Hamish Ballantyne is a poet from Vancouver Island. He works seasonally as a mushroom picker and as a mental health worker the rest of the year. He recently published Imitation Crab (KFB) and is translating Luis de Góngora’s Solitudes.
His sequence “from BLUE KNIGHT” appears in the twenty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “BLUE KNIGHT.”
A: The blue knight is a type of mushroom. Without value but very beautiful and hard as a bullet, I’ve only ever found it by accident, frequenting the sort of forests (second growth douglas fir, pine, deep moss or kinnickinic on the ground) one frequents to find the (extremely valuable) pine mushroom. Last fall I started to think about the name blue knight after finding one on a freezing, hungover day. “BLUE KNIGHT” is about sasquatches and all the disappearances that inhere there. It’s about the search, the absurd imagination of an end introduced in the act of circling (like a dying chicken). When you try so hard to find something its image is waiting behind your eyelids whenever you blink. And the act of turning your head to finally find it—this is the very same as turning to find someone already staring at you. Terrible expectancy! So singular an intention conjures a counter-intention. I thought a lot about faith while I was writing the book, the dreadful risk of trying to pursue a thought—the irrevocability of such pursuit. The book is about someone writing themself into a text and dying there. I work in a homeless shelter type place; one of the people that lives there, Greg, a very, very tall man, he recently passed on, used to spend his days lying on a bench in the lobby, cutting deals with passersby for smokes and coffee and idly writing. Every evening I had to clean the lobby and when Greg was around I often found little notes he left on the bench. They were always letters he wrote to an alter-ego or himself, elaborate documents tracing mythical ancestries and negotiating the purchase of his various identities. Characters from old TV shows, historical warlords, pharaohs, etc. I’d been thinking about this book for a few months when one evening I was mopping the lobby and I found a poem he wrote. I asked if I could keep it, and later after I brought it home in my backpack I realized that on the flip side of the paper in huge letters he’d written the title, “BLUE KNIGHT.” So there again you have the name.
Q: How does this work compare to some of the other writing you’ve been doing lately?
A: The substrate for this collection comes from a time I wrote every night while I was incredibly tired, after long days mushroom picking in the height of summer in Northern BC—a lot of the images come from that although the poems are a couple years and many reworkings removed from what those writings were. the form also has roots there--I fell asleep a lot of nights in the middle of writing those poems so they look pretty wild in the original, lots of letters that blast off the side of the page etc. I guess the extant quality of exhaustion is in the tallness of the poems, a line break every one or two words. these poems express thoughts based in conversations and attitudes developed over periods of doing work in the bush. writing is normally very circumstantial for me. accidents and idiocy are important touchpoints. my practice prior to this book was to read a lot for a few days and then stage an unbearable hangover, then go sit with a friend and write. this writing in “BLUE KNIGHT” is definitely idiotic but I worry it's a little too on the nose, lately I’m trying to slink back to my incoherence.
Q: Is reworking older writing a normal part of your process? Is it a matter of seeing those pieces with new eyes, or are you completely reassembling into new pieces?
A: Yeah, a big part of the process. I usually write things down by hand in a pretty haphazard way, when I’m out and about, working, taking the bus, walking around, in margins of books I’m reading or in a notebook, and then work them over weeks and months. It’s not so much new eyes as accruing a mass of material sufficient to loop through and make connections I didn’t expect.
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: As far as these poems go, Don Quixote, Huidobro’s Altazor, Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach, Dale Smith’s American Rambler, Marosa di Giorgio, Claudia Lars, the stories of Juan Rulfo, Philip Whalen.
Q: I’m always curious about poets who translate works by other writers. Do those two sides of your literary activity interact at all? How does your work with translation interact with or impact your work as a poet, and vice versa? Or do you see both as part of a larger, singular consideration?
A: Yeah, translation definitely informs my writing directly. I find translation very generative in developing my own ideas and language—trying to render someone else’s language distorts/destroys whatever rote phrasing and imaginary I’ve settled into. I have more success experimenting in that form, too. So often when I’m struggling to write my own stuff I’ll switch my focus to translating works from Spanish. I like working with really dense, ornate poetry, and also writing that has already been translated—Góngora, Garcilaso, Quevedo. It gives a lot of opportunity to subvert and interrogate the language of the original and to play within the tighter forms. When I was initially sketching this book out I wanted it to include a couple translations, one in particular of a poem by the Mexican poet José Gorostiza that Michael Cavuto showed me, but I guess I worked it over so much it got distilled down to nothing.
