Monday, December 12, 2022

TtD supplement #230 : seven questions for Chris Turnbull and Elee Kraljii Gardiner

Chris Turnbull is the author of Continua (Chaudiere Books) and [ untitled ] in own (Cue Books). Other work can be found in print, online, and within landscapes. She curates a footpress, rout/e, whereby poetry is planted on trails. www.etuor.wordpress.com

Elee Kraljii Gardiner is the author of two poetry books, Trauma Head and serpentine loop, and editor of the anthologies Against Death: 35 Essays on Living and V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She is a director of Vancouver Manuscript Intensive. eleekg.com

Their collaborative “left” appears in the thirty-fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “left.”

CT: Our idea to collaborate emerged during the spring of 2021. We had been meeting on Zoom to chat about different projects we were working on or things we were doing, in and amidst Covid restrictions and lockdowns. We were each working on outdoor projects and certain curiosities were similar. We decided to leave notes to each other (a slow correspondence that countered, too, the wide adoption of Zoom as a CV19 reality) for ‘a public’ to find, and as a way to address isolation and instigate surprise. There is quite a significant difference in the notion of ‘a public’ here: I live in a small rural town in Eastern Ontario, trails are less occupied than the trails Elee navigates and uses for her projects within the city of Vancouver. Mind you, during Covid, I saw a doubling, and on weekends, a tripling, of people using trails in North Grenville, where I live. One place where I walk regularly is a forest-centre that also supplies tree seedlings to companies, non-profits, and people across Eastern Ontario.

After mulling over how to start my part of our collaboration, I decided to handwrite notes on piled mesh bags (isolation bags), that contain discs used for planting seedlings. Where I walk, there are several large, and long, piles of discarded mesh bags and other mixed plant materials. Over time, they compost; someone with a tractor sometimes pushes new material up and over, rotating everything, and it all eventually breaks down into soil. Mesh bag scraps are pressed into dirt or on the trail. The piles host common ‘weeds’; species climb up/over or fly about, collecting and eating seeds, burying nuts, cooling down in the dirt, or observing from vantage points. The piles restore themselves. I started with a poem on a small pile that starts with “dear Elee”; the poem’s lines match the placement of the mesh bags. The shifts of these seed bags are reflected in the language of “left”. “Left” is suggestive of informal direction involving the body, is actual, is for the non-compassed, and also refers to what left is when one returns, or what remains when one leaves.

EKG: When the pandemic began, the disorientation I felt at being far away from friends, regular routines, even errands, increased as dates slid off the calendar and fell in a pile at my feet. Plans evaporated. Many things, besides goals, were left behind, including my writing focus: I had been in a period of extreme clarity and production, really on fire with something new coming out of my MFA and my engagement just stalled, as many other things did during lockdown. A double whammy solution occurred: to “hang out” with Chris in a writing project. We devised an extension of both our own projects, turning and twisting them towards each other. I basically counteracted the feeling of being left by my writing, left dangling, left alone, left out, by writing notes and lines to Chris that I left in a metaphysical mailbox: a tree stump, a hole in the ground, or a brambly bush. I visited and monitored the sites as weather, birds, coyotes, time, etc., ate through the notes, and then I wrote poems off what I observed or what it provoked. Checking on the notes I left outside gave me a place to think towards on my daily forest-river-ocean walks, and the conversation stimulated my fuggy brain. Chris is very, very smart and this project benefits from her carefulness and her design prowess. When she sent me images of her side of the project I was extraordinarily moved. It felt very “dear” to have my name written and left in an environment among other chosen words. Chris’ knowledge of nature is also something that urged this project along. She took my panic at being out of time and turned my head towards a way to be out of time in a slo-mo, unhurried sense, the way a berry ripens.  

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work either of you have been working on?

CT: When Elee and I started to talk about collaborating, I was reading a book of journal entries, and another of letters between a couple of writers, each of which had been published in book form many decades ago. I was reading a philosophical book on time. I was taking a free public archaeology course out of the University of Oslo that was structured through a series of lectures addressing the idea of “the” Anthropocene and archaeology’s role, among other things. I had been reflecting on the fact that I can pretty much step out of the door and access forest/field/riverine spaces that typically aren’t hugely populated by humans (and if they are, I know the back and desire trails that enable me to go around them). I was thinking of grace, conflict and discourse, and the word ‘virtual’ and its antecedents, and soil/land histories.

I would say that our collaboration—my side of it that is—doesn’t compare to other work I’m doing, though perhaps it might look like it does at surface, because some of my work uses elements of an outdoors as a page surface, or a note, or a text, or a mark that leads to a desire to interpret.

With rout/e, say, where work by other poets is left outside, and I monitor the work over time—that practice is similar to returning to a book, and includes the acts of observation over an extended period. It also creates an opening for ‘a public’ to access poetry without judgement of ‘correct’ reading because the words fall apart, as does the structure of the frame, depending on when a person might come upon it. In addition, it raises the question of the value of poetry—is it valued in the moment, is it really read—for example, this very strange phenomenon of publicly (online) ‘liking’ a piece of work as an expectation in addition to (or sometimes in lieu of) engagement. Placing the poems, however, is similar to an act of composition.

I would say that the method of engagement in this collaboration, for me, was that it was an exchange of letters, placed publicly. That there is correspondence without mailing, in a time of heightened public fear and isolation—correspondence that is happened-upon or overlooked—was interesting to me. That ‘we’ were directed into privacy/isolation as a mode of protection while exposing ourselves through various social medias as a way to articulate fear, worry, panic, knowledge, supposition—and ‘an end’ to this condition was an unknown—makes the act of correspondence not so simple. Yet extended correspondence has simplicities and generosity that requires time; it is an unmeasured exchange until it ends. Correspondence is also typically private (unless it’s archived and published). The composition of this collaboration is different than other work I’ve done, collaboratively or otherwise, or am currently engaged in.

We also moved our work from the outdoors to the page, reformatting it and further developing poems and pieces. We worked across the page/outdoors, transferring elements from one to the other—transpositions, very loosely, translations, in its ety meanings.

EKG: I notice how impossible it is for me to draw a definitive line between this work and other work, between this work and what I am reading, or what I am seeing in the world on my walks,  or saying in digital forums, or hearing in personal conversations. What Chris and I are making is porous. Amphibious, and absorbent. The gesture towards each other, towards this type of communion in thought, is a demonstration of trust in the message-making of nature. Everything else in the world feels so fraught, so fractured and mean!

Q: Have either of you worked collaboratively previously, whether with each other or anyone else? If so, what elements of this particular exchange were similar or different than previous processes? Were there any elements of this particular exchange that were unexpected?
EKG: Emphatic yes. I have done projects with singer-songwriters in bluegrass, pop/rock, folk, art song, and composers, an architect, several figure skaters, and many writers. Making things with Chris is one of four immersive collaborative projects I have happening right now: Gary Barwin and I just put out a chapbook of visual poems (Watcher, Timglaset Editions) which is part of a much larger, constant interaction; Alyson Provax and I are developing a visual art + text project; Martin Grünfeld at the Medical Museum in Copenhagen and I are exploring themes around preservation and decay. The exchange with Chris has been fluid, clear, simple, and entirely fascinating. We have a similar easy-goingness to the project that makes it comfortable—it’s as if we are doing a three-legged race and our gait is in full swing. I was surprised and relieved that Chris is into design and layout because I have Very Big Feelings about design but no skills for doing it myself: Once I see the work on the page I get a “taste” for it and become more sure of the core needs of the text. I love the stage when Chris sends me a page of designed text and I get to see what contact points between our words sing out to her. The structure on the page, the spacing and positioning she comes up with release new meanings and interactions that teach me more about the text. Also, Chris has sent me books and sources to think through that have been superb. Our collaboration is, I think, a practice of our conversations: More relational, more theoretically-involved than the kind of collaboration I find less interesting where I hand someone my contribution like a baton for them to carry forward on their own.

CT: Elee and I hadn’t worked together before, though I had read her books and some small press mag things; I also knew of her work from within writing communities. I didn’t know the extent of her practices—the slow evolutions of her site-specific projects, the inclusivities embedded in her writing/art, or the various deep curiosities and interests that inform her poetry. Her work emerges from observation and meticulous patience.

