triadic form, the argument. It also has punning and compressed sonic play: two things that seem inescapable for me, no matter what I am writing or what new thing I am trying on.

Q: I’m curious about your attempts to wrestle with the influences you’ve rejected. Is it a matter of now having the experience to engage with those works you read too early? What is it you feel you’re attempting to work through, specifically?

A: No. I don’t think I encountered them too early. Some of them did not speak to me (meaning, I was in no way that I could imagine myself the intended audience and sometimes had to even dis-imagine myself to engage with the content and stances without rancor). But the language is musical and the music stayed with me. The syntax of earlier eras especially seems strangely liberating. Let me explain—I can break any grammatical rule I want in contemporary poetry. I am in some circles encouraged to do so. I can also utterly fail to communicate. When I was taught work by pre-twentieth century and early twentieth century writers—I was expected to follow their circuitous paths through the English language. More “figuring” was expected of me as a reader during my exposure to, say, Milton or Donne or Joyce (yes, I know, I’m spanning centuries if not continents)—but I was promised meaning if I muddled through. Many of these pieces are delivering (for me) pretty straightforward content but dipping backwards into a way of ordering information that feels foreign (received as it has been from writers I never identified with) but also like home (I was reading it as I began my writing life). So—I’m wrestling with the dysfunction of split lineage. What do you do with the reading history you didn’t choose? Can you reclaim any of it?  If so, by what strategies?

Q: Well, that is the curious thing about any kind of creative lineage: for the most part, it is one we are allowed to choose. But where do you find the conflict in histories? Is the tone or phrasing or structures of one influence banging up against another during composition? What, precisely, is the complication you’re feeling?

A: Do you think we mostly choose? I don’t think I think so anymore. I am grappling with these writers who I read a great deal of when I was younger because they’ve crept and crept into my writing when I haven’t chosen. Because I’ve spent years editing them out. So here I am inviting them in instead. But maybe you are asking what parts of them? A certain slant of confidence. A way of indulging in pretty looping phrases or redundancy (compared to my usual more cut and cutting syntax) without worrying that I am being too self-indulgent. Knowing that I am being ornate and excessive and choosing not to care. To claim instead. It is because Poe writes like this: “It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered,” (FoftHoU) that I come up with statements like: “I should let this emo un-/boy or 
boylite in on how//belle-langue only prettifies—its/photogenic grotesques mere/tarted-up dowdiness—//Death, 
a veritable jane.” The line and stanza breaks may serve to disrupt the Victorian bluster, but not completely. I’ve given into these syntactic impulses more here than I have before. So I’m fighting myself—my instinct to excise this laciness. Lace, I was taught, is only for certain men of a certain age. That wearing it would trivialize me. So I’ve stuck more to gray flannel as I’ve hewn towards the writer I want to become. Here, I'm fighting that desire to abridge, to let rejection define me.

Q: So the question becomes—after three poetry collections, a speculative novel and your current wrestling-in-progress—what are you aiming to work towards? How do you feel your writing has progressed over the space of these four published works, and what, specifically, do you consider the goals of your current works-in-progress?

A: I aim for everything. Explosion. Inclusion. Implosion. Precision. Impossible things to aim for at once. I’ve always been trying for the impossible and the unsayable. That’s what has always motivated me—my impotence. I am finishing up (have been finishing up for over six months) my second novel. It’s science fiction and familial. Working title: The Rate at Which She Travels Backwards. Everything is connected and everyone is isolated. I love the villainess; I am trying to make certain other people can as well. So, in these last poems, I have been moving backwards maybe because my prose-life has been moving forwards into a future I can’t see as anything but painful. The instinctual thing is to retreat—atavistically—beneath the leaves of the books/trees of an earlier time. The novel does a great deal of sampling from the past and the present as well. I’ve grown more comfortable with my ability to juggle antagonistic impulses, but tying them up satisfactorily—well, I’ll let you know if and when I do it.

I’m still seeking balance on the high wire with my fire batons. I need more chalk on my feet. Have I progressed? Well, that depends. Is survival progression? I have to think so. Since I just do this to breathe.

