Friday, June 29, 2018

TtD supplement #108 : seven questions for Sarah MacDonell

Sarah MacDonell writes, bakes and scuttles around Ottawa. She is the social media manager for Tree Reading Series and a contributing editor for Canthius. She performs and publishes in vestibules around town.

Her poem “sifting” appears in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “sifting.”

A: I wanted to write about the magic of baking. I wrote sifting when I was working at a bakery. I had exaggerated my abilities and experience because I needed the job, and it surprised me how much I loved the work and loved the womxn I worked with. We chatted all day, and chatted to the cakes and ovens too. I told the batter and dough everything. There was something magical about seeing it turn decadent in a few hours, despite of— or in response to—what I told it. Dressing it up, fluffing it out. The routine of it too. I decorated the cakes and sometimes they looked sad. They were always pretty. But sometimes they looked sad or silly or joyous. I guess it’s like any art. You and your moods shine through it. And when you work so closely with people, they shine through it too. It’s magic to me.

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

A: I’ve been on a bit of a writing break lately, haha so it’s incomparable to anything I’ve been writing lately because I haven’t been writing. I’ve been promoting other poets’ work through Tree Reading Series and Canthius Literary Magazine and that seems to take up most of my writing time, which is lovely. I enjoy promoting other writers and attempting to forge the kind of community I want and respect. Hopefully, inspiration and personal time will strike soon. But if it doesn’t, that’s fine too. I’ve met so many amazing writers in the past few months. I’m learning that writing isn’t a solitary act at all. Nor should it be.

But I would say that “sifting” is much more contained and immediate than my past work. It felt important to remain within the space of the bakery. The oven, the movements of bakers, the sifting, whisking and kneading, all happen quickly. They demand presence. I usually write in longer, breathless lines, but this poem needed more staccato. It would have been dishonest to the baking and magic to drift into histories, thoughts or wordplay, as my other poems sometimes do. (And it was really, really difficult to resist the baggage of yeast: all the stories crafted around fermentation).

Q: Despite the recent break from writing, how have you seen your work developing? Has there been any shift in your consideration to writing through your work at Tree or Canthius?

A: Hm, my writing used to be interested in geologies and landscapes (physical landscapes, landscapes of the body, landscapes of the text). And I’m still interested in those, but I’m writing more contained pieces. Now, I’m more interested in my grandmothers and the lives they lived. How their memories and languages get passed through heritage, how their stories get repeated through my mother’s life and mine. (What closure did my mother experience for my grandmother? What experiences will I live unknowingly for my mother? And what has my grandmother already lived for me? …Among other questions) It’s more personal, and sometimes it feels very narcissistic. But maybe it’s just more upfront about its narcissism. It doesn’t have form to hide behind.

Before I got involved with Tree and Canthius—and to some extent before I got to join a writing group of my peers (hey &co)—I was writing and thinking in isolation. I used to write poetry as a means of exploration. It was good, but it no longer feels possible. Now writing feels social and I feel less certain in what I believe good writing is or should do. I have a lot more reading to do, and a lot more thinking through what space poetry has in a public (and which public).

I also get overwhelmed by the space poetry requires. Or at least how it’s imagined under CanLit. There’s the space of the performance, the page, the audience, the open mic, the sound, the body (that of reader and poet), the press, the publisher, the community, etc. And all of that has to be navigated in real time. Through all its complexities: its permissions and erasures, its joys and violence, its epiphanies and silences. Let alone the historical weight of each word. That’s something I’m thinking through.

Q: Have there been any specific writers that have helped prompt some of these shifts? What have you read recently that has struck a chord with what you’re attempting to do?

A: Sure! With ideas of family, heritage and archive, I’ve recently read Veronica Gonzalez, Chelene Knight, Hoa Nguyen, Kayla Czaga. More locally: Sarah Kabamba, Manahil Bandukwala, Jennifer Pederson, Mia Morgan, you, Stephen Brockwell.

Q: What do you mean when you speak about “the space poetry requires,” specifically “how its imagined under CanLit”?

A: Oh just that sometimes we write inside communities or alongside them or outside of them. So what does it mean that a poem was written in one space (physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, whatever) and then transported to be performed or published or read. How do we care for that poem outside it’s space, or help create new space for it? And what work goes into creating those spaces. How does the work need to be contextualized? What work do the reader, the audience member, the series facilitator, the MC (everyone who witnesses and participates in the reading/ performance of poetry) have to do to best represent, make space for, the poem? (And maybe that’s unfair to say under CanLit. I just think of the ways publishing has so obviously failed so many womxn and POC.)

But with space so I’m rereading Maggie Nelson’s the argonauts. And that’s a book I think that requires a lot of trust in her reader. She jumps brilliantly and elegantly from subject matters to weave these narrative and questions, but she trusts her reader to jump with her. Maybe it’s an ethics of readership, or a responsibility. Haha I’m not really sure.