I have worked with other writers or artists ‘in’ collaboration quite frequently in one way or another—in a macro sense, I guess I’d say that most writing work has collaborative elements—if one is working toward a chap/book, for example, the process of publishing has a high degree of collaboration with the publishers of that work; installations that involve writing tend, also, to be collaborative in a different way. Because some of my previous work is multi-voice or polyphonic, or presented as a sort of hybrid poem-play, collaboration included others reading those pieces, which meant finding out how they interpreted or sounded what was on the page. Other collaborations have been more directly an exchange of writing—  but a constant element of all of them has been conversations that include process and frames—which has helped with the energy of the work on the page (and within the overall design, which is also important). No collaboration has been the ‘same’, and I’d say each of us have had ways of writing that are quite different. A consistency, for me, has been the fun of it—the enjoyment of coming to understand another writer’s poetic(s) through conversation, writing, design. There’s some pieced consensus: where are the agreements in approach or in/across languages, where do approaches and languages diverge, what are we getting to, are we there yet?, have you read…?; there’s also spontaneity.

I’ve been lucky to work with Elee—our project was interspersed with Zoom calls and emails at a time when CV precipitated a mass shuddering away from each other—or the adoption of small ‘bubbles’—and it’s been very relaxed and easy. Sometimes we shared photos on Zoom of what we’d been doing. We worked within our own routines, x-country, and touched base with compilations now and again. Somehow we found where our writing intersects without being too caught up in defining an end point to what we were doing. On the page, we took care with design. There’s room.

Q: Were there any particular models in mind when you began to work on this project? How did the process of determining form emerge? Had you an end-goal in mind, or did this project emerge from a series of back-and-forth openings?

CT: I can’t speak for Elee here, but no, there were no particular models in mind for me when we started this project. We were both already outside, doing things. Form was not pre/determined; it was more undetermined, indeterminate. The page, which can be a dynamic surface but requires a different kind of engagement than hiking/walking within spaces containing stumps or composting seed pod piles, became a transfer surface. Our correspondence was much like a letter sent ‘across’ distance; if anything, from my end of things, they were responses to immediate ideas, thoughts, considerations, with no expectation of direct reply. We documented what we wrote, and what changes occurred to our respective pieces, with photos; we transcribed the language into on-the-page notations. “Left” describes immediacy, rather than end-goal or openings; it describes bits of conversations and bits of writing/emergence/obsolescences, but it also (for me) describes the asynchronous patterns of walking, speaking, conversing and leaving; gestures toward the wondrous and really essential gaps after a conversation, the bits that aren’t returned to, the half-formed thoughts, the long pauses before starting again from some other angle or idea—those spaces that don’t get filled or answered, that shifting surround—

EKG: Chris says it beautifully. We decided to wander together. The collaboration happens the way two people who are walking together know when to pause and when to start walking again. While one person stops to pull off a sweater the other can look around, or think, or tie a shoe tighter.

Q: Have there been any elements of this particular collaboration that have prompted new or renewed considerations on each of your own individual works?

CT: No.

EKG: Nope.

Q: Both of you work with elements you refer to as ‘decay,’ allowing for time and natural decomposition of printed material, and noting the ways in which the printed text has altered through the process. How much do either of you see your projects as either a moment along a trajectory of decay, or as something that is allowed to evolve/devolve? Are poems, in this manner, ever actually finished, or are they meant to change, to fall apart?

EKG: I experienced such intense stasis beginning in March 2020 that I sort of had to chant “the only thing constant is change” under my breath while I stomped around the house and neighbourhood. I couldn’t be sure anything was changing! Every day felt the same, schedules meant nothing in lock down. I needed proof and took refuge in the law of thermodynamics. My project in this era is turning things that are not clocks into clocks. A book submerged in water, poems left outdoors, books propped on tree branches are all things with which I can observe time passing. These collaborations with nature never bore or disappoint. Something is changed from one day to the next, and the ruin becomes sublime. The book outlives its literary purpose and becomes a new form when the squirrel shreds the page or buries it. Coyote fur snagged on the fence where I left the poem suggests the participation of other readers beyond the ones who attend Zoom events. I believe Borges: All my poems, no matter how encased in digital code or ink and spine, change with every reading, with every moment passing. The text is always new. In fact, the poems are so in flux that both Chris and I have difficulty identifying not only whose line is whose but which poem is part of which project. That’s fine with me. Let things change, let them mix and recompose.

CT: I think Elee and I observe and monitor what happens with our outdoor pieces from slightly different perspectives, while also being able to acknowledge where those perspectives intersect and vary; we don’t worry much about the act of collaborating. Our collaboration on the page presents what is ‘left’ or leaving, as well as the energies involved in ‘mesh’—interweaving, interdependence, consensus, rotation. I don’t refer to the work I do as ‘decay’—I tend to think toward ‘emergence’. I’m not denying the specific processes of decay, which are inevitable and continuous everywhere (and perceptions of decay are tied to human grief), but decay is part of a multiplicity of necessary processes, many of which we don’t observe and those multiplicities constitute a stable reality of existence. Imagine if things didn’t, as an ongoing process, decay. In terms of language/poem-making, ‘emergences’, among other things, present variations of co-response.

While the page/surface transforms under conditions of atmosphere and/or foraging, ink or imprint also transforms during interactions between ink and surface or shoe and track. If I write a sequence of letters on many seed pods to create a poem/meaning/style on the seed pods in a pattern that varies, and leave that for several weeks and then come back, that pattern will likely have changed, as will the letters/poem/meanings/interpretations. There is an ephemerality to these projects; the ephemerality raises questions toward archive, remnant, and our being ‘in’ and ‘knowing’ in language—which, I think, has implications in relation to the possibilities of language to generate meanings, forms, and interpretations. Our explorations, encounters, perceptions from within language affects ‘us’ as individuals and species, and these elements have high degrees of inter-relation among us, as well as possibilities of shift and isolation between us.

I’m not really ‘allowing’ anything. I’ve leaving marks on a surface that might carry code/meaning (if someone comes upon it) through a common/shared method of interpretation (reading), and individualized frames of imagination. There needs to be a way, too, to find/access the pieces. The object (the seed pods) are of interest to other species, I imagine, as a food source or home. Any physical transformations will happen mostly without me; I do return to document—a form of archive which is always incomplete and loses context over duration.. The poem/letters/marks are part of an ecosystem where flux, remnant, emergence and a kind of obliqueness inform process, and less so, meaning. The outdoor work and collaboration with Elee is an exchange of letters and an exchange of time. We transfer what is made to the page and print it—as our surface and template vanishes. “We” don’t necessarily see all the patterns. The presences of poem, stump, seed pod pile, fall away. Poems last only as long as interpretation; they change all the time.

Q: Finally, who do you read to re-energize your own work, whether individually or towards the possibility of collaboration? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

EKG: I read about 100 print books a year, and I spend a lot of time reading online, too, so I come across lots of lines that are fresh or resonant—Kim Hyesoon and Joan Naviyuk Kane are always a bit of rocket fuel—but it’s probably being around other creators in different disciplines that gets me most excited. Lately it has been playing around with visual artists, sound artists, and musicians. I love talking in depth about their process. Even hearing a friend talk about a sudden breakthrough or problem in their poetry manuscript is very provocative. Every time I talk to Chris it supercharges my other projects as well as the one we are doing together. That’s why I love collaborating so much. The “what if” question is so contagious.

CT: I write out of walking, or with walking; “the outside” re-energizes me. I don’t really think in words, so much as bring things together in my mind while walking. I find that when I focus on other things—e.g. I’m not thinking of writing—that’s when I’m most productive in terms of gathering ideas, recognizing patterns (whatever a/symmetries) that will at some point be brought into words, or for which there words. I read a lot—less poetry, perhaps, than non-fiction or essays or odd little art books. I go through periods where I will read a lot of poetry of various types and subtypes, and from there usually read beyond the work itself toward interviews, and other things that the poet has written or has had written about the work. I am fascinated by translation—and  I’m mostly unilingual—some of the work that has opened thinking for me has been written through other languages.

When I read different books—4 or so at a time, so it’s slow—it’s often by accident that those books are being read in that cluster at that time. It may be that I am given a book to read, and I’ve picked one up at the library, and there’s one in my house unread since I found/bought it. But, there is usually some sort of trace, some elements or concepts, that ties them together in some ways. Not deliberately, really chance, a kind of tuning.

