Zane Koss is a non-resident alien currently living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. He was raised on the unceded territories of the Ktunaxa and Secwépemc nations. His critical and creative work can be found in the Chicago Review, the /temz/ Review, CV2, Poetry is Dead, and elsewhere. He has published three chapbooks of poetry, Invermere Grids (above/ground, 2019), job site (Blasted Tree, 2018) and Warehouse Zone (Publication Studio Guelph, 2015), with one further chapbook forthcoming from above/ground press. Zane is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at New York University, where he researches Canadian, Mexican and U.S. poetry in the 1960s and 1970s.
His poems “ghosts,” “telephone,” “for marianne moore” and “no theses on poetics” appear in the twenty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “ghosts,” “telephone,” “for marianne moore” and “no theses on poetics.”
A: I don’t often write short, “stand-alone” poems like these – I tend to work best on longer projects where I can slowly chip away at a task, rather than waiting for poems or lines to flutter into my head, which happens so rarely. So, it's kind of weird to publish a bunch of them.
I wrote “telephone” after a phone call with my mom in 2014 while I was living in Montreal. My mom worked as a HCA (health care assistant) and at the time was on “home support,” driving out to all the far corners of the valley to visit people who need assistance from a health care professional to continue living (or dying) independently. Her mind has a wonderful (and at times frustrating) way of cutting back and forth between topics that is, I think, at the very heart of poetry, as well as a tendency to mispronounce or combine words and an incredible knack for storytelling. Both my parents have that. All very poetic. When I first wanted to be a writer, I only wanted to be as good a storyteller as my parents are, as good a practical joker as them. They both have a talent where you can never tell if they’re being serious or pulling your leg, and I don’t mean like for a minute or two, I mean like I feel like on their deathbeds they’re going to wink and go “Gotcha!” and it'll have all been one long joke. About what, I don’t know.
“for marianne moore” was written in summer 2017 in Brooklyn while I studied for my comprehensive exams for my (still on-going) doctoral degree and gardened on our little patio where we grow morning glories which I find endlessly fascinating. I really like Marianne Moore’s work, but hadn’t read any of her poems in a couple years before that summer. I’m always sort of amazed she wasn’t (or at least isn’t considered) more influential than she is. She’s such a generative writer.
“no theses on poetics” was written in response a talk on poetics I attended that rubbed me the wrong way. I wanted it to be a dialogue poem written with a friend who was also slightly perturbed by that talk, but nothing came of it. I don’t think the friend really understood that I was trying to initiate a dialogue. I’m against making poetry “useful” in ways that can be too easily assimilated into the current capitalist organization of society. Better to be useless than to do research that aids in war-making or surveillance or whatever. I also love the manifesto form while finding it inherently ridiculous and often politically awful, so this poem is both a serious attempt at writing something resembling a manifesto and a send-up of that rhetoric.
And “ghosts,” I have a stupid fear of ghosts that keeps me up at night the first time I’m sleeping in a new place if it has any hint of creepiness. If I stay long enough that fades, obviously, as I get used to the creaks and squeaks of a given structure. This poem floated into my head ghost-like in the night after realizing that Kate and I have lived in our current Brooklyn apartment longer than anywhere since our parents’ homes growing up, and the types of relationships one forms with the physical structures you inhabit. And how our time here in Brooklyn is necessarily limited by my visa. It’s both our home and necessarily not. Is this response too long? I think they’re all longer than the poem they’re meant to explain, and also not really about the poems.
Q: How do these pieces compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: So, as I’d mentioned, the poems published here are different from my typical work because of their short length and lack of a processual apparatus. (i.e. I didn’t think out a method of generating form or content prior to beginning any of these poems; they simply burst out of me, much less systematically.) For example, at the moment I’m working on a manuscript in which I’ve been collecting observations – trying to limit myself to sense impressions and perceptual data only – glimpses, glances, and sounds – no conjectures or conclusions – from my neighbourhood in Brooklyn, particularly sense impressions of the appearance of the surface of New York Harbour. I’ll collect this data for a couple months – much of it fleeting, in passing, minor jottings – and then arrange this data into 4 x 4 grids composed the letter “s” repeated and symmetrically space on a page. And each phrase inserted into the grid has to hang itself off an “s,” so that everything is anchored in space to the grid. It sounds very neurotic now when I describe it. (I use the same form, except with a “v,” in my recent above/ground chapbook, Invermere Grids, btw.) I’ve gotten up to three sets of 32 grids each, so it’s a book-length manuscript now. Of course, the observations sort of get away from pure sensation and into politics and history, because sense comes thru the body which is always political – how our bodies experience (space) depends on what those bodies are or how they’re read by the forms of power that structure life (within that space). Anyhow, rather than having a big neurotic apparatus like this, “ghosts,” “telephone,” “for marianne moore,” and “no theses” just appeared to me on a given day, without intention or forethought. Which is fairly unusual for me.
