Tuesday, December 28, 2021

TtD supplement #205 : seven questions for Yoyo Comay

Yoyo Comay is a poet & musician from Toronto, Canada. He is currently working on a trilogy of long poems, the first of which is forthcoming from Vehicule Press in 2022, and is a founding member of the Toronto Experimental Translation Collective (TETC). He is also working on his debut album of original music.

His poems “habit is an atmosphere,” “this is ghost fishing” and “the world provides new metaphors for the body” appear in the thirty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “habit is an atmosphere,” “this is ghost fishing” and “the world provides new metaphors for the body.”

A: These poems are all excerpted from a book-length poem called States of Emergency which will be coming out with Vehicule Press in 2022. This poem marked a new way of writing for me. Instead of sitting down to write a poem, which I had done in the past, but which often resulted in me just describing what I saw out of my window — tree, bird, cloud, bleh— I would write down lines, phrases, scraps of language as they came to me throughout the day. These would collect in a notebook and after a couple weeks I would stitch the fragments together into a chapter of this book. The result felt much truer to life, much closer to the texture of my experience. I stopped searching for “poetic” things to write about, and started collecting from everywhere — something I heard in a youtube video, or read in a biology textbook, a sensation I felt in my own body.

The content and language of these poems is representative of the book as a whole. I write from a pretty unconscious place. A phrase or word will pop into my head, and I’ll follow the language, the sounds of the words, and see how they unfold. It feels quite digestive, excretive, vomitous. I’m very frustrated by language, and I want to bring it as close as I can to the body, to moaning, to screaming, to the gut’s churning. I did have a pretty unsettled stomach when I was writing this poem, so I tried to see what words I could find in that roiling. I find the body and its breakdowns to be a very rich source of intuitive language.

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

A: I was writing a lot of these long poems, using the process I described. And then I took a break from writing for a while. Now I’m trying to figure out how to write short poems again, and I’ve been experimenting with rhyme, which I’ve always loved. I started writing songs long before I wrote poems, so I’ve been thinking about how to integrate the two practices, to make the poems more song-like, and the songs more like my poems. I’ve thought about writing more long poems, but it feels like I’d be repeating myself or like I’d know what I was doing. I don’t like knowing what I’m doing when I write a poem. It’s usually a good sign if I don’t know if a poem’s any good. What connects these new sing-song poems and the ones I’ve sent you is an attention to sound. Sound, the musicality of language, is always my first consideration when I’m writing a poem. Maybe consideration is the wrong word. I follow sound, write the sounds that feel like they want to be written, even if I don’t know what they mean. This gives me a sense of the poem’s rightness. It’s often not very considered at all, or at least not thought out before hand. I have a hard time writing a poem if I know what I want to talk about.

It has to be an act of discovery.

Q: Do you have any models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? What writers or works sit at the back of your head as you write?

A: I don’t really consciously model my work after anyone in particular, although I’m sure the people I read come through in my poems. Yeats is always an influence, especially in some of the more metrical and rhyming stuff that I’ve been working on lately. For the long poems, Octavio Paz’s poem “Sunstone” has been quite influential to me, and is something I return to once in a while. And then the language of the Old Testament comes through as well. Some Shakespeare. Boring, obvious stuff. I guess the through line might be pieces of writing that take on a kind of mythic, incantatory tone. I recently started reading a lot of Walt Whitman. He had no direct influence on the book, but now that I’m reading him I feel a kinship.

But if anyone sits in my head, then they must be in a different room, or at least I have my back turned to them. I prefer to write in private.

Q: How has the process been of putting together a debut collection? Have you been attempting to hone the best of what you’ve done up to this point, or had you a specific project in mind?

A: I had a specific project in mind, although what that project was came together as I was writing. Again, I don’t really like to write towards something, I don’t like to have any idea of what I’m going to say before I say it. So the project was more based on the method of writing than it was on any specific content that I wanted the book to have. The method involved writing down lines throughout the day and then stitching these lines into chapters after a couple weeks. Interesting juxtapositions and patterns emerged in this way, and there was an element of chance and randomness involved. Things were said that I didn’t intend to say. Its a kind of semiautomatic writing I guess, where the unconscious reveals itself very slowly. I found myself repeating things, leaning on the same images and metaphors again and again, which was very interesting.

Q: How have you seen your work shift, if at all, through the process of putting together your debut? Are you yet at the point where you can see something else your writing might attempt beyond this collection, over that horizon?

A: My process shifted a lot when writing this book. I was writing more formalist poems before, and the book is a turn away from that, an attempt to bring more of my life, and more of ugly parts, into my poetry.

I think I need to try something else now that I’ve experimented extensively with this long-poem form. I think I’d know too much what I’m doing. I want to feel like uneasy when I’m writing, unsure whether what I’m doing is any good at all. Doing the same thing feels a bit safe. I need to be on the verge of embarrassment. There’s a lot I want to attempt. Narrative. Returning to formalistic writing. Experimenting with handwriting, drawing. Different surfaces.

Q: Tell me about your experiments with the long-poem form. What brought you to the form, and what did you feel you needed to accomplish through the process that the short lyric, for example, wouldn’t have been able to provide?

A: I was brought to the form by accident. I started collected lines for poems throughout the day, with the idea that I would then use these lines as seeds to write complete, short lyric poems. Then as a typed these disparate, discontinuous lines together I liked how they read as a single poem. So then I just kept composing like this, writing down scraps on the fly and it turned into a book. The one thing I knew, though, was how the poem would end.

I think the long poem, as I’m writing it, gives a better picture of the flow of life, going under then suddenly coming up for air, blinking the world into fragments. It felt closer to the way I was experiencing things. That being said, this long poem isn’t narrative or epic really. I’ve thought of it like this: a poetry collection is usually like a series of ponds. But this one is more like a river. That doesn’t mean you have to get in at the beginning and ride it to the end. You can jump in wherever and take a dip, feel the rush of the water going by. I think you could read it like a normal collection of poems. Or its like a social media newsfeed. Come have a snack, or glut yourself insensate. Your choice. Here I’ve given you some extracts from States of Emergency, and I think they work as stand alone poems as well.

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

A: I return to Paul Celan all the time, but I can’t read too much of him or else I’ll start to copy him. The gravity of that style can be too strong sometimes. I like to reread Octavio Paz’s long poem “Sunstone” once in a while, and I’m often surprised by how much of it has seeped into my poetry over the years. At the moment I’m thinking quite a bit about Emily Dickinson, Stevie Smith, WB Yeats. Poets who use rhyme and seemingly light-verse forms but have a dark and powerful undercurrent running through them. I’d like to write poems that get stuck in your head. I love the way that song lyrics can suddenly pop up in your mind and have almost epiphanic significance in the context of a new experience. I think rhyme and meter can give the reader a way to live with a poem over time, to keep it with them. And then what may at first appear opaque can slowly unfold, over the course of many years, or even a lifetime.

“Reenergize” is an interesting word to use. I sometimes feel more energized not by poetry but by pieces of writing that have totally different vocabularies than the ones I’m used to. I was taking an evolutionary biology course while I wrote my first book States of Emergency, and a lot of the unusual language that I found in the textbook for the course made its way into the poem. That experience was exciting to me, and I plan on mining other disciplines for new phrases and words in the future.

Monday, December 13, 2021

TtD supplement #204 : seven questions for Brandon Brown

Brandon Brown’s most recent books are Work (Atelos) and The Four Seasons (Wonder). He is an editor at Krupskaya Books and edits the zine Panda’s Friend. He lives in the Bay Area of California on unceded Ohlone land.

His poems “HOW I’M FEELING NOW,” “MY MENTAL HEALTH DAY” and “A SONG OF RAIMBAUT D’AURENGA” appear in the thirty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.


A: These poems feel in so many ways quite distinct, both in how they move and what they try to do, and the occasions for their coming to be. “How I’m Feeling Now” was written in response to a call by the pop composer and singer Charli XCX on the occasion of her 2020 album, How I’m Feeling Now. She was soliciting fan responses to the record, and I decided to take the challenge. Incidentally, it seems as if I didn’t make the cut, as I haven’t heard from Charli or her squad. “My Mental Health Day” was a poem that wrote itself in about five minutes late one night, and by contrast “A Song of Raimbaut D’Aurenga” was part of a translation I worked on at a very slow pace for most of 2020 and early 2021. Raimbaut left us 39 poems, and I translated his poems a stanza or two a day. D’Aurenga died in a pandemic in 1173, one of the first medical events called influenza.

For all of these distinctions, and to risk stating something very obvious, they all feel like poems of 2020 and Covid-19. From the delicious sweat of a packed club, to the sudden appearance of boss-endorsed “mental health days” at work, to the daily translation project enabled by spending a lot more time at home with my Occitan reference materials, I think of these poems as residue from that year and time, which of course doesn't feel concluded or over in any way.