Q: How difficult is it to navigate composing poetry alongside science fiction? The number of writers attempting both are extremely rare (although Canadian writer Heather Spears comes to mind), and even less so for those working more experimental strains of poetry. How does one form interact or inform the other, if at all?

A: You see, I don’t really understand why experimental poets don’t write more sci-fi. Sci-fi has dug them for awhile. From Samuel Delany’s Babel-17, to China Miéville’s Embassytown, and recently Max Barry’s Lexicon—science fiction has been the place in literature where the power of language to alter reality is not only taken seriously, but even weaponized. I’m not half-joking. Poetry is where I do the thing I do. Science fiction is where I explain to myself (and others) what it is I’m doing and why. It is a very natural fit. My science fiction is concerned, unsurprisingly, with the untapped potentials of art. Sometimes it is incredibly generative to be doing poetry alongside the prose—and sometimes I concentrate on one rather than the other for fairly long stretches. This might also have to do with my life, which like everyone’s life, occasionally overwhelms me. Do the two genres inform one another? Hell yes. They are conjoined twins. I never knew I needed to write speculative fiction until I started, and now I don’t know how I wrote poetry before I had that space to theorize my language use. This novel I’m writing has a nod to time being “a quality of movement.” Thus, to arrive at the future, one must only move more slowly than other people—books do that, the written word does that. And now I’m more clearly understanding my recent poetic draw backwards through time. Or, to paraphrase E. M. Forster: “How did I know what I thought before I saw what I said?” I probably didn’t. In fact, I’m still puzzling through it.

Q: Among other things, your short bio mentions a PhD in dance. How does your work in dance, if at all, impact upon your poetry and speculative fiction work? You already engage in what some might see as an influence and engagement between unexpected forms: does dance also influence the writing?

A: Yes. The type of modern dance and experimental poetries I’ve engaged in and the soft, psychological science fiction I adore—these genres have tremendous interest in using their own materiality to transcend materiality. The way I practice all my forms is alchemical… I believe that juxtaposing just the right combination of gestures or words or speculative imaginings within the right framework (a philosophy, a discipline, a narrative) can create a wholly new thing. And though new things can be magical or disastrous, the desire for new things—that is quintessentially human.

Dance gave me the ability to trust in the unsayable. It offered me the knowledge that things we cannot clearly and concisely articulate in language are nonetheless valuable aspects of the human experience. Perhaps the most valuable aspects. I try to hold to that knowledge within my writing. I try ever to reach for and snatch at things I will never succeed at wresting from aether to page. I am okay with that failure. It’s the only one of our many futilities that really calls to me.

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

A: I return to the work of Sabrina Orah Mark and Patrick Lawler often—and await their new work breathlessly. In reach of my pillow are Elizabeth Bishop and Doris Lessing (a later find) and Rilke and Bill Knott. I have a small book called Knots by R.D. Laing that has lately been useful to me, in the same way the Tao Te Ching is… a page at a time. Also, right now, The Tempest and Hansel and Gretel.

What re-energizes me?  More than writing—live performance. It challenges me to translate across mediums, from the spatial and temporal and collaborative to the form that most pretends to be none of those. That impossible transfer is endlessly generative for me.

Friday, February 13, 2015

TtD supplement #19 : eight questions for Nikki Sheppy

Nikki Sheppy is a poet, editor and arts journalist. She has a doctorate in English literature from the University of Calgary. Her book reviews have appeared in Uppercase Magazine, Alberta Views, and Lemon Hound, and her poetry in Event and Matrix. She serves as President of the Board of filling Station, Calgary’s experimental literary and arts magazine, and is the author of the poetry chapbook, Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite (Kalamalka, 2014).

Her poems “transgender” and “L’abeille (Labé)” appear in the fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Transgender.”

A: As an ‘oracle,’ gender is unreliable in its predictive insights, and fails to account for different manifestations of agency. This poem emerged partly from my teaching a course in Gender and Women’s Studies, in which the critical insights, along with the subject positions, of my students routinely eviscerated gender norms.

Desire speaks to what each assigned gender might mourn in itself, as things lost by enculturation and experience. So where masculine insight and empathy might lie in refusing the stock narrative of rescue (which offers agency only by proxy) to better support an other’s power, rupture bespeaks a feminine will to be heard in the male-dominated canon that has historically recited female fate. It also offers its narrative as an invitation to responsiveness and listening—traits that in truth are not singularly ‘feminine’—to consider the ways in which more equitable participation (give and take on all ‘sides’) would serve the interests of a more robust literature.

