Monday, January 29, 2018

TtD supplement #94 : seven questions for Kyle Flemmer

Kyle Flemmer is an author, editor, and publisher from Calgary. He founded The Blasted Tree Publishing Company in 2014 (theblastedtree.com). Kyle’s most recent chapbooks are Astral Projection (above/ground press, 2017), Lunar Flag Assembly Kit (no press, 2017), and PRAY/LEWD (The Blasted Tree, 2016).

His poems “White Dwarfs,” “Yellow Dwarfs” and “Blue Giants” appear in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “White Dwarfs,” “Yellow Dwarfs” and “Blue Giants.”

A: There is something about the nuclear processes at the heart of a star which I find fascinating – the outward push of an explosion set against the star’s own collapsing weight, these two unfathomably violent forces inextricable from the life of a star. Fission and fusion reactions can be reduced to the interaction of mere atoms, tiny particles colliding, combining, and dividing. There is a necessary and powerful interplay between the individual particles of any star, the characteristics of that star, and its ultimate fate. Some stars die very slowly while others burn bright and explode relatively early. Put simply, the contents of a star determine its manner of living and eventual death.

These poems draw parallels between various stellar classifications and some particular archetypes of human mortality. Like stars, human beings have distinct pressures that lead to different ways of living and dying, and we eulogize them in certain familiar patterns: the religious martyr, the war hero, the tragic suicide, the hanged convict, and so on. I’ve approached these patterns through the language of astrophysics (laced with allusion to various texts of historical import) in an attempt to bridge the gap between a scientific understanding of the physical universe and the fundamental causes of human life and culture.

Written first, “White Dwarfs” most clearly situates humanity within the rise and fall of the cosmos. The manner of living and dying it speaks to is cultural canonization (especially that of white, Western thinkers to the exclusion of everyone else) by tackling thinkers with a tendency to universalize, like Hegel and Kant. “Yellow Dwarfs” speaks to religious violence and martyrdom, suggesting that the ‘cosmic oneness’ espoused by many religious institutions is undermined by the inherent divisiveness of their language. Lastly, “Blue Giants” is about a very particular type of suicide; the seemingly unavoidable suicide of young, successful figures like Curt Cobain, Sylvia Plath, or Dido, Queen of Carthage. These stars burn fast and bright, explode furiously, and scatter traces of themselves across time and space.

Q: How do these pieces fit in with the rest of the work you’ve been doing lately?

A: When I close my eyes and imagine the coolest book I can think of, I picture a comprehensive astronomy textbook written in poetry. I’m interested in how our understanding of the cosmos shapes the way we understand ourselves. We know more than ever about the universe, and we’ve begun to reach out and touch the heavens we have only observed until now. Poetry is closely associated with the expression of cosmic understanding, and when there is a paradigm shift in that understanding, we must also see a shift in how poetry communicates that new knowledge. To my mind, these discourses belong together. I fear there is a gap widening between our scientific and poetic understandings of the universe (and our place within it), and my work in this vein endeavors to address and close the gap.

The above project is more a prime directive I’m chipping away at in the background all the time than it is a discrete objective, so I try not to force it, and a lot of my day-to-day practice lately has involved visual poetry, or some other form of writing I can generate more spontaneously. This takes some of the internal pressure off the long-term project, and I can enjoy both approaches more fully.

Q: How big is this project? Is this something you see as book-length, potentially?

A: It’s hard to say precisely how large a project on space exploration should be – perhaps it is unbounded. I think of it as a pursuit that encompasses multiple sub-projects which will grow alongside the development of our space programs. Events like the Cassini spacecraft’s intricate flight around and death spiral into Saturn are happening with some frequency these days, and each of these encounters with the unknown is a human accomplishments worth enshrining in our discourse.

I’ve already published two chapbooks along these lines, the first being Lunar Flag Assembly Kit (The Blasted Tree, 2016; reissued by No Press, 2017), which uses statements of fact like building blocks to unfold the story of each American flag deployed during the Apollo program. Then I wrote Astral Projection (above/ground Press, 2017), a series of fragmented poems about specific asteroids and their classification, simulating the process astronomers undertake when studying the history of and relationships between these projectiles. So yes, there is potential for book-length works within the scope of the project. What’s most important for me at that stage is be the proper arrangement of sub-projects into cohesive volumes; I’m not totally convinced that the above two chapbooks belong in the same book as each other, nor with poems from the star suite appearing in Touch the Donkey. There is so much rich material in each sub-topic of astronomy (and our ever-changing relationship to this information) that I could ever exhaust their potential.

