Friday, December 11, 2020

TtD supplement #175 : seven questions for Lisa Samuels

Lisa Samuels works with poetry, prose, sound, film, and visual art. Her recent works include Symphony for Human Transport (Shearsman 2017), Foreign Native (Black Radish 2018), The Long White Cloud of Unknowing (Chax 2019), and a film version of her book Tomorrowland (director Wes Tank, 2017). New theory writings are on soft text, distributed centrality, and luminol historiography. Lisa lives in Aotearoa/New Zealand and is a Professor of English & Drama at the University of Auckland.

Her poems “Hope goes both ways,” “Whether” and “Movies for the blind” appear in the twenty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Hope goes both ways,” “Whether” and “Movies for the blind.”

A: I’ll start with description, partly to remind myself – they’re each eleven lines of poetic prose; they have titles that serve a little to magnetize the filaments of the words beneath; they enjoy logical, descriptive, narrative, and metaphorical formulations and propositions; they reference affect and agentives from the social nature of language and other planetary features; they suppose time in-poem and out-of-poem. They’re also on the road, in gardens, in institutions; their sensory mechanisms perceive out and are themselves precepted, in ways that maybe decouple normative ontologies with aims of freedom – in constraint, since the formal eleven lines help parallel energy happen across the poems. It’s like trees or waves: you see differently in a forest with like-minded trees or you hear differently when the waves are steady or when they suck and drag in jerky crashes. So the poems have gentle plexiglass containment fields in being held with matching line and margin shapes: each para-sentence enjoys perhaps the reflexivity of its containment. Different sameness without exactly same difference.

If you mean the context of their composition: I was traveling and writing in patterns involved with perception, interiority and exteriority, identity malleability, as experienced in the transnational contexts of that travel. The resulting poems are most likely organic machines meant to record and prompt the subjective correlatives I always value. Such orientations are not choices, really, so much as results and manifests; yet one wants to enjoy the possibilities of their in-betweens as art.

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: Well, a new work that happened in the first lockdown here is titled Breach and is quite different from the TtD poems – it arrived unexpectedly across a few days of intense writing in relation to pandemic feeling. I had started a formal imitation exercise model for my poetry students and it turned into a book-length poem with very short lines, the kind of line brevity characteristic of the poet Pam Brown, whose style I was setting the students to imitate, though I suppose the Breach lines are closer to Tom Raworth’s in style. I almost never compose in such short lines, and I found the extreme enjambments and lexical parataxis delicious. Happily, Boiler House Press plans to publish Breach in the new year.

My most recent book, The Long White Cloud of Unknowing, is poetic prose: it’s a punctuationally single sentence focused in a scene, a room, with an anchoring figure, a woman. Its meditative urgency and interest in heresy and other patterns of thought and memory are differently directed from the TtD poems, but there are probably some lexical touch points between the two, since the TtD poems were composed in late 2019 when Chax Press published the Cloud book and I was performing it. I also included five pivot photos in the Cloud book – taken in various places – and they do symbolic work in relation to the language.

I’ve been taking photos too for a manuscript titled Livestream, whose conceptual feeling partly responds to the Christchurch shooter using a wearable camera to record his violence and also to identity and authenticity anxiety in online immediacy/social media activities – these situations seem related. Also Livestream is involved with ecological carrying, for example resources streaming human activities (without being asked – and then being imagined as askable, as with the Te Awa Tupua Act here in 2017 granting legal personhood rights to the Whanganui river). The Livestream photos are harbingers, black & white ghosts of observations of stuff like city angles, street wiring, and printing and communications devices such as a lighthouse beacon. They splice between the poems as melt-downs or electrifications. The Livestream poems – since I’m here in your question – are also different from the TtD poems: sometimes they are spectral arrests of violence: symbolic, fictive, actual. Sometimes they’re like sculptural moment evocations, fractal chiaroscuro on bitumen stages.

I’ve recently made other visual art, from glass vials filled with text slices (Foreclosure Series, 2019) to a large piece, Tenter (2019), made with a wide abundant green cloth draped on a big easel and flowing down on the floor. Next to that I set a small pitcher of water on a short stand. The water has a paintbrush in it that viewers can pick up to write on the cloth in water, to make water writing. So it’s collaborative and ephemeral, materially and socially. I’ve had the lovely chance to discuss this work publicly and I plan to make more such art. Even though the poetry I write is always committed to multiple potentialities of interpretation – not because I plan it that way, but because I am that kind of artist – the print poems have to contend with page/screen areas holding words that are not necessarily instantly recognizable as departing from instrumentality. With the visual art writing I’ve just described, the scene of representation is different in terms of expectations and permissions.

I’ll demur from any detail about my theory writing, but I’m writing more about distributed centrality and newly about luminol historiography – and withness, which I played around with years back and am exploring in an essay. I’m also investigating an idea called wild dialectics. This theory writing is different from the TtD poems because it participates in economies of explanation. I always, apparently, prefer to make art, since I’ve never yet managed to concentrate my rare research time on an essay collection to bring it to fruition.

Q: I’m curious about the relationships between your writing, performance and visual art. How do the individual threads interact or interrelate? Do you see them as separate threads, or as elements of a larger, ongoing, singular process? Are there ideas you wish you could engage with in one form, for example, that you end up exploring through another?

A: There are ways of being with language that I want to cross-pollinate, for sure. Many people approach language as though it’s a solar system: at the center there is meaning, the “clear statement” work that language can be made to do directively and indexically, with the deepest centre of the solar-lingual the performative power to incarcerate appoint wed etc. This civically-enforced performative power, this deepest centre of the solar-lingual, is part of what binds some ideas of effectual language use to “clarity” in the notional sun of this solar lingual system. After all, some people might say, language is regularly used to incarcerate appoint wed etc., so there is a zone where that happens. When someone hitches their discourse to this centralized power idea, they are generally trying to make something happen in terms of a stable structure: a professional argument or a genre expression, etc.