Q: Tell me about the poem “L’abeille.”

A: “L’abeille” (bee) is a pun on the name of the French Renaissance poet, Louise Labé, “La Belle Cordière,” whose elegies and love sonnets were ‘rediscovered’ in the twentieth century, in part due to the German translations by Rilke. This short series of sonnets invokes grief’s companion lute, as named by Labé, though not in a literal sense. In truth, it imagines a kind of chimaerical woman-Queen bee, who has internalized a damaging song from the long-ago past (played, homophonically, by a “liar”), then finds herself fixated (and “harping”) on this past in order to resolve it. The drama occurs in a figural bee hive that invokes her reverie, her fertility and the child-murders committed in her name. The new string she finds in swarming is really a map to a new paradigm.

Q: What is the context for this work?

A: Both poems come from a project I started in the summer of 2012, entitled Bugonia, which I began expanding into a manuscript at the 2013 Banff Centre Writing Studio, with mentors Karen Solie, Jen Hadfield and Daljt Nagra. I was rewriting the story of Eurydice to reclaim agency for her from the canonical tradition of Greek and Roman mythology that either condemned her to hell or lionized Orpheus (and his music) for saving her. In my rendition, Eurydice’s story is a trauma narrative. Since my plan was for her to sing her own way out of hell, I found the bee colony to be useful. Its matriarchy already undermines gendered notions of leadership, power and agency (though, to be fair, the Queen Bee is also enslaved, and productively multiplied, by perpetual childbirth). The ritual of bugonia restates, in metaphoric terms, the psychoanalytic motif of “successful mourning,” exchanging the dead Virgilian bee colony for a living one born of a corpse. Arguably, it is Orpheus—who eulogizes Eurydice even after he has been decapitated, his fate as elegist sealed when it is reified in the constellation Lyra—who is the real melancholic here, though I would not presume to let the canonic myth write him off either.

It is, admittedly, a utopian project about psychoanalytic resolution as a complex magic—even though such idealized abstract medicines often fail in life. The utility of the myth was conceptually precise enough to nevertheless be irresistible. It also made for a lovely harmony with my scholarly work. I wrote my PhD thesis on literatures of loss, so in a way this is home turf to me. One of the writers I focused on was American poet Sylvia Plath, whose wonderful bee sequence nurtured my interest in apian imagery.

Q:  How does the work in Bugonia connect or further your previous work, such as your chapbook Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite (2014)?

A: In Grrrrlhood, I included a series of mathematical formulae in which words replaced numbers. Following each equation, I wrote a poem that deliberately mistranslated the math in ways that undermined the literal, discipline-specific concepts by forcing them into an emotional and psychological field. For example, if mathematically, the root of a quantity might be expressed as that quantity raised to the power of a fraction, I used this idea to contemplate the origins of thwarted power.

Similarly, the project I’m working on now deliberately breaks faith with classical mythology to interrogate power. It rewrites the myth in order to rewire gender and to challenge male-dominated canonicity as a productive literary mode, by revising or resignifying the narrative, the better to express the repressed story of Eurydice. In Ovid and Virgil, Eurydice dies in order to provide a story for Orpheus (who must mourn her in the beautiful song that helps found the canon) and a story for Aristaeus (who must make amends for his role in her death if he is to save his bees). Aristaeus is a sexual predator and small-time feudal lord, whose affluence is realized through the labour of bees, but the myth curiously connects his intention to rape Eurydice with the curse of poverty. Her assault thus refuses to go unmourned. By investing Eurydice’s story with its own coherence and significance, in the wake of other feminist writers, I hope to explore women’s trauma narratives on their own terms, as well as in cultural context. These narratives are often used in problematic ways: to assert that a ‘damaged’ woman has no power, or to convert her story into the dilemma from which she might be rescued by a male actor or used by him for the production of opportunity or capital. My project strives to relieve Eurydice of the role of perpetually embodying loss, and liberate Orpheus from the task of endlessly grieving female powerlessness and his own complicity in it.

