Franco Cortese is an experimental poet living in Thorold, Ontario with his son, Maverick, and wife, Brittany May. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Canadian Literature, The Capilano Review, filling Station, ditch, and others. His recent chapbooks include aeiou (No Press, 2018), uoiea (above/ground press, 2019) and teksker (Simulacrum Press, 2019), with two further chapbooks forthcoming with above/ground press. He also has leaflets, booklets and nanopamphlets published or forthcoming through The Blasted Tree, Penteract Press, and Spacecraft Press. His work has been published both within Canada and internationally, most recently in the anthology Concrete and Constraint (Penteract Press 2018).
His poems “cậušê tǐçk” and “súmêr salt” appear in the twenty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “cậušê tǐçk” and “súmêr salt.”
A: These are selections from a suite of punny prose poems that I’ve been mulling over for a few years now, and which had their origin in that stolen hump between adolescence and adulthood. Thematically, they are (m)any things and (n)one: a dirge to self in melt and in merge, a threnodic pyresong to identity berift of root and left to rot anew in a den undone, and a shameless vivisection the intermeschered paradoxes of selfhood, heritage and inheritance in the fickle face of time and the thorny Mobius crownsong of sex, text and death.
Why sex, text and death, you ask? Well, besides being core staples and steeples of the ever-nascent adolescent mind, it's somewhat hard to say. I suppose because self's the name of the game (the same!), and these three are, at least in the context of this runtimely project, the timeless triad that trialogues and trialects the self along. Sex as change, as generation, and as a flitting, fleetful mixing of self and other through the fleschy three-way mirror of itself. Text as reproduction, as the inherent other, as facsimile flesh and as bestilled and stolen time. Death as itself writ both large and small; as the big dready final one, and as the smaller, daily one that makes the riversliver self dinto itself.
Much of it simply riffs on the timeless thematic of life betrothed to death, of meat to mud and light to dust, and of self as sum khind of unfathered Faust fastened to the petty rind of a dying animal. Some else of it tchurns riff into rift into drift, Frankensteining death on its head by making it into a recursive and reciprocal thing gyring through time, making self into something that becomes, that never is per se, and that is only itself when in hot pursuit of some slightly different and distant version of itself barely convisible on the whereizon.
In being punny, it tries (and flails?) to one-night-strand form to content through push and through melt, bumping things around and along into a browneon mocean of felled angstrom sticks and sickly stardust adams bustling and jostling regen and again along and alinto reachother only to remerge as some kind of rungainly collective writself a little later long the waytide.
Q: How do these pieces compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: I find them wonderfully messy in their freedom compared to the cleaner constraints I’ve been working with lately; lots of anagrams, constrained lexicons, multilingual lipograms and limit-case lipograms (i.e., those eschewing the use of all letters save one). There are, however, still a lot of the same themes at play in these newer works; death, essence, identogeny and the like.
Q: Since you mention it, what is it about the constraint that appeals? What do you feel the constraint allows that might not be possible otherwise? And since working the constraint, how does your non-constraint work compare?
A: Well, constraint has always lain at the very heart of poetry. It’s words at their best and their most by virtue of being words at their least, and language at its limits. Procedural constraint, in particular, metastasizes this fundamental heart into the act of composition itself, creating poetry truer to form in a way. It challenges what poetry can do, which is a fundamental part of what poetry is about.
It’s also about the heady, heavy, near-narcotic and ecstatic awe at the kinds of aesthetic value that can be realized under constraints that push meaning and form to their points of dissolution, and this really hits home how unbelievably plastic language is. Besides all that, I’ve personally found that it can be surprisingly liberating, revealing hidden wormholes and unseen side-tunnels of freedom that weren’t visible behind all the open space of unconstrained poetry. We all have shackles underneath the apey flesh, and sometimes constraining yourself into a corner gives you the x-ray vision needed to work past those biases, into something simultaneously alien and true to self.