As one moves further from this central solar lingual, the ideology is that one moves from clarity to obscurity. At a symposium I attended last year, some of the poets asked aloud why they didn’t just write clearly about their experiences, why they felt the need to be obscurely poetic. I found this discouraging to hear, because it indexes the strength of this solar lingual model. As though expressivity, ethics, or descriptions of planetary realities have one zone where they most effectively happen, with everything else further from the light.

Language happens everywhere it happens with equal distribution of possibilities of message, method, identity, representation, beauty, trauma, communication, and expressivity. It’s just that the modes and performative contexts are different in each case. It’s habit – and the enforcement of habits – that leads people to accept the dominant narrative of the lingual solar. And even then, people regularly perform very separately from that ideology: shouting in surprise, using lingual semaphores for affective communication far from any notional clarity. So everyone knows and performs, at least sometimes, in zones away from solar lingual suppositions.

I’m engaging your last question here, though I hadn’t intended to imagine this solar lingual image when I sat down to respond on this chilly southern spring morning. I want to write in any zone of the lingual and have the language able to be imagined from the point of view of any other place in the lingual. A poem can be an argument or an expression of love, even if it doesn’t seem to be – though not, for me, as a secret code: I have fairly automatic ethical signage limits that spring up in my feeling whenever a composition is making a too-controlled undecideable. I don’t seem to want to make those, though I can perceive and enjoy them when I read, say, some OULIPO texts.

Anyway so you could say I make things “out there” in the lingual distal and perform them always in the proximal, insisting always on radical equality. Proximal materials are always distinct. That doesn’t obviate the chance to articulate a poetics that may well be in evidence. And that in turn doesn’t obviate the unknown in its many permutations, from inspiration to hovering.

It’s great you use the term “threads” since I find myself recurrently drawn to cloth though I’ve not done – anyway. Threads are never without discontinuities to enable their pliancy. But you are using the term threads more symbolically, so I’ll consider that part of your question in terms of an example: if I take a poem to perform, say “The first of the last wings” from Foreign Native, ideally I print it out and place the paper sheets on a music stand or similar support object. This allows my hands to be free to use sonic materials. Often I source local stuff, for example I had a great time in Boston last year – the first time I’d performed in that city, where I was born – because it was raining before my reading and I went in to a bicycle shop to stay dry. I started playing with the bells and then really desiring the sound of one of them. Then I had to figure out how to be able to play it in the reading coming up the next hour. One of the bicycle shop technicians kindly and expertly fixed the bell on to a sawn-off bike handle, so I could ring the bell on a handle that was entirely disconnected from any particular bike.

I took this bell with me and read with it: I was so happy to have a regional sound whose pure high extended tone became a differential echo accompaniment to my voicework. It enabled the sonics to be more multiple and involved with more bodies and timings. So the imbrication of the “threads” there performs multiplicity, differentiation, spontaneity, site-specifics, somatic exponentializing, and cross-species sound in relation to the senses, semantics, expectations, cadences, tones, and body politics of me standing there in a bookstore reading space in front of mostly people I didn’t know. All those multiplicities can in turn encourage a scene of participation in the listeners and viewers. They too can glide on differential aspects of the performance: they don’t have to prefer semantics in the poems. The bell-tone is like a hovering word. The multiple materials multiply uptake and redistribute potentials of feeling and meaning.

I think this response leaves unaddressed only (well, “only”) the matter of non-lingual visual art. Here I’d say that creating material bodies that are free from the pressures of instrumentalized language is definitely a draw. To allow signage its own accords. Yet all the visual art I’ve made includes the lingual too. It’s like taking a magnet to the filaments of the lingual and drawing them in multiple directions. I probably thought of the earlier poem example (“The first of the last wings,” whose title’s from a Paul Celan line) because I always shift its orders around in performance. A poem is an n-dimensional event structure open to different instantiations; a work of visualingual art keeps its signage variants company.

Q: With a handful of published books and chapbooks over the past fifteen or so years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: This is an intense question! It’s funny how its language reflects ideas about the Growth and Journey of the artist. I suppose it is a bit like that, though I might swerve rather than develop, maybe. Anyway so we’re talking from Paradise for Everyone to The Long White Cloud of Unknowing, because from 2005 to 2019 I published fifteen books as well as the CDs I made of Tomorrowland and – other work.

In terms of change, there has been a lessening of individual Poem Visitations and an increase of sustained Desire Projects. This trajectory is familiar though not ubiquitous in writers – larger sweeps start to look more possible, apparently. The first event like that for me was Tomorrowland (Shearsman 2009) and its partner/follow-on Gender City (Shearsman 2011). The draft material for both was composed in a compressed half-year, during my first research sabbatical in 2008. So that’s one change. Mama Mortality Corridos (Holloway 2010), Anti M (Chax 2013), Tender Girl (Dusie 2015), and the Cloud book are all sustained projects, even as each is distinct from the others.

The drive to expand my genres and styles, for example to compose a memoir and a novel, is also a change in that time. With Anti M I wanted to create an experimental memory machine for responsive imaginings, so I carried out omissive work with my memoir of childhood, retaining only some of its words positioned across the pages. And with Tender Girl I wanted to unfold a phenomenological and humanimal novel, a picaresque vision through the body of Girl, the invented daughter of Maldoror and the shark. These genre expansions might go along with my revivified return to more theory writings.

