Monday, May 31, 2021

TtD supplement #188 : seven questions for Tom Prime

Tom Prime is finishing his second year in the PhD program at Western University in English. He has an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Victoria (Specializing in Poetry). He has a BA at Western University. He has been published in Brave New Word, Carousel, Ditch, Fjords Review, The Northern Testicle, The Rusty Toque, Lana Turner, Vallum, and Watch Your Head.

His first chapbook, A Strange Hospital, was published on Proper Tales Press. His chapbook, Gravitynipplemilkplanet Anthroposcenesters, was published on above/ground press. This along with the two Serif of Nottingham chapbooks (Birds are the birthmarks of flight and Throat Fixtures: The Almanack of Dazzle) are collaborations with Gary Barwin. He has a mini chapbook on Blasted Tree Press.

His collaborative collection of poems written with Gary Barwin, A Cemetery for Holes, is available from Gordon Hill Press.

His poem “Chekov Was Not There” appears in the twenty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Chekov Was Not There.”

A: “Chekov was Not There” is a poem that I have been writing for 12 years. The first draft of the poem has almost nothing to do with what the poem is now. You can find the old version on erowid.org. The grammar is unintelligible, and the writing is basically insane. I had just gotten off living on the street for almost 5 years through my late teens and into my early 20s and was on welfare living in a house with a bunch of students. I wasn’t a student and was clearly a person who had taken large doses of sundry chemicals for years. I had just joined a cult, The Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I had begun searching for a psychiatrist and psychologist. Having found a psychiatrist, I was thrust into the world of pharmaceuticals. Having been prescribed Seroquel, I took the medication and had a rare reaction to whatever is in the pills and had to be picked up by an ambulance as my heart was beating at a high rate, and I was experiencing bizarre hallucinations. The police arrived as well and pestered me while I was disoriented. This was not a good start to my getting along with my new roommates, but neither was the Christianity, so I was ultimately not a part of the community within the house. I was placed under watch in a hospital room and had all sorts of strange thoughts and visions. The doctor came in, gave me infinite refills for Valium and sent me home. It took me months to come down from the Seroquel and during that time I wrote the first draft to this poem. I also became addicted to Valium. They put me on a less psychosis inducing medication, and then I ham-fistedly tried to kill myself by popping all the pills I had. This didn’t pan out, and I was back in the hospital.

I only began revising the original draft a couple of years ago. I was trying to get at the tension of that confusing time, so I brought in lines from that first poem and started writing more directly about the suicide attempt as connected with that first and only experience with Seroquel. I eventually cut most of those lines out too.

The title didn’t come to me until after I had written the final draft. During my first few minutes on Seroquel, I was watching Star Trek: The Wrath of Kkan. Things immediately got quite disorienting. The aporia I refer to in Star Trek occurs when Khan—the main villain—claims to have met Chekhov in a previous episode of the since discontinued series. Chekhov had not yet been cast in Star Trek at that point, so Kahn’s statement is an impossibility. I think I probably felt a little like someone who was not there when I was on Seroquel, so it’s an interesting connection. Of course, when you read the poem, you would never get that out of it. In fact, unless you know a bit about math and photography, you probably wouldn’t get much out of the poem at all.

To conclude, I will say that in photography language, using a large F-Stop number results in a blurrier background but sharpens the point of focus. I felt a lot like my madness or psychosis or whatever you want to call it was the only thing I could see for so long. I could not see the world around me or a future. Nevertheless it is a meaningless poem without your knowing these autobiographical details, but I do think aesthetically and linguistically it is an interesting read.

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

A: It’s actually more of an oddity than anything. None of my poems really sound or read like it. I think that might be due to the length of its gestation process.

Q: What was it about the piece that brought you back to working on it?

A: I liked the strangeness of it, and I think I wanted to construct it in a way that helped me resolve the trauma of how disorienting and inexplicable that experience was. It was a particular time in my life that has been difficult to express accurately due to the confluence of events and my having psychoses and brain damage from a life on the street. I think its not making much obvious sense is the best way to represent my interior experience at the time.

