Wednesday, May 30, 2018

TtD supplement #105 : seven questions for Valerie Coulton

Valerie Coulton’s chapbook, small bed & field guide, was recently published by above/ground press. Previous books are open book, The Cellar Dreamer, passing world pictures (all from Apogee Press), and the lily book (San Francisco State University Press). Her work has appeared in New American Writing, Front Porch, kadar koli, Fourteen Hills, Parthenon West Review, and e-poema, among other periodicals. She lives in Barcelona with the poet Edward Smallfield and is one of the editors of parentheses, a multi-lingual journal of poetry and fiction.

She has eight untitled poems in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about these eight untitled poems.

A: These have a few things going on: mostly written in summer, experimenting with letting different kinds of language come in, and also meditating a bit on my dad.

Q: Is the suite of poems larger than the eight collected here?

A: Yes, there are more or less 30 pieces in the series.

Q: How is such a suite composed? Do you start at the beginning and move in a linear fashion, or do you begin in the middle and move outwards?

A: That’s a good question. Right now, the pieces are in the order they were written in, and that usually seems to hold for me, but when a series feels truly finished, there could be some movement.

Q: How does this work relate to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: This project continues, so it’s always there as a possibility for writing, or a home for a new piece. And knowing that means that completely other pieces or projects can emerge. I like the comfort of something ongoing.

Q: Well, as Ondaatje paraphrased Spicer, the poems “cannot live alone any more than we can […].” Is this something you find in your work? Are poems usually composed as part of a larger structure? Is there such a creature as a single, orphaned, unconnected poem?

A: That’s an interesting question. My impulse is to say yes, but at the same time I generally feel that my poems are connected to each other, either by an explicit project or an implicit set of concerns. Work of a time often seems, in retrospect, to share elements. Also, I tend to shy away from wanting my poems to feel absolutely resolved. I do write some that have this quality, but when revising I often try to disrupt the resolution. Poems of a project sometimes appear to me as pieces or fragments of tile from a mosaic: each one should be interesting on its own but contribute to a greater whole.

Q: Where did this impulse come from? Might this suggest that, through your multiple book-length and chapbook-length projects, you are writing a singular, loosely-interconnected, work?

A: There’s a part of my work that could definitely be considered instalments of one long project. There are other series, though, that are linguistically different and seem to me to come from another kind of source; it would be interesting to reconsider them and how they do interconnect.

Q: If your work might be considered all part of a singular, interconnected project, how would you see your collaborative work fitting into that? Are you extending your reach, or working entirely outside?

A: I usually collaborate with my husband and favorite poet, Edward Smallfield. As he is always inside everything I write, and my primary reader, working with him is a natural extension.

Q: What do you feel you are able to accomplish with collaborative work that you aren’t able to with your individual work, and vice versa?

A: In my own work, I’m able to enter a world that is “mine” but which I’m not fully conscious of. In collaboration, I appreciate the sense and respond element, a sense of improvisation together, and of coming up with something beyond what I could do alone.

Q: After four full-length collections and a handful of chapbooks, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I think I’m more accepting now, in the sense that I can allow more things to happen, and to remain, than I might have in the past. I trust my intuition more. I used to be concerned with occluding, encoding and erasing. Now I’m interested in layers of time and how to give them their voices. I don’t know where my work is headed, but I feel enormously grateful to be writing and living with Edward, and to have support for my writing from you and others. Just being able to do it is everything.

Q: Have you any writers or works in mind when you begin to construct new work? How do chapbooks or books get formed? Are the processes different at all?

A: I’m generally inspired by other writers and works, they’re often a departure point or present in some way in a project. Book sections have come from reading Lorine Niedecker and Borges, for example. For me the book and chapbook processes are similar: keep adding pieces to a series until it feels done.

Q: Are chapbook-length works eventually absorbed into book-length manuscripts?

A: Sometimes yes, but usually as a section of a multi-section work.

Q: How early might the size and shape of a particular project make itself known?

A: Usually not until I’m getting pretty close to the end.

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

A: Fortunately, I live with my favorite writer, so I have a constant source of inspiration. I also get very energized by other writers I know; seeing their new work often sparks something for me. From the bookshelf, Archilochos and Niedecker are always there...

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

TtD supplement #104 : seven questions for Dale Smith

Dale Smith is a poet and critic who lives in Toronto, Ontario, where he serves on the faculty of English at Ryerson University.

His poem “from April Ontario” appears in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “from April Ontario.”

