Wednesday, June 22, 2016

TtD supplement #56 : seven questions for Sarah Cook

Sarah Cook’s newest chapbook, You’re Just an Object To Me, appeared from our teeth press. Her work has recently appeared in The Feminist Wire and Illuminati Girl Gang. She is an Assistant Reviews & Interviews Editor for Horse Less Press.

An excerpt from her “LOVE POEMS” appears in the ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “LOVE POEMS.”

A: These poems started with a really basic conceit: I wanted to write one love poem a day for a whole month. I almost always fail at such structured goals, and so I wrote a small batch of them and then abandoned the project (though not the love itself!). Each poem starts with an epigraph from another poem I was reading, either recently or that day, and I like this method because I work well with prompts but not prescriptiveness. So a fragment from another poem becomes a way in, so to say, to a new one.

I’m working on these again because I’ve lately been reading, for example, Lorde’s discussion of the use of the erotic, and especially bell hooks’ philosophies about love. I feel in the midst of a new rush of poems, a continuation where I’m again using epigraphs but this time from prose sources. I don’t know yet if that will change the form of them but I find the idea of it exciting.

I came up with the title somewhat casually at the last minute, for the sake of naming the project, of calling its projected wholeness into being. But it’s probably not a coincidence that Anne Sexton’s book of the same name is very symbolically close to me at all times.

Q: Is working with and from prompts the way you usually compose? How is this current work different from the writing you’ve done prior?

A: I think I do often work from prompts, but I would clarify that most of the time that just means I read a lot. A few years ago, I had this very distinct realization that when I’m experiencing something like “writer’s block,” the trick for getting through that is not to push toward the writing but to read more & more & more.

I want to make this comparison with learning a foreign language: there is so much emphasis placed on speaking immediately that it sometimes hides how much work can be accomplished through active listening. I’m not a parent but don’t babies not talk right away? They’re just surrounded by language for a while, listening. When I surround myself with good poems and good poets, I find ideas or prompts—or I even just occasionally misread a line and then find myself writing the poem that follows.

So I guess my process of being prompted is really a development of my listening skills. Like, even if you’re not a student with homework and people telling you what to do, if you listen well enough you’ll find the things encouraging you to write in response to them. It reminds me of this great line by Ursula K. LeGuin: “Listening is not a reaction, it is a connection. Listening to a conversation or a story, we don’t so much respond as join in — become part of the action.”

Q: You mention Ursula K. LeGuin: what other writers or works have influenced the ways in which you work?

A: Maggie Nelson in a big big way. Kate Zambreno, Sawako Nakayasu (I want to say that Texture Notes was a kind of gateway book for me). Nicole Brossard and specifically this idea of the question(s) that the writer seeks and repeatedly comes back to. Anne Sexton was one of my entry points into the poetry world at a young age, and then I grew out of her, and then I came back to her with a totally different and complex relationship (like she went from being mother to friend). Eileen Myles, whose poems I love but Inferno might be my favorite thing ever. TC Tolbert. Kate Durbin, especially her performances/presentations of self, and her thinking around Lady Gaga. The original Gurlesque anthology was a huge thing for me to discover. A lot of writers whom I found in Women’s Studies classes: Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Judith Butler. Kristeva (and her discussions especially of cyclical vs. monolithic time—that’s an idea often present in my thinking). I think Julie Choffel’s poem, “Serenade, or After Others,” is an example of a truly perfect poem. Diane Arbus—not just her photographs but her texts, her journals—she is a model of thinking for me right now.

Q: After a couple chapbooks over the past five or so years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I’m definitely more and more invested in projects, in serial works and the building of little interdependent poemworlds, versus one-offs or things that may work primarily in isolation. I find myself using the space of the poem as a space for thinking through, for asking questions and circling around ideas repeatedly and retracing my steps. I think my poems are becoming more essay-like and my essays more poem-like.

Maggie Nelson talks about knowing the real limitations of language (informed by Wittgenstein), but believing, somewhat romantically, that words are still good enough. I’d like to get to the point where I really know in a big way that to say “words are good enough” and “words aren't good enough” is basically the same thing.

Q: You speak of a kind of meeting-place between “knowing” and “unknowing,” almost as though you prefer working intuitively, but after an enormous amount of reading, research and thought. Fred Wah has referred to composing as a kind of “drunken tai chi,” wishing to slightly throw himself off-balance to keep his skills sharp, but not stringently so. How do you find your own balance between the two?