Q: What is it about the processional apparatus that appeals? What do you think is possible through such processes that might not be possible otherwise?
A: I mean, it’s partially because I am interested in process – in seeing how things are made, in seeing things that in their “finished” state are still in the process of emergence, of inchoate-ness – I always love books of poetry that are structured as “rough drafts,” “notes” or “journals,” like Francis Ponge’s The Table, for example. And also because I like how process-based poetics help to undermine the whole myth of the divinely-inspired poet-genius. I want to undermine that idea because I didn't write poetry for most of my 20s because I never felt I was “inspired” enough. It was only in my Master’s degree encountering the work of poets like Louis Dudek – who has poems that are just collections of random ideas and images all collaged together into a whole – or Charles Olson – whose poetry often enacts the process of its composition, picking thru archival materials, and making passing comments on that matter – that I began thinking again “Oh, maybe I can do this.” (This attitude is also why I’ve always loved punk music. You come away from shows thinking, “I could do that,” but no in the derogatory sense of the “Oh, my child could paint that,” but in a very anti-hierarchical sense – the whole do-it-yourself ethos.) Back to processes, I think the other thing too is that poetry is and has always been about the types of freedom that can be found in constraint – whether those constraints are the fourteen lines of a sonnet or rhyming iambic pentameter or forcing yourself to transcribe everything that happens in a single day. And given that rhyme schemes no longer feel innovative – and thus no longer present that same sense of producing new knowledge or whatever – it’s important to find other ways of exploring the limits of language and thought. Using a process or constraint forces you outside the box of standard modes of writing and thinking, which I see as central to the task of the poet.
Q: I find it curious that you moved from studying Dudek to composing using constraint, a line that doesn’t, at least for me, have obvious connectors between them. Without taking anything away from what you absorbed from Dudek and Olson, what other poets and works have assisted in developing your current approach?
A: You know, you’re totally right. When I wrote that, it seemed like an obvious leap, but it’s not. I think maybe a bit about the compositional process of En Mexico (1958), insofar as Dudek wrote a bunch of fragments that he then later arranged into the poem as it was published, there’s something processual there, but you’re right that he was sort of anti-constraint, in terms of his dedication to “organic form,” at least in his mid-career work – though we might argue that “organic form” is a type of constraint, a sort of anti-constraint constraint. There’s no escape.
But yes, in terms of actual writers who provoked an interest in constraint, I definitely think about Lyn Hejinian’s My Life a lot, or Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present. Or Bernadette Mayer. I even would go back to Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” and his other tape recorder poems, how they walk that line between free composition and a compositional process that acts as a sort of constraint. I think that’s what my current grids project is sort of doing, in a way that joins Hejinian to Mayer to Ginsberg to Dudek: the idea of a process that governs both how you collect the raw material of composition, and how that raw material gets arranged after the fact. And that sort of resembles Dudek’s compositional process in En México, anyway.
But in terms of the grid project, there’s one original source and then a second influence that helped shape the project’s direction. The first is the rapper Madvillain, weirdly, because I don’t really listen to him a lot. I’m not sure the order of how this came together, but I wanted to write odes to rap lyrics that would use something of the constrained form of the sixteen bars of the rap verse to give shape to a poem that is more visually than sonically tuned, to pay attention to the visual quality of language in rap music. So, the sixteen point four-by-four grid is a visual corollary to the sixteen-bar, 4/4-time, rap verse. It was something that came to me while listening to Madvillain – the words were just so spatialized and architectural, it suddenly made sense as a visual grid. Everything I know about using sound in poetry was learned trying to write these odes to rap songs while listening to them, trying to borrow rhythms or sounds or words or textures. I’d always thought of my writing as primarily visual until then. which also was around when I started getting more opportunities to perform excerpts from my second chapbook, job site, at readings, which now feels like a very auditory poem.