Q: This suggests you’re not even thinking about a book yet, but in simply letting the project expand organically, allowing potential chapbook-sized and/or book-sized manuscripts to evolve as they will. What kind of models, if any, have you had for this project?

A: How could I not be thinking of books!? I do every day. The problem is one of sufficient development. I don’t see many of the trajectories I’ve established for myself, trajectories that might neatly be encapsulated into books, as properly fulfilled yet. But the wheels are turning. I would peg myself halfway between a programmatic and an organic writer, meaning I have laid down the bones of books, but they shall take some time to flesh out satisfactorily.

As models, I have taken poets such as Sina Queyras and Christian Bök, both of whom employ conceptualist or process-oriented techniques to explore specific ideas or lines of inquiry. Bök’s Xenotext has been particularly influential on my thinking, so far as the need to predetermine experimental goals and write toward them. Queyras taught me that several well-developed lines of inquiry must intersect in and amplify through a lyric body, which is a good approximation of what a poet is doing as they write a book. Ken Hunt has two forthcoming poetry collections about space exploration that look really exciting, and I can’t help but follow his lead. Actually, our poetry was quite similar even before we met, and I’ve thought about how I should distinguish my projects from his in the future. Otherwise, I try to emulate poets who take on technical or otherwise specialized language, using these restrictions to articulate some wider human understanding; Helen Hajnoczky’s Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, Larissa Lai’s Automaton Biographies, and Josef Kaplan’s Democracy is not for the People leap to mind.

Q: What is it about the restriction that appeals? What does it allow you to articulate that you might not have been able to otherwise?

A: Writing of any kind involves choices on behalf of the author: what to write about, in what style, how the ideas should be arranged, what effect one hopes to achieve, etc. Restrictions are nothing more than clearly articulated decisions made about the writing beforehand. The main reason I establish a few significant constraints is so they can act as my roadmap and program. Consciously adopted restrictions are controllable variables – helpful during both the writing and editing processes. A blank page offers very little toward making your decisions, but a well-devised set of constraints tells you where the poem begins and when it is fulfilled. Instead of closing off potential, they define what is possible within the space of the poem you have choosen to inhabit. Practically speaking, if the big decisions are already made (about form, for example), then I feel free to focus on minutia, or even better, to lose focus and allow associative leaps, imaginative detritus, and spontaneous inspiration to fill out the structures already in place.

Q: How did you first become engaged in merging your interests in science and poetry? How does such an expansive project begin?

A: It’s difficult to pinpoint where my interests in the overlap between science and poetry began, but the earliest memory I have of this link is of learning a mnemonic device in elementary school for remembering the order of the planets. We were taught that science, literature, art, math, and so on were discrete subjects, but I remember thinking this sing-song mnemonic from Science class was essentially like the poetry we read in English. And yet, by the time high school rolled around, the distinction between science and literature had been firmly entrenched in my mind. In fact, I had an English teacher who actively discouraged challenging the boarders between subjects (I wrote her prose poems about the solar system she flatly denied were poetry), and this left in me a sort of mental sliver I’ve been trying to work out ever since. Why the stubborn resistance to mixing traditionally separate subject matters? Why the forced distinction between left- and right-brained people?

Of course, I’m nowhere near the first to raise concerns with the false dichotomy between art and science, but it took repeated exposure to critiques of the split before I was able to articulate the problem for myself. On the Nature of Things by Lucretius was the first sustained meditation on scientific understanding I encountered couched in verse. His method of encoding difficult ideas in an easily digestible form left a deep impression on me. I began to think more seriously about how a similar project could be undertaken in the present. Once sensitized to this idea, other authors lent validation to my thinking: Levi-Strauss and the notion of anthropological bricolage; Bök’s fusion of minerology and poetry in Crystallography; a whole host of science fiction authors making bold satirical statements about our world. Then, finally, Heidegger’s equation of the Greek terms “techne” and “poiesis,” offered as congruent methods for revealing truth, transformed my preoccupation with this project into an imperative.