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

A: For the past several years most of my work has been in prose, and when the pandemic began, I had just finished writing a novel called The Tragicall History. But from the very beginning of Covid, I’ve struggled enormously to write in sentences. I don’t have a theory for why that has been the case, but to the great relief of my sanity I have been able to write poems and do translations. I’ve always been a writer with routines, and I’ve settled into new ones. As I said, Raimbaut D’Aurenga’s poems gave me a little bit of work to do every day, and I honestly feel grateful I had spent the year before the pandemic studying enough Occitan to be able to sort of read his writing. As for the poems, I’ve been obsessed with Joanne Kyger’s poetry in the past year, and I’ve tried to introduce elements of her approach into my own routines as a writer, savoring the time I make to work on writing and revising poems. But it’s still a quite different, for me, way of writing, to write poems without a project or overarching sense of the structure of the book in advance.

Q: What is it about Kyger’s work, specifically, that appeals? What of her approach or structures are you attempting to engage with in your own work, and how has that engagement been revealing itself?

A: Thanks for the opportunity to say more about Joanne!

First of all I want to recognize that I’m late to her work, for no good reason. I moved to the Bay Area in 1998, and Joanne was around, so close up in Bolinas, and I had a few chances to be in the same room with her and experience her magnificent big Scorpio energy. And plenty of people around me were advocates for her work, none perhaps more than my friend Cedar Sigo, who has been an amazing steward of her work, person and legacy. I just couldn’t find my way into her poetry, until I did.

I think what’s been most profound in reading her over the last couple of years is the quality and range of permission in her writing. Kyger’s poems are so often about what’s happening right now, whatever that is. Steam coming off a teacup, a negligible looking plant in the garden, a memory of something sweet or sour, a reflection on the essence of the fucking universe. She accommodates so much in her poems: her emotional and spiritual intelligence, her vast study, her friends and community in Bolinas, wit and savagery, grouchiness and pleasure.

I’m also deeply interested in her way of publishing, especially the many iterations of “Selected Poems.” These volumes are all distinct, aspire to select poems from differing periods of her writing career, and always include new work, but they often stretch back to her earliest writing. The number of these volumes relieve so much of the precious pressure on the tired, heroic “Selected Poems” form and feel so natural to how she approached individual poems, a steady alchemical blend of history and immediacy.

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

A: There’s a song I really love by the country musician Jake Owen called “Down To The Honkytonk.” The basic conceit of the tune is, I may not be rich, famous, well-respected, sophisticated, or important....but one thing is for certain: I’ll go down to the honkytonk. “I may not go down in history...but I’ll go down to the honkytonk.” I think one of the things that draws me to the song is this sense I have that poetry is an exercise in permission, play, study, collaboration with the living and the dead, and all of those things are also what you find when you go down to the honkytonk. It can also be risky (the nightlife ain’t no good life) and I hope that I continue to experience a little whiff of something like danger when I’m writing. Or at least uncertainty.

Q: What do you see as the value to uncertainty? How does uncertainty present itself in your ongoing work?

A: I think what I mean is I feel on guard against settling into one way of writing, especially a way of writing I learn how to do well, that becomes familiar and easy to do. I don’t want to write the same poem five hundred times, even if it’s technically a “good poem.” I’m most satisfied when I write something that initially makes me feel queasy about sharing it with someone else.

Q: I’m curious about your work as an editor at Krupskaya. Has being an editor shifted the ways in which you approach your own writing?

A: Well, I should say first that long before I was an editor at Krupskaya, the press was legendary to me. As a really young poet in San Francisco at the end of the last century, Krupskaya offered me a universe. When Jocelyn (Saidenberg) and Kevin (Killian) published my second book, The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, I was constantly pinching myself to make sure it wasn't a dream. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I really had “grown up” reading those books and intuited that the press and authors offered me a new and powerful direction for life.

I don’t know how to trace how my editorial work with the press has caused shifts in my own writing, but I guess I can offer a couple of thoughts. Especially when we had open reading periods, working with the press gave me the chance to read so many writers who were new to me, several of whom have become real friends since encountering their work. And then I’ve been given the chance to become obsessed with the titles we’ve published, living with them for weeks and months and years, absorbing them into my RNA or whatever it is. That’s certainly had an impact on my internal cadence and attention, and I’m really grateful for that.

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

A: Ah of course there are too many to list. When I return time and time again to something it’s often to try and study something very particular to the artistry of the work, usually because I’m trying to figure out how to do something in my own. I return to books to borrow their mood, to put myself in a mood. And in general I try to be as catlike as possible in my life as a reader: I know there’s food somewhere on this floor and I will fucking find it if it takes all night. And sometimes of course the thing I can’t help returning to is something I haven’t even read yet. But in the spirit of wanting to answer your generous question, if I’m stuck, and I am often stuck, but if I am really stuck, I think of Bernadette Mayer as a source of immense permission, study, prompt, and play, and her work has been a buoy for me countless times.

Monday, November 29, 2021

TtD supplement #203 : seven questions for Valerie Witte

Valerie Witte is the author of a game of correspondence (Black Radish) and The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow (Operating System), co-written with Sarah Rosenthal. Her latest chapbook, Listening Through the Body: An Exercise in Sustained Coordination, recently appeared from above/ground press. Her writing has also appeared in literary journals such as VOLT, Diagram, Dusie, Alice Blue, and Interim. More at valeriewitte.com

Her poems “\\ten weeks after\\,” “\\four months later\\,” “\\seven months after, ongoing\\” and “\\ten months later\\” appear in the thirty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “\\ten weeks after\\,” “\\four months later\\,” “\\seven months after, ongoing\\” and “\\ten months later\\.”

A: This sequence of poems is from a manuscript called “hold short bravo,” which was inspired, in part, by the disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370 in March 2014. I became fascinated by this impossible mystery and somewhat obsessively read every news piece I could find about it. How could a plane with 227 passengers and 12 crew members simply vanish—in a time of seemingly constant surveillance? There were countless theories about what had happened. Was the plane hijacked? Shot down? Did someone reprogram the autopilot route? (Not to mention: Was the plane consumed by a black hole? Struck by a meteor? Abducted by aliens?) And of course, relatedly, WHERE WAS THE PLANE?

Over time more information has come to light (periodically, what appear to be pieces of the plane have surfaced in the Indian Ocean). But many of the mysteries underlying the flight’s disappearance endure. The manuscript addresses these mysteries, with the understanding that we are unlikely ever to get the answers. Composed of fragments suggestive of a crash, each carrying the same burden of meaning/meaninglessness, the manuscript is broken up by time stamps (moving the reader forward and backward in time) to create a sense of being lost in time—and space—reflecting the very real possibility of never knowing what happened or why.

Amid the backdrop of this singular event are interspersed more fragments—of personal memories and dreams, which mirror the sense of dislocation and uncertainty of this particular event—as well as life in general. The pages included here touch on issues of relationships, parenthood, the environment, and spirituality.

Specifically, the lines following “\\ten weeks after\\” relate to the challenges and doubts inherent in a relationship, fear of aloneness and potential rejection. They probe into these fears and ask how to live in acceptance of them and how to keep going.

In addition to exploring the mystery of the disappeared plane, the section that follows “\\four months later\\” examines another mystery (to me)—the natural human desire and choice to bear children—a desire that has always been foreign to me. In particular, amid the undeniable climate crisis facing humanity and our planet, I find it fascinating that so many people choose to have children given what their descendants will face, yet I also envy their desire and willingness to do so. And in these pages, I actively question my decision to avoid “crossing over” to motherhood, fearing I have made a huge mistake—though it is admittedly selfish reasons that lead me to this quandary: who will take care of me if/when I grow old, will my legacy be lost? And in pondering this choice, I think of one friend’s approach, to teach her child sustainability by living on a farm. This seems wise—but as it turns out, this plan did not come to pass.

In the text that follows “\\seven months after, ongoing\\” and “\\ten months later\\,” the idea of “crossing over” or “crossing a line” continues, as I discuss the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in WWII, after the death of the last of the pilots who did so. These pieces explore the plane’s disappearance along with questions of mortality—and ways to cope through faith and escapism (eg., the idea of finishing—either writing or reading—something like Game of Thrones seems impossibly daunting to me).

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

A: Over the last few years, I’ve primarily been working on a collection of essays called One Thing Follows Another: Engaging the Art of Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer, a collaboration with Sarah Rosenthal. In this project, we explore the work of dancer-choreographers Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti—both at various inflection points throughout their careers and in this particular moment. Through a combination of chance operations and intentional artistic choices that push us to unexpected places, and via innovative forms and techniques—including collage, erasure, and our own inventions—we deconstruct the essay form to examine what we as poets, each with our own highly charged relationships to dance, can contribute to the conversation about these pivotal figures in postmodern art. One of the essays in this collection, “Listening Through the Body,” has just been released as a chapbook from above/ground press.

