Monday, January 28, 2019

TtD supplement #125 : seven questions for Adam Strauss

Adam Strauss lives in Louisville, KY.  He is the author of one full-length collection: For Days (BlazeVox). Most recently, poems of his appear in The Arsonist Magazine, Fence, Brooklyn Rail and Interim.  Ones are forthcoming in Dream Pop and Spork.

His poems “1.64 [Rustgreen Degrees],” “1.15 [Reds Revere Charcoals],” “1.14 [Silvers and Grays Upwelled],” “1.49 [Cabernet And Caramel Swatches]” and “1.10 [ Yellows And Taupes Fringed By Corals]” appear in the twentieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “1.64 [Rustgreen Degrees],” “1.15 [Reds Revere Charcoals],” “1.14 [Silvers and Grays Upwelled],” “1.49 [Cabernet And Caramel Swatches]” and “1.10 [ Yellows And Taupes Fringed By Corals].”

A: All of these poems are extremely influenced by Cole Swensen—both her sense of syntax and of ekphrasis—and they all embody my interest in faux ekphrasis: I like to think of the pieces as presenting paintings that don’t actually exist, and the syntax I tend towards thinking of as like whorls of paint or more specifically the act of stroking on paint, the movement as brush touches canvas. Put another way, they function, to borrow a great term from Douglas Kearney, as “preemptive ekphrasis.” More technically, the poems work with “syntactic doubling,” a term Christanne Miller helpfully uses when discussing one of the syntactic elements of Emily Dickinson. As for the space gaps: I don’t intend them as caesurae, but rather as sluiceways or sites of acceleration. I want the poems to happen quickly. I aim for kinetics not meditative arrest. 

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

A: Over the past several years, I’ve been interested in hypotaxis, in writing really long somewhat conventional sentences which do not, for example, make use of “syntactic doubling.” The poems in Touch the Donkey are comparable in that they are driven by syntax, but I’m currently less interested in using extra white space. Too, I find myself currently trying for more and more rhyme, so that’s an obvious departure (though rhyme has been, in fits and starts, a consistent thread through my work). For the past several months I’ve been rather relentlessly trying my hand at Petrarchan sonnets, albeit sans measured lines; they probably don’t work, but I hope the practice yields something. My most recent manuscript imitates the poetry of Reginald Shepherd, and thus represents departure from anything I’ve done before, and also some continuity: I find myself always needing to find a syntax for an engine, and often write like pulling tissues from a box in the sense that I write a word or two, and then try and observe properties in that word or phrase and further push it in the next phrase.  Put another way, this recent work works via appositives—great chains of them!

Q: What do you feel is possible with working more formal structures that might not be possible otherwise?

A: I’m not really sure—it may be I simply have a predilection. Ultimately, my only desire for poetry is energy. I suppose I think writing in as many modes as possible—ultra formal included—means I can maximize expressing energy. I strive to be a virtuoso, and that means practicing multiple modes, not finding one and concentrating on it for manuscript upon manuscript. I think, too, my interest in, for example, the Petrarchan sonnet stems from, to crib from Yeats, a “fascination with what’s difficult.” Too, some ultra formal modes are so fitting for certain emotions: the villanelle does yearning and heartbreak so well with its obsessive repetition and dynamic change within that repetition. On a grumpy note: it endlessly bugs me when writers write unrhymed sonnets, unrhymed villanelles; rhyme possesses its own particular energy, so I absolutely believe it should not be abandoned. As well, to return to heartbreak and yearning, I often find myself feeling—well, maybe a reader doesn’t give two figs about my longing, but they still might be interested in seeing how I work rhyme and repetition. I think it can make for more engagement on a reader’s behalf—give them the chance to, like with gymnastics, judge (and hopefully enjoy!) the performance. I often wish poetry had a gymnastics system, with points given for difficulty levels. I think this could push people to some amazing feats—or stunning almost successes (Zukofsky’s “A-9”!!!!). 

Q: You mention Louis Zukofsky and W.B. Yeats, among some other names; what other poets have influenced the ways in which you write, and approach writing? How did you get to where you are now, and where do you see your work headed?