As to undertaking such a scheme, I have chosen to start close to home. My earliest poetic experiments in this area were concerned with the moon, our closest neighbor, and with the cultural and political significance of the lunar landings. I’m particularly interested in how our relationship to these most impressive feats of human engineering have changed over time. That interest has spread rapidly to other unsung feats of space exploration; the extraordinary success of the four Martian rovers, Voyager’s entry into deep space, the modular evolution of the International Space Station, and so on. “White Dwarfs” and the other stellar poems in Touch the Donkey are my first attempt to move outside the solar system, addressing our place within the universe as a whole.

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

A: Plato. I always come back to Plato. Honestly, to reenergize my creative practice I feel I need to get as far away from poetry as possible. So I read political history, critical theory, philosophy, mathematics, and so forth, subjects which demand the same mental rigor as poetry, but without foregrounding their aesthetic dimensions. Excursion into this stuff not only enriches my own work with new material, it helps train my brain to keep up with the brilliant, boundary-pushers working in contemporary poetry, very few of whom pull their punches when it comes to deep thinking. Which is where Plato enters my picture; his dialogues don’t present a cohesive philosophical system, and I don’t think they’re meant to. Rather, he leads us through a series of complicated (and often inconsistent) mental gymnastics. The problem when confronting Plato is not merely to grasp his version of truth, but to follow each maneuver and variation in his conversational approach through to its logical conclusion, to think your way around the corners he leaves you at. Essentially, reading Plato teaches you to spot the lie. Practicing this skill may not explicitly help your poetry, but I’m of the mind that a tradesperson must keep their tools sharp, and the nonfiction shelves are where I turn when I feel my practice getting blunt.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Touch the Donkey : sixteenth issue,

The sixteenth issue is now available, with new poems by Sue Landers, Kyle Flemmer, Donato Mancini, Anthony Etherin, Catriona Strang, A.M. O’Malley, Claire Lacey, Sacha Archer and Julia Polyck-O’Neill.

Seven dollars (includes shipping). If you ask me they're all winners.

Friday, January 5, 2018

TtD supplement #93 : six questions for Christine Stewart

Christine Stewart works in the English and Film Studies Department at the University of Alberta on Treaty 6 territory. She teaches and studies the transformative potential of poetics in the creative writing programme. She is a founding member of the Writing Revolution in Place Creative Research Collective. Recent publications: “Propositions from Under Mill Creek Bridge,” in Sustaining the West. Wilfred Laurier, “On Treaty Six from Under Mill Creek Bridge” in Toward. Some. Air. Banff Centre Press, “This—from Treaty Six” in Dusie and The Odes, Nomados Press (shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook award 2016). A new poetic study of Treaty 6 is forthcoming in Talon Books in 2018, and “Notes from the Underbridge” a collaboration with composer Jacquie Leggatt is also forthcoming in 2018.

Her poem “The UnderBridge Project Upriver (Winter 2011-2012)” appears in the fifteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: How did the poem “The UnderBridge Project Upriver (Winter 2011-2012)” come about?

A: The poem “The Underbridge Project Upriver” is a small piece of a much larger project and the answer to the question of how the larger underbridge project began is embedded. It is embedded in fear and it began under a bridge. It is embedded in 2007 and it began in loneliness. It is embedded in colonial time, and it began in Edmonton, in a ravine, by a raven, near a rising. It is embedded in crime. It begins with returning. It is embedded in creek. It began in failure, in stone, in river, in treaty.

It began with this grip, with this love, with these lists.  It is embedded in this colonial violence, in this throat, in this grief. It began with this gratitude. It is embedded in these ears. It began with this visit. It is embedded in this obliteration, this obligation. It began with this cat. It is embedded in this cart. It is embedded in this earth. It began with this refusal.

It began with Sharon Venne, with 1876, with the nêhiyawk, the Iyarhe Nakoda, the Métis, the Dene, the Niagara Treaty, with 1763, with coyotes, with all this bullshit, with all these good intentions, with Marilyn’s grey boots and her dancing.

It began with this weather, with Saidiya Hartman’s “Terrible Beauty,” with our collective, with our friendship, with our fragility, with all that distance, and fissure, and capitalism, and white settler supremacy.

It began with this project, with my failure, and our flailing.

It is embedded in this necropolis, this meeting place, in that dream, in this generosity, in that colossal nightmare, in that hilarious, devastating discussion, in this great fuck-up, in these suspect coalitions, in those visits, in your poetry, in that terrible mistake, in those mornings with quiche.