Otherwise, I’ve been working periodically on a project that explores the idea of coping with trauma through escapism. Although not closely related to the content of the “hold short bravo” text, this work also plays with time and space, which perhaps makes that a recurring theme in my work! I am using H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine as a source text (what better mode of escape than time and space) and building a collection of 60 or so prose-ish blocks; each begins with a line from the book that leads into the subsequent lines. The book touches on myriad topics including callout culture, dealing with the loss of someone gone too soon, erasure (in writing and in life), the nature of monstrosity, the tragedy of both natural and human-caused disaster, finding comfort in the idea of outer space, and questions of authorship, specifically, the ethics of repurposing someone’s words to use against them under the guise of art.

Q: Do you approach your solo work differently than the ways in which you might approach collaboration? What has collaboration allowed that might not have been possible otherwise, and how has the experience affected, if at all, your solo writing?

A: For solo projects, I often select a source text or texts and adapt language, combined with my own, creating a series of pieces eventually building to a cohesive whole. I am always collage-ing, fracturing, manipulating words—folding in notes I have written over the course of several months, or years—and looking for overarching themes around which to construct a manuscript. I play with language a lot, and nearly all of my poetic work employs some kind of innovative or unusual form. The work tends to be somewhat autobiographical but expressed in an elliptical way, and often involves fantastical or sci-fi elements.

While I enjoy the inherent freedom of working on my own projects, I deeply value collaboration as well. My approach with each collaborative project differs depending on the participants, the particular contours and dynamics of the project, the medium of the project, and so forth. No matter the specifics, there’s just no replacement for engaging with the ideas of another individual, which inevitably prevents us from falling back on old habits or themes that recur in our work. Through collaboration, we are inevitably forced to avoid the familiar and embrace what is completely new to us, i.e., someone else’s experience and ideas. In general, I find that an effective collaboration involves the following:

Being forced out of my comfort zone: Most recently, as noted above, I have been working with Sarah Rosenthal on a multiyear project related to the work of Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer. With this project, I’ve taken on a subject I never would have addressed on my own. My (minimal) experience with dance has tended to be fairly negative, often resulting in feelings of despair, insecurity, or humiliation. But Sarah’s idea for us to focus on postmodern dance intrigued me—I appreciated the tension inherent in addressing a topic that would conjure unpleasant memories for me, along with the possibilities in exploring aspects of myself that would otherwise remain untapped. By tackling this atypical (for me) subject matter, I’ve come to learn so much about dance, postmodern art, the letter and essay forms, and myself.

The element of surprise:
Part 1 of our project was the book The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow (Operating System). For this book, we co-wrote a series of sonnets, emailing each other alternating lines until we had 14 for each poem. Of course, we never knew what the other person would send back, and sometimes the delivered line left us perplexed or uncertain of how to proceed. Yet at the end of the process, we found that we often could not remember whose lines were whose, so in-tune we had become with each other’s language, rhythm, and style. While I always strive to create surprising, unpredictable moments in my work, collaboration forces this like nothing else. It’s also a fascinating way to discover how another person’s mind—with its own associations, memories, and perspectives—works.

Support + accountability: Writing is generally a solitary activity, and you can often feel as if you are writing into an abyss, that your work isn’t good, or that it will never see the light of day. Having someone to offer feedback and encouragement; discuss ideas with; and be a partner in all aspects including editing, publishing, and marketing is incredibly beneficial. Additionally, having scheduled meetings, shared goals, and joint events to plan for is motivating; it’s much easier to ignore my own vague deadline than it is to blow off an appointment or deadline that affects another person.

So far I have tended to compartmentalize these two ways of working (solo and collaborative)—I strive for a balance of different types of projects, and I find that each mode fuels the other. I am always learning from my collaborators different ways of thinking and making—and from them I have developed a greater appreciation of the importance of feedback and trying to see things from a different perspective. While I have collaborated with a visual artist as well as other writers, I hope to do more cross-disciplinary collaborations down the road—with sound artists, visual artists, filmmakers, etc.—that would open up more opportunities for creating and delivering unique experiences for an audience.

Q: Have you any models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? What possible works or writers have you in the back of your head as you write?

A: Lyn Hejinian’s My Life has been very influential for a long time. The book feels immediately innovative yet also thoroughly logical due to its structure—a section dedicated to each year of her life, each with that many sentences (the number has changed over time; in a revised edition, more sections and lines have been added, in accordance with Hejinian’s age at the time of her writing). I am always thinking about structure from the time I begin any new project and striving to devise a meaningful and fitting form for each one—and this book’s structure is one that I can’t help but admire. Beyond this, I find the elliptical, stream-of-consciousness-style unfurling of autobiographical details and insights appealing; this too is something I emulate in my work. I especially appreciate how one phrase or thought leads to the next but often in a tangential-seeming or non-obvious way.

Fairly recently, I discovered Maggie Nelson, in particular, her poetic memoir Bluets. I was immediately struck by the deceptively simple concept—compiling and reflecting on a series of items, notes, memories—all associated with the color blue. Again, I love the form of these numbered prose blocks, each containing its own discrete narrative—an interweaving of personal experiences and philosophical observations that ultimately tell a story in a way that seems accessible yet is also truly singular. This too is a book that calls attention to the process of writing, a strategy I sometimes employ in my own work. Further, the content in her work often strikes me as wild, audacious—it makes me wonder: Are you allowed to say that? What might her loved ones think upon reading this??? She pushes the envelope and compels me to do so also, in my own way.

Though not an autobiography—scratch that, in a way it is!—one of the books I return to again and again is Laura Walker’s beautiful poetry collection Rimertown: An Atlas. I love both the construction and the language in this book so much. It operates on several frequencies at once, composed of a series of numbered (not in order!) maps, stories, prose poems, and a loose fragmentary narrative, whose lines trace the bottom of the page. I can’t help but imagine Walker creating these various components, spilling them out and mixing them up, deciding where and how they fit together best. (I have no idea if she wrote it this way—this is purely my own imagining of her process.) Emerging as a rich tapestry as it unfolds, the collection is an elegant and quietly observant work that movingly depicts the experience of a culture and place. I return to it again and again as a source of comfort, inspiration, and intrigue.

Q: With two full-length collections and a couple of chapbooks, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: As mentioned, I generally begin most of my projects with source texts that I carve away at or erase or extract language from, and fold in bits of my own language, until something new—hopefully unexpected—emerges. It’s a lot of playing with phrases or snippets of text, and shaping them into different forms, which I use to build a cohesive whole.

Despite this fragmentary approach, I am deeply interested in narrative—or things that resemble narrative—but I often feel that I struggle with the sentence. This issue has definitely been put to the test throughout my recent collaboration. In The Grass Is Greener..., we began by co-writing sonnets. To help ground the work, we ultimately decided to fold in letters to each other that examine the process of writing the letters and discuss topics as wide-ranging as the environment, poetics, feminism, and music.

Initially, my letters were both tentative and, yes, fragmented, as I was uncomfortable writing in such a vulnerable and straightforward way, something I rarely do for public consumption. But recognizing that this was not what was needed for the project, I tried switching things up and writing in a more standard letter form. As we continued with our correspondence, my letters became more substantial, informed by research and critique. My confidence grew and by the end of the project, I felt as though it was at least possible for me to write compelling sentences.

Similarly, with the essay collection, I at first struggled with the form, which again seemed to require writing in coherent sentences; I felt my essays were falling flat. After each writing three of our five essays, Sarah delivered a fourth essay that was bold and surprising in format and language. I was blown away. It was (at least somewhat) composed of sentences but structured in an unusual way that served the piece perfectly and was truly exciting. It showed me that I was missing an opportunity and gave me permission to bring my poetics into the essay form. My next two essays were the easiest to write because I allowed myself to play with structure and syntax in ways that served the topics while also conveying what I wanted to express about them. I ended up rewriting my first three essays—each now has an experimental form, which suits the subject matter and offers an enhanced reading experience, in my view. In the process, I discovered there was a more effective form and approach to telling these stories. Yes, there were still a lot of sentences in these hybridized essays—but combining those with my experimental tendencies, I was able to push the essay form into interesting places without sacrificing meaning, clarity, or depth.

Going forward I’d like to channel this experience and keep practicing these techniques—retaining my experimental poet mindset and vision while continuing to push the sentence form, or narrative writing in general.

Q: How did you get to a point where you are constructing narrative via fragmentary collage? What is it about this approach that appeals? What do you feel such structures allow that might not be possible otherwise?

A: Like many (most humans?), I am naturally drawn to story. From the time I learned how to write, I was writing stories—and this continued to be my focus for several years. But after college, I came to recognize that fiction writing was not my strength and no longer my core interest, and I started to read more poetry—and writing it, almost exclusively. In terms of written text, I’ve become more compelled by the real/things that actually happen, particularly when expressed in innovative or unusual ways, as through experimental poetry or hybrid forms.