Since working more with constraints, I’d say my unconstrained work has become more discerning. Working under a constraint really requires you to push things to their limits, and gives you a much better eye and ear for the terrain of the phase-space you’re working in. It makes you bang your head against the wall of your world until things either click or melt, and that has proved to be, for me at least, an excellent training ground for the what-may-come of elsewise and elsewhere.
Q: What first brought you to composing such overtly constraint-driven work?
A: Hard to say. I suppose it must have been work by giants like Bök n’ Betts, and little later folk like Etherin. But once I dove in, I really couldn’t get enough. It became a kind of desperate rapture and frantic joy. Poetry has always held that kind of sway on me (I mean, if it didn’t, why would anyone be so impracticably foolhardy to practice it?), but this kind of work held that sway in a really visceral way.
Q: You’ve had a small handful of chapbooks emerge over the past couple of years. How do you see your work developing? Where do you see your work headed?
A: Most of the time I feel like I’m just along for the ride. I’m not entirely sure, which I think is a good thing. I’m usually tinkering with a number of things at once, which take time to grow into full-fledged, formally and thematically-coherent projects. I would expect to see a lot more constraint-based projects, some less constrained things, and works that play with multiple constraints in synergy.
I’m continuing to go down the rabbit-hole of densely-multilingual poetry, such as the chapbook of mine that you published through above/ground earlier this year, as well as works that utilize diacritics to form multilingual puns out of seemingly English-based words, thereby creating two distinct narratives that to some extent encipher each other, such as the titles of the two poems you accepted for Touch the Donkey, which utilize diacritics to insert a number of multilingual puns into the titles.
For example, “cậušê tǐçk” amalgamates cậu (you), šè (still, yet), tǐ (to weep, to wipe clean, body, typeface, state of a substance, principle, form, and others) and iç (nothing, interior part of something, to smoke, to absorb) into “cause tick / caustic / cậušê tǐçk,” while måkëššéncē amalgamates måke (to shovel) and makë (scum on liquids, pond scum, glue), eš (sky, god), én (self, ego, bird), and sencē (ancestor) into “makes sense / make essence / måkëššéncē.” There may be a few others packed in there; it’s hard to remember at this point. So yes, I would suppose to see more of that kind of thing as well, but who really knows.
Q: Most of what I’m aware of your work so far is project-based, and roughly chapbook-length in size. Do you see the chapbook as your unit of composition, or are you working on something far larger? Do you see your projects connect, if at all, along a continuum, as a sequence of hubs, or as something singular and expansively open-ended?
A: Yes, Ive been lucky enough to have some beautiful chapbooks out these past few years through such havens off conceptual poetics as derek beaulieu's no press, your above/ground press and Sacha Archer’s Simulacrum Press (and a couple forthcoming from Grey Borders sometime in 2020), as well as leaflets, booklets, nanopamphlets and other poetic ephemera from other such havens as Ken Hunt’s Spacecraft Press, Kyle Flemmer’s The Blasted Tree and Anthony Etherin’s Penteract Press, all wonderfully done. I was also lucky enough to contribute to the visually-stunning and titillatingly-heady Concrete & Constraint anthology that came out of Penteract last year. Besides chapbooks and smaller projects, I'm usually always working on a trade-length manuscript or two, although I've yet to publish one.
At the moment, I’m plugging away at two: aeiou (pronounced "I You"), and Root.
aeiou uses poetic forms based on omission to construct a poetics of transition, translation and ablation, exploring hard limits of poetic license through several novel poetic forms including the multilingual lipogram, the multilingual lipogramatic palindrome, the vowel-only and consonant-only lipogram, and the limit-case lipogram – poems that eschew the use of all letters save one. Wedding form to content, the manuscript uses procedural constraints that define permissible modes of being for the poem, and allowable ways of arranging itself in the world, to embody an exploration of self striving toward identogeny against the tide and hide of time, burdened by form, shackled by flesh, but nonetheless extruding a narrative of self-becoming in the face of material and cultural flux. Its poems are both found and stolen, composed of words of the same class, united by some aspect of form, one-half self and one-half brother – a community of individuals alike in quality and quantity, constrained in identity and in space, nonetheless determined to poiesize a tale of descendants in incendant descent and ascendant dissent.