Collaboration has come with conversations—while maybe I read the person’s work or saw their work somewhere, collaboration is its own being and isn’t for everyone. Like any form of writing, it takes time. Nor should collaborations always ‘work out’ either—a collaboration is an attempt, and if it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work. There are no rules about how to collaborate as people, though there may be mutually considered ‘rules’ regarding any ‘meaning-making’ on the page itself—aesthetic or otherwise.


Monday, November 28, 2022

TtD supplement #229 : eight questions for Sheila E. Murphy

Sheila E. Murphy is the recipient of the Gertrude Stein Award for her book Letters to Unfinished J. (Green Integer Press, 2003). Murphy’s book titled Reporting Live from You Know Where (2018) won the Hay(na)Ku Poetry Book Prize Competition from Meritage Press (U.S.A.) and xPress(ed) (Finland). In 2020, Luna Bisonte Prods released Golden Milk. Broken Sleep Books brought out the book As If To Tempt the Diatonic Marvel from the Ivory (2018). Initially educated in instrumental and vocal music, Murphy is associated with music in poetry. She earns her living as a management consultant and researcher and holds the PhD degree. She has lived in Phoenix, Arizona throughout her adult life.

Three poems from “October Sequence” appear in the thirty-fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “October Sequence.”

A: I have for many years balanced my love of writing prose poetry, most notably what I term “American haibun,” and lineated poetry, including the pantoum and ghazal forms, as well as the more recent hay(na)ku used in Reporting Live From You Know Where. Writing free lines in sections unassociated with a particular form is something I also love, but have not done recently..

October Sequence began without a particular plan except to welcome the sections as I heard them speak as I facilitated them into being. After writing several of the early numbered sections, I realized that October Sequence would become a book or series of books. As of July, 2022, one of these books is scheduled for publication, while the second, longer portion of the work is under consideration by a different publisher.

I was glad to welcome October Sequence into my life and have loved watching it take on a life of its own. Many of my books began with a plan including rules I set for myself to propel the emergence. The autumnal month of October as we know it in the northern hemisphere has been important to me for its quiet reality that seems to invite reflection. This project seemed just right for the moment of conception, and here it is.

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

A: These poems are more immediate and inclusive than primarily emotional, in contrast to some of the highly experiential work in Golden Milk that appeared in 2020. While there is some emotional content, I have deliberately and freely emphasized a fast-paced language that allows connections among a wide range of perceptions, including political and sociological realities.

We are living a very strange time right now in stark contrast to recent decades. That means listening differently and discovering something within situations that might not be of one’s choosing, but certainly affording a vast array of learning.

Q: How do you approach form, moving from project-to-project? Is each manuscript a self-contained idea, or do you see your work as a series of threads that weave in and around each other from book to book?

A: The range of discoveries as perceptions and their matching styles has required me to write in a variety of ways. I seek to shape each set of discoveries into a distinctive artistic endeavor. My world view, itself transforming all the time, might be a unifying factor.

I must distinguish between two different types of book manuscripts: the planned project that assumes a particular form, and the collection of individual poems, often including many different styles. For the former, the comments about form apply most directly. For the latter, a collection needs to cohere, but there may be greater breadth in style. In both instances there is the opportunity to discover how form and context mesh and mutually reinforce the possibility of rising above any planning and crafting.

Q: How did this process emerge? How did you evolve into a poet that works book-length projects alongside manuscripts that are accumulated out of individual poems? Is it simply a matter of working multiple styles and forms simultaneously?

A: Perhaps most relevant to this question is the fact that I have refined multiple styles of writing, including forms, over a period of years. I have trained myself to write in patterns in a way that builds on their frankly infinite capacity to house particular poetic adventures. That provides a foundation on which to build projects. Having gained fluency in several modes, both lineated and pose poetry, and more specifically in forms I’ve referenced earlier, has made it possible to craft in different directions simultaneously with different projects. Writing is after all a highly disciplined pursuit and treating it that way respects its best essence.

Throughout my working life in a sphere other than poetry, I juggle multiple projects at a time. I fasten my attention on a particular effort while perceiving how that fits into a larger whole. This works just as effectively in poetry. I have patterned my listening to what is around me and capturing that in such a way that stimulates the find patterns and propels them. For example, listening to conference proceedings provides fruitful materials that I capture and collect and rearrange.

I prefer working on more than one poem at a time. I keep a flow going and my mind accommodates this better than working in a tiny mode on one single poem at a time. During the gestation period of a poem, whether a long or short period of time, I avoid hypercriticizing the effort in a way that could risk refining it out of existence. Once the poem has life, I edit extensively. The same is true of books in a range of styles.

Q: With multiple books and chapbooks over the past forty-odd years, how do you feel your writing has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: As I look at my Wikipedia page where I track publications, I am reminded that a lot of work has been done. Once I found my wings in poetry in my twenties, I was writing very accessible poetry that blended intellect, depth of feeling, and humor. Having found that groove, I wrote constantly, and this persisted as I morphed into a more abstract direction. For a long time, the abstract and formally inventive work likely underplayed my personality and essence. As I became intrigued by what I could do in writing, I proceeded to structure a wide variety of poems, chapbooks, and full-length collections.

It's important to mention, too, that another parallel track has been my collaborative work with many people, including Douglas Barbour, with whom I created two volumes of Continuations that The University of Alberta Press published. Beyond those two books there is a great deal of work. We collaborated daily (except Sundays) over more than twenty years, and the process of writing and the friendship remain very important to me. I miss that experience greatly.

In addition to my constant work with Doug Barbour, I created book-length collaborations, most of them published, with John M. Bennett, Michelle Greenblatt, Scott Glassman, K.S. (Kathy) Ernst, Lewis LaCook, mIEKAL aND, and Charles Alexander.

My writing is quite various, and I see the idea of development more as inclusion of different very necessary styles that accommodate what comes to me. In other words, there is not a single trajectory forward, but a more systemic reality to my work. I sense what else needs to be created and then get to work.

I will continue to write more work in lines and in prose. I will continue to create visual poetry. I will very likely expand my range to create plays and scripts, some of them collaborations. There is so much to be done, and to call it a privilege to work in this way is an understatement. Of great importance to me is the poetry community, the source of inspiration and friendship that are sustaining.

Q: I’m curious about your collaborative efforts. What has collaboration been allowing that might not have been possible otherwise? Do you see the process shifting your work at all?

A: Collaboration is a different universe from individual work. I have always suspected that it influenced my psyche more than it has my individual work. That said, collaboration resembles a conversation by allowing layers of transformation based on the shared vibrations and connectivity that emerge from being in any form with another person. Coexistence is what collaboration can be about.

I have been fortunate to collaborate with many people. Douglas Barbour and I steadily worked for more than 20 years, sharing stanzas included in Continuations six days each week. I loved the integration of music in Doug’s thinking and writing. He was a remarkable person. The tangible yield of two books published by The University of Alberta Press Continuations and Continuations 2 was satisfying to both of us. In the material we created, there likely are multiple additional books. That’s a subject for another day. Working with Doug was a beautiful experience, both for what we produced together and for the great friendship that emerged during this process.

When you mention shifting the work, I suspect that many shifts are not readily perceived by us, yet perhaps are revealed later as we reflect on what we have created. I love collaboration for its power, its purity, and for the unlimited potential for making new discoveries in writing.

Q: Have you any particular models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting lately? Any particular authors or works in the back of your thoughts as you write?
A: Inspiration of what is possible is most important. A simple example is the word portraiture that Gertrude Stein engaged in. Her determination to transfer what we consider the province of painting to the literary sphere for me has brought a sense of confidence that I can do what I recognize is proper for whatever I am exploring. The plays that Stein created, for instance, do not resemble at all the traditional idea of plays.

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

A: Stein is fundamentally important to me both literarily and personally. Her mind, who she was, how she lived, and the bounty of joyful discovery Stein continues to bring is unsurpassed. Books by Stein possess osmotic properties for me. I can touch a book, especially a first edition of Stein’s work, and feel the mind and its power.

