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.