A: I like this question and it makes me nervous. I talk a lot about being interested in failure, contradiction, ambiguity, but I think constructed failing is much different than actually finding that tenuous space between balance and falling over. I mean, to theorize about the body and intimacy, and to study & read & consume & think, is not the same as actually opening up and being vulnerable. Have you ever tried to fall over—like, pretended to fall for humor? & then have you ever tried to balance your body at the farthest edge of its tipping point? Maybe not actually ever falling down, but feeling your body get close, and that sudden spring of catching yourself? In my experience, the latter is much more frightening—even if you never touch the ground—and tells you a lot more about what it means to find your “safe edge” (thank you, TC).

I have the urge here to quote Mary Ruefle: “You simply cannot learn and know at the same time, and this is a frustration all artists must bear.” I think the process of learning is a lot less stable than how we sometimes conceive of it, growing up in school settings where learning often looks like memorizing and repeating things back to the teacher that you've already heard. Perhaps when we’re the most open to learning, we’re not only starting from a space of unknowing, but entering further into one as well. But that takes courage. I’m an adult and it’s so so hard to be brave. You have to be willing to explode. And that willingness is so much more difficult to achieve than the exploding itself.

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

A: A lot of people I’ve already mentioned would come up again here. But so many things besides reading reenergize my work: hiking, especially thinking while moving/walking; being around animals; cutting my hair; being near water; roller-blading. Taking instant photos, or just analogue photographs in general. Going on dates with my boyfriend. All these things reenergize my living, and how I move through space, which is how I write. In fact, remembering that my writing life encompasses all of my life is in itself a rejuvenating (and usually difficult) act, it helps facilitate the (self-)permission needed to live how I’d like to write, and vice versa: a lot of stretching, growing bigger; a lot of questions, and leaning into fear rather than away from it.

But also: the amount of times I’ve come back to Anne’s transformation of Rumpelstiltskin:
He laid his two sides down on the floor,
one part soft as a woman,
one part a barbed hook,
one part papa,
one part Doppelganger.

Monday, June 6, 2016

TtD supplement #55 : seven questions for Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is the author of Boycott (2014), and many other various and sundry items. He is the curator of the online archive at bpNichol.ca, which is all set to rise from the digital dust, and will soon. He lives in St. Catharines with his flower and bee allergies.

His poems “Autopoesy,” “¿Christian Bök?” and “What is the fourth person?” appear in the ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Autopoesy,” “¿Christian Bök?” and “What is the fourth person?.”

A: “Autopoesy” is a response poem to Christian Bök’s poem “The Extremophile” from The Xenotext, which ends with these superbugs escalating in badassness until his conclusion where “they await your experiments.” I want to think about them outside of their function for human use, though, which means recognizing in them the defeat of human language; a place that is inaccessible to our projections. Language can take us to that point, but does not have to turn around and flatter us for reaching our personal best.

“¿Christian Bök?” is not a question for Christian, but a question of language, names, and limits. I also recognize that these writers have approached similar questions about the limits of language from very different perspectives. It is also an acknowledgement that Margaret Atwood has already written a book about the projection of human technology to the point where they (our machinic other, our aliens) do not need us anymore, and certainly do not await our experiments. The longer I spend in CanLit, the more I realize that the answer is almost always “Margaret Atwood”; and the question too.

“What is the fourth person?” is culled from a series of questions my 4 year old son asks me every night before bedtime. He gets one such question a day and we discuss it at length, so he chooses carefully. These questions are taken in sequence over the course of three weeks; they are the probes of a learning imagination sent out over a room, a country, a planet, a universe.

Q: How do these poems fit with some of the other work you’ve been doing lately? Would these pieces be considered “occasionals,” or are they potentially part of some larger construction?

A: They are occasional pieces, responses to my daily life and current reading. They fit in with the ongoing arc of my work lately though, including an essay on the same theme called “I Object: Writing Against the Contemporary.” https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/ESC/article/viewFile/25505/18783

Q: Your essay speaks to a shift from human creation to “inhuman artifice,” and writing the impossible; beyond lyric into metapoetry and other attempts at reducing and even erasing the authorial self. How do you feel these poems fit into that attempt at a “post-post-language” (or whatever it is you might wish to call it), and how well do you think they have achieved some of these goals? Just where do you see this new way of seeing writing headed?