Many years back, Beverly Carver began gifting me first editions by Stein. Since that time, we have assembled quite a number of these treasures. The idea of acquiring and maintaining a collection of anything is daunting from a monetary perspective. Very sharp, single focus and planning make collecting in a limited sense possible We integrated the fact of collecting first editions by Stein into our life, and I am glad.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

TtD supplement #228 : seven questions for Brenda Coultas

In the mid-90s, Brenda Coultas moved to New York City to work on the staff of the Poetry Project. Her poetry can be found in Bomb and the Brooklyn Rail. Her latest, The Writing of an Hour, an ars poetica, was published by Wesleyan University Press this spring.

Her poem “Fun House” appears in the thirty-fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Fun House.”

A: I wrote “Fun House” with my basic composition class and is based on one of Lewis Warsh’s non sequitur poems from Avenue of Escape, which are made of veiled and random sentences. My goal was to get students to experiment with surrealism and surprise and collage. It didn’t work, instead, it left them baffled!

The Kathy Acker reference was for surprise and because sometimes I like thinking about her, even if it was just a brief mention.

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

A: Most of the work in The Writing of an Hour, is made of short narratives that build towards what I hope are transcendent (mind blowing) conclusions.

I like to have my senses realigned, for example, the section Cave, was written in Wyoming, where I was surrounded by iconic American western landscapes, Bald Eagles, buttes, antelope and log cabins. I had to find a way to approach that loaded iconography without feeding into a conservative narrative. So I wrote about how it made me feel rather than describe what I saw. For example, looking at a pair of magnificent bald eagles, I wrote “Hot tissue paper in the wind, like a flag was raised from the dirt and the flag of dirt had powerful feathers. At first it was like ice skating into a watery hole beneath the dirty flag roosting on serpent’s arms.”

For A Forest in Berlin, I was enchanted by that city and Robert Walser, even with my awareness of darkness at the edges.

Q: Is that a normal part of your compositional process, attempting to shape or discern a narrative utilizing surrounding materials?

A: No. The Marvelous Bones of Time contains two hybrid works, “The Lonely Cemetery” an experiment in the genre of the ghost story and included actual interviews with poets about paranormal encounters as well as an active investigation into events involving the Winchester house in California. And “The Abolition Journal,” an investigation into the Civil War border (Ohio River) that I grew up on. And in that work, I researched underground railroad activity, and visited alleged sites of underground railroad stations in Spencer county, Indiana, where Lincoln spent his boyhood, and directly across the river from Owensboro, Ky where Josiah Henson, the model for Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, escaped.

I had always heard about the Ohio (state) activity, but there is very little evidence in Southern Indiana for underground railroad stations, so I sought to find evidence of our better selves in the history of my county.

Q: How do poems, or even full-length manuscripts, normally begin for you? Do you seek to compose smaller pieces that might shape themselves together into something larger, or are you always seeking out the larger structure through small steps?

A: For The Writing of an Hour, I gathered poems that I had written separately, without an idea of how they might connect. The key to the book was the organization. I had help from my dear friend, the poet Kay Prevallet, who asked the book what it wanted to be.

For The Tatters, Wesleyan University Press as well, I began with pigeon feathers and street furniture. And it became elegy organically. My father had died as had my close friend, Brad Will, a hero squatter (rescued a cat from a squat as the wrecking ball was swinging), and indy media journalist. He was murdered in Oaxaco, Mexico While he was covering a teacher’s strike. Eleven teachers had already been killed, most likely by the same forces.

Q: With a handful of poetry collections published over the past twenty years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work heading?

A: I have moved away from the gothic and transgressive tendencies of my very early prose, like in my first book, Early Films (Rodent Press) where I wrote about the secrets of Southern Indiana. I needed to rip off the veil and show the reality that I lived as a working class young woman, dodging creeps and partying hard.

My friend, the visual artist Elana Herzog, talks about going beyond the obvious and that’s what I aim for when looking at something. And I see myself collaborating with visual artists in the future. Refreshing to get out of my poet’s headspace.

I am an incredibly slow writer, and that can be a frustration. I’ve been writing an essay for the past 8 weeks, and only have 1800 words, and I am stumbling with the last page. Arrgh.

Q: You might work, as you suggest, slow, but your work certainly covers vast distances. You mention Lewis Warsh; are there any writers or works in the back of your head as you write? What poets have triggered your attentions more recently?

A: Bernadette Mayor is a touchstone and guide. I even included her as a “spirit guide” (even though she is alive) in The Tatters. I mean, her spirit, her work and example as a dear friend helps sustain my practice. My mentors in their 70s, such as Anne Waldman and Cecilia Vicuna also inspire, and I am so happy for Cecilia’s success on the international level. Her show at the Guggenheim just closed, and last year she invited me to perform in Insectageddon, her residency on the High Line in NYC, that she used to highlight the extinction of insects. Knowing that in many ways, if one’s health and mind are nurtured, the best years are ahead.

I am in conversation with my peers. To name a few: Eleni Sikelianos, Julie Patton, Marcella Durand, Renee Gladman, Edwin Torres, Stacy Szymaszek, Lee Ann Brown, Hoa Nguyen, Sara Riggs, Tonya Foster, Peter Gizzi, Anselm Berrigan, CA Conrad, and many other dear ones.

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

A: Still interested and excited by Robert Walser, Jean Rhys, Jane Bowles, and other early to mid 20th century prose writers. Walser’s work continues to surface in translation, and time, along with recent biographies, has burnished their work.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

TtD supplement #227 : eight questions for Garrett Caples

Garrett Caples is a poet who lives in San Francisco; his most recent book of poems is Lovers of Today (Wave, 2021). He’s an editor at City Lights, where he curates the Spotlight Poetry Series.

His poems “Negative Wound,” “Fleet Week Eclogue,” “#115 AND COUNTING, A REVOLUTIONARY LETTER” and “Index to Revolutionary Letters” appear in the thirty-fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Negative Wound,” “Fleet Week Eclogue,” “#115 AND COUNTING, A REVOLUTIONARY LETTER” and “Index to Revolutionary Letters.”

A: These poems were written while I was working on the 50th anniversary edition of Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. “#115 and Counting” was premised on the idea of the “revolutionary letter” as a form; I think the final edition went up to #114, so my thought was that we might all take up the task, and the collective effort of subsequent poets might be classed as the 115th letter. The “Index” is exactly what it sounds like, insofar as I had to make an index of (sub)titles and first lines for the book, and during the process of revising this according the specs she left behind, various lines or groups of lines would leap out at me as potentially their own stanzas. So that one almost wrote itself and became something about the book and about Diane too. “Negative Wound” is something of a result of listening to and reading about Nina Simone during this period. “Fleet Week Eclogue” came from the hideous fleet week San Francisco is forced to observe every year, during which our own armed forces terrorize us with their goddamn warplanes. It’s a celebration of imperialism and death and ecologically unjustifiable. The title was borrowed from British symbolist John Davidson, who had a book called Fleet Street Eclogues (in reference to what had traditionally been London’s newspaper district).

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

A: Hard to say; I’ve got a couple newer things since I sent you those that are more or less entirely rhyme-driven, though not necessarily end-rhymed. I also have a couple that are more inspired by work I’ve done this year on Ted Berrigan’s collected prose. Ted’s pretty good for giving you the itch to write, because he makes it seem like almost anything can become a poem. So I wrote a thing that would usually be the kind of thing I would write in prose but I made it into an open field poem. Like the #115 poem, I’m trying to get away from the left margin just because it’s goes against my usual habits.

Q: I’m fascinated by the way you seem open to being influenced by the work you do as an editor. Is this something you are deliberately attentive to, in part to, as you say, go against your “usual habits”?

A: I definitely try to break my habits when I notice them and don’t think they’re necessarily productive. That said, I don’t deliberately try to make myself do something that goes completely against the grain of my inherent inclinations. It’s a fine line, I suppose. I know, for example, my hewing to the left margin is mostly about not wanting to waste time when I’m generating text, as the words themselves are always going to take precedence over the layout. But when I can pull myself away from the margin, it can be generative in its own way, so that’s the left-hand margin is a habit worth challenging to see what comes of it.

In terms of the influence of my editorial activities on my poems, it various quite considerably, as I’m perfectly capable of editing something and not have it intersect with my own work. But if you’re dealing with giants like Ted and Diane, it’s inevitable that they’ll put some notions into your head about stuff to try. The short answer would be, being an editor, for me personally, is a subset of my being a poet, not the other way around, so it’s entirely natural for that work to affect the poetry.

