Tuesday, September 22, 2020

TtD supplement #169 : seven questions for katie o’brien

katie o’brien is a poet, community worker, and Netflix enthusiast originally from St. John’s, Ktaqamkuk, on unceded Beothuk land. They currently live and work in Mohkínstsis, on Treaty 7 territory. a peal of thunder, a moment of (The Blasted Tree, 2019) is their third chapbook, and they recently founded blood orange, an experimental poetry tarot. katie dislikes lying, sings a lot, and doesn’t kill bugs. 

o’brien’s poems “longing,” “ad agio,” “superlatively” and “comedia finita est” appear in the twenty-sixth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “longing,” “ad agio,” “superlatively” and “comedia finita est.”

A: these four pieces are part of a series I’ve been working on for the past year or so, taking the musical score for Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor, chopping it up, and reconstructing it. the series is very personal to me – when I was fifteen, my grandmother died, and she and I were very close. I remember listening to this piece the moment she passed away. for a long time after that, I wasn't able to listen to Beethoven at all. working on this series has been a really meaningful journey through that grief.

as a musician and a poet, I'm really intrigued by the importance of punctuation and phrase building. the fascinating thing about building these concrete pieces from a musical score is the way that the sentiment that one might hear when listening to the music can be portrayed visually. as someone who reads music, the compounding, growing forte markings at the end of 'comedia finita est' over the rest in the original score is quite a profound irony, but I think that the visual is impactful even if music isn't a language you're familiar with. I love that concrete poetry can transcend language like that.

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

A: to be honest, I haven’t been writing very much lately. when I have the time and energy, I tinker with work in this series and I try to keep up with the tarot project I started last year, but the current state of the world generally has me in a state of exhaustion that isn’t very conducive to writing these days.

Q: I can understand that, although I do appreciate that you’re still tinkering on the poems in this series. How many pieces exist in this series? Have you any models for this kind of work?

A: I published a chapbook with ten pieces from this series through The Blasted Tree (Kyle is an absolute gem!), and I’ve finished about 15 more pieces since then. my hope and plan is to process the entire score this way, which I think will end up being about 100 pieces. I became interested in layering text this way in high school, when I would write journal entries over top of one another to keep them from being legible – a way of writing out emotions while still keeping them secret, I suppose.

Q: How has the series been progressing, and what have you discovered through the process?

A: when I first started this project I held myself to a really strict form. for the first few pieces, I took a line from the musical score and layered it in its original form, if that makes sense – no cropping, no rotating, no shrinking or enlarging. I learned that allowing myself some more flexibility was much more exciting and allowed me to explore some different themes in the score. it’s also been a really interesting journey through and reflection on my grief, which has been so cathartic.

Q: How do you feel your process of grieving helped shaped these poems? Do you feel them the result of working through that process, or evidence of the process itself?

A: I think that I wouldn’t have been able to create these poems earlier on in my grief process. for a long time, I wasn’t able to listen to Beethoven at all, so working so closely with the score would have been impossible. I do think that there is evidence of growth through these poems, too, though – a loosening of my original rigidity, some blossoming and exploration in ways that I didn’t foresee when I started the project.

Q: With a couple of chapbooks under your belt, as well as this current work-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I think I’m better at editing my own work now than I was when I started – better at looking critically at my work and getting to the point. I have worked with some really fantastic editors who have encouraged me to be more intentional and less cryptic in my poetry, which is something that has really impacted the way I write and create. I also tend to have more of a focus on longer-form projects now, like suites and chapbooks – the flexibility of collections is enticing to me, especially given that my poems are usually short-form.

some directions that I’m interested in pursuing: I've been talking with some friends about creating sonic representations of my concrete Beethoven works, which is an exciting concept that I have never experimented with before. my sibling does visual glitch art, which is so beautiful, and we’re talking about collaborating on a remix of my Blasted Tree chapbook. I’m also itching to get back into text work, and have some ideas about ekphrasis and biographical poetry that I’m starting to put to paper. so many exciting possibilities!

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

A: derek beaulieu really introduced me to what concrete poetry can be, so I love returning to his work, and more recently I’ve been reconnecting with Joshua Whitehead and Vivek Shraya’s anti-racist, decolonial, heart-rending practices. as an editor, I find reading submissions for blood orange to be incredibly energizing, and I also love returning to work by dear friends like Leslie Ahenda, jaye simpson, and Amy LeBlanc. some discoveries that have recently brought me joy include work by Mercedes Eng, Jordan Abel, and Terese Mason Pierre.

Monday, September 7, 2020

TtD supplement #168 : seven questions for Lily Brown

Lily Brown is the author of Rust or Go Missing (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011). Recent poems have appeared in Lana Turner, Oversound, Typo, and Mississippi Review.