Despite my shift away from fiction, I still feel the very human pull of story and narrative. So my writing—which I generally characterize as poetry—typically contains a thread of story woven through it. Sometimes I begin with a work of fiction, such as a novel (Gothic and sci-fi, to date) or a sci-fi film, as a source text, and try to inhabit those worlds, to draw out the emotion those sources evoke in the reader/viewer, while bringing to the work my own personal experiences and imaginings. By mixing my real experiences, thoughts, dreams, etc. with fictional elements, I aim to elicit a sense of mystery and intrigue, to heighten the experience of reading, perhaps prompt the reader to wonder things like: What is happening here? What is this work—through its structure, language, syntax, and so on—doing? And I utilize different forms to help achieve this. For example, in a game of correspondence, I crafted “emails”—built through a collage of memories and ruminations, language from a novel, and tropes of the Gothic fiction genre—as a nod to formal epistolary works of the past; and in hold short bravo, I combined fragments of my own dreams and observations, with language from a flight’s audio transcript and subsequent articles and news reports, creating a fractured portrait of what happened in that particular incident while presenting it as a lens through which to view the modern human experience.

My projects almost always have an autobiographical component, which while nonfictional, still connects to story, as we all have stories that we tell about ourselves, in our own minds and to others. I no longer invent fully developed characters or devise plots for people to enact. The people and action in my work are either some version of myself or people in my life and my own experiences or more gestural, offering a suggestion or notion of figures and events, often designed to evoke a certain mood or emotion. As many postmodern artists have noted, techniques like collage, erasure, and the like can be a way to avoid being overly sentimental and placing oneself in the center of a work, and this approach has become intrinsic to the way I work.

Additionally, such techniques are a way to eschew predictability, force us out of our habits, and ensure a level of surprise in language that is difficult to achieve in more straightforward prose. For me, it’s a more exciting way to write than telling a story in a linear way. I admire writers who can write traditional fiction and keep things interesting. But I’ve learned over the years that is not my project. I prefer my work to ask more questions than provide answers—and that is something that fragmented storytelling helps me do.

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

A: In Forces of Imagination, Barbara Guest opened my eyes to the possibilities of art criticism, illustrating how literary and art theory could be accessible, exciting, and beautiful. As the Editor’s Note states, the book comprises parts of talks, essays, poems, and short pieces with recurring observations, phrases, and ideas; it should come as no surprise that such a compilation has been of significant influence and continues to inform my poetics. In this groundbreaking work, I discovered how a discussion of art can itself be art.

When I first picked up Lisa Jarnot’s Some Other Kind of Mission, I was immediately drawn to the visual nature of the book. Not only does she use space on the page in compelling ways throughout the text, but she also incorporates various experimental visual elements—erasure and collage to create surprising juxtapositions and omissions—creating a tableau of sorts, which intrigued me from the beginning and has never lessened its grip.

Lisa Robertson’s book The Men, while small in size, is such a substantial, powerful work. I appreciate the inherent feminism in the deceptively simple little book, its provocative yet playful examination of our culture’s attitudes about gender. Hers is the kind of writing I emulate—deeply moving yet humorous, intellectual, and emotionally true.

And, as mentioned earlier, I’ve long admired Laura Walker’s Rimertown: An Atlas, which I return to again and again as a source of inspiration.

Monday, November 22, 2021

TtD supplement #202 : seven questions for Melissa Eleftherion

Melissa Eleftherion is a cis queer human, a writer, a librarian, and a visual artist. She is the author of field guide to autobiography (The Operating System, 2018), & ten chapbooks, including trauma suture (above/ground press, 2020), & abalone (poems-for-all, 2021). Her poems & prose have been widely published in various journals including the Berkeley Poetry Review, Entropy, & La Vague. Born & raised in Brooklyn, Melissa created, developed, and co-curates The SF State Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange with Elise Ficarra. She now lives in Northern California where she manages the Ukiah Library, curates the LOBA Reading Series, and serves as the Poet Laureate of Ukiah 2021-2023. Recent work is available at www.apoetlibrarian.wordpress.com.

Her two poems “from Invasive Species,” and “marriage on the patio” and “suture 66” appear in the thirty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the two poems “from Invasive Species,” and “marriage on the patio” and “suture 66.”

A: These poems were written during a 30/30 project called The Poeming where myself and 30 other poets wrote 31 erasures based on the works of various authors including Anne Rice, Christopher Pike, & Seanan McGuire to name a few. Found poems can have the uncanny ability to strike at the core of the unconscious tenor of what’s happening, whether in the world, the mind, or the body. I like experimenting with the treasures resonant in someone else’s language.

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

A: In Dec. 2020, I started an online writing group for women as a means of carving out time & space to write & hold each other accountable in kind ways. As a means of furthering my study of tarot & jumpstarting our writing, I draw a card at each meeting that serves as a writing prompt. This new series I’ve been working on pairs tarot & science to excavate whatever relationships or hidden meanings might exist beneath the surface. Ultimately, many of my poems tend to play with the idea of the found form, whether through erasure, or through exploring ecological relationships in an attempt to elucidate elemental mysteries.  

Q: One of my favourite poets, George Bowering, composed a serial poem based on a shuffle of the major arcana and court cards of the Swiss Tarot deck, published as Genève (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1971). What is it about the tarot that appeals as a writing prompt, and what were you discovering through your own process of composition?

A: I’ve been learning that tarot has been an aid to writing for generations. For instance, did you know that Plath worked with the tarot to write “Daddy”? It’s fascinating, really once you start delving to see how tarot has catalyzed many great works. One thing that appeals to me personally is the myriad uses with which one can incorporate the tarot in writing practice – the images alone can be quite generative, as well as the larger mystical meanings of the cards & their representations. Again, I think it’s a way of calling up the invisible. Of conjuring energetics & relationships that are present but possibly unseen or willingly ignored by the human eye. The act of divination can be a means of seeing, of casting a tiny light on what may or may not be unconscious, but is nonetheless alive.

Q: After ten chapbooks and a trade collection, as well as your current work-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: My 2nd full-length collection, gaslight gutter rainbows, works with the language of minerals and rocks to tell a story of the relationship between human & geological trauma, along with the sediment of betrayal that lingers in our foundation. Some language used in the field of mineralogy is oddly foreboding of various ways the Earth & humanity have been ravaged by capitalist greed (and grief). This book explores ways to catalyze this understanding, and move forward. It’s about trusting yourself enough to claw your way out. It’s also currently making the rounds on the rejection circuit. The tarot series I began last year has started to shape itself into a new full-length collection tentatively titled WITCH BIOTA. The poems in this book play with the interrelationship of various elements & branches of science with the tarot. Ultimately, I think the poems are getting more granular – from birds to plants to minerals to mycelia, lichen & bacteria. Microorganisms are whole universes of fascination.

Q: Are you noticing a shift in structure along with the evolution into further “granular” subject matter? Are your poems becoming more expansive, or densely-packed? Has the evolution purely been one of subject?

A: Yes, while each poem demands its own breath & structure – I’m noticing a shift with the new poems. Both the poems & the line itself have become more expansive. Having dedicated writing time has also impacted the length – whereas I have often written in accreted fragments due to necessity, these poems are more capacious because they’re no longer being marginalized.  

Q: Have you any models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? What poets or works sit at the back of your head as you work?

A: No, I wouldn’t say I have any models for this new work. This might explain why they feel so experimental. Apart from the stacks of field guides and various decks & books on the tarot I am surrounded by at my writing desk, one poet that tends to reappear for me is Lorine Niedecker. I remember finding a copy of New Goose at the San Francisco Public Library back in 2002 or so when I first moved out to California, and my daily repertoire consisted of hanging out at the Main & figuring out my life. Niedecker’s poems really struck me for their brevity & candor, along with the nuanced way she encapsulated so many resonant meanings in a single line. Later, I found myself writing some of the early poems in Witch Biota while studying Niedecker with Hoa Nguyen.

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

A: To reenergize my work, I tend to read a mixture of both nonfiction and poetry. Some recent reads that I found particularly generative include The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture by Emanuele Coccia, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong, & frank: sonnets by Diane Seuss. Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star is a book I return to, along with anything by Bhanu Kapil.

Monday, November 8, 2021

TtD supplement #201 : seven questions for Sue Bracken

Sue Bracken’s work has appeared in G U E S T [a journal of guest editors], Hart House Review, WEIMAG, The New Quarterly, Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem Anthology (Mansfield Press), The Totally Unknown Writer’s Festival 2015: Stories (Life Rattle Press) and other publications. Her first collection of poems When Centipedes Dream was published by Tightrope Books in 2018. She lives in Toronto in a house ruled by artists and animals.