A: Well, it’s an oxymoron, of course, to write a poem beyond human language. It’s like my old joke to invite people to name me one thing you cannot say. But given the climate crisis, the total and ruinous domination of humans over the entire planet (nothing is wilderness, everything is permitted), it behooves us to shift the nonhuman into the forefront of our consciousness. I’ve been working on the role of humour, especially nervous laughter, in this kind of self-consciousness – and I suppose I see these poems in that context. In this, I follow Wyndham Lewis’ formula for humour as either humans behaving like machines or machines behaving like humans. Except I’m not looking for a redemption of the categorical human, more like the dispensation of our rule. Back in 1999, I had the opportunity to study with Toby Foshay, one of the world’s top scholars on Wyndham Lewis, who was at the time training to be an eastern orthodox monk. He said of that line by Lewis that in our nervous laughing we can feel the abyss barely held at bay.

Q: I’m curious at your exploration of humour. Contemporary poetry has always had an uneasy relationship with humour, in any form, often to the point of dismissal. Why do you think that is? Or do you even agree? Is this something you’re conscious of?

A: I’m not sure I fully agree; the heirs of the contemporary lit that I value held Charlie Chaplin as a champion proto-avant-gardist every bit as much as the Marquis de Sade. The line between jokes, pranks, and literary experiments has always been a fine and fading one. Is a published blank book really that different from a recorded crank call? One of our top contemporary poets collected and sorted boxes of Alpha-Bits, categorized them and pinned them into an entomologist's cabinet. Another poet spilled a box of Alpha-Bits onto the floor of a poetry reading, rolled around in them naked, and then “read” the letters stuck onto his body. Twee! There are half-a-dozen contemporary poets with one foot in literature, one foot in stand-up comedy, and one foot in blown metaphors. And even beyond the humour that laughs at the world as it is, at its failures and foibles, I’m particularly drawn to a kind of laughter that does not attempt to resolve or overcome difference, that takes pleasure in the collapse of systems, and points at the mess with scatological glee.

Q: Isn’t there an inherent irony to constructing writing on the collapse of systems? Does that make the work you’ve been doing lately a series of gestures on collapse, reconstruction or repurposing?

A: Inasmuch as irony signals a schism between the message and the meaning, all poetry is ironic. It’s the solitary, consistent mark of difference of a poem from a recipe. But it isn’t just the collapse of systems by itself that I’m interested in — it’s the double vision, the rubble and the edifice, intertwined, suggested by each other. The human and the machine, the way we constantly move back and forth. McLuhan writes about clichés as an internal technology through which discourse hardens and accelerates the reception of shared knowledge. Our experience in the world ossifies, in other words, into technology even as we glean the world through such ideational devices. Lewis’ notion of humour is latent in every daily experience.

Q: After a small handful of books and chapbooks under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? You say these poems fit within the current arc of your work generally – both critical and creative – but where do you see your work heading? What are you attempting to move away from?

A: I wouldn’t say I’m going in any specific direction, as if I was trying to go somewhere. I try to keep myself open to learning, and my writing changes as I do. From If Language on, though, I’ve always been interested in how we speak through each other’s words. I’ve been moving away from literary lineages, though, and become increasingly interested in public language and the building of public resistance movements. My Boycott book, for instance, looks at the rather vacuous and highly repetitive language of boycott movements around the world, including from all political orientations. It seems appropriate that there is a hollowness in the language of strategic withdrawal, a shared screech of outrage and overstated piety, but I am myself a boycotter of various things and so admire the earnestness motivating even fallow words. It is one of the few political mechanisms left to the general public that consistently works. It is also, however, a tool only available to people with money enough to withhold, so it is deeply entrenched within existing power politics. So while I have been previously interested in how something radical could be said in and even against the general economy of language, I have become increasingly interested in the extensions of that into public and political spheres.

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

A: Every year I read at least one new Margaret Atwood book, mainly because she has written a new book in every year of my reading life. I keep coming back to Sheila Watson and Marshall McLuhan, both of whose work touch on such rich veins of myth and apocalypse, ritual and the hint of redemption. Borges, Blake, and Neruda keep cycling back, as does my first literary love with Dostoevsky. If I had to pin my reading down to one author, though, in some kind of awful hypothetical exercise, I would stick with bpNichol. I don’t love or even like everything he wrote, but I deeply admire his engagement with theory, philosophy, and myth, his realization of astonishingly twisted ideas, and his commitment to building experimental, interdisciplinary literary communities. You can feel those aspects ripple through all of his works, and they are like arrows of possible directions for more, weirder, smarter works.