So you could say those fifteen years feature increases in the types of signage I deploy and desire. My commitment to and participation in sound work has increased. And the performance work has intensified over the last decade particularly. As has my understanding that I could make marks that participate in the urges of poetry yet carry and report more-than-lingual signs. That started with the drawings I made for Mama Mortality Corridos, which was the first time I put images together with my writing – as I did also for Anti M and the Cloud book and now for Livestream.  

As to where my work is headed, or bodied, I’ve mentioned two current poetry manuscripts: one strips out full-page activation (I mean things like float clusters, omissive work, accompanying visuals) in favour of an excoriated continuous line attention. That’s Breach. The other includes photographs and builds an interrupted stream of ecological violence and response. The TtD poems are part of something I’ve set aside for now but will come back to. I’ve also recorded the whole of Tender Girl – six hours of audio! – and need to decide how to platform that work. I will probably make occasional sonic interludes rather than the continuous soundscapes I composed for the Tomorrowland CDs. Meanwhile Tender Girl is being translated into Serbian, and I’m working with the translator on that interesting adventure.

I’m also working with performance studies collaboration, and I hope to do more of that. It’s partly a matter of time and contexts – my graduate supervisions are almost all writerly, and I don’t have a movement studio as part of my direct job. So I stay open to other pathways. I was to go to Greenland and Copenhagen in November and December to pursue and develop my interest in darkness thinking, but those trips disappeared because of the pandemic. The vision of seeing without eyes, of perceiving without norm apparatus, darkness visible, of interruptions of the digital and stable talking face and of the idea that illumination is best for observations and ideas, voicing in the dark, are probably extensions of my long-held interest in “imagining what we don’t know” and of my commitments to forces like soft text and other magnetisms on the other side of the apparent. Also of my increased attention to body rights in imaginal spaces. So yes – in the end I find I can answer your question, articulate some legible expansions in my ways of making art!

Q: When moving out into soundscapes and translation, how do these experiences and explorations return to impact upon generating further text-based works?

A: I’m definitely a lingual imaginer, so the words never leave – if anything they are more material in their evidences when I am engaging with modes that are not only writing. I’m surprised when people say that my vocalizations and soundwork help them hear the sound-forwardness of my writing and, by implication, better understand the work. Sound-fixations feel to me so evident when I write and then on the page. In a way everything is sound, as in the synesthetics of the Wallace Stevens line “Music is feeling, then, not sound”; so in my poetry meaning is sound, then, not reference, though of course that’s an exaggeration since these matters are mutually supporting and co-constituting. Sound makes meaning in many directions: it’s rhythm, volume, patterns, pacing, breaks, silences, phrasing, labials, echoes, sibilance – these sound effects happen in printed as well as spoken language. And since I lost my hearing in a near-fatal childhood accident, then got most of it back, and finally got hearing aids as an adult, I know what it means for sound to be something other than the human norm. Maybe in these comments, “sound” stands in for language’s simultaneously abstract embodiment. Maybe it isn’t surprising, then, when sound can remind us how meaning is situational and embodied and transactive.

In terms of translation: it’s hard to write only in English, because Englishes are so variable yet so often interpreted as though from a target-frame, as though Englishes write back to an English. This source-target frame is part of the historical discussion of translation, often described as tricky or impossible, when arguably all language happens in the very in-between of the “across” from situations and tongues to other situations and tongues. The target range approach to translation is allied with the instrumental approach to language, at least when it is treated as though univocal “clear” and “direct” communication is what’s needed, or is lacking if it isn’t there: that’s a homogeneous expectation, whereas global Englishes are heterogeneous. This situation is exacerbated for those who have learned different human languages and whose literate minds are steeped in the multilingual – then, any one language is a facet of the multilingual: of potential and other versions of itself.

So all writing is translation. As others have said for centuries in one way and another. It’s a topic with constancy because, among other things, there are such strong cultural urges to stabilize signs and such strong human urges to have the closest possible connections across signs, between oneself and an other.

To answer your question with respect to my books, you could say that my work in extra-lingual modes has given my writing permission to be more multiple. Not only in forms – the inclusion of images and soundscapes, the making of visualingual art – but also in languages, as in the multilingualism of The Long White Cloud of Unknowing, which wreathes Spanish, French, Latin, and Māori among its Englishes. Even when I am writing only in Englishes, other letter combos, other languages whether established or potential, are trembling in the page. Another somewhat increased register for me is sound response poems: e.g. in Foreign Native the poems “Mercy Proof” and “Summons” were composed as/during listening to sounds.

Overall then my work is freer over time in making shapes for variances. Although there are many approaches to and rationales for making what gets called art, for me there is no point making art that does not feel free.

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

A: I’m in a prolonged state of mind in which author-centered work as such is not what I look for. I am drawn to discourses that jump wires among contexts. When I find language moving in relation to other language - to possibility, energy, gesture, the transplace, the more-than-social-human - I am glad to be alive and creating. Languages are like water from multiple sources moving along and you step into it and write with it and it flows around with your activity blended in and then bends to continuing changed circulations.

The lingual work that moves me to respond expresses, one way and another, freedom, insouciance, egalitarianism, performed ethics, and resistance. It doesn’t worry about who wants to read it or whether it’s publicity-oriented or on trend. It doesn’t worry about whether it’s fresh or original. It just exists in adamancy, intense feeling and mindful contingency, ideational pleasure, and openings out from fixedness toward relation. I never know when I am going to pick up or open up or listen to something that has those properties. It can happen anywhere with anything.