This may seem idealistic, given the persistence of gender inequities, but it responds to the symbolic possibilities of mythology, rather than its literal content. I view this myth as an object lesson in emancipation from the archetypal traps of narrative itself: of a gendered narrative fate, if you will. Myths often safeguard criticism, and secrete transformational potential. By looking back, Orpheus agrees that Eurydice will free herself: acknowledges that only she can do so. Indeed, this may be a truth encrypted in the myth. What happens next, in the Underworld (a kind of un-language lab), is Eurydice’s story.

Q: I’m curious as to why you chose to explore and translate Eurydice through poetry, as opposed to reworking through prose forms. What is it about poetry that helps articulate her possibilities?

A: I’m a big fan of Anne Carson’s wonderful scholarship on classical Greek and Roman literature, including her gorgeous Eros the Bittersweet and her fascinating trans-historical comparative study of Simonides of Keos and Paul Celan, Economy of the Unlost. I would not presume to address mythology in an academic mode myself, because I do not have scholarly expertise in the field.

Beyond this, I suppose I felt that poetry permits tampering—and I understood how extensively I wished to tamper. I have read many renditions of the myth, including other intriguing and valid ways of engaging it. My own wish was not so much to revisit it, as to address its silences. What if we invented a backstory for Eurydice and focused on the repercussions for her? How would this story affect our understanding of the other characters, or our appreciation of the mythical dimensions of power? Myths are curious in that they can be both culturally emblematic and weirdly eccentric: fiascos that resonate as simultaneously symbolic and personal. 

I also chose poetry because of an insight that emerged from my doctoral studies: stories of loss (such as trauma narratives) benefit from formal and modal experimentation. When I studied Janice Williamson’s Crybaby!, for example, or Paul Celan’s poetry, I discerned the extent to which their forms, tones, and philosophical foundations were complex, negotiated and, in the former case, heterogeneous. In fact, Williamson’s book is a brilliant alloy of poetry, memoir and cultural critique. The authors crafted new, eccentric forms or ambitiously overhauled their own poetics to do this work. My engagement with this myth has generated epic narrative, glossolalia, palindromes, catalogues, erasure, steganography, collage, visual poetry, and micro-essays. It has also produced an array of tones, from vatic and elegiac to impish, snide and luxuriously sad. Writing in poetry has enabled me to move around, rapidly and at will, within these various forms and modes.

Q: I find it interesting that you presumed I meant “academic mode” when I suggested prose forms when my own thoughts were far closer to fiction, a form which also allows one to float through, with and around a variety of modes. To re-work a story, why not approach as story?

A: I write poetry, journalism and scholarship, so in answering I considered the prose forms that I myself feel able to write. I don’t write fiction. At one point in 2013, I tried it as a verse play, but that didn’t work for me either. It doesn’t seem unusual to approach this myth in verse; historically, it has often emerged as poetry, opera, drama or film. That said, my primary motivation is to accommodate the way this material works for me. Thinking along narrative lines does not come naturally, and in any case, trauma narratives typically resist and subvert plotlines. If in my manuscript, Eurydice’s Hell is an un-language lab, then it is a place of fraught and frustrated verbiage, of bricolage, and of generative repurposing. As head of an unruly literary regime of industrious bees, Eurydice guts canonic texts through erasure; tries to use palindromic spells and spellings as a means of egress from the Underworld (backing out the way she came, as it were); and cuts and pastes Rilke and Carson to reflect on love and doom. She even speaks in an invented, glossolalic tongue when language itself falters. There may indeed be an effective novel here, but such a book would be the product of an imagination quite different from mine, I think.

Q: I do love that you studied Janice Williamson’s Crybaby!, a completely underrated book. There have been some incredibly powerful works of creative non-fiction by numerous writers exploring experimental forms—from Janice Williamson and Anne Carson to Susan Howe, Elizabeth Hay and Aritha Van Herk. Do the possibilities of prose appeal at all, or do you see yourself collecting all of your experiments underneath the umbrella of poetry?