Q: You’ve been working collaboratively with Gary Barwin. How did that experience change the way you approached your own poems? How did those collaborations first come about?

A: Working with Gary has been great. And I think he is a brilliant writer. We have been writing a book for a couple years now. It’s going through huge revisions right now and is becoming something distinct, almost as though it is from one voice. We wrote the entire thing together on Google docs. It has helped me develop more self-awareness and concision. My editing has improved a lot, and I have become more interested in less generic means of expressing myself because of it.

Working with Gary has helped me to think about disability poetics—specifically trauma writing—in new ways because writing about my trauma with someone who doesn’t share that experience is surprisingly inspiring. I think a lot of CanLit poetry can be very much about the writer’s individual experience, their pain, and how through that pain they have come to understand themselves within the world. I find that idea solipsistic and boring. It’s also antiquated. There is nothing unique about having been disabled by traumatic experience. I have complex-PTSD and Schizotypal Personality Disorder. Writing about trauma as if one owns it is also delusional.

Our experiences are mirrored by others in many ways, and our exposing our traumas through our writing does not make us special. It might make us “brave,” but I think that also ignores the fact that we are privileged enough to be heard and to have a voice. There are many people who don’t have that privilege, so I am hesitant to call myself brave. It’s not as though horrific things can’t have happened in similar, even identical ways to others around us.

Through writing with Gary, my individual writing has become much more concerned with depersonalizing trauma, even subsuming it through mundane aesthetics. I use stock market graphs, wiki forms, found Powerpoint presentations for science courses, etc. as things to undermine my individual connection with my own traumatic experience and point to the larger, universal problem of abuse and how abuse is inherently a part of our western society.

I argue that sexual and physical abuse is necessary for the perpetuation of the narcissistic and capitalist society we live in. This abuse is reflected through climate change, environmental catastrophe, and so on. Humans, well generally white humans, are abusive to themselves, their kin, and the world around them. To move beyond the individual experience of trauma and to see it as a symptom of a larger problem has also been liberating for me. I felt fettered to these ideas about “truth” and I spent a great deal of time defining myself as “a survivor,” and that did nothing for me, nothing at all.

I have really enjoyed working with Gary because he is smart and sensitive but also willing to explore uncomfortable realms. I also love that he likes to delete words as much as I do.

Q: With a handful of publications under your belt over the past couple of years, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I guess it will go wherever it goes. I just write because that’s what makes sense to me.

Q: Would you say you are a poet that builds poems or larger projects? Are you working towards a larger, full-sized manuscript, or are you remaining, for now, within the boundaries of the chapbook-length work? Or are these designations, instead, meaningless?

A: I am obsessive and that means my debut poetry collection is taking years to write. Maybe it will be a piece of crap, but I am going to try the best I can to make something fresh. I doubt it will be done for another year. I have a memoirish mixed-genre novel that I have been writing for 12-years. Lol. I don’t know if I will ever be happy with it, but it is fun working on it. I just had a series of pamphlets released by Blasted Tree Press. Kyle Flemmer did a great job and they look amazing. I really want my books to be done, but they aren’t, and I am not in any rush to get them out.

Q: There’s nothing wrong with taking time. I think patience is the biggest lesson I’ve learned, through all of these years of writing. Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: I don’t have time to read work that isn’t on the list of the required readings I have to complete for my final qualifying exam, but I do quite enjoy those readings. I am reading 100 Renaissance plays and most of them have been incredible. Shakespeare, Jonson, and Middleton are quite inspiring. They can be risky playwrights that convey the class system through their upper and lower class characters in really interesting ways. They also write in highly poetically charged language. Of course I am, as a poet, more directly inspired by figures like Barbara Guest and Bill Knott. I really enjoy Tongo Eisen Martin and Aase Berg. Will Alexander is probably a fairly obvious influence as is Erin Moure. Shane Book was my supervisor during my MFA at UVic, and I love his collection Congotronic, so he introduced me to these other writers and inspired me to write in a less solipsistic manner.