One challenge is to find those materials, since the writing pushed as exemplary usually focuses an idea that some socius, with variant media powers, wants to push at that time. Such information is important in terms of thinking about what a culture is looking at, but I can’t count on its energizing my own imaginaries. So I have to find ways to look elsewhere, and it seems like I am always looking slant to find something that might be speaking in freedom. Of course such work needs to be findable, so fostering plenitude, and making archives accessible, and being grateful for the work that small press publishers do, are all commitments I value. And when the present feels fuzzy, I can always turn back to the beautiful struggles of Charles Peirce.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

TtD supplement #174 : seven questions for Isabel Sobral Campos

Isabel Sobral Campos is the author of Your Person Doesn’t Belong to You (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2018), and the chapbooks Material (No, Dear and Small Anchor Press, 2015), You Will Be Made of Stone (dancing girl press, 2018), and Autobiographical Ecology (above/ground press, 2019). Her poetry has appeared in the Boston Review, Brooklyn Rail, BAX 2018: Best American Experimental Writing and elsewhere. Her new book, How to Make Words of Rubble, appeared in 2020 with Blue Figure Press. She is the co-founder of the Sputnik & Fizzle publishing series.

Excerpts from her work-in-progress “How to Make Words of Rubble” appear in the twenty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “How to Make Words of Rubble.”

The idea of a choral ode is crucial for this book-long poem. In ancient Greek plays, the choral ode functions as a lyric interlude when a collectivity reflects on what is deeply troubling the community. A play’s main philosophical core often resides in these sung moments. The chorus lays out the struggle within the issue at stake. They delineate the complexity of what is happening, which is tragic. They often emphasize that there is no way to exit the conflict unscathed. So, I thought about this idea as I wrote the poem. I experimented with performative elements too, playing with sound, and through diction, evoking a collectivity speaking.

What motivated the poem was also a dream I had. Although it was an emotionally draining dream, I wouldn’t call it exactly a nightmare. In my dream, a hurricane had swept through where I was living with my daughter, but I witnessed it while no longer alive; I was witnessing the world without me in it. When I woke up, I started to write this poem, which is also connected to the grief of losing a child or being separated from them. Grendel’s mother (from Beowulf) emerged as a force that represents this experience, and the idea of a three-fold mother emerged too – the main speaker’s body is occupied by a daughter and Grendel’s mother corpse—a trinity altar.

Finally, the poem is a love letter to my daughter as much as an elegy for our dying world.

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

Lately, I’ve been interested in creating poems on graph paper with a pencil. I’m not sure how to explain this desire just yet, but I know it is connected to the pandemic, and to a new experience of time. The poems are quiet and minimal, only a few lines long. I’ve also been writing poems with dots and other graphic marks using the same method. This is all new to me! I have used graphic marks before and also have work that veers more toward the conceptual. But my focus on this kind of work is more pronounced now. Composing outside of the digital space has become very compelling.

Q: What was your compositional process prior to this?

I rarely write on paper, writing at the computer instead. I also edit on the screen quite a bit before printing and working with paper, which I do when I begin to feel more certainty about a piece. Sometimes I might write down a line or two, especially if I’m deep into a project and usually when I’m walking somewhere or elsewhere caught in the middle of my daily routine. I often think about what digital composition permits, but also what it limits. Sometimes I seek a spatial freedom that I feel Microsoft Word, and other programs do not make easy. I think graphic experimentation for me will be more fulfilling if I use non-digital materials, at least initially.

Q: What has been your process-to-date of shaping manuscript, whether chapbook or full-length? Has any of that shifted since you started publishing full books?

Because I usually work with long poems, I typically write every day when I’m initially crafting a first draft. That usually takes about 2 to 3 months to generate. If anything, publishing full-length collections has accentuated my commitment to long poems. I consider both of my books as a single poem with several movements while my first chapbook was perhaps more fragmented, although that tendency was certainly there already. So, the shift would have to be toward embracing the idea of score as a metaphor for composing and for the connections between the different parts of a poem.

Q: With a small handful of published books and chapbooks under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you feel your work is headed?

I think the conceptual connections within each manuscript have become more complex. This is partly due to the long poem as form, but also the way the poem folds onto itself, comments on what went before it and projects toward what follows. It is the elasticity of the concept, which drives the shape of the poem. The conceptual drive of poetry has become more important to me, or at least, my awareness of it has become greater.

I’m currently working on two projects. In collaboration with my partner, we are translating Salette Tavares’ LEX ICON. I am also working on a new poetry manuscript entitled CADA VER. CADA VER refers to a technique pioneered by Tavares, who broke up phonemes to find other words nesting inside words. CADAVER becomes CADA VER, which can be literally translated from Portuguese as 'each seeing.' This manuscript has been written during our present lockdown. It reflects on the computer as grief tablet, on the sensorial telepathy of children, on sobriety, on the void in Malevich's monochromatic paintings, and on the videos of George Floyd's murder.

Q: I find it interesting you mention elements of the current crises, from George Floyd’s murder to the lockdowns due to the ongoing global pandemic. What responsibilities do you feel toward exploring contemporary issues and ideas such as these? How do you approach this kind of content?

Writing can and should bear witness to the ongoing erosion of our social world, whether that erosion happens through policing and surveillance, unjustified killings, racial oppression, or our failure to address, even minimally, the collapse of the Earth’s ecosystems. Furthermore, through this pandemic we have watched in the US a systemic failure to keep people safe from COVID, but also provided with food and shelter.

