Wednesday, January 27, 2021

TtD supplement #178 : seven questions for MLA Chernoff

MLA Chernoff (@squelch_bb) is a non-binary Jewish pome machine and a perpetual PhD candidate at The Neoliberal University of York University. They are the author of delet this (Bad Books, 2018) and TERSE THIRSTY (Gap Riot Press, 2019). MLA's first full-length poetry collection, [SQUELCH PROCEDURES], is forthcoming with Gordon Hill Press. They live, laugh, and love in Tkaronto (Treaty 13 territory).

Their poem “So, Thus a Lilith Squelch (For Skin & Eschaton)” appears in the twenty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “So, Thus a Lilith Squelch (For Skin & Eschaton).”

A: I’ve been working on this poem for nearly a decade, which is rather anomalous for me––I usually plunk something out in a day or two and then excitedly scream into the void: “Good mo[u]rning, world, it’s time to submit to and be rejected from large publications!” Nevertheless, “So, Thus” has seen a number of stops and starts over the years because of its sensitive subject matter. It tells, smells, and knells the story of my mother's attempt to steal me away from my bris because she feared our shaky-handed mohel would cut up my tiny baby pee pee real bad.

The poem is ultimately a loving “fuck you” to psychoanalysis that attempts to ask: what makes a Jew? What is a wound? How does the circumcision of a child simultaneously cut them off from a community in the same instance it inducts them into one? How does it cut them off from their body? What does the attempt to steal them from this cut signify, what possibilities could arise from this line of flight? These questions surface in the text through a series of awkward connections I make between eschatology as apocalypse/apokalupsis (disclosure or unveiling) and foreskin; my mother and Lilith (iconic baby-killing badass––a complicated comparison full of joy and sorrow); the cut of the circumcision and the cut that is a comma (according to its etymological root, koptein). I started writing it as a response to Derrida’s meditations on his mother's death in Circumfession, which eventually led me to some really cute scripture, specifically Romans 2:29: “But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter. Whose praise is not of men, but of God.”

TL;DR: Surprise, surprise! It’s about mommy traumy, Jewishness, and being a frustrated non-binary binch who read Derrida once.

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

A: It’s very different from the manuscript I’ve been working on since the beginning of the pandemic––a book of visual poems made with Adobe Illustrator. My smooth trauma brain found it very hard to read with so many global crises in the background, which prompted me to return to my favey concrete poets. This inspired me to teach myself new software, with which I began rendering Kabbalistic iconography into weirdo vector graphics. Whereas “So, Thus” uses my own squelchy life as an anchoring point, my vispo is all over the place. It’s almost like constraint-based poetry without any constraint––a permafried succession of ‘pataphysical bleep-bloop click-a-dicks, with my silly ass hovering over the glitchy keyboard of my laptop at 4am, as Illustrator eats up all my RAM until everything crashes and I'm left with the autosaved remnants of my non-Euclidean monstrosities. It’s been very therapeutic, and much more energizing than anything I've ever produced.

Q: There’s a physical expansiveness and collage element to your work that I’ve always liked, something your poetry shares with that of Adeena Karasick, another Canadian poet who explores language, theory and Kabbalistic iconography. How did these impulses develop? Were you aware of Karasick’s work, or had you other models for this kind of approach?

A: Hyperaware. I love her and I love her work. Reading Adeena really enlivened my abilities as a poet, really enlivened my life. I even got Mem-themed nail art done after reading Memêwars for the first time.

These impulses developed out of a need to multitask and justify doing creative work in the midst of all the hours I was (supposed to be) putting into my academic work. A stalwart guilt complex regarding my knack for procrastination, coupled with horrible imposter syndrome, led me to write my dissertation on Jewish-Canadian poetry, a canon upon which I continuously impose my own work, as a gag. My interest in Jewishness is a kind of poetic anchor that allows me to speculate on 1) my own dang self and genealogy; 2) a wide range of philosophies and socio-political issues (while staying in my lane). I find real hearty inspo in the work of Rachel Zolf, Maria Damon, Gary Barwin, Denise Levertov, Stuart Ross, and Joe Rosenblatt. The wonkiness of this collage-y aesthetic sensibility is rooted in my love for camp and maximalism and… Instagram. As far as a general attentiveness to the explosive possibilities of language goes, other inspiring artists of this calibre include bill bissett, Eric Schmaltz, Dani Spinosa, Kate Siklosi, Donato Mancini, Judith Copithorne, M. NourbeSe Philip, Petra Backonja, Gustauve Morin, Ry Nikonova, bpNichol, Amanda Earl, and others.