A: My relationship to influence is somewhat vexed: many writers I adore I do not count as influences— Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop. I love-love-love Gwendolyn Brooks, but don’t feel good enough to call her an influence. This applies to Melvin Tolson’s astonishing Harlem Gallery as well; it’s a touchstone work for me, but hardly—to my knowledge—an influence. I cited Yeats, but don’t, one or three aside, particularly care for his poems. I am in love with the poems of George Herbert and do think they have influenced my interest in hypotaxis. I do adore Harryette Mullen and count her as an influence because she makes of word-play an engine and that certainly applies to some or much of what I’ve done and do. I think Zukofsky could count as an influence because he believes in such basics as counting words, and I certainly enjoy focusing on primaries: syllable, line-length, number of lines in a stanza, etc.  As well, he has tremendous range, writing everything from sonnet-sestina hybrids like “A-7” to the overt experimentalism of 80 Flowers. Rosmarie Waldrop has definitely influenced how I approach writing via her interest in serial work and syntactic doubling—she doesn’t call it that but she does, in her early lineated poems, make use of it. I would count Jorie Graham as an influence, even as I don’t believe I absolutely adore her work the way I do others—indeed, it’s through attempt at parody that I’ve come to be influenced by her.  Years ago I wrote a bunch of poems which could be said to have Plath as their tutelary spirit: every now and again her timbre surfaces in my poems. As for the future, I’m not quite sure: I’d love if Donne’s “La Corona” infiltrated my poetry, though I’d be surprised if I get this lucky! Finally, sometimes influences come other than via individual author: the now defunct blog Montevidayo greatly influenced me.  

I should add that the major example of not particularly liking a poet’s work but nonetheless finding them a huge influence would be Robert Creeley: my idea of a Creeley poem, if not any actual Creeley poem, has certainly yielded scores. Too, I find my sense of linebreaks influenced by William Carlos Williams, a writer it took me years to finally love.

Q: How do you approach the line-break? Is it a break of space, of breath, of thought? How do you approach the spaces between your words and lines?

A: Most recently, my line-breaks have been lackluster, and it’s larger sweeps of lines that matter. In general, though, I try and have linebreaks be quickening agents and/or ones which via enjambment multiply sense. I do not mean to have a reader pause; if anything, I want linebreaks to function like glottal stops—merest halts which actually function as springboards to further articulation. As for stanza breaks, I’m less sure how to answer; I suppose it has to do with how I want to pace the poem, with how I want a reader’s eye to move down the page, tracking what occurs. Overall, it’s speed I’m after. I think poetry should happen at the speed of sound and/or light, or rather the intersection of the two. Too, I try and avoid linebreaks which seem choppy even as I adore sharp enjambment: I love the idea of breaks producing a kinetic pull, of producing an energetic drag—like hydraulics! Williams, at his best, does this so well! In some ways every linebreak is a part of one greater line, so that it’s all of the breaks together which constitute the actual motion.

Q: Your poems in this issue of Touch the Donkey suggest a far larger structure than what is presented here. How do you balance your attempts at speed against these longer, sustained structures?

A: You’re correct: these poems in Touch the Donkey come from a series of twenty one pieces. In part I think speed gets maintained because no one piece is very long, so a reader can move through the whole structure fairly quickly. Too, the titles constitute a kind of declension of color: blues move to greens, to reds and caramels, to yellows, to taupe and grey and white, and finally to the very contours of color, to properties and no actual hue—so there’s a kind of prismatic continuity in the titling which may, again, make for speed. I like to think of each poem in the series as being a painting in a display space, and sometimes galleries have wings—so hopefully I've ended up with a bird ready for lift-off...or already in flight!

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

A: I am seemingly always reading Cole Swensen. I love Gertrude Stein’s work. Gwendolyn Brooks is pretty much always in my mind. I have lately enjoyed the Joyelle McSweeney poems I’ve read. I look forward to yet again reading Harlem Gallery. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Claudia Keelan’s new and selected We Step into the Sea and her book of essays Ecstatic Émigré, so hopefully those works burble through what I do next. Emily Dickinson always proves freshening and I’ve been loving rereading Cesar Vallejo’s Trilce. I probably ought to binge on the last ten years of Susan Howe’s writing though I have yet to get the books. I’m permanently in love with Jay Wright, though again I’m years behind on reading his work. For years I’ve been meaning to read Jayne Cortez: I don’t know her work well but suspect it might help enliven me—Harryette Mullen has a poem titled “Fancy Cortex” in homage to her and anyone Mullen pays homage to equals someone I really need to check out! Finally, it may well be time to start reading Nathaniel Mackey again! And I should definitely get my hands on the Joris’ translations of Paul Celan's later works!  I’d love if I started working with compound words!  