A: I love Susan Howe, and I’ve often imagined that in the future I might play with experimental prose forms. I also really enjoyed Lisa Robertson’s Nilling, both Janice Williamson’s Crybaby! and her Tell Tale Signs, and Anne Carson’s lyric paragraphs and prose appendices to The Albertine Workout. So many others too, as you say. Some experiments with form, genre, and bookishness itself appeal to me. I’m thinking of Aislinn Hunter’s paratextual Peepshow with Views of the Interior; Lauren Slater’s genre-bending Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, material expurgations like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, and Marcel Bénabou’s mischievous modernist un-writing, Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, for example. I’m equally fascinated by books about paratexts and revisions of various sorts (footnotes, marginalia, etc), and such lovely erasures as Barrie Tullett’s editorial corrections / vispo collection, The Ghost in the Fog (XXV: The Corrections).

For the immediate future, however, I think I will start by interrogating the intersections between literature and architectural or cartographic forms. I’m very interested in spatial representations. I previously argued that I would like to mine these interests “to produce detailed axonometric drawings of sublimation machines, or topographical maps of melancholic fixation.” I still think that may be what I work on next, after my back-burner book on derivative forms, which is partially written. Then, experimental prose…

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

A: I don’t have a go-to book. I enter the fray. When I’m looking for ways to access more divergent modes, and to deliberately stray from lyric or narrative poems with clear arguments, I read people like Frances Richard, Sylvia Legris, Ed Steck, Lisa Robertson, Natalie Simpson, Jean-Jacques Poucel’s translations of Anne Portugal... When I wish to engage with something that has a more logical lyric, dialogic or perhaps epic narrative structure, I read Tim Lilburn, Sina Queyras, David O’Meara, Rilke, Christopher Logue, Jeramy Dodds. I particularly delighted in two books last year—The Inheritance by a friend, Kerry-Lee Powell, and Broom Broom by Brecken Hancock, collections that both precisely name and vividly intuit abjection and loss. When I want to watch language fall apart or strangely cohere in brilliant, telling (and often multi-lingual) ways, I read Caroline Bergvall, Rachel Zolf, Jordan Abel, Erin Mouré, Dennis Lee, Shannon Maguire. When I want to think about constraint or eccentric experiments, I read M. NourbeSe Phillip, Greg Betts, Susan Holbrook, Christian Bök, the minute operas of Frédéric Forte. When I need something vatic, oracular, melancholic, or probing, I read Sylvia Plath, Paul Celan, Ted Hughes, Lucretius, Nathalie Stephens. When I need to remember how smart humour can be, I re-read “Insert” by Susan Holbrook—and cackle. Sometimes I read literary porn, political diatribe, or manifestos if I feel the need to consider the smutty, profane or disobedient. I delight in having so many options. I have friends and peers who are producing fascinating work in all genres, and these works nurture and teach me.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

TtD supplement #18 : seven questions for Jessica Smith

Jessica Smith, Founding Editor of Foursquare magazine, serves as the Librarian for Indian Springs School, where she runs its Visiting Writers Series. She is the author of numerous chapbooks including mnemotechnics (above/ground 2013) and one full-length collection, Organic Furniture Cellar (Outside Voices 2006). Her second book, Life-List, is forthcoming from Chax Press. about.me/jessicasmith

Five poems from The Daybooks appears in the fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: I’m curious about your current work-in-project The Daybooks, in part due to the poets who have worked on variations on such in the past, including Robert Creeley, George Bowering and Gil McElroy. Were you aware of any previous incarnations of the poetic “day book” when you began? What were your models for the project?

A: Although The Daybooks finds influences among poets, I don’t think the abovementioned projects really entered into the vortex of associations that instigated the project.

When I was a teenager, I was drawn to Frank Stella’s sculptures, which he said he made out of things he found in his garage. I liked the idea that his collages of scrap metal were made of things that were already lying around. Similarly, The Daybooks is a collage of scrap that was already lying around.

When I began The Daybooks in early 2014, I knew I wanted to work on a sustained poetry project. I had begun two: I’d started a series of ekphrastic poems (some of which have been published in The Brooklyn Rail and seventeen seconds, and some of which are forthcoming in The Hat) and a long mesostic based on a discarded book from the library, The Bull of Minos. I planned out both series of poems but didn’t connect with them personally. Neither of these projects really hit on what I wanted to do with the poems intellectually or ethically.