Her poems “FROM A DOWNEAST PORCH,” “WHAT ARE MAPS,” “GONE SONNETS,” “WATER’S WILD NEST” and “ESSENTIAL VAGARY” appear in the twenty-sixth issue of Touch the Donkey.


A: When I read your question, I immediately thought of geography—where these poems were written and how those locations inform the poems. “Essential Vagary” was written in Assisi, Italy. My partner and I were doing a summer residency there, and the first half of the residency we were in a beautiful but incredibly loud little apartment. Everything in the apartment was made of stone or marble (at least that’s my memory of the space—I wonder now if this memory is partially imagined), which meant that the sounds of every car that drove by, every group of tourists that walked past, every hammer of the construction workers in the apartment above us were intensely amplified by the materials of the apartment. The idea of writing in this space—despite the fact that it was a lovely apartment—was laughable. My partner somehow managed, but he used white noise, earplugs, closed doors, etc. I wound up finding the public library, where I was usually the only patron, and I wrote there. In any case, this poem is some kind of compendium of the noises, dreams, and water fountains that characterized that time in Assisi.

“What are Maps” was written at the magical UCross Foundation and emerged from the walks I took on the ranch land surrounding UCross—land full of cow gates and gorgeous, dramatic views of storm clouds. Re-reading the poem now I think it’s also somehow about the hard work of writing, of finding the sort of productively hazy consciousness that poems need.

And “From a Downeast Porch” and “Gone Sonnets” were written, as the first title reveals, in Maine. That poem was literally written on a porch in Maine, where I was watching boats and birds on the water below me. “Gone Sonnets” was written in the public library in Camden, Maine (I guess libraries are a theme here). As I remember it, that library has quite a formal, old-fashioned, and silent top floor, while the basement is much more 80s-style and full of people chatting, texting on their phones, and checking out books. I was struck by this contrast, and I think the poem primarily dwells on dichotomies between old and new in terms of technology (phones versus bells, for example), poetry (sonnets being an old form), and something about nature—the old trees in the park bordering the library versus the young people hanging out there.

And “Water's Wild Nest” doesn’t fit any of these location-based musings, except in its content. I can’t remember where I wrote it (it’s the oldest poem in this bunch), but the poem is about a dream in which I was back in my childhood home with my long-divorced parents. The poem explores the trick of how a dream can return you to a reality so far removed from your current one as to feel like another life.

I’ll also say, briefly, that my view of the poems is limited by the fact that I wrote them—I hope readers find other meanings in them.

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

A: In all honesty, I haven’t written a poem in months, maybe even a year, mostly because I had a baby last December and since then I’ve been consumed with caring for a newborn and everything that comes along with that (sleep deprivation being foremost in my mind!). I also didn’t write much when I was pregnant, so all I can really say in answer to your question is that I hope to do more writing soon. My family recently moved cross-country from San Francisco to Portland, Maine, so I can feel the desire to write bubbling up in me as I take in my new environment. Given the situation with the pandemic, there are currently no libraries in which to write, but everything I see and hear and smell on long walks with a stroller is certainly going to provide some material for me soon!

Q: I get that, entirely, given I’ve two small children. The spaces of those first few months, for me, but predominantly my spouse, obviously, were filled with foggy exhaustion, joyous distraction and, for her, near-constant nursing. Are you attempting to note-take at all through this process, or are you simply enjoying the moment and biding your time?

A: Mostly I’m enjoying the moment and biding my time, although I suspect I’m taking mental notes almost without even knowing it. I just found myself writing a hyper-detailed email to a friend about the fat groundhog I saw on my family’s afternoon walk yesterday and how my elderly Boston Terrier neglected to even notice it, and I thought, these reflections might be notes towards a future poem. So I think things are percolating for sure; I’m just not certain of when the poems will start coming, but I suspect it will be when I’ve had more than three hours straight of sleep and can put some coherent thoughts together (or at least poetically coherent thoughts). No one tells you that even when your baby starts sleeping for long stretches, your own sleep can still be extremely fragmented. So I’m trying to catch up on sleep and then—hopefully—the writing will come!

Q: What will be interesting will be to see what shifts might emerge in your work once writing becomes possible again, especially given this new wealth of experience. Given this, it might be too early to know, but after a handful of chapbooks, as well as a full-length collection in print, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: That’s a good question! I have another full-length manuscript written over a period of several years, probably 2012-2018, and I’ve thought about what distinguishes those newer poems from the ones in my first collection. I think many of the differences simply involve getting older and growing into myself in a different way. In my twenties, I tended to more consciously cloak emotional content in metaphoric structures. Some of those poems feel overdone to me now. In more recent poems, I think the voice tends to be more straightforward or forthright, less interested in ambiguity. I’m still deeply interested in how language can be used to create semantic multiplicity through line breaks and syntax, but I’m less interested in what I see in some of my past work as cutesy evasiveness.