Q: What do you feel CanLit should be doing differently? What do you feel should be the response to addressing such failures?

A: Haha believing womxn. Believing POC. I’m mostly thinking of the past year. I really appreciated Lauren Turner's essay On Covered Mouths, but also oppression beyond gender. A community response to bullshit so that gossip isn’t the only legitimate tool many people have. There are series and presses that do this well. That I know of, Desert Pets Press, Battleaxe, Canyon Copper, Tinhouse, and others. I think I’m also still rectifying Canadian politeness. And I’m thinking about Maya Binyam’s Watching the Woke Olympics so I’m not really sure how to help things change. But I’m thinking about it.

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

A: I really love CA Conrad’s Ecodeviance. I find myself returning to it often, sometimes in awe of language, of energy, of poetic ritual ideas. I also find myself returning to Lorine Neidecker for archive, Natalie Diaz and Brecken Hancock for family.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

TtD supplement #107 : seven questions for Janet Kaplan

Janet Kaplan’s full-length poetry books are Ecotones (forthcoming in 2019 from Eyewear Ltd.), Dreamlife of a Philanthropist: Prose Poems & Prose Sonnets (winner of the 2011 Ernest Sandeen Prize in Poetry from University of Notre Dame Press), The Glazier’s Country (winner of the 2003 Poets Out Loud Prize from Fordham University Press) and The Groundnote (Alice James Books, 1998). Her honors include grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Bronx Council on the Arts, fellowships and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Ucross Foundation and the Vermont Studio Center. Her poems have appeared in Arts & Letters, Barrow Street, Cross Currents, Denver Quarterly, Interim, The Paris Review, Pool, The Prose Poem Project, Sentence, The Southampton Review, Tupelo Quarterly and many others, as well as in the anthologies An Introduction to the Prose Poem (Firewheel Editions, 2007), Lit from Inside: 40 Years of Poetry from Alice James (Alice James Books, 2012) and Like Light: 25 Years of Poetry & Prose by Bright Hill Poets & Writers (Bright Hill Press, 2017). She’s served as Poet-in-Residence at Fordham University and is currently a member of the creative writing faculty at Hofstra University, where she edits AMP magazine.

Her poem “A Yellow Dwarf’s Photonegative Capability” appears in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “A Yellow Dwarf’s Photonegative Capability.”

A: “Yellow Dwarf” is one of the poems in Ecotones, due out in 2019. The work deals with our responses to nature and how, as nature, we’ve somehow forgotten that we are nature. In “Yellow Dwarf,” I tell a fairy-tale-like story. Most fairy tales involve a relationship between human beings and animals with special powers. In my tale, the animals are zooplankton, the smallest animals in the food chain; they’re powerless, though, because the human being in the tale can no longer “hear” them—can no longer understand what they really are. In fact, the human being poisons them—and herself—by leading them to the sea to drink water contaminated with plastic particulates. Exposed to sunlight, plastic disintegrates in a process called photodecomposition, but it never fully breaks down. It remains in the water, where it’s consumed by zooplankton—and on up the food chain. I contrast this “tale” with an excerpt from an origin story, “Records of the Grand Historian,” by the Han Dynasty writer Sima Qian (ca. 91 BCE), in which powerful animals help the human-hero defeat an enemy sun god. “A Yellow Dwarf’s Photonegative Capability” (pun on Keats’ Negative Capability intended!) is my depiction of the broken connection between—the decomposition of—humans and the rest of the natural world.

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

A: I’m still at work on a number of poems in Ecotones. If and when I can see beyond this book, there’s a hybrid prose collection—part fiction, part memoir, part essay—staring at me from the box I placed it in about three years ago. The subject matter is different from Ecotones’ but the form—or, rather, the mixing of forms—is similar. I think I’ve caught the hybrid bug.

Q: When you say “mixing of forms,” what forms are you exploring?

A: In Ecotones, I mix fictional prose narrative, poetry and sampled text fragments. In my hybrid prose manuscript-in-progress, there’ll be fiction, memoir and very short essays.

Q: What do you feel you’re able to accomplish through the hybrid that you might not be able to otherwise?

A: I’m hoping for a more accurate—meaning, more complete—depiction of a life’s environment. One section Ecotones contains a fictional account of a substance abuser’s life. This account takes place, as all lives do, in an historical time and place—or, rather, in many times and places.  I use different literary shapes—paragraphs, stanzas—a variety of typefaces, irregular spacing and placement of text, and a bit of line art, to depict the voices—some complementing, some contrasting, like odd Greek choruses—that arise from these times and places. And, of course, there’s blank space to represent the silences.

Q: With a small handful of books over the past two decades, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Sometimes I feel like Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese poet who adopted not only pseudonyms but utterly distinct voices for each of his books. With each of my books, I’ve had a different question to answer, a different goal. If someone can find a single “voice” that could be recognized as the Janet Kaplan voice threading through each of my books, I’d love to know about it. But I’ve stopped worrying about it. There’s yet another voice—a fifth? a fiftieth?—in a new poetry manuscript-in-progress tentatively titled “Pitch Light.” This new voice cracks me up; I was howling with laughter as I wrote the first drafts.