Q: I’m curious: were there particular elements you discovered that are specific to Jewish-Canadian poetry? And if so, how do you feel your work fits in or against those elements? How has your work been influenced by your reading and research?

A: The short answer is you’ll have to be one of the four or five people who actually read my dissertation if you wanna find out! The less short answer is I still have to write like 69% of my dissertation––my research is lacking and lagging. It’s been 8 months since I've opened the folder on my desktop named “DISSERTATION FINAL FINAL,” but I’m trying my best!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! UwU

As it stands, there is very little scholarship on Jewish-Canadian poetry (novels get most of the attention), and the existing work is quite dated and written by critics who obsess over multiculturalism and tolerance––bare-minimum concepts that really do nothing to honour difference except allow it to survive, as opposed to thrive. We can do better.

In the meantime, I’ve really learned to value the fact that there is nothing proper to or definitive of “the” Jewish-Canadian poet––there are only Judaisms to-come, poetic communities to-come, and ever-evolving diasporic subjectivities navigating, for better or for worse, the mechanisms of a settler colonial nation. Each writer I study enacts this anticipatory anxiety through a distinct style, and it is precisely style that opens a space in which new ways of remediating the world can be imagined––poetry as the aestheticization of tikkun olam. Ultimately, when I use hyphenation to connect “Jewish” and “Canadian,” I am not interested in the character of a “national literature”––I’m interested in what Canada has done to/for the Jews, and vice-versa, and how this very material relationship plays out in language.

Q: With a couple of chapbooks published-to-date, as well as your forthcoming full-length debut, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I’m happy with the free-flowing memetic flarf of delet this and TERSE THIRSTY, and I love the earnestness and anxiety of [SQUELCH PROCEDURES]––it’s absolutely wild that it’s going to be published woweeeeee. I do, however, feel like I’ve been writing the same sappy, esoteric lyric poem over and over again for the past several years, so I’m definitely looking for a change. I want to maintain the trajectory I’m on and eventually hold some kind of vispo exhibit. I love making pieces that feel “frame-worthy.” At the same time, I’m interested in really challenging myself and actually completing one of the many autotheoretical novels I’ve started over the past decade. I’ve been really afraid of prose and the sustained attention it requires, but it’s time for some exposure therapy.

Q: The way you describe the forthcoming full-length against to the chapbooks suggests you work very much in projects, how each of those projects sounds like an entirely self-contained unit. How do manuscripts, whether chapbook-length or full-length, begin? How are they shaped?

A: I’m always working on a manuscript, to some extent. I don’t like writing hermetic poems; it feels cruel. I love Jack Spicer’s assertion that poems are social creatures: “Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.” I write for specific occasions with a particular theme in mind that I intentionally reiterate, embellish, and reecho in subsequent works.

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

A: 100000000% Paul Celan. Especially the Michael Hamburger translations.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Touch the Donkey : twenty-eighth issue,

The twenty-eighth issue is now available, with new poems by MLA Chernoff, Geoffrey Olsen, Douglas Barbour, Hamish Ballantyne, JoAnna Novak, Allyson Paty and Lisa Fishman.

Eight dollars (includes shipping). And that would be downright nutty!

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

TtD supplement #177 : seven questions for Jay MillAr

Jay Millar is the author of several books of poetry, the most recent of which is I Could Have Pretended To Be Better Than You: New and Selected Poems (Anvil, 2019). He lives in Toronto and is the co-publisher at Book*hug Press.

His poem “CANTO ONE” appears in the twenty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “CANTO ONE.”