Contemporary ideas and issues have always informed what I write; they appear in the writing because they are in my mind and in my world, so I watch them emerge in the poem and I simply allow for them to shape it. With George Floyd, for instance, I kept thinking how I was watching someone die on camera. The line that appeared in reference to this sickening thought and feeling was “Someone filmed this disappearance.” I wrote this line on graph paper and then drew a square with four dots. To me this line and dotted square was a mantra for what was happening then, what happens every day, and therefore what will happen again. So, while the poem offers no comfort, I do hope it bears witness.

Q: I’m curious: have you any models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? What authors or works are in the back of your head as you write?

I’ve been returning again and again to The Madeline Gins Reader that Siglio Press published earlier this year, a new amazing anthology entitled Women in Concrete Poetry 1959-1979 (Primary Information) edited by Alex Balgiu and Mónica de La Torre, but also to Andrei Monastyrski’s Elementary Poetry (2019). Finally, Jessica Baer’s Essay Press chapbook At One End and their forthcoming book Midwestern Infinity Doctrine (Apocalypse Party, 2021), which is so terrific. So, a couple of things: at the moment, I’m drawn to graphic, concrete poetry, but also as with Baer to how the form of their books is driven by a rigorous conceptual development. For Baer, for instance, trauma gets wrapped up in one’s experience of time, and time travel becomes a perpetual state of consciousness.

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

Any book by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, but especially Hello, the Roses, Notley’s The Descent of Alette, Will Alexander’s Exobiology as Goddess, and Ed Roberson’s City Eclogue.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

TtD supplement #173 : seven questions for Prathna Lor

Prathna Lor is a living poet. Their first book, HEROISM/EULOGIES, is forthcoming.

Their three untitled poems appear in the twenty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the three untitled poems included in this issue.

A: I was thinking a lot about force and compression and how to get out of it. I still am. I had been teaching a couple of undergraduate modernist poetry courses, so I was reading a lot about emotion and contractility, sensation without sensitivity. And I suppose I’m trying to figure out how to captivate with affection that does not degrade what emotion can be or do. For some of the modernists, impersonal emotion reigned, which is a farce, a fancy. So I guess I’m thinking about ways to broach a more honest technique.

Q: How do these pieces compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing?

A: Right now, I’m trying to complete a novel. But my formal and sonic commitments remain the same. The challenge thus far has been trying to balance density, sonorousness, and uncertainty over a longer period of time in the work without resorting to a gimmick, pastiche, or arbitrary anchor. Poetry offers a lot of space and opportunity as well as precision; the novel does, too, but at a different scale. These poems are part of a process of experimenting with how far I can get with puncturing and receding.

Q: Is that how you differentiate your short poem-fragments with your work in the novel? Is it simply a matter of scale?

A: Scale is one of the compositional elements I am preoccupied with between works. I am either obsessed or possessed by a certain poetic impulse which I am trying to wring out of myself. Like there is a lyric singularity to which I return again and again. This impulse is inflamed at the level of the line which makes itself known in the stanza or the prosody of the novel; the scalar difference, for me, then, is how to anchor that delineation in varying structural rhythms and forms. What I’ve been thinking about a lot is this essence of return. E. M. Cioran discussed this in terms of the “agony” of the novelist who must return to that already well-trodden terrain of the literary. It is not so much a question of originality but one of excess, pleasure, revisitation, coming, again.

Q: Can one presume that these poems are part of some larger structure, or might be? It might simply be a matter of scale, but how easily have you been able to shift from the individual poem to the larger, full-length manuscript?

A: Yes, definitely. I tried to work that out, in a sense, in a chapbook, 7, 2, in terms of thinking about sustaining lyric over time. The difficulty, again, for me, is thinking about the breath of the poem, the work of voice and reading, over a longer period of time, or via a larger scale, when the poetic tenor I am trying to explore is so punctual, economical, propulsive. Rhythms and intensities would have to change, modulate, etc., but, of course, over the course of one’s life, I feel as though it is a single line, a single rhythm, towards which I am relentlessly returning, and I suppose that part of my anxiety about sustaining over time/distance is the fear of it dulling over each reiterative sensation.

Q: Why is the idea of extending and sustaining a lyric and lyric rhythm important to you, and how did you get here? What do you feel you can accomplish through such a structure that you might not be able to accomplish otherwise?

A: I long to touch the weight of the material. Mary Burger once said something funny about the New Narrativists who were all these poets trying to write things that looked like prose, obsessed with the question of narrative, and I have been continually pressed by this. There is something exacting, a kind of poetic pineal, about this desire for non/narrative to take hold, to grasp, to seize some kind of encounter between language and experience in a form that is at once fleeting and perpetual. And, certainly, there is something beautiful about a kind of magnitude that is achievable, a sense of regality, for me, to bring that voice along. There is something about the unfolding of form, of gathering each puncture, until it blossoms, monumentally. Again, for me, it’s about this idea of scale—of scale as range or difference—with which the mode of capture, of enrapture, along poetic nodals, can stitch the pulse of poetry like a good sequin dress.

Q: Your author biography mentions a forthcoming debut. Are these poems part of that debut? How do these poems fit alongside this book-to-come?

A: These poems were composed during the writing of my second chapbook, 7, 2, that I mentioned earlier. So I think what I was trying to exhaust in that moment was something about poetic piercingall the pieces are short, fragmentary, and loosely bound together by a sense of this piercing. The things I am working on for the future are trying to develop from those lessons, now that I feel that I have somewhat exhausted those impulsesnot because I do not like the impulses but because I would like to try on a different dress. Hence, my preoccupation with something more "universal" in the sense that some novelists have spoken about it, particularly Gail Scott, in terms of trying to touch something immortal in language. What I'm trying to move toward now in a couple of new projects is an approach to the lyric from the otherside, an analyric, where language, I thinkI hopeis so tightly inversed, implosive, and miniature, that its secret blossoms can offer something stunning in all sorts of ways. As in a kind of lyric that is woven becauses language is constantly in a state of undress, duress, a stoppage that considers language not from the narrative view, or even the impossibility of its narrative view, but from its own pristine gutting.