Reading some poems by Sandra Simonds and Dorothea Lasky, I knew that ethically, I wanted to say something about women and the violence of everyday life. Intellectually, I wanted to continue the investigation of memory and record that I began with Organic Furniture Cellar.

At this time (late 2013) I was also reading Yannis Ritsos’s Diaries of Exile, Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary and Jacques Derrida’s The Work of Mourning. I have a special place in my heart for Eva Hesse and her Datebooks, which are available in facsimile from Yale UP. I also see Stephen Ratcliffe’s poetry experiments and photographs online every day as he records the shifting light from his home in Bolinas, California. In January 2014, I saw a Facebook status update from poet Valerie Loveland about her accomplishment of writing 365 poems in 2013. I thought: I can do that. I need to write every day. I need to write poetry like I write in my diary: every day and without so much internal criticism. Like many writers, I kill my darlings before they’re even born, doubting them to death before they reach the page. But I don’t do that when I’m writing for myself, in my diary.

I made a schema for a poem for each day for 366 days. Each day is a combination of memory and record (diary entries, bits of books I was reading, marginalia, descriptions of contemporary photographs). The records are drawn from the corresponding day where there is a diary entry, so, if I am writing a poem about July 27, I look back at my diary entries from July 27 ranging back to 2002—I started keeping a diary in 1990, but I missed 1999-2002, so I started with 2002, which is the year I left my abusive boyfriend and was able to start keeping a private diary again—and determine what was the most interesting July 27 in the available entries and then write about it. This method affords me the material to write—I don’t have to “come up with it all myself” in bursts of inspiration that may never happen—I don’t have the smelt the metal, I just have to go to my garage—while also satisfying my intellectual and ethical desires. I get to investigate my own memories, how they’re recorded, and how they continue to associate; I hope that by letting my poetry remain fragmented and fluid, I can touch the reader’s memories and associations too, and the poetry can become a collage of our memories. I also get to work on the ethical question of what poetry should “be about” and “do” by writing about the impact of violence—especially sexual violence and “microaggressions”—in the everyday lives of young women.

Q: I’m curious about what you say about continuing some of the investigation of Organic Furniture Cellar. What do you find so compelling about utilizing “memory and record”?

A: The way that poetry deals with memory interests me. Although classically lumped with music as an art of succession (probably because of its oral heritage), written poetry is an art of both simultaneity and succession. (Everything is concurrently simultaneous and successive, even the “purely” successive art of music.)  It isn’t just sound-in-time, it’s the memory of sound-in-time. It’s not just the words on the page (simultaneity) but the patterns of moving through them (which takes time) and their sounds in the mind’s ear. Nevertheless, poetry generally moves one way down and across the page, and the message of the poem evolves linearly in the same fashion.  When a poem recounts a memory, it follows this same linear pattern. When a poem is read aloud or memorized, it conforms to the same successive line.

Because the act of recollecting occurs in time, it moves linearly, successively, at the same time that it marks time (simultaneity). But our memories do not conform to linear narratives. When I recall a birthday party from my youth, I can recall fragmentary colors, patterns, and little snippets of linear moments (she brought out the cake, he paid for the ice cream), but to pull together a story from those elements distorts the reality of my memory. To narrativize the memory is to fill in the gaps. In writing fragmented narratives that do not necessarily move linearly across and down the page, I hope to preserve some of the sense that memories are shimmery, unreliable, scattered things.

One of Proust’s great accomplishments was making us aware of the “involuntary memory,” the image that comes unbidden at the behest of a stimulus. In the famous “madeleine scene,” Proust bites into a madeleine and is mentally transported back to his childhood and the sensory experience of eating madeleines with his aunt. The memory has not been “present” for him—the Sunday afternoon treat with his aunt is not one of those memories he constantly retrieves, obsesses over, maintains. We all have those “fond memories,” voluntary, tried-and-true memories that we narrate to ourselves to establish our identities, like checking our looks in the mirror. Involuntary memories are different because they’re unpredictable. Traumatic memories work similarly to involuntary memories. They might be caused by a stimulus or trigger, like when Septimus Smith hears a car backfire in Mrs. Dalloway and is reminded of gunfire in the war he survived.  Or they may simply be “invasive”: with no obvious trigger, the strong memory surfaces and supercedes all other thought. Involuntary and traumatic memories make the “fond memory” much more complicated. At any moment, as I dwell in memories of my experiences (mulling over regrets or fondling happy thoughts), they may be interrupted by outside stimuli or my own internal, invasive memories. Memories never operate on just one temporal plane. They are always a highly fragmentary web of controlled and uncontrolled, conscious and unconscious thoughts.