The second big influence was Stephen Ratcliffe. I stumbled across his book CLOUD / RIDGE at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, and I’d been wanting to do poems out of pure sense perceptions, and he’d been doing it – beautifully – for like two decades, using these incredibly constrained verse forms in a monospaced font. Initially I’d began writing the grids dedicated to rap verses using Times New Roman, which made it incredibly hard to line the grids up with the words. And Ratcliffe’s sort of authorized me to go for it – to do really phenomenological, sensory, observations and to do it using monospaced font, which I’d already seen in Larry Eigner and Robert Grenier, of course, but something about the way Ratcliffe did it in very constrained stanza forms – which Eigner is much more voluptuous and Grenier usually quite minimalist – and suddenly it all clicked: the sixteen point grids, the monospaced font, the really phenomenological observations, the process of gathering and arranging data, etc.
That’s one very teleological reading of my last seven or eight years of my reading and writing (and listening!). Certainly, there are other projects and ideas on the go in excess of the above or that shoot off from the same materials in different directions, but that’s how I moved from Dudek to the grid project. And I think each of those writers (and musicians) adds something along the way.
Q: With a couple of published chapbooks under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your working heading?
A: I don’t know about “developed.” I don’t feel like my current project is necessarily better than my first chapbook, Warehouse Zone (2015). I think a set of interests and concerns has certainly started to cohere – there’s a coherent universe of ideas that I am inhabiting now. I’ve moved from trying to have a signature stylistic tic toward having signature questions, I guess, although I still have certain stylistic tics, but they’re much less at the center of my self-conception as a writer. Well, now that I think about it, maybe I’ve learned a few things since my first chapbook. Refinements of technique, things I would do differently, more deftly, if I had to write that project again. Probably stick closer to the constraint, and play less for humour. I think I wasn’t confident enough to pursue a completely austere vision at the time. Usually, though, I’m more worried by the feeling that my best work is behind me, rather than the feeling that I’ve grown as a writer. The worry is that I’ll never write anything better than whatever is in the rearview mirror – which is unnerving both for the obvious reason, and because that past work isn’t particularly great either. I feel like I haven’t broken out, and yet I’m already in decline. Maybe I’m still inchoate. Time will tell.
As far as where I’m heading, I’ve got the grids project to finish editing, and another thing in the works where I’m thinking about my background – my whiteness, my rural-ness, my blue-collar parents, etc. – through a critical collaging of lyric statement and quotations from country music – my love/hate relationship with country music – which will maybe also be about punk music too. Something similar to “conference report” in tone and concern (published on / temz / Review this past summer), but more formally adventurous. I think my politics emerged out of listening to a lot of radical punk music as a teen, and later exposure to critical theory in academia only gave philosophical background to what punk had already taught me. Mostly, I just want someday to write a poem as compelling as a really good song.
Q: You mention a potential focus on your background – “my whiteness, my rural-ness, my blue-collar parents”; how might something like that look?
A: To be perfectly honest, I have no idea. Which (I hope) is sort of the point of writing poetry. It’s an effort towards getting myself to think more critically about these things – in life not just in art – and I’m hoping to learn something that I don’t yet know through that process. It’s all still so inchoate at the moment that I don’t want to talk about it too much. Like most of my writing projects, I tend to mull something over for a year or so, and then when I reach some sort of understanding about what the project will be, it gets written in a fairly condensed period of time, usually without much editing afterwards. Let’s say the editing happens before the writing part. And I’m still in that stage right now. The only things written so far are a couple false starts that will probably get dismantled before they’re recycled into the final project, similarly to what happened with the grids.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your work? What writers or writing can’t you help but return to?
A: In the last week or so, I’ve been really energized reading Diane Di Prima’s memoir Recollections of My Life as a Woman. What a fantastic book. I think the best book I read before that was Stephen Collis’s Almost Islands about Phyllis Webb. Those two books both gave me a lot of energy for writing poetry and faith in art more generally. As far as writers I return to, I feel like I don’t return to writers much these days, unless it’s for my dissertation. I wish I had more time to read without it being immediately weaponized for my work. And there’s so much poetry that I’m constantly learning about that I find it hard to linger. If there’s anyone I return to semi-regularly, it would have to be William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein. Or Daphne Marlatt, Lisa Robertson and Lyn Hejinian, depending on what I’m looking for. The last book I read that I immediately thought “Oh, I can’t wait to re-read that” was Marty Cain’s Kids of the Black Hole, but I haven’t gotten back to it yet. I’m also always reading work by my buddy, Mike Chaulk. His writing always gives me that “Damn, I wish I’d written that” feeling. And that always makes me want to write more – in case I somehow manage to write something as good as he has. Aditya Bahl too. His expanding “translation” of a single poem by Muktibodh knocks me flat, and just sets my brain whirring! It’s so good!