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

A: That would be the essays of Wilson Harris.

Friday, November 6, 2020

TtD supplement #172 : seven questions for Kate Feld

Kate Feld writes short fiction, essays, poetry, and work that sits between forms. Her writing has appeared in journals and anthologies including Hotel, The Stinging Fly and The Letters Page. She is founding editor of creative nonfiction journal The Real Story and teaches journalism at Salford University. A native of Vermont, she lives outside Manchester, UK.  

Her poems “Pockets” and “False spring ode” appear in the twenty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Pockets” and “False spring ode.”

A: 'Pockets' is one of the shortest poems I've written. I waited but there wasn't any more. It's what I was thinking while emptying out my daughters' pockets in the course of doing laundry and finding several fine conkers. Conkers are the shiny brown seeds of the horse chestnut tree and over here in England kids used to collect them and play a game with them that involved drilling holes in them and stringing them and pitting one conker against another one -- the first to crack lost. Sadly, most English kids don't know how to play it anymore. My kids don't, but they retain this vestigial fascination with conkers and collect them and they end up in  odd corners of the house.

'That's where the canker gnaws' is a line from the stage play of Peter Pan, enunciated with great relish by Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook on the Original Broadway Cast record, which my mother played continuously throughout my childhood.

False Spring Ode: Like (probably) lots of other people I was inspired by Sharon Olds to try writing odes to the kinds of things that don't normally get odes written about them. We'd had a doozy of a false spring that year and I was both ruminating on that and also kind of interested in the false spring as a thing that has happened sometimes in some years of my life. I'm talking about things that happened that spring - pubs calling it wrong and putting out their flower baskets too early, warm weather birds returning only to die, mucky-tailed cows and kites and that old saying 'March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.'

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

A: They feel looser and more jazzy, more off-the-cuff and riffy. Lately I've been working in longer prose pieces like lyric essays that have big structures and there is a lot more control. I want to get back to this more playful writing practice, but it's maybe harder for me to get there right now.

Q: You seem to focus much of your work on prose structures, whether the longer lyric essays or these shorter prose poems. What is it about the prose poem that appeals, and what do you feel you can accomplish through the form that might not be possible otherwise?

A: You know, it just feels right to me. I love reading lined poetry, but when I try to do it myself it feels artificial and gimmicky and also kind of limited. I think I'm activated by the mess of a bunch of prose and the possibility of that mess, the interesting slippage and jerks and cross pollinations and associations. It feels capacious, like it can take anything you wanna throw in there, but only according to the internal rigor of the thing you're making which kind of emerges as you go.

Q: How much of that internal rigor is pre-determined? Do poems emerge organically, or do you attempt any particular elements of structure, apart from the obvious consideration to the prose-block?

A: Hmmm. Sometimes I'll try to do it a certain way. Like I'm working on a prose sequence that I can only write on nights with full moons, and I think that will feed into the structure somehow. Mostly, I think, they come out pretty organically. If a certain formal element turns up and seems to fit then I can sometimes kind of make it a feature. But once you know you're working exclusively in prose maybe there are different kinds of parameters to how you go about it and for me they mostly don't have to do very much with how it looks on the page. I think they're more internal, intrinsic.

Q: Do you have any models for this kind of work? How did you first begin to engage with the prose poem?

A: I think I probably first encountered prose poems by Baudelaire, which we translated for my French class at St. John's College in Annapolis MD in the 90s. I didn't try to write any until much much later in my life, maybe about four or five years ago when I entered poetry through the more experimental reaches of short nonfiction.

Since then Rosmarie Waldrop's work has been really important to me, also Francis Ponge, and Mary Ruefle, whose prose poetry I specifically love. The last two both seem to be able to pull glorious prose poems out of the cracks between things in their daily lives. They find the momentousness of the everyday. I think prose poetry works really well for that, because it is not usually announcing its grand message with trumpets and trochees, it is just humming a little song to itself on the bus.... but what can come out of that song is really something.

Q: From what I’ve been able to gather, you’ve yet to publish a chapbook, pamphlet or full-length collection. Is this something you’ve been working on at all? And if so, do you see a difference between composing individual poems against composing individual poems that work to exist in the context of a larger structure?

A: Yes you're right, I have not yet published anything but individual pieces and poems. I've just started sending out a manuscript of short prose pieces that are longer than poems – lyric essays, hybrid prose pieces and stories that aren't either true or made up. I've been working intermittently on a novella-like piece of experimental fiction written in fragments.  But both are unusual and perhaps difficult prospects as the publishing world often likes books that are definitely one thing or another, and I like writing things that aren’t.

I am intrigued by the possibilities of creating pieces that exist as part of a larger structure. That idea appeals to me, but it is not something I have done much of yet. My 4-part prose sequence 'Pause Processional' was published in Train, and this is the longest piece of poetry I think I've written, which isn't very long – it was a very short train. I suspect it is easier if you have a thematic through line that can act as a frame for your work, or a handle. I'm waiting for one to turn up, I guess. But there is something you give up if you go that route that maybe I am not ready to part with in my writing.

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

A: I keep going back to Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay and a couple of her short recent prose pieces published in Brick and Paris Review. The way she has put these together seems endlessly fascinating to me. Another one I pick up a lot is Don Marquis' Archy and Mehitabel. There is a kind of energy in these that can be generative for me. But it is also good to keep a lot of poetry around and just kind of pick things up carelessly.