Q: Were you aware of a shift in your work once you began working as an editor? Is there a line a discerning reader could catch in your work, demarking your output between your pre-editing to post-editing periods?

A: I would say no to both questions just because it’s essentially the same thing as when I engage with any poet I’ve read to the point where something of that poet enters into my work. Maybe editing makes a little more intense of an engagement because you need to think about the same bit of text often from more than one perspective, about how the text is situated on the page and in relation to other things on the page. You have to make decisions about things. And if you’re editing for trade press publication, you’re on a deadline and you have to get it done, so you might be forced to think about some text more than you would want to in ordinary reading, and that can lead somewhere. But ultimately it’s incidental whether I’m doing this as an editor or a reader. Poets I’ve never edited, like, say, Gerrit Lansing, have impacted my own work just as much. Mostly I’m lucky I’ve been able to work on projects like Revolutionary Letters and the Berrigan in close proximity.

I need to let new things into my poetry fairly steadily because if it doesn’t keep changing I get bored with it.

Q: With a handful of poetry titles and a collection of essays under your belt, how do you feel your writing has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: That’s a hard question because I don’t have terribly grandiose ideas about my poetry. My ambition is the self-contradictory one of wanting to fully realize whatever it is I do as a poet and wanting it to continually change. I would say the difference between The Garrett Caples Reader (1999) and Complications (2007) is fairly vast as it was still early on, then the going to Power Ballads (2016) also seemed like a leap. Lovers of Today (2021) is maybe less dramatic a transformation but it’s also the least amount of time between volumes for me. And realistically the changes grow more subtle as I go. Right now though I’ve got a few new things going on that I’m excited about because I hadn’t written much poetry since the last book. I spent most of 2021 writing fables, as I think of them—fiction, but I don’t like to just say that because it’s nothing like contemporary American fiction. But I’m finally back on the poem.

Q: What prompted you to move into fables? How do you see them utilizing, or even morphing, the genre? And what brought you back into poems?

A: The fables began gradually, insofar as I wrote one, something I called “Parable,” that appeared in Power Ballads as poem, and I do think of these as more allied with poetry than with contemporary fiction, which is why I’m resisting that label. I wrote a couple more before I finished Lovers of Today but I held them back this time, partly because I originally conceived Lovers as one of those sprawling, messy books that were fashionable in poetry prepandemic, but ultimately turned it into a tight volume just because I realized I don’t like being sprawling and messy in poetry (that’s for the rest of my life). So I held them back.

These newer ones coincided with reading some work by Kit Schluter, a poet and translator living in Mexico City right now. Kit’s been writing these things he calls “cartoons” for the same reason I’ve been using the word “fables,” because they’re allied with the poem. Kit’s a translator of Marcel Schwob, who was one of those prose writers who hung out exclusively with poets and whose work, generally classed as fiction, sits uneasily within that genre. Plus he’s been working on Latin American writers like Mario Levrero, and something about his Levrero translations opened up my mind a little bit in terms of how to make such a work. Between handing in my book to my publisher and its publication, extending to the end of 2021, I wrote very little poetry as such, but I wrote six more of these fables. They’re a lot more time consuming than an ordinary poem, so for me, that was a year of creativity spent on those six. And they pretty much stopped coming to me after the end of 2021, so I feel like I have a short book of them, when combined with the earlier three.

I suppose the main influences on this work have been Schwob, Villiers de l’Isle Adam, and other French symbolists, Latin American writers like Cesar Aira, Borges, and Bolano, and Oscar Wilde. A lot of different things. I don’t what their place is within the genre as such, but the fact that I’m almost incapable of not writing in the first-person surely affects the proceedings. The genre as a whole tends toward third-person writing.

What brought me back to the poem, as I suggested earlier, was working on Ted Berrigan’s prose. Due to all the supply chain issues affecting publishing, I had to do nothing but Ted for much of the first half of 2022 in order for it to be published in September. Reading that collected prose is an education. So around May, I started up on poems again with a renewed sense of their possibilities imparted by Ted. They’re nothing like his poems but they came out my encounter with him.

Q: Are you noticing a difference in the poems that are currently emerging, after having run through the gauntlet of both Berrigan’s prose and your work writing fables?

A: I don’t think the fables have had too much bearing on the poetry, only insofar as I have a separate, parallel practice going as a prose writer in general. What happened with the fables is that I finally achieved a sense of improvisation and non-drudgery in the writing of what I’ll broadly allow is fiction, even though I’ve been shirking that label for the aforementioned reasons. I’ve written fiction before and it’s always necessitated a certain amount of drudgery. If you have narrative ideas, you have to get from point A to point B, and anytime you have to follow a certain trajectory in writing, it becomes less creativity and more work. But somehow writing the fables was virtually all creative improvisation, like my poetry is. I can’t fully explain why or how this happened, but it’s another reason why I ally these pieces with poetry more than fiction.

As for the poems emerging now, they’re different but it’s maybe too early to tell what they are. I think Ted’s prose was more of a mental reorientation as opposed to a stylistic or formal influence. But no one would look at these poems and think “Ted Berrigan,” except that I ended up mentioning him in one of them. That poem is called “Moist Aches” and it’s online somewhere at Blazing Stadium if anyone is interested in look at it. That poem is all rhyme generated, so not very Ted at all, though the title came from an autocorrect on my phone when I was trying to type “moustaches.”

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

A: Philip Lamantia and André Breton are always the touchstones for me. Wittgenstein, except that I never read him anymore. (At a certain point you really do throw the ladder away.) But what I learned about language from reading him is something that’s never gone away and has enabled me to write the way I do. How’s that for an answer?!? What a jerk! But I swear to god it’s true.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Touch the Donkey : thirty-fifth issue,

The thirty-fifth issue is now available, with new poems by Chris Turnbull and Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Garrett Caples, Sheila Murphy, Stuart Ross and Brenda Coultas.

Eight dollars (includes shipping). It's the part I was born to play, baby!

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

TtD supplement #226 : seven questions for Katie Naughton

Katie Naughton is the author of the chapbook Study (above/ground press, 2021) and “a second singing” (forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press). Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Bennington Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Jubilat, and elsewhere and she is at work on two collections of poems, “Debt Ritual” and “The Real Ethereal.” She is the publicity editor for Essay Press, an editor at the HOW(ever) and How2 Digital Archive Project (launching in 2022), and founder of Etcetera, a web journal of reading recommendations from poets (www.etceterapoetry.com). She is currently living in Vancouver, BC, as a recipient of a Fulbright Canada student research grant at Simon Fraser University and is a doctoral candidate in English and a member of the Poetics program at SUNY Buffalo.
Her poems “exchange,” “exchange,” in place of money,” “in place of money,” “double coincidence of wants” and “double coincidence of wants” appear in the thirty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “exchange,” “exchange,” in place of money,” “in place of money,” “double coincidence of wants” and “double coincidence of wants.”

A: These poems are currently placed towards the end of a manuscript in progress, “Debt Ritual,” that I am close to having finished, and some of the later poems composed for that manuscript. I was reading David Graeber’s Debt while working on these poems and trying to learn a way to use his detailed anthropological accounts of the origin and use of debt to write poems. I found that the way I was interested in doing this was not, for the most part, to use language or pieces of information directly from the book but rather to take notes on what interested me and let those expand the range of options I had for thinking about my material. The section I was reading while writing these poems talked about the difficulty of exchange without a system of debt, that it would require a “double coincidence of wants” between exchangers, or elaborate chains of exchange. Rather than describing this idea, I tried to see what using form might tell me about it. These catalogues and their insistence on replacement as part of the act of accretion came out of that. In writing about this today, it is occurring to me that in my job as a paralegal before starting my doctoral program, I was responsible for preparing elaborate lists of ownership of fractional portions of corporate debt, a baroque and effortful human form of accounting not yet replaced by a technological solution like a blockchain. There might be something of that in these poems.