Q: Perhaps it might be too soon to know, but has the way in which you approach new work different now that you’ve published a chapbook? Is there a difference?
A: I don’t think there’s much of a difference. It made me orient my writing towards a book, rather than individual poems.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Alice Iris Red Horse by Yoshimasu Gozo, Bernadette Mayer, Roberto Bolaño.
Thursday, March 25, 2021
Tuesday, March 16, 2021
Lisa Fishman’s newest book is Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition (Wave Books, 2020). She’s also the author of 24 Pages and other poems (Wave); F L O W E R C A R T, The Happiness Experiment, and Dear, Read (Ahsahta Press), Current (Parlor Press), The Deep Heart’s Core Is a Suitcase (New Issues Press), and several chapbooks. She directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago, lives on a farm in rural Wisconsin, and has partially relocated to Nova Scotia, where she is currently based in Main-à-Dieu, Cape Breton.
Five poems from her work-in-progress “KASM OF ARACHNY” appear in the twenty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “Poems from the Tachygraphia.”
A: The Greeks practiced a kind of shorthand they called tachygraphy. Tachy is speed or swift[ness], graphy = writing. I liked their word and coined “tachygraphia” for poems like these that have been emerging by way of a certain (uncertain!) practice. What I’ve been doing in this mode has nothing to do with ancient Greek shorthand or “speedwriting,” but does result in swiftly written poems that could be considered a kind of “shorthand.” I call those poems (such as the ones here in touch the donkey) “swifts,” and the practice itself “swiftwriting.”
It has roots in a Kabbalistic practice centered on the first letters of words, or what you could call the “initials” of each word in, originally, a source text. Each word is changed, very quickly/spontaneously, as one is listening to the “initials” in the source text. It’s hard to describe without demonstrating or walking you through it by doing it. One of my partners in this practice, Lewis Freedman, calls the procedure “initialing.”
There are a few other swifts, or “poems from the tachygraphia,” in the new book, Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition (Wave Books, 2020), but only a few.
Q: How does this piece compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: It’s very different. That’s why most of it isn't in the new book – it’s too much its own thing.
Q: Given you seem to work in books, over individual poems, might this piece be the openings of a subsequent collection? And with that, how, exactly, do you build your manuscripts? Is the process more intuitive, or have you a more deliberate structure from the offset?
A: Yes, it’s been daunting, but I think I’ve found a way for the swifts to be a book without exhausting the reader, which is the challenge of these poems. Partly, that involved explaining the procedure, or laying bare the device. The manuscript is called KASM OF ARACHNY; the title’s an anagram of Shelley’s radical poem of 100+ years ago, his Mask of Anarchy. I’ve noticed that a sort of repressed political content can seep out in my swiftwriting poems, and my relationship with Shelley goes way back, so the anagram seems in tune. There is also a chapbook-length version of this work called “26 Swifts for the Tachygraphia” (circulating).
How a manuscript comes to be? 100% intuitively. Nothing related to writing or the making of a book is deliberate for me – even the swiftwriting practice is intensely intuitive, even though it’s technically a procedure. I don’t write with a book in mind and I encourage my students not to think in terms of “projects.” Improvisation and intuition are much more likely to allow work that’s alive to emerge. Just happened to come across something Charlie Chaplin said about a performance of his that he thought was no good: “I was stiff. I took all the surprises out of the scene by anticipating the next motion.” That seems to happen a lot in poems and is all the more likely to happen when someone has an idea in mind beforehand—either for the poem or for a whole book.
Q: Do you have any models for the kinds of work you’ve been doing over the past few years? What writers or works sit in your head as you write?
A: As for the swifts, or poems from the tachygraphia, there's a lyric intensity (at least that’s how it feels in the blind process of writing them) and insistent strangeness that for me summon certain extremes of Hopkins and Shakespeare and Césaire and Dada––yep, that natural quartet. Plus Lewis Freedman (see Residual Synonyms for the Name of God, Ugly Duckling Presse), Andy Gricevich, tons of musicians, and other secret Kabbalists. I have a familial/biographical connection to Merce Cunningham’s improvisational way of working and the chance procedures he and John Cage undertook, and I think maybe the swiftwriting brings some of that influence forward a bit.