To try to render memory in poetry, I want to disrupt the conventional “look” of the poem in favor of fragmentation and multilinearity, although I know that the reader must follow one track at a time through the poem. I want the reader to try to hold multiple threads and possibilities in her head at one time and to reside in the pleasant ambiguity of unresolvable fragmentation. I know that the reader brings her own thoughts and memories to the poem as well, and the white space of the page echoes, for me, that blank possibility, as well as the blanks in my own personal narratives.

Q: Part of the disruption you describe includes utilizing fragments of text across the entire stretch of the printed page, as though you approach the page just as much as a visual medium. What influences have you had over the years to the visual aspects of your work, and how are you able to blend both text and visuals so comfortably? Just what is it about the disruption that appeals?

A: This is such a massive question. I grew up studying drawing and painting and love going to art museums and studying art history. I want to use the whole space of the page and approach it like a kind of blend between painting and poem, in that the words are usually arranged roughly left-right, top-bottom, but not entirely. I see the space of the page as already having a certain “weight,” like it’s not a blank/silent space, and that concept was molded for me by John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock and Steve McCaffery. I was also inspired, early on, by installation art, which along with sculpture is still what excites me the most: I want the audience to physically participate in the making of the object.

One of the biggest artistic aha moments for me was discovering Gotthold Lessing’s aesthetic treatise Laocoön via James Joyce’s Ulysses. Lessing describes visual art as an art of simultaneity and music as an art of succession. The plastic arts—sculpture, installation, architecture—deconstruct this binary by requiring the audience to move through/around them in time and space. The spacing of my poems calls attention to the fact that language isn’t just successive (like music) or simultaneous (like painting) but requires both time (succession) and space (simultaneity). Spacing is often only seen as important insofar as lines break or don’t break, but the way that a poem is arranged on a page can completely alter the reading. Visual poetry calls attention to the medium of poetry, showing that written language isn’t a transparent score for oral performance.

Some of the poets who have heavily influenced my use of the page are: Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, Christian Bök, John Cage, and Johanna Drucker. The problems of scoring music and the disjunction between the score and performance have also been important for how I see the page (see for instance Dieter Schnebel’s “Musik sum Lesen”).

Q: Given the breadth and depth of your explorations on form, what is it about the composition of text on the page that attracts you? Have you considered, for example, utilizing performance or the musical score as part of your response? You speak of “how you see the page,” but how did the page become your framing, and do you at any point feel limited by it?

A: I choose the page as a constraint: Often when I asked for poems for periodicals, I ask the editor about the margins, page size, and font, and then I write a poem specifically for the magazine within those constraints. When I write a larger project on my own, I choose my own visual constraints. I enjoy writing by hand on square pages, but when I transfer drafts to the computer I try to choose standard printer sizes for paper and margins and standard, readable typefaces. I am constrained by the current standards of publishing, but I choose the constraint for myself with an eye to publishing because I want a larger audience than the kind of micropublishing that non-standard pages/typefaces would require. So, yes, I sometimes feel limited by page space, but the limitation is positive. I need boundaries! It helps me concentrate on other things.

When I was younger, in junior high school, I learned about sonnets and I started writing them like crazy. (I think the form of the sonnet haunts my work, as the form of the alexandrine is said to haunt French avant-garde poetry.) I enjoyed working within the constraint. I don't write “formal” poetry like that any more, but I sometimes make rules for myself to work within. For example, I wrote a series of poems about books using excerpts from discarded library books and each poem was exactly 26 words. Now I am writing a series of poems about dreams of houses where each poem has 2 strophes of 30 words each. These little pieces give me a small field in which to “exercise.” These poems are more like sonnets in that the constraints have to do with the words: In sonnets, rhyme and meter are the constraints; in these poems it’s word count and subject. But it's the same desire to show variation within constraints. I enjoy the work of visual artists who obsess, repeating the same subjects or gestures again and again with small variations.