Her poems “Du Fond des Mers,” “At Swim,” “S. B.,” “The Goodwill Store Disrobes” and “A Roomful of Teeth” appear in the thirty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Du Fond des Mers,” “At Swim,” “S. B.,” “The Goodwill Store Disrobes” and “A Roomful of Teeth.”

Du Fond des Mers
A huge skeleton of a blue whale hung suspended from the ceiling at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum). It was reflected below on some material that looked like water. It was beautiful but the whale wasn’t in water. It was dead, completely dissected, disassembled and on display. Its huge heart sat apart, beside a smart car for comparison.
Sure, I learned some facts about whales, especially their unbelievable communication abilities. But all I could think about was that it didn’t have a say in being displayed in such a primitive, objective way. I just wanted it back in the sea.    

At Swim
I’m a water baby, love the freedom that water gives, want to swim as an old broad and beyond.
I was probably daydreaming about retiring from my job then. I’ve since taken that swan dive!    

I heard a woman read a poem about her name. It included an umlaut over one of the letters and the poem was pretty unique. I thought I’d give my initials a shot. It was great playing with the hissing S and the bombastic B, and attempting to present their shapes literally. Summum Bonum was a cool discovery.

The Goodwill Store Disrobes       
The Goodwill stores in Toronto closed suddenly.  I passed our local Goodwill daily enroute to and from work. The mannequins displayed in the windows had regular outfit changes, displaying new items for sale. As the store was being cleared out, rather than the window items being removed as a unit it seemed the mannequins were being gradually undressed. It felt like a subtle strip tease show, one you didn’t want to admit to watching.

Roomful of Teeth
A COVID poem from one of the many waves of tension last year. (Also the name of an American vocal ensemble.)

It was also part of a project during COVID called Xcess & Ohhs in collaboration with my visual artist partner. His 12 works of art were called Bandaids for Worrisome Times. My 12 poems responding to (NOT describing) his imagery were called Wondering When to Worry.

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

A: I’m the last born of five and therefore an observer. I have to crawl to the starlight before I can fall back barking. I’m also an Aquarian and by my definition that’s a water baby. Water often leaks into my poetry. Dust to dust never seems to apply. I love water’s float, its fit. I just seem to belong in the silk of it. Many of my poems, including three of the ones you’ve accepted and about a dozen in a recent manuscript (One Goose Honking) are water related.  

In addition to water related images/experiences, my writing is also influenced by train graffiti, news items and artwork. I retired from my job in early 2020. I walked out of the corporate world directly into COVID, with all its appendages. I felt brilliant in the timing, but also an urgent need to continue to be creative. The project noted above- Xcess & Ohhs - was a collaboration with visual artist extraordinaire David McClyment (also my partner, also extraordinaire). Neither the images nor the poems are directly about COVID though there is some of the tension of the pandemic, its isolation, and the question around the extra time on our hands. Water themes and responses to images persist.

Self-reliance was also on my mind pre-COVID and pre-retirement (hence the title of the manuscript noted above).  I recently saw Franz Kline’s painting Cupola 1956-57 at the AGO. It floored me. Huge, fearless, singular. That need in me to be creative was in that painting.  Somehow my reaction to Cupola seems connected to my most recent work. It’s a suite of related prose and poetry (somewhat unusual for me) around my sister who died in 1976, way too young. She was 27 (also the working title). Writing this homage to her felt sensitive yet visceral.  Some of the pieces continue to be responses to images/family photos, others were inevitably physical reactions to memories. It was a difficult bit of writing, pooled with feelings of privilege and survivor’s guilt. Reflecting on my other work, facing these photos of my sister, and seeing Kline’s painting helped me recognize the need, the adventure, the surprise of why I write.

Q: Given so many of what sparks your work is visual, what brought you to responding via writing? What does writing provide that working with visuals, for example, might not?

A: Living with a visual artist does present the opportunity for a daily and deeper involvement with visuals, so I do take advantage of that. I have also danced semi professionally (=I got paid a few times) and I have taken some not bad amateur photos. But it’s the adventure of seeing what might happen when I write and trying to make the idea my own, that pulls me.

I guess the short answer is that writing can satisfy me. Plus I can't draw. At all!

Q: With a published debut and your work-in-progress since, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: To your first question, I feel my work is and I am more confident. Over the last few years I have been exposed to more poets, more writing styles and more ideas through reading, live and zoom events, and the increased time to ponder. Some of my recent work has also tackled bigger subjects.

To your second question, I would like to be involved in more collaborations; some meaty, richly themed writing topics while maintaining astonishment in the overall adventure. At this point I really don’t feel the need to know where my work is going, just that it is going.

Q: Have there been any writers in particular, over these past few years, that have sparked differences in your work?

A: Here’s a few.

Anne Carson: (Short Talks, Float) for her blunt, unique, exquisite descriptions

Natalia Diaz: “Dome Riddle” (New Poets of Native Nations, ed H. Erdrich) for her very clever humour

Albert Goldbarth: “Coin” (Heaven and Earth, a Cosmology) for being one of the most beautiful poems I’ve ever read. It reminds me to reach. (Michael Redhill wrote about it years ago in a fabulous weekly column “How Poems Work” in The Globe newspaper, I think. Sadly the column was cancelled.)

Don McKay: Many of his works feel like we're sitting together, having an amazing conversation.

Laura Lush: “Women Who Run With Buffalo” (Going to the Zoo) for her wildness (also her other prose and poems)

Susan Holbrook: “Your First Timpani?” (Joy is so Exhausting) for her crazy play with the English language

Michael Ondaatje: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid for the description of a bullet’s path, slow motion, almost lovely if a bullet could ever be so, in the midst of all that blood

Sue Goyette: Ocean. I was mesmerized by the writing and the couplet-like style when I first read the book. It’s in my to read (again) stack.

I couldn’t say specifically how these works changed my writing, but they have helped me generally to experiment more with style, humour and adventure. To let loose with the language and break a few more rules.

Q: Have you found that this period of pandemic-isolation has had any effect upon your work, whether the way you approach writing or the shift in opportunities for observation?

A: There have been a few effects.

The poetry group I belonged to fell apart, so that interaction and feedback unfortunately dissolved. I physically have been able to get out daily as we have a few walking/running paths and a park nearby, and a dog who has to move. Dog walkers are varied types so some of the conversations have been thoughtful and provoking, but lately they are always about the virus and vaccines. Not stimulating.

Regarding the park noted above, it’s right across the street so we are treated to international swearing/soccer matches, stories from the men of the local shelter, new COVID kids learning to stand and walk, a fabulous wandering blues harmonica player, and a big sky currently featuring Jupiter and Saturn. We can see all this from our front porch, if not during dog walks.  Some writing prompts have come out of these observations.

I miss giving and attending live readings. However I have been to more readings/launches/festivals and exposed to so many new (to me) writers, thanks to zoom. A poet friend from England invited me to read with the online version of the Norway Square Arts Festival, from St Ives. They include musicians and a wide range of writers and actors. Writer Bill Arnott from B.C. is part of this group, so many of us also participated in his events from B.C. These online events have kept me involved in some form of a writing community, but I miss the personal discussions.

I’m fortunate to have a place to write, so I try to make a point of writing or doing something poetry related everyday. I have also used the extra time to submit more of my work.

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

A: This is going to be a mixed answer, but here goes.

In addition to many of those authors I mentioned in question #5:

I listen to Tom Waits, played very loudly, to charge up. His lyrics are energizing, especially sung at that volume.

For humour I sometimes look to product instruction translations, written or drawn. For example, the written ones for a Three Man Chess game were hilarious and a good prompt for a poem.

This circles back to Anne Carson again, who wrote a poem based on her VCR instructions. She seems to be able to write beautifully about anything, from floating cows (Autobiography of Red), to pronouns (Float), to an elegy for her brother (Nox). I’ll read anything she writes.

I live near a CP shunting station, so train tags are good for prompts (e.g. “Uncle Susan is a Wolf”).

Also, snippets of out of context conversations have the same effect. (“I’d rather have a washing machine than an orgasm.”)

Online and previously live readings have introduced me to many great poets. I try to buy some of their books or the anthology when available (The Griffin Poetry Prize, Watch Your Head) to see if their other work resonates.  The more I read the better I write, or at least the more ideas I have.

The Journals of Dan Eldon, and The Curiosities by Janice Lowry. Yes they’re both visual artists which leads me back to your previous question re what about visuals inspires me to respond via writing? It’s the process that intrigues me. Why that colour/form/shape, clay versus spray paint, why that layout etc? I find the process totally, often directly, related to writing. When I’m stuck I look at other art forms, not to emulate them but to get back to my own. It's a total refresh.