As for other writing, such some of what’s contained in the new book, some writers hovering over that are Joanne Kyger, Fredericke Mayröcker, Robert Grenier, Bernadette Mayer, Leslie Scalapino, Brenda Hillman, in their various ways practitioners of dailiness to an extent. Others working in that mode now who are important to that book are Richard Meier, Jordan Dunn, Amy Lipman, and Chuck Stebelton. Present-moment awareness is very much at the fore in Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition – in some ways, the book is “anti-poetic.” But that depends on what one thinks poetry is or can be.
Q: With a handful of books and chapbooks produced over the last two decades, how do you feel your work has progressed? Some of your early work, for example, was linked to an influence from the British Romantic poets and the pastoral tradition. Where do you see your work headed?
A: Changes over 7 books and 4 chapbooks have been unpredictable, and surely will continue to be so. If not—that is, if one can see where one’s work is headed, then that could be a signal not to go there. Be careful if you think you know what you’re doing. In fact, maybe turn around and start over.
On the Romantics and the pastoral traditions, btw, I have these thoughts:
Anything one reads and studies with very close attention over a sustained period of time is likely to be influential, but I think that people who connect me with the Romantics are noticing that engagement in the form of critique, revision, interrogation, conversation. (I wrote a doctoral dissertation on Shelley, which required a deep immersion in that period.) Other and equal influences from the beginning have been the Black Mountain School, Language poetry, the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School and the Beats to an extent. Also, the modern novelists and contemporary experimental fiction and prose writers.
It's good to discovered any work from the past by coming to it backwards, via modern and contemporary poets whose own work is rich with echo, allusion, layers. A complicated engagement with the past paradoxically carries the work forward and ensures that it will continue to change. Martin Corless-Smith, Jenny Mueller, and Cathy Wagner come to mind as peers I see this awareness in very actively, too. The mystery is: You can’t read Stevens without reading Keats; you can’t read Modernism without reading the Romantics, and so on. Of course whenever you’re reading with time-parameters around something, or categories of any kind, you’re leaving a lot of stuff out. With all of the blind spots in mind, the great thing is that modern and contemporary poets can teach you how to read the older bodies of work—as well as how to find what was missing.
The term “pastoral” is almost always misused and/or misunderstood, so forgive me for wanting to contextualize that term first. Even 2500 years ago when Theocritus sang about shepherds at rest in the countryside, he was not sentimentalizing them or being nostalgic. A scholar says: “The predominating tone of Theocritus is one of ironic detachment and allusive cleverness; the country setting figures mainly as an element of coarse realism and occasional barnyard vulgarity, never as an ideal of lost innocence.” I’ve always been much more interested in “coarse realism” and even “barnyard vulgarity” than in idealizing the rural, and nostalgia has no place in poetry. I happen to live on a farm, so when people know that part of my biography, they assume I write about the countryside, which they assume = pastoral. The point is that even what has become associated with the pastoral long after Theocritus’s Idylls and Virgil’s Ecologues can only be (and probably always was) an active questioning, interrogation, revision, contestation with whatever is signified by, or mistaken as, “pastoral.” Shepherds resting in pastures in the 3rd century BCE don’t exist anymore, so pasture-poetry doesn’t exist anymore—but even then, the work was never hearts-and-flowers “nature” poetry.
All of that said, the “coarse realism” of my work is grounded in paying attention, and if what’s around me is a rural place, there will be things in it I’m paying attention to, such as what an apple looks like frozen on a tree from which you can still suck out the juice. If I’m riding the Red Line in Chicago, I pay (or rather, give) attention to that. Ditto wherever. I do live in different places, primarily the farm and Madison, but also downtown Chicago. Prior to the farm, New York City, Utah, Los Angeles. And now Nova Scotia in part. Any environment that has shaped one by being present in one’s thinking and attentiveness may inform (in-form) a poem at any time. Not predictable, not unitary, never a matter of intention.
Q: Do the shifts of geography provide shifts in your work as well? If writing is a matter of paying attention, do landscape or geographical shifts figure as part of those attentions? And if so, how might those shifts present themselves?
A: Yeah, they do. Especially in places where I can be outside and moving physically in some way. But that’s just one circuit of attention, so to speak. That’s the attention one gives (with one’s body) to the physical environment in that time and space, while one is in it.
There is also attention in the form of learning about the geography and environment one is in, both geologically and geopolitically: historically, writ large. Layers of history and layers of geologic change start to be part of what one is perceiving in a place. So then the shifts are multi-layered too, and encompass the indoor work of digging through historical records, reading geologic studies, and so on.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Stevens’ Collected, Hopkins, and work by my mentors, Michael Palmer and Robert Creeley – as well as by notional mentors: Kyger, Mayrocker, Niedecker. Novels and prose by Elizabeth Bowen, Lawrence, Woolf, Calvino.