It is embedded in owing, in owl, in law, in labour, in breath, in wound, in debt, in violence, in failure, in refusals, in love, in plastic, in sweat, in Fred, in loose, in line break, in archive, in ache, in shit, in greet, in grief, in gratitude, in spirit, in berry, in hand, in heard, in hook, in listen, in time, in quiet, in staying, in leaving, in attending.

Q: I’m fascinated by how such an all-encompassing project began upon your arrival in Edmonton from Vancouver. What was it about this project that took over so completely, and how does it relate, if at all, to your previous work?

A: I think the underbridge project only relates to my previous work in that I am always working through and with the English language in order to encounter and consider something difficult.

And I think the comprehensive quality of the work is precisely because the difficulty I am working with (through and into) is totalizing.

To be here on colonized land, to be here with a white settler history, in a body that is both colonized and colonizing, consumed and consuming, this enfolds me.

It is an enfolding condition that is impossible and untenable because it is so possible, so normalized, so profitable.

I write and work to find something else, to see what other possibilities for life a poetic practice might (or might not) reveal.

And often I don’t write. Not writing is necessary. To be against writing is often necessary.

When I am mostly not writing I am trying to listen, to locate, to furnish other possibilities for life, for thinking, for warmth, for collective breathing.

That is, I am working, talking with others, trying to create spaces, other ways of meeting, other ways of being, in treaty, in anomalous collections, in unexpected connections and conditions, and sometimes, on a good day, there are moments of solidarity and resistance, sometimes there is time, and even air.  But sometimes there isn’t.

Fred Moten writes, “I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world and I want to be in that.” 

It’s like that, wanting an end to this so that something else can emerge; and the writing, and the refusal to write—for me these gestures and their refusals are connected to the writing, and to the underbridge.

Q: How has such a project evolved? You mention Moten, but have you any specific models for the shape this project is taking?

A: I have no specific models, and the form of the work shifts constantly.

It depends on who I am working with at the time. It depends on where I am working at the time. I guess the underbridge is a kind of extended place study, and it is influenced by the communities I find, am engaged with, am responsible to. The students I work with, who teach me, who make me laugh. My beloved friends and colleagues in WRIP, at the university and in the city. My beautiful neighbours—the beavers just up river, the coyotes just down river, the grey trees, and those owls. So many owls around this month. Plus the ravine and then this river that, for me, is at the centre of everything. These communities keep me here; they challenge me, feed me; they shift me; they change and inform the project.

Q: How important is research to your writing?

A: The underbridge is a study, and I think that all my writing is research in a sense, always a kind of study, an attempt to sort out/through some difficulty or another. I suppose that I am always thinking what language might do in this case or in that case, right here and now, next to that; can it be coaxed, curated, refused (re-fused too, I suppose) in some way so that it might offer up something else? Can it let in air and maybe warmth and light? & also darkness and the cold and maybe a few termites.

Q: I’m fascinated by that, the idea that all of your writing is research. How did this emerge? How did you get to this place?

A: Writing as research, writing as a way of thinking, a way of reading through and into the world.
I think for writers that I read when I was younger like Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian this has always been important. For Howe, writing was/is a particular way of encountering history, conducting historical research. For Hejinian writing is a practice of inquiry. & both writers are interested in what it means to be a female writing subject—a white writing female in their case. Though this distinction is not necessarily foregrounded in their work—though this is something that Hejinian importantly takes up in “En Face” (March 10, 2015 http://bostonreview.net/poetry/lyn-hejinian-en-face).

The idea that writing is a way of thinking through difficulties is not unique. I remember Hejinian saying that as writers, we work through the same problem our whole lives. I am not sure that is precisely true for me. But it is possibly generally true in that I look to words and what they might do to sort through things that are unbearable. These days I am constantly asking the question that is also an extension of the underbridge project: what would it be for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to work together so that we might arrive at a way of being together in this place. This question is simultaneously animated and troubled by the work I have done in the last year with nêhiyaw (Cree) instructor, Reuben Quinn. I work with Reuben in a class that so far we have called “The Poetics of Treaty Six.”