Regarding performance, well, I am not a performer. I was steeped in the history of performance poetry and contemporary classical music at SUNY Buffalo, and I love poets like angela rawlings who use both sound and the page to compose. I enjoy others’ work that employs sound and performance, but I can’t do it. I also love the feeling of reading silently to oneself and discovering how words come together as I read them. That, too, is a kind of performance: It’s the performance of the reader’s eyes across the page, the internalized sound (“inner ear”) and custom-driven dance of reading.

Q: Part of what you discuss via the limitations and boundaries of the page are reminiscent of some of the work the late Toronto poet bpNichol did, specifically his explorations utilizing the machinery at Coach House Printing. Because he hadn’t the “proper” training on such machinery, Nichol managed to open some of the boundaries of what was possible in the printing processes, and Stan Bevington has long said that Nichol, in many ways, taught him how to use his own presses. Have you considered moving in this direction yourself to explore further options for what might be possible with the page, or is your practice one that prefers to explore within those particular boundaries?

A: I like the boundaries of the page and standard printing techniques, and I think my poetry is kind of a poetry “of the time,” of a specific technological moment, perhaps even a moment that’s already gone. When I published Organic Furniture Cellar, for instance, color printing was still very expensive, and now it isn’t. Letterpress was just beginning to come back as an art—you could still buy old letterpress machines for cheap at estate sales and via Craigslist—and now I know multiple people with letterpress businesses. In both directions—the direction of cheap industrial printing and the direction of common artisan printing—the publishing field seems to have broadened since I imagined page constraints based on what was common and inexpensive in printing. 

Although I am not interested, at the moment, in learning letterpress, a friend of mine from college, poet and printer Christopher Fritton of the Western New York Book Arts Center, developed a method for letterpress printing scattered works that look similar to mine. We “grew up together” as artists and there are similarities in our work. In 2009-2011, he and Kevin Kegler collaborated on an artists’ book with Kevin’s photographs and Chris’ poetry. Instead of setting the fragmented poetry using spacers, Chris drilled holes into wooden plates and set the text in the holes to widen the range of space he could use. I think that kind of innovation in letterpress printing is what many of my poems would require.

At this point, I am more interested in what I am saying than in how I am saying it. The way I write comes naturally to me, and the constraints I have chosen help me focus on content. I am still writing poetry “about things” (I have many things to say and I’m saying them), e.g. in Life-List I write about birds and extinction and loss, and in The Daybooks I write about gender and violence. My methods are limited, like a piano player might be limited to his instrument, so that I can play with content.

Q: Finally, who are you currently reading that excites you? Given the length and breadth of your research and reading around this current project, what contemporary discoveries have you made that you feel should be shared?

A: I tend to follow presses and let their editors curate my reading habits.

Yannis Ritsos’ Diaries of Exile (Archipelago)

Michelle Detorie’s After-Cave (Ahsahta)

Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life (Wave)

C.A. Conrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon (Wave)

Hoa Nguyen’s Red Juice (Wave)

Ron Silliman’s Revelator (Book Thug)

Chantal Neveu’s Coit (Book Thug)

Craig Perez’s from Unincorporated Territory series (Omnidawn)

Stephen Ratcliffe’s Painting (Chax)

Lisa Samuels’s Anti-M (Chax)

... and Les Figues, Ugly Duckling, Birds LLC, Natural History, Black Lawrence, Shearsman, Black Ocean, etc. (between my personal book purchasing and my job as a librarian, I keep track of a lot of presses). It seems like when an editor hits on a particular zeitgeist, like Janet Holmes’ recent curation of “feral poetics” books (After-Cave, Beast Feast, ]exclosures[), Wave’s love for a new lyricism, Les Figues’ interest in process, or BookThug’s finger on the pulse of Canadian experimentalism, I will just follow a press for awhile and breathe the air of what’s happening. When I was younger, I read to find cognates—I sought others who were doing work similar to mine in order to feel that what I was doing was legitimate. Now I am comfortable with my own voice, so I am not searching for anything in particular, but I do find it liberating to read other strong voices and feel like we’re all working together in some way.