A: This is the first poem from an as yet untitled sequence of ten poems that I began over a year and a half ago, for which I have so far written three and one third poems. Two things inspired the sequence. The first was the publication of I Could Have Pretended To Be Better Than You in the spring of 2019. Tim Conley edited this collection, which spans 25 years of my writing, and the first section of the book included a number of works from various micropress publications issued in the 90s – poems I hadn’t thought of in years, or had even forgotten about. Tim included a pair of poems from J: A Metric System, a book-length work that was published in 1996 in an edition of ten copies. J used a form of composition that I hadn’t thought about in years, and was relatively simple. Since I was in a slump with regard to writing poetry (or anything) at the time, I thought I’d revisit the form, but ramp things up for the present sequence – make it far more complicated. I won’t say much about what the form is, since it’s only a structure, and all poetry is about structure. The second thing that inspired the sequence was our present cultural milieu, which had caused in me (and continues to do so) a lapse in my ability to believe that language, and specifically poetic language, or maybe more specifically the poetic language imagined I spoke, is meaningful. This is more or less a personal hunch – I still don't know if that’s true; after all, many people continue to write and publish poetry, and apparently so do I. What makes my particular utterance any more or less significant? Regardless, having a complicated form to deal with allowed me to think about other things – basic prosody over intentional utterance, really. Which not only allowed me to begin writing, it allowed me to continue to work on “Canto One,” and when it was finished, move on to “Canto Two.”

Q: How does this piece compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing over the past few years?

A: I’ve been thinking about this for over a week now. In one sense there isn’t anything different about it since the same person who wrote that other work also wrote this piece, so there are lots of connections/similarities. Rediscovering earlier work, for instance, inspired this piece. But I am also not the same person, and I have not written a piece exactly like this one before, so it is different in that sense. I have trouble seeing any one text separately from everything else – it is all one massive poem that will end when I end – I am “language made meat,” as I once heard someone (Drumbolis?) describe bissett. There is a part of me that is suspicious of these sorts of questions because I think they are about “growth” or “development” or “progress,” which are all pretty loaded terms in an age of devolution and regression. It’s either that or I’ve hit the plateaus of my life – things are fairly flat and day-by-day around here (not that I lack joy or despair or any of the human things that make this plains-work very real and wonderful). Although, now that I say this, I will confess that I am interested in discovering new things. A new language, for instance (hvordan går det?), or even – gasp – prose. I am interested in discovering new ways to talk about writing and poetry. Maybe the most exciting way to talk about it would be not to talk about it at all any more.

Q: Do you regularly go back to earlier work when thinking about new writing?

A: Not deliberately. In fact, sometimes I find it hard to write because I’m trying to “make it new,” as is apparently a preconceived and somewhat pretentious requirement to be a writer of significance in the land of poetry. If I’ve already explored some sort of formal apparatus, to do so again feels less interesting. At the same time, the idea that poetry is at the forefront of some kind of battle (over what I can’t imagine – the imagination?) is a young person’s folly, methinks, and it has become clear to me that “avant garde” writing is an act that relies on looking back on a tradition just as much as when one is inspired by say British Modernism or any other tradition that has been suppressed by British Modernism. Nothing is really new, or at least I hope not, since I am clearly someone suspicious of the notion of progress: We are fooling ourselves when we use militaristic metaphors to suggest we are advancing something. Further to this, the advances we think we are making to poetry or writing as an art form seem far less interesting or necessary than the advances poetry and writing could make in the world, if you catch my drift. Besides, thinking about poetry as a formal battleground feels like to return to how things were in the mid to late 90s – why do that? There is a here and now that I feel I’m operating in, quietly, and pretty much on my own, and as I get older in this ongoing present, and there is more distance and time swirling through me as a person, I find memory has becomes something far more layered and textured and complex. And how that complexity relates to the present is necessary. Time is linear in theory only, or perhaps it is only linear as something that exists outside the self or between selves. Inside time has little respect for linearity at all, and perhaps that is the kind of returning to earlier work that occurs as a natural and organic process of being alive. In the case of these new Cantos I didn’t even realize how similar they are to Lack Lyrics until Mark Truscott pointed it out to me. I don’t think I noticed that because I was building this new work as an echo of a much earlier project. But to answer your question, repetition is an object worth exploring.

Q: Oh, I would agree completely. I’ve even been thinking on such myself, lately, although I’ve done little to act on it, as yet. You’ve given the impression that you don’t write often, but you did release a selected poems not that long ago. Did that allow you a sense of progression or trajectory in your work over the years that you hadn’t been aware of previously?