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Touch the Donkey : twentieth issue,

The twentieth issue is now available, with new poems by Michael Boughn, David Dowker, Roland Prevost, Adam Strauss, Marie Larson, Lauren Haldeman, Katy Lederer and Taryn Hubbard.

Seven dollars (includes shipping). While you're enjoying our Hall of Wonders, your car unfortunately will be subject to repeated break-ins.

Friday, January 4, 2019

TtD supplement #124 : seven questions for Rob Manery

Rob Manery, formerly of Ottawa, lives in Vancouver with his partner and son. He is the author of It’s Not As If It Hasn’t Been Said Before (Tsunami) and The Richter-Rauzer Variations (above/ground press).

Five poems from his work-in-progress “Equivocation” appear in the nineteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the work-in-progress “Equivocation.”

A: When I was preparing to teach Macbeth, whose plot is driven by the equivocations of various characters, I became interested in a tract written by Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest, called A Treatise of Equivocation. It was discovered by English prosecutors who were pursuing Catholics after the failed Gunpowder Plot which was an attempt to assassinate James I and the entire British parliament. The treatise was used to convict Garnet in an English court and sentence him to death. The treatise explains different strategies for misleading an interrogator without telling a lie, although some of the suggestions would clearly count as lying in any common understanding of the concept of lying. However, the treatise is a remarkable attempt to exploit the ambiguities of language to circumvent an overly restrictive ethical rule, the biblical commandment to never tell a lie.

Poetry is sometimes accused of being misleading. We can think of Riffaterre’s often quoted statement that “poetry says one thing and means another.” He argues that poetry employs “indirection” in its expression. Indirection, in turn, is said to result in three possible outcomes: displacing, distorting, or creating meaning. Ambiguity, in Riffaterre’s conception of poetry, serves to distort meaning, as does contradiction and nonsense. The presence of ambiguity in a poem seems to take on a Jesuitical character. A more positive view of ambiguity sees the possibilities that it affords. Rather than concealing or distorting meaning, it can generate multiple interpretations.

A Treatise of Equivocation, however, sought to use this possibility to conceal a “true” or intended meaning. I became fascinated with the strategies proposed by the treatise, but also by the language used in the document. With the poems, I wanted to rework the language in the treatise to transform the language to make it suggestive of multiple possibilities, to potentially reveal rather than conceal meanings. So that is the basic idea that led to the writing of the poems.

Q: How does this fit in with some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I often use source material to create poems. In the past, I have used archival documents related to the Winnipeg General Strike to construct the poems in It’s Not As If It Hasn’t Been Said Before. In “Equivocation,” I am also using an historical text to create a series of poems. However, with the earlier work I used chance procedures to generate an initial text that I shaped into the poems in the book. With the poems that form “Equivocation,” I did not use any formal procedure to generate the texts.

The use of source texts is a way for me to explore the language used in those texts and to reveal particular usages or patterns that reflect a certain, often political, discourse, which I think might resonate with contemporary political discourses.

Q: What are your models for this kind of work, and what first precipitated your interest in exploring these kinds of discourses?

A: I think I was always (at least since I was a teenager) attentive to how language was used to convey political messages. This attention certainly became more acute when I started reading the Language poets and their ideas about the relationship between form and ideology. People like Charles Bernstein were talking about how form, stylistic choices, vocabulary, syntax, etc. carry political meanings, not in a simplistic manner, such as disjunctive verse is necessarily a critique of capitalism, but suggesting that we need to consider how verse forms resonate with other more dominant discourses, and how form might reify ideologies or offer new possibilities for understanding how meaning is constructed. Jackson Mac Low wrote an essay, included in the anthology In the American Tree, in which he warned against an overly simplified equation of form and any specific political critique. However, as Mac Low and others noted, the texts that were being labeled “language-centred” or “nonreferential,” despite the problematic nomenclature, tended to eschew, or at least problematize reading these works as expressions of the poet’s thoughts, ideas, emotional states. They are not poems that could be easily paraphrased. This disavowal of lyrical self-expression did embody a critique of a dominant discourse, one with relevance that extends beyond poetic expression.