Monday, October 26, 2020

TtD supplement #171 : seven questions for George Bowering

George Bowering lives in his old Point Grey haunt with Jean and Mickey. In late 2019 Talon Books published Taking Measures, a huge collection of serial poems. The Irish poem is part of a nice unpublished book.

His poem “Mandatory Sod” appears in the twenty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Mandatory Sod.”

A: Usually, when Jean and I go to some distant country to eat and look around, we go to Mexico or Italy. This time we decided to go somewhere that they speak a language that’s hard to follow, so we went to Ireland. Jean wrote her PhD thesis on an Irish writer, but she had never been to Ireland. I had been in Dublin and Dunleary in 1970, my only trip there, and just for a weekend or so. Jean and I stayed in Dublin to look at the usual stuff, then rented a car and drove clockwise around the country. The poem? If you’ve read “Blonds on Bikes,” you know what I am doing. Call it “Eire Blues.”

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

A: Like the Blonds one, it was assigned the job of noticing things during a trip. So it does mention Jack Kerouac as a kind of tip of the Tweed flat cap, and we remember that Kerouac wrote Dave McFadden a letter before either of them died, and we were on the island of poets, though they have had a lot of nice novelists and short story writers and playwrights, no? So Jean drove the Kia along the narrow twisty Wild Atlantic Way, dodging poets and unfortunately whacking a village cat. Most of the poems I have written over the past decade have been thick slabs like Ashbery’s. This Irish one is full of breeze, and it comes into my brain where the associations are, whereas my usual work these years follows thought that comes from experience and research. I often thought of McFadden and his little car in his Ireland book, but I didn’t read the book again, just remembered the chocolate bars.

Q: You’re famous (or infamous) for your play with “baffles,” otherwise known as a pre-determined structure, for longer poetic sequences, so I have to ask: how was the structure of this sequence determined? Was this something rhythmic you followed, or were your structural considerations more complex?

A: What I called baffles a lot of people call constraints. I knew I was going to do a section, or a page. or a stanza, whatever, an entry, that seems right, per day. Section 3 is an easy one––spot something in my immediate environment, let it lead to whatever association inside my head. This gets more interesting as we go along, despite my attempt to hold on, as the poem starts to take over. That is always important, the poem taking over. What I do is keep it from becoming profound. Skip stones on the surface, not drop depth charges.

Q: Given your enormous publishing output over decades, does that make it easier or harder for you to get a poem started? How do you keep from repeating yourself, or is this something you even worry about?

A: I don’t want to sound like a smart alec here, but really, it’s the poem that gets me started, not the other way around. It has always been that way. For example, when I was living in Montreal and writing short lyric poems sometimes, I would hear the rhythm of my feet as I walked to the Metro to go home, and then some words would fall into the footfalls, and then I would say them out loud, maybe, as I held onto the strap, and when I got home I would drop my stuff and go way back of the apartment, to my writing room, and write it down, the poem. Next day or five days later I might throw it away or change a few words, and type it and three-hole punch it and add it to my binder. I don’t know about repeating myself. I repeat other poets in peculiar ways. Is that different?

Q: Given the length and breadth of your published work-to-date, how do you see the trajectory of your writing, from those apartment beginnings to everything you’ve accomplished since? Where do you see your work heading?

A: I can say that at the beginning I wanted to write poetry, fiction, funny stuff, nonfiction. Actually, when I was a schoolboy my ambition was to be a sportswriter, journalist who sometimes did books, I guess. So you can see that I have published several books about baseball and one about hockey. I played some basketball, but never did a book about it. In other words, when it comes to the main news, I am still aiming toward writing whatever presents itself. Now, the things I have read have made some alterations in my interest and therefore my writing. When I was 21 years old, my favourite fictions were realistic, Steinbeck, James T. Farrell, Budd Schulberg. Then I read a realist named John Dos Passos, and was drawn closer to text because he used newspaper headlines on his pages. You see? That’s both to show authenticity and writerly activity. So it wasn’t long till I was reading Gertrude Stein and the French antinovelists, and then diving backward to read Tristram Shandy. It’s saying to the reader, “It’s you and me, not them and them others.” So with poetry. I never did care for mopes like Frost and his gang, but I liked poems that were clear. Well, I still operate on a sheet of clarity, but like to remember that those are words, and they constitute a surface, and that’s a nice place to be. As to the future? Or where is my work heading? Toward me, toward my pen.

Q: I’ve always been curious about your ongoing engagement with the long/serial poem. What do you feel you are able to do through longer works that might not be possible otherwise?

A: I feel as if I can’t really, properly, answer this question. It is true that my favourite poets are great long poem writers: Shelley, H.D., Williams, Kroetsch. But I also love a lot of short poems. Do you think that short poems as related to long poems are like short stories as related to novels? I don’t know. Look at H.D. She wrote, early in her life, exquisite short imagist poems, like “Oread,” "Sea Rose,” “Helen.” But she wrote longer as she grew older (and wiser?), leaving us the great Helen in Egypt, etc. If you’re going to throw a book into my grave, make it her Trilogy. The first editions of the three poems that make up that trilogy were. printed by the Bowering Press, I am proud to say, the same press that printed the first major attack on the Oxford Group, I am proud to say, too. I don’t know. Going back to an assertion I have made before, I will plead that the poem knows when to stop or when you have longer stuff in mind. But then what about poor old Doc Williams, who was writing at least notes for Paterson 6?