Monday, October 25, 2021

TtD supplement #200 : seven questions for Jessi MacEachern

Jessi MacEachern lives in Montréal, QC. She is the author of the above/ground chapbook Television Poems. Her first full-length poetry collection is A Number of Stunning Attacks (Invisible, 2021).

Her poems “The Violence of the Hammer is Thrilling” and “It Meant That Much” appear in the thirty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “The Violence of the Hammer is Thrilling” and “It Meant That Much.”

A: “The Violence of the Hammer is Thrilling” and “It Meant That Much” were originally much longer poems that appeared as two separate sequences in A Number of Stunning Attacks. Like the other six long poems in my book, these are works I’ve been reshaping for years.

The original title for “The Violence of the Hammer is Thrilling” had been ‘Rules for Detachment,’ but landing on the new title helped clarify the role of the material object in the detached consciousness of the poem’s subjects. There’s a sort of alchemy between these images (lightbulb, the train platform, the pocket cameras) and the dissatisfied tourists of the poem, though the result is not gold but something far less substantial, far more ephemeral.

“It Meant That Much” is part of my current experimentations in prose poetry. The form is partly inspired by the staccato rhythms of Gail Scott, whose My Paris always accompanies my prose-thinking. In writing these short sentences and ridding the stanzas of enjambment, the unstopped line came to match and strengthen the intensity of feeling. While the images mostly play into the abject, in rhythm there is also a deep yearning.

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

A: These poems represent an ongoing progression in my writing. “The Violence of the Hammer is Thrilling” carries the violence, abstraction, and even the white space (though, for the sake of the single poem, it has been much condensed) of A Number of Stunning Attacks. In the movement toward prose in “It Meant That Much,” you’re getting a small glimpse at a transformation happening in my current notebooks. I think of it, after Lyn Hejinian’s Positions of the Sun, as an experiment in everyday description.

My poems often work like shadows of the stories caught in their words, but lately I’m trying my hand at drawing the shape of those story-objects. I still like shadow play, but in my daily writing practice I’m trying not to veer away from the actual: whether that’s autobiographical fiction, narrative poetry, or visual experiment. The transformation is obviously not complete in these poems, but I think of these as a bit of a turning point.

Q: What is it about the “experiment in everyday description” that appeals? What do you feel is possible through this type of exploration that might not be possible otherwise?

A: As a teacher and a general advocate of reading poetry, I frequently speak of language’s capacity to change the way we see the world. This “experiment in everyday description” challenges my own ability to manifest that change in what is closest at hand: the wall at which I stare, the closed front door, my own skin. In these experiments, I’ve had to grow intimately familiar with what may be my “voice” amidst the unchanging, rather mundane (though, of course, sometimes spectacular) occurrences of the everyday. I think it’s possible to change this voiced quality from project to project, but I also like the idea of honing something that, for the present moment, may be less prone to total dissolution — at least less so than the collaged and fragile speakers and subjects of many of my earlier poems.

Q: There is something relatively straightforward about the idea of an “experiment in everyday description,” although it is rife with not only possibility but a variety of approaches, from poets such as Frank O’Hara and David W. McFadden to Bernadette Meyer and, as you suggest, Lyn Hejinian. Is your approach, then, one of utilizing the description as a counterbalance against falling too deep into your own head?

A: Yes, I may be chasing after the whole New York School (O’Hara, Ashbery, Koch, Notley, Mayer), as well as someone like Eileen Myles, with this attempt to snag a straightforward voice. Like the writing of the aforementioned poets, however, my approach also couples a sort of speculative philosophy with the everyday description. Rather than whittling away at an abstract idea until it becomes a glinting poem-object, I am building description upon description until it becomes a squat language-block dense with, as you say, possibility. The density has led to some interesting experiments in first-person (autobiographical) fiction, while maintaining an anchor that, yes, counterbalances my tendency to fall too deep. That has been, so far, the fascinating function of pure description.

Q: With a full-length debut and follow-up chapbook, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I feel like the floodgates have opened — so, watch out! For years, while editing the manuscript for my first book, I couldn’t shut up about my writer’s block. I was so precious about those poems that I began to believe my own lie: that it would and should take 10–15 years to complete any one poem. There’s an undeniable beauty to such a finely-honed poem-object (or, so I hope!), but there’s a variety of other methods available and many of them include a great deal more ease. That, in a way, brings us back to the poems in this issue of Touch the Donkey, for in their final revised form they undo some of the tightly-bound latches I had been repeatedly refining while labouring over my first book. Television Poems, my recent chapbook with your above/ground press, is yet another experiment in ease. Hell, the poems were first composed while in a pose of leisure: sitting back and watching a tv show.

Q: Your suggestion of ease reminds me of Fred Wah’s notion of “drunken tai chi,” of allowing the subconscious and the honed skill to compose and play more freely, and setting the conscious mind aside for a while. Are there particular authors or works in your head as you attempt new work?

A: I’ve become very deliberate about the authors who accompany this new ease. Wah is actually one of them; I was recently writing alongside the wonder to be found in Music at the Heart of Thinking. I’m drawn to that book’s lovely marriage of fierce thought and spirited (or drunken!) play, a partnership I find a way of inserting myself into while reading the poetry of certain others, as well — Fred Moten, Erín Moure, Aisha Sasha John.

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

A: I am constantly rereading and rethinking my reading of H. D. (especially Trilogy and Helen in Egypt) and, in contemporary conversation with those modernist aesthetics, Lisa Robertson (R’s Boat, Cinema of the Present, 3 Summers). Despite all I’ve just said about ease, I am, in fact, very drawn to and even energized by difficult texts. It’s not an either/or (i.e., difficulty/ease) dichotomy for any of the writers I’ve mentioned, so I, too, like to maintain my jellyfish-vision (a theoretical mode of thought à la H. D.) even while courting something more spontaneous.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Touch the Donkey : thirty-first issue,

The thirty-first issue is now available, with new poems by Brandon Brown, Rusty Morrison, Yoyo Comay, Stephen Brockwell, Melissa Eleftherion, Sue Bracken, Valerie Witte and Jessi MacEachern.

Eight dollars (includes shipping). Who knows what adventures they'll have between now and the time the show becomes unprofitable?

Monday, October 4, 2021

TtD supplement #199 : six questions for Dana Teen Lomax

Dana Teen Lomax is a poet, filmmaker, educator, and mom. She’s written several books and along with Jennifer Firestone co-edited Letters to Poets which Cornel West calls a “courageous and visionary book.” Her editorial project, Kindergarde, won the John Hopkins Prize for Poetry and a Creative Work Fund grant. Dana’s work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won awards from Intersection for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, the California Arts Council, and others. She lives in Sea Ranch with her family.

A sequence of poems from “the-in-between” appear in the thirtieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “the-in-between.”
A: I began writing the-in-between shortly after Marthe Reed’s sudden death in 2018. Marthe’s passing was part of an avalanche of loss for my family, one that began a few years earlier and continued through 2020. Both of my parents, my mother-in-law, a favorite cousin, my best friend, a nephew, my brother-in-law, and even our family dog all died. There was a lot to grieve—not just personal losses but also the collective trauma that is taking place all over the country.
In the weeks after Marthe died, I read a lot of her work. In her collaboration with Linda Russo, Counter-Desecration: A Glossary for Writing Within the Anthropocene, Marthe writes, “To reencounter the inbetween, we must learn not only to resee but also to rearticulate that which is seen, more complexly, anew.” Here Marthe advocates for dissolving hierarchies and “...reimagining our relationship to the living world….” Marthe’s work continually upholds a fearless care of the planet and every living being. By example, she reminds us to act.
Emotionally fragmented and looking for a way to be, I felt the urgency in Marthe’s writing; the invitation to rearticulate experience, see things “more complexly, anew” was what I needed on so many levels. The result is “the-in-between” poems (the collection is titled -unnamed-relation-). Usually drawn to more explicitly conceptual projects, I found that the pain and rigid flatness of my emotions needed simple, direct diction in these discrete, interconnected pieces. After all the death, writing these poems helped me look through slats of memory and experience to re-evaluate how best to keep on living.
-unnamed-relation- is dedicated to Marthe Reed for her unrelenting political action and her fierce love of language. Marthe’s writing proves imagination’s nonnegotiable role in creating equitable communities and preserving our future as a species. And it celebrates noticing the complexities in experience and taking political action to protect every living thing.
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other writing you’ve been doing lately?
A: I have a number of projects that I’m juggling just now.