As mentioned above, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets had an enormous effect on how I think about writing. Ron Silliman’s procedural writing is especially important to me as are Mac Low’s aleatorical writing processes and John Cage’s use of chance in his compositions. Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust and Testimony are also models to some degree.

Q: I know you, alongside Louis Cabri and Christian Bök, studied at Carleton University under Robert Hogg, including a week-long seminar he gave through your Experimental Writers Group. How important were those connections to your writing, and do they still provide direction for what it is you’ve been working on?

A: I certainly studied with Bob at Carleton, but I don’t know if Louis and Christian did. Louis had finished his BA by the time I met him. I only met Christian when we started the MA program at Carleton.

Bob certainly was an important influence. He opened up contemporary North American poetry to me. In his courses, we studied the Black Mountain poets and the TISH group, among others. I first read Ashbery and Stein in Bob’s class. Most importantly, he suggested I read the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, which I did and which changed the way I thought about poetry. Later, he taught a class on the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and their antecedents. Bob’s own work also profoundly affected how I thought about language and the line, how words interact spatially, and the possibilities afforded by the short line.

I met Louis when he invited a small group to form the Experimental Writers Group. A friend of mine who was invited asked me to come along to the first meeting. I think I was the only person other than Louis who was interested in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, so he and I would meet to read and discuss these bewildering poems and soon began to organize readings, and then publish a magazine. Louis is an extremely astute reader, not to mention a phenomenal poet, so I learned a great deal from him as well.

Christopher Levenson was another influential figure. I took, I think, six courses with him, including a poetry workshop. While we do not share a similar poetics, I learned a great deal from him about technical aspects of poetry. A lot of attention was paid to textual features of the poems we studied. The close readings we did were invaluable in developing a sensitivity to the possibilities of language.

I also took a graduate course with Seymour Mayne at the University of Ottawa. The course was an examination of the history of the little magazine in Canada. It was a fascinating course and timely for me in that Louis and I were just beginning to publish hole magazine. It provoked a great deal of thinking about the role of a literary magazine and provided models as well as suggested possible directions a magazine could take. Mayne was a wonderfully open teacher who seemed to enjoy serious discussion of ideas, challenging us to take a stance, defend it, but also reconsider our positions. I learned a great deal from his course.

Q: With a decade between your Tsunami title and your above/ground press chapbook, which is, itself, already more than half a decade old, you’ve never seemed the sort of writer in any particular hurry. Do poems percolate for a long time before composition? Does writing come in bursts, or are you working, quietly and slowly, at something for years before releasing it into the world?

A: My preference is to let work sit for a while so I can read it again with a bit of distance and then decide whether I am satisfied with it or not. Although, that practice varies depending on the piece and the circumstances.

The other factor is that I am a slow writer. I often use procedures with which I experiment and refine until I hit upon one that I think is working. The procedures typically are used to develop an initial text that I then work with, experimenting with different forms, moving lines and fragments around, often removing more and more of the initial text, paring it down until, eventually, I arrive at a version I am happy with. Often, this takes time, much time.

Q: Is this current piece part of a larger work, or a stand-alone? Are you specifically working on anything at the moment?

A: “Equivocation” is a stand-alone work, but I also see it as belonging to a group of non-aleatoric poems that use source material to generate the text. There are also some poems that are related thematically to “Equivocation.”

I am working on two separate projects. One is a return to the chess generated poems I was creating twenty years ago and another is a series of poems written for friends.  

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

A: There are quite a few poets I enjoy reading over and over again – Celan, Zukofsky, Ashbery, I could go on and on – but I read them because their work continues to intrigue me. There are many whose work I am happy to revisit. The new collections from Talon of Daphne Marlatt, Phyllis Webb, and Fred Wah have been welcome reading. I am looking forward to Roy Miki’s new collected works. Simply, I am inspired by writing that leaves me a little bewildered, writing that suggests other possibilities for language.