A: It’s a follow up to a question-based group of poems I wrote in 2005 called Notes No Answer (Habenicht Press). I like the form of the short question as an organizing principle of the poetic line and stanza. Poetic questions give me room to expand into a range of concerns, particularly, in this instance, looking at time, the experience of temporal duration in both consciousness and the body, and to consider the origin of image-making and language in the deep past of human history. I also look forward from that past to the extinction of life forms we hear about so often. The Bramble Cay melomys, for example, is a kind of rat in Australia that disappeared completely in 2007.

Q: How does the title relate to the activity of the poem?

A: I only sent you a selection of April Ontario. I see it as a kind of poem-essay. Besides cave art and Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the poem is framed around a walk to a park in Toronto with my sons, Keaton and Waylon. Keaton was anxious on our walk because it seemed so suddenly warm for the time of year. He worries about weather catastrophe. He’s sensitive and reasonably aware of his world. So the poem is a place for me to think through my response to him. But yes, literally, the title refers to time and place, the temporal and geographic coordinates of our conversation.

Q: You’ve been in Toronto for a few years now, after having spent more than a dozen years in Texas. With the geographic shift, have you noticed any corresponding structural shifts in your writing?

A: My writing has always acknowledged specific geographic settings. The morphology of the landscape has changed as I have moved from Texas to California to Ontario, and I’ve tried to remain alert to these various realities. I’ve had to learn to see new trees and birds, get to know new ecosystems and variations in those systems according to where I may be looking—whether in the city or the country. The main difference I notice is the verticality of Ontario—the way trees direct attention within smaller confines than, say, Texas, where the sky’s horizontal expanse produces a very different experience of perception.

Q: You’ve already mentioned Notes No Answer, but how does this current project relate to some of the other work you’ve been doing?

A: I’ve worked with the serial form for quite some time. I like the accumulating stanzas and the pathways they open for wandering around in. Thematically, I think for a long time my writing has been informed by the collision of the domestic within larger social, political, and historical frames of reference. And by “social” I only mean to imply a kind of connectivity to people and things. I think more recently I’ve become concerned with the function and feeling—the experience—of time. Or of my sense of inhabiting it both physically and imaginatively. So that’s different. That’s a new thing. And I’m also curious about how other non-human creatures and plants are absorbed into time and how it interacts with my own processes of awareness.

Q: How did you develop your interest in the serial poem, and what do you feel the form allows you to accomplish that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise? And is there even such a thing, in your mind, as the single, stand-alone poem?

A: The formal possibilities of seriality in poetry were advanced after the second world war. It’s a form I like because I’m interested in poems and essays, in poems as essays. Seriality for me allows the kind of open rambling of the essay to take place in the realm of poetry. I don’t think, actually, there’s much difference between the essay and the poem other than a kind of attitude toward language.

As to the second part of your question, I’m not sure anything stands alone—especially a poem. Thematic echoes, syllabic correspondences, intertextual coherences, and other attributes seem always to radiate between poems across time and geographies. Today is the first of May and I’ve been thinking of how Robert Herrick sounds the greeny month in his poem, “Corinna’s going a Maying.” A poem like that seems almost a kind of foliage interlaced into the landscape of English going back to Chaucer and forward to Ed Dorn’s tender, mournful Sousa, where he invokes “the only May Day / of my mind.”

Q: After a handful of poetry and critical titles over the past two decades or so, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A:  I’m not sure where my work is headed. I follow it; it doesn’t follow me. What’s interesting is to see how the work’s movements retain a kind of coherence over those decades. I like to use poetry to think about environments of history and family. I’m not a writer who seeks the highly-wrought, the formally perfect gesture. I use the process of writing to create spaces of arrival.

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

A: I frequently return to Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and the world of writing they helped shape—Robin Blaser, Fred Wah in Canada—Susan Howe and Alice Notley in the States. Joanne Kyger passed away last month, and I’ve been thinking daily of her work and everything it has meant to me for so long.

I never find myself looking again at Language Poetry or Conceptual Poetry—period styles with short shelf lives.

I think recently its Blues Modernism I find most sustaining—Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker. Their work is a mountain—a thicket. I hear in it an America of fragment and desire. It’s important for me to listen to that music and its inflections from both sides of the Second World War. How do we recognize the profound failure accompanying experiences rooted and soiled in North America? 

