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.

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