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

A: Most recently, I have actually looped back to compose a long poem to complete (I hope) my first book-length manuscript, “The Real Ethereal.” That manuscript is much more directly preoccupied with questions of time, distance, family, and death, written mostly around the time two of my grandparents died within a week of each other. I had the opportunity to travel to Sweden in early June, a few weeks before I got married. As I was preparing to travel, my last living grandparent, my grandmother who was of Swedish ancestry and had been very active in researching her family history, became suddenly ill. I visited her in the hospital just before leaving and she died while I was flying to Sweden. The timing of all of this made it possible to return to the thinking of that earlier work, but with some distance and shifts that were productive. I owe the long, journal-like form of this poem to months of working intensively on Bernadette Mayer’s Memory, which offered a gentle invitation to open the form I was working in in “The Real Ethereal” up a bit more, to see what would happen when I strung a week or so of poems together day by day. I wrote every evening around sunset, which given that I was traveling in Scandinavia near the summer solstice, was an uncanny time of day.

Q: You mention Bernadette Mayer’s Memory; are there other writers or works in the back of your head as you write?

A: Lisa Robertson’s ideas about the complex non-identity of selfhood, which acknowledge the ways in which other forces, like reading, civic engagement, and the unconscious physical life of the body shape our individual experience, have been formative to my work as a poet and to the “Debt Ritual” manuscript in particular, with its preoccupation with the public-privateness of debt directly indebted to Robertson’s thinking about the civic and domestic in her collection of essays Nilling.

Q: With a published chapbook and a handful of works-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I was very interested, when writing my first manuscript “The Real Ethereal,” in questions about syntax and its use in the poetic line, how breaking the sentence broke the sequence (to paraphrase Woolf) of a lyric poem about personal experience and opened up the possibilities of resonances that weren’t straightforwardly confessional, which invited swerves, misdirects, and multiplicities, at the direction of language, that I feel are truer to my lived experience than narrative is. This is still important to me, but in recent years I’ve been trying to expand my subject matter beyond my direct personal experience, or rather, to think about the ways in which what feels private and personal is interconnected with history, policy, the accidents of coincidence, other people, etc. I’m trying to wrap up this “Debt Ritual” manuscript, perhaps by highlighting a bit more directly the linguistic, to the ways in which language might also enact a ritual on its subject material in how it treats it. Maybe. Then I’m really not sure what is next, probably a new project, but I’m not sure yet. I’m interested in the title “Easy Listening” and thinking more directly about beauty in language but I don’t know if that’s a whole project or just something that sounds comforting when I’m exhausted. But after the past few years I’ve been thinking more about comfort and rest. I don’t know yet if there’s a way for me to write about that that doesn’t punt on what is political, too, about access to those states.

Q: I know of some writers who find it difficult to work on the next project until the first one is put to bed, which usually suggests published, or at least accepted for publication. How does the possibility of seeking a home for “The Real Ethereal” effect the way you move forward with your work, if at all?

A: At this point I’m thinking of “The Real Ethereal” as finished – about two years or so ago I put it into a form I was happy with and started submitting it for publication and haven’t changed it much since, though there was some slow tinkering over the course of the time. The new poem to end it from this summer was a surprise. There was some overlap between the composition of poems for “The Real Ethereal” and “Debt Ritual” and a section of poems that I think are kind of a shoulder between the two projects that are currently contained in “The Real Ethereal” that could maybe have gone in either manuscript. I’m not sure how it will go with my next project – I don’t yet have the sense of if something in “Debt Ritual” is going to open up into a new project or if it will be a totally different direction. I do think I have a sense of needing to finish “Debt Ritual,” as in finish getting it into a state I feel ready to start submitting it, before I will have space to think about what I will be writing next.

Q: How does a manuscript usually begin for you? Are you always thinking in terms of full-length, project-based manuscript, or is it a matter of feeling out individual poems until something begins to cohere?

A: The first two manuscripts I’ve worked on (my only examples to go by!) have had their direction begin to cohere out of individual poems, though a particular line of inquiry was a stronger organizing force in the “Debt Ritual” earlier on. I’m unsure what it will be like the third time around.

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

A: I’m not sure that I have a great answer to this question. In some ways, turning away from poetry is how I turn back to it – taking time to pay attention to the physical world around me. Visual art can be helpful for me, nothing in particular, just going to museums or talking with or observing artists’ methods. I’m jealous of their relationship to tangible material, but watching the iterative process of physical making many artist’s go through often reminds me of the possibilities available to me, though somewhat more abstractly, with my language-material. If I’m out of ideas, I can turn to a more materials-based play or exploration and see what comes from there.

Friday, September 30, 2022

TtD supplement #225 : five questions for Barry McKinnon

Barry McKinnon was born in 1944 in Calgary Alberta, where he grew up.  In 1965, after two years at Mount Royal College, he went to Sir George Williams University in Montreal and took poetry courses with Irving Layton. He graduated in 1967 with a B.A. degree. In 1969, he graduated with an M.A. from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and was hired that same year to teach English at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George where he has lived and worked ever since. His chapbook, G o n e  S o u t h, his second from above/ground press, appeared not that long ago.

An excerpt of his poem “The Field” appears in the thirty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “The Field.”

A: I wrote a version of from the field several years ago, designed and printed 2 copies with a photograph of the McKinnon field and farm house;  this is the view from the family farm-gate looking east.  

I gave a copy to my friend at the time, Ken Belford, and waited for a reply; we’d meet for coffee often to talk poetry and poetics, and swap stories abt the writers we knew.   He sd he was reading the poem slowly and carefully, but I heard no further comment from him.  I call this the Duke Ellington approach – to give neither criticism nor praise and to let said silence leave the writer (or musician) to make an awkward measure of their own skill and worth .  I decided that there was something wrong with the poem (scattered, obscure, drifting and meaningless in a bad way – and what Ezra Pound might call “ a work of second intensity”.  Years later I opened the file, re read the piece and decided that it was salvageable with much editing work ahead.  I decided the original opening line abt veering off a contemporary freeway & the sudden jump to my memories of growing up in the 1950’s, was a mistake. Removing that first line gave me reason to continue the hard slog into the memories and images that formed my early view of the world:  school detentions, 10  years old selling xmas cards in July, paper routes thru winter snow, tap dancing lessons, hauling and selling manure in high school,  trips to the farm in spring, the flooded fields, my grandparent’s rooming house, the care and wisdom of my mother, the drunk men on the farm “busted like Indians” etc etc.  The details and my reflections, unlike the literal list here, are given meaning by the gaps, and fragmentations - a boy’s raw and direct thought with sparse narrative detail.   The emotion comes from a sense of isolation, humiliation, and fear, and exaltations in that prairie landscape. I had, as Robert Creeley once wrote,  “a small boys notion of doing good” as a kind of prerequisite to be taken into the family fold.

relief was dirt/  sage & meadow lark
A note on typography:  I wrote some sections in italic as a visual/tonal/rhythmic shift - to set them apart as lyrical riffs in a quieter voice:

wheat gum, crocus, a  22 gun, - pussy willow, cat tail, in the east slough mud wading for ducks in bright wind and light had meaning  in a multiple compilation  & complex of  


no word we had

when sensed in weakness that all was gone my mother said this happens to the strong -

hod carriers, paper boys selling Xmas cards in July – the family ledger of all
we did defined us in the backroads we had to take thru the impending field

Otherwise, the whole poem can be found under New Archives, at barrymckinnon.com.

Added note:

Hod Carrier:  I remember my father calling us hod carriers.  My brother and I had a 1947 Fargo truck that we used to haul and sell manure. Later I found that Hod Carriers are laborers who haul bricks in a 3-sided box on their shoulders. We hauled manure – hod carriers of another sort.  

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

A: This is an interesting question. I would usually suspect the term “other work” to mean “new work”, but since I’m again in a long silent stretch – i.e. no new work - my current project is to revise I Wanted to Say Something – a poem written in 1971  (51 years ago!) chronicling my grandparent’s migration from Michigan to the Alberta prairie in 1908.

My revisions are partly based on new detail in my deceased grandfather’s 1978 oral memoir when he was 90 years old in The Wheatland Lodge in Strathmore, Alberta.  I transcribed his account many years after I wrote the poem and found information that amplifies his original stories, and clarifies some of the queries I had at the time of writing. The project now is to add, delete, and expand details (including the addition of a few lost photographs not included in the 2 published versions).  How to get the story right when two memories are transcribing the past?  