Q: Finally, and perhaps you’ve already answered a version of this, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: I sorta know what you mean, and it is true that I read lots of poems, but rarely do I read them to get me going. I know, I make lots of allusions, and even heists. Sometime in the near (?) future, my book Soft Zipper will appear, and from the title you might know that it is a rewriting of Stein’s Tender Buttons. Actually, it is an attempt to translate that book into Canadian English, trying to make it a little more familiar, even easy to read. It’s not like my rewriting of Rilke, though, nor my rewriting of Homer, Wait! I am not answering your question! Actually, as I approach my long goodbye, I have a different system of reading. I read alternately from my pile of books that will eventually go to my library within the UBC library, and books that won’t do that. A couple of days ago I finished reading a book by Alphonse Daudet, and now I am reading Michael Boughn. I don’t think that either will reenergize my work. But I have two manuscripts open on my desk. One mentions Dom DiMaggio and Jane Austen. The other goes on about tacos and crocodiles.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Touch the Donkey : twenty-seventh issue,

The twenty-seventh issue is now available, with new poems by Kate Feld, Isabel Sobral Campos, Jay MillAr, Lisa Samuels, Prathna Lor, George Bowering and natalie hanna.

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

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

TtD supplement #170 : seven questions for Tessa Bolsover

Tessa Bolsover is a poet based between Queens, NY and Providence, RI. She is a founding editor of auric press.

Three untitled poems appear in the twenty-sixth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the three short poems that appear in this issue.

A: These three poems were written as part of a longer sequence titled Border of a piece of cloth, which began as an experiment in visualizing a poetic moment as a field of intersecting planes—full of hinges, seams, refractions—in which negative space remains materially active. The title was lifted from a definition of the word "hem"—a word that appeared again and again in the poems, but which I always edited out for one reason or another. The word began to ghost the poems, in a sense, and it seemed right to carry that ghosting into the framework for the overall text.    

The third poem, [the hesitate that comes to expect], was written soon after I moved to New York in early 2018, during a time of intense change and redirection. I began thinking of hesitation as a potential opening sustained within/without language, capable of holding space for the complexities of memory and possibility simultaneously.

Q: How do these poems relate to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I mainly work in poem sequences and short essays, and while I consider each one a separate entity, they all feel linked and carry a lot of the same questions at their center.

I recently finished a sequence of poems titled Crane. The project follows my research into the mythology and etymology of Cardea, the Roman goddess of hinges. Taking certain writers like Nathaniel Mackey and Susan Howe as guides, the poems consider the idea of a hinge as a structure that both connects and folds, and how language could be understood as repeating this gesture. Many of the shapes and ideas in Crane could be traced back through Border of a piece of cloth.

Q: What is it about the poem sequence that appeals? What do you feel you are able to achieve through the sequence that might not be possible otherwise?

A: I'm interested in the way webbed images, sounds, and associations intersect and diverge, laying groundwork for durational harmonics, ruptures, counterpoints. The individual poems in a sequence can be like rooms within a larger architecture in which certain tones and ideas are developed through their navigation. Sometimes they're more like antennas in a field, all tuned toward the same thing, attempting to receive a frequency.

Q: Have you any models for this kind of work? How did you get to the point of constructing sequences?

A: I initially began thinking about and working in sequences through photography. I became interested in how constellated images juxtapose and bleed into one another; how they seem to speak among themselves. There's something precarious and fleeting in it. When I began to focus more on writing it felt natural that those interests and ways of thinking would continue.  
A few of the poets I turn to for guidance are Myung Mi Kim, Fred Moten, Lorine Niedecker, Susan Howe, Nathaniel Mackey. My experience of reading their work is tangled all through my own.

Q: With a growing mound of poems produced and published over the past few years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I’m not really sure where my work is headed. In some ways I still feel like I’m just getting to know it. I do know that my writing is always developing alongside my reading and note taking. In Hoa Nguyen’s workshop, Jenny Penberthy gave a talk on Lorine Niedecker’s poems and said something that resonated with me about how the notes from Niedecker’s reading provided her with a field of language from which she composed, and how she allowed the language a kind of agency and latitude to lead beyond direct reference and into new terrain.
I recently started a new sequence of poems centered around ideas of chthonic descent and the use of sound to locate objects in space. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the circulation of capital and tensions between the symbolic vs. material nature of money/coins.

Q: What do your attempts at working “ideas of chthonic descent and the use of sound” look like, entirely? Is this a research that might emerge as subject matter, or something more structural?

A: Both, though in different ways. I’ve been thinking about the gesture of descent in Greek mythology as passage to the afterlife. And then there is the fact of extraction, the socio-political and environmental violences of extractive industries, and the image of wealth as being mined, subterranean. One of many figures in which these fields begin to cross is the Roman-Greek god Pluto, who originated through the conflation of Hades, god of the underworld, and Plutus, god of wealth, because mineral wealth was extracted from within the earth.

Sound is always a guiding force in my work. Lately I’ve been interested in the ways sound is used in spatial navigation and imaging, such as in echolocation or sonar technology. In sonar, acoustic waves are projected outward from a source and form an image based on where the waves make contact with a body/object and reflect back. The located body/object becomes visible based on where it’s touched by sound. This strange synesthesia is also present in language. Sound waves produced by speech make contact with the world and form an image.

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

A: A few poets I’ve mentioned already: Susan Howe, Lorine Niedecker, Myung Mi Kim, Fred Moten. Nathaniel Mackey, whose book of essays Discrepant Engagement opened up so much for me. There’s also Jack Spicer, Lisa Robertson, Kamau Brathwaite, Anne Carson, Hoa Nguyen, Etel Adnan… The expanses of James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison. And, always, my friends and teachers, and Michael Cavuto.

Thank you, rob, for the questions!