A: It certainly presented me with one possible narrative – the linear kind that exists outside of myself, and one that Tim Conley managed to piece together as the mindful reader/hunter/gatherer/editor that he is. Stuart Ross commented to me that the collection reads like a novel, which I take to mean that Tim created a very convincing narrative. That said I am careful not to believe that it is the only narrative, but a possibility, one paradigm that can be said to represent my work, but certainly not the paradigm. To have one thing stand for a self is rather dull. I have my own versions of trajectories that I doubt are convincing at all since they are less narrative and more like swarms of thoughts and ideas woven together as I pass through the world. It isn’t terribly real, or solid, or however you want to define it. At least not by the standards we use to record something. I mean, the only way to make sense of anything is to create structure, to build connections between things, points of reference, moments in time; to impose structure is what allow something to be understandable to others, and even for the self to be understandable to its self, which is perhaps why poetry, being primordially about structure, is so palpable in both positive and negative ways. At least to me. What I did see in the narrative as presented in the selected is a trajectory from the wild abandon of youth, the irreverent and joyful practice of someone who tried things out, emulating the work of others that I found appealing, that eventually shifted into something else: something or someone more guarded, careful, and calculated. Which might explain why I believe I have been writing less and less as time goes by. I’m not sure when the shift happened, but it did – it is otherworldly, in a way, to reflect on work by that youthful poet; even more so to reflect on who he was: someone who is attached to me by linear time and a name only.

Q: When I think of writers such as Michael Holmes or Mike O’Connor, their productivity seemingly ground to a halt as their engagement in publishing increased, although I don’t get the sense that your writing is negatively impacted by your work through Book*hug. How has your writing been influenced by your work as an editor/publisher, and vice versa?
A: Sure, I think about this all the time. There are lots of us in publishing who started out as writers: Alana Wilcox knows the exact date she stopped being a writer; Beth Follett has chosen to close Pedlar Press in part so that she can return to her own writing. If I were to use a baseball analogy, to live in the world today is to play in the American League – we are all specialists, and we are supposed to keep to our own lanes. Publishing and writing, although historically and naturally entwined, have become in many ways incompatible. I have found this particularly so since Book*hug Press has grown to the point where it is marketing and distributing books all over North America and beyond. Some days I even feel less like a publisher, at least in the sense of what I imagined I was getting into when I was starting out, and more like an accountant or data manager. And so I continue to write, even if it is sluggish and far less productive than the output of many others, even the most glacial of writers that I know. Perhaps I continue as I do to combat the imperialism of specialization, but it doesn’t mean that my work as a poet hasn’t been relegated to the state of hobby. But maybe that’s where it belongs: years of publishing have led me to realize that my poetry might not necessarily be something meant for a “public.” And if you work/fight/strive for public attention you are really fighting for something else, something that has very little to do with poetry. Regardless, there are things one gets to see across the literary landscape from the vantage point of a publisher that a writer doesn’t necessarily see, nor should they have to: that’s not their job. One of the interesting things that I have observed over the years is that writers often think they understand how publishing works, which can often give rise to certain grievances, and I can say from experience that I too once thought these things as a writer. Sixteen years into Book*hug, I continue to witness writers sharing things on social media about their relationship with publishers that are just as naive as I was years ago. Which might be why I do my best to be as transparent as possible with the writers I work with as a publisher. One of the most influential aspects of being a writer who also publishes comes from having pulled back the curtain to see the mechanics of literary production and capital as a publisher – knowing how the sausage is made can make it very difficult to write.
Q: I know one of your early influences was Vancouver poet Gerry Gilbert, which seems curious to me, given how expansive his work became, and how, in comparison, carefully deliberate yours has become. What is it about Gilbert’s work that influenced how you think about writing? What other poets or works might be sitting in the back of your head as you write?
A: What attracted me to Gilbert when I was younger was exactly that expansiveness. I loved the idea of writing as expression of time: Gilbert’s practice was an expression of time passing. His totem animal was a slug, which leaves a trail of slime; writing, if you allowed it, could be the slime trail of language. It didn’t necessarily need to make sense, even, since there are moments in our lives that are kind of meaningless. It was thrilling to me that there could be an alternative to writing a poem, like each poem could be part of something larger, that being life itself. Life writing / the writing life. There’s also a passage in The Year of the Rush in which Gilbert commented on art and writing, saying that if what he saw all around him in Canada that was being touted as great art, then fine, he would endeavor to create the worst art possible. His work was messy and unpolished (in a polished sort of way), and as such it stood apart from the more celebrated work that often embraced notions of “craft.” How could that not appeal to a young writer with a serious streak of self-doubt? In terms of his art for art’s sake I don’t give a shit about greatness attitude – and there is a wonderful headlong embrace of the possibility of failure to Gilbert’s practice that was palpable to me – Gilbert just made sense. At the time. But over time I came to understand that he sacrificed all sorts of things that I wasn’t going to sacrifice in my life, such as how he wrote himself out of view, or became less relevant over time as culture changed around him. In particular, he sacrificed his relationship to his own family, and I recall the one time I spoke to him on the phone: I had young children then and he asked about them (they were in the room, so were present on the call) and then said that he hadn’t been too good in the parenting department. After that I started to see kinks in his approach – while he might write a poem about playing a game of Scrabble with family or friends, I’d rather play a game of Scrabble with mine. Writing is a selfish act, and Stephen King has written, I think in Misery (a novel very much about how to write a novel), books are most often dedicated to the person who suffered most from the writer’s selfish act of writing it. Perhaps a poem can exist in what isn’t written, or there is a need to recognize that the art-ifacts we create can be misleading; perhaps this is another reason I don’t write as much as I used to. Maybe there is something to be said about this more generally in relation to the entitlement of the white male poet of the Twentieth Century – that writing, very much a product of the ego, means something in particular when one considers the intersectional relationship of gender, race, class and historical moment of a particular writer. Another early influence of mine is Ted Berrigan – I loved The Sonnets and their controlled chaos, and I loved his poems that were musically constructed and emotionally charged expressions of his days. But at some point I read Ron Padgett’s memoir Ted and realized that this larger than life person who was at the centre of a large community of poets was also a selfish junkie dickhead who was more interested in the poem and substance abuse than existing beyond 48 years on this planet. Like, he left his young kids and Alice behind because of his choices, which were his right to make as a fully conscious American living in the Twentieth Century, I think. But still, selfish. I still read Berrigan’s work, not as much as I used to, and I continue to enjoy it when I read it. But the poets who sit in the back of my head as I write now are those all around me – the poets I work with as a publisher, or friends I have made over the years through our ongoing practice. A community of my mind: it includes writers I’m in communication with regularly, and writers I haven’t spoken to for a long time. And even dead writers.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Lately narrative has interested me. Whether it is a fictional or non-fictional narrative doesn’t seem to matter – I’ve been drawn to it. And it doesn’t seem to matter what it is either: crime fiction, literary fiction, science fiction, books about politics, the economy, natural history, sociology, culture, the anthropocene, extinction, etc etc. If this is because I have a story in me that wants to get out, so be it.