I also find immense joy in the mostly anonymous ballads and lyrics of the Middle Ages. A poem like “Sing, Cuckoo” is so perfect. A voice, a song, reaching through time. I’m interested in the body of feeling behind such a work—how that body of feeling found shape in Middle English. How my ears receive it now.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

TtD supplement #103 : seven questions for Sean Braune

Sean Braune’s first book of philosophy, Language Parasites: Of Phorontology, was released in 2017 from Punctum Books. His theoretical work has been published in Postmodern Culture, Journal of Modern Literature, Canadian Literature, symploke, and elsewhere. His poetry has appeared in ditch, The Puritan, Rampike, Poetry is Dead, and elsewhere. His first chapbook, the vitamins of an alphabet (2016), appeared from above/ground press and his second chapbook—an excerpt from a novel manuscript called Erosappeared from AngelHousePress, with two more above/ground press titles appearing this year, including the recently-released The Cosmos (2018).

His poems “Minarets of Knowledge” and “Eyez” appear in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Minarets of Knowledge” and “Eyez.”

A: To answer this, I have to talk a little bit about how I think of my own poetic practice. First, like many of my friends, I am suspicious of a poetry that fully embraces meaning. I think that poetry should always push against the meaningful structures of language in order to add some “disquiet” or “disorientation” to traditional practices of writing and reading. For me, poetry is an activity that is produced by reading. I am working on a series of poetry projects right now (of which “Minarets of Knowledge” and “Eyez” are a part) that all engage with a kind of what I call fractural-reading practice—a reading practice that is fractured by the experience of living in the contemporary world—and I find myself (as a subject) constantly consumed and overwhelmed by the frenzy and bluster of the contemporary cityscape and its bevy of information and narrative. I walk around downtown Toronto (or other major cities) with a notebook and pen and I transcribe the pieces of language that I find and it is all a language in pure disarray. I scribble down fragments of conversations that I overhear. Even while reading traditional books or attending literary events, I write down the odd word or phrase here or there … so I am constantly compiling an ever-growing repository of “harvestable” language. “Minarets of Knowledge” and “Eyez” are two results of that harvesting and pruning process. I just read an article on how capitalism feeds on the body’s stress response and the poetry that I’m working on now is an attempt to capture some of that stress response, or what could be called “how it feels to live in modernity.” The language of this stress response—of this fragmented exposure to a constantly babbling language—is the record of an infinity of words that are trying to interpellate or infect us. Possibly I didn’t answer your question. (I also do not think that my approach with a notebook in the frenzy of modern life is entirely unique—a lot of my friends also scribble down fragments of their everyday language experiences).

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

A: I’m currently working on several projects at once that cover several different genres: there’s a weird SF novel that I feel like I should keep a secret because it’s still in its embryonic stages; also, I’m in the process of trying to get a film project off the ground. Six months ago I wrote a script about newlyweds who are trapped in their hotel room / bridal suite and they can’t escape and are forced to live through the rather nightmarish undercurrents of their relationship. To expand on your first question, “Minarets of Knowledge” and “Eyez” are part of a poetry manuscript called Dendrite Balconies, which is a collection that explores the frenzy of contemporary reading practices (as discussed earlier), as well as the inevitability of death alongside the ways that language can be understood as an infection. Incidentally, the notion of a language-infection is explored in detail in my recently published book of theory, Language Parasites: Of Phorontology (published by Punctum Books). It all fits together actually.

Q: Can you speak to the idea of language infection? How does one attempt to make one’s poems infect?

A: When I talk about a “language-infection” I don’t mean an infection that infects others with poetry; I mean an infection that is already present in language. Language often has the quality of acting like an invasive and viral process that infects us from our youngest age and begins to implicate us in a larger symbolic and social order. Christopher Dewdney’s essay “Parasite Maintenance” is a good example of a rigorous argument that speculates on how Poets and Authors are more closely aligned with their own, individual parasites of language. Through the rigour of his ’pataphysical speculations, Dewdney offers a mode of writing where the produced text is written alongside an interior parasitic process. My own poetry tries to negate the Author or Poet in such a way that the Parasite speaks its own unique idiolect. Hence, I try to capture the muttering that exists at the limits or boundaries of sense.

Q: You mention Christopher Dewdney; what other authors and/or works have influenced the ways in which you approach writing?

A: That list of writers is ever-growing and ever-changing. Recently, I’ve been loving the experience of engaging with Jordan Abel’s work. David Peter Clark’s recent book / codex Spell was haunting and wonderful. Currently, I am re-reading Robin Blaser, which has given me a lot of ideas. I should say though that nothing is possible without Cormac McCarthy and James Joyce.... Along a separate road, I have the joy of regularly sharing writing ideas or drafts of pieces with Mat Laporte and Fenn Stewart and if either of them nix something I’ve written, then I know it’s not going to work because I trust their aesthetic noses above all. I should add that my creative work has been fully influenced by Fenn and Mat: Mat’s RATS NEST is a wild romp that breaks new and adventurous ground in fiction and Fenn’s chapbooks An OK Organ Man, Vegetable Inventory, and her BookThug book Better Nature are all completely bazonkers good. She’s a master of poetic rhythm. Mat has a masterful ear for surprising textual and semantic collisions and I feel like Mat and I have similar demons: we’re both trying to write ourselves out of a kind of haunting or possession—hopefully, we both manage this “escape procedure.” One hopes. Fingers crossed. Beyond this list of influences, I repeatedly re-read Catriona Strang’s Low Fancy, Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic (because they each have, I think, some of the best SOUNDS that I’ve ever heard), and Paul Celan’s collected works.