I am not too crazy about the wave of confessional poetry in CanLit nowadays, so I can’t really talk about the new scene of my Canadian contemporaries in any meaningful ways. I have tried to read some of it. I guess a lot of it feels very 70s. Everyone seems to be trying to write their “truth,” but I am not really interested in reading about “truth.” I think that we are very privileged to live in a country that allows us poets to write openly about whatever we want to write about. I also think that being white and straight and male and writing about my pain as if it is unique, as I have seen other white writers in this country do, is an abuse of that privilege. It’s also cloying and pensive.

Monday, May 17, 2021

TtD supplement #187 : seven questions for Colby Clair Stolson

Colby Clair Stolson is a young writer in Edmonton, Alberta. He grew up somewhere in the in-between, in a town called Ponoka. Every day he asks himself, ‘who knows if the moon’s/a balloon’?

His poems “flam,” “our mine” and “today” appear in the twenty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “flam,” “our mine” and “today.”

A: These are all concrete poems composed with a typewriter. “flam” and “our mine” were composed with a Royal Futura 800 and “today” with an Underwood from the 40s (I think; they’re hard to date) + pen. They are each playful, though each was occasioned by a different mood or thought: “flam” by the ever-elusive rural albertan masculinity; “our mine” by romantic love; and “today,” well, today is also often toady, ain’t it? absurd, I mean.

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

A: These poems occupy, along with the modest amounts of conceptual poetry and sound poetry I’ve dabbled in, one node in my poem-brain. The node most accessed for writing lately is a lyrical one. The two nodes often communicate with one another, and are not so easily discrete, but what ends up on the page looks quite different. Something these poems hold in common with other poems I’m writing is that they’re all fairly contained. Every poem I write seems to have a singular focus. If I stray beyond the one purpose or idea of the poem, things tend to get a bit sloppy.

Q: Have you any models for this kind of work? What authors or works are in your head as you attempt to create new pieces?

A: bpNichol is almost always in my head, even when I’m not writing. My experience of his work is by no means comprehensive, but I think I “get” the spirit, and it is so delightfully playful. In particular, I love “[fr/pond/glop]” from art facts, and “Historical Implications of Turnips,” which was published as a broadsheet. Right beside him, of course, is Steve McCaffery. Seeing his “Carnival” for the first time was breathtaking, almost the moment the roller coaster takes off. Then there’s Derek Beaulieu, who carries that concrete impulse (not to mention the small press spirit!) along better than anyone.

Q: I like the way you describe your process as exploratory. Are you focusing, purely, on those ongoing experiments, or are you attempting to corral any of these wayward pieces into either a chapbook-length or book-length manuscript? Has book-making factored into any of these experiments at all?

A: A collection of pieces is supremely interesting to me, and is something I desire. I love the coherence that is often felt when “wayward pieces” are placed together; sporadic efforts seem suddenly consistent with one another, like yes I’ve been smacking my head against that wall, but it has always been my head, and that wall! Which is actually really comforting!

I love the form and object of the book as one whole attempt to capture something larger than its parts are able to do alone. This is maybe especially true for poetry. All that said, while I have corralled poems into a chapbook-length manuscript to exemplify one stage of my life/writing, I think my writing is not yet special enough, and so I might very well have to move on, just as that time and those attitudes have. More so now than ever, the experiments are ongoing. One day, direction.

Q: Well, if two words placed side by side can be considered narrative, one poem composed after another poem can certainly be considered direction, although I understand the frustration of feeling a potential lack of overall coherence (and the worry that the lack of same is a negative). You mention, also, a lyrical node you’ve been pursuing: do you approach these pieces differently than your visual or sound pieces? How do the different strains, or “nodes,” of your work interact?

A: Is it too cliché to say my lyricism is almost always a lament, something lost, something absent, an expression of grief? Even when the subject is not, I think a distance characterizes my lyrical poems. These concrete poems published here in Touch the Donkey are present (maybe “immediate” is too far), I would say, because I’m not bringing anything back from the dead. And “today” is more gleeful a poem I could ever write lyrically. The strains do interact though. Visual and sound poetry have tuned my eyes and ears to what’s already there in language as sound and object. “Violet” starts to sound like and take the place of “violent.” An ampersand (&) printed on the page starts to look an awful lot like a cat. And so those new ways of seeing and hearing will play out in whatever form best suits the content.