Meanwhile, Root consists of a novel form of constrained poetry that I colloquially refer to as piems: parataxic micropoems composed exclusively of words sharing the same etymological root (in this case, the same Proto-Indo-European root), title included. As such, they are products of severely constrained lexicons, using anywhere from 10% to 100% of the available inventory of words as given by my primary sources. Each core piem is then complemented by four line-unit anagram poems (i.e., poems in which each line forms a perfect anagram of the corresponding line from its parent piem), which permute the letters of each root-piem into new meaning. The PIE language is the linguistic reconstruction of the hypothetical common ancestor of all modern and historical Indo-European languages. Fully simulant, it is a theoretical construction implicitly lacking empirical validation: an unwritten ghost haunting a great many Western language families (among others). Slick with usurpant echoes, and undulant with the cyclical death of essence inherent in becoming, these piem quintets attempt to vivisect, permute and rebuild the evolutionary history of language in order to reveal the ontogenic fundament inherent in etymology, and to prize new, implicit and incipient meaning out of etymontologically related families of words.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I’m not sure if I read to reenergize, per se. Most of the projects I’m working on have fairly clear directions and offer a constant bevy of conspiratorial surprises that open up new directions and intersections that gyre back round from where they could go to where they’ve already been without a whole lot of noticeable intervention on my part. I’m sure this has almost everything to do with the form and procedural dimensions I’m working with lately, but I often feel as though they’re authoring themselves to a large extent. They show me the possibilities, and I, as some kind of lucky dumbstruck reader, try as best I can to carve trenches into which they can flow, feeling very much the open-mouthed ape aghast and agog at the fiery maw of an open sky or open-eared at the lone primal cut of first thunder. That may seem a bit dramatic, but it’s true, at least for me; the compositional process of poetry is an alien, ecstatic, semi-unparticipatory thing that never ceases to amaze. Maybe that whole authors-itself gestalt will change in time (in which case, woe will be me indeed), but for now, the ideas both within and without my current projects are too numerous to let time and work wear away momentum.
I do, however, try to read a lot of poetry, most of it historical and contemporary conceptual poetics. And there are too many contemporary poets to name that I try and keep current on, like (in no particular order, and I’m sure I’m forgetting many) yourself, Adam Dickinson, Gregory Betts, Christian Bök, derek beaulieu, Sacha Archer, Anthony Etherin, Ken Hunt, Kyle Flemmer, Nasser Hussain, Gary Barwin, Sonnet L’Abbe, Jordan Abel, Craig Dworkin, Kenneth Goldsmith, Nick Montfort, psw, Eric Schmaltz, Catharine Vidler, Aaron Tucker, Andrew Topel, Arnold McBay, Luke Bradford, and, dogged-god, many others. The list really does go on, which is a great thing.
In terms of classics, I find myself spinning in and out of Finnegans Wake quite a lot, as I feel one almost must. UBUWEB's a pretty constant point of return for me as well. Against Expression is another instant classic (thanks Sacha). Likewise for Avant Canada, although that’s too new for me to have even left it in the first place at this point. And I try to get my hands on as much Oulipo as I can get my eyes and ears on. Oh, and I’m still a dripping sucker for Shakespeare. I’ve also been increasingly drawn into “world” (isn’t it all?) and ancient poetry lately, which I’ve found incredibly refreshing and eye-opening, although I suppose that has a lot to do with the great filter time, which has kept only “the best,” whatever that might mean.
I also consume and steep myself in a lot of non-poetry as well, most of it science, and most of that biology, which I think is also very important for poets – to cultivate interests in domains other than poetry, which helps with actually having something to poiesize about, around and amid. The sheer, dumbfounding material wonder of the universe generally, but life itself particularly, will never cease to amaze me, and is probably my go-to when I need to feel lost in the explosive, fractal wonder of the world again.