Thursday, March 4, 2021
JoAnna Novak’s debut memoir Contradiction Days will be published by Catapult in 2022. Her short story collection, Meaningful Work, won the 2020 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest and will be published by FC2 in 2021. Her third book of poetry, New Life, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press, as is the chapbook Knife with Oral Greed, with above/ground press. She is the author of the novel I Must Have You and two previous books of poetry: Noirmania and Abeyance, North America. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other publications. She is a co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher, Tammy.
Her poems “Nothing to Lose” and A Kind Living Room” appear in the twenty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “Nothing to Lose” and A Kind Living Room.”
A: These poems are borne of: staying with one's in-laws and looking around at a lifetime of stuff; clinging to elementary French lessons in the early days of sheltering-in-place; and reminiscences of days in restaurant kitchens, heaving sheet trays and forming infinity signs of filo dough.
Q: How do these pieces compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: There’s more absurdity or surrealism in these poems. And I’m playing with the appearance of narrative, its false comforts.
Q: How did these shifts develop, and how do they display themselves in your work? And I’m curious about what you mean by the “false comforts” of narrative. What do you mean by that?
A: The shifts result from a restlessness towards myself. I get tired of my default modes of expression, and I try to do something different—in the case of these poems, work with characters, create a façade of narrative logic. I think of narrative as having false comforts, especially as of late, because of the ongoingness of the pandemic. (And these poems were very much a product of the early days of quarantine.) I bristle when I hear people say, “When COVID is over” or the like. This idea that there will be a resounding “The End” seems false in this context. This resonates with my own sense of the world, I suppose, tinged by neuroses or compulsions, where repetition upends the notion of causality. But also, in a vastly different context, my son—who is fifteen months old—doesn’t seem satisfied by “The End.” He points again at whatever we’re reading (Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?) as soon as I close the back cover.
Q: I know that Brown Bear book well (I think we’ve gone through a couple of copies over the past few years). With three published books-to-date, and three further forthcoming, how do you feel your work has progressed? What do you see yourself working toward?
A: I know how I work more. Two of the forthcoming books—a memoir, a book of poetry—were drafted in very deliberate, concentrated periods of time. (The third, a short story collection, is filled with stories that were also drafted in very deliberate, concentrated periods of time—albeit over more than a decade.) In the Afterword to his first novel, A Painter of Our Time, John Berger writes, reflecting on his career: “Work well. We have little else. Trust your imagination a little more.” I live by the first two sentences, and I am always working toward the third.
Q: Given you’ve worked in poetry, fiction and memoir, how easy has it been for you to shift between not only projects but structures? Does each project feed off the others as individual threads of a larger, all-encompassing consideration, or are they entirely separate?
A: They’re entirely separate, structurally, though thematically there’s crossover. Desire, appetite, ornamentation, fashion, food, submission and discipline—I return to these very general ideas again and again and again.
Q: How are your poems, and by extension, your poetry collections, constructed? Are you the author of poems that accumulate into something that develops into something book-length, or have you a sense of a larger structure in mind closer to the beginning?
A: I draft poems impulsively, quickly, unfussily. In revision I tear them apart and reassemble them, still trying to keep that more focused process unfussy. I write individual poems, but when I’m working on a project (often, it’s just the title for a book that I’m excited about) I use form and/or motif to string me from poem to poem. An example: With my forthcoming collection New Life, I titled everything I was drafting “New Life” and worked with a matrix of imagery—islands, infants, fertile things—throughout the writing process. When I’d amassed 60 or 70 pages of poetry, I began editing and structuring the book.
Q: Given the subject matter of New Life, then, has becoming a parent shifted your outlook on writing, or on the writing itself?
A: Writing is more integrated into all aspects of my life now—it has to be. The times when I can be at my desk, solely focused on work, do exist, but they’re precious. I try to make space to be writing, or reading and taking notes towards writing, even when I’m being a parent. The chapbook you’re publishing, actually, was composed while my son flipped through a book of Grimm fairy tales.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: The writings of Agnes Martin. Teresa of Ávila. M.F.K. Fisher. Audre Lorde. Anne Sexton. Sylvia Plath. Ted Berrigan. Junot Díaz. Gary Lutz.