Friday, January 1, 2021

TtD supplement #176 : seven questions for natalie hanna

natalie hanna is an Ottawa lawyer working with low income populations. Her writing focuses on feminist, political, and personal relational themes. From April of 2016 to September of 2018, she served as the Administrative Director of the Sawdust Reading Series and on the board of Arc Poetry Magazine. She is the author of ten chapbooks, including three with above/ground press, with an 11th from Baseline Press in the Fall of 2020. Her poem “light conversation” received Honourable Mention in ARC Magazine’s 2019 – Diana Brebner Prize. For more information, find her at: https://nhannawriting.wordpress.com

Her poems “font of the covenant,” “on the run with the cult of saint cecilia, beheaded unrepentant” and “b/c i was in mourning” appear in the twenty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “font of the covenant,” “on the run with the cult of saint cecilia, beheaded unrepentant” and “b/c i was in mourning.”

A:  ‘font of the covenant’ is a gothic mess of feeling like an Orientalized actor in your own life, which is what the stage directions are about (two for a spirit and two for a live person). The first part literally discusses feeling like a visual on which other people read their own meaning without learning context. The second part cycles through some regular experiences of having Arabness used for the amusement of others/be appropriated/exocitized by others. The third part plays on the Orientalized legend of a mummy’s curse, except the narrator's awareness of being fetishized is the curse itself that dulls the pleasure of Orientalizing. The fourth part speaks to literally being ferried between countries as a child, and having Westernized terms for Arab spiritual concepts reinforced over the actual ones. All of the poems are overlaid with the imagery of baptism (the font) and being born “of Christ,” through the covenant of Christ dying to redeem our sins, in the same way that I felt it was reinforced for me to let the Arab in me hide / die out to succeed when I was younger.