My poems continue to be interested in the relationship between humans and nature, and I think now my poems are less concerned with thematic unity and more concerned with tonal unity. I’m thinking in particular of a long poem I wrote that was recently published in the Mississippi Review; that poem ranges from observations about nature and animals to human dreams to a truck barreling down a highway to the 2016 presidential election to a romantic relationship and so on. In recent years, when I’ve felt like I'm writing well, the writing seems to move between subjects and types of content freely but feels (to me, anyway) like it hangs together because of an evenness of tone.

As far as the future, I’m not sure, but I can imagine poems filled with baby drool (kidding, but who knows) and references to fractured sleep, or perhaps poems more characterized by a dream-like tone or rhythm. That’s pure speculation, though!

Q: Have you had any models for the kinds of work you’ve been doing? Were there any particular authors or texts that shifted your thinking on writing as you were working on that first collection, or that second unpublished manuscript, or even what you’ve been attempting since?

A: Up until December of last year, I was working at a very intense teaching job that didn’t leave me a lot of time to read for myself, so in a sense the courses I designed and taught for that job were my source of reading material. During that time, I designed (and re-designed several times) a tenth grade English course that focused on colonial and postcolonial literature, along with texts that look at our current environmental crisis through a colonial and postcolonial lens, thinking through humans’ destruction of the natural world. So for that part of the course, students read The God of Small Things followed by units on environmentally-themed creative nonfiction, eco-poetry, and Costa Rican short stories focused largely on the role of multinational corporations in Costa Rica. The reason for the Costa Rican literature was a grade-level trip to Costa Rica to study issues like turtle conservation, farming practices, etc. In any case, I’m sure that working on and iterating that curriculum influenced my creative work and my poetry-related thinking about the environment.

And I also taught a 20th century American poetry course to high school seniors for which we read modernist and postmodernist poets. Texts we studied deeply included collections by Muriel Rukeyser, Frank O’Hara, Lyn Hejinian, Harryette Mullen, John Berryman, and Jack Spicer, among others, so those are some of the writers who have been in my brain these last five or so years.

Q: Are there moments you’ve seen in your recent work where you recognize some of these authors’ influences? Have the ways in which you see your work shifted due to these deep studies, or might you think such a thing too subtle or too soon to track?

A: I don’t think writers are always the best readers of their own work (at least I don’t think I’m necessarily the best reader of my own work), but I’m sure the environmental literature I’ve been teaching and studying for the past five or six years has seeped into my poems. I've always been—and remain—fascinated by thinking about the intricacies of interactions and relationships between humans and the environment. I felt particularly engaged by Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead and my students, many of whom were very involved with social justice work, *loved* that text and helped me to study and understand it more deeply. That poem led me to think through not only issues related to environmental destruction and how it is linked to exploitation of people, but also about the role of American expansionism in this destruction and exploitation. I see some kind of through-line between these issues and certain poems in my manuscript that allude to American violence—mass shootings, for example—and American apathy. (Recent events and protests in this country seem much less apathetic, which is encouraging.)

Q: Violence and apathy are interconnected, certainly. Desperation often leads to a particular kind of violence, whereas violence can also be a passionate response to direct engagement (the tearing down of Confederate statues, for example). How do you see your engagement with these ideas coming through in your work? How are you attempting to articulate these complicated issues through lyric?

A: I agree with you about violence having the ability to be a passionate response. I was thinking of a different kind of violence, but of course you’re right that it comes in multiple forms. In my recent work, I think these ideas have come through in language that fuses violence—or the instruments of violence—to the most basic elements of our environment that we take the most for granted. I’m thinking specifically of the phrase “semi-automatic sun” in one poem, the “point” (if we allow a poem to have a point) being that instruments of war have become so ingrained in our culture that we can’t even separate them from something as ever-present as the sun. The sun is a loaded image there, as well, given what we’ve done to it with regard to climate change. It’s like we’ve super-powered these natural processes and made them into a kind of violence.

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

A: I return again and again to certain Stevens poems. They always make me want to write. One Stevens poem I’ve spent tons of time with in recent years is “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together.” I’ve taught this poem—and had students write pastiches of it—probably a dozen times to students ranging in age from 10 to 18, and I swear they all get it and find its metaphoric structures compelling and fun to imitate. I also return to (and again, teach) Dickinson; Elizabeth Bishop, Barbara Guest (her poems always remain beautifully strange to me no matter how many times I read them), Michael Palmer, D.A. Powell, Robin Schiff. When I see new poems by Rae Armantrout in journals I’m always blown away. I don’t read a ton of contemporary poetry, but as I’m writing this answer Molly Brodak’s work comes to mind. Her poems are arresting and gorgeous, and I was so sad to hear of her passing earlier this year.