Q: You say you’re working your way towards a first full-length collection. What is the process of putting a first manuscript together, and have you any models in mind for the construction? Are you finding the process different than putting together your above/ground press chapbook? Will that material, also, be included?

A: Good question. Yes, much of the material from the vitamins of an alphabet will be included—with some exceptions: the middle section where I was experimenting with my “Poequations (after Smithson)” will not be in that work (they didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the extended manuscript). To re-answer your second question: I find that, regarding poetry, I tend to work on specific small projects all at once; for example, the poequations that build on Robert Smithson’s word heap are one project and I have a lot of other specific constraint-based projects that are ongoing (some traditionally conceptual, some Oulipian, some lyric conceptual, some visual, and some straightforwardly lyric). In this sense, I am inspired by the spirit of passion and genre-bending qualities of bpNichol. Dendrite Balconies (which will include parts of the chapbook) is primarily the result of my fractural-reading process (that I described earlier), and I think that it’s a more “digestible” project than my earlier full-length poetry manuscript called Labyrinthitis (that I’m still re-tooling and trying to find a home for). I find that presses (even so-called “avant-garde” presses) are heading in more conservative directions in these times of economic precarity, which means that a manuscript like Labyrinthitis was, I think, just too “out there” to be published in today’s age. In some ways, I think the new one—Dendrite Balconies—is more “of the now.” Or who knows? We’ll see…

Q: I agree with you on the overall shift in Canadian publishing away from more experimental works, although I’ve been seeing that shift going on for a decade or so now. Apart from simply writing and publishing (even self-publishing) our ways through it, I don’t see much way through or around it. What do you feel has been fueling this shift, and what do you think it means?

A: Yeah, it’s a sad trend. I think of the history of Can Lit as containing this extremely exciting experimental tradition that can be found in the Toronto Research Group, the Canadian ”Pataphysicians, and other places, presses like Coach House or BookThug, or magazines like Ganglia and grOnk. We also have Nicole Brossard and the exciting work being done in Quebec! Unfortunately, I feel like the trail-blazing trends and canons of Can Lit often go unrecognized due to some of the more boring and standard “pop” Can Lit that gets read and represents Can Lit to the rest of the world. I wonder if the market for the avant-garde has really changed—I mean did people ever really buy and read these texts in droves? Really?—or if now we live in an economic era where publishers just can’t take the same kinds of financial risks. Or don’t want to? I’m not sure. I mean most of my friends would buy experimental texts and they’re also hungry for a little bit more adventurousness, but I’m sure that their enthusiasm doesn’t translate to the rest of the market. I remember finding the first John Riddell book I’d ever seen in the stacks at Robarts (hidden away behind some other books!) and I was completely floored. I’d never seen something so gorgeous and nuts! I wonder if someone like Riddell could get published nowadays? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe somewhere. I don’t know. I do think however, to plug your own work and labour for a second, that above/ground press has always gleefully pushed against this trend towards conservatism so there’s still some hope!

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

A: There is a pile of these works on the table next to my bed and I repeatedly re-read them before sleep so that, as my “faith” wanes, it is rejuvenated before I dream. This “pile” currently consists of Fenn Stewart’s An OK Organ Man, Kevin Davies’s Lateral Argument, and Harryette Mullen’s Recyclopedia.... Yeah, these texts keep my hungry.

Monday, May 7, 2018

TtD supplement #102 : seven questions for Suzanne Wise

Suzanne Wise is the author of the poetry collection The Kingdom of the Subjunctive (Alice James Books) and the chapbooks The Blur Model (Belladonna Books) and Talking Cure (Red Glass Books).

Her poems “I’m Talking to You, Space,” “I’m Still Talking to You, Space,” “Leave Me Alone, Space,” “Space Inside” and “Space Ode” appear in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “I’m Talking to You, Space,” “I’m Still Talking to You, Space,” “Leave Me Alone, Space,” “Space Inside” and “Space Ode.”