I imagined a queer cult around St. Cecilia. She took a vow of  virginity to god, but even when she was forced to marry, she convinced her husband to respect her vow by telling him god would kill him if he didn't (and also by showing him an angel to back up her claims). She converted her husband and brother in law. She was martyred after she enraged the prefect by doing charitable work. It was really gruesome- the prefect ordered her to be scalded to death. When that failed, he ordered her beheaded... but she lived three more days converting multitudes and giving away her possessions, which just made the prefect angrier. When I read about her, I thought about a scenario where maybe Cecilia made her vow of virginity to god because she was queer and this would be a likely way to avoid having to sleep with men. it's kind of hard to come across queer heroes in Christianity when you're a kid, so... she's kind of been a transformed queer icon in my head ever since. So I wrote this only slightly racy poem about being a reckless youth in love, for some old flames, as an expression of joyful queer love. It has a loving little secret call out for old Torontonians in it.

“b/c i was in mourning” is the weirdest premised poem I’ve ever written. (I’m a little surprised you agreed to publish it without having any backstory first.) My 22yr old cat, whom I’d had since her birth, had just died in my arms. It was Christmas Eve, and also one of my best friend's birthdays – who was also with me at the vet’s when the cat died and also like a cat-dad to her since her birth, and look – it was just a terribly complicated painful day. We were due to have supper with dear out of town friends we almost never get to see, and see Rise of Skywalker in the theatre. I cried for hours. Then we went to supper not to miss our only chance to see our friends from away, then to the movie to try to salvage some part of my friend’s birthday, and I’m pretty sure we cried through the entire movie in total surreal exhaustion. As a result, I missed that part in the background all the way at the end of the movie when two women characters (one unnamed) kiss - this kiss that was billed to us all as a great step forward in normalizing same-sex relationships in cinema - this total afterthought, this throwaway of a scene, that we were meant to be grateful for... The only person who knew that I was crying uncontrollably because the loss of my cat was sitting right beside me, and I was hoping no one would mistake it for some kind of queer joy over that scene, because that's no way to normalize anything. I ended up seeing the movie again a couple of months later just to be able to witness this alleged breakthrough scene and was just as exhausted with it.

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

A: Those are all pre-pandemic poems, so I don't find them falling into the well of strange emotional cocooning / distancing that some of my more recent poems do. It's hard not to veer into poems that are exclusively about loss since March, however, early on in the pandemic, I had the pleasure of seeing Andy Verboom perform (online) his poem 'The Appendectomy of Kenpachiro Satsuma,[1]" from his KFB chapbook "DBL[2]". The poem begins:

"Even Hieronymus Bosch at Coachella
couldn't have drafted this rubberneck hydra
swamping the soundstage, this ill-fated tetra

-pak village, scuttled aside, its roach era
briefly reprieved..."

I was so taken aback by the beautiful absurdity of just the first two lines that I nearly slid out of my chair laughing. I then drafted three poems in Verboom's style, mimicking the absurdity, for "Salvador Dali at Burning Man...," "Basquiat at Ibitha...," and "Miro at Buckingham..." When I debuted them at the House Party Poetry Series 2, someone suggested I should write one for "Savaldor Dali Lama" next, and I am not opposed to this.  Each of those poems reflect in their own way of the absurdity of what we accept as normal and how we create meaning.

Q: How do they fit, then, with the other pre-pandemic poems you were working on? Have you a line at pandemic that separates what you were writing before to what you have been working on since?

A: I don't think that’s a firm line. Or maybe on one side of the line it says “difficult poems” and the other side of the line it says “difficult poems in different ways.” My poems over the last few years have largely focused on social ecology, highly political themes like racism and violence, loss, mourning, our place in the world, etc... I try to temper collections of poems like that with some softness, but I don’t know if I succeed at that.