Q: What kind of models have you for your attempts at the lyric mode? And what is it about lyric, do you think, that prompts you into lament?

A: To name a few: the late great Patrick Lane. Edmonton via West Coast poet Tim Bowling. Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. Early Atwood. Li-Young Lee. Charles Olson. Frank O’Hara’s “Having a coke with you” (which is in fact a happy lyrical poem!).

I think maybe the lyric form as an expressive medium is where I am most up against my own being-in-time. I have either not yet understood time or have not yet reconciled myself with it. The “moment” which prompts the writing is also always gone.  

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

A: bpNichol definitely. His work inspires me and always re-excites me about the possibilities of writing. Robert Creeley’s “The Rain”. Anything Beckett. Henry Miller’s The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder. Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue. And definitely Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. Her writing just seems otherworldly.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

TtD supplement #186 : seven questions for Sarah Alcaide-Escue

Sarah Alcaide-Escue is a writer and artist living in Florida. She is the author of the chapbook Bruised Gospel (The Lune, 2020), and her work has most recently appeared in The Meadow, *apo- press, Always Crashing, Channel Magazine, and Mud Season Review. You can learn more about her work at sarahescue.com.

An excerpt of her work-in-progress “Season of Hunger” appears in the twenty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Season of Hunger.”

A: Season of Hunger is a project I’ve been working on since I graduated from the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa in 2018. It’s a cabinet of curiosities (of sorts) inspired by my love for folklore and fairy tales. I wanted to create a space where I can rewild my body, where I can be soft and honest with myself about my experience as a disabled woman with invisible illnesses. It’s also a space where my disability is front and center—a lived reality that enables empowerment, self-love, and empathy, but also doesn’t shy away from the darkness that can exist there.

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

A: Over the past several months, I’ve been reading a bit more than I’ve been writing. After grad school, I was stuck in a frame of mind that made reading feel laborious, so for a while, I revelled in non-language and experimented with different forms of expression and creation—mostly gardening, baking, and dancing.

Lately, I’ve had the privilege of time and space to read so I’ve been devouring books day and night. I’ve had a more playful, instinctive approach to reading, which has translated into a playful and instinctive approach to writing too. With Season of Hunger, I’ve been writing from/for/with the body, taking my time, and following the story where and when it leads.

I’ve allowed myself to make seemingly nonsensical leaps and have fun with the process instead of worrying about the end result or what it should look, sound, or feel like. Season of Hunger gives me a vehicle through which I can celebrate my own magic (Amanda Leduc talks about this in her book On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space). Overall, this project feels more spontaneous and unbound by structure, time, and logic than some of my other work. It’s been healing and joyous and challenging all at once.

Q: It is good to know that you’re able to continue to write after your studies completed; I know too many who write as part of a grad program, but then somehow don’t establish their own structures outside of the structure of a writing class or a writing program. Is this something you experienced at all? And if so, how did you manage to find your way through it?

A: I’m grateful that I was able to go to grad school, and the friendships I made during that time have changed my life in the best possible ways. Naropa is a place where collaboration and experimentation are encouraged, so there were always exciting projects to get involved with when I was there.

Before the pandemic, I enjoyed going to writing residencies or having my own “retreat” so I could give myself the time and space to only focus on writing. Though it’s not safe to do that right now, I do miss it and look forward to doing it again one day.

It’s a gift to be surrounded by a supportive creative community, but you don’t have to be in the same physical place/space to be a part of one. The pandemic has made me rethink how to interact with others (what’s possible and accessible) and thankfully many of us have been able to remain connected through the use of technology, despite the distance between us.

Now, there are tons of brilliant online workshops, panels/talks, and readings available. I’m so appreciative of all the people who have made and continue to make these opportunities accessible. For example, Collective Aporia, Emergence Magazine, and Greywood Arts always have wonderful online events and workshops for anyone interested.