A few months ago, I finished the Editor’s Note to THE BEAUTIFUL, an anthology that discusses beauty as a radical way to heal our nation. This was tough to write because making a case for beauty amidst so much violence and hate in this country required a lot of thought and investigation. I had to call in writers I admire, the ones whose wisdom and love are palpable—Cornel West, Rachel Carson, Juan Felipe Hererra, Joy Harjo, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Angela Davis, Valarie Kaur, Erica Hunt, and so many others. The anthology has been a long time in the making and will be published later this year. THE BEAUTIFUL includes some of the United States’s foremost poets, and I have been honored to work on this project in collaboration with them.
In another genre, I am collaborating with Peyton Alexander on a graphic novel about our experiences working together in the classroom. Even though I served as the Human Rights and Equity Coordinator for our teacher’s union for years, I made a lot of mistakes as Peyton’s seventh-grade teacher. Peyton is a person with achondroplasia (he prefers the term dwarf because it sounds “cooler than little person…”). The first day of class last year, I inadvertently gave Peyton a top locker, and so our story began. I am often reminded of how blind both my own ignorance and privilege can be. My guess is that I probably learned more from Peyton in his 7th grade year than he learned from me.
I am also in the process of conducting research for two projects that are collaborations with my identical twin sister, Danna Lomax. Danna is an amazing writer, activist, and educator, and we keep trying to find the time to complete Sister Schools, a documentary about educational inequality in California. We both teach in public middle schools, supplement our income as lecturers at CSUs and are married to men named Steven. And yet, the resources available to our students and our own incomes vary drastically. Our film is a call for government action to rectify this unjust systemic issue. Our other project is an experimental musical about ecofeminisms.
The “the-in-between” poems (from the collection titled unnamed-relation) are part of a solo project, and the poems feel very different from my other work, which is generally more conceptual. I am trying not to judge the process and just make what is mine to make in the moment, no matter how dissimilar to my other projects. These poems are happening now, so here they are.
Q: You mention that your solo work, other than this current project, is “generally more conceptual.” What is it about the conceptual that appeals, and what do you feel possible through such structures that might not be possible otherwise? And further, for this shift, temporary or otherwise, away from the conceptual?
A: The first fight that I had with my husband was about conceptual art. We were dating, and Steve said he did not like conceptualism, that if the piece was dependent on some explanation on a wall placard, he wasn’t into it. I immediately got defensive because I love seeing the thought behind art like Francis Alÿs’s Prohibited Steps, work that reveals something human, some idea that the viewer or listener or reader has to wonder about, has to question. The final moments of Prohibited Steps read outward; everyone is implicated. I considered my poetry back then to be more conceptual, so I felt like Steve wouldn’t appreciate my writing. Fortunately, the relationship survived this row.
I am not an art historian or critic, so I feel uneasy speaking about the virtues and possibilities of conceptual work writ large. The Tate Museum’s definition, “Conceptual art is art for which the idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object,” makes sense to me. (But then I wonder: to some extent, isn’t that true of all art? On some level, isn’t everything onomatopoetic?) To give just one example: Yoko Ono’s work Cut Piece is still so relevant. The audience is implicated in the piece’s violence, its voyeurism, their own activity or inactivity, and in this way, the audience has not just agency but responsibility in the artwork. Any number of acts could have taken place during Cut Piece. Ono’s piece is performance art, participatory art, and at some point the categories break down. I’m not so interested in genre per se, but I do think that in my own work, a book like Disclosure works very differently than the new poems in -unnamed-relation-.
Here’s the difference:
from Disclosure

and an excerpt from -unnamed-relation-
Q: I’m curious about how your interest in conceptual work translated into your explorations with writing, specifically poetry. What led you specifically to utilize poetry over, say, visual art?
A: It was the other way around, actually; my interest in poetry led me to conceptual work. I grew up (as a poet) on writers like Harryette Mullen, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Susan Howe, Claudia Rankine, Leslie Scalapino, Myung Mi Kim, and Norma Cole. Their work completely changed the way I understood writing. I had always written—even as a little kid—but my parents were not college-educated, and going to a museum as a child just didn’t happen. But once I was in a MFA program with all of these amazing women poets and innovators—Nicole Brodsky, Sarah Anne Cox, Jennifer Firestone, Yedda Morrison, Rose Najia, Sarah Rosenthal, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Lauren Schiffman, Nicole Stefanko, Elizabeth Treadwell, Erin Wilson—I was introduced to an array of artistic experiments and poetics that opened my ideas still further about what poetry could be. I began to frequent SF MoMA, learn more about visual art, and explore the history of art and the different schools of artistic practice and production.
Later, I started experimenting with visual work (as in my second book, Disclosure) as a new way to read. I considered and still consider each image in that collection a discrete poem. The dental records above show the fillings in nearly every tooth. This is as telling as a “traditional poem” about class: Here is the record. Make of it what you will. In a recent project, THE BEAUTIFUL, I asked poets to send “poems” in the form of documents, images, paintings, photos, etc. I also consider all of these poems in a very real sense, poems to be read as one would read any poet’s work.
The -unnamed-relation- pieces are trying to get at different ways of seeing, or reseeing, as Marthe suggested, by also inviting a slowed down, stilted, enjambed reading. The poems require an unrushed approach to the work—a slight but palpable change in pace. And right now, I think many of us are looking for ways to slow down and better understand the subtleties in current social issues, to get at the deeper roots and realities, “the-in-between,” and hopefully, find collective solutions. When we are trying to better understand history, our place in it, and each other, we have to bring in all of the subtleties as well as the stark realities. We have to dial in to our integrity and proceed with deep honesty. In the process, we have to stop, look, and listen before we keep on moving through this entangled life.
I’ve thought about conceptual work in ways that my father might have; he was a builder, and he designed whole subdivisions. I used to trip out on the fact that the way he drew homes or even whole neighborhoods directed people’s attention to their surroundings, to the world, formed the path of their footfall every day. He paid a lot of attention to light and open spaces, a sense of freedom. Whatever a person could or couldn’t see from their dining room table was dependent on my dad’s design. (I wish he were still alive, so we could talk about this. He wrote poetry as well.) So I appreciate the way conceptual work offers a space but doesn’t explain it. Readers wind around the halls, walk around in the experience for a while, traipse on the roof gingerly. Whether offering my third-grade report card or a hyphenated poem about class warfare, I am thinking about the page as an encounter, a look in the eye, a tender stroke on the cheek. -unnamed-relation- is asking questions through the act of reading/decoding words, the earlier work through the act of reading images and documents (as in Disclosure), and THE BEAUTIFUL through the process of reading a mixture of both. I wouldn’t say I use the poetic over the visual or vice versa. I work with both image and language—all of it is poetry to me.
Q: Do you have any models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? What writers or works are in the back of your head as you work?
A: Recently, I heard Camille Roy and Eileen Myles in a virtual conversation presented by City Lights. Their discussion made me think again of the ways that the artists I admire challenge narrative, compliance, codes of behavior. The writers I’ve been involved with personally or in various writing communities for decades (Small Press Traffic, St. Mark’s, Dusie, Black Radish, Intersection for the Arts, &Now Conference, the William James Association, and so many others) serve as models for my work. The accretion of exposure to such amazing poets and innovators has deeply affected my own art practice, and I am forever grateful to have found these people in this lifetime. They take risk after risk to work toward more equitable societies and use poetry to understand and reinvent their communities.
Richard Ingram’s artistic mantra “Resist bourgeois scum in their murderous search for authenticity” haunts me. Richard’s work invites me to constantly question how a piece of art supports or works against current political and economic structures.

Claire Braz-Valentine was my first mentor; at a crucial time, she affirmed my role as a poet. Claire’s own work in various genres, her generosity, her mentorship as a poet and teacher within the prison system, and her recognition of my practice have had and continue to have a profound impact on me.
So many other artists and writers influence my practice, show me what’s possible. Most recently, I’ve had the work of Katherine McKittrick, Félix González Torres, Jordan Abel, Wangechi Mutu, Ruth Asawa, Sherry Shine, Agnes Martin, Yayoi Kusama, and Agnes Varda in mind. These artists all work from deeply personal experiences and create in a number of media. Their relentless intensity, searing commitment to their ideas and research, palpable joy in making, and dedication to their artistic paths teach me a lot. These artists maintain a fidelity to their vision and completely honor it. And they promote peaceful understandings about love and life. I admire this, and each serves as a model for making anything.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: When I was hospitalized over twenty years ago and on a bolus of steroids, I read “Song of Myself” to everyone who came into the room.

To the nursing staff:
“All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
        And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”

To the physical therapist:
“The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
        The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.”

To my rheumatologist:
“I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
        I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

Dr. Jaffer looked over at my bed and dryly replied, “I knew you’d be high; I didn’t know you’d be this high.”

I felt obligated to share Walt’s lines, his communal vision, the love of life beneath every word. I had tears in my eyes and they were not just drug-induced.

Since then, I’ve appreciated Divya Victor’s critique of Whitman as “one of the more beloved apologists for colonialism” and continue to revisit the complexities of my feet on this Kashia, South Pomo soil, “my” “home” “ownership,” my sense of home at all. The poetry I return to keeps me open, honest, learning and working to abandon any single understanding. For me, Walt is still a part of this conversation, as is Victor. I think about liberation in my work—mine, others’, the planets’; there is something of this in Walt’s writing, misguided, colonial, and privileged as it is. The practice of its undoing is my work as well.