Since the start of the pandemic I’ve been finding a need for more poems of compassion almost as a defence against despair. Sometimes that compassion looks like what we’ve lost in terms of physical closeness, sometimes it looks like sympathy for the absurdity we’re all sharing, sometimes expressions of love and joy, but there are still difficult poems about identity, isolation, loss, medicalization, my legal work experiences, etc... Maybe is just that the tone is turning more towards consolations.

Q: You mention a shifted focus on “social ecology”: what originally prompted these shifts, and how do you see these shifts display themselves in your work? Have you any models for this kind of work?

A: I've always been very interested in the ways that we relate or fail to relate to 'each other,' but the other doesn't necessarily have to be another person. It could be a group of people, an animal(s), a location, a particular environment, or the world at large. This is what life is - a series of interactions with other entities, us affecting the other, the other affecting us.

I think the shift to writing that is more regularly informed by social ecology is probably a result of needing to express deep exhaustion with the strain of modern life and wanting to get back to a place of gentle joyfulness. I know that probably sounds a bit insipid, but writing is one of the ways we make sense of our contextualized experiences in the world so there has to be a place in which you can craft these kinds of observations. I am unconcerned in the utmost with comments that poetry should not be political, or that poetry should not be therapy, etc.

Most recently, I have been working on finishing up a chapbook length collaboration with Liam Burke. Actually, we've been working on it for six, almost seven years. It looks at a different kind of ecology. It looks at the human body as a machine, interacting with its environment, and how humans create and use machines of industry, science, and health upon the environment and ourselves. It also looks at the way our environments impact the human machine over time. There is an eternity to write about in there.

I feel like I can't point to one particular model for this work. I don't have the benefit of being an academic behind me in this respect. I remember reading Snyder and William Carlos Williams more than 20 years ago, and appreciating the precision of the natural narrative eye. But if you were to ask me about models for social ecology today, I am very interested in two, developed by respected friends. Conyer Clayton and Nathanaël Larochette's collaboration of grieving Clayton's mother, 'if the river stood still,[3]' and Sanita Fejzić's ongoing philosophy around the lack of boundary between the body and other systems[4]. Both of these authors have accomplished beautiful poetic philosophies regarding the interconnectedness of all things that are quite merciful, quite personal, quite honest.

I would also encourage everyone to read Natalee Caple's remarkable Love in the Chthulucene (Wolsak & Wynn, 2019)[5] . Everything is there for you, in the details. It is like reading the relation between place and experience across an emotional globe, turning on the axis of the author.

Q: Since the mid-1990s, you’ve published a small handful of chapbooks, more than I think most folk are aware of. How do you see your work developing since those early publications? Where do you see your work headed?

A: The very first was a collection of micro-poems. They were very tender and I loved them. They were followed by chapbooks that mixed feminist body-politics with love poetry. I wrote about the break-up of my family. Later on, I wrote about the things I’ve mentioned above – social ecologies, medicalization, racialization, (broadly) experiences I’ve had through my legal work, violence against women, gun/war violence, the machine nature of the body, and the role of grieving. As friends recently reminded me, the creative part of my life largely depends on experience and memory. From a thematic point of view, that’s how it happened. Pushing myself to write more about difficult subject matter because it felt important.

Flexing the writing muscle in that way meant being open to sharing experiences, which can be a difficult thing. Some instances, even those that might be common enough experiences, can open in your mind like a devastating flower. There is sometimes a tendency to keep them apart and private. I think, however, it’s necessary to be generous and honest with your reader. I don’t mean that one has to be constantly confessional, or writing from an actual true lived experience, to produce a poem that is effective. I mean that striving for honesty of emotion is key. Whatever it is you feel about the subject of your poem, even if that’s ambivalence, try to capture it without your ego getting in the way - without fear of being thought of as hack. Just get it down on the page and respect what you love about it. Also, get to the work of editing, without thinking that every word is so precious that it can't be altered.