In any case, I’m intensely grateful for my “small handful” of books! Each took time and patience in the interstices of a busy, broke (but not broken!) life. Teaching, getting the bills paid, teaching, getting the bills paid....

Q: “Voice” feels less a concern than simply understanding the ways in which your books interact with each other. bpNichol said something once about the work connecting only due to it all composed by the same hand. Do you worry your books each sound like a different writer, thus distancing any ongoing readership you might have?

A: Why should one’s books interact with one another? I absolutely agree with bpNichol here! As for the worrying, to be honest, I worry about having enough money, enough time.... And then, like the poet A.R. Ammons, I go for a walk.

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

A: Actually, in the last few years, I’ve been reading and re-reading the Christian, Sufi, Jewish and Hindu mystics, with Zen haiku masters joining in to intensify the blaze. Thanks for asking!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

TtD supplement #106 : five questions for Phil Hall

Phil Hall’s most recent books are Conjugation (BookThug, 2016), Notes on Assemblage (JackPine Press, 2017), and (with Erín Moure) The Interrupted (Beautiful Outlaw Press, 2017).

His poem “Steps” appears in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Steps.”

A: Not to make too much of so little…

But I am interested in each word as a creature in itself that has evolved & is evolving even as we show-offs use them.

I want to track social & historical movement using only a creature at a time to see what that minimal focus might reveal.

In the slightest adjustments can be seen enormous affinities & leaps of reference.

These poems are suspicious of the writerly flourish, wary of pop sympathies & prejudices that become tropes.

For instance, using bp’s joke of saints in words—such as St And built from the word “stand,”—one two-step here speaks of how easily we move from what is “unclear”  (Uncle Ar) to what is seen as “unclean” (Uncle An).

The avuncular in criticism still implies that if poems are unclear they are unclean.

These are political poems—I guess—almost political poem pills.

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

A: Whether Steps is a poem or a sequence of poems, we may consider the order of each part or poem & their proximity to each other, as well as their obvious list-isolation.

There is always a relation between the word under the microscope & the word in the field, in the sentence, at the televised debate.

The Other World under the slide—in our tiny poems—has the potential to cure verbiage & lies. I have to believe this, even if it isn’t true anymore, or never was…

I mostly work in sequence forms. These are Spicerian marathons, but the interest I have in proximity as a potential force in such poems is the same as in Steps.

This beside this is not only 1 plus 1—it is tone-change, furtherance (= 3), & a texture shift—or even an irrelevancy that illumes—all of which is not beholden to syntax.

Between sections in a long poem, between single words in one of these Steps poems, (and between the letters in a word if we turn the focus way up), there accumulates (the hope of) a force that is not logical but processional, not telling but assembly.

Q: You’ve been working with the extended suite for some time, working, it would seem, with the book-length poem as your unit of composition. How did you get from writing individual poems to working with such a larger form, and what do you feel you’re able to accomplish through book-length that you might not be able to otherwise?

A: I respect the lone cry of the lyric, but it is rarely pure, & almost always imitative. To be that desperate & alone a cry has to be half crazy.

The cacophony of sequence approaches carnival. The cooperation of chorus involves a displacement of ego. These are good things to invite, so I do.

The book, for me, is a life unit: during these 4 or 5 years, I have invited & welcomed & arranged the following.
All of the preoccupations, distractions, enthusiasms, & revelatory fears of these living years of mine are here…

The book is where the author joins the audience. Maybe I write books so that I can join the audience. The brief silence of being in my own book’s audience is reward enough. A respite.

But soon the next compulsive pull of design & trouble, that lyric desperation, nudges me out of my seat, & I have to find the exit, have to go off on my own again…

I have come to think that for me the only way out of or back from lyric isolation (craziness) is through a multi-valenced widening…

I feel again & again the compulsion to invoke, ISBN by ISBN, the fortifications of harmony & pattern.

Q: With over a dozen full-length collections over the past two decades, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: The first word that comes to mind when I read this question is: landfill.

But that is deflective, morbidly un-funny—& a little interesting: my name is in there…

Hey, I keep looking for that guy! And he keeps looking for legitimacy in polyvocal company.

But the only company I trust is A to Z.

So Steps is (or are) an effort to keep my eye to the microscope of the alphabet.

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

A: Thirty years ago I painted Greek blue a wall in my bachelor apartment & stuck to it 80 white file cards each holding one of Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers poems so I could study them as part of my daily routine.

No blanch witloof handbound dry / Heart to racks a comb

This winter I spent 6 months in Guyana—what I took & studied again daily there was Zuk’s “A”.
Classical anti-classicism crunched & unraveled into housebound song.

Will explain to us
How to do
The wrong things
The right way

Crunch or unravel, Z gets me every time.