All in all, I try to stay connected however I can, and I’m always open to collaborating with other writers—whether it’s on a specific project, exchanging letters and postcards, or free writing together on video chat. These are some of the things that have kept me focused and inspired over the past year, and though it’s not a set structure like a program or residency, it’s helped me a lot.

Q: Are there any particular writers or works that have influenced the direction of this project? And if so, how have those influences presented themselves through your work?

A: Lately, I’ve been exploring Medieval bestiaries and Celtic folklore, but a lot of specific artists have influenced me so far with this project. I’ve been surrounding myself with these people and their works, not only because they’re inspiring, but because they bring me a sense of joy, wonder, and empowerment.

(I think in lists)

Books: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc; The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter; Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés; Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

Writers: Octavia Butler, Gwerful Mechain, Lady Gregory, Carmen Maria Machado, Helen Adam

Musicians/Composers: Joanna Newsom, Peter Gundry, Howard Shore

Visual artists: Valerie Hammond (mixed media), Ulla Thynell (illustrator), Allison May Kiphuth (dioramas), Ellie Davies (photographer), Sarah Nguyen (mixed media and paper), Rune Guneriussen (installation)

Podcasts: Tales, Singing Bones, Feminist Folklore

Each of these artists has made my writing feel more possible, and they connect shape and meaning in such unique ways, even though some of them may not deal directly with specific folktales or myths. There’s still magic and mystery there, and possibility. They also reveal historical and social contexts which have challenged how I think about and experience certain types of fairytales and folklore (I’m studying European currently). I think each of these artists have somehow explored, challenged, and experimented with fantastical stories, and they've created their own. They’re all just brilliant to me, honestly.

Q: How did you get to where you are with how you construct poems? You seem to adhere to the extended fragment, accumulating short sketches into and towards a larger shape. What brought you to working this particular form over, say, a more traditional lyric, or even prose? What do you feel you can accomplish through the extended fragment that might not be possible otherwise?

A: I wanted to create a sensory experience, where the language can be felt in the body, where it can reverberate, ripple, and move. I’ve grown quite fond of the extended fragment, and I think it’s because it gives the words more room to breathe.

I seldom set out thinking I’ll write in a specific form or structure. A lot of times, I write and let it come out how it comes out, and then I use more “control” during the editing process. This project started out as scribblings in notebooks and on my phone, and it expanded from there, and it keeps expanding. Writing Season of Hunger as an extended fragment just feels natural, and I don’t think it could be written in another way. At least for now.

I also love the shape the words take on. To me, it’s visually pleasing, but it also creates a landscape of its own. The positive and negative space tell their own stories. There’s another world there, surrounding the words on the page and stretching past the margins.

Q: You mention wanting to create a sensory experience: how important is shape or sound to the structures of your work, and how do they exist alongside, through or even despite, meaning? Are you working your poems as a combination of the three—shape, sound and meaning—or are you working one consider over either of the others?

A: Shape and sound are very important to my work, and there are times when I follow those things instead of trying to make meaning out of it or with something specific in mind. I think there are times when the meaning emerges, whether I realize it at the moment or not. And there are times when I just get totally caught up in the pleasure of how words sound, feel, and look.

With Season of Hunger, I’m working with shape, sound, and meaning, but certain sections of the project have been more focused on shape and sound. In a way, it’s an experimentation in language as it stands with no expectations, though so much of language inherently holds some sort of meaning. It’s been an exercise in play and experiencing the language in the body first, then the meaning follows, or perhaps meaning untethers itself or surfaces or somehow excavates itself. Sometimes writing this has been similar to when you say the same word over and over again and the meaning somehow gets momentarily lost or misplaced. And other times, it’s like that in reverse.

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

A: Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Ada Limon, Richard Siken, Anne Carson, Ross Gay, Louise Glück, Danielle Vogel. Also, writers I’ve had the honor of attending programs with like Amanda Ingram, Robert Eric Shoemaker, Emily Duffy, Chelsea Dingman, and Kristiane Weeks-Rogers, just to name a few.

I can’t help but return to The Carrying by Ada Limon, Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay, and Wild Iris by Louise Glück.