And often first loves roll back around—cummings, Hughes, Sexton, O’Hara, Oppen—the poets I met in high school. The ones who taught me that I am a writer. The ones I am still grateful to.

I continue to engage poets who embrace complications and fold them into the writing to critique assumptions and conventions, to develop a wider understanding of poetry’s possibilities—Susan Howe, Myung Mi Kim, Norma Cole, Claudia Rankine, Harryette Mullen, Leslie Scalapino, Camille Roy, the women in the Moving Borders, I’ll Drown My Book, and Women in Conceptual Poetry anthologies. These poets grant permission when I am in doubt and keep me focused on the work there is yet to do.

Finally, I am fortunate to have amazing contemporary women poets as close friends, women who are serious artists and remind me that it’s love that fuels connection and liberation.

Monday, September 27, 2021

TtD supplement #198 : seven questions for Cat Tyc

Cat Tyc is a writer/artist who has three chapbooks, An Architectural Seance (dancing girl press & studio), CONSUMES ME (Belladonna* Collaborative) and I AM BECAUSE MY LITTLE DOG KNOWS ME (Blush Lit).  Her most recent work has published in Maggot Brain and The St. Marks's Poetry Project magazine The Recluse.

Her video work has screened at the Microscope Gallery, Anthology Film Archives, Brooklyn Museum, Hauser & Wirth, Kassel Fest and the synthesis gallery. She has directed music videos that have been added to the rotation on LOGO’s NewNowNext and MTVu.

She has been granted residencies and fellowships at Signal Culture and The Flaherty Seminar and has received support from the Foundation of Contemporary Arts.

Her collaborative project Poet Transmit (with artist Victoria Keddie) engages in the connections between poetry, transmission, and performance and has been presented at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, Knockdown Center and MOMA Ps1.

She is the Director of The Home School in Hudson, NY which is a summer intensive / online program with a mission to infuse poetry education with an interdisciplinary approach grounded in the fine arts and multimedia. She has taught writing for several CUNY/SUNY branches, Rutgers University and Northeastern University. She is based in Brooklyn and Hudson, NY.

Her poems “ART OF PRETEND,” “THIS PARTICULAR GOAT,” “THE BEES” and “WHISPER NETWORK” appear in the thirtieth issue of Touch the Donkey.


A: All of these poems are part of a collection entitled XO which is about excavating a path towards love after experiencing various heartbreaks perpetually for several years. Or what I mean to say is that it is a book about love without an explicit love poem in it.

The poem THIS PARTICULAR GOAT is specifically about an astrological reading I had right when I moved upstate in 2019 to escape a situation that felt untenable.

It is also a little bit about the frustration of being a white Latina because sometimes the eruption of witchcraft into the mainstream makes me feel like I have found community in other witches but then I also feel patronized to by people who weren’t raised in it and speak to me as if I wasn’t raised in certain traditions.

The WHISPER NETWORK was a vent after being sexually harassed a few years ago and how desensitized I felt after the fact. In that piece, I am observing my survival mode in action and acknowledging the fact that I got through that moment unharmed but also acknowledging because I had learned how to. It is really different from other things I have written.

THE BEES is about moving to upstate NY. It is partially about hitting dead ends and also relating to nature in a way that felt so much more immediate. In taking in all this knowledge about the natural world. or to be more specific, learning about the interesting politics of bees, I am thinking about the support networks in place in their society and how solidarity doesn’t always come from where you expect it to in ours.

ART OF PRETEND is an unabashedly 2020 ‘welcome to lockdown’ poem. It is about rethinking intimacy in digital spaces and observing how it shifted at that moment in time.

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

A: This work is different from my other work mostly in that I identify mostly as a prose writer.

Writing these poems was a way to process what was happening for me emotionally during a really intense few years and the accumulation ramped up around when I moved. I was commuting to the city for teaching that first fall so I spent an inordinate amount of time on the train for several months and decided to use that time to write poems to deal with the isolation and just use that time well.  The work manifested in a way that is very different from the rest of my practice but also speaks to the constraint of time within how they were produced.

Q: Do you have any models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? What writers or works are in the back of your head as you work?

A: There are always so many because I ingest a lot of media. When I am at home I usually have a podcast or something streaming. And when I am in motion, I play music.

Since I wrote most of these on the train, I would say that there is some influence from what I am listening to.  I love and listen to so many artists but Mos Def (Yasin Bey), Kendrick Lamar, Princess Nokia and Nas are people that I feel like I was listening to a lot that fall and whose lyrical cadence really resonate with me and kind of stick in my brain long after the music stops playing.

Q: I’m aware that you work in multiple disciplines—not just composing prose or poetry—and I’m curious as to how these various streams of your work interact. Do you see your work as a large, singular project, or are you working a sequence of different threads that occasionally overlap or interact? Do the multiple sides of your work influence each other at all?

A: It is still project by project and they do overlap and have a conversation with each other. Dare I say, occasionally a debate. I mean, how could they not ? - it is all coming from me.

In regards to mixing media, I do feel like I am entering into a place of more intentional integration. Mostly in regards to how the intersection of media and poetics are at the center of my practice which I am excited about.

Writing is always at the core of my work, though. Sometimes the project starts as a poem and turns into a three person collaboration and sometimes a project starts as a sort of an investigation for a type of documentary poetics and sometimes a poem is just a poem.

Most of the time this all evolves out of my desire to work with people. And sometimes a project evolves because I really need to be alone.

Q: I find it interesting that you suggest you work in poetry to process certain experiences. How is this different from the work you’ve been doing with your prose?

A: It is funny to me that you ask me this today because I just got off a call with a friend who just had a traumatic loss and who is struggling with how to talk about it in her work. And I was talking about how art is what I do to save myself so I guess I was encouraging her to try if she wanted to and when I said that I was thinking in particular of this collection of poems but the fact of the matter is that I am always processing something in my work. .

In prose, I do this more as a way of  letting my overthinking self take over and let her freak flag work off some energy.

I am not really interested in work that is clever just to be clever.

When I am being conceptual in a project, I am thinking of it more like a science experiment to test out an idea or just to see what will happen so I have material to work with.

Q: With three published chapbooks, as well as your current works-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Well, I have a full poetry manuscript that could be broken down into chapbooks but I am really committed to the process of sculpting it into a full book. So that’s one that I am in the process of reorganizing.

I have spent a lot of time organizing the papers, notebooks and files in quarantine and have come to realize that outside of the one book of essays I was working on, I really have three and that essays are really where my heart lies near these days.  

The other two projects are in much earlier stages of development and I am developing short podcast series as part of the research and development of writing through those.

I am writing this as the world is “opening” back up so it is a weird time of meeting and conversation but there is some interest in a book of essays I have been working on for over a decade for  an online series and that is all I want to say about that for now so as not to jinx it.

And I wrote this script that I sent to an actor friend who thinks it could be a pilot so that is another interesting thing. I really miss directing and the whole running away with the circus feeling of making a film but it is also really daunting because it means working with a lot of people and I am still in the phase where I am trying to not be stressed out about having multiple dinner plans in one week so you know, we’re just taking it day by day right now.

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

A: I feel like I am always thinking about Eileen Myles’ work. Their book, evolution, has been on my mind quite a bit for the past few years because the poems reflect this position of really looking at the past to try to make sense of NOW in a way that just paralleled my head space so much.

And sometimes when I need to start my engine, I read a little bit of their book about Iceland or Inferno to get back into that head space of finding my ‘voice-ness’.  

I also get a lot of energy from seeing art and just taking in whole day of galleries and I just scribble the whole time. I went down to the city about a month ago to see a new show by one of my most favorite painters, Kathe Bradford.

Laurie Anderson is another artist that I return to consistently as well which some might think strange as I don’t work in sound but think I think she is such an interesting writer in how she kind of writes these layered meta narratives and there is something about the way she bends that opens me up when I am thinking about my work.

The art and writing I feel connected to is the kind that moves you beyond the art because it transcends the form to be something far more impactful than the form itself.

It grabs you and says ‘hey I see you’ and it holds you because the artist has learned how to do that for themselves. Or is at least is trying to and there is something in that trying is what I find most meaningful and inspiring.

I have also read a ton this year but the highlights have been Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Harry Dodge’s My Meteorite, and Matilda Bernstein Sycamore’s The Freezer Door.

In poetry, I have loved Stephanie Young’s Pet Sounds, Kate Durbin’s Hoarders, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s (another all time favorite poet) A Treastise of Stars and Bhanu Khapil’s How to Wash A Heart.

I have been nibbling on all these books like really expensive chocolate.