In this class, we are working to find a shared language, a way to talk about treaty, to honour treaty and treaty sensibility. Reuben teaches this sensibility through the nehiyaw (Cree) spirit markers (or syllabics). You can see Reuben’s spirit marker teachings here in a video made by the Amiskwaciy History Series in Edmonton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CpvuED_hJTM

In Reuben’s teachings, we learn the spirit markers and we learn how treaty sensibility is actually embedded in the nêhiyaw language itself; that is, that the spirit markers hold essential nêhiyaw laws based in familial obligation, reciprocity and love.  This is a beautiful and powerful teaching that radically reframes the world and the ways in which we are connected to the world. & Reuben’s pedagogical approach and his presence in the class shift us away from a conventional university experience. But we also learn how our treaty, Treaty 6, was not honoured by the Crown, and how Reuben, as an ancestor of Papasteyo, the leader of the Papaschase people, was displaced from the land here, placed in residential schools as a child, and exposed to the relentless genocidal systems of the Canadian government and Canadian society.  We learn that the University of Alberta sits on Papaschase land, stolen Papaschase land. The class opens up wounds and facts about the world that we continue to live in and from which some of us profit enormously and so the class costs Reuben in ways that most white people cannot even begin imagine. & this class teaches me a lot. For one, I learn that any feel good place I might ever arrive at is a delusion. That is, colonialism is still alive and well and wrecking havoc, and I am part of its havoc—in some very real ways, regardless of my intentions. On some basic level, anything I do is fraught with its own violence. Yet, despite this, I still try to create points of connection, because I don’t know what else to do, because I can’t do anything else. And so currently, one of the difficulties that I work with as I am writing is how to write with English, in its violence and possibilities. The book that I have been working on most recently, Treaty Six Deixis, is also an extension of the underbridge project and it looks towards Stein, in a particular way, to consider what a deictic focus in English might do in regards to making a reader look to and attend that place where they are, reading. Although Treaty Six Deixis focuses on this land in Edmonton, the river valley, it asks the reader to consider where they are, right now. The book is part of my struggle to acknowledge and to attend to this place with historical accuracy and honesty; that is, with a sense of obligation and implication. It is not much and it is uncomfortable. To be white here where I am is to participate in white supremacy and there is no way to language myself out of that fact, but maybe through writing I can think usefully around that place towards something else, something otherwise. I don’t know. In this way, writing is always researching. Writing is always writing me, always asking me, what else is possible here? But also, in my writing, I understand that writing is never enough.

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

A: What do I read? I used to read Hejjnian, Howe, Stein, Oppen, Neidecker, Judith Butler, Agamben, Spinoza, Vico. But then under the bridge, I needed to read Edmonton and its history. So, I started reading the underbridge—the graffiti on the cement pylons, bridge maintenance reports and the one history book I could find in 2008 that wasn’t overtly racist, Edmonton in Our Own Words. That book was a beginning and put me in touch with Papaschase scholar Dwayne Donald. With his help and generosity and with the equally generous guidance of Elder Bob Cardinal from Enoch First Nation, I began to understand this place in very different ways. But that understanding actually has little do with reading. It requires other things of me, different and difficult and (often) beautiful forms of discipline and labour—like listening, like quietness, like gratitude, like lighting a fire in the woodstove in the teaching lodge at-25 below without ever once blowing on the flames. When I started working downtown in Edmonton with the amazing creative research collective WRIP (Writing Revolution in Place), we read Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Rancière’s The Ignorant School Master. & this was raucous reading. When Lisa Robertson’s Nilling came out, I carried it around in my bag and read it again and again until it was grey and worn with furling. Then I read John Borrows’ Drawing Out Law and Kim Anderson’s work on being old lady raised (“Notokwe Opikiheet—“Old-lady Raised.”” Canadian Woman Studies) and Sylvia McAdam’s account of the role of the women law makers in nêhiyaw society at the time of treaty making in Nationhood Interrupted. Since working with Reuben Quinn, I read and practice the spirit marker chart and I read my nêhiyaw exercise books from Dorothy Thunder’s class. Also, always reading and rereading with my students and myself, Anne Boyer’s Garments for Women, Sarah Ahmed. Leanne Simpson, Mercedi Eng and Fred Moten, particularly his work with Stefano Harney, The Undercommons. These writers, these texts feed me, floor me. Now I am in Vancouver on a one-term sabbatical, and I don’t actually know that much about this pace where I lived for 35 years before I moved to Edmonton. So, now I guess my work is to look after my grandkids, try to finish up the underbridge project, which will never be finished and try, while I am here, to attend to this land, where I will be until the end of next summer. Where am when I am here? & what does it mean to be in this place? & these are all underbridge questions. & they will require reading and writing, but also maybe mostly listening.