I was making internal corrections at the time of writing in 1971, but purposely left them in the text; for instance, in one picture of my grandfather and a child standing in a field of oats  (I ask, is it my mother/ or  my aunt?).  Later in the poem, after finding out it was my aunt Dorothy, I write, “finally/here is your aunt”.  

                                             and here, is it my mother/or  my aunt ?
        hidden in the grass, the oats
              her shoulders

                                   (who gave this life to me ?

the legacy:  pictures/and ignorance  and love
to look back

I was also unsure of the cause death of my grandparent’s baby.  Was my original line, “a baby dies from bad milk” really the improbable cause as I remember it being told?  Not being sure, I changed the line to “a baby dies” in the revised 2nd edition (Red Deer College Press, 1990).  Here is my grandfather’s account that now indicates the change I have to make in the new web version of the poem. A version of “bad milk” goes back in. 
Our first boy Clare was born in 1910.  When he was 14 months old, Jessie was in     the hospital with a pregnancy.  I took him over the Philip’s but the Phillip’s cows     got out and were gone two or three days.

Their first milk when they came back didn’t agree with Clare and he was soon a very     sick boy.  Dr. Salmon said he would have to get to the hospital immediately, so I     took him on the train carrying him on a pillow.  We took a taxi from the station to     the hospital.  The hospital wasn’t able to save him and the next morning he died.
I might place some of this new material in footnotes or an addendum where I can expand his experiences: i.e. his 5 year court case and loss to the J.I. Case company, his orphan and work experience as a child labourer, family survival during the flu epidemic in 1917, and his other remembrances re. the 30’s drought etc. etc. 

Either way, I’m trying not to alter the poem’s overall balance by over-filling these gaps and therefore, lapsing into a longer prose narrative that risks losing the energy of what’s implied / what’s unsaid.  
And yes, there is a direct comparison between from The Field and I Wanted to Say Something. Both poems share subject matter and the memory of growing up in the late 40’s and 1950’s in Calgary and the prairie farm at Strangmure 40 miles east.  I’m still going back to those roots /that particular space and time.     

Added note:  My friend Brian Fawcett, who recently died, was an intelligent, harsh and great editor.  When he first read I Wanted to Say Something his one comment that sticks with we was that he was interested in how I as writer was “struggling with sentimentality” – that risk a writer takes when writing about complex family issues that might end in euphemism or cliché. As Wallace Stevens sd, to this effect:  sentimentality is the failure of emotion. This truth should be a consideration of any writing that is generated by what otherwise is deeply felt but shallowly described.

Only emotion endures

Ezra Pound

Q: Given the length and breadth of your publishing history, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: In the long run that gets shorter at this point in my life – I have to guess where the work will go.  Where it came from is easier to determine.  In my writing, each poem informs and projects a way to the next.  In between, however, there is the continual need and necessary study of poetry and its various approaches - and to keep learning from the influential poets I’ve been attracted to.

To go back, my early work in the 1960’s - as is the case for most poets of my generation - comes from a lyric urge.  Young writers don’t tend to write epics, though their lives might seem large and dramatic enough to make the brash W.C. William’s pronouncement: I am a poet, I am a poet!  I stand reaffirmed!. The shame comes later. 

In 1970 I wrote my first long poem, I Wanted to Say Something – a poem that more or less set the form for work to come.  The poem opened a large space to write in - my grandparent’s pioneer history on the prairie – 61 pages with old photos, transcribed stories, and the early family memories of growing up in an urban and rural landscape of the late 40’s early 50’s. 

Moving to Prince George in 1969 was a crucial move in terms of developing a poetic to match the harsh and often abrasive industrial context I found myself in.  So much for the lyric poet, as Brian Fawcett might say, “moonily looking into space” while the house you’re in (as happened in the Giscombe mill town in the early 70’s) gets literally bulldozed over- night.  Prince George became one of my muses and opened a new range to include politics, economics, geography – a complex mixed landscape of dark and light.  My inspirators at this point were Brian Fawcett who preceded me in Prince George, my friend and colleague John Harris, and the visiting American poet Paul “Red” Shuttleworth (also one of the great characters in my life - pro baseball player, college teacher, play write, and now at the age of 77, started a boxing career with two wins in his two first fights).  

The long poems that followed went in several directions generated by various subjects/conditions:  Arrhythmia (heart fibrillations), a sex series written every 7 years, various “traumatic monologues” (as one woman called them) dealing with authoritarian management systems during stormy teaching years, love and the threat of its loss, drinking in down and out dives, the students who fed me many lines in Pulp Log:  I am writing this so Barry McKinnon will understand ...  I wasn’t talking, only moving lips.

Other aspects, as I look back, are the long poems I wrote when I was a foreigner in foreign places. I didn’t travel a lot, but when I did, new measures of the world, if lucky, appeared.  I remember Al Purdy saying that he had to travel in order to keep writing.  Thus we get his North of Summer poems and many poems that refer to places he’s been.  Likewise, my initial banal/quotidian notebook entries while in Bolivia and Peru, became the long poem Bolivia/Peru after we were mugged in Lima.  I had to assess this traumatic experience in terms of what a young Peruvian waiter said to us:  In life there is good. In life there is bad. Overall, you end up being glad for these experiences and what they teach - and the writing they might produce.

Likewise, I spent long stretches in California and Arizona and over 5 years wrote the series Gone South recently published as a chap book in rob mclennan’s above/ground press series.  

Always, the prompts of place and circumstance.

Where is it all headed?  I go long stretches not writing and cannot predict the situations that produce it.  One of Robert Creeley’s last books Life & Death gives the most generalized sense of subject and condition at this point in my life.  Then there is W.B. Yeats:

Horseman pass by, cast a cold eye ...

until something more can be said.  

Q: What particular works can’t you help but return to?  

A: Here’s a paragraph from my essay did you real all these books:

Anyone with a working library (writers, teachers, scholars and researchers) develops diverse ways to read depending on immediate requirements.  Some books I need as reference sources, some I skimmed or partially read and then shelved for later reading, some I knew would take a lifetime to read and reread and that I’d have to return to for both work, knowledge and pleasure (William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Emily Dickenson, et. al.), some I had to read for exams and term papers in college and because of that pressure didn’t really absorb their total weight, beauty or importance.  In the last three years, however, I began a project to reread every word of the books I earlier found long, intimidating and difficult: Joyce’s Ulysses, The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, The Inferno, Moby Dick and Louis Zukosvsky’s epic “A” - and a stack of others also sit on the “to read” list.  

As I grow older I sometimes think of culling the whole thing down to one six-foot shelf.  On other days to grab only those few to fill a hobo’s knapsack.  But given my habit, it’s more so, that for now - I’ll keep em all! –  these friends, and measures as source for inspiration.

What thou lovest well remains/ the rest is dross.  

(Ezra Pound, Canto 81)

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

A: This is a photo of one book shelf of 5 in my study.  It contains biographies, poetry anthologies, 2 shelves of Canadian poetry, and 2 shelves of American poetry.

Early on I was reading the City Lights Books from San Francisco: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti et.al. – and various other books I’d get from Evelyn De Mille’s independent bookshop in the centre of downtown on First Street and 7th Avenue, I was also inspired to write after hearing T.S. Eliot read on CBC radio.  I had no clue about what he was saying, but the rhythm and seriousness captured me and I brashly thought: I can do this too! Apropos of Eliot’s formal and religious tone, I was reading Norman Mailer’s Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Disasters) – quick, quirky, funny poems as reactions pricking at the social world. I can do this too!  My other important reading source was the Safeway Dictionary that came in cheap installments with grocery purchases (a dollar a section, I think). My mom would bring the various sections (grouped ABC...DEF...etc) home with our groceries, and I would then slot them into its huge fake leather covered three ring binder that would grow and expand over the months – finally to XYZ and its full bulk of six or eight inches. I would open the dictionary randomly, read daily with fascination - this world of words defined to become a prime source for reference and energy in one’s writing. 

My first year college English teacher, Bill Wilson, commented that the poems I submitted to him were Byronesque, whereupon I signed out every book by Lord Byron, including the biographies and stories of Mad Jack, gun running in Greece, and other salacious accounts of the wild and dangerous life of being a poet.  I learned much in Byron’s’ rush of couplets but, in this case, the galloping form was not for me: I went back to read more from the open-verse Beats.