When I started to write with others, to work in writing groups, and to take workshops, it really opened up the notion of unselfconscious play, in terms of editing. I enjoyed creating poems and then breaking up the stanzas to make new poems from the fragments. I liked to learn what was effective and non-effective in the minds of various readers, so that I could offer alternative presentations of some poems. I’d like to think that I have become better at conveying images and sentiment through precisely chosen language, though I know my choices aren't always those of others. I enjoy working with enjambment to hopefully produce an echo of how I would speak something aloud, to produce the meaningful spaces between the words. It’s so freeing to move away from the hierarchy of traditional grammatical presentations for certain types of expression. One of my favourite things to do now is to ask musicians to work with me to develop a “score” for some of my poetry, such as my collaboration earlier this year with Liam Burke on music for my Baseline Press chapbook infinite redress[6], and earlier collaborations with other brilliant artists like Nathanaël Larochette and Jason Sonier. So from a technical point of view, that's how things developed.

Going forward, I think I’d like to spend some time mixing visual art, music, poetry, prose poetry, and prose, to build long narratives. For some time, there have been things I’d like to write, but to write them entirely as poetry or entirely as prose would be insufficient to convey what I’d like to, probably. My prose already veers heavily towards prose poetry anyway, and I could see an intermingling of the four styles. I think a long way back to Barbara Hodgson’s illustrated novel The Sensualist, which had a tremendous impact on me when I first read it – how entering that book was like entering a completely new universe of physical objects contained within its covers. Or Nick Bantok’s Griffin and Sabine books, in which you could sneak along the correspondences exchanged between characters. I think these can be gleeful and effective ways to enhance a narrative.

Q: You’ve answered a bit of this already, but what writers or works have you in your head as you work?

A: I find it really hard to wholly answer questions of this type.  A lot of what is in my head as I'm actively writing is music. A tiny list would include: Debussy, Delibes, Andrew Rose Gregory, Bjork, Mercan Dede, Fairouz, Crowded House, A Silver Mt. Zion, MONO, Musk Ox, Hayley Heynderickx, Chelsea Wolfe, Kamancello, My Brightest Diamond, Om, duduk and ney music, and natural sounds. What they have in common is that they can temporarily take me out of my active scrambled thoughts and allow me the mental space to focus as I construct the lines.

For writers, I tend to think of a bit of mix of old school and new. I could start with Sappho's clarity. I could follow with the longing of Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Leonard Cohen, Michael Ondaatje's sweeping The Cinnamon Peeler. Stephanie Bolster's Three Bloody Words has lived with me a long time. Robin Richardson's dreamy Grunt of the Minotaur joins. Dionne Brand's Land to Light On is so important, as is Lillian Allen's Women Do This Everyday (which she was gracious enough to sign for trembling me at VerseFest one year, right on one of my favourite poems). I'm looking for what's powerful and beautiful in my mind.

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

A: In addition to the above... I go back to things like your own If suppose we are a fragment, and The Uncertainty Principle. I have a soft spot for Shannon Bramer's The Suitcase and Other Poems, and Judith Krause's Half the Sky. Sandra Ridley's Post Apothecary, and Sylvija are little treasures in my shelf. Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythology are always lurking about. The other thing that I'll do is pull the poetry books written by friends off the shelf and sit with them again. It could be the tenth time I've come to a book - there are always more things to discover and learn from. Reading is a richness of textures that you sometimes overlook the first time in your haste to devour and enjoy. These types of questions of who you come back to distress me with nerdy guilt in a way because I feel like they do a disservice to so many wonderful contemporary poets.

When I want to reenergize myself, I will sometimes also turn to fiction by authors who can't help but create a poetic sensibility. Neil Gaiman, for example, has this rich history of visual and graphic and traditional written storytelling that taught me a lot about how to create expectation when I first came to his writing. I love the frantic absurdity of Franz Kafka. I love how the translations of Banana Yoshimoto's novels can't and shouldn't necessarily track with how we might traditionally conceive storytelling, and yet are so charming and engaging. If I want to re-energize on hopefulness, I'm probably reading Toni Morrison. I will never forget reading Barbara Gowdy's The White Bone and witnessing how well Gowdy built to such an effective traumatic conclusion. I think a lot about Naguib Mahfouz's books and how adept he was with contextualizing a reader in physical spaces. I tunnel back in my mind to Anne Marie MacDonald's magic realism in Fall On Your Knees a lot. Gabriel Garcia Marquez can make you feel like you've lived the same lifetime of his characters' 500 page lives.

I really want to encourage people to think of all of their influences that may not immediately come to mind. We come to poetry in so many ways and should recognize the merit in this blending of experiences that helps us compose and distill our poems.