A: These poems grew out of traveling to and from a writing studio in Brooklyn that I shared with fiction writer Matt Sharpe for a while. I’d work in it on the weekends and he would be there during the week. I was stalled out on a number of projects and isolated in my work. I consciously tried to move my attention outward from that insularity, and I began to take notes on my commute and my surroundings. Then I found a book in the closet of the studio about architectural theory, which I didn’t exactly read but became a browsed source for language and images, heightening my awareness of built environments.  I gathered these bits together in a series of poems that address Space—linguistic, urban, architectural, intergalactic. Space became a sort of god that I turned to—often indifferent or oblique, but a force that connected me to other human beings and beyond.

Q: How do these pieces differ from some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: The Space poems take on the form of emphatic direct address to an entity that is clearly outside the self (way outside), unlike my other recent poems in which the speaker is more or less talking to herself or eavesdropping on other people. The Space poems also range around, collaging different landscapes, busting up the idea of isolation from others. Meanwhile, other poems that inhabit the same manuscript (or what I believe is the same manuscript) are claustrophobically locked in. Sometimes literally. (For example, the speaker often crops up in an ominous No-Exit waiting room or a hideous social space like a convention hall.)

Q: What is your process of constructing a full-length manuscript? Is the process of putting this manuscript together much different than when you built your first?

A: My process is a wandering one. I seem to heave out a clump of work—a bunch of poems—that is clearly related.  Sometimes it is a series like these Space poems and eventually the series expires. Then I heave out other clumps that might seem unrelated at first glance but I try to stay alert to possible connections. If I see some, then I build bridges—writing new poems, torqueing certain poems to bend toward its compadres. Though sometimes those other clumps need to go in other manuscripts or into the ether. . .  it can take some time to discern. That has been my experience with my first book manuscript and with the others I am working on.

Q: With two chapbooks and a trade collection over the past decade or so, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: From the perspective of my publication output, I would say my work has developed slowly and sparsely. Meanwhile I have a great deal of work that has been published in magazines and has not been collected into book form. And I have a great deal of work that I have not submitted anywhere yet. I am not sure what all that means, however, as regards where my work is headed. Hopefully not deeper underground . . .

Q: How easy was it for you to shift from constructing chapbooks to constructing a full-length book? And which do you see as your main unit of composition? Or does it matter?

A: I didn’t consciously try to construct chapbooks. My two chapbooks were extracted from larger manuscripts and came about because I was asked for work by the editors of the respective presses—Rachel Levitsky at Belladonna and Janet Kaplan of Red Glass Books. Rachel had heard me read from a prose work in progress and wanted to publish some of it, and Janet knew my first book. I think I incline generally ultimately toward a full-length collection, with ideas that sprawl even as my thematically-related poems seem to arrive in clumps, and some work is required to build the bridges between the clumps. In answer to your question: Does it matter? In an egoic way, I confess I’d like to take up more room on the shelf, but I think my best self would just want to find the appropriate container (length) for the given set of ideas.

Q: Who have some of your models been for your work so far? What writers or works are you thinking of when you are constructing a work?

A: I love a wide range of poets and poetries but I think, as regards models for my work, it depends on the project. This question makes me think I should think more about what other people are doing when I am constructing a work! I am aware that these days I am drawn to books that are concept-based but are not strict within the confines of the concept—those that don’t mind a little mess, looseness, diverse forms, and even mixtures of genres. . . . Books by Kathy Ossip, Renee Gladman, Anne Carson, Kate Greenstreet, Shane McCrae, Claudia Rankine, Matthea Harvey, C.A. Conrad, Bhanu Kapil, Monica de la Torre, Sarah Messer.

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

A: The folks I return to for re-energizing tend to be women writers—although not exclusively—who have over many years taken liberties with form and have generally brought together formal daring-do with personal risk and political/social engagement. Who are, in the words of Alice Notley, “disobedient,” They would include many of the aforementioned writers plus such luminaries as Eileen Myles, Harreyette Mullen, Alice Notley, Fanny Howe, and Alice Fulton, among others.

I have also been recently re-energized by Lisa Sewell’s poems on reading/literature as a portal to personal and political upheaval; Josh Weiner’s darkly hilarious anti-Trump poems; Christine Hume’s lyric essays on  gender violence; Anne Boyer’s lyric essays that critique capitalism, meritocracy, and the pathologizing of illness; Hafizah Geter’s poetry of witness, examining racism and immigration experience; and Lauren Clark’s poems of grief, trauma, love, and queerness in 21st Century America. Re-energizing seems to come with new discoveries each week, so ask me again next week and I would have more to add to the list. A testiment to the richness of contemporary poetry now!