I think it’s interesting that you use the word “reenergize” which assumes work in a kind of stasis that requires outside literary prompts.  I remember brash young poets announcing that they would not read other poets for fear of infecting their “personal style” or endangering some kind of ontological integrity. Once I suggested to one young poet that she should read Charles Olson apropos of something she sd about her own work.  Her response:  “nobody can tell me what to fucking read!” That was the end of that! So many geniuses so easily forgotten.  For the serious others who enter the threshold and open door to that place where there are no half measures or compromises – there is only the real work of writing, reading and infinite study ahead.

In Montréal I met the painter, poet, Roy Kiyooka via Milly Risdevedt, an aspiring young painter who posed nude for Roy’s evening classes.  Milly invited me to the class to meet Roy, and as a young curious poet, I happily and expectantly went.  Roy was a sage, a small and skinny man with a Fu Manchu moustache and long pointed beard. Initially, his tacit demeanor scared me a bit as he quietly roamed the room to watch the students painting landscapes or sketching Milly in her stationary pose. I followed Roy from easel to easel; what initially interested me most was a tape of Robert Creeley reading that filled the studio background while Roy voiced insightful, laconic comments with his occasional and indescribable high cosmic laugh.  

One student was working on a painting of a man on a wharf watching a passing steam ship. To give a lesson on perspective Roy stroked his beard and said,” Thaaat booaat is going to hiiit his heead”!  So it is that whatever hours that student spent on the wharf, they were now for naught.  I think the sketches of nude Milly got either little praise or comment, or worse: complete silence.  For me, it was an auspicious beginning – the privilege to hear abt Roy’s friend Robert Creeley, and to read Roy’s copy of For Love as evidence of great poetry by a writer I would begin to follow for a lifetime.

My poetry professor at the time, Irving Layton, also knew Robert Creeley; they had an extensive correspondence and friendship; Creeley published one of Layton’s books, In the Midst of My Fever, via his Divers Press in Majorca.  I was now entering an interesting firing range as a young poet:  Kiyooka’s praise for Creeley and Layton’s too-easy dismissal of his old friend as a “paranoid mumbler”.  This was a big lesson in how poets reveal their personal judgments and aesthetic measures for a young poet to consider. 

Over the years I came to Creeley’s defense more than once by quoting his poems and essays.    For instance, my friend Al Purdy did not like Creeley’s poetry, Olson and the Black Mountain poets and was very suspicious of their influence on Canadian writing (i.e. particularly the Tish group in Vancouver).  After Al read to a sluggish class of afternoon high school students in Prince George, we went downtown for thrift –book shopping and beer.  Al was quiet and surly.  I asked him what was wrong.  He sd that his reading was awful; the students didn’t like him – and for a great Canadian poet, he was experiencing, what I thought, a big silent ego let down.    I sd Al: “whenever I know what others think of me, I’m plunged into loneliness”.  Al’s scowl disappeared and he bellowed out, “ did you just say that?  Who the hell sd that? Robert Creeley! I said.  Goddamn! Do you have his address? I want to write him a letter - a letter, I assumed, to compliment the depth of Creeley’s accuracy in describing a complex personal event in a very short poem.   

I’ve been mostly happy in this kind of personal contact with many poets who share some sense of the wonder, the beauty and the surrounding political miasma:  we’ve seen and yakked for hours about the Vancouver wars, the Prince George poetry wars, those suspect in their career moves, the politics and controversies of writers who get grants and residencies, gender, age and race issues with ideological agendas, the fights between street poets and university academics, and the proclamations of the new to supplant the old - AND in all of this, to recognize the poets for clinging to their paddles and who have thus, survived.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

TtD supplement #224 : seven questions for Monica Mody

Monica Mody is the author of Kala Pani (1913 Press), the forthcoming Bright Parallel (Copper Coin), and three chapbooks including Ordinary Annals (above/ground). Her poems have appeared in anthologies including The Penguin Book of Indian Poets, Future Library: Contemporary Indian Writing, The Red River Book of Poetry of Dissent, and &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing. Her poetry also appears in Poetry International, Indian Quarterly, Almost Island, Boston Review, and other lit magazines. She has been a recipient of the Sparks Prize Fellowship (Notre Dame), the Zora Neale Hurston Award (Naropa), and a Toto Award for Creative Writing. Monica was born in Ranchi, India, and currently lives in San Francisco—Ohlone territory.

Her poems “Mouthfuls,” “Spirit of Regeneration,” “Alchemy” and “In Situ” appear in the thirty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the “Mouthfuls,” “Spirit of Regeneration,” “Alchemy” and “In Situ.”

A: I happened upon “Mouthfuls” when I opened an old fellowship application packet earlier this year. I didn’t remember receiving it, revising it. I have a habit of putting away poem drafts in a folder to come back to later, and when I go back to those drafts, they sometimes surprise me—but this was not a draft. It felt like it had arrived almost fully. This made “Mouthfuls” a gift.

“Spirit of Regeneration” was written as an invocatory poem for the summer solstice ritual marking Earth Activist Training’s 20th anniversary and the 70th birthday of its founder, permaculture teacher Starhawk, in June 2021.

I wrote “Alchemy” in January 2022 when I was asked to write a haiku about ‘myself’ in a non-literary community.

“In Situ” is one of the poems in an emergent series steered by my inquiry as an immigrant in the United States.

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

A: Some of my other recent poems have been interested in remythologizing South Asian mythic figures such as the yoginis or the river/goddess Sarasvati, who governs speech and music, among other things. (You can watch/listen to the poem “Sarasvati” here.) There are somewhat different concerns at play in that series of poems—decolonial feminine concerns, stemming from the particular South Asian histories of colonial modernity and nationalist patriarchy. And, the four poems in Touch the Donkey—with their interest in language and its music, belonging/not belonging, the confluence of earth-based spirituality and nondual ethic—certainly traverse and play on similar ground.  

Q: You say you put drafts away in folders to return to later. Does that suggest you work on multiple pieces simultaneously, setting some poems aside when you get stuck, and returning to prior drafts to see if fresh eyes make the difference?

A: It’s more about separating the generative phase from the revision phase. I often generate much more than I take to completion—but it’s nice to have the ‘raw material.’ As a transdisciplinary practitioner, I don’t work only on poems—when I do, and yes, if I get stuck, it often helps to set aside the poem for a few hours or few days—sometimes longer—so that the poem can find the breathing space and resolution it needs.  

Q: I’m curious about your interdisciplinary approach: how separate are the various practices through which you work? Do you see your practice as a series of discrete, or even interconnected, threads, or all part of a single, ongoing, singular practice? And how does your work in one form impact upon your work in another?

A: These practices are indeed interconnected—even though each of them emerged at different points and out of different imperatives in my evolutionary trajectory. More and more, I see my work as listening to the pulse of the sacred and bringing it into form. “The sacred”—for me, comprises the earth and kin networks she anchors; breath and womb and body; beginnings and endings; the small and the vast and the dark and the light; ancestral and spirit-realms; pilgrimages across waters or dimensional spaces; laughter and grief; communal and personal sovereignty; restorying pasts and patterns that exclude or extract; continuity of wisdom and the process of change. I don’t see living as being outside the purview of art—living is a practice of the sacred too. Out of chaos into form.

Q: With one collection published and one that will be published soon, and three chapbooks, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I’d say the books variously track my engagement with formations of identity, explorations in language and genre and embodied consciousness, reclamation of ancestral and motherline memories, contouring of the intersections of earth/spirit/dissolution.

I hope my work continues to take up and grow more capable in the task of reshaping reality!

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

A: Hmm, I have a resistance to the idea of “models” at this juncture in my writing/life. I don’t have other writers or works at the back of my head as I attempt to write. I have urgings and intensities. These could be ideas. Images. Visions. Emergent knowings that arrive as language.

I wonder, on this literary map we are etching as I/we write, what is the song that will guide us to the precipice, and then invite us to take another step? What comes after we take that step? What could source and shape my/our writing that has not come before—at least not a past that traps us in pre-existing models.

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

A: Poets who come to writing as frequency, sound, language of bedazzlement & revelation. To name just a few: Lal Ded, Kabir, Joy Harjo, Cecilia Vicuña, Raul Zurita, Emily Dickinson, Federico Garcia Lorca, Diane di Prima, Agha Shahid Ali. The spirit of their writing leaps across the printed word.